Have You Seen My Tiny Man? ( I Lost Him)

February 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

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I’ve been reading the reviews of Jamaica Kincaid’s new novel, See Now Then, which may or may not reveal secrets of her broken marriage. She says it’s fiction but makes the characters resemble, in obsessive detail, her and her ex-husband, the diminutive composer Allen Shawn, living in a home much like their much-written-about house and garden in Vermont.

One of the most intoxicating pleasures of writing is to take stories from your life and give them a sharp twist (or several), to recreate yourself and others as crueler or kinder or weirder or with green hair; weave in events that didn’t happen, add people who never existed. The wise and flighty grandmother. The lover in his bear suit. The devil in disguise as an aging pole dancer. But when you do that, you generally try to give the reader a hand by making some clear distinctions between writer and protagonist, especially if you’re a literary celebrity. When you don’t—as Philip Roth doesn’t—you may still be writing fiction but you’re also playing with the titillation of gossip; you’re using the reader’s desire to know the dirty details of your life as part of the narrative carnival. You throw away the veil, even if there is still a veil, or many veils. You laugh up your sleeve.

And you may sigh but you can’t complain when people read your book as autobiography. They may be simplifying tremendously your subtle work of art—I know, for example, how much fun it is to write about “Margaret” knowing that there are a thousand Margarets inside me, some more real than others, some who grow drunk on fermented words and know nothing of the outside world—but you offered them the option on a platter. There’s fiction, there’s memoir, and then there’s riffing. Those who riff are riffed upon.

From the early pages of See Now Then

Her husband, the dear Mr. Sweet, hated her very much. He so often wished her dead: once then, a night when he had returned home after performing a piano performance by Shostakovich to an audience of people who lived in the nearby villages and so felt that they wanted to get out of their homes from time to time, but as soon as they left their homes they wanted to return immediately, for nothing was nearby and nothing was as nice as their own homes and hearing Mr. Sweet play the piano made them sleepy, their heads sometimes suddenly falling forward, and they struggled to keep their chins from landing on their chests and that happened anyway and there would be lurching and balancing and gulping and coughing and though Mr. Sweet’s back was turned from his rural audience he could sense all this and he could feel every twitch, every shudder, as it registered in each individual. He loved Shostakovich and as he played the music written by this man—“The Oath to the People’s Commissar,” “Song of the Forests,” Eight Preludes for Piano”—the grave sorrows and injustices visited on him flowed over Mr. Sweet and he was very moved by the man and the music that the man played and he wept as he played, pouring all his feelings into that music, imagining that his life, his precious life, was being spent with that dreadful woman, his wife, the dear Mrs. Sweet, who loved making three courses of French food for her small children and loved their company and she loved gardens and loved him and was least worthy of her love, for he was such a small man, sometimes people mistook him for a rodent, he scurried around so. And he was not a rodent at all, he was a man capable of understanding Wittgenstein, Einstein, and any other names that ended in stein, Gertrude included, the intricacies of the universe itself, the intricacies of human existence itself, the seeing of Now being Then and how Now becomes Then; how well he knew everything but could not express himself, he could not show the world, at least as the world as turned up in small New England villages, what a remarkable person he was then and had been and in time to come, these people who wore the same socks days in a row and didn’t dye their hair after it lost its natural color and the luster it had when they were young and they liked to eat foods which were imperfect…

I can’t go on until the end of the sentence because the sentence doesn’t end for another page. I’m rarely seduced by that technique; it feels too much like a crowded party with someone breathing in my face.

Still. This passage is almost brilliant, but the worm gets in the way: I can’t imagine Mr. Sweet as a fictional character, because the characters we invent, no matter how repulsive, carry the silly fondness of a parent’s love. Perhaps I would see it differently if I didn’t know the backstory of this book, but I don’t think so. And if I embrace the autobiographical element, which is quite alright as a strategy, I’m perplexed. I don’t understand presenting the ex-beloved in such a way that the reader can’t understand why he was ever appealing in the first place.

Yes, rage and hatred privilege a person’s uglier qualities. Being tolerant of flaws makes those flaws worse in retrospect, as if all the forgiveness you offered were to return as the living dead. But you’d think writers would learn that taking revenge in a torrent of words is a tricky business. Best to do it subtly—to allow the beloved all his charms and virtues, letting his flaws very slowly rise up and tip the balance—but that courts the possibility that by the end of the exercise you’ll no longer be so angry, that you may, yourself, succumb again to the fatal attraction.

I’m sure there are ways to take revenge that are reliably satisfying, if generally illegal. But writing a book isn’t one of them. It can satisfy in a different way by being a success, which I’m sure is what Kincaid is after. She’s worked hard enough to make her book a world unto itself—a world of sentences and music, of writerly embroidery, underpainting, overpainting, stagecraft.

And it may well be a success. But that worm, that worm. That rodent husband, scurrying about. Give him a rind of cheese, won’t you? Give him an audience of fascinated pink-nosed rats, so happy to get out of their lab cages for an evening, rats that never want to go back.

Tender Buttons [A Little Called Pauline]

A little called anything shows shudders.
Come and say what prints all day. A whole few watermelon. There is no pope.
No cut in pennies and little dressing and choose wide soles and little spats really little spices.
A little lace makes boils. This is not true.
Gracious of gracious and a stamp a blue green white bow a blue green lean, lean on the top.
If it is absurd then it is leadish and nearly set in where there is a tight head.
A peaceful life to arise her, noon and moon and moon. A letter a cold sleeve a blanket a shaving house and nearly the best and regular window.
Nearer in fairy sea, nearer and farther, show white has lime in sight, show a stitch of ten. Count, count more so that thicker and thicker is leaning.
I hope she has her cow. Bidding a wedding, widening received treading, little leading mention nothing.
Cough out cough out in the leather and really feather it is not for.
Please could, please could, jam it not plus more sit in when.

Gertrude Stein

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