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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Fiction and Perspective



Walter Besant (1836-1901), British teacher, man of letters, and historian, started it with a little piece called "The Art of the Novel" that he first delivered as a lecture to the Royal Society and then had published by Chatto and Windus in the spring of 1884.  By September,  Henry James, disagreeing with Besant, whose works were as earthy and critical of society as James's were etherial, returned the serve with his own "Art of the Novel." The argument they began would go on for at least another forty years as both writers and readers wondered to what extent the novel needed to be, in James's words, "a representation of life" and to what extent artfulness, or form, compromised the energy and the truthfulness of novels.  The argument basically goes back to Socrates and Aristotle; Socrates argues that works of art were merely representations of shadows while Aristotle “goes to considerable lengths to differentiate the art object from the reality it imitates, and this almost entirely on account of aesthetic design....[I]t is design itself that distinguishes art from life" (Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry 1043).  James thought the point of the novel was representation but also felt that a writer who hadn't bothered to find the right form for the story he was going to tell wasn't really a novelist.

In his Prefaces for his novels, James said more that was astute about the novel than I can quote here, but it is easy to say that one of his major contributions to the very idea that the novel was an art and not a kind of creative, glorified journalism and social criticism, is his thoughts about point of view.  Michael Schmidt, in his voluminous (nearly 1200 pages) and chatty The Novel:  A Biography observes that "other novelists have 'intermittently' been aware of [point of view];  but James formulates it by asking 'Who saw this thing I am going to tell about?  By whom do I mean that it shall be reported?  It seems as though such a question must precede any study of the subject chosen, since the subject is conditioned by the answer [to those questions]'" (497).

In the late 1920s, E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf take up this conversation about the novel and its art partly in their reviews of one another's work.  But their most sustained argument about the art of the novel can be seen in Forster's well-known Aspects of the Novel and Woolf's less-well-known Phases of Fiction.  You will remember that someone in the recesses of your past taught you about flat and round characters.  Or perhaps they reminded you (particularly if you are a creative writer) that "the queen died and then the king died" is simply a chronology:  if you want a plot, you need to make clear that "the queen died and then the king died of grief."  This all comes from Forster's popular set of Clark Lectures delivered in 1927 at Trinity College Cambridge that would become Aspects of the Novel.  I've always found this a curious and inconsistent book , partly because like other writers in the twenties, Forster is trying to articulate a self-conscious poetics of the novel, even though very little ground work has been laid in the forty years since the quarrel between Besant and James.  What interests me here is that Forster assumes, without questioning his assumption, that the kind of realistic, socially-engaged novels that he wrote and read are the gold standard, and that anything that deviates from that either incorporates too much art or fails to understand the novel's role in its culture and society.

In Phases of Fiction, Woolf comes at the novel from an entirely different direction.  Woolf was more widely read than Forster: in the collection of Forster's letters at Trinity, there's a note in Forster's hand asking  Woolf for help with a list of books to read for Aspects of the Novel.  Curiously, this letter never made its way into the volume of Forster's selected letters.  I can imagine Woolf standing in front of her bookshelves, with a pencil and paper and making the list of novels for Morgan. But I suspect that while she stood there, something else occurred to her:  that she could classify the kinds of novels she found there  and that this might tell us more about the poetics of the novel than the assumption that all novels are, at bottom, the same.  

She makes two important opening claims that few would argue with before she flies off in unpredictable directions.  First, that one of the things that writers and readers share is a desire to create. Second, that we have appetites for fiction that vary from time to time.  I once had an aunt who would take me off my mother's hands for a couple of weeks at a time and who had what I thought was a novel approach to an afternoon snack:  did I want something sweet or salty?  I had no idea that someone understood those funny urges and desires that came on about 3 in the afternoon.  Virginia Woolf is that aunt, except she understands that as our appetites for one kind of fiction become sated, we seek out something quite different for our next book.  Woolf assumes realist fiction is a beginning:  "Of these appetites, perhaps, the simplest is the desire to believe wholly and entirely in something which is fictitious" (Essays V, 41-42).  But once we've had our fill of Trollope or Jane Urquhart, we might have a hankering for a Bronte or Mrs. Radcliffe.  After feasting on emotions for a fortnight, we might want a little comedy--say some over-the-top Dickens.  After Dickens, we might want a little Tolkien or Guy Gavriel Key.  After some satirical Ian McEwan, we long for some poetic Anne Michaels.  I guess the metaphor is of library as eternal buffet:  do you want something sweet, salty, tangy, hot?


