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Friday, February 1, 2013

Better Living Through Fiction

Novelist Jim Harrison

Sometimes wisdom comes from unexpected places.

I have always read a lot of non-fiction ---  science, history, philosophy, religion, food, wine, etc. And through this reading I suppose I was grabbing for, or grappling with, wisdom.

But as I have gotten older, I have more and more appreciated how experience is the best teacher, and that, ironically, fiction is a greater source of wisdom. Maybe because, at its best, fiction re-creates actual human experience. Unlike non-fiction, it does not provide a recitation of facts and arguments to be grasped cognitively. It resonates under the surface in the same deep places that our own life experiences reside.

One of my favorite writers is Jim Harrison. If you haven't heard of him, he is best known for writing the novella "Legends of the Fall" , which was made into the movie that launched Brad Pitt's career.

Harrison, like many of my other favorite fiction writers (Kurt Vonnegut, Ernest Hemingway, and David Mamet) is a Mid-Westerner, and writes much about characters who straddle the worlds of thought and action. While born, raised, and having lived almost entirely in New Jersey, my essentially "blue-collar bookworm" nature seems to jive with writers of this region.

His latest book, The River Swimmer, is actually a pair of novellas. I haven't read it yet, but there is a review of it in the New York Times. The link is below.

The reviewer distills some of the "life lessons" that arise generally as themes in Harrison's fiction, and specifically are here derived from the The River Swimmer's main character "Clive". The reviewer summarizes them as follows (which I quote pretty much verbatim from the article):

1) Get outside as often as possible, ideally right now. Clive, like most of Mr. Harrison’s characters, is given to epic walks in New York City, in Europe and in whatever woods he can find. These trips, the author writes, “keep his body from deliquescing at a faster rate than it already was.”

2) Take your meals seriously. Clive eats high and low. Clive cheers for the Manhattan restaurants Babbo and Del Posto; he places colossal mail orders from Zingerman’s deli in Ann Arbor; he drinks wines that have sorrow in them. But he won’t turn his nose up at a sloppy Joe. About a cherished odor from his childhood, Clive declares: “It was Ralph’s homemade pickled bologna, scarcely Proust’s madeleine, but then he was scarcely Proust.”

3) Keep your libido stoked. Clive does not have the heart to pass up, as he says about an ex-girlfriend, now 60, “a fleeting glance at her admirable bottom.” Clive wonders: “Should he be beyond such voyeurism?” He replies: “If so what was beyond but further desuetude?”

4) Have a sense of humor about yourself. Pratfalls not only keep you human; they also provide the best stories. Clive can barely even gaze at nature, seemingly a safe occupation, without being teased. Typical sentence: “Clive looked straight up at a raucous blackbird scolding him.”

5) Read good books. You want the best thoughts in your head. Mr. Harrison’s characters do.

6) Scorn snobs and greedheads. Clive writes in a journal: “I told a Ph.D. candidate in music how much I enjoyed reading Steinbeck. He snorted and chortled as if he had caught me masturbating while picking my nose.” About fashion, we read: “Clive never wore neckties under the private conviction that all of the political and financial mischief in the nation was created by men who wore neckties.”

7) Live the examined life. Clive’s novella has profound things to say about “the distances at which we keep each other.” It lingers on how our memories exist “as if they were waiting in the landscape, waiting to attack.”

I never quite understood why Harrison appealed to me so much until I read this list. Perhaps these themes were already resonating somewhere below my awareness.

Regardless, in my view, in looking for a few guideposts,  one could do far worse that learning from these lessons.


Link to NYT article is below:

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