"We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think" by Shirley Hazzard

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Shirley Hazzard, author of two magnificent novels I have read, The Great Fire and The Transit of Venus, collected a series of lectures and reviews in a slim volume, called We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think. It concludes with a series of reviews of novels, only one of which I had read. I found her review of that book unfortunately too brief to do more than touch on some basic points.

Ms. Hazzard brings up some edifying insights in a series of lectures called “The Lonely Word.” They serve as a fairly straightforward observations about fiction that clearly bear repeating. She establishes early on that the narrative art dealt originally with the large-scale undertaking by larger-than-life actors: war, challenging the gods, going on great quests. She says the First World War made it impossible to ever focus on the grand canvas again. The actions of rulers during that great and tragically shortsighted conflict proved wasteful and idiotic. As T.S Eliot said, “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”

Narrative art has focused on the personal ever since. Inward journeys, the overheard dialogue with oneself, invented by Shakespeare and not improved upon since, form the basis for the bulk of current fiction, and is part of the reason we find it so compelling. As a follow-on concept, Ms. Hazzard avers, 

"Articulation is an aspect of human survival, not only in its commemorative and descriptive function, but in relieving the human soul of incoherence. In so far as expression can be matched to sensation and event, human nature seems to retain consciousness.”

How much more rudimentary, or more persuasive, can a statement be? As a reason for writing, and a bald formula for it, Ms. Hazzard
cannot have said it any better. She cites Yeats, who said he wrote to give emotions expressions for his own pleasure: otherwise 

“all would be oratorical and insincere. If we understand our own minds, and the things that are striving to utter themselves through our minds, we move others, not because we have understood or thought about those others, but because all life has the same root.”

These bracing and simple statements about writing provide an antidote to some of the more arcane thoughts about narrative expressed by Derrida and Bakhtin, for example. I want to thank the author for her perspective and her thoughts and recommend this collection to anyone caught up in recondite language concepts and struggling to see the bigger picture.

"Beautiful to the Bone" by PG Lengsfelder

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Eunis is born with unique genetic markers: she’s albino, and has a very prominent brown birthmark on her face that runs down to her neck. Unfortunately her mother is a superstitious bumpkin who convinces Eunis that she’s some kind of ugly freak, not to be trusted, a bringer of bad luck.

Much of the energy of this book derives from this conflict. Eunis accepts this verdict at a basic level, even as she resents and rebels against her mother. Additionally, she finds she has perceptions and powers which she struggles to understand. Harnessing them remains out of the question. The plot follows this unique being through a difficult solitude in school, in her brief marriage, and later in her lonely quest to define beauty through some objective criteria.

And in this, Mr. Lengsfelder has built the most interesting feature of this rather patchy work. His heroine, however convinced she is of her own ugliness, nevertheless attracts a series of others, some of whom find her irresistible. He sets his lead character on a lifelong quest to define beauty: she studies genetics, works in a lab that tests various genetic properties, and keeps measuring and analyzing her own attraction to others.

Beyond this potentially interesting setup, the book struggles to find a pace or a compelling principle upon which to build its narrative. We travel along with Eunis, and we cringe when she inadvertently hurts or insults people, or damages their careers, or pushes potentially appealing partners away. We wonder at the import of her visions and voices. Things happen to her because of her good intentions, but mostly her focus is herself, and protecting her privacy, which she values so highly because
of her disgust with her own looks.

And given the way her mother treated her when she was young, I cannot accept her move back home to help this vituperative, toxic creature. There is also a quick, befuddling murder mystery at the end of the book, and we end up with very little idea of the motivation for the killing, and only slightly more of an idea who did it.

I found Eunis moderately appealing at times, but very, very inconsistent in her decisions, and downright annoying most of the time. It could be that Eunis is meant to put the reader off, or to make the reader ponder the principles of physical attraction, but I did not find her an overall success. And that’s the same way I view this book.

"The Idea of Perfection" by Kate Grenville

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In The Idea of Perfection we experience very closely the inner dialogues of three major players who proceed with varying degrees of self-consciousness. Two of them are painfully self-aware; they concern themselves deeply with how others view them, and assume the worst. The third navigates her life as though she’s a spectator in it: she nearly dissociates herself from her less desirable acts, while trying, perhaps subconsciously, to atone for them in her more-aware moments. This brilliant book won the 2000 Orange Prize for fiction and completely deserves it.

Two lives converge in the bush country of New South Wales as the book begins. Two strangers arrive independently in Karakarook from Sydney, one a government engineer who will manage the destruction and replacement of an out-of-date bridge, and the other a specialist in heritage and culture who will assist in establishing a museum. He, the gawky engineer with the jug-handle ears and a crippling lack of confidence, and she, the tall, heavyset, and irascible curator, encounter each other. They do not hit if off immediately, to say the least, and the unlikely first date (a delightfully comic stretch of writing) doesn’t help.

But Ms. Grenville, one of my favorites since I encountered The Secret River, has set up the lovely, elegant narrative construct of the crumbling bridge. This simple, past-its-prime span, built from timber and intended to last, has
suffered from the effects of a flood some years ago. Certain townsfolk protest the decision to replace it, citing it as one of the chief historical attractions of the backwater town.

All these facts serve the author’s conceit of building bridges, of spanning obstacles, between people. However effectively this framework is established, though, its resolution rises solely from human action - thought, reflection, intention, and deed. And herein lies Ms. Grenville’s greatest feat. The principals themselves must come to terms with their habitual isolation, and decide whether the opportunity before them  offers sufficient potential for them to change. There are many touches here - too many to mention - that certify the author’s great skill and award-winning vision. Cover to cover this is a great, a masterful performance.