Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Set Forth at Dawn

A review of Wole Soyinka's (pictured) new autobiography, You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir, appeared in last weekend's FT magazine. The reviewer, who is the FT's Africa editor, levels the same accusations at Wole Soyinka that very many people make - that he has a tendency to grandiloquence. I agree. I haven't read the complete works of Soyinka, but I've read enough of his articles to make have an informed opinion. He is obviously a man who has words aplenty beneath his statically charged hair, but only very few people and others employed by the OED have such a large vocabulary. Having a large vocabulary isn't even a problem, but Soyinka sometimes uses a scattergun approach when using words, very few bullets hit the target, and the audience can get lost.

Now, I'm a lover of words and their usage, but the context has to be right. And this definitely isn't some reverse snobbery against people who know more words than I do (okay, so what if it is?), but just an observation of Soyinka and his ability to kill a story with his use of words. The arts should invite people into a world, rather than exclude them. But perhaps he writes the way he does because his duty, as an author, is too explore the complexities of life, which invariably involves the use of complex language.

All this though, doesn't detract from the fact that he is a very fine writer, one of the finest ever from Africa. My love of the theatre really started when I played Chume in a school prodcution of The Trials of Brother Jero. Great writers are always prescient to the point of spookiness, and the Jero plays still apply to today's Nigeria. His Reith Lectures in 2004 sparkled with wit and candour, and if nothing else, is testament to his worldwide appeal. Even though I'm not the greatest fan of autobiographies (huge ego trips, David Beckham already has three at age 31), I will be reading Set Forth.

The Guardian's Maya Jaggi wrote a very good profile of Wole Soyinka in November 2002.


A disillusioned Naija girl said...

That was truly funny. The mixture of envy (professional envy, maybe?) and grudging admiration put a smile on my face.

The reality simply is that in an ideal world where Nigeria produced a plethora of writers in every imaginable field, he would be well-nigh the top of the range. As we haven't anything close to a reasonable amount of adroit writers in Nigeria, he stands in stark relief against the barren landscape that is the arts (although several writers of note are indeed coming up).

I think it might be perhaps too gargantuan a task for the humble Wole Soyinka to draw people of all intellectual capacities into the arts. He shouldn't be expected to 'dumb down', so to speak, even if he is in danger of alienating less mentally agile people. I guess I'm of the theory that if you can't keep up, learn to. The world should be going forward, and not backward. Dear Wole surely shouldn't be expected to :-)

Quest said...

I have to disagree with you there nijaoffspring. Wole Soyinka is incredibly difficult to read, even for people (like yours truly) who are pretty well-read themselves. I tried tackling Open Sore of a Continent and had to give up after a few pages. His stuff just isn't pleasant to the inner ear, and it takes the pleasure out of "pleasure reading".

I don't think he would be "dumbing down" if he were a little bit more coherent and accessible. Is literature for the people, or is it for those who read dictionaries for fun? I don't think literature should be about excluding people, and that is what he does intentionally or not (I personally think he gets a kick out of being hard to understand).

The thing about Wole Soyinka is, I am TOLD he is a phenomenal writer and I should appreciate his work, I just can't judge that from reading him.

But I'm not going to turn this comment into a post on verbose longwinded african men...

Olawunmi said...

you nailed it man. i have always had trouble reading soyinka because i have to reach for the dictionary every other word. but then, thats the expression of the man's talent - who am i to judge?

A disillusioned Naija girl said...

To everchange and Olawunmi - if he tried to be more accessible and coherent, surely that equates to dumbing down for those of us who aren't on the same intellectual plane as he is. Shouldn't we be trying to attain to his unarguably massive intellect? In any case, it's only vocabulary - a lot of authors inspire you to greater heights, by virtue of the fact that you've got to have a dictionary on hand when going through their narrative.

I'm not exactly sure if his newer stuff is pleasant reading - I think he's gone past that stage now. You also have to take into account the frustration he feels in being part of a country where he's a pariah - where not much progress has been made in any field whatsoever, and where no one goes against the grain of general thought. He stands alone, and should therefore not have to suffer the further indignity of bringing his stuff down to 'our level'.

You never know - our children or their children might read his works in years to come, and appreciate it like we did bleeding Shakespeare back in school.

PS: You read 'Trials of Brother Jero', 'The Lion and the Jewel' and 'Death & the king's horseman', to mention a few, so you should know what kind of a writer he is. He can't be based solely on his latest book, surely.

Nkem said...

You know what? I've read all those plays, seen some of them performed, and performed in some. They are all immense works or art, edgy, thought-provoking, and most importantly, accessible. It's when he tries to write some opus mirabilis that I feel his audience departs. This is probably why he's more popular for his plays than he is for his other works.

I don't wish that he dumb down, in fact he's an inspiration character to which many of us aspire. But there's no joy in reading something and having to reach for the dictionary twice in a sentence. It makes the reading disjointed and frustrating. And it isn't always which words are used, but how they are used. Dictionaries are heavy things, I can't exactly carry them on the tube, in addition to the actual book I'm reading, my newspaper, and my make-up bag. Something's got to give, and it won't be the make-up bag.

A disillusioned Naija girl said...

Simple solution Nkem - leave the book at home, and only read it when you've got the time, space, some biscuits and a good cup of tea/milo. There are other books you can pose with on the tube (not suggesting you would be posing, of course:-) )

PS: Make-up bag? Thought you were a journalist, not a clown or stage actor.

St Antonym said...

Well, Wole Soyinka was a hero to us in those years, wasn't he?. The prestige came first, that impossibly high profile for a writer in a society that didn't do much reading. A writer as great as the generals who were at the time busy looting the national treasuries. We spilled out onto the streets in 1986, celebrating Soyinka's Nobel Prize as if we had won the World Cup or come to the sudden but long-awaited end of a Civil War.

