Sunday, December 2, 2012

At Weddings and Wakes by Alice McDermott

"While the other little girls told themselves I will be a nun, I will be a nun, as Sister leaned over them at their desks, brushing their arms with her robes, placing her long, thin hand with its single gold band on their desks, Maryanne whispered instead, "I have the saddest thing in the world to tell you."

Her intention was not to emulate but to charm, to be admitted into the young woman's life as no other student or friend or other nun had ever been, to become for Sister Miriam Joseph the very wonder that the nun was for her." (57)

It's probably close to a month now since I first read Alice McDermott, and I still cannot believe I hadn't read her work before. Charming Billy and At Weddings and Wakes had been sitting on my book shelf for over a year (I got them cheap at a local thrift shop) before a friend's recommendation finally prompted me to pick them up. 

This may seem like a technical point, but for the reader and writer I am, it's everything: What this woman can do with point of view! It's stunning. I read this book slowly, with so much pleasure, and when I was finished, I wanted immediately to read it again. 

The first section is a seamless collective memory told in present tense, like a dream whose immediate impact we are trying to recall through re-creation. A mother takes two sisters and a brother to their grandmother and aunt's house in Brooklyn on summer days. There are the various bus and subway rides, the transformation of scenery as they move through space, there is the city. There is the top-floor apartment, their mother's complaints, the grandmother who was the sister of their mother's mother who raised their mother and aunts when her sister died. Their aunts have their own sorrows and joys: one a former nun who indulges them; one a tragic drinker with debilitating skin problems; one an executive secretary who reads the most boring magazines in the world. We discover this family as the youngest members discover it. The later sections unfurl to reveal the beautifully rendered experience of each individual member of the family as they grieve and grow and love one another with heart-wrenching imperfection. 

As the youngest daughter, Maryanne, hopes to be the same kind of wonder for her teacher that her teacher is for her, McDermott makes every human soul in this novel a wonder for her readers. 

A pretty wedding photo contemporary with the novel's setting

I've been reading Lydia Davis's translation of Swann's Way and can't resist sharing a little excerpt. There's a surfeit of them!

With all Proust's talk of sleep, I found myself lying in bed amazed that we manage all our lives to fall asleep in different places, in entirely changed situations, worlds away from where we're born, without much bewilderment at all. This is what he has to say about how we manage it: 

"Habit! That skillful but very slow housekeeper who begins by letting our mind suffer for weeks in a temporary arrangement; but whom we are nevertheless truly happy to discover, for without habit our mind, reduced to no more than its own resources, would be powerless to make a lodging habitable." (8)

Sunday, October 14, 2012

"Walker Brothers Cowboy" by Alice Munro

"Under the arms her dress is a little damp, and little drops form along her upper lip, hang in the soft black hairs at the corners of her mouth" (16). 

I looked back at this story on a whim Friday morning-- Friday, a day off, which I am still profoundly grateful for. I spent the day writing a new piece that started running through my mind at the beginning of the month (but really, as with most of what I write) has been running through my mind and in strands of things I've written for years and years. Something told me to return to Munro. I'd started writing with an older narrator in mind, but I want to travel back in time, too, to the things she recalls and the ways they still affect her, and Munro is a perfect text to study for how to deal with memory. 

She has so many stories that are written in present-tense, but are truly about a vividly remembered past. Walker Brothers Cowboy is one. The narrator is eight or nine; it is the 1930s in Canada; her family is poor. But the memory is so strong, so vivid, that the piece begins: "my father says," "We leave my mother" (3). About halfway through, the story-teller breaks through the immediacy of the past with, "The 1930s. How much this kind of farmhouse, this kind of afternoon seem to me to belong to that one decade in time, just as my father's hat does, his bright flared tie, our car with its wide running board (an Essex past its prime)" (9). It is not that the story is happening now, but that it is happening in this narrator's consciousness now, as she remembers and can put language to the things she perceived as a child but could never have said then.

