Monday, March 16, 2009

My Literary Influences, Part I

Randal tagged me with this meme. As I was reading his post, so artfully done, and all Frenchified, I thought it was brilliant. I thought if was fascinating, until I got to the very end, and saw my name at the end of it along with Beach, and some other poor blogger. I'll go back and look to see who else was tasked with this monster of a meme. I say "monster" because I did not write as a child. If that were the case, this would be one very short list. And even when I was taking all those bizzillions of Literature classes in various colleges, I still wasn't writing anything other than papers. I didn't actually start writing until I left my third husband, the writer. And by then there were thousands of books I could honestly say had an influence on my writing. And the older I get the farther back in my memory bank I must go to find the books that sent me on my way, armed with the need and the confidence to write. Truth be told, I still don't have a lot of confidence that I can write. Now I just write, for good or ill, I write.

Any of you who read the first hundred pages or so of my novel, know that I had a very strange childhood. I won't get into that here, but it did have a big influence on what I read, and my reaction to my reading.

Once past my Dick and Jane reader, I took to the reading life with a passion. I'm not sure how these books found their way into my hands--maybe at my Grandparent's cabin, or while spending boring Sundays at my Grandparent's house. But the first books I remember reading were "children's" books, but probably a bit too advanced for my young skills--this might account for my reading them over and over. First was Old Yeller, by Fred Gipson. I can still work up some tears when I think of that faithful friend and protector. The second of the children's books was The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnen Rawlings.

These two children's books were so emotionally powerful for me that I read them over and over. And it was with my experience of great sobbing emotional catharsis come to by reading that I developed a critical eye to the making of movies from very good books. Neither movie was as good for me as the books. It wasn't satisfying to find my imagination's involvement with characters and place were at odds with the film maker's interpretation of my beloved book. It is a criticism that has only been reinforced over and over. While reading a book, I could escape my own dreadful reality, but savor another's life and experience, hate another's parents. You can see where this is going I'm sure, and I could probably end this right here. But I take these memes very seriously.

It was during one of our last years in small town Oregon, while my dad had his high school teaching misadventures, that I overheard parents talking about two books. They were the play The Children's Hour, and the novel The Bad Seed. Neither book was appropriate for a ten year old, but that never stopped me. My dad had been fired from his first high school teaching job because of something I had said to a girlfriend of mine, which she reported to her older sisters and mother, and I got in a lot of trouble and he got fired.

We spent my 12th Spring and Summer back in Salt Lake living at my grandmother's farm. She had a library there and during that summer I read The Birds and other stories of Daphne du Maurier, and the several of the novels of W Somerset Maugham, and in this time a trend in my reading was established. Read writers, not books.

I read Nabokov's brilliant Great American Novel, Lolita when I was 12. Though this was highly inappropriate, and a book far beyond my childish understanding, I did get it. Oh, I misread a word like loins for lions, but it didn't harm the prose or the meaning for me. We had friends who smuggled the book into the country from France. The book had been banned in Boston, which increased tourist revenue for France, and guaranteed Lolita's success in the good old puritanical USA. And the fact that I heard all the adults in my parent's circle talking about it, made me determined to find the hidden book and read it. I have by now probably read it twenty times.

At twelve I fell for my first big crush. I thought it was a great deal more than just a crush. At twelve I looked at least my 16 year old boy friend's age, so before he knew exactly how old I was, he took me seriously and we traded reading suggestions. He'd read the Bronte sisters and Thomas Hardy. I caught up fast. Then Dickens. Oh yes, I could relate to Dickens' children. I could relate to Hardy's Bathsheba, and then Tess. I could see myself as Cathy with her doomed and tragic love for Heathcliff. And these books lead to an obsession with literature with a capital L.

Then I began reading as if I were gorging on literature. And I guess I was. I did read so gluttonously that I had always already read the books required in school. I gobbled all the great Southern Writers, from Faulkner to Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers. I found a writer I loved and then read everything I could get my hands on, which often led me to another writer of the era and area. I noticed the major themes, the common local. To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, led me to Truman Capote, who led me to Tennessee Williams and so on. You can see how this goes.

Read one great Russian writer, read them all--From Dostoevsky to Bulgakov. France from Sarte, to Celine, to Leduc and Genet and more. I move across the world gobbling writers. It is a wonder I had time to marry, travel, to mate again, to work and earn a living, to take classes whenever I could since I had Proust, and Flaubert, and then Hermann Hesse, and Gunter Grass and Thomas Mann.

Whew! I am now in my late twenties, and though I haven't listed all the authors I'd plowed through by then, I plan to continue this at another time, since we need not know just what one read to get to one's writing style and content, we need to see it develop. But I have the start here, the background, the technique of reading all of one author before moving on. Now I have to take a break or I will go to Cincinnati and throttle Randal Graves.