Five reasons to read the CRB: Brendan de Caires

by Nicholas Laughlin on November 8, 2010

The Portal, by Stanley GreavesThe Portal (2006; 107 x 73 cm), by Stanley Greaves; from the Shadows Move Among Them series

During November and December 2010, the CRB is running a readers’ donation drive. Find out more here. This post is the first of a series in which CRB contributors suggest five reasons to read and support the magazine — in the form of five reviews or other pieces from our archive.

Brendan de Caires writes:

I read as often as I can, but not as much as I should. I know this because I was lucky enough to grow up on the fringes of a circle of men who read obsessively throughout their adult lives. The poet Martin Carter was one of these men. He read with attitude, scoring books with impassioned marginalia, assessing the argument from page to page. When Tom Wolfe wrote profiles of the American glitterati he was said to enter their rooms like a shark sighting chum, salivating at the semiotics of their furniture, eager to price the crystal and decipher the meanings of their objets d’art. Carter came to books the same way; he saw deep into their inner beings, and could talk about them with an easy familiarity decades later. And while it is certainly true that Karl Marx illuminated much of his world view, I have always felt it was his prodigious intellectual curiosity, his irrepressible bookishness (as a teenager in Georgetown he often read a book a day) that fuelled the poetry within.

Martin was a second father to my own father, and from him we both learned a reverence for serious writing. Usually this meant politics. Long before I had read a page of their work, I knew the world was a better place for having Leszek Kołakowski, Isaac Deutscher, and Edmund Wilson in it. I also knew that any intellectual aspirations I might have had to be gauged by at least a passing familiarity with their “monuments of unageing intellect.”

Towards the end of his life, Martin was overwhelmed by pessimism about Guyana and the Caribbean. He mourned the absence of serious conversation and the near total disappearance of the cultural and political aspirations which had inspired the New World movement. It is a pity that he never lived to see the CRB find its feet, and to witness the revival of some of that spirit.

After meandering through the archives, I have chosen five pieces that I believe Martin and my father would have enjoyed.

1. Who dares to say what Wilson Harris’s fiction is all about? “Prosimetrum”, by Fred D’Aguiar (February 2009), is one of the few lucid accounts of what our most “misunderestimated” sage is up to do when he dissolves time and personality in his novels:

Landscape became instructive not simply in terms outlined by the Romantics, whose great legacy remains that landscape is a thing we can benefit from by knowing about, a cathedral of sorts for spiritual renewal. But for Harris that landscape enacts perception, governs it, steers it into new mental terrain. This transformative aspect of landscape was bound to alter Harris’s language, since the way he talked about place had to be part and parcel of his discoveries about the power of Guyana’s rainforest interior. When allied with time, this sensory reception of a place turned out to be a literary practice, a theory about fiction, an account of the intuitive imagination, and therefore a new type of fiction . . .

2. Stanley Greaves ought to be better known in the Caribbean. “Flatness is all” (November 2006) offers multiple insights into Guyana’s greatest living painter in the lambent prose that has made Rupert Roopnaraine our wisest critic. For me it also gives a glimpse into the intellectual world that might have flourished in Georgetown if our politics had turned out differently.

Underlining the abstract intent of these paintings, there is at work a phenomenology that relegates objects of nature to the viscous and contingent, as opposed to the crystalline hardness and necessity of the walls and roadways of the surrounding landscape. The interplay of the organic and the inorganic creates a certain tension. In the otherwise entirely mineral environment of the paintings there are three natural objects: a mango suspended on a string in Reaching; the breadfruit head of St Sebastian, his shadow pinned down with large nails; and a defiant branch sprouting improbably out of the arch in The Portal, the painting that takes the spiritual world as its subject. The Portal is a tale of two spaces, connected by a rope that curls in the foreground of one space and whose end is in the grip of the figure in the other. At both ends of the rope, the familiar infinity loop, a recurrent Greavesian motif . . .

3. I love take-downs, especially the quiet ones. “Unfit to print” (May 2005) is one of the most satisfying that I’ve read. Jeremy Taylor was my boss for five years and unfailingly tolerant of my myriad editorial misjudgments and lapses (which once included placing the wrong crossword grid into an issue of Caribbean Beat!). So I was glad to see he could be unashamedly judgmental, in the vulgar sense of that word, on the right occasions. I loved the slow unsheathing of the critical knife in this piece, and the way the title ends up referring not to the subject of the book under review but to the book itself.

There are production disappointments in this book too, which is unfortunate in the context of a polemic against poor quality and lack of professionalism: embarrassing typos (“Buju Bantan”), tortuous syntax, wild punctuation, and incomprehensible sentences . . .

4. Living in Canada has made me nostalgic for the directness of Trinidadians. Judy Raymond’s “Doctor, doctor” (November 2007) is another fine example of what happens when the right reviewer meets the wrong book. It also seems to me entirely appropriate that a book which missed the meaning of Eric Williams should be dismissed with an impatience not too dissimilar to his own.

Costar — who studied Williams’s character closely and fruitfully — wrote that the Doctor’s famous speeches in Woodford Square “are rated high as entertainment by those for whose benefit they are uttered.” This judgement is beyond the pale as far as Palmer is concerned: he considers it “contemptuous,” “extraordinary,” “uncharitable.”

It is none of those things; it is actually a perfectly apt compliment, since without a doubt entertaining his audience was one of the effects for which Williams, a brilliant orator, was aiming. But Colin Palmer is a Jamaican, and seems to have no inkling of the outright jokiness, much of it deliberate, of a great deal of Trinidad politics — surely an unfortunate blind spot in one who has set out to analyse an important period in the political history of Trinidad . . .

5. For me, “Wonder boy” (February 2008) is proof that Caribbean book-reviewing can rise to the level of the fiction it surveys. I particularly enjoyed the opening paragraph, and immediately resolved to read more of Marlon James. It came as no surprise to me when the American National Book Critics Circle chose The Book of Night Women for its 2010 fiction shortlist. Before long, I’m sure, James will be winning even bigger prizes, and tempting young novelists to try similar reviews of his own work.

I hate skinny prose. I hate — hold on a second. Essayus interruptus. While I come not to bury Junot Díaz but to praise him (profusely), please allow for a word from our sponsor. As someone who hates reviews that include the “I”, I have ironically proved the rock band Jane’s Addiction true by becoming that which I hate. But I digress. I’m simply trying to explain that “I” will pop up all over this review, for two reasons. A novel with fearless, fire-breathing prose, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao downright demands a review in the first person, teasing and taunting the “I” like a call-and-response in church. This novel may be the first since Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities to snatch reading from a passive to an active experience. But, more than that, Díaz, like the very best of novelists (a list that does not include Wolfe, by the way), makes a voyeur out of the reader, pushing wide open windows into lives we don’t deserve to see . . .

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