The story is about her father, the mystery of him. It's very similar to Royal Beatings in theme an execution, though not so brutal. The narrator and her brother go with their father on his Walker Brothers route through the country, and they wind up at an old farmhouse where there father knows a Catholic lady. It's clear the father was involved with the woman in the past, but not clear what he's trying to get out of the visit, or what he's trying to share with his kids or the woman, Nora, by bringing his past and present together in an old kitchen with a scrubbed oilcloth-covered table. Nora dresses up for her visitors, serves their father whisky, and she dances. The line above, where the narrator notices the imperfections of Nora's body, seem to me the lines that make Nora human and real, and consequently, everyone else in the story begins to carry the same kind of mysterious dignity. 

I like to think she might have danced with the children's father in a place like the one above. Also, I think this Walker Evans' portrait captures her essence.  

I also noticed the ending on this read, and how Chekhovian Munro can be. She gestures outward, shows that the inscrutable character and past of the narrator's father is as large and wide as the changeable water and sky: 

"So my father drives and my brother watches the road for rabbits and I feel my father's life flowing back from our car in the last of the afternoon, darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine. 

When we get closer to Tuppertown the sky becomes gently overcast, as always, nearly always, on summer evenings by the Lake" (18). 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor

"She should have died a child; she knows that but has never said it to the nuns, has never included in the story of herself the days that felt like years when she lay among the fallen stones. It would have lowered their spirits, although it lifts her own because instead of nothing there is what there is" (227).

This line is from the end of William Trevor's short 2002 novel The Story of Lucy Gault. Lucy should indeed have died as a child, but she lives, a little ghost-like, waiting for her parents to return. 

The plot is fantastically intriguing, the kind of story that would sell magazines or end up as a Lifetime movie or a 48 Hours news special. It's the early 1920's in Ireland. Lucy is nine and lives with her parents at Lahardane, the family estate. Irish nationals try to burn it down one night. The dogs are poisoned. Captain Gault, Lucy's father, shoots one of the young men. He tries to apologize, but the family must leave. Lucy's mother is English, and they decide to return there. The day before the move, Lucy  runs away and hides in the woods. She breaks her leg and cannot return. Everyone believes she's drowned in the sea. Her parents leave, broken-hearted, and vow never to return. 

Lucy survives and is eventually found, but her family is long-gone, and each day, it seems a little less certain they will ever return. 

Trevor writes from the points-of-view of Lucy, her parents the care-takers who find her, the lawyer who searches for the Gaults once Lucy is found, and the young man who eventually falls in love with her. Every character is revealed as possessing an enormous fount of secret love, longing, and regret. Each wants to connect with someone or something that will always remain at least a little bit hidden. Each is acutely conscious that breaks are permanent, that even the most intense relationships are imperfect and incomplete. Their love for one another is the longing kind--mawing, heart-opening wishing that beautifully echoes every human experience of loss. 

Trevor's portrayal of loss is stunning, in part, because of physical things that re-appear, not as symbols, but, more truly, as comforts that draw us back to old times, old loves we never forget. There are hydrangeas in the yard, the old house in the woods, the dark kitchen, and the boiled egg that is Lucy's first meal when she is re-discovered, all beautifully rendered signs of a surprising continuity.

Powell's (with Alice McDermott's Review), Amazon, Google Books

P.S. It's not all mellow, sad-sack longing. The love story is fantastic!

P.P.S. I'm back after months away! I'm engaged, moved, have an M.F.A. and a new job. But I haven't stopped reading. I'll be posting weekly now, every Sunday (Sunday mornings, I hope).

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty

"There were moments of life when it did not matter who she was—even where. Something, happiness—with Troy, but not necessarily, even the happiness of a fine day—seemed to leap away from identity as if it were an old skin, and that she was one of the Fairchilds was of no more need to her than the locust shells now hanging to the trees everywhere were to the singing locusts" (40). 

Oh, I am a sucker for a beautiful line, and Eudora Welty's 1945 novel "Delta Wedding" is full of them. I must have marked twenty pages of contenders for my favorite.

