When I try to reconstruct the way information about books travelled in the time before the internet, I remember a friend standing in front of my bookcase more than thirty years ago and asking what was really good, what was only all right and what was imperative for her to read. When I praised Song of Solomon above the rest, she just took it. I wonder is it time to let this memory go.
In the spring of 1988, a series of small paperbacks by Toni Morrison arrived in Dublin to accompany the hardback of Beloved. I opened one at random in a shop called Books Upstairs, read for a while, and decided to work my way through her novels in the order they were written. I didn’t know Morrison’s image had appeared on the cover of Newsweek or that paperback rights to Beloved had just sold for a million dollars – this might have made her work less intriguing to me. Reading was so personal, it needed to feel a little private, or at least select.
This year, a handsome reissue of those same early novels came through my door and I avoided them for some time. Though I have read and taught Beloved over and again, it is three decades since I opened The Bluest Eye, Sula or Song of Solomon and I have no memory of the contents. Worse, I cannot compass what has happened to my reading life since. The moment of recognition in the bookshop seems to belong to a different order of existence. I try to remember what it was like knowing nothing, how powerful that was, and it seems like a lost idyll.
When I visited my mother one evening last week, she asked for the ‘stairleg’, by which she meant the television remote control. Her decline into dementia has been slow and some days are better than others. On this day she was cheerfully surprised by the fact that the door of her room was a door, as though the wall had just opened to let someone through. But her conversation still had the shape of conversation, and she continues to retain a strong sense of herself. We passed some time reciting poems that I sourced on my phone: ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, ‘An Old Woman of the Roads’ and ‘To Daffodils’, which started well and slowly marched towards talk of death. We got over this small embarrassment in the pleasure of remembering how it went.
We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or anything.
I love the pattern of speech, mimicry and hesitation by which she relearns a poem, as it is remembered. It seems as though her mind is not putting the words together so much as the other way around. At 94, she often grounds herself by picking up a book and I am amazed by the ease with which she navigates words on a printed page. For a woman who is surprised by the existence of doors, it seems an insanely complex skill.
Reading does, in some way, hold us together. According to the neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf, it is connective across various neural circuits and involves large areas of the brain. Our understanding is predictive and feels instantaneous; it can also be metacognitive, co-creative and generative. My mother taught me how to do all this, using those same patterns of mimicry and hesitation, when I was three years old. Or she taught me how to start all this: reading is an evolving skill which begins with simple decoding and ends, according to Wolf, with empathy and those ‘blessed moments’ afforded by immersion in which we attain insight, or new levels of understanding.
The neural marker for insight is hard to pinpoint. In Tales of Literacy for the 21st Century (2016), Wolf suggests ‘a rather unlikely, still too little-known region in the right hemisphere’s superior temporal gyrus’, the same bit, apparently, that glows to the newness of a literary metaphor. This exciting factoid lies outside the range of my expertise, but I am sure Wolf is accurate to the MRIs when she says that the shift to digital has made skimming the new norm. Scrolling and swiping have increased our ability to survey large amounts of information, but they do not engage those areas of the reading brain where we imagine and are moved by the lives of others. We have, in neurological terms, an app for that and it is no longer being switched on.
I wonder, when I avoid the novels stacked by my chair, whether it is this involuntary act of empathy that I am resisting. We talk a lot about distraction, but maybe I just got mean.
Fiction is, or should be, ‘transporting’: this immersive state is not something you can enter and exit every two minutes to check dog videos and the progress of the war in Ukraine. When I click away from a book, I find people on the internet reading books, or at least taking photographs of the covers. You wonder where they get the time.
In the spring of 1988, I had an Amstrad 8512 with a slow-blinking green cursor that slowed to a stop on larger files. I was finishing a book of short stories and I remember reading Morrison’s early novels as a kind of bliss. Now, I am afraid to open them in case their brilliance no longer holds, in case I am too restless and ruined to see it anymore. By staying shut, the books become lost to me, in the fear that I have been lost to them.
It is a frugal winter. The jumpers are on and the heating switched off so I turn the pages with cold hands, which is a kind of nostalgia in itself.
The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s first novel, published in 1970, opens with a brief, antic mash-up of a child’s first reading primer. ‘Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family.’ These lines are not familiar to me and then they are, sort of – it’s like seeing a person across a room and wondering if it’s someone you know. ‘We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow.’ The arrival of Claudia’s narrative voice on page three brings a thrill of admiration. This was, in the Ireland of 1988, a strikingly contemporary line. It had the ring both of Greek tragedy and of the newly discovered possibility that family was not a place of safety. The narrator’s ‘we’, which seems so natural coming from a child, was a rare usage. Lots of American writers have done it since, but Morrison was ahead of that curve. There will be time, after the reading is done, to namecheck Faulkner and Thornton Wilder, to think about her use of the sermonic and collective, to note how Morrison made of this casually colloquial ‘we’ a fully political piece of grammar, but meanwhile I am reading the book like someone who knows how books are written, and that feels fine.
