Who Has Seen the Wind by W.O. Mitchell

September 28, 2010

Jim Burden is one of the great narrators in literature. As a big city attorney, he recounts the story of growing up on the plains of Nebraska with Àntonia Shimerda. Jim’s Virginia parents have died, leaving his Nebraskan grandparents the responsibility of raising a ten-year old boy. Jim arrives in Black Hawk, Nebraska on a train also carrying the Shimerdas. The beauty of this initial connection between Jim and Àntonia, four years his elder, is a beautiful part of the overall structure of Cather’s first “masterpiece.” The star, of course, is not Jim, but Àntonia who, even after losing her youthful beauty, has “that something which fires the imagination” and which can “stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or a gesture that somehow reveal[s] the meaning of common things.” Cather does not just tell us this. Throughout My Àntonia, she demonstrates this fact in brilliantly conceived vignettes. As counterweight (or alter ego) to the brilliant Àntonia, Cather gives us the equally compelling prairie of the western United States. Cather’s concluding novel in her “prairie trilogy” was, as much as anything else, “a sort of love story of the country”, as her friend Edith Lewis described it.

W.O. Mitchell brought his equally intense passion for the Canadian prairie to Who Has Seen the Wind. The novel is set several decades later, in the 1930s and, in place of Jim Burden, Mitchell provides Brian O’Connal, a precocious menace and the protagonist. However, Brian does not narrate the book from the perspective of age as does Jim. In fact, Brian does not narrate at all, but is merely the character over whose shoulder we initially, and most often, peer.

Brian at the moment was in the breakfast-room. He sat under the table at the window, imagining himself an ant deep in a dark cave. Ants, he decided, saw things tiny and grass-coloured, and his father and mother would never know about it. He hated his mother and his father and his grandmother for spending so much time with the baby, for making it a blanket tent and none for him. Not that he cared; he needed no one to play with him now that he was an ant. He was a smart ant.

Brian’s brother is deathly sick, but Brian is too young to understand or care. He demonstrates his spunk and intelligence with his wild imaginings and mischief. Of course, in the mold of Dennis and Calvin, this little menace has a heart of gold. On one of his early adventures, he goes in search of God, but finds only the pastor’s wife. She demurs to his questions, suggesting that he really needs to talk to the pastor himself. Brian, whose father is a druggist, walks back through town, stopping on the edge to watch a boy from the prairie, Young Ben, walk across the landscape.

For one moment no wind stirred. A butterfly went pelting past.

God, Brian decided, must be very fond of the boy’s prairie.

Brian does meet the pastor, Hislop, and so impresses with his questions and curiosity that, later, the Hislop’s faith is “renewed” when he recalls the conversation. In the early going, this novel veers dangerously close to sentimentalism. Hislop’s renewed faith is again challenged when his parishioners revolt. The headmaster of the town’s school, Digby, is the pastor’s best friend. Hislop confides to Digby the troubles he has with the church elders.

”I’d still fight,” said Digby.

“No,” said Hislop. “I can’t.”

He went to the window again. “Right now,” he said with his back to Digby, “I can think of only one believer in the town.”

“How about me?”

Digby got up from his chair; he went over to Hislop and put his arm over the minister’s shoulder.

“The one I have in mind,” said Hislop, “is very young.”

The two stood silently side by side looking out at the rain.

Well, perhaps, it does more than veer. However, the religious mawkishness is saved by a puppy. Brian is not merely the sole inspiration for Hislop, he is a boy with a dog. I have a weakness for “boy with dog” stories. The weakness is pathological. Write a story about a boy playing with a puppy and I will soon be simpering like a fool. Big Red, Old Yeller, Sounder, and Where the Red Fern Grows can make my heart pound and my eyes well just by recalling their covers. Recalling the content constricts my throat. It is altogether pathetic. But Brian gets a puppy and I was pleased.

I was as disappointed as he was when the fox terrier proves too rambunctious to coexist with the grandmother and is sent to the garage to sleep. As anyone who has been a boy with a dog knows, this is hard to handle. Brian wanders out into the night to sleep with the poor thing and his parents panic upon realizing he is not in bed. Of course, the first place anyone who has read the foregoing “boy with dog” books would look for a boy would be with his dog. Duh. Oddly, the search party canvasses the town before turning, at last, to the garage where the policeman finds “Brian and the dog asleep on the floor.”

