5/26/12

B. Kojo Laing – One of the greatest novels ever to come out of the African continent: Ghana was a photocopy country, and they wanted the original truth! You could hold the hope in the air and powder it; all the salt would leave the sea and flavor this stew on fire by the roadsides




B. Kojo Laing, Search Sweet Country, McSweeney's 2012. [1986.]
"Search Sweet Country—one of the greatest novels ever to come out of the African continent—follows the lives of an eclectic, interconnected group of Ghanaians living in and around the sprawling, chaotic city of Accra in the mid-1970s. Bringing the city to life in dizzying, lyrical prose, Laing weaves a story filled with bizarre and often melancholy characters: an idealistic professor, a lovely young witch, a wide-eyed student, a corrupt politician and his hack sidekick, a business-savvy young woman, a healer, a bishop, and a crazy man intent on founding his own village. Their collective narratives create a portrait of a country where colonialism is dying, but democracy remains elusive. Search Sweet Country is a timeless, near-forgotten gem by a virtuosic writer, as necessary now as when the book was first published. Like Joyce’s Dublin and Dickens’s London, Laing’s Accra brims with both lush specificity and universal relevance.
First published in 1986, this new edition comes beautifully packaged and with a foreword by Binyavanga Wainaina."
 

"The finest novel written in English ever to come out of the African continent."—From the introduction by Binyavanga Wainaina
"Here are two scintillating first novels set in contemporary central Africa: the first in Ghana, to the west, the second in Tanzania, to the east. Laing is a black Ghanian poet whose novel exuberantly reels with language and imagery reminiscent of the early Joyce. Set in Laing's own "sweet country," it revolves around a broad and colorful cast of characters: the student Kofi Loww, "now thirty and living on the wandering side of doubt"; Kojo Okay Pol, an optimist, "the monkey that believed he could climb down his own tail in any emergency"; Professor Sackey ("Professor Carry Yourself") and his wife Sofi; Bishop Budu and his assistant Osofo; and Beni Baidoo, the "shrewd and shriveled" old man who is Accra, Ghana, is "the bird standing alive by the pot that should receive it, and hoping that, after being defeathered, it would triumphantly fly out before it was fried." As a girl, taken on an oryx hunt by her father, Antonia was the first to spot an oryx; the animal's life was then spared. Now a doctor, back in her native Dar es Salaam, a white woman in a black-ruled country, her father dead, her mother returned to America, and their house seized by the government, Antonia does what she can to help the natives who come to her sick from poverty, hunger, squalor. The novel gracefully traces the friendship between Antonia and a young black woman she treats, Antonia mystified by Esther's spiritual healing abilities, Esther eager to learn the basics of anatomy and physiology and Western medicine. Two triumphant works, warmly recommended." -  Marcia G. Fuchs
"Originally printed in 1986, Laing’s novel about the bumbling, bustling city of Accra and its inhabitants in the mid-70s is a figurative, comic treat, filled with wild characters and dizzy, wink-filled prose. This new and very lovely edition, published by McSweeney’s, is sure to convert many to the cause.“ - Flavorwire
"A stylistically brilliant, but dense and demanding first novel about modern Africa by Ghanaian poet Laing. Accra, Ghana, in 1975 is a teeming city of ""sin, juju [witchcraft] and wisdom."" But in this lush land where ""breezes polish souls,"" ""fruit ripens, but the people do not."" The soul of Accra is besieged by encroaching Western values, the ruling Supreme Military Council, a burgeoning national consciousness, and personal greed. ""Almost all Ghanaians,"" a local authority explains, ""would choose to postpone their souls and run after Mercedes Benzes."" The huge (and confusing) cast of characters includes witches, collaborators, academics, priests, prostitutes and madmen. Roughly at the center stand two young men: Kofi Loww, who, paralyzed by his own and his country's identity crises, lives ""on the wandering side of doubt""; and Kojo Okay Pol, ""the monkey who believes he could climb his own tail in any emergency."" The two experience love affairs, run-ins with the military, family estrangements, reunions, and deaths. Meanwhile, townspeople demonstrate against ""the terrible waste of beauty"" only to be placated by the army's meal of corned beef. A bureaucrat finally wheedles the Mercedes Benz he craves, but then smashes it into a cow. Loww eventually marries and returns to the university, but ""the optimist"" Pol's soul, like Ghana, ""remains unfinished."" The prose is energetic and metaphorical, but while it successfully evokes the African psyche, it also renders some of the story mechanics and specifics unclear. Still, there is strong, original talent here.“ – Kirkus Reviews
"Ghanaian poet Kojo Laing, in his first novel, breaks new ground for the genre, scoring a prodigious symphony of life in contemporary Accra. He develops his characters' lives as separate themes, alternating realistic days with surreal nights, as they juggle African traditions and Western values, tribal loyalties and national consciousness. A powerful and original stylist, Laing should become a major voice in Africa.“ – John de St. Jorre

"Mr. Laing, an acclaimed poet inhis native Ghana, captures Accra, Ghana's capital, at a moment of its recent history, through the wanderings and intersections of a large cast of comic characters (.....) The vision is surreal and satirical; every sentence is relentlessly figurative; ideas and jokes crowd every page. Though the verbal excess becomes tiresome, and the whole of the novel is weaker than its parts, Mr. Laing has found an original voice that is all the stronger for making few concessions to the Western reader: wild, sophisticated, sorrowful, it is the voice of contemporary Africa's disillusionment." - George Packer

 "Binyavanga Wainaina begins his Introduction to Search Sweet Country with the bold claim that:
     Search Sweet Country is the finest novel written in English to come out of the African continent. I know no other novel, from a continent full of great novels, which rewards the reader so abundantly.
        That's some high expectations to burden a book with -- and while the rewards of Search Sweet Country are abundant, they don't necessarily come easily.
       The novel is set in Accra, in the mid-1970s, when Ghana -- independent since 1957 -- was under the rule of a military head of state, Acheampong, whose National Redemption Council had overthrown the democratically elected government in 1972. But Search Sweet Country isn't so much concerned with the historical specifics: politics features in the novel, but only as one part of a larger picture of the country and city. Laing's novel is critical, as there are arguments about the failures of state and of differing approaches to governance, but Laing's vision doesn't get hung up in the details of the time: descriptions of the lives of his characters, and the conditions in Accra largely suffice to convey the failures of those in power.
       Wishful thinking -- of how things should be -- and a search for alternatives is common to several of the characters, and one, Beni Baidoo, has ambitions for reinvention at its most basic: "I know everybody in Accra except dignity !" he complains, and his solution is to try to found his own village, and start entirely anew:
All I need now is a little help from my gooooooood friends to start my village. I can get land, I have my donkey, and all I need is a few human beings, some furniture, several superhuman girls, a family god, an okyeame, a village fool and a village thief ... to steal from the rich and give to me gently.
       The novel moves among a variety of characters and their various quests, including the academic, Professor Sackey (who, although, a professor of sociology: "could not manage the society of his house" -- but who also claims: "I am the barometer for Ghana ! When they start making things unhappy for me, then things are getting serious !") and the seeking Kofi Llow. Another character is named Owula ½-Allotey; another the British witch, Sally Soon (and Sooner, and Soonest -- at one point: "huddling behind the moon, crying over her own contradictions").
       There is no clear story arc, as Laing juggles the (often crossing) paths of these many characters -- many of whom finds themselves adrift even as they, like Baidoo, claim (or hope) to have a specific goal in mind. Much of the story amounts to a muddling through, given the circumstances.
       What is most remarkable about the novel is the language, and how the overlapping stories and episodes are told. Laing was a poet before writing this, his first novel, and Search Sweet Country is very much poetic fiction. A six-page glossary is not only of Ghanaian words used in the text, but also: "a few that were invented by the author". But Laing doesn't just sprinkle these words in his narrative, his use of language far exceeds the usual prosaic expectations.
       Typical is the early description of Baidoo:
     Beni Baidoo was Accra, was the bird standing alive by the pot that should receive it, and hoping that, after being defeathereed, it would triumphantly fly out before it was fried.
        Or, for example:
Ghana was a photocopy country, and they wanted the original truth! Cats and lorries, which had been impatient all along, partly joined them with their different types of horn making one tune of solidarity. You could hold the hope in the air and powder it; all the salt would leave the sea and flavor this stew on fire by the roadsides.
       The intensity and density of the imagery that Laing packs in makes for an unusual reading experience, the richness of the language often in danger of obscuring what plot there is -- especially since Laing shifts so frequently between so many different significant characters. A great deal happens in Search Sweet Country, but much of this is not presented in the most conventional form, making it difficult to keep track of all the Accra-bustle. The picture that emerges, of a country and city and people struggling against so many forces -- many imposed by the powers that be -- is a vivid and convincing one, but, yes, the way it is presented is unusual and can be hard to come to grips with.
       Worthwhile, and often fascinating, but not easy going." - M.A.Orthofer