And then it gets personal. Claudia falls sick and the description of her mother’s anger at her illness is so accurate and unyielding I feel my own childhood exposed by it. ‘When we trip and fall down [adults] glance at us; if we cut or bruise ourselves, they ask us are we crazy. When we catch colds, they shake their heads in disgust at our lack of consideration.’ Even as she describes the roughness of her mother’s tending, Claudia asserts that this was love itself: ‘When I think of autumn, I think of somebody with hands who does not want me to die.’
My phone is in the other room, my computer is closed, all I can do is look away from the page and wonder what it is I am thinking now. Morrison’s work is distinctive for its murdering mothers, not just Sethe in Beloved but also Eva in Sula, who burns her addict son to death. All that started early. It was there from the first. Long before Cholly’s rape of his daughter Pecola, the stakes within any given family are high.
In her foreword to The Bluest Eye, Morrison writes that she wanted ‘to effect immediate co-conspiracy and intimacy’ with the reader. The trick must be one of identification, of keeping us inside the character’s experience. Some readers don’t like a feeling of intimacy (in 1988, I lived for little else); it can turn so easily to aversion. Morrison brings all that on with the girls’ interest in their own surfaces and secretions: fingernails, ink marks, toe jam. ‘We were still in love with ourselves then. We felt comfortable in our skins, enjoyed the news that our senses released to us, admired our dirt, cultivated our scars.’
In 1993, when Morrison won the Nobel Prize, men (including one Nobel winner) asked me, ‘Is she that good?’ as though I might know this in some way they could not – I could read like a woman, perhaps. The wider, public discussion contained much racial unease: her work was taken to represent a whole people, and questions were asked about whether she represented them badly or well. I read the books living in the white monoculture of Dublin in the 1980s, so I wasn’t competent to that conversation. All I had to go on was the relation of one word to another word on the page.
In The Bluest Eye, when the girls go to Miss Bertha’s little candy store, they peep inside and see her ‘sitting behind the counter reading a Bible in a tube of sunlight’. So, all right, there is no comma here – Morrison’s editor, Robert Gottlieb, said he was always inserting commas into her sentences and she was always taking them out again – but it is not so distinctive as the word ‘tube’. Thirty-four years ago, I stopped reading, right here, to puzzle whether this should be a ‘cone’ of sunlight, why some other writer might call it a ‘needle’, and yet others (for whom we have little respect) a ‘ray’. Then, and now vividly again, I marvelled at the way she could pop fiction into three dimensions with such ease. She was ‘that good’.
The novel tells the story of poor, raped Pecola’s desire to have blue eyes. If she did, she imagines, nothing bad could happen to her again. ‘Why, look at pretty-eyed Pecola. We mustn’t do bad things in front of those pretty eyes.’ The language seems to stay close to ordinary speech, but there are hundreds of references to eyes in the novel, and not one is the same as the next. Even the animals get a look in. A dog opens one ‘liquid eye’; a stroked cat ‘flattens his eyes’, which later turn into ‘blue streaks of horror’.
Some of this is simple characterisation. We read of eyes that are ‘furtive’, ‘hopeful’, ‘fascinated’, ‘jaundiced’, ‘full of sorrow’. A picture of Jesus looks down with eyes that are ‘sad and unsurprised’; Cholly has ‘the meanest eyes in town’. Other descriptions are new-minted: eyes go ‘melty’, are ‘walled’ or even ‘genuflect’; they contain ‘nakedness’ or ‘a slippery light’. Morrison gives a prostitute eyes ‘clean as rain’; a pretty girl has ‘springtime eyes’; a half-blind lady’s eyes ‘look like snot’. In a higher register, a love song invokes a boy whose ‘eye is burning brass’ and the eyes of Claudia’s father are ‘a cliff of snow threatening to avalanche’.
The movement is not just into metaphor, but also into political argument. A woman who suffers from internalised racism has a horror of poor children: ‘They had stared at her with great uncomprehending eyes. Eyes that questioned nothing and asked everything. Unblinking and unabashed, they stared up at her. The end of the world lay in their eyes, and the beginning, and all the waste in between.’
