ON THE ACADEMIC JUNGLE: confusion, Identity, smart guys
JACK LUDWIG is a writer from Winnipeg who now teaches at an eastern American university, so it probably seems natural to him that he should write a novel about an eastern university teacher who moves out west and feels homesick for Harvard urbanity. Confusions is, after all, the title of the novel, Ludwig's first. Its subject is culture-clash, the mixing of backgrounds, beliefs and ideals within one individual or one marriage. In young North American thinkers of our time this clash sometimes grows so intense that it produces a dizziness comparable to the effect of being smashed on both sides of the head with brass cymbals, or brash symbols. Joseph Gillis, PhD, the nonhero of the novel, is a Jew and a Harvard graduate, and he says: “1 always figured being one canceled out being the other.” His problem is Identity: he's loyal to his Jewish background, sort of, but he married a Gentile and he finds himself in an academic-intellectual community of fantastic complexity. It all confuses him. What he wants, really, is to be honest, loyal, monogamous, hard-working, and not a smart guy. But this, apparently, is impossible.
TEMPTATION: LIFE AS A MALE MARY MCCARTHY
On the jacket of Confusions the American critic Alfred Kazin says that Jack Ludwig has “prodigious weight, force and inventive thrust,” which makes it sound as if he's entering the Olympic shotput; in a way it is just this sort of nonsense that Ludwig’s book is a rebellion against, the same nonsense that somehow makes a bright fellow like Norman Mailer proclaim that he wants to “hit the long ball of American fiction.” Confusions is a reaction against the hip, hyperaggressive, weirdly competitive world of North American letters. So vicious is the academic jungle in which its hero lives that a colleague who merely demonstrates a lack of malice is regarded as the moral equivalent of Gandhi. The greatest temptation of Joseph Gillis' life is not money but the lure
ot smart-guyness: it is becoming a male Mary McCarthy that he fears most, and the Devil (who sometimes conducts dialogues in Joe's head with a Hassidic rabbi) offers Joe the chance to write a brilliant satiric novel exposing all his friends. Joe resists, but he has to be clever. Similarly, he has trouble turning down a friend who suggests that he and Joe swap wives for a night. Joe cannot, of course, admit that he thinks this would be immoral; instead he talks his friend out of it by insisting that back east wife-swapping is thought to be passé, even in the suburbs. Sheepishly, the friend accepts this sexual fashion note.
Ludwig is not above some fairly standard satire, but he handles it nicely, as when he describes the dean of a West Coast college: “The Dean’s kids were out of the Enlightenment by way of International Living, and their faces were frozen in that what-do-I-do-next look characteristic of permissive households. Life at the Dean's was discuss and explain: his children all looked as if they were slowly choking on understanding . . .”
The characteristic note of Confusions is not to be found in this sort of passage but in the eager, life-shouting sentences like the one at the end in which the narrator, after instructing his readers to change their lives, offers this advice: "Desire nothing in this world but time to do your work, love, kisses, serious talk, laughter, great works of art. and a white Jaguar so you can get to these things more quickly.” Confusions is a warm, affectionate book, and — even if at the end it never quite turns into the novel Ludwig obviously hoped it would be — it deserves to be read widely, and with affection.
ITPT* CONFUSIONS, by Jack Ludwig, McClelland and Stewart, 276 pages, $5.50.
ON THE COLONIAL HERITAGE: the whites aren’t all blackhearted
THE REAL SIGNIFICANCE of the present worldwide movement against racialism and colonialism is not the spreading hatred of inequality but the still radical belief that it is possible to create a world in which all men are individually important. The principal evil, against which the most noble forces in the world are now making war, is the concept that some people simply don't count. It is this w;ar which indirectly unites Martin Luther King, the young Russian poets, and every sanitary engineer now wrestling with the heartbreaking problems of the poor new countries. This is the issue to which Margaret Laurence’s book, The Prophet's Camel Bell, addresses itself with eloquence and charm.
Mrs. Laurence, who now lives in Vancouver, is the author of a novel, This Side Jordan, and a collection of stories which will be published this winter. She married a civil engineer shortly after her graduation from the University of Manitoba, and her travels following his career have provided much of her material. This Side Jordan and some of her stories are about Ghana; her new book is a nonfiction account of their stay, a decade ago, in Somaliland, where her husband was hired by the British government to build reservoirs for the camel herds in the desert.
Mrs. Laurence went there in all innocence: she expected the Somalis to welcome her North American liberalism and generosity, and she expected to despise the British imperialists who ran the place. She discovered instead that the Somalis, or a good many of them, viewed her and her husband with suspicion rather than instant love — they were just as complicated as Canadians, if not more so. And she discovered, too, that she actually liked some of the English; in fact, she learned that many of them were dedicated not to their imperial glory but to the betterment of the Somali people. She even found herself trying to understand those white people who treated the Somalis with contempt:
“These people are dead, actually, although some of them will continue to lumber around Africa for a few more years, like lost dinosaurs. They bear no relation to most parts of Africa today, and however much Africans may have suffered at their hands, it is to be hoped that one day Africans may be able to see them for what they really were — not people who were motivated by a brutally strong belief in their own superiority, but people who were so desperately uncertain of their own worth and their ability to cope within their own societies that they were forced to seek some kind of mastery in a place where all the cards were stacked in their favor and where they could live in a self-generated glory by transferring all evils, all weaknesses, on to another people.”
EVEN A CANADIAN CAN REACH THE SOMALIS
What impresses the reader throughout her book is Mrs. Laurence’s determined and humane attempt to see both Europeans and natives as persons, rather than as symbols and objects. She tried hard to reach the Somalis around her (she learned enough of the language to translate their folk poetry) and often she partly succeeded. As her fiction has already demonstrated, Mrs. Laurence has a first-class talent for narrative and description, and in The Prophet’s Camel Bell she uses it
well. In the end her book is a convincing argument for the proposition that a rich education awaits the European or North American in Africa, if he can go there in humility.
THF. PROPHET'S CAMEL BEI L, by Margaret Laurence. McClelland and Stewart, 239
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