Friday, August 28, 2015

The Gap between the Vision and Its Implementation

Within the recent few days, you returned to a vibrant memory, a book you'd read in the past by an author you'd never got on well with and had no expectation of developing any permanent relationship with, much less any expectations you'd expect to learn for your own work from aspects of his technique.

The man had a mild speech impediment, came from a family of enormous ability, range, and intelligence; by the devotion he showed to his craft, he had a major influence on writers of the nineteenth century.  He is still widely taught in literature courses throughout the world; he has exerted through his work a noted influence on two writers still producing memorable works of their own into this century.

The writer is Henry James.  The book you'd short-listed for your conglomeration of the hundred novels of most influence on you is the probing and disturbing story of a young girl named Maisie Farange.  In this novel, named after Maisie, in fact What Maisie Knew, you least of all expected any novel by James to grab you so quickly with his narrative.  "The litigation had been interminable,"  James wrote, "and had in fact been complicated; but by the decision on the appeal, the judgment of the divorce-court was confirmed as to the assignment of the child."


The two contemporary writers of whom you speak are the American writer, Cynthia Ozick, whose novel Foreign Bodies is an affectionate rewriting of The Ambassadors; the other is the Irish writer, living and teaching half-time in America, Colm Toibin.  Each has spoken with enough affection about James to allow readers of their books to recognize the debt of influence.  


True enough, you might have got to that opening sentence with a number two pencil, but for nineteenth-century narrative and for starting with a vulnerable young person caught between a set of warring parents, you were beginning to think you'd picked up enough here and there to stay with James and see what all the fuss was about. 

Good thing you did; you came away with a better awareness of how narrative voice went.  James was always there to explain things to you, which he explained with a deftness and subtlety that began to capture you.  In time, you found The Ambassadors quite absorbing, and have to this day pleasant recollections of the moral battle and consequences he set forth in The Wings of the Dove.

While you'd begun to respect James's eye for subtlety and nuance, you also realized that you, as he did, overwrote, but in his case the overwriting tended to go a good deal deeper into his characters and their motivation, while you took entirely too much time away from the story to make observations.  It is a charity to say of your observations that they were too long; you were writing in the twentieth century, for one thing, and narrative was moving away from the author, for another.

Your revisit with Maisie offered, as so many of these rereadings do, an awareness that you'd grown.  For a while, it was all you could do to remind yourself that it was you who'd grown in awareness; James's ability had always been there.  

Among the many things your current project of The One Hundred Novels You Must Read before You Write Your Own has brought to your consideration is the never ending gap between the vision of an idea and the words and subsequent planning necessary to capture the vision in some form.

You could describe such an activity as attempting to get lightning in a bottle, which is a metaphor you've thrown around from time to time.  You could also say the attempts to articulate and define an idea are much of a piece with trying to get toothpaste back into its tube.

James seems to have found a way of getting his ideas dramatized that included a great and varied correspondence, an enthusiastic approach to keeping a notebook, and the writing-as-thinking that sometimes goes with introductory essays to his work. 

Of his many characters, Maisie, who in the most vivid and interesting of dramatic senses, goes from having two contentious parents to now having four, none of whom seem to care as much about the child as they do inflicting some sort of insult or hurt on the other.  Even though she has a governess and lives in a state a considerable distance above those unfortunate Dickens characters, Maisie could well have fallen between the cracks.  

But James, in one of his few dealings with young characters, seems to have taken to Maisie; he sees her thriving where many others would have failed, and for reasons neither he nor you could have seen until--and this is the part you admire the most--Maisie saw the possibility of becoming the person she wished to become.

Henry James has let her do so.  As you reread Maisie, you see her in the midst of the roiling seas of adult duplicity, irony, and misadventure, following her own remarkable pole star.

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