Showing posts with label personal narrative. Show all posts
Showing posts with label personal narrative. Show all posts

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Longing for a world both near and far (Books - The Emigrants by W.S. Sebald)

The force of the praise for W.G. Sebald from  the likes of Susan Sontag, A.S. Byatt, Richard Eder, Cynthia Ozick, Michael Dirda in The New Yorker, The New York Times, TLS and elsewhere, make it pretty near impossible to come to his work unswayedI felt less like I dove into a new narrative world with anticipation in reading Sebald's The Emigrants (New Directions, 1997, Trans. Michael Hulse) and more like I had been invited to an exhibit of fine porcelain at a small museum.  I mustn't run, I mustn't touch, but I may walk through the hallowed rooms, look, and breathlessly admire. Whatever the use of literary criticism, or even book jacket blurbs, I don't imagine that that was the intention of these writers.  Whatever I came to like about The Emigrants on my own, was come to slowly, after I was able to drop the obligation I felt to search for evidence of his genius yet, it was worth the effort.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Twin memoirs of a writer's inner and outer selves (Books - Report from the Interior by Paul Auster)

I was quite taken with novelist Paul Auster's memoir of his corporeal self, Winter Journal, as I wrote last year.  It was an intimate account of what it has been like to inhabit and create from the body that is Paul Auster for his 64 years of existence.  His publishers were nice enough to pass along a copy of the sequel, Report from the Interior (Henry Holt and Company, 2013).  This one purports to do for the intellectual, spiritual, moral Auster what the last volume did for the physical.  I am a fan of Auster's artistry and have read nearly all of his fiction.  I felt this volume the less initimate of the two, but I admire this act of opening up himself in that it reveals much about how the development of the man intersects with the creation of his work.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Reaching out from ourselves towards others (Books - The Birds of the Innocent Wood by Deirdre Madden)

The waning days of my winter break have unfortunately been occupied with taking care of The Ragazzo, who has had been impressively sick. Great fun has been had by all and plans for seeing friends, household projects, and museum visits were abandoned. At least I got to continue my exploration of Irish novelist Deirdre Madden's body of work with her The Birds of the Innocent Wood.

This is the most unusual in form of her Madden's books which I have read so far. It alternates chapters about the lives of Jane and Jane's twin daughters, Sarah and Catherine, criss-crossing back and forth through time as it reveals its small surprises. I read it as a story of the price of isolation, either by having love witheld from you or witholding love from others. Not to say that that witholding is performed out of malice, most of the self-imposed isolation in Madden's characters is out of fear of loss or fear of being touched. The alternating chapters are almost stand-alone pieces, yet the information they yield as regards the story is incomplete. The reader knows they are incomplete because the daughters' stories occur almost 20 years after the story of Jane's years as a young woman and through their details imply the missing information. With this structural device, Madden succeedes in creating a good deal of suspense, even though the events of this novel are largely interior and the settings entirely domestic.

Madden's narratives most conspicuously occupy the inner lives of their subjects. Her evocation of this flow of thought naturally (in my observation) intertwines imagination of worlds outside the present time, space, or life of her character with the present moment to achieve a verrisimilitude of inner experience. As I have described in my post about her novel One by One in the Darkness, her characters often imagine themselves inside the lives of other characters (or at least struggle to do so) - an act that is de rigeur for writers, actors, and other artists:
Sarah has only ever loved her family, and her family has made her suffer. Looking through the open door to where her father is sitting is like looking into a seashell which is coiled and chambered. Each chamber is a memory, its size and brightness in accordance with its position on the coil of time which stops with the shell's sharp apex: the moment of her birth. But beyond that there is a wide yellow shore scattered with shells, and she can see but she cannot touch the huge shells which contain her father's secret memories. She cannot imagine what it would be like to move through those vast coiled systems of chambers, seeing with her father's eyes the eighteen years which make the sum totaly of her own brief life, and then before that those early, mysterious years which lie beyong the scope of Sarah's memories: the years of her parents' marriage prior to the birth of their children; the years of his life before his marriage, spent on the farm alone with his father; the years of his boyhood and youth spent with both his parents, prior to his mother's death, and then these shells also come to the still point of his birth and are ended. But before this were the lives and memories of his parents, and their parents before that, and their parents before that: the shells of these memories have been sucked back into the sea by the tide, and some have been dashed by waves against the rocks and have been broken, some have fallen to the sandy bed of the sea, and some will drift forever and forever. And Mama: she wonders what has happened to the poor misshapen shell of her mother's life, and she wishes that she could have saved it above all from the cold blue infinite sea.
This paragraph summarizes the action of the entire novel, whose narrative voice as I copy it out reminds me intensely of Virginia Woolf's, particularly in my favorite novel of hers - The Waves - to get inside another's life, making it as palpable and important to oneself as is one's own life. Certainly that struggle can be the act that allows one to break free of self-imposed isolation (when another's needs become more important than one's own fears). This novel embodies that struggle on multiple levels - the isolation of an orphan (Jane) who struggles in a life without parental love, later the mutual isolation of Jane and her husband as they try to break through themselves to become vulnerable with each other, the lives of their daughters who as twins have their own unique version of sameness and separateness not experienced by most siblings, and the closely detailed diaries kept by Catherine to know herself.

