Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The consolations of narrative, or, late again to my own blogiversary

In a recent post, Mean Something wrote about a friend who had suffered a loss and whom she was considering sending a book--but which one? Her post became a meditation on "consolation" and the works in which we find it, and she asked her readers to come up with their own list of five books that they turn to when in need of consolation: not works that are in some obvious way about loss or intended to console--nor works that are purely escapist--but that are, for whatever reason, comforting to the individual who chooses them.

As MS suggests, what we find consoling tends to be highly individualized, and I'm not sure that it isn't somewhat arbitrary, too: the state of mind we bring to a work determines what we find in it, and if you come to a book in need of consolation, it's likely enough that you'll find it (along with lots of other things, which you may then feel free to disregard).

At any rate, the books that I read semi-regularly aren't consoling in any ordinary or expected fashion. These include:
Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies

John Cheever, The Stories (I flip through the volume at random, but "Goodbye, My Brother" and "The Swimmer" always get read)

Tom Stoppard, Arcadia

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye
What do these works have in common? Failure more than success; the discovery of ugly things about other people or oneself; good times that prove to be fleeting and a past that can't be returned to. Those things would not, one would think, make for agreeable reading when one is feeling low--but if there's something more than aesthetic consolation that I find in these works, it's the reminder that, fuck it: life goes on.

Consolation, for me, resides in narrative (something that Sfrajett wrote about beautifully several months ago). Other people's stories remind us that we all heal and change and grow, and that there's usually something good lurking around the corner that we can't now imagine.

But as the books I've chosen suggest, it's not the happily-ever-after part that I fixate on, but the attempt to get there. Happy endings aren't magic, something that God or the universe gives us or doesn't--we make them, to a degree, for ourselves. We may not be able to change the past or be fully in control of what happens in the present, but we are in control of the meaning we assign those events, and we rewrite our scripts continually, making something new and comprehensible out of what seem, in the moment, to be narrative dead ends.

I'd been writing this post in my head for a day or two when Guy and I happened to go see Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad as part of an Alain Resnais retrospective. Both movies deal with the problems of memory, and both have a narrator who is trying to force the past and present into some kind of relationship. But Hiroshima (which I loved) shows life fucking going on--even with the past lurking behind every corner--while Marienbad depicts the suffocating inability to let go of the past or to incorporate it into a comprehensible narrative. I actually found the paranoid-obsessional tape loop of the movie's consciousness pleasurable, at least at times, but for very different reasons than Hiroshima or the books I've listed above.

This brings me, somehow, to the fact that yesterday was my three-year blogiversary: two years in this space and one in my previous one. I started blogging as I was finishing my dissertation and preparing to start my first full-time teaching job, and I've continued it through a second job search, a move, and adjustment to life on the tenure track. Sometimes I think that the five or six hundred posts I've written in that time are just a tape loop, continually revisiting the same issues with tiresome repetition--but although my archives do demonstrate my own paranoid-obsessional patterns, I think there's narrative there, too. Thanks for sticking around and helping me find it.


rachel said...

this is lovely== happy blogiversary.

my go to text is a short essay by sara suleri called 'meatless days' in a collection of the same name. it deals with loss, migration, nostalgia, and, ultimately, redemption and forgiveness. the writing is so interesting, biting in parts and tender in others, and it inevitably makes me cry (though always at different parts).

in fact, i think i might go read it now.

Prof. de Breeze said...

I'm fascinated by the amount of overlap on your consolatory booklist and my own. Cheever is certainly on there, though I gravitate toward "The Geometry of Love" over "The Swimmer" (possibly because I've taught the latter so many times). Brideshead Revisited is near the top of my list, as are Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop and John Crowley's Little, Big. I've never tried to make sense of my fixation on these works, though I imagine it has something to do with some of the themes you list (especially the idea of a past or passing world and the attempt to make sense of what remains). I'm pleased to find someone who is similarly drawn to even a few of these authors and works, just as I've been pleased to read your thoughts over time in this space.

Happy Blogiversary.

Sisyphus said...

Happy blogiversary! I do like all those books, though I usually wouldn't think of them as my "comfort books." But then again, my constant re-reads are all trashy genre reading. Mmm!

What Now? said...

Happy blogiversary! My, hasn't a lot happened in the last three years?!

medieval woman said...

Wouldn't have missed it, Flave.

And when the hell are we all going to get together again for Indian food??


Happy Bloggiversary...

Renaissance Girl said...

So glad you're out there, Flavia-Flav. And---oh! oh! How I love Stoppard's _Arcadia_.

Meansomething said...

Happy blogiversary! And thank you so much for responding. Even though unexpected, these books make sense to me as consolation reading, though I must admit I had not considered Arcadia in this light. Fascinating! I too have a paperback of the Cheever stories and it's in my rotation of books that keep getting reread.

Flavia said...

Thanks, guys! And Prof dB: yes, anything by Waugh will do, though Vile Bodies, Handful of Dust, Decline and Fall, and Brideshead are probably the best for me (in that order). There's something so grimly elegiac about even the satires--they begin, for me, as escapist comedies of manners, and end as something entirely different. Another book that might belong in that category (though I've only read it once) is Mary McCarthy's The Group. I adore McCarthy in the same way I adore Waugh.

Scrivener said...

Happy blogiversary!

I don't know what I read for consolation any more these days, other than Pema Chodron, but for me it used to be Of Mice and Men and Invisible Man. Maybe I need to find some consolation novels now. I've been finding it kind of difficult to read much in the way of fiction since the whole divorce thing started up.