Eyes betray contradictions and show the workings of power; they are both the gaze and the true, secret self. When Pecola goes to the store in town to buy some Mary Jane candies, Mr Yacobowski, who is white, looks at her with reluctance. ‘Somewhere between retina and object, between vision and view, his eyes draw back, hesitate and hover … He does not see her, because for him there is nothing to see.’ This ‘vacuum edged with distaste’ is not new to Pecola. ‘She has seen it lurking in the eyes of all white people. So. The distaste must be for her, her blackness.’
In her foreword, Morrison mentions the difficulty of, ‘holding the despising glance while sabotaging it was difficult.’ The eye-work becomes a little ravenous. Pecola devours the candy because to eat it ‘is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane.’ This envious consuming is of a piece with a woman whose eyes ‘do not bite’ and with Claudia’s rage at her white neighbour Rosemary Villanucci: ‘We stare at her, wanting her bread, but more than that wanting to poke the arrogance out of her eyes.’
Most poignantly, it is her ‘haunted, loving eyes’ that move Pecola’s father to a rapine fury. ‘How dare she love him? Hadn’t she any sense at all?’ When Pecola lies in bed, trying to make herself disappear, she succeeds in erasing every part of herself except her ‘tight, tight eyes … They were everything.’ It is no wonder that she wants to swap them out for blue. At the end of the novel, Morrison’s argument about self and other is completed, and it is chilling. ‘Love is never any better than the lover,’ says Claudia, now grown up. ‘The lover alone possesses his gift of love. The loved one is shorn, neutralised, frozen in the glare of the lover’s inward eye.’
There are things I understand now that were, thirty years ago, beyond my ken and this makes the book bigger for me the second time round. Morrison is deeply intelligent about envy, for example, the way she converts the ‘pristine sadism’ Claudia feels around white girls to a ‘fraudulent love’ that is ‘a short stop to Shirley Temple’. Claudia may dismember her dolls but Morrison herself is not envious of her characters. They are not punished for the qualities she has given them. Pride does not always come before a fall. Beauty is not bestowed so it might be marred or destroyed. The people in her pages are allowed to love one another and forbear from cruelty. The punishments meted out might be catastrophic, but they have clear origins in the unbearable realities of racism. ‘All the books I have written deal with characters placed deliberately under enormous duress in order to see of what they are made.’
I cannot say how much I learned from Morrison’s use of voice, which democratised and elevated her characters in a way that was so generous to their spirit and situation. She sought a prose that escaped hierarchy, one that was ‘race-specific yet race-free’. Clear about the difference between the body and shame, she drew erotic attention to necks, bare calves, feet, and managed her characters’ physicality in a way that was sexy without being sexualised. She was interested in the ‘reclamation of racial beauty’ and used the word ‘beautiful’ often, notably about boys and men, whom she portrayed as the victims as well as sometimes the perpetrators of injustice. True to the feminism of the 1970s, her female characters have sexual agency. Reading Toni Morrison in the ‘over-worshipped territory of Roth, Bellow, Updike and Mailer’, the critic Laura Miller wrote, was like ‘being released from literary jail’.
As for melodrama – poverty can be tedious but it is also helplessly dramatic, unlucky and prone to extremes. When she was a child, Morrison’s family home was set on fire by the landlord because they could not pay the four-dollar monthly rent. What can you say? The dictum ‘write what you know’ does not include, ‘so long as it’s dull’.
As the books went on, she tempered the rhetorical cadences typical of The Bluest Eye: her interest in making lists was, by the time of Beloved, almost gone. It had never been an idle effect, however. In a 1971 piece for the New York Times, ‘What the Black Woman Thinks about Women’s Lib’, Morrison pointed out that the category of ‘the Black Woman’ includes many different kinds of people: militant young girls, middle-class socialites, ‘those wispy girl junkies who have always been older than water, those beautiful Muslim women with their bound hair and flawless skin’. The rhapsodic mode is there to evoke empathy, but also to disturb what she called ‘lump thinking’, the horror we have ‘of dealing with people one by one, each as he appears’.
In more than one interview, Morrison discusses the difference between her father, who ‘was very, very serious in his hatred of white people’ and her mother, ‘who was exactly the opposite, who never rejected or accepted anybody based on race or colour or religion or any of that. Everybody was an individual whom she approved of or disapproved of based on her perception of them as individuals.’
This way of thinking is in my bones. Reading Morrison’s work, and then around her work, turns out to be a reclamation of something I never lost. My pleasure in Morrison’s genius has been enhanced, not dented, by the time I spent away. I am now on Song of Solomon. I am deeply immersed, I am transported, and this time, if you don’t mind, I will keep the experience to myself.
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