The line above comes from Dabney, but the novel wends its way through the consciousnesses of many women of the Fairchild family during the days surrounding her wedding. Shellmound Plantation, Uncle George, Uncle Battle, deceased Uncle Dennis, the Yazoo River, the bayou, the great abandoned house, Marmion, and the Fairchild family itselfall exert inescapable, mysterious influence.

Each woman's encounter with the power of family and place is at the heart of Welty's gorgeous prose and her enduring portrait of the early twentieth-century Deep South. (At least, it's enduring to my mind. I've never been to Mississippi, but if I someday get the chance, I will be hoping for white cotton fields, hot blue skies, rivers with whirlpools, banana plants, crepe myrtles, and enormous old families, big white houses always full of noise.)

There is nine-year-old cousin Laura, whose mother has recently died, desperately wanting to feel part of the Shellmound clan. There is Dabney, gay and rather frivolous, marrying 'beneath' her station, delighting in maintaining and breaking family boundaries. There is her mother, Ellen, a Virginian never been quite at home in Mississippi, pregnant again. There is Shelley, the first daughter, sober and thoughtful with no marriage prospects, unsure of what her life might become. And there is Robbie, Uncle George's wife, who runs away and returns without knowing how to live with the fact that her husband will always put the Fairchilds first.

What I like best is that despite all the family noise, the demands for attention, all the things to be done, each woman portrayed is called by some mystery, some deeper meaning in life, and each finds a place quiet enough to reflect, appreciate, wonder.

P.S. One more line I love, this time from Shelley: "The house was charged with life, the fields were charged with life, endlessly exploited, but the bayou was filled with its summer trance or its winter trance of sleep, its uncaught fishes" (256).

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken

"Despite popular theories, I believe people fall in love based not on good looks or fate but on knowledge. Either they are amazed by something a beloved knows that they themselves do not know; or they discover common rare knowledge; or they can supply knowledge to someone who's lacking" (10). 

Robert Pershing Wadlow (ca. 1940), the tallest person in history, by Vedia via Flickr

And now for a book that was so much fun to read. McCracken's 1996 (gee, I'm on a roll; next thing, I'll be listening to this, or preferably, this) National Book Award Finalist (and her first novel), The Giant's House, has been on my shelf all year and was highly recommended. 

It was a perfect camping trip readthought-provoking, bittersweet, with an ending that's totally satisfying and doesn't feel like a cop-out. The plot skates along, merrily almost, which is surprising because it's a sad story on the surface. 

We know early that James Sweatt, the eponymous giant, has diedbut Peggy Cort, the librarian who tells the story, is so motivated by love that we never veer into the territory of unmitigated tragedy. Smart, acerbic, closed-off Peggy manages to find a life through her relationship with James and his quirky Cape Cod family, and the only way she can do justice to his memory is to keep on living. 

Peggy's voice is one of the best parts of the novel. She's got lots of gems like the one above. She starts the novel with an affront"I do not love mankind"and from that line forward, I want to know what she'll say next. Also, of course, how a grown woman could fall in love with a teenage giant. McCracken succeeds in developing Peggy's point-of-view so flawlessly though, that it's not creepy in the least. 

I loved that this novel felt like an easy read, but made me think about the nature of love, too. It was interesting to note that in terms of plot and structure, McCracken follows the rules (at least the ones I've heard) and they work beautifully. Major plot turn on page 90 of a 300 page novel: it happens here, at exactly page 90. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

"A Day" by William Trevor

"On the mottled worktop in the kitchen the meat is where Mrs Lethwes left it, the fat partly cut away, the knife still separating it from one of the chops. The potatoes she scraped earlier in the day are in a saucepan of cold water, the peas she shelled in another."

Still Life with Ham by Philippe Rousseau via

It is hard for me not to include the final two sentences of Trevor's immaculate story, "A Day", the penultimate piece in his 1996 collection After Rain. The lines are truly heartbreaking, but only if you've woken with Mrs Lethwes first, traveled with her to market and coffee shop, watched her weed the garden, listened to her chat with the housekeeper and to her thoughts. She regrets her childlessness, tries to reconcile herself to her husband's affair. Her anxieties and suppositions assault her, deepen, become murkier, more complex and more urgent as the day turns to night and she prepares Mr Lethwes's dinner.

