I went to see the spine-chilling tale The Turn of the Screw Tuesday night in The Almeida Theatre in Islington, my review of which appears on The Hackney Hive soon to be followed by an interview with the famed director Lindsay Posner. It’s a deliciously indulgent and penetratingly haunting tale about a young governess trying to protect her charges from the corrupt influence of phantoms from the past. I could go into an interpretation that sees this as an analogy for the American condition, but like jokes, some figurative comparisons just write themselves.
But seeing The Turn of the Screw led me to thinking about Henry James, a man with whom I’ve always felt a bit of a kinship since he is American-born, but lived for so long in Merry Old England, like myself, negotiating the foggy obscurities of being a stranger in a strange land, always living as though his soul is split in half, a condition that seems perfectly reflected in the dense and difficult resistance a reader encounters in the language of say The Beast in the Jungle or Daisy Miller, the latter featuring an American character trying to find herself ‘on the continent’ and ending up doing the opposite.
But funnily enough, it took leaving America to appreciate American culture. It was only after I left, and especially after I started teaching in Ireland, that I started to appreciate the genius of Arthur Miller, Mark Twain, and Emily Dickinson to name but a few.
What has intrigued me for years though is the number of writers who’ve gone a bit further than their “tour of the continent”; those writers who, like James, left their homeland to find their own sense of belonging and in so doing carved out for themselves a new literary identity. Not to put too fine a pretentious point on it. Here are three of my favo(u)rites. A by no means exhaustive list, but certainly some good ones to start looking at writers who’ve traveled to find home.
1. Edgar Allan Poe
What do you mean Poe doesn’t count? He went to school in Chelsea and then got gritty and spent 3 years in Stoke Newington right here in Hackney, East London. It’s no wonder his writing is permeated with gloom and shadow. He had some easy material growing up in the gloom and shadow first in Irvine Scotland and then down here in the famed London fog living through the tumultuous “year without a summer”. Sure, he was only a child, but these were surely his formative years.
Besides, it’s easy to underestimate Poe, as a staple of the school curriculum of most American schools, the assumption is that he’s kid’s stuff — high class pulp. But see past that for a second and you’ll see the Derridians and Barthesians who have done so much to revive him are right: his work is all about the obscure nature of existence and the horror of uncertainty. What is more expatriate than that?
What’s a real pity is that so many seem to miss his bleak sense of humo(u)r. How could he have been doing anything but messing with his readers and seeing just how far we could go with monkeys for murderers and the gleeful insanity of Dr Feather and Professor Tarr? For that wonderful mix of bleakness and surreal wit that centres on expatriate concerns of travel, survival and negotiating the cultural other, I would start with Poe’s only published attempt at a novel, the incomplete but wonderful Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.
2. James Baldwin
Black in the 1940s in America, gay, and deeply disturbed by the political environment of his native country, James Baldwin was assuredly a writer destined to find his voice abroad. That he did, giving voice to that displaced condition that situates an intellectual in a lonely place in their own country and yet yearning to feel a sense of home. For that, he had to join the cultural radicalism of Paris’ Left Bank, where Baldwin would remain resident for most of his life, writing about that recurring sense of disorientation that all of us as expats feel. You have to admire a man who can capture this condition so perfectly in a phrase like, “the earth tilts, he is thrown forward on his face in darkness, his journey begins,” which is, by the by, from Giovanni’s Room, a novel depicting that thing that has ensnared so many of us and rooted us down in foreign climes, a romantic relationship abroad. For aesthetic beauty and a deep sense of pathos, it is a compelling read.
3. Bill Bryson
On a lighter note, I don’t think any bookshelf should want for a volume or several of Bill Bryson’s witty words; nor, in fact are there many expat bookshelves that do, such is the joy one feels on curling up with Notes from a Small Island, The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid, or The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-town America. Bryson is one of two writers (the other is David Sedaris, another great American humo(u)rist, on the darker side of things) whose writing has actually made me snort aloud on public transport, such is the power of his convulsion-inducing sense of the comic. He ranks up with H.L. Mencken for incisive delivery that illuminates the ridiculous in things we have taken for granted, from American diets and walking habits to the inability of provincial middle England to keep its streets clean, nothing is safe, nor should it be. It takes a man who has lived outside his native land for a number of years to highlight its faults and foibles to his fellow Americans and he does it with style.
