Tuesday, March 22, 2011

No Day Without a Line (and at least one day without a screen)

While I was casting around for something to write about today, my eyes landed on a book that I've been using, completely fortuitously, to prop up my monitor: No Day Without a Line by Yuri Olesha.

As some of my former students know, Olesha is really my favorite author of all time. I may have raved on this blog about others who are far better known, like Dostoevsky and Melville, but Olesha really is the guy.* This Soviet-era author, born in 1899, was "young with the century," as he put it. He is best known for his 1927 novella Envy, a magical-realist encomium to, and take-down of, early Soviet-style materialist culture. You see the influence of H. G. Wells and Dostoevsky in the story, but at the same time, there's really nothing else quite like it. It's a Freudian/political fairy tale that employs some of the most vivid and memorable images I have ever come across.

Here's just one passage (from the NYRB edition, translated by Marian Schwartz):

I entertain myself with observations. Have you ever noticed that salt falls off the end of a knife without leaving a trace--the knife shines as if untouched; that pince-nez traverse the bridge of a nose like a bicycle; that man is surrounded by tiny inscriptions, a sprawling anthill of inscriptions: on forks, spoons, saucers, his pince-nez frames, his buttons, and his pencils?

No Day Without a Line is a fragmentary memoir written, according to translator Judson Rosengrant, primarily during the six years before Olesha's death in 1960. In it, we see Olesha entertaining himself with observations--a pleasure which is also a serious discipline. Many of these observations are not direct, but in the form of childhood memories which Olesha observes meticulously. In fact it's childhood in the form of memory that makes these images so striking. They are not dry recollections of "what things were like back then," but brief, poetic addresses to sights Olesha saw and loved and knows he will never see again in this same way:

In Odessa we sailed on the sea in punts. These were large, heavy boats with a flat bottom and no keel--something on the order of a cart thrown into the sea without its wheels. They were crudely painted in red and blue and moved by means of huge, heavy oars secured to the oarlocks with a strength sufficient at least for tethering oxen. In the bottom of these boats there was always water--puddles in which rags, pieces of shrimp, or a bottle swam. The punt skimmed over the waves. There was something of the Greek myths about the appearance of these boats. Even now I remember, as if I'd only seen it yesterday, the brown pear-like calves of the fishermen as they ran behind a boat they were launching, in order to leap into it once it was afloat.

Those "pear-like calves" are pure Olesha: that unexpected comparison, often between food and a body part, which makes the comparison both memorable and slightly forbidden. There's a visceral, yet innocent attraction to the fishermen's calves that an "adult" mind would probably chase away--especially one in Olesha's place and time. (Envy is often read as a story of unrequited gay love.) But if we can learn not to banish such images, we can light up our own fiction with startling beauty. It sounds like a cliche, but this passage really makes me feel like I'm right there in Odessa in the early 20th century. That's an amazing feat of teleportation, and it works because we're traveling through a particular consciousness, rather than generic reportage.

All of this makes me worry more than ever that I--and possibly many of my fellow writers--are spending way, way too much time in front of screens. We are no longer entertaining ourselves with unmediated observations. We are not going down to the sea and watching fishermen get into boats; or if we do, we are too distracted, or cynical, or something, to just take it in. Maybe we are not taking the time to really remember--and color with memory--what we saw in childhood. There are too many layers between writing and experience. I certainly sense this in my own work; the screen is always there somehow, humming, inserting itself ever so subtly. Writing today may be more "knowing," but a lot of it doesn't seem nearly as fresh as Olesha's much older work.

Fortunately that problem is fixable, entirely free of charge. If I can just tear myself away from this computer.

*I did have the opportunity, some years ago, to rave about Olesha in Tin House. That obviously didn't get the raving out of my system.

Shop Indie Bookstores

Shop Indie Bookstores

No comments: