I try to avoid reading the NY Times’ travel section on Sundays. The beautiful articles about exotic places I would like to visit don’t put me into a vicarious mood. I sometimes don’t want to read about Venice. I want to go to the real Venice. But today Sunday I could not possible avoid the cover with its banner headline Stendhal In Parma by Adam Begley. The heading contains:
There’s the city that sprang from the imagination of the author of The Charterhouse of Parma and there’s the real place. Both are worth exploring. Since both of Stendhal’s best known novels, The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma are part of my book collection I was intrigued and read on. It was a rewarding experience particularly this: The fact that Stendhal (né Marie-Henri Beyle) contrives to give us a feel for Parma without pausing for a single descriptive passage is a literary feat the reveals a curious truth about realism and the power of suggestion. Show us the effect a place has on those who spend time there, and there’s no need to supply brick-by-brick visual detail. The same goes for characters in a book: Show us how others react to them, and we feel we know them, that we would recognize them on the street. Consider for example Stendhal’s hero, an idealistic youth who survives his impetuous decision to run off at age 16 to fight for Napoleon, and whose subsequent career becomes the business of nearly everyone else in the novel. Though you might not notice on first reading, Fabrice is never described physically; we learn only that he’s a “fine looking boy” wildy attractive to women. Our best clue to how Stendhal sees him is a minor character’s remark that Fabrice has a “Corregio contenance.”
That above passage produced a nagging impact in me. It was only a week before that I happened to listen to the beginning of an interview by Eleanor Wachtel (Reader’s & Company on CBC Radio) with English literary critic and novelist James Wood. The interview was so gripping that when I arrived home I ran in and immediately turned on my radio tuner in the living room so that I was able to hear the whole 55 minute interview. In this interview James Wood said something like this, “We can never know people as well as we can know the protagonist of a novel. We get to know the protagonist through the interaction with other characters in the novel.” That above statement is as obvious as the one that I only found out just a few years ago. You cannot have nostalgia for a place when you are living in it! Obvious it is but not quite. After I heard Wood I went upstairs and stared at Rosemary. We have been married 42 years. I stared at her and came to the conclusion that I don’t know her. In my repeated readings of C.S. Forrester’s Hornblower novels I am forced to read between the lines, to guess what is in the mind of Hornblower at any given time. In Gregory Peck’s immersion into Hornblower in the film Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951) he is bang on. This is one of my favourite films of all time. Peck doesn’t say much. An expression here, the pursing of a lip there is all you need to know what is inside of Hornblower’s mind. And of course in Patrick O’Brian’s “better” nautical novels featuring Captain Aubrey and his medical sidekick Maturin the reader gets to know them intimately. Yet Hornblower is as vivid in my mind as is Aubrey. The author of the NY Times article on Parma, Adam Begley argues most convincingly that even though Stendhal writes little about the real Parma, it is still a Parma that has never been characterized better since.
It was sometime around the middle 80s that I photographed Eleanor Wachtel for Western Living Magazine. The magazine featured a pretty monthly column by a local writer and it was called Forethought. Wachtel was gracious, friendly and easy to photograph. When I listen to her program, Writers & Company, I like the way she tries to keep her own contribution to the conversations with authors at a minimum. It was a few months ago that I heard her interview with Irish writer Edna O’Brien. It was terrific. I managed to find out that it was available as a podcast. I got my limited computer knowledge working and I was able to download it and copy it to a CD which I sent to my first cousin and godmother Inesita (86) in Buenos Aires who enjoyed the interview as much as I did. I played the CD in our bedside clock radio for Rosemary. She enjoyed it, too. Today I downloaded not only Wachtel’s interview with James Wood but one with Paul Theroux. For those who might be interested in following suit be aware that the podcasts are up for only ten days! As for getting to know the real Rosemary I am going to try to "novelize" her. I am going to notice how my family and friends interact with her. This could be exciting and revealing.