Tag Archives: Gail Caldwell

Gail Caldwell 3: more to admire

I.

The way, as I said, that Gail Caldwell employs metaphor in Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship is remarkable. Almost every page includes one.

“No, you’re not,” said Caroline, her face as deadpan as a coach’s in a losing season. “No, you’re not. Keep your hands together. Stay still—don’t look at the water, look at your hands. Now look at me.” The voice consoled and instructed long enough for me to straighten into position, and I managed five or six strokes across flat water before I went flying out of the boat and into the lake.

II.

Here’s metaphor with another virtue, well depicted: female friendship, which as a man I can only envy, having found most of my friendships with men marred by competitiveness or seeming reluctance to be as vulnerable as Caldwell and Caroline Knapp were with each other.

From the beginning there was something intangible and even spooky between us that could make strangers mistake us as sisters or lovers, and that sometimes had friends refer to us by each other’s name: A year after Caroline’s death, a mutual friend called out to me at Fresh Pond, the reservoir where we had walked, “Caroline!”, then burst into tears at her mistake. The friendship must have announced its depth by its obvious affection, but also by our similarities, muted or apparent. That our life stories had wound their way toward each other on corresponding paths was part of the early connection. Finding Caroline was like placing a personal ad for an imaginary friend, then having her show up at your door funnier and better than you had conceived. Apart, we had each been frightened drunks and aspiring writers and dog lovers; together, we became a small corporation. . . .

All of this seems as though it were yesterday, or forever ago, in that crevasse between space and time that stays fixed in the imagination. I remember it all because I remember it all. In crisis with someone you love, the dialogue is as burnished as a scar on a tree.

III.

Caldwell’s frankly expository style—she relies on a strong, sure voice first, and blends into scenes—works with her flair for describing the world’s feel and its beauty. This opening echoes The Great Gatsby, with Fitzgerald’s effortless elegance, wistful tone, and intimate voice:

After I had lived in the East for a decade, long enough to winnow the realities from the dreams, I was driving down Brattle Street one winter night at the start of a storm, when the snow was surfing the currents of a soft wind, and I had the dissonant thought that I could grow old here—something I had never thought anywhere before, and certainly not during a New England winter.

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More metaphors & Gail Caldwell

Still thinking about Gail Caldwell’s deft metaphors in Let’s Take the Long Way Home, I was struck by these remarkable lines by John Steinbeck from The Grapes of Wrath:

 Can you live without the willow tree? Well, no, you can’t. The willow tree is you. The pain on the mattress there—that dreadful pain—that’s you.

I sure didn’t remember that passage, and it makes me want to reread the novel, which also has—I do remember this—an amazing scene of several pages of a turtle trying to cross a highway. The lines above are the epigram of Tom Piazza’s passionate recent novel City of Refuge, about two New Orleans families blown out of their frames by hurricane Katrina, which caused the greatest human dislocation in America since the dust bowl. Piazza was influenced by Steinbeck, and in Piazza’s novel, right before the storm hits, one of his characters, the editor of an arts weekly, approves a review of Philip Roth’s latest book with this headline: “The Gripes of Roth.”

I laughed out loud.

And I came across a great interview with Gail Caldwell in Smith in which she said she writes in longhand:

I used to write on the computer for The Globe book review deadlines every week for many years. Whenever I had writer’s block as a young critic, I’d go sit on my kitchen floor with a pen and a legal pad–I could write myself out of it in 30 seconds. So I learned very quickly to use that as a trick to relax my brain. I wrote my first book in longhand and transcribed, and that’s what I did with this book, too.

I never delete in a Word doc, either. If I know I’ve made a mistake, I write WW for “wrong word” and keep going. You can’t delete when you’re in that state, because it might take you somewhere important. When I transcribe it, I understand what I was trying to do, and it often takes on a second form on transcription. It sounds laborious, but for me it is what it needs to be.

