Wednesday, September 03, 2008
The Meaning of this Moment
Miriam Burstein is Associate Professor of English at SUNY Brockport and a regular contributor to The Valve. She is the author of Narrating Women’s History in Britain, 1770-1902.
One of the continuities between Trilling’s only published novel, The Middle of the Journey, and what has been titled The Journey Abandoned is how Trilling’s characters converse. It’s tempting to put down Trilling’s handling of dialogue to the influence of Henry James, but there’s not much Jamesian about exchanges like this:
Kramer, [sic] said, “Vincent, you look tired.” His tone was admonitory, even querulous, and Vincent knew that in this way he expressed and masked the affection he was feeling.
“Do I?” The interest of his friend and former teacher made Vincent feel young and heroic. “I was working late last night.”
“On the book?” Kramer asked. “Is it going again?” He spoke in an almost hushed voice and Vincent knew that Kramer was seeing the lonely light in the little room and was hearing the intermitted rattle of the typewriter. He knew that Kramer was having a vision of his young friend “wrestling” with his work, for only in this way could Kramer imagine the process of thought and creation.
At this moment, Kramer would have liked to say that no idea of material gain, no glimpse of mere popular success must intrude to spoil the purity of the work. He wanted to utter his belief that Vincent’s long months of sterility and despair were the marks of the virtue of his enterprise. He did not say what he believed, but his feminine solicitude shone from his face. All he said was, “I’m glad you’ve broken through again. That’s bound to happen—the ideas find their place.” (29)
Trilling’s characters do not, to borrow a Jamesian turn of phrase, speak “quite wonderfully.” Usually, they speak quite normally; in fact, as in this excerpt, they often speak in banalities. Dialogue is subservient to the “true” intellectual play of mutual interpretation and misinterpretation—which, thanks to the narrator, is fully available only to the reader and not to the characters. The characters’ fictional depths and shallows are well wadded up in their verbal stupidity; if they manage to connect, it seems almost an accident. Trilling’s constant cuts away from one character’s speech to another character’s interpretation of the unspoken suggests an impatience with dialogue, perhaps even James’ dialogue. Either the nuts-and-bolts of everyday speech produce the effect of psychological depth (characters may or may not connect by realizing what the other “really” means) or they prove absolutely adequate to the character’s shallowness (because s/he is adequately summed up in his/her speech).
In this excerpt, there is nothing in the conversation that distinguishes Vincent, our hero (“hero”?) from his former professor, Kramer. Instead, the real tug-of-war occurs over Kramer’s fantasy of Vincent, the brave author laboring away at his desk, and Vincent’s own knowledge of that fantasy. Vincent, Trilling tells us three times, “knew” what Kramer is “feeling” or “seeing.” (In fact, the chapter’s second sentence begins with “Vincent knew how much Kramer loved to be teased…” ) Vincent’s strength resides in that “knew”: he knows the nuances of a particular tone and he knows what his friend thinks it means to be an author. In a sense, this conversation has happened before it happens. Vincent’s knowledge delineates Kramer’s limitations; after all, Vincent knows Kramer’s thinking because it is “only in this way” that Kramer understands what’s going on. The reader who demurs that Vincent’s certainty might be self-delusion—note, for example, the effect of Kramer’s “interest”—finds, when the narrator’s POV shifts to Kramer, that Vincent is absolutely correct. Moreover, the narrator describes Kramer’s search for words in terms of balked desire (“would have liked,” “wanted to utter”), which is at one with Kramer’s inability to write his own book. But what Kramer “would have liked” to say has already been accounted for, as it were, by what Vincent knows. While, at the end of the conversation, Vincent momentarily hears Kramer “almost with awe,” and has to admit to himself that “[n]o one could be more precise in his use of language than Kramer” (35), neither the almost-awe (a pointed use of the qualifier) nor the precision altogether count in Kramer’s favor; in the end, Kramer’s mind remains clearer to Vincent than Vincent’s to Kramer. Kramer’s speech becomes a little too adequate.
By contrast, at the end of chapter ten, Vincent has a startling encounter with a now-former creative writing student:
Her intensity surprised Vincent. It was not inappropriate to this great event, but it was strange coming from the gentle Miss Anderson whom he would perhaps never see again. And the advice she gave him as she stood there holding his hand, as if at some ceremonial of rank, was also surprising, again not because it did not fit the occasion but because it was Miss Anderson who gave it. “I hope,” she said, “oh I hope you can remember to be fierce.” (74)
Again, Vincent engages in a little self-inflation (the “great event” is the end of his career as a creative writing instructor), but what’s more interesting is the surprise. Vincent knows the “feminine” Kramer, but he does not, after all, know the female Miss Anderson, whose unexpected speech exceeds anything that Vincent has allowed himself to perceive. Coming at the end of a classroom session in which Vincent has felt mostly superior to his wealthy female students, this moment reveals not just Miss Anderson’s unexpected insight (worded more memorably than anything Kramer had to say) but also Vincent’s own fall into conventional stereotypes.
From these snippets, perhaps Trilling was intending a subtle campaign to confirm the reader in their already-known stock adage that critics should not attempt to write novels.