Month: August 2009

J.M. Coetzee: Summertime

To describe myself as a fan of J.M. Coetzee’s work on the basis that I liked Disgrace makes me feel a little like the gorilla in the Far Side cartoon, who says to his friend, “You know, Sid, I really like bananas. … I mean, I know that’s not profound or nothin’. … Heck! We all do. … But for me, I think it goes far beyond that.” After a disastrous attempt to review Diary of a Bad Year when I was having a bad month, I have now – third time lucky – reached the stage where I know I will, eventually, have to read all his books. It’s all because of Summertime, a magnificent book which from the beginning places the reader in Coetzee’s expert care. But which Coetzee?

J.M. Coetzee: Summertime

Summertime is subtitled Scenes from Provincial Life, which recalls Middlemarch and Madame Bovary, but also aligns it with Coetzee’s earlier books Boyhood and Youth. Summertime follows them as fictionalised memoirs of Coetzee’s life, and the title is a mordant joke from an author not famed for his wit. The joke is: ‘If this is the prime of his life…’, because Coetzee gives us a ruthless self-portrait. He does this by stepping aside and reimagining his life in the 1970s from the viewpoints of five people – a lover, a relative, a colleague, and so on – all interviewed by a prospective biographer named Vincent after Coetzee’s death. The book opens and closes with journal entries, the only time the author (as character) speaks directly.

But to the barbarians, as Zbigniew Herbert has pointed out, irony is simply like salt: you crunch it between your teeth and enjoy a momentary savour; when the savour is gone, the brute facts are still there.

The reader’s temptation when reading Summertime is to try to work out what is brute fact, what is irony, what is something else, but it’s a temptation which should be resisted. (As I manfully resisted the urge throughout to compare the content of the book with Coetzee’s biography.) John Coetzee – as he is called in the book – is not flatteringly depicted. “He looked out of place, like a bird, one of those flightless birds; or like an abstracted scientist who had wandered by mistake out of his laboratory. There was an air of seediness about him too, an air of failure.” Even for his lover, Julia, “he had no sexual presence whatsoever.” This, she suggests, is because “his mental capacities, and specifically his ideational faculties, were overdeveloped, at the cost of his animal self.” While Julia knew John Coetzee, he wrote and published his first novel, Dusklands.

He had decided he was going to block cruel and violent impulses in every arena of his life – including his love life, I might say – and channel them into his writing, which as a consequence was going to become a sort of unending cathartic exercise.

Summertime might be its own cathartic exercise. Coetzee seems to lacerate his human failings (and given Coetzee’s interest in animal welfare, his “animal self” might represent the highest qualities), but it seems sly and knowing, even witty. The portrayal of John Coetzee – cold, ill at ease, “stalled” – looks steeped in humility, though such self-effacement can itself be a form of vanity (“See how brave he is to mock himself! Such a good sport!”). John Coetzee is not much more effective as a family member than he is as a lover: he lives with his ageing father, and his cousin considers that “all Coetzee men are slapgat [slack, spineless]”. During this period, he also works as a teacher of English, but when he shows passion for a student’s ability, this is misinterpreted by her mother. The mother’s personal distaste for him (“he is nothing, was nothing, just an irritation, an embarrassment”) leads her to cast doubts on what his biographer – and John Coetzee himself – believes might really redeem him: his writing.

He was not a man of substance. … I know he won a big reputation later; but was he really a great writer? Because to my mind, a talent for words is not enough if you want to be a great writer. You also have to be a great man. And he was not a great man. He was a little man, an unimportant little man.

This hurts. In the book, John Coetzee believes that what will survive of him are his novels. His lover, Julia, observes that she “never entered his books. Which to me means I never quite flowered within him, never quite came to life.” To him, his books are “a gesture of refusal in the face of time. A bid for immortality.” Writing is a way of fixing in time, like music; as he explains to Julia when trying to persuade her to make love to Schubert’s string quintet:

He wanted to prove something to me about the history of feeling, he said. Feelings had natural histories of their own. They came into being within time, flourished for a while or failed to flourish, then died or died out. The kinds of feeling that had flourished in Schubert’s day were by now, most of them, dead. The sole way left to us to re-experience them was via the music of the times. Because music was the trace, the inscription, of feeling.

