Friday, May 19, 2006

Memory Speaks

I was pontificating on another blog today about the NYT list of the Best Books Since Reagan's Election when I found myself thinking an old question: why do we remember books at all?

Quick answer: character.

I've never read Toni Morrison's "Beloved," but maybe that's the reason it scored so high and other conventionally better or more artistic novels didn't. Does anyone remember the characters of Don DeLillo's "Underworld"? (Were there any? Can't recall. After the last page, the book flew out of my head.)

Take books as diverse as "Lolita" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" or "Catch-22" or "Slaughterhouse Five" or "The Grapes of Wrath" -- you can debate the vast literary differences between them all day; what unifies them is that no one who reads them is ever likely to forget Delores, Humbert, Scout, Jem, Boo, Yossarian, Billy Pilgrim or Tom Joad.

Part of the reason this is on my mind is that I'm about to finish "Anna Karenina," and you can't help but realize while reading it why she's one of the great characters of literature: she's alive and distinct in ways other bored aristocratic beauties simply aren't. People who return to the book a second time may be surprised to recall how boring it is in parts, with all those lumpy sections devoted to democratic reform and agriculture, but Anna never lets you go. Same goes for "Madame Bovary" -- you'll forget the brilliant style and sense of the book before you'll forget the central character.


Elizabeth M. said...

I think for a quick answer, that's a good answer, but not the only answer. I think other elements can make a book memorable: place (antebellum South, Nazi Germany, etc); time (WWII, the Depression, prehistoric times); plot or structure (Atonement, Pale Fire come to mind); style (Marilynne Robinson) even in the absence of a single strong character. Any of those elements, including character, can be used by a superior artist to tell us something important and true about the world in a new way, and that is what makes great literature great.

If character does stand out for that purpose above the other elements, perhaps it is simply because we are human beings, social creatures, and the vehicle for carrying these new, important truths about the world that we naturally find most entrancing and compelling is human personality.

So I'm not disagreeing with you.

RW said...

Gotcha -- and like I said it's a quick answer. There are as you point out masterpieces of style and place, but I wonder too if in the end it still isn't character that runs the show. For example, Ulysses -- noted worldwide mainly for its difficulty, praised for its style and structure. And yet, if it did not have those strong central central characters of Leopold, Molly and Steven, wouldn't it seem artistically deficient? Same goes for "Pale Fire" -- would it be as admired and loved and debated were it not for the fact that, beyond anything else Nabokov achieved, he left us with such powerful characters as Shade and Kinbote?

Another way of phrasing this debate; can a novel be great without great characters?

Addendum: there is probably nothing for which Shakespeare is more highly revered than his characters.

Elizabeth M. said...

It's very hard to think of masterful novels that don't center on a remarkable character. I can think of a few. I can't remember the name of a single Ian McEwan character. I do remember details about some of the characters, but they aren't personalities to me the way Leopold, Humbert, even Kinbote (though in his Nabokovian way he stretches the theory a bit) are. Same with Coetzee's works, or Robinson's GILEAD. (Elizabeth Costello -- memorable, but she never seems quite so real to me.) But I think McEwan, Coetzee, and Robinson are very good authors who have important things to say, and say them in an entertaining way.

Madame Bovary -- I'm not sure I would remember the poor woman's name if it wasn't the title of the novel. It's a masterpiece, but the heroine is such a black hole. She sucks everything in and gives nothing back. Her awe-inspiring superficiality is the barrier, I think. Charles and M. Homais are much more vivid to me. For me MADAME BOVARY is another counterexample, a work that is great despite the flaws of its characters.

[Speaking of Joyce, one of most stunning things to me about Smiley's 13 WAYS OF MISREADING A NOVEL was her take on ULYSSES. She concluded that Joyce didn't really understand Bloom. I wonder if a character has ever been as well understood by his author. Huckleberry Finn, maybe.]

Pardon me while I rattle on...I was reading Ebert's GREAT MOVIES last night and this a.m. and so I brought the same question to bear on movies -- is it great characters that make movies great? It's harder to think of counterexamples for movies, movies that achieve greatness without a great character. That probably says something about the kind of movies I like, and also my ignorance of foreign and avant garde films.

RW said...

You know, I have that Jane Smiley book; it's just within arm's reach, in fact, but I never reach for it because what little I read of it just pissed me off. I hated her Dickens book. I'm tempted to read what she says about Anna Karenina, but her judgements tend to come across as so smug or so stupid that I'm not real sure I want to bother. There is a real possibility, though, that I should pursue the works of critics with whom I profoundly disagree.

You're right, I think, about Emma Bovary being a "black hole," but it's that very superficiality that makes her memorable, and which gives Charles and Rodolphe something to react against.

The situation may be different with film. It's often been pointed out that you don't remember the actors in a Kubrick film but you do remember Kubrick. Not entirely true, but you get the point, and it goes for a lot of other directors with a very strong visual style. It's their way of looking at things that sticks with you. Hitchcock, for example; there are great performances in his movies, but none of them ever outshine him. Good question though. Worth pondering.

Elizabeth M. said...

That's a really good review.

It occurs to me that it's not as easy as I at first thought to find correspondences between film and literature. Visual style and literary style correspond, but there are also important differences between them. The filmgoer's experience of being immersed via a sense modality -- that's not available to the reader.

RW said...

On the other hand...did you see that American Masters special about John Ford and John Wayne? Their best film, The Searchers, was made by a great director and featured Wayne in a great performance of a huge character. So it's not especially either/or, I guess.

Elizabeth M. said...

I didn't see it, is it on DVD?

Thinking about Hitchcock and Kubrick, maybe it's coincidence, but I get the impression that they were two directors who didn't like actors much. They were reputed to be very controlling and bullying, and I sort of get the feeling that they would have been happy making their movies without actors. Strangelove and Lolita would be two exceptions for Kubrick.

I did read that Sidney Lumet book you recommended, and in contrast he seems to be a director who likes and respects actors and people in general, and his films have a warmer, more human quality than anything I can think of by Hitchcock. Even Doris Day can't warm up The Man Who Knew Too Much!