Archive for October, 2010

God Bless You, Mr Rosewater

October 19, 2010

If any British writer is considering imitating Yann Martel’s campaign to get world leaders reading and is deliberating on a novel to break the ice with David Cameron, they could do worse than Kurt Vonnegut’s 1965 exploration of wealth and poverty, God Bless You, Mr Rosewater. Just like our present government, it seeks to examine issues of fairness (as they relate to money) and separate the deserving from the undeserving – though it perhaps goes a little further by facing up to the central question – “What are people for?”

I am sure Mr. Cameron would be gripped from the very first sentence, which is:

“A sum of money is a leading character in this tale about people, just as a sum of honey might properly be a leading character in a tale about bees.”

The income from this sum of money ($87,472,033.61), in an act of legal tax avoidance (little has changed), is placed at the disposal of a charity, the Rosewater Foundation, the presidency of which is to be inherited by the eldest male Rosewater, “free to compensate themselves for their services as lavishly as they pleased.” Unfortunately, the current President, Eliot Rosewater, has been taking the Big Society a little too seriously:

“Maybe I flatter myself when I think I have things in common with Hamlet, that I have an important mission, that I’m temporarily mixed up about how it should be done.”

After more than one breakdown, and many years of alcoholism, he eventually decides to return to the town where the family fortune began – Rosewater, Indiana – and to “care about” the people living there:

“I look at these people and I realise that they can’t even care about themselves anymore – because they have no use. The factory, the farms, the mines across the river – they’re almost completely automatic now….I’m going to love these discarded Americans even though they’re useless and unattractive.”

While this may not be exactly what William Hague has in mind when it comes to welfare reform, it is remarkably cost-effective as Eliot goes about this single-handedly by manning a phone line twenty four hours a day. (We’re later told, “Eliot’s Rosewater County operation had been cheaper than staying in a sanatorium.”) Of course, such philanthropy doesn’t go unnoticed – at least, not by Norman Mushari, a lawyer who knows a thing or two about wealth creation:

“In every big transaction…there is a magic moment during which a man has surrendered a treasure, and during which the man who is due to receive it has not yet done so. An alert lawyer will make that moment his own, possessing the treasure for a magic microsecond, taking a little of it, passing it on.”

If Mushari can prove Eliot insane then he can arrange for the Rosewater fortune to be inherited by a distant relative, after removing his share of course. As well as providing another commentary on avarice, this makes the reader question how sane Eliot is, or at least, how sane his actions appear to others.

Vonnegut’s novel is in a long line of literature dealing with this question of goodness and madness – Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot is another example; as is, presumably, The New Testament – but one that is particularly concerned with money. He is quite clear that inheriting wealth is just “dumb luck” (that may not go down well in Cameron household), and creates a back story for Eliot’s family that suggests he does not buy into the idea that the entrepreneur is the highest form of life. Their fortune is created (as so many are) during war – the American Civil War. While one brother goes to fight, the other hires the village idiot to fight in his place and profits by converting his saw factory to the production of swords and bayonets. And, naturally, proceeds to swindle his brother (who returns from the war blind!) out of his share.

However, the novel’s lack of subtlety (another reason to suggest politicians as a suitable readership) does not mean it lacks complexity or seriousness. The questions it raises about equality and fairness have clearly not gone away. It is unlikely that Vonnegut would see politicians as the answer – Eliot’s father is a congressman whose greatest achievement has been to define ‘obscenity’. Above all, he reminds us that it is not about money, but about people, and it all starts with that question – “What are people for?”

A Toast to the Lord

October 4, 2010

Probably every country has a writer admired within its borders but little known outside. Often this is because, whatever their talent, their concerns appear, at least superficially, localised. Robin Jenkins certainly has a strong claim to be Scotland’s entry in this particular category. Despite being loved and respected by a wide range of readers within the country, he has almost no profile outside Scotland, and those of his novels in print tend to be published by Scottish imprints. Most of his novels are set in his homeland, and those set abroad invariably feature a Scottish protagonist, but this is true of most novelists. It is Jenkins’ focus on religion, and its often peculiar Scottish off-shoots, which has most likely prevented him reaching a wider audience. This is a shame as Jenkins is not only concerned with faith, but with morality, and, in particular, what makes a good man or woman (it’s no accident that one novel is titled A Would-Be Saint).

