Saturday, January 20, 2018

open doors, closed doors

You can spend a lifetime pounding closed doors that are determined to stay shut. Perhaps these doors suggest intimacies refused us, or professional opportunities we cannot access.  Maybe, we reason, if we knock long enough, we might be granted admission. But what about open doors? Why don't we simply walk through those?

One of the things I like best about facilitating book clubs, is that I get to choose books I'd like to discuss with other people.  Next month, at my And The Winner Is book club, which meets at Dolley Madison Library in McLean (first Thursday every month at 1:00) - we'll be discussing Magda Szabo's The Door - a novel I've shared with friends for more than a year. It's one of the best I've read in the last several years.

Magda Szabo was an important Hungarian intellectual and this autobiographical novel was recently translated by Len Rix for The New York Review of Books imprint.  It concerns the relationship between the narrator (Szabo herself, one assumes) and housekeeper Emerence - who won’t wash just anyone’s dirty linen. When Magda hires her, she gets the message that it is really Emerence who is interviewing her

Emerence is of peasant stock. She's immaculate, tireless and strong as an ox. But while Magda is a writer, married to an academic and dedicated to the life of the mind, Emerence is a more physical person. She never reads. In fact she scorns the life of the mind.

One comes to believe that Emerence may not be entirely sane. But that doesn't make her any less a force of nature or pillar of the community.  There are those who use brooms, she maintains, and those who don't, and as far as she's concerned, Magda knows nothing about real life, spending all her time pecking away at a typewriter, spouting out words.  Magda is a churchgoer, but Emerence hates religion. She doesn't believe in God. Nor does she trust lawyers or politicians. Yet nobody could have a stronger moral compass than Emerence. 

It is telling that Magda is named only once in the novel - and that, at a pivotal moment when Emerence uses a term of endearment for her, that only her parents ever used before.  It is at an important turning point towards the end of the book, when Magda lies in order to save Emerence's life.  It is also telling that Magda's husband is always just  my husband, unlike the local neighborhood characters, and friends of Emerence, who populate the book.  This device underscores the enormous power that Emerence exerts - for she is the subject of this novel. She is its central figure.

But the incompatibility between Emerence and Magda is the tension that drives this narrative.  The fierce loyalty that grows between them is matched only by their deep incomprehension of one another. It is as though they speak different languages. And yet they come to love each other - even though one gets the sense that Emerence never truly admires Magda. Instead she thinks of her as a child.  

 The tragic flaw which drives Emerence towards the end, is certainly her pride, while in the face of Emerence, Magda, for all her national prestige and acclaim, lacks certainty. I'm fascinated by the strength of Emerence's character and the conviction, the utter lack of self doubt which makes her unforgettable. 

 The door of the title - the door which separates Emerence from Magda, is one that nobody can or ever should enter.  When that door is finally broken down, Magda believes that she's killed Emerence, even though she was really trying to save her. 

All this makes me ponder how it is often those doors we try to break down that matter to us most. As in Bluebeard's Castle it is the forbidden door that draws us.  When you admire somebody whose sense of the world is entirely different from yours, you want to understand; you want to bridge that gap.  Which is why the exploration of friction between these two disparate personalities is so compelling.  

I've noticed that what I most enjoy in my reading is proximity to the other. I've also noticed that I'm often drawn to books in translation. Maybe closeness to something entirely different from myself stimulates me  and makes me feel I can grow. It also cannot be coincidence that my husband Ben and I spent twenty-five years in the US Foreign Service, living in different cultures and speaking different languages.

 Going through open doors is great. How easy that is! How effortless! How right!  If you can find those open doors, good for you. Life will be a lot more harmonious.  But it's often those closed doors that provoke and confound us, and seem to hold such promise. It's the things we can never quite understand, which we feel compelled to explore.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

reading to escape and to cope

The phones in our bookstore rang off the hook all week.  Everybody wanted a copy of Fire and Fury and when we ran out, and couldn't tell customers when the next shipment would arrive, some people became quite agitated.

