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Monday, June 25, 2012

The stories we tell

I've been wondering over the last couple of months about the stories we tell, why they're important to us, and about the stories we don't tell and why we're avoiding them. This has been prompted in part by the fact that I can't work on Soul Weather; yet I suspect that I can make the hiatus useful by thinking about the larger structure of what I'm trying to do with my characters and ideas and about how I'm trying to frame the present moment.  I've come to the conclusion that in the twitterverse there are no trends, just opportunities, so I'm trying to find the framework that will let me reveal what I think is happening in our culture now.  As well, a handful of events I've gone to and articles I've read over the last couple of months, most of which puzzled me, have implicitly or explicitly posed this question, almost suggesting that this is a question many creative people are asking.

The first two prompts reveal the range of ways this question can be explored.  In May, I went to a  session at the CCWWP conference on the spate of Canadian books about people from Eastern Europe and Russia; one of the presenters, Antanas Sileika, the author of Underground (named by the Globe and Mail as one of the 100 best books of 2011),  suggested that this has become an important sub-genre of Canadian fiction. The part of me that spent my my evening walking on the Lake Ontario shores thinks about such a suggestion and wonders why.  I'm with the postmodern historians who suggest that history is never about simply getting the facts right, partly because there's nothing simple or transparent about "facts."  Rather, history is an act of self reflection, a way of examining who we are now in light of who we think we have been.  Certainly the same could be said of the historical novel, no matter how far away or long ago the work is set.  So what is it about who we are now that is hungry for narratives set in Russia and Eastern Europe?  But the part of me who is writing a novel set rather aggressively in the present moment posed an embarrassed question.  What is so appealing about other places and other times, when we live here, in the present (one hopes).

The second prompt came when I read an older post in the OnFiction blog which quoted both Ruskin and Proust's comment that books are our friends.  I just stuck that one in my pocket to think about from time to time.  They were suggesting a comforting, cozy relationship that I sometimes sought in a book and sometimes found falling flat in a kind of faux intimacy.

Then Bill and I went to see The Avengers.  Clueless alert here.  When I was returning from the CCWWP Conference in Toronto, listening to the all-day TV that blabs on and on in airports (and trying to write about art instead of listening), I'll admit I overheard an announcement that told how well the movie was still doing, even in its second weekend.  'Cool,' I thought.  'I had no idea that sixties po-mo TV would still cut ice.'  I thought nostalgically about Steed's bowler hat and the moment when Mrs Peel turns Steed over to Purdy with the advice "He likes his tea stirred counter-clockwise."  So when Bill wanted to see The Avengers I readily agreed.  You're already laughing at me--rightly so.  I found the violence very difficult, the special effects cool when they weren't being used just to be used.  The two, when fiercely combined, were even worse:  I mean, what does the fight between Thor and Iron Man contribute to the plot?  (More about this later.)  I loved Iron Man's irony.  I left the movie theatre exhausted, though.  So I asked Bill that night whether movies like The Avengers were friends and he sleepily replied no, but that they were sometimes allies.  He was so sleepy he doesn't remember his illuminating answer, but he talked later about some of the scenes I wondered about, suggesting they were kind of a guy thing, important rituals in creating a partnership between a  crew of superheroes.  Away from the speed, violence, and special effects, I could see how we sometimes need stories where good is nearly exhausted but sometimes wins anyway, where egotists like Iron Man (self-described as a billionnaire playboy who likes his lovers dressed like children on the beach) are willing to sacrifice themselves.  This is an extremely egotistical moment in our own history, one where market meltdowns and layoffs and high unemployment rates challenge that egotism even while FB nurtures it.  Okay, I get it--kind of.  My cluelessness aside, I'm not the only one who questioned The Avengers.  Writing in The New York Times Magazine, Adam Sternbergh notes that American action movies have descended into self-parody.  He notes that these movies are characterized by "Explosions.  Big, Blossoming, Ecstatic, pointless explosions....These cathartic money shots serve no purpose plotwise, which is precisely what marks them as the philosophical earmark of the action film [sic; that's not a great sentence].  It's a genre dedicated unreservedly to carnage as a source of aesthetic delight" (April 1, 2012; 42).

