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Wednesday
Jul062016

Novels of Identity: Bowl of Fruit (1907) and Fire in the Blood

During the 1960’s, which for me were my young adult formative years, the world seemed to be rapidly changing—as much as it is changing now. In 1959, the Communists led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, overthrew the repressive Batista government in Cuba and took over the island. In 1961 the Berlin wall was erected, dividing communist East Berlin from democratic West Berlin. In Algeria, a long series of battles and terror activities supported by demonstrating French students, intellectuals and Algerians (some of who were massacred by French police), resulted in de Gaulle giving Algeria its freedom, an act which was followed by terrorist reprisals from the OAS, the French paramilitary organization that wanted to keep Algeria a colony. In Northern Ireland, the “troubles” were beginning, and of course in America, we had the Vietnam War, which split the country into factions of left vs. right, young vs. old, and the civil rights movement, finally bringing the government sanctioned discrimination of African-Americans into the public’s consciousness. A series of assassinations took away John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King.

Throughout these tumultuous years, which for me involved political activity ranging from campaigning for Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, to street protests against the Vietnam War, I and many other young Americans were turned both inward and outward. Our actions were outward—some of us protesting, others serving in the military—but our attention was also directed inward. As we came of age we found ourselves questioning not just the wisdom and authority of our parents and their generation, as young people had done throughout history, but the morality of our country and its leaders, as well as others on the world scene. Defining ourselves became the task of adolescence and young adulthood.

What we were reading had this dual inward/outward orientation—Jean Paul Sartre, whose major philosophical work, Being and Nothingness addressed personal definition and responsibility, psychologist Erik Erikson, who analyzed identity formation as a stage of development, Black activists like Eldridge Cleaver and novelist James Baldwin who explored black identity, the ravages of discrimination and the need to respond to it. How we responded to social events was intimately connected to who we were, and who we were transcended the immediate social environment: it included our sexuality, our use of drugs (which were then part of learning about ourselves), our choice of occupations, our tastes in music and films. Learning about ourselves was a necessary part of our commitment to the society around us. And our novels reflected this focus: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Slaughterhouse Five, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Catch-22, Giovanni’s Room, Herzog, the list goes on.

Panayotis Cacoyannis’ novel, Bowl of Fruit (1907), published in 2015, brought back to me that topic of identity and how, in the hands of a good novelist, it can be explored in such a way that it both entertains and touches the reader’s own struggle with self-definition, which, as I will later discuss in talking about Fire in the Blood, never is finished. The title of the novel, “Bowl of Fruit (1907)” is the title of a painting, the first of many completed by the book’s protagonist, Jack Faro, or as he calls himself during the stage of his life captured in the novel, Leon Cheam. The painting is a Picasso—not a reproduction or an imitation, but a “real” Picasso, painted by Londoner, Jack Faro, who produced a series of such paintings, beginning when he was 13 and lasting until he grew tired of being someone else. As a child, at the behest of his father and because of a peculiar internal attraction, Jack had steeped himself in the paintings and life of Pablo Picasso. He was compelled to paint works that not only looked as if they had been painted by Picasso, but which reflected the subject matter of the periods of Picasso’s life during which they might have been painted, sometimes to the point that critics claimed they represented the paintings Picasso should have painted at that point in his life.

When Jack stopped painting, in order to do something that reflected himself, not someone else, he began writing. But Jack, who had changed his name to Leon Cheam, only read one author: Franz Kafka. He had become so absorbed in Kafka that he had transformed his own house into the room in which Kafka’s Metamorphosis takes place. But alas, his stories sounded exactly as if they were written by Kafka.

At the point in his life when the 40 year old Leon is giving up on writing, because when he forces himself to write as himself, he is unhappy with the product, he meets Anna Tor, a Chilean-born ghost writer who wants to write his biography (or more accurately, ghost write his autobiography). Anna, who resembles Leon in many ways, including having been born in Chile in the same hospital and on the same date as he, knows more about Leon’s heritage than does he. His father had an affair with Anna’s mother, although they are not sister and brother. His own mother was a Chilean activist who was killed by the Pinochet government soon after Leon (then Jack, but called Angel) was born. The baby Jack was spirited out of the country to England by his father and Mary, his father’s wife, who adopted him.

Leon (aka Jack) and Anna rapidly fall in love and spend a night in which Leon’s background is revealed to him, including the enigmatic fact that his mother left a small note to him with a replica of a Picasso picture drawn on it.

The protagonist of Bowl of Fruit (1907) desperately wants to find out who he is, and exit the cycle of being a talented mimic of a famous painter or writer, even though his choice of whom to mimic appears connected in some profound way to who he really is. He is only able to become himself when he and Anna, who is also intimately connected to his own background, commit themselves to writing his real story, confusing as it is.

I found Cacoyannis’ novel eminently readable, a story written with elegance and simplicity of style, yet with a circuitous plot containing deep psychological implications. In the end, when Leon’s/Jack’s discoveries about himself leave as many questions unanswered as answered,  the novel seemed to me to be a valid reflection of the insubstantiality, the mystery, and ultimately, the importance of constantly searching for who we are.

