Archive for December, 2018

Territorial Rights

December 28, 2018

The uncovering of secrets is a common feature of Muriel Spark’s novels. In her first novel, The Comforters, for example, Laurence discovers his grandmother is involved in a diamond smuggling ring. And where there are secrets, blackmail inevitably follows – as we see in her second novel, Robinson, when Tom insinuates Robinson “isn’t a man for the ladies.” The threat of blackmail continues to feature in many of the novels that follow, and is particularly prevalent in her 1979 novel Territorial Rights, where almost every character seems to have something to hide.

The novel takes place among the canals of Venice, where the coincidental arrival of a series of inter-connected foreigners leads to a complex ravelling and unravelling of their lives. First to arrive is art student Robert Leaver who has left his older lover Mark Curran (“He preferred to be called ‘Curran’ rather than by his Christian name, for reasons which, when he gave them, were difficult to puzzle out…”) in pursuit of Lina Pancev, a Bulgarian artist who is searching for the grave of her murdered father. He is soon followed by Curran, and, more unexpectedly, by his father, Arnold, who is holidaying with his “former colleague” (and lover), Mary Tiller. Into this already volatile mix will later appear the former matron of the school where Arnold was Headmaster, Grace Gregory, with her former pupil (and lover), Leo, ostensibly keeping an eye on Arnold on behalf of his wife, Anthea.

The secret at the heart of the novel is the death of Lina’s father, Victor, whom Curran knew:

“He was suspected of being part of a plot to poison King Boris, who in fact died of poisoning. Pancev got away but the Bulgarian royalists caught up with him and killed him in 1945.”

In fact, Curran knows more about his death than he tells Robert, including his final resting place – or places, as the corpse was cut in two – which just happens to be the garden of the Pensione Sofia where Robert is staying. The two elderly owners of the Pensione, Eufemia and Katerina, are also implicated, as is Violet de Winter, an old friend of Curran’s and the “chief agent for Global-Equip Security Services Ltd for northern Italy and adjacent territories”, the detective agency hired by Anthea to track down her husband (and amusingly reduced to the acronym GESS). Curran, who was a German agent at the time, is keen that the story of Victor’s death – and his graves – is left alone, but, when Robert disappears, he is threatened with exposure by his ‘kidnappers’. (Ironically the other secrets in the novel – Arnold’s affair, Robert’s homosexuality – are known by all).

Anyone who has been watching the recent BBC series Trust, about the kidnap of John Paul Getty III in Italy – the kidnap was originally his idea – will recognise something of this in Robert’s disappearance. Here it is played more lightly, to the point of farce when Lina returns to Curran a briefcase full of money which he has left for the kidnappers, thinking he has forgotten it. The kidnap is only one example of the novel’s topicality: Middle Eastern terrorism makes an appearance in its denouement, and Lina’s defection from the Soviet Bloc also seems symptomatic of the decade, although in Spark’s version of this story she frequently askes herself, “What have we defected for?” and is threatened with expulsion by Bulgarian expatriate group who support her financially. When her cousin, Serge, appears to take her home, his main criticism is of her art, a picture of men fishing:

“They look too prosperous and contented… In the west, the proletariat are not like that. You are painting propaganda.”

In fact, her painting seems simply banal, and not the only example of would-be art and artists in the novel. Curran, too, claims to be an artist, and Spark intersperses Anthea’s appearances with excerpts from the kitchen sink fiction she reads before bed.

This emphasis on modernity seems appropriate in a novel which depicts the passing of the baton from one generation to the next. Curran is a man of wealth and influence; Robert says of him:

“Curran would believe he was God if he believed in God. All his life Curran has commanded the morning and caused the dayspring to know its place.”

Curran himself claims, “I never feel guilty. Even when I know I should.” It is protégé, Robert, however, who gets the better of him, representing a new generation which is, if anything, even less moral. Robert’s ‘kidnap’ is described as “the beginning of Robert’s happy days, the fine fruition of his youth,” and it is him we think of when Grace tells Anthea:

“You’re mistaken if you think wrong-doers are always unhappy… The really professional evil-doers love it.”

