REMINDER: This was written in February, aka BCEW (before COVID evicerated the world).
I can’t think of many novels about new ideas — about how the thinkers came up with them, rather than the consequences to the world — but here are two that I’ve always enjoyed.
Spinster, Sylvia Ashton-Warner (1958, Simon and Schuster). In this novel, a fictionalized version of Ashton-Warner’s life as a rural infant-school (the equivalent of today’s “pre-K”) teacher in post-WWII New Zealand, we find the narrator, Miss Anna Verontosov, struggling to teach unruly Maori and Pakeha children who are more inclined to dance, sing, leap — even fight — than to sit quietly as model students. Pressures are intense, never easing up, and Miss V — herself a musician, painter, and writer — bucks against the “normal” teaching methods that would have the children engaged in rote learning devoid of the volcanic emotions and creative zeal that seethe through them. Yet she can’t help feeling guilty about how often she fails to create the “model” classroom, especially when the Inspectors come to visit and evaluate.
At the same time, she must deal with the men in her life: the supportive Head of her school; a much younger fellow teacher who pursues her romantically; a sympathetic new Inspector; the man in England she years ago rejected — often her own emotions overwhelm her, and most mornings she needs a swig of brandy before she can leave her door and walk the few steps to the school.
But something happens, slowly. From the first pages, Miss V is trying to see what she is missing in her teaching, some “key” that will open a door to learning for her students. All along she gives us samples of the children’s writing, brief story-poems of drunken parents, fights, jail, spankings (called “hidings”), nightmares, deaths — but also of kisses, hugs, dancing, joy, love. Finally, she makes the connection. The state-approved books have passages like
Mother went to a shop. I want a cap, she said. I want a cap for John. She saw a brown cap. She saw a blue cap. I like the blue cap, she said.
Her children write passages like
I ran away from my mother and I hid away from my mother I hid in The Shed and I Went home and got a hiding.
The “key” she’d been searching for was there, in her own students’ writing. Their own lives provide the stories they want to read about.
Following Miss V’s progress towards this discovery (which eventually occurs about two-thirds of the way into the novel) is exciting. Ashton-Warner lets us see Miss V’s frustration, anguish, doubts, inklings of something big but not yet graspable. She discusses her ideas with the school Head, the colleague who wants to bed her (she keeps him at bay), the Inspector whom she wishes wanted to bed her, herself — all the time circling closer and closer to the eureka moment. It’s extremely satisfying when she finally gets there, shocking how simple and obvious the new idea is.
Ashton-Warner wasn’t the first to note the lack of diversity in schoolbooks, but she was certainly one of the early exponents of how important diversity is. Her ideas about teaching reading and writing influenced researchers and educators throughout the English-speaking world. Miss Vorontosov, however, didn’t fare so well. Despite the Inspector’s respect for her ideas, he gives her a poor grade as a teacher. In the final pages, we find Miss V back in England, sheltering under the care of Eugene, the man she’d rejected so long ago.
The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin (1987, Penguin Books). Chatwin called this book a “novel”, even though there’s much in it that is non-fictional. The narrator, Bruce (I’ll call the author “Chatwin”), is a writer whose favorite subject is nomads, and he’s in Australia trying to understand the meaning of the Songlines, the Aboriginals’ stories that are like maps that trace routes past hills, gullies, stones and flatlands. He’s in Australia at what seems to be a turning point for the Aboriginals — a movement to protect their lands from white encroachment is growing stronger, with new laws governing procedures for building new roads or other structures in the Outback.
From Alice Springs, Bruce accompanies a lawyer whose task is to check the route of a north-south trucking road. The man (Arkady) wants to be sure the route doesn’t disturb any sacred Aboriginal sites, so he needs to meet with several tribal leaders — there’s no one person who knows it all, and most know only a few hundred square miles of territory. It’s a huge task, but one Arkady obviously relishes.
In the few weeks that Bruce spends with Arkady, he meets dozens of Australians, both white settlers and Aboriginals, most of whom are friendly, some of whom are racist, a few even combative. There are violent meetings, dangerous hikes in the bush, flat tires and other breakdowns, nights under the stars, mosquitoes and flies, bad food, poverty.
But never does Bruce despair. He feels he’s getting closer to understanding nomadism — why it is that some people prefer to wander, carrying their homes with them. At one point, he quotes an Indian proverb: “Life is a bridge. Cross over it, but build no house on it.”
Interspersed with the story of Arkady’s hunt for various Aboriginal leaders are Bruce’s memories of visits to Afghanistan, Iran, India, Arabia, Timbuktu. And then, about half-way through the book, begins a series of excerpts from Bruce’s “Notebooks”, moleskine notebooks in which he has jotted notes, impressions, quotations, questions, and observations. These notebooks were, for me, fascinating — as with Ashton-Warner’s novel, they show a writer’s process of exploring an idea from several angles — literary, cultural, historical, and personal experience, all conglomerated into a whole that is incomplete (Bruce is never able to fully answer his question about why nomadism is a thing) yet comprehensible. I suspect that many of them are copied verbatim from Chatwin’s notebooks.
The notes include brief meditations on Hell, violence, monotheism, Konrad Lorenz, instinct, and so on. (I was reminded of W G Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, where a fictional Sebald wanders through and around Norfolk, while meditating on sericulture, the Belgian Congo, Roger Casement, and so on.)
Chatwin’s book is strongly flavored with the Australian Outback, giving me what I hope is a correct understanding of what life is like for all who live there, whether in towns like Alice Springs (which Bruce didn’t like) or on remote stations or amidst a group of humpies (basic Aboriginal shelters). The food is sometimes awful, but the sense of unbounded space remarkably freeing for Bruce — until a moment when he understands how close he is to a lonely death in the bush.
Where Ashton-Warner’s novel is full of near idyllic scenery — masses of flowers, cozy fires in rain storms, paved streets and city sidewalks — Chatwin’s presents something harsher, quieter, larger, lonelier. Each book has cruelty, violence, alcoholism, each presents a native culture harmed and irreparably changed by European intruders. But because Chatwin’s writing is stronger (much as I love Ashton-Warner’s book, her narrator is often overwrought), his Australia is realer than Ashton-Warner’s New Zealand. Her book, written 30 years earlier, still has a flavor of the “enlightened colonialist” eager to help the uneducated natives join “civilized” society. Chatwin recognizes the importance of local knowledge, and also recognizes how useless his own abilities are. Anyone could land in Ashton-Warner’s rural New Zealand and thrive. How many of us could do the same in Chatwin’s Australian outback?