Why we reread in times of stress and anxiety

I’ve been doing a fair amount of rereading lately, and I’m wondering why I’m in “reread mode.”

I’ve reread The Forsyte Chronicles by John Galsworthy; The Hours by Michael Cunningham; The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler; and I’m now (add any number of “re’s” here) rereading—you guessed it—Jane Austen herself. Persuasion was my pick.

Okay, in a certain sense, it’s pure laziness. I know exactly the trip I’m in for. It’s also easy access, since I tend to reread what is as close as my bookshelves, with library supplementation.

But there’s something else involved, or maybe several things.

First of all, rereading is—I admit it—a form of escapism. I’m disturbed by ongoing headlines of violence or attempted violence—what the news services call “domestic terrorism”—against innocent people. I am numbed by class hatred, and by disregard for the sacredness of life—all life. I’m appalled that we are losing the security of our collective environments—those places where we gather to worship, to shop, to share a meal, to be entertained, to participate in a rally or a marathon.

Secondly, I find that rereading is reassuring. Good stories well told reassure us about our lives, our potential, our hopes, our goals, the rightness and goodness of our worlds, of the people in our worlds.

Finally, there is the solace of literature. When we think of literature in this respect, we most often think of poetry. A few lines of poetry, a stanza or two, are often effective antidotes for a momentous or tragic occasion. We have had many of the latter in recent days and months. I have great respect for poetry, but I will often choose to revisit one of the fictional voices that I love and admire when looking for solace.

Now that I’ve broken my reasons down, I think they are, in the end, all one. I reread in the same way, and for the same reasons, that I communicate with and visit good friends. Friends help me to deal with my life on an ongoing, day-to-day basis. Books are like the voices of old friends whispering in my ear, soothing me, reassuring me, helping me to understand and to cope with—just about anything.

The Novel (Part 2): Why novelists should read (and write) poetry*

For a long period of my adult life, I paid little attention to poetry. Yes, it was a part of my growing up. My father loved to read and recite poetry. Yes, I studied it in college and grad school, as my degrees were in English literature. Yes, I taught English composition; therefore, I read and reflected on poetry during those chapters in my life. Other than those periods, however, poetry remained in the background of my reading and my consciousness for many years.

When I moved to Los Angeles, some years ago, I was accepted into a local writing workshop. The moderator and some of the participants were poets. We met once a week. Every fourth week, we had a poetry hour, during which we read and discussed poems we had chosen from among the world’s poetry, old and new—poems that were as near as my bookshelf, my computer devices, my library and bookstore.

It was while preparing for and participating in the monthly poetry hour, as well as listening to workshop members discuss their own poetry, that I rediscovered poetry.

Inevitably, I gave in to the urge to write a few poems of my own. Most of my attempts were crudely crafted, but I got help and encouragement from the workshop. I was urged to rethink, revise, go farther, go deeper. The outcome I hadn’t foreseen was that, because of my exposure to and attempts at writing poetry, I became a more disciplined, a more thoughtful, a more insightful novelist.

In my novel, The Second Mrs. Price, there is a scene in which the Price family gather together one evening and read aloud, in round-robin style, “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas.** The poem itself is a favorite of mine. It is a celebration of youth, and a nod to the inevitability of losing that youth. It is about the timelessness of that brief, often idyllic, season when we were “happy as the grass was green.”

Dylan Thomas has been described as “a modern exponent of the Romantic tradition.” *** In a style reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas takes daring leaps as he bends and shapes language to fit his vision, his voice, his unique consciousness.

When I linger over the fluid, tantalizing lines in “Fern Hill,” I am beguiled by the potential of language freed from the restraints of formality, convention, grammar, even logic. I ask myself: How many ways can a story be told? How close can I get to my character’s thought processes? How honest can I be, especially in portraying flawed, sometimes unsympathetic, characters? How can I put into words the ephemeral moments that make up our lives?

In The Second Mrs. Price, I attempt to answer those questions and test those boundaries, just as, in “Fern Hill,” Thomas is testing the boundaries of language.

Bernard, the patriarch of the Price family, is in his late 80s. It seems natural and appropriate that “Fern Hill” is one of Bernard’s favorite poems. I see him as the embodiment of time and timelessness, perennial youth and death, as he remembers “the sun that is young once only.”

Even as he approaches the end of his life, Bernard is in love—with youth, with beauty, with nature, with the small comforts of each day, with the memory of his late wife, Anna. Just as Dylan Thomas is aware of the intertwining of life and death in all of creation, Bernard understands that, from his earliest youth, “Time held me green and dying/Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

Selene, the flawed heroine of The Second Mrs. Price, takes a daring leap into the unknown in her quest for a fulfillment that is, perhaps, beyond her reach. She is attuned to Bernard, but she is living her “green and golden” moment, rather than reflecting back on it. Her obsession for Griff is disturbing but, hopefully, the reader comes to relate to her—to the pulse of her attraction, to the often self-imposed stranglehold of security, to her longing for freedom.

“Poetry,” Dylan Thomas is quoted as saying, “is what in a poem … makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.” ****

In much the same way, the novel allows us to enter the mind, the consciousness–the very soul–of the characters. The emotional divide that separates us as individuals can be bridged through storytelling and the imaginative use of language.

For more about Dylan Thomas, his life and his work, visit discoverdylanthomas.com, the official website hosted by Hannah Ellis, granddaughter of Dylan Thomas and Creative Director of the Dylan Thomas Literary Estate.

*See my January 27 post, The Novel (Part 1): Inside the mind of “The Second Mrs. Price,” at tonifuhrman.com.

**“Fern Hill” was published in 1945. Born in Swansea, Wales, in 1914, Dylan Thomas died in 1953 while on tour in New York. He was 39 years old.

***https://vinhanley.com/2016/02/23/the-poetry-of-dylan-thomas/

**** https://izquotes.com/author/dylan-thomas/6

The Novel (Part 1): Inside the mind of “The Second Mrs. Price”

“Novels do interiority and the drama of the mind infinitely better than TV and film do.”

The above quote is from an article* I read this month comparing the experience of reading a novel and that of watching a movie or TV.

I’ve often pondered the question of why I am drawn to novels—both reading and writing them. My upcoming novel, The Second Mrs. Price, dwells quite a bit on this “interiority.” Selene, the principal character, is continually examining her thoughts, her motives, and her actions.

This “drama of the mind” propels the narrative forward. It enables the reader to understand Selene’s mixed emotions, her divided loyalties, and her overwhelming attraction to Griff. Here is a brief passage from the novel:

Why the brother? she asked herself. They share the same last name; they emerged, bloody and enraged, from the same womb. There’s something similar in the stacking up of the features, the way the ears fit snugly against the head; but how at odds they are, otherwise. Alex so solid, so grounded, so cocksure of himself; this other one so tentative, so unsettled, perched on his chair as though waiting for, expecting an alarm—a signal to flap his wings noisily, heavy and awkward as he lifts himself up and flies away.

There is no doubt a talented actor could convey this comparison between Selene’s husband and Griff with little more than facial expression and eye movement. But it would be a general impression, without the narrative detail, or the opportunity for metaphor. In addition, it would be conveyed, first, by the skill of the actor, and then, indirectly, by the writer and the interpretation and additional consciousness of the director, the cinematographer, and the editor—not to mention the production designer and the composer of the musical score.

There is much discussion these days about the declining popularity of the novel, especially in view of the increasing popularity of the TV drama series, in which there are no time or viewing constraints. Viewers have an in-depth experience as they watch characters develop over time—one of the great achievements of the novel.

In a novel, however, there is nothing between the reader and the writer. The novelist provides the narrative, with or without authorial interpretation. The reader takes it from there. The story goes from mind to mind without filters.

The comparison between the novel and visual storytelling bears some resemblance to that of the artist versus the photographer, after photography made its debut. What could a painting or sculpture do that a photograph could not do better, and with more precision? Photography is, and was from its inception, an art form, because it involves making artistic choices. But the traditional artist is still very much alive and kicking, as is the novelist.

All art forms, in their essence, examine the soul. They do not so much compete with each other as add to the ever-evolving manifestations of creativity.

*http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/01/05/the-novelists-complicity/

The Camera’s Eye

The Camera’s Eye (New Libri Press) by Judith Kirscht is a novel that I’m convinced should be the first of a mainstream mystery series. The central characters, Veronica and Charlotte, are so likable and so well drawn the reader doesn’t want to let them go away for good at the end of the novel. For me, that means, “Series, please.”

Veronica Lorimer is a professional photographer with a camera she calls “Constance the Nikon.” Charlotte McAllister is a retired prosecuting attorney. They share a house and property on an island in Puget Sound, where they live contentedly until someone throws a pair of rocks through their front window—first move in an increasingly destructive series of hate attacks.

With her narrative drive and her talent for placing the reader firmly and tangibly in the setting she has chosen—in this case the islands off the northwestern coast of Washington—Kirscht grabs the reader by the horns and pulls him or her into the story. But The Camera’s Eye has another gravitational pull—that of the two main characters, who take on the challenge of the attacks with unflinching courage.

As the attacker (or attackers) become more brazen, Veronica and Charlotte, described by the former as “gray-haired white ladies who looked like English teachers,” become more determined to get to the bottom of the incidents. In the course of their unofficial investigation, Veronica finds she must communicate with her estranged son and daughter, which sparks additional complications.

In the end, the reader comes to know, and admire, these two intelligent and persevering women. As with any novel that introduces engaging central characters, and a mystery that must be unraveled, the author has the obligation to detect and resolve—but also the option of letting the characters live on. Series, please.

Who is Colm Toibin and how do you pronounce his name?

Probably the hardest thing to know about Colm Toibin is how to pronounce his name. After that, reading his work is a smooth ride, with pleasant bumps and grooves along the way.

The author himself pronounces his name as CUH-lum Toe-BEAN. The “lm” in “Colm” is a separate syllable.

In the film, Brooklyn, the name of the young immigrant woman, Eilis, is pronounced AY-lish, though many Irish people would say EYE-lish.

Somehow, this brief look at Irish pronunciation helped me to enter the fictional world of Toibin. The world itself is front and center for me right now, as I’ve read three of his novels and am poised to read more.

My first introduction to Toibin—before I was familiar with the author’s name—was reading the script for Brooklyn, then watching the 2016 movie. Then I read Nora Webster, The Master, and Brooklyn, in that order. Then I watched the movie again, with fresh eyes and an appreciation for the filmmaking that was heightened by the books I had read.

I am now a Toibin reader. I like his style, and I like his stories. He is at ease with his settings. Nora Webster takes place in Ireland; The Master is set in England and Italy; Brooklyn is set in Ireland and, of course, Brooklyn. The time frames extend from the 1890s (The Master) to contemporary (1950s, 1960s, and beyond). The characters range from a fictional Henry James (The Master) to young and middle-aged women as they search for their identity and their unique place in life (Brooklyn and Nora Webster).

Toibin’s style is deceptively simple. He uses dialogue generously, and trusts the reader to place himself or herself in the setting and time frame he has in mind. Except for The Master, which is divided into chronological sections, he does not tell the reader where he/she is, or what year it is. Toibin simply tells the story, trusting the reader to fill in the blanks. Not for him the intense detail and sophisticated style of, say, Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility.

What is it about the Irish that makes them such natural and engaging storytellers? I put this question out there without knowing the answer. It’s like the magic in one of their own legends of leprechauns and pookas. It’s just there, and I accept the gift, gratefully.

Of the three Toibin novels I’ve read so far, I am most drawn to Brooklyn. It is the immigrant story told from a fresh point of view. Not Ellis Island around the turn of the twentieth century or earlier. Not dire poverty and escape and/or banishment from one’s homeland. Eilis is a 1950s character, with strong family ties, who comes to America freely, is sponsored by a friendly priest, has a job in place and is enrolled in night school. She faces the prospect of a new life and new relationships—as well as the option of returning to the familiar community and people of her birth.

Toibin’s style is quiet and unassuming. He doesn’t reach for the right word. The right word—or phrase or paragraph or dialogue—seems to flow effortlessly from what preceded it, and into what follows. I didn’t find myself marking memorable passages. His is an even-handed style that grows out of the story, rather than one that is imposed on the story. The seamless fusion of style, story, dialogue, and narrative is a magical art that is not necessarily Irish but is always impressive. Jane Austen does it as well as anybody.

More about Toibin to come. I am just beginning to put my thoughts together—and I have some more reading to do.

