Monday, July 22, 2013

If on a winter's night in Gilead: An Odd Couple

If you read If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino you would surely say it is one of the most unusual formats of any novel you have read. But if you go from there to Gilead: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson you might be stunned. How can two so very different books employ such odd means of suspense and tension to pull you through to the ends? If I had three eyes I would be reading with all of them: one for story, one for language, and one for form or craft. Instead, it seems, my eyes take turns cycling through the three with a focus on one at a time.

I am fascinated by their vast differences and their tiny samenesses. Both authors clearly show a love of language (granted, the quotes are by a translator for the Calvino, but translators try to be true to the original authors in some way). Both begin by addressing someone in the second person. Calvino clearly meant you to be the person addressed. Robinson showed immediately that this is a kind of extended letter or journal to the narrator's young son, but over time, the reader winds up wearing the son's skin.

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. (Calvino, 1979)
I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old. (Robinson, 2004)

The rhythms are wonderful. The tones and stories are quite different. Calvino's narration is determined, almost demanding, appealing to your mind. (I wrote a teeny bit about it in this post.) Robinson's is gentle and begins tugging at your heart immediately. Both writers were quite purposeful about this. Calvino's book is about suspense and writing and what keeps a reader's attention; it is also metafiction (self-reflexive). Each chapter takes on a new story without completing the preceding one—the story of the reader the only running thread—although the stories turn out to contain retellings, borrowed and disguised characters, and variations as well. While he introduced a sort of courtship or romance with another reader, you don't really feel it as anything more than plot. Robinson's book is pure heart. A fictional autobiography of a minister at the end of his life musing about forgiveness, being a good person, judgment, God, family, and philosophy. The book is solidly Christian-based, but it does not feel too heavily so; it feels more humanistic to me, more universal. It takes on common thoughts and feelings and questions of a person in older age. A slow book to be taken slowly.

How can they possibly be crafted in a similar manner? If on a winter's night… has 22 short chapters that alternate a new story with the reader's story. Gilead has breaks, but no chapters. It does, however, have stories begun but not completed, new stories started and finished, older stories fleshed out. The reader has to wait to find out why a man is distrusted or when the narrator met his young wife or how his grandfather lost an eye. The desire to find out what happened in several different situations carries the reader along, although the slowness of it comes awfully close to making the reader either stop reading or look ahead. Luckily, it doesn't actually stop the reader, probably because Robinson's prose is so lyrical and the images so beautiful.

At one point in If on a winter's night… a character (Lotaria) says that she does not need to read a book to understand what it is about; she has a computer program that lists all of the frequent words, that can read the book for her, saving her time. She looks to the middle, to "the words richest in meaning" after "and" and "the" etc., to give her "a fairly precise notion of the book" (186-Harvest Book paperback). If you ran Gilead through this program, you likely would find the words "remarkable" "astonishing" "beautiful" "wonderful" and probably "light." The interesting result of reading these words so many times is the beauty and lightness and astonishment you start to feel.

They really are two totally different books that can teach a similar lesson in writing craft: how to propel a story. In these two cases,  you might give only the information needed for one particular moment. A look at an ordinary day might give a clue to how these books work. Simplistically, of course!  Imagine that this particular day the tasks are: learning to knit a sweater, reading an article, writing a letter, and fixing a large meal; each task is broken into sections with no one task completed until the end of the day, and then maybe some tasks deferred for another day. The reader of this day might wonder what each of these things is going to look like. Whom is the sweater for? What is the article about? Do either of these things change the character's actions? How important is the letter? What will it do? Perhaps the front of the sweater is started. The first page of the article is read. A draft of part of the letter is composed. The ingredients for the meal are bought. Then a sleeve is worked on. A crossword puzzle started. A letter completed. Little by little, the story unfolds. The reader finds out who the character is, what his/her desires, worries, and hopes are. The plot may not be much, but with skill and attention to language, the writer can make it interesting. 

If several of the tasks turn out to have complications and stakes, all the better. The finished sweater will actually be an art piece that the patron will pay a year's wage for. The letter is a response to a new-found sibling. The meal is for the character's daughter who was given up for adoption as an infant. Who knows? I don't know if these ideas could ever get to the level of either Calvino or Robinson, but it is interesting to consider those writers' forms as a starting point. 

Taking on much more than an ordinary day, both Calvino and Robinson are astonishing masters of writing in their own particular voices. Those two books, side by side or back to back, are a strange juxtaposition, indeed. I wonder will happen with the next two books I read, or the two you read, and what you or I will take away from them as an odd couple.


Lucia Sasaki said...

Hi Alisa, thanks so much for your post, your English is very beautiful and flows so smoothly. For me that speak Portuguese, it is delightful.
I know Calvino a little (mainly for his compilation of Italian fables) but I didn't know Robinson. I am going to put this in my wish list because I am very interested by christian view of old age. After all, nowadays I am 43 years old and time pass quickly.
Thanks again!!


Alisa said...

Thank you for reading, Lucia!

Marilynne Robinson also wrote Housekeeping (1980), a beautiful novel that was given an award for best first novel (PEN/Hemingway Award). I did not realize it, but Gilead won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

(and as a side note: our upcoming Fall issue of Star 82 Review will feature a poem in Portuguese and English by a Brazilian woman who lives in Canada.)

Lauren said...

I love seeing Gilead make a blog appearance! :)

Alisa said...

Lauren! Thanks for your recommendation!

Lauren said...

And now I want to get back into some Calvino. I was very interested in the parallels you described. You're always such a thoughtful reader.