Saturday, June 25, 2011

How to Read a Paragraph for Morning Wood

I'd long since decided not to continue with book club, as I'd come to find the experience entirely too frustrating, and my own role in the discussion increasingly unpleasant. The determination of our moderator to read the best GLBTQ books and authors, while initially quite exciting, had proven in practice quite frustrating for me as a devoted reader of writers like Genet, Mishima and Gide, to name just three favorites all of whom flopped in book club. My fellow participants had proven to be uniformly intelligent, articulate and amusing folks, and of some I had become increasingly fond, even though our tastes had not always agreed. Moreover, I love our host, and consider him one of my dearest friends in Seattle, but even he and I do not always see eye to eye on these books. The discussions, which I had come in the past year to attend less frequently, had however taken on a certain pious acrimony, in my opinion, to which I most strenuously objected. It seemed to me that what was expected was that the authors would be nice guys, rather more like the book club members than not, and that while there were always participants in the conversation, including our host, willing to defend the artistic integrity of the book under discussion, the willingness of some of the members to judge the past as a thoroughly unpleasant, ugly and unrewarding place left me feeling outraged on behalf of the dead. My role in these evenings had already become less that of dramaturg; suggesting potential titles and authors and providing historical and biographical kibitzing, and more that of the old biddy librarian, tsking as much or more than I talked. By the time we'd got to Yukio Mishima, who not even my dear friend N. seemed to find anything but irredeemable, I'd had quite enough. The whole enterprise felt pointless to me, and even I didn't want to hear anything I had to say on the subject. Basically, while still supporting my friend in other ways, behind the scene as it were, I'd quit.

Dear N. finally lured me back with the promise of his favorite Andre Gide novel, The Counterfeiters, also a favorite of mine, and a pork dinner. It seems a very thoughtful member had offered a full meal, complete with pigeon peas and rice and what my grandma called a "white cake" for desert. As for the Gide, it had been one of the first titles we had discussed reading in the book club, and agreed on, back in the first days of planning. Subsequently, dear N. had decided to read Gide's The Immoralist instead, thinking the comparative length and complexity of our first choice would be perhaps a bit daunting for some, and the latter book more directly concerned with the specific issues addressed by the book club. Well, as I've said, The Immoralist did not play well. Many if not most members were impatient not only with the rather formal prose, but with the narrative and the what they saw as the central character's lack of character, and by extension, to a degree with which my own narrative of Gide's biography in no way helped, Gide's. With frankly decreasing participation from the established membership, and fewer new members coming, our host, it seemed, had determined to read his favorite Gide again, whether anyone came or not, or liked the book or not. Would I come again, at least this once, to support him in this? And if slow roasted pork was included in the offer? How could I not?

So, I went. The meal was as promised. The cake, in particular, a wonderful and comforting surprise. My friend was still quite giddy with the joy of Gide, and while he had failed to entirely communicate his enthusiasm to the club, the promise of a good meal and good company had brought a number of us back, temporarily at least, to the fold. It was nice.

Perhaps I was just feeling less sour, sated with beans and rice maybe, but for the most part I enjoyed myself. It's true, I gabbed like a gassy old fishwife again; telling tales on Gide and Wilde and who knows what all, and for the most part, my friend and I just gushed back and forth for the better part of an hour about the book, all while trying not to spoil anything for those who had never read the novel before and had yet to finish it, which was not all that surprising as the meeting was just the second of the month and it is a long book.

At some point in the midst of our happy gabble, my friend threw the discussion back to the floor, and while I don't remember the actual question he proposed, one of the participants I did not know went on to ask his own question of us, a question I did not at first follow, and which dear N. then had to explain to me, as I remember it. Basically, by way of example, this guy challenged the group to explain just what the hell the novelist was up to, writing around things, as he seemed to do, and never quite saying what he meant. Asked for an example, the frustrated reader was more than prepared with an example, from early on in the book, specifically the following, which is the first paragraph of only the sixth chapter, titled "Bernard Awakens":

