Sep 17 2006

The things that matter

“Every reader finds himself. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself.”

–Marcel Proust


The Things That MatterYears and years ago, when I was a two-week veteran of college life and still relatively starry-eyed about spending the next four years in libraries and classrooms, surrounded by an atmosphere of intellectual discovery and debate, I had my first argument with a teacher over a book—ever—and  I  won.

Oh, I had disagreed with teachers in the past. Like anyone, my public-school education was filled with a mix of people who were more or less dedicated to stuffing learning into the heads of hormonally-distracted teenagers. Often their dedication was at inverse proportion to their exhaustion.  But exhausted or not, they carried far too much authority in my mind to ever be publicly challenged. A few scathing remarks from the more jaded and cynical ones was enough to curb any impulse I had to speak up when, for example, one of my more unfortunate English teachers decided to take us through The Scarlet Letter and, in a dreadful misuse of Freudian theory, point out the phallic nature of every tree in the wood.  (It was years before I could bring myself to read Hawthorne without an icky feeling crawling up my skin).

Perhaps it was the new city, the room full of people that didn’t know me; that I didn’t know at all. Perhaps it was because this class met in an old library, at wide tables surrounded by dark wooden bookcases filled with leather-bound volumes—the kind of setting which made me feel relaxed and at home. Almost certainly it was because the professor for the class—a survey of classic literature—had just introduced me to the concept of “the great conversation”, which is the idea that all the writers and philosophers there have ever been have been holding a dialogue with each other—posing questions for the next generation to answer. But I decided to speak up at last.  I was on familiar ground here—I had been having conversations with books since I first learned how to read.

The argument that started off my college career was over Jane Eyre and the professor had taken the rather odd stance that Jane was a morally weak character. He based this surprising conclusion on the fact that Jane returns to Rochester after hearing him “call” in the middle of the night. She could have no idea that anything had changed since she had run away from a near-bigamous marriage and Rochester’s proposal that they run away together, live out of wedlock. So how could she return? Wasn’t she simply giving in to a proposal that she had already decided was morally wrong?

I stuttered a protest. Jane Eyre has possibly the most moral integrity of any fictional character ever to grace the printed page. When she is abused, she does not break. When she is tempted, she does not give in. At every pivotal point in her life—at times when even the best of us might be forgiven for compromising ourselves for the sake of a kind word or look—she holds true to some internal compass. Jane, I argued, is never weak.

With all the self-assuredness of the very young, I launched into a slightly breathless defense of dear Jane and insisted that to ignore the love that existed between herself and Rochester is what would have been weak.  She leaves him because to be his mistress would be to base her life on a lie. She refuses to marry her cousin instead, because a loveless marriage is also a lie. And she can not ignore her love for Rochester, or pretend it has no place in her life, because that, also, would be to live in a lie. No, the only answer for Jane is to return and confront this love between them. She goes—with no certainty of anything but confronting a terrible situation which will only cause her pain. But she still goes. Because anything less would be running away from the truth.

Mind you, when I was explaining this to the professor and the class, I think I put it a little less rationally: “But she loved him! She couldn’t ignore that!”

Despite my youthful incoherence, I apparently won the day for Jane Eyre, or else the rest of the class was full of hopeless romantics, because they all agreed.  From that moment on, Jane Eyre became a pivotal role model in my life and it is not an uncommon thing for me to think, when confronted with some dilemma, “what would Jane do?”  Jane—my Jane—the one I hold inside myself, is the bravest person I ever met.

It is somewhat comforting to discover, some twenty-odd years later, that my instincts were right about the book, because the noted literary critic Edward Mendelson totally agrees with me, and says so in his most recent book The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life.

It is the kind of book calculated to appeal to people like me, who live their lives in books.  Mendelson has picked seven novels and teased from them lessons about the major developmental stages in life—birth (Frankenstein), childhood (Wuthering Heights), growth (Jane Eyre), marriage (Middlemarch), love (Mrs. Dalloway), parenthood (To the Lighthouse) and aging (Between the Acts). Each section of the book is devoted to one stage, and one novel that seems—to Mendelson—to epitomize the modern human condition, to sum up our wayward existences and to offer to its readers deep philosophical explorations into the nature of identity.

Yeah—that is what I meant to say when I told my professor “But she loved him!”