Big Bishop Roko and the Altar Gangsters
B. Kojo Laing, Big Bishop Roko and the Alter Gangsters, Woeli Publishing Services, 2006.

"A long-awaited novel from one of Africa¿s best regarded writers. He is a poet, but best known as a novelist, original and imaginative. His writing is described as fundamentally African, and specifically Ghanaian in source. Witty narrative and dark humour dominate this new novel in which an Anglican Bishop works scientifically and doctrinally with different types of sharks, an ecumenically minded Pope loves boxing over the telephone, and the Archbishop of Canterbury is powerless to stop genetic experiments which make the interaction between rich and poor countries almost impossible."


“…the entire universe was at one point only imaginary, and that should be the biggest influence on all creation men and women…”

Big Bishop Roko and the Altar Gangsters is surreal, ontological, theological, scatological, genealogical, genie-o-logical, dream logical. It’s a story told around a nuclear-green campfire, the wordman’s wordweird wordworld forming a fantasyscape of multiple dimensions. Indeed, several cities real or imagined are mentioned but the focus is on Gold Coast City in Ghana. The wordman is hired through force by the narrative’s main obsession, Big Bishop Roko Yam, yet the nameless wordman struggles at times to maintain control of the story, getting complaints and unsolicited influence from Roko himself, who wants to be portrayed a certain way, and even from other characters like the thief and later Roko’s enemy ZigZag Zala: “There were your decimarvels trying to change a changing bishop (like entering a spin from the middle) while simultaneously going for goals that were not mutable but traditional. […] And ZigZag Zala so ravenous for his cause against the bishop (and this same cause being a means to greater smuggling) that he spilled over into the story and often demanded his own paragraphs.”


Whether characters attempt to alter the story or not (and they’d have a hard time usurping it because the narrator “knew the various spaces and directions in which his nervous systems stretched”), there is no narrative thrust as such, rather each relatively brief chapter is a meditation oscillating between philosophical/unreal exposition and the prose poetry of the paracosm proper, with characters entering and exiting as though through wormholes and rabbitholes. Perhaps the notion of narrating is at least in part misleading, for as it’s rationalized closer to the end of the novel: “You didn’t narrate a profane anti-clerical, anti-communal, anti-individualistic shark story belonging to a boogie pond-mouthed bishop; O, no: you either fried it or you baked it; anything but narrate it.”

The result of this “literary baking” is an accumulation which creates a sense of time within a time suspended in the semi-repetitive purgatory of 1986 (as it happens, this is the year in which Laing’s first novel was published to international yet flash-lasting fame). “Did this bishop even know the age of his own navel? Did you consider how tightly squeezed up we all were stuck in a year that sealed off other years? Could it be that the extra points of time that Zala had managed to steal were after all points from the residue of 1986, rather than the first early dawns of 1987? I got dizzy whenever I mentioned any other year apart from 1986.” He later explains that “there was always a slight after-taste to restricted recycled time, very much like brown lime, a sort of synaesthesia of minutes and seconds. We were all glued to the horizon savouring earth and sea simultaneously.”

In this bardo of the bard where there are time bandits trying to push the year forward or backward even if by decimal points, the reader is graced with the science of mythology and the mythology of science. Indeed, Laing overlaps those (in)famous magisteria, creating his own. But as it is in reality so it is in surreality, for the magisteria only overlap with tectonic and technological activity, thus two wars are fomenting with no small amount of celadon and cetacean foam. Lo, this novel is the linguistic equivalent of a Dalí diorama irradiated with atomic mysticism, serving up an escargot of eschatology atop epistemology, e-piss-temology, religiosity, ornery sorcery, and cybernetic gee-netics: “…it was clear that for God to retain absolute spiritual force, he had to have a density beyond the black holes of cosmology; while at the same time his absolute humility aspired towards an inherent galactic imperfection. This primal flaw gave great freedom to the bishop and me […] and allowed the renaissance city to do two things: to press more and more prayers out through the plankton of the listening sea; and then to renew those same prayers through huge tubes of 1986 toothpaste, for some doctrinal flushing of the mouth, for some pepsodent worship.”

The reason ZigZag Zala and many others are enemies of Bishop Roko is due to his strange experiments and ostensible blasphemies, such as his wide collection of sharks that can swim on land and his scientific investigation into the properties of their silver sperm, the omnipresent faxing of his name which manifests into all holy books of every faith high, low, and esoteric, and his creation of strange cathedrals, such as an upside-down cathedral, a miniature cathedral, a termite cathedral, and one that doubles as a train.

The first war that’s Fermi-fermenting is more conventional, between bishops and the populace of Gold Coast City, while the second, bigger war, involving the Archbishop of Canterbury, for instance, is more ethereal and relates to genetic mutation and manipulation, something that will result in an even wider cosmic gulf between the rich and poor, virtually creating two separate species on two separate planes, a particle apartheid. The bishop tries to enlighten the Archbishop, saying, “Your Grace, in a couple of weeks your rich countries will transform your genes to such an extent that we the poor will not be able to mate with you, to have sports with you, or even to communicate with you on ordinary matters. Your electronic no-soul centres will bleep above us.” A kind of singularity of the aristocracy, a plutocracy eloping to Pluto. Despite Roko’s growing number of enemies, he also has a fair number of allies because they saw how he was “trying to stop an unnatural mutation and trying to guide all humanity into a single theologically justiciable evolution.” Yet as it is with the ignorant m(asses), questions about the particulars abound, creating distrust and division. The narrator himself wonders, “How on earth could [Roko] tell that [the man] had mutated if he did this naturally? Did mutation mean that one was still aware of one’s previous form? What if there was a genital mutation by mistake? Would all the normal females flock towards an ecclesiastic of super genitalia? Don’t be fooled by the assertions of experts that evolution was species-wide or even body-wide. Biological fiddling could lead to tricks of rhinology like a giant nose that guzzled all the oxygen of a renaissance city. I knew that the most sophisticated full-stops (those that didn’t appear at the end of sentences) were up the anus of this single bishop, up his grammar arse….”

