Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Novel History

Another semester has come and gone, and I find myself besieged with projects for the winter break. My third book, Severance Songs, is in press and will be released by Tupelo in March (though I'm hoping to have copies to read from in time for the AWP conference in Washington, DC at the beginning of February). GC and I are making progress with The Arcadia Project: our table-of-contents in progress includes some stunning poems which will form, I believe, a new and necessary constellation. Anthologies don't really create anything new, of course, but they can call new attention to what's already there. I have hopes that we will be directing new readerly and critical attention to the burgeoning intersection of innovative, lyric, and environmental poetries.

Then there's the novel, always the novel, proceeding in fits and starts, at times to my eye an incoherent assemblage of narrative odds and ends, at other times suggesting a pattern, even a depth, trompe l'oeil-style. It takes the form, both narratively and in its writing, of an investigation of the past or pasts. Its key chronotopes include: Paris, 1968; New York City in the early Seventies; upstate New York in the mid-Seventies to early Eighties; Vienna just before and after the Great War; Budapest in the Thirties and Forties; present-day Rome, Trieste, Ljubljana, and Chicago. Right now I am immersing myself in novels of the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities (as magnificent as I'd heard), Joseph Roth's The Radetzky March, Sandor Marai's Embers. The Dual Monarchy is an old fascination of mine: I find its atmosphere of an empire built on liberal values in irreversible decline compelling and all-too-relevant to the situation of contemporary America. It's also a key component of the tragic story of the struggle of European Jews to assimilate into Germanic culture, a struggle whose tragic outcome has had a powerful if oblique impact on my own life as the son of a Jewish mother born in Hungary in 1942, whose own parents survived Auschwitz, who seemed to spend significant stretches of her own life imaginatively reliving the suffering she herself was too young to remember. Now I follow, as if in her footsteps. It's a path I've often followed in my poems; I am trying to see if narrative can get me any closer, any more intimate, with the central mystery of the life I seem compelled, if not condemned, to relive.

Writing history presents many opportunities and traps. In the class I took with him at Naropa this past summer, Laird Hunt called it "the hobnailed boot problem": the details that writers weave into their historical fictions end up calling way too much attention to themselves as desperate or feckless attempts to render the world of the past. This is especially notable in those writers who, however deep their historical research, seem unable to imagine human behavior as being itself profoundly inflected by the otherness of the past. Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring is one example of this: in spite of the little homespun details about Griet's manner of dress or the kinds of work she does in the kitchen, the novel's language is the sort of degree-zero plainspeak that marks the book as the movie-in-waiting that it is. A more recent example is Julie Orringer's The Invisible Bridge, a project with some similarity to my own: Orringer imagines the life of her Hungarian-Jewish grandfather when he was a young man, working as an architecture student and graphic designer in the years leading up to and during World War II. Her research is meticulous and she gets many historical details right, yet I never believed for a second that her hero thinks and speaks as a man of his time and place. The problem is exacerbated by her choice of third-person limited narration, putting us close inside Andras' consciousness; that consciousness is so ordinary, so purely reactive to the dire historical events that even a moderately informed reader sees coming from miles away, that it drains away the sense of a living organic world (the goal of mimetic historical writing) and forecloses the possibility of creating the sense of the past as other—another country, as L.P. Hartley (who?) put it.

It's that latter form of historical writing that interests me, and that is both the goal and modus operandi of my own attempt at fiction. The strangeness of the past, and the unknowability of a (m)other's consciousness, met by an urgent need to imagine these things: that's the entire drama of the book. My research is necessarily casual, unmeticulous, intuitive, because I don't pretend to know what can't be known--what it felt like to experience the past, or to be this person--even as I and my narrator(s) are hell-bound to make the attempt. The research I've done is partly factual, but it's more the mood and texture of these vanished worlds that I seek to construct through scraps serendipitously assembled. You could call it a Proustian project, except the Madeleine in question is one I've never tasted; rather, I have to imagine what it is as well as it what it tasted like. Citizen Kane, that greatest of shaggy dog stories, comes to mind: "Rosebud," like Eliot's notes to The Waste Land, explains everything and nothing. It's the pursuit of Rosebud that makes the story, just as every detective story is at its most compelling when the hero is farthest from solving the mystery, but lives immersed in half-fathomed clues, surrounded by witnesses and suspects and femmes fatale, hard up against the limits of his knowledge and of his own character.

For this writer, the pressure of otherness has to manifest through and in language: through the energy of diction, of music, and through the unspooling and hyperextension of syntax. The long, wandering, obsessively cadenced sentences I've been writing do more, I hope, to present that urgent pursuit of history, and the texture of a mind in contact with mystery, than any particular details of tramway stops in turn-of-the century Trieste or the style of whiskers worn by a mid-level official in the service of Franz Joseph ever could.

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