Sunday, January 12, 2014

Ritual and Repetition

I still remember the rather startling experience, probably twenty years ago, of deciding to put the newly-published novel, The English Patient, on the course outline for my Canadian Literature honours/graduate class, beginning to re-read the novel, and stopping suddenly to say out loud to one of my black cats "I have no idea what Ondaatje is doing here,"and turning back to the beginning.  I had read the novel when it came out and, like everyone else had been stunned by the powerful, evocative story, the gorgeously-imagined characters, and by the writing. My history with Ondaatje went back more years than that, when I gave a well-received conference paper on Coming Through Slaughter--which is "high postmodernism" if it ever existed.  Surely I'd be able to figure out how to teach The English Patient.  After re-reading about forty pages, I wasn't so sure.

Fortunately, when I came to the U of R English Department a couple of years earlier, I was recruited by the department's theory guru, Ray Mise, to meet once a month, on a Sunday afternoon, with the other theory-heads.  The supervisor for my thesis, Evelyn Hinz, was a hard-core Jungian and a devotee of myth criticism, which suited the Callisto project I had in mind.  (You also have to understand that I told Veronica stories from the Greek and Roman myths to entertain her while I washed her very long hair, so Evelyn's approach fit well with my enthusiasms.)  But I learned little about other kinds of structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, or narratology in my time at the University of Manitoba.  I had bought a book I'd serendipitously seen in the U of M bookstore--Stanzel's Theory of Narrative, but I didn't know about Prince or Chatwin or James Phelan or Mieke Bal.  Ray introduced me to these writers.  Now you can rightly complain that narratologists go in for arcane vocabulary of the kind that splits hairs (or at least narration), but sometimes their in their enthusiasm to see and then define the most subtle strategies of narrators, they coined a term that helped readers to see what writers were doing.  Trying to get ready to teach The English Patient in several weeks' time, I was rescued by one of these terms:  "the iterative."

Narratologists use words like "prolepsis" for flash-forwards; "analepsis" for flash-backs, and "the iterative" for things that the characters do over and over.  These might be characteristic gestures or habits or obsession; things they do over and over to comfort or orient themselves; things that they do as professionals; things they do as lovers or parents:  stroke a face, fiddle with keys, analyze a skeleton or a passage of literature.  The iterative might be used to describe a typical day at work for one of the characters, or a tried-and-true way of coping with a lover's anxiety or a way of putting a child to sleep night after night.  The iterative allows the writer to describe once, and fully, something the character does over and over again.

When I began to re-read The English Patient, I could see what Ondaatje was doing:  describing the things that Hana, Almasy, Kip, and Carravaggio did over and over to comfort and orient themselves in a Europe that has come to a tense and sudden halt, having ripped lives and countries apart.  So I was not surprised, exactly, to find so much of the iterative in Anil's Ghost, which is one of the six Canadian novels written between 2000 and 2011 that I'm teaching this term.  I was surprised to notice it in February, and in The Winter Vault, and this has forced me to see how often this style of narration comes out of narratives that deal with trauma--heading straight into it or skirting around it.  

At a wonderful writers' workshop I attended this fall, the leader suggested that stories should start as close to the conflict or crisis as possible.  This "rule" panicked me for several weeks, until I simply decided to put the advice in my pocket, write a draft of Soul Weather, put it away while I finished another project, and then tried to see what form this narrative that I was finding should take.  But I've come to realize that even fairly tense novels like Anil's Ghost and February don't follow this advice.  Many of you commented last week that you and other readers in your lives had loved February, so let me use that as my primary example.  Helen loses her husband in the sinking of the Ocean Ranger in 1982, yet the novel starts in 2008 as she watches a workman sharpen her grandson's skates.  Cal's death is certainly the event that shapes Helen's and John's lives profoundly, yet we've begun emotionally about as far away from it as possible.  Moore's section headings always orient us, but they also allow her to swing from the eighties to 2008 and back again with rapidity and ease.  Why?  If we are following a widow's path as she attempts to come to terms with an unnecessary and brutal loss, why don't we get a tidy narrative through-line from Helen's certainty that Cal is dead to the moment when Helen achieves "closure."

How I hate that word.  It's a journalist's strategy for moving on to the rest of the day's news or for dropping the story suddenly in order to make room for more contemporary disasters and dramas that will grab a viewer's attention by the throat. But the iterative is something else.  It's the seasons of a garden, each stitch in a cowl, the making of quilts or meals, a day's work or labour. It's what we live inside most of the time.  I've been aware of it because as I've been trying to get ready for the new term, I've also been working on Veronica's quilt, cutting tiny pieces and putting them back together again--surely a metaphor for daily life if there ever was one.  The iterative, with its familiar repetitiveness, allows us to nestle or shrug or cocoon or struggle familiarly with our daily lives, giving our minds space between the rows of knitting or the chopping of vegetables and their time on the stove, to consider.  Just for a moment.  Not the painful meditation, but a brief meeting of now and then.  The truth is that we don't grieve for a while, have an epiphany, and then get over whatever loss we are grieving.  Rather, we keep putting one foot in front of another, feeding children and pets, showing up at work, mowing the lawn, while life goes on around us, as if we are stones in a stream (an image that I've stolen from W.B. Yeats's "Easter 1916").  It's a wonderfully honest way of writing a novel, even if it doesn't heighten the tension for the reader.  Writers who use the iterative trust their voices and their characters to pull us into a world where grief and loss and trauma don't get closure, but simply become impearled in our daily lives, part of who we are and will always be.


  1. "The truth is that we don't grieve for a while, have an epiphany, and then get over whatever loss we are grieving. Rather, we keep putting one foot in front of another..." Yes. Exactly that, Kathleen. Thank you.

  2. So glad you mentioned "Winter Vault" in your blog. It is one of my all time favourite books. I never knew the word iterative before, so thanks for that. Winter Vault is an excellent example of iterative.
    Grieving falls into those spaces created by knitting or weeding the garden, those daily rituals, but many other thinkings do also. I believe these are the spaces we need to sort our lives -- be it work, relationships, or grief.