Category Archives: syntax

Richard Ford’s novel ‘Canada’

A retrospective narrator gives Ford’s fiction the feel of memoir.

Canada by Richard Ford. HarperCollins, 420 pp.

The hand of a master storyteller . . .

. . . “Canada” is blessed with two essential strengths in equal measure — a mesmerizing story driven by authentic and fully realized characters, and a prose style so accomplished it is tempting to read each sentence two or three times before being pulled to the next.—Andre Dubus III in his Times review

I’m reading two memoirs now, one an immersion and the other postmodern, but the book that’s riveting me is Richard Ford’s acclaimed new novel, Canada. I’m about halfway through and eagerly return to its world. I say about halfway because it’s in two big acts, and I’ve finished Part One; but there’s a tiny Part Three, maybe one more short chapter. Meaning, in other words, it’s really an epilogue, and it annoys me, when writers do that, call an epilogue an act. But that’s my problem, I guess, and may only mean I want to do it myself and annoy some irritable someone. I’ll find out, when I get there, whether Ford earns his designation. Which I doubt, fervently, in advance. Yet maybe, after all, an epilogue would make this great novel seem too much like a memoir, and act could be the correct literary term here.

That’s what struck me right off, how much like a memoir Canada is in its presentation of story. Along with Ford’s pleasing sentences, of course: their balance and his deft dashes, employed the way his narrator would use them—the classic parenthetical, sure, but also how he jogs with them at the end of sentences—and the way the man who tells the tale misuses “who” for “whom” and uses “only” in place of but. (The latter feels so true and colloquial, or at least individual and believably and unconsciously idiosyncratic.)

The narrator is a middle-aged schoolteacher, Dell Parsons, whose parents robbed a bank in North Dakota when he and his twin sister were fifteen. Ford exploits the dual narrator (Dell then, a young fifteen, and now, when he’s about sixty) to great effect. Mostly the story is told through the boy’s eyes. Ford smoothly explains how Dell knows some things by having Dell tell us his mother wrote a memoir in prison. A big difference between this novel and a memoir, so far, is we don’t get any wailing by the adult Dell of how his parents and their crime messed up his life. It’s clear it would, and did, to a point, but that’s implied. And worlds reside in that phrase “to a point,” for Dell is an individual and individuals are, in good fiction as in life, unpredictable.

What really hooked me at the start was the way Ford-as-Dell depicts and describes his parents. They are ordinary middle-class postwar people: only they are not so ordinary, like anyone when looked at closely. And Ford manages to set them in motion in your mind’s eye so you feel like you know them—or, rather, don’t know them in the same way we know-and-don’t-know anyone we meet. How we place and then imagine a person by appearance, countenance, dress, and voice. How we notice in an instant and largely unconsciously their shoes, complexion, smell. Ford has looked closely and he’s thought carefully; you feel yourself, for so many reasons, in the hands of a master.

12 Comments

Filed under craft, technique, diction or vocabulary, fiction, memoir, Persona, Voice, POV, punctuation, REVIEW, syntax

Ernest Hemingway’s incantatory prose

My posts about prose stylist Verlyn Klinkenborg made me think of Ernest Hemingway. Here’s the first paragraph of Hemingway’s 1926 story “In Another Country”:

In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.

The snowy wind ruffling the fur of dead animals and turning the feathers of living birds  transfixed me as teenager. Spooky, that was—the strangeness of true art. At least, to a broody teen like me who could imagine noticing such details. Now I imagine how hurt Hemingway must have been, how hurt to notice such things. And I sense also the disgusting sentimentality—unearned emotion—that would erupt one day from beneath his stoicism. But he was my first teacher, and a fine one, in how to make sentences.

Consider his first chapter—only two pages—of his 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms. The novel is deeply flawed, to me—he was better at stories, better when he was young (not yet a monster, only hurt)—but his opening is heartbreakingly beautiful. And a better example of Klinkenborg’s “short” long sentences, if very similar to the story of three years before. Here’s the first paragraph:

In the later summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

Hemingway is famous for writing short, simple declarative sentences. Actually his diction is simple, his words as common as dirt, but strong in their plainness. Ford Maddox Ford: “Hemingway’s words strike you, each one, as if they were pebbles fetched fresh from a brook. They live and shine, each in its place. So one of his pages has the effect of a brook-bottom into which you look down through the flowing water. The words form a tesellation, each in order beside the other.”

And his sentences are varied and often complex. Some are quite long. They employ repetition artfully to help them flow with emotion. For sharpening his rhythm, Hemingway said he liked listening to Bach and reading Huckleberry Finn and the King James Bible. He said a lot of things—too many, of course—especially when he aged into a drunken blowhard and bully. I shouldn’t take his fate personally, I know, but since I also tried to make him a father figure I do.

But, oh, his stories. They played to his strengths. This is from “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”:

It was late and every one had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the daytime the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference. The two waiters inside the café knew that the old man was a little drunk, and while he was a good client they knew that if he became too drunk he would leave without paying, so they kept watch on him.

6 Comments

Filed under craft, technique, emotion, flow, syntax

Klinkenborg’s hymn to prose

Verlyn Klinkenborg’s long poem celebrates short sentences.

The Rural Life by Verlyn Klinkenborg. Back Bay Books, 224 pp.

Several Short Sentences About Writing by Veryln Klinkenborg. Knopf, 224 pp.

