Tuesday, August 31, 2010

If William Logan were to review my book (which he would not because I am too obscure: he only duels with the Big Guns), I would be terrified to read it. He may be the most excoriating critic in existence, and he seems to hate almost every contemporary poetry collection he's ever opened. In an essay about Logan's most recent collection of reviews, British writer Rory Waterman remarks that "Logan's criticism is often as American as a drive-by shooting"--a comment that is both hilarious and apt. Rory's review is detailed and interesting, and I think some of you might appreciate its bemused reflection on the tangled worlds of reader, poet, critic, and publisher. Plus, his prose is beautiful. I first met Rory when he was assigned to interview me for Poets' Quarterly, and since then he has founded his own poetry journal, New Walk Magazine, which is scheduled to release its inaugural issue this month. It's been a pleasure to discover what an excellent writer he is.

In other news, today my son James began his first day of 11th grade. Meaning that I am home alone until 2:30. Meaning that I can write . . . and I think I may have to write about Nabokov's Lectures on Literature. It's disappointed me. Or I've disappointed it. I'm not quite sure how to express this problem.

Monday, August 30, 2010

This morning I opened a book I have never read before: Nabokov's Lectures on Literature. Then I turned to this page:

Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. . . . We must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting.

He goes on, of course: on and on and on. Apparently the book fates require me to go on too. But I'm glad I didn't read this book before I wrote my own rereading memoir, and I'm quite nervous about reading the Mansfield Park chapter. (My own Mansfield Park attempt might be archived somewhere on this blog; I forget. Anyway, it was in Sewanee, fall 2008.) As N. points out: "The enthusiastic artist alone is apt to be too subjective in his attitude towards a book, and so a scientific coolness of judgment will temper the intuitive heat." Yes, well, you see what I mean. He sits in the big chair. I sit on the stool. I'm used to the stool, but sometimes it does get a little hard.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Another Crimes review. It is such a happiness to imagine that people are out there reading my book.
Today I'm going to backtrack and talk about the book I've just finished rereading for maybe the 10th time. The book is Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, a book I first encountered as a young teenager, when my mother, who was working on her master's degree in English, was assigned it in a course. She was appalled by the novel but wouldn't tell me why. Naturally I gathered that sex had something to do with her creased brow, so I promptly read the book as soon as she wasn't looking. Sadly it was less prurient than I'd hoped, even to a girl with such modest expectations of prurience, mostly because . . . I mean, really, come on, be realistic: when the chief seducer's name is Humbert Humbert, the X-rated factor instantly assumes an entirely new algebraic significance.

Over the years, as I've returned to this novel, my sympathies have shifted back and forth among the central comedic tragedies: poor stupid awkward romantic H.H.; poor grubby rude shallow Lo; poor boring infatuated Charlotte. Clare Quilty is really the only character I can wholeheartedly dislike at every reading. If anyone deserves to be murdered by a gun named Chum, it's him.

But during this year's pass through the book, I found myself, for the first time, almost entirely distracted by Nabokov's wonderfully idiosyncratic control of the English language, especially as he superimposes it onto the American landscape of 194os teen culture, and midwestern motels, and suburban decor, and educational philistines:

We climbed long grades and rolled downhill again, and heeded speed limits, and spared slow children, and reproduced in sweeping terms the black wiggles of curves on their yellow shields, and no matter how and where we drove, the enchanted interspace slid on intact, mathematical, mirage-like, the viatic counterpart of a magic carpet.

This is English, certainly, and beautifully grammatical to boot, but it's a strange comic terrible version of the language. When Humbert says, "I stopped [my car] in the shelter of the trees and abolished my lights to ponder the next move quietly," the verb abolished is both absolutely accurate and absolutely wrong; and this, I think, is why I find it so difficult, when reading the novel, to come to any settled conclusion about right and wrong, love and perversion: because the sentences themselves reinforce the conundrum of ambiguity with such exactness.

At the end of my edition of Lolita is a short essay by Nabokov: "On a Book Entitled Lolita." It's an enlightening piece, in more ways than one, and has a great deal to say about the creative itch, pornographic plot devices as not used in the novel, the "Literature of Ideas" as "topical trash," and so on. But toward the end he writes:

After Olympia Press, in Paris, published the book, an American critic suggested that Lolita was the record of my love affair with the romantic novel. The substitution "English language" for "romantic novel" would make this elegant formula more correct. But here I feel my voice rising to a much too strident pitch. None of my American friends have read my Russian books and thus every appraisal on the strength on my English ones is bound to be out of focus. My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody's concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses--the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions--which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.

The ambiguous precision that this comment adds to an already ambiguous collation of precise sentences is more than I am able to parse on a bosky Sunday morning. Somebody in this house has to grocery-shop, and thus Lolita must scramble back onto the shelf and take care of herself as best she can. But if the language of the Russian novels is under better management than the language in this one, then they must be downright Shakespearean.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

So, chapter 1 of Moby-Dick: "Loomings." Before we even get there, Melville makes us wade through a map, an etymology ("supplied by a late consumptive usher to a grammar school"), and several pages of quotations about whales. Myself, I'm thinking of treating all of these options as I would the map--that is, referring back to them periodically rather than dutifully absorbing them now. Maybe you'll take a different route. But anyway I hope you'll notice who gets quoted on the title page. More Spooky Book Fates: if you've read Tracing Paradise, you might remember that I've written about this Leviathan myself.

In my Norton Critical Edition, chapter 1 is 5 pages long. I hope that length seems manageable to you all. And by the way, I rather doubt that Paul will actually want to read this book, but I'll keep you posted. Maybe knowing that the opening sentence is one of the most famous lines in literature will pique his interest. He likes celebrities.

Friday, August 27, 2010

I know I've shared a few poems about my friend Jilline Ringle, who died of cancer in 2005. And since someone else just shared this video with me, I thought I'd link to it here so you could get a look at her. She was a wonderfully sad and hilarious actor, a gorgeous singer, and the best friend a fledgling could have, and I'll miss her every single day of the rest of my life.
Thus far I've received one note regarding the Melville-Dickens reading schedule. That particular person prefers to tackle one chapter of one book per week. I'll wait a bit longer to see if anyone disagrees, and then we can get started.

I've been canning tomatoes, dealing with school lunches, mowing grass, picking beans, editing an education textbook, fretting about Harmony Fair paperwork, etc., but someday I hope to be a poet again. In the meantime, I want to thank Maureen for her comment on yesterday's post. I never had a teacher who told me how much she loved Dickens . . . or any book for that matter. Funny how one can go through 13 years of public school and never realize that your teachers care about what they teach in any intensely personal way. Why not? Of course personalizing one's affection could go wrong: a little too much Prime of Miss Jean Brodie indoctrination perhaps. But the result of that educational distancing, at least as far as I'm concerned, has been a lifelong shyness and embarrassment about letting anyone know that I love books in the way I love them. I still feel like a fool, no matter how many cathartic essays I write and how many readers tell me they agree with them. Still, it's possible that feeling like a fool is a regular and necessary part of the human condition. I think King Lear may have something to say about that.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

You may be interested in this conversation going on at Collin Kelly's blog. There's lots of fret over questions such as what's the point of an MFA, who controls the poetry world, does it matter, etc. Why, I fret about those questions myself, though I haven't yet been able to formulate any sort of glib response to them. Nonetheless, as a poet without a master's degree or any academic connections, I do understand that I'll never get a seat at the "real" contemporary poetry table, despite having released two full-length collections with well-respected publishers. I don't always care, but sometimes I sigh.
Rooster decided to wake up at 1 a.m., but the rain lulled both of us back to sleep. Then we re-rose at 5:30 to shake Paul out of bed, who needed to be crowed at a mere two times because today is his first day of school and he is moderately if ironically good-humored about it. As requested, I made chocolate pudding for his first-day lunchbox and that, along with watermelon and some new mall-rat pants, seemed to take the edge off the foreknowledge that, in Harmony, 7th grade is almost exactly like 6th grade. (Nothing, of course, makes up for the annoying fact that James doesn't start 11th grade till Tuesday.)

