Some Thoughts on Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1983)

To be frank, this is a difficult post as I really struggled to finish this book. A few years ago I have read some books by Alice Walker. One of them was Possessing the Secret of Joy. The book tells Tashi’s story. Tashi is an Olinka woman – a people invented by Alice Walker – who has to undergo circumcision. I remember that I thought it was well done and a very important book. I didn’t know that Tashi already plays a role in The Color Purple. I think The Color Purple also contains a lot of topics that are still important today but it is a book I should have read as a teenager. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the first books my mother read to me when I was a child, it made a big impression. If there wasn’t such a lot of violence and some explicit sex in The Color Purple it would be great for children as well. I’m too familiar with the topics by now to care much for the educational intention behind the story and the narrative voice – a childlike voice narrating the story in form of letters addressed to God and later letters addressed to a distant sister – annoyed me a lot. After a hundred pages I could hardly bear to go on reading. Still, as I said, the topics are important and some elements were interesting.

The most important topics are sexism and racism. Cultural heritage and religion. Slavery and freedom. Self-esteem and lack of confidence. Each character embodies one or more topics but with the exception of one of the central characters Shug Avery, the Blues singer and lover of Celie and Celie’s husband, all the characters undergo a journey from a fractured self to a complete self. Only Shug is fully herself from the beginning of the novel until the end and as such functions like a catalyst. She is also the only one who has the “true religion” or rather spirituality. A religion free of false patriarchal images, a religion which celebrates life and God in everything and everyone. This aspect of the novel is interesting and was glad to finally find out what the title of the novel means.

Listen, God love everything you love – and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration.

You sayin God vain? I ast.

Naw, she say. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.

Well, us talk and talk bout God, but I’m still adrift. Trying to chase that old white man out of my head. I been so busy thinking bout him I never truly notice nothing God make. Not a blade of corn (how it do that?) not the color purple (where it come from) Not the little wildflowers. Nothing.

Towards the middle of the novel, Celie discovers that her long-lost sister Nettie has been writing to her ever since she left. Her letters form an important part and if they hadn’t been so wordy they would have been a relief as they are not written in spoken language. Nettie’s letters give another dimension and add the topic of Africa to the novel. I’m surprised that there haven’t been a lot of critical voices mentioning the depiction of Africa in the book. Nettie goes to Africa as a missionary and describes in great detail the poverty and illnesses, the illiteracy, the patriarchal society which forces girls to undergo the painful and dangerous circumcision. What I found amazing is that Nettie sees a direct link between the fact that many African people have sold other Africans to whites as slaves and their poverty and illnesses.

Although Africans once had a better civilization than the European (though of course even the English do not say this: I get this from reading a man named J. A. Rogers) for several centuries they have fallen on hard times. “Hard times “is a phrase the English love to use, when speaking of Africa. And it is easy to forget that Africa’s “hard times” were made harder by them. Millions and millions of Africans were captured or sold into slavery- you and me, Celie! And whole cities were destroyed by slave catching wars. Today the people of Africa-having murdered or sold into slavery their strongest folks-are riddled by disease and sunk in spiritual and physical confusion. They believe in the devil and worship the dead. Nor can they read or write.

I can’t help it but this passage shocks me. Africa has no homogenous population. It hasn’t and has never had. Africa has always consisted of extremely diverse peoples, with different cultural backgrounds, social systems, governments, religions, etc. From the highly elaborate kingdoms to the hunter gatherer societies there was everything before the white people even arrived. The way this is treated in the book or in this passage makes it sound as if there was such a thing as THE African while there were and are so many different people. While, yes, certain African people were actively selling other Africans – mostly the coastal people sold those from inside the country, the lesser developed people – and without the assistance of Africans slavery wouldn’t have been possible, not everyone has partaken in this. This is simplifying and distorting history. The end of the big cities was brought upon them by the whites. As developed as Africa was, in art and culture, they had no pistols or guns or any such weapons and were brought down relatively easily by a small number of white traders and explorers.

All in all, as I mentioned before, the narrative voice annoyed me. It was very repetitive. I also thought there was much too much in this book. Celie’s and Shug’s story would have been sufficient. There was no need to add a sister who travels to Africa as a missionary. It’s as if she had wanted to touch upon each and every subject related to or important in the life and history of Afro-American women. It may be mean to say so but I don’t think this would received a Pulitzer if it had been published now and not 30 years ago.

As I wanted to read more African – American authors this year, I’m glad I’ve read it but I’m sure, I’ll pick Zora Neale Hurston or one of the novels by Toni Morrison I haven’t read yet, next.

I have read The Color Purple for the readalong hosted by Bettina (Liburuak). If you’d like to read other’s impressions here are the links.

Let me end this post on a provocative note and add a question for the readalong participants or anyone who has read the book.