“You’ll make long sentences again, but they’ll be short sentences at heart,” writes Verlyn Klinkenborg in Several Short Sentences About Writing. Is that wise and poetic or opaque and unhelpful? This passage from Klinkenborg’s The Rural Life, 2003, may show what he means:

The Fourth of July steals over a small town daydreaming the summer away. A young boy rides his bicycle in a serpentine pattern down the middle of a dusty street. Blue sky divides a broken pavement of clouds. The road out of town seems to stretch farther than usual before it fades out of sight between fields of corn or soybeans, alfalfa, or cotton. Near a railroad siding, the silence of noon is broken by the sound of a mechanic’s hammer ringing against steel in the darkness of a repair shop. An old horse sleeps in a small corral behind the drive-in. The mail fails to arrive. A firecracker goes off in the alley.

It’s hard to believe that such towns still exist. Harder still to realize how many of them there are, once you leave behind the cities and the suburbs and the unincorporated sprawl and break out into the open. But in those towns the Fourth seems to come into its own, whether it’s a hamlet like Texas, Ohio, little more than a bait shop on the north bank of the Maumee River, or a place like Lander, Wyoming, where the Fourth goes off like the crack of doom.

Here and everywhere in this book Klinkenborg showcases his spare declarative chops. Just when you think he’s risking syntactical repetition, he shifts. (As he says in Several Short Sentences About Writing, “Variation [in length and in structure] is the life of prose . . .”)

My wife gave me The Rural Life, and I avoided reading it for a year or two. I assumed it was another of those “I-live-on-a-farm-and-grew-a-tomato—aren’t I cute?” books. How mistaken I was. The book is organized by months, a new chapter for each. His activities and observations are shaped by the seasons. There’s a pleasurable lack of connective tissue; sometimes we gather that he’s traveled with his horses from the East, where he lives on a farm, to the West, where he rides and looks.

He’s in high reporter mode, his beat anywhere humans and nature intersect. There’s a somber, wistful meditation on America’s 1969 manned lunar landing. The Rural Life is no Norman Rockwell portrait: he views America as venal towards the land and rural folk. He employs metaphors and words that emotionally characterize: a berry is “mordant pink,” headlights cast a “nullifying glare,” a “predatory” snow falls “clumsily,” and another is “fox-deep.” His vignettes are precise, the result of looking at nature closely and of looking things up, the types of clouds and the parts of plants:

Along every road, every path, a fringe of opulent grasses grew, ligules shading into lacquered purple, blades into the blue of dusk, awns into an almost roanlike coloration. In the waste clearings grew foxtail barley—supple, iridescent. Sagebrush rose along the fence lines in sharp-scented thunderheads. South of Sheridan, near Ucross, the hayfields are edged with sloughs, and in uncut pastures, yellow-headed blackbirds hovered momentarily before settling onto grass heads that dipped slowly beneath their weight. A buckskin horse at liberty in one of the unmowed fields showed only his back and ears, an island of contentment.

From the time the dew dried in midmorning until full dark, the windrowers moved across the fields, following the curves of the creek bottoms and the sidehills, laying the grass out in narrow rows like the isobars on a weather map. The balers followed once the grass had dried, and for a few days birds gathered on the tops of the round bales lying in the fields, looking out over a terrain that had lost much of its softness.

One might call his writing in The Rural Life not just declarative and spare but lyrical and shyly romantic. We use terms like lyrical loosely. What I presume we mean is prose about the world’s beauty in which we sense the writer’s feelings: grass blades that carry the “blue of dusk” and how harvest changes a hayfield from soft to bristly. And it’s romantic to say a town “daydreams the summer away.” Yet we assume or intuit emotion and outlook and personality from what’s on the page. Klinkenborg doesn’t tell you what he’s feeling or ask you to share it; overt emotion is restrained. So is his persona—like Joan Didion whom he admires, he’s cool. He bares his intellect, not his soul. But the content and the shape of his prose say something else is going on, too, in a way reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories. In all that buried feeling, a love for the green earth.

You may wonder, Who notices what he notices? How can I? His periodic columns in the Times are surprisingly diverse; in some of them his persona is warmer. Appreciations of John Updike and Jacob Riis and David Foster Wallace and John Lennon—and Michael Jackson and J.K. Rowling. Meditations on e-reading and iTunes and writing on computers and overly polite female student writers—and Jim Morrison and Brian Wilson. Thoughtful and generous, his concise essays are models of precision, of how to distill an elixir from the slurry that overflows your ever-noticing heart.

Like all good writing, his makes you want to be more awake. Not just to write better but to live better. How to foster this quality of mind, the writing mind, lies at the heart of Several Short Sentences About Writing. As the epigraphs I’ve used show, his writing advice is presented like poetry. Technically it is poetry because often he’s controlling the length of his lines. This compulsively readable declarative poem runs for 149 of the book’s 204 pages, the balance being examples of prose, good and bad, and concise commentary. Here are some of his gnomic stanzas that interested me:

If you notice something, it’s because it’s important.

But what you notice depends on what you allow yourself to notice,

And that depends on what you feel authorized, permitted to notice

In a world where we’re trained to disregard our perceptions. . . .

Is it possible to practice noticing?

I think so.

But I also think it requires a suspension of yearning

And a pause in the desire to be pouring something out of yourself.

Noticing is about letting yourself out into the world,

Rather than siphoning the world into you

In order to transmute it into words.

