Austin Clarke Clarke, Austin C(hesterfield) - Essay

Clarke, Austin C(hesterfield)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Clarke, Austin C(hesterfield) 1934–

Barbadian novelist and short story writer, Clarke has written a trilogy about the problems that West Indian immigrants encounter when they attempt to assimilate into a predominantly white culture. Clarke, whose preoccupation is with black awareness, is presently the major West Indian novelist of his generation. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

Austin Clarke's … Storm of Fortune is the second volume of a trilogy begun with the 1967 publication of The Meeting Point. It picks up from the mid-crisis ending of the first book to develop further the intertwined stories of the group of West Indian friends coping with immigrant life of Toronto in the Sixties. Much of the novel's focus is still on Bernice Leach, middle-aged live-in maid at the wealthy Forest Hill home of the Burrmanns. It dwells further on Bernice's uptight relationship with her erratic mistress, and with the loneliness and insulation of the Barbadian woman's three years in this "savage" place with its riches, its snow, and its decided coolness to black people…. In both these novels it is as if the flat characters of a Dickensian world have come into their own at last, playing their tragicomic roles in a manner which owes much to Clarke's extraordinary facility with the Barbadian dialect his characters speak and think in…. (pp. 106-07)

Austin Clarke is not writing specifically racial novels as such, but he is bound to explore the impact of racist situations and he has chosen a rich variety of ways to dramatize them….

The narrative line is no more complete than it was in The Meeting Point, and even if it should be rounded out in subsequent work, story sequence per se seems to matter less than that this novelist should continue to create his Brueghel-like canvasses with their rich and contrasting detail and mood. (p. 108)

Diane Bessai, in Canadian Literature, Summer, 1974.

["The Bigger Light"] is the third book in Austin Clarke's trilogy about black Barbadians in Toronto. It finds his hero, Boysie Cumberbatch, grappling with a problem that has haunted immigrant novels since Abraham Cahan's "The Rise of David Levinsky"—the price of success. At 49, Cumberbatch has a thriving office-cleaning business, solid investments in real estate and a deepening identity crisis.

Mr. Clarke, a novelist of exceptional gifts, traces his hero's attempts to get a coherent view of a life that is broken up into compartments. One fragment consists of his old, West Indian associations, now abandoned. Another is his increasingly alienated relationship with his wife Dots, who spins in her own separate orbit. And a third is his new "image," that of a man of property, respected by his banker, yet somehow dissatisfied with himself. Mr. Clarke's novel slides easily between introspection and observation. Having arrived, his hero is now without goals. He can't go home again, as a letter from an old down-home friend assures him. His everyday world is corroded by frustrations, real and imaginary. His search for a total picture of himself, "the bigger light," is rich in subtle perceptions. (p. 12)

Martin Levin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 16, 1975.

In ["The Bigger Light"], the final novel of a trilogy, Mr. Clarke's naturalistic saga about the black West Indians of Toronto has been pared down to just two main characters—Boysie Cumberbatch and his wife, Dots…. [Boysie's] problems aren't very interesting to read about at first, for they exist largely as targets for Mr. Clarke's amusement, and, as in the previous novels, the reader can easily feel trapped in the drabness of the characters' lives. It would be wrong to give up on this novel, though, for Mr. Clarke has one very great gift: he sees unerringly into his characters' hearts. Without forcing them into a crisis (although they make a few hesitant fresh starts), he allows richer and richer expression of their vague, stifled hungers—for love, for purpose, for magic, for vitality, for "the bigger light." The universal longings of ordinary human beings are depicted with a simplicity and power that make us grateful for all three volumes of this long and honest record. (p. 140)

The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), February 24, 1975.

West Indian writers like Clarke,… George Lamming, and Harold Sonny Ladoo depict their little island societies as centres of violence, extreme poverty, and cultural parochialism….

