Saturday, November 09, 2013

An Ineluctable Modality: Chapter 9

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.

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The clouds on the horizon dissipated slowly in the morning sun, but it was cool enough, slipping out onto the porch to put out the birdseed, I was filled with remorse for the passing of summer. These first days of a chill that, next month, would be considered a welcome respite, always seemed too cold, too soon for me. The grass was buried beneath a layer of leaves which other people would be raking up and hauling away in order to protect their lawns: next week, the man who helps me with the gardening would be here to take one more pass over the yard with his tractor-mower, mulching the leaves into something more manageable that, at least, didn't kill the grass.

It used to be impossible to sleep in on a sunny day, the way the sun streamed through the bedroom window even if I'd remembered to close the drapes. I could have replaced them with heavier material but instead I thought it would be easier to move into one of the smaller bedrooms on the opposite side of the house, more shaded and less likely to awaken me too early.

Henry was no doubt already at work, sitting at his desk, typing away, hours before I woke up. It amazed me that a man like Henry who'd been a painter all his life should suddenly be so caught up with the idea of writing a novel. Was there some story he was burning to tell that might help him, at this stage of his life, put everything in perspective? I imagine – and I felt smug thinking this – his main character would be a painter like himself.

I suspect if I had chosen to take him up on his challenge, after all, wouldn't I have written about a composer? "Write what you know." But it's more than that: what kind of plot would I place him in – a formula like a mystery or would I simply disguise my own life into some kind of fictional biography?

Standing at the kitchen window nursing a slowly fading cup of coffee, it amused me thinking how we had met. I had just started teaching at Selwyn-Morgan University, the second and last real college-teaching position of my career, and Henry Jordan was in his last year before he moved on to his next position (I've forgotten where: someplace in the Midwest, I think).

Running into him at an art exhibit that was part of Langley Community College's recital series, I was surprised after all these years that we still remembered each other. We had not been more than acquaintances at Selwyn-Morgan and had never been in touch beyond that overlapping year.

He told a friend of his how we met: some reception where I had told him how much I liked his paintings and then, turning around, promptly spilled my drink on the wife of the department's dean. I did not care to correct him because he clearly was thinking of someone else but it was an amusing story and something like that had almost happened to a colleague of mine during my first month, but it was at a music department dinner and he would not have been there.

Yes, we had been introduced at a reception but I knew nothing about his paintings at the time. One of my newest works had just been performed and he was telling me how, for him, it was too cerebral and off-putting and I was still young enough to be offended by his superior intonation.

Henry Jordan was something of a big deal in Selwyn-Morgan's art department though once I did see some of his paintings, I couldn't for the life of me figure out why. But then, I've never been very visual and found myself bored going to most art museums and exhibits in my life, always a disappointment to Madeleine, herself having trained as a painter (I joked her interest in art more than made up for my lack of it).

For that matter, I never found much sympathy for Debussy's music, either, and it's quite possible it's because his music is so visually oriented. Most of Henry's paintings were landscapes or flowers and one, I swear, was called "Footprints on the Beach About to be Washed Away by the Tide." I could almost imagine that in French as the title of a Debussy prelude. Pretty perhaps, but, time and the tides aside, that was about as deep as it got, for me.

His style struck me as amateurish but not in the way someone might look at Picasso's faces or Jackson Pollack's dribbles and complain loudly that their two-year-old could do better than that. I couldn't put my finger on it, even if I bothered looking at it for more than few minutes: it was some quality that made me feel he wasn't good enough to be a realist but not talented enough to get beyond it. When I asked Madeleine what she thought, she just shrugged her shoulders and said the world was full of such artists. It probably didn't need any explanation (just as there are composers, I'd silently added).

When I encountered him again over twenty years later, he had retired to Maine where he was now something of a major figure in the local arts scene, still painting primarily landscapes and flowers. It amused me that while he complained about modern music lacking any sense of humanity, his own paintings were completely devoid of human figures which I assumed was primarily because he couldn't draw them.

But then, the fact I didn't care for his paintings and he didn't care for my music didn't keep us from becoming friends of a sort. Perhaps he liked me because I didn't like his paintings unlike the adoring crowd he seemed to move in. Perhaps I tolerated him because there were few other people I knew here who had at least some passing understanding of what art could or shouldn't be.

During the course of the day, after I had retreated to my study and found myself again unable to compose – the day had turned overcast which, for me, was not a good sign – I kept coming back to this question why someone like Henry would suddenly take up the idea of writing a novel. Had he reached a creative impasse with his painting and he wanted to explore the possibilities of where creativity might lead him, to see if he could be creative in a different field?

Had he suggested I should start writing a novel of my own so we'd both be on New Ground? "I'm a painter, you're a musician – we're both artists but different: writing novels together would give us something in common. It would be a different experience for both of us."

Perhaps it wasn't the direct competition he was after, which is what I'd thought the first time, calling me up each morning to say "I wrote 3,000 words yesterday: what did you get done?" Maybe it was more than just a way he could prove himself superior to me.

If I didn't like his paintings because I thought they were amateurish, wasn't it more because I found them unintelligent and superfluous? They were pretty, only intended to be pleasing: they had little value to them beyond their surface enjoyment. It was art to look good hanging behind your couch and while that may have had its place – behind the couch – it wasn't what I expected of something that should be called Art, something I could keep coming back to and discover new things.

And didn't he dislike my music because it wasn't pretty, because it lacked the charm he needed to listen to it and hum along or tap his foot and for a moment feel that that had been a pleasant way to spend a few minutes of his time?

Our life here in and around the Village didn't focus on art, his or mine, though I would have had a better chance to see his paintings than he would ever have had a chance to hear my music.

We approached each other as if we weren't really artists at all, the way many people have friends without understanding or approving of what they did for a living. As friendships went, it was one based entirely on misconceptions.

But of course one thing was becoming clearer the longer I thought about this. Come early December, he was going to call me and ask if I would read his novel.

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

Dick Strawser

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