On my tenth birthday my father sent me a gift from India: A Parker ballpoint pen in a gorgeous brushed nickel finish. The accompanying birthday card read, “May it give you inspiration.” Perhaps, thinking it too extravagant a gift for a child, my mother kept the pen and (in those days before email) used it to write letters back to my father about our lonely life in America without him. Like a talisman I imagined the pen held mysterious powers I was too young to understand. Although I can’t say that pen became the catalyst for me wanting to write, I can honestly say that not having it made me anxious about being a kid: I wanted to grow up fast so I could use it to write “inspired” works, making my father proud. But being so young, I didn’t have any idea what to write about or how? And I didn’t much care for reading, preferring instead to tinker with my science lab. I could spend hours making salt crystals, or mixing potions to make birds explode during flight. But more than science, reading or writing, I loved music. When I did read, I read for the music of sentences, not meaning, and when I wrote, I felt myself always struggling to balance euphony with sense.
Introduced to Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel[i] this past semester, I found how little I really knew about the novel and authorship. Then rediscovering Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary[ii], encountering James Baldwin’s Another Country[iii], and falling in love with Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye[iv], I began seeing how sense and style could be merged to create vivid stories and what Smiley calls “[the integration] of several forms of intelligence—verbal intelligence (for the style), psychological intelligence (for the characters), spatial intelligence (for the symbolic and metaphorical content as well as the setting), and even musical intelligence (for pacing and rhythm)” (TWLN 39). By studying these novels I began to see how a novelist’s theories, character, plot, form and style could be fused to create memorable works of art. Through the in-class discussions and writing assignments, I felt my nascent views being altered to encompass new techniques. I also began to rethink “maximalism,” my preferred style of writing, thus opening up my writing to new ways of locating my place in the Western literary tradition, and also enhancing my understanding of what is possible in literary art.
Prior to this class, I hadn’t any “theories of life,” no aesthetic philosophy other than, “style is the perfection of a point of view,” which was something I once read on the wall of a Mont Blanc pen store in Costa Mesa. I had a spurious understanding of the novel’s history, innovations, and design. Although I had my “favorite novels and had literary “influences,” I neither considered myself being “produced’ by texts nor had an interest in being produced by anything less than my own observations, less so by my experiences. I considered myself a “maximalist” before I knew the term. Learning by imitation I would copy whole chapters out of Melville, Nabakov, Faulkner, and Cormac McCarthy without a clear understanding of how style was wedded to an author’s personality and temperament. I would (and still do) try on a style as if putting on a coat and walk around in it, ignoring the fact it might be too big, the sleeves too long, the cut antiquated.
To paraphrase Smiley, “it is literature itself and novels themselves [that] are one of the nascent novelist’s primary inspirations for wanting to write.” If before I felt sheepish about my place in any literary tradition, I now felt inadequate. I needed to read more. Think harder. Feel deeper. I needed to, as Smiley says, develop a technique that grows out of my temperament, my intentions, and my ideas, but also one that grows out of my circumstances. So I began to explore my circumstances, my own “theory” of life. The ontological question “Who am I?” became just as important as the epistemological one “What do I know?”
Smiley writes, “The second great inspiration for a novelist is language” (TWLN 32). In the past I read mostly for style. I also loved detail and no author has rendered detail more precisely, more beautifully and I would say more inspirationally than Gustav Flaubert. In his introduction to Madame Bovary, Francis Steegmuller says, “Nothing in this novel is left up to chance. Everything flows out of the central conception, as by natural law.” Flaubert achieves coherence and cohesion through the selective employment of detail. Whereas before I would construct my own work by filling up pages with detail, I began to see what Flaubert called le mot just (the right word). Flaubert’s novel taught me how to be selective, judicious, and exacting.
For example, after Charles and Emma Bovary come to the chateau of the marquis d’Andervilliers for his ball, Flaubert writes, “Here the air was warm and fragrant; the scent of flowers and fine linen mingled with the odor of cooked meats and truffles. Candle flames cast long gleams on rounded silver dish-covers; the clouded facets of the cut glass shone palely, etc.” (MB 56). Flaubert invokes the five senses with a precision that borders on the neurotic. We feel the warm fragrant air, smell the cooked meats and truffles, and see the long gleams cast by the candle flames. The description is complete. I cannot think of any additions or deletions that would improve its impact upon me.
Smiley writes, “[Flaubert] doesn’t cause the language to do more, [he causes] it to communicate more perfectly and efficiently,” (TWLN 33).
If Flaubert’s style taught me to use the right words in the right order for the right effect, rooting my prose in the concrete and vivid as opposed to the abstract and numinous, James Baldwin taught me how to make language rise off the page and fly.
Smiley writes, “As every novelist has a style, so every novelist has a conviction, which is a type of emotion, not an act of reason” (TWLN 48). Nowhere is authorial conviction more evident than in James Baldwin’s Another Country. I had a passing familiarity with his novel Go Tell it on the Mountain, something I was supposed to read as an undergraduate, but never did. I pictured him a chain-smoking profligate, a second rate political writer, perhaps a sexual deviant, perhaps a hack. But I had no clear justification to think so. So when I read the first line of Another Country, I immediately knew I was conversing with a great mind. First lines tell you a lot about a writer’s ethos and style, so reading “He was facing Seventh Avenue, at Times Square,” (AC 3), in my mind ranks up there with “Call me Ishmael” in terms of brevity, weight, mystery, and power.
