Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Choices vol.2

For a great many of your formative years, you developed the worst kind of antipathy toward the works of a writer who appears even now, just short of a hundred years after his death, to be the influential favorite of many writers you admire.  The antipathy was even more intense than the one you felt toward William Faulkner.  In both cases, the antipathy was because of your inability to understand them.

During those months and years of antipathy, you needed an excuse you could live with.  One did not go about disliking the works of Henry James and William Faulkner--translate that as not being able to decipher them--without some compelling reason.  

Luck had it that you were able to offer an excuse that took away a good twenty-five percent of the possibility that you might appear unlettered, lacking the wherewithal to understand these giants and, almost by default, lacking in the necessary qualities to pursue your dream of being a writer.

For a time, it seemed impossible for you to have any kind of craft-related conversation with your peers, even those whose abilities you were not impressed by, without the subject of James or Faulkner arising.  Not only were they cited, specific works of theirs were discussed before you, adding to your antipathy but, to cite only one example, your curiosity.  

An author you openly suspected of not reading much beyond the current best-seller lists embarked on a long, hilarious discussion of the famed Faulkner episode, "Spotted Horses." Your friend was irritating in his Faulkner literacy, causing you to resolve, once again, to try Faulkner, beginning with this very novella, which, you already knew from previous conversations, had moved from its original publication in a magazine into a short novel, The Hamlet.

You already knew marginal things about Henry James short stories, in particular "The Jolly Corner," and "Beast in the Jungle."  A dear and competitive friend often teased you for not having read James' famed ghost story, "The Turn of the Screw."

Your primary excuse--you did not like either James' or Faulkner's  narrative voices--seemed to you to grow thinner and thinner.  As such matters often develop with you, the time to face the demon and acknowledge it was at hand.  You flat out admitted you could not read James or Faulkner because, having ted, you were unable to make sense of where the story went, much less could you tell whose story it was or, even worse, what was at stake.

With those admissions came the understanding that your chances of writing anything of substance had suffered a major reversal.  Even worse, it was too late to turn back, to find some other thing that could hold you in the same thrall and reverence writing did.  

You accepted the fate of being reduced to writing plot-driven stories for pulp magazines, well aware your abilities with plotting left much to be desired.  As relevant background matter, you'd yet to meet the mystery writer, William Campbell Gault, who in time would tell you something you'd never forget.  "I'd rather,"  Gault told you, "be the world's worst writer than a good anything else."

One day during one of your habitual browses of a used book store, you came across a relatively clean copy of Henry James' The Ambassadors.  When the bookstore owner saw this in your pile, he nodded approval.  "Good to see you moving up in the world."

Indeed, you were.  In short order, you seemed to pull the design of the novel out of James' languorous sentences.  There was an overarching presence of design emerging from those paragraphs.  You even began to anticipate outcomes and to see the matters of importance to each character in his or her turn.  You might, you allowed, even like this.

You are by no means a James scholar, but when the time came to chose the hundred novels of significant influence on you, The Ambassadors came to mind.  You'd not only taught the novel, you'd arranged classes in which it was the lead-off, followed by two novels written by contemporary writers, both of whom to this day express their debts to James.  As you began to write The Ambassadors on your list, you heard a voice, a youngish, conflicted girl's voice.  "Pick me,"  she said.  "Pick me."

The voice belonged to young Maisie Farange, the central character of What Maisie Knew.  You listened.  Surprisingly enough, James caught the essential nature of this young girl's voice.  He did not capture her with the grace and humor David Mitchell used in depicting thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor in the novel Black Swan Green, but that is yet another matter and, indeed, one of the hundred novels that had principal effect on you.

Faulkner, did you say?  Aren't you forgetting Faulkner?  Turns out the man at the used book store, after listening to you rave about Mark Twain's excerpt"The Mexican Plug Horse," from his memoir Roughing It, forced a copy of The Hamlet on you.  "Can't read it, bring it back for full credit."

Thus you read "Spotted Horses."  The man at the used book store sold you a copy of The Reivers next.  And you were on your way to having to choose between The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying for the hundred novels book.


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