So now that I've booted Paul out of the house, let's get back to the Reading Group. It sounds to me as if all commenters are intrigued by the idea of a simultaneous Dickens and Melville project. Therefore, to begin, I'll offer a brief survey of my own relationship to these novels.

Moby-Dick was the favorite novel of my first serious boyfriend, and thus I avoided reading it. This may have been a sign that our match was not made in heaven. Even all these years later, I have never really made my way into the book, though I've read Billy Budd and "Bartleby" and such. Melville was a poet as well as a novelist; and when I judged the 2010 Maine Poetry Out Loud finals, our second-place winner read "The Maldive Shark" so quietly and intensely that I began to have new ideas about the value one might place on this writer. Yet I've always thought of Melville as distant and masculine, so it's been easy for me to avoid taking his book off the shelf. I'm glad to have this new opportunity to deal with him forthrightly.

Great Expectations, on the other hand . . . well, what can I say? C'est moi. I have lived with this book for so long, for so long; and every time I reread it, I am revived. It quenches my thirst for language, for character, for description, for dialogue. I do love it. I have an essay on Dickens forthcoming in the Sewanee Review, which, while focusing mostly on David Copperfield, does also linger on this novel. Because the essay hasn't been published yet, I shouldn't quote from it, and I won't. But I will say that, when my son was assigned GE in his freshman English class and slogged through it irritably and uncharmed, I did have a pang--not because I think that my children should love all the books that I love but because Dickens has always been the corridor between my child self and my adult self. The doors to that passage have never closed, and they will not close until I die. That's the place that Dickens holds in my life. He knows me better than anyone in the world because, in so many ways, he has made my mind and heart what they have become.

Okay, that's my two cents. And now we need to think up a schedule for beginning the books. Can we do a chapter of each per week? A chapter of one per week? You all have real jobs, so you should decide.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Believe it or not, the tabulated votes (by way of comments and emails) for the winner of the Famous Book We'll Be Trying to Read on the Lurching Belching Overcrowded Bus or While Sitting on the Dusty Sidelines during a Soccer Scrimmage in Which Our Kid Languishes on the Bench for Most of the Game project reveal that Moby-Dick and Great Expectations are locked in a tie for first ("This is what I'd rather read") and second ("But I'd be okay with this one because I'm a polite person").

So this is my proposition: What if we read both books? What if we alternate chapter by chapter and accidentally discover strange connections and inconsistencies between the novels? Already the Spooky Book Fates have been toying with the Pip link. Who knows?--perhaps Ahab and Magwitch, Ishmael and Pumblechook are next.

Anyway, if you hate this idea, tell me. If you like it, tell me. If you're indifferent, I suppose you can tell me too.

In sort of unrelated news, my essay about Charlotte Bronte's novel Shirley is out in the new issue of the Sewanee Review. This is probably her most underread novel (if you don't count The Professor, an early version of Villette that features a particularly nasty main character). Shirley is set in Yorkshire, and the plot centers around the weavers' uprisings against the mill owners and the interesting young ladies who are caught in the fray. But per usual, it also features Charlotte and her famous authorial interruptions. If you happen to have read this book, I'd like to hear what you have to say about it because, for some reason, it's turned out to be one that I reread often.

And now back to canning tomatoes, making bread, editing textbooks, and driving boys to soccer practice. Don't forget to write.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

I think we may be whittling our list down to manageable size. Thus far, I am hearing a small chime of interest in Melville's Moby-Dick, alongside a Cooperish regret. Mr. Hill (who, by the way, wins this week's grand prize in the Best Agro-Literary Comment category) has mentioned Dickens's Great Expectations. I have also received email mention of E. L. Doctorow's The March, William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner, Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage.

Because Melville and Dickens appear to be our current front runners, I will give them the Cooper treatment and quote from The Cambridge Guide.

Melville has hardly a rival (Conrad, perhaps) as a writer of the sea and on that level alone the book is magnificent. The ship and the seamen; the living and eternally moving oceans; the tiny creatures in small vessels who brave the element's surface to hunt one of its noblest creatures--all this is brought as close as a breath on the reader's face. The whales themselves are realized superbly; the great creatures have never been depicted with such care or the economics of the hunt in the 19th century examined so coolly. . . .

But Moby-Dick is more than a fine maritime adventure story, just as Ahab is more than a glowering monomaniac. . . . Ahab is a surprisingly humorous character, many-sided, like the book. He is aware of his obsession yet cannot defeat it; he is fond of Pip but refuses to accept the idea that the boy is fond of him because he cannot allow affection to interfere.

For some reason, the Great Expectations entry is merely a boring plot summary. Suffice it to say, however, that the novel's main character is named Pip. You hear that? Pip. Two novels with characters named Pip. The Spooky Book Fates are at it again. Anyway, this what the Cambridge Guide has to say about Dickens more generally:

There is no one like [Dickens], and we shall be fortunate indeed if we ever find his like again . . . . The mountains of published commentary are a tribute to [his] genius, . . . a genius rooted in English common life. He has a wonderful ear for dialogue, his prose embraces a great range of effects, and his unerring touch of fantasy gives life, in a vivid and memorable way, to characters who are sometimes a considerable distance from reality. His sentimentality can be quite repellent; but one must remember that Dickens was writing at a time when bathos was not easily recognized as pathos out of control [not like the 1980s, when people knew better. Give me a break. Wait, I'm not supposed to be talking.]. He went awry, sometimes, in his exposure of the social inhumanities of his time; but he saw those inhumanities clearly and, at his best, wrote about them to devastating effect.

But leaving aside late-20th-century-literary-criticism-in-a-nutshell (Melville is purely great versus Dickens is sort of dismissable), which book would you rather read?

Monday, August 23, 2010

I have plucked four new names from our Reading Group Suggestion Box:

Ernest Hemingway, W. G. Sebald, William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy

The same suggester also offered support for following existing candidates:

Dickens, O'Neill, T. S. Eliot

Regarding the James Fenimore Cooper question, this is what the Cambridge Guide to English Literature, 1983 edition, has to say:

Cooper's great fame was deserved and his best work deserves its classic status; this in spite of considerable faults in structure and character drawing. When he was not dealing with frontiersmen or seamen he failed to give life to his characters and he did not begin to overcome this fault until the last trilogy [the Littlepage Manuscripts: Satanstoe, The Chainbearer, and The Redskins (1845-46), which concern "contemporary life in New York State"]. But his readers were fascinated by the redskins and palefaces and the romance of frontier life; that was what mattered and the reason why, probably, he has remained a favourite with younger readers, to whom conventional adults are always made of wood in any case. But as a celebration of the westward move of America the five novels of the Leather-Stocking Tales have no rival and Cooper's sea stories earned the praise of Herman Melville. The last trilogy, the first family chronicle in the American novel, deserves to be better known.

