Thursday, January 23, 2014

Compare and Contrast

In a sense, this is a continuation of the previous entry, setting down my thoughts on two books I read on our recent cruise.  But, as a reminder, my comments are not "reviews" of the books, although aspects of what I write might so qualify.  These are obviously my personal impressions and how the content often relates to my own life.  There are plenty of excellent reviews of both all over the Web.

These novels were as unlike as they were alike, I know a confusing contradiction.  If I was an English teacher I would assign them for the classic compare and contrast assignment. Julian Barnes' Booker-winning novella, The Sense of an Ending is about the meaning of memory in one's life (or how we prefer to remember things, or how the gaps in our memory are as significant as those moments we remember) whereas Louis Begley's Shipwreck, is about an unidentified narrator who is approached by a stranger who over the course of three days confides a story of exacting detail, with the impeccable memory of an observant writer (who is indeed the stranger).  In a sense, they both have elements of mystery novels, with endings that leave as many questions as answers.  Each have three major characters, are both first person narratives (although Begley's book is "told" through the unidentified narrator), with the introspective view of character driven novels.  They are each concerned with the unexamined life, anxieties of self doubt, Begley's set in a middle age crisis while Barnes' is looking back from the perspective of a retired protagonist.  Begley's novel has many erotic elements while the sexuality of Barnes' novel is one of sexual frustration, the young woman who latches onto Begley's protagonist bordering on nymphomania while Barnes protagonist's main love interest is completely repressed.  And we all like to see a little bit of ourselves in what we read, with both protagonists expressing parts of my own, such as Tony in Barnes' book, "I had wanted life not to bother me too much." (Playing it safe in one's personal life and career.)   And, like John in Begley's novel, "I'm no good at joining groups and rather proud of my misanthropy."  Both lines resonate.

I began with Barnes' book, and as it is a novella, a fast and engaging read.  As I have a greater interest in contemporary American literature, Julian Barnes, an English writer of a number of novels and short stories, was a departure for me.  Perhaps it is the "Downton Abbey influence" that has awakened a long dormant interest in English writers.  Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens were among my earlier reading interests.  I need to go back to them. Most recently, I've been drawn to Ian McEwan's workbut I had heard much about Barnes, so why not start with a Booker Prize winning novel?

The three main characters in the novel are the narrator/protagonist, Tony (who is now divorced and retired), Veronica, perhaps the love of his life (or perhaps not?) when he was in school, and Adrian, a brilliant schoolmate who commits suicide later in life.  Along with two other friends, we are treated to a description of English school life of the 60s, and Tony's obsession with Veronica which culminates in one dry hump and Tony masturbating while visiting Veronica at her parents' house.  Meanwhile, Veronica finally pairs off with the intellectually gifted Adrian, leaving Tony bereft.  Later, we learn that he wrote a letter to Adrian, about Veronica (and more -- don't want to reveal any spoilers), a letter he has completely forgotten until some forty years later, and his complicity in a series of events that may (or may have not?) have led to Adrian's suicide, Veronica's unhappiness (although that seems to be her natural state), and an institutionalized (now adult) child (there are interpretations of whose child it might be; I have mine, not to be revealed here).  The letter begins, Dear Adrian -- or rather Adrian and Veronica (hello, Bitch, and welcome to this letter) so one can imagine its contents. 

But all of this is woven in memory, faulty, unreliable memory.  After all, what is memory other than certain significant moments in our life, with great gaps in between?  And memories are sometimes stories we tell ourselves about our life -- almost a form of cognitive dissonance -- and perhaps I told some here in this blog.  There is certainly large chucks of personal information I've written about, but they are my interpretations of the past, not necessarily the same past as one would have witnessed via a video tape.  And, perhaps, the most important memories are the ones I've chosen to forget or not to reveal (there is a fine line when writing in this space).

That is why Barnes' novel appeals so much to me.  Tony Webster's memories may be self serving, or maybe not:  How often do we tell our own life story?  How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts?  And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life.  Told to others, but -- mainly -- to ourselves. As Veronica accuses Tony, in the beginning and at the end, an accusation he even considers for his epitaph: “Tony Webster — He Never Got It.” 