Territorial Rights is one of Spark’s funniest novels: the satire is less biting and the authorial judgement more benevolent. Spark handles her extensive cast of characters with her usual skill, and even the darkest comedy (as when Robert encourages Lina to dance unwittingly on her father’s grave) has a light touch. If it is not one of Spark’s best novels, it is one of her most enjoyable.


December 23, 2018

Alasdair Gray previously described Dante’s Divine Comedy in his own magnum opus Lanark as the author, Nastler (nasty Alasdair), lists the great works of literature he wishes it to sit alongside while order proving to his character Lanark that “failures are popular.”

“Only the Italian book shows a living man in Heaven. He gets there by following Aeneas and Jesus through Hell, but first loses the woman and the home he loves and sees the ruin of all his political hopes.”

In the same novel, Lanark’s alter ego, artist Duncan Thaw, has the following quotation from Virgil, often seen as appropriate to both Thaw and Lanark’s journeys, written on the ceiling of his studio:

“Going down to hell is easy: the gloomy door is open night and day. Turning around and getting back to the sunlight is the task, the hard thing.”

Now, thirty-seven years later, and following his own version of Faust (Fleck) in 2008, the first part of Gray’s adaptation of Dante’s work is published. As Gray explained in an interview with The Paris Review in 2016, it is not a new translation:

“I cannot call it a translation as I do not know Italian. My version is based upon eight different English translations, none of which satisfied me.”

The only previous version I have read of The Divine Comedy in its entirety is the translation by Dorothy L Sayers (completed by Barbara Reynolds). Sayers, of course, transposed Dante’s terza rima (his rhyme scheme of aba bcb cdc…) into English, (a feat which must stand with Gilbert Adair’s translation of Georges Perec’s La Disparition). Such an intensive rhyme scheme, however, not only has an influence on the translation, but requires an extensive use of English vocabulary, including archaic words, which can detract from the power of Dante’s vision. On the other hand, a literal translation, which pays no attention to rhyme, also weakens the verse. Gray has gone for something in between:

“My version mainly keeps the Dantean form colloquial by using end-rhymes where they came easily, internal rhymes where they did not.”

With the regular rhythm retained, this works well, avoiding the suspicion that the rhymes are forced, perverting or diluting the meaning. To take, for example, the opening:

“In middle age, I wholly lost my way,
finding myself within an evil wood
far from the right straight road we all should tread,

and what a wood! So densely tangled, dark,
jaggily thorned, so hard to press on through,
even the memory renews my dread.

My misery, my almost deadly fear
led onto such discovery of good,
I’ll tell you of it if you care to hear.”

Only the third stanza rhymes in the terza rima format, though even here ‘good’ is paired with ‘wood’ not from the previous stanza but the one before. Similarly, ‘dread’ in the final line of stanza 2 rhymes with ‘tread’ three lines before. The absence of a regular rhyming pattern places emphasis on the power of the language rather than on the writer’s ability to find a matching trio, a language which Gray keeps deliberately prosaic in order to echo Dante’s use of colloquial Italian, going as far as to include a number of Scots words: for example, Dante describes Virgil as his ‘dominie’ (teacher) and in one of his many emotional updates tells us “my pulse and every sense have gone agley.”

The question still remains as to why we continue to read The Divine Comedy. Hell is, not surprisingly, a place of relentless cruelty, and though we can admire Dante’s ability to create appropriate punishments (for example, those who claimed to be able to see the future must walk with their heads on backwards), at times it is difficult not to feel he is taking a disturbing pleasure in the painful punishments on view. He is also, more naturally, obsessed with warring Italian states, and, given the size of Hell even seven hundred years ago, seems to be forever fortuitously running into those he knew on earth. The attraction, among a mainly non-religious readership, is perhaps what we would now call world-building, Dante’s ability to use Christianity to create his own self-contained system, entirely logical within its limits. Also the hierarchy of sins is not entirely out of step with modern sensibilities, beginning with sins of appetite (lust and gluttony) before proceeding through violence into deceit and treachery.

