Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Wilson Harris, Among the Ancestors

Sir Wilson Harris, with his final novel,
The Ghost of Memory (2006)
Such is life, so death comes calling. Sir Wilson Harris (1921-2018), the great Guyanese-British author whose fiction, poetry and essays form a singular, ever experimental whole, left the earthly plane on March 8. I only learned about his passing recently, when Chris Stackhouse shared the news. Oddly enough, I had been thinking about Wilson Harris quite a bit of late, as returned to several longstanding fictional projects, and would wade back into various works of his for knowledge and fortification. He was and remains one of the most important literary artists in my personal firmament. His imagination, daring and craft really were peerless, as was his exacting inner aesthetic compass, which led him to write over two dozen books, at a steady clip, and it is fair to say that none of them are easy, but ever last one offers multiple rewards.

Over the years, I have invoked his name and work many times on this blog, particularly in conjunction with the annual folly known as the Nobel Prize in Literature, an award that almost completely debased itself when its jury gave the prize to Bob Dylan, arguably the most decision amidst a host of recent ones, while literary pathblazers like Harris, John Ashbery, E. L. Doctorow, and countless others died overlooked. One post from 2006 focusing on Harris bore the title "Four Books," and his was the second I discussed. I will repeat it verbatim here, because everything I said then I still believe, with even stronger conviction:

Speaking of passing through strange mirrors, I recently reread Wilson Harris's Carnival (Faber Faber, 1985, out of print) for the graduate course I'm teaching. I realized upon finishing it once again that it must be one of the most difficult novels written in English in the last 25 (50? 75? more?) years. Though it only runs to 168 or so pages, it serves up prose so densely lyrical, disorienting, distancing, and taxing that I have to admit my reading strategy involved pausing, then rereading, then rereading again certain passages, even though I'd already read the novel several times in the past. My conviction remains that this is a work of manifest artistry that manages tosimultaneously embody multiple genres and modes while also functioning diegetically as an allegorical narrative. I also think it stages, from the level of syntax all the way up to the level of the plot, a very complex textual embodiment and performance of epic and ritual, as a revisionary "Carnival" site in prose (Carnival and the carnivalesque, masking/masqueing, transformation and metamorphosis, performance and performativity, trauma and recovery). In this work, Harris employs a relentlessly dialectic, fractal, negative capability in writing the social, economic, political, and spiritual "history" of Guyana, the Western epic tradition, the Diaspora and diasporas, society and the self. I also suggested to the class that though he was (and is) interested at the time in quantum theory, which is most evident in The Four Banks of the River of Space (yet operative, in terms of ways of reading time and space in Carnival and the carnival), he seems also to have anticipated string theory in this book, at least as I understand it from many articles and Brian Greene's and Lisa Randall's books on the topic (which isn't very well). Harris brain nevertheless strikes me as having been on the branes before almost anyone else--in the literary world, that is.

I again looked at Carnival last fall, as I was mentoring one of my brilliant graduate students, Simeon M., and shared, by reading aloud, Harris's opening to that novel, a series of passages that seem to take metaphysical flight as the eyes and voice box move from word to word. It is a remarkable performance, refined in that novel to sublimity, and for it alone Harris should have received every award under the sun. As these things go, of course, it did not work out that way, but he kept writing, and published right into his 80s. I have his final novel, The Mask of the Beggar, and though a late(r)/last work, it glimmers with his distinctive genius. In his work, Guyana, the Caribbean, black diasporic and mixed people of the new and old worlds, the spiritual and scientific, the metaphysical, the cross-cultural imagination, as he once put it, all take flight.

I never had the opportunity to meet Wilson Harris, but I did work with him quite pleasurably for a brief period in the early 1990s, when I was the managing editor of a literary journal that was planning to dedicate an issue to him. This involved written correspondence, and I noted then his graciousness and warmth, but also his exactitude when it came to how his work should appear and what we would include. What provided me with a lesson I had never gotten before was to see his edited manuscripts, and to note how, perhaps more so than any other author I had ever read, he distilled everything on the page down to an intoxicating brew.  Covering the typewritten text like a spiderweb, his penned cross-outs and substitutions suggested a continuous search for concision not with the aim of efficiency but of discursive precision was incredibly instructive. To put it another way, Harris was not in search just of the right word, but the combination of words through which the force of his narration, his ideas, the presence of the story, would resonate most fully. To give an example, here are two paragraphs from my quotation, back in 2011, of his Four Banks of the River of Space:

"The flute sings of an ancient riverbead one hundred fathoms deep, far below the Potaro River that runs to the Waterfall. Two rivers then. The visible Potaro runs to the Waterfall. The invisible stream of the river of the dead runs far below, far under our knees. The flute tells of the passage of the drowned river of the dead and the river of the living are one quantum stream possessed of four banks. We shall see!

