Sunday, March 30, 2014

`I Write Books to Find Out About Things'

In 1969, Peter De Vries delivered the Hopwood Lecture, “Exploring Inner Space,” at the University of Michigan, and later included it in Without a Stitch in Time (1972). Even the title is a joke. Readers of his novels will recognize the familiar word play, the blurring of serious and comic, the devotion to details of middle-class American life, and his gleeful puncturing of pomposity, including his own. In the third paragraph, De Vries refers to Robert Frost and C.P. Snow “in the same breath, which will have to suffice us as a token unity.” His subject is characterization, in fiction and in life. How does it feel to be human? His answer, of course, is to tell a story, which may or may not be fiction, or some inscrutable mingling of both, like his novels. True to the year of its making, the story explores that phenomenon once taken seriously, the Generation Gap, with passing asides devoted to hippies, the moon landing and Timothy Leary. The lecture reminds me of a comic novel published in 1970, Thomas Berger’s Vital Parts, the third of four installments in the Rinehart cycle. De Vries writes: 

“To say that literature illuminates life is platitudinous enough, and I haven't come nine hundred miles to sock that apocalypse to you; but it may be instructive to suggest how the sheer practice of fiction as such can sometimes help the practitioner understand what he is writing about, that is to say living with, and to conduct the experiment by recalling an incident that recently befell me--or rather, to focus the point down to where I want it, a character I ran foul of, and he me, and whom I misjudged completely at first and did not comprehend until I had spent some time trying to put him down on paper, though he may have had my number from the beginning on a somewhat more primitive level.” 

De Vries’ experience will be familiar to many writers of fiction or other forms, and to some of their readers. Composition goads understanding. Writing is a focusing of attention, a sort of continuing education. I found the sentiment echoed by Rebecca West in her Paris Review interview, which I recently reread: “I write books to find out about things.” And Guy Davenport, in his introductory note to The Hunter Gracchus: And Other Papers on Literature and Art (1996), fills in the reader’s side of the equation: “I am not writing for scholars or fellow critics, but for people who like to read, to look at pictures, and to know things.” Read the lecture to the end and learn a new reading of a familiar Emily Dickinson poem by the author of The Blood of the Lamb.

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