The Beanstalk

 
Today

by David N. Townsend

Elsewhen

June 17, 1998
1:20 PM

Library Time

The theme of this writing is reading.  Miss Kelly is retiring this week, and I just attended a tribute to her.  She has been the school librarian at Stanley School, Swampscott, MA, for more than 30 years, and she taught both me and my daughter, among thousands of others, to love to read.

But there is loving to read, and there is admiring the art of writing, and these are two very different sentiments.  I'm a voracious reader, as a matter of routine: I read a newspaper every day.  I log onto the Internet twice a day or more, and I read news reports, random web sites, e-mail, you name it.  I read too many professional documents, articles, reports.  I'm perpetually in the middle of four or five books, all of which I somehow think I'll finish someday (including "The Last Voyage of the Lusitania," which I started at summer camp back in 1973, but I had to leave before I finished, and the book belonged to the camp; but I'll dig it up at a library somewhere when I'm 87 years old).  

And I read bedtime stories every night.  No offense to all present and former teenage girls, but aren't Nancy Drew stories just about the most tedious writing you've ever endured?

Nancy stopped near Burk's Department Store. Jean thanked her profusely and got out.  The young sleuth drove to a nearby tearoom for a quick snack.  Then she continued on to Meadowbrook Lane, in an attractive residential section, where Mrs. Stonewell lived.  Nancy soon spotted the number and stopped in front of an imposing Tudor-style home.

She hurried up to the front entrance and rang the doorbell.  A maid answered. Nancy gave her name and asked to see Mrs. Stonewell.  The caller was requested to take a seat in the living room.
(The Mystery at Lilac Inn)

(Isn't this gripping suspense?)

And my personal favorite:

"What does the letter say?" Nancy asked solicitously.

How the hell else do you ask a question?

Well, from the look of the fiction bestseller shelves of the major bookstores, most of us are still caught up with reading the grownup versions of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.  It's mystery after mystery, crime after crime, courtroom dramas, spy stories, some supernatural, and an occasional dinosaur.  Basically the same things that we watch on TV and at the movies.

And there's nothing wrong with that, even if the writing is often predictable and flavorless: it's the plot that drives the story, and readers enjoy "watching" the drama unfold in their minds.  All the modern author needs to supply is the facts, the sequence of events, and some general sense of the mindset and emotions of the characters.

In this sense, as with newspapers, magazines, and even the Internet, reading is entertainment, slightly less passive than TV, and probably more healthful, in some holistic sense.

There is another form of reading, and of writing, however, which is far less popular than the above, but worth exploring.  This is writing as Art.  Film can be Art, as well, and even video, if the producer looks at it that way.  But long before there were these types of visual arts, there was Literature.

Literary Art is simply, to my mind, the process of using the written language as a creative tool, like painting.  The pen (or keyboard) is the brush, and the words and sentences are paints, colors.  They convey feeling and meaning not merely in terms of the objects and actions they describe, but in the sound of reading them, in the flow of the phrases, in the subtlety of description and the breadth of imagery.  At its best, great literature (and I'm speaking here of Prose, not Poetry, which is an entirely different category) can be immensely moving simply for its deft use of language, irrespective of plot or topic.

There are, of course, countless examples.  French literature, in particular, is known for its elevation of the art of writing for its own sake.  One of my professors during foreign study in Toulouse made the reading of Flaubert's L'Education Sentimentale seem almost like divine inspiration.  Modern French literature goes a little off the deep end, but the complexity and originality of something like Alain Robbe-Grillet's La Jalousie can make your head spin (the whole story takes place inside the main character's mind, as he suspects his wife of infidelity; picture how your mind works, how it abruptly changes focus, drifts from thought to thought, returning at random to various points of departure: that's what this story describes).

As for English literature, there's also a rich history, despite contentions by some that the English language is less poetic and lyrical than French or Spanish or Italian.  Obviously Shakespeare stands alone, but his works are more akin to poetry, as are those of many of the other great English writers, from Chaucer to Wordsworth.

One of my favorite pieces of older English literature is actually non-fiction: Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788).  This is not only the definitive history of the end of the Roman Empire, and an astonishingly thorough research effort, but a masterpiece of literary accomplishment by itself.  If most history books read as monotonous newswire reports, Decline and Fall reads almost as music.

An example: the controversial (at the time) discussion of the development of early Christianity:

A candid but rational inquiry into the progress and establishment of Christianity may be considered as a very essential part of the history of the Roman Empire.  While that great body was invaded by open violence or undermined by slow decay, a pure and humble religion gently insinuated itself into the minds of men, grew up in silence and obscurity, derived new vigour from opposition, and finally erected the triumphant banner of the Cross on the ruins of the Capitol. . . .

Our curiosity is naturally prompted to inquire by what means the Christian faith obtained so remarkable a victory over the established religions of the earth.  To this inquiry an obvious but satisfactory answer may be returned, that it was owing to the convincing evidence of the doctrine itself and to the ruling providence of its great Author.  But as truth and reason seldom find so favourable a reception in the world, and as the wisdom of Providence frequently condescends to use the passions of the human heart and the general circumstances of mankind as instruments to execute its purpose, we may still be permitted (though with becoming submission) to ask, not indeed what were the first, but what were the secondary causes of the rapid growth of the Christian church?
(Chapter XV)

Do you see how the words give life to the subject: "a pure and humble religion gently insinuated itself into the minds of men".  Here, the religion itself has personality and motives and strategy. The second paragraph says, in sum, "Well, Christians might say their religion won out just because it was better, but there has to be more to it than that."  Gibbon makes the point, which bordered on heresy, with both flowing prose and subtle deference.