Then we watched Iron Lady.  Since The French Lieutenant's Woman and Out of Africa, I've thought Meryl Streep walked on water, and her acting in Iron Lady proves it.  The movie is a kind of biography of Margaret Thatcher told from the perspective of her older self, after her husband dies and when she seems to be sliding into dementia (though I don't think her conversations with her dead husband should be used as evidence of this:  they make complete sense to me).  Streep does a brilliant job evoking the body language of the very elderly; I would swear she spent several weeks with a group of old women watching for the way their hands bespeak their anxiety.  One of my favourite moments occurs when Thatcher's daughter is undressing Margaret after a formal dinner and finds an eyelash on her cheek, offering her mother the chance to make a wish and blow the eyelash away.  This may be one of the most intimate, transcendent moments I've ever seen captured on film; Streep's face lights up with playfulness, hope, gratitude, and love all in about two seconds.

I know that the film has been criticized for using the perspective of the elderly, frail Thatcher, but this seems to me to be its brilliance.  Regardless of what you think about her politics, you are compelled to see her humanity.  If history is about creating a relationship with the past, this film certainly does it.  While we can see the lunacy of the Falklands war, particularly in a time when the government's budget is very very tight, while we see Thatcher has become almost a parody of a nationalistic patriarch, we're nevertheless compelled to place her choices in the context of the idealistic young girl who entered politics and the old woman who profoundly misses her wonderful husband.  

At one of our weekly breakfasts, I talked with my friend Katherine about my sense that fiction these days focuses on history.  She suggests this is a distraction from the enormous challenges that face us this minute. Rick Groen, writing in The Globe and Mail in an article entitled "Any time but the present," agrees in part.  He explores the fact that the 'here and now' is avoided in fiction and movies; rather, they allow viewers and readers to live in the past or explore the future.  In the last three years, he notes, 29 movies have won Oscars.  Of those, only 2 occur at the present moment--"Up in the Air" and "The Descendants."  He suggests that part of the motive is the time lag between conception and realization that certainly can't match the immediacy of Twitter.  The latest trend the movie maker or writer of fiction might have noticed may be long gone.  But here's his more substantial analysis:  "We are getting the fiction we crave.  The flood of information in the present is overwhelming, undiscriminating, and confusing:  even the so-called analysis is immediate, the spotting of trends as evanescent as the trends themselves.  So we turn to the fictionalized past, or the imagined future, not just for escape but for clarity.  (TGAM May 31, 2012, Arts).

I can understand the need for clarity in the face of the cacophany of immediacy, but I'm not sure I'd turn to art for such clarity.  Quite the reverse.  I turn to art to get things stirred up, to muddy the waters, to force me to see what I think in the face of the writer's generous imaginative vision. I can understand that one thing we might do in the face of a sense of confusion and crisis is to ask ourselves the kinds of stories we're creating and yearning for, and to examine the whole concept of story in the face of the brief tweet.  Here are a handful of people weighing in over the last month or so on this issue, as if the question has indeed been posed:

Richard Ford, contemplating the title of his latest novel, Canada, wrote "I myself can't paraphrase what I think, and what I've made my novel to be about, any better than to say this:  those up-to-now unphrased feelings of adult life, and the purely, non-cognitive magnetism of the world itself, together compose a call to language.  Works of art, such as novels are, are vessels made precisely for those important things we can't paraphrase well enough to be fully true as we know life to be" (TGAM May 19, 2012).

Talking about his latest novel, The Chemistry of Tears, Peter Carey muses to Johanna Schneller who asks him "what he goes for" in a novel,  "For me...it's to go well beyond and above who I am, to find out things I don't know, to make things in beautiful new shapes that have never existed in the world, that people can read again and again and find new things from, and new nourishment, that will, in the midst of confronting darkness, have the insane laughter of hope" (June 9, 2012).

