O C T O B E R 1 9 9 4
by Phoebe-Lou Adams
None to Accompany Me
by Nadine Gordimer.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 324 pages, $22.00.
Ms. Gordimer's latest novel is so contemporary that it
verges on the prophetic. Her principal characters are a white woman lawyer who has worked for years in
behalf of Africans seeking housing and land rights and a black couple whose
anti-apartheid activities have entailed years of exile and considerable danger.
These people are far from paper-doll symbols of South African society. They
carry the three-dimensional impedimenta of temperaments, tastes, old loves, new
entanglements, embarrassing relatives, and transport problems. They are real
inhabitants of a real country that is rapidly changing and requires them to
change as well. Thanks to their life on the run, the black couple have come
home as multilingual international sophisticates who may or may not find
appropriate places in the indigenous government they have struggled to
establish. The lawyer can continue working to find living space for Africans,
but the rules have changed, and she cannot be certain that her services will
still be desired, although the housing situation will clearly be dire for years
to come. Her bright and charming African assistant, provided with an apartment
in a building previously inhabited solely by middle-class whites, soon has
friends and connections sleeping on the floors, and his situation is typical.
One cannot turn away homeless brothers. Meanwhile, the superficially simple
leader of a band of squatters proves to be an adroit organizer and negotiator,
and rises like cream. Ms. Gordimer writes, as usual, with extraordinary clarity
and intelligence, an infallible eye for illuminating detail, and a
comprehensive understanding of the balance that people in a shifting society
must maintain between public action and private inclination.
by Roger G. Kennedy.
The Free Press, 372 pages, $24.95.
The author is the director of the National Park Service and
a former director of the American History Museum at the Smithsonian Institution. He therefore
knows a great deal about early American buildings, meaning any large, organized
constructions--which in the case of native North American civilizations were
earth mounds and stoneworks. He knows where these works of pre-Columbian
Americans were, where they survive, and how they have been dated in relation to
Egyptian pyramids and Roman arches, and he offers plausible if admittedly
unprovable theories on the purposes they served. Any reader with an interest in
history or archaeology will share his distress over the destruction of so many
of the structures and develop a wish to see some of those that remain. Mr.
Kennedy also knows a great deal about the Europeans who made the frontier
history that obliterated so much Native American history, and those Europeans
were a gaudy and frequently devious lot, several of whom deserve to be the
anti-heroes of historical novels, preferably by George MacDonald Fraser. Mr.
Kennedy's text leaps from place to place and from past to present with small
regard for logical continuity, but it is consistently rewarding.
by Harry Mathews.
Godine, 256 pages, $21.95.
The narrator of this novel has been the victim either of misdiagnosis or of
mischosen therapy. As the result of a never-specified episode, he has been
advised to keep a journal. The exercise is intended, one gathers, to keep him
anchored to practical reality through the practice of precise observation. He
begins, harmlessly and rather tiresomely, with items like his colleagues'
shoes, but soon becomes obsessed with categories and interpretations, the
former increasingly intricate and the latter increasingly disturbing. The
fellow is daft, and the projected remedy is making him dafter, but because the
journalist himself is not an appealing character, the chief interest of the
novel (aside from the author's neat prose style) becomes the question of how
Mr. Mathews will resolve the clever muddle he has devised. He does not provide
a solution equal to the ingenuity of the problem.
by Louis de Bernieres.
Pantheon, 448 pages, $24.00.
Mr. de Bernieres has abandoned the vague time and imaginary
country of his earlier novels for a real place, the island of Cephallonia, and a definite
time--the Second World War to the present. There are, alas, no more magical
cats or resurrected conquistadores. There remain, however, eccentric and
larger-than-life characters, scenes of bloody horror and grotesque comedy, and
the author's acerbic view of organized religion, professional soldiery,
official history, and any authority that catches his eye. He sums up communism
as "the Greatest and Most Humane Ideology Never to Have Been Implemented Even
When it Was in Power, or perhaps The Most Noble Cause Ever to Attract the
Highest Proportion of Hooligans and Opportunists." Who can resist an author
with that command of vituperation?
Mrs. Thatcher's Minister
by Alan Clark.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 421 pages, $30.00.
Mr. Clark, an MP from the safely Conservative constituency of Plymouth, served
as Minister of Trade (1986-1989) and Minister of State in the Ministry of
Defence (1989-1992). He kept a private diary throughout the period, and to
describe it as indiscreet would be an understatement. He confides after a
garbled telephone call that "our special highpower secret-agent type portables
are defeated by the Scottish Highlands and don't work north of Inverness." In
Scotland was one of the properties among which Mr. Clark peregrinated, the
others being a toehold in London, a Kentish castle stubbornly in need of
repairs, and the equivalent of Cole Porter's "silly little chalet in the
Interlaken Valley." He also held property on, or abutting, the English end of
the Chunnel, a fact mentioned only because it enabled him to evade a dull
assignment by pleading a possible conflict of interest. He maintained a
lecherous interest in pretty women, preferably under age twenty-five, and a
mild addiction to art galleries. How he managed to attend to Parliament and his
various duties is a mystery, but evidently he did, for he reports innumerable
far-flung trade conferences at which jargon-spouting officials discussed
pointless matters and there was never time to visit the loo. He explains how
civil servants inconvenience their bosses and how officials of middle rank
prevent those of lower rank from gaining credit with those of highest rank.
What he describes of actual political activity consists largely of small
dinners at which Old School Ties exchange gossip (did the Lady smile at
Thingumbob's joke?), estimate their chances for advancement, and plot
discomfort for their enemies. It is all deplorably trivial and irresistibly
funny, for Mr. Clark writes with spirit even when he laments. Christmas Eve,
Ash, ash, all is ash. Lay not up for thyself treasures on earth. The cars are
all getting streaked and rust spotted, the books foxed, the furniture dusty.
The window panes, all 52,000 of them are revolting. . . . Translucent only. And
there is moth everywhere. My grandfather's great Rothschild coat, bought in
Wien in 1906, is terminally degraded . . . The whole thing is out of control.
And why? I know why. Because I'm not rich enough to have servants.
All in all, Mr. Clark's diary suggests that one is hearing the uninhibited
conversation of a character out of Saki--and there is no reason to interrupt
Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series
edited by Elizabeth Button Turner.
The Rappahannock Press in association with The Phillips Collection, 175 pages,
Jacob Lawrence's migration series--paintings depicting the
move of southern blacks to the North--is not normally to be seen in its entirety, being divided
between the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, and The Phillips Collection, in
Washington. The young artist (he was twenty-three) had hoped to keep his
history of his people intact, but settled for the even division and a price
that was, even in 1941, absurdly low. The current publication presents all the
elegantly balanced, deceptively simple, powerfully moving paintings with the
painter's terse captions. The text, by various experts, is largely superfluous
except for one sentence by Jeffrey C. Stewart: "What Lawrence did was create a
text that incorporated history, sociology, and a kind of poetry in a visual
narrative that broke out of the typical categories of modern art."
The Tribe of Tiger: Cats and Their Culture
by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.
Simon & Schuster, 240 pages, $20.00.
A portion of this book first appeared in The Atlantic.
Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.