"In a way, all writing is essay writing." I came upon that remark a few weeks ago in an essay in the New York Times. It wasn't the main point of the article, and I don't think it's true, but it struck me because I have found myself in recent months enjoying what little fiction I read less because of the events being depicted, which tend to be romantic and predictable, than because of the personality of the narrator or the moods and opinions offered up along the way by the author or the protagonist.
A few examples: In Shyness and Dignity, by Dag Solstad, the protagonist Elias Rukla gives us an acute description of what it's like to teach the Norwegian classics to a room full of teenagers who take little interest in Ibsen and seem to resent being lectured to by a late-middle-aged man who lacks charisma or "relevance." Rukla considers himself a solid, well-informed citizen serving his country by working to develop the moral character of its youth, but the thought gives him little satisfaction because he can't convince himself that anyone is actually listening to what he's saying.
The portrait Solstad draws of the disintegration of Rukla's character rang true to me, because it reminded me of English teachers I had in junior high—mild-mannered men who had obviously been moved by literature at one time or another, and had chosen to teach it as a means of remaining involved in the field while also passing the torch to a new generation that, then as now, wasn't terribly interested in accepting it.
Along the way Rukla also delivers some interesting insights into The Wild Duck and the pernicious effects of television. He attempts to explain why he can now find satisfaction only in long novels of the WWI era—Proust, Mann, Musil, et. al. A large part of the narrative is devoted to Rukla's best friend, a dynamic and widely-loved student of philosophy with a brilliant future who marries and then abandons the woman whom Rukla later took as his wife.
It's a pathetic story, really, full of lofty ideals besmirched, relationships of convenience rather than deep affection, and too much aquavit in the evening. It's interest is sustained far more by Rukla's interior monologues—his ideas, impressions, anxieties—than by his fate.
Example two: Hot Milk
You've got to love a novel set in the Almería province of southern Spain. A woman has arrived with her daughter to consult Dr. Gomez, a famous specialist, about her lameness. It's a fool's errand, in so far as the woman is only lame some of the time. The story is told by the daughter, Sofia, a young woman with a degree in anthropology and no life to speak of, other than that of handmaiden to her mother. On the beaches near where they're staying she falls into the orbit of a young German couple and also that of a young Spanish man who tends the booth where people stung by the jellyfish can get treatment. (She gets stung often.) Her big ambition is to free the feral dog that barks incessantly from a rooftop nearby.
Sofia's days consist of swimming, trips to the clinic with her mother, and encounters with her German woman friend and Dr. Gomez's daughter (who works at the clinic)—and also with the jellyfish (which the Spanish call medusas.) Dr. Gomez is a remarkable eccentric. Sofia has trouble determining if he's a Zen master or a quack, and so do we, but he adds a lively element to the drama.
Just when things threaten to get dull, Sofia travels to Greece to visit her long-estranged father and meet her half-sister and step-mother, who's only five years older than her.
It's a crisp, intelligent, funny, and forlorn narrative that's going nowhere. Is Sofia's mother using her lameness to keep her daughter nearby, after having been abandoned by her husband decades earlier? Or is it the other way around, with Sofie using her mother as an excuse to avoid growing up? It hardly matters. What makes the book interesting is Sofie's descriptions of a surreal landscape and the bizarre events, with obscure but complicated and often interlocking motives, that she becomes involved in there.
Example three: Pond
This collection of "stories" is actually a collection of interior monologues, and though the speakers, settings, and time frames differ, they all sound roughly similar in tone—at least to me they do. Absolutely. The narrator is female, scattered, depressed, equivocal, observant, conversational, and often funny. She has an earthy perspective on life and an impressive vocabulary, is prone to occasional flights of metaphysics and paranoia, has trouble remembering things, obsesses about trivialities, and yet retains our interest through page after page of seemingly random and repetitive musings by means of an artfully varied succession of precise images, naked thoughts, and abject vulnerability.
In short, we come to like her and wonder where she's going to wander next, whether she'll ever remember what she was going to tell us about in the first place, and whether she'll succeed in bringing things to a close with even an iota of logic or coherence. Invariably, she does.
