Sunday, March 6, 2011

A rare find

The Storm, by Frances Sarah Moore (1951)

To surf the gigantic universe of book review blogs is to wonder at the news and opinions of people who read more than I do. ("Loved it loved it LOVED IT!") To saunter about bookstores and libraries is to gape at the stacks of new fiction. All the fresh stiff books are so impressively thick and gorgeously produced, their jacket paintings, lettering, and design absolute works of art. But I open them to meet repeated disappointment.

When it comes to reading perhaps I should allow that my standards might be downright petty. I'm annoyed, for instance, by the gimmick of the novel written in the present tense ("It's daylight. Blood drips down her arm ....") Why use a square wheel for five hundred solid pages when the round one -- the past tense -- has served so well? I'm annoyed by the gimmick of the novel written in bad English, because the narrator is a plucky servant or other uneducated character. Mark Twain could do this; you and I cannot, much. I'm annoyed when a novel, set in the seventeenth century, uses politically correct 21st-century American terms for today's approved grievance groups ("the Romany [gypsy] woman"). I'm annoyed by pointless, laughable vulgarity, and mind you I do read basic, porn-heavy romance novels with good cheer, so it's not a question of prudery. A year or so ago, I came across one very beautiful and interesting-looking new novel, set in Renaissance Florence, which opened with a description of the dead body of a nun, shockingly discovered to be tattooed with a giant snake which curled around her form until its head and tongue reached her private parts. That, my friends, shrieks "lack of talent" on the part of the writer. Anyone with something valuable to say need not begin quite so. Needless to add I didn't buy the book, nor look for it at the library.

Because bookstores with their fresh thick beautiful stacks so uniformly disappoint, I turn to the library for books like the one in the photo above: unadorned, unknown, old. I look for books published before all fiction came out of university writing programs, and before nearly all publishing houses -- it seems -- mass-hired editors who like and expect to promote fiction from university writing programs. This last claim about the weight of university training in the modern market comes from an article I read online just in the last month, which struck me as very pat but which I regret I can't find again. (I hope you'll trust me on this.) The author declared that 13 of the 15 most recent recipients of some prestigious prize or other, or honorees on some bestseller list or other, had all come out of university creative writing departments. We the readers' fond image of the "lone visionary" scribbling private truths was long since passé, this commentator explained.

It shows. So much modern fiction, when it is not being annoying through its gimmickry or its political correctness or its silly vulgarity, has the feel of being competently assembled rather than written. Perhaps that comes from young people being taught, en masse, how to write: not in the necessary sense of being taught grammar, but in the sense of being taught how to "create conflict" or "write compelling dialogue." And the dream of the six-figure movie deal surely hangs over a lot of modern output. So many chapters seem to be framed visually rather than written out by a mind which is trying to describe the visual through graceful language (there's a difference). So much action is painstakingly plodded through as if to make a future set director's instructions perfectly clear. Scene after scene ends with wooden Excitement. "Professor. You've got to get down here. Now." And, cut.

So I turn to old books, when I can find them. The quest is getting difficult even in the library. My local one assiduously purges, eliminating what has not circulated enough and donating it all to the Book Sale room, which does a whopping business at the monthly Friends of the Library extravaganzas. The purging in turn makes space for more of today's fiction which, by the way, you will still be able to spot fifty years from now even if it is all bereft of its opulent jacketing, and looks as humbly intriguing as The Storm. A lot of it will have titles like The Curious Case of the Tree that was Blue, Jumping on Silk Trampolines with Boys Who Paint, or The Secret Life of my Nephew's Glasses. A lot of it will struggle to reach sophomoric (literally, university level) moral conclusions -- and that is especially true of the painfully serious books brooding over academia's approved topics, race, class, and gender. My favorite was a tremblingly meaningful final pronouncement from a best seller of ten years ago, viz., that the Civil War was "fought to decide how we're going to feel about each other." Really. News to the soldiers, I'll bet.