I'm not sure that this explanation helps iron out my indecisiveness, but it does make me wonder exactly which sort of wood I'm made of and whether we should add Melville to our list of possibilities.

Okay: I'm smacking this tennis ball back to you now.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Okay: so here is my unscientific gleaning of the Group Reading Project Inventory.

1. Nobody is longing to read Proust, but several people are gung-ho.

2. Translation variations could be interesting/annoying.

3. Eating madeleines is always a good idea, and it feels so literary.

4. At least one person is filled with horror at the idea of reading Proust.

5. 12-year-old boys won't read Proust, and there's no point in inviting them to do so.

6. At least one non-12-year-old person believes that 12-year-olds are good group members.

7. The group convener hasn't yet asked her own personal 12-year-old whether he wants to keep reading hard books. He might have better things to do. [Update: I just asked him, and he rubbed his eyes and said, "Sure," but I think he might still have been asleep.]

8. Here are the non-Proustian suggestions, in order of mention: Tolkein, Flaubert, Dickens, O'Neill, George Eliot, T. S. Eliot, Cooper, Cather, and T. S. Eliot's "Four Quartets."

9. The group convener is acquainted with all the authors on this list but admits that till now she has only read James Fenimore Cooper in comic-book form.

10. Of the authors on this list, probably only Dickens would go over with 12-year-old boys, though they might enjoy calling each other "Natty Bumppo." Also, the gangrene scene in Madame Bovary could be a hit.

Time now for you to weigh in again. I look forward to the confusion.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

I have received a suggestion for our next group reading project, and the suggestion is Proust. Any thoughts? Any sensations of uncontrollable shuddering and/or delight?

On her blog, my friend Charlotte Gordon has recently mentioned her own thoughts about reading Proust:

I have been noticing that the novels I most enjoy these days move very briskly. I used to love exactly the opposite kind of thing: Proust, Dostoevsky. Maybe this is because I cannot believe how stuck I can get. I am moving like molasses; I have spent the last week on the same paragraphs, the same sentences, the same page. For the sake of variety, I go backwards and add details into past scenes. I think I am avoiding moving forward and I believe readers can feel that kind of delay when it happens in the prose. But I do not know how to get myself out of this trough. I check my email. I pace around. The orange cat is on my writing table playing with the lamp chain. She is far more interesting than Mary Shelley. [Charlotte is writing abook about about Mary and her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft.] I can hear some of you telling me to take a break, but I have tried that and if I get too far away from my desk I get anxious. I am in the middle of something and need to get out of it. When you are by yourself all day, alone with your own brain and pool of moods, you get to be something of an expert — on yourself, that is. And I think I am afraid to move into Mary’s future. It all goes downhill now. Two years from now, Shelley will die. And these next two years are filled with misunderstandings, estrangement, and affairs.

Myself, I have always found Proust difficult to love, but have always blamed my own intelligence for that difficulty. I've also found Dostoevsky difficult to love: for I've been (in all readerly ways) a lifelong Tolstoy girl, and I've noticed that readers tend to fall in one or the other Famous Russian Novelist camp. Still, look what tilting with Milton has led me into. Proust might be just the ticket for my habituated brain.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Jacques Rancourt at Devil's Lake has reviewed How the Crimes Happened. He is a good poet, and I'm very grateful to him.
I have written a poem that I like, and I am so extremely relieved. This is the first poem I've liked since March.

Please, please, Poetry Fates, let the writing facility last. It is terrible not to be writing.

I've started rereading Nabokov, which (to state the obvious) is entirely different from Wodehouse, except perhaps in facility. "Facility" is my new word today. It's when all the words happen under one's hands like chimes from a clock. There they are: waiting to be collected into the tune, the one that keeps ringing out, faster than I can sing it. Revision superimposes itself over invention. The two strands become nearly the same task: that task of sorting out the sounds of the words that are the tune of the story in my head.

I am a realist who writes by sound . . . by which I mean that my poems are character-driven narratives: yet my sentence construction is controlled not by meaning but by cadence. I have no idea how usual this is. It may be the regular thing. All I know is that, when I am writing well, my brain is filled with metrical impositions . . . two syllables, pause, stress on the first syllable, pause . . . yet usually I'm not trying to write formal verse. It's some kind of private blank verse, one that varies for each poem but nonetheless insists on itself.

Brains can be so bossy. Laurie Anderson once wrote a song about this very subject.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Here's the second section from "The White Bear," as it appeared in the Green Mountains Review.

from The White Bear

Dawn Potter


The bear must have swallowed the storm; for now, tangled in the naked trees,

the risen moon rocked peaceably. The rain had dwindled to a frail

feathery mist, and fragments of cloud drifted in the idle air.

Water dripped from every needle and stalk. The brook—roaring, boastful—

charged over sedge and stone like a newborn sea. Seated on the white bear’s back,

swaying among unseen trees, down an unseen forest track,

the girl pushed back the hood of her cloak. One by one, giant raindrops, cold as fish,

fell from the boughs and trickled slowly down her scalp.

Tightening her grip on the bear’s pulsing shoulder, she stretched her free hand

into the darkness and let her fingers brush the soft, sodden fir branches

sweeping the shadow margins of the path. All her life she had lived in this wood,

hunted its berries, trodden its tracks—but never at night, never so far, never

at mercy of the wild. Never so alone. For since leaving the cottage,

the white bear had not spoken. First, he rested silently in the clearing,

waiting for the girl to tuck up her skirts, to straddle his broad back,

to wedge her scanty bundle of goods beneath her cloak.

Then he rose to his feet and padded forward into the darkness.

Behind her, framed in the bright doorway, stood her parents,

frightened and grieving; but when she turned to call farewell,

her twisted hood smothered her words. “Good-bye,” she cried, too late.

The white bear padded forward; the swollen brook drowned her cry.

Her father and mother might never hear their child’s voice again.

Tears blotched the girl’s cheeks and snaked beneath her collar.

Her feet, dangling along the bear’s flanks, ached with cold.

She was wet and afraid and lost in a lonely wood, yet somehow

she could not regret her resolve. Under her loose cloak

and crumpled skirts, the white bear’s fur—rabbit-soft, blood-warm—

rippled and flowed against her stockings . . .

but no, it was the sliver of bare thigh above her stockings

that the fur seemed to kiss, to cradle.

Clinging to his pacing shoulder, she trailed a blind hand

through the dripping boughs that lined the path,

licked the salt rain from her lips. She tightened her grip on the bear.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

For those of you still limping your way to the end of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale, I remind you that "end" is the key word. We're almost done: and as soon as Paul and I are awake at the same time, he and I will triumphantly finish it. So my friend Lucy wonders if anyone is interested in a second group reading project. It would not have to be Shakespeare: it could be a novel, a poetry collection, an essay anthology, a play by another playwright, whatever you might want. If you have thoughts or suggestions, feel free to comment or send me a note.

In other news, yesterday was a day of irritations. First, I had to undo several scandalous grammatical errors that had been copyedited into one of my manuscripts. And second, while I was working in my brussels-sprout patch, I stepped on a yellow-jacket nest hidden under the mulch. Fortunately I escaped with only two stings, but now I have no idea how to get rid of the nest or even exactly where the thing is hidden. Gardening seethes with terrors.

On the good side, however, Red Sox rookie Ryan Kalish hit a grand slam, I ate an excellent slice of devil's-food cake, and I wrote 10 more lines of a poem. Also, I am rereading P. G. Wodehouse, which is making me feel like I'm about 13 years old.

