"Wendy Lesser's extraordinary alertness, intelligence, and curiosity have made her one of America's most significant cultural critics," writes Stephen Greenblatt. In Why I Read, Lesser draws on a lifetime of pleasure reading and decades of editing one of the most distinguished literary magazines in the country, The Threepenny Review, to describe her love of literature. As Lesser writes in her prologue, "Reading can result in boredom or transcendence, rage or enthusiasm, depression or hilarity, empathy or contempt, depending on who you are and what the book is and how your life is shaping up at the moment you encounter it."
Here the reader will discover a definition of literature that is as broad as it is broad-minded. In addition to novels and stories, Lesser explores plays, poems, and essays along with mysteries, science fiction, and memoirs. As she examines these works from such perspectives as "Character and Plot," "Novelty," "Grandeur and Intimacy," and "Authority," Why I Read sparks an overwhelming desire to put aside quotidian tasks in favor of reading. Lesser's passion for this pursuit resonates on every page, whether she is discussing the book as a physical object or a particular work's influence. "Reading literature is a way of reaching back to something bigger and older and different," she writes. "It can give you the feeling that you belong to the past as well as the present, and it can help you realize that your present will someday be someone else's past. This may be disheartening, but it can also be strangely consoling at times."
A book in the spirit of E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel and Elizabeth Hardwick's A View of My Own, Why I Read is iconoclastic, conversational, and full of insight. It will delight those who are already avid readers as well as neophytes in search of sheer literary fun.
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Wendy Lesser is the founder and editor of The Threepenny Review, which Adam Zagajewski has called "one of the most original literary magazines not only in the U.S. but also on the entire planet." She is the author of eight previous books of nonfiction and one novel. Her recent books include the prizewinning Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen String Quartets. She has written for The New York Times Book Review, the London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. She divides her time between Berkeley, California, and New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
CHARACTER AND PLOT
I had meant to keep these two things separate. I intended to start with a chapter about character and then move on, in the next chapter, to plot, since that is pretty much the order in which I choose what I want to read. The two labels had a kind of inevitability in my mind, as if mathematicians had discovered them in nature. And it’s true that writers and readers and teachers and critics have been using these terms for such a long time now that it would be hard to do without them. Yet they turn out not to be oppositional categories, or even fully separable ones. As I discovered when I began to press harder on the distinction, it doesn’t make sense to think in terms of plot versus character: plot modifies character and character modifies plot, and there can be no meaningful version of one that exists purely without the other.
Henry James (who always gets there before me) observed in his sharp, generous essay about the novels of Anthony Trollope:
If he had taken sides on the droll, bemuddled opposition between novels of character and novels of plot, I can imagine him to have said (except that he never expressed himself in epigrams), that he preferred the former class, inasmuch as character in itself is plot, while plot is by no means character. It is more safe indeed to believe that his great good sense would have prevented him from taking an idle controversy seriously. Character, in any sense in which we can get at it, is action, and action is plot, and any plot which hangs together, even if it pretend to interest us only in the fashion of a Chinese puzzle, plays upon our emotion, our suspense, by means of personal references. We care what happens to people only in proportion as we know what people are.
And, he might have added, we know what people are only by seeing what they do when confronted with what happens to them: this is what James means when he says that character, “in any sense in which we can get at it,” is action, or plot.
One has only to look at his own novels to see how this works. Characters like Isabel Archer, Kate Croy, and Maggie Verver, though they may spend whole chapters musing to themselves, essentially think in the same way they speak: rationally, socially, effortfully. Despite James’s reputation as a novelist of great psychological depth, there are virtually no scenes in which he peers beneath the verbal surface, telling us that whereas So-and-so appeared to think this, she really thought that. Behavior is the manifestation of thought, in James. In the few cases where his characters attempt to think deviously—as does, for instance, Mrs. Gereth in The Spoils of Poynton—they are almost always mistaken, or misguided, or at the very least misled as to the efficacy of their own wishes and beliefs. In this respect, the purely psychological interior is not the place where James’s deepest truths dwell. Nor do his characters dream, for the most part. If they have an unconscious, it is as invisible to them as it is to us.