One of my favorite moments in the book is a visit that Jane makes to her neighbor Ellen's house. Ellen has known Jane's husband all of her life and Jane is jealous and insecure of her. Ellen probes Jane for the story of her life, which Jane shares in all its horrid detail of the deprivation of life in a convent orphanage but is sure that Ellen did not believe her and did not like her.
Jane's antipathy towards Ellen was mixed with a considerable degree of curiosity, and she wanted to know all about her background. James would tell her nothing, but his father was happy to oblige. One winter's night as they sat by the stove, he told her the story of Ellen's past. Jane listened attentively and later she would run over it again and again in her mind, embellishing the tale with little added details of her own, imagining certain scenes with particular intensity. Every time she saw Ellen thereafter, she would think of what she know, conscious always that it was partly truth and party her own invention...

When Ellen was twelve, her father, overwhelmed by debts, took an ornamental revolver out to a ruined gazebo in the grounds of the house. His wife heard the report, and it was she who found her husband with half his head blown away. (The deed was, of course, in reality performed with a shotgun in the back yard: the revolver and gazebo were gothic fancies which Jane could not resist adding.)
I love this scene particularly because we all must knows others somewhat through the veil of our own narratives, and this is not confined only to people we love but also to those we dislike. I think that people who live largely interior lives and get used to living in their own minds, and Jane exemplifies this, in their isolation can interact not so much with others as with the characters they have made of them.

I found the many ways in which Madden writes about people reaching out from themselves towards others in The Birds of the Innocent Wood, and how this informs their experience of the own lives, particularly insightful. The beauty of the writing and the asymmetry of the structure, given the incompleteness of the lives we become acquainted with, are brilliantly suited to the content. The narrative acquires an intensity through the suspense evoked by the alternating time frames and the secrets the characters, in their isolation, withold from one another. The Birds of the Innocent Wood is a stunning and unusual piece of writing from a writer who, in the past year, has quickly become one of my favorites - Deirdre Madden.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Creative analysis - in truth fiction, in fiction truth (Books - The Semantics of Murder by Aifric Campbell)

Irish novelist Aifric Campbell's debut, The Semantics of Murder, was published last year in England and just this month in the U.S. I'm delighted to have been sent a copy so that I might tell you about it. The story is based upon the still unsolved murder of linguist Richard Montague in Beverly Hills in 1971. An erudite scholar and organist, Montague was gay and preferred the company of what is known as rough trade, by whom he was presumed to have been murdered. Montague's chief contribution to linguistics was a method of analyzing language employing mathematical logic that admitted no difference between natural languages like French and artificial languages like those used in programming. An idea whose resonance is felt in Aifric's novel which is centered around two users of language - Montague's (here Robert Hamilton) fictional brother Jay Hamilton, a psychoanalyst living in London - and writer Dana Flynn, Robert Hamilton's biographer. Both create characters based upon the lives of others and perhaps one could look at the analyst's semantics as "natural" and the writer's as "artificial," although nothing is really that simple, where the heck does that leave the biographer?
The neon eye of his sleeping laptop pulsed in the shadowy outreaches of the desk. Jay opened Cora's casebook. during his psychoanalytic training, Metzling had encouraged the class to make detailed notes straight after each session, like how a suicide fantasist sat in a chair, or how a depressive avoided eye contact. Jay used to fill pages with his clients' free associations, tracing the footprints of their childhoods, the forgotten tastes and sensation that lingered between the shadowland of memory and imagination, until he realised the futility of it all, the stunning irrelevance of the truth. After all, even Freud had admitted that it was the imagined past he was seeking, that biographical truth could be left to the historians. These days Jay's notes were outline sketches, a series of fragments, sometimes just single words that blossomed into the stories they might later become. An impressionistic starting point was all he needed to begin. The light sharpened, a plot slowly emerged and then he could stop listening to the client and simply select what suited.
Jay Hamilton, as a psychoanalyst, listens to the associations of others. The hope is to discover the truth (although there could be 100 of them) that lives beneath their words, helping them to frame a coherent narrative - one they can live with - that is the process of a successful psychotherapy. This indeed is an issue of semantics - the study of the meaning of language. Jay Hamilton also creates fictions under a pseudonym that are based upon his more interesting cases - hey, it worked for Freud. The trouble here is that Hamilton has stopped listening for the purpose of treating his patients and now relates to his patients only as fodder for fiction.

