Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Archive for February, 2011

So Long, See You Tomorrow – William Maxwell

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on February 23, 2011

Life is, in itself and forever, shipwreck —  Jose Ortega Y Gasset

If there is one generalisation that one can make of American literature it is that nine out of ten times the concerns that are dealt with in it are unfailingly and narrowly American. Maybe it is this relentless inward focus that endows American literature with power, depth and greatness that makes it attractive and secures itself a unique place in world literature. This thought struck me while I was reading William Maxwell’s wonderfully written short novel “So Long, See You Tomorrow

Set in 1920s in small town Lincon in Iowa, the book deals with the gradual but complete destruction and falling apart of two close families on account of infidelity and the entire episode being recalled to memory by the narrator after approximately five decades and who as a boy, is close to one of the children in the affected family. Through brilliant brush strokes of haunting, mature, serene and wonderfully balanced prose, Maxwell unravels the sad and harrowing destinies of the Wilson and Smith families and in the process tells a moving tale of ruin with pastoral America as the backdrop. At another level this is also a personal story of the narrator’s growing up which is drenched in a deep sense of loss of relationships and longing for the usualness associated with a routine life. In telling the story as a first person memory recall, Maxwell makes an extremely important point on the unreliability of memory in portraying truth for at one place the narrator says

What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory – meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion – is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually  in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about past we lie with every breath we draw

Personally, I think this aspect of fallibility of memory has serious implications for the veracity associated with swathes of autobiographical writing and its ability to depict the truth of an individuals’ past accurately

There is an endearing refinedness to Maxwell’s prose which is attributable to the deep observations and thoughts that he so brilliantly outlines. Consider the following two observations:

I don’t know what she looked like. Most farm women of her age were reduced by hard work and frequent child bearing to a common denominator of plainness… I fancy that this was true of Llyod Wilson’s wife and that it was not true of Cletuse’s mother, but there is no warrant for my thinking this, and the simple truth is that though so much is made of the woman’s beauty in love stories, passion does not require it. Plato’s idea that lovers were originally one person, the two parts having become separated and desiring to be joined, is as good an explanation as any for what cannot in the mind of an outsider ever be convincingly accounted for“…………….. or………….

What Clarence Smith sees as he helps his wife into the front seat of the buggy after church is a woman who in the sight of God is his lawfully wedded wife and owes him love, honor and obedience. Other people, with nothing at stake, see that there is a look of sadness about her, as if she lives too much in the past or perhaps expects more of life than is reasonable

In the context of the overall novel, insights like these and many others illuminate the motives and mental makeup of the key characters extremely well and impart a grandness and weight to the narrative flow

In an interview given to Paris Review magazine, Maxwell admits to struggling while writing this novel especially with the mechanics of intertwining two parallel stories i.e. of the narrator and his growing up in the twenties of America and the fortunes of the Wilson and Smith families. The object which helped Maxwell link these two independent trajectories is the sculpture “Palace at 4 a.m” (on display in the Museum of Modern). In the novel a similar house is built by the narrator’s father and it is while playing in this semi finished construction that the narrator meets Cletus Smith whose family is involved in the tragedy. Maxwell uses this association between two young  boys as pivot to ascribe legitimacy for the narrator pry into the lives of the Wilsons and the Smiths and tell the readers the sad happenings. To me, this strange ability of a physical object to trigger a link between two different narrative threads to produce a deeply moving and powerful tale is proof of something divine about the craft of writing. Maxwell also explains that he wanted to ensure that the first-person narrator had to be a character and not just a narrative device and he succeeds wonderfully well on this front

 Overall, “So Long, See You Tomorrow” is a wonderful, deep, disturbing and extremely satisfying read. It will be one of the finest books that I have read – ever

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Why I read

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on February 18, 2011

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read — Groucho Marx

Reading is my form of prayer. For me it borders on a sacred activity and allows me to connect to humanity in a way no other activity, pastime or hobby allows. The feeling of oneness with the wider world is the most spiritual feeling that one can have and reading allows me to get there. Unfailingly, I experience a minor epiphany of sorts of this realisation of oneness at the conclusion of reading of a good novel, short story, play or a poem and this is very similar to the outcome of deep meditation. It is joyous, calming and deeply satisfying. That I would like to experience this feeling again and again is what drives me to reading

