Hazel McHaffie

Pulitzer prize

Burying the Bones

That’s the thing about ebooks – if you don’t categorise them when you download, you can easily forget what they’re all about. And I had no recollection of why I’d bought Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck in China by Hilary Spurling. I discovered it on my Kindle when I was trawling through for something different to absorb me on an eight-hour train journey (to Chelsea and back). You had it easy last week with nothing more demanding than my pictures of beautiful things; so I thought a little more meat might not go amiss this time. (You have been warned!)

Burying the BonesEight hours is a significant length of reading time so I did a quick check on Amazon … Hmm, a biography of Pearl Buck. Who, do I hear you say? Me too. Another check … A prolific writer of the 20th century, Buck was the first of only two American women to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (back in 1938). And Burying the Bones combines history, culture, family relationships, self-sacrifice, religious obsession, and profound sadness through her story. OK, sounds promising. And it’s a while since I read a biography – which would mean another first for this blog.

The descendant of Dutch immigrants, and born in the USA in 1892 whilst her missionary parents were on a brief return visit to recover from the deaths of three of their children from cholera and fever, the baby Pearl Sydenstricker was taken to China when she was 3 months old, not leaving for the last time until she was 46. She grew up through one of the most turbulent periods of Chinese history, and Spurling doesn’t spare the bleak detail of life in China at that time: female infanticide; frequent epidemics of cholera, typhoid, malaria, diphtheria; famine, flood and drought; ruthless and ambitious generals and provincial warlords and politicians jockeying for power; the ‘barricaded houses and silent empty streets waiting for the screams, shouts and crashes that accompany the battle itself”.

Imagine this little girl: ‘Sometimes Pearl found bones lying in the grass, fragments of limbs, mutilated hands, once a head and shoulder with parts of an arm still attached. They were so tiny she knew they belonged to dead babies, nearly always girls suffocated or strangled at birth and left out for dogs to devour … Where other little girls constructed mud pies, Pearl made miniature grave mounds, patting down the sides and decorating them with flowers or pebbles. She carried a string bag for collecting human remains, and a sharpened stick or a club made from split bamboo with a stone fixed into it to drive the dogs away.’

Nor was life within the family smooth. Pearl’s father, Absalom, infuriating and stubborn, was emotionally distant and frequently physically absent.  ‘Intoxicated with the magnificence of his opportunity‘, he was an ‘unrelentingly righteous‘ man consumed by a ‘supernatural imperative‘. But the Chinese masses he set out to convert (with a decidedly hell-fire-and-brimstone approach it must be said!) were both unwilling and uncomprehending. The whole family were ostracised. Absalom himself gloried in the horror: ‘thousands of Christians suffered martyrdoms, which gave us great encouragement, as showing that the work which had been accomplished was not merely on the surface, but a genuine fruit that would stand the severest test.

His daughter however, came to abhor much of what the mission community espoused, seeing it as ‘blinkered, small-minded and arrogant’ with its ‘invincible assumption of superiority to the people to whom it ministered.’ And when her turn came to preach the gospel, though she shared her father’s weight of care about the ‘idol worship, infanticide, alcoholism, gambling, and opium addiction’, she adopted a very different tone. ‘We simply cannot express the Gospel with any force if we have hidden within us a sense of racial superiority.’ Eventually she resigned altogether from the missionary movement after publicly denouncing the system as an assault by ignorant fanatics.

Circumstances forced her to grow up quickly from an early age. Her younger brother died of diphtheria, her mother was mentally and physically traumatised by the privations of the life her husband had inflicted on her, and her many bereavements. But returning as a young wife after College education in America, Pearl saw China through new eyes. This time she was with a very different kind of man, Lossing Buck, whose life’s work was ‘an attempt to speak to and for the illiterate, inarticulate, ignored, and excluded farmers who made up four-fifths of China’s population,‘ through his meticulous research to enable Chinese students to ‘discover for themselves the facts of their own country.’ Pearl could happily stand right alongside him. At least initially.

But as his career blossomed she became more and more lonely. She immersed herself once more in the Chinese world. She continued to be appalled by the plight of females in China: harassment, abuse, murder, suicide, infanticide were commonplace. ‘China,’ she wrote, ‘is a country given to the devil.’ And for a time her rage and despair spilled over into her attempts ‘to indoctrinate villagers already brutalised by ignorance and poverty.’

But with the death of her parents, and the liberation which she found by writing a memoir about her mother’s life, Pearl experienced a new sense of freedom, enabling her to shake off the rigid shackles that had controlled her. And in writing about her own childhood, about China, about the ‘shapes and patterns of ordinary Chinese life‘, she launched her own career as a writer, even though the original manuscripts of her two greatest works, The Exile and The Good Earth, lay forgotten for decades. Both seemed initially ‘too raw and intimate for public consumption‘.