. . .

The longer the sentence, the less it’s able to imply,

And writing by implication should be one of your goals.

Implication is almost nonexistent in the prose that surrounds you . . .

 

Try making prose with a poetic seriousness about its tools—

Rhythm, twists of language, the capacity to show the reader

What lies beyond expression,

But with the gaits of prose and a plainness in reserve

That poetry rarely possesses, an exalted plainness.

Implication seems to be an aspect of writing that’s hardly ever discussed. Eudora Welty commented on it in One Writer’s Beginnings, discussing one of her stories, about a girl who learns in painting to frame scenes with her hands, only to see unwelcome reality thereby intrude. Welty writes, “The frame through which I viewed the world changed too, with time. Greater than scene, I came to see, is situation. Greater than situation is implication.” (Lee Martin has an astute recent post  on his blog about implication.)

As with any advice, in the crucible of your practice you must test the utility for yourself of  Klinkenborg’s opinions—he calls them “conclusions, not assumptions.” But he urges wariness about all dogma, even his. Contrary to so many process-based writing theorists, including the influential Peter Elbow, he says the creative and critical functions occur simultaneously. Elbow calls writing this way “the dangerous method” because it invokes the mind’s editor at the same time as it asks for creation.

Klinkenborg isn’t buying it:

Revise at the point of composition.

Compose at the point of revision.

Accept no provisional sentences.

Make no drafts

And no draft sentences.

Bring the sentence you’re working on as close to its final state as you can

Before you write it down and after.

Do the same for the next sentence

And right on through to the end.

Think of composition and revision as the same thing,

Different versions of thinking,

Philosophically indistinguishable.

Or as he said at Goucher College:

The critical and creative mind are not separate. I never write drafts. I write one good sentence to another. All writing is revision. The last piece you delete is the part you’ve been trying to save. You have no idea where you are going. I want to hear the voice of discovery. Writing is not cobbling things together. Every moment is an act of discovery.

See my previous post on him, “A Life Sentence.”

15 Comments

Filed under implication, REVIEW, style, syntax, working method

A life sentence

Verlyn Klinkenborg on the “genre of the sentence.”

One by one, each sentence takes the stage.

It says the very thing it comes into existence to say.

Then it leaves the stage.

It doesn’t help the next one up or the previous one

down.

It doesn’t wave to its friends in the audience

Or pause to be acknowledged or applauded.

It doesn’t talk about what it’s saying.

It simply says its piece and leaves the stage.

Several Short Sentences About Writing

The Sentence Man: Let each sentence carry a small quantity of information. Variation in the length and structure of sentences creates music.

Six years ago, in August 2006, during a writers’ gathering at Goucher College, Baltimore, I was dispatched to fetch Verlyn Klinkenborg from his hotel. He was silent, riding in my van. Then on campus he took the stage and began speaking on “The Genre of the Sentence.” No deferential joke or aw shucks warmup. He stared into the dim auditorium and lobbed oracular commandments: “Don’t believe what others believe”; “Look for gaps between sentences, paragraphs.”

He disdained sentence fragments, semicolons, and transitions. Oh, and workshopping. Was it my imagination that the hall’s temperature dropped ten degrees? He resembled a dyspeptic owl. Across the top row of seats, perched like crows, the teachers glared down at him. In between them and him, the students, fresh from their workshops, perked up. What’s with this guy?

“I had been thinking about writing about nonfiction,” he said. “I have written several hundred short sentences about writing, now a book. I’m very pragmatic. How do you get the work done, make the sentences? What do you think about when you make sentences?”

I might have read Making Hay by then. I hadn’t yet gotten to two of his later books, now among my favorite works, his collection of New York Times columns The Rural Life and his novel Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile. The latter is written from the point of view of a turtle owned by Gilbert White, the eighteenth-century British naturalist and minister. White had such a captive tortoise, an object of his study and speculation. Timothy is a feat of research (Klinkenborg studied White’s journals), imagination, and prose style.

The precepts Klinkenborg aired that form the core of his new book:

• “Writing is thinking. It is hard. You must learn to think yourself. Go think.  The more you do, you can remember what you thought about. Writers fail as writers because they fail to think. The literature that’s great is a product of thought and choices.”

• “Notice what interests you. Most people have no idea. Care about what you care about. Being a writer is a perpetual act of self-authorization. Authority is ultimately something the reader holds. But vital.”

• “The sentence is the basis of your art. Think, make sentences, and revise. Rhythm is everything, first and last. Talking is natural, writing is not. It takes years of work. ‘Flow’ is not real and leads to loss of confidence. It is hard work and does not flow. Write short sentences. Let each sentence carry a small quantity of information. See Orwell: Write so clearly you can see what you have not said.”

• “You need a technical knowledge of grammar and syntax. Your writing is your responsibility. You are your first and only editor. You are responsible for etymology. You will need to look up nearly every word for a while. Proofread a piece with a paper under each line. Have someone read your piece to you.”

• “Chronology is a trap. It’s not natural; our own interior world is not chronological. Always resist chronology. Narrative is very hard. Very rare, even in novels. Be the narrator. Endings are not hard. Readers—all people—are used to endings.”

• “Writing is to offer your testimony on the nature of existence. It’s a moral act. Cleverness is its own punishment. Your job is to testify.”

I’ve returned to these notes and others I took that day. Some of his statements mystify—“The architecture of neutral space is larger for a whole book”; or, actually, “Don’t believe what others believe”—but mostly I find his notions inspiring or at least bracing.

