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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Reading like a writer 3


Sunday afternoon, I attended a RSO chamber concert at Government house which began with a wonderful piece for flute, cello, and piano called "Cothurnus" by Canadian composer Alice Ho.  Simon Fryer, who frequently offers insight into the music, told us that "cothurnus" refers to the shoes worn by Greek Tragedians, and compared the emotional points of a drama to the structure of Ho's music.  "It doesn't so much develop as unfold," he told us, and indeed, I experienced the music as a kind of an emotional/psychological soundscape, a series of moods or reactions that unfolded.

But Fryer's words rattled around in my brain at around 4 a.m. Monday morning when, unable to sleep, I finished reading Colm Toibin's Nora Webster, which I began as soon as I finished Murakami's Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.  The novels have much in common:  both begin, at least chronologically, with a trauma.  Tsukuru is shunned by his close adolescent friends while Nora has to see her husband through an incredibly painful death and then take over raising her four children alone.  (The book takes place in Ireland in the Sixties, when pain medication was withheld, even from a terminal patient, so that he or she wouldn't get addicted.  Fortunately, we know better now.)  Yet I can't help feeling that Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki develops while Nora Webster unfolds.  I may be splitting hairs, and if you have any insight, please help me out here.  Because I'm trying to figure out something about "plotting":  how sometimes a writer's creative vision requires a very purposeful structure, while other creative projects have more space in which to unfold. 

Maybe it would help to consider "development" vs. "unfolding" in musical terms first.  All art, Aristotle tells us, strives for unity.  In the 21st century, this is perhaps arguable, but let's go with it.  A narrative draws unity quite naturally out of a sequence of events that might be shaped by a beginning, middle, and end; or that might simply be related chronologically or causally.  Music, being abstract, has no meaning as narrative, so composers often draw unity out of repetition, or repetition plus variation, or repetition plus contrast.  I remember seeing a film of Leonard Bernstein when I was in high school where Bernstein explains the sonata-allegro form, a basic structure for European and North America symphonies, piano concertos, and chamber music.  Sitting at a grand piano, he sings--well, he kind of sings--a Beatles song.  Eight bars of tune.  Repeat those eight bars of tune.  Insert a contrasting tune and then wind it all up with the initial eight bars, repetition optional.  I think the song was "And I love her," and as I read the lyrics just now and hummed to myself, I thought "yup, that would do it."

Liszt, that bad boy of nineteenth-century music, introduced another way of structuring music that would come to be called "through composed."  Start a tune, take it as far as you can until you get bored or it peters out, and then start something new.  I'm not a Liszt fan, so I'd say that this was like a lot of his other innovations:  more effective in someone else's hands.  Liszt simply unfolds, and  you have to be interested enough to simply wander on with it.

Here's where my possible hair-splitting begins.  It seems to me that the plot of Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki develops.  Murakami achieves this a couple of ways.  Sixteen years after his shunning, Tsukuru's current girlfriend wants him to visit the friends who shunned him and to learn what happened.  Tsukuru has constructed a purposeful life for himself as someone who sensitively designs railway and subway stations in Tokyo, attempting to make the traveler's experience as simple and pleasant as possible, even in stations that see thousands of passengers a day.  He's created kluges around his wound, though he still feels that there is clearly something profoundly wrong with him that he himself can't see--a belief that has led him to have a series of rather non-committal relationships so that he's not deeply wounded when they end.  His new girlfriend, Sara, won't settle for this and thinks he needs to meet his past head on.  

This element of the novel is so human:  I doubt there are many of us without such a wound that only hurts sometimes, but that reminds us that we're really deeply flawed and only lucky sometimes that people don't see this.  Also human is the "reflection" that Tsukuru sees in his friends' eyes:  they tell him what he was like for them, how they loved him, how their mothers were his biggest fans because he was always polite and carefully dressed, how he gave them all a kind of ballast.  With each visit to a friend, the reader's knowledge of Tsukuru becomes deeper, along with Tsukuru's vision of himself.  And each visit is a kind of repetition, a kind of revisiting of the past.  

Murakami underlines this impression of return/repetition through motifs and tropes that come back again and again, sometimes developing.  Several times, Tsukuru describes his friends' rejection of him (which was not his fault, as we learn, but I'm not going to spoil the plot); he likens it to being thrown overboard into a dark, cold ocean.  A piece of music played by one of his friends--Liszt's "Le mal du pays" from his "Years of Pilgrimage Suite"--comes back again and again, and each time Tsukuru hears it, he is both taken back to his past but also reminded of his present "groundless sadness."  Besides thinking of himself as a "colorless" member of this group, he also thinks of himself as an empty vessel, telling the first friend he visits "I've always seen myself as an empty person, lacking color and identity.  Maybe that was my role in the group.  To be empty" (179).  But Murakami skillfully shifts our reading of the "empty vessel," so that toward the end of the novel, in the hands, as it were, of a young friend who had loved him deeply and who has become a potter, the concept of "empty vessel" changes significantly.  Repetition plus variation and contrast:  this novel develops.

