George Lamming Lamming, George (Vol. 4) - Essay

Lamming, George (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lamming, George 1927–

Lamming, a Barbadian novelist, created San Cristobal for the setting of two of his novels. His fiction is praised for its powerful and poetic prose.

[Of Age and Innocence] is a novel which somehow fails, I feel, but its failure tells us a great deal. The novel would have been remarkable if a certain tendency—a genuine tendency—for a tragic feeling of dispossession in reality had been achieved. This tendency is frustrated by a diffusion of energies within the entire work. The book seems to speak with a public voice, the voice of a peculiar orator, and the compulsions which inform the work appear to spring from a verbal sophistication rather than a visual, plastic and conceptual imagery. Lamming's verbal sophistication is conversational, highly wrought and spirited sometimes: at other times it lapses into merely clever utterance, rhetorical, as when he says of one of his characters: "He had been made Governor of an important colony which was then at peace with England." It takes some effort—not the effort of imaginative concentration which is always worth-while but an effort to combat the author's self-indulgence. And this would not arise if the work could be kept true to its inherent design. There is no necessary difficulty or complexity in Lamming's novels—the necessary difficulty or complexity belonging to strange symbolisms—and I feel if the author concentrated on the sheer essentials of his experience a tragic disposition of feeling would gain a true ascendancy. This concentration is essential if the work is not to succumb to a uniform tone which gives each individual character the same public-speaking resonance of voice. I would like to stress a certain distinction I made earlier once again. In the epic and revolutionary novel of associations the characters are related within a personal capacity which works in a poetic and serial way so that a strange jigsaw is set in motion like a mysterious unity of animal and other substitutes within the person. Something which is quite different to the over-elaboration of individual character within the conventional novel. And this over-elaboration is one danger which confronts Lamming. For in terms of the ruling framework he accepts, the individuality of character, the distinctions of status and privilege which mark one individual from another, must be maintained. This is the kind of realism, the realism of classes and classifications—however limited it may be in terms of a profound, poetic and scientific scale of values—the novel, in its orthodox mould, demands. Lamming may be restless within this framework (there are signs and shadows of this in his work) but mere extravagance of pattern and an inclination to frequent intellectual raids beyond his territory are not a genuine break-through and will only weaken the position of the central character in his work. He must school himself at this stage, I believe, to work for the continuous development of a main individual character in order to free himself somewhat from the restrictive consolidation he brings about which unfortunately, I find, blocks one's view of essential conflict. This becomes a necessity in terms of the very style and tone of his work. He cannot afford to crowd his canvas when the instinctive threat of one-sidedness is likely to overwhelm all his people and in fact when this one-sidedness may be transformed into a source of tremendous strength in a singleness of drive and purpose which cannot then fail to discipline every tangential field and exercise.

Wilson Harris, in Modern Black Novelists: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Michael G. Cooke, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971, pp. 36-7.

Though in Of Age and Innocence George Lamming bluntly calls his fictional island, San Cristobal, "an old land inhabiting new forms of men who can never resurrect their roots and do not know their nature," it is obvious as of his next (his fourth) book, Season of Adventure, that he is committed to his characters' at least trying to discover their roots and natures. Some sort of reconciliation to or rectification of the terms of the past occupies a central place in his later work. His recent novels, Water with Berries (1971) and Natives of My Person (1972), all but willfully pursue the theme of history in light of a possible reconciling or purged condition. At the same time, violence and irony, perhaps alternative manifestations of an intense but diffident personality, mark the major amplitudes of his vision in these works. This is not to forget that some degree of violence and irony appears even in his maiden work; indeed his portrayal of these features in Of Age and Innocence (1958) is virtually prophetic, rather than merely fashionable, and his imagination of "a really great, constructive chaos" (The Emigrants, 1954) anticipates the rhetoric of Frantz Fanon et al. But there remains a suggestion, in Natives of My Person and Water with Berries, that the violence may spring from intention no less than the pursuit of history, and so it falls in danger of losing its natural character for a contrived or literary one. Its literary character is if anything neo-Gothic—including touches of pornography, the Gothic of our time—and the resuscitation of Gothic potentially interferes with the resurrection of roots. On the surface this seems an altogether different irony from the one Lamming so neatly wields in these novels, which both end with people waiting in ignorant devotion and hope for a millennial coming: the irony of existence between two worlds, one presumably dead, the other hopefully not powerless to be born. But perhaps they are at bottom states of each other, if Lamming's journey into history or by analogy his characters' accumulated life stories exert a force that is more inert and crushing than revelatory and transforming. It is certainly striking that the more explicit and resolute his characters' motives become, the more problematical their existence, and the more their consciousness of the influential past grows, the more they are paralyzed, or at best frustrated in the present. The inexplicable and almost unbearable waiting to act that marks the beginning of Natives of My Person swells to take up virtually all of Water with Berries, creating a feeling of enormous arrest that may be at once the seedbed and antithesis of the melodramatic action. To look clearly to the past makes ordinary living a suspended activity, passing in an obscurely portentous, volcanic strain (the historical novel becoming a mode of presentiment).

