Archive for July, 2010

The Reading Life, Part Four

July 26, 2010

I first read Anna Karenina at the age of 22, when I was newly-married with lots of time on my hands.  My taste in fiction was a little pretentious but not entirely; genre romances and mysteries really did bore me, and I read plenty of good literature among the mediocre in the library fiction stacks.  Occasionally I’d pick up something long and forbidding, with lots of Russian names.  The Idiot, The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment . . . and Anna Karenina, which I remember making an impression on the book (i.e., getting through it) without the book making much of an impression on me.

At 28, I tried again, this time as a young mother with less time on my hands.  Quite unaware when I started with “All happy families are alike” that I was letting myself in for one of the profound reading experiences of my life.  Quite unaware that fiction could wrap itself around me so completely.  Compelling page-turners were one thing; I’d often experienced not being able to put a book down, literally–carrying it open to the bathroom, propping it up while washing dishes, rushing through a telephone call so I could get back to the story.  But this reading experience was so packed there were times I had to put the book down.  I could not go on, but had to breathe everyday air for a while.  I particularly remember after Part Four, when so many hanging conflicts come to resolution: when Levin finally proposes to Kitty and she accepts, when Anna has her baby, when she compels Karenin’s forgiveness over her supposed deathbed, when Vronsky attempts suicide . . . After all that, I could read no further, but had to put the book down, go outside and take a walk to decompress the bulging volume of life I’d taken in.

“Oh why didn’t I die, that would have been best!” Anna exclaims at the end of Part Four.  She doesn’t die when she would have chosen, and when a lesser novelist would have finished her off.  That is Tolstoy’s point: we all have to live, with ourselves and each other.  That kind of living (with ourselves and each other) is sometimes famously difficult.  I mentioned the book to my sister once, and her reaction was instant and visceral: “I hate her.”  Not it, but her.  For a reader to feel so forcefully about a character shows how well Tolstoy did his job.

“You have to love your characters, even the ones you don’t like,” I tell aspiring fiction writers.  Even more important is not to despise them.  In that way a novelist is like God, who grants his creatures the integrity to be true to their essential natures, whether noble or venal, whether they lead to heaven or hell.  Anna Karenina is said to be about a lot of things: the insidious effects of a repressive society, the revolutionary effects of freeing the serfs, the varieties of religious experience, the wages of sin.  But I don’t think it’s “about” anything, any more than individuals are about anything.  It just is.  Many novels show how we have to live with our choices, our mistakes, our fate, our calling.  Tolstoy shows how we have to live:  happily or unhappily, and draw what lessons you will.  The man had some well-known eccentricities and hang-ups, but in this book, and to some extent in War and Peace and Ivan Illych, he achieved godlike love of his own creation.  Anna Karenina is not so much a book to be read as a life–many lives–to be experienced.

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Summer in the Country

July 19, 2010

It looks like we’re locked, for a while, into one of those monotonous, depth-of-season forecasts: highs in the mid-nineties, lows in the mid-seventies, very  humid, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.  Locusts chirp like mad maracas in the sticky twilight and going outside is a strategic exercise for maximizing shade. 

Such days never come around without recalling The Great Gatsby, and that terrible Saturday that forces the story to a climax: “‘Hot!’ said the conductor to familiar faces.  ‘Some weather! . . . Hot! . . . Hot! . . . Hot! . . . Is it hot enough for you?  Is it hot?  Is it . . . ‘”  A desperately gay party of five drive desperately to the City and take a desperate suite at the Plaza, a stifling room where opening the windows “admitted only a gust of hot shrubbery from the Park.”  In the days before air conditioning, the only remedy for heat was to wait it out, order drinks, keep as still as possible, try to avoid confrontation.  But the trapped feeling, the sense of no way out, forces the very outbreaks of passion one should seek to avoid.  “Gatsby sprang to his feet.  ‘She never loved you, do you hear?’ he cried.  ‘She only married you because I was poor and she was tired of waiting for me.  It was a terrible mistake, but in her heart she never loved any one except me!'”

It’s four in the afternoon and Gatsby has just reached the pinnacle of his ambitions.  He doesn’t know it yet, but soon will–Daisy’s downcast eyes, the thickening obstacle of Tom’s bulk, the descent from a maddening height that will end in blood: “So we drove on toward death in the cooling twilight.”

Another lesson from literature: Don’t let the heat get to you.

