Sunday, November 25, 2007

Black Dogs and Red Wine

One evening in the late fall of 1967, my father took me to dinner at the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel. We discussed wine, among other things, and I remember asking him how he could tell the difference, not between jug wine and a good Pinot Noir, but between that Pinot and something really great. How could a bottle of wine be worth 300 dollars? Was it really ten times better than the thirty dollar bottle we were drinking with our meal? Could you taste that? Or was it just a racket? He responded in typical style, grandiose, generous, and didactic.

He ordered a bottle of Mouton Rothschild ’57.

The Sommelier was a little shocked, but recovered quickly. He bought the bottle and uncorked it. We let it breathe for a few minutes before the taste test. God knows what it cost my Dad; but if his purpose was to educate me about the finer things in life, the money was well spent. The two bottles had nothing in common but their name, the color of the liquid inside and the fruit from which they both (presumably) derived. The Pinot had sharp edges, and sour note somewhere inside it. Compared to the Mouton Rothschild it was harsh and raw. The other wine was deep and mellow, resonant and smooth, no edges anywhere. It was deep, cavernous; it seemed to echo off your taste buds. And it was sweet, but not in flavor exactly: it contained the sweetness of spring air after a hard winter; or a the caress of a warm hand on lonely skin, those moments of extremity where a fingertip circling your knuckle breaks a dam of ecstatic emotion, more intense than the sexual encounter that eventually follows.

In human terms, comparing those two wines would be like setting a teenaged football thug at a Manchester United soccer match next to the Dalai Lama: hardly members of the same species, proof that evolution continues but is not evenly distributed.

My Dad was watching my face as I sipped the nectar. He was amused, pleased. “Now you understand,” he said.
All I could do was nod.

That moment came back to me this morning, taking a break from my reading of Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children to pick up a copy of Black Dogs, By Ian McEwan. The former might be considered ‘popular literature’ , even ‘literary fiction’, far more serious and significant than the romances and thrillers that populate the sprawling floor of the local Borders store. Whether Claire Messud is really a better writer than the best of those genre writers is another question. What sets her apart from Ian McEwan interests me rather more this morning. Because she is not even close, no more than that well-made California table wine approached the authentic article in the cobwebbed bottle from the Plaza’s cellar.
But what is it? How do we measure this gulf?

Maybe it’s just sheer pleasure, the quiet ecstatic recognition of a unique sensibility, a mind that refreshes your own by simple contact, that enlarges your sense of the world and startles you into strings of tiny delighted revelations, popping like strings of forbidden Fourth of July firecrackers. Maybe it’s the sure-fingered dexterity of an original mind making the unexpected shape of each sentence. See for yourself.
Compare these paragraphs.

The first, from Messud:

What then were Julius’ accomplishments, those of which his father was so proud? The anxiety, surely, was that they were few, and fading. Known in college for his vicious wit, Julius had sashayed into New York – or, more precisely, into the offices of The Village Voice – with youthful certainty that attitude could carry him. And for a long time, it had: everyone in the downtown literary set knew who Julius was, and pointed him out to newcomers at parties. His devastating but elegant book reviews were often cited; his less devastating but no less elegant film and television reviews rather less so; but still: throughout his twenties, he lived a life of Wildean excess and insouciance that seemed an accomplishment in itself, the con temporary example of the enfant terrible. The insouciance, of course, masked endless and worrisome neuroses, to which Marina and Danielle were privy. He was a failure at intimacy, if not at sex (he had no shortage of partners; but they were shortly upon the scene). He was always broke (hence the threadbare cashmere), but it was vital, or so he maintained, that the secret of his penury not get about. “This is New York, guys. And people without money aren’t noble, they’re beggars.” He apparently did not suspect that everyone already knew. He was awar that at thirty he had stretched the limits of the charming wastrel, that some actual sustained endeavor might be in order were he not to fade,wisplike, away; from charming wastrel to needy, boring failure was but a few, to short, steps.

