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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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Read my Solipsism
Looking back through this journal I see that over the years I have spent a lot of time shoving The Great Gatsby up against other texts, to see if they were a good fit. I'm really not sure why. I mean, I like Fitzgerald's book, and I've taught it several times, but it's not one of my "big" books, or not consciously. So yesterday, when I found myself musing, "Is Kurtz the man Gatsby would have become had he been born in Mitteleuropa instead of the Midwest?" I slapped myself down severely and made myself repeat "Conrad took a steamer up the Congo" twenty times until the fit had passed.

It's not just Gatsby, though. Last summer, I read - and was blown away by - Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. One of the things I liked best was the attenuated despair of the main narrative's final pages, as the protagonist stumbles toward suicide while desperately trying to keep alive his grandiose self-image. There was a certain flavour about the account that resonated - though I wasn't sure with what. This morning it came to me what it had reminded me of: the wonderful description of Nero's death in Suetonius. (I remember where I read that, too - in a cafe near the bus station in Cambridge, during my lunch break when I was a technical writer 25 years ago. I have an excellent memory for things like that, even though I can't name more than two or three of my colleagues from that unhappy time.)

No doubt one's past reading forms a rich humus in which the experience of new books can flower all the more vigorously. Still, it's a chicken-and-egg thing, or a hermeneutically circular one. Would I have enjoyed that bit of Hogg as much, or at all, had it not been for meeting Nero first? I'm not usually attracted to tales of suicidal despair - in fact, I prefer happy endings and find them more rewarding technically, spiritually, and aesthetically. My own depression and sense of futility perhaps contributed to that part of Suetonius sticking with me. What made it an important literary experience had as much to do with my own state of mind as anything I could have said about the text, even though I was consciously appreciating things about that too, and (since I was reading it in Graves's translation) thinking about it as source text for the Claudius books. That was consciously, ratiocinatively absorbing, but it took another reading of another text a quarter of a century later to hook out what had mattered to me most, and even since then it's been the best part of a year. And perhaps it wouldn't have occurred to me now if I hadn't dreamed about Nero last night - which was entirely the fault of Beric the Briton. Well, that's the kind of brain I've had the privilege of growing from a cutting, I suppose - but by God, it's a wonder we can make ourselves understood when we talk about books at all.

Just from the first paragraph, I have to comment that the book that always resonated with Gatsby for me was Absalom, Absalom! - albeit both of those were "big" books for me - but it was that kind of idea of someone coming from nothing, having a huge ideal, and remaking themselves purely to fit the ideal in an ultimately futile attempt that nonetheless manages to fool a lot of people. Something about the American Dream in the North versus the American Dream in the South or something like that.

I have always been amused by how much I associated What Maisie Knew with The Lives of Christopher Chant. I think that the day after I read the former for the first time I had a dream where it wasn't quite clear whether the dream was about Maisie or Christopher, and ever since then the two have been inseparable in my mind. Interesting about how your dream also worked to connect two texts.

I've not read the Faulkner or the James, so can't make the comparison - although the latter is high on my tbr list, and higher still after reading this. Dreams are where we do some of our best work, without doubt!

What Masie Knew is just great. First Henry James I ever read, because its first chapter was one of the passages given to us on the reading comprehension and analysis part of the Advanced Placement test in, um, 1974.

I've read maybe half a dozen of James's books, with wildly varying degrees of pleasure. That one sounds as if it would be up my street.

Great comparison.

My son and I were just comparing The Great Gatsby to both QC novels last night. Nick's father and Mr. Compson. Are you thinking Le Bon/Gatsby, or Sutpen/Gatsby?

I still haven't gotten around to reading The Sound and the Fury - probably one of those things where I loved Absalom, Absalom! so much that I'm a little scared of TSatF being worse. Anyway, I was thinking of Sutpen, though I can see the Le Bon bit too, but I think I have a somewhat more ambiguous emotional reaction to Le Bon than I do to Gatsby and Sutpen.

I love posts like this, about books wandering through individual brains, whether I have read said books or not. And I cherish the memories of reading books for the first time in particular times and places-- Fat Men From Space at the elementary-school library after getting in trouble for talking, The Bostonians at "lunch" breaks on the graveyard shift at a photo processing plant, Pride and Prejudice sitting on railroad ties near a mass of fragrant blackberry vines, et cetera. The specificity of falling in love, I guess. :)

Yes, I think that's right. And so much of what one values about a book, or even understands by it, is implicated in that time and place. Yet to write about it critically is by convention never to mention such things - which is very unsatisfactory!

Yes, yes. It is falling in love. That is why it feels so vivid. I could listen to this sort of talk all day. And like love, we see things in books that others may not.

As a child I had a biography of Pasteur that I loved. I spent a whole summer carrying it with me everywhere, reading it over and over and over. I do not know now, why it meant so much to me. But I absorbed it into my bones.

