Fritz Leiber, Swords and Deviltry

I tell myself that I like to read what I call “crap fantasy,” but it’s not actually the case.  I like good fantasy or, given the confines of the genre, great fantasy.  I’ve tried reading crap fantasy–one of the Forgotten Realms novels, because I’d played D&D in that setting before–and couldn’t get past the third chapter.  I need a relatively high grade of crap to keep my attention.

I had also played D&D–this in college in what was the best group I’d ever played with (we’d start at noon with a case of Newcastle)–in a Lankhmar setting, based on Fritz Leiber‘s stories.  The Dungeon Master raved about Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, and a few years later I started reading Leiber, but for some reason he didn’t, at that point in my life, take to me, or vice versa.  If memory serves, I had picked up one of the books in the middle of the series.  At minimum it wasn’t Swords and Deviltry, the first, and a good beginning.  Maybe it’s that I started at the start, or that I’m at a point in my life where I’m more open to escapist reading, but I loved the book.

I will, before noting what struck me about Leiber, say that I’ve never read The Lord of the Rings, mainly because when I pick up The Fellowship of the Ring in a bookstore or library and flip through it, I can’t get past the dainty, tra-la-la prose Tolkein insisted on using.  I say this because I’ve seen the films, and one thing I gather is that Tolkein created a number of very strong characters for his fiction, which is more than I can say for most of the fantasy I’ve read, which centers on usually one complex character with a series of arche- or stereotypes surrounding him, because it’s basically always a male central character.

Leiber, apparently in collaboration with his friend, Harry Otto Fischer, came up with two compelling characters and an even more compelling relationship between the two, and that strikes me as the basic reason these stories work in a way that genuine crap fantasy doesn’t.  It should be said that Swords and Deviltry contains three stories, the first two about Fafhrd and then the Gray Mouser respectively, before they met each other.  Most of the book is about either Fafhrd or the Gray Mouser, with the third story, the justifiably-famous “Ill Met in Lankhmar,” about their meeting and the formation of their relationship.

All of the stories are good, but without question “Ill Met in Lankhmar” is the masterpiece.  Leiber has a lightness to his writing that, so diametrically opposed to Tolkein’s leaden prose, is refreshing, and much of this comes from the characters.  The two are quick to drink and impulsive, which makes for lightness.  The trick, though, is that Leiber can use these characteristics to bring the plot to totally devastating consequences, completely convincingly.  He’s an excellent writer.

A last note: Mouser begins his career as an apprentice Wizard, Mouse.  His transformation into the Gray Mouser is well-done–and it seems to me that showing (as opposed to telling) the transformation of a character is one of the more difficult things a writer can do–but though he showed himself capable with magic, he drops it completely in favor of swordplay, noting in a later story that magic was powerful but dangerous, or something like that, but with no further comment.  Fantasy as a genre contains magic, but it’s dangerous it seems for a writer because it can easily function as a deus ex machina, relieving the writer of the need to think one’s way out of a literary problem.  That said, and only having finished the second of the series now, I want Mouser to use a little magic sometimes, precisely because Leiber’s approach to it is that it has a cost.  Witness my notes on Octavia Butler for more on why precisely this is so important.

Obi B. Egbuna, Emperor of the Sea

I’m housesitting for a friend who teaches African history, and he’s a bit older than me as well.  His bookshelves, as you can imagine, are a sight to see, and of particular interest have a ton of older books, like this one.  I had never heard of Obi B. Egbuna, and a quick look on the web indicates that most of his work, including Emperor of the Sea, is unfortunately out of print.

I grabbed the book partially because I have felt for some time a need to read beyond the big names in African literature, in which I still am poorly read (though to be fair, Africa as such, we know, encompasses a land mass equivalent to four continental United States).  That the book was small, too, was appealing.  I figured I could get a taste of a new author without too much time invested, which is a good motive.

I don’t approach, as I’ve said, these writings as reviews per se, but as the book is not well-known and is also out-of-print, I would describe it.  There are either three or five stories in it.  One, “A Tale of Three Souls,” comprises three tales about three different people.

All of the stories take storytelling as their form, to great effect.  Probably, a lot of critical response contextualized Egbuna’s work as an artifact of a “primitive” culture based on “oral tradition” making its first forays into printed literature and, thus, keeping much of the form of what people call “traditional storytelling” in, in this case, short story form.  Witness Walter Benjamin‘s “The Storyteller,” (in .pdf) for a better take on the transition, looking at Leskov.

There is a point to be made–and Benjamin makes it–regarding the relationship between oral storytelling and the printed word, and it is that the relationship between the two is not hierarchical.  To be certain, I share Benjamin’s, for lack of a better word, nostalgia for storytelling, even if I myself don’t participate in it.  I write songs that often take a narrative form of a sort, but and possibly this constitutes a participation in story.  That said, I would argue that story exists, as everything, as a social form, in the relationship between a person (or people) telling a story, and people listening to it.  A physical presence is necessary, I’d say, or rather, if there is not a physically shared space between storyteller and audience (and as well a reciprocal relationship between the two) then we’re talking about something else entirely.  There is a lot of talk about community on the internet, for example, and it’s very problematic.  People need to physically share space with each other for us to have community in a meaningful way.  Reading a blog on books is good, but it’s not the same as a reading group. People need to be sharing a space.  Consider how differently one feels having a chat with friends and sending emails or chatting online.  The latter clearly sucks in comparison.