I won't be reading Fire and Fury because I've been taking a break from Donald Trump. Instead of listening to the news on my way to and from work, I've been listening (for the second time) to Michael Sheen reading The Book of Dust by Phillip Pullman.  This recording is a balm in Gilead.  It has accompanied me, stimulated, delighted and nourished me as no other book has for years.

The main character is Malcolm Polstead, an eleven year old boy who owns a canoe called La Belle Sauvage. He works at The Trout in Wolvercote across Port Meadow in Oxford.  But when epic floods threaten to destroy the world, Malcolm must take baby Lyra into his custody, and protect her from those who want to thwart her destiny.  Readers familiar with The Golden Compass already know Lyra. But in this novel, she's just a baby.

The three volumes of His Dark Materials which came out at the turn of the 21st century, enthralled readers of all ages. I read them with my children, at my father-in-law's recommendation - and afterwards found myself going back to Milton's Paradise Lost - a work I'd found excruciatingly boring when assigned it as an undergrad.  But after Phillip Pullman,  reading Milton seemed newly relevant.

The Book of Dust is extraordinary. Like all good allegories, it lifts you up and informs you, while you are mostly aware of nothing so much as the marvelous story.  Also, perhaps because of the times we're living through now, this book feels more poignant than the previous ones.

As I listen to Michael Sheen's narration,  I'm reminded of the restorative properties of language. Pullman's command of language, his sensitive use of light and shade, his tender domestic details offsetting his grand sweeps, the rhythm of his sentences, the ways he balances commonplace with  profound, is nothing short of transporting.  And Michael Sheen makes charming and extraordinary choices with Pullman's characters, which elucidate the narrative.

I should also add that the cozy old fashioned feeling of the alternate Oxford Pullman has created, makes the entire experience of reading, or listening to this book, enormously reassuring.  But since in the alternate Oxford, everybody has a daemon, in the form of a bird or an animal, this Oxford is also otherworldly. Additionally, there are alethiometers - beautiful compass like instruments kept in libraries round the world. The ability to read these instruments can change everything.

Listening to this book has been a beautiful escape.  But on another level, it's also been a way of grappling with existential threats,  with the imperative to challenge those who speak against truth, with the ultimate power that truth has over falsehood.

We've been so worn down by the mucky, inarticulate tone set by Donald Trump. It seems to have contaminated society at its core.   But The Book of Dust reminds me that language can restore us, and that a wide vocabulary, not to mention the ability to put things into cultural and classical context, is important. If we can articulate ideas in nuanced ways, we can understand them in their complexity. Allegory is an important way of articulating universal truths.  The Book of Dust tunes us in to a higher frequency.  It might even help us ride this whole thing out.  I suggest that instead of Fire and Fury, get yourself a copy of The Book of Dust!

Thursday, January 4, 2018

being alone in our work

Karl Ove Knausgaard says that when he's writing he isn't thinking about readers, and I believe it.  It's also extraordinary that he has so many readers as a result.  Also, having typed the words - he isn't thinking of readers, I find myself stumped.   How am I going to finish this blog post!

Actually, I started writing this because I was reflecting on journal writing - and writing by hand, and how different that is from typing or composing on a computer.  When you write on a computer, you see the words in neat print, at a remove.  But when you sit with a pen and paper, the words flow differently. Perhaps they get down more slowly and your mind appears to move ahead of them. But you are more alone. There is a physical link between your pen, paper and your thoughts.

I have noticed that passages written in a notebook can find themselves almost unchanged,  in a finished piece of my published writing.  This tells me that I am more at home, more honest perhaps, when writing by hand than when writing at the computer. The urge to delete a line and recompose as you go along is encouraged by the editor sitting on my shoulder when I compose at a computer.

So why do I mostly write at the computer?  I love writing in journals, especially with a good pen.  Could it be that when writing for no one but yourself- or for you to read at a later date, you produce the best kind of writing for other people? You still have to practice, of course; that goes without saying. And a lot of what you scribble in a journal is rubbish. But if you do practice, and you practice a lot, maybe 1% of what comes out in honest moments alone with the page will be the best work you produce.

I'll try to write the first draft of my next book exclusively by hand. I'm going to write without looking back - without editing until later - even without a clear idea of plot or character.  At least... at first! I heard Jennifer Egan speaking about her writing process last month at Politics and Prose and evidently this is how she works. It takes so much trust. 

Being alone with your work.  Being honest. Not thinking of it as 'work' per se - but simply trusting the practice. 

I used to do a private writing exercise with my students - an exercise in Peter Elbow's A Community of Writers. It was a kind of zen practice and my students enjoyed it.  You start with the assumption that nobody is going to read this piece of writing but yourself.

The exercise goes through various stages, the instructor interrupting and redirecting occasionally - like shifting poses in a yoga meditation.  Afterwards I would ask my students if they thought what they'd produced was better or worse than something composed more traditionally, or for other people to read.  It's interesting to see what you leave out when writing for other people - and what you include. Also what you leave out or include when writing privately, for yourself.

The work has a rawness to it when it's private, and the essence is closer to the bone.
Which brings me back to Karl Ove Knausgaard.  Although his sentences are not always well crafted, the rawness and honesty is what we respond to as readers.  The filter is off and that makes his writing irresistible.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

I'm not who I think



A friend who is considering retirement expressed concern the other day that she might not know who she was anymore, once she gave up teaching. "But I don't see you as a teacher," I said. "I see you as my dear bohemian friend who travels and lives an extraordinary life, and who has such a great sense of home which we are thrilled to be invited to." She laughed.

I realized then, that she doesn't see me as a writer.  She knows I am one - but that's not what she values about me.  But I think I am a writer.  Also a wife and a mother. And I believe these things are where I direct my energy. What if I changed the way I thought of my identity?  Would it change how others see me?

We played a little game at the bookstore this holiday season.  There was a binder in the break room, with a page for every participant - and we all wrote compliments to each other as a kind of holiday gift.

I enjoyed leaving compliments for my fellow booksellers.  But I didn't realize how lovely it would be to read the page they'd written for me.  People said I was funny, a pleasure to work with, passionate and well read - all sorts of things which made me smile.  But none of them said I was a good writer! Or wife! Or mother - the things which identify me to myself.

Which brings me to another observation: When we write, and carefully craft our stories, and it seems to take a lot of time and care, we hope that this is our best work, that others will value it as we do. But often they don't. It was just us, learning the craft.

On the other hand, having done all that hard work, we may sometimes turn our attention to something else and dash off a few words without much thought - almost, it seems, without effort -and those pieces are often the ones that resonate most for other people.

Of course, many writers have to save up a subject until they are seasoned enough to write about it. Until they have done all the hard work of honing their craft.  George Saunders saved the subject of Lincoln in the Bardo until he was ready to write it.  When he finally did, he wrote it in a new kind of form, all his own.  That book includes extraordinary layers of human experience, pathos, humor, tragedy, grandeur, absurdity. I'm sure Saunders was used to thinking of himself as a short story writer.  But now he's also a novelist - and what a novelist.
 
There's a wonderful passage in Lincoln in the Bardo about two spirits stuck in an endless loop of flattery.  Professor Edmund Bloomer is obsessed with his brilliant unpublished tomes, while Mr Lawrence T Decroix feels he was never recognized for the excellence of his pickles - the best in the nation at the time.  "Strange isn't it?" says Mr Decroix, "To have dedicated one's life to a certain venture, neglecting other aspects of one's life, only to have that venture, in the end, amount to nothing at all, the products of one's labors utterly forgotten?"

Now their only consolation is that they can flatter each other, for eternity - and here they are stuck! They cannot move on.

It's good to remind ourselves that the things we struggle to achieve and where we focus our energies,  may not bear the fruit we expect, but they do give off a kind of essence of which we might be unaware.  It is the perfume of our souls. And that is who we are to other people.