"So deep, so far below, is the river of the dead that the sound of its stream may never be heard or visualized except when we clothe ourselves with the mask, with the ears of the dancer in the hill. Then the murmur of the buried stream comes up to us as if its source lies in the stars and it may only be heard when we are abnormally attentive to the mystery of creation and the voice of the flute within the lips of three drowned children.

Out of that interaction came an intermittent dialogue, and I made sure to send him my work as it appeared. He also did one of the kindest things an established writer can do when back in 1994, I sent him a copy of the manuscript of my first book Annotations, and, busy though he was--and though we had never met in person and only communicated via letter or electronic means--he sent back a one-page assessment that both summed up the novel in impressive form, affirmed what I was striving for, and provided me with my first blurb. It was a generous gesture, which he did not take lightly, and I will be forever grateful to him for doing so.

Theodore Wilson Harris was born in New Amsterdam, British Guiana, now Guyana, in 1921. He studied at Queen's College in Georgetown, Guyana, then worked as a surveyor in the country's interior, an experience that informed his work for the rest of his life. One can see the landscapes of his native country in his first novel, The Palace of the Peacock (1960), which made his reputation, and in one his late-career masterpieces, the beguiling, trenchant Jonestown (1996), which explores the US preacher Jim Jones' religious cult and its subsequent mass suicide that took place outside Guyana's capital. Harris took up a career as a writer and editor in the late 1940s, publishing poems and essays in journals such Kyl-over-Al, and emigrated to the UK 1959, primarily to foster and further his literary career.

Wilson Harris in 2006 (The Guardian)
The Palace of the Peacock also demonstrated his interest in an approach to narrative that broke down the strictures of realism, which he had linked in his critical work to the rise of colonialism, empire and the global slave system, in favor of storytelling which was more fluid in temporality, metaphorical and metonymic, speculative, oneiric, and philosophical. In as much as Harris took Guyana's multilayered history as his template, he also drew upon numerous European canonical texts, re(-en)visioning them so that his work entailed less of a rewriting and more of a dialogue with the prior texts. In this debut novel, the quest story leads to a profound reckoning for its characters but for the Caribbean novel, and Anglophone fiction, going forward. This was a new kind of mythic fiction, and Harris would, in all his subsequent work, demonstrate its numerous possibilities.

The Palace of the Peacock initiated what came to be known as the Guyana Quartet of novels, which appeared in rapid succession: The Far Journey of Oudin (1961), The Whole Armour (1962), and The Secret Ladder (1963). In each he explored aspects of Guyana's colonial history and present, while also delving into aspects of its indigenous past and the complex merger of cultures that opened up spaces within and beyond reality. The rainforest, the plantation, the bush, and the river become not just the sites where the novels unfolded, but chronotopes permitting an innovative mode of literary and critical exploration. Through the 1960s Harris would publish roughly a novel a year, the subsequent novels often centering on women protagonists grappling with various forms of loss, as the mythic component already present in the work moving ever more fully toward the forefront of the texts.

In the 1970s, his novels shifted to the UK and other points across the globe, including Mexico, but the revisionary conversation with Guyana's past and present, the Caribbean and Latin America, the African Diaspora and Amerindia's multiple currents, only deepened, as did his exploration of reality's multiplicities culminating in the remarkable Carnival trilogy of the 1980s, which includes the eponymous novel, as well as The Infinite Rehearsal (1987) and The Four Banks of the River of Space (1990). He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2010, and received a lifetime achievement award from the Anisfield-Wolf Foundation in 2014. His wife of many decades, Margaret, predeceased him in 2010. He leaves four children by his first wife, Cecily Carew, as well as his sister, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

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