Saturday, February 6, 2010

Bits and pieces composing the whole (Books - The Pattern in the Carpet by Margaret Drabble)

I have at last finished Margaret Drabble's memoir cum cultural history of puzzles - The Pattern in the Carpet. I say 'at last,' not because I am revising my earlier warm feelings for the book, I'm not. But it drums up a more leisurely rhythm than the resumption of clases affords me. Between the book ends of Drabble's memories of her Auntie Phyl, begun reluctantly after her earlier fictional attempt at writing about her mother, and reflections on her own aging, are multiple desultory narratives of puzzles, games, and mosaics - their history, their use, anecdotes, and literary mentions of them. I particularly enjoyed this, about homophones and her love of Jules Verne via Gregory Benford's anecdote:
Verne even influenced those who didn't quite know how he was. Isaac Asimov once told me that when he was still a young science fiction fan he found himself listening to a lecture about a great foreign writer, a master of fantastic literature. But Asimov couldn't recognise the name. Giving the French pronunciation, the lecturer said 'Surely you must know Zuell Pfern,' and described From the Earth to the Moon. Asimov replied in his Brooklyn accent, 'Oh, you mean Jewels Voine!'
Or some delightful ephemera on Convergence, an important work by the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollack, which achieved far more reknown as a jigsaw puzzle than as a painting. Or this quote from Virginia Woolf's Diary, September 1924 which reflects:
...on the heterogeneity of daily life and its mixed tapestry composed of postmen, invitations to Knole, and lectures on the League of Nations... 'All this confirms me in thinking that we're splinters and mosaics; not, as they used to hold, immaculate, monolithic, consistent wholes.'
As much a comment on the important change Woolf's point-of-view wrought upon the fictional form as it is a fitting comment reflecting on Drabble's use of the jigsaw or mosaic as metaphors for the putting together of a picture of life. I don't think it would be cute to call them bits and pieces - this is rather the point of the book. I probably could have done with a few fewer anecdotes in the final reckoning, but none of the information Drabble delighted in researching and presenting was a chore to read, I felt that had I returned to the theme of Auntie Phyl, Drabble's own reflections on aging, memory, writing sooner, the work as a whole might have possessed more integrity. How much and which of these pieces should make up the whole we apprehend, is indeed the meditation of this book. The writer's assembly of pieces makes a willful creation - a story, a novel - just as actual factual circumstances give shape to a person's life, although the narrative can be written and re-written and those facts interpreted by recalling them idly or actively, consciously or unconsciously. Whether this whole is a work of fiction or a life, its summing up will be a collection of pieces whose assembly finally gives us satisfaction or not. While I didn't love every piece, The Pattern in the Carpet did produce a very satisfying whole.


Molly said...

Reading this book, I was exasperated at times, but then jigsaw puzzles themselves do that to me, too, at certain points during the process of putting them together. I kept thinking that if I could somehow map the book -- see it as a puzzle or game -- I'd be amazed at the wonders that would be revealed to me. Drabble can take me on whatever journey she'd like, anytime. Even months later, I find myself thinking about the various pieces and about the mind that could create such a puzzle for us.

Ted said...

I came to see the two elements of the book as related but not completely successfully integrated and yet, as you did, I still found much to enjoy.