Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Notes to myself

I am following what may be an obscure but a certainly effective procedure of learning: accidental education. I stumbled upon the term while frip-fripping the pages of The Education of Henry Adams, the autobiography of Henry Adams. Yes, the man has come up with a style of his own, writing about himself in the third person. By the standard of the New Journalism, this is old hat; but if we consider that this Henry Adams was born in 1838 and published his book in 1906, we kneel and touch our forehead toward the fount of such originality.

To fix the dates in our mind, we relate it to a familiar date, say 1861: In 1838 one Jose Rizal had to wait 23 more years before he could be conceived to make his own mark. People in those years wrote convoluted sentences, so prolix that the Victorian Henry James can consume more than two pages for a single sentence. When I first came upon the big block of paragraphs in a James novel, I blinked in disbelief. This was how the master told his tales, twisting and turning phrases where a simple subject-verb-predicate sentence would have sufficed.

I sifted through each line to make sure I had not just missed a turn and driven pass the merciful period. I waded through dozens of overworked commas, exhausted semi-colons, underpaid dashes, and parentheses gasping for breath until I found the treasured dot, miles away from the starting point. I'm sure the education of Henry Adams taught him not to write like Henry James.

Or like Charles Dickens. Someone told me that Dickens can discuss hats for 20 pages. That attitude, or style, can be understood if we are informed that Dickens was paid a cent per word for his stories, which were serialized in magazines. Erle Stanley Gardner, before he hit it big with Perry Mason, earned his dimes by padding his pulp fictions with sound effects. It takes no effort at all to hear his detective unload his gun: "Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!" All six shots earning 60c. Of course the gumshoe gets to reload and unload six more dimes.

Understand, I'm retelling all these by memory. This should teach me to take notes next time; verbatim quotes are more accurate and memorable. Still, I guess retelling is better than plagiarizing or sottoing.

Before I forget: Henry Adams and his third-person came up because I have just finished Salman Rushdie's latest book, Joseph Anton. It is Rushdie's autobiography, in which he includes the ordeal he suffered after Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death sentence upon him for allegedly insulting the prophet Muhammad in The Satanic Verses. Hiding and always on the move, he must assume an alias to elude the assassins eager to get the $1 million price for his head. After trying and discarding combinations of names, he decided to become Joseph Anton, after the Polish novelist Conrad and Russian short story writer Chekhov. For ten years the fictitious Joseph Anton issued checks to buy food, books, houses for the fugitive novelist. Rushdie explains in the beginning of his book why he chose his pseudonym. And why he referred to himself in the third-person.

Reality can be as fantastic as fiction. I suppose it's how you tell it.

Another note: Frip is the sound the pages make when I frip the edge of a book to arrive at a random page, where I start reading.

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