28 February 2011
Among Mavis Gallant‘s endless, stunning talents, she has a gift for rendering the genius of childhood. It’s fascinating to me that women like Gallant and Elizabeth Bowen – neither of whom had children – have such deep insight into the inner lives of children and the ways in which they absorb adult existence around them.
The children of their fiction are clearly victims of adult flabbiness, vanity, and broken-heartedness; but these child-characters transform their own fragilities into mental strength and acuity, while they are also haunted by a poignant loneliness. In a sense, all Gallant’s stories are about the making of an artist.
Unconsciously, everyone under the age of ten knows everything. Under-ten can come into a room and sense at once everything felt, kept silent, held back in the way of love, hate, and desire, though he may not have the right words for such sentiments. It is part of the clairvoyant immunity to hypocrisy we are born with and that vanishes just before puberty.
The wisdom of Gallant’s retrospective narrators is in rendering – often humorously – adults’ failure to recognize all that the child sees and knows, treating the child essentially like an idiot; as if the adult world is actually, in any meaningful way, set off from the child’s.
“Linnet, if you don’t sit down I’m afraid you will have to go to your room.” “If” and “I’m afraid” meant there was plenty of margin. Later: “Wouldn’t you be happier if you just went to bed?” [...] Presently, “Down, I said, sit down; did you hear what I’ve just said to you? I said, sit down, down.” There came a point like convergent lines finally meeting where orders to dogs and instruction to children were given in the same voice. (from “The Doctor”)
I’m only just beginning to make my way through Gallant’s oeuvre. Her stories are immensely gratifying, profoundly nourishing on the level of language and narrative and emotion and intellect – never sacrificing any one of these for a moment. I’m also interested in Gallant’s life – the ways in which her life and art cross and overlay in a helix-like dance. It seems to me that she could never have written these stories had she lived any other life, which, by all accounts, has been one of staunch autonomy; the inner and outer solitary-ness of the exile.
Here is a radio interview with Gallant from 2004 at NPR.
26 February 2011
If you live in New York, try to get to the “Painters & Poets” exhibit at Tibor de Nagy Gallery on Fifth Ave at 56th Street. It closes on March 5. I’ll write more about it soon.
From the gallery Web site:
The Tibor de Nagy Gallery marks its 60th anniversary with “Tibor de Nagy Gallery Painters and Poets,” an exhibition celebrating the gallery’s pivotal role in launching the New York School of Poets and fostering a new collaborative ethos among poets and painters in post-War New York. The exhibit focuses on the gallery’s first two decades, the 1950s and ‘60s, when its vibrant, salon-like atmosphere and director John Bernard Myers’ passion for both art and poetry gave birth to these unique partnerships.
The show features paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, Alfred Leslie, Trevor Winkfield, Nell Blaine, Joe Brainard, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, Jane Freilicher and Fairfield Porter; poetry collections published by the gallery’s imprint, Tibor de Nagy Editions, and featuring work by Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, John Ashbery, Barbara Guest and others, with illustrations by Tibor de Nagy artists; photographs and films by Rudy Burckhardt; letters, announcement cards and other ephemera; and archival photographs of leading cultural figures of the day by John Gruen and Fred McDarrah.
And here is Peter Schjeldahl on the show from the New Yorker.
19 February 2010
Thanks to one of my students for turning me on to stories by Colm Toibin. I love this description from a wonderful story called “Silence,” which features the real-life characters of Lady Gregory, the poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, and Henry James:
She thought of them like food, Lady Anne all watery vegetables, or sour, small potatoes, or salted fish, and the poet her husband like lamb cooked slowly for hours with garlic and thyme, or goose stuffed at Christmas. And she remembered in her childhood the watchful eye of her mother, her mother making her eat each morsel of bad winter food, leave her plate clean.
This passage reminds me of my previous posts “On Character Psychology.” The bit about her mother is really all I need – to get a sharp sense of Lady Gregory and how she will feel about Blunt and his wife, and “why.” The convergence of different kinds of appetites in this story is brilliant.