He maddens his cousin Carol with knowledge of dead languages. She asks who he can use them to speak to. “The dead. You can speak with the dead,” he responds. “Who otherwise are cast out into everlasting silence.” John Coetzee, when the biographer is carrying out the interviews which glean these details and statements, is already dead, and is speaking to us from his everlasting silence.

The repeated conflict in Summertime is between the writer and the world, the writer and ‘real people’. John Coetzee plans to move his father to “some rundown old ruin” in the backwater of Merweville. “I want to be able to be alone when I choose.” Elsewhere, in the journals, John Coetzee wonders “where in the world can one hide where one will not feel soiled?” The book emphasises that for a writer, most alive when alone, even those who see him most often, who know him longest, can’t know him at all. This is a book where the writer is everywhere present in many different forms: the hand of Coetzee creating the biographer Vincent; the character of John Coetzee shaped by that biographer’s selections and omissions; and the ghostly figure that lies somewhere between the reader’s existing knowledge and the fiction on the page.

One of the interviewees points out to the biographer that “we are all fictioneers … we all continually make up the stories of our lives.” Another challenges him where he embellishes her comments as he writes them up. A third berates him for trying to recast her story into John Coetzee’s story.

You commit a grave error if you think to yourself that the difference between the two stories, the story you want to hear and the story you are getting, will be nothing more than a matter of perspective – that while from my point of view the story of John may have been just one episode among many in the long narrative of my marriage, nevertheless, by dint of a quick flip, a quick manipulation of perspective, followed by some clever editing, you can transform it into a story about John and one of the women who passed through his life. Not so. Not so. I warn you most earnestly: if you go away from here and start fiddling with the text, the whole thing will turn to ash in your hands. I really was the main character. John really was a minor character.

The work evades, eludes, gets away from the facts and finds it own form. The version we see is not the finished biography, but it is the finished novel. It is not life, but art. Which is what the late John Coetzee surely would have wanted.

Walter Tevis: The Hustler

Penguin’s Modern Classics imprint has often delved into popular and genre fiction for its reissues, but rarely has it covered so many with one author. Walter Tevis’s first two books, The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth, are best remembered for the films they inspired. Both have been reissued this month, along with Tevis’s last novel The Queen’s Gambit, to submit to the test of literary longevity too. (An aside at this early stage. Which Tevis to read next? He wrote just five novels, three reissued here. A friend cites another, Mockingbird, as a favourite in her home. That leaves The Steps of the Sun, about which I know less than nothing.)

Walter Tevis: The Hustler

The Hustler (1959) introduces Eddie Felson (‘Fast Eddie’), a pool hustler whose reputation precedes – and possibly exceeds – him. “They say he’s the best. They say he’s got talent,” says one player in Bennington’s pool hall in Chicago. “Guys who seen him play say he’s the best there is.” “I heard that before,” says his companion. “I heard that before about a lot of second-rate hustlers.” “Sure. But everybody says he pushed over Johnny Varges out in LA.” “Did you see the game?” “No, but…” “Who did? You ever see anybody who ever saw Eddie Felson shoot pool?”

But Eddie Felson is real, and does shoot pool like nobody else, except perhaps Minnesota Fats. He comes to Bennington’s with his ‘manager’ Charlie to play Fats, reputedly the best pool shooter in the country. Their match lasts for 40 hours, and the chapter that relates it is as long as all the previous chapters in the book together. Tevis doesn’t so much build tension – he defuses it with blunt statements on who will win or lose the games he’s about to describe – as deal the reader in on Eddie’s gruelling experience.

Then someone turned off all the lights except those over the table that they were playing on and the background of Bennington’s vanished, leaving only the faces of the crowd around the table, the green of the cloth of the table, and the now sharply-etched, clean, black-shadowed balls, brilliant against the green. The balls had sharp, jeweled edges; the cue ball itself was a milk-white jewel and it was a magnificent thing to watch the balls roll and to know beforehand where they were going to roll. Nothing could be so clear or so simple or so excellent to do.

