Sunday, September 26, 2010

Nabokov's Speak, Memory

The main difference I see between Nabokov and McCourt is a sense of story. McCourt’s childhood narrator immerses us in a linear timeline. The reader has a story to follow and becomes invested in the narrator and characters. With Nabokov, the reader has to become invested in his obsession of butterflies in order to continue reading. Nabokov makes this easier with his elegant imagery and style, but the story is more about his butterflies than himself.

I’ve found that I prefer linear timelines to ones that jump around. The ones that jump around are hard to follow, and the reader has to look closer to find a common string connecting the timeframes. The child narrator uses simpler and easier language to take us along his life, one action and thought to the next. Nabokov takes us from one conquest to another, each butterfly linking to another or reminding him of a similar adventure, but each at different ages. He admits that parts of his memory are blurry or missing, which could be why he chose to connect his narration with the butterflies. But at the same time, McCourt’s narrator makes the story read like a story, like fiction with plot and conflict and resolutions and character development. Nabokov reads like a nonfiction manual about butterflies and moths, how to catch them, and what he did during those adventures. We have to infer who he is by what he does. As Regina said in Tuesday’s class discussions, we can deduce that he likes to be outdoors more than indoors, he is perseverant in his pursuits, is a keen observer and is more introverted and prefers nature to human interaction, which is evident when he leaves a friend behind who traveled a long way to see him.

When he looks back as an adult on his childhood, Nabokov is able to analyze his life a little easier than a child’s reaction that an adult reader would then interpret. He can recognize that it was bad to leave his friend, though at the time he may have just concentrated on his searches. Written in an adult voice, Nabokov gives the reader a break by allowing them to sit back and enjoy his writing instead of interpreting everything. The reader can imagine what the child may have been thinking, instead of the environmental factors. The reader has to take more time with the story because of its dense language, but their job as reader is easier because there’s a good chance it’s an adult narrator speaking to an adult reader.  

This age difference heightens the language. Instead of simplistic vocabulary like McCourt uses, Nabokov uses intelligent and sometimes difficult vocabulary. Combining that with his unique way of describing things, like dewy brilliancy and plastered leavers, and his juxtaposition of descriptions, like a stagnant bog surrounded by beauty, Nabokov raises the bar on literary quality. He doesn’t utilize the same universal themes as McCourt, but his writing alone gives him an edge. It makes me want to learn Russian in order to read what he actually said instead of reading someone’s translations of his words. It would then bring a new depth to Speak, Memory because we’d be able to see if anything was lost in translation.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

McCourt's Angela's Ashes

Blog 3

McCourt is brilliant with his portrayal of varying accents and dialects. I could hear everyone as if they were speaking next to me, from Mrs. Leibowitz to the Italian man and even McCourt himself as the narrator. It was nice hearing the Irish rhythms and accents again, even in reading words. I was able to tolerate the misspelled words because I’ve heard them used before and it helped me re-hear them. Having been to Ireland, I could alter the phonetics of a word to shift it into the Irish accent. And because I was in Limerick and had Limerick housemates, I could actually hear them occasionally, especially when the H sound wasn’t used, like saying tree instead of three. I’m sure that listening to McCourt read his story in an audiobook enhances the reading further because he’s then both the reader and the narrator in the story.

I noticed a running theme underneath other universal themes of hunger, being poor, an addicted parent, mental growth, and so on. There was a definite concept of possessions. This could be because McCourt didn’t have much and so he grabbed what he could, even if it was stories and songs that his father would “give” him and his friends would “steal.” A story of Cuchulain was his, a song about kisses belonged to his mother, etc. Afterward, this concept of possessions shifted from verbal gifts to food and shoes.

The close perspective of the child narrator made me become like a child again. Even as I write this, I want to use present tense instead of past. I started looking at the adult characters through the eyes of a child, and placed myself in the situations with McCourt to compare how I would’ve acted or reacted, how I would’ve managed the same events and situations. I experienced a lot of consternation reading how the adults treated the boys, and recalled that it was a universal treatment of children between certain ages. I also began to remember how I used to think and speak as a child, too. He masterfully depicts a child’s voice, and it’s more believable knowing he was listening to his granddaughter’s voice before he started writing his memoirs.

I chose to write about a Christmas event where my grandfather came to visit. My family set up a scene that made it look as if Santa Claus trailed tinsel from the tree to the back door. I swore that the snow on the deck was disturbed, and my grandfather told me about how Santa stepped on his hand at night and apologized. I found the present tense hard to write in, much less remain in. I also started commenting not just on my family’s traditions during Christmas, but the relationship between my grandparents. My grandmother lived with me as a nanny, and my grandfather lived in Angola, New York, for his work. I didn’t realize until I started writing the scene that their “separation” was peculiar and probably took a toll on them. If I hadn’t told the story, I probably wouldn’t have considered the situation for at least another few years.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Dinesen's "Out of "Africa"

In psychoanalyzing Dinesen’s passages, the reader sees that she was drawn to the opposite environment from that in which she grew up. She writes, “There was no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere; it was Africa distilled up through six thousand feet, like the strong and refined essence of a continent.” The words “no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere” reveals how bare everything was and broken down into the base aspects of everything. Nothing was in excess, everything was just the amount it had to be in order to survive. It also shows the simplicity of her environment. Instead of numerous ecosystems squished together on one island, like with England, it’s spread out across a giant continent. Only what is required to survive, and that simplicity has its own beauty despite how dry and barren it is in most areas.

