Monday, July 25, 2011

Weather and Reading

When I returned home from St. Peter's Abbey, I came back to some of the hottest, muggiest days Regina has seen this summer.  The heat called, I felt, for a good mystery:  a book that would relentlessly take my mind off the heavy stifling heat.  Fortunately, I found a copy of Peter Robinson's latest Inspector Banks mystery, Bad Boy.  Robinson, though a Yorkshireman (and he sets his novels in a satisfyingly rainy and damp Yorkshire:  wonderful reading for a hot day), took an English Ph.D. at York University in Toronto and is one of the most literate mystery writers I've read.  Sometimes, as in In a Dry Season, with its references to T. S. Eliot, that literariness makes its way into his novels through their awareness of the literary tradition they join.  Bad Boy, though, is a study in point of view.  It has one of Robinson's less twisting plots; rather the narrative interest comes from our seeing the events from the points of view of different characters, making the novel more human and less of a cold and calculating whodunit.  Since the events flow from the various ways a "bad boy" is seen and experienced by a cast of characters ranging from the Chief Inspector Banks to his daughter, a young woman who might have many reasons for finding a bad boy attractive, to a major drug dealer, the focus on point of view was doubly satisfying.  The novel kept me suitably distracted until the weather broke. 

The milder days left me hungry, I admit, for something more substantial, but also something that wouldn't be (like Proust--I'm well into Volume II) a major investment of time.  I decided to re-read John Banville's Booker Prize winner, The Sea.  Where reading for the plot was exactly what I wanted for hot lethargic weather, reading carefully for description, language, the repeated motifs that reveal Banville's purpose was perfect for moderate weather.  In fact, re-reading The Sea made me realize what a disadvantage the need to read for the plot can be.  On the first reading,  you are preoccupied by the need to connect three main layers of narrative.  At the present moment, Max, a self-described dilettante writing and not writing a book on the painter Bonnard and whose wife has just died, has decided to spend his grieving time in a seaside community he and his parents visited while he was in his early adolescence.  During his youthful time by the sea, which comprises a second layer of the narrative, he inveigles his way into the lives of the inaptly named Graces.  While he was initially attracted by the voluptuous Mrs. Grace, young Chloe, twin of the mute Myles, soon gets his hormone-primed attention.  At the same time, as a man who is grieving, his narrative returns both to his courtship of his wife and of the final year of her life as she slowly dies of cancer.  Banville's prose is precise and evocative, leading the first-time reader to assume there's a reason why these three strands of narrative meet here--and of course there is.  But the narrative structure is only half the story, as it were.  A second, slower reading allows you to be aware of Max's pantheon, particularly the cruel gods of his childhood, gods that in a whole variety of ways conspire to create both a world and a character who are morally a little self-absorbed.  (Ironically, that careful wording was an effort not to give away the plot.)  We can also see the way Max's interest in Bonnard leads him to some perhaps self-deluding and certainly comforting thoughts about the way various perspectives might have aesthetic (but perhaps not moral) validity.

Narratologists, who have created an incredibly complex and arcane vocabulary (beginning with the term "narratologist"), talk in equally arcane ways about the relationship between the amount of time an event would have taken to occur and the amount of time it's given in the text.  Most simply and usefully, this leads them to talk about the distinction between summary (an event that takes three days is summarized in a single sentence) and scene, where a narrator's recall of an event might actually take longer than the original because the narrator spends time recalling, reflecting, considering the implications or possible interpretations of words or actions.  Banville is the master of the scene:  we see and smell the moments, the film is slowed down enough so that a seemingly casual gesture turns out to be filled with ramifications for characters' lives.   He manages to reveal in The Sea the way characters' desires invest seemingly offhand acts with moral weight.  He is also willing to let a scene go on for a surprising length of time just so that we can feel that precise camber of experience Max is having.  He taught me that sometimes a scene doesn't need to have a narrative purpose, as long as it bring the characters and the readers closer together.

Wild little Sheba seems to love my summer reading.  No matter where she is, she hears me getting into bed for my evening reading and arrives immediately.  As I slouch down into my pillows, she stretches out between my waist and my throat, often reaching her paws across my shoulder and putting her chin on them to watch me read.  She manages to relax every bone and to simply settle with me into this other world.  I certainly can't read her mind, but perhaps she can read mine; perhaps this is her way of reading by proxy.

The kinds of perfect days we had later last week leave me feeling inexplicably sad when I'm not overwhelmed by joy.  I've never managed to fully explain this to anyone, but let me try once more.  The obverse side of their perfection is their transitoriness; the very nature of their perfection is temporary, evanescent. They need, then, the perfect book to create a conversation with them, to measure them out in a way that celebrates their transitoriness.  Perhaps the right book, particularly evocative books like The Sea, helps me to be attentive to an experience that might otherwise melt into thin air.

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