The characters we do meet in this limbic limbo, this purring and impure purgatory, are as unique as the prose itself, if not more so. Aside from the narrator’s ex who sells military weaponry, there’s Canon Creem’s mother who becomes crucifixated: “She was failing in her attempt to crucify herself once a week simply because she hadn’t quite worked out how to bang the nails into the same hands that held the hammer (she rejected all forms of help in this, even from a wry Deputy Jesus who offered to produce a double-headed hammer, provided rubber nails were used). This cool crosswoman—cool on the cross (tied), hot off it—this crucificionado, with qualities of the cruciferous, cruciate and cruciform all rolled from one meaning into the same meaning, what was really her ethics?” There’s the Pope who forms a telepugilist relationship with the Big Bishop: “The rope-a-dope Pope had taken to boxing in an obscure part of Roko’s mind. […] He was, of course, especially good at phone-boxing, throwing uppercuts, loops, over-drives, and wicked telecommunication jabs. I never knew his fists were so good over the phone. Roko Yam was complaining bitterly over his own visions; with the Pope’s new habit of phoning him and chatting with fists, and punchlines, Roko often came away with bruises on his face. He was being encouraged to have a hospital in his mouth against the pontiff. […] [Roko] even swallowed some of the bruises, plus one of the Pope’s fingernails.” There’s the cathedral train driver who goes in an infinite circle, a crazy cassock-maker, an ecclesiastic crow, Jesus’s elder brother who’s referred to as Deputy Jesus, and others.

As for the titular character, Big Bishop Roko has a big, big mouth of Tardis infinity, fitting all kinds of flora and fauna and more within, including a woman who is hunting for a specific piece of chewing gum, and even “nuts and bolts, effluence, blood wastes and many chemicals […], the most pungent thing there being the shit of cats and bats and the puke of drunks.” Quite simply, the narrative has something of a fried Freudian oral fixation with Roko’s oral ouroboric oracles, mentioning the mouth multiple multifarious times throughout the entirety of the novel. For instance: “In fact this mouth was big enough to accommodate the hindlegs of a young dog inside it. And neither hair nor hindskin would show, this fifty-percent of dog inside one-hundred percent of bishop’s mouth, koraa. You had to approach such a mouth very carefully on certain days. For a simple reply to a greeting could land you in the middle of a storm. This oral militarism would be very useful in the ecclesiastical rebellion. It was existentially stylish to have a mouth that gathered the weather and threw it at you. […] How I wished I had this bishop’s mouth-mouth power! In fact such a mouth took me into the dreams that tongues often have.”

The narrator is mostly anonymous, observant, but the reader does learn a bit about him throughout the book, and he mostly interacts with his semi-manacle and maniacal muse Roko. Theirs is a bipolar relationship, from flash foes to flatulent friends and back again. Yes, when they’re on each other’s good side they sometimes express it with their backsides, a gaseous gauge of their gregariousness: “Our fart shows were now less frequent for when I farted, furted, or fairted, the bishop seemed too busy to return the trinity wind. Yet I was fully convinced that he had enough excess air inside himself to restart our wind-laden extravaganzas, our fartful improvisations.”

Each chapter ends with a brief Bible quote and then a paragraph summary of the chapter which often reads like some hybrid of redacted prose poetry: “Selfless bishop of steps and he saved Mother buried with her tongue hanging out of the coffin. Roko’s retreat plus pride and sharks. Bishops attack narrator and the latter tears his cassock. The ethics of the elephant to the giraffe. Some glory amongst the ruins. Smith Creem’s melancholia. Behold the Jesus flies and the agnosticism of the entire universe, as it hurtles a waiting God.” Another example: “Roko the great spitter and sucker of mist. Does one plus one equal the universe twice? Darkness in this story belonged either to the mouth of frogs or the underwings of hawks. And the great tongue, licker of ethics below the fiery bird. Crow, Cromwell and crowelles. Come down you mad cackler!”

Another magnificent aspect of this book is that it’s lightly bilingual, for the surreal and stupendous logorrhea, along with intermittent wordplay and portmanteaus, is garnished with Ghana-rrhea, words from Laing’s Ghanaian glottis such as shokoloko, chaley, lungulungu, agoo, tilintilinti, kukumkaka, fikifiki, polpylonkwe, bashiro, kenkekenkekenke, etc. It’s a beautiful and fun language that seems at times to amalgamate onomatopoeia, near palindromes, baby talk, and more. Lucky for us, the author provides a glossary of this glossolalia in the back of the book (although not all words can be found there, unfortunately). The abenkwan brew is further spiced by occasionally archaic/Latin and medical/scientific words, some of which I’ve never seen before, including anguine, inguinal, leprosarium, intussusception, steatopygia, and eleemosynary. A lingual revelry!

While the popular Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o decided to subvert colonialism by writing first in his native tongue of Gĩkũyũ, Kojo Laing subverts the English language itself in a method approaching the Joycean, subverts the subconscious even, while also creating his own brand of science fiction and fantasy (it would be too easy to call it magic realism, while some academics refer to it as “jujutech—a hybrid of science fiction and African folk traditions”). The closest comparisons, Ben Okri’s The Famished Road and Johnny Stanton’s Mangled Hands, are only similar in terms of the surreal, not the lingual. Laing is so far the closest African writer whose linguistic freedom rejoices in the varicose veins of Joyce, words practically tapping out a Rabelais ballet.

In the tradition of maximalism, there are several delightful lists in the novel, including two rosters of churches (“All Horses Gallop the Way of Gotterdammerung Hall (how effectively did a horse gallop while manifesting some huge flatulence?”, “Candles Against Powercut Church (you paid candle bills and blew out electricity)”, “True Cosmos Church (black holes [or surely brown] and anti-matter et al.)”, among many others) and the materials the narrator gathers for a temple of words, which I’ll give you almost in full here: “I found myself gathering polished stones, raw rotunda granite, pebbles forming a bumpy plateau with earring-like holes in the middle, fat partly formed drooping rocks with the finger marks of those who could hold eternity on them; huge detached stones that could serve as final altars […]; and there were big rocky hills I would like to have punched into shape, and there were juts I would punch out of shape; and there were red grey and brown anthills parts of which I took to flaunt against my oaken desk; plus the wood dust, gathered in a thimble, of huge trees attacked by woodlice; plus the harmattan dust that I swept and kept everyday, this dust that seemed to be the epiclesis of the miserly sacramental skies; and the beak of a grey and white buzzard left as an afterthought by the devouring ants; the oval dome of a perfect little perfume canister, silver to the last; shellfish and dead fish, small, left by one of the bishop’s receding ponds; even matchsticks, struck and kept for their shape; all sorts of miniature masterpieces that were more beautiful than symmetrical, but emotional all the same; a hawk’s claw fallen down a dead crow’s horn, clipped unplanned onto this mad bull’s bones; God’s red beads and the seeds of succulent fruit from this city forest; six soldier ants dead upside down and six fire ants too, beetles dead in their own rolling dung; and the sad eye of an akyinkyina tom out to shame the masterful beak; sharp squirrels with stolen nuts in their anus, shitting all over the place and redrawing trees thousands of times over with their movements; a harvest of quiet cigar ash that I never smoked but smelled; transformed uranium from the recent nuclear bomb; […] live tortoises in fresh valley rain; desalinated crabs and the generous feathers of daytime owls left beside their equally generous shit; the recorded cries of crows; […] the tip of an aeroplane’s wing stolen from Roko’s junkyard; a cat’s placenta before it was eaten; massive elephants with their stirring orchestral cries; villages so remote that the evangelical cross had to fly to get there; and the toothbrush/chew-sticks of the Deputy Jesus, Big Bishop’s gospel refrains, the quiescent ex-mangoes of Canon Creem, the latest tapioca-laden crosses of Mother Smith. O I never knew that the universe wore shoes for every occasion!”