The other contribution Woolf makes to our understanding of fiction is that many personal and generic differences are caused by writers' different perspectives:  the bitterness of the satirists, the melancholia of the Brontes, the otherworldliness of Tolkien that is poised on the point of romance and disaster. Perhaps our current taste for so much genre fiction is a result of a more impatient search for the perspective that will speak to our experience and condition.  Woolf was an avid photographer, and so knew firsthand what a difference in framing and perspective could make to a photograph.

As a reader, I've had just such a Woolfian experience in the last couple of weeks.  I finally finished Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle:  A Death in the Family, a work that has been aptly described as an "autobiographical novel," given that it's clearly an autobiography but that Knausgaard remembers details like the time he was seven and closed the car door before having a fight with his father.   As I read Knausgaard, I contemplated the thoughts of a commentator in The Globe and Mail who said he'd learned so much about psychology by reading My Struggle.  Well, yes, I certainly did learn about the psychology of the young Scandinavian male.  Knaussgaard's M.O. is to describe scenes and events in rich detail, and then perhaps to spend as many pages considering what he felt and thought at the time.  One effect of this practice is to query the banality of so much that makes up our lives:  to realize that if we are paying attention, little is really banal or everyday.  

Another effect of the encyclopedically-described scenes and the almost obsessive reflection on them is to give the reader access to another consciousness, a vulnerable, barely-formed consciousness, completely unlike the reader's own.  If I will ever understand what it is like to be an adolescent male in the thick of the inevitable identity crisis, it will be because Knausgaard helped me to do so. Knausgaard is willing to let us be witnesses as a teenager carefully, self-consciously dresses up for a New Year's party he hopes to crash.  He allows us to see the lengths to which this young man will go to save his plastic bags of illegal liquor.  He brings us right to the New Year's fireworks in the town square and lets us stand beside him while one of the most popular girls in school tells him he can't crash her party--in spite of his white shirt, his great haircut, his membership in a rock band, and his clanking bottles of beer.  Reading My Struggle was nearly voyeuristic, and just as compelling as I imagine voyeurism can be.  I read it down in great draughts, like the young Knausgaard's illegal beer.

But Knausgaard's perspective is extraordinarily limited:  it is relentlessly turned inward, and as a result, he is worryingly incurious about the people around him. When he's in his late teens, his dad announces that he and his mother are separating.  'Where will I live?' is his only response.  Not 'why?'  Not even 'how could you fuck up my life like this?'  Just 'where do I put my toothbrush.'  When his father drinks himself to death, locking himself in his mother's house with a broken leg that he won't get medical help for, Knausgaard never wonders why, never tries to understand his father's motives or experience.  It's a pain in the ass to clean the house up after him, but he's immensely relieved when he sees his father's body for the second time.  His father had often been critical almost to the point of abuse. (Almost?  I think he was abusive, but my definition might be different from others', perhaps because my expectations of civility in relationships are quite high.) So when Knausgaard arrives at the recognition that his father is now a thing, like the table he's lying on, the 700-plus page volume can end.    

While I found the My Struggle compelling, I also found it made me claustrophobic, perhaps because I was in a single mind for the whole experience.  This isn't necessary for first-person narrators; they can be curious about others and spend as much time reflecting, say, on relationships as they spend reflecting on their own sense of inadequacy.  They could attempt to read the desires of others with as much care as they give to their own desires.