Sarah Nicole Prickett, talking with Aaron Sorkin about his latest series, The Newsroom, felt the need to quote both Nietzsche and Joan Didion about the importance of art and stories.  Here's the Didion: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live."  Nietzsche is more pessimistic:  "We have art in order not to die of the truth"  (TGAM June 23, 2012).


Summer for me is the time to read.  I love going up to my bedroom at around 8 to catch the day's last light and be in the midst of the trees and breezes to read, occasionally pausing to look out and consider what I'm reading.  Sheba, who melts into my supine body while I'm reading, occasionally demands attention by standing on my chest and rubbing her face on mine, forcing me to stop.  "Cat's cuddly; time to think," I say to myself about these enforced breaks.  So my blogs for a while will in part be book reviews, always coming back to this question about the stories we need and crave at this moment.  And perhaps you'll help me consider this question by weighing in.

Friday, June 15, 2012

On Being Ill


"Literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain galss through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, and negligible and non-existent.  On the contrary, the very opposite is true.  All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February.  The creature within can only gaze through the pane--smudged or rosy; it cannot separate off from the body like the sheath of a knife or the pod of a pea for a single instant; it must go through the whole unending procession of changes, heat and cold, comfort and discomfort, hunger and satisfaction, health and illness, until there comes the inevitable catastrophe; the body smashes itself to smithereens, and soul (it is said) escapes.  But of all this daily drama of the body there is no record.  People write always of the doings of the mind; the thoughts that come to it; its noble plans; how the mind has civilized the universe.  They show it ignoring the body in the philosipher's turret; or kicking the body, like an old leather football, across leagues of snow and desert in the pursuit of conquest or discovery.  Those great wars which the body wages with the mind a slave to it, in the solitude of the bedroom against the assault of fever or the oncome of melancholia, ore neglected.  Nor is the reason far to seek.  To look these things squarely in the face would need the courage of a lion tamer; a robust philosophy; a reason rooted on the bowels of the earth."

So wrote Virginia Woolf in her daring, iconoclastic essay "On Being Ill," published in 1926 in T. S. Eliot's high-minded quarterly, The New Criterion in 1926 after a bout of illness that interrupted an otherwise calm and fruitful period in her life.  Mrs Dalloway and The Common Reader were out and had received a positive response, and she  was full of ideas for To the Lighthouse.  She was also in what her biographer Hermione Lee calls "the most imtinate stage of her absorbing, seductive relationship with Vita Sackville-West."   What began as a fainting spell at Vanessa's home in Charleston turned into several months of illness which ended with a bout of German measles.  The essay is only in part about illness; it also considers (as the quotation above would suggest) the relationship of mind and body, the kind of Zen observation that illness prompts in us, the kind of reading we do when we're ill, and ends rather abruptly with a kind of plot summary of Augustus Hare's The Story of Two Noble Lives, with Lady Waterford crushing in her hands the heavy Victorian curtain on the morning  when she watches the hearse that holds her husband, who died falling from his horse, not from some protracted illness, leave for the churchyard.  Presumably this is exactly the kind of plot we wish to read when our brains are too muddled by the body's insurrection to think clearly for oneself.  Woolf does not say, but simply closes this complex, associative, revealing essay with the image of the crushed brocade.  "On Being Ill" was reprinted by the Hogarth Press, with Woolf herself setting the type and her sister Vanessa providing the covers.  You see a Paris Editions reprint of that volume above.

