Friday, January 2, 2015

Back at Those Hundred Novels

There have been times in your life when forces beyond your immediate control knocked the wind out of you.  

The results were never comfortable, with you gasping for and at the same time understanding the primal nature breath is to the living.  Most of these ventures were sports related, meaning you were not alone at the time; someone was there to pound you on the back, whether that was the right approach or not.

A major exception to you being windless and in company came when you more or less inflicted the loss of breath on yourself, back in your days of distance running, by colliding with a parked car.  You pretty much had to do your own recovery.  Considering the foolishness you felt along with the breathlessness, you were glad to be alone.

The most recent time, the wind was not so much knocked out from you as it was prevented from its orderly entrance and departure.  You were in a steak house at Las Vegas, Nevada, where, after your discomfort became apparent, a dear friend performed a Heimlich maneuver on you, yet another talent your friend had among so many others.  Wind pipe cleared of obstruction, you were well able to return to what, up until a few short moments before, had been a pleasant meal.

Beyond those moments of awareness of how precious a single gulp of air can be, you remain unscathed, ready to put those sorts of breathlessness behind you in favor of memories of your running days and the countless memories distance running brought you of oxygen debts, themselves exciting, and their quenching, with deep, satisfying gulps of whatever air was around.  

While you're at it, there are memories of second and third grade recesses, when you were a student at the Hancock Park Elementary School in Los Angeles.  A curious, serious student, you were nevertheless your age, as eager to be out the door when the recess bell rang as you were to read, observe, question, when recess was over.  In those years, your main goal seemed to be the quickest possible way to incur an oxygen debt, which meant running as many tours about the perimeter of the play area as possible, then lining up at the drinking fountain to take in great mouthful of water.

Come with me now to a 3 1/2 inch by 5 1/2 inch memo book, on which the notation "100 Novels" appears, recognizably written in your handwriting.  The opening pages indeed contain a list of 100 novels which, by your own design, are novels that made some profound impact on you when you read--and likely reread--them, impacts equal in memory to the times when you had your wind knocked from you, followed by some moments of suspense for when breath should return.

You have wanted to say of these novels that they have remained with you, having had some remarkable physical and emotional effect.  Your notion, to write or meditate on these effects, then write about the things in each novel that caused you to want to retain them, as a reader and as a writer.  

Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott, for instance, which you admired because Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe's major antagonist, Sir Reginald Front de Boeuf, who used his massive stature to intimidate people.  Young as you were at first reading, you nourished a desire for the protagonist, Sir Wilfrid, to marry Rebecca, the Jewess, Lilith incarnate for you, rather than Lady Rowena.

You were fond enough of another Scott novel, Heart of Midlothian, to attempt to adapt it as a screenplay, focused, of course, on its protagonist, Effie Dean, in whom you saw notable reminders of Hester Prynne, from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and the epononymous Tess from Thomas Hardy's Tess of the Durbervilles, both of which you read, but did not have the visceral reaction to that you had from Ivanhoe.

There is something to having the wind knocked out of you, having the physicality of oxygen debt, and recess-induced thirst.  There is also the physicality of ten- and twenty-kilometer races and marathons, and the gliding sense of ease and at-oneness with everything when those endorphins kick in.  But there is also a range of similar feelings from experiencing those 100 novels, particularly when you begin removing one from the front list to put in another.

Still not clear enough what these 100 novels are telling you in their aggregate presence, but your attraction to them, some over a span of thirty or forty years, is telling you something that begins to remind you of stories where a protagonist is pestered by a character to at least listen.

And so you carry the memo book with you, you listen, and you bump the occasional title from the front hundred to the overflow list, which has already gone up to thirteen.

And now, you notice yet another heading, for novels "Stunning in Their Awfulness, and Yet..."

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