And by the way, I've been meaning to share this link to a source for good, cheap art. Tom will be one of the featured photographers.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

On Sunday Paul ate four helpings of spaghetti. On Monday he rose at 10 a.m., fell asleep at 1 p.m. (kneeling on the floor with his head on his bed), and climbed into bed for good at 5 p.m. I have not seen him since. He does not appear to be ill, so presumably he is growing, unless he has metamorphosed into the Dormouse in Alice, in which case I should try shoving him into the teapot.

Meanwhile, James has started pre-season soccer practice and gets up at 5:30 a.m. to polish his cleats. This is a boy who loves his shoes.

So unless you count the Dormouse, I am alone in the house. Tom and James have driven away to collect the other two soccer carpoolers, and I will leave here to fetch the three boys--no doubt, sweaty, starving, and bleary--at 10:15. This gives me 3 hours, some of which will be spent on animal husbandry, and some, I hope, on the poem I started writing yesterday. It has been a long time since I have written anything worth preserving. But perhaps this one will be it.

In the meantime, here's another previously published poem--section 1 of a longer piece--which appeared in the Green Mountains Review. The journal published the first two sections, so perhaps I will reprint section 2 here for you later in the week. The poem is loosely based on the Scandinavian fairytale "East of the Sun and West of the Moon." As usual, Blogger won't let me maintain the original format, so you'll have to imagine that every other line is indented.

from The White Bear

Dawn Potter


Late autumn, day nearly gone, and weather so wild

that bare tree limbs tore rents in the racing storm clouds,

and shreds of cloud trembled in the dank air like monstrous,

phantasmagoric rags. Rain hammered the shutters;

the roof groaned; the fire spattered and smoked.

The sullen kettle muttered but refused to boil.

Father, mother, daughter, unspeaking, crowded into the hearth’s

fitful, flickering shadow, parents bent forward on their stools,

fingers stretched toward the guttering flame;

the girl kneeling on the uneven bricks, poker in hand,

stirring the half-charred logs into braver action.

At each strike of metal, the red sparks leaped up

like a swarm of maddened flies, gilding the swell of a cheek,

the bridge of a nose; casting copper over a dark sweep of hair.

“Stop,” said the mother, not snappish but tired, blank-eyed,

her complaint as rote as the kettle’s; and the girl,

crushing logs to sticks, sticks to coals, coals to cinders, barely listened,

as she barely listened to the storm beyond the door. For a moment,

the syllable spun in the draught. Then it vanished, instantly forgotten,

like a dropped matchstick. Rain hammered the roof; the fire spat;

a rogue twist of smoke sent the father into a spasm of coughing,

the girl dabbing soot and tears with the frayed edge of a sleeve.

Now the poker clattered onto the bricks, and the mother said,

“Is it the shutter that’s banging?” For something was beating,

beating against the cottage; or was it banging against the door?

The windows quivered in their frames, and something

was rapping the panes—first one and then another,

as if all the trees in the wood were begging to be let inside.

The girl rocked back on her heels, palms pressed to her hot cheeks.

The father, still coughing, rose from his stool and the mother,

without thought, lay a hand on her daughter’s shoulder,

which trembled, not with fear but with a tense anticipation,

as a pointer trembles at sight of her master’s gun.

Yet the knocking was only the white bear, come back again.

“May I walk in?” he asked; and meanwhile, water

roiled from the roof-edge, plashing his dense fur, which glimmered

like pear blossoms before dawn, even amid the gale

and the rain and the darkening autumn night; meanwhile,

his two broad paws, caked with muck, and his stout forelegs,

sullied to the elbow with leaf-mold and fir needles,

barred the doorway, as if the bear were wary of his welcome—

or too sure of it. “Walk in,” murmured the father, uneasy and shy,

while the mother, rising from her stool, cried, “Oh, the mud!”

But already the daughter had run to fetch blankets, towels, a brush,

and the white bear had padded forward into the crescent of firelight.

How can I explain his beauty? Even soiled with travel and storm

the bear shone in the half-dark room, glowing as a painting

glows in the dusty corner of a church, as if once, long ago,

the canvas had swallowed all the light of the world.

Tall as an elk, burly as an ox, he stood quietly, watchfully,

his enormous paws staining the shabby rug, his strange blue eyes

dilating to black—though if he were beautiful,

he was also terrible. When the girl knelt before him on the rug,

lifting a paw onto the towel in her lap, the mud-streaked claws,

falcon-sharp and heavy as cant hooks, flashed ominously.

In haste, the parents retreated to the fire, which on the bear’s entrance,

had roared to life. Now it burned briskly, diligent kettle

steaming on the hob, draughty room suddenly purring with heat.

But not with comfort. The father turned toward the flame,

his eyes carefully avoiding the bear. Less resolute, his wife

rattled and shifted on her stool, peeping at her silent husband,

glancing at the girl kneeling on the rain-sodden rug,

toweling and brushing each huge white leg; then rising to her feet

to rub the massive shoulders, the muscled back, and finally the great head,

pale muzzle thick as a man’s arm, the tender ears rimmed with down,

and below them that terrible, unblinking, blue-black gaze.

Only after the girl had dried and brushed him, had spread a nest

of blankets beside the busy fire, had swept away the leaves

and fir needles and hung the dripping rug to dry, did the bear, reclining,

choose to speak. “Will you give me your daughter?” he asked.

On her stool, the mother looked nervously from beast to man

“I’m sorry,” she stammered, glancing at the black-haired girl,

once again crouched on the hearth, once again beating sparks from the logs.

“Last time you came,” whispered the woman, “she did say no.”

Shifting her stool closer to her husband’s, the wife touched his arm,

but still the man was silent, eyes fixed on the flames.

“And what does she say this time?” asked the white bear. His teeth glittered.

Swarms of sparks—violet, gold, red as witch blood—whirled in the draught.

Blue shadows, copper shadows fingered the girl’s bowed head.

“I shall not ask again,” said the bear, stretching a forepaw to the fire,

flexing his hooked and heavy claws. “You will see me no more.”

And at this warning, the girl swiftly, quietly, lay the poker on the bricks,

and rose. Now she was taller than the reclining bear,

who lifted his white muzzle and waited, his strange eyes watchful,

self-contained. Dangerous eyes, thought the mother.

Again she turned toward her husband, now bent forward on his stool,

elbows on his knees, rough hands clasped. Waiting.

What will she say? thought the woman. But I know what she will say.

The white bear gazed up at the girl. The girl gazed down on the bear.

When finally she spoke, her voice was hoarse, hurried,

almost brusque, her words pitched low. “I suppose I will go,” she said.

The father groaned and closed his eyes, and “Oh!” cried the mother,

hugging herself, suddenly cold in that overheated room.

The bear gazed up at the girl, and his white teeth glittered.

“Fetch your things,” he told her, “for we travel at moonrise.”

And while the girl was bundling her comb and her locket,

two petticoats and her winter stockings, the white bear said to her parents,

“When your money runs low, dip the brass ladle into the well.”

But the father only groaned, and the mother only hugged herself and wept.

Monday, August 16, 2010

I don't know why being called "crude" would garner Crimes a 5-star review on the Amazon website. On the other hand, I have no idea who this reviewer is, so at least he and I can both claim objectivity. Nonetheless, my spirits aren't as buoyant as I might have hoped they'd be.

