Monday, October 27, 2008

Remembering Old Books

When I was twelve I tried to read “War and Peace” for the first time. During that part of my life, my parents had instituted a tradition of visiting the recently opened city library on Sunday afternoons to look for books to read during the coming week. Mostly, they chose recent thrillers or mysteries and it was in “borrowing” from my father’s selection that I first encountered the perfect adolescent delight “From Russia with Love.” I never seemed to be able to find sensible entertainment like that on my own. Instead, I was pursuing a larger agenda. In particular, I was looking for a way to distance myself as far as possible from the banal literary pabulum inflicted upon me at school. Even now, the thought of a required ten pages per week of Ricter’s “The Light in the Forest,” is enough to made me shudder physically. I am now as I write this. Back then, I resented everything about it, the adolescent characters, the conservatism, the absence of dramatic risk, the heavy handed themes and, above all, the implicit insult to my intellectual vanity. After all, I was twelve. My job was to distrust and disagree with everything.
Hence, you can appreciate my delight when I discovered one lazy, October, Sunday afternoon, two slightly dusty volumes, each about 1,000 pages long and filled with nearly unpronounceable Russian names and no pictures. My parents, showing phenomenal wisdom didn’t try to discourage me from checking them out. I think I managed a mere 60 pages or so before we returned it the following week. My literary Everest attempt had failed. Oh yes, as required, I had read yet another ten pages of that other thing.
Nevertheless, in college at nineteen, I was ready for another go. This time there was no climbing. The better metaphor is falling. I plummeted into early 19th century Russia during the age of Napoleon and lived it intensively for two weeks. I read surreptitiously in the back of my logic class, I read in the university library after finishing my differential equations homework, I read in the morning before class. The images I made, of Andrei lying wounded at Borodino staring at the clouds, or of Nickolai sitting around a fire nursing an incredibly painful broken wrist after his first battle or of Pierre tromping in the snow during the retreat from Moscow remain as vivid as memory. Literally. Like memories they are not only visual but include sound and smells. Even now, I’m delighted and surprised as I remember and those memories burn back into life yet again.
So, for me, the purpose of fiction, the deepest magic of fiction, is in creation of that alternative experience. The magic is how a limited number of words, a few perfect details induce my brain to create so much more, so much that is sensory and then tumble on like an engine running itself to death in an unending cycle of creation. You’d think it would be exhausting but it isn’t. And all the literary criticism I’ve read, from Coleridge to Eliot to Nye to Derrida has never sufficiently explored how and why it works.
Obviously, there are many other kinds of fiction that can strive for different psychological effects and much of what was written during the last half of the twentieth century explored that. For me, much of it is a digression.
Yesterday morning which was Sunday, I read the usual selection of newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Guardian. But I found myself doing something else as well, following links to Youtube videos, mostly comic and ironic commentary on the US presidential election. And that curious mixture of alternating between text and moving image led me to wonder what effect the proliferation and hybridization of media will have on fiction. I’m well aware of the variety of experiments in that direction, including interactive fiction for example. And I’ve read a couple of provocative commentaries, such as Murray’s “Hamlet on the Holodeck.” Maybe we are at the threshold of a new Romantic age in which a plethora of important new hybrid genres will be created. But I’ve yet read or imagine how the natural discordance between what I imagine for myself and what the artist creates for me to see directly can be resolved so that the imagination continues that elemental, active process which gives fiction its power.

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