November 13, 2007

literary nepotism

cover: Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient The actual name of this phenomenon escapes me at the moment, but I love when a writer references another work in their fiction. It's not just that I enjoy seeing how one artist influences another -- Homer's Odyssey directly or indirectly inspiring Dante's Inferno, Milton's Paradise Lost, or even Spielberg's Indiana Jones -- although that's fascinating in its own right. Rather, I enjoy when an author has a character read or somehow become involved with a story within that story. Por exemplo:

"She opens The Last of the Mohicans to the blank page at the back and begins to write in it.

There is a man named Caravaggio, a friend of my father's. I have always loved him. He is older than I am, about forty-five, I think. He is in a time of darkness, has no confidence. For some reason I am cared for by this friend of my father.

She closes the book and then walks down into the library and conceals it in one of the high shelves."

-- Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

In writing this brief episode, how does Ondaatje's choice of book inform his audience? Would the reader interpret this differently if Ondaatje had instead written about Hana scribbling in The Jungle Book or Jane Eyre? Would Lady Chatterley's Lover have been too racy a reference, distracting the reader unnecessarily, or perhaps over-sexualizing her observations about this older man? As the English Patient himself collects clippings in Herodotus' Histories, would it have been hopelessly elitist to depict Hana defacing a copy of The Iliad?

Things become even more complicated once we start asking whose choice it was in the first place: if we argue Ondaatje's the one who chose that tome, we're asking all kinds of metalingual questions. He picked that book for the literary references inherent in the years that have passed after James Fenimore Cooper published the novel. To imply a connection between a sympathizer to a conquered people and Ondaatje's own Caravaggio. For the simplicity of borrowing an entire text's popular relevance without having to weigh down his own text even further.

If, however, one supposes that Hana, the character, chose the book, the connections become less about Ondaatje's cleverness, and more about his character's completeness. Does she make a deliberate move to place this journal entry in this volume, or is it mere random chance? Earlier in the novel, we are told that Hana has little if any literary knowledge; are we then supposed to guess that she's been educated by her experience, enough to understand the complexity of her choice? Or should we attach a pseudo-schoolgirl naivete to it, that "oh-it's-just-so-romantic" squeal that belies true understanding of a deeper text?

As a writer, as a teacher, hell, as a lover, I know it's the little things that make all the difference. Here, and a nod is needed to rebobadob's The Luck Key, this is a case of the tiniest detail colouring an entire text. Literally.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

I personally think you need to read 50 NEW books a year. That is to say, 50 books you haven't read before. Thanks by the way for introducing me to Griffin and Sabine. :)