Saturday, April 23, 2011

Book #45: Solitude and Self-Invention

"I heard for the first time his voice, reciting his poems into a lacquered tin funnel as if into the ear of a stranger....  I felt there was something in the articulated voice that suggested a wound, the way one can sometimes recognize a concealed ailment in the slow movement of a king in newsreels."
                                                                                                    -Michael Ondaatje, Divisadero

A few days ago, I finished the final revisions to my memoir and handed the manuscript over to my publisher with a rush of excitement and something else... strangely akin to sadness.  When I ran into a friend of mine at a book launch the following evening, he assured me that this is quite normal - many writers experience "postpartum blues" after finishing a book.  The only cure, he said with an ironic smile, is to throw yourself into another book.

In a little while, I'd like to go back to working on the historical novel I started thinking and dreaming about and writing (in a very preliminary way) last summer.  But I don't feel ready to throw myself into that book just yet.  My mind needs time to recalibrate.  So over the past couple days, I've found myself just reading and reading, immersing myself in my favourite novels with a concentration I haven't had for simply reading in quite a while.  While in the final stages of revising my manuscript, I'd made the mistake of picking up Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero.  This is not the novel to read if you're looking for light diversion, I soon realized.  Ondaatje's experiments with style and genre and the sheer number of unique characters he introduces are too intricate to follow for the distracted mind.  So I'd put the book aside, intent on coming back to it as soon as I'd finished my own writing.

What is it about these characters that I find so alluring?  Children of the California landscape, they come from mysterious backgrounds and their relationships to each other are ambiguous, shifting with the winds.  Coop, Anna and Claire form a peculiar, improvised sibline: orphaned as a young kid after his parents were bludgeoned by the hired man, Coop was adopted by Anna's father, who also adopted Claire after her mother died in childbirth.  But since brother and sister are not truly brother and sister, an illicit desire takes root between Coop and Anna - leading to his violent expulsion from the family in a gruesome scene involving a fragment of glass. 

Without recognizable origins or family pasts, these characters are cut adrift and forced to invent themselves from moment to moment through acts of artistry and deception that yield a deeper truth.  When Anna claims at one point that she comes from Divisadero Street - a street in San Francisco named after the Spanish word for "division" - we know that on a literal level she is lying.  Yet her words do have significance.  For her identity has been severed from her past so violently that she is left in a state of free fall....  Literature becomes her only refuge, like a surrogate family, and what reader can't relate to that?  After becoming a scholar of French literature, Anna devotes her life to studying the enigmatic writer, Lucien Segura, whose voice reminded her of a wound, when she first stumbled across an old recording of him.  His life overtakes her imagination in the sprawling second half of the novel, where the parallels in his own ruptured love life come to light, creating the sense of a strange connection between scholar/reader and writer - both are caught up in some archetypal dance. 

Having just finished exploring and writing about my own relationship to the novelists who have long haunted my imagination, I found this section of Ondaatje's novel particularly intriguing.  I feel as though I could reread it many times and always take away a new insight about how literature shapes life and vice versa.

Photo from: here


Mimi said...

I can't say I enjoyed reading Divisadero - very confusing with multiple plot lines. Good luck with developing your next book!

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

Although I found the novel fascinating, I agree it may have had too many plot lines to hold most readers' interest (something for me to bear in mind!)

B.H. said...

"Literature becomes her only refuge, like a surrogate family, and what reader can't relate to that?"

So true.


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About Me

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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.