The Week in Books: Salute the dark knight of Guyana
Friday 18 June 2010
Writers, even the most conformist and conventional of them, very seldom receive knighthoods. Adventurous, uncompromising and idiosyncratic novelists almost never do. Yet, last week, in the Birthday Honours List, the Queen rewarded just such a figure. Raised in Guyana, by training a surveyor with a profound, life-changing knowledge of the fragile eco-systems of his native land. he has long lived in Essex. Half a century ago, TS Eliot (in his role as editor at Faber & Faber) talent-spotted his first novel.
You might have thought that the mainstream media would have spotted at least the ghost of a story in this extraordinary progress: Caribbean migrant; "green" philosopher; literary explorer; maverick outsider, Essex man... Some hope. Catherine Zeta-Jones picked up a CBE! And so the honour bestowed on Sir Wilson Harris, now 89, has passed almost as invisibly and inaudibly as the fall of a single leaf into a waterfall deep in the jungles that he writes about so peerlessly.
Let's be upfront about one reason for this neglect. It's not merely an ingrained disdain for writers who hail from ex-colonial outposts in the Americas – or even, indeed, from Essex. After all, VS Naipaul of Trinidad only has to spill his tea for the British pundit class to gush their opinions about stain removal. Harris is famous – if at all - for being obscure. His fiction often ventures deep into the heart of a primeval darkness; and his ideas flow from notoriously opaque thinkers such as Hegel and Heidegger.
His fellow Guyanese writer David Dabydeen put the situation frankly to me this week: "Harris is fiendishly difficult to read because, like Blake, he works the mystical vein, and cares nothing for the banalities of social realism. And just as it took us a hundred years to appreciate Blake, so with Harris." Reviewing his 25th novel, The Ghost of Memory, for The Independent, Stephen Howe – another long-term fan – accepted that "one can understand why the circle of Harris's admirers is so sadly small. Yet those few who have persisted find the rewards enormous. One of Harris's recurrent images is that of 'swimming on dry land', and his prose sometimes feels almost as hard as that - but also, almost as miraculous."
In Harris's work, Amerindian mythology joins existentialism, ecology, epic narration that draws on Homer and Dante, and a visionary understanding of landscape and history. He takes fiction down hidden tributaries quite as lush and remote as any of the jungle backwaters that he evokes. Happily, the Faber Finds series has earlier this year made available a single-volume edition of the "Guyana Quartet" of novels from the 1960s, which Harris disciples generally place at the centre of his map: Palace of the Peacock, The Far Journey of Oudin, The Whole Armour and The Secret Ladder.
If you fancy a mind-bending summer, seek it out and join his quest into the furthest interior of souls and cultures. It is at any rate not hard to see why Eliot, with his own lifelong fascinations for epic form, comparative mythology and mystical revelation, found some sort of affinity with the rhapsodising surveyor from New Amsterdam.
Harris aside, the honours list features more than the usual sprinkling of literary names. Playwright Ronald Harwood also has a knighthood; the other authors garlanded are a supremely eclectic bunch including Simon Armitage, Wendy Cope, Bonnie Greer, James Herbert and Michael Longley. Should authors care about such royal gongs?
Quite a few discreetly turn them down anyway. In Harris's case, the system allows for some belated recognition to a body of work so singular, even eccentric, that it will never win any bookstore or chat-show popularity contests. Faber, by the way, has also shown a stalwart faith over five decades in an author who never could, and never wanted to, set the high-street tills on fire.
Comparatively few readers will ever follow Harris far upstream into the spiritual swamps and thickets where his fiction thrives. But literature, like the threatened habitats that inspire him, would be much the poorer without its rarest blooms.
A saving grace from Nazareth
The Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize invariably delivers an outstanding shortlist and winner. This year it has excelled itself. The award goes to Adina Hoffman for My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: a remarkable book on the life and times of Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, from Nazareth (right). Amazingly, this appears to be the first biography ever of a Palestinian writer – and written by a Jewish American who lives in Jerusalem. But that's a headline-friendly shtick. What really matters is that the book (out in paperback from Yale) is a triumph of personal empathy and historical insight, and a beacon for anyone who knows that "more joins than separates us".
Two parties, one idea of liberty?
If I were a writer, or a reader, I would be dusting off a copy of a landmark philosophical study to help explain the coalition's view of literature. Isaiah Berlin's Two Concepts of Liberty (1958) seems as handy a guide as any to Con-Lib cultural thought. This week, Home Secretary Theresa May kicked deep into the long grass the "vetting and barring" scheme to monitor anyone who works in schools, against which children's authors such as Philip Pullman and Anthony Horowitz have fought so successfully. This is a classic strike in favour of Berlin's "negative liberty" from official interference and control. Come Monday's budget and its gory aftermath, and we may see in cuts to library services or arts funding this government's distrust of "positive liberty" – the kind that aims via collective action to extend choices and chances, not just to leave well alone. Since a preference for negative freedoms can unite otherwise wary Tories and Liberals, I'd advise fans of the proactive state to get their intellectual act together now.
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