There is not much artistry in Tevis’s writing but there is some style. He leaves the reader in no doubt as to Eddie’s feelings and thoughts as he moves on from the game with Fats, encounters a girl, and gets involved with some (more) doubtful characters. What interested me about The Hustler was not the prose but the portrayal of a character so apparently unsympathetic. Eddie appears arrogant, if aware of it. Tevis doesn’t present us with a broken background to justify Eddie’s overcompensating hubris; are we supposed to like him, to root for him? Does it matter?

Eddie becomes a sort of proto-male archetype, determined to “find out his position” in the pool world, pushed by some kind of macho determination to challenge himself. It’s a character type I find fascinating probably because it differs so much from my own. (Where Eddie takes on a contest after being accused of being ‘chicken’, my response would have been, ‘Yes I am chicken. I’m afraid I might lose’. The same applies to my failure to understand why a boxer who wins a title fight would agree to a rematch. In that case of course, it’s the economics, stupid.) Only when Eddie establishes a relationship and has “something to go home to” does his hunger for success on the green baize begin to diminish. He is a complex character only in the sense that everyone is a complex character.

For a hustler such as Eddie, everyone is a hustler. (Though he dislikes being called a ‘shark’). Even radio ads are “hustles”. He can trust nobody, which turns out to be a wise move, as the book gives us a bold climax to Eddie’s fall and rise. It’s quite a brave ending, and fortunately Tevis resisted the temptation to write a sequel [no he didn’t! See below].  The sequel was also filmed, starring Paul Newman again, though the only thing it retained from Tevis’s book was its title, from the closing pages of The Hustler.  There, the pool table is “the rectangle of lovely, mystical green, the color of money.”

Art of the Novella Giveaway

I’ve raved before here about Melville House’s The Art of the Novella series. The line includes essential short fiction such as Joyce’s The Dead, Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, and Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, as well as less known (to me) but equally brilliant works such as Maupassant’s The Horla (a highlight of my reading year so far) and Heinrich von Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas (the latter I include by reputation, although I haven’t read it yet, as everyone who has seems in awe of it). The pleasure of the series lies not only in the selection and production but in the very delight of being able to pick up a book which can be read, entire, in an hour or less.

Art of the Novella

Recently five new titles were added to the series. Melville House generously sent me a set at the weekend, unaware that I already had them all (I wrote about one of the new titles, Fitzgerald’s May Day, just last week.) So I thought I would distribute them to willing readers of this blog. I’ll give one each to five winners, so please leave a comment below saying which one you would like to receive, and I will draw names from the ether after midnight BST on Saturday 29 August. The draw is open to entrants worldwide.  The five titles are:

Astute readers will note that by opting for a less popular title, you increase your chances of winning it. Unless everyone does that. Good luck.

PS – I forgot to put in the usual rider before the first ten entrants commented below … but if you’re a winner, it would be nice if you’d come back here and tell everyone what you think of the book once you’ve read it.  Or do so on your own blog if you have one, or on Amazon or the like.

Bohumil Hrabal: Closely Observed Trains

In the ever-escalating war against buying too many books, I recently adopted a new policy. I would not buy any books by an author who has unread books already on my shelves. So when I saw that Vintage Classics had reissued two novels by Bohumil Hrabal, I Served the King of England and Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, I resisted buying them even though the last title of his I read, Too Loud a Solitude, still resonates two years later. Instead I plucked out a book of his I bought back then. See, Vintage Classics? Your handsome repackaging is powerless against me, at least for another month or so.

Bohumil Hrabal: Closely Observed Trains

Closely Observed Trains (1965; tr. Edith Pargeter 1968) is perhaps the best known – or least obscure – of Hrabal’s works, having been filmed a year after publication. The film has been described as “deadly serious and comic”, which is an apt description for Hrabal’s fiction generally. As with Too Loud a Solitude, the book begins in a spirited style, introducing the idea that on the Eastern front, in 1945, the Germans were losing control of the air-space over the narrator’s town.

The dive-bombers were disrupting communications to such an extent that the morning trains ran at noon, the noon trains in the evening, and the evening trains during the night, so that now and then it might happen that an afternoon train came in punctual to the minute, according to the timetable, but only because it was the morning passenger train running four hours late.

