What I’m Reading: William T. Vollmann – Fathers and Crows

The second of Vollmann’s Seven Dreams, Fathers and Crows takes up more than the twice the number of pages than The Ice-Shirt did and deals chiefly with the Jesuits’ attempt at converting the natives of French Canada during the first half of the seventeenth century. While very different both in size and subject matter, there are several structural similarities between the two novels that appear right from the start.

45679Both are based on a specific source text (this time this is the Jesuit Relations, an account of Jesuit missionary work among the natives of New France, extending from 1610 to 1791), a text that is described in its physical form in the course of each novel’s first chapter – and a chapter that both times comes across as very dense and cryptic when one encounters it for the first time because it presents all of the following novel’s themes and  motifs in an abbreviated form, much like the overture to an opera. The whole Seven Dreams project certainly has a grand operatic sweep and a certain megalomaniac hubris that are rather reminiscent of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen, and Vollmann’s tight interweaving of themes and imagery has something of Wagnerian Leitmotiv technique about it. (One might even go a step farther and view Vollmann’s forays into drawing and photography of an extension of his work into the visual arts, and wonder whether he isn’t nurturing some ambition towards a Gesamtkunstwerk.)

This interweaving is not limited to a single volume but spreads out among the whole of the series, and many of the motifs and images one encounters in Fathers and Crows are already familiar from The Ice-Shirt. I was somewhat surprised to find, though, that the shirt metaphor does play only a very minor part in the second novel in the series – it is referenced in passing but nowhere near as central as in the previous novel. Instead, it turns out that water imagery forms a strong link between the two novels, each of which is characterized by a different form of it – ice (obviously) in The Ice-Shirt while for Fathers and Crows the river turns out to be central on a multitude of levels. One of them a quite literal and realistic one, in so far as much of the novel is set in a landscape dominated by a river, namely the St. Lawrence River along which the French Canadian colony was situated. More pronounced even than in The Ice-Shirt with its long, gorgeous descriptions of nature, Fathers and Crows presents itself as what the subtitle of the Seven Dreams sequence promises: “A Book of North-American Landscapes”. The St. Lawrence river runs through this novel, dominates it both literally and figuratively, determines the flow of its plot and fuels its imagery, and the novel itself resembles nothing so much as a sprawling landscape through which a winding river meanders its slow way.

The novel moves like a river itself, but it does this in very strange ways, moving simultaneously upriver and downriver, from the innocence of the source towards the ocean of experience, but also from the sprawling ocean to the focused source. That particular double-movement apparently is an image Vollmann takes from Ignacius of Loyala’s Exercises which works as a second, minor source text (much like native origin myths did in The Ice-Shirt) which I have not read but which from what I could gather depicts the God-searching soul as moving towards a communion with God (ocean) at the same time as seeking for the knowledge of God’s essence (source). Fathers and Crows uses river imagery and variations of this double movement on almost more levels than one can count, probably the most fascinating (for me, anyway) is how Vollmann uses it to structure the novel – which does appear as a huge, sprawling chaotic mess at first, but as one reads on, one notices that there is a clear direction to it, or, precisely, two directions: on the one hand there is a narrowing, as the story starts out with a history of French Canada, then concentrates on the Jesuits, to end wit the story of Father Brebeuf. At the same time, however, there is a broadening, as the bare-bones narrative of the beginning gradually evolves into long descriptions and extensive character exploration, the narrative granting increasingly more room to individuals and what moves them.

Something that was probably already present in The Ice-Shirt, but really comes to the forefront only in such a massive volume as Fathers and Crows, is the degree to which Vollmann is obsessed with contextualization. One can easily imagine how he started out with the story of Father Brebeuf, then wanted to balance it out with an Indian point of view and thus added the story of Born Underwater. Obviously, neither of their stories would can really be grasped without some background on the native life at the time and history and intention of the Jesuit mission in New France, so the novel had to branch out to encompass that as well. But to understand both the Jesuits’ mission and the situation of the natives it is necessary to view them in the wider context of the settlement of French Canada (not to mention Indian mythology and the origin of the Jesuits). All of this is of course placed in the implied context of the whole series, i.e. the history of America / Vineland. And there is no intrinsic reason at all to stop there, this contextual spiral moves towards infinity, and the secret (or not so secret) desire of Vollmann’s prose appears to be to encompass it all – it’s the Gesamtkunstwerk again, but on a scope even Wagner didn’t aspire to: When everything is said and done, Vollmann’s writing strives to contain simply everything there is. Hence the multitude of genres and subjects, his travels all over the world, his constant switching between fiction and non-fiction (often in the same book, as with the Seven Dreams series) and the always astonishing versatility of his prose that seems to adapt to every style and tone imaginable (and to still remain distinctly Vollmannian). His work aims at nothing less than to be all-embracing – and yes, that also includes a certain affirmation, an understanding if not a forgiveness, a humani nil a me alienum puto. I think that among the great novelists of this and the last century, Vollmann is the most humane (besides Joyce, who has a similar empathy for everything human, no matter how low and insignificant others might consider it), and that nobody has such an enduring love for or attempts a similarly thorough exploration of absolutely everything human.

