Writer in Residence · 08/15/2011

Fragments and Images

During the Civil War, Mathew Brady took thousands of photographs of the battle scenes and the dead after these battles. There was no technical way to publish these photos in newspapers or magazines at that time, and his plans to exhibit them did not happen in part because Americans wanted to move on from the war. He spent $100,000 making these images during the war, and he went bankrupt in the 1870s. Most of the photographic glass plates were destroyed. Some were saved. Many were used for greenhouses across the country and the images slowly bleached out over the decades, but apparently one could see the images in the glass of these greenhouses for quite some time, a more and more ghostly reminder of a brutal war.

The physicists who built the first atom bomb in New Mexico during the Second World War had a betting pool before the initial test. Some bet that the chain reaction begun by the bomb would not stop and would rip the atmosphere off the earth, obviously killing all life on the planet. Others bet that the chain reaction would end fairly quickly. The cool murderousness of reason had never before in human history displayed itself so starkly.

At the end of the Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray) says, “You know why you couldn’t figure this one, Keyes? I’ll tell ya. ’Cause the guy you were looking for was too close, right across the desk from you.” His friend and colleague in the insurance company Keyes (played by Edward G. Robinson) says: “Closer than that, Walter.” Neff replies, “I love you, too.” Neff tries to light a crumpled, bloody cigarette he has pulled from his jacket. Throughout the film, before this moment, Keyes has always been the one who did not have a match, and Neff would light one by flicking his thumbnail against the match head. At this moment, Keyes produces and match, and he lights it for his dying friend.

In the movie Apollo 13, the character Tom Hanks plays says, “Hello, Houston? This is Odyssey. It’s good to see you again.” Tom Hanks says this after the fictional space ship Apollo 13 comes out of radio silence and its parachutes have opened. How do you get to this sort of moment in fiction? Why do we seek climax, cathartic experience, or emotional payoff? Or are we more concerned with how characters fight, love, deceive, or ignore each other? There is some thinking that audiences enjoy movies and stories they know the ending of more than they enjoy the first experience of reading or seeing a story.

Apollo 13 was a fascinating suspense story in that the outcome was known by nearly every viewer who saw the film when it came out. The astronauts had returned safely, and yet we watched the movie and held our breaths with the family and friends and mission control workers. Something about this experience makes me think of how fictional realities work. Ron Howard’s historical realism is good and plainspoken. The issue in the story he shows us on screen is not whether or not the astronauts will survive their reentry, but how the humans around them experience the intense emotion of the situation. We read fiction not to feel reality but to witness the emotional interactions of human beings, to watch the way we all constantly read and reread each other’s emotional states.

When I was in college in southern Minnesota, my friends and I would occasionally drive a few miles away to Dundas. Beer prices were cheap there because the town had more relaxed liquor licensing rules than Northfield, next door. We arrived one day to find a Chicago & North Western freight train stopped on the railroad tracks that ran through the center of this very small town, just before the level crossing at Hester Street. The engineer and two other C&NW employees climbed down from the locomotive and walked to the same bar we were going to. This image has stayed with me of a half-mile-long freight train idling in a small Midwestern town so the crew could enjoy a beer. Trains on the Great Plains must have done this regularly, and the crews must have known which counties were dry, and, more importantly, which were not.

From notes I took in Crete September of 2010:

The beach is obscured by a thick wall of olive trees (part of a farm that abuts the property of our apartment complex). We are about 100 feet above the beach. We can nevertheless hear the beach’s goings-on at all times—people batting balls back and forth with wooden paddles, and children’s cries of pleasure and pain. But now, at eight in the morning of our last full day in Crete, there is only the loudspeaker noise of the meat salesman in his pickup truck driving unrefrigerated slabs of meat along the beach to the all restaurants.

The Chania bus still goes all the way through town—forcing other vehicles to back up. Woe to a truck-bus impasse. The main street in Kalyves is long (two miles) and very narrow in places. The guidebooks I’ve read note that the town is pretty unpromising-looking. This is true, from that road. But walk up into the warren of streets and alleys just above the main road and you have a beautiful Arab town. In fact the word Kalyves comes from the Arabic for tent, apparently from a group of Arab traders who arrived here a thousand years ago.

When the sun hits the bay at this time of morning the color leaches out—it is a flat blue-gray. Earlier it was sapphire blue and jade green, with hints of silver where the river’s current pushes out to sea. On the other side of bay is Akrotiri Peninsula, and there are remains of a monastery down a steep path to the sea, Moni Iannou Ermiti, dedicated to St. John the Hermit, who lived in a cave behind the walls of the ruined building. When he died his 98 followers are said to have died with him. How? Mass suicide? The guidebooks shy away from answering this question.

Redmond O’Hanlon, from his book Into the Heart of Borneo, speaks of his traveling companion the poet James Fenton’s unquenchable desire to read books, even when he and Redmond were about to fly over a small waterfall in a canoe:

With a second or two to spare, James would shut his book, mark his place in it with a twig, slip it neatly under an edge of the tarpaulin, place his left buttock upon it, shut his eyes, get drenched, open his eyes, squeeze the water from his beard with his right hand, retrieve his book and carry on reading.

Some of Gustave Flaubert’s sayings:

Anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough.

Of all possible debauches, traveling is the greatest that I know; that’s the one they invented when they got tired of all the others.

Oh, if I had been loved at the age of seventeen, what an idiot I would be today. Happiness is like smallpox: if you catch it too soon, it can completely ruin your constitution.

One mustn’t always believe that feeling is everything. In the arts, it is nothing without form.

The deplorable mania of doubt exhausts me. I doubt about everything, even my doubts.

The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.

There is no truth. There is only perception.

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posted by Brian Kiteley