Monday, December 14, 2009

The Artistry of the Moment

While I was visiting Jason and his family in North Carolina I began reading a book he had recommended, Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger. I got pretty well into it while I was there, continued it on the plane ride home, and finished reading it during my first week back in Hawaii. It's the best book I've read this year, and one of the better books I've read in my lifetime. Set in the mid-1700s, it tells the story of a slave ship: how the ship came to be built in the first place, by a British businessman looking to recoup some disastrous losses by means of the lucrative slave trade; how the ships maiden - and only - voyage from Britain to Africa to the New World played out; and how those who made the trip find their lives transformed in ways they could not possibly have foreseen at the outset. While the book has literally dozens of convincingly imagined characters, the main lines of the plot fall into place around two young men: Matthew Paris, who has been driven by force of circumstance to enlist as ship's surgeon, and his cousin Erasmus Kemp, son of the ship's owner, who is embarked upon a difficult journey of his own, navigating the ranks of British society in an attempt to come into his own as a man to be respected.

There is much to praise in this book. At one level it's just a very well-told story, a page turner, with solidly engaging characters acting out their karmic roles on an international stage. At another level it's laden with very detailed and accurate historical information about the slave trade and about life on board the ship. At yet another level it's a very cunningly crafted allegorical structure in which careful parallels are drawn between the many forms of bondage to which men subject each other, and themselves— the slaves in thrall to their captors, the sailors in thrall to their captain, the soldiers in thrall to their postings, the scientists in thrall to the popular prejudices of their time, lovers in thrall to their loved ones, wives in thrall to their husbands. There is even a very elegant and humorous interpolation of the figure of Caliban, in thrall to Prospero, in the context of rehearsals of The Tempest by a group of upperclass British socialites to which Erasmus Kemp is attempting to gain access.

But what gave me perhaps more pleasure than any of the above was simply the movement of the language in the book. Unsworth is a writer with the sensibilities of an artist and musician. He is especially good at moments, the kind of moments when, in the midst of other activity, a character is arrested by something in the natural world around him — the flight of a bird, a shadow, the cry of an animal — which turns his thoughts inward, into recollection or reverie. Here is one such passage, which comes right in the middle of a conversation that Matthew Paris is having with his uncle, who has just posed him a question. Before replying, Matthew looks out the window:

Sunshine had come to the day after a misty start and there was a breeze outside, stirring the new leaves on the elms round the little square. Some pigeons flew up as he watched. The movement of the trees and the flight of the pigeons sent quick shoals of shadows across the room, over the ceiling and walls. For some moments he watched this without speaking. Despite the inertness of his body, he felt light, with substance. Misty mornings bring fine weather when the season is turning, he thought vaguely, almost sleepily. First songs of warblers through the mist, the sycamores in first leaf. By the river. Ruth and I hand in hand, light raining down on leaf and bud, shadows moving on the water. Light of love in her face. We sat together on the bank. By then she was carrying the child. A day to be remembered, because we knew — and told each other — that we need do nothing but wait. We only had to be as we were. Everything was calm and satisfactory. The house not very grand but with room enough, and the income from shop and practice sufficient. We had only to wait, with our love, for the child to come. Now Ruth is nowhere in this world any more and I am going to Africa. (30)

The move here from outside — the trees, the pigeons, the shadows — to Matthew's desolate recollection of his loss is startlingly quick. The experience of the physical sensations in this moment, in the here and now, transports him instantly to another moment in memory, a moment when the reality of his current loss would have been, and was, unimaginable. The shift from outer to inner is conveyed by the imagery but perhaps more effectively by the shift in syntax and diction, from full sentences to impressionistic fragments, from more artful language to more mundane.
Here's another example, of the same character caught in the same sort of moment, but fuller and more extended, from late in the book. Matthew Paris is outside a settlement in the New World. It is evening.

            He was looking eastward to where the sea lay, invisible but always present, revealed by something wild in the quality of the light above it. They had built their huts out of sight of the sea on the slightly higher ground between the barrier hummocks near the shore and the lagoons and grasslands behind, a site affording some defense against marauders and some protection from the storms that swept the coast in late summer, while still open to the prevailing sea breezes that combed through the pineland ridges and freshened the exhalations of the swamps.

            It seemed to Paris as he sat there that he had somehow earned the right not merely to live in this place but to love it — a stronger claim of possession, one enforced by the things of deepest familiarity that surrounded him, the invisible sea that cast its light, the dark snake-birds already flying up to roost in the high branches, the breeze moving in the palmettos, stirring the leaves against the palm trunks with a sound like the faint clashing of cymbals, the slender blades of the leaves themselves, curving in perfect gradation like the first whirl of a green shell. Fear of loss gave a sharper intensity to his perception. This was the place that suffering and crime had made their own, where he had been able to save some lives and ease some pain, where he had found a refuge and a physical passion undreamt of in the arms of a woman still in most ways a stranger to him.

            A vagrant beam of sunlight fell across the clearing and lay briefly on the papery bark of a gum-resin tree, lighting the peeling strips to a red glow, as if the tree were burning. The upper branches were hung with drapes of green moss, dark in the centre, fluffed with sunlight at the edges. Paris looked up beyond this, to where branch and foliage and festooning moss melted and fused into a single veil-like substance. Slowly his anxieties receded. (523)

I particularly love that section in the middle about the "things of familiarity": "the invisible sea that cast its light, the dark snake-birds already flying up to roost in the high branches, the breeze moving in the palmettos, stirring the leaves against the palm trunks with a sound like the faint clashing of cymbals, the slender blades of the leaves themselves, curving in perfect gradation like the first whirl of a green shell." There is a patience here, a precision of observation, and again, a musicality that reinforces the description and makes it feel, at least to this reader, utterly satisfying and convincing.

Sacred Hunger won the Booker Prize in 1992, so it's been around for a while. Who knew? But it's well worth reading.

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