Mr Tench went out to look for his ether cylinder, into the blazing Mexican sun and the bleaching dust. A few vultures looked down from the roof with shabby indifference: he wasn't carrion yet. A faint feeling of rebellion stirred in Mr Tench's heart, and he wrenched up a piece of the road with splintering finger-nails and tossed it feebly towards them. One rose and flapped across the town: over the tiny plaza, over the bust of an ex-president, ex-general, ex-human being, over the two stalls which sold mineral water, towards the river and the sea. It wouldn't find anything there: the sharks looked after the carrion on that side. Mr Tench went on across the plaza.
Thus begins Graham Greene's novel The Power and the Glory, the tale of a "whisky priest" in Mexico, a drunk, wandering soul, his church destroyed by the state and ready, like so many in Greene's fiction, to fall upon redemption. When I was teaching English at a private school outside of New York City, tired of the old standbys taught year after year to big yawns and tired eyes, I decided to teach some Greene to my ninth and tenth graders; as it turned out, with great success: Brighton Rock was a big hit with them. But as I talked about the books we were reading I became less interested in the somewhat obvious thematic content of Greene's book and more in how his work was written.
I don't necessarily mean that I was interested in his process. Rather, I was interested in showing the students how it was written by having them learn how to read him. Many people know that Greene was the film reviewer, in fact for a shortlived British magazine called Night and Day, and his reviews, which ended when Shirley Temple's people sued him for defamation of character (don't ask), showed that Greene considered cinema as an art form perhaps equal to the novel. In fact, he separated his own work into "novels" and "entertainments", though certainly his more serious fiction contains elements of those so-called entertainments. Nearly all of his books are to some degree cinematic, with his script for "The Third Man", most notably, becoming a film before it turned into a story.
Greene's cinematic eye is evident in the opening to The Power and the Glory: one can see the scene very clearly: the blazing bleached-out light; the humming and buzzing of distant insects beneath a merciless sky. The camera pans across the blasted landscape until it picks up the figure of this man, in his dusty suit and a tie worn one too many times, his beaten shoes, his squinting eyes beneath a hat that once upon a time may have been fashionable in some quarters. When I taught this (and works by other writers), I would try to show, or at least intuit, what the author had in mind while writing one passage or another. In essence, what I was doing was teaching the kids how to read like writers.
It probably did nothing for their SAT scores, but I'm hoping it's something that's stayed with them.
I bring this up because I recently heard an interview on NYC Public Radio with Ben Ratliff, author of a number of books on jazz musicians, whose most recent volume (which I've not read) features a selection of musicians responding to recordings Ratliff plays for them. The interviewer pointed out that certainly these musicians--Sonny Rollins or Maria Schneider or Ornette Coleman, among many others--must listen in a very different way to how the everyday jazz fan would. And of course Ratliff agreed with him. Musicians hear music differently, just as artists look at paintings differently, just as writers look at writing differently. They do so, because they know how it's done. And sometimes it's so amazing that it's beyond understanding.
Speaking as a writer, and a writer who dislikes speaking of process or of himself "as a writer" (for me writing is simply another form of breathing; I do it, and that's an end to it), I know that when I read something that really knocks me out I try to parse what makes this writing so special. In short, what makes it work.
As I mentioned in an earlier entry, I'm now reading Roberto Bolaño's 2666 and am realizing that the writer Bolaño comes closest to, at least in terms of how he expresses himself and how he deals with character, is Bob Dylan. This may sound halfway to lunacy, but it's how it looks to me. I can't say that Bolaño liked or even knew (though he certainly was aware of) Dylan's music, but there's a kind of outlaw approach to the characters and situations in his works (not just 2666) that takes me back to the people who live in Dylan's head and who live out their lives to the chords of his guitar.
We know that Bolaño himself was something of an outlaw. A drug-user, a heavy drinker in his youth, something of a drifter, and yet passionate about his work as a writer, he stole books from bookstores (imagine Philip Roth or John Updike doing that), and got himself locked up in one of Pinochet's prison-cells, after which he lived in exile from his native land. So, like an outlaw, he views his characters both affectionately and with suspicion; they stand at an angle to the universe that makes the light fall on them all the more vividly. In the end, though, it's always what remains in shadow that interests him.
So when I read him, as when I read any other writer, part of me is standing back and thinking, "How the hell is he doing this? What is he thinking? What is his motive?" While, when I write screenplays, I'm always thinking "What is the audience making of this? Are they leaving their seats and rushing to the nearest exit, walking and not running? Or are they on the edge of their seats, waiting to see what happens next?"
It's all down to technicality. A musician sitting in the Half Note or Five Spot, watching a show by a musician they admire, will always be thinking about harmony, intervals, rhythmic patterns, technique. A painter who gazes at a painting by, say, Cézanne will understand much of what the artist has done; but also be mystified as to how he carried it off.
This, of course, is one of the keynotes of sublime art: it contains within itself its own mystery of creation. And so we, as writers, can go just so far to understanding how a thing is done; if it's too evident to us, then perhaps what's on the page before us has turned out to be something less than great. And maybe what we need more of these days is that mystery that lies at the heart of true greatness.
Causes J.P. Smith Supports