The Ghost of Edgar Mittelholzer
BY ANDRE BAGOO Sunday, May 11 2008
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IN EDGAR Mittelholzer’s My Bones and My Flute a group of people devise a plan to rid themselves of evil forces around them. The plan involves the use of fire, in the form of two candles and a naked flame, which the protagonist Milton Woodsley believes will ward off the evil spirits. Ten years after the publication of My Bones and My Flute, Mittelholzer killed himself by setting himself aflame with petrol in a field on the evening of May 5, 1965. He was 56.
Before VS Naipaul or Samuel Selvon or Derek Walcott, there was Mittelholzer, who is regarded as one of the first professional novelists from the English-speaking Caribbean. The trail he blazed paved the way for the development of the region’s literature in years to come.
It is appropriate, then, that his life, with its conflicts of identity, embodies what subsequent Caribbean writers went on to re-enact, one after the other, as they grappled with the demands of selling literature from a marginal part of the world to the North American and European continents.
If ever there was someone whose work demonstrates that no author’s writings can be separated from his personal life then Mittelholzer is he. Not only does My Bones and My Flute take on a special resonance in light of the entire arc of his life story, but Mittelholzer’s death was itself a re-enactment of the self-immolation of the principal male character in his last book of fiction, The Jilkington Drama.
This month, as we observe the 43rd anniversary of his death, we take a look at one of the seminal novels of this seminal Caribbean author.
The son of William Austin Mittelholzer and his wife Rosamond Mabel, née Leblanc,Edgar Mittelholzer was born in Guyana on December 16, 1909. His childhood and young adult life were marred by what he said was his father’s disappointment that he had turned out “swarthy” and not white. In his autobiography A Swarthy Boy, Edgar called William “a confirmed negrophobe” who believed in the inherent superiority of “Germanic blood,” a concept that would later underlie Edgar’s own determination to do things his own way, on his own terms.
This traumatic relationship with his father would heighten and foster his own sense of racial taint and lay the groundwork for the identity crisis that would mark the fault lines for his future unraveling. Yet, by 1938, at the age of 29, Mittelholzer completed Corentyne Thunder, a work which signalled the birth of the novel in Guyana.
In December, 1941, Mittelholzer left Guyana for Trinidad as a recruit in the Trinidad Royal Volunteer Naval Reserve, and Corentyne Thunder was published that very year by Eyre and Spottiswoode, in London. By March 1942 he married Trinidadian Roma Halfhide with whom he would father four children, two boys and two girls.
Mittelholzer’s experience in the Trinidad Reserve was unpleasant; by August 1942 he arranged to get discharged on medical grounds. He had already committed himself to staying in Trinidad with his family and went on to take up a number of odd jobs including being a clerk at the Queen’s Park Hotel.
But six years after arriving in Trinidad, encouraged by the earlier publication of Thunder, he resolved to leave with his family for Britain to pursue his career as a writer, such a career not being possible in this part of the world then and to a large extent still now. In 1948 he set sail with his second manuscript A Morning at the Office.
In London, Mittelholzer met Leonard Woolf, whose wife Virginia Woolf had killed herself eight years earlier. The Hogarth Press would publish A Morning at the Office a year later in 1950. By 1951, the book regarded by most as Mittelholzer’s third major work, in addition to Thunder and Office, Shadows Move Among Them, was also published. My Bones and My Flute came later in 1955.
In My Bones and My Flute, a young artist, Woodsley, accompanies the Nevinson family on a voyage deep into the Guyanese jungle. There, the bones of a Dutch plantation and slave owner, Jan Pieter Voorman, lie unburied on the forest floor.
The Nevinson family and Woodsley are cursed when they touch a manuscript Voorman has left behind. The curse manifests itself mainly in the form of the insistent sound of a phantom flute, until the novel reaches its climax.
This outline of the novel is eerie for sure. What is unusual here, though, is the moral play at work as the gothic, European ghost story crosses with the Caribbean’s history of slavery. The Berbice Slave Rebellion is the real subject of this book, buried as the bones of the white slave-owner eventually are.
While ghosts are normally presented as spirits of the wronged, it was Mittelholzer’s genius to present the white plantation owner—and not the slaves—as the flute-playing ghost. Having so done, the novel then proceeds to undermine that sense of the ghost being the wronged, presenting a more and more complex depiction of the white spirit that comes to haunt the characters.
By the end of the novel Voorman has transformed; his character thrown into crisis.
His haunting flute has been to a large extent benign, but it has been discovered that he has dabbled in “the black arts,” which must be seen as the book’s metaphor for slavery.
It is really a brilliant approach which is, unfortunately, buried beneath the book’s technical flaws such as its rigid characterisation, wooden dialogue, repetition, over-use of pot-boiler tactics, questionable gender attitudes, and its over-ripe tone which is far too aware of its own shock-value.
Yet along the way we glimpse Mittelholzer the man. The protagonist, Woodsley, is obsessed with the colour and class of his fellow characters as early as the first chapter:
“The Nevinsons and the Woodsleys had not yet acquired the strain of Negro slave blood that runs in them today. While I myself am of an olive tint, Mr Nevinson is almost as fair in complexion as a pure white. His father, who was slightly darker, was the managing director of the Hardware Arcade in New Amsterdam.”
At its best, Mittelholzer is here presenting a complex, realistic character, setting the racial tones for his profound ghost story early on. But in so doing it cannot be said that Mittelholzer did not know intimately the strange, but common, racial attitudes of Woodsley who never seems to develop further as a character in this book and who, for all his academic knowledge, betrays no sense of being aware of the significance of much that he says surrounding the topic of race.
AJ Seymour, the late Guyanese editor, publisher and poet, seemed convinced, too, that the ghost, Voorman, was somehow Mittelholzer.
In a lecture shortly after the author’s death, he imagines Mittelholzer writing a letter in which Mittelholzer says, “I think I’ll come back as the music of the ghost of …Voorman.”
Nonetheless Seymour argues, like Proust, Naipaul and an entire strand of literary criticism, that a writer’s social self is distinct from the “inner self” that writes his book.
Yet, in the secretion of that “inner self” in his writing, a writer reveals all of himself, his social being and his private thoughts. He reveals, more completely, his true self; his ghosts which often do not see the light of day.
Mittelholzer killed himself in Surrey, England, at a period in his life when it was becoming increasingly difficult to get his books published.
After battling to establish himself as a writer, and publishing more than 20 books, the prospect of not seeing his words being put into print merged with his anxieties about not having a clear place in this world as well as his increasing financial difficulties. He had divorced his first wife and remarried.
“He would not have killed himself if he could have supported our son and myself, and his other family, as he wanted. He wanted to do it all himself,” his second wife, Jacqueline Mittelholzer later remarked. And so, Edgar turned to fire.