Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Staying Current by Retelling the Past (by Kseniya Melnik)

This fall marked the arrival of new novels by two authors whose previous books I really loved: Nicole Krauss’s Great House and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. I was literally counting down the days to Great House. And, of course, you had to be living under the proverbial rock in order not to get worked up about Franzen’s new brick of a book. Everyone was taking and writing about it. As fall turned into winter, if somebody with any connection to the literary establishment whatsoever confessed that they hadn’t yet cracked the tome, usually they’d offer a well-formulated and strategic explanation. It wasn’t simply that they hadn’t had the time.

Most reviewers lauded Freedom not only as brilliant, but also as very important: literarily, socially, historically, politically, environmentally (except for all those trees cut down to print so many copies of so many pages). Supposedly, it was the book our descendants would read to get the perfect snapshot – or supersize serving – of the American society in the early 21st century. Liberalism, environmental crisis, war profiteering, rock-and-roll, overpopulation, the impact of easy access to pornography on the culture are all major plot engines. Given these topics, it’s easy to see why the book seems so utterly relevant - required reading for anyone who cares about the US, where it’s been and where it’s heading.

Freedom participates directly in the current cultural and political debate.

While I admired many aspects of the novel, particularly its masterful crafting, it engaged me primarily on the intellectual level. Many would agree that the goal of literature, as that of any art form, is not only to inform us and make us think, but also make us feel things, feel more deeply, more complexly. In this department, Freedom left me largely unmoved. It also made me, as a writer, anxious about the so-called relevance of my own work, much of which is not set in present-day USA and doesn’t tackle the hot topics of the day in a head-on fashion.

Then I read Nicole Krauss’s Great House, a novel better understood through its themes (loss – an overpowering black hole among them) rather than plot (a giant writing desk passes through several people whose lives had been affected by the political upheavals of the 20th century: the Spanish Civil War, the Holocaust, the Governmental Junta in Chile, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.) Most of the storyline is set in the past, and even when the events do take place in the present, they exhibit a dreamlike, timeless quality. I often had to leaf back to locate the exact timestamp. In the end, it didn’t really matter; I was traveling through time to arrive at a more complex emotional understanding of life.

But, the thing is, I can’t quite articulate what this understanding is, unlike I can, for example, explain the theory behind the Club of Rome or reforestation after mountaintop demolition for coal mining, to both of which Franzen devotes many chapters in Freedom. This understanding has settled in my body, in the chest, and is more intricate than something that could be summed up in neat generalizations, such as: war permanently derails innocent lives; its destructive effect spreads a wide geographical and social net and lasts for decades.

Great House immediately reminded me of Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project, which features two narratives: in the present day Vladimir Brik, a Bosnian-American writer based in Chicago, travels back to Eastern Europe to write a story about Lazarus Averbuch, a 19-year-old Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe who was shot dead by the chief of Chicago police in 1908.

W. G. Sebald also came to mind due to associative quality of Krauss’s plotting. For me, reading Sebald was one of those transformative experiences a writer can have that allows him or her see literature in a whole different dimension. In his books, I can’t separate the emotional impact from the intellectual impact: they work in perfect synergy.

Certain alchemy occurs when narrative layers set in different times are planted closely together. Krauss does this via the desk: our perception of the writer working at it in present-day New York is influenced by the desk’s tragic provenance. Sebald usually does his layering via locations: his alter ego walks around formerly grand or busy and now empty and decaying places while gathering stories about commoners as well as cultural and political celebrities of the bygone era or recollecting his own past involvement with the environs. In a passage towards the end of The Rings of Saturn, he threads the historical events on a single day, as though the day is a needle and centuries are sheets of cloth. I couldn’t resist a quote:

“Today, as I bring these notes to a conclusion, is the 13th of April 1995. It is Maundy Thursday, the feast day on which Christ’s washing of the disciples’ feet is remembered, and also the feast day of Saints Agathon, Carpus, Papylus and Hermengild. On this very day three hundred and ninety-seven years ago, Henry IV promulgated the Edict of Nantes; Handel’s Messiah was first performed two hundred and fifty-three years ago, in Dublin; Warren Hastings was appointed Governor-General of Bengal two hundred and twenty-three years ago; the Anti-Semitic league was founded in Prussia one hundred and thirteen years ago; and, seventy-four years ago, the Amritsar massacre occurred… Fifty years ago to the day, British newspapers reported that the city of Celle had been taken and that German forces were in head-long retreat from the Red Army, which was advancing up the Danube valley. And finally, Maundy Thursday, the 13th of April 1995, was also the day on which Clara’s father, shortly after being taken to hospital in Coburg, departed this life.”