When a German plane is shot down over the town, its detached wing crashes into the deanery garden, and “within five minutes our townspeople had made a clean sweep of all the plates and sheet-metal from this wing, and the pieces reappeared the very next day as little roofs for rabbit-hutches and hen-houses.”

The man describing all this to us is Miloš Hrma, a 22-year-old apprentice on the railway, whose happy-go-lucky surface (concerned mainly with losing his virginity), is betrayed by our knowledge that he has just returned to work after three months’ absence after he slit his wrists in the bath. “I plunged both hands into the hot water, and watched the blood flow slowly out of me, and the water grow rosy, and yet all the time the pattern of the red blood flowing remained so clearly perceptible, as though someone was drawing out from my wrists a long, feathery red bandage, a filmy, dancing veil…” Hrabal, in his seductive way, leaves much for the reader to determine, and keeps the comic tone intact.

Hrabal also maintains his reputation as (in Adam Thirlwell’s words) “a writer of hectic digression”, and in just over 80 pages, he introduces a wild variety of characters and subjects, from pigeon-fancying to branding a young woman’s thighs with official railway rubber stamps. At times, when the digressions pile up, it’s easy to see why Hrabal has been considered an untranslatable writer. But although Hrma does divert his narrative long enough to lose his virginity with some tenderness (“…then she was kind to me…”), the narrative builds in the end to a quite perfectly sober and devastating climax. This concerns Hrma’s involvement in a plan to attack a German ammunition train which is due to pass their station.

The Germans are fools. Dangerous fools. I’d been a bit of a fool myself, too, but to my own hurt, while with the Germans it was always to the hurt of someone else.

In this brilliant overturning of the reader’s emotions, the book again resembles Too Loud a Solitude, and makes clear that Hrabal’s comic charm conceals considerable literary intelligence. The edition I read (Abacus, 1990) includes at the back a selected bibliography of Hrabal’s from the 1960s. Some of these I know of – ‘Dancing Lessons for Older and Advanced Pupils’ will be the one-sentence novella recently reissued (though note the different translation of the title) – but why haven’t we been given English translations of ‘A Pearl in the Depths’, ‘The Enthusiasts’ or ‘Sales Notice on a House in which I no longer wish to live’? Perhaps I’d better read the existing available titles first.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: May Day

Melville House’s Art of the Novella series just gets handsomer and handsomer. Of the five titles recently added, I decided to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s May Day. My previous experiences of him were limited to a couple of reads, in my younger and more vulnerable years, of The Great Gatsby, and abortive attempts to get through the many-feted Tender is the Night. (There was also the Pat Hobby stories, but what remains in my mind is not the stories but the introduction, detailing Fitzgerald’s relentless pleas for more money for their publication in Esquire. “I wish you’d wire the money if you like this story. … I’d like to do some more of these if your price made it possible.”)

May Day (described by the author as a ‘novelette’) first appeared in 1920 and was collected in Fitzgerald’s 1922 volume ‘Tales of the Jazz Age’, but this Melville House edition is the first time it has been published alone. There is to me something inherently satisfying about reading a story published alone – the sense of completeness and even occasion which it carries with it is something like the difference between seeing a film in the cinema rather than on TV.

We are introduced to a wide range of characters, though really there are only two types: the fortunate and the unlucky, the haves and have-nots. Fitzgerald could hardly make the distinction clearer than in the substantive opening chapter, which reacquaints old Yale graduates Gordon Sterrett (“his eyes … framed below with the blue semicircle of ill health, heightened by an unnatural glow which coloured his face like a low, incessant fever”) and Philip Dean (“blond, ruddy and rugged … Everything about him radiated fitness and bodily comfort”). Sterrett is down on his luck, and Dean finds that “there was something in his present misery that repelled him and hardened him, even though it excited his curiosity.” By the end of the chapter, when Dean has loaned Sterrett five dollars, “they quite suddenly and definitely hated each other.”

