Old Nobel literature laureates die and sometimes fade away, but first they typically keep publishing amid an odd atmosphere that combines imperial hauteur and cloying deference.
Readers take to the new books, even enjoy them, but without the frisson of discovery. Observing the launch of a Nobelist’s latest can feel like watching the president descend the stairway from Air Force One, or the queen wave from her Buckingham Palace balcony.
When Jean-Paul Sartre became the first and only writer to decline the prize, he announced that a writer should not permit himself to become a public institution. Sartre was onto something.
What a pleasure, then, to watch 77-year-old Toni Morrison, the last literary Nobelist (1993) from a culture dismissed this year as “too insular” to merit the Swedish Academy’s nod, bound into literature with her new book as if it were the first time, with the spry energy of a doe. A Mercy, her ninth novel and first in five years, is that beguiling and beautiful, that deftly condensed, that sinewy with imaginative sentences, lyric flight and abundant human sensitivity.
Throughout Morrison’s new tale of 17th-century America, a blacksmith figures without ever becoming the cynosure of the action. But her craft resembles his. Finely hammered phrases repeatedly come off the anvil, forming a story as powerful as many she has shaped before.
Elements of this writer’s art from way back remain part of her achievement here.
Like a mighty telescope perched on a contemporary plateau, Morrison draws in signals, moods, torments, exhilarations from African-American life and history, whether it’s a 20th-century black child’s self-doubt (The Bluest Eye) or a 19th-century slave mother’s unbearable anguish (Beloved). In every book, Morrison mixes the verbal music of an era with idiosyncratic wisdom, delivered indirectly rather than ex cathedra, recalling omniscient Russian masters without imitating them.
A Mercy, whose title becomes clear only on the book’s wrenching last page, unfolds through multiple perspectives. In what seems to be Virginia circa 1690—Morrison is elusive enough that early reviewers have alternately placed the main setting in New York and Maryland—a farmer and trader named Jacob Vaark brings a slave girl, Florens, 7- or 8-years-old, back to his homestead as partial payment for a debt from the decadent owner of a Maryland tobacco plantation.
Jacob is happily married to Rebekka, a wife bartered to him at age 16 by her English parents. The rest of his makeshift extended farm family are also business acquisitions of a sort, though Jacob sympathizes with “orphans and strays”, having been one of the former himself.
Sorrow, the troubled 11-year-old survivor of a shipwreck, was impregnated by a rescuer/rapist and traded to Jacob for lumber. Lina, an American Indian teenager, was sold at 14 to Jacob by the Presbyterians who raised her after plague destroyed her village. She becomes Rebekka’s chief helper, almost a friend despite their status gap.
Rounding out the farm menagerie are Scully and Willard, indentured white servants, and the unnamed blacksmith, a free black man who excites Florens as he works on a new grand house for Jacob. Having seen the blacksmith’s ability to cure smallpox symptoms with folk remedies, Rebekka, when she falls ill with fever herself, sends Florens to find him, driving the action around which the climax of the novel turns.
Some readers will see A Mercy as foreshadowing Beloved, the decision of Florens’ mother to put her in Jacob’s hands as a gentler choice than that of Sethe in the earlier book. Does it suggest a still hopeful time before slavery rigidified into its beastliest rituals? Not quite.
When Jacob reluctantly inspects the slaves of D’Ortega, the plantation owner, “The women’s eyes looked shockproof, gazing beyond place and time as though they were not actually there.” Yet if Sethe in Beloved suffers from the dehumanizing upshot of Dred Scott doctrine, Florens, infatuated with her idealized blacksmith, still dreams of happiness despite being treated as chattel and forced to elude witch-hunters.
Morrison invests more in character here than in historical critique, eager to explore the thoughts of almost every person on Jacob’s farm. Life circa 1690 is a struggle for both owners and owned. All four of the Vaark children have died young. Lina dislikes Sorrow, but spoils Florens. Rebekka learns “the intricacy of loneliness: the horror of color, the roar of soundlessness and the menace of familiar objects lying still.”
Along the way come moments whose artistry freezes one’s page-turning. Morrison’s tactile reports rivet: the “alehouse lights” like “gemstones fighting darkness,” the graphic depictions of steerage. Voices shift from Florens’ adrenaline-filled ardor (“I think if you wake and see me seeing you I will die”) to Lina’s calm assessment of all whites as “Europes”, to the narrator’s aphoristic deeming of “patience” as “the lifeblood of farming.”
What’s the opposite of “lazy” in a fiction writer’s style and research? Industrious? Indefatigable? Morrison wears her knowledge lightly, yet every page exhibits her control of the period’s objects and artifacts, its worries and necessities, challenges and dangers. She surrounds A Mercy’s more fanciful arabesques with a broad border of realism.
Morrison once quipped, after winning her Nobel, that it had given her a “license to strut.” Only, cynics might reply, if such earth-shattering fellow winners as Frans Sillanpaa and Karl Gjellerup get an equal right. But a book as masterfully wrought as A Mercy behooves its author to swagger. Go to it, Ms. Morrison.