To be fair, if my tastes are so very exalted and I like such old books, I could simply turn only to the profoundest classics, which the library does for the moment keep on its shelves. But a diet of just Dickens and Shakespeare and Conrad, even if anybody could remotely follow it, needs some leavening. Besides, I'm curious. Dickens and Shakespeare and Conrad were once the latest thing. Have they no descendants among us at all? I like to hunt old books to find that out, or to find out at least what good or even yeoman talent was still accomplishing forty and more years ago, before today's gatekeepers took up their stations with such -- well, finality, it seems. It's hard to believe splendid imaginative ability really vanished from the English speaking world around 1975.

Now, enter The Storm. It's a plain-Jane little novel, written in plain-Jane prose and printed in a rather large typeface too, about a young couple who meet and become serious despite both bearing cynical views on marriage. It opens, startlingly, with a view of a bad marriage between an elderly rural minister and his wife -- in 1951. Where did Frances Sarah Moore get the idea? We imagine everybody before us was so innocent, so conformist, so unwilling to explore darkness. And it closes, satisfyingly, with the writer's attempt at honest summings-up on large human topics, as she sees them, not as she and her classmates have been taught to see them. There is a difference, evident in the feeling of truth and private effort that is missing from the final pages of modern fiction.

There is also something very important in The Storm, which I delight to find and which almost never appears in modern books, university-bred as they are. It's the natural, unexplained reference to classic literature, to the fact that bits of Western knowledge were once ingrained in almost every Western person and therefore a normal part of fictional characters' backgrounds, too. Here Julia is speaking with her married lover (in 1951!):

"I love you, Julia. I don't want to hurt you. I am afraid I am taking advantage of you."
"Of my youth?" she jeered. "I am old, Father William."
He smiled a little at Alice's misquoted Young Man.

That's it. The only reason I recognize this is because I saw the Disney movie Alice in Wonderland about a million times when my children were younger, and I think it fairly faithfully mirrors the book. Tweedledum and Tweedledee sing " 'You are old, Father William,' the Young Man said" -- and from there you can walk the reference back, and see why Frances Sarah Moore has someone "smile a little at Alice's misquoted Young Man."

Even though The Storm is a completely ordinary book, this small point is a far more worthy and even exciting indication of a forgotten, sincere ability quietly at work, than all the pasteboard details shoveled into a new novel, whose bulk nevertheless bores with its drab language and its human emptiness. My own favorite, historical fiction, seems especially impoverished. So, a medieval child might wear a necklace made of hedgehog's teeth? That's good research -- and good research is lavishly praised on the backs of book jackets -- no one could make that up. I'm glad to know it. And right on page 1, too. Someone's been told to capture the reader's attention right away. But beyond the hedgehog's teeth, what is it about this particular subject of this huge novel, this king's mistress, what is it about retelling her life that has fulfilled this writer's need to express the truths he knows? When Frances Sarah Moore writes about the elderly couple salvaging their marriage, or about what it means for a life's work to be obscure or not, valuable or not, I sense that she has sat alone, maybe in a room resounding with the din of a driving ice storm just like the one she describes, and has thought out some important things to her own satisfaction, which she then tenders respectfully to the reader. Any reader. Even sixty years on. Today's vetted writers have not done that, nor would it occur to them to try. They've been trained to dazzle, with competent arrangements and striking anecdotes, people trained to be dazzled by them. It's all so remarkably dull.   

Now the clever reader might point at me and say, "It's all sour grapes. Nobody wanted your novel and you've never done the digging needed to write a paying historical or romantic sizzler, so you're mad."

Maybe. It's true that I find nothing particularly feeding to the soul in making up fiction. I admire those who do it well, and I even admire the energy of those who do it poorly. Maybe some of us are born diarists, for what that's worth. (Maybe we can flatter ourselves that, as Marcus Aurelius instructed, we "write for the gods.") But I'm also still a would-be consumer of modern books, and in that humble role I'm still confused by the vast sunlit desert wastes before me. Where is the talent? And you wonderful bloggers who devour a dozen books a month, exulting how you "loved it loved it LOVED it." What exactly are you loving?