Wednesday, January 16th 2012

Kevin,

I’ve got another song to share, but there’s still plenty of time for you to hear my terrible attempts at lyrics.

I just got back from snowmobiling, which was really not my thing. Here’s a look at me with my snowsuit and helmet on. I kind of felt life a Stormtrooper.IMG_0037

My hands are still aching from the grip (and my throttle was kind of a bitch to control). Almost flew off a couple of times, which was scary, especially when we got up to 30 mph. More and more I’m reminded how petite-bourgeois I am. But the damn thing was so jerky. I hardly enjoyed the scenery, which was amazing, since I was so focused on trying to stay on and have the thing move in the right direction.

Anyway, I also finished Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins today, which is one of the strangest books I’ve ever encountered. Imagine if the narrator from Pale Fire was an American and a psychiatrist and you’ll start to get a sense of how wacky it is. I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure what to think, ultimately. Sometimes strangeness doesn’t turn me off so much as puzzle me into submission, so that I don’t feel comfortable thinking critically about a piece. If you like Vonnegut or Heller, this book would definitely be in your wheelhouse.

I also started Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald, an author I very much admire. He, along with J.M. Coetzee, has a wonderful habit of playing with autobiography. The novels I’ve read of his are all from the first person, and read in such a way that you start to assume Sebald is the narrator. But, of course, he isn’t, or if Sebald is the narrator, it’s not the same Sebald as the one that’s writing it. One might think he’s just tricking the audience, but there’s more going on here. He’s skewering the idea of “author as great authority on his work” (which is funny in itself, since author comes from the same root as authority). Giving us a narrator that’s almost, but not quite, the author makes us realize just how much we project onto writers, how much we expect them to know about their work, how much we expect them to delineate for us what’s “real” or not in their fictions – like my favorite question, “what aspects of your novel come from your own experience?” as if to experience something is the only way to be able to speak with any authority about it (sometimes it is, but our ability for empathy is far stronger than we in western culture tend to think).

There’s a nice little coincidence in Austerlitz that I thought would be fun to share. The book begins in Antwerp, which is one of the major settings in the book I’m working on here in Wyoming, Evening on the Grounds. Hearing another writer talk about the city is already giving me some ideas for a little extra polish on my draft.

The narrator in Austerlitz is visiting the city long after my protagonist is stationed there. My character, Peter Rath, spends some weeks scrambling over the canal to try to take the city from the Germans. The Canadians, along with the Poles, were charged with opening up Antwerp for shipping, so that the push to the Rhine could continue. But the city ended up being a surreal place for the soldiers – almost everything remained open, and the city remained mostly intact. They called it The Streetcar War, because Flemish civilians could take a streetcar across the line of battle. Soldiers on either side of the line would take time off to get drunk in bars and enjoy the city, before battling it out at night across the water. Coming from the pain and brutality of the push through France after D-Day, Antwerp must have seemed like paradise to these men. Peter’s in the middle of it all, and his memories of Antwerp expand to try to push out the other horrors he witnesses during the war. Dealing with his trauma in an authentic (there’s that word again) way has been my biggest challenge, hopefully at some point you can tell me whether I’ve succeeded or not.

 

– Noah

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About greycitywhitenorth

Canadian born, Chicago raised writer. Contributer to The A.V. Club. Wearer of Brooks Brothers.
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