When you start reading In Another Country, it’s the precision of David Constantine’s prose that gets you first. His descriptions, his dialogue—it’s all so unnervingly exact, dropping you into scenes that are both immediately recognizable and profoundly unsettling. And one consequence of this exactitude is that you simply can’t skim a Constantine story. There’s that school of thought that every detail in a short story should be an essential detail, but actual stories live up to that theory to varying degrees—the point being that Constantine’s best work, as represented in this career-spanning collection (which includes stories from the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award-winning Tea at the Midland), hits that mark with riveting consistency. In this guest post, he explains the purpose behind this careful approach to language, a literary purpose that’s equal parts aesthetic and philosophical.
The phrase is Lawrence’s: “The essential quality of poetry is that it makes a new effort of attention.” So does fiction. And, doing it, poems and stories ask us to do the same: attend better. I associate that demand with Lear’s shocked utterance when he is evicted out of kingship onto the heath and begins to notice that the poor have a hard time of it: “O, I have ta’en / Too little care of this …” We all take too little care. Fiction and poetry jolt us into caring more. They widen our sympathy.
In practice the new effort of attention will most often have a polemical edge because it will alert us to the state we are in. The declaration that citizens have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness cannot be un-declared. So, alerted, paying attention, we look around us and see, at best, that the aspiration has been very imperfectly realized, and, at worst, that much has been done to make its realization unlikely or downright impossible.
Fiction and poetry continually remind us that we do not (are not permitted to, don’t try hard enough to) live as connectedly, wholly, humanely as we might. They help us imagine a livelier life.They do this intrinsically first by practising the autonomy without which no artistic creation is possible. That autonomy contradicts and challenges the unfreedom which in various forms (some more obvious than others) reduces our lives in society. And secondly, a poem or story unsettles us by its own truth and beauty because it confronts us with that famous pairing all too often in circumstances of very great ugliness and mendacity (trashed environment, debased public discourse and conduct, for example). Fiction and poetry by their intrinsic workings urge us not to give up the hope of freedom, truth and beauty. In fact, they incite us to revolt.
14 June 2015 | selling shorts |
photo: Zack DeZun
Tania Luna is the co-author (with her business partner Leeann Renninger) of Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected, a book about the positive benefits that can come when you don’t know what’s going to happen next—and how you can cultivate the potential to be surprised in your professional and personal life. (And, too, how to delightfully surprise others; there’s some lessons in here that I’ll be doing my best to incorporate into this site and other projects in the future…)
For this Beatrice guest essay, Luna tells us about a time that she was recently surprised by a book… and about the deeper, underlying principle of surprise she recognized in its pages.
Recently, I decided to stay away from fiction. That sentence sent a chill down my spine, but it’s true. I am an obsessive story reader (I’m also an obsessive chocolate eater and workaholic, but that’s a different conversation). As a kid, I used to skip school to finish a novel. As an adult, I’ve postponed meetings and missed more train stops than I can count just to soak up a few more chapters. My life had gotten so busy that I decided to stick to nonfiction. The resolution worked reasonably well. That is, until I glanced up at my bookshelf one night. Before I knew it, I snatched up a book, and in my hands I held the soft, worn pages of Mary Poppins.
When I was a child, my grandmother made me a swing from a broken lawn chair that she suspended from the ceiling. I would hang in the middle of the room, kicking my legs in and out, as she read me Mary Poppins. I looked at the book in my now grownup hands, and I could remember my grandmother’s voice, the way she’d clear her throat, the rustling of the pages, the swing pressing into my thighs, the way the lamp light danced in her reading glasses. But I couldn’t recall the story. My fiction ban notwithstanding, I decided that a quick dip into a children’s book couldn’t hurt my productivity all that much.
I was wrong, of course. As soon as I read the words “Chapter I, East Wind,” I was transported to P.L. Travers’s strange, whimsical world, and I didn’t come back up for air again until there were no words left to read. From beginning to end, Mary Poppins filled me with surprise.
5 April 2015 | guest authors |