The story progresses more slowly than My Àntonia. Brian does not, as does Jim, grow up, leave the prairie and return years later. Instead, the book is all about Brian’s childhood and life in a small town on the prairie. This last point is important. Mitchell spends more time examining small town life, including the intrigues of Hislop, Digby, the school teachers, and the local moonshiner, than examining prairie life itself. Where Jim and Àntonia spend a great deal of time on the prairie, the most memorable parts of this book take place in town.

The focus also shifts from Brian and his family to the religious, educational, and governmental leaders of the town. The adults have romances. People die. The primary movers in the town use Young Ben as a pawn in their efforts to gather a little more control of the local politics into their arms. As beautifully as Mitchell writes, I became a little distracted from the “prairie” aspects of the novel, though Mitchell does lyrically catalogue the beauty of the prairie. The shifting focus, from boy to adults and back to boy is where Mitchell suffers in the comparison with Cather.

The Young Ben is Mitchell’s Àntonia. The prairie is personified in these two characters. But where Cather manages, despite a more consistent perspective, to examine the fullness of Àntonia’s character, the Young Ben remains more an object than a subject. Àntonia is the prairie and Cather’s work is about Àntonia, completely about her. The Young Ben remains something of an enigma throughout, very nearly a sideshow to Brian’s life and the life of the town. Mitchell’s book lacks the same focus on its subject and, I suspect, will be less memorable as a result.

Be aware, this is praising with faint damnation. My Àntonia is consistently one of my “five favorite novels” of all time and Cather one of my most beloved authors. Due to my own prejudices, it is doubtful that I would ever find a prairie novel that I believed equalled Cather’s work, or even approached it. So, let me stop the contrasts and simply take Who Has Seen the Wind on its own terms.

The novel does evoke the prairie. Though I have spent very little time, outside of Cather novels and Laura Ingall’s series, on the prairie, I feel as if I have. The prairie towns seem to have very similar concerns and lives, even decades apart. Life in rural areas can go for long stretches with seemingly little change. I need only visit my parents on the holidays to experience this. The continuum from Ingalls to Cather to Mitchell confirms this. But coming later does not mean Mitchell is redundant. He captures some of the same aspects, but even the similarities are welcome. Mitchell touchingly renders the prairie landscape in ways that remind me of those earlier works. Through his evocation, I can feel the wind, if I cannot quite see it.

Note: This book was part of my prize in a KfC-sponsored contest a few months ago. If you are not aware, he is running one as I type with entries closing October 3. Go get your entry in now.

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

July 29, 2009

I did not really know much about either The Sheltering Sky or Paul Bowles when I picked this book up. A friend had read it and suggested that it was interesting. It is.

One thing Bowles does extremely well is to give a sense of place. Place is critical to this novel. Africa, particularly the Sahara, is central to the story both as the setting and as allegorical device. Porter (Port) Moresby, his wife Katherine (Kit) Moresby, and their friend Tunner could have traveled Europe but, at the behest of Port, they had come to North Africa instead. Even Port has doubts about the choice at first:

Their little freighter had spewed them out from its comfortable maw the day before onto the hot docks, sweating and scowling with anxiety, where for a long time no one had paid them the slightest attention. As he [Port] stood there in the burning sun, he had been tempted to go back aboard and see about taking passage for the continuing voyage to Istanbul, but it would have been difficult to do without losing face, since it was he who had cajoled them into coming to North Africa. So he had cast a matter-of-fact glance up and down the dock, made a few reasonably unflattering remarks about the place, and let it go at that, silently resolving to start inland as quickly as possible.

And, after making an unfortunate acquaintance with the Lyles, a very strange English mother and son, they do head inland. They become separated early due to Port’s eagerness to get away from Tunner. This theme of separation runs throughout the novel. The three friends cannot manage to stay together, partly by design, partly not.

The novel is particularly successful in several ways. Paul Bowles based the novel on his own travels in North Africa and his first hand knowledge shows. His descriptions of the landscape, the small towns, decrepit hotels, dusty buses, crowded trains, swarming flies, busy casbahs, labyrinthine alleyways, and other particularities of North African travel are outstanding. Even recalling the novel makes me want to brush the dust out of my clothes.

