Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Five deer and the edge of disaster

On Tuesday evening I went for a walk and was rewarded with the company of five deer:  two does a and three fawns.  There are two sides of the road here.  One side is "safe," that is, there are woods and mountain.  The other side, where the Banff Centre is, is more settled.  The fawns were a little skittish when they were on the settled side and at one point raced and bounded back to the safe side, bleating away like little goats when their mothers wouldn't come.  Finally they ambled across the road again to join their mothers.  Countless people stopped their cars, got out and snapped a couple of pictures, got back in their cars, and raced away.  I stayed about half an hour watching them; so I got to hear the bleating and got to watch the fawns' awkward grace as they pronked and scallopped over the road.  The lady at the top of the page wasn't more than two metres from me when I took the photograph.

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?

1 comment:

  1. You're not old-fashioned. You understand that there is a life story in the small details of everyday life that don't attract much notice. You're wise.
    But novels and television seem to require high drama and conflict to hold readers' and viewers' interest. Sure it makes sense, but I still find that realistic stories are more helpful to me because I relate to them better, see my own life in them, can learn something useful sometimes.