Tuesday, January 22, 2013

WHAT FAITH THEN

The shadow knows.

Well, the evening should be over and I should be ready to sleep about now, but that is not the case.

I felt somewhat crappy again today, after not being able to sleep last night, again. I did some of my usual tasks but had to take a long nap this afternoon. I should just be thankful that my mood is relatively good, even if my health isn't.

No cooking needed to be done today, thanks to all we had accomplished in the last couple of days. I finished off the ginger-garlic-chicken soup which just got better each day. And between M, E, C, and I, we polished off the first round of cookies.

One of the books on the list of 10-best-books-that-weren't-on-all-the-lists-but-should-have-been was a collection of essays, Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation by Tom Bissell. (N.B., I have not read the review linked here.) I always think I am going to read essays and I really want to, but I rarely actually get down to business and discipline of doing it, given that I am so susceptible to the siren call of narrative fiction. But I had gotten this one out of the library and thought I should at least start it to see if I was going to put it on my endless Amazon wishlist for that moment I now know is no longer coming when I would have money and time to read everything that my little heart and brain desires.

I love it. The first essay is about discovering and reprinting great books that have been overlooked in the canon, and what a crapshoot chance it is that a writer will get any notice at all ever. Excellent essay!

Sidebar: I remember well all the books that were sitting around houses in my childhood: The Carpetbaggers by Harold Robbins, Mandingo, Lolita, Moloka'i (recently back in print), View from Pompey's Head by Hamilton Basso (actually quite good), Man in the Grey Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson, etc. When I can, I love to troll through the stacks of the library looking for treasures and then reading them. It was thusly, looking through the Y section at the Santa Fe Springs Library about 20 years ago, that I came across and read Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road and Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. I was quite surprised when Revolutionary Road was made into a film 10 or 15 years later. And I am a huge huge fan of The New York Review of Books reprints. I've read about 10 or 15 of them and only one was too arcane for me to finish. (The Pilgrim HawkThe Mangan InheritanceThe Summer BookThe Dud Avocado, etc.)

So, Bissell's first quite readable and enjoyable first essay, Unflowered Aloes, (published in 2000) discussed his part in getting Paula Fox's Desperate Characters back into print. (I had, by the by, found a copy in the '70s or '80s in a thrift store and read it). Whitman, Melville, and Dickinson also had a star-crossed path into literary immortality, as it turns out. Faulkner was a drunken Hollywood hack five years before he won the Nobel Prize for literature. Interesting stuff.

What then, do we have to thank for the survival of American literature's three greatest figures? Remaindered copies bought from book peddlers? A man, sitting at his desk, an oxidized copy of a forgotten novel beside him, cobbling together an essay with no idea of what it would accomplish. The lovely devotion of solitary women and men. Essays published at the right time, in the right journals or books, noticed by the right people. Clearly, these are not the props of fate. They are, rather, the stagecraft of chance.

The comfort we take in these writers' survival is undercut by some quietly nagging questions: How many novels did Carl Van Doren's hand pass over to find Moby-Dick? How many poets' work sits moldering in New England attic trunks, no one having lobbied on its behalf. 

And the closing paragraph:

What faith, then, can the poet or novelist place in his or her work's survival? Is literary destiny simply yet another god that failed? Although I know what I now believe, I hope I am wrong. Nevertheless, I cannot help but imagine that literature is an airplane, and we are passengers on it. One might assume that behind the flimsy accordion doors sit pilots of skill and accomplishment. But the cockpit is empty. It has always been empty. The controls are abandoned. One needs only to touch them to know how mutable our course.




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