Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Animal Kingdom, conclusion

Most of the preparations for her departure were already complete by the time she returned. Her room was devoid of carpets and furnishings, her clothes were folded into big trunks, all except for the ceremonial gown required for the night’s dinner. She dressed with the help of two maids, and gave one of them her mother’s earrings to deliver to the King’s chambers. The dowry had to be complete when it was presented.
She was beside Torvald when the King arrived at his place at the table. She spoke brightly with Torvald and with his mother, seated to her left. She was charming but modest; even when helping Torvald choose the proper fork for the salad course. Everyone noticed the change in her. The King was beaming – his instincts had been correct, after all. The married state was all she needed, along with one night in the marriage bed. Women only wanted to seem complicated. They liked to keep an air of mystery about themselves, but they were as coarse and predictable as any man. He could imagine making such a comment to his late wife. She wouldn’t argue with him, she never argued with him, but she had a way of cocking one eyebrow in sardonic inquiry that made him feel like a garrulous clown. Well, yes –- she was an exception to the rule, and no, he had never fully grasped her spirit, never really understood her. But Katerina was simpler. The last few days had proved that.
At the end of the meal, he presented Torvald with the chest of jewels. There was a lot of talk of “plighting her troth” and the binding together of the two families “in peace and war” – a telling phrase, Katerina thought. Her father had always deployed his resources – up to and including his daughter’s future – to maximize military security. The thought would have made her angry and bitter a few days before. Now she found she had a detached admiration for his long range tactical thinking. Only by such ruthless calculation could a King secure the safety of his kingdom. It made perfect sense, now that it was his kingdom and not hers. He really wasn’t such a bad man, when you weren’t at his mercy.
Torvald took the key on its chain and slipped it around his own neck. The chest was handed to him, the ceremonial bows and cheek kisses were exchanged … and it was done. Torvald took her to the specially prepared wedding suite, at the other end of the castle from her old chambers.
Torvald undressed them both and began his efforts anew. This time Katerina cooperated. She had nothing to lose anyway. Both her virginity and her innocence were already gone. And she had everything to gain: Torvald’s trust, which would let him sleep the sleep of the satiated and the self-righteous … and thus, her own freedom.
Freedom, the one thing her father had said she would never have.
Because she would never be willing to pay the price, that was the unstated message. He hadn’t been able to imagine any one wanting anything but this, and so he hadn’t been able to imagine how impossibly cheap that price would be for her in the end -- less than a few coins thrown at a beggar in the street.
It was nearly midnight before Torvald was sleeping deeply enough, and snoring loudly enough. Katerina dressed quickly in her travelling clothes and delicately removed the key on its chain from around her husband’s neck. He stirred slightly when her hands were under his head and she had to wait a full minute before she finished. She took the chest, and a small travelling bag of essential items.
She paused at the door, looking down at Torvald’s sleep-slack face.
For the last time, she thought with a small smile as she chewed at gryphillaria leaf. She had no regrets, no sense of loss, no last minute confusion of purpose. If anything she was surprised by how easy this all was. She had been in a cage for years and had never bothered to see if it was locked. They had told her it was locked and she had believed them. What a fool she had been! All she’d ever had to do was swing the door open and walk away.
So she did. She slipped out of the room and closed the door softly behind her. Wilf joined her in the yard. He watched as she got Lochinvar ready and arranged the saddlebags. Then they rode to the gate together. The guard was surprised but he had no orders to keep her inside –- no one expected her to be leaving.
She was crossing the fields beyond the town when she heard the pounding of hooves behind her. Someone was riding hard and fast, following her track. She thought of trying to out-run them, but for some reason she didn’t like that idea. Better to stand her ground. She fingered the knife in her travelling bag. She would use it if she had to.
The rider pulled up to her a few moments later and she saw that it was Anders.