Last weekend I was figuratively sweating out the prospect of the church picnic: why did we schedule it for the middle of July?  For the last couple of years, July has behaved in a rather mild, civilized way, but this year it turned around and bit us.  I should have known: the very name July conjures up heat waves from the sidewalk.  What if everybody’s miserable and makes excuses to leave early or not come at all?  what if somebody collapses on a picnic table or over the grill?

“I’m glad when people don’t let the weather stop them from doing things,” a  young friend told me early that afternoon.  Young enough to not understand how hot sun and damp air can suck energy from a body of depleting reserves, but it’s a point well taken.  The day held some surprises–nice ones.  And a renewed appreciation for what heat is good for:

Honest sweating–think of all those toxins working their way out!

Expanding personalities.

Expanding arms.

An immediate point of contact with strangers: hot enough for ya?

Soft pearly dawns that could have been painted by Maxfield Parrish.

A renewed relish for simple things, such as

running water,

quivering shade,

kindly breezes.

Breathing with the earth.

The farthest reaches of the year–summer and winter–are the ones that can kill you.  I’m not sure which death I’d prefer, but without going to those extremes I can still reach out and embrace them briefly, as time carries us all away.

The Reading Life, Part three

July 15, 2010

I wonder if there’s a time in a reader’s life when she’s looking to have her heart broken.  (And not just “her”; this is probably true of the male of the reader species as well.)  Say one has lived an unremarkable life with some sadness and trauma but not enough to deform; at some point, most likely in teenager- and young-adulthood, pure pathos will have its strongest appeal.

Like all elements of storytelling, pathos comes in both branded and generic versions, in slick packaging backed up by marketing campaigns or a plain brown wrapper.  I would put Raintree County in a parchment wrapper, because even though it scorns quick and easy pathways to heartbreak, it still finds them by circuitous route: lost love, death of innocence, war among brothers, hard-won wisdom.  And even though it tries way too hard, it sometimes succeeds.

Pathos, though too often hooked up with its adjective form pathetic, is a great thing if properly used.  It’s the key to compassion, a wellspring of human feeling–“that which arouses sympathy or pity,” according to my dictionary.  Every bestselling author of chicklit keeps the pathos bottle on her desk for easy reach, but so did the greatest.  Tolstoy was the master.

Ross Lockridge Jr. was a promising apprentice.  His life story is as pathetic (in the literary sense) as anything he wrote–which wasn’t that much.  When his first effort, an epic poem, couldn’t find a publisher, he funneled his epic-poetry instincts into a novel.  Raintree County took seven years to write, during which he supported his family by teaching college literature while their three-room apartment filled up with manuscript pages–thousands of pages, which his wife typed up after putting the children to bed.  The submitted manuscript ran to over 1000 pages–which, after not-enough editing, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1947.  Though critical reaction was mixed, Raintree County won the Pulitizer Prize for that year, snagged the January selection slot in the Book-of-the-Month Club, and  eventually became a movie.  Two months after publication, having achieved his dream, the author killed himself.  He was just a few weeks shy of 34 years old.

I didn’t know all this when I found his magnum opus on the shelves of the local college library.  I was 22, recently married, unemployed, undergoing transformation.  Also looking for something nice and long and historical to read.  This one fit the bill, and then some: one of those books I carried to the bathroom with me and balanced on the rim of the tub and propped up by the kitchen sink while washing dishes (it’s amazing that more of my bathtub books didn’t drown).  And after finally coming to the end I was still so tangled in the story my husband accused me of being somewhere else for the last three days.  He was right.

It’s not that good the second time–I only reread the whole thing once, sometime in the eighties, after finding it in the remainder bin at Waldenbooks.  Even the first time through, it was often frustrating.  First I had to get used to the substitution of dashes for quotation marks, which gives the dialogue a breathless quality not always appropriate.  Then the confusing time shifts, signaled when the last sentence of one chapter becomes the first sentence of the next.  Lockridge was a student both of literature and American History: he knew his stuff, and was determined to pack in all of it. 

Raintree County is modeled after Ulysses, in that it covers a single day in the life of the main character–July 4, 1892–spiked with flashbacks, dream sequences, and long philosophical discursions.  John Wycliff Shawnessy, age 52, is a lifelong resident of Raintree County, Indiana: a schoolteacher with a wife and three children when the story opens.  Though his life seems unremarkable, it’s really epic, with echoes of his country’s growing pains and young-adult traumas. 