Dinesen characterizes Africa as being high up with no luxuriance during the day while being limpid, restful and cold during the night. She uses words like strong and refined to describe the landscape, including dry and burnt like pottery. But despite that she talks of trees having light, delicate foliage that gave them “a heroic and romantic air like fullrigged ships with their sales clewed up...” The entire description, while conveying the dry heat that would be dangerous if underestimated, also seems to have a Romantic air. She romanticizes everything, which was common when those areas were colonized by those of the ruling class. And even though she lived and admired her environment, she was still separated from it and only seemed to hunt in it or manage a farm, both being acts of domination. Most of the description was “pleasant to think of when times were dull on the farm.” The landscape and the animals seemed to be “out there still, in their own country,” but the Dinesen never seemed to be part of it, at least in the excerpt. This compounds the concept of a lost world because not only was Africa "discovered" in order to colonize it, but what she's describing may no longer be there right where she said it is. General descriptions would be, but they'd be slightly altered because of time. This adds a magical quality to her descriptions because she's taking us back in time to when these descriptions were relevent, especially when she says things like, "... a landscape that had not its like in all the world."

The use of second person allows the readers to better place themselves in the environment, as if they were seeing it directly. If Dinesen used first person, it would detach the reader as well as the author instead of immersing the reader in it. The author is detached enough to begin with, she had to use some technique to draw the reader in aside from her descriptions. It's almost like telling a story to someone, but formally because of the rest of Dinesen's language. Also, I think second person may be a general "you" in this case. Like, "If you went there, you would see..." even if she wasn't talking to anybody in particular, just anyone who happened to be reading her words.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

I read this story before when Angelou was about to come to Slippery Rock University for a presentation/speech. Much of her presentation was on the first book in the series, and I couldn’t help but wonder how many people in audience knew this.
While going through this story for a second time, I realized that it’s all about silence, particularly silencing. I couldn’t understand the first time through why the title was “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” until I read that it was because the bird still has a song to sing. The title and the concept in the story, then, provide an interesting juxtaposition between silence and singing. Angelou remains silent out of embarrassment, respect, fear, and direct orders. Those moments are prevalent throughout the entire book, up until the moment when she is raped and chooses to remain silent except when she interacts with Bailey.

During my undergraduate career, I had taken a creative non-fiction course for a few weeks. I ended up dropping it because it conflicted with my work on the newspaper, but I was there long enough to begin to cover the problem nonfiction writers have with memory. There is an issue about a lack of detail within memory, which the author must create instead of transcribe. The first incident I saw of this problem was on page 7 in Chapter One. Angelou describes her grandmother’s routine in the morning, including her prayer and actions before calling the children to wake them up. Angelou couldn’t know this unless her grandmother described it to her, or she used conjecture.

I read an article recently in Writer’s Chronicle about writing nonfiction from a child’s perspective. The author said that as an adult, the writer must maintain his or her own mentality and vocabulary instead of trying to sound like a child, though children are prone to insightful intuition. It’s still possible to present a child’s mentality without sounding like one. Examples the author used were “We as children understood” or “Looking back upon it,” and other variations. I noticed the difference in adult and child mentality in Angelou’s writing on pages 11 and 21, for examples. On page 11, Angelou refers to Uncle Willie by saying, “He was so proud and sensitive. Therefore he couldn’t pretend that he wasn’t crippled, nor could he deceive himself that people were not repelled by his defect.” Here some readers may think that she’s being an insightful child, but I think that because it’s in the narration, it’s the adult Angelou reflecting on the situation. On page 21, she writes “I watched him with the excitement of expecting him to do anything at any time… I see him now as a very simple and uninteresting man…” Here Angelou incorporates both her thought processes and perceptions as a child, and then switches to her perceptions as an adult.

I think that this work is timeless because it deals with childhood, maturity, changes, personal invasion, and trauma as well as racial tension. Those are things that will be around even if race becomes no longer an issue. She provides almost a primary source for history as well because of living in the segregated south and through prohibition in the city. Her work is certainly literary and has a unique voice due to Angelou’s growth through literary works and her upbringing from Momma.

When I thought back to a moment in childhood, I remembered waking up on Christmas morning to find footsteps and a trail of tinsel from the tree to the deck door, and the snow on the next disturbed. Everyone swore it was Santa, and my grandfather told me that Santa had stepped on his hand at night and apologized to him. But when I tried to remember sensory details, I couldn’t. I couldn’t immerse myself in memory as well as Angelou seems to, and I would be creating much of the details by combining memories from other Christmases and conjecture of what would have been there, instead of what was. I remember general incidents, but most details elude me.