After having read The Color Purple, do you really consider this to be a classic or is it not rather just a very famous book?

Fyodor Dostoevsky: Poor People/Poor Folk – Бедные люди [Bednye lyudi] (1846)

Presented as a series of letters between the humble copying-clerk Devushkin and a distant relative of his, the young Varenka, Poor People brings to the fore the underclass of St Petersburg, who live at the margins of society in the most appalling conditions and abject poverty. As Devushkin tries to help Varenka improve her plight by selling anything he can, he is reduced to even more desperate circumstances and seeks refuge in alcohol, looking on helplessly as the object of his impossible love is taken away from him.

Poor People – or Poor Folk, depending on the translation – was Dostoevsky’s first novel. Published in 1846 it was highly acclaimed by fellow writers and critics alike. At only 24 Dostoevsky became a literary celebrity. It is generally not considered to be his best book, his masterpieces were still to come, but it already contains many of the elements that made Dostoevsky famous.

I must admit this was not an easy read. The style is simple and descriptive but the story was unsettling and depressing and it did ring unbearably true.

Poor People is an epistolary novel set in St.Petersburg among the very poor. The letters are exchanged between a young orphaned woman, Varenka,  and an elderly distant relative, the copy-clerk Devushkin, who loves her very much.

Those two poor people live very close to each other but have to hide their friendship as it could be misunderstood. The descriptions of Varenka’s past, how her parents died and mean people pretended to take care of her while in reality there was only abuse, are paired with Devushkin’s descriptions of the way he is living. Although he is very poor himself he tries to help the fragile young woman and sends her what little money he has. In order to save money he left his old apartment after his landlady died and moved into another place. In this apartment he lives with a great number of equally poor people together in close quarters. He really only occupies a little corner of the kitchen that is separated from the rest by a piece of fabric.

He doesn’t even mind living like this at first as he can see Varenka’s windows from his room but after a while it gets harder for him. In their letters they try to comfort each other and describe in great detail how they live. The tone is very emotional, there isn’t much they hold back. On some days they are cheerful and will write about nice things they have seen or experienced but on most other days they are in despair and very sad. Varenka is often ill and can’t work while Devushkin has a hard time to hide his poverty at work. His clothes are shabby and would need mending, he loses his buttons, his shoes have holes and the soles are coming off. The poorer they get, the worse they are treated by others, also from those who are as poor as they are.

As if matters were not bad enough, Devushkin spends what little money he has on alcohol. He invariably pays his escapades with fear and shame. One misfortune follows another as they have little or no means to prevent them.

Varenka is a very intelligent young woman. Unlike Devushkin she is educated and likes to read. She loves Pushkin and Gogol. In some of the letters and a little notebook that she sends to Devushkin, she describes her childhood. These are wonderful passages that capture the life in the country, the changing of the seasons. She describes with great detail how golden the autumn was in the country, how wonderful winter could be because they would sit around a fire and tell stories. These passages show how masterful a writer Dostoevsky is.

Devushkin on the other hand tells her what he sees when he goes out in Petersburg. It makes him sad to see beautiful rich women and to know how arbitrary it is to be either born poor or rich.

One of the themes of the novel is the arbitrariness of poverty and how prejudiced the rich are. They treat the poor as if they were contagious. On the other hand they like to see them because it makes them feel superior. For that very same reason they  like to give them alms. The lack of privacy makes matters worse. Living with so many or being stuffed into a tiny office space with many other clerks exposes you constantly to the prying of others.

It seems as if one should never undergo a certain level of poverty, once you fall below there is no getting up anymore. There are numerous little stories of other poor people who fall ill and of children who die because no medicine is available.

Devushkin and Varenka are amazing characters. Despite their destitution they always think of each other first and if they receive just a little bit of money from somewhere they will give to those who have even less.

Reading this in winter, when the days are getting shorter and it is getting colder was really not easy. It’s depressing and sad. I thought of a documentary that I watched not long ago about Russian pensioners and some of those people lived in the same dirty, shabby and unhealthy tiny apartments. I remember one old woman, sitting in a box-like room, crying all through the interview. She had hardly any food, no heating, her clothes were rags. And this in Europe in 2011.

I didn’t enjoy reading this but on the other hand I felt very bad for thinking like this. Those who live under such conditions cannot just decide to walk away from them. Who am I to want to shelter myself from reading about such things?

I accidentally landed in a slum once, in Fort-de-France, Martinique. I felt really miserable, not because I thought it was dangerous, (maybe it was, no clue) but because it felt like prying. By walking between the shacks I could see into the homes of these people, they had no windows or doors and I felt like a voyeur. I was then asked angrily what the heck I thought I was doing but they understood, that I had lost my way and once they realized it wasn’t curiosity, they were very helpful.

