Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Aspiring Narrator

Bend at the knees, not at the waist.  It's so easy to say, yet so hard to remember.  My lower back suffers as a consequence.  When in that state it's hard to concentrate.  The last couple of days I haven't been able to write much at all.  I've had to get up from my seat every few minutes, taking several steps before the pain dissipates and something approximating normalcy gets restored. 

I decided I'd be more comfortable sitting in a lounge chair in our "library." (That space used to be the dining room but has now been repurposed with a bookshelf and some overstuffed chairs.)  On my Kindle Fire tablet, I've been reading The Luzhin Defense while listening to Chopin piano music.  I am puzzled about this and what I believe the research shows on multi-processing.  We can't have our minds do two tasks simultaneously, each of which require our attention.  Yet I now prefer to read while listening to music, even if the piece is not familiar.  I don't believe the music distracts from my concentration when reading.  But other things do distract.  The Kindle Fire is a regular tablet, so has tablet functionality on it, including email and Internet browsing.  So I flit between applications - read a chapter, sometimes less than a chapter, then check email and/or Facebook and other Web sites, and then repeat the cycle.

Further I found this book a bit difficult to engage with at first.  It is one of Nabokov's books written initially in Russian.  I had seen the movie recently, this was the second or third time viewing it, and that got me interested in reading the book.  I found Nabokov's introduction somewhat off-putting, as the writing style seemed especially boastful, yet it was informative too in giving a sense of what he was trying to create with this story. Then the early part of the story, which focuses on Luzhin's unhappy childhood, is perhaps necessary to set the stage for why all his attention would eventually be drawn into thinking about chess, but is not so compelling in itself.  It is the chess prodigy that attracts our attention.  There is a fascination with genius of all sorts, but the chess player may be the most intriguing for me, perhaps because Bobby Fischer became world champion during the summer before I entered college.

And I had reached a very interesting part of the story.  In his match against Turati, the Italian grandmaster and Luzhin's principal rival, they had jockeyed back and forth but had now reached adjournment.  The intense concentration needed to play chess at this level, coupled with excessive fatigue and stress, end up being too much for Luzhin and he has what appears to be a nervous breakdown.  As he begins to recover the doctor prescribes that Luzhin should avoid chess if he is to make a full recovery.  So at this juncture of the story, it is rich with possibility.  Yet because my back is bothering me I still have to get up once in a while.  When I eventually sit back down it is hard for me to resume again with the reading.  Instead I begin with my flitting.  But, looking for a little bit more diversity in my activity, and because I was trying to understand what all the icons on the homepage of the Tablet refer to (I didn't figure that out) I came to understand that this device is supposed to be good for viewing video.

So I start to watch episode 1 of The Wire, but only for a couple of minutes. The video quality is indeed quite good but the story is so different from The Luzhin Defense that I'm not that attracted by it.  Yet it is enough for me to pose the following question.  If I had my druthers which would I prefer to do, read a good book or watch a good movie (or TV show)?  Yet my back was bothering me and I knew that then and there neither form of entertainment would provide sufficient distraction for me to ignore the back pain.  Instead, I fix myself a drink and become comfortably numb.

This morning having the first cup of coffee I find open on my computer this essay by E. L. Doctorow from the series Writers on Writing.  It must have occurred to me to look at it while having my martini.  It's funny but not all that unusual for me.  After posing one question, I end up trying to answer a different question, though suggested by the first.  What is the difference between a novel and a movie from the perspective of the viewer/reader?  Doctorow's essay, written 15 years ago, is still a good read.  It laments the current situation where the movies are the dominant form and the novel plays second fiddle, at best.  Novels had to adjust in their style because of their marginalized status.  Pure description, setting the stage if you will, is not found in novels by the middle of the 20th century, where it was a feature of fiction a century earlier. Action is the key.  It must be ever present.  Yet even with these changes, novels remains different from movies.  Doctorow puts it this way.

In the 1930s and 40s, when stage plays and books were a major source of film scripts, the talkies were talkier (as adaptations of Shakespeare are still). Films of that period were, by comparison with today's products, logorrheic. Even action films, the Bogart film noir, the Errol Flynn swashbuckler, abounded with dialogue. Now, after a century of development, the medium of film generates its own culture. Its audience is as schooled in its rhythms and motifs and habits of being as Wagnerians are in der Nibelungen. Films work off previous films. They are genre referential and can be more of what they are by nature.

Literary language extends experience in discourse. It flowers to thought with nouns, verbs, objects. It thinks. That is why the term "film language" may be an oxymoron. Film de-literates thought; it relies primarily on an association of visual impressions or understandings. Moviegoing is an act of inference. You receive what you see as a broad band of sensual effects that evoke your intuitive nonverbal intelligence. You understand what you see without having to think it through with words.

Yet because Doctorow's focus is on contrasting fiction with film, I think he missed something that is quite obvious to me from reading Nabokov.  There is actually very little dialog in The Luzhin Defense.  Instead there is the omnipresent narrator, who can go on and on, with some paragraphs lasting for pages.  (Some books on the Kindle seem to have both location numbers and page numbers.  This book only has location numbers.  They are hidden from view unless you tap the screen to reveal them.  Given the font size adjustment - one of my favorite things about eReaders - going through several screens one really doesn't know how much has been read.)  The narrator talks in a way that differs from the the characters in the story.  The narrator explains things.  The characters do things that might defy explanation to the reader if not for the narrator.  This is how novels differ from plays.  Most plays don't have a narrator.  Novels always do.  A novel is never completely dialog.

What I came to understand while reading the Luzhin Defense is that the voice in our head aspires to be a narrator.  Further, reading good fiction (and perhaps good non-fiction as well) trains us in our own skills at narration. 

As our lives become more media intensive I suspect that fewer and fewer of us do a lot of pleasure reading.   It is probably all the more so across generations.  With current teens and young adults the reading habit may have never really developed.  This seems to me apparent with the students I teach.  I wonder what we actually know about their pleasure reading.  I suspect they don't do much of it at all, because they often seem to not "get it" when I ask them to read something; yet I think the meaning is plain. I'm very disturbed about this, yet I don't know what I can do as partial remedy.

If the voice in our head wants to be a narrator but gets little training, what then?  This is the question we should be asking.  

No comments: