icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

From Phyllida's Desk

Crying Over Filet Mignon

I live alone, making spaghetti with sauce from a jar tests the limits of my culinary abilities, and I love red meat. So one Thanksgiving I invited just one very good friend over and I served filet mignon.

When I put that first big bite of charred-on-the-outside, oozing-blood-on-the-inside tender beef into my mouth, I almost cried. It was that good.

Several years ago, when I was more regularly unhappy than I am now, if I ever needed a good cry I'd put on my record (yeah, it's vinyl) of Henry Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas. The final aria, "Dido's lament," sung while the character is dying from a self-inflicted knife-wound to the gut (it's opera), makes me literally lie on the floor and sob with some kind of universal, supernatural grief. It's the saddest piece of music I've ever heard, not because of the absurd story or the odd, Baroque libretto, but because of some magical synergy between Purcell's ethereal music and the soprano voice singing, "Remember me, but ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, forget my fate." Just typing the words and hearing the song in my head makes me have to go away and blow my nose.

OK, I'm back now (wiping eyes).

Today, needing something more to read after plowing through every word of the New York Times except the sports section, I dutifully opened up the Kindle file of my book club's latest selection, Ann Patchett's State of Wonder. And I almost cried. It was that good.

I don't mean the "plot" or the "characters," and I certainly don't mean the metaphors or the "language" or some technical piece of "craft." I mean the writing was so great it just sucked me in from the first sentence so that I couldn't stop. The book actually is full of good plot and great characters, and there may very well be some metaphors or elegant language. It is undoubtedly a superb example of "craft" because—here's the important part—it's invisible.

It's like the scene in Henry Fielding's novel Tom Jones where, at the theater, Tom's friend Partridge dismisses the realism of the famous actor Garrick, preferring the bombastic, mannered performance of the man playing the king: "Any body may see he is an actor."

When I read a writer like Patchett, or Jonathan Franzen, I'm not thinking, "How did she do this, technically?" I'm thinking—No, I'm not thinking at all. I'm reading fiction in the best, the only way one should read fiction: lost to myself, lost in the story, ready to stick a knife in the gut and happily forget the fate of anybody or anything that tries to pull me out and into the reality of tasks and jobs and chores and…

But yes: honestly, as a writer I am thinking "How does she do it?" And the answer is: I don't know. That's the brilliance of it. I suppose it could be taught in writing classes, but it's hard to imagine how.

I always think of the diarist Samuel Pepys when I listen to Dido and Aeneas, because he was another person who had an emotional (and sexual) response to music. He held absolutely nothing back in his coded, shorthand journal entries, including his rather "intense" reactions to all sorts of sensory stimuli: music, and of course, women. I especially love reading about his "dream" of the magnificent Barbara Villiers, who became Lady Castlemaine and then Duchess of Cleveland, the most formidable of Charles II's many mistresses. But that's a subject for another day.

For me, the pleasure of certain music is also sexual. I've often thought it would be dangerous to listen to Purcell with anyone I was remotely sexually attracted to—or anyone at all. At some point I'd lie back on the sofa and say, "Do anything you want." And if he or she didn't want to do anything, I'd do it. I hate to think of what would have happened if I'd lived three hundred years ago in London and been foolish enough to go the opera with that randy, aggressive, shameless skirt-chaser Pepys.

I guess I'm saying that good writing, like great music and perfect filet, is, at least for me, the highest of sensual pleasures, not a "skill" or a "job" or a "craft," even if writing and composing and raising cattle and butchering are all things that can be taught and learned, and should be if one wants great books to read and beautiful music to listen to and delicious beef to eat.

Since I can't write music, and since I have no intention of starting a cattle ranch, the only one of these skills that I care about learning is writing. And while I feel the occasional twinge of envy when reading Patchett or Franzen, mostly what I feel is pleasure, the joy of experiencing a work that delivers so much more than it promises: a written-down story about more-or-less ordinary people in sometimes extraordinary situations. But not fantasy. No vampires or werewolves, no telepaths or zombies, nothing set in outer space or alternate universes. No murders in a locked room or lovers separated by misunderstandings but ending up together, happily-ever-after. No genre, not even a meticulously-researched work of historical re-creation.

Just plain fiction. That's what I want to write, but I haven't gotten there yet, mostly because the world of ordinary people and real life is as foreign to me as vampires or space aliens are to most human beings. I live surrounded by normality, but not in it. If I'm going to "write what you know," the only thing I know for sure is what I wish for: to be Lady Amalie or Phyllida Carrington. A genre heroine living in a genre world.

I also wonder if great writing really can't exist within genre. Why not? Surely content need not dictate style. And that's what this is all about, as I see it: style. Lord Isham, watching the hero and his husband-to-be having a fistfight (in Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander), says, "The Yorkshireman is heavier but Carrington's got style." Andrew Carrington has studied boxing with the best; he's treated it as a craft and a science. But when you're as good as he is, the result for spectators is art: transcendent beauty and grace.

In Birth, the fourth book of Lady Amalie's memoirs, Amalie watches her husband, Dominic, fence in a public tournament. She has never seen him practice ("It was not something a man did in front of his wife"), and she's surprised by the hostility of the audience that resents him for being the undefeated champion for years but dares not bet against him. When Amalie sees Dominic in action, the master swordsman, she can only think that "the crowd, that hated him so, must hate beauty and grace and excellence."

When I read Franzen or Patchett, I'm filled with awe, not jealousy or resentment. They are masters, and I'm privileged to read their work. It's art, even if there's science or at least craft behind it.

I doubt I'll ever reach a tenth of their level of expertise, but reading their work inspires me to go on trying.
Be the first to comment