Is what we remember called history or is history the accurate recounting of memory? When Tony first meets Adrian Finn at school, he seems to be a shy, introspective boy.  The school master is discussing the causes of WW I and puts the question to Finn,  Finn, you've been quiet. You started this ball rolling. You are, as it were, our Serbian gunman....Would you care to give us the benefit of your thoughts?"  One can only imagine the impact the heretofore unknown Finn had on his schoolmates with the remainder of the exchange (and his answer feeds into the heart of the novel, memory and consequences):
"I don't know, sir."
"What don't you know?"
"Well, in one sense, I can't know what it is that I don't know. That's philosophically self-evident." He left one of those slight pauses in which we again wondered if he was engaged in subtle mockery or a high seriousness beyond the rest of us. "Indeed, isn't the whole business of ascribing responsibility a kind of cop-out? We want to blame an individual so that everyone else is exculpated. Or we blame a historical process as a way of exonerating individuals. Or it's all anarchic chaos, with the same consequence. It seems to me that there is-was-a chain of individual responsibilities, all of which were necessary, but not so long a chain that everybody can simply blame everyone else. But of course, my desire to ascribe responsibility might be more a reflection of my own cast of mind than a fair analysis of what happened. That's one of the central problems of history, isn't it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us."

Once Adrian was long gone, Tony, from the perspective of a senior citizen, ruminates about him and in so doing, the inadequacies of his own life: From the beginning, he had always seen more clearly than the rest of us. While we luxuriated in the doldrums of adolescence, imagining our routine discontent to be an original response to the human condition, Adrian was already looking farther ahead and wider around. He felt life more clearly too-even, perhaps especially, when he came to decide that it wasn't worth the candle. Compared to him, I had always been a muddler, unable to learn much from the few lessons life provided me with. In my terms, I settled for the realities of life, and submitted to its necessities: if this, then that, and so the years passed. In Adrian's terms, I gave up on life, gave up on examining it, took it as it came.

Tony had imagined a different kind of retirement (as a retired person myself, I can vouch for the veracity of this observation -- it's profound) : Later on in life, you expect a bit of rest, don't you? You think you deserve it. I did, anyway. But then you begin to understand that the reward of merit is not life's business. Also, when you are young, you think you can predict the likely pains and bleaknesses that age might bring. You imagine yourself being lonely, divorced, widowed; children growing away from you, friends dying. You imagine the loss of status, the loss of desire-and desirability. You may go further and consider your own approaching death, which, despite what company you may muster, can only be faced alone. But all this is looking ahead. What you fail to do is look ahead, and then imagine yourself looking back from that future point. Learning the new emotions that time brings. Discovering, for example, that as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been. Even if you have assiduously kept records-in words, sound, pictures-you may find that you have attended to the wrong kind of record-keeping. (Perhaps this blog is the wrong kind of record-keeping.)

The novel is not all about looking back though and it's ending (or the "sense of an ending") is filled with unanswered questions, intentional vagaries, and the reader has to make his own interpretations.  I found myself rereading the end several times to come up with my own conclusions, I guess the hallmark of a good mystery novel.  Barnes book is well worth reading.

What a change of pace with Begley's Shipwreck (an ironic title given I was reading this on board a ship, although, thankfully, not the Costa Concordia).

Like the old joke goes, a man walks into a bar (the L’Entre Deux Mondes -- which could be anywhere), and then.....Well in this case, it's not a joke, unless you consider three days of story-telling to a stranger in a bar, over innumerable drinks, a preposterous tall story.  The man who has walked into the "between two worlds" is the famous author, John North, going up to a stranger to tell the entire content of the book I was about to read.  The stranger is never named, and although he is the "narrator" mostly he is conveying, word for word, what he is hearing from North.  He is us, the reader, although he does have a few things to say, especially at the strange initial meeting, describing North as this man so like me in appearance and demeanor, from the crown of his neatly barbered head to the tips of his brogues, well worn but beautifully polished.  Listen, he said. Listen, I will tell you a story I have never told before.  If you hear me out, you will see why.  I would have been a fool to tell it.  With you, somehow I feel secure.  Call it instinct or impulse or fate -- your choice.

