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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

calibrating my frivolometer

I sit here staring at the blank window of the blog-creation screen. All kinds of thoughts tumble through my head. What to say? What to write? Where am I going? What do I report?

One thought leads to another in a vast network of tinker-toy connections (I loved my tinker-toy set when I was five or six). For an investigator, like me, the search seems endless. Search for what, you ask? For stable beliefs.

Books are again accumulating in my reading-stack like planes over a crowded airport. Two more arrived yesterday: one from Amazon.com and one from a used-book dealer in Eugene, Oregon. One was a text on website development; the other a hard-to-get monograph on religion in the ancient Near East. I didn't start either one; I've got too much on the go. A feeling of limitation starts to encroach: the sense that I can read only so many books in my life; I need to choose carefully.

One of the thoughts that came up in the bouquet or fountain of possibilities when I was trying to think of how to start this was about frivolity. I think it was a couple of years ago that this word finally came to me as the label for what troubles me about most contemporary fiction and other cultural products. It's frivolous, generating a "who cares?" response in me.

As I tried to figure out what exactly is the difference between a frivolous and a nonfrivolous work, I eventually recalled these words from Thomas Pynchon's introduction to his collection of short stories, Slow Learner:

When we speak of "seriousness" in fiction ultimately we are talking about an attitude toward death--how characters may act in its presence, for example, or how they handle it when it isn't so immediate.

I thought this hit the nail on the head. Now I would calibrate my frivolometer by measuring how completely a book or an artist is ignoring the fact of death. When you're dying, life matters. When you're not, you might think you can afford to pretend that it doesn't. It's mere delusion and denial--nothing more. But it is pervasive.

Being cognizant of death doesn't mean being depressing or humorless. It means being honest about your values. I believe it means looking at life from the perspective of a dying person--from the perspective of your deathbed. In fact, I think you could do worse as a writer than to imagine you're on your deathbed right now, and look to see what matters to you. That's what you should be writing about.

Coming to grips with death--with one's own death--is the task of middle life and beyond. The problem of how to swallow our own impending death is the core of the midlife crisis. If successfully met, it has a strongly maturing effect. I think this maturing effect can be visible in the work of writers and other artists, as it is in people's lives generally. The talented youngster becomes a mature artist, or, in Pynchon's terms, the apprentice writer becomes a journeyman.

Some authorities believe there's no hurrying this maturing process. I recall reading an opinion given by Alexander Solzhenitsyn on a debate about whether Sholokhov's novel And Quiet Flows the Don was written when Sholokhov was only in his early 20s, as was alleged. Solzhenitsyn dismissed this idea, since he regarded it as impossible for any writer, no matter how talented, to write anything of real maturity and worth until he or she gets into the 40s.

But I'm not so sure. There may be such a thing as "old souls", those who are mature beyond their years--in fact that seems obvious, in my experience. The opposite is certainly true: there are those who are immature for their years. And it may be possible, if you're serious and have the imaginative talent, to journey to a place of maturity, to visit it intensely enough to be able to write. My mother and I have been working our way through James Joyce's Dubliners, which he wrote in his 20s, and these works are anything but frivolous. His insight and expressive power already exceeded anything that almost any other writer could ever come up with, no matter how old they get.

Ach, I'm trying to console myself here a bit. As the world seems to whiz by, I bend over my scholarly books, reading, searching, puzzling...



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