Whereas Nora Webster, an equally compelling read, seems to unfold.  Nora's task is to find her way beyond her grief and to face a series of practical difficulties, such as the fact that she hadn't held a job in years.  Although memories of her husband's death come back constantly, her basic narrative task is to move beyond them.  Whereas Murakami's novel feels so carefully built (I only hinted at the many tropes and motifs that come back again and again)--appropriate for a novel about a character whose name means "maker,"--Toibin's skill is to depict Nora's growth through the absolutely everyday, often accidental events or through the pressing decisions she must make about her children..  The time she tells the office manager to get off her back.  The evening when she visits friends she's made in a musical club to listen to records.  Redecorating the back room and the front room, and painting a ceiling.  Figuring out how to help her oldest boy adjust to public school, to keep his long-term good in mind while finding a way to make the immediate disorientation bearable.  She's making it up as she goes along.  Here, perhaps, that powerful human project is grieving.  Toibin and Nora suggest it isn't really a series of purposeful, nameable stages, but that it's putting one foot in front of another until you look back and find that much has changed, though not your love or longing for the person who is gone.  And just as this project simply unfolds--you could take any number of routes through a life swamped by grief--so does the novel.  Each chapter feels absolutely casual, as if it's simply a "slice" of Nora's life; yet each chapter is a purposeful record of the everyday process of grieving and living.

"Ah," you are thinking about now, "she's still reading aesthetics."  Well, not at this moment, though I'm hoping that tomorrow I finish my chapter on Mrs Dalloway.  But what I admire about these two novels is that they are so quiet, like most of our lives.  The don't have that classic opening that I might describe as "Something Terrible Has Happened:  Whaddaya Gonna Do?"  At the same time, their structures are perfect for the human projects each novel envisions for the eponymous character.

And here is where I come round to Mrs Dalloway.  What good is the use of such beautiful structures?  Does the ordinary reader--the reader who simply reads out of a love of reading, not the reader who also loves reading but who is trying to learn how to write--notice these structures on a conscious level?  On a subliminal level?  Does this reader simply sense the rightness of the shape, of the language, of the rhythm of each sentence?  Does the author earn her or his sense of authority in the reader's eyes by creating something that's shapely, integral, appropriate to the task?


I have the sense that when we respond to the shaping, the making of a novel, we are simply aware of its rightness, its beauty.  "Wow!  That chapter was all about redecorating and painting ceilings.  But painting a ceiling put Nora in a lot of pain, and her doctor kind of went overboard with the pain medication, so Nora's sisters and aunt came in to help, and she overheard them talking about her and told them so--which healed a lot of rifts.  Beautiful!"  And I suspect that our sense of the novel's beauty--a beauty that goes beyond the people and events the novel describes and the wisdom and compassion the author brings to their treatment--stays with us like a beautiful moment in our own lives.

Monday, February 16, 2015

All that art can do: images of home and of the other

I've been reading aesthetics again.  I know, I know, it's a bad habit.  But I'm working on the Woolf book, on what I call an "interlude" that looks at how the poetics of the novel were thought about between the writing of Jacob's Room and Mrs Dalloway.  As Virginia Woolf and Percy Lubbock were locked in a battle about how the novel worked, they found themselves faced with two difficulties.  First, until Henry James wrote "The Art of Fiction" in 1884, not much thought had been given to the very notion that the novel had various ways of working.  A novel was...a novel.  Second, when you are suddenly made self-conscious about something (your own identity, for example), it is challenging to find language for something you've never seen or thought of before as having qualities that aren't obvious.  I wanted to give my readers--all of whom will be even more self-conscious about the novel than Woolf was, having lived through the postmodern crisis of literature--a sense of what this lack of words was like.  

So I turned to Roger Fry, the painter and art historian who was also a mentor to Woolf.  Fortunately, J.B. Bullen has put together a selection of materials written by Fry and other artists and critics during the period between the first and second Post-Impressionist exhibitions Fry organized at the Grafton Galleries in 1910 and 1912.  These two exhibitions were a watershed for British art and shocked Britons because the art Fry hung with such enthusiasm and glee didn't try to replicate the world as exactly as the painter's craft would allow it to do.  In England, until this exhibition, the quality of a painting was determined by the artist's skill at representation.  What, then, were they to make of Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, and Kandinsky?  In about eight essays written for magazines over these three years, Roger Fry struggled to find the words that will describe what he loves and admires about the work of the continental Modernist painters.

Thinking about Woolf's struggle to understand "the art of the novel," and Fry's enthusiasm for Post-Impressionism and abstraction lead me to think about all the things art can do, and all the things we hope and expect that art will do.  On the back of one of those cards you find in Walrus urging you to subscribe (which I already do), I made a partial list, at the top of which was "moves us to joy or tears."  If art does nothing else, its capacity to draw a connection between the human experience and powerful feeling, so that our own emotions get little dress rehearsals or wake-up calls from time to time, is justification enough for its existence.  Next on my list was "it surprises us."  It keeps hopeful playfulness alive in the world; its inventiveness is a corollary for every kind of innovation and creation--the very habits of mind we need for solving practical and social problems   Then "world/critique."  Art offers us a critique of the world as it is, or offers us a perspective on our world seen from elsewhere.  It offers us utopias and dystopias.  It offers us choice; it makes promises; it foresees disasters.