When I read this passage, I can’t help but feel, naively and fantastically, that if only one could somehow throw a wrench into this indifferent machinery of time (even now is not too late!), then history might have changed its course and turned out a little less tragic.

In The Lazarus Project, in addition to travel layering – Vladimir Brik’s trip to Ukraine and his hometown Sarajevo feels like a journey into the past – I noticed a threading of the dislocated, searching souls: “She smiled at me – I could have kissed her right there, those living lips, those gloaming eyes, that pale face. That’s me, I thought. That woman is me,” writes Brik, and then “It took a while to find a way out. Rora’s hair was sweat-pasted to his skull and neck, a gray oval of perspiration growing on his back…And again I thought: That’s me…She was me, Rora was me, and then we came upon the man on the bench, drooling asleep, his mouth open enough for us to see a graveyard of teeth, his hand wedged inside his pants’ waist – and he was me, too. The only one who was not me was myself.”

Another common element in Krauss, Sebald and Hemon is their characters’ obsession with retelling the stories over and over, literally writing the past into the present. In Vertigo, the narrator spends countless hours reading at the library, saying, “I happened on one thing or another that might well be worth retelling some time…” Sebald retells many stories. Hemon’s Brik retells the story of Lazarus that was left out of the newspapers’ reporting of the case in 1908. In Great House, the characters retell stories of their loved ones in flashback or their own stories in the form of addressing someone else. In retelling, they revise their past, try to find justification for their behavior, work through the guilt from their mistakes. Even Freedom doesn’t escape the lure of a story within a story. Significant plotline is delivered through one character’s therapist-encouraged autobiography, and the points where real events echo or amend this narrative are some of the most emotionally resonant in the novel.

It’s not my intention to conclude that stories within stories or writing about writing and writers are the only ways for the author to imbue the book with emotional power. I simply tried to figure out why this way of structuring the material had such a powerful effect on me as a reader.

Krauss, Hemon and Sebald’s novels make us think of the present and future in relation to the past – but not just immediate past, such as the protagonist’s childhood – but layers of past going decades, even hundreds years back. There is enough space between these layers to fill certain historical references with our own ideas of them, our own memories or stories we’d heard from our parents. In my mind, I imagine the layers bunching up like the folds of a giant accordion, now compressing, now expanding, to produce a rich sound particular to each reader.

Perhaps, this is where my deeper unarticulable “understanding of life” came from. Freedom organized complex information into appropriate compartments of my mind, and by no means do I want to diminish its achievement. Each work of art takes a small step towards conquering the chaos of the universe. But Great House, The Lazarus Project and the novels of W.G. Sebald went farther: they made my soul vibrate.

In conclusion, or perhaps to make myself feel less anxious as a writer, I propose that even books that are not set in the immediate or glaringly referenced and brand-ed present participate in today’s “national conversation” as long as they supply authentic voices. And (sorry to end on a depressing note) many stories are worth retelling over and over for history indeed repeats itself. Sebald writes in The Rings of Saturn, “history…is but a long account of calamities,” and I will echo what has been said before by many – calamities caused by humanity’s insatiable longing for a few true things and fear of and never-ending fight for what is mostly false or transient.


Happy Holidays, everybody!

1 comment:

Alexis E. Santi said...

This is a deep force, a powerful and beautiful post about literature. It is evident that your opinions are shaped by the uncanny ability to dissect the deepest threads of literature. I thrilled to have read this and become so informed in such a short period of time by your writing.

Thank you Kseniya. Thank you very much.