Saturday, July 9, 2016

If You Can't Hear the Characters, There Is No Cake

You were led to the Charles Portis novel True Grit, one afternoon of great convenience and significance at a time when narrative voice held your interest hostage. During a visit with the writer John Sanford (ne Julian Shapiro), in which you expressed admiration for his distinctive narrative voice, you wondered aloud and with impatience how best to articulate the sounds you sometimes heard during composition.

Sanford's wife, Marguerite, was serving us Sara Lee pound cake and coffee at the time of my outburst. "You should read True Grit," she said.

"You'd better listen to her," Sanford told me. "She knows. She wrote the screenplay."

There followed a recounting of her conversations with John Wayne, who'd been cast to portray the character of the irascible Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn, and Wayne's concerns that Rooster's voice emerge in the script like a beacon to light Wayne's path away from sounding like himself and instead like the character.  

He was also aware of the considerable difference between his own politics and those of Marguerite Roberts, and his concerns that she might inadvertently slip in "some of that Pinko stuff." You were reminded of this conversation again when you'd learned that Wayne had won Best Actor Award for his role in the film.

"You should read True Grit,"  she said.  And you did.

First and foremost, you got the unwavering presence of the principal narrator, Mattie Ross, told from the firmness of her recollections now as a spinster, principled in its determination to bring to justice the man who had betrayed the confidences of her father, then killed him. 

Mattie Ross's word choice and the formality of her cadences, whether in narrative, description, or her recounting of the dialogue of others, gave this story, which in essence was a story of revenge sought, then achieved, its distinctive voice.

At the time of your visit to the Sanford/Roberts cottage in the more remote outliers of Montecito, John Sanford was working on a three-volume autobiography, all told in the second person. You'd read the first volume and, as usual with your readings of his work, were mesmerized by the intensity and integrity of his narration. 

In regard to that, Sanford often repeated to you two of your favorite observations from Mark Twain, himself no stranger to voice. "The right word--not it's second cousin." and "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

You took a great deal away with you from that visit. On your way home, you stopped at The Tecolote Book Shop to purchase a copy of True Grit, thenplunged into it as the gift from its author, and from Marguerite Roberts, who'd given you the clue, every bit as simple as the Sara Lee pound cake she served.

" Listen to the characters."

If you can't hear the characters, there is no cake.

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