Thursday, May 14, 2009

Of mothers and race

Speaking of movies (as I did in my previous post), a few nights ago I saw the 1958 version of Imitation of Life, Douglas Sirk's magnificent final film, a classic tearjerker with a potent political message. They just don't do melodrama like that anymore, do they? The only contemporary director who might get away with such a sweeping and sentimental story about mothers and daughters, such strong actresses and such extravagant use of colour, is maybe Spain's Pedro Almadovar. After all, he already gave us Volver and All About My Mother.

I can't remember when last I cried so copiously during the last scene of a movie - maybe Love Story which I watched at the age of twelve with a gaggle of pre-adolescent girls all sobbing on each other's shoulder - but I defy anyone not to shed at least a single silent tear when Mahalia Jackson's powerful gospel voice rises up during the funeral service of the long-suffering black 'maid', Annie. What distinguishes the film, though, is how topical the central themes of motherhood and race - and power politics in personal relationships - still seem, more than half a century after it was made.

Just hours before I watched Imitation of Life, I'd finished reading Toni Morrison's latest novel, A Mercy, which deals with - yes, of course - motherhood and race. And power politics in personal relationships. As all Morrison's readers know, these themes are threaded through all her books, especially the beloved Beloved. It's nearly impossible not to draw a comparison between A Mercy and Beloved, since both novels tell a story of slavery, and more specifically of a black slave mother sacrificing a much-loved daughter. And although A Mercy is not as illuminatingly brilliant as Beloved, it is still a very, very good book. Remember, three years ago Beloved was declared the best American work of fiction of the past quarter century by an impressive panel of critics, writers, editors and literary figures - so most other novels would probably pale into insignificance when placed beside it.

By the way, my personal favourite for the above-mentioned title was not Beloved (1987), even though I dearly love it, but the runner-up: Don DeLillo's breathtaking Underworld (1997). The other runners-up on the list published by The New York Times, were Philip Roth's American Pastoral (1997), Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian (1985), and the four Rabbit novels by John Updike, published between 1960 and 1995. (For more on Updike, see From Updike to Queneau, which I wrote shortly after his death a while ago.)

Anyway, the day after I'd finished A Mercy and watched Imitation of Life, synchronicity struck again. I was woken by Toni Morrison's rich and dark voice on the radio next to my bed, speaking on the current affairs programme that I listen to every morning. She was in France to promote the French translation of A Mercy - and what a treat it was to hear such fierce intelligence and eloquence so early in the morning!

Wouldn't it be lovely, I thought dreamily while brushing my teeth, if one could start every day like this, listening to a thought-provoking Nobel Prize-winning author's views on love and life, rather than the usual bland statements by Nicolas Sarkozy's band of sycophantic politicians? Wouldn't it be lovely, indeed.