The Weather in Berlin

“That was the way you came to know people, by the stories they told and the manner of telling.”


“Harry’s story was appropriated by his son in the way that any story is remembered fully, then retold in a fashion that suits the teller.”

The Weather in Berlin

And so it is with all stories: writers become aware of the problems and powers of narrative. Shakespeare at his most self-reflexive in The Winter’s Tale, while Woody Allen’s latest movie, Scoop, revels in its own self-reference—or at least that is the only way I can make sense of a movie with nothing for a plot and a resolution so ridiculous that the butler might as well have done it.

I guess writers love stories about storytellers because those are stories about the writers themselves, and we understand ourselves in terms of stories. Irving wrote short stories bordering on novellas in Garp, and much pleasure from Lord of the Rings comes with the flashes of the ancient, legendary world that ended long before the Frodo receives the ring. Much of the knowledge is conveyed through song and poetry—stories within the story.

Are we reading their stories to learn about ourselves or the teller? Just seems to indicate the latter, or at least the latter to the extent it can be separated from the former.

Can Proust Change My Life?

Anything can change your life, if you’re willing to let it change. Does Proust make the process easier?

“But an advantage of more prolonged encounters with Proust or Homer is that worlds that had seemed threateningly alien reveal themselves to be essentially much like our own, expanding the range of places in which we feel at home.”

The danger is in reducing the real life places in which we feel home—as we start to feel at home only in stories and not in reality, rendering us deracinated from the real world, like Internet hermits.

That is not, of course, a reason to avoid Proust or Homer. We know that the former, like many writers, led a somewhat unusual life. I recently read Frederick Brown’s new biography of Flaubert, which describes Flaubert’s numerous neuroses and generally manic demeanor. This passage in de Botton reminds of Flaubert:

“It is not the contended or the glowing who have left many of the profound testimonies of what it means to be alive. It seems that such knowledge has usually been the privileged preserve of, and the only blessing granted to, the violently miserable.”

De Botton goes on to qualify that statement—being miserable is necessary but not sufficient for one to create profound testimonials, so one should be wary of being miserable solely for that purpose—but it is an insight nonetheless: for aren’t the contented too busy being content to analyze their own souls or become sufficiently introspective about the world? If all is well, why worry?

Still, there is at least some upside to being “violently miserable,” although the violently miserable probably aren’t likely to notice because they are too busy being themselves. They just have to recognize and change—which is what Proust can help us do, if we let him.

(Not that my use of the group pronoun “we” indicates that I think I’m necessarily among the violent and miserable…)

Le Guin at the Seattle Public Library

Ursula K. Le Guin gave a short and potent speech about the power of language to shape thought and the suspicion governments naturally have of writers at the Washington State Book Awards last week. Her whole speech is available here, although reading it isn’t as compelling as seeing her.

It would be easy to think that she addressed the failings of our own government, but I suspect she also comments on world events, what with Orhan Pamuk’s recent problems in Turkey as well as the historical opposition of governments to writers. That theme is particularly on my mind, as the play Black Snow, which is based on Bulgakov’s novel, is being shown by the University of Washington Drama school; Bulkagov was a writer much oppressed and suppressed by his government.

Le Guin distilled the big ideas of life and politics into a speech that made those given by some of the other writers—and several gave good ones—seem wan by comparison. Perhaps this is unfair, like comparing a mid-level soccer player to a legend, but when all the players take the field the eye naturally seeks the best.

Afterwards I asked her how much she’d been thinking about the topics she’d touched in her speech when she was writing The Earthsea Trilogy, and she answered by saying that she’d come at it from a different direction. At first I was confused and asked what she meant, and she said that with Earthsea she was telling a story, which is unlike blunt political explication. I suppose she thought me another confused fan, and perhaps I am one, but I am glad I asked anyway.

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