March 21 2017
Did you know that if you like Jane Austen, you couldn't have voted for Donald Trump?
Oh, and if you're a Faulkner fan, you would have had to punch the lever for Hillary Clinton, too.
That's the theme of a New York Times opinion piece by Libyan novelist Hisham Matar in which, in prose unusually gushy even for New York Times opinion pieces, Matar informs us that Proust-readers also must have shunned Trump at the ballot box in favor of the lady in the pantsuit.
Here's some of Matar's purple (but literature-loving) prose:
I have had access to private rooms, overheard exquisite conversations and been able to observe subtle changes in another person’s inner life. Books have shown me horror and beauty. All this is true.
But the most magical moments in reading occur not when I encounter something unknown but when I happen upon myself, when I read a sentence that perfectly describes something I have known or felt all along. I am reminded then that I am really no different from anyone else.
Perhaps that is the secret motive behind every library: to stumble upon ourselves in the lives and lands and tongues of others. And the more foreign the setting, the more poignant the event seems. For a strange thing occurs then: A distance widens and then it is crossed.
How many times, and in ways that did not seem to require my consent, have I suddenly and in my own bed found myself to be Russian or French or Japanese? How many times have I been a peasant or an aristocrat? How many times have I been a woman? I have been free and without liberty, gay, disabled, old, loved and loathed.
Yikes! I like the succinct way Dr. Seuss put it a whole lot better: "Reading can take you places you have never been before."
There's a political point, though, to all of Matar's adventures in being a Japanese gay disabled woman peasant:
That is perhaps what the author of the iconic novel “The House of Hunger,” the Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera, meant when he said, “If you are a writer for a specific nation or a specific race,” then he had no use for you. What he was resisting was narrow provincialism, the sort of identitarianism that has invaded our academies and public discourse, and which sees individual life as, first and foremost, representative of a racial, religious or cultural category.
Mr. Marechera was instead promoting a courageous universalism that is at the heart of how literature works and, I believe, central to our resistance to the narrow visions of right-wing populists such as Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Nigel Farage.
I hate to disabuse Matar--and I haven't read anything by his Zimbabwean mentor Marechera--but Proust's entire aim was to capture, in exquisite detail, the ethos and range of vivid personalities in a very specific nation, France, in a very specific time and cultural setting. Hence that madeleine. They don't have madeleines in Zimbabwe. Nor did they in Austen's Regency England, which was also extraordinarily nation-specific.
Indeed, Matar, earnestly striving to be oh-so politically correct, doesn't realize that it's actually currently fashionable, at least in academia, to dismiss Austen as an "alt-right" writer who ignored the British slave trade and didn't stick enough minority characters into her fiction. Austen might have had more in common with Nigel Farage than Matar thinks.
At any rate, Matar comes down on Trump because "Make America Great Again"--not to mention Trump's travel ban that includes Matar's homeland, Libya--just doesn't jibe with that "universalism" that Matar thinks is at the heart of great literature:
Doubt and contradictions are not tolerated in Mr. Trump’s life; but, of course, they are there — as they are in every life — no matter how deeply concealed. You can see it in the tragic air that never leaves him, in the rhythm of his steps, the lines sculpted into his face, the rigidity of his neck as he signs those wretched executive orders. Yes, doubt must be there because he is not only intolerant of complexity; he fears it.
Really? That doesn't sound like the Trump I know, lighting into a taco bowl at the Trump Tower. Trump strikes me as the very opposite of doubt and contradictions as he barges belligerently into every scene he encounters: "You're fired!," for example. Aren't novelists supposed to be keen observers of human nature?
I think Matar has been overhearing too many "exquisite conversation"--inside his own head.