Monday, November 24, 2014

Looking Back, for Hints, Encouragement, and Modernity

A writer friend,with whom you shared many bottles of champagne, delighted in playing the what-if game,  His version, "What age other than the present would you prefer to live in?"  You both speculated about the variety of times in which it might have been possible to live and be a writer.

Such are the subsidiary joys of champagne.  Your friend chose the Victorian Era, enumerating the  ensemble of writers, artists, and musicians who flourished.  You wanted about twenty years later, which your friend said was cheating because those times were encroaching upon the generation into which you were assembled and delivered.

Queen Victoria died in 1901, thus you could accept her era because Mark Twain, the writer you've felt the longest and deepest connection with was alive and flourishing at that time.  He managed to squeeze in nine or ten years into the new century.

Sometimes, when there was too much champagne, or there was not sufficient time to drink all the champagne available, you'd hold out for the fourteenth century, because that was the time for another hero, Geoffrey Chaucer, and his contemporary, Giovanni Bocaccio.  

By this time, you'd got around to reading Barbara Tuchman's masterful compendium, A Distant Mirror, in which she not only isolated the fourteenth century, she showed its frequent parallels to the twentieth century.

You put in a good deal of reading among the nineteenth century group, looking for, and finding a number of literary companions you might not have come to until these more recent times, where you feel compelled to discern patterns in narrative styles, scope of imagination, and the literary equivalent of apostolic succession, which is to say the manners in which such vital elements as voice, technique, subject matter, and point of view were articulated.  

Who influenced whom?  Why would a writer who seemed to you to have such an ability to delegate to his characters as Honore Balzac did, be impressed by the likes of James Fenimore Cooper?  Why, indeed, the Europeans love Cooper when they had their own Sir Walter Scott.  Much as you admire some European writers, you find yourself unable to grasp European taste.  Why do the French, for example, find Jerry Lewis so engaging?

Twain made it into the twentieth century, your century.  True enough, he passed the great bulk of his years in the nineteenth century.  Of equal truth, you passed most of your life in the twentieth. There is close to a hundred-year gap in your dates of birth, but there is comfort in knowing he passed his later years in your century.  In similar fashion, there is comfort in seeing the way his language holds up.  

The volumes of Twain's autobiography, released a hundred years after his death, in accordance with his wishes, are not your favorites, a problem--or series of problems--that could be his contemporary editor's doing or a combination of her doing and his.

The matter at hand here has a direct relationship to the continuing sustenance and guidance you get from reading his works; it relates to his use of language, in general, in relationship to its style and clarity, and in relationship to seeming freshness.  Read a paragraph or two of any of Twain's contemporaries, in particular one who came upon the scene when Twain was well established at age fifty, D. H. Lawrence.  Now, read a paragraph or two from Twain.

You are no longer fifty.  You are certainly not well established.  But you are aware of being a contestant in a critical race, the race to keep up with the inevitable evolution of narrative tone, of technique, of theme and subject matter, of characters, themselves, of whom Mr. Twain has said the reader shall always be able to distinguish the corpses from the live characters.

Sure enough, you turn to your friend Irony for assistance in this desire to keep abreast of the evolving language and the shape of story.  "Funny you should come to me,"  Irony says when you are caught looking back, over your shoulder to the past for hints and insights relative to tracking the present.  What could you possibly learn from a trusted eighteenth-century Scottish author, Tobias Smollett?  Why has his Humphrey Clinker stayed with you these many years, calling to you from time to time for rereading?

You are more than content being from the twentieth century and a guest in this new century; you are alert to remove those adverbs and albatrosses of past centuries, eager to look past the limitations you could not see before.

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