Dawn Potter

Once I had a boyfriend (you'll laugh, I know)
Who strolling at midnight through a yellow-brick alley
Grasped both my cold hands and sweetly bellowed
"My Girl" into the small wind that ebbed and sallied
Between our shadows. I'd known him for a week.
He stared into my eyes and slowly decanted Motown
Into the chill particulate air. Ignoring us, a plane idly streaked
Toward Philly, a bus hooted, a few cars sifted by. I looked down
At our four trapped hands: bowled over, yes, though fighting
A queasy embarrassment. But you know, better than most,
What I mean: how unreal it feels to play at romance, gliding
Slickly beyond your homely self like a ballroom ghost,

As if your everyday, tempted, shivering skin
Couldn't perform a truer rendition.

[This poem appeared in the Aurorean (spring/summer 2010).]

Dinner tonight: New potatoes with new bacon. New broccoli with new mesclun. Chocolate cake.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Lately I've gone back to Martin Amis's The War against Cliche: Essays and Reviews, 1971-2000, which I bought used on a whim, without knowing a thing about it. The book includes plenty of flippancy, as one might expect from a man who seems to have been forced to spend a large slice of his writing life as a hack reviewer; but Amis does have moments of care and penetration, particularly when he's speaking of grammar. This may seem odd, but in fact to me it's a sign that he's writing as an artist, not as a critic. He understands a sentence as a cohesion of words, as an artifact under construction, or, conversely, as an accident. I don't always agree with his stylistic pronouncements, but I do admire his concentration on the materials of his art.

But he also has other interesting things to say:

As in his stories, [V. S. Pritchett] has the curious ability to let art shine through him, helplessly. Pritchett is a mirror, not a lamp. He goes at criticism the old way, creeping up on a writer through the life, the letters, the creative temperament on offer. When he interrupts a biographical account to put forward his own view . . . , he is not presenting a rival piece of evidence but merely exerting his artistic confidence. The New Critics tend to look at classic texts as if they were contemporary and anonymous; with Pritchett, criticism is always busily attentive to history, character, and random human traffic.

By the time Amis quotes Pritchett's thoughts on Flannery O'Connor--her "fidelity to the inner riot that may possess the lonely man or woman at some unwary moment in the hours of their day"--I have been entirely convinced that now is the time to reread both short-story writers.

In a review of novelist Angus Wilson's work, Amis notes:

One of the few things I would rather run a mile than do is have an Angus Wilson character over for the evening. His fictional world . . . is a nasty world, but this doesn't stop him [from] being a considerable novelist. No writer can determine what may appeal to his imagination and it is simply philistine to arraign him for the things he happens to write about best.

I think this is an important thing to remember--not just about other people's work but about my own. Presently I believe I am the most boring writer on the planet: forever trampling down the weedy grasses of my own dull quotidian duties, excitements, and anxieties. But it's my stuff. What else do I have? Amis's comment is not exactly a comfort, but it does help me keep lurching on.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Part of the reason that Frost's poem "Home Burial" is so painful is because the poet seems to uglify the line music deliberately. This is notable in a writer with an ear as finely tuned as Frost's--and for me, it adds yet another pressure of anxiety to a narrative that is already difficult to read. The poem is essentially a conversation between two characters, a husband and a wife, who are unable to speak to each other about the death of their child. In other words, it's a poem formed by surface speech that demonstrates the characters' lack of deep, connective speech.

Here's an example. The speaker in the first stanza is the husband; in the second, the wife.

"My words are nearly always an offense.
I don't know how to speak of anything
So as to please you. But I might be taught,
I should suppose. I can't say I see how.
A man must partly give up being a man
With womenfolk. We could have some arrangement
By which I'd bind myself to keep hands off
Anything special you're a-mind to name.
Though I don't like such things 'twixt those that love.
Two that don't love can't live together without them.
But two that do can't live together with them."
She moved the latch a little. "Don't--don't go.
Don't carry it to someone else this time.
Tell me about it if it's something human.
Let me into your grief. I'm not so much
Unlike other folks as your standing there
Apart would make me out. Give me my chance.
I do think, though, you overdo it a little.
What was it brought you up to think it the thing
To take your mother-loss of a first child
So inconsolably--in the face of love.
You'd think his memory might be satisfied--"

"There you go sneering now!"

So much talk. So much silence. It's such a troubling poem, and it must have been hell to write.

Friday, August 13, 2010

1. I've started copying out Robert Frost's poem "Home Burial," which is terribly painful to read and so different from Wordsworth's The Prelude (which I'm also continuing to copy) that I've almost stopped being able to hear either one as poetry. I'm not sure this is a good thing, but I'll persevere.

2. Yesterday, as he was reading a locally produced, contribute-your-own-kitchen-specialty cookbook, Tom came across what is, as of today, my vote for Most Unappetizing Recipe. Here's how it goes. First, you mix together 1 bottle of low-fat Russian dressing, 1 jar of apricot preserves, and 1 packet of dried onion-soup mix. Then you pour this over some raw boneless chicken breasts. Then you bake the mess for half an hour. So simple. So horrible. And I say this as a person with a sturdy background in Jell-O/cottage cheese/Cool Whip potlucks.

What we'll be having for supper is summer vegetable soup and new bread. Sometimes I forget to be happy about such meals.

So now off I'm off to make that bread, to feed hens, to lament the passage of time while wishing that my single orange tomato would hurry up and turn red. The daily round, the daily round.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

I'm feeling glum today for no reason that I can discern. I've got a pile of green beans to pickle, and a pile of textbook pages to edit, and a pile of towels to wash, and a mountain of boy land to negotiate; but none of that is particularly disheartening. Last night, I helped my friend Dave sound-check the Harmony fairgrounds stage, which meant singing "Pretty Woman" into the mosquito-laden dusk as our sons chased around in the shadows after a Frisbee. That certainly had nothing to do with glum: maybe wistful would be the better connotation. My favorite underrated utility player, known around our house as the Great Bill Hall, hit two homeruns for the Red Sox; and I didn't have to nag Paul to practice the piano. I got an email from the grant foundation saying that my application had passed hurdle number 1, and I read proofs for my Blake essay, forthcoming in the Blake Journal, which actually commissioned it. All of these events are cheery enough. Yet melancholy has its own trajectory, and noting that I shouldn't be sad has no impact on anything at all.

Yesterday, in Kate O'Brien's novel The Ante-Room, I read about a woman who is predicted, as she ages, to be "ruefully beautiful." And somehow ruefully struck me as word that might sum up something or other about my state of mind: exactly what I can't say . . . except that rue is both regret and a bitter medicine.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Following is an essay I thought you might be interested in reading. A version appeared in the spring 2010 issue of the Reader, a U.K. journal out of the University of Liverpool. This issue should be available for download soon, if you're interested in seeing what else the editors publish. It's a good journal, aimed at non-scholars who love the old books . . . in other words, the sort of magazine I might have invented myself.

This essay is one chapter in the rereading memoir, currently in the hands of a considering publisher. I wait with bated breath.

On Junk and the Common Reader

Dawn Potter

I submitted an essay to a journal that had previously published two of my essays. In response I received an affectionate rejection letter from the editor. The essay, she said regretfully, had “too much different stuff going on,” and the mess was “pulling it apart.”