Mind you, Mendelson’s admiration for Jane Eyre, and all his subsequent conclusions about her character is founded on a much wider acquaintance with the Brontës than I have ever possessed.  Where I just whined and protested that Jane was a fine woman, he is able to draw parallels with Charlotte Brontë’s own philosophical development, make interesting allusions to the Indian practice of suttee (wherein a Hindu widow would immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre), and talk knowledgably about marriage vows and the Book of Common Prayer.   All of which will give the reader a much deeper appreciation for the psychological undercurrents that swirl beneath the story but doesn’t erase the final point: I was right. Jane and Rochester must meet again because they are in love, and love can not be ignored.

Mendelson’s choice of novels to illustrate the stages of life may raise a few eyebrows. Not only are they all by women, but three are by Virginia Woolf, and two by the Brontë sisters.  There is something decidedly odd about using Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to open up a discussion about birth. It is, after all, the most perverse literary birth since the titan Cronus vomited up his devoured children and created the Greek pantheon.  Nor does Wuthering Heights, surely the most furious novel ever written in the English language, really come to mind when thinking about “childhood.”  But Mendelson’s perspective on each of the novels he has chosen wins the curious reader’s attention: if we are not entirely convinced that Catherine and Heathcliffe exist in a unity of soul only capable in childhood fantasy, we are at least intrigued by the idea.  Mendelson brings shades of meaning to books already shrouded in shadows.

Whether or not one agrees with the author’s interpretations or even his choices of books is not really the writer’s point.  There is no reason why, for example, the lessons about growth and maturity he sees in Jane Eyre are not also to be found, in different form, in Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady.  No reason why the lessons of a life at its close might not be gleaned from John Banville’s The Sea, or Roth’s Human Stain, or from any number of novels by Updike.  Indeed, the reader gets the feeling that Mendelson is encouraging him to do just that. His is a rare breed of literary criticism–he is not so interested in dissecting a book to see what makes the author tick. He is concerned with how books make their readers tick. The Things That Matter is not a book about literature; it is a book about life. When engaging in that curious and near-miraculous process called reading, Mendelson wants the reader to bring the story into himself and claim for his own.

In his lovely novel The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon observes that the art of reading is “. . . an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce by the day.”  It is clear that Edward Mendelson is a great reader.  But what his book does is teach us all to become great readers.  All we have to do is pay attention to the things that matter.

Sep 3 2006

Too Much Information? A rumination on Javier Marías’s Written Lives

Written LivesAre all the great writers weirdos?

Um…the answer to that question would be ‘apparently so.’  For the last week, my “going to bed” book has been an engaging little work called Written Lives by the deliciously erudite Javier Marías.  It is a series of literary sketches of famous writers—treated, according to the author, as if they were fictional characters, “which may well be,” he comments, “how all writers, whether famous or obscure, would secretly like to be treated.”

I thought it would be an easy book to like, especially for someone like me, who has no trouble remembering the names of authors and book titles and characters and even publishing houses although I can’t reliably tell you who is playing any of the lead roles on The Sopranos.  I’m blinkered that way. I happen to live in a town with a small scale movie-industry, and I have had Matthew Broderick, Dana Carvey, Kelly McGillis, John Cusack, Jamie Lee Curtis and a host of other movie stars in my little bookshop at one time or another. The only one I recognized was Curtis—who had, after all, written some great books for kids.

But I digress. Sort of.  As the week went on and I read amusing and affecting little anecdotes about Faulkner and Kipling and Rilke and James. At first, I read them out loud, delightedly sharing the foibles of these writers with a spouse who might have been more interested if I were talking about John Cusack.

I hadn’t known that the only reason Faulkner ever opened a letter was to see if there was a check in the envelope.  That Henry James was unable to appreciate most of the novels of Gustav Flaubert because he discovered Flaubert wrote in his dressing gown. That an elderly Djuna Barnes had a horror of beards. (Well, it is hard to blame her for that.)

Yet as the week progressed, I found myself more and more reluctant to go on with the book. My enjoyment and amusement was making me feel uneasy.  I stopped reading aloud, and I started finding excuses not to go to bed, where I knew the book was waiting, lying face down and opened at the place I had left off.  I dithered—rifling ahead to look at all the photos of the authors Marías discusses—and I avoided, switching off the light before I was really sleepy, rather than face the next chapter.  Lying in bed, awake, staring at the dark ceiling because I was afraid to read a book seemed like a completely ridiculous thing to do.  I turned the light back on and read another chapter.  The next night, when I caught myself surreptitiously placing an older book I had already read on top of the one I was trying to avoid reading, I realized that I was fast approaching the kind of neurotic behavior I shouldn’t be exhibiting until I was old and senile—surely a year or two away.

