Moses Ascending, by Sam Selvon
As I write this, I am on a skiing holiday in Banff, Canada. Accordingly, I may be slow to respond to any comments.
Moses Ascending is the 1975 sequel to Sam Selvon’s glorious 1956 novel, The Lonely Londoners, which I discuss here and which Kevin from Canada discusses (together with Moses Ascending, here). Ultimately, both works form part of a trilogy, ending with the 1983 novel Moses Migrating, itself reviewed by Kevin from Canada here.
The Lonely Londoners probably counts for me as my great discovery of 2008, the novel which brought me the most unexpected pleasure, being well written, passionate and very funny while simultaneously giving real insight into the 1950s immigrant experience (and the immigrant experience more generally).
With Moses Ascending, we find ourselves no longer in the 1950 world of hopeful Caribbean “boys” trying to make their way in the face of native prejudice. Instead we are now in the more directly confrontational world of the 1970s. New immigrant populations have arrived, meeting fresh hostility (including from the previous wave of immigrants, of which more later) and the children of the original immigrants are themselves now natives, born and raised in England and with a different outlook to that of their parents.
Moses, a central character of the original novel, here is still writing his memoirs and has come to regard himself as an intellectual figure, but he is no longer central to the West Indian ex-pat community as he once was. Where twenty years ago he welcomed those new to Britain, helped shelter them and establish them so that they could find their own ways, now he has lost track of his old friends, has himself become a landlord of a crumbling Shepherd’s Bush tenement house with a five year lease left to run before it is condemned, and has become embittered and cynical.
Although The Lonely Londoners dealt squarely with issues of racism, estrangement and the objectification of the immigrant, its tone remained one of optimism and warmth. Here, that optimism has faded, soured, though the anger that was present in the original remains. Where The Lonely Londoners has a ten page prose poem praising London, a poem that includes recognition of prejudice but also is full of the sheer joy of Summer in the city, here almost at the outset we enter into five pages of controlled satirical fury – Moses speaks of how the black man should rejoice for it is his labour that makes the city function, him that sees the pre-dawn hours and is privileged to work when others sleep. From the second page of that passage:
Strangers to London – even bona fide Londoners too – have been heard to remark that they can’t see the hordes of black faces what supposed to clutter the vast metropolis. Ah, but at what time of day do they make this observation? If they had to get their arses out of bed in the wee hours, if they had to come out of cosy flat and centrally-heated hallways to face the onslaught of an icy north wind and trudge through the sludge and grime of a snow-trampled pavement, they would encounter black man and woman by the thousands.
This section continues for another three pages after this harsh punchline, culminating in the coldly ironic observation that if the white population knew how good the blacks had it then it would be the whites themselves who would rise up in revolution.
The early part of the work is then fairly philosophical in tone, Moses reflects on the world, now that he is a landlord he finds himself treated with a new respect, better treated than other blacks, he has money in his pocket and as landlord has power over his tenants. Moses is no longer servant to others, indeed he now has a servant himself:
All these [domestic] arrangements were attended to by my man Friday, a white immigrant named Bob from somewhere in the Midlands, who came to seek his fortunes in London. My blood take him because he was a good worker, young and strong, and he put down three weeks’ rent in advance. By the time the three weeks was up he was spitting and polishing all over the house, tearing down old wallpaper and putting up new ones, painting and puttying, sweeping and scrubbing. He was a willing worker, eager to learn the ways of the Black man.
The only thing I didn’t like about him was he went out most evenings and come back pissed, drunk like a lord. As we became good friends, or rather Master and Servant, I try to convert him from the evils of alcohol, but it was no use.
I decided to teach him the Bible when I could make the time.
Again, we are in the realm of vicious satire, we have an express reference to Robinson Crusoe and a clear inversion of the traditional white stereotypes of the black man. Throughout the novel, the relationship between Moses and Bob is a caustic reminder of the normal depiction of the black character in fiction of this period.
As the novel continues, it becomes more plot driven, Moses has among his tenants a black power group residing in his basement, Kid Galahad from the first novel returns, now as a fashionably dressed black power activist shouting slogans and seeking Moses’ financial backing for the movement. Brenda, a young female activist, moves into the basement to run the movement’s activities, but soon starts sleeping with both Moses and his man Bob. Selvon is generally good at sketching characters – Moses himself, Bob, Kid Galahad with his appeals to black solidarity which always amount to a request for funds, unfortunately Brenda is a crude depiction of a woman who is routinely sexually available at the whim of the male characters and who in a bizarre scene appears to get turned on by Bob attempting to sexually assault her and so allows herself to be seduced by Moses. Apparently, a feminist later slapped Selvon in the face for his depictions of women in his work, and based on his depictions of them in this novel I can’t say that was wholly unfair. I will return to this later however, as other interpretations of Brenda as a character are possible.
Moses becomes unwillingly involved in the black power movement, going on a demo out of curiosity and being swept up in the police response, which leads to his arrest even though he is not among those breaking the law. Moses activities throughout this work brush against criminality, often through little choice of his own, and Selvon uses this as an opportunity to explore relationships between the black community and the police in this period – relationships that at the risk of veering into the personal I can attest (having grown up in this part of London in the 1970s ) are pretty accurately captured:
I don’t know about you, but when you are a black man, even though you abide by the laws you are always wary of the police. It does not occur to you that there could be any casual contact, or innocent, or even self-beneficial. It got angelic saints who would be standing up talking about God and Jesus Christ in reverential tones, and they see a policeman in the offing, and the meeting break up, evaporate without trace.
As I noted at the outset, Moses being a man of property is better treated than other blacks, has come to regard himself as superior to many of them. The police act as a sharp reminder that to many in the white community, whatever he may have achieved, he is to them just another black face among many.
