Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Kind of Novel I Would Love to Find

Sometimes I browse the fiction shelves of a library or bookstore in a mood of reverie. Reviews from the New York Times or Amazon may have intrigued me weeks and months earlier, but I have kept no particular title in mind.

At those times I find myself hoping for a certain kind of novel. I can picture main characters I want to meet. I become aware of the tone I am searching for in narratives about people wrestling with a situation or arriving at a realization.

Maybe I will just have to write something like this myself one day. Experience tells me, though, that I do not have the fiction gene as a writer. What if somewhere I could find this storyline – or something like it…

The main character is reading a book. Or re-reading one.

Chapter after chapter I follow this character, a man or a woman immersed in the familiar process of finding the times and the places in which to read one particular book from beginning to end. An armchair by an open window on a Saturday morning gives way later to pillow and bedside lamp at 10 o’clock.

The novel I would love to find would explore what gets someone reading that book – maybe a novel, maybe a biography – and what else is happening in the reader’s life for the length of time it takes to finish the reading.

The novel I would love to read will focus as well on the days the character doesn’t manage to read or even want to read. The decision to cook a meal, the decision to clean the house, the decision to chat with a friend may each claim the time and attention that could otherwise make it possible to read a further chapter or even just part of a chapter.

The novel I would love to read might allude to models the character had early in life for a regular engagement with books. Had there been parents or grandparents whose bedside tables collected titles, fiction or non-fiction? Would the parents and grandparents understand why our main character’s life looks and sounds the way it now does?

The novel I would love to read could describe the weather through which a character moves each day of reading and maybe even some of the meals punctuating those days. Is there a cup of hot cocoa or a tall glass of iced tea next to the reader? A sandwich on a plate? A cocktail?

The novel I would love to read would discuss the company there is for this main character in the process of reading. Is there someone who regularly asks about the book and its pleasures, maybe its frustrations? Is there another character deciding to read the book simply on the basis of this reader’s recommendation?

The novel I would love to read may be ultimately about the self-image the main character is living out or consciously reinforcing by the choice to read just this title when other books or other diversions are available in abundance.

And maybe. Maybe this character’s life really changes during the reading in a way that had previously seemed possible only in fiction.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Stuff of Lives

Last Friday I returned to my rooms at the end of the work day, fed the cat, and settled on the couch in the sitting room. I arranged a throw over my legs, leaned my head back, and for the next two hours I did not move. My eyes closed, I did not actually sleep but I was not my normal conscious self. I let go of Friday evening tasks. Dinner might or might not happen. Twenty-four hours had now passed since a work event for the smooth execution of which I had been – once more – successfully responsible.

Each work year brings these events for which a two- and sometimes three-month set of deadlines prepares. After years in this job, I no longer consciously acknowledge the stress of reaching each event and providing my supervisors the assurance that all will go well. It always does go well, and everyone involved in our work attends and witnesses and – often – gives the thumbs up to me at the conclusion.

On this Friday evening, however, after weeks and weeks of telling my body and my mind what was important, I let them tell me what was important:

1. I had received a gift that week.

2. I had also received a thank-you note for a gift I had given.

3. I had managed to read a short story in French.

4. I had cooked fish fresh from the grocer's.

The experience of according the achievements of the preceding week what I can only call heart-space was moving in those two hours of drifting consciousness.

Granted – cooking fish and reading a short story in French are not the stuff of eloquent personal testimony. They represent, however, I eventually sensed lying back on the couch Friday evening, the end result of choices made over the years to be someone with a particular history.

The thank you note came for a wedding gift I had given. Two academics, the bride and groom may not have needed another blanket, another set of salad bowls, another vase. The husband’s position in the classics department of a local university suggested that I locate vintage editions of a Latin poet. Pervigilium Veneris came up online in three fine editions, each with an English translation. The thank you note acknowledged the distinct and unexpected pleasure my two friends had taken reading aloud and comparing the translations.

And the gift I received? A package containing three jars of homemade tomato sauce from a restaurant to which a friend has regularly taken his parents over the years. The hometown Italian restaurant had been the setting for a fiftieth wedding anniversary celebration for his parents January last year. This January the family had convened again in the private dining room for the meal after his father’s funeral. One of the three jars is a puttanesca sauce, my friend’s choice, he informed me, on both of those occasions.

Galloping through a busy week, I had reached last Friday evening ready to be reminded and surprised afresh by what an everyday life can feel like.

There are sources of renewal waiting all around us, I learned again, and sometimes even tucked inside, just waiting for us to relax.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Bavarian Crosses

I intend to set aside time during my March visit to walk through at least one of the cemeteries of Munich. I discovered today that there is a German word for a visit to a cemetery -- der Friedhofbesuch. The word appears in an online review of Fremd in Cambridge, a novel by Ruth Rehmann that I had discovered by chance in my local library and borrowed last month. I had been lured by the epigraph, a famous sentence from Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations comparing German or any language to an old city with its maze of ancient passageways and modern neighborhoods.

Maybe it is the suggestion of ancient passageways that lures me to cemeteries, even in cities that I don't know well. Some crosses in the Waldfriedhof southwest of City Center have a look that appeals. The sentiment inscribed in Latin in one Flickr photograph of the Munich cemetery is too absolute for my tastes (Extra Bavariam non est vita: "There is no life outside Bavaria"), but the wooden crosses visible in the background recall Alpine shrines.

Picture snow on those wooden gables, and one of the oldest Christmas cards that my parents kept over the years comes to mind.

Photo of Waldfriedhof (Munich) uploaded on Flickr by Artep ^_^