I could of course have included countless others in this list. Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth moves my soul, but I can’t quite stomach her politics. Amy Lowell’s poetry, especially pieces that concern her travels abroad, renews the world-weary spirit. But I decided arbitrarily to stick to prose. And then there are non-Americans who have given us their perspective on our country, Joseph O’Connor (brother of Sinead) in his side-splitting The Secret Life of the Irish Male, Dickens’ scathing American Notes, which lost him the Downton audience of his day, and Orwell’s irony-laced accounts, not of America, but of Europe in Down and Out in Paris and London, and Homage to Catalonia, in which he fought in The Spanish Civil War and remarked that his life was saved many times by the merits of Spanish marksmanship.
But as Levar Burton used to say, you don’t have to take my word for it. I’m forgetting, ignoring, or unaware of countless others that help us to identify our own sense of wandering through this kaleidoscopic mass of confusion that is cultural displacement. But I see great value in any author that is able to bring us out of our day-to-day existences and grant us a sense of the wider world.
I was ready to like Leonardo DiCaprio as the eponymous protagonist in this upcoming adaptation directed by Baz Luhrmann. I had forgiven them both for Romeo and Juliet and had come to accept that cinematic effort in all its smoking guns glory as a useful and exciting way to introduce teenagers to one of the most difficult stories Shakespeare has to offer in terms of engagement and narrative.
I thought Carey Mulligan would work as the beautiful, thoughtless and morally bereft Daisy Buchanan, and I actually thought Toby Maguire was perfect for Nick Carraway, the deceptively innocent looking young man from the Midwest who comes out to New York to make a living and resist the city corrupting his soul while he hypocritically claims the moral high ground.
Nor am I so close-minded as to think that a non-American director can’t handle an American story. Sam Mendes did too good a job with American Beauty for anyone to think that.
Apprehensive though my English teacher’s heart was about this sublime story being given the Hollywood treatment again, I had been convinced by various parties and was ready to believe that it could be done with style and still convey some sense of the aesthetic wonder that is Fitzgerald’s prose.
And then I saw the trailer.
It left me with something nameless beyond apprehension, something approaching dread. How can you tell a quintessentially ‘Jazz Age’ story without jazz? What this trailer appears to do is take Gatsby out of the roaring 20s, and place him firmly in the twentyteens (that seems all right, doesn’t it?) not so much roaring as swaggering with his trousers around his knees and his bling firmly on show, dressed to impress.
Which is not to say I have a problem with the presence of hip hop or even Jack White’s cover of U2’s ‘Love is Blind’. I can actually see the parallels and the reasoning perfectly. The song that was chosen for the trailer, ‘No Church in the Wild’ by Jay-Z and Kanye West, seems to ‘teach the lesson’ of Gatsby, dropping lines like, ‘When we die the money we can’t keep,’ but it also talks about ‘the girl in all leopard… rubbing the wood like Kiki Shepherd,’ not quite the flapper dresses, feather boas and the Charleston of the roaring 20s.
But still, I can see the temptation. In all honesty, there is a lot of rap that is about acquiring material wealth and flaunting it as a kind of two fingers to an oppressive state and rigid class structure that has made it all but impossible to acquire such wealth or any sort of social mobility. And Gatsby is a man who makes his fortune dishonestly but for what seem like the right reasons, holding a quixotic candle for years to one day impress Daisy in the same way Pip one day would like to be ‘good enough’ for Stella. So the excess, the decadence, and the emptiness is all there. And I can see that.
But why then does it need to be updated? Why take away the joie de vivre of jazz that ultimately evokes the hollowness of the glitz and glitter indulged in by these characters, especially when that loud whizz bang blare of apparent life and unthinking esprit serves to heighten the depths of pathos at the end?
It’s not as though it’s a story that’s completely alien to us. The young and the restless of a generation get carried away speculating with money they either don’t have or that doesn’t exist or will never come back from bad loans but no one heeds the warnings because everybody’s having fun. No one wants to hear about it because everybody’s too busy spending money and partying. The desolation when the party stops is stark and unbearable. Sound familiar anyone?
Those of us who have been in education or in theatre or just appreciators of beautifully composed language know that translation is an occasional but lamentable necessity and that something is always lost. Will what appears to be one long F Scott Fitzgerald inspired music video manage to convey the existential longing in lines like ‘Men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars…’ and the subsequent tragedy, or will this story be a narrative with the life-blood cruelly drawn out of it? Will this, in the more modern sense of the word be, simply a tragedy?