On simplicity

Forms & Shapes - Beach



[A few heat-addled thoughts]

This weekend I read two stories and one novel -- they were what I needed following The Waves.

First was 'The Gold Bug' by Poe which I've read before, long ago, and which I wanted to return to after finishing The Gold Bug Variations. Then I read Limestone by Stifter (they didn't have Ice Mountain at the library and I can't buy any new books until I've moved ---). I finished the weekend with Effi Briest by Fontane.

Simplicity, silence, exact slow words. All three were slow-moving, quiet stories. I needed something simple after The Waves -- I needed something that laid an image out in bold strokes and then left it -- these three stories, despite being quite different, were similar to me in that they seemed to me like objects arranged neatly on a windowsill.

'The Gold Bug' for me is wrapped up in one image -- dropping the suspended bug through the right eye socket of the skull. Everything else falls into place -- there is no mystery and no mess. Not one of the characters dies, the lieutenant doesn't return to steal the bug away, no pirates haunt the treasure, etc. Once the simple riddle is decoded everything falls into place. As fantastic as the story is, the telling of it is completely real -- this happened and then that -- I thought this and discovered that instead.

Limestone was different -- I read it during the sweltering day -- there was no breeze on Saturday and so I laid under the maple and watched the shadows of the leaves remain still -- it's a slow, strange story -- I was reminded of the film Diary of a Country Priest (for obvious reasons) -- but also because of the detachment -- the stark laying-out of a story. Every scene was composed and quiet -- the walks over the limestone rocks, the violent storm, the strange scenes in the priest's house (occasionally there would be an air of mystery -- what's upstairs, why does he hide his fine linen, why is he standing in the middle of the flooded field -- but just as quickly it dissipates). Everything is deliberate, just like the priest as a young man, re-learning all of his childhood lessons, spending his time alone in the school wing with old textbooks and scarred wooden tables.

And finally, Effi Briest -- a tale I was familiar with -- the lost woman, the struggle of individual against society, etc. But it played out so differently -- not at all like Madame Bovary or Lady Chatterly's Lover. I wasn't smitten with Effi (was I supposed to be? I don't know) -- she was too typical to me -- too much like what a man would conceive of as a free woman -- but I spent a long time wondering about the lacunae -- the absences. Everything is so clean and clear -- efficient prose working with a minimum of description, idea and dialogue to a maximum of effect. It's a thin book for such a complicated tale. The missing pages are felt though -- my first confusion came with Effi's pregnancy -- it was almost kept a secret from the reader, vaguely alluded to and quickly moved past. Not too strange though.

But the affair -- the affair around which the entire story hinges -- it takes up a few descriptions of Effi's mysteriously unaccompanied walks and then just three short transcripted letters. And the letters six years after the fact. Not that the reader doesn't know -- it's obvious -- but it isn't spoken of. And the duel -- so strange -- so sterile almost, no feeling. Old Briest's wonderful phrase -- 'it's just too big a subject' kept echoing to me -- everything absent was too big a subject. Everyone seems to shy away from confrontations -- everything is done for 'an idea' as Innstetten says, but I have to wonder how these ideas are chosen, how are they assented to, why for this idea?

It was such a hot weekend -- I had trouble re-collecting my thoughts and memories of what I had read last night -- everything came back slowly and left quickly.