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Saturday, November 13, 2010

Frame It

"To read a novel requires a certain amount of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading. If you read a novel in more than two weeks you don't read the novel really. So I think that kind of concentration and focus and attentiveness is hard to come by — it's hard to find huge numbers of people, large numbers of people, significant numbers of people, who have those qualities." -- Philip Roth to Tina Brown at The Daily Beast

Philip Roth is right that we need to read novels in a short span of time. And Mortimer Adler is right that we must come back and read again and again, and maybe even again, until we get what the author aims to do.

I read James Baldwin's Another Country and then reread the first few and the last few pages. All of a sudden, the frame of the novel appeared, and what seemed to be a meandering journey gained a crisp, clear focus. What before seemed a realistic series of events with interesting characters became coherent narrative about real people. An opaque title suddenly translated. Baldwin's genius lifted off the page in this simple yet brilliant frame of dark and light.

Spoiler alert, or, if you know that reading it yourself is the real ride, listen to this: Baldwin begins the story with Rufus Scott, a black jazz musician wandering the wintry, dark New York City streets in suicidal desperation. Over 300 pages later, Baldwin ends the story with Yves, a white French emigre, coming off a plane from Paris to New York on a hot, sunny day and seeing his white lover, Eric. The connection between Rufus and Yves is Eric, who has loved both men. Many fascinating, compelling characters have come and gone between pages 1 and 366, but their connections and small degrees of separation remained unclear to me in a larger sense till my eyes saw the darkness and light of Baldwin's descriptions. Then the theme got as simple as black and white.

On pages 1 and 2:

"It was past midnight, and he had been sitting in the movies...since two o'clock in the afternoon."

"...he had growled in his sleep and bared the white teeth in his dark face..."

"The Avenue was quiet, too, most of its bright lights out."

"...the blackness of the side streets."

"A hotel's enormous neon name challenged the starless sky."

"The great buildings, unlit, blunt like the phallus or sharp like the spear, guarded the city which never slept."

"Beneath them Rufus walked, one of the fallen--for the weight of this city was murderous--one of those who had been crushed on the day, which was every day, these towers fell."

Baldwin wrote the last pages of this novel in 1961 from Istanbul; I wonder if he could imagine an American reader in 2010 hearing "these towers fell" in a whole new way.

Rufus later throws himself off the George Washington bridge. The setting alone drives him to it, though we learn there are many other reasons besides, all born of the city and its greedy, self-serving, racist ways.

The opening is so full of rich, aching prose--the world in which Rufus walks--you could make a whole novel about that. But Baldwin travels many worlds inside America. Take the one of Yves, a male prostitute who's found an American lover to welcome him stateside. What is the America that greets Yves?

On pages 365 and 366:

"The hostesses stood there, smiling and saying good-bye. The sun was bright on their faces, and on the faces of the disembarking passengers; they seemed, as they turned and disappeared, to be stepping into a new and healing light."

"...he had hit the light, the sun glared at him, and everything wavered in the heat."

"Eric leaned on the rail of the observation deck, grinning, wearing an open white shirt...with his short hair spinning and flaming about his head."

"...and he strode through the barriers, more high-hearted than he had ever been as a child, into that city which the people from heaven had made their home."

From murder and loneliness to healing and love; from darkness into light. From death to life. Surely, Baldwin means another country in each description, not one and the same? The frame of dark and light links these two worlds inside America, as do all the people in between. The hateful city is a loving city for some. The problem that the novel poses is, Why can't it be for all?

In every country, each of us lives in a microcosm. We know not the other countries of our fellow man. When it comes to race and oppression in the name of race, we know nothing of our fellow man, Baldwin tells us. He even says it outright in the novel, sitting behind Rufus' shoulder, before we're really ready to know what it means:

Entirely alone, and dying of it, he was part of an unprecedented multitude. There were boys and girls drinking coffee at the drugstore counters who were held back from his condition by barriers as perishable as their dwindling cigarettes. They could scarcely bear their knowledge, nor could they have borne the sight of Rufus, but they knew why he was in the streets tonight, why he rode subways all night long, why his stomach growled, why his hair was nappy, his armpits funky, his pants and shoes too thin, and why he did not dare to stop and take a leak.