While Bowl of Fruit (1907) focuses upon the question of how one’s beginnings and heritage indelibly color the identity one forges as one becomes an adult, Irène Némirovsky’s Fire in the Blood, written in 1941-42, is about the changing of self as one ages. Sylvestre, or Silvio, as he is known, is somewhere post-60 years old. We are introduced to him as the narrator, a reclusive older “uncle” and close friend of the about to be married Colette and her parents Hélène and Francois, all who live in the French countryside near Bordeaux. There are hints of Silvio’s more than fondness for Hélène, but they are vague and understated, greatly overshadowed by his adoration of Colette and Hélène’s attachment to Francois. Colette is marrying Jean, who has inherited his father’s mill and lands, and she hopes to have a marriage that mirrors the absolute devotion and happiness of her parents. But Colette is too full of life for the retiring Jean and as the story unfolds Silvio discovers that Colette is having an affair with Marc, a local womanizer, who it turns out is also having an affair with Brigitte, a young woman, who, as a baby was abandoned by her mother and raised by Hélène’s half-sister. Brigitte is married to a rich farmer Silvio’s age, who is ailing.

When Colette’s husband Jean mysteriously drowns, the fabric of hidden relationships in the small community begins to unravel. Jean, it turns out was murdered. When Francois learns of this he tries to convince Colette, his daughter to go to the police. But it turns out that Marc killed Jean, after Brigitte, out of jealousy, had informed Jean about Marc and Colette’s affair. Brigitte is in fact a love-child of Silvio and Hélène, who when they had their brief affair, was married to an older man who was ailing. We see the dynamics of the parents being played out by the children, although with no or only dim awareness by the children of the parallels or of the relationships that support them. Silvio, who, along with Hélène, is the only one who knows everything, ends up reflecting upon the changes that brought him from the fiery, impulsive, adventurous and love-seeking young man who fathered Brigitte (whom he was not aware was his daughter until now), to become the sedentary, reclusive old man who now urges caution. Both he and Hélène, he muses, have become completely different people, a change everyone goes through, but to which they rarely give credence, as they gaze with incomprehension on the profligacies of the young. He casts a wistful look backward at the man he once was, and indeed at the young Hélène with whom he fell in love.

It has been a long while since I have read a novel that dealt with the issue of personal identity as explicitly as either Bowl of Fruit (1907) or Fire in the Blood. That the two novels were written nearly 75 years apart and in totally different circumstances attests to the enduring relevance of the topic. Despite the fact that it was only happenstance that led me to read the two novels consecutively, I found them to possess an eerie similarity. Both highlight the issue of changing identity by revealing new facts that fill in gaps in the historical background to the present narrative, often in unpredictable ways, as the story unfolds. Both are told from a first person perspective, and the narrator, in each instance, has some glaring gaps in self-awareness, which are only gradually revealed as his story changes and he and we become aware of what he has not allowed himself to remember or to see.

What is as surprising as the similarity in the subject matter and the style in which the two stories are told, is that the issue of identity should be at the forefront of the writer’s consciousness in times in which one might think that dramatic worldly events would have overshadowed such thoughts. Irène Némirovsky was a 39-year-old Russian Jewish woman, living in France during World War II. Having fled from Paris to escape the Nazis, Fire in the Blood, handwritten, was hidden among her papers she had given to her editors in late 1941 or early 1942 and only rediscovered recently and published in 2007. Némirovsky was captured by the Vichy and deported to Auschwitz in 1942, where she died. She was a successful novelist prior to the war, but her greatest novel, Suite Francaise was, like Fire in the Blood, hidden, this time when it was only partially completed, and only rediscovered by her daughter in 1998. Her writing is, like Cacoyannis’ elegantly simple in structure, while possessing strong emotional truths. Panayotis Cacoyannis is a Cypriot writer, artist and lawyer who lives in London. Needless to say, the present day contains dramatic events, in England, Cypress, and the world at large, but the focus on finding one’s identity remains, in writers such as Cacoyannis’ hands, an active artistic pursuit.

The world is too much with us. When we just look outside ourselves we fail to see the inner narrative that frames our perception. And each of our narratives has a protagonist—the self we each construct and constantly tinker with, enlarging it here, shrinking it there, chastising it at times, congratulating it at other times. Our self is an amalgam of our experiences, our heredity, our imprinting and traumas and our reach toward new horizons. Artists, particularly writers, explore this inner self and reveal for us  that of which we might not be aware.

There is much ugliness and desperation in the world and we each must decide how to react to it. Some people see themselves as responsible for making the world better, others for tearing down what displeases them, still others prefer denial. Some of us are afraid of facing who we are and others want to parade ourselves before the world. For me, novels such as Bowl of Fruit (1907) and Fire in the Blood provoke a turn inward, and a question of how honest I am being in what I allow myself to see. I think that’s a good thing.

  Casey Dorman

 

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  • Response
    Response: rushessay
    Very interesting novel relates stories of the old french wars and the brave army and heroes. The author represent past events very beautifully so the reader think as he is the part of the situation. The piece of the writing contain many interesting events which are inter related.

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