Only two of the novels—the very first, In the Castle of My Skin, and the fourth, Season of Adventure—manage to escape this malaise of tendentiousness, and though the gothicizing mood obtrudes in the latter, they stand as Lamming's most satisfactory, if not his most redoubtable, achievements….

[There] are indications that, even in Season of Adventure, Lamming is driven by a nostalgia—that intimate version of the passion of origins—for what he was, as writer and as character, in In the Castle of My Skin, though it would make no more sense for him to repeat that book, however ingeniously disguised, than for Wordsworth to have repeated The Prelude. Its centripetal and yet radiant vision, its indissoluble mixture of autobiographical urgency, political and social history, cultural evolution, and philosophical evaluation made it an epiphany, an epoch in British Caribbean literature when it appeared in 1953; it is surely too soon for another. Besides, the novel remains as redolent of the West Indian character and context as Octavio Paz's The Labyrinth of Solitude of the Mexican, and defies duplication. That needs to be accepted. But recurrently, as in The Emigrants and Season of Adventure, an occasional "I" pipes in to confess a feeling of dissociation, of unreason and the unreality of everything save a primary youth or the ubiquitous and amorphous appeal of death. Partitions and separations and disappearances make up the leitmotif of The Emigrants, despite its explicit attempt to conjure up one West Indies….

Natives of My Person and Water with Berries represent Lamming at that critical point, in any artist's career, where he is at once freely indulging his powers and obeying the dictates of his vocation…. Both novels exhibit at the outset the idiolectal scene-setting that has marked his work after In the Castle of My Skin, with overhanging clouds and an uncomfortable sense of restraint and dark expectancy. And there is, as they conclude, the same unraveling and wearing through of the skein of hope and ambition and vision that seem characteristic as of the writing of The Emigrants (Season of Adventure makes a provocative exception). And along the way the same calculated testing of the centrifuge of personality and event, of the reader's concentration and the work's coherence, and the same investigation of a perverted idyllicism, the locus amoenus gone rank, that we find from The Emigrants forward….

[Each] repetition, as it were in a spiral of engagement, reaches a new plane and angle of intelligence. What is peculiar to Natives of My Person and Water with Berries, appearing in quick succession after a silence of some years, is a systematic approach to an ideal of beginning again, in what should perhaps be called an applied apocalyptic vein. Surely it is the reluctance of revelation, and not a wanton caginess, that makes Lamming so ration the details of the new worlds aborning. The reader, at least in the case of Natives of My Person, a more remote but also more plausible story than Water with Berries, accepts the stately pace, the gravidity of the narration as part of a process of initiation into the mysteries of founding a new and ultimately humane colony in the New World, to expiate the vicious finding of that world before. (Besides, secrecy is politic.) The very simplicity of the goal makes it portentous, the danger of the undertaking makes it ominous, the chemistry of the participants makes it precarious….

Water with Berries … ends with a Beckettian expectation of what will renovate the world by redeeming its history. The specific plan in this case is political revolution, or taking it to the world, rather than sailing away. But if in Natives of My Person we become spectators of remote events of which the actors are mutually aware, in Water with Berries we are made privy to a history of which the revolutionaries' leader, Teeton, learns along with us, and through which the actors themselves proceed in hectic isolation. Perhaps this history justifies the revolution, but it must do so ex post facto as far as the novel is concerned….

An atmosphere of secrecy, both physical in terms of hiding or inaccessibility and spiritual in terms of reticence and dissimulation, is crucial to Natives of My Person and Water with Berries. In light of the strong action of the books it makes for a fascinating paradox, the furtiveness of the sensational. But it goes deeper, and begins to suggest that Lamming himself is struggling with an impulse to keep things in pectore. And that is a dismal paradox in a novelist. The Prospero-Caliban relationship (for no good reason, but these things don't wait for one) has enjoyed a certain currency among West Indian literati as an image of their place in English literature. Well, bluntly, the Caliban idea was always self-indulgent and senseless, and if now the Prospero idea is coming to the fore, it is bootless and requires a birch more than a wand.

Michael Cooke, "A West Indian Novelist," in The Yale Review (© 1973 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editor), Summer, 1973, pp. 618-23.