Klinkenborg writes and offers rules of thumb in the vast “plain” writing tradition named by Annie Dillard in Living by Fiction (reviewed): prose like a pane of glass to see the world clearly; the writer submissive to the world and his subject. Plain writing has carried the day for now. “Fine” writers, more rhetorical, draw attention to themselves. A recent virtuoso fine performance—dare I say clever?—is [sic]: A Memoir, by Joshua Cody. Most people work in the middle, observes Dillard.

Not Verlyn Klinkenborg. Not so much. Like Dillard he’s a plain stylist working the edge of the continuum.

Like everyone, he universalizes what works for him. He’s polished his crotchets into smooth hard pebbles. Unlike everyone, he’s a thinker, a noticer, and a maker of  successful sentences.

Sometimes, not often enough, I ask myself, WWVD?

Next: Klinkenborg’s spare declarative chops.

17 Comments

Filed under craft, technique, Dillard—Saint Annie, editing, narrative, syntax, working method

Writing by the think-system

We’ve got sentences, folks. Terrible, terrible sentences—and that almost rhymes with menaces . . .

Veryln Klinkenborg on thinking up sentences.

Your job as a writer is making sentences.

Most of your time will be spent making sentences in your head.

In your head.

Did no one ever tell you this?

Several Short Sentences About Writing

Actually more than several sentences . . .

In his intense little essay August 13 in The New York Times promoting his new book, Several Short Sentences About Writing, Veryln Klinkenborg clears his throat for three paragraphs, takes a swipe at composition teachers, and unveils how beginners might learn to write. He’s a stylist I admire, so I drew near.

His essay starts in the fourth paragraph when he remarks on the chatter inside human heads. Here’s an idea, he says, give your mind some work: memorize a little poetry or prose: “Then play those passages over and over again in your memory. You now have in your head something that is identifiably ‘language,’ not merely thoughts that somehow seem unlinguistic.”

Check. The next step:

Now try turning a thought into a sentence. This is harder than it seems because first you have to find a thought. They may seem scarce because nothing in your education has suggested that your thoughts are worth paying attention to. Again and again I see in students, no matter how sophisticated they are, a fear of the dark, cavernous place called the mind. They turn to it as though it were a mailbox. They take a quick peek, find it empty and walk away.

But how many people want to think? Surely some do learn in school.  (Having since read his book, I see that his beef is with institutions but goes beyond them to human mediocrity and burdensome toe-the-line group messages.) Others who want or need to think train themselves. Seven years ago when I started writing a whole book for the first time, it was fun and I was dumb—I wrote a first draft of 500 pages—but sometimes it was truly hard. One of my profound insights was that writing is difficult because it’s concentrated thought (fatuous sounding to me now, but Klinkenborg says the same thing). Long-term focused thinking isn’t easy because it’s seldom needed in daily life.

(Incidentally, I’ve noticed that after a while I can’t tell my inspired prose from the stuff I had to gut out. Mostly anyway. Klinkenborg says this, too.)

He continues with his think-system advice for baby writers (of any age, naturally):

Because you’re writing nothing down, it may seem as though you’re not writing at all. But you’re building confidence, an assurance that when you’re in the place where sentences come from—deep in the intermingling of thought and words—you’re in a place where good things usually happen. . . .

I’m repeatedly asked how I write, what my ‘process’ is. My answer is simple: I think patiently, trying out sentences in my head. That is the root of it. What happens on paper or at the keyboard is only distantly connected. The virtue of working this way is that circumstances — time, place, tools—make no difference whatsoever. All I need is my head. All I need is the moments I have.

Reading this, I thought of what a fiction writer told me last winter. Don’t confuse typing with writing. His writing—the imagining of scenes—happens the day and night before he goes to the keyboard. Now comes Klinkenborg to recommend essentially the same thing for nonfiction. There’s obvious merit in it, but we all get words on the page differently. Still, if Tiger Woods can rebuild his winning swing (at least two times), can’t a writer learn a new process? Verlyn’s perchance?

I’ve noticed that my writing goes better when I think about it the night before and when I quit the next day knowing where to resume. I’ve also noticed that in the process of working on a long piece I naturally do what he suggests, think up sentences. Or, rather, find sentences arising.

Earlier this summer I heard Joe Blair, author of the celebrated memoir By the Iowa Sea, tell an NPR interviewer that he had to learn a new writing method because he has only one hour a day free. He’s a heating-cooling contractor, as well as a husband and father. But he can think as he drives around and some at night. Blair, a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, types like blue blazes during his allotted hour. I bet he pounds out three or four pages—maybe six. He probably doesn’t polish as he goes (but more on that, per Klinkenborg, later).

So, to review. Trust your mind and use it. Give it work. Train yourself to think and write away from the keyboard.

Next: My encounter with Veryln Klinkenborg as he aired his this think-system six years ago.

13 Comments

Filed under evolutionary psychology, NOTED, syntax, working method

Noted: John Gardner’s great sentence

I was reading the late novelist’s short story “Redemption,” based on the accidental death of his younger brother in a horrifying farming accident, and found its sentences beautifully crafted. John Gardner, at eleven, was driving a tractor when his brother fell under its towed cultipacker, a pair of giant rolling pins for mashing the clods in harrowed soil that weighed two tons. In the story, grief almost destroys the father, like Gardner’s father a dairyman, orator, and lay preacher; the surviving brother is tortured almost to madness by guilt.