The flashbacks take the reader through John’s first memories, intellectual awakenings and early ambitions, his first loves and losses, his first tragedy, his civil war experience, his sadder-but-wiser postwar days and his frustrated ambitions.  The present-day narrative plods through long discourses with old friends on What It All Means.  The flashbacks run parallel with the hour-by-hour July 4 account, mostly chronological except for the author’s maddening technique of building up to a key scene and then skipping right over it.  The first of these is a Fourth of July footrace between young Johnny and Flash Perkins, the fastest runner in the county.  It’s a week before the race, and then suddenly it’s a couple of months after: Johnny receives a fateful letter and the reader is protesting, “Wait a minute!  What about the race?”  We’re not even sure who won until near the end.  There are four or five of these skipped scened, pivotal moments in Johnny’s life, which the author saves for the final 100-or-so pages.  In some ways that adds to their impact, but he could never get away with it now–or his habit of wedging fictitious newspaper “reports” (“Epic Fragment from the Mythic Examiner“) during these key narratives.  Usually this is just precious (in the bad sense), but in the scene where Johnny loses his virginity (with unhappy consequences), it’s ridiculous.

What saves the novel from its author’s pretensions is, first, its fundamental good will.  Lockridge follows the rule that an author must love all his characters, and it rubs off on the reader.  Even the ones we shouldn’t like we end up liking, if not because of some redeeming quality, then because of their exuberant sense of personality.  (I should say that his female characters are not as successful as the male ones, but there aren’t as many of them.)  This is especially true of the central character who, while not flamboyant like some of the others, remains wry and witty and attractive and doesn’t take himself too seriously.  I’ve read enough mid-century novels to recognize an insufferable hero, and John Shawnessy is not one.  Supporting characters, while representative of American “types” (the crooked politician, the oily financier, the cynical intellectual) still manage to be themselves.

Second, it’s really funny in places, if you appreciate mid-American, folksy humor of the Mark-Twain sort.  For example: John’s father, Dr. T. D. Shawnessy, has built up a literary local-poet’s reputation, but he doesn’t write merely for pleasure.  His goal is the betterment of mankind, and his most famous work is an “Ode on the Evils of Tobacco,” containing these memorable lines: “Some do it chew and some it smoke/ And some it up their nose do poke.” 

And third, even though the story shifts into melodrama, it’s legitimate melodrama.  The author has invested enough in the characters to make their fate pay off in emotional punch: though over-padded, the loss of John’s innocence and the fate of his first marriage and continual thwarting of his ambitions are genuinely affecting.  His acceptance of circumstance, making a good life in spite of deep disappointment, is heroic.  Which makes it even more sad that the author couldn’t achieve that same goal.  I wonder if, having so clearly aimed at the Great American Novel, he couldn’t stand it that he missed.

Speaking of Character…

July 12, 2010

I found this great quote from G. K. Chesterton, probably at the top of my list for quotable authors.  It’s from his biography of Charles Dickens, published in 1901:

No man encouraged his characters so much as Dickens.  The children of his fancy are spoilt children.  They shake the house like heavy and shouting schoolboys; they smash the story to pieces like so much furniture . . . when we experience the ungovernable sense of life which goes along with the old Dickens sense of liberty, we experience the best of the revolution.  We are filled with the  first of democratic doctrines: that are men are interesting.

My sister told me something like that once: “I don’t believe anybody is really boring.”  She was probably right.  It sounds like a doctrine that should belong in a fiction writer’s creed.

The Reading Life, part two

July 7, 2010

Several months ago I blogged about when I became a reader.  It was a particular book, at a particular time, and you can read the blog here.  A reader, once made, is seldom unmade, and I can recall other milestones where a book carried me out of myself like that first one did.  Sometimes it was a novel I was reading for the second time: the first didn’t make that great an impression because I simply wasn’t ready for it.  Some of these books still hold up for me (though without the original punch); others I’ve outgrown (though with affection); but all of them contributed something to my growth, not just as a reader but as a writer.

The second novel to have an almost-physical effect on me was T.H. White’s re-telling of the Arthur saga, The Once and Future King.  I read the first part, The Sword and the Stone, around age 11, but the whole 900-odd pages had to wait for a couple of years later, when I was going through a period of enforced idleness after a bout with myocarditis.  This was an inflammation of the heart sac that nearly killed me (I didn’t know that at the time) and meant being tutored at home through 8th grade (which I didn’t fully appreciate until going back to school in 9th grade).  But what might have been hellish for a more active child was rather heavenly for a kid who wasn’t a big fan of physical activity.  I’d rather sprawl in a chair and read than line up for softball at recess any day.

