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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Once It Starts, There Is No Stopping It

For a while, it felt as though spring would never get here. A beautiful, warm, sunny day or two would be followed by a round of sock-it-to-'em wintry blasts, and this happened over and over. Are we out of the snowy woods yet? It would appear so. As for frost, however, smart money always hedges its bets until after Memorial Day, when it will be a race to get planting done before summer speeds to a gallop and leaves us all gasping for breath.

Now is the time to breathe deeply, to look and drink in the landscape. At the moment, soft bridal landscapes are all around, and from higher elevations or across at a distance the blooming trees look almost like low-lying clouds or blankets of fog. “At the moment” – and only for a moment, so don’t put off looking around! Drink it in, breathe it, devour it!

One day...

... and one day later

The release of Sarah Shoemaker’s new novel on May 9, like spring and the cherry blossoms, set off a flurry of publicity. I bought People magazine for the first time in my life, after a friend called to tell me Sarah had made the “People Picks”! She’s also been interviewed by someone from the Wall Street Journal. I’m doing “told you so” big-time when it comes to this book (“I told you it would be a bestseller!”), but no one seems to object. My blog post about our book launch event even made it into "Shelf Awareness," which is always a kick (the good kind!).

Meanwhile, my reading life continues. I’ve toggled back and forth between two engrossing novels for the past few days, one a nineteenth-century French classic, the other a recent National Book Award winner, and now I am going to round out this blog post, shamelessly, with quotes from my recent reading, because nothing I might write could ever come near the literary excellence I find between the covers of books.
He thought about her less, as he became used to living alone. The novel pleasure of independence soon made solitude tolerable. He could now change the hours of his meals, come home or go out without giving reasons and, when he was very tired, stretch his arms and legs out to the sides, in his bed. And so he coddled himself, pampered himself, and accepted the consolations offered him.  
-      Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
  -  -  -  -
Nothing else was mentioned, until two years later he gave that blanket away too, to another homeless drunk, on another freezing night, up by the canal on one of his late-night walks, when he tiptoed down the stairs and went out into the dark. It was a simple equation to him—others needed the blankets more than he, and he was prepared to take the punishment if it came his way. It was my earliest suggestion of what my brother had become, and what I’d later see among the cast-offs of New York—the whores, the hustlers, the hopeless—all of those who were hanging on to him like he was some bright hallelujah in the shitbox of what the world really was.  
-      Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin 
In an interview, Colum McCann answered a question by saying,

I don’t mean for this to sound trite, but I really like life. I enjoy my time here. I always quote Mandelstam on this score: “But we must love this poor earth, for we have not seen another.” And I love engaging with life on the ground. 
[Interview with Nathan Englander following text of the novel in Random House paperback]
He said much more, of course, but I’m thinking that both Flaubert and McCann “engage with life on the ground.”

Flaubert’s most recent translator, Lydia Davis, who so beautifully renders his prose into English, notes that the author was determinedly antiromantic and again and again juxtaposed “disturbing” or “brutal” or “mundane” elements into his most exquisitely lyrical descriptions. She believes Flaubert intended these juxtapositions ironically, and she is probably correct in that claim. Flaubert was 36 years old, still a young man, when Madame Bovary was published, and it is not surprising that he would take an ironic stance toward provincial village life. Perhaps he felt trapped, himself, in Croisset, a hamlet near Rouen.

Here is another passage from Madame Bovary, where she is walking, with a young admirer, to the home of the woman caring for her child, a passage that illustrates the translator's point better than the one I used above:
To reach the wet nurse’s house, one had to turn left, after leaving the street, as though going to the cemetery, and follow a little path, between cottages and yards, bordered by privets. These were in flower, and the speedwell, too, the hawthorns, the nettles, and the slender wild blackberries that arced up out of the thickets. Through holes in the hedges, one could see, in the farmyards, a hog on a dunghill, or cows in their wooden collars, rubbing their horns against the trunks of trees. The two of them walked slowly, side by side, she leaning on him and he slowing his step to match hers; in front of them flitted a swarm of flies, buzzing in the warm air.
So yes, along with the flowers are a pig on a dunghill and a swarm of flies, and in the next paragraph there appears “a poor, sickly little boy whose face was covered with scrofulous sores....” 

Oh, but it's easy to feel bored and ironic when young, when life can seem to move at a turgid pace and feel empty of promise. Easy to focus on what is ugly and disappointing. Much more difficult, fortunately, to recapture those feelings of boredom and despair when life seems, if anything, only too full, when one would give anything to slow the days down and enjoy a few hours of emptiness!

So -- I'm sorry-- whatever he intended, I can’t help being captivated by every detail Flaubert imparts, the mundane observations as well as the lyrical descriptions, because they are all part of the great, spinning world, the tiny moments that make up every ordinary life on this extraordinary planet of ours. Certainly McCann’s characters and their situations, like Madame Bovary herself, often appear hopeless, and yet the author allows them glimpses of beauty along the way:
Little else to distract attention from the evening, just a clock, in a time not too distant from the present time, yet a time not too distant from the past.... We stumble on, now, we drain the light from the dark, to make it last.

One more thing McCann said in that interview that I want to share: “I think a good novel can be a doorstop to despair.” Certain it is that I finished reading Let the Great World Spin feeling light and filled with hope, grateful for beauty in whatever corner it appears. I am not, as I'm sure is obvious, a literary critic. I read for pleasure and, at times, as a "doorstop against despair," too. What I'm feeling today, though, is not despair but that there is no stopping beauty and hope, any more than we can halt the turning of the seasons. Beauty and hope may vanish for a while, in any single life, but hold on long enough and around they come again. Like spring.

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