Gray’s Hell is a worthy addition to the canon of English Infernos, largely because Gray has resisted the temptation to unnecessarily embellish the language while retaining a strong sense of poetry in his regular rhythm and erratic rhyme. The one disappointment is the lack of illustration. In 2016 Gray, forecasting a Christmas 2017 publication, mentioned the illustrations as the cause of the delay, but only the first three sections are illustrated. Gray’s talent as an illustrator ensure this loss is keenly felt, though his gorgeous wraparound cover goes some way to making up for this. No date has yet been set for Purgatory.


December 18, 2018

Every so often you encounter a novel which is quite unlike anything you have read before. Rita Indiana’s Tentacle is one such text – the final book in And Other Stories year of publishing women – as slippery and other-worldly as its title suggests. It is first of all some kind of science fiction, presenting a near-future as plausible as it is depressing. Mixed in with this we have a strand of supernatural, and a series of lives linked across time which could belong to either genre. It could fairly be described as a ‘mash-up’ if that did not suggest a certain carelessness. Instead what stands out is its surging imaginative energy.

The world Indiana presents to us is one ravaged by environmental disasters and deeply divided into rich and poor. The first of its two central characters, who appear in alternate chapters, Acilde, is a servant in a house which automatically kills anyone who approaches the entrance if they are affected by a virus which has led to half the island being quarantined:

“Recognizing the virus on the black man, the security mechanism in the tower releases a lethal gas and simultaneously informs the neighbours, who will now avoid the building’s entrance until the automatic collectors patrolling the streets and avenues pick up the body and disintegrate it.”

Acilde herself only found her present position sucking off men for money, acting as the boy she wants to be: “Her rounds up at El Mirador had barely paid for food and data, without which she couldn’t live.” It was there she met Eric, the “right-hand man” of the owner of the house she now works in, Esther. He not only offered her the job, but the chance to train as a chef, the career she hopes will allow her to save enough to change sex, a transformation which can now occur using “Rainbow Brite, an injection making the rounds in alternative science circles that promised a complete sex change without surgery.” In the meantime, Acilde, and her friend Morla, have already come up with a quicker way of achieving her goal – by stealing a valuable sea anemone which Esther has in her possession (most marine life having been destroyed).

“Their plan was very simple. When the old lady left on a trip, Morla would find a way to get round the building’s security, disconnect the cameras, take the anemone away in a special container, and leave Acilde tied, gagged, and free of any blame.”

Unfortunately Morla gets restless and kills Esther, Acilde proceeding to “break a Lladro dolphin…on his head” before taking the anemone for herself. Eric helps her transition, explain her new identity will fulfil a prophesy – he is the Chosen One:

“We gave you the body you wanted and now you’ve given us the body we needed.”

Meanwhile (in chapter two) washed-up artist Argenis is working in a call centre selling tarot readings when he is given an opportunity to be one of a number of artists working towards a gallery opening in a beachside property owned by Linda Goldman. The main attraction for Argenis is Linda: “the most beautiful thing Argenis had seen in his life.” Argenis is stung by an anemone while snorkelling and afterwards develops a dream life in the island’s past:

“Several bearded white men with stained clothes approach him in a canoe, pulling him out of the water and taking him to shore. They’re carrying knives an antique pistols on their belts and wearing sandals made from braided leather.”

Indiana is clearly not short of plot but, as madcap as it may sound in summary, both stories have a strong internal logic. Acilde, like Argenis, exists in other points in time, but unlike him, he is able to take advantage of it, allowing himself to be imprisoned for Esther’s murder to utilise his other lives, while Argenis is “trying to close the door” on his. These different lives echo the characters attempts to recreate themselves: Acilde as a man; Argenis as an artist.

Tentacle seems very ‘now’ – the epitome of ‘novel’. Its politics are those of gender and environment. It even comments wryly on the need for art to change as Argenis is nicknamed ‘Goya’ by his fellow art students not as a compliment but because he is stuck in the past:

“Look around, damn it, do you think a bunch of little angels is what’s needed here??”

But it would be foolish to think this means it is gimmicky or arch. Tentacle is one of the most exciting novels I’ve read this year, and translator Achy Obejas is to be congratulated for bringing it into English still fresh and pulsing with life.