“Good morning, Princess,” he bowed.
“What are you –- ?”
“You’re running away, aren’t you? Hoping to take on a new identity and disappear."
She looked up at him. “How did you know that?”
“Because I pay attention.”
She smiled. “I’m not used to that.”
“You should be. You’re worth noticing.”
“So … you came to say goodbye?”
“Not exactly, no.”
“Then why?”
He was nervous and the words came out in a jumble. “It occurred to me, Princess, that it might be easier, safer, for you to conceal yourself if you were not travelling alone. They’ll be looking for a woman travelling alone. But a couple, an itinerant herbalist and his wife … they might pass unnoticed.”
“You want to come with me?”
“I want to marry you.”
“I am already married.”
“I don’t care. You are a new woman now. She is free to marry whom she pleases.”
“You’re very bold.”
“You make me so.”
She smiled. “So it’s all my fault.”
“I’m afraid so, Princess.”
“I’m not a Princess any more.”
They stared at each other. Lochinvar edged closer to Anders’ horse. He reached his hand out and she took it. They held hands for a long time and the emotion filled her as dark wine fills a bottle. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m not very good at this. I’ve been wanted and needed all my life. But I’ve never been loved before.” She looked into Lochinvar’s mane. “It takes a little getting used to.”
“We have time.”
“I’m not sure what do next.”
“There are a few things. The first is … kiss me.”
Lochinvar moved a few more steps and Anders was able to lean over and kiss her on the mouth. It was a gentle kiss, at first, just lips brushing lips. Then she slipped her hand behind his head and pulled him toward her. Her mouth opened under his. The kiss was long and deep. To Anders it was like drinking from a stream. But his thirst was far from quenched when she pulled away. She was smiling.
“What next?,” she said.
“The next isn’t quite so easy. But I don’t think we should live on your dowry. I can support us. If you are going to leave your old life behind, than I think you should leave all of it.”
“But – ”
“The boy, Tomas, who helped Wilf. His family is very poor. That dowry could change their lives.”
Anders saw the little dog staring up at him, tail beating the ground. It was as if he understood. Katerina looked down at Wilf, and she saw something in those deep brown eyes. She glanced back at Anders. “All right.”
“You’ll have to write a possessory draft and put the royal seal on it. That way no one can dispute his claim to the treasure or try to steal it.”
“Even Torvald?”
“The law is clear – even Torvald. He is made caretaker of the dowry, but it still belongs to you. Otherwise your family would have no hold on him.”
“You’re really thought this through.”
“I’ve thought about little else since I heard the wedding plans … Katerina.”
“I like the sound of that. I like it when you speak my name.”
He kissed her again and then they led Wilf lead them to Tomas’ house. They woke his father and mother and after a short ritual signed the dowry over to the Gunderson family. Groggy and only half-awake, Tomas’ parents had trouble understanding what was going on. Katerina told them the story as Wilf had told it to her. Their son was a hero and this was his reward. Wilf himself curled up beside Tomas as Katerina spoke
Tomas’ mother kissed him. “You’re the Good Samaritan.”
Tomas was embarrassed. “I just like dogs,” he said shyly.
They set the chest on the Gunderson’s dining room table. Anders took the key and opened it. He could see flowers of awareness blooming behind their eyes. The content of this box would secure not just them and their son, but his sons and their sons, for generations.
It was a miracle.
Anders raised his hand. “There is just one thing we need.”
He rummaged inside for a few seconds, then he pulled out the pair of emerald earrings. “They have … personal value. Is it all right if we take them with us?”
“Of – of course,” Mr. Gunderson managed.
“Thank you.”
He put them on Katerina very carefully and stepped back to admire his work.
“Beautiful,” he said. And then, turning to the Gunderson’s for the last time, “Goodbye.”
Katerina hugged Tom quickly, then followed Anders out the door, with Wilf just behind her.
First light was only a few minutes away when they left the Gunderson’s house. They stood beside the horses.
“Which way?” Katerina asked.
“West, to France. And south to the Pyrenees. I miss France.”
“I’ve never been to France. I’ve never been anywhere. And I want to go everywhere.”
“Then we will.”
Lochinvar rubbed her head with his. They could no longer speak but she knew what he was saying.
“I am,” she answered him. “I really am.”
They mounted the horses then, and rode away together in the rising light of dawn.

