Thursday, March 11, 2010

Guest in Progress: Anne Levy-Lavigne on Discovering the Classics

I’m trying to psyche myself up for my summer foray into Moby-Dick this summer, and this piece by Anne Levy-Lavigne, a WNBA friend, is a wonderful reminder of why the classics are... well...classic!

A Sure-Fire Guide to Enjoying Post-Surgery Convalescence: a Writer’s Tips
By Anne Levy-Lavigne

What's a poor writer to do, hamstrung by post-surgery aches and pains, ananesthetic haze, and doctor's orders to do nothing but rest, rest, rest? Write? I wish. The answer is read. But read with purpose. To improve the mind, even. And what better way than with revered gems of literature that I owned but, I'm ashamed to admit, hadn't read before. Let's face it, the classics do carry a hint of the obligatory. Yet I, the world's slowest reader, devoured these novels at breakneck speed. For long days and nights, I read and readand reread, while the collection of old Bette Davis movies on my DVR list (my back-up plan) languished unwatched. Here's a sampling.

First up, the withered paperback of Wuthering Heights that I'd rescued from the windowsill of our marina's restroom. To open these yellowed pages is to plunge into a netherworld where secluded black moors and violent thunderstorms echo the dark passions of the star-crossed Cathy and Heathcliff. Every word, every phrase of this story adds to a rising atmosphere of tension that snares the helpless reader and won't let go. Which is why I whipped through all 408 pages in a mere two days. Written in 1847 by the isolated young Emily Brontë, this novel is a triumph of imagination over experience. (So much for writing what you know?) And if Heathcliff's characterization were being critiqued today, it would most likely be panned as anywhere from"too unsympathetic"to "totally unbelievable," as in "No one is that bad." (Yet he still fascinates.) But however flawed, this is a tour de force of literary impressionism.

Leaving the savage world of Wuthering Heights for the polite society of Pride and Prejudice was like jumping from a roaring ocean into a glass-smooth lake. How this masterpiece sat on my bookshelf unopened for so long, I cannot fathom. Of course I knew the story. Everyone knows the story. But even for those who have seen its umpteen film productions, this book has to be lived page-by-page, if only for its incomparable elegance and sharp wit. And Austen's characterizations! Who else could use uncanny insight with so deft a balance of unvarnished honesty and wry empathy that her characters, their every charm and wart exposed, emerge as wonderfully human beings, as recognizable today as in 1813. As to plot, so much happens in her characters' pursuits of love and position that it's impossible to break away. (Speaking of ratcheting up the stakes.) What will happen with Elizabeth and Darcy? Does she or doesn't she? Does he or doesn't he? Will they or…they will! Of course they will. Bless Jane Austen…however she makes us suffer, she rewards us with a happy ending.

Not so Thomas Hardy. Preoccupied as he is with individual control over fate and the workings of justice in society, complicated by the vagaries of human weakness, his characters hardly have a chance. (Remember poor Tess?) Any happiness gained at Hardy's pen comes with a hefty price tag. The Mayor of Casterbridge careens down a long and winding plot road wired with tension as it sweeps Michael Henchard from the depths of poverty to the pinnacle of success and back again. Written in 1886, the society Hardy depicts is less wedded to surface gentility than the earlier Austen but more so than the more contemporary Brontë. Still, the rigidity of society's moral code, the cruelty of its hand, and the fragility of position are like a ball of dynamite; a powerful secret (a favorite Hardy trick) strikes the match, and colossally poor human judgment lights the fuse. (Yesteryore's parallel to the evening news?) Once again, I'm at the edge of my seat in the grip of Omigod, what happens next?, too poised for explosion to go to bed.

I recovered anyway, tired but richer for the reading and more convinced than ever that the dusty old classics are the best page-turners (and writing lessons) of them all. So for a good time call Jane,or Charlotte, or Thomas…or legions of wonderful others—sick or well.

About: Anne Levy-Lavigne holds an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University as well as graduate degrees in law and clinical social work. Her short fiction has appeared in REAL, The Potomac Review, and Phoebe, and she is an assistant editor for Narrative Magazine. A long-time resident of Washington, DC, she now lives and writes in New Orleans, Louisiana.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.