If the genesis of Fathers and Crows is conceivable as a constant broadening of its context, then the reader moves in the opposite direction, beginning with the big pictures and watching it narrow down as he follows the course of the narrative, until it flows into the (almost) straightforward story of two people, the Jesuit pater Father Brebeuf and the native woman Born Underwater. The story of a man and a woman, then, it really does not get any more basic than that – and in a weird and twisted way this is indeed a kind of love story. As the story between a European male and a native female it can’t not be reminiscent of the more famous legend of Pocahontas (which Vollmann tackles in the next of his Seven Dreams, Argall), but what happens between Father Brebeuf and Born Underwater is quite different. The visible part of their relationship is mostly antagonistic – Born Underwater is actively plotting Father Brebeuf’s downfall, while he never ceases his attempts to convert her to Christianity, even though she clearly has no wish to be converted – but at the same there is undeniably an attraction betwee them – even a very strong one, I would argue, maybe even all the more so for it mostly remaining buried and, when it does raise its head, an enigma to them both. In the end Father Brebeuf, with all the best intentions, is instrumental in destroying Born Underwater’s way of life, while Born Underwater, in attempting to destroy Father Brebeuf, fulfills his mostly deeply held wish, i.e. to become a martyr to his faith. And all those doublings, cross-directions and cross-purposes are variations on the theme of following the river in two directions at once.

The alternating chapters from the European and the native Indian perspective highlight again what might very well be Vollmann’s greatest strength as a novelist, and that is his stylistic versatility. The effortlessness with which he changes tones and registers, the various degrees of sublety with which he adjusts his prose style to various perspectives and subject matters, the sheer range and variety of styles at his command never ceases to astonish. And yet, even while proving himself the most versatile of prose chameleons, his writing always remains unmistakeably his own, bears some hidden, but very noticeable Vollmannian watermark. This is even more noticeable in Father and Crows than it was in The Ice-Shirt – here, there is something almost Faulknerian in the way he gives voice to his protagonists – even the identity of the narrator seems to shift depending on who is writing about, William the Blind is European when writes about the French, Spanish and English, native Indian when he writes about the various tribes. “Rather than be a totalitarian, I have preferred to let the variants stand in all their charm,” as it says in the note on Glossaries (showcasing another Vollmannian trait, namely to hide his self-reflective methodological statements in out-of-the-way places). It’s his conception of the Gesamtkunstwerk again, and some of its political implications: In a Vollmann novel, nobody is excluded, everybody’s voice gets heard – he aims for totality, and hence is profoundly anti-totalitarian.

And part of this is that, just like in The Ice-Shirt, Vollmann takes his sources absolutely, totally serious. As a historical novel, Fathers and Crows is not chiefly interested in facts (although Vollmann certainly put a lot of effort into getting those right – even a brief look at the appendices shows the stupendous amount of research that went into this), not in how its protagonists and their factions are perceived objectively from the outside, but in how they perceive and present themselves. Vollmann never sheds even the faintest doubt on the Jesuits’ claim of wanting to save the Indians but takes them by their word that their attempts at converting them to Christianity is all done with the aim of saving the natives’ souls, with the best of intentions. And then he goes on and shows relentlessly how good intentions and altruism and can be by far more destructive and devastating than greed and self-interest – it’s not the early settlers’s greed that destroys the Huron tribes but the well-intentioned zeal of the Jesuits who believe themselves to be acting in their best interests. And, from a Jesuit point of view, they of course are, and Father Brebeuf, who longs so intensely to become a martyr, would likely have argued that it was better for them to perish than to lose their souls. It would be very easy to pass judgement on them, but Vollmann, while never flinching away from showing what went wrong (and the novel is very drastic in parts) tells a tale that is ultimately without villains. It is also a tale that even though it is a challenging read has a huge impact on the reader willing to brave both its slow meanderings as its rapids, a novel that I consider a major contribution to contemporary literature and the historical novel. I’m even starting to understand those rabid G.R.R. Martin fans who kept clamoring about a continuation of A Song of Ice and Fire and find myself wishing Vollmann would cut the minor stuff and get down to finishing Seven Dreams already – I don’t doubt that dressing up as a woman is fun, but the man has a Major Work of Western Literature to complete!

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4 comments

  1. Wow. This looks like a thoroughly intriguing novel and I love the way you describe the its reflection of river imagery, ‘from the innocence of the source towards the ocean of experience’. It’s also very perceptive to note that people doing good can sometimes do so much more damage than people doing evil, and that whole concept is actually a rather interesting one in its own right to form the heart of a novel. This might have to go on the ‘I really should read this one day’ list. It sounds quite challenging but at the same time rather beautiful.

    Surely I can’t be the only person who has been completely and utterly thrown by the link in your final sentence, though! What an ambitious and intriguing project… but… *why*?!

  2. Thank you! 🙂 I’m glad you liked the post, and of course would be very curious about your thoughts if you should ever get around to reading it. It’s certainly a very unusual historical novel, but I think his Seven Dreams (of which many consider this to be the best volume so far) in my eyes one of the great literary masterpieces of our time.

    As for Dolores – I have not read that yet, so am not sure what Vollmann was thinking, but my first reaction would be… why not? – Also, it does kind of fit in with his drive towards an all-embracing conception of Gesamtkunstwerk that I see at work in his oeuvre – if he wants to embrace the totality of human experience, he can’t just ignore half of humanity, so it seems like a logical step to experience himself as a woman, or come as close to that as possible short of an operative gender change. In spite of my mock-outrage in the post I find this project quite fascinating (and do have the book, and might even read it at some stage).

  3. Oh, absolutely fair point about Dolores. I wasn’t criticising the decision per se, just absolutely intrigued by it. If he is doing it, as you suggest, to thoroughly understand the experience of those whose perspective he might write from, then that’s an amazing commitment. I suggest we coin a new term. “Method character-building?”

  4. Hehe, coming to think about it, that’s an excellent analogy, and not just for character building but for his writing in general – when doing research for his novel The Rifles he actually did spend some time alone in the arctic to find out what that felt like. So he’d be practising some kind of “method writing” then – I’ll have to keep that in mind for future posts on / reading of his books.

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