Bowen's Scarf & Other Mysteries

Near the beginning of Women in Love, D.H. Lawrence presents this extraordinary incident:
“The Fool,” cried Ursula loudly, “Why doesn’t he ride away until it’s gone by?”

Gudrun was looking at him with black-dilated, spellbound eyes. But he sat glistening and obstinate, forcing the wheeling mare, which spun and swerved like a wind, and yet could not get out of the grasp of his will, nor escape from the mad clamour of terror that resounded through her as the truck thumped slowly, heavily, horrifying, one after the other, one pursuing the other, over the rails of the crossing.

The locomotive, as if wanting to see what could be done, put on the brakes, and back came the trucks, rebounding on the iron buffers, striking like horrible cymbals, clashing nearer and nearer in frightful strident concussions. The mare opened her mouth and rose slowly, as if lifted up on a wind of terror. Then suddenly her forefeet struck out, as she convulsed herself utterly away from the horror. Back she went, and the two girls clung to each other, feeling she must fall backwards on top of him. But he leaned forward, his face shining with fixed amusement, and at last he brought her down, sank her down, and was bearing her back to the mark. But as strong as the pressure of his compulsion was the repulsion of her utter terror, throwing her back away from the railway, so that she spun round and round on two legs, as if she were in the centre of some whirlwind. It made Gudrun faint with poignant dizziness, which seemed to penetrate her heart.

The rider is Gerald Crich, owner of the local coal mine and thoroughly modern early-twentieth-century captain of industry, who as I’m sure you know, comes to a chilly and tragic end. The passage is richly symbolic and in the context of the book it evokes and crystallizes one of the novel’s primary themes: the natural world assaulted by the lifeless mechanisms of greed. But like all good symbolic iconography, this image is flexible: it applies as easily to politics (I think of students in Tiananmen Square) or the arts (Remember when Dylan went electric?).
For me, it embodies the ongoing polarity of organic living narrative and the smoke-belching machinery of plot. This schism between natural behavior and authorial will haunts any writer of “carefully structured” stories. That sounds like a euphemism, and it is. Even the word ‘plot’ has become stigmatized in literary circles: literature as puppet show, with characters on strings.
So is there a place for plot in literature – as opposed to mere storytelling? To address this question I read Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. This vibrant, funny and readable book takes a thorough and entertaining look at the genre, starting with the history of the novel, describing the twelve types of story the novel tells and finally analyzing a hundred different examples from The Tale of Genji to Atonement.

Comments like “In a novel length is always a promise, never a threat” assured me that we shared a common sensibility. Her first discussion of plot concerns The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle:

Each time I reread the novel, knowing the tricks and deceptions of the plot, I learned how the tricks and deceptions worked together logically. The novel had two stories – the story as it unfolded on the surface, and story of what had happened. The two stories had to mesh perfectly for Holmes’s recapitulation to be convincing, but the surface story had to hide the real story for the recapitulation to be interesting. Both stories had to bolster Holmes’s claim to special intellectual status … Watson could make claims for Holmes, but Conan Doyle had to depict Holmes in a way that made good on the claims, at least in the eyes of a twelve-year-old.

There is a ray of hope in that passage: plot can be used to delineate character, through action. Later on, in her discussion of Robinson Crusoe, Smiley delineates a revolutionary innovation that Daniel Defoe introduced in the book many consider to be the first real novel: the continuous, effortless shift between the events of the story and the characters’ reactions. This access to the inner life of characters brings the schematic outline to life.

