Friday, November 13, 2009

Nel mezzo del romanzo

I heard an interview with Zadie Smith on the radio the other day—she has a new book of essays out, and coincidentally is about to give birth—and she talked about writing novels and how beginnings were painful and endings exruciating, but the middle was something else again: it was... narcotic. To paraphrase how she put it, when you're in the middle—which doesn't necessarily mean the geographic middle of the finished book—your spouse might be telling you s/he wants a divorce and all you can think about is whether "rummaged" or "rifled" is the better word. You're lost in the world of sentences, and the actual world loses its usual opacity.

Then there's this quote from the essential new book Letters to Poets: Conversations about Poetics, Politics, and Community, in a letter from Paul Hoover to Albert Flynn DeSilver. DeSilver's previous letter had outlined various projects from building a house in Marin County to various literary and artistic works, including a "Novel" (the scare quotes are his). In Hoover's response he talks about his single novel, which met with some success (and was the occasion for a entertaining book of poems, The Novel, a bemused meditation on the prestige of the form), adding "I know that novels were never mine to do." And then there's this: "Novels steal attention from poetry, long prose also.... The theft is of time and labor, not of inspiration."

"The theft is of time and labor, not of inspiration." I know Paul is only speaking for himself here, but it confirms my experience of the past eight months. Writing Miramare (a working title), I had some expectation that the novel would become the open repository of everything I was thinking and feeling, vampirically absorbing other energies. Because the last time I attempted a novel, in my early twenties in New Orleans (1993 - 1996), I definitely experienced Zadie Smith's absorptive "middle." The writing was real—the story, my characters, the music I listened to while writing (florid stuff: Prokofiev, Queen)—while the rest of my life, which frankly at that time was something of a disaster zone, faded by comparison. I didn't write any poems—didn't, at that time, think of myself as a poet any more, though I'd been writing poetry seriously since I was fifteen—and often, didn't even write the novel, which became too big to face, since I'd staked everything on it. When I finally had to give it up as a bad job I lost my mind a little bit, at one point even finding myself in a military recruiter's office. I almost joined the Marines (hard to picture, I know), but very fortunately moved to Montana and started writing poems again instead. Such are the hazards of fiction writing!

Of course I'm older now and a little less naive about writing and its limited powers of replacing life. And what I've found is that this time, writing a novel hasn't taken anything from me except a little time that I wasn't using anyway (the half-an-hour to hour or so before I go to bed each night). I'm still writing poems—not at any breakneck pace, it's true, but at about the same rate as usual when there isn't a larger book project I'm deliberately writing toward—and I even have a little energy for thinking about scholarly matters from time to time. (Just now David Lau's review of terrific-sounding new books by Norma Cole and Andrew Joron in the latest issue of Lana Turner has greatly clarified for me what I was trying to say in my UIC talk about epistemology versus ontology in contemporary poetry—that's grist for another post.)

What consumes life is life: teaching, advising students, administrative duties, being a husband and father, etc. In an interview between Jennifer Moxley (who also has a new book out) and Daniel Bouchard in The Poker #8 a few years back, she speaks of the dilemma of the fact that "language takes up time." "Is the time that it takes to articulate your life—is that a good deal? Should you just not articulate it? You know, is it taking your life away from you?" This follows an arresting exchange and image:
Jennifer: every time you create a narrative, every time you create grammar, syntax, you destroy time.

Dan: You destroy it? Lose it?

Jennifer: Well, you can't get it back.

Dan: But not in the sense of wasted.

Jennifer: No, I wouldn't say wasted. But um ... if you can imagine the image of a human being disintegrating from top to bottom, and, if you're a writer, what you're building up next to you is text, right? So pretty soon you'll be gone and the text will be left. But there's a sense of is that experience or is that something else?
The ancient hubris of poets produces this Faustian bargain: give up some portion of your life to writing, and immortality might be yours. Or who [Time's] spoil of beauty can forbid? / O, none, unless this miracle have might, / That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

Whether or not you write that image, that human image in Moxley's vision, will disintegrate. And the text you stack up in your image supplements that disintegration—more life is not part of the bargain. What you get to keep is only a kind of attentiveness. Or that narcotic that Smith talks about, which Jennifer talks about too: "the space of writing is more interesting than doing anything else. It becomes kind of addictive, it feels more alive, and I think that that's a little bit scary and threatening."

In some ways that's what my novel is about. Just as Severance Songs is about the struggle with beauty, with an[aesth]eth[et]ics, in addition to whatever else it may be about, Miramare is about time and memory, and the way they dissolve into each other when the reader's eye moves across the page, creating the illusion of living more than one life. In that respect it's a form of therapy, but specifically a writer's therapy, which always only has one sort of "cure" in view: restoring the possibility of future writing. This is my path to the next work, which I think will probably be poetry again.

I am in the middle. Not I hope in that narcotic sense, but in a literal sense (I feel myself to be halfway through a first draft) and in Dante's sense, the middle of my way, in which I am necessarily lost, so that I may find it again.

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