Armand V

December 13, 2018

In Armand V, Dag Solstad’s 2006 novel written entirely in footnotes, and now translated into English by Steven T Murray, the writer declares:

“My literary output ended with T Singer… Everything after that is an exception, which will never be repeated. Including this.”

Solstad expanded on this in an interview with Adam Dalva in Publishers Weekly:

“The whole concept was a cheap trick from my side to help me work up the courage to pursue the freedom offered me by my ageing career as an author.”

Armand’s story is revealed to us in the footnotes to an unwritten novel. It begins, as it says, with “a displaced time perspective”, describing an encounter between Armand and his adult son before returning to Armand’s youth. The scene is one of humiliation, which seems to be a common theme of Solstad’s work, as Armand returns home to find his son being “debased by a young woman, a girl.”

“The girls tossed her head, and her hair swung softly around her; she gave him such a look of contempt while his son trembled in his abject state.”

Armand is unnoticed and waits quietly in the bedroom until he is able to leave the house, returning later that night as if he was only just arriving, an avoidance of emotional confrontation which we will discover is typical of his character. When he sees his son again six months later he discovers his son has joined the army, a career at odds with Armand’s pacifist tendencies, which are themselves in tension with his position as a Norwegian diplomat. As with T Singer, Armand’s trajectory though life, though superficially far more successful, is not one created by ambition. It begins with his choice of a “dry, pro-EEC topic” for his thesis even though (in fact, because) he is an opponent of the EEC. He is similarly “intrigued by the paradoxical nature of the situation” whereby a radical leftist such as himself can work for the diplomatic service of a country which allies itself so closely with the USA.

“Can a young, serious-minded person like Armand V. allow his career choice to be guided by something so banal as the thought of the comfortable life awaiting him if only he grabs a pen and fills out an application for the Foreign Ministry’s own course for future diplomats?”

Armand is able to both believe he somehow remains the radical he once was while rejecting any association, or even sympathy, with political dissent:

“Armand rejected those who shouted. He rejected the demonstrators. Even when they spoke reflexively in newspaper editorials. They didn’t know what they were talking about, he thought then, they didn’t know anything.”

Perhaps it is the case – we will never know as the novel from which these notes are excavated is unwritten – that Armand’s hypocrisy lies in his footnotes. This is certainly true of the affair he has with the twin sister of his girlfriend, and later wife, N, who features in the novel instead:

“Here I must point out that N, who appears at this stage in the novel, and who plays the role of an utterly decisive woman in Armand’s life, is not included here, in the footnotes, at the same time. Here we find her twin sister.”

The footnotes also detour into the story of Armand’s friend from university, Paul Buer, a science student whom Armand invites to sit with the humanities students. If Buer seems to take over the novel at this point this is because these fifty pages were written first, with Buer as the protagonist and Armand as his friend. If, at first, it seems detached form the rest of the novel, much as the sequence with Adam Eyde in T Singer, Solstad later suggests Armand betrays, or at least fails to support, his friend when they meet at an official function.

As the novel progresses, it is difficult not to regard Armand as a rather more unpleasant character than he at first appears. Superficially “He was a knowledgeable man, he was a connoisseur of European literature, film, music and art from the past to the present day.” However, although he continues to pay his son’s rent for him while he is away, his son does not seem keen to see him when on leave. At one point he feels he has “sacrificed his son to war.” In the footnotes he seems distant and withdrawn from others, though perhaps he is simply withdrawn from his unwritten novel. Solstad wonders:

“Is a novel something that has already been written, and is the author merely the one who finds it, laboriously digging it out?”

Armand V is another fascinating slice of Solstad, further expanding on his central concern of how we should live our lives by questioning our certainty over how we have lived, ignoring the narrative for the detail below the line. Solstad is clearly an important European writer and hopefully, over time, more of his work will be translated into English.

