Sunday, May 26, 2013

Commemorating Novelists

Memorial Day is a three-day weekend, a celebration of summer, and a much-deserved respite. But it’s important to remember to remember—commemorating and expressing gratitude. For writers, a nice way to reflect is T.S. Eliot’s quote about our literary ancestors:  “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.”

We know them. They influence us, whether we acknowledge it or not, so we probably ought to. Every story is different, of course: Your own voice, scenario, nuance on classic character roles. But where would your characters be without Mark Twain’s Jim? Where would your scenario be without Hawthorne’s cruel and gorgeous scarlet letter? Novelists have always reflected and changed their world—and all of them helped create yours.

To acknowledge just a few giants, start with Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse, on the universality of human emotion:

“It was love, she thought, love that never clutched its object; but, like the love which mathematicians bear their symbols, or poets their phrases, was meant to be spread over the world and become part of human gain. The world by all means should have shared it, could Mr. Bankes have said why that woman pleased him so; why the sight of her reading a fairy tale to her boy had upon him precisely the same effect as the solution of a scientific problem.”

 Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness lets us glimpse the dark places of the world—and inside our selves:

Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sandbanks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off forever from everything you had known once—somewhere—far away in another existence perhaps. There were moments when one’s past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare to yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect.”

Or Jane Austen, from Persuasion, on our man’s world:

“’I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.’

‘Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.’” 

In The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene reflects on the human capacity to give and love—and what that costs: “If one knew, [Scobie] wondered, the facts, would one have to pity even the planets? If one reached what they called the heart of the matter?” 

Herman Melville’s ending to Moby Dick evokes the loneliness of the long-distance everyone: “On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.”

Maybe your memory of Ishmael isn’t that we’re all lost at sea but that someone made you read the thing. Maybe you’d rather have skipped it. Doesn’t matter. These aren’t just books we’ve read (or pretended to). These stories shape what we are—and therefore what we write, or aspire to. What novelist could hope for a better memorial?

Tip: Read widely in contemporary fiction—in your own genre. But never forget those who made your genre what it is.

Science fiction started with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the mystery story with Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Pay attention to what brought you to your own story. Who knows what you might start?

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