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.


Annalise said...

Great work.


Looks interesting!