But then, because I had recently been to the Wilf Perreault exhibition at the MacKenzie Art Gallery, I'd thought about how art reflects on home, how it bring home into focus, how it might give us a surprising, unexpected view of home, helping us to see again what we take for granted.  Such art is sometimes simply a prompt to engage with the visual world that surrounds us daily and that we take for granted.  As it happens, I went to this exhibition three times, each time with someone different.  This was not simply because Perreault's work is realistic and comforting, which it is, though I'm equally at home in Mark Rothko's abstraction.  I think my motive was almost anthropological:  what did Bill, Katherine, and Veronica think of the work?  Would the conversations around me change, or would they be much the same as they were the last time?

During my three visits, however, I took part in variations on the same two-part conversation--one which I took part in with  my companion and also overheard taking place all over the rooms.  First, there's the response to Perreault's painstaking technique, his affection for everything he finds in his beloved back lanes, from an empty potato chip package to a dandelion, from trees just changing colour to the complex reflections in the puddles.  His love of the community and city where he lives is translated into a technique that expresses his sense of wonder and evokes it in us.  The second part of the conversation involved people's attempts to figure out where the paintings are "taken" from, to identify the neighbourhood, the lane, the upstairs window that provides the perspective.  (In many of these, the Cathedral helps to orient you.)  Veronica, rather in love with her iPhone and with Google Maps and Google Earth, managed to help us to locate the vantage point of a couple of paintings that I had thought that were compilations.  But she was not the only one who tried to guess the street or the lane.  It's clear that we take delight in seeing ourselves, our communities, our very own land- or city-scapes on gallery walls.  Besides urging us to look more closely, the painter's attention to the details of our very own worlds--and seeing them on gallery walls--gives our lives a kind of dignity.

Not every artist or work of art does everything we need art to do.  That's part of the mystery and the wonder of art--that we can recognize that vastly different things  nevertheless share something integral.  So my sense that art (as a practice, not as individual works) fails us if it only functions as a kind of appreciative, focusing mirror should not be taken as a criticism of Perreault.  Rather, it comes out of reading the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who argues so convincingly that one of our human tasks--our ethical tasks, though he will not use that word--is to understand "the other."  Levinas's definition of the other does not emphasize the viewer's unfamiliarity with another individual's ethnicity or history.  As a phenomenologist, he begins with his own experience being in a concentration camp during World War II, and concludes that there were two ways of being, two choices people could make:  for totality or transcendence.  The war taught him too well what totality was like:  during times of war each individual is part of the State's war effort, and little more:  a cog in a wheel, a means to an end.  I think we can see some element of totality in our commitment of consumerism or even our electronic devices:  we are part of someone else's plan for our life.  We also create totality in those moments when we see other people in our world primarily as means to an end, not as individuals whom we need to understand on their own terms.

For Levinas, the other is not someone of a different gender or ethnicity, but simply someone whose gesture or facial expression or words of greeting attempt to open a conversation about what we value and how we live.  Our curiosity about the other, our attempts to keep the conversation going, to hear the other's words move us toward transcendence.  Quite simply, the experience makes our world larger, richer, more complex.  

Some art effects this for us, or provides a dress rehearsal for moments when we have the chance to partake in such a conversation.  On Friday, I was in Saskatoon for the Saskatchewan Book Awards Shortlist Announcement, and had a wonderful chance to talk with writers and publishers about their experiences writing and publishing.  But before I left town, I stopped in at McNally Robinson and bought Haruki Murakami's new novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.  I finished it this afternoon and promise that I will write about it more fully once I have re-read it.  In some ways, Murakami provides the conventional experience of the other.  Tsukuru is Japanese, male, an engineer who designs train stations.  Yet in some ways, he is very much like each one of us, insofar as he comes to recognize that his life is a pilgrimage, a process of wandering, being lost, discovering, finding once again what is important.  What is different is how he negotiates the challenges of his own particular life, and what his challenges tell me about my own.  I suppose that I'm saying that as I read this novel I was having a Levinasian conversation with Tsukuru and Murakami, and that my world is made, in some oddly ethical way, more transcendent for the experience.

We ask art to do a lot for us:  prompt us to feel, keep inventiveness and play alive, provide a space of critique, reflect our homes and our lives while giving us access to lives and experiences that are entirely different.  Virginia Woolf believed that readers, viewers, and audiences kept art alive and lively by making demands that somehow became part of the air the alert artist breathed,  making art better.  So it's important for us not to stop expecting art to play a crucial role in our private lives and in the wider culture:  those expectations make a difference.