Friday 5 August 2011

Open City opens here

Becoming a regular reader of the literary and other writing by established, less established and newly minted writers available on blogs and other online spaces has been a wonderful part of my life in recent years. It’s deepened and expanded my knowledge and tastes in fiction, non-fiction and poetry. It’s not the same as reading books (and books are my dear, lifelong friends – I don’t believe they’re about to die out), but online reading has been just as powerful and brought its own strong appeal of freshness, informality, variety and, of course, interactivity. So it’s not a total surprise to see a friend first encountered through the different blogs he’s kept now find considerable success with his first novel. Not a surprise, but a new and engaging experience.

Teju Cole’s novel, Open City, was published yesterday by Faber and Faber in the UK, six months after its launch in the US, where positive reviews in small and more specialised newspapers, magazines and blogs were followed by great praise from James Wood in the New Yorker and a continuing stream of appreciation from all kinds of readers and critics. And now the UK reviews start, with a buzz of thoughtful enthusiasm, from Pankaj Mishra in the Financial Times, Petina Gappah in the Guardian, Max Liu in the Independent, Adam Kirsch in the New Statesman and anonymous endorsement in the Economist. Already available from UK online retailers, it should be in the shops any time now!

I’ve read the novel several times. I’m both too close to it and haven’t yet got close enough to write easily about it. I can point to the reviews linked above, especially James Wood’s, which was one of those that make you hug yourself in glee because they say the things you thought, but could never have articulated. And I can mention, perhaps, some of the things that particularly drew me. The intense, detailed and specific narrative, unravelling inside the mind of one man, Julius - a young Nigerian-German doctor completing his residency in psychiatry in a New York hospital - brings the city to life in a different, slower, deeper way from anything I've ever read. From this detail and specificity, it reaches out widely to the global flows of our fluxing, ungraspable world, personified by the various immigrants and asylum seekers he encounters. It reaches in, too, to touch the reader's mind and senses and emotions. The restrained, intellectual voice of this protagonist-narrator is also sensitive and compelling.

This is not one for the fan of plot-heavy pageturners, perhaps. Julius spends much time alone, walks a lot and thinks a lot, about art and memory and history. He sees a lot, as loners sometimes do, and has strange, surprising, significant encounters, as loners sometimes do. His story might seem to go nowhere much. Yet, in his journey to Brussels, his journeys of memory back to Nigeria, and in the mouths and memories of those he meets from far-flung places, it goes to Africa, to Europe... and to places in the heart. It travels too, through his observations and reflections, in time and political and cultural history. Full of seeming digressions, it digresses in fact not at all, but is a seamless deepening through detail of the whole picture and atmosphere of today's global city. And it goes to a sharp inner twist that you will not forget.

There are scenes that remind me of those Hungarian photographs (and an exhibition of photos by Munkacsi features in the book), scenes so sharply, delicately detailed that they become a picture, a pattern, that is not only figurative, but not less human or humane for that – more so. Here Julius recalls arriving, with his then girlfriend Nadège and a group from her church, to visit a detention centre for undocumented immigrants; they disembark from the hired bus at a bleak spot in the outer reaches of Queens:
It was then that I saw Nadège’s uneven walk. It was, in a sense, the first time I had really seen her: the slanting afternoon light, the vicious landscape of wire fencing and broken concrete, the bus like a resting beast, the way she moved her body in compensation for a malformation
There is lovely writing about art, and I’ve been noticing recently how often this is central to the novels that most affect me; Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved and Deidre Madden’s Authenticity spring to mind. A favourite section of Open City that floats perfectly in my memory is at the American Folk Art Museum:
Standing before Brewster’s portraits, my mind quiet, I saw the paintings as records of a silent transaction between artist and object. A laden brush, in depositing paint on the panel or canvas, hardly registers a sound, and how great is the peace palpable in those great artists of stillness: Vermeer, Chardin, Hammershøi. The silence was even more profound, I thought as I stood alone in that gallery, when the private world of the [deaf] artist was total in its quietness. Unlike the other painters, Brewster hadn’t resorted to indirect gazes or chiaroscuro to communicate the silence of his world. The faces were well-lit and frontal, and yet they were quiet…
…for the moment of the painting, and, therefore, for all time, he is a little boy holding a bird by a blue string, clad in a white chemise with a carefully observed lace frill.
I kept thinking, too, that reading this book felt like listening to music: the repetitions, variations, transitions and resolutions of the structure and the way I’ve been reading it over and over with increasing pleasure, both bits and the whole, which is what I do with the latest musical enthusiasm, not so much with books, which are usually a one-off (however powerful) experience. And then I read the piece in Largehearted Boy blog that quotes Teju Cole:
Open City owes more to music than it does to other books… It is Mahler… who provides the mood for the book… but a greater influence on me in terms of compositional structure was Mahler’s great rival in the 20th century symphony, Jean Sibelius… Big forms and small forms are intimately related: listening to the violins scurry away on a theme, one becomes aware that the basses are ambling along in a patter than unexpectedly fits… That was the moving target I was chasing all the way through Open City: how could I get one sentence to open up to another in a way that was organic, but not predictable? I spent a long time thinking about the very beautiful end of the first movement of the Symphony No 3 in particular. I wondered how to use that kind of ending in a prose work: not merely a quiet ending, but an ending that sounds like conversation between three motifs, none of them loud.
I’ve been wondering whether, just as I’ve only grown in recent years to love some of my now favourite novelists – Sebald, Coetzee, Josipovici, as well as Hustvedt and Madden - I might have been less engaged by Open City twenty years ago, when I was the author’s age. Or perhaps I might have loved it just as much, if for more limited reasons. Full of complex ideas and wide intellectual references, it’s also accessible and moving. Alongside the crafted formal qualities and the dizzyingly wide allusions, there’s the aspect neither intellectual nor formal, but of character. Julius is, among other things, a person damaged by estrangement from his mother – or estranged from his mother because he is damaged. As someone in that same position of estrangement from family, which I experience as an amputation of part of the self, this is a psychological portrait I find wrenchingly convincing.