This sentence is about the wife and mother—Gardner’s was an English teacher:

Because she had, at thirty-four, considerable strength of character—except that, these days, she was always eating—and because, also, she was a woman of strong religious faith, a woman who, in her years of church work and teaching at the high school, had made scores of close, for the most part equally religious, friends, with whom she regularly corresponded, her letters, then theirs, half filling the mailbox at the foot of the hill and cluttering every table, desk, and niche in the large old house—friends who now frequently visited or phoned—she was able to move step by step past disaster and in the end keep her family from wreck.

That’s 112 words. Virginia Woolf wrote longer ones, 140 words and more, but what Gardener kept aloft—the construction of his sentence and its clarity and beauty—and those double parenthetical dashes—amaze me. ‘‘Redemption” was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1977, and Gardner later included it in his collection The Art of Living in 1981; the complete story is available on line.

There’s a famous quote by Gardner that seems to apply to this story:

By the time you’ve run your mind through it a hundred times, relentlessly worked out every tic of terror, it’s lost its power over you . . . [Soon it’s] a story on a page or, more precisely, everybody’s story on a page.

In the 1970s his novel The Sunlight Dialogues was everywhere I looked, but I didn’t read it, nor have I read what’s considered his masterpiece, the novel Grendel. I did enjoy as they appeared his books on writing—On Moral Fiction, On Becoming a Novelist, and The Art of Fiction—and later read two novels I much admired, October Light and Mickelsson’s Ghosts.

5 Comments

Filed under fiction, style, syntax

Amos Oz’s ‘Tale of Love and Darkness’

By Olga Khotiashova

A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

On January 6, 2012, it was 60 years since Amos Oz’s mother took her life. The memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness, written in 2002, was a tribute to her memory as well as the act of Oz’s reconciliation with his own memories. It took him half a century to gather enough strength to perceive and articulate what had happened that day; and it turned out to be a long story beginning in Eastern Europe centuries before.

In my ignorance I had never heard of Amos Oz, a distinguished Israeli fiction writer, before I watched his conversation with Charlie Rose. This brilliant conversation is worth a separate review. I was so impressed by the writer’s personality that I immediately wrote his name in the top line of my reading list. I decided to begin with his memoir for several reasons: he is a descendant of Jews who immigrated to the Promised Land from Eastern Europe; he had never dropped a single word about his mother’s tragic death before writing the memoir; he mentioned in the interview that his memoir had not caught much attention in the U.S. So there it was, a 560-page volume lying in front of me.

The English translation by Nicholas de Lange is marvelous. I believe it gives the true impression of the original.  Long, flowing paragraphs are followed by ragged sentences; you can hear the strong Russian accent of Oz’s father whichever language he speaks; you can feel the throbbing development of Hebrew language. I was struck by the thought that the book may sound sharply out of tune for American ears; that a story of some Inuit village may appear more customary. For me, the book was surprisingly soothing like a tender touch of a close relative’s hand. Oz’s note about evolving Hebrew correlated with my non-native speaker’s feeling about living in a foreign country: “Perhaps that is how a short-sighted driver feels, trying to find his way at night through a warren of side streets in an unfamiliar car.” I wonder if Amos Oz would be pleased to hear that a Russian immigrant to America indulged her nostalgia in reading his memoir.

The book is densely inhabited, and each character has a distinct voice. You will never mix up the mesmerizing tales by Amos Oz’s mother with his father’s clumsy literary jokes or his grandfathers’ guidance and inept poems. Here is how the grandfather Naphtali Hertz Mussman spoke about love:

I said a little compassion and generosity, but I didn’t say love: I’m not such a believer in universal love. Love of everybody for everybody—we should maybe leave that to Jesus. Love is another thing altogether. It is nothing whatever like generosity and nothing whatever like compassion. On the contrary. Love is a curious mixture of opposites, a blend of extreme selfishness and total devotion. A paradox! Besides which, love, everybody is always talking about love, love, but love isn’t something you choose, you catch it like a disease, you get trapped in it, like a disaster. So what is it that we do choose? What do human beings have to choose between every minute of the day? Generosity or meanness. Every little child knows that, and yet wickedness still doesn’t come to an end. How can you explain that? It seems we got it all from the apple that we ate back then: we ate a poisoned apple.

In the memoir, the story of the nation, country, language, and family interweaves with the personal story. The structure is subtle. The author goes back and forth, travels in time and space, returns to seminal moments again and again. He draws unforgettable scenes, so vivid that a slight hint immediately revives them later. He repeats the long lists of streets and names. Those names are so unusual you don’t even try to pronounce them; and eventually they make up a visual, almost topographic image, so you can follow the writer in his memory tour, not looking at the signs but just relying on the images deeply imprinted in his heart. The narrative does not go smoothly. Sometimes the cart of memory becomes overloaded with personages and details and gets stuck on sharp turns.

I may also have heard this from Zelda, my teacher, that summer when we were close: if you want to draw a tree, just draw a few leaves. You don’t need to draw all of them. If you draw a man, you don’t have to draw every hair. But in this she was inconsistent: one time she would say that at such and such a place I had written a bit too much, while another time she would say that actually I should have written a little more. But how do you tell? I am still looking for an answer to this day.

