Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Leo and I

I have always had a problem with the classics. I find them remote and forbidding. Dauntingly verbose, armored with generations of academic exegisis, their aura of difficulty and virtue sealed under a yellowing veneer of remote time periods and foreign cultures, they were always a chore. I read them for the hard-won satisfaction I felt at being able to say I’d read them. Nothing in all of In Search of Lost Time (even the hilariously botched kiss with Albertine in Book Two), was remotely as satisfying as simply telling people I was reading Proust. I’d find almost any excuse to drop it into a conversation. Had I seen the Patriots on Sunday, started the new Salman Rushie (Proust trumps Rushdie without lifting a perfectly manicured finger); was I going to the circus, the left-wing puppet show, the local theatre production of Oklahoma? No, sorry, I didn’t really have time. I was reading Proust. Sure, it was about as much fun as sitting through a full-length Noh play or a lecture in particle physics. But that was okay – I was getting respect. It was a respect tinged with suspicion and concern for my sanity, as if I’d told people I was helicopter snow-boarding unstable glaciers on my weekends. They couldn’t quite believe I was doing it and couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to.
It makes sense. The dutiful concentration such books require has nothing in common with the carnal pleasure I get from the modern books I love. The advice from teachers and parents to “Give it a hundred pages or so,” seems to come from another world, too; as disconnected as a sex education class is from the sex itself, the real education of a first kiss.
With my favorite novels, it has always been love at first sight, or first sentence:
It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.
Robert Cohn was once middle-weight boxing champion of Princeton.
In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

I seem to fall through the pages, pulled down into the intricate layers of someone else’s dream, all the way to the end:
He had won the battle over himself. He loved Big Brother.
“Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back endlessly into the past.
That’s what makes finding a classic you can actually love such a unique thrill. It’s a mark of adulthood, like realizing that sautéed calf’s liver doesn’t taste half bad, or writing tuition checks. Which brings me to my new friend Leo. “All happy families are alike,” were his first words to me. “Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
A famous line, famously true. But the next second he plunges into a particular unhappy family and barely pauses for breath during the next six hundred pages. It's one scene after another. Anna comes to Moscow to talk her sister in law into staying with her brother, the delightful Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky. First we see Stepan confronting Dolly; then we see Anna actually talking her out of a divorce. That’s more events and incidents (and full-blooded characters) than in all of the thousand or so pages I read of Proust, put together. Proust would describe how it all felt, and the way in which his memory of it all had warped over time, and how he felt about that subtle transformation, and how his memory of those feelings abut his recollections changed the nature of the memories he recalled … all of this deftly woven into several pages of description evoking the various root vegetables everyone was eating at the time.
Okay, I won’t belabor it. Tolstoy isn’t Proust. But it’s more than that. He’s the anti-Proust … he may even be the paragigm of the kind of fiction Proust was rebelling against. And Proust’s descendants seem to validate his position … Joyce, Pynchon, DeLillo. It’s a grand tradition of intricate and unreadable prose, cherished by cult snobs and degree candidates everywhere.
Whereas, Tolstoy’s descendants, many of them –- though vastly readable -- are mediocre at best: Clavell, Michener, Uris, even Ayn Rand. Tolstoy, along with Dickens and Balzac, more or less invented the big, broad-canvas, multi-character epic novel as we know (and sometime despise) it today. The party scenes that allow him to show a dozen fragmentary incidents at once, the great set pieces (Vronsky’s steeple chase, Levin’s wheat harvest) defined the way big-canvas epics are painted to this day. But it’s not only in the pulp blockbuster books that you can find his influence. Margaret Mitchell and Theodore Dreiser learned from Tolstoy; so did Nabokov and Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Frazen. It’s not just in the story telling, which is headlong and compulsive, but in the forces surging under the story, the class struggle and social change, the striving idealism, brute cynicism the warring political philosophies driving it. When you press your hand to the metal of that locomotive, you can feel the density of social observation and the immanence of revolution making the metal vibrate, making your feet tingle on the riveted floor, while that landscape of confrontations and embraces rockets past, buffeting you with the wind of its sheer exuberant momentum, until you pull into the station and there’s a dead girl on the tracks.
Every detail and description stokes the engine. Every thought we overhear leads to some action, the next action, the next event. Not a word or gesture is wasted. Russian novels are supposed to be baggy and digressive, full of bombast and padding.
Not Anna Karenina.
But the best thing about reading this monumental classic is the ease and intimacy of the experience. It’s incongruous: like having a picnic at Stonehenge, or going Christmas shopping with Nelson Mandela. It’s a shockingly enjoyable experience, a lark, burnished and made slightly surreal by the majesty, the unassuming greatness of the weather beaten stones rising around you or the self-deprecating old man taking your arm in front of FAO Schwartz.
Yes, Tolstoy was a giant of world literature, a titan of Russian history, but he was also … just a guy. A shrewd, overbearing, funny guy who understood people as they were and are better than almost anyone, before or since. I read him and it’s just the two of us: the crazy Russian landowner and the housepainter from Nantucket, sitting together in a communion so extreme it approaches telepathy. I am, quite literally, reading his mind. It's like the touch of a calloused finger on my cheek, like a smile of recognition over the third glass of vodka. What a bore Karenin is! What a big city fool Oblonsky is, selling off his trees without even counting them! And what a glorious moment for Levin, after his sleepless night in the fields, to see Kitty passing by in her coach, on the empty road at dawn.
A hundred and fifty years, fifteen hundred miles, a different language and a different alphabet mean nothing. Leo is a friend of mine now. We make a last toast to Levin and Kitty; bow our heads for a moment in the firelight, mourning for Anna; then we totter off to bed.
I’m looking forward to many more nights like this one.
I hope he is, too.

