Sunday, March 4, 2007

It's About Time

A few recent readings, notably a review of the latest series of essays by Milan Kundera on the state of the novel, and, earlier, a poignant reflection on his late mother from Susan Sontag's son, met head-on this morning with a column in The New York Times by Frank Rich.

The thrust of the review on Kundera's latest goes to Kundera's continuing belief in the novel as a moral history of civilization. Not bad. I can get with that.

Writing in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Susan Sontag's son spoke of his final days with Sontag as she, once again, gave herself over to what she was involved with, which in this case was cancer. Sontag expressed regrets that there was no time left for fiction, and you could feel the regret from the son that this was true. He was hopeful of one final short story. Some last piece of fiction from this artistic icon who was caught up in the battle with cancer.

The Frank Rich piece was about, gulp, Hillary who, I think, in many ways runs a parallel course with Sontag. To my reading, Rich all but wrote Hillary off as a serious choice for the Presidency, giving a nod to Senator Obama. The sharpened blade of Rich's axe was the fact of Hillary's unquestioned intelligence falling victim to her judgment.

This part of my argument mixes some apples with the oranges. Nevertheless:
Susan Sontag had a great intellect, one of the best of her--our--generation. It was so great that she was, in a way, seduced by it, drawn along by it for the purpose of intellectual investigation. She tried fiction, loved it, resolved to spend more time with it. But. But she went to the intellect, where she was comfortable, and where, indeed, she flourished.

Hillary has a first-rate mind. In thinking and writing about Sontag and Hillary, I am reacting to light from distant stars; I know neither from close hand. I have speculative doubts that Hillary ever thought about fiction; instead she stayed with the strength of her intellect, but--and this is where her path diverges from Sontag's and the apples and oranges become stored separately again--she allowed intellect to trump judgment.

Kundera fits into this weird calculus because--again, light from a distant star--he has at least temporarily written through his fictional storehouse and now pursues the strengthening of intellectual muscles, a mid-career hiker, as it were, taking up technical rock climbing and mountaineering. Ah, Milan, where will those new muscles take you? I hope it is to the unbearable lightness of fiction. Meanwhile; yes, I agree with your take on the novel as moral history, as I indeed agree with Faulkner's take on fiction being the agony of moral choice.

It's about time.

Musicians, actors, photographers, writers have a common bond in time.

For the musician, it is the tempo of the notes; for the actor, it is the length or brevity of the line (comedy is tragedy speeded up); for the photographer, it is the shutter speed; for the writer, it is the choice of which moments to render in narrative, which to slow down into the scene.

For all of the above, time is the crucible in which the activity is rendered. Having not too long ago taught a course in critical theory, it was my task and pleasure to see text--read time--through various lenses: Marxism, feminism, post modernism, historicism, etc. I still have the vivid and warm memory of Steve Cook, arriving at one of our coffee sessions, laden with a sack filled with some of the texts he used over the years at Westmont, plus three or four editions of Heart of Darkness, plus a CD of Apocalypse Now. I did give serious thought to using the Conrad as the text, but tended toward The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien's remarkable take on our involvement with Viet Nam. Fuggedaboudit! That would be throwing red meat to the lions; the issues would overcome the process. I needed something a bit more neutral. I chose Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day for my text, slapping a post-it note in my brain to remember that the novelist or short story writer wants the issues to overcome the process; thus the writer forcing the issue to the point where the writer forces himself to see, the better to refract the vision outward to the reader.

Some writers of fiction do this later part remarkably well. Louise Erdrich, for one. Others have the process down cold, much as Hillary does, but they can't bring themselves to let the time and the feelings trump the intellect. Ayn Rand comes painfully to mind.
It's about time: the time we live in, the issues and forces that squeeze out events as though from a toothpaste tube; the relationship between our time and another if we chose to write of an historical era; the relationship between our time and an imaginary one (see Philip Roth on the America where Charles Lindberg is President.) if that is the intent.
When I have fears that I might cease to be, John Keats wrote,
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain...

It was about time for him, as it is for all of us: We cannot possibly get it all done. The task of the writer is of a piece with the discovery each of us is destined to make when wandering into a library, seeing all the books, and realizing, I will have neither the time to read all of these or write the ones circling about my brain in a holding pattern much like the incoming holiday traffic at O'Hare.

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