Why was I so reluctant to keep reading a book that I had been enjoying so much?  It wasn’t the writing—Marías is a fine writer—very clear and precise in the way he uses language, and like the family I have married into, gifted in making a story out of the smallest scraps of material. If I didn’t know he was Spanish, I would suspect him of being Southern.  Nor was it the subject—I find any book that explores the lives of writers to be fascinating, and I have dozens of literary and artistic biographies on my bookshelves to attest to the fact that I can’t resist the topic. What’s the saying? Those who can’t do, read about those who can?  And anyway, Written Lives is not even serious biography. It is more like a book of literary gossip.

And that, perhaps, was at the root of my problem with my bedtime reading.  I was starting to question my motives.  As weird fact after weird fact came to light, I began to feel less like a reader, and more and more like one of those ghoulish people who stop to stare at traffic accidents, hoping to see something really gory. Or perhaps like one of the devotees of reality television, many of whom I’m convinced watch simply to see human beings in orchestrated failure and humiliation.

And I found myself wondering, what does the writer have to do with the reader?  What do we need to know to enjoy the book?

I’m not speaking of writers like the lamentable James Frey, or the pseudo-Navaho writer Nasdijj, who set out deliberately to deceive their readers and win lucrative publishing contracts.  No, I’m talking about the writers who have labored over their work only to release it into the world to be loved or be killed by a capricious reading public.

I have a very satisfying relationship with all my favorite authors—when reading their books, I don’t think of them at all.  I allow the book to wrap me up and take me traveling, and I find that the notion that the book has an author somewhere in the background is completely irrelevant to how much I am enjoying the journey.  Readers have a more serious and intimate relationship with a novel’s characters than they ever will with a novel’s creator.  (I suspect that if given the choice, most children would far rather meet Harry Potter than J.K. Rowling).  So when a favorite novelist makes headlines by uttering some idiocy—when, for example, John Banville goes on record saying that when the judges awarded the Man Booker Prize to his own novel, The Sea, they had at last given the award to a “REAL” book—a breathtakingly arrogant comment—it troubled me not at all and did not diminish my pleasure in reading his novels, including The Sea, one whit. (What is a whit?).

In fact, I am in agreement with Banville when he says “Fiction gives the illusion of showing how we live – but it is a thing in itself. Great art looks and smells like the world, that’s its trick. But the work of art is always about the work of art.”  Or, as Azar Nafisi puts it more gently in her introduction to Reading Lolita in Tehran, “…what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth.”* So whether or not Henry James was a fastidious bundle of neuroses has no bearing at all on the excellence of A Portrait of a Lady.  And the fact that Rainer Maria Rilke went through women like I go through Coca-Cola does not make the lovely and lyric advice he gives in Letters to a Young Poet any less valid.

Once I had settled that in my mind, I was able to turn back to the interrupted pleasure of Marías’ book.  The uneasy feeling of voyeurism left me. I started to appreciate the author’s stated goal of treating his subjects as fictional characters.  This means, as any fiction writer knows, that he subsumes truth to the demands of the narrative—and the events of each writer’s life become telescoped and oddly disproportionate. In short, each writer becomes somewhat ‘heroic’ in the literary sense. I suppose the author is correct in suspecting that his subjects wouldn’t be likely to mind.

If Marías had been the writer for a reality television show, he could have created a devastating and cruel collection of biographical sketches, but luckily he is not.  Instead, he shows himself to be a lover of literature and the people who create it.  Written Lives is actually a very affectionate work, a kind of gentle tribute to the foibles of two dozen beloved writers.  Marías evokes our pity and our indignation over the injustices suffered by Emily Bronte, he invites our indulgence at the quirks of  James and Faulkner, and coaxes out our horrified respect and even awe at the terrible death of Mishima–who committed hari-kari after a failed attempt to take over the Japanese army long enough to give a speech.

Written Lives is that rare kind of book that actually makes you want to go in search of the writers it treats and read all their books, for which I can only commend it. But I think that anyone who does become inspired by Marías’s enthusiasm to seek out the novels of Faulkner or Bronte or Kipling or Sterne will discover that the collection of odd facts now rattling around in their head won’t help at all when it comes to reading the books.  In the end, it is only the reader and the novel in the room.


*Quoted from “The Art of Self Exposure” by Charlotte Higgins, The Guardian Unlimited, Friday August 18, 2006.