A hundred pages in the middle are probably the place where the author wrote “a bit too much.”  It seems he was experiencing a painful transition from the macro-world of the family-tree at large to the micro-world of the twelve-year-old boy in Jerusalem, who had just lost his mother. He came to the point where the bitter words had to be said. And it is there where he reflects on the nature of memoirs:

It’s like a woman you’ve known for a long time, you no longer find her attractive or unattractive, whenever you bump into each other, she always says more or less the same few worn-out words, always offers you a smile, always taps you on the chest in a familiar way, only now, only this time, she doesn’t, she suddenly reaches out and grabs your shirt, not casually but with her all, her claws, lustfully, desperately, eyes tight shut, her face twisted as though in pain, determined to have her way, determined not to let go, she doesn’t care anymore about you, about what you are feeling, whether or not you want to, what does she care, now she’s got to, she can’t help herself, she reaches out now and strikes you like a harpoon and starts pulling and tearing you, but actually she’s not the one who’s pulling, she just digs her claws in and you’re the one who’s pulling and writing, pulling  and writing, like a dolphin with the barb of the harpoon caught in his flesh, and he pulls as hard as he can, pulls the harpoon and the line attached to it and the harpoon gun that’s attached to the line and the hunters’ boat that the harpoon gun is fixed in the sea, pulls and dives down to dark depths, pulls and writes and pulls more; if he pulls one more time with all his desperate strength, he may manage to free himself from the thing that is stuck in his flesh, the thing that is biting and digging into you and not letting go, you pull and you pull and it just bites into your flesh, the more you pull, the deeper it digs in, and you can never inflict a pain in return for this loss that is digging deeper and deeper, wounding you more and more because it is the catcher and you are the prey, it is the hunter and you are the harpooned dolphin, it gives and you have taken, it is that evening in Jerusalem and you are in this evening in Arad, it is your dead parents, and you just pull and go on writing.

A Tale of Love and Darkness covers several centuries but you always feel the presence of the narrator: Amos Oz sitting at his desk in Arad in 2001. There and then he soldiers on with courage and candor. His tale is tragic and funny and thrilling and annoying and unforgettable. He wrote about his heritage, “I understood where I had come from: from a dreary tangle of sadness and pretense, of longing, absurdity, inferiority and provincial pomposity, sentimental education and anachronistic ideals, repressed traumas, resignation and helplessness.”

While I was reading the memoir, a rather bizarre recipe came to my mind: mix healthy European pragmatism with Jewish sentimental romanticism, add a generous portion of alcohol and you will get what is called a mysterious Russian soul; stir the mixture vigorously, skim the cream off, and you will get a fertile substance to germinate an American. It is just a joke, no offense, as Amos Oz’s father used to say.

About three years ago I read one critically acclaimed contemporary Russian novel. I was shocked by how gloomy and pretentious it was, so I have focused solely on American literature since then and have been enjoying my greater journey. A Tale of Love and Darkness made me turn to Russian literature again. Oz’s prose is often called “Chekhovian.” It was Chekhov’s prose, the only one of all Russian classics, which I tried to avoid in high school and never returned to later. Probably, it’s time to reread Chekhov now.

Olga Khotiashova reviews memoirs periodically for Narrative.

5 Comments

Filed under memoir, REVIEW, sentimentality, structure, syntax

Noted: William T. Vollmann

I believe in the American myth that it is both admirable and even possible to devote one’s life to a private dream. The probability of failing oneself, either through laziness, incompetence or bad luck, or else, worse yet, through dreaming what one only imagined one desired, is terrifying. All the same, you had no more obligation to public dreams which dreamed you wrongly.—William T. Vollmann, Riding Toward Everywhere

W.T. Volmann

I believe Vollmann is some kind of genius, as well as being brave and incredibly hard working. Recently I added to my reading stack his first book, An Afghanistan Picture Show: Or How I Saved the World, written about going to Afghanistan in 1982, at age twenty-three, to help the Afghanis fight the Soviets, and his historical novel The Rifles, and Riding Toward Everywhere, about riding the rails with hoboes.

Publishers Weekly called Volmann “a kind of rogue innocent, a Candide with a supply of condoms and a girl in every port.” Booklist said “differentiating between a Vollmann novel and a collection of his stories is often difficult, because, in his hands, the two forms share a similar structure—are surrealistic, sordid, sensational, and terrific.”

Tony DuShane interviewed for Bookslut the prolific journalist, story writer, and novelist Volmann—author of twenty books totaling many thousands of pages—who won the 2005 National Book Award for his novel Europe Central.

An excerpt of Volmann’s comments to DuShane:

I would say, don’t fixate on getting published because that’s really the least important concern. If you really care about writing, you should do it because it makes you happy and you should be just as happy if you can write something that you think is beautiful and you can keep it in a drawer and show it to a few people and they’re thrilled. That’s just as important. If you can have that attitude, then no one can take the pleasure of it away from you. So often there are beginning writers who put “copyright by” on every page of the manuscript, and they’re so anxious to get an agent and do this and do that. That stuff is irrelevant. That’s like asking a photographer, which is the best equipment, and all that matters is the image. With writing, all that matters is the word.

You have to think of the sad lives and commercial failures, which so many great writers have experienced. Look at somebody like Melville. If you’re an aspiring writer, do you want to write Moby Dick? Sure. Well, if you’re going to do that, that means you’re willing to accept not just no success, but poverty and even a certain measure of disgrace for the rest of your life. Can you proudly accept that? If so, you may still not be a good writer, but you’re on the right track. If your thing is getting recognition as quick as possible, then I would say why, why do you want that, and is writing going to help you do that? And are you going to be a happier person by having that recognition?