Open City does a rare thing, I think: it both challenges moral, aesthetic and narrative assumptions and holds a space for the reader to face that challenge by leaving us not alone and empty, but consoled (perhaps that is too soft a word) and accompanied by music, art and language. As James Wood wrote, making me a fan of his for life: 'what moves the prose forward is the prose – the desire to write, to defeat solitude by writing'. I hope lots of my friends and compatriots and fellow Londoners from everywhere will read it, now it’s here.


Amitava Kumar said...

Thank you, Jean, for writing about Teju's book. Open City has been my companion for some time now, and when I'm reading it but also when I'm not, I'm aware that it rises above almost everything else in its quality of response. I'm pulled deeper into solitude, as you suggest, yes, but I also want to talk about it, or at least communicate some aspect of that experience. And again, measured against the novel itself, what I find myself saying appears like so much weak babble.

Beth said...

Jean, thank you for this, (and also for putting the links to the major reviews all in one spot!)The differences in focus between the American and UK reviews have been interesting to me, too.

As another longtime reader and friend of Teju's, I agree with what you say about how his writing creates a desire for depth and a desire for the solitude of thought in which such depth only occurs. He has always made me want to write better -- to write my best, and to think my best. Open City makes it clear from where good writing comes.

alembic said...

Jean, thanks for sharing your insightful review of Open City, along with all those wonderful links to other reviews. What you say of James Wood, holds for your review as well, because you have said things I thought, “but could never have articulated” as well as you have here. Yes, the photographs and the music layer other dimensions in the book, opening up not only the “city,” but also the vast fields of solitude.

Pam said...

That sounds very interesting - I must read it.

Your photos are beautiful. I'm sorry that there is rain in your soul. There is in mine, too, at the moment, but for different reasons, I suspect. I don't suppose your daughter is about to get married to an actor who has caused her to go and live in London...

Daydream Believer said...

By the end of the month I should have time to read non-academic books. This deeply moving and perceptive analysis mean that Teju's book will be on my list. Thank you for that and for pointing me to him. He sounds like an important writer for our age and for where I have arrived in that age.

Zhoen said...

Thanks for the perspective on Open City. I still have not fully made up my mind about it, although the quality is unassailable. I think I have ultimately decided that the narrator is somewhat unreliable. And I agree that had I read it a decade ago, I also would have thought of it very differently.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Jean, I've meant to comment before. This is a wonderful review, as only you can write. I wish I had your gift for sensing and expressing the essence of a work that moves you. Rather than remaining a spectator, you become a collaborator, gently coaxing the book out of its protective cover. I've read all the excellent reviews of Teju's book but only yours pulls me back into it with new perceptions.

Jean said...

Thanks, all of you, for reading. And, yay - Open City is now prominently all over the London bookshops and continuing to garner great reviews!