Out of necessity, Crusoe approaches his world with investigative openness, and as a result of his investigations, his island become real, not at all phantasmagorical. In addition, “how to” in a novel always yields “who” – the manner in which a character goes about his task reveals his uniqueness. This is the most essential mark of narrative, for a very simple reason: the story must progress. Each idiosyncratic action progresses the story but at the same time distinguishes the protagonist not only from those around him (or her) but also from the reader and other individuals the reader knows or has read about. A novel cannot tarry too long with the meaning of events, because meaning is usually experienced as either revelation or instruction. Revelation is by nature momentary, and instruction is by nature not very entertaining. Beads of meaning, therefore, tend to be strung along a wire of actions. Thus individuality, meaning and action (which may coalesce more formally into plot) are inextricably mixed in the form of the novel and dissolved in the further idiosyncrasy of the narrative voice

I had a glimmer of this tonic synergy recently in rewriting my novel Owners. The plot had taken over – insidiously, as it always does. A central character’s role obscured his actual responses to the human truth of what was happening to him. It’s a kind of check-the-box thought process. The character has to find this out, and then he has to do such and such … but the real effect of the news gets lost in the mechanical details.

In the first draft of Owners, when housepainter Mike Henderson finds out that homeowner Preston Lomax’s plan will render him destitute, he more or less goes on about his plot-appointed business. But a brush with financial melt-down in my own life taught me the folly of this narrative choice: Mike would have done one thing and one thing only at that point: shamelessly and utterly freaked out. As I did, as anyone would. The interesting thing is that when I went back and incorporated this bit of human truth into the story, it supported and enriched the plot, bound the characters to their actions with a sturdier twine of authentic motivation and heart. I think Jane Smiley would have approved.

Elizabeth Bowen discusses the tension between character and plot in her essay On Writing a Novel, included in The Mulberry Tree, Writings of Elizabeth Bowen, edited by Hermione Lee.

Plot … cannot claim a single poetic licence. It must be reasoned – only from the moment its none-otherness, its only-possibleness has become apparent. Novelist must always have one foot, sheer circumstantiality, to stand on, whatever the other foot may be doing.(N.B. – Much to be learned from story telling to children. Much to be learned from the detective story – especially non-irrelevance ...
Interest of watching a dress that has been well packed unpacked from a dress box. Interest of watching a silk handkerchief drawn from a conjuror’s watch…
What about the statement, (in relation to PLOT) that ‘each character is created in order and only in order that he or she may supply the required action’? To begin with, strike out ‘created’. Better, the character is recognized (by the novelist) by the signs he or she gives of unique capacity to act in a certain way, which ‘certain way’ fulfills the needs of the plot.

This sounds practical and astute. Perhaps the two sides of this dichotomy can be resolved; perhaps that’s the point of writing the book in the first place.

Bowen makes a brief cameo appearance in the text of Ian McEwan’s sublime masterpiece Atonement; at least, she is referred to in a letter of rejection from Cyril Connolly (editor of the literary magazine Horizon) to the book’s protagonist, Briony Tallis:

In other words, rather than dwell for quite so long on the perceptions of each of these three figures , would it not be possible to set them before us with greater economy, still keeping some of the vivid writing about light and stone and water which you do so well – but then move on to create some tension, some light and shade within the narrative itself. Your most sophisticated readers might be well up on the latest Bergsonian theories of consciousness, but I’m sure they retain a childlike desire to be told a story, to be held in suspense, to know what happens …
Simply put, you need the backbone of a story. It may interest you to know that one of your avid readers was Mrs. Elizabeth Bowen. She picked up the bundle of typescript in an idle moment when passing through the office on her way to luncheon, asked to take it home to read and finished it that afternoon. Initially, she thought the prose “tool full, too cloying” but with ‘redeeming shades of Dusty Answer (which I wouldn’t have thought of at all). Then she was “hooked for a while” and finally gave us some notes which are, as it were, mulched into the above.