Still in the Scandinavian woods, I turned to Isak Dinesen's collection Anecdotes of Destiny, immediately reading her incomparable "Babette's Feast" twice.  I finished the story late one night, grinned at the artistry, and then started again at the beginning.  The premise is simple:  a French woman who had been a communard and whose husband and son had been shot on the barricades, needs to get out of the country and is sent by a friend to the home of two women who are the beautiful daughters of a man who began a very ascetic religious sect in Norway.  They take her on as a cook, though since she was the chef of the Cafe Anglaise--the most famous restaurant in Paris--the kind of basic fare that these two women want her to cook is depressing; but they have given her safety, so cook she does.  She manages their lives wonderfully, budgeting so that they have even more food to give to the poor.  But twelve years after she arrives, she wins a lottery of 10,000 francs.  They expect her to leave, but what she really wants to do is to cook the dinner marking the 100th birthday of their father for Martine and Philippa and the other members of the Dean's little community, who have become querulous of late.  

The asceticism of the sect leads them to promise one another that they will taste nothing--not the turtle soup, not the Veuve Cliquot 1860, not the quail.  Yet something mysterious happens:  they become kind to one another, they forget past slights and resentments, they even kindle a few dying embers.  Even the simple plot of the story brings a smile to one's face, as if Babette is a precursor of Clarissa Dalloway, who realizes that it's a gift to bring people together and give them some pleasure.

But two things make this reading ultimately unsatisfying.  First, Dinesen has an entirely different perspective on her characters and knows the inward desires of even the bit players, like a now famous French general who once loved Martine or the opera singer who longed for the love of Philippa.  But she tells us nothing of Babette, except what she does.  Babette is the mystery at the core of the story; we only partially understand her when she tells the sisters at the end that she made the meal as evidence that she is a great artist, and great artists need to make their art.  The second thing is that it is hard to decide on the story's values.  We know those of the sect.  We know the opera singer desires fame and seals his fate when he tells the simple Philippa that she too will be famous when he takes her to France.  (She refuses to leave Norway with him, of course.  Earthly fame is not what she seeks.)  We know that the general as a young man desires the goodness and simplicity of Martine, but when he cannot have it, marries a woman who is a member of the French Court, has great success as a soldier, but is finally unhappy.  Dinesen sets up binaries:  earthly/heavenly, now/later; military and social/spiritual.  But we need to be astute readers to discern how well these values have worked for the individuals.  Moreover, we need to realize that the art of Babette's cooking finally erases the distinction between the bodily and the spiritual. We are given numerous perspectives and are encouraged to see how they work within the world of the story.

I can't say whether My Struggle or "Babette's Feast" is better:  their engagements with the world and with the reader are profoundly, incomparably different.  But Woolf's concern for perspective gives me a way of thinking about what I value and what makes me a little crazy.  And who knows, after another hundred pages of Dinesen's almost oracular voice, I may need something very down to earth, like Michael Crummey's Sweetland

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The truth in life writing


I can't honestly contribute to the world-wide conversation we are having about the murder of the journalists, artists, and editors at Charlie Hebdo or say anything that hasn't already been said by the millions who marched in defense of free speech.  Except to say that the societies that are culturally rich, societies that create policies that seek inclusion and that strive to recognize the rights and gifts of everyone are societies where meaningful conversations are encouraged and allowed.  Only when we can say everything to one another, only when we can question everything, only when we feel that the wildest idea might have some merit, only where critique of the status quo is not silenced, can such societies grow and thrive.  Such conversations exempt only hate speech, because hate speech is not part of a conversation but an edict, an absolute position that the holder has no intention of examining or changing.

Beyond those words which might come from anyone defending free speech, I can only add something to one of the quieter corners of our human right to say what we need to say:  that when life writers make it their task to be as honest as they can be about the way their lives intersect with the world and ideas they are exploring, the reader becomes more human. This fall, I read three books of partly autobiographical essays with student and friend, Sonia Stanger:  Lena Dunham's Not That Kind of Girl, Leslie Jamison's The Empathy Exams, and Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby.  In the new year, I downloaded Karl Ove Knausgaard's idiosyncratic and popular My Struggle:  A Death in the Family to my iPad, finding myself as completely engaged as the other million readers seem to have been.  Knausgaard gives me a place to begin my thoughts about the effects of honesty in life writing.  In his early pages, he talks about deciding not to drink because when he does, he gives away too much of himself.  "I do not want anyone to get close to me, I do not want anyone to see me, and this is the way things have developed:  no one gets close and no one sees me.  This is what must have engraved itself in my face, this is what must have made it so stiff and mask-like and almost impossible to associate with myself whenever I happen to catch a glimpse of it in a shop window." 

