Monday, December 12, 2011

Flannery's "Something": On Adaptation

In his piece on John le Carré in the 12 December issue of The New Yorker, Anthony Lane is works up a comparison between the 1979 7-part BBC television adaptation of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and the  2011 film version, which runs only 127 minutes. The film series he finds "purposeful, unbaffled, artfully composed..." some of the qualities contemporary viewer may like in their films, and certainly, we imagine, compressed for time: "As for the denouement," Lane writes, "we have had too little room, in so cramped a space, to spend time with Tinker, Tailor, and the others, and to scrutinized each man in turn...."  The BBC series, on the other hand, Lane found "bovine of pace, often ugly to behold, and content to meander along by byways that petered out into open country or led inexorably to dead ends, yet I was tensed and transfixed by every minute, like a worshipper at a familiar Mass whose mystery will never abate."

I'm thinking about time in art, and mystery as Lane uses it in that striking simile; he gets all Flannery O'Connor on me.  He doesn't mean "mystery" as in spy story enigma, but as spiritual principle, and he is content, even "tensed and transfixed" by the muddled, slow-moving series: it appeared to have immersed itself in roving, like a kid looking down as he walks, stopping here and there for a stray leaf. It took its time along the way. It took a lot of time; broadcast, as so many of those series were, in one hour increments over six weeks, is seems Dickensian now, archaic in the light of online streaming, and also, like Dickens, published in serial installments. People waited a week each time, for each bit to air, and enjoyed the hour.  It took attention, a quietude, a focus, and a riveting immersion of the self in the moment. If texting existed, say, you wouldn't watch the series and check your phone at the same time. It was not to be multi-tasked.

Another grand, gone-baby-gone concept, single-tasking: time, and focus, the desire to take one's time with one single activity, has gong the way of the land line. I'm not above it.  As I write this I am checking one email account for follow-ups from students, and checking another account for correspondence from a contributor to my journal.  I'm googling and listening to WGBH Classical.

But I know my mind does not work the same when I'm doing all these things at once as it does when I'm focused on reading a chapter in a book, watching a good film or a play, drafting and writing seriously, thinking seriously—you name it, any act that asks something of me, that requires—if not the same kind of devotion and attention asked for in a house of worship—something essential, a surrender of those multi-tasks, a surrender of myself to a single act. O'Connor writes "I have to make the reader feel, in his bones if nowhere else, that something is going on here that counts." That "something" demands (and rewards) the reader's entrance into the mystery, an attendance, that can't be faked or attempted without a fullness of focus. Her something isn't a tale to be extracted down, a piece to be distilled to information, skimmed for facts. That something has to be taken full on; to paraphrase Frost on poetry: it's lost in the adaptation. "Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself, the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction," writes O'Connor. Yet the mind that focuses on one thing—the person who wishes to only do one thing at a time, to not be distracted, who'd rather not text while having a f2f conversation, who might rather not live on email—looks as wrongheaded as one who is swimming against a current. Going the wrong way, and you won't last long.

Now is not the place for me to wonder what the seriously Christian writer Flannery O'Connor would think of a secular Jew appropriating her ideas to make a comment on how Luddite-like notions of time and attention have been devalued so that we can sell phones.  On one level, in any case, she speaks to me.

I've been thinking about adaptations and the shades of its definitions. In one sense, adapting means "The process of modifying a thing so as to suit new conditions" (OED); in the case of multi-tasking with your smartphone, for example: you adjust to what's around you, to keep up with the environment, to survive. In the case of literary adaptations, for example, something like the BBC adaptation of le Carré, the OED offers a slightly different definition: "a form or copy, a reproduction of anything modified to suit new uses."

Works like Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping and William Faulkner's The Sound and The Fury can't be adapted well, no matter what, because what they offer is there in the experience of reading, lost in any kind of translations. (I could use the extraordinarily awful, so-awful-it's-wonderfully-bad adaptation of The Sound and the Fury to try to make my point here, but that wouldn't be fair.  The adaptation's terrible because it's terrible. For one thing, Quentin Compson, the brother who narrates the whole, incredible, second chapter of the book, doesn't exist in the film version. Oh, and *spoiler alert* in the most astonishing and jaw-droppingly horrible misunderstanding and rewriting of any novel anywhere, the Jason character kisses girl Quentin.)

Perhaps it doesn't exceed, in awfulness, the 1957 adaptation of Flannery O'Connor's short story 'The Life You Save May Be Your Own," which starred Gene Kelly, about which O'Connor wrote, "The best I can say for it is that it conceivably could have been worse. Just conceivably." Adaptation is tricky business, whether it's one artist adapting an artwork into another medium, or a human creature adjusting to new products and new ways of existing. It sounds old-timey to hope that reading remain one of those activities that requires single tasking, that there will always be novels and poetry and short stories and plays and essays that demand focus and time, and that will always dazzle that part of the brain and spirit, to make the reader feel as if showered by aurora borealis.