The Little Snake

December 8, 2018

A. L. Kennedy’s The Little Snake was first published in Germany two years ago as part of a series of books celebrating the seventy-fifth anniversary of The Little Prince, a story she has described as “quite jolly if you’re a kid but very sad if you are an adult.” With echoes of Saint-Exupery’s work, Kennedy has created her own fable of a friendship between a girl, Mary, and a snake who also happens to be Death. In stripped-down prose, she adopts a style which, she says, does not “allow you to indulge in the writerly nonsense you think you’ve got away from but actually, when you start doing this kind of thing which has to be very simple and very clear, you think, there’s still a lot of nonsense.”

The snake first appears around Mary’s ankle, mistaken for a bangle. With the childish innocence associated with fables, Mary is not afraid of the snake, and also quite prepared to refuse him when, for example, he asks of a mouse to eat. Perhaps this is the reason he befriends her, telling her he will visit her many times, and warning her:

“Little girl, little girl, the world is an odd place to explore, and you must promise me… that you will be extremely careful wherever you go.”

Of course, the logic of their friendship does not matter; it is the friendship itself which is important in a story which is, at heart, about caring for others. It is the characters who do not care for others who are punished by Lanmo the snake. This applies on a small-scale with the Very Attractive Girls who will not allow Mary to skip with them: the snake makes them skip until they are “hot and tired and worried” and no longer attractive:

“Not one of the Very Attractive Girls mentioned this but they knew it in their hearts, and when they looked at each other they were dismayed.”

The snake, however, also punishes those at the other end of the scale, beginning with Karl Otto Meininger, the third (or possibly fourth) richest man on earth, used to “being surrounded by respectful servants and sad, exhausted trees.” For children, Meininger’s repulsive selfishness is reason enough for the snake to kill him; for adults there is the joy of a justice which even the rich cannot escape: he tells the snake, “I’ll give you everything I have.”

“Other people had told him that too.”

Lanmo continues to aid Mary, particularly when she has to leave her home city. Kennedy highlights the inequalities of the city (which she has likened to London) in the book’s opening pages, and notes its deterioration when Lanmo returns to Mary two years later:

“…he noticed the city looked a good deal sadder than he remembered. There were angry words painted on some of the walls and the pavements were broken in places and not clean. There were fewer kites flying and the ones that did fly looked as if they had simply been forgotten…”

The kites, which people flew “in order to enjoy the sky”, are a visual display of joy, slowly disappearing from their lives. Eventually, Mary leaves her home, Lanmo finding only an empty house and a note. Mary is now travelling with Paul, who as a boy was able to see the snake on their teacher’s desk. Kennedy conveys the terrible choices of being a refugee when Mary must leave her parents behind.

The Little Snake, then, does not shy away from politics, albeit the politics of compassion which all politicians pay lip service to but few enact. In fact, Kennedy tackles this irony in her portrayal of The Great Man Who Loved the People who not only instructs his Commander-in-Chief to kill the elderly, women and children but goes on to demand:

“Once your men have carried out these necessary measures for the defence of my people, you must explain to them that because they had not already killed the traitors hidden in our glorious country… they are traitors. Therefore they must kill each other and then themselves.”

This would be clumsy if bolted on but the book’s message remains the same: for the world to be better, people must care for each other. Mary provides one example for us (the snake tells her, “You taste of the love of other people”), Lanmo another – able to be compassionate even as he kills – and their friendship most of all. It is the lack of love of others which creates the inequality which baffles the snake:

“I do not understand humans. Some of you will steal anything all the time and some of you will steal nothing all the time. Couldn’t all of you just steal something some of the time – if you need it?”

The Little Snake is both a timely and timeless fable which speaks straight to the heart but does not ignore the mind, its pessimistic portrait of humanity tempered with an optimistic outlook. Written with humour, imagination and compassion, it should find a place in everyone’s Christmas stocking.

Quotations by A L Kennedy from an interview with Janice Forsyth on Radio Scotland.

The German Room

December 4, 2018

The German Room, the debut novel by Argentinian writer Carla Maliandi, is a novel of escape, its narrator abandoning her life in Argentina to return to the world of her childhood in Heidelberg, Germany, where her father lectured at the university. In a sense, she is fleeing her adult life, uncomfortable with who she has become and perhaps seeking to discover the adult she wishes to be. Her departure has been sudden and unannounced:

“Going down with the plane would have been easier than landing in Germany with my life in shambles, without having told anyone in Buenos Aires what I was doing.”