It is not just a matter of our knowing these people through their actions. That is how they come to know themselves. Isabel Archer does not fully define herself to herself—does not, in that sense, arrive at her long-sought fate—until, at the end of The Portrait of a Lady, she renounces her own hard-won freedom and returns to Rome for the sake of her stepdaughter, Pansy. Kate Croy, in The Wings of the Dove, does not realize how deeply she hates the squalor of poverty until she finds herself manipulating her fiancé into marriage with a dying heiress. And Maggie Verver, in The Golden Bowl, has no sense of the reserves of her own psychological fortitude, no awareness of how much power she is capable of exerting, until she sets out to separate her husband from his mistress, who happens to be her beloved father’s wife. These women do not come ready-packaged with a character that accompanies them through life, like a kit-bag of charms carried by the generic hero of a fairy tale. On the contrary, they become their characters—they develop into them—by facing up to the various things that life throws at them, some as a result of chance and others stemming directly from their own actions. But even to distinguish chance from self-imposed destiny is to belie the atmosphere of a James novel, where character is both forged and manifested through its confrontation with all kinds of events—events which, as this perspicacious author repeatedly suggests, arise from an indistinguishable melding of self, environment, history, will, and coincidence.
Henry James’s chosen task, as a novelist, was to locate such moments of self-creation, self-definition, self-discovery—call it what you will—in the often superficial, frequently deceptive, socially complex life of his times. It is not always a pretty sight, this moment at which the person finds out who or what she is, but it is always interesting, which is why the last hundred pages of a James novel invariably zoom by in a flood of suspense. If this payoff for the character, and for us, comes at the end, for the novelist himself it always began much earlier, at the dinner party or the polite gathering where, in the casual conversations taking place around him, he first caught a glimpse of his precious donnée, that “given” item of news or hearsay from which he could begin to weave his fictional web. To see him at home after the party as he writes up his almost-nightly notebook entries, working out the details of what he has captured on the fly, is practically to feel in one’s own body the palpable thrill of authorial discovery. The initial stimulus is never sufficient, the shred of gossip never enough: he has to work it over and over, teasing and tinkering and toying with it, until what he was handed becomes what he wants. The given turns into the wrought-upon, as the self imposes its own nature on the bare events it is faced with. It is a recapitulation of the very process his characters go through.
It was at a dinner on December 23, 1893, that James first heard, from a Mrs. Anstruther-Thompson, the core of the tale that ultimately became The Spoils of Poynton—a “small and ugly matter” involving a young laird who, upon his marriage, planned to dispossess his widowed mother of her house and all its beautiful possessions, as he had a legal right to do. The plot, as we now have it in the novel, is practically all there from the beginning: the mother’s hatred of the new wife, her removal of the precious objects, the threat of litigation, and so on. But the elusive heart of the story is still evading James as late as the fall of 1895, nearly two years later. On October 15, he uses his notebook entry to explore the problem. “What does she do then?—how does she work, how does she achieve her heroism?” he asks himself about the character of Fleda Vetch (a creation of his own, distinctly not a figure in the initial dinner-table story). “It’s the question of how she takes care of it that is the tight knot of my donnée,” he goes on. And then, before our very eyes, he loosens that knot by worrying at it:
That confronts me with the question of the action Fleda exercises on Mrs. Gereth and of how she exercises it. My old idea was that she worked, as it were, on her feelings. Well, eureka! I think I have found it—I think I see the little interesting turn and the little practicable form … How a little click of perception, of this sort, brings back to me all the strange sacred time of my thinkings-out, this way, pen in hand, of the stuff of my little theatrical trials … My new little notion was to represent Fleda as committing—for drama’s sake—some broad effective stroke of her own. But that now looks to me like a mistake: I’ve got hold, very possibly, of the tail of the right thing. Isn’t the right thing to make Fleda simply work upon Mrs. Gereth, but work in an interesting way?
And here, with his metaphor of the “tail,” he suggests how he is being led by something outside himself, is merely following an idea that has been thrust upon him with that nearly audible “click of perception.” Is this process internal or external, character-driven or plot-driven? The question makes no sense, because the two are inseparable.
* * *
Still, I would have to say that for me character is always at the forefront. I cannot enjoy even a plain old mystery if the people (the detectives and the killers, but especially the detectives) do not on some level strike me as persuasive. And in this view I am supported, it turns out, by that grandmaster of plotting, Wilkie Collins. “It may be possible, in novel-writing,” he wrote in the 1861 preface to his wildly popular thriller The Woman in White, “to present characters successfully without telling a story; but it is not possible to tell a story successfully without presenting characters: their existence, as recognisable realities, being the sole condition on which the story can effectively be told. The only narrative which can hope to lay a strong hold on the attention of readers, is a narrative which interests them about men and women—for the perfectly obvious reason that they are men and women themselves.”
To be persuasive, a character need not necessarily adhere to the rules of humdrum reality. Nor need she be a fully shaped human figure with descriptive qualities attached. Sometimes, as in a poem, she can simply be a voice. But what she does need to have, if she is to persuade us of her reality, is a plausible relationship to her own context. That context resides in the content of the work of literature (its situation, its setting, its plot), but also in its form, by which I mean its language, its diction, its mode of address. So there are at least two kinds of surrounding environment: the one the character perceives, because she exists there as a real person, and another of which she generally remains oblivious, because it defines her as a fictional character. Both collaborate to shape her personality and our response to it.