Other tenants also bring problems with them, again in a tone of bleak comedy, Moses becomes suspicious that two Pakistani tenants are running a people smuggling operation, using his house as part of a route through which new Pakistani and Indian immigrants are brought illegally into the UK. Moses gets to know one of these men, observing him sacrificing a sheep in the back garden (this is probably based on a real incident of this kind which I recall from childhood) and experiencing a mixture of curiosity, fear and animosity towards these new arrivals and their to him peculiar customs, just as once the white population did with him.
Much of this is very funny, where it works less well however is that the depictions of the Pakistanis are again not as convincing as some of the other portraits in this work. One, referred to as Paki (which, for the benefit of any non-UK readers, is today considered a very racist term), mentions how he does not need sleep as he can go into a trance and meditate. Although ostensibly a Muslim, Paki practices yoga which is of course a Hindu practice and what appears to be Buddhist style meditation. The Penguin Modern Classics edition of this work comes with an essay from Hari Kunzru which, although generally favourable, suggests that Selvon himself might not have inquired much more into the realities of the different Indian subcontinent populations than did his character Moses, this may be fair, though as with Brenda other interpretations are possible and I shall return to this issue also.
So, by now I have suggested that in this work Selvon manages to be both racist and sexist, which is an unfortunate charge sheet. Leaving aside other possible takes on those elements, is it then worth reading? Definitely, although I did not enjoy this as much as The Lonely Londoners, it does still have a great deal to say and it is often very funny when saying it. In examining the strained relationship between established and new waves of immigrants, Selvon investigates a topic that is all too often ignored but which remains highly relevant, few after all have more to lose from the arrival of new populations than those who have only just begun to feel settled themselves and racism can take more forms than simple prejudice from natives to immigrants – prejudice between disparate immigrant populations is real too.
Selvon is also in fine form on the generational conflicts within the black community, most evidenced in the mocking regard in which Brenda holds Moses, she may sleep with him but she shows him little respect. The movement sees him as a source of funds, but it is clear that to them he is yesterday’s man, valuable for his newfound prosperity but otherwise a dinosaur. Perhaps with Brenda’s sexuality Selvon was seeking to depict a new kind of woman, a woman who chose with whom she wanted to sleep and who was not merely an object for the pleasure of others, a woman of a sort that was emerging in this period into public consciousness. If so, I don’t think he succeeded, but when he succeeds at so much else it is not for me a fatal flaw.
Moses himself also remains a fascinating character, particularly here steeped as he is in bitterness, resentment against his own community and suspicion of the new world he sees forming around him. His misadventures as he seeks to understand his Pakistani tenants, and so gets sucked into their illegal operations, are genuinely funny as are the myriad ways in which the black power movement exploit him against his will. Moses now is subject not only to alienation by reason of race, but also by reason of his age.
Selvon uses Moses in another interesting way, as a vehicle through which to explore the black literary voice and the black experience of 1970s Britain after some twenty years of integration. Moses’ literary voice is ridiculed for its failure to follow conventional rules of grammar, the concept of a black voice which does not follow a white created norm does not yet exist, and Moses finds himself prone to fits of despair as he contemplates both his life as a writer and his life as a black man in a country which for all he has more respect than formerly still considers him a second class citizen.
The experience of that policeman coming and knocking at my door and asking all of them rarse questions had me depress. I don’t know if I can describe it properly, not being a man of words, but I had a kind of sad feeling that all black people was doomed to suffer, that we would never make any headway in Brit’n. As if it always have a snag, no matter how hard we struggle or try to stay out of trouble. After spending the best years of my life in the Mother Country it was a dismal conclusion to come to, making you feel that one and one make zero. It wasn’t so much depression as sheer terror really, to see your life falling to pieces like that.
What particularly strikes me in the above quote, is that of course a man of words is precisely what Moses does see himself as. Moses spends his days writing his memoirs, consider himself an unrecognised literary talent, an author. To say as he does here that he is not a man of words is to make a declaration of despair. It is a subtle note, and shows again how Selvon can bury tragedy within a sentence such that if you do not read closely you may never realise it is there.
Selvon then continues to mix anger, injustice, farce and comedy. Moses Ascending is full of jokes, ranging from lengthy set pieces with complex set-ups to one-liners which as here literally made me laugh out loud:
I try to get the double bed but the store say they can’t deliver before 1984, and my lease would expire before that.
I have rarely seen the problems of the Britain of the 1970s captured with such precision as Selvon manages in that one sentence.
Before I finish on this work, I wanted to return to my earlier charges of racism and sexism. Moses is a writer, working on his memoirs. His manuscript appears to be The Lonely Londoners, existing itself within the fiction, and Moses Ascending appears also to exist both as the fiction and as the work of Moses within the fiction. In reading Selvon we are reading Moses. This reopens questions of whether it is right to ascribe to Selvon the difficulties with depictions of women and Pakistanis referred to above, is Moses after all a reliable narrator? When women and Asians are objectified, is this Selvon objectifying or Moses? Is it intentional?
I think there is a genuine question there, but at the same time I think that if Selvon is attempting to reflect Moses’ own sexism and racism through the seemingly objective descriptions of female and Asian characters, he does not wholly succeed, I found these passages awkward and whatever Selvon’s intention may have been I think the result is problematic. As such, Moses Ascending is to me more a work of its time than was The Lonely Londoners, which I think was such a success as to wholly transcend the time of its creation. For all that, I am eager to read Moses Migrating, the third of the trilogy, and although I have reservations here that I did not have with the Lonely Londoners I also think this is a novel that manages to communicate anger and sadness both while remaining very funny and finding genuinely new things to say.