How to Write the Season (guest post from the spouse)

AJ’s dad and I pass the fall and winter in the clamor of New York City. In summer we escape the heat of the City by absconding to eastern Pennsylvania to a small, tree-cluttered community clustered on a small rise in the Pocono Mountains. In the City, whether it rains or snows is, of course, important to the functioning of commerce. But aside from checking the temperature, we are not particularly aware of Mother Nature’s activity. It’s in Pennsylvania that we become more attuned to the way the sunrise colors the valley, or how the wind whips up the trees heralding an impending storm. Being naïve, I tried my hand at writing about those sunrise colors and that impending storm. It was really hard work, and I was terrible at it. Then it dawned on me that the authors that I am reading this summer are masters at describing weather and landscape and atmosphere (not to mention character, humor, and dialog). Since my own attempts were so feeble, I thought I’d share some of their mastery instead.

The inestimable Charles Dickens begins. The Pickwick Papers is a joyous celebration of good food, good company, rousing adventures, and enduring friendships, with dark undertones of injustice, poverty and mental illness. In this–one of the merrier passages–we join Mr. Pickwick and his Pickwickian comrades as they prepare to celebrate the holidays:

As brisk as bees, if not altogether as light as fairies, did the four Pickwickians assemble on the morning of the twenty-second day of December….Christmas was close at hand, in all his bluff and hearty honesty; it was the season of hospitality, merriment, and open heartedness; the old year was preparing, like an ancient philosopher, to call his friends around him, and amidst the sound of feasting and revelry to pass gently and calmly away. Gay and merry was the time, and gay and merry were at least four of the numerous hearts that were gladdened by its coming.

Now on their way out of London to Dingley Dell for the festivities:

They have rumbled through the streets, and jolted over the stones, and at length reach the wide and open country. The wheels skim over the hard and frosty ground: and the horses bursting into a canter at a smart crack of the whip, step along the road as if the load behind them…were but a feather at their heels. They have descended a gentle slope, and enter upon a level, as compact and dry as a solid block of marble, two miles long. Another crack of the whip, and on they speed, at a smart gallop: the horses tossing their heads and rattling the harness, as if in exhilaration at the rapidity of the motion: while the coachman, holding whip and reins in one hand, takes off his hat with the other, and resting it on his knees, pulls out his handkerchief, and wipes his forehead: partly because he has a habit of doing it, and partly because it’s as well to show the passengers how cool he is, and what an easy thig it is to drive four-in-hand, when you have had as much practice as he has. Having done this very leisurely (otherwise the effect would be materially impaired), he replaces his handkerchief, pulls on his hat, adjusts his gloves, squares his elbows, cracks the whip again, and on they speed, more merrily than before.

No author that I have read is more in touch with the changing landscape of the seasons than Haldór Laxness, Nobel Prize-winning author of Independent People. The book brings us intimately into the lives of sheep herders–crofters–in Iceland at the turn of the last century. After the long darkness of winter, the arrival of spring is, indeed a momentous event, which Laxness expresses in exquisite detail.

Little by little the snow retreated before the sun, and soon there was in the air the scent of heather and withered grass and the first fresh shoots as they emerged from the drifts on the slopes….Those were the days when the willow twigs were budding on the heath, when the bilberry opened its fragrant flowers in red and white and the wild bee flew humming loudly in and out of the young brushwood. The birds of the moor had laid their first eggs, yet they had not lost the love in their song. Through the heath there ran limpid little streams and round them there were green hollows…, and then there were the rocks where the elves live, and then there was the mountain itself with the green climbing its slopes. There was sunshine for a whole day. Mist came and there was no sunshine for a whole day, for two days. The heather-clad hummocks rose up in the mist, but the mountains were no more. The moss grew brighter in colour, the fragrance stronger and stronger; there was dew in the grass, precious webs of pearls in the heather and on the soil where the ground was bare of turf. The mist was white and airy, overhead one could almost glimpse the sky, but the horizon was only a few yards away there at the top of the dingle. The heath grew into the sky with its fragrance, its verdure, and its song; it was like living in the clouds….One lives for the spring.

Finally, I come to John Banville’s The Sea. Winner of the Man Booker Prize, this quiet book features the somewhat unremarkable Max Morden, a recent widower who has returned to his boyhood summer community to escape his grief, to renew some memories, and to complete a never-to-be-completed essay on the post-impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard. The book, as the title implies, is all sea air and sandy shore coves. His descriptions are not the long paragraphs of Laxness; they appear as introductions to events or emotions. He sometimes appropriates the colors of Bonnard in his descriptions, and the landscape often mirrors Morden’s own feelings…past or present. Here is only a smattering of Banville’s elegance:

It was a sumptuous, oh, truly a sumptuous autumn day, all Byzantine coppers and golds under a Tiepolo sky of enameled blue, the countryside all fixed and glassy, seeming not so much itself as its own reflection in the still surface of a lake.