There is nothing desperately wrong with this passage. One could take exception to the flurry of sophisticated semi-clichés – ‘enfant terrible’,‘charming wastrel’ (which occurs twice, alas); “Wildean excess”. His wit and elegant book reviews are mentioned but the only actual quote from the man himself is a pedestrian one. His problem, skating on his poses with no actual posture to support the show, has a familiar ring to it: shades of Jay McInerney Brett Easton Ellis, to name only the generals in that particular army of disaffection.
Still, nice phrases and well-chosen details redeem the paragraph sporadically – “Actual sustained endeavor,” “threadbare cashmere” . But for every grace note there’s a clumsy misstep: “fade, wisplike, away”, “they were shortly upon the scene”. That last would normally be taken to mean “about to arrive” not “quickly departing.”
It adds up to ordinary, Nothing there quickens the blood.

Compare that to McEwan:

While I unwrapped the fruit and washed it at the handbasin and put it with the chocolate in the fridge and found a place, the place for the coffee, I conveyed messages from Jenny, love from the children. She asked after Bernard, but I had not seen him since my last visit. She arranged her hair with her fingers and settled the pillows around her. When I returned to the chair by the bed I found myself looking once more at the photograph on the locker. I too could have fallen in love with that round-faced beauty with the over-trained hair, the delighted, jaunty smile grazing the biceps of her loved one. It was the innocence that was so appealing, not only of the girl, or of the couple, but of the time itself; even the blurred shoulder and head of a suited passerby had a naïve, unknowing quality, as did a frog-eyed saloon car parked in a street of pre-modern emptiness. The innocent time! Tens of millions dead, Europe in ruins, the extermination camps still a news story, not yet our universal reference point of human depravity. It is photography itself that creates the illusion of innocence. It’s ironies of frozen narrative lend to its subjects an apparent unawareness that they will change or die. It is the future they are innocent of. Fifty years on we look at them with the godly knowledge of how they turned out after all – who they married, the date of their death – with no thought for who will one day be holding photographs of us.

This seems to me to be everything Claire Messud’s paragraph is not. Dense with detail, engaged, alive and specific while Messud remains detached and abstract. While ordinary language clutters her prose, McEwan’s matter-of-fact eloquence binds the moment to the reflections it inspires: the smile that ‘grazed the bicep’ of the loved one, the ‘over-trained hair’, the ‘ironies of frozen narrative’.

But perhaps the real difference here is not so much what the writers accomplish but what they attempt. Messud wants to portray the looming career crisis of her unexceptional character. McEwan wants to get at something much bigger, the nature of loss and mortality and the strange allure of photography. When Messud succeeds, we have an incrementally sharper view of a one banal individual. McEwan manages something else, something thrilling, one of the crucial functions of narrative prose: with ruthless clarity of thought he expresses a thought every reader has felt looming at the edges of his mind in some inchoate form, but has never been able to formulate with any precision. He returns to us our own ideas and emotions, fully articulated.

This is fine wine compared to the Pinot Noir of ‘mainstream fiction’ ; but fortunately it costs no more to enjoy it. Books aren’t priced like wine: Jack Kerouac and Jackie Suzanne, James Patterson and Marcel Proust, Faulkner and Follett, all cost the same in the used paperback pile at the flea market. And that’s a lucky break for all of us.

Because once you’ve had a bottle of the good stuff, it’s hard to go back.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Confessions of a Polygamous Reader