As the fomenting and fermenting continues, we’re able to glimpse unique weaponry that puts steampunk and other such specific genres to shame, such as “guns the shape of dragons and sasabonsams [Ghanaian word for devils]”, “weapons like tanks in the form of bicycles, toilet-bowl swords, silicon knife-chips, uranium poison-rings, and cathedral rocket-launchers”, “everything from electric cutlasses and foldable spears to altar-to-altar missiles” and when the first war does occur, “people preferred holding guns to holding human beings; in fact what they sometimes did was to mistake human beings for guns, holding people horizontally (even fellow soldiers) and shooting them off silently, the male genitals invariably being the triggers.” Yet there’s no space opera Star Wars type of climax, for that would be too easy and too expected for a novel that is more closely aligned in structure to a Klein bottle or some other seemingly impossible shape, which is not to say that the novel ends with bathos either, for “the Deputy Jesus managed to dodge in and out of the war by eating cake fast, O you cake and coffin war of propellers and the cradled dead.”

With kaleidoscopic colonialism, cantankerous Canons, tank-cannons, altered altars, this novel truly is a “lollipop universe that [gets] bigger as you lick….” It’s a wonder a writer could feel so free as to pursue their vision down to an almost quantum purity. After Laing’s passing in 2017, writer Efemia Chela remembered that “he was wittily derogatory about mainstream publishers and the vagaries of critics, encouraging us to ‘Never listen to anyone!’ when it came to our writing. Which is something he did himself. Devoted to his fantastical visions and free of convention, Laing’s career was marked by really brave writing that mixed fantasy, African mythology and questions of the postcolony (the latter, especially, in Search Sweet Country) in entertaining and unexpected ways.”

Kojo Laing’s first two novels did manage to come out through big presses in the late 80s, his first having been reprinted more than once, and both are still easily available (though both his second and third novels are out of print at this time). However, Laing was quickly forgotten by the literary gatekeepers, and instead of giving up, he persisted like any true artist, dedicating his time fully to his craft later in life, his third and final novel brought out by a self-publisher in 2006 (just when I thought I’d never find a copy, I was lucky to discover that the book is still print-on-demand from the publisher here for a reasonable price and the quality of the physical book is quite impressive too). Yet there are many years between the time of Laing’s full dedication to writing and the time of his death, leaving me to suspect that there are other manuscripts which remain unpublished. I can only hope they are brought into the light. - George Salis

https://thecollidescope.com/2020/11/01/big-bishop-roko-and-the-altar-gangsters-by-kojo-laing/




B. Kojo Laing, Woman of the Aeroplanes, William Morrow, 1990.
  
"This extraordinary novel eloquently uses pithy humor, fantasy, satire, and bawdy language from African folktales to comment on contemporary society. Enveloped in eternal mist outside mortal time and reality, and invisible to cartographers, Tukwan, Ghana and Levansvale, Scotland are two sister towns, each seeking to enrich its coffers and exchange characteristic virtues. This rich tale is the story of their successes, failures, resolutions, and confrontations with mortality. The novel's imagery is metaphorical and exotic: a lake is one of four town bosses in Tukwan, Levensvale's rocket "rides and diffuses the anger in the heart," sacred ducks and termites defend humans. Characterization and language are both inventive, consistent, and supportive of action from the opening sentence to the end. This is no sleepy Brigadoon. Here, activity and travel are constant, moving in and out of histories; romance flourishes; and love makes daily inventions possible.- Veronica Mitchell




B. Kojo Laing, Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars, Heinemann, 1992.

"The rebirth of Africa in the year 2020 AD is the starting point of this surrealistic novel, which pits Major Gentl against the mercenary Torro the Terrible for control of Achimoto City. The two warriors prepare for a final battle which will decide the fate of Africa's future.
I have not read this book in seven years. My recollection may be fuzzy. As far as I am aware this book was never reprinted, and I have struggled to find a copy. I have only recently found a copy in South Africa which I have bought and begun re-reading. At any rate, I think that this book is a very worthwhile read. It is suprising, poetic and dense. The density of the writing may put people off, but it is certainly worth it. This book has qualities that are missing in much popular literature. Each page is full with imagery, wordplay and metaphor that requires real work on the part of the reader
It feels like (in my opinion) an ancient (greek, roman, etc) mythology placed into a futuristic setting, but with all the strangeness that exists in our modern world. Surrealism prevails, but in a telling (and for its time, possibly prophetic) way. For example, in the modern warfare described in this book, each side can only have as much army as can fit in one side of a prescribed area (like a soccer field). Because it is under the auspices of the UN, each side can only shoot into the ground during the battle, so as not to injure anyone. At lunch, all of them take a break and mingle at the supplied catering, afterwards, back to war. One of Major Gentl's cunning plans (with which he won a battle) was to remove all air suipport and require all his troops to fire into the air. The resulting confusion led to a victory.
Finally, the level of description and depth of writing is unsurpassed, though difficult, so this is not a book for someone who wants to have an easy ride.“- D. Henning 




B. Kojo Laing, Godhorse, Heinemann, 1989.


"This collection of poetry, by one of Ghana's leading poets and novelists, looks at themes such as nature, love, death, politics and portraits of daily life."





Kojo Laing was born on the Gold Coast, Ghana, in 1946, and studied in Glasgow, Scotland, in the 1960s, before returning to Accra, where he would spend the rest of his life as a novelist, poet, and educator, working as a Chief Administrator at a private school founded by his mother in 1962. A writer of soaring originality and pioneer of Afrofuturism, his first novel, Search Sweet Country (1986), won numerous awards, vast critical acclaim, and has been praised as “the finest novel written in English ever to come out of the African continent” by Binyavanga Wainaina, though his later work, a poetry collection and three other novels, has been largely ignored.

5/25/12

W. M. Spackman - He has the power to make you believe you are engaged in an important act merely by reading him. Everything happens: romance, wit, intelligence, geniality, culture without the politics that spoiled it after 1959, sex without tears, a genuinely lovable character


W. M. Spackman, The Complete Fiction of W. M. Spackman, Dalkey Archive Press, 1997.


"Described by Stanley Elkin as "this country's best-kept literary secret" and "a lost American classic," W. M. Spackman is one of the finest writers of the twentieth century.
This omnibus edition includes all five of the author's previously published novels: Heyday (and here presented with revisions the author made shortly before his death); and the critically acclaimed novels published between 1978 and 1985: An Armful of Warm Girl (1978), A Presence with Secrets (1980), A Difference of Design (1983), and A Little Decorum, for Once (1985). The novel As I Sauntered Out, One Midcentury Morning is published here for the first time, as well as the author's only two short stories."

"[Spackman's] mature fiction offers a series of blithely moneyed, cavalierly attractive (and single) heroes whom one might conjecture to be Spackman unbound—a shining collegian never chastened by reality... As a writer, Spackman sought what Henry James, in The Golden Bowl, nicely termed 'the convenience of a society so placed that it had only its own sensibility to consider'... [The] fifth [novel of the collection], As I Sauntered Out, One Midcentury Morning, was in the editorial works when death overtook Spackman, who was a notable example of geriatric blooming or of neglected genius, depending on how you look at it... Spackman settled to his subject: men and women doing courtship dances, captured with a [Henry] Greenian precision of fluttering utterance and insistent sensual detail. No more sweating to be a Darwinian Fitzgerald or a patrician Steinbeck: everything is to be oblique, indolent, Watteauesque. In Green's subtly mandarin style... Spackman found a way to flow, picking up every vary and hesitation of the human voice and bending syntax to imbue descriptive prose with the feathery breath of speech... [H]is fiction comes as a revelation. No American writer was more thoroughly captivated than Spackman." - New Yorker

"[Spackman is] such a joy to read that once you close this book, you'll wonder why his fiction has been unavailable for so long . . . Image and allusions stir the senses, reveal the speaker's awareness of his place in a tarnishing tradition, his pride of ownership . . . [O]nce a taste for Spackman's strangeness, his subtle humor, is acquired, [the reader] will be richly rewarded." - The Washington Times

"The six novels and two short pieces that make up The Complete Fiction of W. M. Spackman constitute what may be the most graceful and sophisticated erotic comedy ever produced by an American writer. Certainly Spackman belongs on that short list of the country's greatest prose stylists." - Newsday

"On finishing A Presence With Secrets, I turned right back to page one and read it again." - Newsweek

"Everything happens: romance, wit, intelligence, geniality, culture without the politics that spoiled it after 1959, sex without tears, a genuinely lovable character... [Spackman] reminds us that once upon a time there was a civilization." - New York Times

"These novels and stories are to be read for the entertainment value of their story lines, but more than that, for the breathtaking experiencing of exquisite language." - Booklist

"The marvelous Spackman dialogue, with its ironic asides, stream-of-consciousness nonsense, and brackets of affection should be patented." - Washington Post

"Studded with disarming observations and gorgeous, one-of-a-kind sentences, Spackman's writing is a sensuous delight." - Publishers Weekly

"Reading [Spackman] is like taking a warm bath in a luxurious prose style . . . This confectionary fiction bound to delight anyone with a taste for sophisticated whimsy." - Boston Globe

"He has the power to make you believe you are engaged in an important act merely by reading him... It isn't too much to say that Dalkey Archive Press's decision to reissue these books in one volume is as distinguished and significant a publishing achievement as the publication in 1946 of The Portable Faulkner." - Stanley Elkin

"In 1978, Spackman, a Princetonian and a Rhodes scholar and incidentally an entirely senior citizen, produced the novel that I believe to be the most elegant American figment of the genre of frivolity. “Worldly Innocence” is the rubric under which this tiny masterpiece is to be filed, its temper elegiac, its aroma erotic, its observations (“sleek arms tenderly flailing”) primigenial." - Richard Howard


"I had been an admirer of Dalkey Archive for a good while—not suspecting that I would work for them a few years down the line—and it was their logo that attracted me to The Complete Fiction of W. M. Spackman, along with the natural question, “Who the hell is W. M. Spackman, and why does he deserve a Complete anything?” I had never so much as seen a Spackman book before, but Stanley Elkin’s blurb—and this was in St. Louis: the city of Elkin, the city of Gass—was seduction enough. I brought it home, and as with many another omnibus edition, began the serious work of putting off doing anything more than admiring its heft.
When I finally did open it, I read not from the beginning, but from the middle—another symptom of the omnibus syndrome—and, as usual, found that I had been a fool to wait. Open to any page of his Complete Fiction and you will be struck dead by a turn of phrase, a lyric description, some gorgeously stylized dialogue—and all just a wee bit off, made strange by his delectably odd manner of deforming simple statements with deadpan qualifications. (Of an interminable lovers’ spat, the narrator shorthands: “And so on and on. As they went on down into the second cool bottle. The conversation becoming still less worth setting even ceremonially down.”)
His writing has an uncanny elegance: he writes like an aspirant to the ribald comedies of seduction that blossomed during the Restoration, though never with recourse to their crudity. He is our lusty, hetero Firbank: a maker of bibelots, sculpted little gewgaws that, when skimmed or flipped through, seem like forgettable trifles, but when engaged with all of the reader’s attention reveal the full density of their textures.
No one page offers an easy point of entry, a pastoral paragraph in “plain American which cats and dogs can read” (though Spackman’s prose is American through and through: just a vernacular that was never actually spoken, a hodgepodge of Quaker clarity and the cussedness found in the jokier prose of Pound; stolid straightforwardness steeped in modernist quirk), but Spackman is the least intimidating of authors. He approaches us on familiar ground, and then helps us see just how strange that ground really is. Not an “experimental” writer in the familiar sense, he makes even the parry and thrust of predigested “romantic” dialogue—and his novels are as full of this as those of Henry Green—alien, compelling, and hilarious:
Because dammit,” he hurried on, “this outlandish whatever-it-is, relationship, hardly know what, between you and me—total absence of any term from the language if you want my opinion! And I include Freudian technicalities!” he ended with violence. “Now dammit can I get you a sherry?” he in part shouted, springing up again. . . . “The thing is, to take these things calmly, in the name of heaven!” he made her see. . . . “In a word, my lovely little thing, you and I really do have to get our, huh, our mutual history into some kind of handle-able order my God!”
It’s not hard to see why Stanley Elkin would be attracted to this: yes, it’s affected, twee, precious, but my God it’s weird, having what Elkin called “the queer protuberant salience of the obliquely sighted”—the “strange displacement of the ordinary” that turns merely competent reportage into something that rankles and sticks in the mind—and it has it at the level of each individual sentence, making Spackman’s narrative statements not so much a tool for carrying meaning as a means of carrying a tune. You have to be open to it: let it persuade you and teach you how to hear its melody.
Like his prose, Spackman is an anomaly. William Mode Spackman was born in 1905, lived eighty-five years, and the best of his delicate comedies were all written in the last third of his life. Each of them touches, with variation and nuance, on the same themes: the thrill of seduction, the fleeting pleasure of new love, the slow and never quite complete quiescence of desire as a man grows older, and, particularly in my favorite of his novels, A Presence with Secrets, the basic unfamiliarity between us and even our closest intimates—though he is never portentous, never dour. He’s more likely to attract the opposite criticism, that he’s too frivolous and light. But like Firbank and Green—with whom he shares just enough similarities for one to be tempted to issue an opportunistic “movement” name—he was a supreme stylist who could make the most trivial of narrative soufflés into succulent delights.
Further giving the lie to any accusations of frivolity, Presence is a tightly structured triptych, giving us three scenes from the life of a typical Spackmanian “marauder”—read “rake”—and painter named Hugh Tatnall.
The first section is narrated in a coy postcoital third-person, as Hugh wakes in bed with his new lover-of-the-moment following a riot in Italy (“For they had not taken refuge in this room to make love good god! but in a hairsbreadth run for it out of the path of that headlong mob suddenly on their very heels . . .”). The second is in first person, the recollections of a doting female cousin; and the third, “A Few Final Data During the Funeral,” is made up of the thoughts of a fellow marauder, now old, attending Hugh’s quiet, Quaker memorial.
The book is, among other things, a delirious performance: Spackman and his characters talk around Hugh, defining him by his absence, and in the process illuminating the fact that every life is—as Steven Moore points out in his excellent afterword—itself a “presence with secrets”: secrets that are inevitably lost with death, but that continue to tease and charm. At the root of all the bed-hopping and urbane flirtation that Spackman renders with such impeccable eccentricity—the shy then yielding women; the flustered, sputtering men-on-the-make—is his frustration with and delight in the basic unknowability of the texts of each others’ lives: how sex can be driven as much by the lust for knowing, for experiencing a closeness to new and ultimately inassimilable information, as it is by the more obvious dividends.
It’s about as charming a defense of infidelity as you’re likely to find. Hence Spackman’s focus on new loves, when his characters feel themselves drifting into a new affair, illicit or otherwise; his concentration not on the “stark act,” but, like some gruff and coy Philadelphian Schnitzler, on the various meetings and afterglowings: those moments of luxuriance when lovers really meet one another, and discover the boundaries of their access.
Pre- or post-, his characters spend most of their time talking—trying to define their relationships, and making rules for one another about as enforceable as Caligula’s victory over the sea. Their romances start to fade the instant they begin, and the unpleasantness that follows, when it’s sketched in, can’t ever compete for our or the author’s attentions. In Spackman’s world we may only speak with any surety about new loves and loves remembered with fondness. If this tendency towards fickleness and nostalgia in his imaginary lovers bears an unsettling resemblance to the true nature of we hopelessly adulterous and sentimental primates, it’s worth repeating, here and as always, that this particular zero-sum game is only really winnable in art." - Jeremy M. Davies