Without any explanation, Knausgaard suddenly shifts to a description of a late Rembrandt self-portrait:  "All the facial detail is visible; all the traces life has left there are to be seen.  The face is furrowed, wrinkled, sagging, ravaged by time.  But the eyes are bright and, if not young, they somehow transcend the time that otherwise marks the face.  It is as though someone else is looking at us, from somewhere inside the face, where everything is different.  One can hardly be closer to another human soul."  Several things make this self-portrait different for Knausgaard:  one is that it was painted the year Rembrandt died.  But the other is that Rembrandt creates what I will call "another economy" in the Western philosophical penchant for privileging sight among all our senses, and for making the ability to see a source of power.  Knausgaard writes  "The difference between this painting and the others the late Rembrandt painted is the difference between seeing and being seen.  That is, in this picture he sees himself while also being seen."  Rembrandt occupies two positions in this painting.  As the painter, he has the power to see himself and the craftsmanship to represent what he sees.  But he is also making himself vulnerable, an object of the viewer's gaze, complete with a face that is "furrowed, wrinkled, sagging, ravaged by time."

The suddenness with which Knausgaard introduces this image tells me that Rembrandt's self-portrait is, in a way, the model for his autobiographical undertaking.  Unlike the social Knausgaard who has stopped drinking to keep people from knowing him more fully, the autobiographer Knausgaard, the writer who is driven to undertake a project that will produce 6 sizable volumes, is driven to be seen.  And see him we do.  He tells us about discovering that when his "dick" is erect, it is crooked and ugly:  he will never achieve the adolescent boy's goal in life:  to have sex as soon and as often as possible.  We learn about his dream to be a rock musician, which is the icon for the way he actually sees himself, which would represent his true self to the world; but at the same time, we are privy to his relentless practicing that produces nothing but mechanical sounds.  Clearly, his brain does not "speak music."  We follow his ambivalent desire to hang out with popular cliques, even while he mocks their popularity and refuses to conform in ways that could make him equally popular.  The effect of Knausgaard's willingness to be so honest and so vulnerable is twofold.  The honesty and vividness with which he writes tends, I suspect, to provoke the reader's memories of similar fears, attitudes, and embarrassments.  And once we have done that, almost sharing them with the Knausgaard that inhabits the page, we are more human.  We are a witness to his struggle, not a judging witness, but one that finds our own failures and weaknesses mirrored within the world he creates.

I know that Lena Dunham's Not that Kind of Girl (we're going from the sublime to the ridiculous here) has been ridiculed for being full of TMI.  The scare quotes around the word "learned" in the subtitle certainly bode ill.  And I seriously wanted to sit down and have a conversation with her about her pride in her inability to cope or function without melting down. I also wanted to suggest that if she was going to give the reader too much information, she could at least give us some analysis of that information, which she is clearly capable of.  (This is how Knausgaard's equally honest description of his teenage years differs from Dunham's:  it comes with implicit, if not explicit examination and analysis.)  I don't really need her diet plans.  But I imagine that her examination of a drugged night that ended in unprotected sex that was "terribly aggressive" resonates (with variations) with many women:  "I feel like there are fifty ways it's my fault.  I fantasized.  I took the big pill and the small pill, stuffed myself with substances to make being out in the world with people my own age a bit easier.  To lessen the space between me and everyone else.  I was hungry to be seen.  But I also know that at no moment did I consent to being handled that way.  I never gave him permission to be rough, to stick himself inside me without a barrier between us.  I never gave him permission.  In my deepest self I know this, and the knowledge has kept me from sinking."  Weirdly like Knausgaard, Dunham shares her vulnerability, her discomfort with social occasions she also craves, and her sane ability to draw a line--"I never gave him permission"--where there is no sand to mark it.

