Friday, March 07, 2014

`To Oneself at Night'

I’ve heard fiction writers of varying levels of accomplishment read their work aloud – William Gaddis, Stephen Millhauser, John Gardner, Chinua Achebe, Peter Taylor, William Gass, John Hawkes, Ralph Ellison, Cynthia Ozick, William Kennedy, Robert Coover, Anthony Burgess, Jerzy Kosinski, Guy Davenport (the last was a private reading with an audience of one) -- and none was memorable as a self-contained literary event. Reading aloud added little or nothing to my solitary experience of the text, even when I was pleased to share the company of writers, several of whom I admired. Prose as performance, I've concluded, is a species of show business – sometimes enjoyable but not as literature, despite Dickens’ fabled readings. The same goes for recordings. Joyce reading from “Anna Livia Plurabelle” highlights the humor and musicality of the words, and simply hearing his nimble tenor is a thrill, but my understanding has not deepened. Imagine Henry James reading aloud from The Golden Bowl. 

Two explanations come to mind. Writers, probably at a higher proportion than in the general population, are exhibitionists. They shamelessly seek attention. In their minds, a reading is not about the words on the page but about the one who arranged those words. For that segment of the audience to whom the prose is the focus, the result is embarrassment shading into boredom, and the writer will play to the groupies in the crowd. Secondly, I suspect prose is private, the writing and the reading of it. It’s intimate, conducted in an autonomous theater of the mind with a tight spotlight, with all the special effects supplied by the reader’s memory and imagination. Henry Green is one of my favorite writers of fiction, one whose prose is made for pondering, though hardly to everyone’s taste. Here’s a pertinent passage from his memoir, Pack My Bag: A Self-Portrait (1940): 

“Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself at night, and it is not quick as poetry, but rather a gathering web of insinuations which go further than names however shared can ever go. Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of stone.”

That last is a bit much, a bathetic stretch unworthy of Green at his best. Tears belong in and near eyes, not in stones, but I won’t forget that “long intimacy between strangers.”

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