Every character springs from and belongs to his own specific world, and though he may be successfully relocated from that context (as Hamlet, for instance, is relocated to an existential-absurdist performance in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), he will not be the same character in the new setting, even if he is still given his old lines. Because the tendrils that hold him to his original work are at once so delicate and so firmly wound, it doesn’t really make sense to distinguish a character from the other literary elements—situation, language, event, other characters—that surround and create him. Yet writers and readers have always made precisely this distinction. Perhaps we insist on it because we ourselves, as selves, feel separate from and independent of all the multitudinous factors that have gone into our own making and continue to influence our actions. To the extent that we believe ourselves to be autonomous individuals in the world, we tend, or at least wish, to grant the same autonomy to literary characters.
Some characters certainly seem more autonomous than others. Memorability, that repeated capacity to leap out of the general mist of our past reading and take center stage in our minds, is often but not always the sign of a great literary character. The characters that stick with us for weeks and months and even years after we close the book tend to be larger or at least more exaggerated than life, but they are also lifelike: they come back to us, in part, because we are reminded of them by the people we meet as we go through the rest of our lives. It’s not so much that we encounter these characters in the flesh as that we encounter their memorable qualities transferred onto living people, sometimes including ourselves.
This is especially true of Dickens’s characters, and it is the minor characters in Dickens, the ones that re-enact their distinctive habits over and over again, who tend to be most memorable in this way. The figure I recall most often from David Copperfield (and it is a novel filled with ghoulishly memorable characters: Mr. Micawber, Mr. Murdstone, Steerforth) is the eminently creepy Uriah Heep, who oozes oily fake-helpfulness and disgusting false humility even as he ushers his kind, oblivious employer into the poorhouse. If the other characters come back to me once a year or so, Uriah Heep recurs ten times as often. Nobody in life is exactly like Uriah Heep, of course, but there are many who share at least some of his irritating qualities. And such is Dickens’s power that when I meet these Heepish people, I can somehow imagine them rubbing their clammy hands together and calling themselves “’umble” even if that is something they would never do.
We recognize Uriah Heep by the way he expresses himself, but even characters without language can be memorably embodied in words. In literature as in life, the nonverbal or the preverbal can be powerful and moving figures with their own particular points of view. Anyone who has ever owned a dog, and many who have not, will consider the dog Bendicò a central character in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s marvelous novel The Leopard. His master, the Prince, certainly does; and so, it seems, did his author. In a postscript to a letter Lampedusa wrote about his only novel, belatedly added to the outside of the envelope, he scribbled, “N.B.: the dog Bendicò is a vitally important character and practically the key to the novel.” Even without this scribbled note, we would sense this, for it is the stuffed carcass of the long-dead dog, tossed away onto the dustheap, that ends this sad, funny, feelingly ironic novel about the decline of the Sicilian aristocracy.
The ten-month-old baby whose point of view is briefly taken by the narrator of The Old Wives’ Tale is another case in point. Though he is a much more temporary figure than Bendicò (in that he is only a wordless baby for a relatively short time: like most of us, he soon grows out of it), he is quite notable during the brief moment when Arnold Bennett captures him, lying on a soft woolen shawl laid over his parents’ hearthrug. “For ten months,” Bennett tells us, “he had never spent a day without making experiments on this shifting universe in which he alone remained firm and stationary. The experiments were chiefly conducted out of idle amusement, but he was serious on the subject of food. Lately the behavior of the universe in regard to his food had somewhat perplexed him, had indeed annoyed him.”
In other words, he is being weaned. Only a single page of this long novel is devoted to the baby’s viewpoint, but in it we see the hearth fire, the family dog, and the surrounding giant adults from his exhilarating, strangely philosophical, endlessly wondering perspective, before Bennett returns us to the mundane life of his parents. This single page is the one that has most strongly stayed with me through all my many decades of reading and rereading this book. Yet it was only on my last reading that I realized this baby eventually grows up to be the character who could be Arnold Bennett’s own jaundiced self-portrait—a skeptical, cosmopolitan young man who fails to be sufficiently interested in the lives of the two women who are at the heart of the book, his mother and his aunt. But even if this is indeed an autobiographical character (and of that we can never be sure), Bennett did not use the faculty of memory to create that baby on the hearthrug. One can’t, after all, remember one’s own ten-month-old existence in detail, and this version of the experience is largely ...
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