"A very Faberge among novelists ... his cadences, when they don't sound like La Rochefoucauld, are echoes of G. M. Hopkins ... Watteau's Embarcation for Cythera rendered as a fugue by Cole Porter ... imagine Nabokov and Fitzgerald with a soupcon of Anita Loos ... French boudoir farce in the manner of Homer's Iliad ... somewhere between the Scoop of Evelyn Waugh and a very un-McCarthy-like Gropes of Academe ... Jamesian in plot and theme, Colette-like in its sensuality.
FOR once reviewers' hype does not exaggerate, and yet the name of W. M. Spackman whose novels were acclaimed in America in such terms is virtually unknown in this country. But not quite; for in the slim volumes of the undergraduate anthology Oxford Poetry for the years 1928 to 1930, among such names as W. H. Auden, Norman Cameron, Louis MacNeice, E. J. Scovell, Stephen Spender and Bernard Spencer, the diligent researcher will come upon some satirical verses by Spackman, then a Rhodes Scholar reading 'Greats' at Balliol. Born in 1905 in Coatsville, Pennsylvania, into a family of wealthy Quakers, he read classics at Princeton, Class of '27, and was summarily ejected from the editorial board of a students' magazine for writing an article held by the university president to be both sacrilegious and obscene. 'I understand', he observed, 'that he has been reading a good deal of James Joyce's Ulysses and T. S. Eliot and other modernists in literature'. There is no hint of these qualities in his Oxford poems, which are models of decorum.
On going down from Oxford Spackman was for a time an instructor in classics at New York University before turning to copywriting and public relations. He returned to academic life in 1938 as a Professor of Classics, with additional duties as Director of Public Relations, at the University of Colorado, writing educational radio programmes in his spare time. He served in naval intelligence during World War II when he added Russian to the various languages, ancient and modern, in which he was already well versed.
His first novel, Heyday, was published in 1953 when he was forty-nine. Influenced by Fitzgerald's story 'Babylon Revisited' and intended as 'the spiritual biography of a generation, a statement about American values, an elegy upon the immemorial loneliness of man, [and] a statement about the young American upper class in that era of its disaster, the 1930s', it fell far short of its impossibly ambitious programme. An uneasy blend of social observation, tragedy, and sex, it recalls the more expert productions of John P. Marquand, but failed to catch the public's imagination. His later comment (about Ivy Compton-Burnett and Henry Green, whom he considered the two great masters of our own day) in an essay on Henry James that 'Anybody must be forgiven a first novel' surely had also a personal reference. Anyway, he published no further fiction for twenty-five years.
His only book during that period was a collection of astringent, irreverent essays, On the Decay of Humanism (1967), whose primary aim was to draw attention to the aesthetic deficiencies of the American academic mind in the fields of modern and classical literature. Most notable is the essay on James's novels in which, while acknowledging their many excellencies, he also made fun of their manifest shortcomings. The teaching of classics was also subjected to sardonic scrutiny, this essay being made the occasion for a celebration of his favourite of all writers, the Latin poet Ovid, whom he acclaimed as a genius of the order of Mozart and Sir Christopher Wren. (Architecture was one of Spackman's hobbies.) These essays, enjoyably instructive in themselves, provide a useful, a priori commentary on the work still to come: four short novels written when Spackman was in his youthful seventies.
The key to which is Ovid, especially the poet's ability to present girls, not as mere charming decoration, but as girls; and the ideal of love, not as seduction, but what Spackman called sexual courtesy. He believed that the 268 lines of Helen's letter in the Heroides contained
in embryo everything that has, since, developed into the novel of dissected motivations that is one of our glories, from La Princesse de Cleves, Manon Lescaut, and Les Liaisons Dangereuses, to Stendhal and Proust.
What he particularly admired in Ovid was his 'mastery of the whole dizzying orchestration of the female heart', a fair enough description of the theme of his own novels.
Their topography, though masquerading as the real world, is as artificial as that of Restoration comedy or the novels of P. G. Wodehouse, an idyllic never-never land whose fauna are the not-so-idle rich inhabiting variously a gem of Georgian brownstone in New York, the groves of American academe, a palazzo in Florence, a rambling chateau on the Brittany coast or a spacious domaine in Normandy. To bring to life his Arcadian scene Spackman devised a mannered style which combines mandarin with the colloquial, a prose rich in aphorism and literary allusion, employing at times a recondite vocabulary, and instantly recognisable as his own.
An Armful of Warm Girl (1978) is written from the viewpoint of Nicholas Romney -- irascible, a connoisseur of good food, his eye still roving at nearly fifty -- who was born into a Philadelphia Quaker family, read classics at Princeton and, after making a grand tour of Europe, entered the family banking firm, of which in 1959 (when the events of the novel take place) he is the chairman. He had married a debutant, raised an affectionate family, and indulged in extra-marital love affairs. Now, without preamble, his wife has declared her independence and asked for a divorce; so, leaving her to pack up her things on his ancestral property in Chester County, he descends grumbling on New York to mull over his predicament. And soon becomes entangled with two women.
He had embarked seventeen years before on an affair, begun in New York and reaching its zenith in Italy, with a young married woman Victoria, now nearing forty: rich, beautiful, and living with her second husband who plays no part in the novel. (Indeed, in all Spackman's fiction husbands are either absent or at any rate complaisant.) Nicholas and Victoria resume the familiar courtship ritual -- reluctance, pursuit, surrender -- as the scene shifts from the restaurants where they gently wrangle over the champagne to his town house in Barrow Street in the Village with its small wailed garden, Adam staircase, and Copley portrait over the mantlepiece, every room of which is haunted by memories of their earlier love-making. Here at a house-warming he is waylaid by a twenty-year-old actress, much addicted to the psychiatrist's couch, who fancies that Nicholas is the destined love of her life. Her first name is Morgan, like many of Spackman's characters borrowing her name from literature. Torn this way and that between Morgan and Victoria, Nicholas is in the position of David Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy in Reynolds' well-known painting.
The chorus expressing the younger generation's views on their elders' behaviour is put into the mouths of Nicholas's married daughter Melissa and her best friend, also married but who shares her layouts with a married lover. Meanwhile Nicholas's freshman son -- only introduced at the end of a telephone line from Princeton -- exasperates his father with details of his own amatory entanglements. At his wit's end, Nicholas decides to decamp to Paris where Victoria has promised to join him; but at his farewell party on shipboard it becomes clear that the complications of his love-life are not to be so easily resolved.
On this flimsy structure Spackman fashioned his first comedy in the high style, one in which dialogue, narrative and thought-stream seamlessly merge into one another. Derivative in the best sense, his prose is marinated in classical and modern literature. Allusions range from Sophocles and Ovid to Petrarch, Milton, T. S. Eliot ('that Pindar of the prie-dieu') and Hemingway. Like Henry Green he has a precise ear for the cadences and hesitancies of modern speech which define the speaker's social and educational context, and like Graham Greene he can conjure a mood, a time, and a place with a few pastiche lines of jazz lyric:
Settin' around in mah underclo'es Gettin' a piece o' yo' mind.
He can paint a scene in a few words, as in Nicholas's nostalgic reminiscence of love-drenched Italy -- 'by what towers, what ancient streets, down what marble geometries, ah by what fountains ...'; and his portraits of the two women are by the hand of a master. Though Victoria had a point when she regretted that in his irresponsibility (a word that chimes throughout the novel like a clock striking) Nicholas had never learned to distinguish a woman from an entree.
