Saturday, November 14, 2009

Scarpetta and Divisadero -- an odd couple!

We've had at least three days of Wind Warning here over the last week -- blustery rain-filled days just made for staying inside and reading. I took advantage of a break between marking to read Patricia Cornwell's Scarpetta, of which I will only say that Ms. Cornwell has somewhat redeemed herself here -- her last few in this series have been very uneven, but there's more of Kay Scarpetta's kindness emerging here and some of Marino's humanity peeking through again. There's a character sketch that held my attention, and a reasonably interesting plot, but mainly I note an engagement and rhythm in the writing that has been missing. I haven't been able to develop an interest in Cornwell's other seris, so I'm glad to see these characters resuscitated for now.

The reading I've really savoured lately, though, is Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero. For those who want a straightforward plot, a story with a clear beginning and end, this narrative holds only disappointment, but if you're a reader who enjoys teasing out connections yourself, you'll find the novel satisfying. I think the following passage most clearly suggests the book's structure.

The primary narrator, who "came to France, in the thirty-fourth year of my life" speaks of her arrival there, of being met by a friend and then driving together "through the darkening outskirts" and talking through the night as they travel south, eating from a picnic hamper and drinking red wine as they drive. Along the way, they stop to view an old church belfry being restored. "Built in the thirteenth century, the belfry had been constructed like a coil or a screw. It had one of those unexpected, helicoidal shapes -- the surface like a helix -- so that as it curved up it reflected every compass point of the landscape." -- and the narrator's friend tells her that during the recent restoration there had been a fight in which a man was almost killed. They return to the car and drive the rest of their way.

As her description continues,
All my life I have loved travelling at night, with a companion, each of us discussing and sharing the known and familiar behaviour of the other. It's like a villanelle, this inclination of going back to events in our past, the way the villanelle's form refuses to move forward in linear development, circling instead at those familiar moments of emotion. Only the rereading counts, Nabokov said. So the strange form of that belfry, turning onto itself again and again, felt familiar to me. For we live with those retrievals from childhood that coalesce and echo throughout our lives, the way shattered pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope reappear in new forms, and are songlike in their refrains and rhymes, making up a single monologue. We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell. (136)

On the next page, remembering her sister, trying to imagine her sister's present life and her long-ago lover's future, she observes, "I am a person who discovers archival subtexts in history and art, where the spiralling among a handful of strangers tangles into a story." I would argue that her story could equally be seen to spiral outward into a handful of strangers. Whichever, the traumatic injuries and triangles of passionate love and friendship, the odd coming-together of disparate strangers for intensely intimate periods, echo through decades, cohering but just barely. Memory. Trauma. Story-telling. Love. Friendship. Creative Work. Trademark Ondaatje themes in a book I'll happily read again and again -- the coloured shards that coalesce momentarily in his kaleidoscope.

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