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Quick! What Would You Read?

Matthew Parkinson Bennett

The Abundance, by Annie Dillard, Canongate, 304 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1782117711

Annie Dillard wants to wake you up. It’s later than you think. This ain’t no dress rehearsal. On the contrary: “This is the Big Time here, every minute of it.” Quit hitting that snooze button. Wake up!

Rousing readers from their everyday slumber to witness the miracle blazing all around them is easier said than done. Dillard, though, is an extraordinarily gifted, committed and accomplished knocker-upper. The alarm call is always urgent but never harsh. When she strikes the gong just right, you’ll want to rise and shine.

If you ever close a book thinking, well, that was very good and all, but somehow unsatisfying, perhaps you feel you have been duped out of some precious hours – Dillard is a writer who will not waste your time. A writer whose advice to writers is:

Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?

After all, literature is important, or it ought to be – why else would we bother?

Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? Can the writer isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages his intellect and heart – and our own? Can the writer renew our hope for literary forms? Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatise our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage and the possibility of meaning, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their mystery and power?

Or, put a different way: “What would you do if you had fifteen minutes to live before the bomb went off? Quick: What would you read?”

Dillard is amused, frustrated or enraged by timewasting, unseriousness, the sillinesses with which we distract ourselves from the searing glare of the Big Time. She writes: “We still and always want waking. We should amass half-dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at one another, to wake up; instead we watch television and miss the show.” A Christian, she looks around at Mass and wonders:

Why do we people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … On the whole, I do not find Christians outside of the catacombs sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely evoke? … It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should wear crash helmets.

The Abundance, a selection of essays drawn from seven previous collections, is not all rage against the shading of the light. The essays are often funny. There are amusing, even heartwarming recollections of growing up in a close-knit middle class family in suburban Pittsburgh. An account of a visit to Disneyland with Allen Ginsberg and a delegation of confused but enthusiastic Chinese authors. Considering the diaries of nineteenth century adventurers, Dillard muses: “One wonders … if polar explorers were not somehow chosen for the empty and solemn splendor of their prose styles – or even if some eminent Victorians, examining their own prose styles, realised, perhaps dismayed, that from the look of it they would have to go in for polar exploration.”

Yet always – even when recalling her parents’ favourite jokes or how, in a scene straight out of a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, a strange man chased her and a childhood pal on foot through miles of backyards for throwing a snowball at his car – there is an urgency to the writing. Dillard has a way of suddenly swinging the full glare of the beam in your face, swerving back to the really vital stuff.

If she places demands on us, the snoozing, she takes the greater burden on herself. Dillard spends her life trying to be woken, to see the world as the strange and glorious miracle that it is. Occasionally she pierces the curtain and gets a glimpse of the sublime. For years she goes for forest walks hoping that among all the trees she sees, she will once manage to really see a tree. She walks, and looks, and hopes, and eventually it happens, a Blake-light vision of an illuminated tree, a familiar tree now seen anew. The vision fades, but she is transformed: “I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”

It is easy to see why Dillard was attracted to writing an essay about the life of French palaeontologist and Vatican-censured Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin, who wrote: “Throughout my whole life, during every minute of it, the world has been gradually lighting up and blazing up before my eyes until it has come to surround me, entirely lit up from within.” From her own efforts to see the world alight, Dillard concludes:

The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price. If I thought he could teach me to find it and keep it forever I would stagger barefoot across a hundred deserts after any lunatic at all. But while the pearl may be found, it may not be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: Although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise.

Dillard doesn’t put on a performance of her struggle to transmute experience into literature. She has no time for musing on the impossibility of conveying the ineffable reality of what she sees, for making the real show the always falling short, the mismatch between the thing and the account. Here is a writer who believes – how old-fashioned! – in the possibility of truly powerful literature. Of reaching towards an imagined reader, and touching a real one. Yes, writing is tough – “you hold and fight a sentence’s head while its tail tries to knock you over” – but you’ve got to do the hard yards; anything less is a betrayal of your self. “You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.”

An essay titled “Waking Up”, less than two pages short, is the best writing on the mysterious experience of growing out of childhood I have read. Others (one called “Waking Up Wild”) describe the author going off the rails as a teenager: drag racing, chain-smoking, driven mad by the incongruity between the intensity of her feeling for life and the limp reality of the everyday. And this appeals to the adolescent in me, the boy who looked one day at the world of small talk, homework and pretence and thought, what the hell? This is what we’re here for? Or as Dillard, who occasionally adopts the voice of a homey American mid-west mom, says: “What the Sam Hill is going on here?”

Dillard has a knack for putting it plainly: “I salt my breakfast eggs. All day long I feel created.” But she also writes it high, with a poet’s gift. “Can the writer renew our hope for literary forms?” This one can. The English language has been put to some bad uses (what is its future as the global verbal currency when its major political centres have begun closing around their own rot?) But great writing – and I hope not to oversell the importance of literature here – should refresh and reinvigorate the language. At the edge of a continent, gazing at a view of land, sea, mountains and islands, Dillard writes: “We have less time than we knew, and that time buoyant and cloven, lucent, and missile, and wild.” I do not know exactly what that sentence means, but I know it works, or it works on me. She describes a moment of epiphany: “Something broke and something opened. I filled up like a new wineskin. I breathed an air like light; I saw a light like water. I was the lip of a fountain the creek filled forever; I was ether, the leaf in zephyr; I was flesh-flake, feather, bone.”

1/7/2017

Matthew Parkinson-Bennett lives in Dublin and works as a freelance writer and editor. His twitter handle is @MatthewP_B

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