Wednesday, March 4, 2015


I have been reading Texaco, by Patrick Chamoiseau, and it is helping me to define for myself what kinds of fiction I prefer and how to break fiction down into useful categories. This is not the kind of novel that I would normally read, but I am finding it worthwhile nevertheless.

The oldest recorded fiction is epic narrative such as The Iliad and The Odyssey, which were originally oral verse describing real and imagined events in Mycenaean Greece. Early oral poetry served as entertainment and provided a method for recording history. The language is often beautiful, filled with mnemonic tricks to aid in recitation, since there was no written language at the time of its composition. Texaco is written in a similar style, imaginatively recounting the history of Martinique from the last days of slavery up until the late twentieth century, told in the voice of a native woman. I classify The Iliad, The Odyssey and Texaco as fiction that emphasizes storytelling and poetry. Two other elements of fiction, observation and thought, do not play as much of a role here.

The kind of fiction that I prefer tends to emphasize observation and thought. My favorite authors are good observers and good thinkers. Observation was popular at the time of George Eliot, Flaubert and Dostoevsky, and these three were analytical about their characters. They lived at the time when modernity was arriving, and writers had things to say on new subjects that did not have historical precedent. This kind of realism tends to be unpoetic, and even though it must tell stories, that element may fall within the broader purpose of explaining a changing world. Storytelling is still important in much of modern fiction, but the further you get into modernism and postmodernism, the less essential it becomes. As far as I know, poetic writing is almost nonexistent in fiction these days.

Analyzing writers according to these four categories (observation, thought, poetry and storytelling), it becomes fairly easy for me to see which ones I like and why. I don't like Henry James because he has distorted observation, tendentious thought, no poetry and sloppy storytelling. D.H. Lawrence has some observation and thought, a lot of poetry and some storytelling; he is one of my favorites largely because of the poetic aspects of his writings. Proust has a lot of conventional observation, not much notable thought, a lot of poetry and little storytelling; his weakness in analyzing his environment counts against him in my eyes. Kafka is not much of an observer or thinker, but he arguably has a precise poetic style, along with condensed storytelling; I like his writing but don't think he has much of interest to say. Lorrie Moore has feigned observation, very little thought, some poetry, and storytelling that is nonexistent in her short stories and botched in her novels.

Probably the majority of popular writers today emphasize storytelling because it is the quality that is most likely to satisfy large audiences. Those who deviate from strong story lines may target smaller audiences that prefer, or that have been brainwashed into preferring, modern, storyless formats. What stands out to me is the apparent absence of appreciation among American writers for genuinely talented writers like Chamoiseau. Not only does he write better fiction than any contemporary American writer that I'm aware of, but his linguistic skill also makes him an exceptional poet by American standards. I'll close with a few snippets from Texaco that I find quite compelling. Keep in mind that this is translated from French and Creole and may have lost something in the process:

The donkeys moved along on rocky ground, swaying like blackgirls on high heels.

Magnetized by the moon, thousands of minnows deserted the ocean to wriggle up the river. Scintillating waves of them shook the fresh water or washed up on the sand. The other campers raked about with buckets, bags, nets, basins, sheets, or other things. The night was but phosphorescent lightning, milky glow, sparks. The silver commas spurted out of all the containers, jumped around ankles, glued frenzied mirrors everywhere.

His hand bewitched the mandolin's neck, cast a spell on the mandolin's belly, and the strings lent a music, as knotted as rabbit grass, to the beauties of his song.

The women had to face the rest of life, including the duty of finding food for a swarm of little ones, and all without a garden. Each mama, you hear me, had to sow in herself a small plot of cunning, and look after the harvest, ill luck or no.


  1. Paul was scrolling thru your posts to see if you had ever mentioned Henry James (I think you have but couldn't find it). Reason I ask is our book club is discussing The Ambassadors tomorrow nite. I could not finish it. It's the simplest of stories but sorting through all the words I could not even really catch what the plot was about. I recall reading Portrait of a Lady and liking it. Any comments on Henry James or his philosopher brother William. Talk about a privileged family.

  2. I tried Henry James and didn't like him much either. I also thought A Portrait of a Lady wasn't bad, and I liked the long story The Aspern Papers, which is based on real people. However, The Wings of the Dove put me to sleep. His favorite theme seems to be naive American women being taken advantage of by sophisticated Europeans, which I find repetitious and uninteresting. Some critics believe that there is great subtlety and nuance in his writing, but I find it pretentious, unperceptive, and, in the later years, self-indulgent. He was probably an abstinent homosexual, and I think his experience of life was far less than he pretends in his writing, not having had any serious relationships. As far as William James goes, he was one of the major American philosophers and is known for "pragmatism," which is probably not a particularly coherent philosophical position these days. He also wrote early works on psychology. Their grandfather made boatloads of money, and there was mental illness in the family.

    I would guess that Henry James became popular in the U.S. because he pretended to be a European insider who could enlighten nouveau riche American readers who wanted to appear worldly and sophisticated - the same kind of people who are impressed by Downton Abbey.

  3. Well you were a big hit at book club. I had to laugh, at one point one of the gals said, I agree with Paul. Half the crew finished and half did not and overall we put it in the dud pile. Anyway thank you for your comments.


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