Towards Better Democracy

Good words, well written, better the world. Good literature betters the world immeasurably.

I exist, don’t I?


Periods of great turbulence often lead to rash encounters, with the result that I’ve never felt like a legitimate son, much less an heir.

Patrick Modiano, Pedigree, a Memoir.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Who am I, Dad?”

“Well, you’re a boy.”

“But suppose I were a girl?”

“Strictly speaking, you can’t be.”

“But suppose I were?”

“You would have to be like your sister.”

“Suppose I were neither.”

“You would likely have troubles ahead, were that true.”

“I better stay a boy, then.”

“That’s right, son. That’s best.”

The above dialogue of mine captures within a few sentences the essence of what many of the novels and short stories I have read in recent times concern themselves with. The question of identity All of them have been European. The phenomena is worth exploring in greater depths than the present essay attempts to do. In brief  there are many aspects to this question of identity and of the questioning by a speaker of their existence.

I suppose that those of us who have had troubled childhoods, like Modiano, find that the experiences from those childhoods stay with us life long and set us apart from others who do not have the knowledge of what is to be the product of an unhappy childhood. There is merit in this, though. Just as Patrick Modiano illustrates in the quotation at the head of this essay, those us with such a background have stories to tell. The book that this particular quotation comes from is, as his title states, a memoir. Nevertheless, Modiano has told mostly stories. In fact, he as spent his life writing them.

As he says of this particular book, he couldn’t write an autobiography. (It is episodic rather than a continuous narrative.) I don’t think I could either. My memory blocks both the pain of childhood and of the accompanying difficulty, or impossibility, of functioning properly as an adult since that time .

I have not known of Modiano’s work previously. His books have not much over the years been translated into English. I understand, though, he has had a coterie who have read him assiduously despite that. For some reason he is now hitting the book shops, not unconnected, no doubt, with the fact that, in 2014, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. There are four titles of his on the shelves of my local independent bookstore, from no less than three publishers. This particular title is seeing the light of day in English ten years after being published in French.

I had recently purchased a book of Guatier’s poetry, bilingual thankfully, published in a series by Yale, The Margellos World Republic of Letters, and somewhat desultorily was searching their site to find other books in this particular series and stumbled over this memoir of Modiano’s,  with its startling observation on the first page, quoted above. You can’t possibly read such a quotation without going out right away to get the book.

Modiano and I have a similar background by way of childhood experience. Only the incidentals differ from any kind of accordance. He was born, as I was, in 1945. His parents met during the war which leads him to make the observation he does. He began writing in 1968, four years after I left high school. Our backgrounds could not be more different though, quite apart from him being French and me English, or British, whatever that means.

What drives me to write is the realisation, something along the lines of what Tolstoy wrote, that all happy families have the same story to tell, and unhappy families each have a different story to relate. I think of Dirk Bogart’s memoirs (A Postillion Struck by Lightning, 1977, among others) which appears to be filled with a happy upbringing, and a largely happy life. Kenneth Clark, based on his biographies (Another Part of the Wood (1974) and The Other Half, 1977) seems to me to have also had such a life. With no disrespect to either individual, they each appear to have only one story to tell.

Writers such as Modiano have a host of stories to tell as witness his large output; some thirty works. What propels this ability to tell other people’s stories I can’t say without some reflection. Of course, these stories are fictional. But they have to be based on what the writer has observed. Perhaps the humility which comes from the very experiences they have had as children shapes their outlook on life; to see others, to see the suffering of others, from whatever perspective they choose.

In reviewing and reflecting, on the lives of the writers I have known through my reading of them, I am struck by the extraordinary number of them who have led troubled lives and, perhaps more importantly, the sheer number of them who committed suicide. This appears to be true whether one looks at US, UK or European authors. How such writers wrote from the depth of pain that they clearly felt on a daily basis quite eludes me. The psychology of the drive to express their lives through the written word and through the doings and peccadilloes of the characters they created is certainly worth studying. And driven to write the overwhelming majority of them clearly were.

This is not to say that only troubled people write, though, truth to tell, most people who are troubled don’t write.

Do we ever know the lives of others? Of those around us who patently lead distressed lives? However much we listen to such people, what comes out of their mouths or is emoted by their behaviour, does in no way lead us to have any insight to their internal selves. Those lives are remote and removed from us. We, each of us, is only aware of our own inner landscape.

I cannot report other kinds of creative artists. I can only speak of writers because it is they whom I know best.

The value to us in our modern age is reading of the inner lives of others. I guess that, among other reasons for valuing the work of writers, is their ability, unique ability, to write so authentically on the inner life the characters they create. No other medium does this. This might be termed the preoccupation of the angst that appears to be attendant to our times, at least since the end of the First World War, if not slightly before that.

Modiano’s particular preoccupation appears to be with identity. This is surely a vexed phenomena, this question of who we are in relation to the external world. Certainly, writers in previous eras have given us internal monologues. But these almost always were, or are, running commentaries on what that character observed or heard. This device was supposed to tell of the character of mostly the protagonist. Even that approach to writing has been relatively recent given the aeons over which the writing of people on the page has existed. The greatest part of the history of fiction, and one would also have to include tales such as those written by Homer and his like, have been external to the characters. One does not have access to their inner lives, other than what they say. I mean it is unlikely that, whoever the original story teller was, witnessed what he or she wrote of.

Throughout that long history the greatest concern has been with plot. Who did what to whom. And many writers continue to write in this mode.

However, the writers most venerated in our time are those whose works are all  but plotless. Those books that might have no other character than some invisible speaker, or simply a stream of consciousness reported by an omniscient observer. An interminable river of thoughts, if that is what they are. One wonders if such works would be possible were it not for Freud. It has to be said, that were we to go sit on a mountain top and to live away from what we laughingly call society in a sort of backwoodsman’s kind of life, I doubt that we would have any identity crisis at all. One does not read of such people taking their own lives. Perhaps such lives force externalisation. In cities though, especially the major cities, this existential crisis seems to be something of a common occurrence.

So how is that writers such as Patrick Modiano can write so successfully of the internal lives of their characters? Is it a matter of projection of their own internal lives? But that can’t be. Those of us who live in maelstroms have little insight into ourselves. We simply try to survive each day. Some more successfully than others. And stay at home, lying in bed when it gets too bad. It is said that writing is a gift. That you can either write or you can’t. There is nothing in between. I suppose there are bad writers. Heaven knows I have read enough of them. Or, at least, tried to stay away from them most of the time.

Writing often speaks of a felt sense. How this can be taught to others?. Perhaps writing courses are sort of feel good communities. An Alcoholic’s Anonymous for those addicted to the vain and difficult world of trying to write. And it is difficult. Writers such as Modiano only make it appear easy. It is said to be a craft. And that may be the best that can be said of it. What drives a writer like our subject will likely remain a mystery. One thinks of Colette who knew from the age of eight that she would be a writer.

Much that fascinates us cannot be answered: the why, the how. So, the product of writers like Patrick Modiano may fascinate. Understanding how that world is created may always elude us. That doesn’t stop us trying. Whole industries of academics exist to attempt to answer such questions and churn out endlessly, year after year, turgid, impenetrable tracts read only by their fellow industrialists.

The rest of us prefer to read the real thing. The work itself rather that essays about the book, like this one. We would rather continue to be fascinated. After all, I exist, don’t I?

Malcolm D B Munro
Thursday 10 November, 2015

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Filed under: Arts, Book Review, Current Events, history, Media, Memoir, Music, poetry, songs, stories

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