15 February 2011
I’ve been chewing on a few things Nicholson Baker said at a recent lecture:
1. Write short books. This extends, in his opinion, to “read short books.” There is, of course, some relief for me here. I’ve been thinking lately about how a big book in some ways has the same requirements as a short story, i.e. every word must be compelling. Otherwise, how will the reader persist? Middlemarch was compelling from beginning to end. War & Peace is my summer project (I am hopeful). 2666 lost me in the midst of the endless litany of murders. (Note: I am a slow reader; fast readers will find all of this inconsequential. The divide between fast readers and slow readers is enormous in terms of reading prioritization.) Short books, Baker contends, are each really part of the larger, singular work of an artist; in other words, all the books you write are of a piece, so why not make them compact.
2. Copy out writing that you admire – regularly, religiously. I’ve always done this but I am inspired by the “regularly, religiously.” It feels so inefficient to do this – it takes time, forces you to slow down (you should do it by hand, in my opinion) – but it isn’t. It seems almost too simple, i.e. teach yourself to write by writing someone else’s actual good words. But I do think there’s something else that happens, a kind of transference, when you actually engage physically with good/great words and sentences and ideas.
3. Block yourself off from the world. You have to get distance in order to get closer, is how Baker put it. And the goal of all good novels is to get closer – to the human experience, to life on earth. You can’t get closer from within, it’s like trying to capture the image of a person’s face when you’re nose to nose. As a matter of practical example, he often writes with headphones on, blasting music that floods his brain and functions as a buffer between his mind and his environment.
I don’t always get out for readings and lectures, but it’s good – especially the reminders that it’s supposed to be difficult. “You can’t get what it means to write honestly until you’ve suffered something,” Baker said. We twist ourselves up when we lapse into the erroneous expectation that it should come easy.
2 February 2011
I was so moved by this video segment on Democracy Now this morning (forward to 15:50). It caught me off guard; I got choked up. Something about the confidence, the peacefulness, the calm and dignified truth-telling of the protestors. Their expressions about why they are there, what they want, are so deeply reasonable. They are cleaning up their trash in the square. They have claimed the inevitability of effecting this change. Men and women are all out there together.
One woman said, “I have nothing to lose now. I have already said ‘down with Mubarak’ on TV. If he doesn’t go, then we all go down; we go, as they say, behind the sun.” She said all this smiling, fearless. Another man said, “The relationship between Mubarak and the people has ended.” Simple as that, like lovers parting ways.
This was all yesterday, though. Today, a different story. What a thing to witness, what a time to be alive… our hearts are with the Egyptian people.
1 February 2011
Picking up from my last post… the class discussion on character psychology has me thinking (the students are really so astute, they teach me things): there was some disagreement about how much psychological background – which is to say family/childhood background – the reader needed about an adolescent boy-narrator who is engaged in a sexual relationship with an older male. My feeling was that the story both was and was not calling out for back story; for select details from the past that might give us a better sense of how and why this boy finds himself in this particular relationship, with its particular dimensions and dynamics. But it was neither a “pedophilia story” nor a “coming-out story”; rather, it was a story, as the writer shared with me later, “about loneliness.”
Some students felt strongly that the relationship was extreme and unusual enough that it needed some “why.” Others felt that the story honed in so compellingly on the particularity of these two individuals that “how” or “why” needn’t come into it, and too much of that would steer the story into a kind of regressive social criticism.
In the meantime, I am reading Stacey D’Erasmo‘s A Seahorse Year, a story about a modern, unconventional family – a lesbian couple, and a son conceived by one of the women and a gay man whose lover (now deceased) was a close friend of the woman. Interestingly, D’Erasmo does offer us tidbits of psychology/backstory: both women had philandering fathers, one of whom was physically abusive toward the entire family. We are told that the partner who is having an affair has always felt the need to hide things, to have unseen secrets, which may be related to her father having sold radiology equipment, and the Catholic school nuns telling her that God could see right through her.
But perhaps I am conflating “psychology” with “backstory.” We are never interested in one-to-one explanations, Freudian maps or predictions. But I do think that contemporary readers, when giving themselves over to characters, long to understand what makes them tic, one way or another. Sexuality is often elemental…
(And here we see a divergence from Ms. O’Connor; her characters are physical and sensual, but not particularly sexual. Their behavior is – from her perspective, I dare say – theologically driven more than psycho-sexually. In light of this, if you think about it, amazing is the enduring appeal of her work.)
I am now on alert for character psychology in everything I read!