Thursday, April 5, 2012
she should have been proud she was ashamed
Marguerite Young's characters are books in an ideal library of classics -- by which I mean? -- that they come in two parts. The first part is a description, something plain and large that sets this person apart from everyone else, it's how you recognise them. Her bus driver is a Republican with a huge beard and there is no one else in the book like him. Cousin Hannah is a suffragist explorer and there is no one else in the book like her. Mr Spitzer and Miss MacIntosh both take walks but Mr Spitzer's walks are city walks and Miss MacIntosh's walks are beach walks. Now you know who they are when they appear, and you could say that these descriptions are like the first impressions that real people have of other real people, they're that red-haired woman who delivers the mail, my rich cousin who bought a yacht, some tag, some placemarker, the person can be summoned up easily, perhaps because you want to extrapolate on them, saying, my rich cousin who bought a yacht, she painted her yacht green last week and sailed to --
The second part is that extrapolation, which, in the fantasy I'm having, is like the commentary that gives the classic (the book itself is the equivalent of the first part) a larger existence in the minds of anyone who considers it, a volume of research or reputation that can, if it's the right size, make the classic so huge that it seems inextinguishable, perpetual, and intimidating as a country. The classic, or first part, stays in place, and commentary takes place around it, in addition to it, which is the way Marguerite Young treats her characters, giving each one that strong nametag of a description and then extrapolating, extrapolating -- they exist to be extrapolated, considered, and seen -- what did Cousin Hannah explore? -- deserts and mountains -- what did she do there? -- in the deserts she rescued women from harems -- and? -- one day the most powerful sheik removed his head-covering and he was a woman -- followed by more details about Cousin Hannah. Was she proud of her adventures? Yes, she was always bold and fearless. No. "For that of which she should have been proud she was ashamed." More information, until the author behaves as if she's reached a point of critical mass and more contradictions appear, the author, that suctioning whirlpool, grabbing and exaggerating those contradictions, announcing that Cousin Hannah may in fact have been the opposite of everything that has been said about her although she did in fact go on those expeditions, but the presentation of her motives may be wrong, in fact is wrong, absolutely wrong, couldn't be more wrong, and here is the right version which I the reader now cannot of course believe is right, but I might not be wise enough to disbelieve it if I hadn't had the other right version first.
Mr Spitzer may be alive or he may be dead, he may be himself or he may be his brother, he may be a gambler with a card up his sleeve or he may not; he is a composer, composing is his passion, but he is not a composer; his music is not the music that you would recognise as the work of a composer.
Here is the person, says Marguerite Young, here is a plump shy lawyer who walks through the city, now look at this part of him, regard if you will, that aspect, I will put this attribute to this name, I will attach it there, saying first that Mr Spitzer takes walks, then enlarging the reader's ideas about his walks, then bringing up a possible alternative, treating these characters like complicated or detailed objects that deserve to be studied and interpreted, and every signal they can give off should be searched for and read, she intimates (by doing it) and yet you'll never find all the signs, you'll always keep adding to this person who seems at first glance, so simple -- this is what she suggests, by giving us one story about the person, then another story, and then when that story is over it segues into another one (has she been reading Ovid?) or she boxes up the sketch of a separate story in a sentence and drops it in there, saying, without saying it, there are parts of them you will never see, not fully, not really, parts that might contradict every idea you've formed about them, new aspects sidle into further aspects, the reader notices a brief mention of a baby, then the baby's father is mentioned, then there's a side-story about him and his personal history, all erupting out of the baby, which erupted out of the mother, which erupted out of the narrator meeting that mother by chance in a rural cafe, which erupted out of a bus trip, which erupted out of the fate of Miss MacIntosh, which came about as the result of a different event or events.
On and on until the characters might begin to appear inexhaustible, as an ideal classic book is expected to seem inexhaustible -- no end in sight to Jane Austen dissertations, says a poster on Wuthering Expectations -- but Austen did not write those dissertations, and Young's characters do not stir up the storm of commentary that surrounds them -- that storm is someone else's work, it is the work of the author, who is trying to represent the rest of the universe. The characters need to appear inexhaustible, because we ourselves, as a human collective, see each object kaleidoscopically (she suggests, and in other places more blatantly stated) -- this is how Cousin Hannah can seem true from two opposite points of view -- it's one of their qualities, this inexhaustibility, these characters, these substitute-people, who are not there as minds-to-be-read, as some fictional characters are, but as things-to-be-looked-at, therefore, the size of the book, one thousand one hundred and ninety-eight pages in my copy from Harvest Books, published in 1979 and bought by me in the secondhand bookshop in Fitzroy that had to move because it had been damaged in the upper floor by fire (this could be another set of extrapolations, this could be in Miss MacIntosh, how the fire began in an air conditioner, how they shifted around the corner to Smith Street, how they had to close again, how I would have gone to their closing-down sale with every book only two dollars if I hadn't been in another country, how that other bookshop on Brunswick Street closed too --) has a purpose -- it takes the idea that each person can be approached from multiple directions ("There is no one way to account for everything") and represents it in time and space: she transforms it into a large paper cube. Maybe a book is also sculpture.