As steep-slanted flash of sunlight fell along the beach, turning the sand above the waterline bone-white, and a white seabird, dazzling against the wall of cloud, flew up on sickle wings and turned with a soundless snap and plunged itself, a shutting chevron, into the sea’s unruly back.

[After a momentous event], I had expected everything to be changed like the day itself, that had been sombre and wet and hung with big-bellied clouds [in the afternoon] and now at evening was all tawny sunlight and raked shadows, the scrub grass dripping with jewels and a red sail-boat out on the bay turning its prow and setting off toward the horizon’s already dusk-blue distances.

I often ask myself what makes a book a work of art. I’ve decided that it’s sort of like pornography: I’ll know it when I see it. I see it in these remarkable authors.

First Sentences

“In a first-class stateroom on a cruise ship bound for New York from Alexandria, Egypt, a frail, middle-aged writer and educator named Sayyid Qutb experienced a crisis of faith.” Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.

“Miss Minerva Winterslip was a Bostonian in good standing, and long past the romantic stage.” Earl Derr Biggers, The House Without a Key.

“Moscow. Autumn. Cold.” Teffi, Memories from Moscow to the Black Sea.

“Gwenda was eight years old, but she was not afraid of the dark.” Ken Follett, World Without End.

“At the start of the twentieth century, language in America—it had not yet become the ‘American language’—still showed the influence of its largely prescriptive Victorian past.” William and Mary Morris, Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage.

“The decision to bomb the office of the radical Jew lawyer was reached with relative ease.” John Grisham, The Chamber.

“In the late spring of 1875, the ancient seaport town of St. Augustine, Florida, witnessed the beginnings of an educational campaign that would have an impact on every Indian nation in the United States.” Jacqueline Fear-Segal, White Man’s Club: Schools, Race, and the Struggle of Indian Acculturation.

“I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life.” John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps

“The game, like the country in which it was invented, was a rough, bastardized thing that jumped out of the mud.”Sally Jenkins, The Real All Americans: The Team that Changed a Game, a People, a Nation.

“In a dream at daybreak, on 18 April 1948, Calogero Schiro saw Stalin.” Leonardo Sciascia, The Death of Stalin.

“Faced with working-class life in towns such as Winchester, I see only one solution: beer.” Joe Baegeant, Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War.

“—Something a little strange, that’s what you notice, that she’s not a woman like all the others.” Manuel Puig, Kiss of the Spider Woman.

“Vic Smith, a hunter, lifted his head above a rise on the plains floor, peering down at seven hundred buffalo in the valley of the Redwater River.” Michael Punke, Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West.

“I’m a priest, for Christ’s sake—how can this be happening to me?” John Banville, Snow.

Snippets

The news article was about Disneyland opening again. The actors’ union that represents the performers in the various productions around the theme park is concerned about the adequacy of the safety procedures. Not unusual news these days, but what caught my eye was the information that those who walk about the grounds in the regalia of Disney characters are not represented by the actors’ union. Instead, they are represented by the Teamsters. That made me pause. I wondered: Do Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, or perhaps Goofy know where Jimmy Hoffa is buried?

The headline on a right-wing website said: “At least 20 shot, 7 killed in 24 hours in Mayor Lightfoot’s Chicago.” I wonder if that site every says, “45 people have been murdered every day in Trump’s America.”

The billboard urged me to worship at the nearby Most Holy Trinity Church. I wondered if there were a Lesser Holy Trinity Church or a Non-Holy Trinity Church.

“Given the world that he created, it would be an impiety against God to believe in him.” John Banville, The Sea.

While waiting to play tennis, Boris and I could hear his wife and her companions a few courts over. “Covid” was said more than once, which was not surprising since Roseanne is an M.D./Ph.D. who works for a drug company that makes vaccines. Boris said, “Poor Roseanne. She can’t get away from the pandemic talk. The women call her ‘the cute Dr. Fauci.’” After a beat, I asked, “Only the women?” Boris shot me a look but did not say a word. I felt, as an Australian friend would put it: “As welcome as a turd in a swimming pool.”

When you get to be of a certain age, you realize that there are only two times. If it is dark, it is time for bed. If the sun is up, it is time for a nap.

Trump retweets right-wing attacks on Tammy Duckworth. It is understandable that the president cannot identify with her. She does not have bone spurs on her feet.

Various crazies have maintained that the pandemic is a hoax. It is a conspiracy by the left to discredit Trump although how this conspiracy has foisted Covid-19 on the world is not clear. I am seeking to create another conspiracy. Places around the country that have quickly re-opened have seen a surge in infections. Communities of color have been hit harder with the coronavirus than white communities. People of color are expected to vote overwhelmingly against Trump in November. Suppressing the votes of minorities aids Trump. Trump is trying to get the country wide open as quickly as possible. Connect the dots. I think that this conspiracy is baseless, but it has more of a basis than that the pandemic is a hoax. 

“I prefer rogues to imbeciles, because they sometimes take a rest.” Alexandre Dumas fils.