All readers and writers have novels which are their benchmark for quality, creativity, and literary verve.
This novel is my benchmark, my lifelong inspiration.
Like Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’, Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ exploded my views on how language works. Like George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’, this novel stunned me with its subtle view on the politics of a complicated world at a certain time in history,.
However Toni Morrison’ed ‘Beloved’, was the first great novel I read without bidding from scholar or teacher on page or in person. It was 1987 when I first read this novel and felt it to be great. I did not know then that ‘Beloved’ would win the Pulitzer Prize, or its author the Nobel Prize for Literature.
I read this novel once, then reread it instantly to find out why it had made such an impact on me. Then I read it again, to ignite more fireworks in my head with Toni Morrison’s words, her prisms of meaning, her verbal music. That was years ago. This week, I read it again and, the catherine-wheels have started to spin, spitting off fresh insights to be encoded into my idea of ‘Beloved’.
At the centre of this glittering catherine-wheel of a novel are Sethe, her flesh-daughter Denver and her-ghost daughter Beloved. Spinning around these three is Baby Suggs, shamanistic woman of great heart, mother to Sethe’s absent husband, Halle, who worked years of Sundays to buy his beloved mother’s freedom,
Spinning around them is is the incident in the shed of a house on the banks of the Ohio eighteen years before. Here, rather than have her baby daughter returned to the spoilage of a slave’s life, Sethe kills her with a saw.
Towards the edge of catherine-wheel spins Sweet Home, the plantation where Sethe was born, where Baby Suggs worked in the kitchen and where Halle, Paul D and the other ‘Sweet Home men’, worked the land for the apparently benevolent Mr Garner, who kindly allowed Halle to work years of his free Sundays to buy his mother’s freedom.
Further out beyond Sweet Home spins the sea, from where came Sethe’s mother who spoke a language Sethe could not understand, and who ended at the end of a hangman’s rope.
And beyond the sea spins Africa, always Africa.
Time is given little linear respect in this novel: it flashes inwards and outwards, backwards and forwards to allow us a deeper and deeper sense of the interior landscapes not just of Sethe and Baby Suggs, but of Denver and of Paul D, who comes to Ohio to find Sethe; and of old Stamp Paid who rescues slaves on the banks of the Ohio.
The palest, whitest, most glittering light shines on the interior landscape of ‘Beloved’, the aggressive mischievous ghost finally embodied as a girl, ‘who had new skin, lineless and smooth, including the knuckles of her hands.’
The novel inhabits not only light but music, in the layering and counterpointing of word and word and word, and in its incantatory prose rhythms. Buried in there too is the syncopated development of motif, which spreads, divides, then fuses in the artfully artless manner of jazz. Music also lives in the novel in plain sight: Upstairs Beloved was dancing. A little two step, two step, make a new step, slide slide and strut on down.
Already praised for her earlier novels, Morrison changed gear as a writer with ‘Beloved’. She took her sense of the essential music of language to greater heights in her later novel, ‘Jazz’, set in 1920’s Harlem. Then came ‘Paradise’, which Morrison wrote as the final instalment of a trilogy that began with ‘Beloved’. ‘Paradise’ begins with the best first lines, ‘They shoot the white girl first…’ but for me ‘Beloved’ is the best, the first great begetting.
Morrison, a career academic, is a highly7 conscious creator. Straight narrative, plain talk, fancy allegory, elliptical forms, metaphoric language, magic and music are her fingertip tools. In her Nobel Prize speech, she said, ‘The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers and writers. Although its poise is sometimes a displacing experience, it is not a substitute for it. It arcs towards the place where meaning may lie.’
Now that ‘Beloved’ is on firmly fixed on curriculum lists we are treated to a wide range of analytical perspectives of the novel and its writer. However, arguments regarding the informing issues of race or of gender seem to me cripplingly reductive. Morrison herself said, in an article in Time Magazine ‘Race is the least reliable information you can have about something. It’s real information, but it tells you next to nothing.’
The race under the microscope here is the human race.
And gender? Well the feminist in me finds much to cherish in the closeness, the high definition and elaboration of the female characters: their strengths and their discreet consuming passions; in the elevation here of female sensuality in food and colour, appetite and domestic routine. But the tenderness and acute perception which Morrison also shows Paul D and Stamp Paid, and even the absent Halle, properly includes men in this universe of pain and redemption.
‘Beloved’ shoots out light, life and even hope in all directions, including ours. It’s the best.
(NB This article was first published in Mslexia Magazine. They edited out my admonition ‘Read it!’ I have restored it here,)