Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Five deer and the edge of disaster
One of the things I love about Virginia Woolf's work is that she can take an "ordinary" day--any day Lily Briscoe spends with the Ramsays in Cornwall, or any afternoon Elinor does her benevolent single-lady errands in early twentieth-century London--and infuse it with the significance we should all be attentive to in every one of our days. If one of the things literature should do is to prompt us to think about our own answers to the "overwhelming question," "How should one live?" then Woolf's answer is "Attentively."
I brought only one book with me to Banff, Per Petterson's latest novel, I Curse the River of Time, which I suspect I didn't get. (In any event, I didn't particularly like it. I may write about this at another time, or I may let it drop.) I decided I'd let serendipity and the library here decide my reading. I've been finding myself trying to accumulate less stuff, and taking books out of libraries rather than buying them seemed like a good idea. So I took out Elizabeth Hay's Alone in the Classroom. I loved Late Nights on Air, reading it twice, for pure pleasure, not because I didn't get it. Hay is incredibly skilled at evoking a world: I love her attentiveness to nature and weather and the places people live because it takes me right where the characters are. I love the complexity, even the contradictoriness of her characters.
But we are so aware that all of the characters of Alone in the Classroom are on the edge of disaster. We know that two pretty young girls are going to die. We know the young mother of two is going to fall disastrously in love with a much older man who is the former (and younger) lover of her favourite aunt. We know that something is seriously wrong with Parley's mental health, but we don't know what.
The part of me that's a defensive writer--which is to say someone who has spent about ten hours a day for the last week and a half writing a novel--both admires Hay's descriptive and narrative skill and wants to argue with her. "Why don't we write novels any more about the way people go about their everyday lives, struggling to make sense of them and--every day--to realize their own desires while being caring members of communities and families? Why do ethical dilemmas only involve extremes in novels these days? Is there something about the early twenty-first century that dictates that drama lies only on the edge of disaster? That it is only in the extremes that we are tested? You can be kind or patient or heroic or committed or deeply thoughtful once a week. Try doing it every day. Try even trying to do it every day."
Am I hopelessly old-fashioned?
at 4:43 PM