What of contemporary American literature?  I must confess I'm not well acquainted with many of the artists, as distinct from the best-sellers, on the American literary scene today.  I do intend to try Toni Morrison next.  But I'll challenge anyone to name an author writing in the English language today who even comes close, in pure literary genius, to Thomas Pynchon.

Do you know Pynchon's story?  In 1973 he wrote a psychedelic novel entitled Gravity's Rainbow, which earned him universal acclaim and awards as the next great American writer.  He then promptly disappeared from the face of the earth for more than a decade, and didn't produce another major novel until 1990, when he resurfaced, almost unannounced, with Vineland.  He remains virtually anonymous, refusing interviews, living somewhere in New York City.  Rainbow and Vineland are off-beat, quirky, multi-layered tales, bursting with intense imagery and sublime turns of phrase on every page.  The structure of the narrative is also complex and challenging, as flashbacks within flashbacks might occur in mid-sentence, and time and location shift unexpectedly throughout the story.

As brilliant as these novels are, however, Pynchon's latest work, Mason & Dixon, published in 1997, is absolutely dumbfounding. Take a guy who's already a giant, a legend in his own time, and then imagine that he elevates himself to an even higher level, three or four levels, really, above his own already impossible standards.  Imagine, for example, if Michael Jordan had actually been successful at baseball, had won batting championships.  That's what this new novel is for Thomas Pynchon.  In fact, I'm no expert, but Mason & Dixon may be the single greatest work of English literature of our lifetime.

So what is this novel about?  It's historical fiction.  It's about the two guys who drew the famous "Mason-Dixon Line" that separates the North and South of the U.S.  They were actually British astronomers of the mid-1700s, and they did a lot of other stuff before drawing the Line.  Enough to fill over 750 pages, anyway.  And that tells you practically nothing about this masterpiece.

Quite simply, Pychon has reinvented himself with this novel, transforming his writing style from post-hippie irreverence to 18th Century formality.  His use of language, vocabulary, colloquialism, conversation are all in-character, of the era (more so, it almost seems, than that of Gibbon himself, who actually wrote during that time).  To produce a work of 18th Century fiction in the late 20th Century had to require an almost total immersion in the language and literature of the time.  Example (in the Dutch colony in Cape Town):

The unrelenting Vapor of debauchery here would not merely tempt a Saint, -- Heavens, 'twould tempt an Astronomer.  Yet 'tis difficult, if not impossible, for these Astronomers to get down to a Chat upon the Topick of Desire, given Dixon's inability to deny or divert the Gusts that sweep him, and Mason's frequent failure, in his Melancholy, even to recognize Desire, let alone to act upon it, tho' it run up calling Ahoy Charlie.

Mastering a new (old) manner of writing is hard enough.  On top of that Pynchon had to conduct immense factual historical research to know not only the details of his characters' adventures, but all about the state of astronomy, sea travel, surveying, and life and culture on three continents 250 years ago.  

By contrast, I'm also currently reading another historical novel, London, by Edward Rutherfurd.  It's fascinating and encyclopedic in its 1000-year (and 1000-page) tracing of the evolution of the city of London.  But the prose is 1997 vintage, the characters and plot lines are basically familiar and predictable, and the narrative is often flat and repetitive.  Give Rutherfurd his due: he must have studied London's history for years to write such a thorough tome. But Pynchon has done the same thing (with a much more obscure topic, for research purposes), and has done so with authentic prose and literary artistry that rivals James Joyce or William Faulkner.

Take another example, a single sentence, an innocuous moment, entering a bar on the pier named the Pearl of Sumatra:

"Fender-Belly is buying!" shouts some mischievous Sailor, forever unidentified amid the eager Rush for the Entry of this fifth- or sixth-most-notorious sailors' Haunt upon the Point, even in whose Climate of general Iniquity The Pearl distinguishes itself, much as might one of its Eponyms, shining 'midst the decadent Flesh of some Oyster taken from the Southern Sea.

The sentence says that some unknown sailor yelled out that Fender-Belly is buying, but no one could tell whom (that gets us through the first 10 words).  It goes on to describe The Pearl, as the one of the most notorious bars on the Point.  The Point itself has a pretty bad reputation, but the Pearl stands out, just like a real pearl ("one of its Eponyms") stands out in in an oyster.

Do you see the exquisite beauty of his use of language?  My "summary" of the sentence is accurate, and dull.  The original is flowing, smooth, dreamy.  The difference between a steak sandwich and gourmet veal scaloppini in mushroom sauce.  Or paint-by-numbers and Van Gogh.  Take your pick.

I read Pynchon not for the story, not to find out what happens and watch the mental film.  I read him to taste the magnificence of great writing, to savor sentence by sentence the product of an incomprehensibly fluid imagination and potent mind.  When Miss Kelly first read us The Boxcar Children and The Pushcart War, she couldn't have known how far she might take some of us.  For me, there is no greater pleasure.


DT

1998 David N. Townsend


The Beanstalk grows out of my head, so to speak, but I welcome
any seeds that readers may wish to plant.  Just as long as you don't use
too much fertilizer.  Send me your comments, ideas, drool, at 
DNT@DNTownsend.com
and I'll occasionally respond to, publish, or otherwise dispose of them.

Need more?  In addition to the rich and growing archives of this column,
you might want to visit
The Site itself, and any of my other collections, on
Communication, Baseball, Rock 'n' Roll, or Travel.
DNT