Do you remember what it looked like? Or how it smelt, how much it weighed? Or is it just the content that's fixed?

Yes. I remember. It was a small, not very thick book. It had pen and ink illustrations, but they were the kind with an ink was underneath in green and orange. (It was the 1970's after all.) I know just how it smelled. I am a person who puts books up to my face a lot. It came from the library. It smelled of there. It is a smell I love.

It was the sort of library that would let you keep things a long time, as long as nobody else wanted them. The librarian was an old woman who was a particular friend of mine. She put things aside for me sometimes. (She was the sort of grownup who understood.)

Nobody was pining for the bio of Pasteur. I read it over and over, in the grass, at the beach, in my attic bedroom.

We love books as we love people, I think. We love other people even when they are lumpy, or hairy, or wrong about things. We love them even when they annoy us, or we don't like how they eat soup. We love their silly humanity.

I think I love books that way. This book only had to be what it was. Not transforming for everyone who read it-- special and beloved for me.

Gatsby, BTW did little for me. But I would go down fighting for Moby Dick.

I have begun to suspect that this process is how it works for most of us. The problem, as you say, comes in articulating it. Recognizing it, first. I think a lot of the connectives are unconscious, or perhaps conscious at the time, then they sink below and metamorphose quietly.

(Or maybe it's just me, but I glance back through my old journals, read what I thought of this or that book: forgot I read that one; how young and clueless I was to think that; then whammy, along comes one that hits me with a host of memories and hereto unrecognized connections to other stuff down the years.

Gatsby had utterly no effect on me when I read it as a teen plowing through the "Books you should read before college" list. Seemed like yet another one about obnoxious men being obnoxious. Some of his shorter work had more effect on me. But I do have touchstone books. Hmmm.

What troubles me is that in academic contexts we have to present a kind of top-down fiction about what these texts mean to us, generalized enough so that they look like discussions of what the texts mean, period. The truth is far more random, bottom-up, contingent - but that doesn't make good academic copy, and it may not even be possible to convey clearly.

It's similar for writers, in this respect. Diana Wynne Jones wrote a wonderful essay, "The Heroic Ideal", about the structure and sources for Fire and Hemlock, which she was rightly pleased with, but when she --

Ah, but why don't I let her take up the story?

I once, when asked by a conference in Boston to give a talk about my book Fire and Hemlock, did have a stab at describing what went on while I wrote it. I teased out every layer of this book. Starting with what I felt about heroes and the heroic, I went on to describe my passion for cello music and how a rereading of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets sparked the actual book and gave rise to the presence of a quartet of musicians in it. I charted the various myths and folk tales which surfaced and sank in the course of it, and of course I expounded on the ballads of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer – regarded as the negative and positive of the same story – which were the framework for the narrative. I gave the paper and the audience nodded wisely. This, they seemed to feel, was real stuff. I then went to New York, where my publishers had taken a great interest and had asked for a copy of the talk.

I went in to see Libby, one of the editors – a wonderful wise lady with a voice like a sack of gravel being shaken. She was just finishing the paper as I walked in. She looked up from it and shook gravel at me:

‘Very nice, Diana, but writers don’t work like that.’

I wanted to shout, ‘Yes, I do! It’s all true!’ Instead I sort of gulped and answered, ‘No. You’re absolutely right.’ As soon as I thought, I realized that the book had not been written in at all the analytical way I had tried to describe. The second draft might have been, when I was trying to make clear all the various elements that went into it – a process I always liken to pointing up or grouting the basic brickwork – but the first draft had been written at white heat, in a state where I was unable to put it down. I wrote it in any spare five minutes I could find. I even got up at six in the morning to go on with it. This was so unheard of that my family wondered if I was ill. And such was the passion with which I was going at it, that it seemed to pull in all sorts of queer but relevant things from daily life – I can’t tell you half the weird things, but I do remember being followed around by a van labelled KING’S LYNN,† and going to a lecture where the speaker turned out to be the image of Mr Leroy, with great black bags under his eyes, who proceeded to talk about both the Four Quartets and The Ballad of Tam Lin, in a lecture that I think was supposed to be about Shakespeare.

Yet the book got written with a shape and a coherent story. The various elements I so carefully dissected out in my Boston talk got fed in at the right places. And I know I was very careful throughout, even in the first draft, to keep the supernatural elements just a bare thread away from things that could have a normal explanation after all. This was one of the prime requirements from the book itself when it first came thundering into my head.

In other words, I was in control, just like Carol Oneir was in her dreams. So, in an odd way, Libby was right, but so was I. Two seemingly incompatible things had been going on at once.

Writers get to do a second draft, of course - and perhaps that's the difference? Or maybe we should think of criticism as a kind of second draft of reading?

This sounds to me like right brain white-fire creating, then left-brain cleanup.