Dana Flynn, having earned a reputation for her biography of Alan Turing (another brilliant and complex thinker, who was gay, and whose life ended under suspicious circumstances), has turned his interests to Robert Hamilton (aka Richard Montague). She visits Jay to learn about his brother, exhuming Robert's memory for Jay in a challenging way, one that raises his defenses.
'Sometimes we look for conspiracy theories when we are unwilling or unable to accept the truth. When it is too painful. We rail against the truth when we think it's unfair. A little childish don't you think?' Her mouth stretched into a grim smile. 'You were angry that Turing died young and brilliant. You believed he was betrayed in the end by those who courted him. And now you're angry about Robert, so you want to make his murder more than it is. You want a better story.'
Ain't that just the pot calling the kettle black? Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of psychoanalysing going on in this novel. The story is an intelligent one with both an intellectual and a murder mystery element. There is a well integrated side-plot, in which one of Jay's patient's - Cora, the subject of his latest fiction - acts out in a surprising way. Cora is an analogue of Freud's famous case study 'Dora,' a patient through whom Freud explained some of the more influential of his ideas of repression, hysteria, and transference. This case is one critics point to as illustrative of the fact that Freud insists to strictly upon the objective truth of his analytic interpretation.

Aifric's book is more a contemporary novel with an unsolved crime in its plot than a conventional who-done-it. I have to say, I found the intertwined concepts of narrative identity, personal history, and truth and fiction more compelling than the mystery, which I had figured out fairly early in my reading. Perhaps everyone will not find the secret as obvious as I did, but given that fact, I would have preferred more of Aifric's smart cat and mouse maneouvering between Jay and Dana Flynn in which the reader knows something that one character does not. I think I would have found that more suspenseful than what felt to me like an artificial holding out. I would like to go more into the ways the secret fits well with the book's subject matter, but I feel that would give a little too much away.

Lastly, the theme of life-as-narrative is satisfyingly complemented as well as complicated by the mirror image theme of narrative-as-life. Aifric herself holds a linguistics degree. She has also studied both psychoanalysis and creative writing. If she will indulge me in a little creative analysis, it seems to me that we have in Jay and Dana two stand-ins for Aifric as she deals with the competing drives of the excitement to discover the truth of Montague's murder (semantics of a natural language), and the guilt of raising the dead by probing that history and then creating fiction of it (semantics of the artificial language). But as the truth remains unknown, it can only result in a fiction, and Aifric has created, in The Semantics of Murder, a smart and multi-layered read. And anyway, didn't Montague say that the natural and artificial languages are no different?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Tell me your story...

Regular readers already know that I am obsessed with people's personal narratives and the value of their telling. There is a great organization called Story Corps which has booths all over the United States where you can go to interview a friend or loved one and elicit their stories. You get to keep the recording and a copy is also archived with the Library of Congress. They also have various special initiatives when they focus on getting stories of particular groups like the Griot community, or gathering the stories of people who are losing their memory. A National Day of Listening has been declared on November 28, the day after the American Thanksgiving (and so a day off for most Americans, except me). They have declared this as a day to get the story of someone you love or admire. As this is typically a day off from work and around family, it would be a good opportunity to get a story from a family member or loved one, but friends and mentors would be fair game too. You can do this at home, or at a local community center. They provide the details. I'd like to extend that invitation to you. You can conduct the interview in person, you can sound or video record it. You could also do a long-distance interview in writing. The Story Corps website offers instructions if you want some help getting started. I suppose you could even post about the experience on your blog if you wanted to. Showing interest in others by listening is an act of healthy curiosity, of respect, of love. It is of great value both to you and to them. So next Friday, get someone you're curious about to tell you a story.