My relationship to books has always been carnal. It’s a safe, secret promiscuity that allows me to live through a virtually unlimited array of relationships, impossible in real life. I’m not talking about the plots and characters in the various novels I’ve coupled with. I mean my turbulent and sometimes heartbreaking affairs with the books themselves: perhaps some essence of the author that transcends the story.
I remember my first childhood crushes, the puppy-love infatuation with the Hardy Boys books and the James Bond novels. I went steady with Albert Payson Terhune’s dog books for a while in grade school.
I suppose I lost my virginity to The Catcher in the Rye : that was the first authentic love affair. I’ve had many sordid little one-night stands since then – books by writers as diverse as Robert James Waller and Lee Child. For years every new Stephen King novel was a hotel room-thrashing drunken orgy, with the usual regrets the following morning.
I’ve betrayed books, dropping them for no reason (Sorry, Last Temptation of Christ. I guess I should have left a note), or falling for their more sensual and approachable younger sisters (I dumped Ulysses for Dubliners over the course of one messy weekend). Some books became obsessions, like Atonement; others, The Emperor’s Children comes to mind, barely kept my interest -- like a dull girl with great legs.
Then there are the books like Don Quixote, that I’ve pursued for years, fascinated but unrequited, always hoping for a new maturity (or a new translation) to give me another chance. I avoid the glamorous supermodels whose appeal just seems overrated – Cormac McCarthy, say or Toni Morrison; and I’ve never been on more than one date with the prim and prissy wasps like Updike and Cheever.
I’ve done serial monogamy, though, with writers as different as Mark Helprin, Jane Austen and William Faulkner. Those affairs ended. Jane was a little too into money and I’m never going to have the requisite ‘two thousand a year’ whatever that means in today’s money. Quite a lot; Darcy seems to live quite well. As for Bill, too many suspiring defunctive dawns and weirdo ‘but-constructions’ (“The house not paintless but despising paint and repudiating it.”); too much wisteria. And Mark … well, I dutifully bought his most recent book (Kind of like having a drink for old times’ sake) but I haven’t even opened it yet.
I’ve been married many times. Some are bad marriages, dysfunctional and co-dependent relationships with books I despise now, books I’m embarrassed to be seen in public with, but can’t seem escape. Books like Atlas Shrugged. But there are good marriages too, life-long unions with no possibility of divorce. I share with these books a deep intricate history of affection that only my death will ever untangle. We may not be lovers anymore, but a rich, knowing friendship as replaced and indeed transcended the heat of our first encounters. The Sun Also Rises is a book like this; as are The Great Gatsby and 1984.
So is The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the book I want to focus on here.
Examining the books that gave me the most pleasure, I realize that one crucial source of their allure is the use of point of view and the sleek, graceful movement (the sidelong glance, the fingertip caressing the throat), that leads from the outer world into the inner one.
John Fowles does a particularly audacious conjuring trick in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, writing a classic Victorian romance with the utter omniscience of a God-like Thomas Hardy, and undercutting it at the same time with a thoroughly modern sensibility, a product of Roland Bathes and Allain Robbe Grillet, which debunks the idea of an all-knowing author. Fowles closes chapter twelve of the novel with a question about his heroine, perfectly fitted to the tone of his pastiche: “Who is Sarah? Out of what shadows does she come?” Famously, he opens chapter thirteen with the bald-faced admission: “I don’t know. This story I’m telling is all imagination.” He proceeds to break the Victorian illusion totally, and then invites the reader back into the tale with this more complex view of both the book and books in general:

But this is preposterous? A character is either “real” or “imaginary”? If you think that, hypocrite lecteur. I cn only smile. You do not even think of your own past as quite real; you dress it up, you gild it or blacken it, censor it, tinker with it … fictionalize it, in a word, and put it away on shelf -- your book, your romanced autobiography. We are all in flight from the real reality. That is a basic definition of Homo sapiens
So if you think this unlucky (but it is Chapter Thirteen) digression has nothing to do with your Time, Progress, Society, Evolution and all those other capitalized ghosts in the night that are rattling their chains behind the scenes of this book … I will not argue. But I will suspect you.
I report then, only the outward facts …