I first read the story leaning over the kitchen counter, absorbed completely by Mrs Lethwes's unease. At the last two lines I cried even though I didn't want to. It's as high a recommendation as I can give any story, and I won't try to explain the reaction away. 

But, for craft's sake, I think it's safe to say that my reaction to the end (and I know it's not unique) has to do with the completeness of our immersion in Mrs Lethwes's consciousness, the steady revelation of her regrets and hopes, and with the stunning point-of-view shift, the sudden, dramatic bloom at the very end.  

I feel so lucky to have witnessed it.

Powell's, Amazon, Google Books

P.S. Thanks to Sarah, Aaron, and Jane for introducing me to Trevor. 
P.P.S. Jhumpa Lahiri reads "A Day" for the New Yorker fiction podcast

Friday, July 13, 2012

"King Lear" by William Shakespeare

[...] Now, our joy,
Although our last and least; to whose young love
The vines of France and Milk of Burgundy
Strive to be interest; what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.

Nothing, my lord.



Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty
According to my bond, no more nor less. (1.1, 84-95)

Head over to Fogged Clarity for the rest of this post.

Monday, July 9, 2012

"Royal Beatings" by Alice Munro

"The person who spoke these words and the person who spoke to her as her father were not the same, though they seemed to occupy the same space. It would be the worst sort of taste to acknowledge the person who was not supposed to be there; it would not be forgiven. Just the same, she loitered and listened. The cloud-capped towers, she heard him say once. 'The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces.' That was like a hand clapped against Rose's chest, not to hurt, but astonish her, to take her breath away" (4). 

This is a favorite quote from a favorite story from a favorite collection, Alice Munro's The Beggar Maid. (The title comes from this legend and painting.) "Royal Beatings" especially is a story I return to again and again. Frankly, it deserves more than one post.

For today, I am enthralled by how accurately the story portrays our inability to fully know one another, and in particular, our great difficulty in knowing our parents, whose person-hoods are often eclipsed by roles. 
Rose senses role changes in her parents and other adults as a child and eloquently recalls her thoughts and feelings as an adult. 

Her father is a quiet man who repairs furniture and recites poems. He is also king of the royal beatings, "his face like his voice [...] quite out of character" (19). Her stepmother, Flo, is the woman who sets the royal beating in motion by goading her, and she is the woman who pleads with her husband not to whip so hard, the woman who rubs cream on Rose's back and brings her a special meal when everything is over. The neighbor, Becky Tyde, is an elegant yet physically mangled dwarf, a daily presence at Flo's store but also the subject of horrendous town rumors. 

In this story, everyone's a mystery. The mystery never redeems the violence, but it allows us to see how the characters co-exist with it, how they miraculously survive, manage love and joy. In a scene near the end, Flo does tricks with her double-jointed arms. The family looks at the stars. "The planet Venus!" Rose's father says, applauding Flo. "Ten thousand electric lights!" (24).

my 1982 Bantam mass-market copy

P.S. The line Rose's father recites is from Shakespeare's The Tempest

Propspero:              "The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, 
                                The solemn temples, the great globe itself. 
                                Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, 
                                And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, 
                                Leave not a wrack behind." (4.1)

Friday, June 29, 2012

"Silas Marner" by George Eliot

"Our consciousness rarely registers the beginning of a growth within us any more than without us: there have been many circulations of the sap before we detect the smallest sign of the bud." (55)

What a smart lady. I mean...


Mary Ann Evans just knocks me out.

In this passage from Silas Marner, the opening for this hopeful, arresting aphorism is Eliot's description of Silas's slow re-introduction to society after the weaver's small fortune has been stolen. It takes a hundred pages more and the arrival of a mysterious toddler for Silas to bloom, but the process starts early and isn't readily apparent.

The line reminds me powerfully of the virtue of patience, that our lives are becoming while they are not in full bloom.