Spackman's next piece of fiction, A Presence with Secrets (1981; its working title had been Portraits of the Painter), consists of three loosely linked stories of unequal length -- 47, 29 and 84 pages respectively -- each written from the standpoint of a different character and describing an episode in the amatory career of an American painter Hugh Tatnall. The title story, set in Florence, is concerned with two, overlapping love affairs: the seduction during a political riot, in a bedroom in a casa d'appuntamenti, of a nineteen-year-old American art student; and a longer relationship with an English married woman. Seen through the consciousness of Tatnall, the narrative weaves backwards and forwards between the two, and once more the style is everything, the most perceptible influences being the Joyce of Portrait of the Artist, Henry James, Proust and, in some of the descriptive writing, Henry Green.
'Pays de Connaissance' is written from the standpoint of another of Tatnall's mistresses, a twice-married cousin whose name is never disclosed. In this story the mood is sombre and, proving that Death stalks even in Arcadia, the climax tragic. The third person in the triangle is a French aristocrat of ancient lineage at whose chateau in Brittany the couple stop to ask the way. The country is in a state of emergency following an assassination attempt on de Gaulle, then President of France, creating a dangerous situation into which the Americans are unwittingly drawn.
The shape of the third story is summed up in its title. 'A Few Final Data During the Funeral', for having escaped a terrorist's bullet at the chateau, Tatnall is eventually shot dead in Florence in circumstances not dissimilar to the semi-comic demise of Graham Greene's burnt-out case. At the memorial service held at a Friends' meeting-house in Boston his best friend (and executor), a professor of humanities at Smith, reminisces about Tatnall's philandering from Princeton days onwards interspersed with his own sexual experiences. As a classicist the narrator has plausible scope for recourse to a wider range of classical authors, and as a teacher of the humanities to an even wider range of modern writers, from Ariosto to Jane Austen and from Dryden to Auden and Sylvia Plath. But the parade of Tatnall's girls--Persis, Camilla, Maura, Nadezhda and the rest -- tends to become wearisome, and in Tatnall, without intending to, Spackman created a thoroughly unlikeable protagonist.
The significance of the title of his next novel, A Difference of Design (1983), becomes apparent as the story unfolds and the names of the characters are revealed. A Wall Street investment adviser Lewis Lambert Sather, a widower of just under fifty and attractive to women -- what Spackman calls catnip -- has been sent to Paris by a rich client Mrs. Newman, widow of an Ohio industrialist and who now runs the business (the manufacture of couplings) with a rod of iron. His confidential mission is to rescue her son Chad from some amatory entanglement and send him home to assume his rightful responsibilities. The entanglement proves to be the beautiful Fabrienne, Comtesse de Borde-Cessac, before meeting whom Sather has begun an affair with Maria Godfrey, senior partner of the guide-and-escort service Mrs. Newman has employed to look after him. If that were not hint enough, Maria lunching with Sather in an expense-account restaurant and discussing his mission exclaims: 'Oh dear, it sounds practically like a novel we had to wade through in American Lit. Henry James or somebody'.
For Spackman's notion was to make good the deficiencies of James's The Ambassadors, in which Mrs. Newsome of Massachusetts sends the elderly Lewis Lambert Strether on a similar mission to extricate her son Chad from the clutches of the Comtesse de Vionnet. Spackman had declared in his essay on James that he could find in The Ambassadors nothing to admire at all, partly because the male characters took up so much of the wordage. More importantly, the love affair at the centre of the action seemed to him a blank, because Mme. de Vionnet was not given enough physical presence to suggest she had ever been in anybody's bedroom. The two women in Spackman's version suffer from no such deficiency.
The action, which takes place in 1983, falls into three parts of unequal length (32, 68 and 15 pages respectively), the first and last consisting of Fabrienne's 'stream of consciousness' which, though occurring in the daytime, has affinities with the night thoughts of Molly Bloom. To her dismay, in the midst of her affair with the amiable Chad, she finds she has fallen headlong in love with Sather. The members of the triangle are all old hands at the adultery game, and with two besotted females making a play for a very cool customer indeed their case is similar to that of Macheath, Polly and Lucy in The Beggar's Opera; the analogy with light opera being entirely appropriate to a production whose only aim is to entertain. As with An Armful of Warm Girl, the characters' predicament remains unresolved at the end of the book, leaving the reader at liberty to speculate on the further complications that lie ahead.
For his fourth novel of the series, A Little Decorum, for Once (1985). Spackman returned to the American scene to pay final tribute to the dizzying orchestration of the female heart. Its twin lynchpins are a novelist Scrope Townshend, still a marauder at sixty-plus who spends most of the book in and out of intensive care after a heart-attack; and Laura Tench-Fenton, editor of a glossy fashion magazine. For twenty years in between marriages they have engaged in a tender love affair, which is now renewed. Representing the next generation are Scrope's daughter Sibylla who is married to Laura's stepson Alec, a university lecturer and poet; and their friends who are living together, Amy another novelist and Charles a classics professor in his mid-thirties who is helping Sibylla write a comic libretto about Agamemnon. The third generation is represented by two Princeton sophomores, Amy's younger sister Mimi who is reading sociology (her term-paper is about generational affective vocabularies) and Scrope's grandson Richard; the three chapters in which they appear they spend in bed alternately copulating and gossiping.
Since the characters inhabit the American literary and academic worlds, there is a great deal of cultural name-dropping, Ovid among classical authors being the most frequently cited; for his spirit may be said to preside over the novel and even to provide its moral (if that is the right word?), namely that it is best to have two loves at a time, for in that way you get tired of neither. References to modern writers are also frequent and here include Larkin, Beckett, Coward, Queneau, Apollinaire -- and Spackman himself. Not only does Scrope share many of his creator's tastes and prejudices, especially his vendetta with Saint Paul and his devotion to women, but also appears to have written his novels. For when Amy questions Scrope about his attitude to young girls, in order to acquire information for use in her own fiction, she quotes as his the passage from An Armful of Warm Girl in which the infatuated Morgan accosts Nicholas in the pantry at his house-warming.
Another exercise in the high style, the device Spackman uses here to keep his marionettes dancing is the duologue, as often as not pillow-talk or a telephone conversation, which -- such is the garrulity of women -- usually develops into a monologue punctuated by occasional grunts, 'But's' or 'Well's' on the part of their male listeners. Endlessly they gossip about the other couples' liaisons, each generation finding it hard to accept that within and between all age-groups sex remains very much the same thing. Except in the matter of style; for the older generation accustomed to the courtesies of courtship are shocked by the Boeotian basics of the youngest generation. Mimi, who has already bugged her sister's bed in the cause of sociology, is clearly heading for a career of sexual experimentation, while Richard will have to look elsewhere for his work-outs. Amy is left dithering on the brink of an affair with Alec, whose wife Sibylla after due hesitation -- 'Ah, dammit, Sibylla', he pleads, 'which side of this dizzy debate with yourself are you planning to end up losing?' -- is already rolling in the hay with Charles. The comedy ends on a Shakesperean note of reconciliation with Scrope, by no means a sad ruin of past gallantry, recuperating at an inn in Brittany with Laura, both revelling in nostalgia for the past -- 'the real time of memory' -- even contemplating with indulgence the escapades of their children and grandchildren, which they have come to recognise as a mirror-image of their own.
W. M. Spackman died in 1990 at his home in Princeton at the age of eighty-five. Of a posthumous novel As I Sauntered Out on Mid-Century Morning mentioned in his obituary in the New York Times nothing more has been heard." - John Whitehead