"Bernard has had an absurd dream. He doesn't remember his dream. he doesn't try to remember his dream, but to get out of it. He returns to the world of reality to feel Olivier's body pressing heavily against him. Whilst they were asleep (or at any rate while Bernard was asleep) his friend had come close up to him -- and for that matter, the bed was too narrow to allow of much distance; he had turned over; he is sleeping on his side now and Bernard feels Olivier's warm breath tickling his neck. Bernard has nothing on but his short day-shirt; one of Olivier's arms is flung across him, weighing oppressively and indiscreetly on his flesh. For a moment Bernard is not sure that Olivier is really asleep. He frees himself gently. he gets up without waking Olivier, dresses and then lies down again on the bed. It is still too early to be going. For o'clock. the night is only just beginning to dwindle. One more hour of rest, one more hour for gathering strength to start the coming day valiantly. But there is no more sleep for him. Bernard stares at the glimmering window pane, at the grey walls of the little room, at the iron bedstead where George is tossing in his dreams."

Our host assured me later that the young man asking about this paragraph has become a regular and always otherwise keen participant; that he reads everything asked of him, has never really complained of an previous difficulty, and is generally a perfectly amiable fellow. For some reason though, the evening I attended, clearly he was not best pleased with Olivier & Bernard, and most specially with Monsieur Gide. (Of poor, sleeping brother George, we none of us took any notice.) Having read the paragraph quickly over, I sill did not entirely understand the character of the young man's question. What was wrong with it? Seemed perfectly clear to me.

Just here I pause in my own little story to take note of just what a thorough old bore I must be, not only to my many friends who would seem to have decided collectively, from simple kindness, to overlook the pedantry and pompousness with which I seem to answer even the simplest questions about books, but to the unsuspecting stranger who may have asked my opinion of something like Gide's style in complete innocence of intending any offense to either the memory of the Nobel Laureate or this strange, bewhiskered little book-troll, suddenly set off lecturing in the midst of an otherwise friendly gathering. Unlike the book club's amiable host, who has a positive gift for turning even the most seemingly hostile question into a proper, Democratic discussion, I can never talk about books but I argue. Don't really know why, though were I to hazard a guess, I should have to say I assume hostility to my opinions because, like a spoiled child, I am not much used to having my opinions -- at least of old books -- challenged. This is nobody's fault but my own. Had I, for example, pursued some sort of academic career in literature, based on my understanding at second hand of such, I would doubtless long since have had the stuffing knocked out of my understanding of these things by experts and proper pedagogues. As it is, my pathetically brief time in college taught me only to distrust not so much my own reading of great books as the professionals who would tell me how, and how not to do so. In a way, I've rather kept my innocence. I still assume that any failure to understand a great writer is my own rather than his or hers, and that my own temperament, taste, education or lack thereof, and or plain thick-headedness is all that may prevent me from making a perfectly reasonable estimation of the worth of a particular piece of writing. I never quite saw the point in challenging the established opinion that this or that writer, or that this or that "classic" book was not deserving of inclusion in the canon, based on nothing more than my dislike or failure to fully appreciate the felicities, for example of Joyce and Finnegan's Wake. Awfully intelligent, well educated people seem to agree that that book is a bloody masterpiece. Who am I to disagree? Masterpiece it is then. Nothing to do with me. I needn't read it. Of the books I have read, and more than once for no other or better reason than because I wanted to, I am confident in my opinion, and childishly assume not only that I am right, but that others ought to and will agree with me. Henry James is a great writer. The Golden Bowl is a masterpiece of startling psychological depth and near perfect English prose. Statements like that, I've found, tend not to find echoes everywhere. Why should I still be surprised to find this so? I suppose because most of my friends through the years, in the business of selling books or out of it, tend either to not have read The Golden Bowl, or Henry James, or if they have, even at my insistence, they have been generally far to polite to tell me what they might actually think. The few that do, if their opinion of that novel has not been mine, have generally kept this fact to themselves, or failing that, possibly to spare themselves further blather and bullying from me on the subject of its perfection, they've just assumed the burden of their displeasure and insisted sweetly that the fault must have been entirely theirs. With that attitude I have complete sympathy. Not for everyone, Henry James.

