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With a language like no other

Mozart and Leadbelly Stories and Essays Ernest J. Gaines Alfred A. Knopf: 160 pp., $22.95

October 09, 2005|Mary Ellen Doyle | Mary Ellen Doyle is the author of "Voices From the Quarters: The Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines."

FANS of Ernest J. Gaines' best-known novels ("The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," "A Gathering of Old Men," "A Lesson Before Dying") will find this new book an enticing good read. To those scholars who have studied his fiction or heard his talks, it will be delightfully familiar, and they will be gratified that important short works are now collected. The short stories and essays here, most of which were originally published in various journals, are accompanied by a new story and a concluding interview.

The introduction by the book's editors, Marcia Gaudet and Reggie Young, Gaines' colleagues at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, should not be bypassed. It is an entertaining account of their task of persuasion and collection, offering insights into Gaines' personality as well as his works. They also provide nuggets of fresh information, such as Gaines' ownership of land on the plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, La., where his ancestors labored; his care of the cemetery where they rest and are ritually remembered; and his acquisition and restoration of the church school where he spent his early years and set some of his most memorable fiction.

Of the six essays that constitute the first section, only the last is previously unpublished. All began as talks to varied audiences; for the move from podium and journal to collection, the editors eliminated repetitions, moved some material around and ignored chronology to some extent, to achieve coherence.

"Miss Jane and I" (1978), which opens the section, is the richest personal narrative and a needful first acquaintance with the author. It reads like a fine Gaines story in which he is the protagonist revealed in the light of his secondary characters -- chiefly his great-aunt Augusteen Jefferson and the folks on River Lake Plantation, "the people I really loved and knew," who spoke "that language that is like no other." The essay takes him to California and Guam, dealing with his first writing, noting the influence of his teachers and the literature of the Western canon and revealing his pattern of returning to the past "so that I can see some meaning in the present."

The title essay, which comes next, addresses Mozart and Leadbelly and their music only briefly. It is really an account of how Gaines' 1963 return to Louisiana served as the genesis of his future work. But that account exemplifies the title's point: the parallel and desirable influences of European classical art and African American folk art. The African American artist must be inspired, above all, by the life, language and music of his own people -- and he must "whistle" both Mozart and Leadbelly.

The three central essays present the what, how and why of Gaines' labors to write fiction. In "A Very Big Order: Reconstructing Identity," he presents himself in the third person -- as a descendant of his Louisiana people who is in search of his "I," which he must find in order to articulate their experience. The "how" is revealed metaphorically in "Bloodline in Ink" as the artist's constant and careful carving of a block of wood until the image emerges. "Aunty and the Black Experience in Louisiana" articulates the "why" -- the incessant challenge to change society for the better. The final essay, "Writing 'A Lesson Before Dying,' " argues that a master craftsman carving his block of wood is never quite alone and is always open to collaboration, discovery and new decisions.

The second section presents Gaines' first stories: those he wrote as a student in the late 1950s at San Francisco State College and Stanford and which were published in their literary magazines ("The Turtles," "Boy in the Double-Breasted Suit," "Mary Louise") and another, later work, "My Grandpa and the Haint" (1966), equal in artistry to the stories in his 1968 collection, "Bloodline." Gaines has noted wryly the eagerness of critics to study a writer's first efforts, and these four stories are indeed keys to interpreting his later masterworks: They contain the folk feeling, wit and dialogue; the exploration of relationships, across age and gender; and his developing techniques of structure and narration. They also shed light on the maturation of his themes. "The Turtles," for instance, is a gem of understated symbolism, character creation and contrast; anyone familiar with his 1993 novel "A Lesson Before Dying" will see how far its author has progressed in defining manhood and what a woman can teach a man.

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