A Toast to the Lord is one of six novels never to have been reprinted – and second-hand copies can be hard to find, this being only the third time I have managed to acquire one. It’s easy to see why it has not been at the top of the reprint list (Polygon have been particularly good at bringing his work back into print over the last few years): the focus on religion is especially strong (almost all the main characters practise their different, and competing, versions of Christianity) and it is set against the background of an American nuclear submarine base, an issue that does not excite people in the way it once did. Jenkins explores the morality of his characters in response to the base or to the American sailor Luke Dilworth. Ann Plenderleith, the minister’s daughter, regards the base as evil and greets Luke with the words:

“You are here in the service of the Devil.”

before slapping his face. Her sister’s friend, Agnes, sees Luke quite differently, as the answer to her prayers:

“He was not like other men. The difference was that the Lord was at work in him: he saw her as beautiful.”

Where Ann sees evil everywhere she looks, something which eventually causes her to have a nervous breakdown, Agnes sees good, because she regards events as God’s will, something which gives her enormous strength, but also leads her to pursue a relationship with Luke even when it is clear that he does not love her. Agnes is one of a long line of ‘justified sinners’, her particular weakness being sexual. Her first sight of Luke immediately leads her to imagine him as a lover:

“Her breast itched. She gasped. This had happened before when she had seen a man she fancied, but never so violently as now.”

Later, she all but forces Luke to sleep with her:

“She was like one possessed or under divine goadings. Up she pushed the window, in she scrambled, off came her clothes and she was down to only stockings and bra before Luke, with one weak yelp of astonishment, groped for the switch of the bed-lamp and found it.”

Though his narrative style can often seem blunt, Jenkins’ characters are complex, and Agnes is also presented to us as an excellent teacher who brings happiness to her pupils and is admired by her headmistress. Other characters are as confused in their reaction to Agnes as the reader, not knowing whether to pity her, be irritated by her “smug holy smile”, or admire her unbreakable faith.

Between Ann and Agnes, Jenkins places a number of other religious characters, including their fathers. Ann’s father is a Church of Scotland minister, conservative and compromised in his beliefs. He will not speak against the base but also rejects the best bedroom in the manse as it has a view of it. Agnes’ father has founded his own church, but this brings him no happiness and prevents his wife from seeking the medical attention she needs. Of course they live in a society where religion is still important, more important than it probably was in most of Scotland even in 1972 when the novel was published. However, though superficially dated, what Jenkins is expert at presenting is the complexity of moral choices.

As with many of his novels, A Toast to the Lord also contains a central child character, Tommy Springburn, an orphan whose surname comes from the area where he was found. Both Ann and then Agnes befriend and attempt to help him. Towards the end of the novel he goes missing, but this plot line is quickly superseded by more dramatic events. However, this is exactly Jenkins’ intention: the reader’s attention, like that of the characters, wanders from Tommy, who never said much anyway, and whose thoughts we are, unusually, not allowed access to, and it is not until months later that his body is found. Agnes’ headmistress highlights Jenkins’ point:

“Soaked, exhausted, hungry, feet blistered and back sore, as he walked past he must have noticed the light in her window….On the long walk from Ardhallow he must have past many doors, but it was her share of the failure that concerned her.”

This, and not the weapons of mass destruction, seems to be Jenkins true test of humanity, and one that the village fails. Cleverly, it is not that no-one wants to help Tommy; it is simply that he is allowed to be forgotten. In tackling such basic human issues related to what we belief and how this makes us act, Jenkins is a writer who should not be forgotten.