And liberated, she could also finally confront ‘the four evils’ within her own marriage: ‘selfishness, slavery, hypocrisy, and cowardice’. She and Lossing limped along for many years until Pearl finally found the resolve to establish a new life without him, and eventually to marry her publisher. For her an orderly house ran in the Confucian way: ‘by being kind,courteous, temperate and deferential, without impatience or anger’. Her Chinese inheritance gave her ‘the courtesy and calm, the unassertive authority, the unexpected reticence and often astonishing sexual frankness, the broad and impartial vision’ which she valued all her life.

The Good EarthShe is remembered as a Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winner; a tireless campaigner for children’s rights and against racism and sexism; a prolific speaker, writer, essayist, and editor. But she was also a mother to seven children. All except one were adopted. Her own biological child was severely affected by learning difficulties caused by phenylketonuria. Pearl felt a ‘monstrous ache of the heart which becomes physical and permeates bone and muscle’, missing ‘eternally the person [her daughter] can never be’. She was also aware that the experience changed her:

‘I come of a family impatient with stupidity and slowness, and I absorbed the family intolerance of minds less quick than our own. It was my child who taught me to understand so clearly that all people are equal in their humanity, and all have the same human rights.’

In spite of her own personal accomplishments, Pearl Buck never really ‘belonged’, at least, not in establishment terms. She was denounced in China as an enemy of the people for daring to depict the truth, in the USA for being a communist sympathiser, by the church for exposing its proselytizing imperfections whilst those it sought to convert lived in poverty and squalor, and by the literary establishment for ‘sinking’ to writing pulp-fiction.

Spurling has clearly thoroughly researched her subject, and at times the threads are complicated and repetitious, but given the effect on her writing of so much in Pearl’s life, it’s hard to see how she could do otherwise. I found this book both enlightening and very readable. Ideal for a long journey.

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Better to remain silent

I’m a subscriber to the old English proverb: Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

And I love Ecclesiastes‘ lyrical ‘To everything there is season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven …’ which includes ‘a time to keep silence, and a time to speak …

But I suspect Harper Lee took this a bit too far. She was a literary sensation with her 1960 debut novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. It became an immediate classic; she had the world at her feet. After winning the Pulitzer Prize no less, she talked of becoming the ‘Jane Austen of south Alabama.’ No pressure then.

But … there was no next novel. The author (who’s now 85) hasn’t agreed to an interview since 1964 at which time she was writing her second book, The Long Goodbye, and expressed a pious hope that she would do the best she could with the talent God had given her. She’s won numerous awards since but yet maintained her silence. Theories abound: fame killed off any subsequent masterpiece; she couldn’t face a loss of prestige; she had a serious case of writers’ block lasting decades; she hadn’t actually written Mockingbird; the manuscripts are stacked up not to be published till after her death … Who knows?

Now, apparently, she’s cooperated in a forthcoming biography of her life by journalist Marja Mills, so we could soon know the truth. But doesn’t this underline the truth of the proverb? Once she opens her mouth and explains the mystery we will know if she was indeed a fool. Until then there is still room for doubt.

As for me, I shall endeavour to remember the adage about keeping silence if/when I win the Man Booker. (Cue muffled snorting.)

No danger there, of course, but I must confess, I have no ambitions in that direction. The Man Booker titles rarely do anything for me – with a few notable exceptions. You’re too low-brow by half, I hear you cry. You’re right; I know I am. A literary philistine, a heretic – you name it, I am it. I do try to take an intelligent interest in what’s deemed good writing, returning to the lists with monotonous regularity.

The Finkler QuestionIndeed, I’ve just finished reading The Finkler Question, which according to the Guardian is ‘full of wit, warmth, intelligence, human feeling and understanding. It is also beautifully written with that sophisticated and near invisible skill of the authentic writer. Technically the characterisation is impeccable, the prose a subtle delight, the word selection everywhere perfect, the phrase-making fresh and arresting without self-consciousness.‘ And in the opinion of the Independent: ‘Jacobson’s prose is a seamless roll of blissfully melancholic interludes. Almost every page has a quotable, memorable line.

Hmmm. Let’s just say I struggled to stay attentive. I was sorely tempted to wander off and do other things like dusting or weeding or cleaning the shoes, by way of light relief. Every now and then I thought, Wow, beautiful writing, or What a penetrating insight. Several times I laughed out loud. But overall, it’s been something of a slog. Me, I like a book to hook me in and not let me go until the last page. How the judges trawl through a stack of these tomes one after the other is beyond my comprehension. Could this be a factor in the final decision, d’you think?

There, I’ve tolled my own death knell.

Like I said: Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

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Recovering fast

Phew! As you know I’ve just done a very big editing job on the forthcoming book about saviour siblings. I took out about 17,500 words in the end. That’s some edit!