Late on the afternoon when I returned from the Woolf conference, I felt that almost negligible tickle in the back of my throat that always makes me suspect a cold is coming.  By Monday morning, I knew I was not mistaken.  My first task was to cancel breakfast with Katherine, who was going shortly to visit young grandchildren who didn't need my cold.  Then, my one responsibility discharged, the cats relieved to have my home and so quite cuddly, I settled down to enjoy being sick.  Bill was away at a conference in Edmonton, so I had no one else to think about.  I was certainly too muddle-brained to start right in putting everything I'd learned at the Woolf conference to use in finishing the To the Lighthouse chapter, which would have been in any event a daunting, if not impossible task.  Better to knit lace of red silk, to finish David Bergen's The Time in Between and begin Ann Enright's The Gathering, to lie in bed simply thinking about the kinds of stories we need to tell as a culture and the way those stories comfort us or sharpen our critique--sometimes both at the same time.  Also better was to read the proceedings of last year's conference in Glasgow, to take some desultory notes and lists of bibliography to follow up on, not to worry about writing for a few days and to let the sharp, bright notes of the conference mix and mingle--to get the larger impression of what we were all saying and feeling about Woolf rather than to attempt to extract nuggets and wrap them up in our notebooks--an impossible task, as Woolf well knew when she used that image in A Room of One's Own.

Changes in my neighbourhood conspired to make this an enjoyable convalescence.  College Avenue is to be under construction, so it was closed off early this week, though none of the noisy work has begun.  As a result, I don't have the sound of cars tethering me to the busy world; rather, the birds seem to be more noisily confident about their place in the universe, like the clouds in Woolf's essay: 

"Directly the bed is called for, or, sunk deep among pillows in one chair, we raise our feet even an inch above the ground on another, we cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright; we become deserters.  They march to battle.  We float with the sticks on the stream; helter-skelter with the dead leaves on the lawn, irresponsible and disinterested and able, perhaps for the first time for years, to look round, to look up--to look, for example, at the sky.

"The first impression of that extraordinary spectacle is strangely overcoming.  Ordinarily to look at the sky for any length of time is impossible.  Pedestrians would be impeded and disconcerted by a public skygazer.  What snatches we get of it are mutilated by chimneys and churches, serve as a background for man, signify wet weather or fine, daub windows gold, and, filling in the branches, complete the pathos of dishevelled autumnal plane trees in autumnal squares.  Now,  lying recumbent, staring straight up, the sky id discovered to be something so different from this that really it is a little shocking.  This then has been going on all the time without our knowing it! --this incessant making up of shapes and casting them down, this buffeting of clouds together, and drawing vast trains of ships and waggons from North to South, this incessant ringing up and down of curtains of light and shade, this interminable experiment with gold shafts and blue shadows, with veiling the sun and unveiling it, with making rock ramparts and wafting them away--this endless activity, with the waste of Heaven knows how many million horse power of energy, has been left to work its will year in year out."

Then this morning, the various tradesmen who have been working on my kitchen and bathroom for nearly the last three nonths decided that it was time to finish a thing or two.  Richard arrived at 8:30 to move the bathroom door a few inches to the left so we could have a reasonably-sized vanity in that tiny, ill-planned room.  Bob (who can turn 'mud' into velvet) arrived at 11 to see whether he really was finished painting, and put another coat on the lovely windows that swing open.  (I used to have to get right up on the kitchen counter to open the window onto the back yard.)  Also at 11, the plumber came to install the new bathroom sink.  He was followed by the carpenter, who is here to put on the crown moulding and the kickplate, to adjust the cupboard doors and install the microwave and do a million other things that are making the room (if crowded at the moment) look rather lovely.  My front door has been open to the weather for most of the day, luring a neighbourhood cat in during one of the many showers that decked out our undecided weather.  This doesn't feel exactly like being well;  I am a passive observer in most of this, merely attempting to placate the bored cats who are confined to the bedroom.  It feels like a convalescent way station; and I am waiting for the train to take me to some more real destination.  Tomorrow Bill will be back from his conferences in Saskatoon and Edmonton (with a side trip in there to see his sister in Calgary) and he can deal with the mundane.