Later she reflects:

“How much longer will I be able to disappear from the internet too, from the lives of others? How much longer will the e-mails continue to pile up, their demands for explanations, their concern over things that I can’t even remember anymore?”

She has rented a room in student accommodation (though without enrolling at the university), perhaps because it allows her to feel, closer to her father, perhaps because she wishes to return to a point in her life when choices sill seemed possible. Her life here is a series of chance encounters with others, encounter she often seems eager to avoid. These characters are often kind to her, a kindness she generally returns with indifference. An Argentinian student, Miguel Javier Sanchez, makes it his duty to take care of her from the moment she arrives, sharing his breakfast with her. That she calls him ‘the Tucamano’ (after the area where he comes from) immediately feels like a distancing technique rather than an endearing nickname. As he speak to her, her mind wanders:

“Then I stop listening to him, he carries on talking and I think about how I’m going to cut my hair.”

It is Miguel Javier who first tells her she is pregnant, a fact she later confirms with the help of a Japanese student, Shanice. Shanice persuades her to go to a karaoke party where she lets a student kiss her only to drift off in her thoughts once more:

“The redhead stops kissing me and looks at me in silence. I apologise, tell him I was distracted because I remembered something.”

The party only makes her realise she doesn’t belong:

“But I don’t belong to this group. Even if I course the whole world looking or a place to feel at home, I wouldn’t belong anywhere.”

What she doesn’t realise is that she is not the only one to feel isolated and, the next day, Shanice commits suicide.

So far the novel has been very much a sympathetic character study of an individual who has lost their way, but the arrival of Shanice’s mother, Mrs Takahashi, sets a new tone. Shanice will warn the narrator about her in a dream:

“Warn you that my mother is full of a very dark sadness…and, ya know, that she can bet inside you.”

Further darkness is injected into the novel when Miguel’s sister, Marta Paul, back in Argentina, decides to consult a medium, Feli, much to Miguel’s distress:

“Feli is not a good person, Feli… is a horrible woman. That’s’ what’s wrong. I’m not there and she’s getting into trouble is what’s wrong.”

Feli will herself (via Marta Paul) provide a warning: “The girl is dead but the mother is alive. The girl knew that the mother was dangerous.” At this point the novel seems to be channelling a certain type of Japanese literature with its detached narrator, its emphasised ordinariness, and its ominous, even supernatural, overtones.

The narrator also complicates her own life when, after moving in with an ex-student of her father’s, Mario (now a lecturer at the same university), she begins sleeping with the man she assumes is his partner, Joseph. It is the first time she has attempted to get close to anyone but the circumstances are not auspicious. Mrs Takahashi keeps reappearing in the narrator’s life, Marta Paul goes missing, and everything seems certain to be heading to a cataclysmic conclusion. However, Maliandi is a far more subtle writer, and her final pages transcend rather than end.

The German Room (ably translated by Frances Riddle) is a surprisingly gripping novel, its drifting, disorientated narrator unexpectedly sympathetic. She tells Mario that:

“…maybe all my life I’ve idealised my childhood here, maybe I remembered this city as a place where time passed in a different way. Here we hoped that everything would get better so we could go back, and in the meantime, we were in limbo, far away, happy.”

Her return to Heidelberg seems another limbo, her escape altogether uncertain.

A Different Drummer

December 1, 2018

Publishers are always looking for the next big thing, but ‘next’ does not necessarily imply ‘new’. John Williams’ Stoner is only one example of the ‘rediscovered classic’, albeit an example so successful that it has become shorthand for the phenomenon. Not only did Stoner sell remarkable well for a novel by a previously unheralded writer originally published in 1965, but it brought his other three novels back into circulation. ‘This year’s Stoner’ may have become something of a gimmick since, but any reader knows that there are thousands of wonderful novels slowly drifting towards obscurity across the decades, as deserving of our attentions as those thrown ceaselessly back by the tides of literary taste to the printers.

