Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Samuel, Nathan, and Jack

By the time you'd reached the age where you encountered the Which came first, the egg or the chicken question, you'd already and without being aware of it chosen the chicken counterpart in another riddle of existential proportion.  Which came first, the reader or the writer?

The answer seemed pretty clear to you all along.  You could;t have taken with seriousness the desire to become someone who wrote stories without yourself having read more of them than you could keep straight.  This decision on your part was pushed over the edge because your own life, at the time, was teetering on the edges of boredom.  At no time has it been lost on you that part of your passion for reading story as well as nonfiction was to substitute the adventure of story for the mere interest in the world and curiosity about how it worked.

In effect, story was for you the motivating force for you turning information into adventurous narratives that were more of a piece with one of the early and now all-but-forgotten forebears of the modern story, Washington Irving.

There is a logic in this chronology that has of late had you up past your bedtime, pondering the implications, some of which began when you were directed by a kindly librarian to investigating the tales of Washington Irving, continuing with your discovery of Twain, first the novelist, then as the memoirist.  By this time, you'd been directed to, or your curiosity took you toward, the ancients whom, at one point, you had no use for.

Why would you want to read anything before Twain?  This had a particular relevance to you because when Twain died, on April 21, 1910, your father was almost the same age you were when you discovered that Twain not only wrote nonfiction, he'd begun having the kind of adventurous life you craved.  No doubt your father was bewildered by your constant reference to the fact that he was alive at the same time as your hero, wondering, no doubt, what he could have done to make that more meaningful.

He'd done quite enough by making Twain seem closer than his books, and by having his own version of the dead pan responses you found so effective in Twain.  Thanks to your father, Twain and his delivery seemed more within your own grasp.  Enter now Nathan Birnbaum, born 1896, meaning he'd achieved fourteen years of living while Twain still set his Conklin fountain pen to paper.  Your father, Mark Twain, and Nathan Birnbaum had in further common the fact that all had a glorious, dead pan sense of timing and a notable fondness for a cigar, each appreciating it for its flavor but as well as a kind of elocutionary tool, a wand, if you will, to use in punctuating their statements.

Samuel Langhorn Clemens changed his name and persona to Mark Twain.  Nathan Birnbaum changed his name to George Burns. You can see sufficient reason to call Burns the Jewish Mark Twain. Your father didn't have any reason to change his name.  Because he was so close, you took every opportunity to watch his moves, study his timing, watch his gestures.  Somewhere in your digital photo album, there is a picture of you taken in June of 2014 on the occasion of a reading and signing of a book of short stories.  

Thanks to cataract surgery in both eyes sometime early in 2013, you no longer need the contact lenses you wore for years, nor the nonprescription-type reading glasses.  At that reading, you wore them, in the interests of a smooth reading performance.  When you saw the picture for the first time, you felt a momentary shift of balance and displacement.  The individual in the picture wore your jacket.  You recognized the shirt.  And with the reading glasses, the picture was complete.  You'd never looked more like your father than at that photo.  In a real sense, what you'd been pointing toward all these many years had converged.  How could someone so physically unlike the author Truman Capote as Philip Seymour Hoffman so convincingly be Truman Capote?  How could anyone so unlike your father finally appear as him?

Well before that time, you allowed nature to take its course and you with it, back to some of the writers you disdainfully considered ancients, finding the comforting presence of Mark Twain, George Burns, and your Father in the person of Geoffrey Chaucer and, for an even more remote example, of an author from the past named Lucius Appuleus.  Another "ancient" was a Scottish writer, Tobias Smollett  (1721--71), in whom you found all but the cigar.

With these worthies in mind. along with the choice discoveries of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Kathleen Mansfield, Virignia Woolf, and George Eliot, you began to see, thanks to their combined and highly personal approaches to narrative, a sense of the long story being the equivalent of a history of human consciousness.  The novel is humanity's equivalent of petroglyphs and the drawings on the interiors of remote caves.

You've come to owe all these worthies you've mentioned and a number of yet more contemporary ones who give you great cause to celebrate each time you spend time deciphering the complex, coded traces of our species.  Of course, when the celebrating is done, and you take some time to assess what aspects of craft and technique and psychology and sensory awareness you've gleaned, you realize how much technique is required, and how much work you got yourself in for when you asked your fourth grade teacher, who'd just read the opening chapters of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to a class deprived of recess because of a rain downpour if persons actually got paid for writing such things.

Even though Mrs. DiAngelo had a strong, nasal New York accent and was wont to pronounce arithmetic as arit-ma-tick, Twain coming from her lips was as Mozart coming from Alicia Dela Rocha.  You had no real idea what it was like to be screwed, not then.  You needed at least another ten years of trying to tell stories and not getting it right to appreciate what being screwed meant.

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