Saturday, May 27, 2006

What do we talk about when we talk about a classic?

I had read the story years ago, but I wasn't even sure I remembered it clearly, because texts can take on a life of their own. First impressions become colored by all the interpretations, references and reinterpretations the work undergoes over the years. Teachers teach, critics deconstruct, and biographers gossip. The original work disappears into its image.

I wanted to read it again, but I also wanted the experience to be as fresh as the first time, before the story was labeled a masterpiece. I wanted to make it new. Easier said than done. The "Collected Stories" on my bookshelf carried its own aura of beatification, and I was afraid I'd be right back where I started, reading a classic through the screen of fame, received opinions and all the other detritus I was trying to avoid.

I was looking for a trick that would let me outwit my preconceptions by seeing the story in a different form, stripped of its associations. What about the way it might have looked in manuscript? Just plain old double-spaced typescript on some cheap bond paper, with nothing else between me and the story? How would it stand up?

I decided to find out. It didn't take long to copy and paste a clone of the story from the internet into a word processor and reformat it. I typed in the familiar title at the top of the page and the author's name under it -- altered slightly, in the spirit of my little experiment, to "Dead White Male." I changed the default font to ugly, clunky, character-spaced Courier and printed it out double-spaced. It definitely looked like a manuscript.

I began reading.

The story starts simply enough, with a few lines of exposition. "The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white." A man and a young woman -- identified only as "the American" and "the girl" -- are waiting for a train somewhere between Madrid and Barcelona, passing the time, talking, sharing some drinks. The merciless sun bleaches a dry and sterile landscape.

"'They look like white elephants,' she said."

She is trying to amuse him, to divert him with a metaphor about the white hills in the distance. They talk some more, and order another round of drinks. There's a tension between them. She returns to her organic metaphor about the hills, so seemingly bleached and lifeless. The two of them have different ways of seeing and being, and as their apparently aimless talk continues you realize it's not aimless at all. They're facing a test, their futures in the balance. Everything could be fine, but the moment passes, and it's not fine and never will be. They're talking to each other and past each other - short, simple, painful sentences. She's the first to acknowledge they've crossed a point of no return. She looks out at the desiccated landscape and picks out signs of growth, a river through the trees and fields of grain, and says what she feels.

"'And we could have all this,' she said. 'And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.'"

He still can't acknowledge what has happened and blathers on. She asks him if he'll do something for her now, and he says he'll do anything for her. Unaware, still not getting it. All her pent-up rage and frustration come out, and the minimalist dialogue explodes into wild verbal excess. Over and over again, the words lash like whips across the page.

"Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?"

He is still for a moment, backs off and then starts to say something, she says she'll scream, and then the train is coming and they get ready and smile and the emotional gap between them has already become a gulf that can never be bridged.

"'Do you feel better?' he asked."

"'I feel fine,' she said. 'There's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.'"

Two lives vividly and sympathetically sketched in less than 1,500 words. Yes, Dead White Male could write. That's what sometimes gets lost, I realize. He would go on to become a posturing bully, a hard-drinking macho asshole, his own best parody, so concerned with proving his masculinity that later generations could only wonder in amazement what he feared, what he must have been trying to hide. Trapped in his white beard and his legend, he spent the last decades of his life unable to write worth a damn, basking in worldly acclaim and inner contempt.

He went to Mayo, complained of FBI agents under the bedposts, had shock treatments and went home to Utah and blew his brains out. (Only much later did it become clear how much Hoover hated him and his lefty sympathies, how there really had been agents at Mayo, talking with his doctors, and doing god knows what.) He had been greatly renowned, if not for the wrong reasons, mostly for reasons that had little to do with his art, and after his death, the renown faded quickly, again for reasons that had little to do with his art.

The artist had long since disappeared into an image -- one that continues to hold the stories hostage.

That's why the best of them always come as such a revelation when we find a way to let them speak for themselves. You don't need to play games with your computer; there are other ways to take a fresh look. What matters is that you'll be amazed when you do. He did things with the American language that no one had ever done, that remade American prose into a new, more supple instrument. A voice that remains strangely new. His short stories were his best fiction, and in them we find his best self. Unlike the novels, they scarcely date at all.

Like Raymond Carver -- whose "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" is so clearly an homage -- he was often parodied but never successfully imitated. Vain and self-deluding in his life, Ernest Hemingway put his soul into his short fiction, with absolute integrity and lucidity, with vast sympathy for his characters, and with a mastery of language that can take your breath away.

1 comment:

jaeleslie said...

funny, i just read that story last week. looking for something else by dead white male, but found that instead, in the norton short fiction, and it sure is... short. i can say no more.