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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, April 21, 2008

new bookcase, new book

Yesterday was sunny but still unusually cold. I spent most of the afternoon assembling the Billy bookcase Kimmie and I bought at Ikea last weekend and then rearranging my bookshelves. The task was bigger than I'd expected, and I wound up losing patience and just stuffing books in wherever I could. But my office is clear again of tottering stacks of books on chairs, desk, and floor. I love it.

At reading-time I felt vaguely dissatisfied with the stack of books I've got on the go--a feeling that comes over me from time to time. I take it as a sign of the shifting wind of my interests. I read a passage of the Iliad, then a few pages of House of War by James Carroll. But I didn't really feel like reading anything else that I had on the coffee-table.

I let my mind wander over subjects: what's missing in my reading diet? Science? What kind of science? Psychology?

Very quickly my mind zoomed in on the book Anatomy of Criticism by Northrop Frye, a lavender-colored paperback I got in February. Could that be it?

Trusting my hunch, I came down to the new bookcase (located in the empty windowless room where we keep our freezer) and collected the book. I started reading, and found myself immediately absorbed. Yes: this was just the thing.

Many years ago I was given a book by Northrop Frye, The Great Code, as a gift from our friends the Burts. I still haven't read it. Anatomy of Criticism is, I think, his most famous work, one in which he sketches an outline for a "science" of literary criticism. I decided to buy it when I found it referred to in a work on the epic genre. Apparently Frye said that epics are created by authors at times of greatest stress in their lives. I wanted to find out what else he may have to say about them.

Right from the start I felt myself in sympathy with Frye and enjoying the way his mind works. His "Polemical Introduction" to the book starts thus:

This book consists of "essays," in the word's original sense of a trial or incomplete attempt, on the possibility of a synoptic view of the scope, theory, principles, and techniques of literary criticism.

Whew, a bold agenda, right in the first sentence. But what really hooked me was this sentence, toward the end of his long opening paragraph:

My approach is based on Matthew Arnold's precept of letting the mind play freely around a subject in which there has been much endeavor and little attempt at perspective.

Fantastic! I found this sentence provocative and stimulating. What is it about it that I find so appealing?

It's the conjunction of "much endeavor" and "free play". This, I'm sure, is how valuable discoveries are made. You work hard at something, but unsystematically, because it doesn't yet have a system. One things follows on another, and you just attend to those things. Then, after a time, you gain an unconscious familiarity with the subject. Your conscious effort impregnates your unconscious, and you feel its stirrings in hunches and creative ideas. In that condition, that tension, the imagination can burst forth with new things.

This is another variant of the relationship of research to creative writing, I think. You learn and learn, maybe without much system, and then ideas start coming. You have the materials with which to create.

As I read I found myself laughing out loud at some of Frye's dry witticisms--rare for me while reading.

Yes, it was just the thing.

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