My Take on Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison died on 5 August 19. She was a prominent, perhaps the most prominent, African-American novelist in the USA, and Nobel Prizewinner in 1993. Whatever your personal opinion of her written works, you cannot deny her importance in the canon.

Some years ago, I read Beloved, arguably her most famous novel. At the time, it had just been made into a film with Oprah Winfrey as its star. I did not take to the book or to the film. To my mind, there was too much gratuitously supernatural stuff in the story. Also, its style seemed to be derivative to an extent. It borrows heavily from the style of William Faulkner.

I like William Faulkner’s writing very much. I think he is the greatest US writer of all time. But to emulate his style successfully is impossible and, to try to do so, is probably fatal.

There will be many people who disagree with my comments about Beloved. Some will doubtless be incensed by the adverse judgment I make about their ‘beloved’ book. But, I ask of them, please don’t burn me at the stake. Literature, like all art, is a very personal thing. They are entitled to their opinion and I to mine. I’ll respect theirs and hope they’ll respect mine.

Now, many years later, I am reading another of Toni Morrison’s books: Song of Solomon. The reason I am reading it right now is nothing to do with her death. The two events are quite unrelated. I just happened to pick up the book one day. Currently, I am about half way through it, so I can’t give a final verdict yet.

But I haven’t yet come across anything outrageously supernatural. And the nod to Faulkner is worrying me a lot less this time. The characters, almost all African-American, are intensely engaging. After a few chapters, I started to feel they could be unlikely neighbours of mine. Some of the dialogue Toni Morrison has written for them is mind-blowing. I am starting to feel I might have to update my view of her body of work. In a positive sense.

Sometimes, first lines in a novel stay with you for ever. Hence Herman Melville’s ‘Call me Ishmael.’ Or Leo Tolstoy’s reflections, in Anna Karenina, on the subject of happy families. Or, from L P Hartley: ‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.’

Well, the first lines in Song of Solomon are pretty memorable too. They go thus: ‘The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.’ Pretty cool.

Back to William Faulkner for a moment. In the 1960s, I plucked from a library shelf the first ever Faulkner novel I would read. It was The Mansion, third in the so-called Snopes trilogy. It introduced me to the fairy-tale world of the deep south, with said fairy-tale being of the extremely Grimm variety. I will never forget the opening sentence: ‘The jury said “Guilty” and the judge said “Life”, but he didn’t hear them.’

Could you contemplate for a moment putting down a book that started that way?

As for the Toni Morrison book I am currently reading, I shall let you know via a future blog what my final verdict is once I have read it through to its final words. I have taken a quick peek at those words. Naughty of me, I know. They seem enigmatic: ‘If you surrendered to the air , you could ride it.’