This issue of Granta, subtitled “Going Back,” is a delightful combination of the old and the new, such as a beginning with a stand-out story by Leila Aboulela and ending with the essay, “The Farm,” by literary legend Mark Twain.
Aboulela’s story, “Missing Out,” cycles back, forward, then back again; the second return taking place in the mind of protagonist Majdy. When his exasperated mother fears that he may drop out of grad school in London, she hatches a plan to find him a wife, believing that this new partner will settle him down, far away from his home in Sudan’s Khartoum. When he and his new wife, Samra, arrive in London, Samra is delighted by the conventions of modernization. Soon, though, she is disillusioned by Majdy’s lack of commitment to his Islamic faith. He suggests that his wife go back to Sudan for a few months, perhaps hoping for an unwritten turn in her resistance to London.
After Samra leaves, though, Majdy is suddenly reminiscent of his hometown, and missing his wife:
Back in his room, Majdy noticed the silence. The floor looked strangely larger. Samra had folded her prayer mat and put it away in her side of the cupboard. She had not needed to take it with her. In Khartoum there were plenty of other mats. Mats with worn faded patches where people pressed their foreheads and stood with wet feet. Majdy opened the cupboard and felt the smooth, velvet material. It stirred in him a childish sense of exclusion, of being left out, like a pleasure he had denied himself and now forgotten the reasons why. She had held the day up with pegs; not only her day but his too. Five pegs. And now morning billowed into afternoon, into night, unmarked.
It’s a fully realized look into the allure of new surroundings, alongside the pull toward home that all too often accompanies it. It’s a lovely story.
Hal Crowther’s essay, “One Hundred Fears of Solitude,” speaks about the loss of solitude and privacy to today’s Age of Electronics:
Technological saturation coincides precisely with a general decline in literacy. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy, a test administered just once a decade by the US Department of Education, found that between 1992 and 2003 the percentage of college graduates scoring ‘proficient’ or above in reading comprehension had shrunk from forty to thirty-one. America had lost roughly one quarter of its most sophisticated readers. No doubt most of them had died.
Crowther continues, suggesting that more than “intellectual stagnation and physical decay,” the Age of Facebook and Myspace may cause “severe psychological displacement, to the edge of madness and well beyond.” Crowther then lists many examples of this evidence that are a strange mixture of amusement and horror. It’s frightening, indeed. Amongst the words of his closing are found,
Peer pressure and the herd instinct are the things about human beings that suck most of all – to use a strong pejorative familiar to the wired generation. They’re what made Mark Twain curl his lip when he referred to ‘man’s commonest weakness, his aversion to being unpleasantly conspicuous, pointed at, shunned, as being on the unpopular side…’[H]e saw the exhaustion of the independent spirit that made America possible…and the threat to freedom when everyone knows, and cares, what everyone else is thinking.
And so it is from Crowther’s reference of Mark Twain that I turn toward Twain’s essay, “The Farm.” In it, Twain muses about his childhood days spent at his Uncle John’s farm:
I can call back the solemn twilight and mystery of the dark woods, the earthy smells, the faint odors of the wild flowers, the sheen of rain-washed foliage, the rattling clatter of drops when the wind shook the trees, the far-off hammering of wood-peckers and the muffled drumming of wood-pheasants in the remoteness of the forest, the snap-shot glimpses of disturbed wild creatures skurrying through the glass – I can call it all back and make it as real as it ever was, and as blessed.
It’s a wonderful glimpse into the life if the young child who will turn to writing as his adult vocation, not yet famous and universally adored.
Speaking of adoration, I simply loved this issue of Granta. True to its motto, it consists almost entirely of new writing, yet every piece that appears between its covers contains a nod to the past, as its theme this time around pronounces. It’s a great pleasure to read, and deserving of whatever praise may come its way.