One major advantage of all that reading and re-reading was that I noticed repetitive words and phrases. ‘Flounced‘ and ‘shuddered‘ loomed larger than life. Descriptive passages demanded cuts. However, the chief culprit by a long way was the word ‘just’ – scattered throughout with gay abandon. How could I not have noticed before? But that’s the advantage of putting the work on one side for a while and coming back to it with fresher eyes. This time around my red pen went crazy.

I’m now recovering from the trauma of consigning all that hard-won text to oblivion by reading other people’s work – and critically appraising that instead. Marilynne Robinson was recommended to me so I’ve been reading a couple of her books (Gilead and Home). Gentle, reflective, sad stories. And I can’t help feeling that, for all their cluster of awards, my own editor would say, ‘Cut them by at least a half.’ ‘Remove the repetitive phrases.’ ‘Look at some of the peripheral characters: are they really needed?’ Oh yes, she’d call for a radical edit for sure!

So there was I, cruising along with Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead, thinking these heretical thoughts, when this passage jumped out at me. (The narrator is an elderly pastor writing a letter to his son, conceived in his late sixties, whom he will not see reach adulthood.)

I notice the care it costs me not to use certain words more than I ought to. I am thinking about the word ‘just.’ I almost wish that I could have written that the sun just shone and the tree just glistened, and the water just poured out of it and the girl just laughed – when it’s used that way it does indicate a stress on the word that follows it, and also a particular pitch of the voice. People talk that way when they want to call attention to a thing existing in excess of itself, so to speak, a sort of purity or lavishness, at any rate something ordinary in kind but exceptional in degree. So it seems to me at the moment. There is something real signified by that word ‘just’ that proper language won’t acknowledge. It’s a little like the German ge–. I regret that I must deprive myself of it. It takes half the point out of telling the story.

I warmed to the old gentleman. And I was sorely tempted to reinstate my own murdered ‘just’s! They do serve a function. They really do! Well, OK, they just do.

Then another phrase resonated:

This habit of writing is so deep in me…

Well, indeedy. I know exactly how he feels. It won’t be denied. Even at 4 in the morning. In the Reverend’s case he has fifty years worth of sermons in his attic as well as the book-length letter to his son.

Ahah! Speaking of sermons … the Reverend Ames has an unusual angle on several points relating to matters religious, too. This one appealed to me:

In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things…
So my advice is this – don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp.

He has a heart problem and knows he hasn’t long to live. But as he becomes increasingly frail, he resents people rushing to his aid.

I’d rather drop dead doing for myself than add a day to my life by acting helpless.

Oh yes! I see and hear this attitude again and again amongst my elderly friends. If only ‘health and safety’ would allow them to. Sigh.

With all this reassurance and empathy I’m recovering rapidly. I reckon I’ll be getting stuck back into my new novel on organ transplantation any day soon.

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Generosity and magic …

A friend of mine (now in her nineties) used to regularly cook drop scones (alias griddle pancakes) for our charity table at church. But sadly now the task is beyond her. Last week I visited her at home and to my astonishment, she handed me her precious griddle and her secret recipe.

I told her I devoutly hoped her magic was well embedded in the griddle because this particular culinary delight was not in my normal repertoire … well, it wasn’t then. But with a precious gift like this it feels incumbent on me to keep my side of the contract, so I’ve had a couple of stabs and been agreeably surprised by the results (although DJ says they’re definitely more anaemic than they should be). I guess it’ll take a bit of tweaking to get the balance of heat and time and consistency exactly right.

But in the process of all this beating and turning and tasting it occurred to me that authors bequeath us something of their skills and magic all the time, don’t they? Whenever we devour their goodies we can taste and analyse and mimic and learn from them even without knowing them personally; no special permission required.

I was reading a marvellous novel by Jeffery Eugenides at the time. MiddlesexMiddlesex tells the story of Calliope Stephanides who is an hermaphrodite (intersex is the preferred term nowadays), and starts with: ‘I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.’ Brilliant hook. A curiously topical choice of reading as it turned out, given this week’s verdict on the gender tests for the South African athlete, Caster Semenya.

When I was a midwife (about a hundred years ago) I delivered babies with ambiguous genitalia and agonised with the parents. What’s the first question everyone asks? Is it a boy or a girl? Imagine having to say, We don’t know. But as far as I’m aware, I’ve never encountered anyone with both male and female organs. And I knew precious little about the condition before I read this book.

Middlesex (neat title, eh?) explores the genetics, psychology, physiology, relationships, exploitation … oh, and so much more, in a wonderfully entertaining but thought-provoking tale. It deservedly won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize, in my opinion. I was gripped, but I also learned so much along the way. And Eugenides did all the slog, all the research, all the experimenting, so I can have it handed to me on a gold-rimmed platter. How generous is that?


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