Of course McEwan idolizes Bowen and in both style and theme his book is a tribute to her. He may have the final word, at least for this essay, on the matter of character versus contraption. Briony Tallis spreads a senseless lie that ruins the lives of her sister Cecilia and her lover, Robbie Turner. Cecilia repudiates her family, Robbie goes to jail for ‘raping’ Briony; Briony becomes a writer. Her first attempt to describe these events is reviewed by the Cyril Connelly in passage above.

At the outbreak of World War II, Robbie is set free to join the army and winds up at Dunkirk. Briony becomes a nurse, tending to the war wounded. When she finds out that Cecilia and Robbie are living together, and that he is on leave, she seeks them out and makes her apology. This comes as a huge relief to the reader – a massive burden of guilt and sorrow shifted a little if not wholly removed.

But there are wrong notes in the text. There are errors of both fact and perception in the section that describes Robbie’s war-time experiences; precisely, one realizes later, as if they were being written by a young woman with no direct experience of battle. Then at the end of the healing reunion with her sister and brother-in-law, we find another ominous note sounded: this entire section is signed: “BT. London 1999.” This is baffling at first, particularly since it reflects a truth we are loathe to accept. But when Briony goes to a family reunion and neither Cecilia (who had apparently reconciled with the family) nor Robbie is there, the truth starts to reveal itself.
There was no reunion. There was no reconciliation.We have been reading Briony’s novel, rewritten into a masterpiece since the chastisements of Connelly and Bowen years before.
Let Briony explain it:

It is only in this last version that my lovers end well, standing stand by side on a south London pavement as I walk away. All the preceding drafts were pitiless. But now I can no longer think what purpose would be served if, say, I tried to persuade my reader, by direct or indirect means, that Robbie Turner died of septicemia at Bray Dunes on one June 1940, or that Cecelia was killed in September of that same year by the bomb that destroyed Balham underground station. That I never saw them in that year. That my walk across London ended at the church on Clapham Common, and that a cowardly Briony limped back to the hospital unable to confront her recently bereaved sister. That the letters the lovers wrote are in the archives of the War Museum. How could that constitute an ending? What sense or hope or satisfaction could a reader draw from that account? Who would want to believe that they never met again, never fulfilled their love? Who would want to believe that, except in the service of the bleakest realism? I couldn’t do it to them. I’m too old, too frightened, too much in love with the shred of life I have remaining. I face an incoming tide of forgetting, and then oblivion. I no longer possess the courage of my pessimism. When I am dead, when the Marshalls are dead, and the novel is finally published, we will only exist as my inventions. Briony will be as much of a fantasy as the lovers who shared a bed in Balham and enraged their landlady. No one will care what events and which individuals were misrepresented to make a novel. I know there’s always a certain kind of reader who will be compelled to ask, But what really happened? The answer is simple: the lovers survive and flourish. As long as there is a single copy, a solitary typescript of my final draft, then my spontaneous, fortuitous sister and her medical prince survive to love.

I must confess that these lines always bring me to tears, even now, as I laboriously copy them for this essay. Perhaps it’s because McEwan so passionately and precisely sums up the reasons why we read novels at all; and write them. To inhabit other lives, which seem as real (or more real) than our own; to redeem the world, to correct its cruelty, to atone for our sins.

Because in fact the lovers do flourish. All of this is made up, not by Briony but by McEwan and we can choose any conclusion we like from the narrative bouquet that the author offers us.
So then, here is an exquisite example of plot and character unified into a single onrushing narrative force and a ‘twist’ ending that recapitulates the very essence of the character we have come to love, the nature of her sins and the quality of her salvation.

So it can be done! I ought to feel a rush of hope and energy, but instead I feel strangely daunted. Of course it can be done – by Bowen, by McEwan.

Whether or not I will be able to manage this magic act, pull this scarf from the watch, keep the terrified mare on her feet as the trucks of causality and consequence rumble past … that remains to be seen.