Leslie Jamison's award-winning and best-selling The Empathy Exams is a series of essays, some of them originally published elsewhere, that circle around the topic of empathy and some of empathy's cousins, like sympathy and understanding, or the distinction between true feeling and sentiment.  In the opening essay, she earns her street cred for writing about this topic:  as a poor creative writing student, she worked as a medical actor, someone who memorized the symptoms given them in a case study, but who wasn't particularly forthcoming with the young doctors-in-training.  After meeting with the student doctor, the actors graded them on their detective skills and on their empathy.  After playing these roles and having conversations with other actors, Jamison seems to have a clear line on empathy:  "Empathy isn't just remembering to say that must really be hard--it's figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all.  Empathy isn't just listening, it's asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to.  Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination.  Empathy requires knowing you know nothing....Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia--em (into) and pathos (feeling)--a penetration, a kind of travel.  It suggests you enter another person's pain as you'd enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query:  What grows where you are?  What are the laws?  What animals graze there?"

One of the principles of creative nonfiction is that the writer has two powerful tools:  his or her voice,  which creates and embodies the idiosyncratic and hopefully eye-catching persona, and her or his experience, which lends a note of authenticity.  Jamison makes full use of these, juxtaposing her work as a medical actor with her own "case studies" of her abortion and heart surgery that failed to fix her irregular heartbeat.  But it was her more subtle use of her presence in the world she was writing about that I found most skillful.  In a brief piece called "Indigenous to the Hood," she takes part in a "gang tour," which essentially involves a busload of tourists being driven around by former gang members (one hopes) to the neighbourhood that holds their stories.  As Jamison astutely puts it, "They've turned their experiences into stories for travelers.  They are curators and exhibits at once" (84).  While she knows that the people who take such tours "want the tour to give you back another version of yourself, you and everyone:  a more enlightened human" (89), she is rightly skeptical of such a project.  Does she really need to get on this bus to wax philosophical about what Susan Sontag and scholar Graham Huggen have to say about our search to make "exotic" experiences part of our world view, or could she simply have written this straight?  How many of us have similarly gone on a vacation, seeking an "authentic Italian/Hawaiian/Chinese experience," perhaps knowing we can't have it yet bamboozling ourselves into believing that we captured a small slice of it?  By representing her experience as a tourist, her inner tourist meets ours; her flawed but hopeful humanity bumps up right against ours in the inevitable line that always begins and ends our tourist experiences. Briefly, we make eye contact with the writer, admitting that yes, the line is very slow today.

My last example is Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby, a phrase she borrows from the letters of Georgia O'Keefe.  Of these three books of essays, hers is the most elegant, polished, thoughtful, thought-provoking:  just read it.  I could wax lyrical about the way she's structured essays that are independent into a book that has an integral shape and project; I could admire her poetic use of language or the wide reading that informs her thought.  But let me simply use a brief moment where her task as a daughter is our task as a reader.  Her relationship with her mother had been very difficult; we're given enough evidence to fully believe that.  But when it was clear her mother had Alzheimer's, she thinks of all the ways her mother undoubtedly gave care--giving baths, doing laundry, making meals--if not love.  She writes "It was in honor of that unremembered past that I took care of her, that and principle and compassion and solidarity with my brothers.  How could I not?"  If this sounds a bit clinical, a bit as if she's preparing for a polar expedition, it is, thought Solnit examines her own behaviour:  "I was distant.  I studied her, I pondered her.  My survival depended on mapping her landscape and finding my routes out of it.  We are all the heroes of our own stories, and one of the arts of perspective is to see yourself small on the stage of another's story, to see the vast expanse of the world that is not about you, and to see your power, to make your life, to make others, or break them, to tell stories rather than be told by them" (29).

Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah writes in his book Cosmopolitanism:  Ethics in a World of Strangers, that if we want to connect ethically with people whose experience and attitudes are profoundly different from ours, we need to share stories.  But as all these writers illustrate, one way or another--literally or by indirection--we also need to see and be seen.  We need, as Solnit suggests, the stories of others as a reminder of many things:  of the fact that we are not always the centre of the universe, and of the fact that complex circumstances place people in universes quite different from ours, universes that we need to be so attentive to that we can at least attempt to map them.  But in the face of others' honesty, we need to be seen, to put ourselves in the position of the object of the gaze--even if it's only our own gaze.  These writers' vulnerability demands that we also be vulnerable, even if only to our stronger, better, wiser selves.  That's how we become more human.