Monday, March 16, 2015

Literal You in a Nuanced World

You didn't begin to suspect you might be a naive narrator until you were moving along into your fourth decade, the final push from suspicion into reality coming when you gave a close reading to a book written by a friend.

Such is the way a writer's mind reaches into the metaphoric spaces behind the cushions on a sofa for the loose change of connection.  A long-time faculty mate of yours at USC, Richard W. Lid, had written a book of some merit about a novelist you believed to be of some merit, Ford Maddox Ford.  Dick Lid's book, Ford Maddox Ford:  The Essence of His Art, came your way well after you'd completed your undergraduate years, adding by its effect on your studies to date the determination that you should pursue your studies as an autodidact rather than a graduate student.

Your frequent greeting to Lid, on campus or at his home, was "This is the saddest story I have ever heard," in itself a tribute to Lid's book and to Ford Maddox Ford, of whose novel, The Good Soldier, this was the opening line.  

In what may be a mountain goat leap, you'd long been aware that the narrator of The Good Soldier was the speaker of that memorable opening line.  You knew he was a naive narrator because of the way the dramatic irony of the story turned on him.  No problem there, but Lid's book and your frequent repetition of the opening line to The Good Soldier caused you by increasing degree to question your own interpretations.

Those interpretations, truth be told, tended toward the literal.  Even though you admired and often recognized nuance, you'd only just begun to see irony and nuance as wedges, holding the door of narrative open for wisps of implication to seep through.  The more you reread, the more implication you saw, culminating in your direct confrontation with your self, meant with a deliberate irony.  "How long,"  you asked yourself, "have you been a naive narrator and reader?"

Of course the answer came back, "Too long."  At which point, you have struggled to make proper amends, not the minor one of blaming your early affectations of sophistication in order to be able to substitute reading for experience.


A snarky book review in a recent edition of one of your favorite review sources, the London Times Literary Supplement, caught your attention because it involved two persons you know (one of them recently dead), and reached the same conclusion you'd reached when you discovered what the book was about.

The review was about the two individuals before they met, how they behaved after they met, and how they behaved after the time they knew each other came to a series of endings, yanking you into a maelstrom of your own roiled emotions, thanks to the high probability that no one else reading the review could possibly have the same response.

Less than thirty minutes after reading the review, you had your notepad out and were well along into the opening paragraphs of what could at least be a short story.  While you were assessing this potential of length and depth, you could not help recalling words uttered in front of you by a writer you greatly admire, Eudora Welty.  "When I start something new,"  she said, "I'm always so relieved when it turns out to be a short story instead of a novel."  

Eudora Welty's assessment remind you of your own take on Mark Twain, when he apologized to a correspondent, "I'd have written you a shorter letter, but I didn't have the time."  Yours was a nod to your tendency to pad your longer works by saying, "I'd have written a short story instead of a novel, but I didn't have the time."

Your narrative, regardless of length, will be roman a clef; the major character, Connor Golden, brought to life only today because of the snarky review.  He will be the armature about which you will wrap details of a long ago friendship.  Thus another character, Howard Chambers, will be you.  You've not yet gone to work on the woman, but the night is yet young.  Howard Chambers, of course, is the narrator, telling the story in first person.  Of course he is naive.  Of course the joke will be on him, a residue of your attitude to the Connor Golden of real time and the way you believe you bought his stories without pausing for a moment to consider their real implications.

Sitting in your storage shelf and on the hard drive of this computer are the first twenty or so chapters of a novel, Exit, Pursued by a Bear, taken from a stage direction out of A Winter's Tale, told by the disgruntled academic, Howard Chambers.

This is how you work; it goes a long way toward describing why you must live for a long time because it will take you that long to get the things most young men and women get in their twenties and thirties, if in fact you get them at all.  And it will in some small way make up for the things that you didn't have the time, back then, to make shorter.


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