Recently, my son described a poignant regret: “It was like that day,” he said, “when you discover playing in a swimming pool isn’t as much fun as it once was.” My sadness joined with his—remembering when some childhood pleasure, quite suddenly it seemed, had lost its magic, the curtain whisked aside and the Wizard shown to be none other than Uncle Henry. Similar revelations came to mind like when I understood that while my mother was doing all she could to make Christmas magical for my brother and me, she was so exhausted, she wasn’t having fun at all. “Tired unto death” was how she described her feeling after she was certain I understood—the day, perhaps, I’d had to Christmas shop with two little boys, one on either hand, pulling me in opposite directions.
“Art,” Tolstoy said, “is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously by means of certain signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that others are infected by those feelings and experience them.”
What are those certain signs? How do I turn words into feelings for the reader? This question is one I’m constantly exploring in my reading.
Consider this passage in John Banville’s 2005 Booker Prize winning novel, The Sea:
Happiness was different in childhood. It was so much then a matter simply of accumulation, of taking things–new experiences, new emotions–and applying them like so many polished tiles to what would someday be the marvelously finished pavilion of the self. And incredulity, that too was a large part of being happy, I mean that euphoric inability fully to believe one’s simple luck. There I was, suddenly, with a girl in my arms, figuratively, at least, doing the things that grown ups did, holding her hand, and kissing her in the dark, and, when the picture had ended, standing aside, clearing my throat in grave politeness, to allow her to pass ahead of me under the heavy curtain and through the doorway out into the rain-washed sunlight of the summer evening. I was myself and at the same time someone else, someone completely other, completely new. As I walked behind her amid the trudging crowd in the direction of the Strand Cafe I touched a fingertip to my lips, the lips that had kissed hers, half expecting to find them changed in some infinitely subtle but momentous way. I expected everything to be changed, like the day itself, that had been sombre and wet and hung with big-bellied clouds when we were going into the picture-house in what had still been afternoon and now at evening was all tawny sunlight and raked shadows, the scrub grass dripping with jewels and a red sail-boat out on the bay turning its prow and setting off toward the horizon’s already dusk-blue distances. The cafe. In the cafe. In the cafe we.
–John Banville, The Sea, 108.
That one paragraph and once again, I know the wonder of first love. Not only are the details on the page accruing in my mind. He has set the stage in such a way that my own are coming back, and in this magical way, Banville and I somehow are dancing, writing this story together, though we’ve never met. How did he make that happen?
First let’s notice what he didn’t do. He didn’t record the narrator’s bodily sensations while falling in love. The narrator’s palms aren’t sweating. We don’t have to hear or feel his pounding heart or racing pulse.* Banville uses no clichés, no heart-shaped box of candy or long-stemmed red roses. (Someone please explain why there must be a dozen or why they must have long stems. Wouldn’t sweetheart roses be more appropriate? Or tulips?) Banville earns the emotion and my cooperation.
He begins with an observation, Happiness was different in childhood, with its inherent promise of specifics to come that begs us to discover in what sense the author finds his statement true. He then breaks down his abstraction into two qualities—the effect of so little experience meaning almost everything is new and the impact of incredulity. (Who doesn’t remember, after impossible crushes have gone unrequited—for a TV actor, a married teacher, a gay man—how it seemed that moment of mutuality would never happen?) Then come the concrete specifics, the girl in his arms, the handholding, the kiss—so necessarily tactile in description because it’s dark in the theater. When the movie ends, I can hear that clearing of the throat in the grave politeness of two newly grown-up people, we get the reverent allowing of her wonder to pass before him through the curtain. When he touches his fingers to his lips? We know that he, at least, has been made anew.
Our young lover has entered the Holy of Holies.
Is that theater a cliché? A trope? We’ve all seen it in the movies, that excuse for sitting next to one another in the dark, the flickering silver light on the faces of our lovers as they sit amidst a crowd with that ray of floating-mote light proceeding from the projection booth. One could make the argument that The Afternoon at the Bijou is a shortcut, but not in Banfield’s hands. The one theater detail he chooses—the heavy curtain that divides the lobby from the audience—is now missing from the Cineplex. That curtain speaks of an era when one movie came per week, blazoned on the marquee of a small town’s single theater, the more magical for its scarcity and promise, the era when a young woman made her lover wait to consummate on the wedding night. That curtain is the veil, behind which lies the mystery of all that yet is undiscovered between the lovers.
But the curtain’s not a wedding veil, white and virginal. The curtain was velvet, as were all the stuffed-and-swagging ropes that cordoned aisles to the entrances, guarded by the ticket-taker in his banded uniform and little monkey hat. I’m feeling that ticket stub in my pocket and smelling all the theater smells harbored in that curtain—the too-buttery popcorn, the licorice scent of Good and Plenty, the mildewed lobby carpet, always wet in snowy winter. Remember?
Next Banville uses setting—showing how our mood affects what we see. The outdoor world, previously sombre and wet, is transformed by the magic of the afternoon so that now, though the grass is stubble, it is bedecked with jewels, and the boat with a red sail points into a blue-gray distance.
And notice the language. It’s not the soda fountain the lovers flee to next to share a single ice cream soda with two straws. It’s a café—romantically French—called the Strand, with its connotations of a cord connecting. These words imply an elegance of purpose, followed by the poetic accruing of the last three breathless fragments: The café. In the café. In the café we.
I am totally infected.
*For an excellent discussion of why rendering bodily sensation distances the reader, see Debra Spark’s essay “Stand Back,” in her collection, Curious Attractions: Essays on Fiction Writing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.