Monday, March 16, 2009

`The Mystery of the Mind and Heart'

“There comes a time when we take into account the fact that everything we do will become a memory in due course. That is maturity. To reach it one must already have memories.”

That’s the entry for Oct. 1, 1944, from Cesare Pavese’s The Burning Brand: Diaries 1935-1950. I know from experience we become self-conscious about manufacturing memories, even purposely trying to make them, only in middle age (otherwise, we would have paid better attention when young). Fortunately, Pavese is wrong to assert that “everything we do will become a memory in due course.” Forgetting is merciful and a perfect, vacuum cleaner-like memory is a form of madness.

My oldest son and his girlfriend have arrived from New York City for a five-day visit, their first to the Pacific Northwest. My son is reading one of the rare perfect novels, John Williams’ Stoner, which he first heard about from this blog. It’s the book I last read when he was sick more than three years ago and I flew back to upstate New York to visit him in the hospital. It didn’t occur to me then that I was creating a memory, or rather a cluster of related memories that now form a sort of temporal symmetry.

One of Williams’ themes in Stoner is the raggedness of memory, its faded, fading nature. In the novel’s first two paragraphs, he tells us the title character graduated from the University of Missouri in 1918 and taught there until his death in 1956. In his name, colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the university library. Students who happen upon his name “may wonder idly who William Stoner was.” He continues:

“Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.”

I admire the audacity of starting a novel with the assertion that its main character is a forgotten man of no particular distinction, in a conventional worldly sense. We learn otherwise, for Stoner is a quiet, understated, emotionally devastating book, wise in the ways of the world:

“In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age, he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as an act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.”

Belatedly, after becoming a teacher, Stoner wakes to the desire to become a good one:

“The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print -- the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly, and then proudly.”

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