And so the story begins, involving three major characters, North, his wife Lydia, and North's dalliance with a young French journalist who he met when she interviewed him for the Paris Vogue magazine, Lea Morini.  To me, there were several dimensions to this novel, the story itself of choices made, how North cheats on his wife, who he dearly loves, acknowledges the dangers of his extramarital affair, but is so hopeless to end because of, to put it mildly, the incredible sex (mostly in Paris), realizing later in the tale how the walls are closing in on him and what limited choices he has for ending the affair.  It's a good tale, and the title of the book foreshadows its conclusion, but, like Barnes' book, it is an ending that leaves some questions.  But what really interested me is that North is a writer, so why tell the tale verbally to a stranger?

Begley, who comes to the literary world late in life after a hugely successful career as an attorney, writes with the lapidary precision of his former profession.  And I don't mean this in a negative way as he is a pleasure to read, words chosen carefully and gracefully as well.  His novels exude erudition and in my opinion he has become one of the best writers today.  His Schmidt trilogy alone makes him a novelist of importance.  One could say that Shipwreck is somewhat a variation of the Schmidt novels, the older man with the younger woman, but it is much, much more than that.  In particular, Schmidt is an attorney, just like Begley WAS, but North is a writer, just like Begley IS.  So to me, the many passages about writing, and a description of the literary scene, held my close attention.

North has written an "important" novel, The Anthill, which takes place in Paris, one that is being made into a film, and he is currently working on a new novel, Loss. Although an accomplished novelist, he is racked by self-doubt (perhaps like Begley?), questioning whether his writing is REALLY that good.  His wonderful, faithful wife, Lydia, is his biggest supporter, but nonetheless, his doubts remain.  One has to wonder whether this is universal of all good writers.  At one point, North goes to the shelves of his library:

There are things you do only when you are alone. I sauntered over to the shelves reserved for the first editions of my novels and their translations and stroked the familiar spines. Then, as though under a compulsion I was unable to resist, I took down first the new book and later all the others and looked at certain passages. I was to remain in my armchair the whole night and the next day, and most of the night that followed, with hardly any pause, although I suspected that I had a fever. I reread my production. At a certain point, entire sentences I had written seemed to disintegrate like figures in a kaleidoscope when you turn the tube, only my words did not regroup and coalesce as new wonders of color and design. They lay on the page like so many vulgar, odious pieces of shattered glass. The conclusion I reached came down to this: none of my books, neither the new novel nor any I had written before, was very good. Certainly, none possessed the literary merit that critical opinion ascribed to them. Not even my second novel, the one that won all the prizes and was said to confirm my standing as an important novelist. No, they all belonged to the same dreary breed of unneeded books. Novels that are not embarrassingly bad but lead you to wonder why the author had bothered. Unless, of course, he had only a small ambition: to earn a modest sum of money and short-lived renown.......And what should one think of a man who writes such books, he continued, where does he belong if not to the race of trimmers, men who live without infamy and without praise, envious of any other fate?