What she said about structuring her book also was interesting, and it confirmed my impression while reading that she was gradually paddling me toward a chronological unfolding. Isn’t it fascinating that even when we know, as readers, the basic story—her friend died—we want to receive the experience? The story is never really the events but our response to them, how they looked and felt, and this is why time-tested narrative endures. Caldwell:

 I sit down and without any thought–I’m not trying to write, I’m trying to herd my thoughts into one place. And then from there I make notes on my notes, and I start to see if I can make maps about the beginning of the relationship, and where we both come from, and specific points in it.

I knew that I wouldn’t have to do much to organize it once I got to Caroline being sick. The heartbreaking ease with which I was able to write the last half of the book–it was like writing a police report, because it was so heartbreakingly matter of fact: and then and then and then. There was a part of me that said, I know this is heartbreaking and devastating to me; it is presumptuous to think that it is going to be to a stranger until you make it that way.  . . . After the first draft, I did have to go back and work very hard to distill into the story it is now.

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Gail Caldwell’s memoir & metaphors

The use of running metaphors in a piece—all related in some way to indigestion or water or loneliness or roller skates, or with a surrealistic or violent cast—will guide the reader in a particular direction as surely as stock can be herded.—Annie Proulx

I’ve been skimming John Irving’s newest novel, Last Night in Twisted River. I started out reading, but it asked more of me than I can give right now. With classes looming, immersed in my own rewriting struggle, I’m too jangly, I guess, to settle into a thick old-fashioned plotted novel with lots of big fat sentences. So when I got a notice the other day from my library that a memoir I’d requested was in, I put Irving aside yet again.

I’d forgotten about the memoir, Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship, about her bond with the late memoirist Caroline Knapp. The book, a svelte 190 pages, sucked me right in with the beauty of its sentences and the immediacy of its story. I devoured it in two days, and I’ll reread it. When it opens, Caldwell is dealing with Knapp’s death, and slowly a narrative storyline emerges amidst reflection as Caldwell goes back, showing their friendship ignite—over shared passions for dogs, rowing, and swimming—and moves through the years toward Knapp’s untimely death from lung cancer. The poignancy of this loss, and what makes it harrowing for Caldwell, is that this friendship between two single, gifted writers, both recovered alcoholics, was uncommonly deep. They were true soul mates, closer than many lovers.

The memoir’s opening page, an unlabeled prologue, showcases its strong, quiet voice, elegant syntax, and interesting use of metaphor:

It’s an old, old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too.

The year after she was gone, when I thought I had passed through the madness of early grief, I was on the path at the Cambridge reservoir where Caroline and I had walked the dogs for years. It was a winter afternoon and the place was empty—there was a bend in the road, with no one ahead of or behind me, and I felt a desolation so great that for a moment my knees wouldn’t work. “What am I supposed to do here?” I asked her aloud, by now accustomed to conversations with a dead best friend. “Am I just supposed to keep going?” My life had made so much sense alongside hers: For years we had played the easy, daily game of catch that intimate connection implies. One ball, two gloves, equal joy in the throw and the return. Now I was on the field without her: one glove, no game. Grief is what tells you who you are alone.

Let’s Take the Long Way Home is so rich with metaphors, and they’re so pleasing and surprising. Aren’t we always seeking apt comparisons? I tell my students that we reflexively pursue symbols to define people and situations—and we must, since words themselves are metaphors. Your ex was just like those cheap cracked boots he left in your closet, wasn’t he? Admit it: she was that mess she left in your bathroom. And Caldwell’s perfect title, what Caroline Knapp used to say to prolong their outings, epitomized their friendship.

When I was a young writer, I’d likely have attributed Gail Caldwell’s frequent metaphoric phrases to sheer genius, and probably some writers do think metaphorically more easily. But now I’m more inclined to see metaphors also as just another aspect of craft, even though they can seem magical. Metaphor “is the language of the angels,” says author and metaphor maven Silvia Hartmann, using a metaphor for a metaphor. “Religion, society, thought, science are all based on metaphor and to be able to speak the language of the angels allows a human being to shape reality for themselves, and for others.”

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