Please, if you live in Toronto, come to the launch of my new novel Therefore Choose on Monday 3 May, at the North Ballroom of the Gladstone Hotel, 1214 Queen Street West. It starts at 7.30pm (doors open at 7pm). There is a $5.00 entrance fee at the door, which is refunded with a purchase of the book. (If you can't come and would like to buy the book through Amazon, click here.) Maja Djikic and I will discuss the novel, and how it came to be written. We'll link the writing to the research we have done together on the psychology of fiction writers' emotions, and to the psychology of reading fiction.
I am back in Toronto now, having been detained in Europe for eight more days than I had expected, by a cloud of volcanic ash that hung over us there. I am looking forward to the launch, and I am making this post a day earlier than usual this week.
Therefore Choose is a love story in which an English medical student, George Smith, visits Germany in 1936 with a university friend, Werner Vodn. In Berlin he falls in love with Anna von Kleist who runs a literary magazine there. The book took me about three years to write.
I was born in London, England, six months before the start of World War II and it came as a shock to me recently to realize that of the ten earliest memories of my childhood, eight of them had to do with the war. These memories include being in an air-raid shelter, seeing a doodle-bug (V-1 flying bomb) coming over my house, seeing my father—rather unfamiliar to me—a medical officer in an artillery regiment, come home in uniform (before what I now realize was the Normandy invasion) with a jeep that he parked in the driveway! In part, the book was written to imagine myself into the lives of people at that time, somehow distant but somehow very close. In part, too, it was written to explore some of the complicated effects of this terrible war on everyone, then and since.
Patrick Colm Hogan has written a brilliant book, The mind and its stories, in which he describes reading stories from all round the world from before the age of European colonization. He found that some kinds of story are so common as to be human universals. The most common is the love story: two lovers are impeded from being united, usually by a relative or by a rival. The second most common is the story of angry conflict, usually is experienced as a battle of good against evil; the fight against the Nazis was certainly of this kind. My novel projects the theme of a love story into the theme of angry conflict, and in this story it is the conflict that impedes the lovers' union. Hogan has described how, in stories of conflict, after the killing has stopped, there is often what he calls an "epilogue of suffering" in which the victors feel guilt for the ways in which they themselves have behaved, and empathy for the vanquished. This idea is central to my novel. The question from which my book grew was this: what would it be like, after the war, to be a German who thought and felt in the ways the Allies believed Germans should think and feel at that time? In the novel, Anna does think and feel in this way. She and George are separated during the war. After it, George, on the side of the victors, continues to feel for her.
As I started on the book, I found that I was writing an existentialist novel. One makes choices all the time in life, but how does one choose when one has absolutely no idea what the results of such choices will be? Here is how I start a chapter towards the end of the book: "Life can only be understood backwards. That’s what Kierkegaard said. But then he said, The trouble is one has to live it forwards."
My goal in writing fiction is to put literature and psychology together, to enable readers to experience certain situations as they immerse themselves in the story. My intention is for these situations to resonate with people's ordinary lives, for instance with everyday episodes of love and conflict, but to be different from the ordinary so that readers can experience recurring situations in new ways. I think that, in the imagined scenes of fiction, we can sometimes reach into emotional issues that are closest to us more deeply than we often can in ordinary life.
Patrick Colm Hogan (2003). The mind and its stories: Narrative universals and human emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
You are not the only one who finds some difficulty in such memories. Early on in Kundera's "Unbearable Lightness", the author/narrator mentions recently looking at a book about Hitler, and how he found himself experiencing an "unbelievable feeling"--a kind of nostalgia for the childhood he'd lived during the war. And that despite the fact that several of his relatives had perished in Hitler's camps.
Kundera too is interested in this existential theme of choice. But I think it is possibility to read his book in terms of the difficulty of knowing other people (and, of course, one's self). I liked the way that this theme of ignorance figured in your "Best Laid Schemes". I'm still thinking about these problems and trying to write something myself about it, so I shall have to read your new novel.
As always, thanks.
PS I am not a competent translator, but among my favorite lines in K's book occur in the third section of the first part, when Tomas thinks that his own indecisiveness is natural. We live our lives immediately all at once and without preparation--like actors who never rehearsed...
Thank you so much, Mark, for this comment. I think for people who grew up in Europe, as well as for any who fought in, or whose relatives were affected by, the horrors of World War II, the issues and effects continue to reverberate. Certainly that is true for me.
Thanks for this wonderful quote about "actors who never rehearsed" from Kundera. It's brilliant, exactly right. I read The unbearable lightness of being a long time ago, and was struck by it but without being able to make as much sense of it as I would have liked. Since Kundera started to publish essays in the last few years I have read each book of them eagerly as soon as it came out, and with a great sense of gratitude. In fact I enjoyed these more than I had enjoyed the novel. Perhaps the time has come to re-read The unbearable lightness.