Theoritically, the cascade of possible directions that our life can take are infinite. Yet we travel in one single direction which at the end can be summed up as our life or our destiny. The uninitiatied alternate directions are lost for us for ever. Fiction has a unique power to adumbrate these alternate directions and roads not travelled with an uncanny vividness.These vicarious experiences are extremely valuable in keeping us civilized and kindle in us a hunger for human attributes that are aspirational and elevating. It is an inescapable truth that we live our lives in certain loosely defined but concrete boundaries (societal and workplace rules and responsibilities that come with our place in the society) and in that sense we are limited or confined. Fiction allows us to become aware of the areas where we can stretch these boundaries. In fiction one has an opportunity to peep into someone else’s life and see what happens to them and how they address it. In this context, all good fiction has something transformational and directional to offer us

It is a deeply held belief of mine that we are what we are due to the unrequited contribution and kindness of strangers who we come across in our lives. We come across them at various stages of our lives and in various situations. In a sense writers belong to the category of these kind strangers. Their motives of writing fiction can range from the most egotist to the most generous, yet once their output is out in the open it is for everybody’s benefit. Learning to read with an open heart and mind is a true mark of accepting this generosity with humility and that in itself is a sign of a refined human being

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Writers On Writing – Part 3

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on February 10, 2011

The more I read, the more I am realising how hard it is to be a writer. The act of writing is not just divine inspiration alone, which of course it is, but it is also about real hardwork. Continuous working and reworking on words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters till one drops down with exhuastion, that seems to be the bulk of writing about. Here are some wonderful excerpts on the craft, form and views on the mechanics of writing from some of the well known contemporary writers. (All extracts are from interviews given by these writers to Paris Review magazine)

Thornton Wilder
I forget which of the great sonneteers said: “One line in the fourteen comes from the ceiling; the others have to be adjusted around it.” Well, likewise there are passages in every novel whose first writing is pretty much the last. But it’s the joint and cement, between those spontaneous passages, that take a great deal of rewriting

Interviewer
Do you think this feeling of not being at home is part of what made you into a writer?
Andrea Barrett
Sure. I’ve never known a writer who didn’t feel ill at ease in the world. Have you? We all feel unhoused in some sense. That’s part of why we write. We feel we don’t fit in, that this world is not our world, that though we may move in it, we’re not of it. Different experiences in our lives may enforce or ameliorate that, but I think if they ameliorate it totally, we stop writing. You don’t need to write a novel if you feel at home in the world. We write about the world because it doesn’t make sense to us. Through writing, maybe we can penetrate it, elucidate it, somehow make it comprehensible. If I had ever found the place where I was perfectly at home, who knows what I would have done? Maybe I would have been a biologist after all. No great loss if that had been the case, but it didn’t work out that way.

Interviewer
What do you start with? The arc of the story, a character?
Barrett
If I’m lucky, it’s a character, but it’s usually not. It’s been all different things. It’s usually something much more amorphous than that: a strange, misty pull toward some set of material or a particular place or time or something like a landscape. Sometimes the instigator is both abstract and tiny. The story “Theories of Rain,” for example, came out of reading something about dew and how dew gets formed. That might not seed a story for someone else, but for me, it did

Interviewer
Why do you think people are interested in whether fiction is autobiographical?
Barrett
I don’t know. I have to accept that they are, because I run into it everywhere. Writing is so personal. There’s so much of us in our fiction, whether we draw on the facts of our lives or not. Our hearts and spirits are in there—everything that’s important—it seems like this should be enough, but apparently it’s not

Interviewer
Is it (writing) fun?
Andrea Barrett
When a plant grows, is it fun for the plant? Fun isn’t really the right word for it. Is grass having fun? There’s a seed, you put it in dirt, water it, and shoots unfold. If it happened really fast, like with bamboo, it might be fun to watch, but is it fun for the bamboo? It’s the wrong question. Is it essential? Absolutely. Can I live without doing it? Apparently not