Bowles can also be a very entertaining descriptor of character. His description of Tunner is both amusing and psychologically adept:

Tunner himself was an essentially simple individual irresistibly attracted by whatever remained just beyond his intellectual grasp. Contenting himself with not quite being able to seize an idea was a habit he had acquired in adolescence, and it operated in him now with still greater force. If he could get on all sides of a thought, he concluded that it was an inferior one; there had to be an inaccessible part of it for his interest to be aroused. His attention, however, did not spur him to additional thought. On the contrary, it merely provided him with an emotional satisfaction vis-à-vis the idea, making it possible for him to relax and admire it at a distance.

Bowles knows something about people and it shows. This is one of the great successes of the novel. The characters are almost all given depth and roundness. Their interactions are usually full of meaning, motives, and schemes, sometimes explicitly so, but as often the reader is made aware through Bowles skillful writing. While Bowles is adept at explicit description, he also can convey essential characteristics of person without explicit description. Subtle cues tip the reader off. Bowles generally succeeds with his characterizations.

He also manages to keep the story interesting, so the reader is never left languishing for too long, waiting for something to happen. The novel is not particularly fast paced, but there is a building psychological thrill.

I am less sure that Bowles succeeded in his philosophical aims. He certainly addresses some central questions of meaning and man’s place in the universe. I think he does this best in the context of individual character:

[Port] felt a sudden shudder of self pity that was almost pleasurable, it was such a complete expression of his mood. It was a physical shudder; he was alone, abandoned, lost, hopeless, cold. Cold especially – a deep interior cold nothing could change. Although it was the basis of his unhappiness, this glacial deadness, he would cling to it always, because it was also the core of his being; he had built the being around it.

And there are some gems, such as this:

But there was never any knowing or any certitude; the time to come always had more than one possible direction. One could not even give up hope. The wind would blow, the sand would settle, and in some as yet unforeseen manner time would bring about a change which could only be terrifying, since it would not be a continuation of the present.

or this:

Illness reduces man to his basic state: a cloaca in which the chemical processes continue. The meaningless hegemony of the involuntary.

Bowles certainly was trying to make a statement with some depth and, in many ways, he succeeded. However, I am not entirely satisfied with the novel. I am finding it hard to describe my dissatisfactions without reference to spoilers. My own opinion is that Bowles loses some control over character. His usually excellent insights are lost in service to his plot, I think.

ShelteringSkyI think Bowles’ philosophical axe, as the three preceding quotes suggest, is the essential coldness and isolation of humans, and the razor’s edge that separates the human as intelligent and active agent from “the meaningless hegemony of the involuntary”.

And, perhaps, the action that follows a climactic event in the relations between the three travelers serves to further Bowles’ philosophical aims. But the actions feel entirely unnatural, unreal. The characters no longer feel three dimensional and authentic, but dissolve into caricatures bent into service of the author’s designs. Madness was not effectively explored, but neither was the character acting in a believably rational manner. It seemed to me that Bowles wanted to hit certain plot points and so he did, disregarding the psychological reality the character would experience. But this reduction of the character from ostensibly independent actor to involuntary plot-device may serve the novel’s ends too. Though I found it unreal, the use of one particular character in this way may further serve Bowles’ larger goals. Perhaps even in this failure, there is some success.

The novel is still very good, notwithstanding the fairly serious flaws in the final one hundred or so pages. I cannot describe or discuss the flaws further without revealing important plot points, but I was disappointed that one of the early strengths became a weakness. However, the novel does more than enough well to warrant being read.

My further thoughts after reading Tennessee Williams’ review in 1949 entitled “An Allegory of Man and His Sahara”, which is included in the front of the 50th Anniversary Edition:

Well, my own views of what Bowles was attempting, what he did well, and why the novel is worth reading mostly track Tennessee Williams’ with one major exception. Williams does not see the same flaw that I do. Where I see subjugation of character to plot, Williams sees a beautiful story that furthers the examination the effects of liberation on the civilized.

Be aware, Tennessee Williams discusses some central plot points with more specificity than I have, i.e. arguably his review contains spoilers.

The novel has more than sufficient depth to sustain an extended discussion, so I would welcome comments from anyone who has read the book.