Thursday, March 04, 2010

`A Cloudy World of Inference'

A reader in Dallas writes:

“In the last couple of weeks I've read The Man Who Loved Children and Stoner. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way indeed. I enjoyed both of them - thank you for mentioning them favourably on your blog; hence my knowledge of their existence - but was especially taken with Stoner. It began slowly, and Stoner himself seemed at first rather a dim character. The narrative became increasingly powerful as the story progressed, however, and Stoner himself came into sharper and sharper relief as his life moved along its course.”

The paraphrase of Anna Karenina’s opening is apt. The story writer Peter Taylor titled one of his collections Happy Families Are All Alike, and we might wonder where literature would be without unhappy home life (and its bastard spawn, adultery). In Christina Stead’s novel we meet monstrous parents (the father in particular is odious); in John Williams’, a memorably awful wife and mother. At the root of such misery is pathological selfishness, the sort that hardly acknowledges the existence of others, even children and spouses.

Turning diseased selves into literary art is tricky, especially when the impulse is autobiographical and produces what Anthony Hecht in his Paris Review interview calls “cheap feelings of self-pity.” The interviewer observes to Hecht that “bits of your early life are used to reveal a dark, abiding sadness,” and the poet agrees, reluctantly. His poems are never given to cheesy, vulgar confessions but Hecht admits that

“…some instinct in which I had complete trust told me that the interrelationships and interdependencies of my immediate family were draining and dangerous to me …. And a child who is told he is not good at anything is likely sooner or later to give in to a mood of defeat. And this was pretty much the situation in which I found myself…”

In “Apprehensions” (from Millions of Strange Shadows, 1977, and Collected Earlier Poems, 1990), Hecht turns unhappy childhood memories into Jamesian art. Read these lines, especially the first, and remember What Maisie Knew:

“I moved in a cloudy world of inference
Where the most solid object was a toy
Rake that my governess had used to beat me.”

Quietly, without insistence, childhood twines with the ominous events unfolding at the same time in Europe (Hecht was born in 1923). Of the dreams he had of his German governess, even after she left the family, Hecht writes:

“We two would meet in a darkened living room
Between the lines of advancing allied troops
In the Wagnerian twilight of the Reich.
She would be seated by a table, reading
Under a lamp-shade of the finest parchment.
She would look up and say, `I always knew
That you would come to me, that you’d come home.’
I would read over her shoulder, `In der Heimat,
Im Heimatland, da gibts ein Wiedersehen
An old song of comparative innocence,
Until one learns to read between the lines.”

A rough translation of the German quoted by Hecht: “At home, at home, there’s a reunion in the home.”

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