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October 18, 2009 - 5:12pm

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On a recent collecting trip through the thickets of creative nonfiction, I took note of a form that must have its roots in something ancient that I’m not remembering:

I can remember the bare wooden stairway in my uncle’s house, and the turn to the left above the landing, and the rafters and the slanting roof over my bed, and the squares of moonlight on the floor, and the white cold world of snow outside, seen through the curtainless window. I can remember the howling of the wind and the quaking of the house on stormy nights, and how snug and cozy one felt, under the blankets, listening…. I remember the raging of the rain on that roof, summer nights, and how pleasant it was to lie and listen to it, and enjoy the white splendor of the lightning and the majestic booming and crashing of the thunder.

It’s a litany of things remembered (or known or seen in other texts), hung on a string of conjunctions; it’s sung in a first-person voice unsubmerged in the narrative; it’s in the present tense, where elsewhere the remembering is situated in the past; and it almost boastfully advertises its store of memories. Could the general form be from Shakespeare, epic poetry, the Bible? There is a faint echo in Ecclesiastes (“I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold…”) and in Job (“And I alone am escaped to tell thee…”).

There’s something similar in Ernest Hemingway’s “one true sentence” exercise, which I wrote about a couple of years ago. His sentences also want to be noticed in their observing:

I have seen Peggy Joyce at 2 A.M. in a dancing in the Rue Caumartin quarreling with the shallaced [sic] haired young Chilean who had long pointed finger nails, danced like Rudolph Valentino and shot himself at 3:30 that same morning.

The present-perfect construction “I have seen” intensifies the feeling that something that happened at an indefinite time in the past continues to inhabit the present, and the word “have” is a homonym for possession. (Hemingway’s exercises could have been influenced by the “Epiphanies” recorded by James Joyce in his early notebooks, which include short “memorable phases” of the artist’s mind “as he observes, reminisces, or dreams,” but there appears to be nothing in the Joyce epiphanies this obviously “I”-centric. Joyce liked to leave the artist behind the curtain, paring his fingernails. See Robert Scholes and Richard M. Kain, The Workshop of Daedalus: James Joyce and the Raw Materials for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Northwestern UP, 1965).

The little form I started with is longer than Hemingway’s Imagistic exercises and more lyrical (“That art is lyrical whereby the artist sets forth the image in immediate relation to himself,” Joyce writes), and in fact brings narrative to a grinding halt, relying on its sharpness and mood for interest instead. The thing that stands out for me is the claim of ownership or capability:

I can call back the solemn twilight and mystery of the deep woods, the earthy smells, the faint odors of the wild flowers, the sheen of rain-washed foliage, the rattling clatter of drops when the wind shook the trees, the far-off hammering of woodpeckers and the muffled drumming of wood pheasants in the remoteness of the forest, the snapshot glimpses of disturbed wild creatures scurrying through the grass….

Oddly enough, both examples I’ve provided are Mark Twain, from his Autobiography, a mash-up of unpublished writing, the occasional published piece, and a whole lot of raw dictation that was never finished or published as a book in Twain’s lifetime. The passage, which continues for five pages, doesn’t sound much like Twain to me, and in fact there’s nothing else like it in the book or in the rest of Twain, best I can remember. (I elided telltale words in this example, such as “forgotten sins came flocking out…and wanted a hearing,” which would be like finding his fingerprints on the page). It reminded me of Hemingway in his memoirs, Moveable Feast:

I remember the smell of the pines and the sleeping on the mattresses of beech leaves in the woodcutters’ huts and the skiing through the forest following the tracks of hares and of foxes. In the high mountains above the tree line I remember following the track of a fox until I came in sight of him and watching him stand with his right forefoot raised and then go carefully to stop and then pounce, and the whiteness and the clutter of a ptarmigan bursting out of the snow and flying away and over the ridge.

In addition to staking claims on Romantic experience—transcendent self in nature—both passages use present-tense verbs and participles in an implied past progressive tense (“I remember [that I was] following…”) to show the past, in the process arguing the power of the minds involved to defy time, in which the writerly ego takes particular pride. The resultant intrusion of the overt first-person could as easily have been submerged in standard exposition or description, as in Hemingway’s memory of F. Scott Fitzgerald, in which there’s no announcement of remembering:

He was lightly built and did not look in awfully good shape, his face being faintly puffy. His Brooks Brothers clothes fitted him well and he wore a white shirt with a buttoned-down collar and a Guard’s tie.

But the self in relation to its past is the basis for much nonfiction writing, and elements of what I’m talking about often rise to the surface without breaking, as with Russell Baker in his autobiography Growing Up, on the wake held after the sudden death of his father:

So late in November, the dusk came early. The men seemed unusually quiet. I did not know many of them. They stood in little groups talking quietly, almost in whispers, probably not saying anything very interesting, just feeling self-conscious in their Sunday suits with nothing to do but stand. The men standing and waiting and talking quietly with nothing to do in their good dark suits [my emphasis on the ongoing present] was part of the ritual too.