The self-doubt of the nature and quality of his work is again expressed in the context of the movie that was being made of his award-winning The Anthill.  I found this fascinating as Begley's About Schmidt was adapted for the screen, and the movie bore little resemblance to the novel.  I wonder what Begley thought about it, how much he might have protested.  The novel is much better than the movie and I had to erase the memory of the movie from my mind to read the novel.  I could never get the lead, though, Jack Nicholson, out of my head and that's the way I see Schmidtie in my mind's eye.  Again, North labors with the anxiety that his work is poor:  The proposition was brutally simple and dreadful to consider: if the books are no good, if they are unnecessary books, then my life, of which I had given up so much in order to write them, had been wasted. What set me off was nothing directly concerning Loss; its progress had been slow, but I was moving along and, from time to time, when I reread and corrected the text I was even amused and surprised. I couldn't imagine where I had gotten some of the stuff I had written down, but I was glad to see it was there. The screen adaptation of The Anthill was the immediate cause. I received from the producer a text he described as the almost final version of the screenplay. According to the contract, I had the right to review it and send in my suggestions, revisions, and so on for his and his colleagues' consideration. Nothing more than that. As drama, the screenplay struck me as pretty good. Certainly, it wouldn't put audiences to sleep. I was distressed, though, by the sentimentality of the story and the main characters. That was certainly not what I had intended, what I remembered writing, and that is not, I made quite sure of it, a defect of the novel, which I very conscientiously reread. But was it not possible that the screenwriter- I knew him and knew he was no fool-had seen through some flaw at the core of my book? Something I had not been conscious of that he had brought to the surface? And there was a touch of vulgarity to the screenplay. Had my book invited it? Or, equally sad, was there such a huge and unsuspected gulf that separated me from most of my readers? I asked Lydia her opinion. She reassured me: there was no such flaw and no such gulf. In that case, was she the only reader who understood me?

But Begley must have learned much about the craft of screenwriting when About Schmidt was filmed, as North is concurrently working on adaptation of George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, detailing the distinction between the two arts: Writing a screenplay based on a great novel is foremost a labor of simplification. I don't mean only the plot, although particularly in the case of a Victorian novel teeming with secondary characters and subplots, severe pruning is required, but also the intellectual content. A film has to convey its message by images and relatively few words; it has little tolerance for complexity or irony or tergiversations. I found the work exceedingly difficult, beyond anything I had anticipated. And, I should add, depressing: I care about words more than images, and yet I was constantly sacrificing words and their connotations. You might tell me that through images film conveys a vast amount of information that words can only attempt to approximate, and you would be right, but approximation is precious in itself, because it bears the author's stamp. All in all, it seemed to me that my screenplay was worth much less than the book, and that the same would be true of the film. The best I could say, to comfort myself, was that I had avoided pushing Eliot's work toward melodrama.

The most introspective passage about writing comes from North when he turns back to his new novel, Loss, which he had abandoned for awhile.  The process of writing and revision he describes, I bet, comes closest to Begley's own painstaking prose: The manuscript of Loss was waiting for me; finishing it, I decided, was a challenge I had to meet. I reread the hundred eighty or so pages anxiously, and was relieved to find I didn't completely distrust or dislike the story I had written. It would be a rather short novel in an age when it seemed that the proof of serious purpose and rich imagination was to write a work of eight hundred pages without a plot and without a single memorable character. But my method of composition has always been to write down all that I have to say on a given subject and stop. To strain for more is like adding Hamburger Helper. Usually, after so long a separation from a text, I would start by reviewing it from the first to the last page, making big and small changes as I went along. This time I was astonished to discover that I did not need to do that. Nor did I feel that I had to do over the chapter I had finished just before I left for Spetsai in order to jump-start the book or get back in the mood. Those are tricks I have used successfully when I have felt stuck. Quite miraculously, there seemed to be no obstacle to resuming work right away, at a steady pace. I welcomed the arduous task and the heavy fatigue I felt at the end of each day: these were, I thought, the only possible means of reestablishing my physical and mental health. By the beginning of August, I was able to hand to Lydia, always my first reader, a completed first draft. I decided that I would revise it only if her judgment was favorable. You must understand that revisions are a task to which I invariably look forward, however long I estimate they may take, because at least the book is palpably there. It's a blessing to be relieved of every writer's recurring nightmare: that he will find himself, perhaps without warning, unable to complete what he has begun.

So, there it is, the "other" story in Shipwreck, about the creative process.  But getting back to the plot, one knows that North's liaison with Lea is moving to some sort of conclusion; in fact, it must move in that direction as North loves his wife Lydia, and one can carry on a duplicitous life for just so long without disastrous consequences.  And while telling the end of the novel is not my intention, the very last line is not a spoiler -- North says to the stranger who has listened to all of this know more about me now than anyone else alive. Indeed, and this may refer as much to Begley the writer, as the protagonist North.