Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Reading group: Beloved by Toni Morrison

Ann suggested this book because she had attended a lecture given by an American academic, in which he had advanced the notion that fiction is better at conveying the reality of historical moments and situations than 'factual' history. The two novels he cited as being excellent examples were Coetzee's Disgrace, which we have also discussed, and this 1987 novel set in mid-1800s Kentucky, when slavery was under attack from the abolitionists. The Beloved of the title is the baby daughter of escaped slave Sethe, whom Sethe killed with her own hands rather than have her taken back into slavery when the slave owners caught up with her - named 'Beloved' because that was all that was written on her gravestone - and who returns to haunt and disrupt her mother's house and claim retribution. The Author's Forward in my edition makes clear that the story is based on a real-life case, that of Mary Garner (whose slave-owner name, Garner, Sethe shares). Amazingly enough, in spite of the fame of this book, and the fact that Morrison has won both the Nobel and the Pullitzer, none in our group - or at least none present for the discussion - had previously read it.

Ann said that she hadn't found the book an easy read at all (at which everyone else nodded), mainly because of the structure of the novel which constantly shifts back and forth between both the viewpoints of the characters and the past and the present, but also because of the language Morrison employs: an intimate third-person which takes on the vocabulary and syntax of the characters' own language, and indeed at one point morphs into (a shifting) first person. However, Ann thought it was a very powerful book, and most of us strongly agreed.

Jo said she wondered why Morrison had written it in such a complicated way. I said that it was the only way she could have written it and achieved emotional veracity, since the story is about a suppressed history, in particular the subjective experience of slaves; the structure constantly resurrects the buried past into the present of the novel. Ann added the even more salient point that the characters themselves don't want to remember their past experience (since it is so painful). As a result the past is only revealed in layers: one scene from the past will be presented in a way which seems vivid enough, but then we will return to it again and a further detail will suddenly illuminate the scene in a new, and often horrifying, way. Thus we are forced constantly to reassess our own insights, and this, it seems to me, is the political force of the novel, and others agreed. There is one particularly horrifying detail, for instance, about the physical appearance of the character Paul D (who was enslaved with Sethe and now comes into her life again) which is revealed only at the end of the novel. The surprise is breath-stopping, and one is forced to come consciously to terms with the fact that for the length of the whole novel one's view of him has been partial, and that therefore one has underestimated his experience, as well as that of those around him.

I asked Ann what the American academic had said about why he thought fiction worked better than factual writing in conveying such histories, and Ann said it was precisely this, that it operates on the feelings of the reader by inhabiting the feelings of characters - a point with which I heartily agree. The structure of this novel in particular forces a kind of retrospective reading which most of us thought emotionally and politically powerful. Ann commented that another thing which makes the novel especially powerful emotionally is, paradoxically, the matter-of-fact way in which the horrors are conveyed. The contrast between the tone and the events being described, and the implication that for slaves this was day-to-day experience, is particularly shocking. Ann said that she had listened to a World Service podcast of an interview with Morrison who had said that she had made the conscious decision that she must avoid anger in the novel, and that the only character she could allow to be angry was the ghost (because she had been murdered).

John now said that it was interesting that we hadn't really mentioned Beloved up to now, although she was in many ways the focus of the novel. This wasn't really picked up for further discussion, though I think in retrospect she's a kind of medium, in the terms of the novel, for the conveyance of the past into the present of the novel. There was some discussion as to whether she was a real ghost or not - she finally materialises as the eighteen-year-old woman she would have been had she lived; and twice there is reference to the rumour of a young woman, kept as a sex slave, having escaped from a shed nearby - but our conclusion was that we were not meant to read the novel in these either/or realist terms, but to inhabit the mentality of the characters and their attitudes to an ambiguous spirit world. Some people, Ann in particular, wondered how differently Americans, to whom this history of slavery belonged, might read the novel. Ann said that in the podcast Morrison states that she made the decision to address her novel to black people (unlike the white abolitionist Harriet Beecher-Stowe, for instance, whose Uncle Tom's Cabin had been addressed to white readers) - although it seems to me that her technique of retrospective revelation is employed on ignorant white readers most usefully of all.

However, Trevor now said that he had had a lot of trouble with the language and complicated structure of this novel, and Clare said so had she, and Trevor said that he'd even gone off and read something else in the middle as relief and then gone back to it.

We then recalled some of the horrors that the novel exposes, such as the fact that after the slaves are caught trying to escape, those considered of little use are beheaded and dismembered and their headless limbless torsos hung from trees, and the fact that the slave owner thinks of them as farm animals and talks of the 'breeding one' and her 'foal'. Ann told us the horrifying fact she had learnt from the podcast that the abolitionists had tried to get the real-life Mary Garner tried for murder, because if she were capable of murder then she would have to be acknowledged to be human.

Ann, or perhaps Jo, said that one impressive thing about the novel was the way that early on we are led to see the Garners as unusually philanthropic slave owners, but later realize that this is just a matter of relativity, and that they have their own cruelties. I said that one of the most horrifying moments for me, though, was not the out-and-out cruelty from which it's easy to distance oneself, but the incident towards the end when Sethe's living daughter Denver goes to the abolitionists' house to ask for work. Here she comes across something which horrifies her: a small statue of a black child with its head pulled back and its lower lip extended to receive coins casually thrown down, ready for paying tradesmen - a figure so like the Little-Black-Sambo collection figures that stood unremarked outside shops and in arcades in my own childhood, that I was pushed up suddenly against my own unconscious collusion in racism.

Then we talked about the fact that the TV Black-and-White Minstrel Show went on into the seventies, and that Robinson's golliwogs weren't discontinued until the eighties, and ended up, I think quite subdued...

*Edited in: When it was suggested that our history is more distant from slavery than that of the Americans, John pointed out that it was ironic that as Mancunians we should feel a distance from slavery, since as a cotton port Manchester was intimately involved in the three-way cotton-sugar-slave trade. (A novel that explores that three-way trade is Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger.)

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

4 comments:

SueG said...

This is especially interesting to me right now as I begin to contemplate novel number 3. I know it's too early to be thinking about structure, but I can't help it, especially because sometimes I wonder if I make some decisions because they are interesting or difficult to me, rather than what is needed to express the story best.

Elizabeth Baines said...

It is very interesting, Sue. I have written a draft of a novel that uses some of the same techniques - it's also a novel about suppressed memory - but I have tried it out on a few people and they can't cope with the structure, and I am racking my brains to find a way of unifying it that doesn't belie what I want to say! Very difficult...

Clare Dudman said...

Both this novel and Disgrace are two of my all-time favourite books. Thanks for the discussion - it brought it all back.

I find it best with books like this not to try too hard. I just read and let it seep in - and it does, eventually.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, I think that's right, Clare. At the start of the discussion people some people felt they hadn't properly engaged with the novel, but it was clear by the end of the discussion, I think, that they had engaged more than they'd claimed...