Only later did he begin to exist to some of us as a literary figure: "The Man Died," his prison memoir; "A Shuttle in the Crypt," which were poems from the same dark age; "Ake," the childhood memoir that is his best known book in the West but not in Nigeria; and, above all, the collected plays, in two volumes, in those severe-looking dark blue Oxford University Press paperbacks.

Soyinka was, foremost, a playwright. "The Lion and the Jewel," a funny (and, in retrospect, misogynistic litte play), bejewelled many a high school theater arts program. It shares something of the energy of "The Taming of the Shrew." It was Soyinka's first play.

Soyinka's best and best known play also has a Shakespearean spirit about it. "Death and the King's Horseman," to date the best thing I've read out of Africa, luxuriates in the language and ritual of the Yoruba, and brings that reality into an unforgettably strange English. It is a truly monumental play, based on a historical event in colonial Nigeria, and reminiscent in equal parts of "King Lear" (the furious inventiveness of the language), "Oedipus Rex" (the inexorable and tragic mood) and "Madame Butterfly" (with whom it shares certain plot elements and, especially in the figure of the colonial officer, characterizations).

Soyinka's other plays delved into the mysteries of Yoruba religion. He was obsessed with myths, forests, rituals. He wasn't famed for lightness of touch.

To youngsters of my generation, Soyinka represented a kind of extreme of what was possible in terms of literary ambition. Being Yoruba, being Ijebu for that matter, was no barrier to entering the rarified world of literature.

That's why it seems to me just a little sad that Soyinka's wholly political now. It's strange that he isn't making new work (of a literary cast: his polemical essays have continued to be published in a steady stream), and it's even stranger that he doesn't seem to have a particularly active relationship with his past work, in terms of facilitating the production of his plays, or leading theatre workshops, or doing book reviews, or giving literary lectures. The well seems to have dried up about twenty-years ago, as if the Nobel proved his point and freed him for other pursuits.

He is utterly consumed by the Nigerian political situation. In his writings now, a lot of the old strengths are gone: the love for the pungent detail, the rootedness in Yoruba mythos and ritual, the bizarre flights of poetical fancy. What remains now is the hot anger that sustained him through the years of military dictatorship, as well as his language: ostentatious and clotted as it ever was. In "Death and the King's Horseman," the Baroque density of words suited his subject. But Soyinka's continuing inability to resist the lure of four and five syllable words, his love of Latinate constructions and rare words in all situations (regardless of suitability) is by now a total irritant to me.

Why is it that the Master, in his dotage, has come to sound exactly like the pompous dictionary-wielding village schoolteacher that he took such delight in skewering in his very first play? His example has poisoned the literary style of many a Nigerian to this day: no one in Nigerian journalism uses a simple Anglo-Saxon word when a Latinate monstrosity would do. No one says "join" when they can launch "amalgamation." My people, how far now? I'd love to go up in a helicopter and drop reams of Orwell's essay on the masses of Lagos.

To those who wish to experience Soyinka's genius and impish wit at its best, I'd recommend "Ake," the memoir of his childhood. There, the subject matter seems to have freed him into what (for him) is the very rarest of literary virtues: simplicity.

Opium said...

Nkem, I completely agree wih you. Wole Soyinka though a brilliant mind and writer is certainly grandiloquent. However, it works for him and not the dozens of Nigerian news/article writers who are yet to realise that the ability to get one's point across in simple and accessible language is actually the greater skill. Sound bites are effective for a reason.

? said...

interesting post and comments

Noella said...

Oh my goodness Nkem, I played the part of Chume tooooooooo( We have something in common.)
I haven't even tried to read any of Wole Soyinka's books, but I love his plays. The trials of brother Jero was required reading in Form 5, and it made me laugh at loud, and my mum bought me one called a play of giants - I think that is his best one,it was based on idi amin and other african dictators, it was satire at its best

Nneka's World said...

I thought I was the only one that thought wole soyinka was too tedious to read. Cause as you are getting into the story, you are suddenly "shocked out" to look for a dictionary, in order to fully understand what he is saying.

But he is a brilliant writer not withstanding.

TMinx said...

I loved Ake and Isara. I think I have to go and dust of the plays including Lion and the Jewel. I just wasn't interested in Literature at that time. I particularly love learning new words but most times it's not difficult to decipher the meaning of the word in the context which it is being used.

Nkem you might be interested in the

? said...

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Anonymous said...

I can entertain some grandiloquence but cannot tolerate malapropisms.

I believe I saw one of the Jero plays too many years ago.

I do find that that I am caught between using the most correct word in context which might be multisyllabic and using a general word around which I must construct the context.

Most especially, working in a foreign country (Netherlands) forces you to preview, review, edit and re-edit just to ensure you are communicating rather than just broadcasting.

The international recognition of Wole Soyinka speaks volumes, but it is left to individuals to decide if they want to become compendiums of grandiloquence or just keep to easy reading.

ayoke said...

I agree with you to some extent, Nkem. I find Soyinka's "Ake" one of my best reads but "The Man Died" is not it at all.

uknaija said...

I've liked most of Soyinka's work including the difficult ones. I remember trying to read his novel The Interpreters at 16 and dropping it and then reading it again at 24 and utterly loving it...but to each his own. I'd particularly recommend Ake, Isara and Ibadan to those who find his work difficult...the humour and wit in them is unbeatable. Part of what fascinates me with Soyinka and Achebe is how these men who learnt English as a second language, can wield it with such felicity

Tunde Adeleye (Africa's #1 Educational Consultant) said...


I agree with your statement. Much as I admire Soyinka for his literary skills, he ought to use simple words and aim for brevity and clarity in his writing. Still one of Africa's best tho...