Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Queen is Dead, Long Live the Queen

Someone somewhere (probably the Guardian) was complaining about the lack of high-quality historical fiction for children these days... Leaving aside the narrowness of a definition that wouldn't include The Golden Compass as historical fiction (after a fashion), it made me reflect on my own childhood love of books about 'real' events and people by authors such as Rosemary Sutcliffe and Geraldine MacCaughren, whose A Little Lower Than Angels is one of my favourite books (and still in my library, twenty years on). I was a fanatical collector of a kids' magazine called Discovery: each issue covered a different historical period, and included a tape with 'as if you were there' eyewitness accounts of events and places, and some sort of project (I remember building a cardboard astrolabe and developing a code based on Mary Queen of Scots' secret communications). History was rich and fascinating -- if frustrating. I was never one to quest for a single truth, but I did want more than kings and queens. And more than anything, I think I wanted place.
Growing up in London inevitably had a lot to do with that. But London is such a palimpsest of eras - yes, there's the thrill of walking the old East End after reading an Iain Sinclair novel, or the immense excitement of the first season at the Globe - that you need to get out of the city to see landscapes as they were, rather than as they are. Most of my memories of place are bookish: Dartmoor seen shortly after reading Lorna Doone and Hound of the Baskervilles, for example. And, after a phase of reading Arthurian novels, Tintagel and Hengistbury Head. Sea, stone, sheep droppings: these are the smells and sights of historical fiction.
So it was almost uncannily tempting to see a review of Kate Mosse's Labyrinth, a new historical novel of the (sort of) feminist revisionist variety, set in the French Pyrenees, the Langue D'Oc, where I spent one of my favourite ever summer holidays, reading Montaillou and looking for signs of Cathars. Heretics appeal to me: fiery beliefs (including sexual equality) and fiery ends. The use of Cathar hideouts by French and Spanish Resistance fighters struck a resonant note as well, of the landscape repeating its stories, offering protection as a covenant. I stayed with my friend Mark and his family in Barrere, near Carcassone, where his dad had bought a house to paint in. There was a lot of drinking of cheap wine (pumped, like gas, into big canisters at roadside stations), lying round people's swimming pools, making food, eating, making food, monitoring the septic tank, observing the mountains and cheering on the French football team in the world cup. And, of course, reading. I can remember fairly precisely what I read on that trip: Jane Urquhart's The Underpainter (part of my secret addiction to CanLit); Robert Drewe's The Drowner; Montaillou; a Gillian Tindall book about France... Place stains the pages.
Mosse's descriptions of landscape and its stains of blood, violence and religion are powerful, calling up a medieval world that is still absolutely present in Carcassonne and environs. I found myself skipping the banal and tortuous details of the plot (Grail blah blah, handsome American blah blah, people getting beaten up rather repetitively blah blah) to take the adrenalin hit of being there, feeling the heat of the plains and the cool shadow of the mountains. Perhaps it would be better to call it geographical fiction? Mosse's liberal sprinkling of Langue D'Oc phrases from a phrase book inscribes place rather than time (although it is, of course, always useful - should one find oneself in Toulouse - to be able to ask "Where is your siege engine?").
Historical discourse is a tricky one: Elizabeth Kostova fails the test badly in her otherwise competent novel The Historian, which loses me on the place associations (never been to Cold War Hungary) but is a cracking, well-plotted thriller with a fascinating historical sweep (and absolutely nothing to do with the Grail). But an epistolary novel from multiple perspectives demands a writer who is brilliant at voice -- differentiating one from the other, and periodising as well. She oscillates between stilted and anachronistic at moments, and it's very obvious that the details of the novel were obtained by the author - as by the characters - from books. It's the kind of thing that my supervisor, Linda Hutcheon, would call "historiographic metafiction" if it were being done with irony and verve, rather than a strange combination of being an earnest MFA student and wanting to be the next Dan Brown.
Harrumph. I was really quite absorbed by The Historian, although its main effect was to make me want to reread Dracula, which is its source text in many ways (or should I say, read and finish Dracula, which I've never managed, although I can see Bela Lugosi on the cover of the Oxford World Classics edition as if it were here with me and not in London). And, despite my impatience with Mosse's prose, I enjoyed her feisty female characters and their sensual appreciation of the world, especially Alaïs, her medieval heroine. Some claim that it's anachronistic to write contemporary politics back into historical situations (Mosse has religious tolerance, sex out of wedlock, cross-dressing, and strong women) but I think that's unfair to historical situations. Just because the narratives of the victors have always read so smoothly ("And lo, the white man triumphed and everyone else was rubbish") and monotonously doesn't mean that those accounts have to be accepted. As more and more documents emerge from archives, and more people listen carefully to oral texts such as songs and stories, it seems likely that, while it may be anachronistic to talk of women's liberation or feminism in previous periods, it's stupid to imagine that 53% of the population have spent all the time since the end of matriarchy twiddling their thumbs at home and dying in childbirth.
Susan Carroll's The Dark Queen takes exactly this perspective. Expectations for women in Renaissance France are constricting, and both biological and social risks attend their every move, but within any society - given money and/or power, it has to be said - women have educated themselves as healers, thinkers, artists, advisers, and self-managers. In Western Europe that often lead to them being labelled "witches," a term that is in its - what - fifth age of reclamation? ("It could be witches! Some evil witches! Which is ridiculous 'cause witches they were persecuted, Wicca good and love the earth and woman power and I'll be over here," as Xander puts it so eloquently in "Once More with Feeling.") Carroll, in a twist on the revisionist history model, suggests that a number of powerful women were actually witches (some evil, some Wicca good and love the earth) and that their magical battles shaped historical events such as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre (rendered in loving detail in La Reine Margot, if you need visuals).
While Mosse's novel is a pseudo-feminist Dan Brown (complete with real locations for tourists to go overrun), Carroll's - which is less likely to be reviewed in the Guardian because it's shelved as historical romance (ie: trash) - doesn't bother with that whole flashy double time sequence, linear detective car chase thing. Mosse is going for a labyrinth structure, I'm pretty sure, but comes up straight as an arrow. Carroll is more leisurely at twisting the screw, without the obvious dream sequences that are so clunky in Mosse. I'm in danger of sounding all Helene Cixous here (women's fiction should be circular and soft, like cotton puffs, because men's is all pointy and fast and in love with bullet time) but I prefer the Ursula K. Le Guin take: the handbag theory of fiction (in Dancing on the Edge of the World). Carroll wears her learning lightly - no quoting Langue D'Oc here - and couldn't give a crap about religion. A fair few bodices get ripped (isn't that one of the temptations of historical fiction? the bodices and ripping thereof?) and all women are beautiful and queenly with long hair.
So what exactly is my argument here? I enjoyed Mosse's book because it brought back to me one perfect summer and the complex fabric of place, making me yearn to revisit not just the landscape but a particular time. Kostova's mammoth tome kept me awake at night, and made libraries seem scary and exciting again (I'm a sucker for any text in which research is a glamorous pursuit -- one of the charms of Buffy, no doubt). The Dark Queen was a cracking read - an airport purchase, the least redolent of 'real' bookishness (not even bought from a real bookstore, just a newsstand in the hell that is Pearson airport), and nowhere near as fat or wordy or decidedly pleased with its own cleverness as the other two (Mosse offers a reading list!). All three prove something indubitable: historical fiction is a genre where women writers excel (Mary Renault, Rosemary Sutcliffe, the author of the Arthurian books). It's time Dan Brown got booted off his perch & we anointed the queens in his stead.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Roma UnDaunted

A week of reading and not reading Garth Cartwright's Princes Among Men: Journeys with Gypsies, which I picked up at the fantabulous Daunt Books travel bookstore in London earlier this year, while looking for something completely different (Lela Aboulela's Minaret [OK] and Kathleen Jamie's Findings [superlative], if memory serves). Very few works of non-fiction have ever come close for me to Isabel Fonseca's Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey, and Cartwright's is not one of them. Both Fonseca and Cartwright shift from the position of objective reportage to involved, and even implicated, travel writer - but as their titles indicate, Fonseca does this in order to tell the stories of Roma across the Balkans, Cartwright (in the end) to tell his own story of obsession with Roma music. It's like High Fidelity with six pages on O Porrajmos (The Devouring, the Roma phrase used to describe the Holocaust). Or (given the frenetic nature of the prose) On the Road with naïve attempts at political contextualisation.
