Thursday, 16 April 2009

The Freedom of Fiction and Another Helpful Bus Driver

Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel talks of the irrational in characters, how characters do not act rationally – just as persons in real life do not – logical sequences are not followed – perhaps that's why our actual lives are patchwork, with trailing glitter, beads, trinkets and real gems – precious metal and plastic thrown into the same box; the clothes we choose, to represent us – the long, lingering aftertastes, our inability to know when past is truly out of reach, our hankerings and yearnings for all that is not, as if we could stroke out the present as we do a sentence we do not like, and replace it with something we prefer.

The present can appear paltry, insubstantial as warm wax. The alternatives strut and parade around, in our early morning mind, but the roots of who we are it seems lie in places of profound emotion, which burrow passages through to other areas that form underground connexions. As if our life, made up of all our past, is an architecture we can wander through, and sometimes can still feel as if we are confined in one small room, with a window looking out onto the world.

Perhaps like bees, we are bound with sweetness, our lives a busy honey-harvest, a singing in the docile air of scented summer.

Kundera again:
..the moment it becomes part of a novel, reflection changes its essence. Outside the novel, we're in the realm of affirmation: everyone is sure of his statements: the politician, the philosopher, the concierge. Within the universe of the novel however, no one affirms: it is the realm of play and of hypotheses. In the novel then, reflection is essentially inquiring, hypothetical.....

J B Pick in The Great Shadow House, talking of the writing of Neil Gunn:

Of course the writer of fiction must express the essential emotions of his characters, whether they are negative or positive, but learning the ability to distance himself from these emotions, while allowing his characters to live their own lives, enables him to control the narrative and to operate simultaneously inside and outside his fictional world.

I was reading this yesterday evening in one of the many buses I found myself on, flitting across the city. I was heading home, but this bus stopped in the middle of nowhere, in the dark. I looked up and there were no other passengers. I went up to the driver and said I thought you were going to Dalkeith. He laughed as if it was a lunar city. Oh yes, during the day we do, but not after 7. When I asked if there was another bus I could get he said yes, a 3 goes there, you can get it from the other side of the road, but I don't know when one is due. Tell you what though he says as he follows me outside, I can take you back into town, to the crossroads, it would be much better to wait there, there's buildings and street lights and people, here it's – well – lonely and deserted. He was young, lively and friendly and swung his arms about – I took the bus back to the crossroads, and someone else was waiting at the bus stop and a few minutes later a number 3 turned up.

It seems to me that Milan Kundera and J B Pick are saying similar things, though one talks of ideas and hypotheses, the other of emotions. It's something to do with the freedom you experience when writing fiction.

André Gide has written

Savoir se libérer n'est rien; l'ardu, c'est savoir être libre

Easy enough he says, to free ourselves but to be free, to live in freedom, ah that's not so simple -

We are rough handlers, manipulating bricks of thoughts, carrying them from one place to the next, to support an edifice. Our concrete lives, our this thought and that thought, castles waiting to be shattered, besieged or toppled.

There, in the rubble, we may find something of great value once again. Our loss, perhaps. Carry it like precious new life. Scoring out our old rule-books. The inner kingdom is not pinned with names, it is fluid with light. Its bricks are for caressing, not for eager accumulations into something that will one day be – what sets us free.

It is the moment that sets us free. The moment, the experience, as of looking down on the Adriatic, from a hilltop in Piran.
(rooftops of Piran, Slovenia, below, then evening sky, Dubrovnik). From that moment, everything else radiates outwards. This kind of time is not historical, one moment among a string of others, it's not Chronos but Kairos. It's a special kind of arriving. Evening sky, from a balcony in Dubrovnik. A meeting. An arrival. The geographical places of its arrival will always be beloved.

To reach these places – which we can never know beforehand – takes trust, faith, faith-in-action. Our bruised memories. We can't force this or flog it on. The two that are divided have to come together, somehow.

When we forget – ah then – cleaning out a cupboard, turning over soil, talking to someone you meet by chance in the street – the magical can come then, slips in by the back door when you are not looking, searching or fixating on trying to find it.

Here, where the daffodils are opening to the sun and a crow flies limply, its wing sliding through the air, trailing its interrogation, its cry of surprise, delight -

Small winged things fly around astonished. Impatience has stretched itself out in the sun. Cow-bells rattle as a bird lands on a branch.

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