The setting is New York City at the end of the First World War (“There had been a war fought and won and the great city of the conquering people was crossed with triumphal arches and vivid with thrown flowers of white, red and rose”). The conflict is not only between rich and poor but also between soldiers returning from war and left-wing journalists. In the offices of the New York Trumpet, one of the journalists, Henry, explains to his girl Edith why the crowd of soldiers are shouting and yelling in a demonstration outside.

“All crowds have to howl. They didn’t have anybody with much initiative in the lead, or they’d probably have forced their way in here and smashed things up. … The human race has come a long way, but most of us are throwbacks; the soldiers don’t know what they want, or what they hate, or what they like. They’re used to acting in large bodies, and they seem to have to make demonstrations. So it happens to be against us. There’ve been riots all over the city tonight. It’s May Day, you see.”

Edith is one of those characters Fitzgerald does so well, probably because his satire of them only thinly masks a real fascination and affection. She is a sort of prototype Daisy Buchanan, her language “made up of the current expressions, bits of journalese and college slang strung together into an intrinsic whole, careless, faintly provocative, delicately sentimental.” Edith, who knew Gordon too, is in love with the memory of him, which doesn’t match the reality when they meet again:

“I was always queer – a little bit different from other boys. All right in college, but now all wrong. Things have been snapping inside me for four months like little hooks on a dress, and it’s about to come off when a few more hooks go. I’m very gradually going loony.”

Fitzgerald would soon know about what he wrote. His own distanced privilege is given a nod in one of the soldiers who appears in the story “named Carrol Key, a name hinting that in his veins, however thinly diluted by generations of degeneration, ran blood of some potentiality.” (Fitzgerald’s full name was Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald.) In the introduction to May Day for Tales of the Jazz Age, he described it as a “somewhat unpleasant tale”, and was not satisfied that he had woven the elements of the story into a satisfying “pattern”. I can see what he means, as there is a messiness to the story (which nonetheless may diminish on rereading), but much of this is forgotten in light of the dramatic ending, which unfortunately is famous enough that I knew it before I got there. It may have inspired another American short story with a similar, and similarly famous, ending, though to say more than that would risk ruining both.

Liam McIlvanney: All the Colours of the Town

My about-turn on books about Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ – previously I shunned them; this year I’ve found myself very impressed by some – has borne mixed results. I was disappointed by Stuart Neville’s The Twelve – though, perversely, not as disappointed as I half-expected to be. This has been balanced by Liam McIlvanney’s All the Colours of the Town, a thriller with a solidity and wholeness which is also a portrait of two places and their people. McIlvanney is a regular contributor to the London Review of Books, and I’m willing to speculate (based on the novel’s Acknowledgements) that he is the son of William McIlvanney, whose Laidlaw series of crime novels have been raised on this blog twice.

Liam McIlvanney: All the Colours of the Town

The two places in All the Colours of the Town are seen through the eyes of Gerry Conway, a hack for the Sunday Tribune, a fictional Scottish newspaper (but a real Irish one). Conway is scanning his emails when, amid the “flamboyant denunciations in wide-eyed capitals”, he comes across the journalistic grail: “not a sloppy wodge of comment but a hard bright newsy nugget.” It concerns the past life of Scottish Justice Minister Peter Lyons, a consummate politician “with his rational charm, his chatshow eloquence, his Mafioso neckties.” Conway “want[s] to know if a fact, properly planted and primed, could still make a difference.”

His investigation takes him from Glasgow to Belfast. The depiction of Glasgow is a refreshing change from low cloud and sooty tenements: “On sunny summer afternoons, Glasgow is Manhattan. The buildings instantly lofty, colossal. Black diagonals of shade bisect the traffic, cut across the cabs on St Vincent Street. The city looks like a photograph, black-and-white, something out of Berenice Abbott, Bleecker Street or Union Square.” Belfast is more instantly recognisable, not for its topography – “open, low, curled like a dog in its basket of hills … the hills, swelling dark at the end of each street” – but for its past, and the past’s reluctance to let the future in.