The Once and Future King fell into my hands, at my sister’s recommendation, toward the end of that sabbatical year.  And after rereading the first part I went right into the second and then–somewhat to my surprise–read all the way to the end.  I’m pretty sure I read it again within a few months, and at least three more times before graduating high school–and even wrote my senior theme on it.  If there was a defining book of my teen years, this was it.  The Sword in the Stone, which can be read, and was even published, as a separate novel, ends in triumph.  But as everybody knows–or should!–the Arthur saga ends in tragedy: my first experience of the same.  Intimations of tragedy came in Part 2, where scenes of high comedy (Pellinore finally catches the questing beast) are intercut with the unhappy childhood of the four Orkney boys and their witch of a mother.  (T.H. White seems not to have liked women very much.)   The episode of Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris and Gareth capturing the unicorn was the saddest story I had ever read up to that point–but it was an exquisite sadness, even an artistic kind, of which the Mamas and Papas would later sing, “It’s a pleasure to be sad.” 

Part 3 introduced the character of Lancelot, whom the author was inspired to make hideously ugly (like Anthony Quinn, my sister thought) and burdened with original sin.  Would a 13-year-old understand that?  No, but I was beginning to.  Here’s a sentence I remember word for word: Lancelot has just restrained himself from killing someone who deserves it, and knows he deserves it, yet pleads for mercy.  Lancelot turns away with revulsion, and “felt in his heart cruelty and cowardice, the very things that made him brave and kind.”  Wow! thought my 13-year-old self.  How can that be?  Through a fictional character I was discovering the complexities of the human heart, of which the prophet Jeremiah says, “Who can understand it?”

The Silver Stone, my first milestone book, introduced me to greatness of theme; The Once and Future King showed me the possibilities of character.  (I wrote more about that here.)  The book has its flaws, and philosophically the author and I parted company long ago, but I will always owe him a debt for introducing me to humanity.

In the weeks ahead I plan on writing about other milestone books, and what they contributed to my writing career.  You want to know what they are?  Okay: Raintree County (pathos); Anna Karenina (life); Perelandra (transcendence); The Deptford Trilogy (texture); Lonesome Dove (setting); The Secret History/The King Must Die (terror).  There may be more, and I may change my opinion about the chief contributing factor, but that’s the list as I recall now.   Should be an interesting journey, and I hope not just for me.

An Awful Tension

July 5, 2010

I just finished reading Isaiah, for the 10th time at least.  In the past I’ve been struck with how confusing, relentless, even numbing it is.  This time I was struck with how schizophrenic it is.

The literary style, I’m informed by those who know, is “stream of consciousness,” simply because nothing else fits.  But whose stream of consciousness?  The character who’s mostly speaking is God himself.  If the monologue is read and taken as continuous, the only way to make him appealing to us would be to mentally insert interruptions or transitions.  Otherwise, the kindest adjective would be bipolar.  Is this the God we Christians worship?  Snarky atheists wouldn’t even let him out of the house, much less put him on a pedestal.

The quick and easy answer is that unbelievers don’t understand holiness.  Which is true, but we believers don’t understand it all that well either.  We tend to err on one side or the other.  If we want to focus on his inclination to us, we lean on passages like this: “Because you are precious in my eyes,/ and honored, and I love you,/ I give men in return for you,/ peoples in exchange for your life.”  Or, if we want to warn of his absolute sovereignty, there’s plenty to choose from there too.  How about: “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity.”

What we often overlook is the great dilemma for him.  The terms he allows to be used are very telling in themselves.  Though we know he has complete control and exists in perfect peace, God is torn.  I hope I’m not being irreverent: he allows the issue to be cast in that light.  He swings between retribution and reconciliation in the same chapter, sometimes the same verse.  He demands justice but yearns after mercy.

When you think about it, it can’t be any other way.  “God with us” is a beautiful and comforting thought at Christmas, but what it meant in Isaiah’s time was an awful (awe-ful) tension.  My pastor said in a recent sermon that God-with-us in the Old Testament inevitably meant death: one slip, and wrath breaks out.  But God’s absence means chaos, conflict, and conquest.  Unholy beings like us can’t live with him, but we can’t live without him either.  And he can’t live with us.  But he does not desire to live without us.

“I will give men in return for you . . .”  Might that mean, “I will give a man in return for you; I will walk among you in man’s flesh, and take man’s punishment, and be raised again for man’s life?  I will be just, but I will also be the justifier; someone must pay, but it will be me.”  The lines of mercy and justice will finally come together, and the place will be a cross.

Blessed schizophrenia . . .