In addition to valuing this editor’s opinion and acumen, I also serve as my own most dissatisfied critic, perpetually carping about my abilities and motivations and fussing over my intellectual instability. Thus, though I was melancholic, I saw no reason to disbelieve the editor. Yet as I lay in bed that night, rereading Henry James’s A Portrait of a Lady and wondering what I might do with my thirteen pages of unpublishable manuscript, I found myself returning again and again to the problem of “too much different stuff”—if problem it was: because the more I thought about the editor’s difficulty with the piece, the more I realized that the heart of the trouble lay in my avoidance of the stuff issue. Packrat behavior, I’m realizing, may reveal itself in unexpected ways; and though I’ve spent my adult life congratulating myself on having avoided what is unquestionably a family tendency, I begin to see now that I’ve merely fulfilled my genetic destiny in an oddball way.

My grandfather was a more traditional packrat, a careful saver of almost every item that passed through his hands, the kind of collector who conscientiously stacked fifty years’ worth of foam meat trays and Ken-L Ration cans in his back shed just in case they might come in handy. And every once in a while, they did come in handy. Nonetheless, after he died, my mother was left with an untenable mess on her hands—an accumulation not just of cans and meat trays but also of hundreds of neatly folded diocese newspapers that no one had ever dreamed of reading; twenty-five or thirty threadbare work jackets crowded onto five or ten coat hooks; four outbuildings and a two-story house overflowing with broken 1920s-era farm equipment, chipped enamel dishpans, three-legged chairs, and several generations of mouse nests; dresser drawers crammed with every Christmas shirt my mother had ever mailed, most still encased in their original plastic; a dozen Maxwell House cans filled with a remarkable number of nickels; and an accumulation of baling twine from several thousand hay bales—a mountainous headache in itself, which was exacerbated by the discovery that he had also secreted a considerable amount of cash in and among these various collections.

Like my dear inscrutable grandfather, I am also a packrat, though I am not tempted to hoard ancient supermarket trays or empty rusty cans. What I can’t throw out is my reading clutter. Take this week, for instance. Thanks to the disorganized and unpredictable Fate who weaves my book trajectory (her fabric bearing, I imagine, some resemblance to a lumpy kindergarten potholder), I happened to be bobbing between two story collections at the same time: James Baldwin’s Going to Meet the Man, which compiles stories from the 1940s through the 1960s; and Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now, a new selection of stories that were originally published during the same era. I had received an open-ended invitation from the aforementioned affectionate editor to write about the du Maurier collection, but by chance I had recently acquired a remaindered copy of Baldwin’s stories at Marden’s, a strange Maine store that was also selling end tables in the shape of Sammy Davis, Jr. (I settled for the book.)

Being on assignment, I aspired to brisk, intelligent coherence; and before long, my double reading project was giving rise to visions of a tidy comparison-contrast essay. But as one might expect, the collections are very different from one another, so different that I briefly wondered if brevity and date of composition might be their only common traits. Meanwhile, I continued to read—slouched on the sofa with a large poodle wedged uncomfortably between my feet, or coiled over cheese and crackers at the kitchen table, or shivering in the car as I waited for my son’s very late bus to roar into the school parking lot—and soon I found myself alternating between the volumes with a growing curiosity about how and why writers seem to gravitate, almost against their will, to specific techniques and emphases and how those authorial susceptibilities influence the way in which a reader ends up classifying the work. In other words, I got distracted: a fissure opened in my attention; and, as generally happens, that crack began admitting scraps and dust and unidentifiable fluid impressions from the books that are stacked like foam meat trays and dog-food cans in the back shed of my brain.

* * *

In Biographia Literaria, Samuel Taylor Coleridge is cranky about readers such as myself—

a comprehensive class characterized by reconciling the two contrary yet co-existing propensities of human nature, namely, indulgence of sloth, and hatred of vacancy. In addition to novels and tales of chivalry in prose or rhyme, (by which last I mean neither rhythm nor metre), the genus comprises as its species, gaming, swinging or swaying on a chair or gate; spitting over a bridge; smoking; snuff-taking; tête-à- tête quarrels after dinner between husband and wife; conning word by word all the advertisements of a daily newspaper in a public house on a rainy day, &c. &c. &c.

Yet as Virginia Woolf admitted in her essay “Pure English,” “an irrational element enters into [readers’] liking and disliking of books as certainly as it enters into their feelings for people.” So why can’t a committed reader also enjoy swaying on a gate and spitting over a bridge? I daresay Coleridge himself conned newspaper advertisements in more than one pub over the course of his life, not to mention played the leading part in a fair number of tête-à-tête quarrels after dinner. But for collectors, wrestling with irrationality is not our only trouble. Somehow, as one accumulates more and more items, the individual pieces begin to sort themselves into multiple and anomalous groupings. Everything influences everything else. No longer do we merely have two pink meat trays and one dirty Ken-L Ration can on our hands. The accumulation itself now takes precedence, conquering not only the details of the collection but also that unfortunate host, the back shed. So as I sat on the couch reading du Maurier’s and Baldwin’s stories, I was reading, in a way, not only the books I had open on my lap but all the crumpled, dog-eared stories piled in my head. Like the bent ploughshares and crushed peach baskets cluttering my grandfather’s chicken house, that literary scrap heap does come in handy now and again. But it can also create an untenable mess: which brings me back to the essay I submitted to my friendly, long-suffering editor.

I’d had hopes of composing an intelligent, well-balanced piece about du Maurier and Baldwin; but as I already knew, a book’s ranking within literature’s caste system—what one might call the lightweight-heavyweight scale—frequently influences how a reader thinks she ought to respond to a book. I came to both of these authors with a certain amount of baggage, enough to know that I should be respectful of Baldwin but was not necessarily required to be respectful of du Maurier. Yet I felt that it was my duty, as a writer on assignment, to be open-minded about her work, to consider it seriously as art.

In a way, the two writers could serve as symbols for the mixed-up role that reading plays in my life. I am Baldwinesque in that I take reading seriously. For example, I have no patience with people who tell me they read to relax. Relaxation is practically the furthest thing from my mind. I am a tense, ambitious, and greedy reader, and I don’t want to be lulled; I want to be swallowed up. On the other hand, I am du Maurien insofar as I am democratic about what I choose to read. In other words, if I have a taste for the classics, I also have a taste for trash. Coleridge would not be surprised to learn, for instance, about my louche affection for nineteenth-century women’s pulp fiction, such as the forgotten bestsellers of Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth (author of, among innumerable others, the alluringly titled A Beautiful Fiend), not to mention the novels of Mary J. Holmes, whose Millbank I found in my grandfather’s aforementioned house of junk when I was ten years old and which I have since reread at least once a year for more than thirty years.

Now, instead of focusing on James and Daphne, my attention, for reasons best known to itself, had begun to wander into the hazy realm of the trash novel, leaving me haplessly affixing pseudo-connectives between du Maurier and Southworth, who soon morphed unexpectedly into novelist and essayist John Fowles. “It was Fowles,” I scribbled (but what is the word for scribbling with a laptop?), “who wrote somewhere that bad novels are a key to their times. Like ‘real literature,’ these books fill some hole in me; they help me understand what it means to be alive. Even though they are not art, they manage, in spite of themselves, to occasionally achieve the goals of art.”

Downstairs, the parakeet squawked, and my husband’s radio emitted distracting and uncongenial tunes. I hunched over my desk and wrote: “I don’t for a moment believe that E.D.E.N. Southworth’s novels rival George Eliot’s or Emily Brontë’s.” (Damn. Where did Eliot and Brontë come from?) “Yet in her books I glimpse a particular portrait of the age—a focus, for instance, on the petty sexual distractions of its women—that I don’t necessarily see in Eliot’s or Brontë’s work but that gives me a new angle of vision and thus broadens my comprehensions and my sympathies.”

I blathered on about Southworth for a while longer, evoking her flabby plots, her stock characters, her stilted purple prose, comparing her along the way to both the Steve Miller Band and Velveeta. I dredged up a fake memory of kissing a boy under the bleachers and a real one of eating a grilled-cheese sandwich, then suddenly ended a paragraph with the Romantic realization that “Nobody else is me,” at which point the long-suffering editor must have said, “Thank God.” Finally, after much shuffling and stumbling, I found my way back to Daphne du Maurier, pointing out that her stories may be gothic, formulaic potboilers (my grasp at making Southworth relevant) but are also carefully, often exquisitely, crafted. Always she maintains a clean, efficient control of plot, and her settings are so vividly evoked that even familiar, rather dull places can seem feverishly surreal, as in this scene from the story “Split Second”:

She walked swiftly past the nurses pushing prams, two or three of them in groups chatting together, their charges running ahead. Dogs barked beside the ponds. Solitary men in mackintoshes stared into vacancy. An old woman on a seat threw crumbs to chirping sparrows. The sky took on a darker, olive tone. Mrs. Ellis quickened her steps. The fairground by the Vale of Health looked sombre, the merry-go-round shrouded in its winter wrappings of canvas, and two lean cats stalked each other in and out of the palings. A milkman, whistling, clanked his tray of bottles and, lifting them to his cart, urged the pony to a trot.

There is something altogether beautiful about that passage—a combined effect, I think, of its rhythmic sentence construction and the author’s swift, subtle control of her reader’s eye, which so effectively moves my attention from earth to sky, from near to far, from human to animal. Yes, certainly, du Maurier is not in Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth’s class, where beauty is reduced to striking “at first sight with an electric thrill.” But as I suddenly verified in the course of my scuffling writing project, she is just as certainly not in James Baldwin’s class. I may not like all of the stories in Baldwin’s Going to Meet the Man, but my discomfort is primarily a personal reaction to his protagonists’ cursory cruelty. It has nothing to do with the intensely character-driven energy of his writing, as in “The Outing,” in which even the minor players cohere into furious, vibrating personalities:

Last year Sister McCandless had held an impromptu service in the unbelieving subway car she played the tambourine and sang and exhorted sinners and passed through the train distributing tracts. Not everyone [in the church] had found this admirable, to some it seemed that Sister McCandless was being a little ostentatious. “I praise my Redeemer wherever I go,” she retorted defiantly. “Holy Ghost don’t leave me when I leave the church. I got a every day religion.”

Baldwin is a ferocious writer, very nearly eviscerating himself in his relentless imaginative quest to link vision and word. His pages are stained with blood, though he may speak only of a church picnic or a slow evening in a nightclub. Du Maurier, on the other hand, composes plot after horror-packed plot; yet her authorial voice remains detached, almost indifferent. Reading “The Birds” (which Alfred Hitchcock transformed into a movie I’m too scared to watch but that du Maurier is said to have disliked), I find her dry, ruthless narration far more unnerving than the situation she describes:

As [Nat] jumped the stile he heard the whirr of wings. A black-backed gull dived down at him from the sky, missed, swerved in flight, and rose to dive again. In a moment it was joined by others, six, seven, a dozen, black-backed and herring mixed. Nat dropped his hoe. The hoe was useless. Covering his head with his arms he ran towards the cottage. They kept coming at him from the air, silent save for the beating wings. The terrible, fluttering wings. He could feel the blood on his hands, his wrists, his neck. Each stab of a swooping beak tore his flesh. If only he could keep them from his eyes. Nothing else mattered. He must keep them from his eyes.

It’s so difficult, in that passage, to care about what happens to Nat. Like the rest of the humans in the story, he functions simply as an obstacle to bird domination, although he is a larger obstacle than most. Clearly the author herself was far more interested in the gulls than in Nat’s survival; yet even as she describes their actions, I sense her dispassion. She is not whirling among the birds, beating them out of her hair, but sitting on a remote hillside, studying the flock through her binoculars and taking tidy, careful notes.

Baldwin, in contrast, has no compunction in “The Outing” about hurling himself into the fray:

“Well, glory!” cried Father James. The Holy Ghost touched him and he cried again, “Well, bless Him! Bless his holy name!”

[The congregation] laughed and shouted after him, their joy so great that they laughed as children and some of them cried as children do; in the fullness and assurance of salvation, in the knowledge that the Lord was in their midst and that each heart, swollen to anguish, yearned only to be filled with His glory. Then, in that moment, each of them might have mounted with wings like eagles far past the sordid persistence of the flesh, the depthless iniquity of the heart, the doom of hours and days and weeks; to be received by the Bridegroom where He waited on high in glory; where all tears were wiped away and death had no power; where the wicked ceased from troubling and the weary soul found rest.

Somehow I think I would not have made this particular differentiation between Baldwin and du Maurier if I had not first dug my way through the various side-issues and interfering tangents that so clotted my original essay. Apparently, for whatever reason, my intellectual growth seems to require a certain amount of haphazard meandering through my mental library. But I realize as I write these words that I have absolutely no inkling about how other people figure out what they think. Does anyone else require such a galaxy of literary advisers? I’m not talking about matters of research but something more akin to grasping wildly at straws. For instance, as I worked on the essay, switching back and forth from du Maurier story to Baldwin story to du Maurier story, I became increasingly convinced that some qualitative difference existed in the writers’ approach to character. Searching for advice, I began clanking among the Ken-L Ration cans in my brain and out popped Virginia Woolf, who takes up this very topic in her long essay “Character in Fiction.” “Novelists,” she asserts, “differ from the rest of the world because they do not cease to be interested in character when they have learnt enough about it for practical purposes.”

When all the practical business of life has been discharged, there is something about people which continues to seem to them of overwhelming importance, in spite of the fact that it has no bearing whatever upon their happiness, comfort, or income. The study of character becomes to them an absorbing pursuit; to impart character an obsession. And this I find very difficult to explain: what novelists mean when they talk about character, what the impulse is that urges them so powerfully every now and then to embody their view in writing.

I was delighted when Woolf leaped so cogently into my essay, but the journal editor took pointed exception to the intrusion: “Woolf turns out to be too heavily woven into the fabric . . . and she is a mistake. She is not always a mistake, but here she is pulling you to far astray, into her thoughts, when what you want to be doing is having your own.” This was rather crushing, for I’d assumed I’d been having my own thoughts. Yet if these unexpected, illuminating collisions weren’t thinking, then what could thinking be? Woolf’s comments about character had reminded me that she certainly would have been aware of du Maurier’s popular novel Rebecca, first published in 1938, which had then led me to wonder how she would have classified a writer whose approach seems to be entirely antithetical to her “belief that men and women write novels because they are lured on to create some character which has thus imposed itself upon them.” Baldwin, yes: unquestionably, he was in thrall to the sorrows and ecstasies of his characters. But du Maurier? What a cool fishy she eye had, even as she described horrors. In the story “Don’t Look Now,” for instance, her character John believes he is rescuing a child in distress. But he’s wrong, of course.

“It’s all right,” he panted, “it’s all right,” and held out his hand, trying to smile.