Madison Smartt Bell interviewed Volmann for The Paris Review. In it, Vollmann discussed the effects of his sister’s death on him and on his relationship with his parents. He was nine when she drowned, at age six, while he was supposed to be watching her and momentarily daydreamed. Vollmann has typed so much that he suffers from carpal tunnel inflammation and chronically sore hands, and speculates he may have to give up the keyboard for writing by hand in notebooks.

Excerpts of Volmann’s comments to Bell:

When I was writing the first few books, what I would do is write a bunch of sentences and then go back and expand and explode those sentences, pack as much into them as I could, so they’d kind of be like popcorn kernels popping . . . all this stuff in there to make the writing dense, and beautiful for its density. I still do that from time to time, but I’m getting increasingly interested in taking things out as I write. It’s fun for me to try to write concise, compact things. It’s a very good exercise for me. And I think it’s important to try to do different things—change what I write about, and also the way I write. Otherwise, I’d just be repeating myself, which wouldn’t be good for me, or fair to my readers. . . .

The computer really does help. One good thing about having had a job as a programmer is that I learned to look at things on the screen. I don’t really need to hold a piece of paper in my hands to see if the thing works or not. When it’s alive and volatile on the screen, that’s just as good for me. . . . But I think a crucial part to writing, always, is letting it sit; a greater efficiency on the computer can’t really address that problem. Once you’ve finished typing and moving text around and everything else, you have to leave it alone for a while. You do that to see if it stands up, to see if all the loose edges have been trimmed, if it makes sense, if it’s consistent, what shape it really has. You can’t tell that while you’re working on it. The computer also helps in that I work on a lot of books at once—as many as six or seven. . . .

Visual aids are very important to me in my writing. I like to see places that I’m writing about, experience things that I’m writing about. So throughout my career I’ve taken photographs of things, which I can then study. The whole business in Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, when he talks about the spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility—a photograph can help you do that. . . . For me, at least, it’s easier to create coherence and beauty on a small scale. Organize a block, reread and rewrite from beginning to end. Afterward, the blocks can be arranged in a narrative or architectonic way, rejiggered accordingly. . . .

I figure some people are watching, but I really don’t care what anybody thinks. All I want to do is be able to have my freedom and do the things in life that I have always wanted to do. I want to see all of these unknown places, walk on the frozen sea as often as I can, and see the jungles. I want to fall in love with beautiful women of all races. Rescue somebody every now and then, improve my painting, and improve my sentence structure. If I can make a living doing that stuff, that’s great, and I will keep doing it, and they can do whatever they want with my image. I couldn’t care less.

 

9 Comments

Filed under fiction, journalism, NOTED, syntax, working method

David Foster Wallace’s fancy style

Below is an excerpt from John Jeremiah Sullivan’s interesting review in GQ of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King (actually a review of DFW himself). When he speaks of “plain” writing, Sullivan apparently is alluding to Annie Dillard’s distinction, in her book Living by Fiction (reviewed on this blog), between “fine” and “plain” writing. She admires both but seems to prefer plain, the category into which her own lyric style falls, and to consider it the appropriate modern and postmodern response to a senseless, fractured world.

Sullivan on Wallace:

 The “plain style” is about erasing yourself as a writer and laying claim to a kind of invisible narrative authority, the idea being that the writer’s mind and personality are manifest in every line, without the vulgarity of having to tell the reader it’s happening. But Wallace’s relentlessly first-person strategies didn’t proceed from narcissism, far from it—they were signs of philosophical stubbornness. (His father, a professional philosopher, studied with Wittgenstein’s last assistant; Wallace himself as an undergraduate made an actual intervening contribution—recently published as Fate, Time, and Language—to the debate over free will.) He looked at the plain style and saw that the impetus of it, in the end, is to sell the reader something. Not in a crass sense, but in a rhetorical sense. The well-tempered magazine feature, for all its pleasures, is a kind of fascist wedge that seeks to make you forget its problems, half-truths, and arbitrary decisions, and swallow its nonexistent imprimatur. Wallace could never exempt himself or his reporting from the range of things that would be subject to scrutiny.

Sullivan resumes:

His voice was regional in more than one sense—the fastidiousness about usage, for instance. Only midwesterners will waste time over the grammar of small talk with you; nowhere else, when you ask, “Can I get an iced tea?,” does anyone ever say, “I don’t know…can you?” And Wallace did think of himself as in some ways a regional writer—else he’d never have let the über-author photographer Marion Ettlinger take the well-known trench-coat-lion shot of him smiling wryly beside a waving cornfield. He knew that he came, as he said in the essay he read that night, from a landscape “whose emptiness is both physical and spiritual.” The very “maximalism” of his style, which his detractors claimed to find self-indulgent, suggests an environment with space to fill. . . .

He’s maybe the only notoriously “difficult” writer who almost never wrote a page that wasn’t enjoyable, or at least diverting, to read. Yet it was the theme of loneliness, a particular kind of postmodern, information-saturated loneliness, that, more than anything, drew crowds to his readings who looked in size and excitement level more like what you’d see at an in-store for a new band. Many of Wallace’s readers (this is apparent now that every single one of them has written an appreciation of him somewhere on the Internet) believed that he was speaking to them in his work—that he was one of the few people alive who could help them navigate a new spiritual wilderness, in which every possible source of consolation had been nullified.

9 Comments

Filed under modernism/postmodernism, NOTED, style, syntax

Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, Walker Percy

My southern fiction orgy last summer started with Flannery O’Connor. Since I often dip into her stories, I bought and read the latest bio of her, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch. I hoped to learn how she got so wise, and so dark.

Apparently, her mother and their ouchy relationship. And Flannery’s imaginings: she seemingly nudged her own prickly ways a bit to depict sullen grown children like the nasty daughter-with-PhD in “Good Country People”; she showed in masterpieces like “Everything That Rises Must Converge” how such prideful offspring suffered when their mean or silly but always prideful mothers passed.

In her stories O’Connor killed off women like her mother, the most famous instance in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” But she told friends she was safe: her mother didn’t read her stories, found them too depressing. Flannery is a good biography but Gooch doesn’t tell enough about O’Connor’s able, assertive mother, a sharp businesswoman who, astoundingly enough, ran a successful farm by herself in backwater Georgia. And cared for her lupus-afflicted daughter, who couldn’t drive and whom she drove into town to Catholic Mass daily.

Flannery O’Connor never married and died at 39, but she did know romantic love, Gooch reveals: she had one boyfriend, a book salesman. But he’s quoted as saying that the time he kissed her passionately on the lips her lips collapsed and he found himself kissing her teeth. The experience felt like kissing a corpse to him—repulsed, he ran off to Sweden and married another woman.

The bio led me to reread some of her great stories. They’re such distilled parables that their similar plots are striking, and I wonder how she got away with it. On the other hand I marvel at how the differing surface details of her stories obscure the possible downside of the similarity of her plots. Did critics ever complain?

Even though there’s a lot of humor in her stories—they are funny as hell, so to speak—too much O’Connor depresses me.  But listen to her reading  “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in 1959 at Vanderbilt and you’ll enjoy the humor, some broad and some sly, especially if you’ve just read the story.

To cleanse my palate after Flannery and her stories, I read To Kill a Mockingbird, which drags a bit, to me. I enjoy better the movie, which compresses the novel’s three years into one. O’Connor famously dismissed Mockingbird as a children’s book. She has a point, but I disagree. O’Connor mistook Lee’s sunnier view of human nature for sentimentality, I think. Yet Lee’s vision of the human possibility of greatness rings true, as well as inspires, and it’s no more false or fantastic than O’Connor’s consistently bleak view of humanity.

Like O’Connnor, Lee hero-worshipped her father and had a difficult relationship with her mother—and of course Lee killed off the mother entirely in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus is Alabama’s most eligible bachelor. I next read the recent bio of Lee, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, by Charles J. Shields, which was decent. The book is handicapped by Lee’s reticence and by her lack of authorial productivity, leaving Shields with scant material.

His best explanation of why she failed to complete another novel she worked on, as well as a true-crime account planned along the lines of her friend Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, was that she was overwhelmed by the success of Mockingbird and quit. Anyway, that’s supposedly what she told a waiter in New York, says Shields.

All this led me back to one of my all-time favorite authors, another southerner, Walker Percy, who knew O’Connor. I reread his second novel, The Last Gentleman, the followup to his National Book Award winner The Moviegoer. I hadn’t read it in thirty years but adored it again for its humor and its rollicking road-trip structure; I was surprised by the beauty of its descriptive passages and by how Percy achieves lyricism in a stripped syntax that uses rhythm to avoid commas:

Nights were the best. Then as the thick singing darkness settled about the little caboose which shed its cheerful square of light on the dark soil of old Carolina, they might debark and, with the pleasantest sense of stepping down from the zone of the possible to the zone of the realized, stroll to a service station or fishing camp or grocery store, where they’d have a beer or fill up the tank with spring water or lay in eggs and country butter and grits and slab bacon; then back to the camper, which they’d show off to the storekeeper, he ruminating a minute and: all got to say is, don’t walk off and leave the keys in it—and so on in the complex Southern tactic of assaying a sort of running start, a joke before the joke, ten assumptions shared and a common stance of rhetoric and a whole shared set of special ironies and opposites. He was home. Even though he was hundreds of miles from home and had never been here and it was not even the same here—it was older and more decorous, more tended to and a dream with the past—he was home.

Gooch says in Flannery that Percy based his character “Val,” a nun, on O’Connor. That was one of the reasons I reread The Last Gentleman—I wanted to understand his take on O’Connor—but I couldn’t see much resemblance between them. And in the novel, Val isn’t much developed.

Then I reread Percy’s revisiting of these characters some years later in The Second Coming. I was surprised that Percy seemed to have forgotten Val’s lineage; he slips in the book’s only reference to her and refers to her as the heroine’s sister instead of as her aunt. Percy, of withered Protestant roots and a ferocious convert to Catholicism, seems to view the fallen world in a much more kindly light than O’Connor did. Much of The Second Coming deals with Will Barrett’s attempt to understand his father’s suicide. Like Barrett, Percy’s father killed himself, and so did his mother. Cancer got Percy, and he was trying to correspond with Bruce Springsteen about the biblical imagery in Springsteen’s songs when he died.

11 Comments

Filed under fiction, NOTED, religion & spirituality, sentimentality, syntax, theme