Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Listening Game

Thanks to your editorial associations with the world-class archaeologist, Brian Fagan, you've had close, regular association with subjects and matters you only skimmed as a student and now take with the same grains of familiarity you employ when considering the motives and behaviors of friends, family, and associates.

You're no longer surprised when, in the course of working on a Fagan manuscript, you come across studies of tree rings from which certain definite inferences may be drawn, nor from the analysis of ancient atmospheres based on pollen counts taken from a core sampling of soil.  Such wonders extend to means of determining the diets of humans and animals long dead, after effects of famed volcanic eruptions, and analyses of frozen tundra.

By comparison with some of these measuring devices and your own study and association with narratives, many of which are close to a thousand years old, you've arrived at a place where you can approximate the time of composition of a spoken or written narrative.

As the publication dates approximate your own times, your ability to fix the exact moment of composition--your own version of tree ring analysis--becomes more acute.  The analog of the tree ring in this case is the authorial use of point-of-view, the filter through which the story must pass.  

The memorable frolic of Henry Fielding's 1749 masterpiece, Tom Jones,  betrays its time and place not only through vocabulary and, in many cases, stilted formality, but through the frequent pauses the author makes to address the reader.

Nearly a hundred forty years later, the presence of the author has been subsumed by the narrative voice of Mark Twain's eponymous character, Huckleberry Finn, who addresses the reader, yes, but as a fully formed individual who is in effect giving us a memoir of his most recent string of events.

Although you'd picked these two titles more or less at random, by way of demonstrating how the conventions of narrative in fiction had evolved, the two novels have more in common than in disparity.  There are remarkable differences between the two authors, not the least of which was their social backgrounds, but there are similarities there, as well.  

While Fielding still remains (largely through Tom Jones), if only as a benchmark for literature majors, Twain still influences and in a number of ways defines what the storyteller ought to do and how, in fact, the storyteller does so.

How many novels and dramatic narratives does one need to read before patterns of any significance emerge?  As you were embarking on your reading career, not certain what it would accomplish for you or you for it, you were faced with a number of ironic circumstances, the common denominator of which was the fact of the narrow path of potential a focus on literature offered in terms of a career.  

This was brought home to you one day when, as you sat in the main chamber of your favorite of all libraries you'd ever visited, the Lawrence Clark Powell Library at UCLA, you were joined by a fraternity brother with a thick, annotated reading list.

After a brief, whispered conference, you each managed to dismay the other.  He was studying for the impending examination for admission to the graduate school of the English Department and assuming you were as well.  He had no idea how shaky your grades in all but literature and music courses were.  In a moment of clarity rare for you in those days, you saw how structured and conventional his ambitions were.

You were already filled with one impossible fire, he with another.  Not long before this meeting, you'd read of F. Scott Fitzgerald's conversation, whether actual or apocryphal, with his classmate, Edmund Wilson, in which he'd confessed his wish to become one of the major writers in the world, then his throw-away question, "Don't you?"

Because you and your fraternity brother each held rank on the staff of the campus humor magazine, you'd had numerous chances to read his material.  Although you had hopes about the quality and potential of your own work, you were not overly impressed with its quality, which was why you were in the library, going through a pile of books and journals, looking for things to grab hold of, hand- and footholds on the steep escarpment of literature.  You placed yourself several steps above your companion, and you thought at the time you understood why.  He was reading to get into grad school.  You were reading to burn bridges, close doors, and fling yourself into the mercies of George Gissing's 1891 narrative, Grub Street, where a first reading had brought forth an immediate sense of identity.

The establishment you sought to enter was in fact Eastern based, or so you thought.  You had no wish to go East.  By this time, and because of the times you'd been in the East, you hated the East.

Your fraternity brother wanted the conventional track to teaching, which at the time was an MA from Berkeley or Stanford, a PhD from a Big Ten or Ivy school, then perhaps back to someplace adventurous:  Montana, Oregon, with luck, home again in Los Angeles.

That evening, you are sitting in Ken's Hula Hut, a jazz joint in the wilds of upper Melrose, before the area became upmarket decorator, furniture, and design country.  You're wanting immersion in the hard, reaching harmonies of the be-bop aspect of jazz, careening past swing and into places where convention was carded, asked to show ID.  You were well into your admiration-friendship of the alto sax player Sonny Criss.  That night, between sets, you were talking about future places, future plans.  Criss was asking you if your instrument spoke to you yet. You knew he was aware you were no musician, thus you thought you understood his question.  You said yes, the conversation between you and your instrument had begun.

"Next set,"  he said, "I'm going to play an old standard.  Gershwin.  'Oh, Lady, Be Good.'  Gonna play it like you never heard it played before."  He nodded, in thought.  "When your instrument talks to you, you go where it takes you."

Your fraternity brother got his PhD, didn't publish much, got cancer, died.

Criss followed his instrument, got cancer, died.  Too soon.  1977.  From time to time, you play his many records, sometimes laughing as you consider how far ahead of his time he was and how effective he still sounds today, and how effective his friendship feels today.

You got stage IIIa cancer, probably could have died, didn't.  From time to time, you listen to Criss and his instrument.  You try to listen to your own.  It is a listening game.  You are listening for the tree rings and the pollen and ash and the sounds of writers through the ages, listening to their own instruments.

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