Nearly everyone multi-tasks.  It's been sold as a way to adapt (note the subconscious propaganda in our clichés of acceptance: "fast-paced society" and "dead tree media"). Maybe a little skepticism about that adaptation is good. And maybe single tasking,—so individual! so outside the crowd!—is the new trend, the avant-garde. Adaptation is not always better, or the best way to become a human—evolution doesn't always mean one's evolving in the right direction.  But then I remind myself that the act of writing and of reading are also adaptations. 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Poem on the Floor

I found the piece of paper on the floor of the third floor, where the English Department offices were stationed.  It was bent and slightly trampled, though I don't remember it as having any of those sneaker tracks you'd expect to find on paper that had been left that way.  When I picked it up I saw it was a poem typed on an old Smith Corolla, mimeographed into that faded purple type.  We were first year M. A. students, and even though computers labs were being set up in the basement courtesy of Apple, we hadn't yet given up the old ways.   The poem had a title ("The Letter") and body, but no author name. It could have been written by someone in one of my workshops.  It could have been a poem re-typed from a published collection. 

If I remember right, his first letter.
Found where? My side-plate, perhaps,
or propped on the heavy brown tea-pot?

To me these opening lines were revelatory, because of their difference, what some might at first call their simplicity, and that tone, at once direct and restrained. They shook a little something.  At the time, I was writing what I was studying, so I was attempting to structure a tension and relieve a tension, to create ironic contrast, ambivalence, a pristine work that had some rhythm and metaphor, and a kind of internal locking system that created the perfect urn of integrity.  I hadn't yet come to absorb the groundbreaking poets who would teach me so much, and any attempt to write a list of those influences is going to be laughable.  We are influenced by everything.

But to get back to this sheet of paper, this marvel. It had voice and technique, and I was moved by the narrative, by meaning, and by the reflection of  the very real world (despite the "heresy of paraphrase" I had been warned against by the New Critics; now is perhaps not the time to delve into my theory that New Criticism made poetry an enemy to casual readers of poetry).  I was moved by the story and the telling, both (to quote Stevens) "the subject of the poem and the poetry of the subject."

To summarize the poem's setting: During WWII, a girl gets a love letter, and runs up the hill to read it.  She is engrossed in the letter, shares a bit of its intensity:

Now I am hardly breathing, gripping 
the thin paper and reading Write to me.
Write to me please. I miss you. My angel.

Both the speaker in the poem and the reader of the poem are completely absorbed by the letter writer's plea, by this afternoon on the green hill. So much so—and this was one of the poem's dazzling strengths—that neither the speaker nor the reader notices what's coming, the element in every good poem, the turn: here, the way (to quote Ruth Padel) violent death will intrude on the  pastoral moment, "panning out from individual vulnerability to wide-angle shots of the whole human landscape."

Almost shocked, but repeating him line 
by line, watching the words jitter 
under the pale spidery shadow of leaves.
How else did I leave the plane unheard
so long? But suddenly there it was—
A Messerschmidt low at the wood's edge.

The speaker recalls in flashback, "What I see today is the window open / the pilot's unguarded face somehow/ closer than possible.../...and his eyes/ fixed on my own...," goes on to imagine the German pilot now still on the ground, having parachuted out of the sky to his death. "I still /  imagine him there exactly" writes the speaker:

                                             His face pressed
close to the sweet-smelling grass. His legs
splayed wide in a candid unshameable V.

It was perhaps the "V" that shocked me the most. You may or may not recognize the poem, but you probably do if you read contemporary English poetry. Because this was before Internet, the author would remain a mystery to me for a long time. I carried the paper around.  When I got an office as a teaching assistant, I taped it to my door, and asked anyone who came to visit if they could identify the author. I saw it every day as I opened my door; I thought of its rhythms, of the way it built toward that cinematic vision without sentiment, apprehended depth without soppiness, with something that offered the words new grace. It's not the only poem I love, but it had dropped into my world on its own, and it looked so different from the poems I admired; why did it force its old ways on me? I felt I should study it for the lessons it might tell me, in addition to the mystery of its origin.  I, who never keep anything, still have that sheet of paper in my file downstairs.  

It was years before Andrew Motion became Poet Laureate in 1999.  In the coverage, of course, I read a mention of his poem "The Letter," and cracked that mystery.  But the real mystery is how a sheet of paper can fall on a floor in a building in southeast Ohio and open doors to rooms in your head that you didn't know were there. 

Banner image via Flickr Creative Commons


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