Excerpt

All beyond was in deep darkness, under he saw thick mist above, night-glow from the luminous city around them thrown up saffron against filmy overcast, to be drawn in there, under great lifting curtains and pale coils of cloud, so that light was shed back down too faint anywhere, he hardly made out what this window gave on, below, muffled in black geometries of shadow; a small private square it seemed. And even elegant, a seicento façade over across, arcaded and ornate, the galleria a run of rounded arches all along it, also what must be the shape of a fountain, some spouting nymph he supposed, or riding marble waves a boy and dolphin, anyhow he heard the cold splash of water on stone. Silence again too everywhere, only damp breaths of night-sound rising like exhalations from dark streets and squares, where at last it smelt of spring.
So ecco, he said over his shoulder, in reassurance, and let the long folds of the curtain swing down straight again—there was nothing; had been nothing; late-night passanti scuffling. In any case not that rabble they’d run into, or anything like. But this without looking round at her, for he thought fright, yes, but also the delicate point now was, more likely, how with kindness to get her over what she was so stricken had happened, this helpless shock at herself he supposed: trouble with innocence was historical perspective, it had still to learn what was praxis. So, first, then, deal also with this woebegone nudity. Engaging or not.
There should be the usual toweling vestaglie warming on pipes in the bathroom. Where when he went to look there of course were. So he draped himself in one and brought her the other, saying amiably, here, put this round her pretty shoulders, she couldn’t spend her life under these comic European eiderdowns could she? while he saw to the fire.
On whose incandescent hummocks of ember he took his time shaking from the scuttle dribblings of fresh coal. Culm, it appeared: soft dusts kindled instantly, showering sparks, then soon the whole hearth glowed again, strewing its roses deep into the room’s vaults of shadow, so that when he turned round at last and found great innocent eyes dolefully upon him, those crimsons fluttering in her cheek anyone would have taken for hopeless blushing, so deep among the bed’s canopies of night had the hearth distributed its insubstantial emblems.
And blushing she may have been—helplessly not even he supposed being sure merely what next, or expected to know, for in the fire-fringed shadows she dropped her eyes from his to her cold hands. It seemed she could not speak for misery. Or gêne, for he saw it might be she had no idea what in this situation a girl found—desperately, or even at all—to say. A topic, even. Or, generally, what was, well, expected!
This unforeseen . . . could he label it “threshold-ritual”? anthropologically speaking it had been gone through like an angel, but on from there is not so near second nature. Including light drawing-room conversation if called for.
So, humanely, and still from across the room, imagine, he said to her (as if in complaint), getting caught in another of these pointless Mediterranean revolutions, what a damn’ nuisance. Assuming revolution was actually what it was, for he said genially he hardly thought Italy, Firenze anyhow, was a place any practical-minded Marxist would pick to start one. With their millennial history of total political cynicism? And all the black-marketable antiquities!
But she said in a shamed voice, “I thought we were going to die.”
Yes, well, after a moment he conceded, he supposed it was mostly that ominous lowering sound of a mob coming, like a typhoon. It was daunting; daunted anybody. So in pure primitive reflex people turned and ran. Whereas she’d seen for herself all they’d really needed to do, she and he, was step into the nearest doorway, or a courtyard, or anywhere out of the way. He was appalled he’d frightened her by not doing that on the spot. Instead of haring off first like a fool—luxurious as this pensione (or whatever it was) had in the event turned out to be.
But still it seemed she could not look at him, it was such a hopelessness, only murmuring something downcast about “. . . una condotta di collegio . . .” as if she did not see how, in English, she could possibly ever bring herself to face such a thing.

Oleg Woolf - Reminiscent of Bruno Schulz, a vivid, surreal evocation of a liminal world. The characters follow the trajectories of elementary particles, disappearing in one dimension only to reappear in another.”

Oleg Woolf, Bessarabian Stamps: Stories , Trans. by Boris Dralyuk, Phoneme Media, 2015. Reminiscent of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocod...