Literary style and form play important supporting roles almost as captivatingly heroic as those of the title characters in Mark Morneweg's highly-innovative novel: Penthe & Alphonse. A reader casually thumbing through the book's pages might do a double-take over the word "novel" on the front cover and wonder if it should be poems instead. Yet a second quick run through the book's 99 pages would reveal it is in fact comprised of 135 brief chapters anywhere from two single lines to three or four pages long.
Having explored fusions of poetry and prose in works of my own with varying levels of success, I wondered how well Morneweg had met this challenge he issued to himself. Once I began reading in earnest, the chapters seemed to alternate like sequences in a film. They moved back and forth between flickering flashes of moments and extended scenes from the characters' private lives and America's public tragedy, also known as the Civil War. It soon became apparent the author has struck a masterful balance of historical detail, lyrical rhythm, and finely-nuanced emotional intensity.
The book begins with Alphonse's older sisters looking from a window down on him and Penthe, two former childhood playmates now entering adulthood, in a New Orleans courtyard reading poetry by Francois Villon. The delicate intimacy between them is apparent and alluring. But because he is categorized racially as white and she, in the language of 1800s American south, as a biracial "octoroon" (meaning "three quarters French and one black") their intense intimacy is also dangerous. In addition, despite racial categorizations, they are second cousins.
The kind of relationship Penthe and Alphonse had during childhood was not uncommon for the time, but most children were expected to "grow out of it" as they matured and retreat to their respective black and white demographic niches. Alphonse's and Pense's relationship, however, continues to develop through a series of circumstances along a more sensuous, humane, and uncompromising trajectory.
Distance Making Hearts Grow Fonder
When Penthe is sent off to a girl's school in Paris, we witness through an exchange of letters how their attachment to each other intensifies rather than diminishes. Most are from Penthe to Alphonse and a couple give us some of the longer passages in the entire book. This is an excerpt from one of Penthe's:
One letter comes from Alphonse after Penthe writes him to confess she may allow herself to be seduced by a "knucklehead...strapling youth" with a reputation for introducing willing young women to sex. It is not the response either Pense or the reader might have expected:
Exchanging letters becomes a practice on which they depend during several trials of separation. It is to the author's credit that he fashions this technique as deftly as he does into an already impressive collage of linguistic versatility.
Complications of Love, War, and Race
If Morneweg had relied on nothing more than Penthe & Alphonse's ever-increasing passion for each other to give shape and substance to his story he likely would have ended up with just a cleverly-styled romance novel (a noble enough genre in its own right). But like certain masters of epic works before him--consider Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in The Time of Cholera, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, or Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God--he establishes a series of contexts which threaten love's chances of survival.
Racism directed against Penthe is something Alphonse makes clear he will not tolerate. When another man calls her "a part-nigger whore," he challenges him to a dual and manages to shoot him without killing him. At the same time, he suffers through moral ambivalence when it comes to fighting in the Civil War, demonstrating how complex the issues behind it truly were: "If the Yankees invade, I will fight them. I will fight, but I am not too thrilled. I will not be morbid in front of Penthe Anne." Such reasoning brings to mind the song by Sade: Love Is Stronger Than Pride.
From one minimalist chapter to the next, they love their way through war, two epidemics of Yellow Fever, race riots, the demands of grandchildren, and old age. Looking at a printed copy of Penthe & Alphonse, or even just the cover on a screen after reading the book, gives the feeling of staring at an optical illusion because Morneweg has managed, somehow, to deliver much more than what appearance promises. The range of time covered, scope and depth of emotions engaged, and intricacy of styles employed seem too much for the pages containing them.
What Geek Bookaholics Often Do
Morneweg, who died almost three years ago, was apparently of the class of authors whose relationship with literature was so unabashedly personal and organic that whether he dressed his text in hard blocks of layered prose or shimmering veils of poetry, it revealed meanings both hauntingly familiar and astonishingly new. What came burning through more clearly than anything else was an authentic original vision of literary possibilities and human values.
In the course of reading Penthe & Alphonse, I began to do what geek bookaholics often do when sensing that within their hands is not just a good book but a rare and beautiful kind of priceless mind. I began attempting to discern who the author's strongest literary influences had been. I could hear William Faulkner's spirit wandering between lines while meditating on the nature and traumas comprising the identity (or should we now say identities?) of the American south. But who were the others?
The answer came one day when I was discussing the title with a friend and she loaned me a copy of a booklet about one Mark Louis Morneweg published by El Portal Press. In it, he noted his passion for "Miss Emily [Dickinson]"along with deep appreciation for others who had also helped stir to action my own pen. Among them: Federico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, James Joyce, Shakespeare, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, and Albert Camus.
He shared these words in regard to his approach to writing fiction: "Unplanned adventures in literature. An idea pops into your head and you go from there. Nothing structured or laid out beforehand. Just one word comes and you have an entire chapter to write and that is great..." (The only time I had ever allowed myself that kind of compositional freedom was while writing Christmas When Music Saved the World, later titled Songs from the Black Skylark zPed Music Player.)
Maybe even more importantly for the purposes of this essay, he told us this: "...I am a prose stylist with some amazingly short chapters. Some chapters that are poems. Prose poems." And added: "Penthe is about taking risks. Artistic risks. Passion..." The risk was one that paid off extremely well because ultimately Penthe & Alphonse succeeds as both an epic poem and an amazing novel.
Moreover, in addition to taking risks, it is also about what Lady Gaga refers to as the right to curate one's life as one sees fit. Along those same lines, Morneweg chose not to douse the flames of his startling creative literary inventiveness. He chose instead to feed the fire with boldness sufficient enough to increase its light and heat so others could gather around and savor the prize of unexpected beauty.