Order and Meaning
December 10, 2011
Order and Meaning
When I’m dealing with a medical issue, I often let all the “shoulds” with which I usually bombard myself fall away – I should be reading this, or reading that – and I pick up books seemingly at random, rather than by plan, which permits me to get to works I’ve ignored or avoided or forgotten I’ve wanted to read. A writer friend wrote me that she was going to Venice soon. Could I suggest restaurants? Reading material? And I remembered that I’d always wanted to read Joseph Brodsky’s Watermark since I’d visited Venice, and that I never had. I found the book and began to read it lying on a sofa, instead of sitting attentively at a desk with pen in hand. This relaxed way of reading brings, into my life, certain bliss even in times of great stress and strain that I don’t seem to allow into my everyday life. And the obvious question is Why wait for illness? Why, indeed?
So I’ve been reading Joseph Brodsky’s Watermark, that idiosyncratic memoir of his yearly forays to Venice. The book is an arrangement of short meditations on his experience – not a “touristy” approach to Venice, by any means, but an experiential soulful work about the effect of Venice in the winter on a sometime traveler. It’s a seemingly random series of observations and thoughtful ramblings about, say, why he would never go to Venice in the summer; about why winter is so compelling; about how the fog in winter is often so thick that the only way to find your way back to your hotel after a brief errand is to hope that the path your body cut through the fog was still there; about what the inside of a certain palazzos really looks like – the rotting draperies, the corridors filled with middling paintings of ancestor, the smell of must. There is this insight: that in Venice a person “is more a silhouette than his unique features” because of the way the city is constructed, because another person is nearly always witnessed in a narrow passageway silhouetted against a building; the very meaning of personhood changes in such a setting.
In one section, Brodsky writes about his writing, about how, “by the cumulative effect of what I’ve been doing over the years, I am a writer; by trade however, I am an academic, a teacher.” He explains that he has a five-week winter break, and that he arranges his trips to Venice during that time. His interest in Venice was piqued years before when he read Provincial Entertainments, a short novel written by the French writer Henri di Regnier, translated into the Russian by Mikhail Kuzmin. Provincial Entertainments was set in Venice in winter. Venice in winter – “the sense of damp, cold, narrow streets through which one hurries” – sounded like the Petersburg of Brodsky’s youth, and impelled the first of Brodsky’s many wintry visits.
Still, what mattered most to Brodsky when he read Provincial Entertainments was what he learned about craft in reading the work. The novel taught him, he said, “the single most crucial lesson in composition; namely, that what makes a narrative good is not the story itself but what follows what.” Note Brodsky’s point: the single most crucial lesson in composition is not the story but what follows what, not a crucial lesson in composition.
Now Brodsky is a poet, of course, and the matter of what follows what lies at the heart and soul of poetry. But Brodsky’s insight is that what follows what is as important in prose composition too, even though many prose writers might initially believe that the story itself is central. I’ve argued for some time that memoir is more like poetry than like fiction in that memoir’s meanings – at least the memoirs I love – come at the reader by virtue of the what follow what. The writer has paid attention to juxtaposition, that great compositional tool of the memoirist that beginning writers often overlook in their zeal to write “and then this happened and then that happened and then that happened after this happened” instead of writing “and then this happened which reminded me of this other thing that happened long ago and have I ever told you about my very first love?” That is, the “what follows what” can work, for memoirists, by working with the association of memory, with patterns of events rather than sequence of events. This event made me think of this one, and I can’t figure out why, so let me tell them next to each other, and, oh yes, I think I see why that came to me, and I’ll puzzle about it with you, the reader. Not this event followed that one.
Arrangement, order, what follows what. The reason this is so important in memoir is that we live our lives, not only externally – walking down the street, say – but in our heads simultaneously. We are washing the dishes; we are dreaming of a lost love. If we write only, we washed the dishes, we saw a movie, we went to bed, we’re missing the story. We wash the dishes, we daydream of a lost love, we tell the lost love’s story, and when we get to bed, that bedtime scene is infinitely richer for it. The “and then and then and then” narrative would never get to the bittersweetness of making love to the person you’re with just after thinking about the person you’ll never see again.
And so. Brodsky lets us see why he’s arranged his Watermark in the way he has. He invites us to return to what we might have imagined as a random series of insights. He invites us to see what follows what and how it adds to the overall meaning of the work. And so we get Brodsky’s arrival in Venice on a winter wintry night, and he tells us that his first experience of Venice was “the smell of freezing seaweed.” We get this immediate, anti-touristy Venice experience early; we don’t know why Brodsky comes to Venice in winter, not yet; we don’t know what provoked Brodsky to come to Venice in winter at all. All these insights come to us later. Brodsky starts with a visit to Venice, his Venice, in winter, before we get the back-story. The work would have been completely different had it started, say, with his life as a Russian in St. Petersburg, with his reading Provincial Entertainments, with his decision to visit Venice in winter, then Venice in winter.
That would have emphasized the story itself, and not what follows what.
Think about it. The story itself is not the story in memoir, in telling a life, not ever. The story is in how the memoirist, the writer of a life, arranges the what that follows the what.