How Many Colors Were You Thinking?

woman with colored hairAs I’m writing the book Moonapple Pie, part of the background for working on it is that I’m making a point of reading southern writers. I’ve found some who I didn’t know and have really liked (Lee Smith, Edward P. Jones, Mary Hood), as well as some who are just famous.

One writer who I decided to look at was Thomas Wolfe, from Asheville, North Carolina. Back during the summer I was in Asheville, which probably made me think more about Wolfe. I had known of him before, and a movie was made about his life in the past year. I had never read him, so I decided to try Look Homeward, Angel, which I finished recently, though I read it slowly (and it was more than 500 pages).

Although the book is a novel, it is also in some sense an autobiography of Wolfe and his family. Two characters in the book die, for instance, and Wolfe gives them the actual names of two of his own brothers who died when he was young. Even as he kept those names, however, Wolfe changed place names, so that Asheville was mysteriously renamed as Altamont.

Very little plot entices the reader through this novel, so that you wonder what is going to fill up those 500 pages. What plot the book has mostly concerns the character Eugene, who represents the author, but you have to read quite a ways before Eugene is born. We then watch him gradually grow old enough to graduate from college, though the book regularly focuses on someone other than Eugene.

For me, at least, what makes Look Homeward, Angel an interesting book is not the pale plot but the language, a brilliant display the flows and dances and sings on every page. Not everyone, of course, would want to read a book like that. If you don’t enjoy language for its own sake, this is probably not the book for you.

The one thing about this novel that really put me off was the occasional ugly racism. I understand Wolfe was writing the book in 1926, not a time of enlightenment in this country, but it was still unpleasant when I ran into it. There is no viciousness about the racism, but rather a striking lack of empathy, though to be sure, Wolfe is not exactly kind to a single character in the book.

As I was reading the novel, it seemed clear to me that this book was influenced by James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, published in 1922, and I would swear on a tiger’s eyes that Wolfe read Ulysses before he began writing. Sometimes the influence seemed open and obvious, and at other times it was simply the unfettered exuberance of the language that connected the books. Occasionally Wolfe’s language was so outlandishly imaginative that it didn’t even fully make sense, but the fireworks went on. I’ll serve you a few samples of the language, pulled out fairly randomly:

  • “And what Eliza endured in pain and fear and and glory no one knew. He breathed over them all his hot lion-breath of desire and fury; when he he was drunk, her white pursed face, and all the slow octopal movements of her temper, stirred him to red madness.”
  • “He turned his face up to her as a prisoner who recovers light, as a man long pent in darkness who bathes himself in the great pool of dawn, as a blind man who feels upon his eyes the white core and essence of immutable brightness.”
  • “O God! O God! We have been an exile in another land and a stranger in our own. The mountains were our masters: they went home to our eye and our heart before we came to five. Whatever we can do or say must be forever hillbound.”

Just as I would for Ulysses, I would recommend Look Homeward, Angel to other writers, as a way of saying “Loosen your reins on occasion. Look what is possible.”

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Filed under Book Talks, Language

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