One "story" deals with a dinner party during which the hostess becomes obsessed with who will sit on the ottoman. Another deals with a sickly woman who goes out for an evening walk wearing only a raincoat over her nightgown, sees a man approaching, fears that she's going to be raped, but in a slightly bemused and detached way, then gets distracted by the movement of a herd of cows in a nearby field.
Here's a description of a young woman taking down Christmas decorations. A little long, I'm afraid, but I can't think of a way to convey the flavor of the language and the mercurial shifts in focus in a shorter excerpt.
Hard to tell this time of year how long anything is going on for and for that reason I took it upon myself to intervene now and then, such as when, just two days after Christmas, I avouched enough was enough and promptly took down the decorations. I didn’t have a tree, just some things arranged along the mantel, holly and so on, but since it’s a large mantel it is something of a feature and therefore very noticeable and I’d made it particularly resplendent and was first of all very pleased with how it all turned out. Even so, it quickly became oppressive actually and the holly itself almost sort of evil, poking at the room like that with its creepy way of making contact with the air, no I didn’t like it one bit so a week went by and then it was all got rid of in a flash. The holly I flung directly into the fire beneath, and it was a young fire because this happened even before breakfast and as such the impatient stripling flames went crazy with the holly, consuming it so well, so pleasingly—I was enormously pleased in fact and shoved in branch after branch even though the flames were becoming really tall and very bright and the holly gasped and crackled so loudly. That’s right, suffer, I thought, damn you to hell—and the flames sprouted upwards even taller and brighter and made the most splendid gleeful racket. Burn to death and damn you to hell and let every twisted noxious thing you pervaded the room with go along with you, and in fact as it went on burning I could feel the atmosphere brightening. I won’t do it again, I thought, I won’t have it in the house again. And I recalled the sluggish misgivings I’d felt when the man took the money out of my hand and held up a tethered bundle of muricated sprigs for me to somehow take hold of in return. Standing there, with this dreadful trident, while his young son maneuvered a small hand around a grim bag of change. The whole thing was sullied and I remember at the time feeling faintly that I should just leave it but then I located the cause of that regrettably irresolute sensation to an area in me where snobbery and superstition overlap most abominably and I chided myself for being so affected and fey—what are you some sort of overstrung contessa, I thought—certainly not, then wish them well and get going. And off down the Street I bobbed, yet, anachronistic feelings of pity and repulsion notwithstanding, I had a very clear sense of having succumbed to something I was not entirely at ease with...
Example four: So Long. See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell.
This classic story of infidelity and murder in the Ohio farm country isn't nearly as grisly or erotic as the opening phrase of this sentence might suggest. The story is told mostly from the point of view of one of the farmers' sons, and the great event that lies at the heart of it isn't the murder or the infidelity. Rather, it's the fact that the narrator, years later, passed his childhood friend in the hall of an urban school and didn't say hello. And most of the novel's interest, at least for me, lies not in the pathos of how domestic relationships in hardscrabble rural lives unravel, but in the evocative youthful descriptions of what it's like to grow up on a farm.
So. Have I proved my point? Is all writing essay writing? Not really. Essays tend to be driven by a point or a purpose that's more or less explicit. Once we've discounted the twist and turns of the plot, the appeal of fiction lies in its flavor and incidental detail—elements that the typical essay contains only to a degree at best.
I've been reading a set of brilliant essays by Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa called The Language of Passion, and I'd like to go into it a bit, but I'm afraid this entry is getting a little long.
The larger statement from which my introductory quotation was lifted is beautiful, and it takes us beyond the conventional essay form, I think:
In a way, all writing is essay writing, an endless attempt at finding beauty in horror, nobility in want — an effort to punish, reward and love all things human that naturally resist punishments, rewards and love. It is an arduous and thankless exercise, not unlike faith in God. Sometimes, when you are in the act of writing, you feel part of a preordained plan, someone else’s design. That someone else might as well be God. And then one day you rear back and survey everything you have done, and think, Is this all God had in mind? But it’s all you got.
Here Roger Rosenblatt is exploring the inadequacy that even accomplished writers feel when they take a backward glance at their "body" of work. It's an interesting theme, well handled, and it makes me mildly curious to read something else he's written. Checking the library catalog on line, I see he's published several collections of essays, and also a few novels.