Cartwright's enthusiasm for the music is infectious - already leading to record store scouring for rare Balkan imports and eighties world music compilations - but also pretty one-note for a book supposedly concerned with some of the wildest, most diverse and accomplished music in the world, given its incorporation of Indian, Turkish, Balkan, Hungarian, Jewish, Chinese, and other musical traditions. Cartwright's prose, littered with catchy hooks from Western pop music and colloquial expressions (the equivalent of a Beat writer ending every sentence in a poem "dig, man?"), is designed to suggest the oral culture that has remained strong amongst the Roma, even as they are settled and (sometimes) schooled by various European governments - but it has the deadly side-effect of being unbelievably patronising, translating the Roma's rich languages, slangs and stories into British street slang and the commercialised platitudes of MTV. Not so hip, dude.
When the voices of the singers are allowed to come through, the book grabs, embodying the spirit of Daunt: books are travel, but also the prompt to and preparation for travel. As a prompt, it's rather Hunter S. Thompson -- all rakiya blindness, scary driving and stompy nationalists. Gonzo travel has been pretty much overwritten by wacky Brit Nick Middleton, whose endlessly exhausting ability to turn even a trip to the shops for some fags into an obstacle course raises the boy-travel challenge to new levels. Of course, politics and cultures become little more than scenery to such high-altitude writing: the white man's survival of the conditions that their hosts live in day by day becomes the narrative that supposedly hooks us in. Daunt bristles with these tall tales of derring-do (dating back to Polo, M. , I suppose). Travel as extreme sport. On the other side is travel as landscape painting, which evacuates everything that's not picturesque - or sees even poverty as just darling if it adds local colour. Dervla Murphy, the phenomenal travel writer who took her daughter, as a toddler, around Central Asia, said something very profound about men travelling for TRAVEL - speed, danger, a new place every day, very linear and agenda-driven - while women travel to stop - to sit down and talk with the locals, to see where each conversation will take them, what they can learn, what they can share. It's a huge generalisation - certainly Freya Stark's The Minaret at Djam is an example of a woman travelling on a mission -- although she stops frequently to smell, and pick, the flowers. Like any generalisations, it offers food for thought. Cartwright gives the sense that he is travelling in a haphazard, gypsy-like manner, criss-crossing the Balkans as if following the musicians - but he's not. He's a writer with a deadline and a preconceived narrative: he wants people to show up on time and say useful stuff. He wants countries to be sketchable in a single sentence, wringing cheap yuks from a running gag about the awfulness of Communist architecture. His attempts to encapsulate the flavour of each country (and it usually involves those staples of the travel narrative: food and architecture) instead blurs them together, partially because in each country he has a single purpose: manically chase Gypsy music.
Given that Daunt is arranged by country (pretty unique), I wonder where they would shelve it? Gypsy music rarely has a section of its own in world music stores, tending to be included under the country of the singer's origin, or thrown in with Eastern Europe, or even World Fusion (if you're the Gypsy Kings). This is an issue. It suggests that all Roma are assimilated, ignoring the forced settlement and assimilation policies of many countries that effectively destroyed the Roma's nomadic way of life, which was none too concerned with national borders, wherever they happened to be at the time. The fierce nationalisms of Eastern Europe, with their blood and earth mentality, have traditionally found the Gypsies and the Jews at the bottom of the heap. Cartwright's book alludes to this 'clash' between nomads and nationalists, but is resolute in his categorisation: there is Serbian gypsy music, Macedonian gypsy music, Romanian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, etc. (Spain and Turkey don't make the cut).
So this is really a book about the Balkans, its very title a lie: Cartwright journeys, but the Roma that he talks to don't. Or rather, he doesn't journey with them. He has his own agenda to pursue (something about pursuing a Czech girl, yawn), his own rather CNN-ized gonzo history to write through the blaze of yet another dull hangover. All the Roma artists that he interviews talk about travelling: to India, to the US, all over Europe, their music opening doors and earning money. Cartwright gives the sense that he finds all this travel less than pure, a pandering to the West's idea of the romantic musical Gypsy embodied in the current popularity of flamenco. But the Roma, as a nomadic people, have always been accumulators, synthesisers, taking the music of the places that they travelled through and interweaving it to make something unique, playing back to each new listener sounds that he or she might recognise made different. Like jazz, it's a music of call and response, of improvisation, of going with the flow. The musicians interviewed all talk about their delight in borrowing, stealing, remaking, reinventing, collaborating, seeing where the music takes them. It's a shame that Cartwright couldn't put aside his sheet music and follow their lead.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Barbie Got a Gun & Other Feminist Fun

So, once I've stopped laughing, my question is how exactly is this helping? Yeah, it's pretty funny & it reminds me of Simon Abkarian's speech in Yes about the movie on the bus of the blonde American gunning down Arabs with a smile - but, hmmm, as much as I enjoy kooky/kinky Barbie stuff (hangover from childhood Barbie obsession - I was never allowed a Ken doll, wonder if that's why I'm queer?) this picture bums me out.
Possibly because I'm immersed in Tori-world. It's taken me three months to finish Tori Amos: Piece by Piece, not because it's dull or difficult, but because it's so full of wisdom and fascination, I kinda didn't want to finish it. It's also my last tenuous link with being on holiday in Berlin, where I read a chunk of it before seeing Tori's show at the Tempodrom. If I squint my nose, the book smells of linden blossoms and the air before a storm. I like to leave a bit of a holiday book unread so I can slip back into holidayness when I'm back in the grind.
Did the same with a fantastic manga by Kan Takahashi, called Kinderbook. Not your kid sister's manga. I had no idea that there were Japanese comics that weren't all wide-eyed young women showing their panties (hey! i don't draw 'em, i just see 'em - don't blame me for the stereotype). that childish sexuality thing disgusts me (as, for example, when i came across a hello kitty vibrator on eBay). which is why Tori seems so important to me right now - not only is she singing out loud (and writing) about a very powerful form of feminism that is neither a post-feminism of lipstick choices and glass ceilings or an earth mother braless drum circle feminism (these are both cool, just not my cup of herbal tea), but at 41 she's arguing that all those teenyboppers selling shoes by dancing around in their scanties -- it's just wrong.
i am all for healthy expressions of child sexuality. but jessica simpson ain't it. Harmful to Minors is one of the best books I have read in the last five years, an absolutely searing condemnation of the way in which the US government treats children as 'innocent' and highly sexual at the same time, depriving them of lucid and humane education while allowing them to be objectified in the pursuit of big business. Barbie the Bomber isn't just the witty reversal of social norms (bombers are expected to be male and of colour; barbie is expected to be polite and non-political) and a statement about ending barbie's reign of body-image terror, it's also a comment on the dangerous sexualisation of the toybox.
And yet it's still kinda icky? What exactly do I want? More books like Piece by Piece, which offer guidance that's both pragmatic and metaphysical, that's funny and doesn't hesitate to be serious, to talk about bodily fluids and business deals in the same sentence. And... I want it to storm, because right now the pressure is killing me.