Or Mencken in Mencken’s America (Ohio UP, 2004): “And she wore, I remember [intrusive “I”], something of very soft dark green, and the spun sable silk that mere prose writers would have called her hair caught in orange chiffon.”

In that most beautifully literary of memoirs, Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov reveals his ongoing construction of memory with various elements of this form—reversion to present tense, use of participles, prideful possession of images, the intrusive “I”—every few pages:

I can visualize her, by proxy, as she stands in the middle of the station platform, where she has just alighted, and vainly my ghostly envoy offers her an arm that she cannot see.

Presently, lessons are over and Mademoiselle is reading to us on the veranda where the mats and plaited chairs develop a spicy, biscuity smell in the heat.

I can easily refeel the exhilarating change from the thickly padded, knee-length polushubock, with the hot beaver collar, to the short navy-blue coat with its anchor-patterned brass buttons….

And now a delightful thing happens. The process of recreating that penholder and the microcosm in its eyelet stimulates my memory to a last effort….

I suddenly see myself in the uniform of an officers’ training school: we are strolling again villageward….

I remember the dreamy flow of punts and canoes on the Cam, the Hawaiian whine of phonographs slowly passing through sunshine and shade and a girl’s hand gently twirling this way and that the handle of her peacock-bright parasol as she reclined on the cushions….

Nabokov of course is writing on memory as much as on his memories:

[T]o try to express one’s position in regard to the universe embraced by consciousness, is an immemorial urge. The arms of consciousness reach out and grope, and the longer they are the better. [T]he poet feels everything that happens in one point of time. Lost in thought, he taps his knees with his wand-like pencil, and at the same instant a car (New York license plate) passes along the road, a child bangs the screen door of a neighboring porch, an old man yawns in a Turkestan orchard, a granule of cinder-gray sand is rolled by the wind on Venus, a Docteur Jacques Hirsch in Grenoble puts on his reading glasses, and trillions of other trifles occur—all forming an instantaneous and transparent organism of events, of which the poet (sitting in a lawn chair, at Ithaca, N.Y.) is the nucleus.

That ongoing present of consciousness, with the writer inside like a grain of sand, and the pearl in the oyster, and the oyster in the sloshing sea, and the planet spinning with the inertia of its watery weight, is the basis for this odd little form I’ve noticed, which we might call the litany of self.

While trying to write his failed autobiography Twain searched for a form that would best convey the experience of a life lived.

What a wee little part of a person’s life are his acts and his words! His real life is led in his head, and is known to none but himself. All day long, and every day, the mill of his brain is grinding, and his thoughts, not those other things, are his history. His acts and his words are merely the visible, thin crust of his world, with its scattered snow summits and it vacant wastes of water—and they are so trifling a part of his bulk! a mere skin enveloping it. The mass of him is hidden—it and its volcanic fires that toss and boil, and never rest, night nor day. These are his life, and they are not written, and cannot be written. Every day would make a whole book of eighty thousand words—three hundred and sixty-five books a year. Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man—the biography of the man himself cannot be written.

(Note that Joyce, soon after, writes a “whole book”—Ulysses—that purports to be one day below the thin crust of a man’s life.) Twain’s litany of self, a few intense memories arranged by craft in a much longer text, is but one mode of that search for form.

Pleased with my discovery and wanting to share the beauty of the un-Twainish Twain passage, I went to see my acquaintance Rory, a nonfiction editor, administrator, sometime-teacher, and progenitor of a girl-tribe so large it will one day people the earth. All these stressors sometimes make him Churmish, and the flood of predictable writing about self that he constantly reads—“Look at me, looking at the world”—has jaded him.

“My crew and I would shoot that thing full of holes,” he said, sneering at the Twain. He said anything written in the “I have seen, I can remember” style was notable only for its sentimentality. I pointed out that in writing terms it’s not sentimental—unearned emotion—though it undoubtedly has feeling.

Rory said it must be nostalgic then, longing for an irrecoverable pastorality, like Raymond Williams’ idea of an Edenic past that never existed except in the mind of the writer. Rory pushed me out the door with an essay he’d written about lost Beat-writer sons who yearn for this Eden, which he’d published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction so long ago it was printed on the bark of the tree of knowledge.

Of course there are lost worlds in my examples, since, almost by definition, writing on the past points to difference. Hemingway talks about skiing in Austria between the wars, before ski lifts were common, and how hiking up the mountains made one’s legs capable of the long run down to the valley, so injuries from falls were less common then. Changes do occur in processes and technologies, and to recall old ways is not necessarily nostalgic. (Hemingway is instead making a moral judgment.) Besides, many things this form takes pleasure in—experiences in both nature and human culture—can still be found if you wish to find them for yourself.

Rory would probably better appreciate the litany of Roy Batty, the killer replicant in the film Blade Runner, who wants in his dying hour for his pursuer to understand the fragility of even spectacular memories. “I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I've watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate,” he soliloquizes in an elegy of self that fails to mention his gouging out the eyes of his Frankenstein-like creator. “All those moments will be lost, in time, like tears in rain.” Now there’s a lost-son narrative.

 

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