Thursday, May 10, 2012
the shortness of the time left me no opportunity for deliberation
Here's a quick idea: a plot is a question made larger with stories, or a story is a question made larger with plots.
The word "compelled" in the Olga Masters paragraph is a door to a side-story but that door never fully opens, which is an author's way of saying that it can't fully open, because if anything can be done in their book then they will be the ones who do it -- why does the aunt feel compelled? -- why does the ordinary desire to look at someone who is irritating you deserve this strangely powerful word? I can't get off the subject; it niggles at me.
I don't know how Masters (over years and years) came up with the tone of voice that brought her to the moment, raw and flaming, when she decided that "compelled" was going to be the perfect word to use there, with nothing else to support it in its work except hints: compelled would carry the main weight, compelled had to be strong.
There might even have been a time in her life when she would have thought about using the Charles Maturin approach to "compelled," which I've quoted before: "The precipitate vigour of Juan's movements seemed to impel me without my own concurrance, and as the shortness of the time left me no opportunity for deliberation, it left me also with none for choice." Maturin opens the side-story door wider without pretending to have opened it all the way, ie, without pretending to have explained everything about the character's compulsion, ie, he writes a long explanation but uses the word "seemed" to let you know that he isn't pretending to interpret, exactly, only to hint or sketch, or dramatise without commitment -- a tone that Gothic literature seems to like, I muse, remembering that none of the ghosts in Udolpho are genuine and that the ending of that book is a Scooby Doo or Hitchcock's Psycho, an entry in the annals of science-minded characters sitting down at the end of a tale to explain away its mysteries, because, you see, they say, sighing, strangers happen to enjoy wandering through the forest just there with sheets over their heads every night at three a.m., screaming and playing a lyre, and so everything is logical, your fear is due to ignorance, and if you knew everything down to the habits of the local amateur lyre-playing collective, then there would be no mysteries in the world; if we lived long enough to learn everything then Gothic literature would be impossible, and therefore Ann Radcliffe is uncontroversial proof of human mortality, not only in the fact that she is dead but also because she wrote as she did, with the ideas she did, and the horrors she did. Without death we would have to find different horrors.
Masters might have decided that Maturin was trying to pin compulsion down too hard, "untruthfully," she might have thought: "A person who believes they can separate an emotion into its component parts like that is not being honest. I won't play these old games," she thought, "I won't pretend that I can do the impossible, I will be honest." I think this same frame of mind could be one of the inner differences between the work of John Kinsella and Les Murray, both Australian poets, though they separate themselves onto different sides of the continent. Murray, in his poetry, often inhabits another creature, or travels imaginatively inside a mountain but Kinsella's voice tends to stay in his own human throat, he doesn't often occupy the brains of animals, or put words in the mouths of creatures besides himself -- this is my impression, although I should point out that I haven't read a lot of Kinsella.
There is rectitude in Masters, there is rectitude in Kinsella too. The novelist in her rectitude omits any explanation except hints, she writes without splurge. And Kinsella too writes without splurge, but Murray splurges, and he even wrote a poem about splurge.
Argue that Masters' "compelled" might be the result of self-doubt. Thinking she can't do it, she doesn't do it. It's a shy literature, and the hints punctured by a blurt are shyness speaking, first withdrawn, sampling the sound of its own voice, then rushing forward awkwardly with too much power. The point of Maturin's long sentence is crushed down to "compelled," which swells there like a balloon crammed with helium because it is really three lines' worth of sentence stuffed into nine letters.
Here is a fantasy story. Every word in Masters' book is the severely compressed equivalent of a sentence in Maturin's. They are the same book.