Interviewer
You’re still useful in the fifth and sixth hour (in a day where the author spends six hours in writing)?
David Mitchell
Writing describes a range of activities, like farming. Plowing virgin fields—writing new scenes—demands freshness, but there’s also polishing to be done, fact-checking, character-autobiography writing, realigning the text after you’ve made a late decision that affects earlier passages—that kind of work can be done in the fifth, sixth, and seventh hours. Sometimes, at any hour, you can receive a gift—something that’s really tight and animate and so interesting that I forget the time until my long-suffering wife begins to drop noisy hints. Writers can sound rather mystical when they talk about these things. Words like inspiration and creativity I’m really rather suspicious of, though I can’t talk about my work for more than thirty seconds without deploying them myself. Sometimes I think that creativity is a matter of seeing, or stumbling over, unobvious similarities between things—like composing a fresh metaphor, but on a more complex scale. One night in Hiroshima it occurred to me that the moon behind a certain cloud formation looked very like a painkiller dissolving in a glass of water. I didn’t work toward that simile, it was simply there: I was mugged, as it were, by the similarity between these two very different things. Literary composition can be a similar process. The writer’s real world and the writer’s fictional world are compared, and these comparisons turned into text. But other times literary composition can be a plain old slog, and nothing to do with zones or inspiration. It’s world making and the peopling of those worlds, complete with time lines and heartache

Interviewer
I was struck by the phrase from Ghostwritten about “an infinity of paths through the park,” which seems to describe the novel itself.
David Mitchell
The line owes a debt to Borges’s story “The Garden of Forking Paths.” Human life, Borges said, is a cascade of possible directions, and we take only one, or we perceive that we take only one—which is how novels are written, too. You start with a blank page, and the first word opens up possibilities for the second word. If your first word is Call, those second two or three could be “a doctor” or it could be “me Ishmael”. It could be “Call girls on Saturday nights generally cost more than” . . . The second sentence opens up a multitude of third sentences, and on we go through that denseness of choices taken and choices not taken, swinging our machetes

Interviewer
Sartre wrote an essay called “Qu’est-ce que la littérature?” What is literature for you?
Julian Barnes
There are many answers to that question. The shortest is that it’s the best way of telling the truth; it’s a process of producing grand, beautiful, well-ordered lies that tell more truth than any assemblage of facts. Beyond that, literature is many things, such as delight in, and play with, language; also, a curiously intimate way of communicating with people whom you will never meet. And being a writer gives you a sense of historical community, which I feel rather weakly as a normal social being living in early twenty-first-century Britain. For example, I don’t feel any particular ties with the world of Queen Victoria, or the participants of the Civil War or the Wars of the Roses, but I do feel a very particular tie to various writers and artists who are contemporaneous with those periods and events. I think a great book—leaving aside other qualities such as narrative power, characterization, style, and so on— is a book that describes the world in a way that has not been done before; and that is recognized by those who read it as telling new truths—about society or the way in which emotional lives are led, or both—such truths having not been previously available, certainly not from official records or government documents, or from journalism or television. For example, even people who condemned Madame Bovary, who thought that it ought to be banned, recognized the truth of the portrait of that sort of woman, in that sort of society, which they had never encountered before in literature. That is why the novel was so dangerous. I do think that there is this central, groundbreaking veracity in literature, which is part of its grandeur. Obviously it varies according to the society. In an oppressive society the truth-telling nature of literature is of a different order, and sometimes valued more highly than other elements in a work of art

Annie Proulx
In a rough way the short story writer is to the novelist as a cabinetmaker is to a house carpenter. Although I said that the short story is a superior literary form, there are plenty of exceptions of great novels that could only be novels. All the same, the short story deserves more honor and attention than it gets. It can be a powerful reading experience. One can go back to a good one over and over and always learn something new about technique. I sometimes think it would be better in creative-writing programs if students cut their writing teeth on novels instead of short stories. Short stories are often very difficult and demanding, drawing on deep knowledge of human nature and the particulars of pivotal events. Every single word counts heavily. The punctuation is critical. Finding the right words and making honorable sentences takes time. The general reading public has no idea of what goes into a short story because it is literally short and can give the impression that the writer sat down and rattled the thing out in an hour or two. A lot of the work I do is taking the bare sentence that says what you sort of want to say—which is where a lot of writers stop—and making it into an arching kind of thing that has both strength and beauty. And that is where the sweat comes in. That can take a long time and many revisions. A single sentence, particularly a long, involved one, can carry a story forward. I put a lot of time into them. Carefully constructed sentences cast a tint of indefinable substance over a story. There is difficulty involved in going from the basic sentence that’s headed in the right direction to making a fine sentence. But it’s a joyous task. It’s hard, but it’s joyous. Being raised rural, I think work is its own satisfaction. It’s not seen as onerous, or a dreadful fate. It’s like building a mill or a bridge or sewing a fine garment or chopping wood—there’s a pleasure in constructing something that really works

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