Most of this gloomy background, out of which Boysie [the protagonist] emerges, appears in Clarke's first two novels about Barbados, Survivors of the Crossing (1964) and an excellent boyhood novel, Amongst Thistles and Thorns (1965). The sense of defeat among the poor islanders is enlivened by the humour of the characters and their glowing fantasies about the presumed wealth of relatives and friends who make it big in the fatlands of the United States or Canada….

In his immigrant trilogy, Clarke follows the West Indians out to the promised land. A migrant pattern is set. The women go to Canada to work as domestics, save what little money they can, then send for their husbands or lovers who themselves eventually settle in as menial labourers, cleaners, and taxi-cab drivers. They suffer inevitable race prejudice but gain some small prosperity, ever glad to be free of Barbados….

In The Bigger Light, Clarke explores the inevitable alienation of Boysie as the most successful of his group of friends. He has risen from humiliating unemployment to running his own … prosperous office-cleaning company. Reflecting Boysie's own stability and complacency, The Bigger Light is less frenetic and nearly empty of the incidents and wild dialogue of the first two novels. (p. 71)

The tragedy of Boysie is that he has been expected to do and understand too much beyond his powers to achieve. In this way he is no different from many men of his age group, regardless of background. What makes his story, or any other of the mid-life genre, so fascinating is that while Boysie should be warming up to one last struggle with himself and the world, he is already standing in the ruins of his life.

Like Clarke's other novels, The Bigger Light is engagingly written; the characters are so real you could reach out and touch them. It's hard to fault Clarke on anything except, perhaps, stretching too little material over too long a novel. But I shouldn't quibble. Good novels like this are rare. (p. 72)

John Ayre, in Saturday Night (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Night), June, 1975.

The Bigger Light's real theme is the predicament of those who leave a stagnant homeland for a nation where they will never feel at ease. (p. 440)

When the book opens, [the marriage of the two central figures, Boysie and Dots,] has already frozen into mutual hatred. They no longer know each other, and Boysie feels that they never did. He spends his morning gazing out the window, waiting for a woman who each day emerges from the subway, crosses the street, and disappears. Dots, who is childless, thinks continually of adopting a little invalid, a white girl suffering from brittle bones whose story she read in the newspaper. Neither Boysie nor Dots ever makes contact with these fantasy figures, which only express their loneliness.

Throughout the novel, Boysie is "thinking." Since he has little education, his thoughts do not really take him anywhere. He circles aimlessly around his own isolation. Though unhappy in Canada, he cannot return to Barbados. Money-making does not satisfy him, but the black community center repels him by its shabbiness and air of militancy. He can never become assimilated in his new home, nor is he comfortable with other West Indians. In one sense, he is a classic case of newly rich anomie. Yet his plight is also that of the Canadians themselves. The Toronto we see in The Bigger Light is a barren, chilly place. From Boysie's apartment window, we watch its abandoned old people as they walk cautiously through the snow to buy liquor, returning with their brown paper bags. The goal of money-making, as Clarke presents it, is the only one white North America offers. And embracing this goal, Boysie discovers it to be dead. He also discovers the sterility behind Canada's smug, cozy exterior. Yet he cannot go home, for "home" is a place of venal politicians and profiteering U.S. businessmen.

The Bigger Light is a painful book to read. Though Boysie's thoughts, his letters to the newspapers, his obsessively repeated listening to Judy Collins's Both Sides Now give a slight sense of movement to the novel, basically it is static—a story of two people with many things to say and no one to say them to, who hate themselves and bitterly resent the society around them. At the end of the book, Boysie leaves for the United States. It is hard to imagine that he will find here what he lacked in Toronto. Certain African novelists have also dealt with the isolation of self-made blacks, but none with Clarke's bleak intensity—perhaps because Clarke's black hero is also living in the middle of a white world. In reading The Bigger Light, we are forced to look hard both at the dead-end life of black immigrants and at the inhuman machinery that surrounds and destroys them. (p. 441)

David Rosenthal, "In the Snows of Canada," in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), November 1, 1975, pp. 440-41.