Saturday, November 02, 2013

An Ineluctable Modality: Chapter 2

An Ineluctable Modality is a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo's 2013 Challenge where the goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. This year, I wrote a novel-in-blog-posts: you can read the previous chapter, here.

= = = = = = =

Call me Proteus. In the realm of blogs, real identity stands for nothing. You don't know me, probably won't, and since no one will likely read this – for me, even my short posts would be beyond the normal person's realm of concentration – it is a way for me to express myself without actually telling anyone. It's the internet equivalent of a note-in-a-bottle – that's what my son said, jokingly, when we talked over the summer, when he suggested I keep a blog.

"But what would I write about and what would be so interesting about that that someone else would want to read it?" I wondered if he would bother reading it.

The argument came down to time and how to spend it. Before, I would have complained of the time it took to write this versus the rewards of having written it. Instant publishing, perhaps, and I can write what I want. There's always the chance some publisher or literary agent will find it, read it, like it and ask you if they could publish it. (Well, hello, there – come here often?) But not likely, he added. Jokingly?

It's a good thing I'm not writing for money: the one book I did write and publish – a study of the Seventh Symphony of Anton Bruckner – probably sold a hundred copies or so. Cost more to have it pulped after it even failed on the remainder table, from what my agent told me.

I would never have been able to retire to the Maine seacoast on those earnings. I doubt they would've put food on the table for a month. Perhaps that was when the fantasy of moving to Maine first started, with my wife and I.

It became a joke whenever someone commissioned me to compose a new piece for them (if they hadn't just asked me outright – for the exposure, you know): will it be enough we could retire to the coast of Maine? She remembered my childhood stories about visiting the grandparents – vague recollections always shrouded in the idealized world of a child (we were, for one thing, never there in winter).

"Wouldn't you like that – retiring to Maine?" But retirement was a long way off then and we had so much to do, to live for, then, even the idea of retiring was a joke.

So here I am, retired and living on the Maine seacoast – or near enough. If I stood on the roof, I might be able to see the ocean. I think she would have found that amusing, too.

And possibly appreciate the irony as well, landing here at the end of the cycle where I remember things from its opposite end. What has happened here in the fifty years between?

Three times in my life, someone referred to me as Proteus – or more correctly as being "protean". Not me, so much as the music I was writing then. The first time, I had to look it up because I wasn't sure how the critic was using it – "His music is full of protean rhythms" – so I just assumed he didn't know what it meant, either.

Unless it can mean simply "energetic" rather than "capable of sudden changes," like the ancient Greek god of something-or-other. At the time, I hadn't encountered Homer's Proteus with Menelaus hiding among the seals, wrestling him through his many instant transformations.

Apparently, another critic – this one in New York – must have read the first one (I've received so many reviews – apply sounds of sarcasm, here – it's odd, isn't it?, that two of them should use the same adjective).

How did anyone, before the internet, manage to find obscure reviews like that and plagiarize them? It's a common enough word, I guess, for someone wanting to showcase their vocabulary.

Though I had to admit, that piece (different piece – I've never had any of my works performed enough to garner two separate reviews) was full of sudden changes of mood, tempo, contrasts in general that might apply to the old Greek river god.

Perhaps they both owned the same edition of Roget? How does music manifest itself? Let me count the ways. Presto ciangio. (Ipso facto, kiddo.)

How the Old Man of the Sea applied to my music was another mystery. Then I read Joyce and realized the mere sound of a word, its euphony, was enough to suggest its use.

Now, when I walk along the beach, looking out for dead dogs or the likes of Gerty MacDowell, I think of myself as the Old Man by the Sea.

During a conversation in which I had apparently taken several sides of an argument – I forget when this was, but I was probably in my late-20s – an older colleague told me (in a negative tone) I was being "positively protean." And in that sense it stuck as a nickname for a while, one of those applied for lack of anything less nuanced. I was not especially convinced being doctrinaire about ones viewpoints was entirely a good thing, too many people seeing everything as black or white with nothing in between, so many shades and gradations deserving our consideration.

Now, like so many other aspects of my life, comparing me today to me even ten years ago, the idea of being "positively protean" is another irony, if that's the proper use of the term, that the Proteus I had been is not the Proteus I've become. Half my life ago, my moods might flare up with so little provocation – and this, a complaint from a woman I could nickname Menepausal – but now, my responses simmer or quickly dissolve.

Whatever I may have been (or felt I was) when I was teaching – and one always likes to think the seeds sown in a classroom will someday reach the harvest point – is not what I have become now, retired. Routine has expanded to fill the greater time available, compensating for its fewer events. One thing I'm positive of is the rut I find myself in: hardly protean.

How is this not also a form of change, I think, having stood on my porch, watching yesterday's briefly soaking rain dissipate to drizzle once I had changed my clothes. Like the seasons' slower rate of change, the volcano's gone dormant; it's the fire after the fuel is spent. Nonetheless a change. Unwelcome, though.

As a teacher, my day was tightly scheduled, the routine, its expectations set in oaktag or whatever those cards were made of, posted on the office doors: this class, that class, another class that no one seemed to know what it was, office hours. Time to prepare, to grade papers, even to get from one class to the next, sometimes, were all controlled and difficult to deviate from.

Today, I have no schedule, no one expecting anything of me, a transition that was not easily made after Madeleine's death and my heart attack, even before I settled into the idea of retirement which I tried not to think of as being "side-lined." (Worse: suspended animation.)

My teaching schedule offered little time to compose, no more than an hour here or there as a pianist might use to practice. Such schedules are crafted by people who are not creative: that is not the way my creativity worked – others, maybe, but not mine.

Now I have all the time in the world (so the saying goes) to sit at my piano and write whatever music I wanted to.

And can't.

"Start with a title," Henry had said, without telling me what his title would be – afraid I'd steal it and discover his plot, beat him to the publisher and reap the fame and success that should've been his? Could I tell myself I will begin an orchestral work (no, let's be more realistic: a short piano piece – at least I could play it myself) which I will complete in a month, then try to write the equally unrealistic equivalent of 50,000 notes. How many minutes of music would 50,000 notes be? I'd never thought of it that way.

I had long ago developed a very structural approach to my music, thought out and carefully crafted. The idea of sitting down and just improvising something, letting it take me wherever it would, was not something I could do. Yet I remember, as a student, doing just that: not knowing what I might compose the next day, improvising at the keyboard by the hour (or what seemed like it).

For me, now, inspiration is not something that ignites a new piece; it is what comes afterward, showing me how to resolve the challenge a new piece – its structure – presented. After I found some old pieces I'd written as a beginner, I winced not because of their immaturity which was understandable, but at their complete lack of awareness.

When I was a student, every new piece was the result of something that came to me while improvising. Later, it was a form of evolution, the slow process of a classical argument with me taking every possible side available.

Madeleine – my wife, that is – joked that I was not a spontaneous man, that even my combustion was premeditated (in turn, I joked how she had mellowed me: before knowing her, I often flew into a rage with a short attack and a long decay). She would look at me, trusting, eyes half-closed, head slightly bent (I remember that look) but I had to think about it.

So it wouldn't surprise her that, when our son suggested I write a blog, I laughed, or when Henry urged me to write a novel, I laughed again (several times and continue laughing, thinking about it, today).

Could I be spontaneous enough to consider either suggestion seriously? No, not consider it, just do it. Sit down and begin, start from scratch, imagine where it might take me, what I would say, not worry who (if anyone) was reading it? Like my music, I write for myself. Point of fact: if it means nothing to me, what could it possibly mean to anyone else?

Since the internet fosters anonymity, know me, then, as Proteus. It seems a logical name to use as I continue reinventing myself. "To exist is to change," someone said (Bergson, I think), "to change is to mature and to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly." (Yes, Henri Bergson, though I don't remember where he said that).

I've always liked that, whether we think of change as inevitable or maturing as an option. Which draws me back to Ulysses which I've tried reading through twice in my life, in different ways at different times (more easily, finishing it, for once, not long ago).

So before I had considered what I might – could – write about, I went on-line, found the site my son had suggested, followed the instructions and gradually it started taking shape, the transubstantiation of an idea into options, possibilities.

Start with a title – at least that, I heard someone behind me say, a voice from a past, that if nothing more, thought (through my eyes) would be made visible, an ineluctable modality.

If I should do the same for a novel – not this time, perhaps – what would I choose for its title, not knowing anything beyond this one simple fact? It would only be a working title, since I could change it at any time.

Even Henry said, "you begin at the beginning but maybe when you've written thirty pages you reach the point where the novel starts." Something else presents itself, you change course and choose a new title.

Perhaps I should call this novel "The Limits of the Diaphane"? At this point, five fingers in, it is more of a door than a gate.

But then I ask myself, "what is the point?" – as if that matters.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * * be continued...

Dick Strawser

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