It is really in bad taste but apparently it is part of many a guided tour in Brazil to pay a visit to the favelas.

I have read a few of Dostoevsky’s books, Crime and Punishment, The Gambler, Memoirs from the House of the Dead, with the exception of the last, they didn’t seem this depressing and I liked them very much.

I still got White Nights, Notes From Underground and The Brothers Karamazov to read. But not just yet.

I didn’t include any quotes as I’ve read this in a German translation. I like the German cover a lot.

Daniel Glattauer: Every Seventh Wave (2011) aka Alle sieben Wellen (2009) The Sequel of Love Virtually

Every Seventh Wave

A while back I wrote about Daniel Glattauer’s Love Virtually which has been released meanwhile. I just saw that the sequel, Every Seventh Wave,  will be published this year as well. Usually I include the amazon blurb at the beginning of my posts but this one  contains too many spoilers of the first book.

Like its predecessor, I have read Alle sieben Wellen when it came out in Germany. For all those who like Love Virtually, they can look forward to a sequel that is very close to the first book. The story of Leo and Emmi, their e-mail exchange goes on. More passionate and more intense than before. And still they ask the same questions. Should they meet or should they not? To the somewhat playful tone of the first book Glattauer adds a bit of a darker undertone. I cannot say too much or it would be a spoiler.

Even though I didn’t like the idea of a sequel at all and if I had had something to say, it wouldn’t have been written but since it was and I liked the tone of the first book, I had to read this one as well. And it isn’t disappointing. It is as witty, charming, thought-provoking and enjoyable as the first.

All those who thought that Emmi and Leo’s story shouldn’t finish like it did in Love Virtually will enjoy this book. All those who loved the style of Glattauer the first time, will enjoy this as well. Although Love Virtually can be read on its own, this one can not. If you want to read Glattauer, you should start with the first one.

I have no problem with the translation of the title this time, it is pretty literal but I still like the German cover better.

The Austrian author Daniel Glattauer has written quite a few books that have been successful in Germany and other German speaking countries. Like so very often none of them has been translated. Should you read German you can find more information on his website.

Katherine Pancol: Un homme à distance (2001) An Epistolary Novel about Books

This little book, Un homme à distance, only 160 pages long, is a real gem. I was so enchanted by it. In the evenings I could hardly wait to get back from work and go on reading. Why it has not been translated is a total mystery to me as it would find a multitude of readers in the English-speaking world.  It is also surprising since Katherine Pancol lived in the States where she took creative writing courses at the Columbia University. It is a novel in letters and a novel about books that has been compared to 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. We find the same passion for books, the same enchantment. The story is quite simple. A young woman, owner of a book shop in Fécamp (a fishing port with an attractive seafront promenade located between Le Havre and Dieppe, in the French Normandy region), starts a correspondence with a mysterious man. They exchange their thoughts on all sorts of books, some I had never heard of before but, as a true addict, had to buy immediately since I knew the others and they are all outstanding.

The tone of this novel is quite melancholic. The young shopkeeper is heartbroken about the end of an affair which makes her live like a recluse. This correspondence brings her back to life. The end stunned me. It was not what I had expected.

Let’s hope  she will be translated or that the one or the other reader of this post does read  French.

As many of the books mentioned are absolute favourites of mine and the others seem to be must-reads too and for all those who are curious, I made a list.

Contrary to Pancol’s books they are all available as translations.

The Great Meaulnes or The Lost Estate by Henri Alan-Fournier. The Princess de Clèves by Mme de Lafayette. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids  Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke. The Wild Palms by William Faulkner. Three Horses by Erri de Luca

Bakunin’s Son by Sergio d’Atzeni. The House of Others by Silvio d’Arzo. What Maisie Knew by Henry James

Les liaisons dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos. Letter from an Unknown Woman by Stefan  Zweig. The Letters of a Portuguese Nun.

Cousin Bette by Balzac. Les Diaboliques by Barbey d’Aurevilly. Doomed Love Camilo Castelo Branco. The Letters of Gustave Flaubert.

A Selection of the Chroniques by Guy de Maupassant. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson.

Sonnets from the Portuguese by  Elizabeth Browning. The Journal of Delacroix

The only one that has not been translated is Confidence africaine by Roger Martin du Gard.

One that would need to be rediscovered is The Lost Estate. It is probably the novel that influenced Fitzgerald in writing The Great Gatsby. But, as stated before, all the books on this list are excellent and remarkable.

Katherine Pancol has written quite a lot of books. They have all been very successful in France, even more so than this one. The most notable seem to be Les yeux jaunes des crocodiles, La valse lente des tortues and Les écureuils du Central Park sont triste le lundi.

You can visit Katherine´s French/English Homepage.