In her autobiography A Backward Glance (1934), Edith Wharton wrote:
“In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.”
I like that concept which I stumbled upon this morning in a delightful newsletter called Dr. Mardy’s Quotes of the Week — Jan 18-24, 2015. Wharton was a great stylist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century whose books on the conflicts between societal mores and the pursuit of happiness are still read with great enjoyment after all these years. In addition to her novels, she’s also known for The Writing of Fiction, an analysis of modern fiction, plus a wealth of guidance on developing form and style, structuring both short stories and novels, and the importance of character and situation.
Since we wannabe scribblers are always looking for effective ways to keep our readers turning the page, we should follow Wharton’s advice and not be afraid to experiment. We should always be open to innovation and be willing to change our writing style to suit our needs. I have recently finished a couple of excellent magazine articles — one by The New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik who looks into the savage face of terrorism and how it tried to extinguish the French tradition of dissent, and the other by Eli Gottlieb, novelist and travel writer for The New York Times, about reconnecting with an old friend in Portugal. Both of these writers are excellent stylists who hold your attention with their clarity, imagery and command of language.
So different are Gopnik and Gottlieb, yet both so mesmerizing that I’ve been wondering these past couple of days about what makes their different styles so flowing and easy to read. They certainly held my steady attention from start to finish.
With Gopnik, who is just as much at ease in Paris as he is in New York City, his brilliant insight into the French tradition of dissent allows him to capture the spirit of the response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre. With all the talking heads offering little more than lame analysis, Gopnik captures the essence of what happened, as he writes, “‘Nothing Sacred’ was the motto on the banner of the cartoonists who died, and who were under what turned out to be the tragic illusion that the Republic could protect them from the wrath of faith.” In those four words, “the wrath of faith,” Gopnik told us clearly what we are facing.
In digesting the gravitas of Gopnik’s article, I had to take a day off to regroup and gulp in a big breath before jumping to Gottlieb’s travel story. It was a giant leap in mood and atmosphere from listening to what had happened in Paris to what I was about to enjoy in Gottlieb’s account of wandering along the roads and through the whitewashed villages of the Alentejo, the southern Portuguese wine country. He’s in the company of his old friend Martin, a poet, who had “gone native,” settling down with a local Portuguese girl and crossing over into a life lived entirely—and permanently—in another language. We are immediately charmed by the story of the now middle-aged Martin, once a dashing blade in New York who had the outrageous aplomb years before to approach a conceited, beautiful woman at a party and ask her, “Excuse me, would you mind giving me your phone number if I promised to write it on this cigarette and smoke it?” You have to love this kind of language, if you have anything of the romantic still left in you.
As the two old friends meandered through the countryside and in and out of various villages, they delighted in catching up on their lives. But before they could settle into more serious conversation, we are told they were often distracted when stuck behind contraptions that resembled riding lawnmowers fitted with rudimentary car bodies. These slow, sputtering vehicles are known as “mata-velhos” — the word means “old person killers” — because their tiny 50-cubic-centimeter engines don’t require a driver’s license to operate and because they are often driven — and crashed — by the elderly. What a masterful interlude Gottlieb creates that Wharton would have been proud of as he builds suspense and delays what’s to come when the men can eventually relax with each other and explore how their lives have changed.
At last we come to the punch line as Eli asks Martin:
“Do you ever forget?”
“Forget what?” he said.
“That you’re an American?”
At this point, I was glued to the page, since I have also lived abroad for long periods of time and asked myself the same question. As Gottlieb goes on, “He gave a hesitant smile as we slewed sideways in one of the seemingly endless traffic circles that dot the countryside. ‘It’s funny, but for the longest time all I wanted to do was pass as a local. I worked on the accent and studied the clothes. That all falls away over the years. Now I couldn’t care less. Yet in a way I think of America more now than I ever have before. I appreciate it and revile it at the same time. Crazy, no? You hungry?’” I went back to reread the passage a couple of times.
As Eli ponders what his friend has said, he contrasts what he is seeing in Portugal with what he remembers from the many years he lived in Italy as an expatriate, a place “buffed smooth” by years of tourists. Portugal — particularly the Alentejo — had given him “an entirely different impression: that of a place — showcase mountain towns apart — still waking up to its own worldly importance, and as a result, still vivid and sparklingly fresh.” Again, a passage worth a reread.
On his departure the next day, he reflected on the “essential melancholy in exile, a sadness from the severed connections to family, habit and what the poet Paul Celan called the ‘fatal once-only’ of the mother tongue that can weigh on those who’ve made the move.” This article certainly was turning out to be more than a travel piece connecting the lines between places of interest.
In concluding his visit, Gottlieb recognized that the trip had offered him two things: “a reassuring insight into the adaptability of human nature over time, and a tour of the hilly, magical Alentejo, and with it, some of the very best eating and drinking of my life.” When I put the magazine down I wanted to call Edith Wharton to tell her to pack her bags and accompany me and my wife Jody on a leisurely trip to Portugal.
One of the joys of winter is that it fixes me in place and keeps me inside where I can read more when the temperatures go down to finger numbing pain despite thick gloves. I spent earlier warmer days cutting and splitting my firewood so we can now enjoy the heat that keeps our big room warm. The space is full of dog beds where the hounds and cats bunk together facing the glowing logs. By choosing my reading carefully, I can be in Paris in spirit marveling at the adaptability of the French who have suffered great harm. At another moment, I can also sit here and take myself into a small cafe in Portugal sipping any of many velvety and well-balanced wines at a good price.
My next read will be Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, a novel by the contemporary and avant-garde Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, a novelist some critics have said is not exactly of this world in his style and perplexing narratives. I choose, though, to believe he has also read his Wharton and has simply taken her advice about not being afraid of change. As I opened the book, I read his warning twice, “You got to know your limits. Once is enough, but you got to learn. A little caution never hurt anyone. A good woodsman has only one scar on him. No more, no less.” It was good advice that I suspect Wharton would also have embraced. I promised myself that I’d be careful.