And this he proceeds to do, effortlessly moving the reader from the abstract to the concrete, from the post modern heights of deconstructed narrative into the muddy particulars of the actual story he has just broken apart. It virtually flies back together. Only the way we read it has changed.
He performs this same magic with the point of view of the individual characters. He has such forces at his disposal that the ordinary ‘close third person’ author must surely cry that Fowles is cheating. But the Victorians wrote this way for a reason, and with the added fire-power of his twentieth-century perspective, Fowles can do almost anything … including offering two different endings and presenting himself (some version of himself) as another character, deciding the fates of his puppets with a coin toss.
He can ask, as he does on page 158 “But what of Sarah’s motives?” and then simply tell us. Sarah’s point of view is reported, never fully embraced: “She knew, or at least suspected, that there was a physical pleasure in love. Yet she was, I think, as innocent as makes no matter.” The author always hovers slightly above and to the left, giving us the guided tour of her emotions.
But perhaps there is some ghost of the ‘close third’ technique in the novel, after all, because Fowles comes much closer to Charles Smithson, his hero, than he ever does to the purposefully mysterious Sarah Woodruff. And it is in these descriptions of Charles’ state of mind, fired and sometimes overwhelmed by the beauty and savagery of the natural world that swarms around him, that Fowles fuses his technical skills with those profound emotions whose expression is their purpose and meaning.
I would urge any student of writing or life to simply read the transcendant chapter 29 of this extraordinary book. The set up is simple: Charles is hiking through the overgrown wilderness of the ‘undercliff’ towards a clandestine meeting with Sarah Woodruff, riddled with doubt and determination. Fowles has mastered his craft not merely to say these things, but to make us live them and feel them along with Charles, as he climbs through the forest toward his fate.
The chapter begins in an impeccably external mode, describing the weather and the town itself (More crowded early in the morning in those days) as Charles sets out from his hotel. We dip into Charles’ mind only briefly here, to highlight his gloomy state of mind. Then with this superb description of the woods at dawn, we can feel Fowles inching his way into the deepest recesses of his character’s spirit, penetrating it along with the ‘flood of warmth’ from the sun. By the time Charles is noting the religious presence of the trees we are all the way inside his point of view and even Fowles’ ubiquitous cultural references( Pisanello and Linnaeus in this case) no longer distance us, but rather mark the trail into dense grove of Charles’ ultimate revelation:

…It seemed strangely distinct, this undefiled dawn sun. It almost a smell, as of warm stone, a sharp dust of photons streaming down through space, Each grass blade was pearled with vapor. On the slopes above his path the trunks of the ashes and sycamores, a honey gold in the oblique sunlight, erected their dewy green vaults of young leaves; there was something mysteriously religious about them, but a religion before religion, a druid balm, a green sweetness over all … A fox crossed his path and strangely for a moment stared, as if Charles was the intruder; and then a little later, with an uncanny similarity, with the same divine assumption of possession, a roe deer looked up from its browsing; and stared in its small majesty before quietly turning tail and slipping away into the thickets. There is a painting by Pisanello in the National Gallery that catches exactly such a moment: St. Hubert inn an early Renaissance forest, confronted by birds and beasts. The saint is shocked, almost as if the victim of a practical joke, all his arrogance dowsed by a sudden drench of Natured profoundestsecret: the universal parity of existence.
It was not only these two animals that seemed fraught with significance. The trees were dense with singing birds – blackcaps, whitethroats, thrushes, blackbirds, the cooing of wood-pigeons, filling that windless dawn with the serenity of evening; yet without any of its sadness, its elegiac quality. Charles felt himself walking through the pages of a bestiary, and one of such beauty, such minute distinctness, that every leaf in it, each small bird, each song it uttered, came from a perfect world. He stopped for a moment, so struck was he by this sense of an exquisitely particular universe, in which each was appointed, each unique. A tiny wren perched on a bramble not ten feet from him and trilled its violent song. He saw its glittering black eyes, the red and yellow of its song-gaped throat – a midget ball of feathers that yet managed to make itself the Announcing Angel of evolution: I am what I am and thou shalt not pass my being now. He stood as Pisanello’s saint stood, astonished perhaps more at his own astonishment at this world’s existing so close so within reach of all that suffocating banality of ordinary day. In those few moments of defiant song, any ordinary hour or place – and therefore the vast infinity of all Charles’ previous hours and places – seemed vulgarized, coarsened, made garish. The appalling ennui of human reality lay cleft to the core; and the heart of all life pulsed there in the wren’s triumphant throat.

To present such a passage with a new and hard-won understanding of its mechanics, what is really happening inside the text, is like attending your tenth high school reunion and falling in love all over again with the brilliant girl who dumped you after the senior prom. Feeling those words under my fingers evokes slipping away for a stolen night at the local hotel, finally understanding what she was saying all those years ago, finally knowing what she wants. Do you wake up the next morning and propose? It’s not as foolish or hasty as it may seem.
Those are the kind of moments a great marriage is built on.