Monday, November 07, 2005

The J.R. Fowles Club, Closed Until Further Notice

John Fowles wrote a brilliant essay ten years ago, treating his personality as a private club, "to which I belong, for my sins." The members were always at odds, including "one fathead who fancies himself a novelist. Another pretends to be a feminist. I'd like to see him just once with a duster or an iron in his hand ... We are truly an unspeakably futile shambles. I honestly shall resign if they don't watch out. I've always hated men's clubs anyway."

Fowles was my primary connection to the world of letters, to the uses of imagination and the use of words. I learned to write by reading him and struggled to follow him as best I could. Sometimes I heard his voice in mine strongly, but it didn't make me feel feel puny and deriviative ... though of course I was. It just felt good. It made the monkey happy: I see, I do. Something about the way he would anchor an anecdote so precisely in time and place, giving memory an almost hallucinatory vividness: "We went straight to the front ... This is early in 1915. It sleeted and rained incessantly."
Or: "I still loved, or at any rate still practised, music. I had the big Pleyel harpsichord I use here in our Paris flat. One warm day in Spring, it would have been in 1920, I was playing by chance with the windows open, when the bell rang."

So when I write lines like "I first saw your mother on the Malibu Colony beach, just before lunch on the morning of June 17, 1956. She was playing volleyball, wearing a blue, one-piece Jantzen bathing suit with a little skirt. I fell in love absolutely and permanently at that moment." I feel that heavy, subby-fingered hand on my shoulder. As if I've become him for one sparkling moment, slipping into the foyer of the club before the doorman chases me out. Maybe it's the way Bernstein felt channelling Beethoven in the first bars of "There's a Place For us." Which may be why I feel like part of the writer in me died this weekend, also. It might have been the best part; it was certainly my favorite.

I met Fowles in the summer of 1972. I was in England and determined to have some kind of physical contact with the man who loomed so large in the life of my mind. I found his house in Lyme Regis (everyone knew where he lived, he was the town celebrity) and was lucky enough to discover that he had known my father during his days in Hollywood. There is a stong family resemblance and his delighted "Not George's son?" was my ticket to a long aftenoon drinking St Pauli Girl beer and touring the Undercliff. I wrote to him occasionally after that and always got a response. Some were chiding, as when he told me not to attempt a novel until I was thirty, adding, "I know that's a red rag to the American go-getting bull," and at other times startlingly complimentary as when he called my analysis of the godgame aspects of The French Lieutenant's Woman "shrewd." I was giddy for days. "Fowles thinks I'm shrewd," I would tell anyone I came across, including a cop who stopped me for speeding and a group of Chinese tourists who spoke no English. They nodded and smiled, though. That was enough for me.

Of course I could never really be a member of the club, though I imagined myself on the waiting list from time to time. But it was like the great museums in New York. You might not step inside The Metropolitan or the Modern for years, but it's good to know they're there.The city would be a different place without them; and a far shabbier one. And that last sentence, with its syncopated emphasis and deftly placed semi-colon, is pure John Fowles, making the derivative divine for a moment, as his spirit moves in the blood and the synapses of his most devoted student.

The JR Fowles club was a landmark, an institution and an inspiration.
I hate to see it close its doors.