Thank you for the invitation to participate at the "Therefore Choose" launch event. I am in Toronto and am planning to attend, with pleasure.
Perhaps only memories of human suffering related to such traumatic events as World War I or II (but not only those) can produce the best literature. I, too, have read with much enjoyment the "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and watched the movie as well. What strikes me about several of Kundera's books (but also with Klima's characters - for example Pavel), is that once the prison, oppression and confinement are removed, the creativity, the greatness of art, the intellectual consciousness and output tend to fade away. The void, the emptiness and materialism that followed and still follows the fall of Iron Curtain is sad and paradoxical.
Thanks very much, ABi. I look forward to meeting you at the launch. I agree with you. Among the awful effects of World War II, and the period of assimilation of countries into the empire of the USSR, the reverberations continue, and it doesn't seem that materialism is going to be a very worthwhile answer. Perhaps that's a reason why literary fiction will continue to be important.
But how is it that literature (art in general?) can help us? Perhaps, you have suggested that it makes us more aware of the nature of human agency—that we act with partial knowledge of ourselves and the others involved, not to mention our partial knowledge of the objective facts.
But I cannot be sure you would endorse that.
Can awareness of our individual acting in ignorance help us understand and absorb the historical facts of fascism and communism? I guess I think that these notions (agency, plans, ignorance) are deep enough so that any treatment of these subjects (fascism, communism) must enter into dialogue with them.
But as much as I endorse your project (to the extent I understand it), it seems to me that there is as well an important fact about that world independent of my will: that it is partially a world brought into being by the wills of others, and not all others equally--most especially brought into being by others who are no less possessed of a partial and incomplete knowledge, but who would not like to face up to it—those who are called “powerful”.
And, this, too, I know is something of which you are not unaware. I appreciate how you have consistently tied the fact of depression and poverty (both in Best Laid Schemes and your short book about the emotions).
One might get a false suggestion from your writings. I call it false and believe it so, though I do not know if it is your suggestion. This comes when you mention the idea that for George Eliot the emotions provided a solution to the problem of choice. (These are not your words, but what you said resounds in my memory in that form.) But I cannot see how recognizing a role for the emotions in and of themselves can be a solution. They are part of the problem in the following sense: some emotions lead us forward in a good way, others do not.
So emotions per se can’t solve our existential dilemma—our dilemma about how to choose. It’s not just a choice or any choice that we want; isn’t it a choice for what’s better and not what’s worse. I can imagine a different sort of answer: you just choose and choose and choose—and the process never stops, and it’s nonsense to speak of better and worse. But if we say nothing is better or worse, how can we say that Casaubon’s emotional narrowness was a form of unhappiness?
I do think that there is one answer to the question: How does literature (or art in general) help us to live? That is, if it does not tell us what to do, what does it do? The answer I have in mind is that it provides a sort of warning or reminder of the incompleteness of our plans and the partiality of our knowledge. Neglecting those partialities and incompletenesses is a kind of arrogance and false pride. Ignoring the fact of human ignorance leads to misery small and large-scale. So, anything that forces us to confront our limitations might increase our chances of making a wiser choice than we would otherwise make. (But why wouldn’t it, then, lead to immobility? Because we simply must act.)
And, thinking now of Kundera’s remarks about beauty, and his appreciation for beauty in chance events, literature can also remind us of what’s at stake wen we choose, and what we can enjoy despite our ignorance and the failure of our plans.
Sheer willfulness can take our eye off the beauty in our lives--a beauty which persists even when our plans have been destroyed, and we find that we are not the persons we imagined we would be.
And that would mean literature gives us two gifts: a reminder of how small we really are, how finite our knowledge, how incomplete our plans—but, as a sort of consolation, a reminder, as well, that the world in which we live is no small thing, and that amidst the ruins of our plans there is beauty, if we can only put aside our egoism and notice it.
Well, these thoughts are in part new to me, but as they were stimulated by what you have written, I hope you do not mind if I share them here.
Thank you very much, Mark, for your long second comment. I'll need to think about it some more, but to start with here is my thought. You say, "emotions are part of the problem ... some lead us forward in a good way, others do not." I agree, or at least I agree in part.
I take emotions to be signals to us of events that affect our concerns, that is to say that affect us closely. They indicate to us that something is happening of importance to us. Yes, some emotions push us in directions that are deleterious, and that's why the Stoics distrusted them. So I don't think emotions are the solution in themselves, but I do think that in their role as prompting us to think about the events that gave rise to them, the emotions can tell us a great deal about who we are (our unconscious as well as our conscious concerns) and our relationships with others. This happens in ordinary life, and because fiction is so much about emotions, it gives us experience of them in new contexts, in ways that we can reflect on them, and understand other people and ourselves better.
Keith, thank you for your comment.
I, too, need to do more thinking.
And I have to thank you again for the stimulation and pleasure provided by "On Fiction".
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