Sunday, March 11, 2012

"Christ in Concrete" by Pietro di Donato

"Christ in Concrete" is both paean and prayer to the old immigrant Italian industrial worker.

Like the laborers it depicts, "Concrete" lurches towards moments of joy without ever breaking through the unrelenting misery that is very much author Pietro di Donato's message.

This is working class literature of the 1930s where the great unwashed are brought into finer relief, their desperate situations the fodder for heart-wrenching plot.

In vogue during its Depression heyday, this kind of literature, even done as well as it is here, faced structural barriers to mass acceptance later. The disadvantaged are always the disadvantaged and their most uplifting stories still register as grim.

In "Concrete," the tenement dwellers of New York's lower East Side are not necessarily unhappy. Di Donato portrays them as stout of heart, quick to aid their fellows, and adept at grabbing a rare laugh when presented with the chance.

But they are maimed or ground to dust and the novel's pessimistic conclusion is that the game is rigged against them poor WOPS. And it is. They are "Christ in Concrete," dependent on work that literally kills them.

There is not a lot of workerist rhetoric to this book. It is less Marx, more Biblical justice and Christian plea. Merely an adept portrayal of the construction worker's life in the great Gotham of skyscrapers and cold bitter bluster.

Stories of work itself.

Di Donato, a bricklayer by trade, mined prosaic music from the mundane task:

"He reached the trowel down into the mortar. Slice down toward him, edgewise twist in quick short circle and scoop up away from him. The trowel came up half-covered with mortar - but how heavy! He dropped it back into the tub and worked the trowel back and forth in the mortar just as he had seen the bricklayers do. The feel of flexible steel trowel in pliant warm plush soon-to-be-stone. The wet rub of mortar on tender skin, the fleshy sense of Job."

He explained its soul-deadening effects:

"These men were the hardness that bruise Paul many times. They were the bodies to whom he would joined in bondage to Job. Job would be a brick labyrinth that would suck him in deeper and deeper, and there would be no going back. Life would never be a dear music, a festival, a gift of Nature. Life would be the torque of Wall's battle that distorted straight limbs beneath weight in heat and rain and cold."

This is turn-of-the-20th century immigrant milieu. It is life in the tenement, its Italians, Swedes, Jews, and blacks heaped upon one another with their only commonality a severe lack of resources. "

Christ in Concrete" provides a global view that concentrates as much on the women and children at home as it does the men at the construction site.

In "Living the Revolution," an academic study of radical Italian women in the same New York "Concrete" mixes, Jennifer Guglielmo notes that southern Italian women responded to patriarchal dominance in society by "crafting their own cultural expression," including magic, sorcery, divination, or dancing the "tarantella."

These pre-feminist strategies are dramatized in storytelling by di Donato through the tarantella-dancing Annunziata, or when she and Paul visit "The Cripple," a tenement-bound medium to the netherworld.

Di Donato wrote the heck out of this story. The translation is a kind of direct transposing of the words as ordered in Italian which successfully marks the book with a distinctive prose style.

The now-departed author (1911-1992) committed one falsity in wrapping up his heartfelt condemnation of capital exploitation:

"No poet would be there to intone meter of soul's sentence to stone, no artist upon scaffold to paint the vinegary sweat of Christian in correspondence with red brick and gray mortar, no composer attuned to the screaming movement of Job and voiceless cry in overalls."

Not true, for with each additional word he wrote, Di Donato did a little more to erase the verity of that sentence.

Monday, March 5, 2012

"Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?" by Jeanette Winterson

It's no surprise that even when Jeanette Winterson is telling her own story, it reads as prime-cut literature.

This reviewer has only read one of the author's books, "The Passion," but it is a favorite for its balance of poetry and lilting plainspeak, for its fitting a world into a slim volume without it ever seeming crowded or busy.

"You play, you win. You play you lose. You play."

Argue with that.

In "Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?" Winterson recounts just how many times literature, the consumption and creation of it, saved her from mental depression, while sounding more relevant than self-involved.

Her secret?

Literature and the knowledge of its purposes and uses: "Personal stories,” she writes, “work for other people when those stories become both paradigm and parables. The intensity of a story...releases into a bigger space than the one it occupied in time and place. The story crosses the threshold from my world into yours. We meet each other on the steps of the story."

Yes we do.

In the separation from her birth mother she sees a wound each accrues and helps herself and the reader by using the Grail Myth as analytical tool, the "Odyssey," and "Gulliver's Travels."

We’re talking about Jeanette Winterson, but we’re talking about books and other stuff, too. Her approach to time's unfolding and the best way to live it out is detailed through a poem by Marvell (with who we are unfamiliar), her blueprint for approaching society extracted from Gertrude Stein's "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas."

The arc of Winterson's tale runs from her adoption and subsequent rejection by her adoptive parents, through all the insecurity and drive the sadness engendered, and her return to face the ghosts of her past because they have backed her, a renowned and remunerated English lady of lit, into a corner.

She mines gold out of a dark and treacherous mire, and much the same goes for this piece, which, for all its lingering in the mind's forbidden corners, is mostly optimistic.

There are more than two chances in life, she writes, "many more - I know now, after fifty years, that the finding/losing, forgetting/remembering, leaving/returning, never stops. The whole of life is about another chance, and while we are alive, till the very end, there is always another chance."

Which is good news for most of us and break from a suffocating conventional wisdom.

Apart from this book's psychological meditations, Winterson is long-lived enough to recount for us a hidebound industrial northern England where beans and toast are a treat, the bathroom is out back, and your mother locks you in a the coal pit for punishment without going to jail.

For all the difficulties she associates with that time and place, and for all the shiver-inducing abuse of her adoptive mother -- “Mrs. Winterson” she dubs her -- the author is perfectly liberal in her nostalgia for a disappeared world, one that stood out from others and they from it, one less homogenized than our own and which is recorded here for our reading pleasure as well.