I, Stagolee by Cecil Brown

I just finished I, Stagolee, Cecil Brown’s novel about the life of the semi-legendary Richard Shelton, aka, Stack Lee, Richard Lee, Staggerlee, etc. The figure of the “bad man” Stagolee comes down to us in a wide variety of folktales, blues, and ballads, all based on the story of Richard Lee shooting Billy Lions in a St. Louis barroom on Christmas in 1895. In some ways, Stagolee is the prototype in African American culture for the modern “gangsta” persona. I first got interested in this subject when I heard Tom Rush’s version of the ballad when I was a freshman in college. Brown’s novel catches the potent ambiguity and contradictions in the mythic character of Stagolee: He was a humanitarian, but also a pimp, a politician but also a killer, a riverboat roustabout and cab driver who nevertheless became a very rich man, an abuser of women who also loved women and was loved in return. Cecil Brown has also written a non-fiction account of Richard Lee’s fateful encounter with Billy Lions, Staggolee Shot Billy, which I think is more successful, not because it is more true, whatever that might mean,  but because it is more convincing as a piece of writing. My main problem wit I, Stagolee is the first-person point of view. On first thought, the idea of having the character from the ballad tell his own history must have seemed like a brilliant move, but it leads to all kinds of technical problems. Most ballads – virtually all of them, really – are in the third person for a good reason. A third-person narrator can dramatize action and present dialog in a way that a first-person narrator cannot. And combined with the problem, in this case, of having to present historical information and context with which the reader is not likely to be familiar, the technical decision turns out to force the novel into an awkward structure, especially at the end. Finally, there is the matter of the character Stagolee’s speech. He often sounds like a combination of a history professor and a character in a 19th century stage melodrama. I cannot decide whether this is a failure of technique, or an intentional strategy employed to give the reader some objective distance from this first-person narrator, perhaps in the service of political critique. This was what the German playwright Bertold Brecht recommended (and practiced) for a political theater and there is something Brechtian  about this novel.

 

Late Spring by Yasujiro Ozu

In The Elegance of the Hedgehog, one of the narrators, Mme. Michel, is an admirer of the films of Japanese Director Yasujiro Ozu. Because I liked the novel, I wanted to see at least one of Ozu’s films for myself — not just through the eyes of the fictional Mme Michel — so a couple of evenings ago I used Netflix to stream Late Spring. I am not a cinephile by any means & in fact until the last few months have always had a hard time sitting through movies, though I have tended to admire literary films that are carried along by language & have preferred emotionally cool movies over those stir emotion. That is, I have liked movies the best when they were most like books.

Ozu’s Late Spring is literary in this sense. Late Spring is about as far from the noise & movement of contemporary movies as it’s possible to get. From the middle of Ozu’s career & shot in black & white, the film consists mostly people talking to each other & key events happen away from the camera, while seemingly minor events are lingered over. Transitions are straight cuts, with the occasional use of a static shot of a building or landscape. These transitional frames feel very much like still photographs and sometimes invite a symbolic or metaphorical reading with their inclusion of lonely trees or clocks. Key dramatic moments are often implied rather than fully dramatized: one important plot turn takes place during the performance of a Noh drama when two characters merely look at each other and nod, with a third watching and “reading” this brief & conventional interaction.

For the contemporary Western viewer of Late Spring, the motivating problem of the story may be hard to grasp. (Assume that narratives have motivating problems or conflicts and that this is true across cultures (I think it is); nevertheless, conflict gets expressed in different ways in different cultures. And what is recognized as a particular sort of conflict in one culture might be seen is a very different light in another.) The twenty-seven-year-old Noriko lives with and cares for her widowed father, a professor. Both the professor and his sister would like Noriko to get married, but Noriko, despite being attractive and apparently happy, resists.

And it’s not that Noriko doesn’t like men, or is shy. She flirts with her father’s assistant and might have married him except that he is already engaged. One even gets the impression he’s have broken his engagement to marry Noriko. She does not want to get married because she feels genuine filial piety, a concept foreign to the West but highly developed in many Asian / Confucian cultures. This is one of the things that made this film feel so psychologically strange to me. It took me a long time to figure out that Noriko really did want to stay home and care for her father & that she genuinely preferred this to getting married, which she well understood was the expected thing to do. Actually, staying home with her father and getting married were both “expected” of her in post-war Japan and therein lies the conflict of the drama. Noriko is caught between two equally compelling social responsibilities, one traditional and one modern.

Noriko’s wedding is not dramatized. She is shown in her bridal regalia leaving to get married, then her father and a woman friend — a divorcee we’ve met earlier, a friend of Noriko’s — are shown in their wedding clothes in a bar drinking sake. The implication of this final scene is that the father will marry this not quite respectable woman rather than the woman to whom he nodded during the Noh performance, ironically proving himself to be more modern than his younger daughter, who even in marriage continues to represent the traditional Japanese virtues of filial piety and self-sacrifice.

The Elegance of the Philosophical Novel

On the recommendation of one of my students, I’ve just read Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. A lovely piece of fiction, I think, filled with great generosity & marred only by an occasional sentimental slip-up. Whether its vision of comity across the lines of class is realistic, I am not at all sure; but certainly, imagining such comity is a kind of blessed work.* The narration is split between a precocious twelve-year-old girl, the daughter of a haute bourgeois family, and the fifty-four-year-old concierge who works in their building, an autodidact of startlingly wide reading. The girl Paloma’s contributions are in the form of a pair of journals she keeps that record her alienation from her family and their values and her tone is a sometimes wistful, sometimes viciously satirical in manner; the concierge Madam Michel’s contributions feel more like traditional narrative, though at one point she, too, alludes to the fact that they are a written record of her life. This leads to what, in a traditional novel, would be a point of view problem at the end of the story, but that, here, seems designed to create a paradox for the reader’s contemplation.

The machinery of the interlocking narratives is not terribly subtle, but this is hardly a fault in a philosophical novel, where, presumably, the emphasis is in the reality of ideas rather than the realism of the setting & plot. It is clear from the beginning that the two narrators, living in different worlds in the same Paris apartment building, must inevitably be brought together; the way they come together is, however, both surprising and appropriate to their personalities. I thought the story sagged a bit about two-thirds of the way along, but it recovers itself quickly and rushes on to a surprising and, as noted, paradoxical conclusion. I am perhaps less sanguine than the author about the possibilities for communication and friendship across the boundaries of class and culture, but surely we ought to aspire to such intellectual and spiritual freedoms as this novel celebrates.

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*In this, as in other ways, The Elegance of the Hedgehog reminds one of another European philosophical novel narrated in the voice of a precocious girl, Sophie’s World, by Jostein Gaarder [NY Times Book Review, review of The Elegance of the Hedgehog  by Caryn James; review of Sophie’s World by John Vernon]