What is a literary life? What makes a written work a literary landmark—or something lasting in any way at all? I once thought I knew the answers to these things, but now am not so sure. For that matter, I’m not even sure I know what literature itself is anymore.
It turns out that people — dead novelists included — are complicated. That’s a lesson most of us are doomed to learn more than once. I know I’m capable of holding opinions and convictions others no doubt find contradictory, even offensive. I recognize the same in others, including writers who try to be, as Henry James wrote in The Art of Fiction, one “upon whom nothing is lost.”
I talk with sister Amy every Sunday. So while I was reading Mary Lawson’s novels, that’s naturally what we talked about. One time Amy said: “Her novels are about the trouble we make for ourselves when we don’t talk about things.” I see this especially in two of the novels.
In recent years Dante’s Comedy has been important to my thinking about high fantasy. That phrase, as far as I’m aware, appears for the first time in Western literature in the middle of the Purgatorio and at the very end of the Paradiso. L’alta fantasia. It was a turning point in the history of the idea of fantasy, because now fantasy could be high—that is, heaven-sent, theophany.
Agnon’s Days of Awe is not fiction, though it is a pastiche of different kinds of narrative in the manner of the Talmud. What is it, then? Despite having read Agnon’s Days of Awe around Rosh Hashanah every year for the past five years, it’s hard for me to say. It’s like a machzor, the prayerbook for the High Holy Days, if a prayer book were an anthology of…fiction.
I’m writing this as the national media in the United States are already well into rolling out their retrospective “packages” to mark the twentieth anniversary of September 11. Maybe I’m just listening to and reading the wrong things, but in all these retrospectives, I have only seen the cogitations of journalists and pundits and academics—and precious little exploration of 9/11’s effect on fiction.
I’m intensely interested in the complexities of ordinary crime, like in the stories of Kevin Hardcastle: a world without mastermind Dr. Evils and I-can-solve-anything Sherlocks. But a world where those with power do exploit the weak for their own protection or benefit. I’ve seen that reality, from domestic abuse that’s touched people I care about to misogyny, racism, and sexism in the workplace.
What makes just the right novel be just the right thing for my bedtime reading? Well, it has to be engaging, but not gripping. (Gripping would make me too stimulated to sleep.) No violence (physical or psychological) allowed. And while any novel takes me out of myself, which is exactly what bedtime calls for, the world it takes me into must be one of an underlying peace.
As George Saunders so persuasively reminds us, in his engaging book about storytelling, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, a story is a way for a writer and a reader to think and imagine together.… “We imagine a story as a room-sized black box,” says Saunders. “The writer’s goal is to have the reader go into that box in one state of mind and come out in another. What happens in there has to be thrilling and non-trivial.”
I’ve been thinking about joy in writing. I believe I know by now what it feels like for the writer to be working joyfully. Can you detect it in someone else’s writing? I think so, and I think I know the first time I saw it on the page, and knew that that was what I saw.
Contrary to popular misconception, White’s essay “Once More to the Lake” doesn’t recount a nostalgic journey back to a vanished world, to a sacred place cherished in one’s memory. White’s revisit to “old haunts” actually comes closer to a nightmare, as he experiences throughout the week a series of disconcerting and uncanny sensations resulting from the initial illusion that the passage of time has somehow dissolved.
Maybe one of the most Catholic things about Kirstin Valdez Quade’s novel The Five Wounds is the overall feeling you may have watching these characters stumbling through their lives that obtaining happiness is not the point of those lives. Loving is the point. And loving means self-sacrifice. One thing that is incredibly hard to sacrifice is the idol.
That is the connection between Stevens and Nguyen. Nothing. Both writers are geniuses at revealing the revolutionary power of Nothing, Stevens for the literary, Nguyen for the political imagination. Nothing like nothing releases both imaginations from the dead end of habit and convention.
If you’ve been anywhere near the media in recent weeks, you’ve likely seen the archival photographs, indistinct and muddy, depicting the broken and blasted-out blocks that were all that was left of the city’s affluent Greenwood district—the “Black Wall Street”—after the mob was done with it. A mob that, as the reports tell us, included the Tulsa police force and the National Guard.
In some ways, Christian literature has for two millennia been seeking and finding new ways to tell the Gospel Story. You can see it in the Arthur Story and other fantasy fiction. Even a great modernist poet like David Jones has little else for material than the Mass, or the sacrifice it is understood to recreate.
I’d argue that like a minor league baseball team, a minor character has the capacity to transcend their supporting role. Maybe even rebel against it. If the writer’s not careful—maybe the writer should sometimes take care not to be so careful—a minor character might become interesting in and of themselves and, in this way, offer the reader a necessary break now and then from the spotlight-hungry lead.
Even as a kid, I remember reading stories and being enamored not only by the characters, plots, and settings but also by the notion that there was a personal presence behind the telling, that someone out there, some author, had first imagined into being what I as the reader was now imagining into being. As much as I loved reading, this idea of being the first imaginer was something that I always aspired to, and I was lucky as a young writer to have had many good teachers—from elementary school all the way up through my graduate programs—who cultivated this aspiration.
I am describing Gene Wolfe’s magnum opus, the epic ‘science-fantasy’ known altogether as the Solar Cycle, for the series which comprise it are called The Book of the New Sun (with its sequel The Urth of the New Sun), The Book of the Long Sun, and The Book of the Short Sun. Of these, I have read only the first four novels (the top two volumes of my pile), the Book of the New Sun.
I once heard a female academic talk about the necessity of “de-gendering the private sphere,” and the past year would certainly seem to confirm that, what with children (including my own) and baskets of dirty laundry creeping into the backgrounds of Zoom calls.
Tarjei Vesaas’s final book fascinates me more than the others because of its form. It is a series of images—as I have just used the term, these moments of consciousness-in-place that become character-defining—a kaleidoscope of them (that word means a sequence of beautiful images)…but do they add up to a story? If so, what or whose story?