Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Carrie Brown

Carrie Brown and her husband, the novelist John Gregory Brown, have spent their working lives writing and teaching side by side in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains at Sweet Briar College, where John Gregory Brown directs the College’s creative writing program.

They have published ten books between them and raised three children on the campus at Sweet Briar. Over the years, they have been fortunate to host many of the world’s great writers at their home, Sanctuary Cottage, and to introduce those writers and their work to hundreds of students.

Brown now serves as Distinguished Visiting Professor at nearby Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, where she lives at the University and works with undergraduate and graduate students in the University’s esteemed creative writing program. She and her husband travel between the two literary landscapes and enjoy the best of both worlds.

Her new novel is The Last First Day.

Last month I asked Brown about what she was reading.  Her reply:
I had been steeping myself in novellas before I began work on The Last First Day, trying to puzzle out what I liked about the form. Katherine Anne Porter thought the term “novella” was useless… worse than useless, in fact: a “slack, boneless, affected word that we do not need to describe anything.”

Whatever one calls it, the novella – or the long story – has for me the mysterious capacity to seem both long and short. We do not mistake most short stories for feeling long, though we may feel that they say a great deal. And some novels seem to speed by, even at five hundred pages. But reading a novella often gives me the feeling of reading something ageless; sometimes they have a prophetic quality, like utterances from the mouths of caves.

Novellas are often, though not exclusively, stories of nostalgia or longing or regret (as opposed to adventure or risk). In their unique suspension of a narrative over time, they have neither the luxury of a novel’s length nor the constraint of a short story. They sometimes have the characteristic of a fugue, which borrows its psychological definition (of sadness and dislocation and amnesia and the search for identity) from the musical composition, with its contrapuntal succession of voices echoing or searching for a theme. When I discovered that William Gass referred to his novella The Pedersen Kid as a “fugue” of a story, I was pleased, because the word had already occurred to me, and I felt confirmed in my sense that the form bears with it some sadness, some shaking of the ground underfoot, some uncertainty and bewilderment.

Novellas seem uniquely connected to melancholy and, hence, to at least one aspect typical of middle age with its vantage point between youth and death. I published my first novel in 1998, fifteen years ago, when I was in my late thirties. Since then, I have published several others, but I am now certainly in what could be called mid-life (at least, I hope it is). This territory of the middle – this inching across a divide -- feels familiar to me. Maybe that’s why the form of companion novellas felt right for this particular story of a couple of who advance though the years of their marriage from youth and, eventually, into old age.

Three of my favorite novellas are William Trevor’s Reading Turgenev, Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness, and Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider. You can find this in The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter, which contains not only this most famous of her long “Miranda” stories, but also the two others, written at intervals from each other, “Old Mortality” and “The Old Order.” In Pale Horse, Pale Rider – Porter called it a “short novel” -- we meet Miranda in what will be the last days of WWII (though she does not know that) succumbing to a nearly fatal case of influenza, just as she is hoping to enjoy a last weekend with a soldier, Adam, with whom she has fallen in love and who is scheduled to ship out overseas shortly. I know of no piece of writing that captures the approach to death in such extraordinary fashion as in this story, nor one that that so deftly tracks the movements of a mind in the grip of fever or dream, hope and terror, love and grief. Porter breaks all the rules; she begins with Miranda dreaming (who was it who said: write a dream, lose a reader?), inches forward in the present action – Miranda’s last hours with Adam – and then propels readers into a terrifying, thrilling, and strangely beautiful place that is like an anteroom to death. “At once it grew, flattened, thinned to a fine radiance, spread like a great fan and curved out into a rainbow through which Miranda, enchanted, altogether believing, looked upon a deep clear landscape of sea and sand, of soft meadow and sky, freshly washed and glistening with transparencies of blue… Lying at ease, arms under her head, in the prodigal warmth which flowed evenly from sea and sky and meadow, within touch but not touching the serenely smiling familiar beings about her, Miranda felt without warning a vague tremor of apprehension, some small flick of distrust in her joy; a thin frost touched the edges of this confident tranquility…” In the final paragraphs, the appearance of a ghost – another rule breaking, risky move -- brings me to tears every time.

Too Much Happiness. The long title story in a recent collection from the amazing Alice Munro uses the life of Sofia Kovalevsky, nineteenth century Russian mathematician (and novelist and memoirist) as inspiration for a strange and marvelous story that works like a spell, whisking the reader forward and back in time throughout Kovalevsky’s life, creating suspense by its habit of stealth moves; you never know where the story will go next. By accretion of disordered scenes and memories and journeys, an extraordinary life is revealed. Munro’s stories operate by their own internal logic. I find the effect of her stories, especially the long ones, like a thrilling scavenger hunt; you cannot anticipate your next destination, each discovery is a surprise, but in the end all is revealed and you are back where you began, but somehow changed – and richer -- for the journey. Leah Hagar Cohen, in her review of the collection in The New York Times, wrote, “The very shape of things, along with our sense of what is important and why, seems to shift as we proceed. The real story keeps turning out to be larger than, and at canted angles to, what we thought it would be. The effect is initially destabilizing, then unexpectedly affirming.” This story, particularly, is affirming the way sunrise is affirming. There it is again, another miracle.

Reading Turgenev. William Trevor has been described by a critic in The Observer as "widely believed to be the most astute observer of the human condition currently writing in fiction." I would have a difficult time identifying my favorite of his stories, but this novella – paired with another work, My House in Umbria, under the title Two Lives – is certainly my favorite of his longer works. I’ve given away many copies of this book, wanting to share this tragic love story. Like Pale Horse, Pale Rider and Too Much Happiness, the novella charts a riveting, non-linear path in time – full of fragments and glimpses -- and we meet the protagonist of the story, Mary Louise Dallon, in a brief, painful opening chapter in which she is not named. Mary Louise, a sheltered and innocent farm girl, marries Elmer Quarry, owner of the drapery business in town. She marries him like a stone rolls downhill, however, without either intention or the ability to stop a terrible thing once it has begun. The marriage is not a success, and in its early years Mary Louise is drawn back into the company of a sickly cousin with whom she falls desperately in love. The novella contains some of the most excruciating scenes ever written of two people who should not be together forced into wretched proximity, and also some of the most tender and beautiful portraits of true love. Like all of Trevor’s work, it shocks and moves; characters who seem too small, somehow, for the oceanic depths of characters in Russian novels (Turgenev’s, for instance) surprise themselves and readers with unexpected reserves of desperation, hatred, love, and tenacity. Reading Turgenev was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1991. Read it and weep.
Visit Carrie Brown's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Last First Day.

The Page 69 Test: The Last First Day.

--Marshal Zeringue