Life / Art
From A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Brett Helquist
In Germany, there are pretty much only two categories: literature—work aspiring toward literary merit—and then just pure information, train schedules and the like. (Unfortunate example.)
John Cheever’s “legacy” is based almost entirely on his stories, whereas for me it rests, or should rest, on the massive achievement of the posthumously published Journals. It’s simply a great work: it dwarfs everything else he wrote; it’s what all his other work was building toward. So, too, the encomia several years ago re: Leonard Michaels when he died. It’s his journals that matter to me—not his stories, or if so, only the extremely collagistic stories in I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, such as “Eating Out.” Same with David Foster Wallace; only his two books of essays matter to me, and these matter a lot.
I like art with a visible string to the world.
In fiction, the war is between two characters—Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, say—whereas in serious essays, there’s just as much war, as much “conflict,” but it’s within the breast, as it were, of the narrator/speaker/author. The essayist tries to get to everything that Macbeth does; he just locates it all within his own psyche. Every man contains within himself the entire human condition.
Thoreau: “The next time the novelist rings the bell, I will not stir though the meeting-house burn down.”
When my daughter Natalie was seven, she read the Lemony Snicket series, which is about three orphaned kids who undergo various and terrible adventures as they try to find a home. They get handed off to Count Olaf, a distant cousin who is an utter ogre. A middle-class kid can read it from the vantage of her secure home and love the characters’ horrific lives. Anything cute is by definition damaged: what’s alluring to children about something that’s cute is that they can love it back to health and thereby feel powerful themselves. In their ordinary lives, children are constantly condescended to; it’s important that they can condescend to something else.
One of my students, who was on the quiz show The Weakest Link, mailed me a videotape of her appearance and then sent me the essay she wrote; I showed the video and read the essay to Natalie. I wanted to make it clear to her that you can write about anything that happens to you, that it’s a natural response to experience.