Witold Gombrowicz, Ferdydurke, 1937
See how different would be the attitude of a man who, instead of saturating himself with the phraseology of a million conceptualist metaphysician-aestheticians, looked at the world with new eyes and allowed himself to feel the enormous influence which form has on human life. If he still wanted to use his fountain-pen, he would do so, not in order to become a great writer and create art, but, let us say, the better to express his own personality and draw a clear picture of himself in the eyes of others; or to organize himself, bring order within himself, and by confession to cure any complexes or immaturities; and also, perhaps, to make his contact with others deeper, more intimate, more creative, more sharply outlined, which could be of great benefit to his mind and his development; or, for instance, he might try to combat customs, prejudices, principles which he found contrary to his nature; or again, he might write simply to earn a living. He certainly would not spare effort to ensure that his work possessed an artistically attractive form, but his principal goal would be, not art, but himself. He would no longer write pretentiously, to educate, to elevate, to guide, to moralize, and to edify his fellow-men; his aim would be his own elevation and his own progress; and he would write, not because he was mature and had found his form, but because he was still immature and in his efforts to attain form was humiliating himself, making a fool of himself, and sweating like a climber still struggling towards the mountain-top, being a man still on the way to self-fulfilment.
There are those people for each of us, acknowledged or not, whose influence runs so deeply and purely that we strive to become a bit of whom they are. That’s a bad sentence, but it’s late and I’m having trouble hammering out thoughts on this novel without getting too close to an emotional precipice that I don’t want to fall over. Mister Pip, a Booker shortlisted novel from 2007, reads easily and, at a cursory glance, simplistically. It is the story, told in hindsight, of thirteen year old Matilda and her magical teacher, Mr. Watts, who lights a fire of sympatico appreciation within her. The conduit for their connection is of course, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.
And thus a literature lover is born. At its very heart, perhaps this is what I should take from Mister Pip. Stories- those lovers and tellers and enrapturers in all their shapes and sizes, tricks and guises- are the tie which binds Matilda and Mr. Watts, but for me, the real story is the unleashing of Matilda’s powers at the beckoning of Pip. Powers of empathy, thought, recall, identification, and assertion are new for Matilda, as they are for anyone who suddenly discovers that their ordinary world is replete with characters made known through fiction. For those who have their inner fires stirred and who are, each day, newly awash in means with which to navigate human interaction, the bringer of those passions is a genie who has allowed his lamp to be rubbed for an infinite number of wishes. I’ve been fortunate to have an experience of this sort, a connection with someone which found my plumb line, lit me, and sent me on a journey that won’t end until I do.
Matilda tells her tale in a voice that is removed and clear, in order to convey an experience that has formed her private core and has given her life its very definition. The essence of that experience lies within a time of chaos for Matilda, a resident of Bougainville Island during an armed conflict that surrounds her with tension and uncertainty. Into this setting rides Mr. Dickens’ masterpiece, and Pip’s clear cadence is honored by Lloyd Jones in the voice of Matilda. The setting and peripheral characters could be anyplace, but the story would be the same. Call it redemption through literature. Call it transformation. Call it anything but anodyne or simple for there are as many layers to be found in Mister Pip as there are in Great Expectations. And just as many within each of us who look. It all begins with a book.
Still very few signs of Spring in toastland. There are some fat robins prancing on the lawn, and the days are longer. It will happen. Meanwhile, luck brought me the Tim O’Brien novel last month via the Goodwill store. I read it in one day and it’s the best thing so far in 2008. Last year was such an incredibly rich reading year. Meeting some previously unknown writers – who happen to be great – through an online reading group, has bolstered my future reads list to the extent that I shall never reach the end of it. What a great feeling, tapping into fantastic literature and enjoying a chance to talk about it. Is there anything else worth having?