The child struggled to her feet and stood before him, the pixie-hood falling from her head on to the floor. He stared at her, incredulity turning to horror, to fear. It was not a child at all but a little thick-set woman dwarf, about three feet high, with a great square adult head too big for her body, grey locks hanging shoulder-length, and she wasn’t sobbing any more, she was grinning at him, nodding her head up and down.

Then he heard the footsteps on the landing outside and the hammering on the door, and a barking dog, and not one voice but several voices, shouting, “Open up! Police!” The creature fumbled in her sleeve, drawing a knife, and as she threw it at him with hideous strength, piercing his throat, he stumbled and fell, the sticky mess covering his protecting hands.

. . . The hammering and the voices and the barking dog grew fainter, and, “Oh God,” he thought, “what a bloody silly way to die. . . . ”

And there the story ends, trailing off into ellipses.

At this juncture Charles Dickens muscled into the fray: I suddenly remembered the dwarf Miss Mowcher, who plays a bit part in David Copperfield. Miss Mowcher is a somewhat unsavory character, yet her errors and obnoxious behaviors are clarified by her sufferings. But the dwarf in du Maurier’s tale is merely a nasty dénouement personified, while John is nothing more than her accidental victim. The situation is meaningless, trivial, terrible. Moreover, there’s a tinny quality to the shock ending. John’s death is unpleasant, very unpleasant; but to be honest I find it difficult to care. Since I am the sort of squeamish moviegoer who is too afraid to watch Yul Brynner play an out-of-control robot cowboy in Westworld, let alone sit through Hitchcock’s The Birds, I’m startled by my indifference to this gruesome scene. But I think John’s murder would have resonated with me more profoundly if, throughout the rest of the tale, du Maurier had developed him into a character who mattered, one who was mutable and engaging in all his flaws and talents. She chose not to, however . . . and I say chose because clearly du Maurier was a skilled-enough writer to have pressed her characters beyond two-dimensionality. “Don’t Look Now” is fast-moving, plot-driven, and atmospheric; yet its characters are ciphers: we have “the grieving mother,” “the concerned husband,” “the eerie old twins,” “the malignant dwarf,” but no one amazes us character-wise. Only the plot is amazing. So why didn’t this fluent, talented writer push herself to delve further into her characters? Or perhaps I should ask why I, her reader, think she ought to have delved further?

Despite the journal editor’s distaste for her interference, VW’s presence in my essay gave me some clue as to why an ought can be so influential. Toward the end of “Character in Fiction,” Woolf points her exculpatory finger at readers who “allow the writers to palm off upon you a version of [character], which has no likeness to that surprising apparition whatsoever.”

In your modesty you seem to consider that writers are of different blood and bone from yourselves. . . . Never was there a more fatal mistake. It is this division between reader and writer, this humility on your part, these professional airs and graces on ours, that corrupt and emasculate the books which should be the healthy offspring of a close and equal alliance between us. Hence spring those sleek, smooth novels, those portentous and ridiculous biographies, that milk and watery criticism, those poems melodiously celebrating the innocence of roses and sheep which pass so plausibly for literature at the present time.

Woolf is such a good writer, and such a literary patrician, that I almost always humbly go along with whatever she says. But as she herself points out, a reader’s humility gives a writer too much leeway for laziness or error; and in Woolf’s case, my humility makes it too easy for her get away with deriding entire genres and styles that don’t happen to suit her taste. Presumably du Maurier’s fiction would fall into Woolf’s “sleek, smooth” category, a generalization that does, in fact, have some justification. Du Maurier’s dialogues, for instance, feel strangely prefabricated. No matter what plot torments enmesh her characters, they manage to maintain a strange, clipped, artificial style of speaking that barely rises above the clumsy conversations of Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth’s novels. For instance, the working-class men in the story “Kiss Me Again, Stranger” speak like no working-class men who have ever lived, although their types have appeared in many a second-rate novel:

“I blame the war for all that’s gone wrong with the women,” said the coffee-stall bloke. . . .

“’Tisn’t that, it’s sport that’s the trouble,” said the conductor.

Similarly, the classier married couple of “Don’t Look Now” woodenly emote to the point of absurdity:

“Laura, darling, of course I believe you,” he said, “only it’s a sort of a shock, and I’m upset because you’re upset. . . . ”

“But I’m not upset,” she interrupted. “I’m happy, so happy that I can’t put the feeling into words.”

But when Woolf summarily dismisses the pantheon of writers who rely on such canned techniques of characterization, she also avoids consideration of why a particular skilled and careful writer might continue to depend on them. And in du Maurier’s case, the choice seems to illustrate how easily we readers and writers learn to discount individual suffering in our pursuit of narrative thrill. Did du Maurier find herself, as a writer, trapped by that pursuit? Did she take a certain malicious or ironic pleasure in proving she could entrap her readers? Did she see her stories as efforts to prove the existence of a terrible immorality? Although such questions may be unanswerable, I think there is no doubt that she was conscious of her methods, if not her motives.

The journal editor saw my excursion into Woolf as a distraction, as indeed it was. Yet if VW had not made her unexpected appearance, I would not have had a chance to puzzle over her assertions and, to my surprise, find myself defending du Maurier, whose books I don’t particularly admire. This process may not be thought per se, but it is a shift in perspective, a way to look at a piece of art more carefully, with a more perplexed vision.

* * *

In a recent article in the Guardian, Ian Sample notes that several evolutionary psychologists claim that nineteenth-century novels “helped to uphold social order and encouraged altruistic genes to spread through Victorian society.” While I find it difficult to believe that such influence is measurable, I do see that the opposite claim may also be true: that a writer can subvert social order and discourage altruistic genes . . . or perhaps choose to reveal how easy they are to subvert and discourage. Certainly, as my own literary clutter has shown, information en masse can have a will of its own.

Not long ago, I rented Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film Triumph of the Will, which lovingly documents the Third Reich’s 1934 party rally at Nuremberg. As I sat on my couch, drinking tea and watching platoon after platoon of young Germans, old Germans, soldiers, working people, farmers, and flower-decked maidens march past Riefenstahl’s lens, I realized suddenly and viscerally that evil is everywhere, crouching and invisible, infiltrating the air I was breathing, like a spore or a virus. No one is immune. Everyone is vulnerable. And I realized also that the books I was reading were contemporaneous with these horrors. Du Maurier composed her stories alongside them; and in their chill tone and meaningless cruelty, her stories parallel their times. Woolf, too, lived in that era, as did Baldwin. Yet each artist, despite an overlapping history, dealt with characterization personally and idiosyncratically; each struggled with habits and predilections and avoidances and fears. In other words, art, like history, like love, like the back shed of my brain, is confused and complicated.

At the end of “Sonny’s Blues,” probably James Baldwin’s most famous short story, the narrator recalls the night when he went to a jazz club and, for the first time, heard his younger brother Sonny play the piano. “All I know about music,” he muses, “is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air.”

My essay on du Maurier and Baldwin has now melted away into thin air. But if nothing else, my back-shed bits and scraps of cultural memory cohere as a “personal, private, vanishing evocation.” The jumble is clutter, but it speaks to me, teaches me, comforts me. It defines my individuality as a common reader, to borrow yet again from Woolf. Yet as I glance at her brief essay “The Common Reader,” I remember that she herself has borrowed the phrase from Samuel Johnson:

The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. . . . Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole. . . . He never ceases as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of laughter, affection, and argument.

And so I think, Well, all right, Virginia. We’re in the same boat then, aren’t we? Which is, on some days, accomplishment enough.