Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Morrie? Does copulate mean what I think it does?

"Morrie?  Does copulate mean what I think it does?  In English I mean?"
The speaker is Paul, a precocious 13 year old who talking to his unconventional teacher in a one-room school house in Montana in 1909.  He goes on:

The morning I asked that, he had had a terrible time keeping a straight face.  Between yawns and cups of coffee that would have given Father's a run for its money and trying to prepare for the Department of Public Instruction inspector coming to lop his head off, he was doing his best to administer Latin to me before everyone else showed up for school.  At that hour I was chipper as Chanticleer, which probably was no help to a bleary teacher who had to come an hour early every day to unlock the schoolhouse and light the overhead lamps and stoke up the stove and then face me and my translations.  Morrie hadn't yet uttered a peep of complaint, however, and now he looked more than passingly interested in my questions.  "Dare I ask why you ask?"

"Just wondering," I dabbed my finger onto the open page of the Latin collection of readings he had most recently provided me.  "Besides, it's right here."

Morrie blanched, then scrambled over to my desk to take a look.  "Navem caper copulas manus ferreas injecebamus" he read aloud hastily, then translated with relief. "To caputre the vessel, we throw ropes with grappling irons." The grappling is not that severe in the English form. But look it up."

My book group finished reading The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig.  As a couple people said at our meeting last week, "everyone is so nice."  I had to disagree and pointed out a few characters who made life difficult for Paul and his brothers.  But generally the conflicts are pretty low key.  And this got me to thinking.  Most authors will tell you something like
Without conflict, you don’t have a story. [from Susann Cokal]
And it seems a lot of writers assume that conflict should be CONFLICT!  Doig finds conflict in everyday life and is able to tell a story without terribly much happening in the sense of big dramatic conflict.  Rather we have Morrie's need to answer Paul's question about Latin translation.  And Morrie's concern about the school inspector's visit.

The book starts out with recently widowed Oliver and his three sons around the table.
. . .  Father had a short, sniffing way of laughing, as if anything funny had to prove it to his nose first. 

I glanced up from my geography lessons to discover the newspaper making its way in my direction.  Father's thumb was crimped down onto the heading of the ad like the holder of a divining rod striking water.  "Paul, better see this.  Read it to the multitude."

I did so, Damon and Toby halting what they were at to try to take in those five simple yet confounding words:

Can't Cook But Doesn't Bite.

Meal-making was not a joking matter in our household.  Father, though continued to look pleased as could be and nodded for me to keep reading aloud.

Housekeeping position sought by widow.  Sound morals, exceptional disposition.  No culinary skills, but A-1 in all other household tasks.  Salary negotiable, but must include railroad fare to Montana locality;  first year of peerless care for your home thereby guaranteed.  Respond to Boxholder, Box 19, Lowry Hill Postal Station, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Conflict - how does widower cook for his three sons?  Conflict - should he send transportation money to this unknown potential housekeeper?  There's also a wolf trapper and his son who provide some tension, but basically things are unexciting, but in a way that kept me eager for more.

New York Times book reviewer Sven Birkets invoked David Foster Wallace's questioning whether it was possible today to write without irony.  He concludes:
"The next real literary 'rebels' in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction."
Birkets suggests Ivan Doig fits the untrendy and reverent criteria.  I'd agree.  I can't recall reading such a low stress novel.  Focusing on everyday tasks offers enough literary conflict if done as well as Doig does it.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.