Toni Morrison: his 5 key novels told by 5 literary personalities

Recently missing, Toni Morrison was the great lady of American letters. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 and a remarkable storyteller, she has published eleven novels, which explore the different aspects of the black experience in the United States.


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Toni Morrison (1931-2019), African-American novelist, Nobel Prize for Literature 1993. @ REUTERS / Stephen Chernin

Recently missing, Toni Morrison was the great lady of American letters. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 and outstanding storyteller, she has published eleven novels, which explore the different sides of the black experience in the United States. They are novels of rare power, revolving around themes of race, slavery, incest, rape and redemption. RFI invites you to rediscover in priority five of these novels, read for you by an audience of writers, critics and translators united by their common admiration for the incandescent work of the African-American.

" I was very moved when I heard about the death of Toni Morrison. His work has accompanied me since the beginning of my life as a writer 30 years ago, "says Guadeloupe Gisele Pineau to the journalists of Radio France Internationale (RFI) who contacted her to collect his reactions to the disappearance of the novelist . " Toni Morrison was born a rebel ," says Franco-Lebanese Venus Khoury-Ghata who believes he has lost a soul mate. As for the Mauritian novelist Ananda Devi , she does not hesitate to say loud and clear her debt to the late novelist: " All my literary education was done through the work of this black American and deeply feminist .

RFI asked these three authors, but also Jean Guiloineau , French translator of the work of the American, and the literary critic Boniface Mongo-Mboussa , a connoisseur of works of the African diaspora of the United States, to present each his favorite novel by Toni Morrison. Readings that will make you want to dive or dive into this remarkable work, produced on nearly half a century of outstanding literary career.

Five key novels of American Toni Morrison who has just disappeared. RFI editing

"The Blueest Eye" (1969), presented by Jean Guiloineau (1)

" I have translated four novels by Toni Morrison (The Blueest Eye, Solomon's Song, Tar Baby and Paradise) and read all of his eleven titles. I was absolutely upset by The Blueest Eye , the very first novel published by Toni Morrison, then only 39 years old. This book is about the tragedy of Pecola, an African-American girl growing up in Ohio in the 1930s. Every night, the teenager prayed for blue eyes, just like her idol Shirley Tempels. Pecola was eleven years old and no one had ever noticed her. But she thought that if she had blue eyes, everything would be different. She would be so pretty that her parents would stop fighting. That his father would not drink anymore. That his brother would not run away anymore. If only she was beautiful. If only people were looking at her. She was convinced that they would do it if only she could have blue eyes!

But God will not answer the prayers of little Pecola. He will not help her when she is raped by her own father. She will carry her father's child and will have to survive the death of her premature baby.

The Blue Eye is a novel about internalized racism, but it is above all a deep exploration of the black family universe. Trapped in a white America, brutal and racist towards blacks, the characters are victims of their disappointed desires and unfulfilled family relations. The unfulfilled destiny of the heroine recalls the Greek tragedies, carried by the power and lucidity of the incandescent writing of Toni Morrison. "

"The Song of Solomon" (1977), presented by Boniface Mongo-Mboussa (2)

" I discovered Toni Morrison in the 1980s when I was studying Russian civilization at the University of Leningrad. What I like about his writing is his dose of lyricism and epic, all marked by the seal of the tragic. The Song of Solomon , my favorite book under the pen of the late novelist, is no exception to the rule. Combining magical realism and realism, this novel tells the self-quest of a black teenager living in Michigan between the 1930s and the early 1960s. The protagonist's almost initiatory quest evokes African origins almost obliterated, but He draws his honey essentially from his family's past of slavery, revealing through the charismatic, almost legendary figures of this family past the magic and folklore of the black American people.

I understood the scope of Toni Morrison's business because I had read before a text by James Baldwin entitled "Princes and Power" . In this essay, the author of Si Beale Street could speak to me (Stock 1997) invited African-Americans to forget African negritude, to seek inspiration from the American experience of their community. Failure to do so would be an insult to the victims of slavery and racism. Not to do so would be to ignore the richness of this experience closer to their own experience. I have the impression that Toni Morrison like Barack Obama had heard this call from Baldwin, Obama politically and the author of Beloved and Solomon's song on the literary level.

I read Solomon's Song in one go. I sometimes read it regularly precisely for its dimension anti- Racines (Alex Haley) and anti-epic. The novelist does not cut the bridges with Africa especially on the level of the imaginary. Each time I reread this masterpiece of finesse, poetic prose and humor too, I tell myself that Africans like me should read it to meditate on a more peaceful relationship with Black America. "

Beloved (1987), presented by Venus Khoury-Ghata (3)

" Toni Morrison is a soul mate for me because she is part of the lineage of Faulkner, who is also my model, my master of literature. The violence of the South, slavery, murders, and fake subjects of which Toni Morrison has taken it in his own way, with the poetry and finesse that characterize his work.

Nothing better illustrates the literary and poetic art of Toni Morrison than Beloved , which earned him the Pulitzer. It turns out that Beloved is also my favorite book of this exceptional Nobel Prize. Inspired by a real story, this novel tells the story of Sethe, a slave mother in a plantation in the South who slaughters her two-year-old daughter to avoid the same fate. Her gesture is terrible, but she will survive her act while remaining impregnated with the terrible memory of her little girl named Beloved to whom she had given death. By dint of imagining puddles of blood around her or the presence of the ghost of her returned daughter soliciting her affection, Sethe sinks into madness, a recurring theme in the work of Toni Morrison. Did not her doctoral thesis deal with the theme of madness at William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf?

Beloved is also a novel about crime and the possibility of redemption. This possibility is presented to Sethe when his path crosses that of a young woman, also named Beloved and wearing a large scar in her throat. Sethe will tell her story to exorcise the past, but her interlocutor will never stop reminding her that for people like her who has lost everything, redemption does not come from memory, but from oblivion. But can a mother ever forget the face, the cries and the tears of her child to whom she gave death with her own hands?

Beloved must be read to understand that there are no rich and poor, no whites and no blacks, no men and no women, there is only life flowing towards its ocean and against which we can not do anything. "

"Jazz" (1992), presented by Gisèle Pineau (4)

" I am very sad because Toni Morrison has been a great inspiration to me throughout my writing career. To read his novels was to enter the black world, with his men and women struggling with their history, with the great History - that of slavery - but also with the little intimate and family history of the Blacks, as the Jazz narrates , my favorite novel.

Jazz is the meeting of a man and a woman, in the South of the United States, in Virginia, more precisely. Together, they will move north to its vibrant cities, believing they leave behind, for good, the abominations perpetrated with impunity by the racists of the Ku Klux Klan, the black men hanging from the branches of the trees and floating in the wind like so many "bitter fruits".

The couple Joe and Violette dream of starting a new life and rebuilding themselves. They were not very lucky. Joe lost his mom very early and Violet suffers from a secret wound that will not be revealed here. We are in the 1920s. Harlem where jazz is born and where the couple arrives, is one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in New York. Toni Morrison tells the city like no other. Under his pen, the city becomes a character who swings, sings, buzzes. It is the place of all expectations and excesses. Such is the setting of Jazz , a tale of adultery, followed by a crime of passion.

Becoming a beauty salesman, Joe has entries into the intimacy of homes. As the opportunity makes the thief, taking advantage of the access he has to the interiors of homes, he seduced the young Dorcase, niece of one of his good customers. With all his vitality as a mature man, he is attached to the young woman, because his youth is a promise of renewal, new sensations and happiness that he no longer knows with his wife. With Violette, it had become routine, the morbid remembrance of old wounds that never closed.

He is also jealous of Dorcase's boyfriend. For the last, his affair with the old seller of creams and other products promising eternal youth was just a passing bedtime story. Little by little, Joe locks himself into a destructive passion that will lead him to murder his mistress. The scandal comes to light when, in a fit of jealousy, Violet comes to plant a knife in the dead face of Dorcase in full funeral ceremony. Joe and Violette will escape from prison, but they are now condemned to spend the rest of their lives meditating on the causes and consequences of the passionate and destructive excesses of their loves.

How did they get there? This is the theme of this story built like a piece of jazz, with its improvisations, its faults, its breaks. The reading of Jazz freed me from the servitudes of language, narrative conventions and the rigors of thought that enclose the imagination of the writer. Thanks to Toni Morrison for allowing me that freedom. "

" Paradise " (1998), presented by Ananda Devi (5)

" It was in the early 1990s, while I was in the United States to continue my studies, that I fell a little by chance on the books of Toni Morrison, more precisely on Jazz which had just appeared. Just by reading the first lines, I was conquered by the power, cadence and musicality of this singular writing.

I devoured Jazz , before going to the previous books of the novelist. In this corpus, it is especially Paradis which remains one of my favorite books of Toni Morrison, undoubtedly because of its mythical dimension. At the heart of this novel, abortive dreams of community solidarity of a black elite won in turn by fantasies of identity purity. The novel tells of the tragic attempt by a group of freed slaves to set up a city reserved for blacks anxious to protect themselves from the hatred of the white world.

The Paradise action takes place in the small town of Ruby, deep in Oklahoma, in the early 1950s. Ruby is a Puritan city, ruled by an iron fist by its eight black founders who are hunting to anything that can contaminate the racial purity of their city. They attack the half-breeds who do not have enough black skin, and especially the group of women who have settled a short distance from the city, in a former abandoned convent. They are called " witches " because they live alone, without men. Their " immorality" makes them savagely massacred. Their crime : to dare to assert their freedom by defying the law of men. Thus Ruby, who wants refuge against intolerance, sinks herself into intolerance and confinement identity and patriarchal.

Toni Morrison remains a model for me. His exploration of the psychology of racial and masculine domination, combined with the inventiveness of his prose, which is often pure poetry, reinforced my own aesthetic choices at a time when I was beginning to write. While my publishers kept telling me that I had to make efforts to "tone down lyricism" , it was by immersing myself in Toni Morrison's lavish and demanding prose that I understood that the problem was not so much to attenuate lyricism, but to find the line of equilibrium between power and poetry. To never lose sight of the coherence of the subject, while always letting itself be carried by the living and vibrating force of language, is what I would remember from my wanderings through the work of this icon of modern American letters. "

►Also read:

  • Toni Morrison, Nobel of Afro-American Literature, has passed away
  • The singularity of Toni Morrison's work: five questions to his translator
  • Toni Morrison goes back to the roots of American racism

(1) Jean Guiloineau is a French translator of English literatures. He has notably translated Toni Morrison, Nadine Gordimer, André Brink and other great figures of English letters.

(2) Boniface Mongo-Mboussa is a literary critic, journalist and professor of African literature. His last title: Tchicaya U Tam'si, Rape of the Moon. Life and work of a cursed , 138 pages, Ed. Vents elsewhere, 2014.

(3) Venus Khoury-Ghata, born in Bcharre (Lebanon), is a novelist and poet. His latest work is a fictional biograpy by Marina Tsvétaïéva. Her title: Marina Tsvétaïéva, to die in Elabouga , Mercure de France, 2019.

(4) Gisèle Pineau is a Franco-Guadeloupian novelist. The Parfum des sirènes is the title of his latest novel, published by Mercure de France, 2018.

(5) Ananda Devi is a French-speaking novelist from Mauritius. His latest novel was published by Grasset, under the title Manger the Other , 2018.

ref: rfi

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