It also calls to mind Bob Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man", which, despite (maybe because of) its absurdity and the low, threatening beat, has always sounded hopeful to me, wonderful in the truest sense. Something is happening and you don't know what it is... When it doesn't scare the bejeezus out of me, I think it is among the very best reasons for living.

P.S. If you've never read Eliot, Silas Marner might make a good start. It's short and showcases Eliot's ability to tell a complete, rounded tale with all the lose ends tied (actual happy endings!) and to still leave you with questions because she's a master of psychological realism. Who can say if Providence stole Marner's gold and eventually gave him a little girl or whether all was coincidence? It's a mystery, and Eliot is as aware as any writer ever was that the stories we tell are always partial truths.

P.P.S. thanks to Ebony (and the anonymous soul who left this book in her office) and to Colin (who pulled this book off his shelf very soon after Ebony mentioned it without knowing I'd think it was a sign)

Monday, June 25, 2012

"No One's a Mystery" by Elizabeth Tallent

"'I'm not wrong,' he said. 'And her breath would smell like your milk, and it's kind of a bittersweet smell, if you want to know the truth.'"

Elizabeth Tallent's very short story (it's under 1000 words) "No One's a Mystery," is like Chekhov's "Gusev" for me because it's the ending, the final sentence, that catapults the piece to a place that feels at once surprising and inevitable. I would like both stories without their final sentences, but not nearly so much. 

Tallent's final line, spoken by Jack to his eighteen-year-old lover as they careen down the highway hiding from his wife, pushes the dramatic irony to new heights and reverses our expectations. We want to believe that his lover is right, that in a year they'll be married, have children, still be in love. It's pretty obvious Jack's not the greatest guy for her, but we're in her point-of-view. She's so powerless, hiding under the seat with Jack's hand on her head, and so idealistic. Wouldn't it be nice?

By the end, we've realized the only really nice thing about Jack is that he understands the relationship has to end, that he really does believe his version of the story and has good reasons to. He has experience. He knows the breath of an infant won't smell like vanilla, that this girl will forget him. As readers, we know what both characters believe, and know, too, that they can't believe one another. 

The story's length also reminds me that in great writing every word is used, that we don't always need many words to do a lot. 

Sudden Fiction is a great anthology full of literary short-shorts—lots of big names with pieces on writing at the end. You can also read Tallent's story online. And here's the Roseanne Cash song ("It Hasn't Happened Yet") they're listening to, sung by Rick Nelson and Roseanne herself

Saturday, June 23, 2012

"How to Tell a True War Story" by Tim O'Brien

"How do you generalize?
     War is hell, but that's not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead."

I've been thinking about O'Brien's "How to Tell a True War Story" (the seventh piece in the collection/novel The Things They Carried) because I've been thinking about teaching. How do you explain that successful works of art combine resolution, a feeling of completeness, with irresolution, the sense that some other alternative, a wolf with great teeth or the ghost of a murderous white whale, waits just outside the door? We can say, "It is both ways, many ways, never one," but that is only a rule, a generalization, useful, but abstracted instead of actual. 

O'Brien's story gives us the generalizations paired, and that helps. It engages the mind's logic, the drive toward inquiry. How do you generalize? How do you tell a true war story? How do you tell any true story? It's the piece's main line of tension. As we read, we think we may come closer to an answer. We also get more pieces of the dramatic war story interspersed with the speaker's attempt to answer questions, but we know the essentials very early on: Rat Kiley's best friend "gets killed" (75). 

But that line doesn't say what's essential, and alone, no line in the story can. No single line any writer could pen would capture it. It needs to be told over and over again: "You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end. Not then, not ever" (83). 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

"An American Childhood" by Annie Dillard

"It was an immense discovery, pounding into my hot head with every sliding, joyous step, that this ordinary adult evidently knew what I thought only children who trained at football knew: that you have to fling yourself at what you're doing, you have to point yourself, forget yourself, aim, dive." (47)

Re-typing Dillard's line immediately put this song in my head. It was this moment in An American Childhood that convinced me I really liked the book. She's describing being chased through the 1950s Pittsburgh after hitting the windshield of a black Buick with a soft snowball, "right before the driver's face". Her anecdote contains none of the conventional judgment you might expect: We should have been more careful, or, perhaps more satisfying, It felt good to be bad. 