It was the omniprescence of the past – which back then, was not all that past – which led to my earlier reluctance to read books about the Troubles. Or, as one character in All the Colours of the Town puts it: “Jesus. Let’s get another round in before we depress ourselves to death.” Now, as in the book, those times are just sufficiently out of sight – even if only hidden – to be out of mind. Paramilitary murals have been painted over with broader cultural images, now incongruous amid dark ranks of terraces: now the murals are “something kin to miniature and implausible worlds of snow-domes … like a portal to a greener realm, a window on a technicolor Oz.” However, as Conway discovers, the past is not dead; it is not even past. Former terrorists have been released from prison, their newly peace-oriented organisations now awash with cash:

“All these grants and subventions. Funding schemes for community projects. Let’s call it what it is. It’s a bribe: we’ll give you money if you keep on not killing people. … These fucking raging egos. They’ve got no trade, no skills. They’ve never worked a day in their life, most of them. And they think they’re owed, for the time they’ve spent in jail. Me, I think jail time’s what you pay for the stuff you’ve already done.”

This wouldn’t be a thriller without some of Conway’s Belfast contacts turning out to be dangerous, and there is what one might call an acceptable level of violence: enough to raise the heart rate without straining the credulity. And although I tried hard not to get too hung up on factual niceties, there are a few clangers for Ulster readers among McIlvanney’s otherwise brilliantly presented geography and language of Belfast. Some of this is justifiable as artistic licence (the notion that Belfast Waterstone’s has a ‘Troubles’ section), though others could have done with a last run past an informed local (such as the odd place name, or the idea that an elderly working class Belfast woman would start a sentence: “Aren’t you a little…”).

Anyway the central story – spotted with coincidence but never too implausible – is not the only pleasure of the book. The atmosphere in the Tribune newsroom is perfectly judged, with its office politics, and journalists who simultaneously make high-minded complaints against editorial interference while queuing up to claim their expenses. The needlessness of most of our news is made clear, with even a dig (from Conway or McIlvanney?) at bloggers: “The whole dreary business of framing opinions. Was there anything less necessary than venting an opinion? Across the blogosphere, everyone with functioning forefingers was tapping out their prejudices.”

What McIlvanney has, most valuably, is a sense of balance and proportion, not only in the story, but in his language. The prose is distinctive and pleasing to the ear without being precious or delicate. (Conway is alive to the sounds of his home country: “As Catholics, we mythologised those places, spoke of them with a shiver of dread. Harthill. Larkhall. Crosskirk. Even the names had a spondaic bluntness, a fearsome Prod foursquareness.”) Similarly, Conway’s observations of other characters are memorable without being tricksily aphoristic. On his quarry Peter Lyons:

I’d noticed this about him, how he was always buying rounds, pouring wine, as if his continence wasn’t enough on its own; it needed the relief of the other guy’s indulgence.

It extends to Conway’s limited revelation of his own character, where we get a touching portrayal of parenthood in a couple of isolated paragraphs, and then just a sentence or two which might explain his marital breakup, where he blames his own children for his loss of temper: “I knew how quickly you could lose the rag. It was scary how abruptly I could turn.” This is what I meant earlier about the book’s solidity and wholeness: it covers so many aspects of its main character’s life without losing sight of its central mission. All the Colours of the Town is not the greatest book I have read this year, but nonetheless I am entirely sincere when I wish all debut novels could be as good as this.

Daniel Everett: Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes

Here is a book, with quirky title and quirkier cover image, which looks like the most annoying kind of comic travelogue.  Hell, the man even has the Bryson-issue red beard.  But the subtitle, Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, tells the truth.  Here, in fact, is a book about the relationship between language and culture; embedded within it comes the story of a missionary who went to convert the natives and ended up losing his faith.  (If you really were hoping for a comic travelogue, sorry to disappoint.)

Daniel Everett: Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes

Daniel Everett’s Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes covers 30 years’ work in under 300 pages.  In 1977 Everett, as a linguist and Christian missionary, travelled to live with the Pirahas (which number about 300 people, spread along 250 miles of the Micai river in Brazil) to translate the Bible into their language. 

