On my reading table

I’ve been rereading – for some reason – Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, published in 1944, and set in the period of prosperity and Depression between the two world wars. Well, I do know the reason I’m rereading it. It’s because a character I’m writing about in my current novel – a somewhat elusive and mysterious character – put me in mind of Larry Darrell, the principal character in The Razor’s Edge. After his experience as an airman in World War I, Larry, an American, leaves his fiancé, Isabel, his family, friends, and country to pursue – he knows not what. A dozen or so years later he does begin to understand what he’s pursuing – God, the Absolute, Goodness, Perfection – but this very pursuit excludes him from a ‘normal’ life, and from all that is acceptable in ordinary society.

I’ve also read, but can’t quite dismiss from my reading table, Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, published in four parts from 1924 to 1928. It’s a brilliant and frustrating novel about the period leading up to and just following World War I. I have a note in the book that I read it nine years ago, but I have no recollection of having read it before. The friend who gave it to me said it was the best novel ever written. It’s certainly a tantalizing novel. I kept hoping Ford would reveal the characters for me in full light, but he leads you on, then leaves you hanging, then leads you on again. It’s like seeing a group of intriguing characters from a short distance, first in full sunshine and then in shadow. And then the sun sets, and they disappear, and you’ve never gotten really close to them. Christopher Tietjens, his demonic wife Sylvia, and Valentine, the woman he loves – honorably – never fully emerge, and I can only assume that this is the author’s intention.

My stab at the contemporary was Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III, published last year. Again, it was an ambiguous experience. Dirty Love consists of four novellas. I liked ‘Marla,’ the second story, without reservation. It’s a simple, straightforward look at the dilemma of a relatively unattractive young woman looking for love and accepting what she can get. The other novellas I read with both admiration and impatience. What is it about the trappings of our culture that all but overwhelm our individual stories? The cultural scene in these stories is so thickly layered I feel I have to dig through it to get to what I’m always looking for: character development. It reveals itself eventually, but often when I’m beyond the point of caring. But perhaps that’s just me. Dubus is a talented writer. I am, perhaps, a lazy reader.

I’ve almost finished reading Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, by Jane Hirshfield, published in 1997. It’s a slow read, but I’m relishing every page. It is fascinating and inspiring, and it’s giving me a fresh appreciation for poetry.

Also on my reading table: Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (a reread); Songs of Unreason, a book of poems by Jim Harrison; and Sycamore Row, John Grisham’s latest, a sequel to my favorite Grisham novel, A Time to Kill.

For me, the thing that ties together The Razor’s Edge, Parade’s End, Dirty Love, and the stories and novels that I continue to write and love to read is this inexhaustible search for understanding. It’s what, for the storyteller, is called character development. To chronicle a character’s motivation, the longing, the struggle, the frustration, the failure, the good and the evil that impinge on us and that we impinge on others, is the gift and responsibility of every generation of storytellers. That’s why a good story never goes out of style, no matter what language it’s couched in, or what the cultural phenomena surrounding it.

Like Larry Darrell, we’re pursuing something that is discernible – but just out of reach.

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