April's ending. Always a month of odd mood swings. Rilke it was who spoke of those who "understand flowering and fading at once." Suitable language since this week in Daily Themes the assignments were "beginnings and endings." Students were invited to write two openings to their "novel" -- one in third person, one in first person. And then to conclude the same unwritten novel. In another assignment they were to write about something beginning, and in another something ending. One thing that's ending is the semester and so that's basically the point of view of this entry. I'm also trying to end the first chapter of the Pynchon book and begin the second, so that makes me perhaps more than usually aware of how beginnings and endings are indissolubly linked. I'll be ending my second reading of Against the Day this week too.
Just the facts, ma'am. The week previous the DT assignments were "Reportage," which is to say, some version of newspaper reporting. Not my favorite week by a long shot. Mainly I avoid reading newspapers and if I do read one it's for information not for "something to read." Reading it is almost beside the point. Which is why "news" is so easily replaced by radio and TV. You're only half listening to it anyway, certainly not concentrating on its verbal qualities. And yet the ideal of "good writing" does hang over the journalist sphere. In class "good journalism" equates with "New Journalism" -- that brand of fiction effects mixed with factual reporting touted by Tom Wolfe and engaged in by the better hands of the day (the '70s), such as Hunter Thompson and Joan Didion. In other words, those writers upped the readability of reportage by including a strong individual point of view rather than indulging in the bland rhetoric of "objectivity." In student assignments I got the most out of those in which the "reporter" was a part of the story.
Mistah Kurt, he dead. In April we lost Kurt Vonnegut, an ideal of the maverick writer when I was in high school, which is when I read all his novels published up to Breakfast of Champions. Vonnegut helped to consolidate the idea that the finding of an individual voice and original material and a unique perspective was not born of writing seminars and the academic study of the Greats. It came from life, from the individuality of the writer, and from the common denominator of popular writing. Vonnegut was able to sustain throughout his career the conceit of the plain-spoken man, the seer of common sense, the humorist whose humor derives from human absurdity. He doesn't provide the punch lines, he simply notes them. As a writer Vonnegut seems to me inextricably American, the voice of a homespun wisdom America likes to think it has some monopoly on. In his case I grant that ideal some credence.
Armed and Deranged. This month presented us with the drama of the Virginia Tech killings, certainly the cruellest news story one could imagine. What as a society might we learn from this bloodbath? That to make assault weapons available to persons already deemed dangerous to themselves and others invites some form of carnage. If the killer's credit rating had been flagged, would he have been able to purchase weapons so blithely? I think not. Policing bad credit risks is apparently easier than policing ticking time bombs.
Pantheon. After deaths, let's consider births. April is notable for the birth of some writers of staggering talent and originality. April 9th was the birthday of Charles Baudelaire, the man who created an idiom of poetry that bequeathed to symbolism, and to modernist verse in general, a sense of sensual possibilities and a subject matter that would generally come to be called "decadent." Where would we be without him? April 15th was the birthday of Henry James, the master of fine distinctions in fictional prose. If Jane Austen is great because of how well she understands how her characters think, James is even greater for how well he understands what his characters are incapable of thinking consciously, for grasping what they understand without quite knowing they do. April 23rd was the birthday of Vladimir Nabokov who I will forever toast for his novel Lolita, the audacity and near perfection of which is still staggering -- but I may be particularly susceptible to its foreigner's eye view of American banality. That same date is traditionally the birthdate of William Shakespeare and I have to say that it is in April and in October that I think most of the Bard. In fall it tends to be the tragedies, in April the comedies. The magic embrace of his language at the service of "love's dalliance" re-enchants a world reviving from "the sere, the fallen leaf." The Tempest also does good service at this time, since at semester's end there's always a sense that "our revels now are ended."