Taking his literary cues from Henry James--the long, convoluted sentences, ample uses of metaphor and simile, sickeningly beautiful oxymoronic phrases, and neurotic punctuation (lots of commas, semi-colons, dashes and parentheticals)—Baldwin made you work for meaning. By employing the rhythms and cadences of music, he amazed me. By utilizing biblical language born from his child preacher past, throwing in alliteration, asyndeton, polysendeton, he seduced me. He mixed high and low language to distinguish between classes. He employed a variety of literary tropes to make his prose soar off the page (can anyone read Vivaldo’s interior monologues without feeling breathless?). His writing convinced me. An example: “”The beat: hands, feet, tambourines, drums, pianos, laughter, curses, razor blades; the man stiffening with a laugh and a growl and a purr and the woman moistening and softening with a whisper and a sigh and cry” (AC 7). If this isn’t mimetic of music, then nothing is. I still felt proud to call myself a “maximalist.”
But Baldwin wasn’t just about style. He balanced style and form, creating a fearless, unapologetic novel that burned into one’s consciousness like a firebrand. And he didn’t just comment on sex and race, he boomed them from a mountaintop in a voice as stentorian as any Roman orator. He embeds character with philosophical ideas to serve up a larger thematic point without being didactic. By using an ensemble cast, he “triangulates” his characters’ relationships to add layers of meaning--Rufus, Vivaldo, and Leona, or Richard, Cass and Eric, or Vivaldo, Ida and Eric--in a way I had never thought possible. And he certainly doesn’t suffer from Smiley’s criticism of Zadie Smith of whom she says, “A major source of discomfort for some of Smith’s characters is the difficulty of fixing on an authentic language that communicates the inner life as well as it does the communal life” (TWLN 37).
And neither does Margaret Atwood. A speculative fiction writer from Canada was about all I knew of her. So, journeying with Elaine Risley, her central character from Cat’s Eye, as she comes of age as a painter, I fell in love with her imagery and metaphoric language, her keen observations no less stunning than Baldwin’s or Flaubert’s, and most of all by her prose architecture, viz. how she puts the story together.
Nothing about Atwood’s prose seems out of place. Nothing. Each image seems carefully selected. Each character delicately nuanced. Each situation deftly exploited for its maximum psychological and emotional impact. She takes an abstract concept like time being a dimension and manages to artfully construct a bildungsroman novel. Like a music composer, Atwood creates motifs, counterpoints out of images, returns to them as reminders of her principal theme--the construction of identity—and her minor themes, time, art, femininity, inter alia, power. She does this through imagery: the brain in formaldehyde young Elaine Risley finds in her father’s science lab becomes symbolic of science and knowledge; the hole in the backyard behind Elaine’s house, the cemetery and the ravine tie in the concepts of death; the bridge, where Elaine has a religious experience upon seeing the Virgin Mary, connects to fear and salvation; the twin-sets, doubles, relates to ideas of fracture; and the cat’s eye marble links to ideas of seeing, being seen and judged, and holds “all of her past complete.” To use another metaphor, the novel isn’t so much as constructed as weaved, each fiber a different strand that twists around other fibers to create an emotional picture revealing Elaine, and, I would like to say, Atwood herself. It is, according Atwood herself, her most autobiographical novel. It is no less than the construction of beauty.
In her essay “Who is a Novelist?” Smiley writes, “ A novelist has two lives—a reading and writing life, and a lived life. He or she cannot be understood at all apart from this” (TWLN 32). Cat’s Eye seems to perfectly encompass this idea: the private inner self vs. the public persona. It’s also something I struggle to understand in myself. By reading these three great works my picture of who I am as a writer has become a little less muddy. They have inspired me to continue the search for my own meaning and identity in a style that needn’t be verbose to be effective. Will I remain “maximalist?” It is doubtful. I think I can appropriate the best aspects of these writers’ styles and theories, combine them with my own views of literature, and create for myself a style that “fits” me, that is borne of my experiences, my temperament, and my concerns. It is a quest for authenticity I am after.
My mother never returned that Parker pen to me, and, surprisingly, I never asked her for it. Perhaps I felt that because she had used the pen any magic it had was hers and hers alone. After all, it was because of her letters to my father that he eventually came back to us. Perhaps she was writing “inspirational” words in a style rooted in her own emotional suffering that finally convinced my father to abandon his business in India and return to us. Perhaps, sitting on the porch of his unfinished house in India, beside an unfinished pool, with my mother’s letter written in her neat, open hand that my father heard a familiar voice and tone in her words--a voice he recognized as his own yearning for love and peace and family. Perhaps.
[i] Jane Smiley, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2005
[ii] Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, translated by Francis Steegmuller, New York: Random House, 1985
[iii] James Baldwin, Another Country, New York: Random House, 1960
[iv] Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye, New York: Random House, 1988