I felt two things, not contradictory, as I was reading.  Most importantly, I loved reading it.  The stories were all, on their own merits, excellent, both for the simple pleasure of reading them and for the thinking about them that followed.  Egbuna among other things has all the right politics.  One of the “Tales of Three Souls” deals with the formation, at a neo-colonial Nigerian oil company, of a trade union, initated by an African-American engineer.  “Trade Unionism” can be a perjorative some Marxist circles in which I sometimes find myself, but that’s a jaded view from the United States.  We often forget in this country on the Left that trade unions aren’t the problem–the goal is to fix the unions (i.e., re-radicalize them) because labor organized is the only possible response to capital.  Also, African trade unionism was from the start the real deal, and the reader is reminded of this in the story.  Class is all over Egbuna’s work, written with real understanding.

I am aware that I have what some people might call a paranoid streak, but I’ve come by it honestly by being a Leftist in an age of unmitigated reaction.  One gets touchy after a while.  So, if I run things forward in my head, after reading Egbuna, it’s for a good reason and I’m probably right even if I have long stopped bothering to do research and check for confirmation of my suspicions.  I say this because I have a nasty feeling that Egbuna’s book is out-of-print because he’s seen–by white critical opinion–as a relic of a bygone era, that of the immediate post-colonial moment.  We are to think, some would have it, that Derrida and Foucault (the latter of more interest to me, to be sure) would do more for human freedom at this point than would Marx, or, better still, getting off one’s own ass and doing something oneself.  One can seem hip to the world by dismissing the possibility of freedom because it hasn’t happened yet, however one defines it.  What happens is that people who ought to be busting their butts to create a decent society imagine that they are somehow helping by taking an abstract, critical approach to intellectual questions.  Abstraction and critique are essential, but only if they are actually put into play.

Egbuna deals with African people who do things for themselves, though to be sure at times they need to be prodded into action as in the story mentioned above.  There is nothing out of date about that, and I’d suggest that, having recently read that C.L.R. James book about Nkrumah, the Left, particularly, the white left, needs go back and study that whole generation of radicals.

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Edwidge Danticat, Krik? Krak!

My wife had raved about Edwidge Danticat‘s writing for years, and finally, on a couch on Maui, I read Krik? Krak! in a couple days. Again, I am confirmed in my decision not to do a doctorate: the freedom to read widely is a real help to my understanding of the world and one which I would not have were I a specialist. The book is a collection of short stories, most of which take place in Haiti, the country of Danticat’s birth. She emigrated to New York City (a city about which I have had numerous dreams recently, for some reason), and writes in English, interestingly. I had assumed, picking up the book, that I would read a translation.

All of Danticat’s subjects are working-class. I have a feeling–forgive the lack of citations: this piece is not that kind of project–that much of the critical response to this book in the United States viewed the stories in an essentially, if veiled, racialized view of the developing world and patterns of immigration. I myself have been guilty of seeing some fundamental unity among people in developing countries: somehow, before moving to Senegal, I had felt like “the Senegalese” was actually a meaningful concept. When I lived there, I came to realize that we had a) the Senegalese people, and b) the Senegalese elite, and possibly a c) Senegalese trying to enter the elite. I had never been in such a classist society, or at least not for a long enough time to really notice.

Danticat focuses to my memory (I finished the book nearly a month ago now) almost no attention on race, despite the fact, of which she is certainly aware, that her work in this country is categorized racially. I suppose this helps one understand the destructive absurdity of race in the United States. Almost entirely focused on class (and gender, one could suggest, though I wouldn’t), she inevitably is categorized racially. This isn’t to suggest that her book is not fundamentally reflective of a particular aspect of the Black diaspora–Haitian revolutionary consciousness plays a fairly significant role in at least one of the stories–but that white critical types tend to think that the Black diaspora is always about race.

The back cover stresses that Danticat’s protagonists tend to be woman, and in the last, longest story she covers one woman’s marriage, a rite of passage to be sure, from a sister’s perspective. All this is marketing. In my writing I tend toward male protagonists, and this is certainly a flaw. I do this because I’m male and in my life I live as a man. It’s not a surprise that I tend to write male characters. Danticat tends to write about women. None of this is to suggest that Danticat is not entirely conscious of the political implications of writing about women: she obviously is. That said, were I to point to a particular theme throughout the stories, their class analysis comes to the fore, not at the expense of anything else to be sure. I am sure, however, that Danticat gets very little attention for documenting the lives of working-class Haitians, and quite a lot for documenting the lives of Haitian women. The two of course are the same people, just complex as all people are.

There are two points. The first is that Danticat, because of who she is, cannot avoid in the market place the various labels that are inevitably applied to her. Given the context, I assume that she embraces them as well she should. A corollary to this point is that, just as sure as Danticat can’t avoid labels, they won’t be applied to me in terms of my identity. Rather, I am labeled by what I do: “singer-songwriter,” which is basically factual. That said, the second point: neither Danticat nor myself can avoid the political implications of who and what we write about. Writing about anything has political consequences, and the start to dealing with this well is to be conscious of it.

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