The way station has made me hungry again for ideas, hungry for Woolf's intellectual complexity after the simplicity of lonely illness and the physical chaos of renovations on a rainy day.  But at least I have a beautiful kitchen.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Interdisciplinary/Multidisciplinary Woolf

Arriving home today after four days at the 2012 Woolf conference was disorienting.  This was only partly because Veronica and I drove for about an hour through heavy rain, and then came up on a slightly higher plane and a sudden shift to playful cumulus clouds who let sunshine fall through in shards and fragments.  Still, when I arrived home it was in sudden mid-afternoon darkness, coming into my unfamiliar kitchen whose shape has changed almost daily and whose periwinkle blue walls are less than a week old.  Home?  This was home? I asked of the unfamiliar dark.  The hungry cats didn't answer.

The Woolf conference itself and the Saskatoon weather must bear some responsibility for my disorientation; it wasn't simply the weather and an identity crisis caused by months of renovations.  Those of us at the conference lived in the heady world of ideas, only to walk along the river  back to our impersonal rooms in glorious sunshine or through grey curtains of rain, not knowing when we felt most substantial:  when we were immersed in ideas or  when our wet feet reminded us of our bodies.  What can I tell you of the conference?  First, that anything I say will be partial and incomplete.  There were 42 sessions, most of these with three papers each, and five plenaries, as well as evening events.  Sometimes I took notes; other times, I simply took in ideas in great draughts, luxuriating in the clearly-articulated path the reader/writer had taken.  But I could say several things without feeling they were dishonest.

During the opening plenary on interdisciplinarity, Mark Hussey rightly pointed out that Woolf herself had no boundaries:  she read everything, and that enormous mental library makes her work one of the richest, most complex nodes in the modernest web (to borrow a metaphor from her).  There isn't anything an examination of her work won't illuminate:  ethics, history, the reading of newspapers, weather, the human relationship to the environment in the early twentieth-century, the visual arts, her scientific contemporaries, human subjectivity.  In that respect, this conference topic gave us particularly fertile ground to explore. 

The papers I heard--written by graduate students and emerita professors--were all wonderful.  So I can tell you that there is an up-and-comiong generation of young Woolf scholars who give Woolf the close readings she deserves, and pay careful, inventive attention to context.  One young scholar, Sarah Dunlop, in an essay titled "Ecological Thinking in Mrs Dalloway" examined the ways Woolf critiqued outmonded scientific practices of her time.  Sarah productively looked at the role of Miss Parry, who has written a book on the orchid, and noted that Clarissa's aunt is losely based on Mary Ann North, whose autobiographical Recollections of a Happy Life Woolf had read.   But where Miss Parry dug orchids up to bring back, Mary Ann North drew them in situ, which implicates Miss Parry (like many of Woolf's characters) in the colonial project.  Marlene Briggs from UBC looked at the motif of shoes in To the Lighthouse and connected it to a wider practice of using shoes as emblems of trauma that runs from Van Gogh to Holocaust Museums:  Woolf provided a place from which we could move outward--which she would have loved.   Eleanor McNees looked carefully at the way characters in The Years read newspapers.  By finding the original headlines and articles, Eleanor could see how thoroughly Woolf filtered the news through character.Woolf's  readers don't simply get gobbets of information to place us historically; rather we get the individual's reaction to historical events. Lesley Hankins put Lily's aesthetics side by side with snatches from Emily Carr's diaries to give us a portrait of the young modernist artist as she tries to understand her own practice.  I have given these thinkers their names not particularly to draw attention to them, but because these ideas belong to real people--something I have to respect, even in a blog.  That doesn't mean that there aren't dozens of unnamed people whose work has excited and inspired me.  So the second thing I can say truly about the Woolf conference is that remarkable work is being done.

The third thing that was almost universally true was that papers and panels and plenary speakers were given the full support of their audience and had the value of their work described.  "Thank you for that wonderful....." was often the beginning of a question or a comment.  Which I think is the best way of keeping the fine work coming.  This was the first Woolf Conference in Canada, and Ann Martin and her cohort of volunteers--which included quite a number of cheerful and helpful students--are to be congratulated for their fine job.  Next year in Vancouver at Simon Fraser!