William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer is the latest candidate for this accolade. Originally published in 1962 and much praised at the time, both the novel and Kelley himself soon fell out of fashion. Three further novels and a collection of short stories followed, the final novel in 1970, but, though Kelley continued to write, no further books were published. In an interview in 2012 he commented:

“My name just kind of faded away. There are still people today who say to me, ‘Oh, I thought you were dead.’”

A Different Drummer, set in a fictional state in the American South, is based on a premise which is both ordinary and other-worldly. One day, without obvious cause or provocation, a black farmer, Tucker Caliban, begins to throw salt onto his land. He then shoots his horse and cow before setting fire to his house:

“Orange flame climbed the white curtain in the centre section of the house, moved on slowly to the other windows like someone inspecting then house to buy it, burst through the roof with the sound of paper tearing, and lit the faces of the men, the sides of the wagons, and the faces of the Negros.”

As his home burns he leaves with his pregnant wife and child, and, in the days which follow, the entire African-American population of the state depart.

The novel may be predicated on Tucker’s actions, but, though its author was black, it is told entirely from the point of view of its white characters. As Kelley correctly pointed out, this disconcerted critics, forcing them to consider his work without reflexively reaching for another black writer to compare it to:

“There was a literary ghetto — certainly at that time and it still exists today — where African-American writers are really only compared to other African-American writers. But (the white critics) had to compare me to Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Robert Penn Warren.”

More importantly, rather than asserting that it is the duty of black characters to somehow free themselves from the constraints imposed by racism (or fail to free themselves and assume the status of victim), it turns the focus onto the root of the problem, the psychology of the white characters. This would not work unless Kelley was able to convince us he understands these characters but luckily, though the novel’s premise is arresting, it is its characterisation which is its greatest strength.

Kelley focuses in particular on two families, the Lelands and the Willsons. The Lelands are poor and the Willsons rich, descendant from a Confederate General, but both are to some extent sympathetic to state’s black population. Leland forbids his son, somewhat confusingly known as Mister Leland, to use the word ‘nigger’:

“I don’t think no word starts out being bad. It’s just a word and then folks give it a meaning… But if you call a coloured person a nigger he thinks you saying he’s bad, and maybe you don’t even mean it that way, you see?”

In David Willson’s back story we discover a close friendship with a black student, Bennett Bradshaw, at college:

“It is the first time in my life I carried on an intelligent conversation with a negro, and the first time I felt intellectually inferior to a negro.”

His mother is appalled when he tells his family he is going to room with Bennett, but his father agrees when he discovers David’s reasons: “it’s mostly that I like him.” Kelley perhaps picks these more sympathetic characters because their incomprehension over Tucker’s actions is as great as anyone’s. For them, for the other white characters, and for the reader, the novel becomes a puzzle with Tucker at its centre.

In this way the novel can be read as a series of clues, beginning with the story of Tucker’s ancestor, known only as the African, who escapes (carrying a baby) on arrival in the United States and proceeds to free slaves throughout the state before being eventually betrayed and killed. The baby is taken into slavery by the Willson family, and Tucker is his great-grandson:

“I can see whatever was in his blood just a-laying there sleeping, waiting, and then one day waking up, making Tucker do what he did.”

The novel moves backwards and forwards in time, through the experiences of the Lelands and the Willsons, creating a picture of Tucker, though one which never quite comes into focus. This ranges from a comment Tucker makes to Mr Leland as he walks away from the burning house (“you ain’t lost nothing, has you?”) to an outburst at his father’s funeral (“Sacrifice? Is THAT all? Is that really all?”) to his refusal to lend his wife a dollar for the National Society for Colored Affairs:

“Ain’t none of my battles being fought in no courts. I’m fighting all my battles myself.”

A Different Drummer is a novel which poses questions rather than giving answers, its provocative scenario allowing unexpected insight into an issue which writers continue to explore to this day. The one questions it does answer, however, is whether its rediscovery is justified, and it’s a whole-hearted yes.

Quotations by William Kelley from an interview by Steve Kemme for Mosaic magazine.