Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Thieves Like Us

The cover of Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim’s novel Stealth (2007, translated into English by Hosam Aboul-Ela, Aflame Books, London, 2009) features a slightly chubby boy of perhaps six years old, wearing an ill-fitting blue sweatshirt and shorts, looking expectantly at the camera. Behind him, almost indistinguishable from the dingy, monochromatic background, stands a middle-aged man – the boy’s father - wearing a fez, his thick mustache beneath sharply downward-sloping cheekbones. Each appears to look into the camera with independence, as though being photographed alone rather than together. This photograph is described within the pages of Stealth, an autobiographical portrait of the relationship between Ibrahim and his father, and captures the flavor of the novel perfectly: an image marked by time, a worn, threadbare atmosphere suggesting poverty barely kept at bay, a sense of distance between child and adult, the child looking forward with hesitant anticipation, the adult receding into the background with a stern expression in which pride and resignation mix. Photos appear frequently in Stealth, and Ibrahim’s novel itself develops like a Polaroid photograph, gradually emerging from obscurity into the superannuated color and definition that capture a fleeting moment, now past.

Set in Cairo in the early 1950’s, but with a telescoping sense of time that ranges from the father’s youth to the present, Stealth impressionistically covers a brief period of the writer’s childhood. Through powerfully atmospheric and intimate vignettes it unveils the quality of this relationship between father and son. In italicized flashbacks - memories of the boy prompted suddenly through the alchemy of association - a picture also begins to emerge of the child’s absent mother and of the reason for her absence. Ibrahim masterfully suggests details here and there that begin to accrete into a fuller back-story of an intelligent, defiant, and afflicted young woman whose life has been circumscribed by obligation, marriage and cultural expectations.

Ibrahim’s (rather, his translator’s) wonderfully apt title choice underscores children’s means of appropriating information about the mysteries of the adult world. The unnamed boy learns of this world by stealthy observation – peering through windows, doors left ajar, skylights, keyholes, glimpsing around corners into rooms where adults interact, furtively exploring the contents of drawers and closets, eavesdropping on conversations and unfamiliar noises. By means of these stolen glimpses, the child inquisitively gains burgeoning knowledge of adult behavior and relations, and in particular intimations of his father’s loneliness, declining health and fortune, frustrations with women (who come and go through the home as housekeepers, potential new spouses, and surrogate mothers), his religious practices, relations with friends and relatives, political beliefs, and hints of his conflicting emotions around being a single parent. Stealth also employs the prism of the central father/son story to refract light onto a whole set of cultural phenomena and a history of mid-century Egypt, lending the novel a depth and relevance beyond the simple familial relationship it describes. Along the periphery of the child’s grasping vision, the reader catches glimpses of the corruption of Egyptian politicians and businessmen; reaction to events of politics, war, terror, and scandal; rituals and practices of holiday celebration; the difficult and limited options faced by women; the imprisonment of those targeted unjustly for their political opinions; the passing popularity of certain songs, films and fashions.

The child’s fractional understanding of this adult world is emphasized by a fragmentary, almost cubistic aesthetic in describing his manner of apprehension, in which only parts are grasped, and not the whole:

I open the door carefully and look behind me. Father is deep into his nap. I go out to the living room. I walk softly to the door of the constable’s room. It is shut. I put my eye to the keyhole. The end of the bed. Four bare feet over it. The feet are all tangled and they’re not moving. I go over to the skylight and have a look at the window of Um Zakiya. It is open. The side of her bare arm is showing. I go around the table. I notice a mouse running towards the bathroom and the kitchen. I go back to Mama Tahiya’s room. I hear moving inside, so I hurry back to our room.

The sensual details of Ibrahim’s recollections provide the novel an astonishing richness and immediacy invested with a child’s selectivity and impressionability: a wooden wardrobe that has only three ball feet, the fourth replaced by a piece of wood that causes the left door to always remain open a crack; old train tickets used as domino pieces, the destination on one side and hand-drawn dots on the other; a black-clad woman on a tram “whose thighs hang over the edge of the seat a little;” a cup of rusty nails by the bedside that the child’s father fills with water each night. One can almost smell the fenugreek cooking (without ever even having actually experienced the cooking of fenugreek). The vividness of these details recreates a complete world, immerses one in the mysteries of a child’s perceptions, through which life is learned as often as not via stolen glances snatched from the interstices where adults aren’t looking.

Stealth is an extraordinary portrait of childhood and an affecting appreciation of a father – and by inference, an even more poignant elegy to a missing mother.  It’s also an intimate and penetrating glimpse into Egyptian culture and history. And, in its stealthy way, it is also about the origins of the impulse to become a writer, from one who has become among Egypt’s most prominent and compelling.  As that country now enters a significant new chapter in its history - and as Ibrahim’s latest novel, Turbans and Hats, has just been published last month in Europe and is beginning to garner praise as a turning point in Arabic literature - one hopes that Ibrahim will finally find the world audience he deeply deserves. 

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Stories of Harold

The entry for George Selden Thompson in the multi-volume Dictionary of Literary Biography runs 12 pages long, detailing Thompson’s contributions to literature in the form of 17 novels for children, a couple of books on archeology and the classical world, and some credits for theatrical and film scripts. Thompson’s best-known work, states the Dictionary, written under the truncated name George Selden, is the award-winning, perennially popular children’s classic, A Cricket in Times Square - a story I loved as a child.

But the Dictionary makes no mention of what is arguably Thompson’s most singular contribution to literature, a now out-of-print 1974 novel entitled The Story of Harold, written under the pseudonym Terry Andrews. I knew nothing of the Thompson/Selden/Andrews connection when I picked up The Story of Harold last year after reading an article in the Guardian UK in which Edmund White recommended it as “one of the strangest” books he’d ever read. But some 30 or so pages into my reading of the book, captivated by its novelty, I sought to know more about the author.

I don’t know that I’ve ever had quite this experience: discovering, as an adult, an adult novel (and it is an adult novel) that engaged and impressed me to the equal degree that a children’s book, written by that same author, had when I was a child. I found The Story of Harold exceptional, absorbing, and unexpected, among the most tender, brave and deeply honest of post-war American novels.

Told in diary form, Terry Andrews’ The Story of Harold concerns a children’s book author, also named Terry Andrews, who has written an immensely popular children’s book, also entitled The Story of Harold - a contemporary fairy tale featuring a small person who wakes each morning with a sense that “Something is wrong!” and goes off to remedy the problem by supplementing his own efforts with a limited bit of magic at his disposal. Within these concatenated stories and shifting boundaries between truth and fiction are more stories within stories. And Terry Andrews - writer of popular children’s tales - is also a polymorphously polyamorous bi-sexual adventurer who lives for “the bliss that derives from oblivion” he finds in orgies, with pick-ups from bars and street corners, with swinging couples, in sado-masochistic homosexual encounters and in more anodyne, cerebral sex with a woman friend – a panorama of consensual sexual behavior ranging from the extreme to the transcendently subtle (he sternly warns his readers that “those of you who don’t recognize [sex] when it happens outside the flesh can leave the room right now”).

If this sounds like a novel written for shock value, eager to push buttons, one can rest assured that it is anything but. The cultured, inquisitive Terry - lover of opera, art and all things New York - is simply not the kind of author, narrator and protagonist to indulge in anything quite so puerile. In addition, despite its careful deployment of the tools of fiction, The Story of Harold conveys a palpable impression of searingly honest autobiography (alas, the Dictionary of Literary Biography is of no help in throwing light on this conviction). The seriousness underlying Terry’s story is underscored by this honesty as well as by a question at the book’s core: is life worth living?

For The Story of Harold is also a novel about suicide. From the first line, in which Terry states “Again last night, for a little while, I was able not to be alive,” readers are invited into a lengthy suicide note. Despite Terry’s wild sex life, he finds himself coming up repeatedly against relationships that fail to supply what he needs to feel happy or even alive; the frustrations of love offered to those who either can’t reciprocate or whom he fears won’t be able to embrace his complexity; an inadequacy in human contact (he even seeks warmth in subway seats just vacated by others). Fulfillment takes on the appearance of “the Impossible.” His frustration has reached a turning point just prior to the diary’s first entry, when a self-loathing and masochistic partner, Dan Reilly (“the brute with the damaged child inside”) manages to secure Terry’s promise to help Reilly fulfill a S & M fantasy of being burned alive, presenting Terry ample excuse for his own eventual suicide. He makes his purpose explicit to readers: an invitation to serve as witnesses to the case he makes for his suicide and as judges of its legitimacy.  By all rights, The Story of Harold could join what’s almost become an industry of confessional American narratives of dysfunction and be a depressing, sordid slog towards its narrator’s self-extinction. But far from dragging his readers into unrelenting misery, Terry promises, in his invitation to the voyage, to make the journey entertaining: “Come with me…We will have a lot of sex. You are going to laugh a great deal – people have no idea how blithe a suicide can be!”

The ensuing pages deliver on that promise, taking the reader through an often sharply funny and humane cavalcade of sexual and emotional feats of daring, a high-wire walk involving “the vertigo of those beyond repair” (this phrase Jean-Paul Sartre used in reference to Jean Genet came to mind repeatedly as I read the book), propelled along by Terry’s surpassing wit, acute intelligence, and gentle charm. Another buoyant force is the sheer exuberance of his writing, which at times bubbles beyond the confines of prose into song and poetry – mostly humorous little couplets, but occasionally intimate odes to those he loves, as gracious and moving as any communication any of us might ever hope to receive from a loved one. Equally piquant are Terry’s myriad delightful and piercing observations, as when he spies Jacqueline Onassis one night at the opera and describes her as, “A deity of sweet sadness – blithe, smiling, blinding mere mortals with legends of pain – still gowned in the aura of gorgeous disaster: an effigy of lovely grief…" - then adds, in typical Terry fashion, "Well, I hope I never meet her. She too must be a human being. And as in the case of all swans, beneath that graceful gliding there must be a pair of madly paddling flat feet.” Similarly lancing observations capture certain New York experiences, making The Story of Harold a memorable New York novel as well. Terry’s voyage towards his terminal goal makes frequent stops along the way to opine on New York’s landmarks (I’ll never be able to look at Lincoln Center the same way again) as well as its more pedestrian glories.

But some unanticipated complications occur along that voyage: a growing, unreciprocated love for a favorite S & M partner, Jim Whittaker, a handsome, happily married doctor with six children – one of them blind, all of whom are wild about Terry’s books; an on-going sexual relationship with Terry’s closest female friend, a recently widowed single mother, Anne Black; and, above all, the unwitting intrusion into Terry’s life of a seven year old “lump of a little boy” named Barney Willington. Barney’s well-meaning but obtuse mother, emerging from divorce, enlists Terry’s aid - a demand to which he acquiesces with grudging dread - in trying to help Barney adjust to the divorce and to a new father he’ll have once an impending new marriage is finalized (unsurprisingly, sending the child to a psychiatrist has been of no help). The story follows these compartmentalized, discrete threads of Terry’s life as the tension surrounding his planned suicide is enhanced by his unavoidably deepening relations to the people around him, particularly Barney. Out of Terry’s irrepressible generosity as well as his identification with the child (Terry too being the child of a neglectful parent), he takes on the task of getting through to this “glum little troll,” this “gob of underdone dough.” And Terry’s chief means for accomplishing this is through the telling of stories – more specifically, new, extended elaborations on Barney’s favorite book: The Story of Harold.

As Terry takes Barney out for walks in the park, to museums, and to the gym, these new tales increasingly serve to draw Barney out of his bovine docility; at the same time, they allow Terry a means of articulating his own inner angst by encoding, in the stories he weaves, the events unfolding in his own life. This is done so thinly at times that I immediately rushed to reread The Cricket in Times Square to see if it contained an encrypted adult reading; it does not, at least not obviously (some of you frowning parents may be relieved to hear), other than a blissfully tipsy little animals’ party…

I’m not sure there exists a better or (perhaps paradoxically) more innocent American novel about storytelling. The Story of Harold fundamentally illuminates the urgency of stories, their life-affirming and even life-saving “magic.” It recognizes, spectacularly, their psychological underpinnings, how myths and children’s tales float upon a foundation of psychosocial and psychosexual conflicts, work on resolution of those conflicts, and provide a means for negotiating life (the novel appeared, I might note, a few years before works by figures like Bruno Bettelheim and Jack Zipes on the secret lives and coded psychology of fairy tales, what Bettleheim termed “the uses of enchantment”). One of the key challenges for Terry is maintaining enough storytelling magic to keep Barney engaged and to draw him out into life. His elaborations on the adventures of Harold offer enchantment and structure to help Barney psychologically navigate his own capacity to cope with life. I need hardly add that these improvisations are delightfully entertaining, witty and inventive in themselves, and often cut around psychological wounds with surgical precision; it’s not for nothing that George Selden Thompson is recognized as one of the finest American authors of children’s books.

What’s perhaps most striking about The Story of Harold is its refusal to indulge in simple ironies and expectations. For one thing, it defies American Puritanism not through typical reactionism, but by postulating a world antipathetic to it and disentangling sexuality from the muddled morass of American morality - one of the only examples I can think of in American literature that does this successfully. In place of a reactionary response is an empirical experiment with truth: what if, in lieu of the mask of normalcy worn by American culture as regards sexuality, one simply tells the truth – that behind the façade of placid American sexual conservatism there’s a largely unspoken wide wild world of experience? The Story of Harold pulls off in macro the micro experiment that Terry, invited by Jim to dine with the whole Whittaker family one night, imagines would happen if one “simply stood up and tapped the glass, and spoke…a fact of total truth” to “encounter…the lies we all live.”  By this candid catalysis - “like matter meeting antimatter” - Terry manages to make manifest what is normally latent in American life. I know of no novel that succeeds so well in daring this transgression (though a criticism one might level is that the book’s tangible urgency to express Terry’s truth at times makes its diary aspects strain its novelistic ones). This is a work that could have been written nowhere but in the United States; it brings into the light both our national self-image of innocence and the latent content - not only sexual - that lies beneath it. In so doing, The Story of Harold offers readers the visceral impression that some essential dynamic in American life is being uncovered.  

I also don’t know that I’ve read an American novel of the period that seemed so deeply honest and so decent in a moral sense. Terry’s protectiveness of others, his conscientiousness in putting their care (and their stories) foremost, keep them insulated from his own frequent bouts of inner rage and despair. The most memorable elements in The Story of Harold are not its granular descriptions of sexual behavior or inventive treatment of storytelling, or even the question of whether Terry will carry through on his plan, but its emphasis on the fragility and strength of relationships. The most affecting scenes display an extraordinary respectfulness and tenderness in Terry’s relations with those he loves, his ability to pick up on fleeting nuances of emotion and vulnerability in others, his remarkable ability to make simple human communication meaningful: a literature of aspects of love. A deep appreciation for friendship (noted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography as one of George Selden Thompson’s chief themes in his children’s books) also pervades The Story of Harold, a work in which, to paraphrase a line from Stephen Benatar, friends serve mercifully as God’s recompense for having families.

Edmund White characterized The Story of Harold as a “period piece,” but I think this characterization – though understandable from the point of view of looking back to the period of pre-AIDS sexual exploration in the gay world – misses the mark. Taken as a whole, The Story of Harold seems no more a period piece than does The Portrait of a Lady, and has as much to say about human interactions now as it did then. A few details place the action historically, but the book is surprisingly unfettered by these, notable given that scope of Terry’s diary – October 1, 1968 to March 21, 1969 – falls in the midst of the Vietnam War (“that arbitrary abyss of useless misery”) and includes the election and inauguration of Richard Nixon (“the most unlikely and depressingly inevitable of Presidents”). There’s little overt reference to these events, though there is a telling comment, early in the novel, regarding writers whose works are too fixed in the present, as well as some assurance that Terry is not completely oblivious to what’s unfolding outside his own “interior Vietnam.” Nonetheless, Terry’s aloofness from the movements of his time reveals a surprisingly apolitical, even conservative streak, with an impatient reference to the “Militant Hobbits” of the time, a tone that softens slightly when, in a scene near the novel’s end, he has a tryst with a young soldier facing deployment and expresses astonishment that such young people are actually being shunted off to war.

For all the daring and entertaining terrain The Story of Harold travels, what it may leave to many contemporary readers is a dispiriting sense of the relatively cautious and contracted quality of the times in which we now live. The heady, liberated view of sexuality taken by Terry seems wistfully grand in a world in which categories of sexuality are diced into ever-extended acronyms and those marginalized in this culture by their sexuality seek inclusion (albeit rightfully) in an institution as medieval as marriage. But viewed through this lens of contemporary concerns, The Story of Harold implies as strong an argument as any to underscore that the sexual orientation and private, consensual behavior of adults has nothing to do with their fitness to be responsible caregivers to children, and to put to rest the absurd lie that those whose sexuality doesn’t fit into heteronormative constraints can’t be wonderful guardians and parents.

And this, quite apart from these contemporary issues, is perhaps the central concern of The Story of Harold: the ways in which society treats its children, the importance of the care and feeding of young minds and hearts. It speaks in myriad and mature ways to the manner by which children – those embodiments of possibility - can have the life squeezed out of them by inattentive, unimaginative, even well-intentioned adults (who are today as likely to send them to the pharmacy as to therapy).  It’s a testimonial to how stories can help mitigate this outcome and provide all kinds of people – from misfit children to adults struggling with despair – with tools to navigate a life. And in this, The Story of Harold is a kind of American classic, a startlingly honest, moving, funny, inventive, playful and serious novel of psychological chiaroscuro that deserves a coyly revered spot in post-war American literature.

The Story of Harold was published by Holt Rinehart Winston in 1974. A paperback edition (with cover illustration by Edward Gorey) followed in 1975, and the book was again reissued by Avon in the 1980's. Although not easy to find in good condition, these books do resurface frequently on second-hand book sites – albeit usually at prices few can afford.