I used to carry notebooks full of jotted excerpts from books and cryptic love memos to the authors. These entries feel a little embarrassing now that I’m no longer fully in the throes of my crushes. But I still wonder at them.
Looking through a notebook recently I encountered three pages on Marc Chagall’s My Life and remembered the affection I felt when I read it. At the top of the first page I’d scrawled “Techniques Worth Emulating” and then created three subheadings—“Mixed Address,” “Non-narrative Plotting,” and “Unusual Figurative Language.” Each included breathless citation and breathless praise. “Mixed Address,” referred to the way Chagall suddenly shifts to address his reader, a general you, an absent someone, or some historical, third-person reality. Here’s an excerpt from that section discussing Chagall’s thoughts about missing his father’s funeral and his relationship with his brother David:
In the middle of a first person account, Chagall addresses David, recalling how he painted him with a mandolin. He openly criticizes himself, “It’s wicked that I wasn’t there. He would have been so pleased if I had appeared. But he will not come to life again. I shall see your grave later… I shall lie down full length on your grave. You will not come to life even then” (197). He’s not clear how or when he shifts between his brother and father and creates an odd expansive grief with no specific target. When he addresses his old girlfriends, he says, “No one speaks your names anymore. I shall walk past your streets and I shall transfer the bitterness of dreary meetings to my canvases. Let those mists of our days shine and flicker there. And the spectator will smile” (72). Of course we are the spectators, and, by mixing address so thoroughly and chaotically, he makes us feel pointed to even when he works in third person. That feeling of a continually shifting persona is chronic here. With such unpredictable address, all the participants, especially us, remain present. So, when he addresses his wife Bella and tells someone—her, us?—not to read on because, “I shall write a few words to myself alone,” he is really inviting us to continue. A few sentences later, he says, “My memory is on fire,” (146) and the statement rings with greater intimacy because he’s told us he’s not talking to us.
Though quoting myself quoting Chagall seems silly and discussing this passage in third person more so, I miss my earlier self’s ambitions. He’s so earnest. He’s so naïve. I still sometimes want to steal the approaches of other writers and make them mine, but Chagall’s voice is his and—I’ve learned since—emulation is risky. My earlier version didn’t worry about risks. He had dreams, and, if his affection was puppy love, he was seeing so much for the first time. He found himself standing at doors having rung the bell despite himself and not really recalling what convinced him to stand there. His undisguised gushing is charming.
I wish I were courageous enough to do what Chagall does, to single out people in my life, to break the fourth wall and turn to them as you watch, but my discretion—well trained by performing my identity, by propriety and by my “voice”—fights me. My inner Prufrock tips his teacup to his lips and, hiding his mouth a moment, sighs. His eyes dip as the ladies talk. The desperation hasn’t waned, but optimism has.
Students often ask, “What’s your favorite book?” and I either avoid thinking about it by answering as I always do, or I avoid thinking about it by reading the title on the first book cover that surfaces in memory. The question is too hard, not because it’s too complicated to consider what constitutes “good,” not because there’s mystery in what makes a book fit our taste, not because just about every book contains something to admire, and not because, with so many types of books, it’s challenging to compare at all.
I do repeat those excuses all the time, and all are all legitimate complications, but actually it’s just impossible to explain how, sometimes, literature arrives in your life like a lover, setting every leaf and twig of you aquiver. Yet your love can’t last.
Even though you can’t remember it vividly, and the memory is sweet.