So a more direct challenge, as that made at book club regarding what that fellow next me me saw as the unnecessary obscurity of the passage from Gide's novel quoted above, as I've said, I find first mystifying and then, once it has been explained to me, maddening. What's not to understand? Has the fellow, in his youth, never spent a sleepless night next to the object of his adolescent desire, calculating the allowable pressure to be applied to the small of a handsome boy's back? the potentially telling weight of an arm gently lowered, as if in restless sleep, but actually by painstaking, agonizingly careful degree across the senseless chest of his friend?

There's the first mistake. What Gide so masterfully describes in that vignette is an experience that may not be shared by every gay boy anymore. If everyone in the room older than forty seemed to smile in recognition at this, it may not be a bad thing that that kind of breathless pantomime of young, unrequited love is no longer automatically understood as an experience common to us all.

Then there's poor Bernard and his confusing dream. That made me smile. There's Gide being funny in a way that need not, I suppose, be entirely appreciated now that sex has largely ceased to be such a prolonged negotiation between the willing and the potential of confusion, disgust and even complete, if not violent rejection. Gide has Bernard's dream speak to possibilities he may never have considered, or even be able to name, though he has the frustrating good grace to treat the matter as more innocent than he suspects it is, and to take on the responsibility to see to it that nothing comes of this dreamy, distracting body-heat, and so gets gently up and dresses before coming back to bed! Bernard has more important things on his mind, you see, things not really relevant to just that paragraph.

Poor Olivier!

I wish I'd been able to talk about what that paragraph was intended to tell without getting all fussed and then hectoring our interlocutor as if he'd suggested that Gide was a bad writer, and we were fools to find him funny or wise. Hardly the poor young man's fault if he hadn't the same experience as me for context, or the habit of reading this kind of coded narrative. Unfortunately, his impatience with the passage set me off not only trying to explain what I'd read in Gide's description of that night in the narrow bed, but from that to a wider argument, hardly justified by the man's honest question, in defense of the subtlety of the novelist's art, the insensitivity of the new, "post-literate" world to appreciate the finesse with which such matters as an unwelcome boner pressed against another boy's back back at four AM might be described, and the generally coarsening of our reading of such things in a time when we have grown accustomed to the explicit. Blah, blah, blah. So sorry, friend.

What Howard Gardner, writing for The Washington Post some years back, called "an ensemble of literacies" -- a phrase that still chills me -- was what I ended up going on about, really. I do think there's an increasing credence given to the idea that an understanding, however crude, of the mechanisms of any kind of narrative communication, from cartoons to video games, and the to me disturbing academic and or philosophic consensus that all and any communication is either equally valid or equally pointless in the attempt, has succeeded mostly in making us insensible to many of the wonders of really good writing. (Of which the preceding sentence is obviously not an example.) That's the argument I started anyway, if nowhere but in my own head.

(Robert Darnton, in his wonderful book, collecting up his essays on Google and the like, The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future, makes any point I might have been trying to make just now or at book club that night, far better than I might manage. I recommend it.)

What I was trying to do, in addition to making that paragraph make sense for someone for whom it did not, was defend the necessity, as I see it, of what the gentleman next to me at some point called, "writing around" rather than "just saying" a thing, as he seemed to be insisting Gide should have done. My frustration in book club generally, other than my impatience with people present insisting that people in the past ought always to have known better, behaved differently, and been nicer, has I think all to do with my anxiety that even nice people are now impatient with writing, and literature as such. I begin to suspect that we expect to be told not what to think, which would be considered rude by most Americans nowadays, even or specially when we are inclined not to think much at all, but told what everyone else, past and present, was thinking and feeling without the confusing subtleties that make literature superior to any artistic communication other than serious music. Television, film, and the kind of quick content favored on the Internet so often summarize and direct emotions, and fail to even suggest the complexities of actual human interactions, that I begin to worry that much of the best of western literature might someday seem as arcane to future readers as Sanskrit, despite the fact that everyone in the world, it seems, will be speaking some kind of English.

But that's just me making mountains of molehills again, most likely, and talking above my education. Comes of too much time spent reading alone, I suppose. I must try to get out more.

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