Initially I thought Everett had spent three decades with the Piraha uninterrupted – so that I was, absurdly, disappointed when it turned out he ‘merely’ lived there for periods up to five years at a time.  Dilettante.  His wife and children accompany him, and bear up well under the pressure, though perhaps not so very well given that it’s a different wife to whom he dedicates the book in 2008.  There are hairy moments, such as when his wife and daughter contract malaria.  Everett pleads with the captain of the boat they’ve hitched a lift on, to hurry to the port where they can get to hospital.

Fernando replied, “Look, comrade, if your wife is supposed to die, she will die.  That’s that.  I won’t speed up for you.”

(It doesn’t help that the ship then takes a detour for the entire crew to disembark and play a game of football for two hours.)  All this, if Everett had been able to pay attention at the time, would have told him much that was relevant to his work with the Pirahas.  “The hardship that I was experiencing, so out of the ordinary for me, was just everyday misfortune to all the passengers on this ship.  One did not panic in the face of life, however hard.”  The stoicism that he finds suggests that these are a people satisfied with life as it is, without a need for a new world view.

Everett went to the Pirahas as a linguist, to study what he believed to be a language isolate (one that is “not demonstrably related to any living language”), and as a missionary. “Even though I didn’t know the Pirahas, I thought that I could and should change them.” That this plan may not succeed is indicated in the prologue, where he is woken by Pirahas anxious about the presence of an evil spirit on the beach. He can see nothing. It will take him some time to come to terms with the fact that “two cultures … could see reality so differently. I could never have proved to the Pirahas that the beach was empty. Nor could they have convinced me that there was anything, much less a spirit, on it.”

The unifying feature of the Pirahas’ culture is one of acceptance of transience. Their shelters, like all their made artifacts, are temporary and fragile. They do not suspend normal life when a loved one is sick or dying. (And “they have no way of knowing that a Westerner expects to live twice as long as they do.”) They don’t preserve food, even though they know how to (and decline to use other knowledge learned from outside cultures, such as how to build a dugout canoe). They sleep for no more than two hours at a time (the title of the book is a common Piraha greeting). All in all, “planning for the future is less important than enjoying each day as it comes.” You can see where the failure to persuade them of the benefits of organised religion is going to come.

Yet this “immediacy of experience” principle exists within a greater permanence. Everett finds that reports of the Piraha from almost 300 years ago corroborate his own experiences identically. Whereas “we define success in industrialized cultures at least partially as the ongoing improvement in our technology … the Pirahas show no such improvement, nor a desire for it.”  Which is not to say that their lives could not be improved in some ways: their way of dealing with sick or dying children and mothers in childbirth seems to our eyes to be somewhere between hardhearted and barbaric.

It is the immediacy of experience principle, central to Piraha culture, which is the downfall of Everett’s missionary work among the people.  “You want us to live like Americans,” said one Piraha to him.  “But the Pirahas do not want to live like Americans.  We like to drink. We like more than one woman.  We don’t want Jesus.  But we like you.  You can stay with us.  But we don’t want to hear any more about Jesus.  OK?”  Everett found himself more and more persuaded that “the act of believing in something unseen” was ridiculous.

All the doctrines and faith I held dear were a glaring irrelevancy in this culture.  They were superstition to the Pirahas.  And they began to seem more and more like superstition to me.

Their language, argues Everett, is constrained by this principle.  They have no abstract words for colours, no numbers (not even ‘one, two, many’ which some other languages exhibit), no oral history or creation myths, and most remarkably, women have fewer consonants at their disposal than men.  They “only make statements that are anchored to the moment when they are speaking.”

Everett also finds that there is no recursion in Piraha language, ie embedding of sentences within sentences (such as “the man who is tall came into the room”).  On that basis he rejects Noam Chomsky’s theory that grammar is genetic and innate, and that recursion is the unique component of human language.  Everett suggests instead that “grammar – the mechanics of language – is much less important than the culture-based meanings and constraints on talking of each specific culture in the world.”

This is much less dry than it sounds, and is all cunningly tied into an equally fascinating story of Everett’s life with the Piraha and his loss of faith.  It countered my expectations just as effectively as the cover did.  As to the debate on language and grammar, all I can say about this is that it makes a change to see Chomsky attacked for his linguistic views rather than his political ones.