Jane Austen

Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775, and died on July 18, 1817. This year marks the 200th anniversary of her death. It’s strange that we mark the year of her death with conferences, events, exhibits, and celebrations. It seems more appropriate to mark the anniversary of the year of her coming into the world rather than that of her going out of it. But Jane Austen societies throughout the world would not, I feel certain, agree. We hang our tributes to the celebrated dead on two hooks: the entrance year and the exit year.

I have been reading Jane Austen’s six novels since I was in my late teens. She has influenced my writing profoundly. I admire her, most especially, for her use of dialogue. Jane Austen’s dialogue is superb in several respects: It is, first of all, ahead of its time in its effortlessness, its grace, and its informality. One could dump the first chapter dialogue of Pride and Prejudice into a TV script, update the grammar and contemporary references, and create a modern couple, Mr. and Mrs. B. They are comically—even tragically—mismatched, dependent upon one another, living in the dim afterglow of a long-lost attraction.

Mrs. B: Have you heard? Someone has finally bought the old Netherfield house down the street.

Mr. B does not respond. He is watching ESPN.

Mrs. B: Well? Don’t you want to know who bought it?

Mr. B: Obviously, you want to tell me, and you can’t wait for a commercial break, so go ahead. You have my divided attention.

Mrs. B: Well! Mrs. Long next door says the house was sold to a young man—a rich young man—from London—or maybe it was New York. He came here on Monday in a Jaguar—or it might have been a Mustang—to see the place. Mrs. Long says he was sold on it almost immediately, or at least before he left. It’s such a fine old place! He’s to move in by late September. They’re starting work on the house next week. Pouring money into it, I’m told.

Mr. B: What’s his name?

Mrs. B: Bentley. Or maybe it was Barclay. I didn’t hear his first name

Mr. B: He has a wife, I assume? A family?

Mrs. B: That’s the thing, Mr. B: he’s single! A single man. Rich. Living right here in our neighborhood. I hear he’s a millionaire. Maybe a multimillionaire. What a great thing for our girls!

Mr. B: What does it have to do with them?

Mrs. B: How can you be so dense? He’s single! He’s rich! You must know that he could easily fall in love with—even marry—one of our girls.

Mr. B: I see what you mean. A single man, rich, possibly a millionaire, must want a wife to help him spend his hard-won fortune. Why not one of our girls? Is that why he’s moving into the neighborhood?

Mrs. B: Of course not! He doesn’t even know us. But he has only to meet our girls to fall in love with one of them. It’s up to you to get to know him, so he gets to know our girls. You can stop by, offer to help him get settled, introduce him to your business cronies, invite him over for a backyard barbecue—that sort of thing.

Mr. B: Thank you for your confidence in me, Mrs. B. and, God knows, the household and student-loan bills are piling up. But I don’t think I’m cut out to be a matchmaker. You and the girls go—or you can send them over by themselves, one by one, so he can look them over and choose the one he likes best. Come to think of it, since you’re as pretty as any of them, that might be the better plan. We wouldn’t want this Bentley or Barclay fellow to choose you instead of one of them.

And so on.

In addition to its easy grace and modern feel, Jane Austen’s dialogue brilliantly reveals character. The author doesn’t have to tell the reader about her characters; the dialogue says it all—although she may give us some insight, and often does. Here’s her description of the Bennets:

Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develope. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.

I always have a complete set of Jane Austen’s novels on my bookshelf, which I replace when they become dog-eared and begin to fall apart. I don’t know why I keep going back to them. She died two centuries ago. We live in a different world—or do we? Is there a way a novelist can capture character—and express that character through dialogue—that is so solid, true, and revelatory that it never goes out of date? Isn’t that why her novels, which are essentially six variations on the same story, seem so fresh, even today? She never went out of her depth. She wrote only peripherally about the historical events of her time, and only insofar as they impinge on her characters. Her stories are character driven, and her characters are money driven, sometimes by greed, but usually by necessity.

Jane Austen writes about people who happened to live in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries because she lived at that time—but they are timelessly humorous, flawed, governed by their quirks and their frustrations. They behave as they do because their lens onto the world is clouded, as is ours, to a greater or lesser extent. They see as we see—through a glass, darkly.