I’m coming to a bit of a conclusion when it comes to Old Classics and Modern Classics. The basic rule of thumb when it comes to my little brain is this: Old Classics I “get”. I might not always like them (sorry Wuthering Heights) but I understand what they’re trying to say to me, there’s a decent story and everything makes sense. Modern Classics have a tendency to leave me feeling distinctly stupid. They are much more abstract in the themes they deal with, so abstract in fact that they completely pass me by.
This is the 3rd book that I would probably terms as a Modern Classic (the others being Midnight’s Children *shudder* and Things Fall Apart) and this one, like the others (although not so much with Things Fall Apart) has left me scratching my head a little bit. So much so that I actually felt compelled to conduct some research into the book because I was so sure that I wasn’t “getting” it and was missing some bold point.
I actually don’t think I was (although the references to homosexuality completely passed me by, I just thought he looked up to him as an older boy, god I’m an innocent) but people are unanimously adamant that this is a seminal piece of American literature I just read. And I don’t really think that racism is the main theme of the book, which could be expected, having been written by an African-American writer in the 1950s. Race is a sub-theme within the book, it’s there, bubbling under the surface and there are occasional references to it but it’s not a great big club that Baldwin’s smacking you over the head with. Religion is the order of the day it would seem.
Semi-autobiographical, the book takes place over the period of 1 day, the main protagonist being John, a young boy whose father, Gabriel, is a preacher in the church. John has been told he is destined to follow his father but harbours no wishes to do so and has an almost all-consuming hatred for his father who is the most un-Christian preacher you could come across, liberally beating his children and wife.
Whilst everyone is gathered in the church, we hear the background stories of Gabriel, his sister Florence, and John’s mother, Elizabeth, in their own voices and begin to understand a little of the forces and dynamics at play in each of their lives. Gabriel is a gigantic huge twat it turns out – knocking some girl up before stealing from his first wife to send her away to have the baby. However his life as a preacher gives him the perfect excuse to “do as I say not do as I do.” Hypocrite. Florence is the least religious of them all, has some kind of moral compass, but has had a rough deal in life and Elizabeth has had an equally tough time.
This is all marvellous and I enjoyed reading these background stories, understanding a little more how and why everyone was interacting with each other in the way that they did, and then the book in the final part goes totally haywire.
John undergoes a hysterical conversion to God and has various dreams and visions that made little or no sense to me.
And then the book ended.
I hate books that do that. I felt cheated, I didn’t understand, is John’s conversion real or is he doing it to get back at Gabriel and act as a check on his vile behaviour? If it’s real then why has it happened? We don’t know what’s happening in John’s head when he experiences God, we’re too busy focusing on the lives of Gabriel, Florence and Elizabeth.
I don’t really know what I thought of this one. I think, if it’s impossible I’m just ambivalent to it. Maybe it would strike more of a chord with me if I was American and had more of a feel for the culture and the time in which it was written? Maybe he’s just not the author for me. Whilst I wouldn’t tell people not to read it, I’m not desperately looking for hands to thrust my copy into either.
Final verdict? Odd.
(Get me! I’m ahead of schedule, this, my friends is Classic Number 8. And there’s another Modern Classic on the way – The Great Gatsby? Step on up.)