28 January 2013

On the Other Hand

About her novel Oranges Aren’t the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson says: “I wrote a story I could live with. The other was too painful. I could not survive it.” Hers is an interesting statement that suggests that literature regardless of genre is fiction but healing. The story that the author tells protects her from the story that cannot be told. That other story, I think, the one that Winterson says that she could not survive, could never be told because there are certain things that if spoken would make bare the most private and intimate aspects of the speaker: there would be no way to survive the exposure. The story that is told gives evidence of the author’s survival: that other story, the one that could not be told, would have led to the author’s emotional (or even physical) death. Every work of literature, then, is only the story that can be lived with and not the story that is true, but then, every work of literature then, speaks of survival even when the subject is death.
What might it mean if Winterson’s assertion concerning the writer were true as well for the reader: we read the story with which we can live; the other would be too painful and we would not survive it. On the one hand it would say something about the books we choose to read, and it would define as well how we read those books: discovering the meanings we have to make in order to survive.
I must qualify this statement a bit because there are many books that I cannot read because a) they cannot challenge me; b) they story they tell I cannot read not because I could not survive it but because I cannot enter the story. This might occur for fear that I would not survive the entrance, but also because for any number of reasons, I cannot find the appropriate or comfortable portal through which to enter. But the latter might also derive from my fear.
I recall an idea somewhat related in Phillip Roth’s The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography. Roth has asked Nathan Zuckerman, his character and therefore, the person who best knows Roth, to read his autobiographical manuscript and to offer some constructive criticism, and Zuckerman writes back that the manuscript is not worth publishing: it is, Zuckerman says, a fake. Zuckerman says, “Even if its no more than one percent (of your self) that you’ve edited out, that’s the one percent that counts—the one percent that’s saved for your imagination and that changes everything . . .” (272). Thus, Roth’s fictional texts are obviously not facts though they derive from them, but Roth’s facts lack truth because he could not survive their disclosure. Perhaps, Zuckerman suggests, “deprived of the sense of impregnability that narrative invention seems to confer on your self-revealing instincts, you can’t easily fathom your part in all this.” Fiction offers the necessary distance from the facts to enable narration but one should never assume the fiction to be in any way real. That is, Roth’s fiction is the text he can live with. The other was too painful.
The life that the autobiography Roth or Wintersonor any one elseoffers is not the whole story. Roth says, “With autobiography there’s always another text, a countertext, if you will, to the one presented.” Stories, Winterson writes, are compensatory: since we cannot say too many things because they are so painful, we write what we do to compensate for what can’t be said. Writing breaks the silence by maintaining it.” Anna sings, “Whenever I feel afraid, I whistle a happy tune.” Patricia Hampl writes, “We all have our ways of whistling in the dark” (28). I choose a book from the shelf. “Whatever gets you through the night,” John Lennon cried.
Thus, my reading is autobiographical. I choose my reading by the question my life addresses to me about my existence, and from my reading I seek some response. The response I hear is the one I can survive.


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