Wednesday, November 4, 2015

I Wouldn't Put It Past You

 With some frequency, you find yourself reminding your students how at least fifty-five percent of a story has to take place in the present.  In doing you, you are passing on a sincere and informed belief, but you are also reminding yourself how most story has roots in the past but must be played out with a significant presence in the immediate now.

There is some pleasure in reminding students and self how this observation was held at conservative least, eight hundred or so years before the common era.  You are thinking of The Iliad, which, in its first line, calls our attention to the wrath of Achilles.  Whether or not we know of the story behind The Iliad, and the long siege of Troy, who among us has not heard of the Achilles heel in reference to a classic sort of vulnerability?  Knowing of the heel, we have some awareness of the street cred and prowess of the man.

Of the many reasons we can cite for The Iliad beginning when and where it does, an obvious one is because of the way it tells us we are in year seven of the siege, the numbers of dead are increasing, and many of the various forces involved are growing tired of it, tired of the reasons behind it, and tired of the relentless consequences to follow if the siege continues.

Contemporary stories are bound by the same dramatic conventions, as they relate to time management and a tendency among emerging writers to want to find ways to tell us of the past before introducing us to characters in the present.  

Many of us have embedded within their reading history memories of plays in which a chorus appears to present a hint of what the story is all about.  Some of these chorus-type beginnings date back to ancient Greece, others, borrowing from that tradition give us variations on a theme.

Consider Shakespeare's Henry V, where a chorus appears to tell us how great the appetite and agenda of King Henry was to contest the ownership of France.  But.  " But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vast fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt? "

This is well thought apology for not having the scenery and grand effects necessary to portray the battles that actually took place, and so, we ask you to use your imagination for the battles we knew took place back in the day.  An excellent use of apology for not having a broader stage than 'this wooden O."

The historical information leading up to the conditions, disposition and agenda of the characters, and the surrounding tensions, relates to matters of the past, thus the name backstory.  Some accomplished contemporary writers, and any number of emerging contemporary writers use their early readings to justify the presentation of a modern story with a detailed backstory to set the scene and engage the reader's attentions and sympathy.

Evolution being what it is, we will pardon writers of the past for the conventions of the fast they followed.  You were pleased to be editor of a book on the Cro-Magnon species, written and published in this century by an author who found no need to apologize for the species, rather instead making the work a paean to their adaptability and resourcefulness.  In the bargain, he showed how, in fact, some individuals tend to regard the Cro-Magnon and their Neanderthal predecessors as witless, as savages, as less productive and substantial as they were.

Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon were steps along a path of evolution.  Choruses and long, historical set-up, including long descriptions, were steps along a path of literary evolution.  With one or two exceptions, you could start most of the novels of the considerable poet/writer, Thomas Hardy, somewhere in the middle of Chapter One if not at the beginning of Chapter Two.  Even the most notorious exception among Hardy's novels, The Mayor of Casterbridge, trod slowly along the path to its still shocking and powerful Chapter One conclusion.

Of course characters of consequence have backstory, some of them quite elaborate in direct proportion to the consequence the past will have on their behavior in the present.  But if that backstory, often told through the filter of compound verbs and more complex tenses than the mere immediacy of the declarative sentence in the present indicative, requires too many compound verbs--ha had gone, she might have gone, he could possibly have gone, etc--the modern reader will resent the apparent distance between herself and the characters.

If, in L.P.Hartley's novel, The Go-Between, the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there, you can toy with the notion of how, from the perspective of the present, a novel's narrative retains its freshness and relevance or begins to slip back into techniques and conventions of other times, where in one way or several, the authorial presence mediated between reader and story, allowing the author to send the equivalent of notes to the reader.

The past can and should haunt all characters; it for certain haunts you, in relation to things you did or did not do, things you did or did not understand, and things you wished for then that you may regret having achieved or thank the fates you did not acquire.

With another nod to Hartley, the past is indeed a foreign country from which you have emerged, in your choice of the kind of tour guide Mark Twain made such fun of in The Innocents Abroad, or the inexperienced and naive travelers, who believe too many of the wrong facts and not enough of the correct ones.

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