The driver chases Dillard and her friend, Mikey, "silently over picket fences, through thorny hedges, between houses, around garbage cans, and across streets". He never quits. 

He catches them, but it doesn't really matter. All he can say is, "You stupid kids". 

The chase was the thing, the process. "The point was that he had chased us passionately without giving up, and so he had caught us. Now he came down to earth. I wanted the glory to last forever".

P.S. Another favorite line from later in the book. Dillard describes her teenage encounter with Giacometti's "Man Walking". "Artists, for their part, noticed the things that engaged the mind's private and idiosyncratic interior, that area where the life of the senses mingles with the life of the spirit: the shattering of life into color, and the way it shades off a round bend. The humble attention painters gave to the shadow of a stalk, or the reflected sheen under a chin, or the lapping layers of long strokes, included and extended the scientists' vision of each least thing as unendingly interesting. But artists laid down the vision in the form of beauty bare—Man Walking—radiant and fierce, inexplicable, and without the math" (213). 

Monday, June 18, 2012

"Giovanni's Room" by James Baldwin

" can give each other something which will make both of you better—forever—if you will not be ashamed, if you will only not play it safe." (77)

View from apartment rental via Haven in Paris via A Cup of Jo

James Baldwin knows drama. Don't you love the four quoted words on the cover of the 1964 edition below? (It's the one I readlucky me, someone left it in my office.) ""

They're actually a great way to describe the 1956 novel. It is, in a word, red. The characters bleed, fall in love hard. They're life-or-death desperate, and so are many of the speeches they make to one another, including the one above. It's Jacques vehemently trying to convince the main character, David, to love Giovanni. "Love him," Jacques says. "Love him and let him love you."

It's refreshing to read a book dramatic enough to be marketed as pulp that also manages to be literary, and I think, art. "Literary" fiction (and those of us trying to write it) can so often be strangled by subtlety. Baldwin is a reminder that characters (and people) are allowed to be sentimental and mawkish and, yes, even melodramatic so long as the narrative extends beyond  melodrama. 

Toward the end, when Giovanni and David say goodbye, you can all but picture Giovanni in a juicy made-for-TV movie, bawling and screaming: "You have never loved anyone, I am sure you never will! You love your purity, you love your mirror—you are just like a little virgin, you walk around with your hands in front of you as though you had some precious metal, gold, silver rubies, maybe diamonds down there between your legs! You will never give it to anybody, you will never let anybody touch it—man or woman. You want to be clean" (187). 

It's entertaining as hell, but it's also an effective piece in the whole because David loves this man, hates him, and in the end, doesn't know what to do with him or his experience. It transcends categorization. He rips up the last pieces he has of Giovanni and throws them to the wind, "Yet... the wind blows some of them back" (224). 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

"Prayer" by Jorie Graham

"This is the force of faith. Nobody gets / what they want. Never again are you the same. The longing / is to be pure. What you get is to be changed."

The first poem entitled "Prayer" (the collection has three) in Jorie Graham's 2002 collection, Never, has a way of re-emerging in my psyche every few years. I always want to return to the book, which is beautiful lots of white space and almost square to accommodate Graham's expansive lines. 

It is always such a pleasure to open the book, begin with minnows, and arrive so quickly, so perfectly at  "The longing / is to be pure. What you get is to be changed." It is one of those lines that names an experience I have all the time and holds it in a little glass bubble for a moment. I think we usually name the longing "perfectionism", but the word is over-used, sounds trite, and really, how often do we encounter the concept and think of it as a goal, the thing to aim for?

I also love the change in tone at the end, the speaker trying to hold onto something, the sense of urgency, and the sense of brushing that urgency off when the sand can no longer be held: "Listen, I was not saying anything. It was only / something I did."

Do something. Read this poem.


