Thursday, September 24, 2009

Grahame Davies' "Everything Must Change": Book Review

"She was sick of living like a character in a morality play." Simone Weil's story of her strange self-martyrdom for her mystical ideal of a community she felt exiled from by her very existence, during WWII, has been often told. Grahame Davies expands his Welsh novel, based on his study of Weil, to dramatize her own abnegation alongside that of Meinwen Jones, a contemporary Welsh-language activist, who like Weil feels the tug of rootedness and the agony as one of "Capitalism's sulky runaway children." (214)

Novels of ideas that engage you with convincing characters, realistic events, and a touch of sharp satire along with humanist compassion: very rare. Davies never loses grasp of his complicated narrative juggling as he shows you with wit and insight the costs of sacrificing your life for an ideal. This book flows: every sentence fits.

Neither preachy nor pat, Davies brings a vividly rendered eye and a sharp ear to how we delude ourselves as we compromise youthful ideals so as to survive. As Meinwen's told late on, charm can better challenge, and promotion can triumph where protest may fail. She's let in on this by a Tory politician-- who gains as fair a treatment as does she-- similarly a Fascist student and a German cabbie who voted for Hitler emerge as human as a Dominican priest and a right-wing Christian leader will for Simone. Davies even-handedly observes among a cast of compellingly drawn characters the tensions between giving in and holding out that-- to a limit-- Simone and Meinwen share, while as a storyteller he filters their own strong convictions through those around them who cannot sacrifice themselves for a rarified ideology.

Simone works at a Renault factory but sees it more as if her laboring guide's a Virgil to her Dante; on a farm she marvels at a Van Gogh-like Provencal landscape that her hosts certainly have never seen in any museum. She's always at a remove from her world. She loves it, but she feels the scenes she savors would be fresher if removed from her taint, her sight, her presence. The same dissatisfaction with the body-mind problem, the surrender to the ordinary, the duty to be sensible drives Meinwen to political resistance. Her deep unhappiness stems from the same idealism, but she lacks Simone's curiously unorthodox Catholic vision. As the daughter of two Jews who rejected their faith, her father an atheist and her mother a Catholic convert, Simone's labeled as one of a "race" she tries to reject. Yet, she cannot enter the Church. She stands apart from all she admires. Fittingly, she will be buried on the border of a cemetery, between the Christian and Jewish sections.

Meinwen once hung with other activists in the Welsh Language Movement; for a while in the '80s they tried to separate and live against capitalism by supporting local businesses. Yet, flyblown shops run by old women vanish; inferior products in village stores lure customers to slick global chains; few can afford to live off the land as real estate skyrockets and only the English can buy up the family farms.

An activist's car sums up the hopes of a Celtic, leftist, anarchic Welsh scheme. "The only thing holding it up seemed to be the stickers: Kernow; Breizh; Nuclear Energy? No Thanks; Stop the War; Not in My Name. Words like 'No', 'Not', 'Stop' and 'Never' were prominent on these fading signs of adherence, recording, as they did, a series of attempts, most of them failed, to prevent things from happening. The back of Mei's car was a social history of Welsh radicalism." (204)

The larger tale of how Wales under siege by anglicization is a long one; what's new now is the rate of deracination of the Welsh-speaking heartlands as English home-buyers flood in to pay as the highest bidders for affordable rural splendor. Farms wither, locals emigrate to towns, and their children leave for cities. New Age Celts, patronizing settlers, and Celt-aping crusties fill the valleys. Meinwen lives in the old manse next to a closed chapel, which is bought by spiritual healers from Cheshire playing a didgeridoo. They erase, literally, the signs of the old Nonconformist church's communal and ancestral markers.

Cardiff grows in Welsh speakers, yet without a rural base for culture, can urbane Cymru replace what closed chapels, resentful natives, and displaced incomers call the rest of Wales as it turns a weekend retreat, a bedroom suburb of Merseyside or Bristol? Around an affluent Welsh-speaking cafe, the old landscapes hang as pictures. The customers thrive on media ties, grant money, and investment schemes meant to rescue Wales, but how much success the ordinary people gain's rather suspect. The yuppies boast of Thai holidays, pitches, goods, money. The abandoned vistas of their grandparents hang silently: "All safely preserved under glass."

The relevance of Christian pacifism, the difficulty of protecting land values while allowing for a free market, the longing for roots, and the yearning for fulfillment: these in tangential and direct ways join Simone's campaigns with Meinwen's. Simone's words are recalled by Meinwen: "Whoever is uprooted uproots others. Whoever is rooted himself does not uproot others." (196) Davies does not overdo their many parallels. He frees his plot from a slavish capitulation of one woman's determination as yoked to the other. This eases the heady quality of much of this readable and engrossing presentation of two women's prickly, combative, yet appealingly lofty and admirably noble mindsets. They may be crackpots in the eyes of society, but from such visionaries, legacies endure that may better those who follow. Or, they may warp and crush their weakened standard bearers.

Weil late on left a message worth hearing. Her brilliance confused her confidantes. It shows her mix of earnest evangelism and otherworldly concern. She sought a French-Hellenic-Christian purging of capitalism. Influenced by anarcho-syndicalism, Simone envisioned an intellectual's utopia where ennobled workers could share wisdom, not merely to be worn out by fatigue into foolish drinking or brainless games. This goal may reflect her worldly detachment, but she did try in her adult life to care for, as well as identify, with those less fortunate. Speaking eight languages, she could have been a professor. She chose rather a single woman's mission, in the service of an organic yet ethereal philosophy reified as a tireless if enigmatic vocation.

Here's a typical expression of Simone's mature thought. "No human being should be deprived of what the Greeks named the metaxu, things seen as bridges between the temporal world and the timeless: those relative and mixed blessings, such as home, nation, traditions, culture, which provide warmth and nourishment for the soul and without which, unless one is a saint, human life is impossible..." (250) Simone did strive for sainthood, outside a Christian baptism, estranged from her attenuated Judaism. Meinwen searches daily to recover a Welsh-speaking culture that will sustain her native land and enrich those who live in it, by a language older than English.

The deftness with which Davies evokes the clash of high motives with mundane demands makes the novel lighter, for Simone can be abrupt, abrasive, and lacking in nearly all social graces; Meinwen wonders if she can learn to temper her own isolated devotion. Whether or not she can ease up, or whether she will eerily follow Simone's own self-starvation in a confused attempt to become more saintly in her purified commitment remains for you to discover. (Posted 9-24-09 to British and U.S. Amazon, speaking of global chains...) [Author's website]

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