Ironically, Mortimer Adler has taught me "how to mark a book" and treat the literary genius on the page with the respect of my annotations. This same man propounded a Eurocentric canon without black authors because "They didn't write any good books."

The artist in Christ no doubt called out the poor and the downtrodden the same way Baldwin does. Notice them, says the Sermon on the Mount. Cross the lines of one country into another, says Baldwin's novel.

As winter deepens and the days darken early, we who have enough food, light, and home to share would do well to see the other countries pressing at the edges of our sight. The shape each country takes differs for individuals and so does the color, class, nation, sex, orientation, and faith. We can never be sure we know everything of another man's world. Our pen hovering above the page should take note. And then, our hearts should take action.

Writing Prompts:
-- What country do you live in, inside this country? How do you know?
-- Is there another country you see inside America and wish to enter? Why?
-- What is it about your country that you wish others knew?
-- What author writes about other countries of geography or soul that make you want to go there? Why?
-- In your daily experience, is the novel dying, or do you make time for it? How? Why?
-- What activity do you give your undivided attention to? How do you commit your undivided attention? Why?
-- Finish this sentence: "In another country, I will..."
-- Write a poem that uses the word "country" to refer to something other than a geographical space.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Just Read It

In honor of NaNoWriMo, I'm reading a heck of a lot more.

Instead of generating a new set of 50,000 words, I'm reading others' thousands of well-crafted phrases, sentences, pages. Not only does reading help me edit those reams I've already generated, but I've decided it's time to go old school and finish a novel sooner rather than later. I have to think tough and act tough like a coach and say, "GET IN THAT CHAIR AND START READING, HAWKS!"

Sometimes I fear Philip Roth is correct in his assessment that none of us are finishing novels anymore. He's famous for his recent assessment of our reading habits: "The concentration, the focus, the solitude, the silence, all the things that are required for serious reading are not within people's reach anymore." He claims "multiple screens" command our attention. And the only way to truly grasp a novel is to read it over a short period--not a year, as I have sometimes done.

We know Roth is right about the state of things, but I think he forgets who's in charge here. Sure, multiple screens blather, cajole, blink at me every day, but I've got access to power button, remote, and all accompanying cords. HAL does a hard sell but I still know how to turn the thing off. I also have the power to physically remove myself from the room with the flat screen and find my office or bedroom and that waiting book. I've also returned to reading as the last thing I do at night. Sure, I'm tired, but that never stopped me as a child, and there's nothing more peaceful than absorbing a few pages of well-written prose.

It's in this spirit that I finished James Baldwin's Another Country. This amazing book is worth its own post, so more on that coming soon and how authors explore an idea via frames and subplots.

Now I'm rereading Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons, I'm reading Dance of the Happy Shades, an Alice Munro short story collection, and Narrative Design by Madison Smartt Bell. Yet I'm reading Ellen Foster a bit differently than the other works: I'm gobbling it in an hour here on a weekend, a half-hour there before bed, and should even finish it today, as I believe and agree with Roth is the way novels should be read.

Then I'll return to it to make sense of it. Roth is right that novels need "the concentration, the focus, the solitude, the silence"--and one way I will give Another Country and Ellen Foster and other works of art their deserved attention is to use technology. Here's where those "multiple screens" come in handy: I will blog about these works, book next to the keyboard, and study them in old-school manners of lit analysis. These exercises will hone my craft, sharpen my eye, and educate myself and perhaps a wider audience that there's beautiful method behind the seemingly effortless prose.

Now I must leave this screen and the books behind because I have other modern, hectic things to do, but just as I have a craving for the charms of those multiple screens, I also crave the quiet and beauty that those reading moments allow me. Before this day is over, I will slip into the world Kaye Gibbons has created. I will bring my whole, quiet self, and I will be a better human for that focus and time alone with another human's mind.