Over a dock railing, I watch the minnows, thousands, swirl
themselves, each a minuscule muscle, but also, without the 
way to create current, making of their unison (turning, re-
entering and exiting their own unison in unison) making of themselves a 
visual current, one that cannot freight or sway by
minutest fractions the water's downdrafts and upswirls, the
dockside cycles of finally-arriving boat-wakes, there where
they hit deeper resistance, water that seems to burst into 
itself (it has those layers), a real current though mostly
invisible sending into the visible (minnows) arrowing 
                                 motion that forces change—
this is freedom. This is the force of faith. Nobody gets
what they want. Never again are you the same. The longing
is to be pure. What you get is to be changed. More and more by
each glistening minute, through which infinity threads itself, 
also oblivion, of course, the aftershocks of something
at sea. Here, hands full of sand, letting it sift through
in the wind, I look in and say take this, this is
what I have saved, take this, hurry. And if I listen
now? Listen, I was not saying anything. It was only 
something I did. I could not choose words. I am free to go. 
I cannot of course come back. Not to this. Never.
It is a ghost posed on my lips. Here: never. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

"Unknown Bards" by John Jeremiah Sullivan

"Part of hearing the blues is taking away the sociological filter, which with good but misguided intentions we allow to develop before our senses..." (270)

The first book I read after completing my M.F.A. in fiction was nonfiction, a collection of essays called Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan. You might have heard of it. It's been pretty popular. And it's good, the kind of reading you can do outside and still feel intellectually stimulated. It's 365 pages of keeping company with someone entertaining and smart who knows way more than you about things like animal attacks, One Tree Hill, Michael Jackson, Christian Rock, and mysterious blues legends.

But what really stuck with me were two rather unassuming quotes buried in the essay "Unknown Bards". The first is above. Here's the other: "We have to go against our training and suspend anthropological thinking here; it doesn't serve at these strata" (275).

Sullivan's larger exploration is of two books (Elijah Wald's Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of Blues and Marybeth Hamilton's In Search of the Blues: The White Invention of Black Music) that acknowledge and discuss the "baroque aestheticization of early black Southern music by white men" (Sullivan, 268). Within the essay these snippets remind us that jumping to conclusions about art, aiming to categorize it, can lead to a very problematic fetishism, but I held onto them because they remind me how essential first responses are to my experience of literature. When I go after a piece with my craft filter (i.e. how is this working? what is the writer doing here?) first, there's no point. I'm not allowing the piece to simply be what it is; it will leave me cold. But if I turn the filter off to begin and allow my senses to develop first, if the work is good, I'll get to that higher strata.

Monday, June 4, 2012

"Gusev" by Anton Chekhov

"Seeing this magnificent, enchanting sky, the ocean frowns at first, but soon itself takes on such tender, joyful, passionate colors as human tongue can hardly name." (Pevear & Volokhonsky trans.)

"Gusev" is one of my very favorite stories, and its final line (above) reliably produces in me as much awe, wonder, and sheer happiness as staring up at a snow-capped peak or a black sky loaded with stars. Of course, I have to read the rest of the story first. It chronicles the last days of two soldiers in a ship's sick bay and is full of pitch-perfect psychological insights, but what makes the story truly special are the moments when Chekhov leaves the real world and shocks us with a healthy dose of wonder.

When Gusev dies we follow his body as it is sewn up in canvas and he "comes to resemble a carrot or a black radish" (Virginia Woolf liked this line too). The other soldiers prepare to throw him into the waves. "Can it really happen to anyone?" the story asks. Gusev is borne down by the current, but as he descends he "sways rhythmically, as if pondering, and, borne by the current, drifts more quickly sideways than down." He meets some pilot fish and a shark. Both are cruel, but we don't judge them for it the way we judged the men on the ship. It is simply their nature. Above, the sky puts on a show: "one cloud resembles a triumphal arch, another a lion, a third a pair of scissors... A broad green shaft comes from behind the clouds and stretches to the very middle of the sky..." And just like me, the ocean is skeptical at first, "frowns," "but soon itself takes on such tender, joyful, passionate colors as human tongue can hardly name."