Monday, 7 March 2011

The Endless Capacity of Good Prose

I have started to read Joyce Carol Oates’ memoir. There is a little space in my head having finished the edit of my new novel. Soon I will need to begin the difficult task of editing my film for the Venice Biennale. Then, there is the catalogue to prepare and another trip to Venice. But during this week I’m going to take a proper break. And catch up on some reading. Memoir is not something I normally read but this one was sent to me by my publisher, at my request. The book is large, divided into many sections and I sigh. It looks daunting and  is called A Widow’s Tale. The title makes me think of Chaucer even though I know the subject can only be unpleasant. Section one is called ‘The Message’. After having delivered her husband to the hospital (he has caught pneumonia) Oates returns to her car to find a message stuck on the windscreen. 
It is just the start of her tale.
I stop reading for a memory has been triggered. Twenty-two years ago, when a close friend was killed in a car accident, I too received a message, this time through the post.
GO HOME PAKI BITCH was what I received, and although we gave the letter to the police the writer remained one of life’s mysteries. Oates puts such events in their proper place. 
‘In this way as in that parable of Franz Kafka in which the most profound and devastating truth of the individual’s life is revealed to him by a passer-by in the street, as if accidently, casually, so…her situation however unhappy, despairing or fraught with anxiety, doesn’t give her the right to overstep the boundaries of others, especially strangers who know nothing of her…’  
 I read on. It is a Saturday afternoon, I need to go shopping, there are some books I want to pick up at the second-hand bookshop, but I am mesmerised by Oates’s prose. Time passes; the cats jump on me demanding food as I read about Oates husband, Ray Smith, the gardener and editor. I have been thinking of my own editor a lot this week. Her scribbled notes on my manuscript have been hard to decipher. 
‘You should have been a doctor,” I told her, laughing. ‘You’d write a great prescription!’
But, as an editor, she is very clever; never condescending, always honest, steering me with a light hand through those patches that are still a little opaque. Because of this and because of my own notes I have made discoveries I might not have otherwise made. This is the beauty of the process, I think.
In her book Joyce Carol Oates has something to say about editing and gardening.   
‘Like editing, gardening requires infinite patience; it requires an essential selflessness, and optimism.’
And a little later on,
‘The gardener is the quintessential optimist: not only does he believe that the future will bear out the fruits of his effort, he believes in the future.’
I had begun reading this book with one hand ready to close it, the subject matter frightens me so much, but now I take it with me into the kitchen to read while making lunch. The sunlight outside makes me want to believe winter is almost over.  I read what Oates has to say about creativity,
‘There are those –a blessed lot-who can experience life without the slightest glimmer of a need to add anything to it-and sort of ‘creative’ effort; and there are those-an accursed lot?- for whom the activities of their own brain and imaginations are paramount. The world for these individuals may be infinitely rich, rewarding and seductive-but it is not paramount. The world may be interpreted as a gift, earned only if one has created something over and above the world.’
But when she said this to her husband he had given her a bemused look. Doing what all good husbands do; bringing her back to earth, telling her not to take herself so seriously.
 I am hooked. The book, painful though it is in the details of widowhood, nevertheless works on many other levels; as one would expect with Oates. 
‘You do not see a self without a body to contain it, yet you do not see a body without a self to activate it,’ she writes.  
She writes about the way in which people shy away from the thought of too much emotion. Most particularly death. A woman invites her to a dinner but instead of it being a small intimate gathering the woman wants a large number of guests. The numbers go up and up. 
‘C-is erecting obstacles to our dinner as in an equestrian trial in which each jump must be higher than its predecessor…I envision a thirty-foot dining room table and at the far end the widow placed like a leper…’writes Oates.
In the end, the dinner party does not happen and the woman herself disappears for a while. Easier perhaps than tackling a conversation with Oates on her new state. 
Outside, as I read, the day turns on its axis. It really is spring, there are small bulbs peeping up through the ground. A bird sings long and piercingly and reminds me of other days, in other springs. The prose I am reading is as beautiful as the day outside. The writer is using words as though they are engraver’s tools, probing the surface of the soft wood block, considering the chiaroscuro of the whole, building a strong, dark picture; layer by layer. What comes out is a controlled image; cleanly pressed, preserved forever. 
In the news the stories of Libya go on and on. Civil war hovers in the air. There are only so many stories, I think. It is the telling of the tale that matters.

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