Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Octopus

As a rule, I don’t read novels.  At least not since Mark Twain, well, maybe Kurt Vonnegut, stopped writing them.  Somehow, while I can devour history, biography, self-improvement, how-to or text books, I get bogged down in a novel.  Maybe it’s because my mind rebels at trying to sort out facts from fiction.  Maybe it’s because I struggle with names and keeping the characters straight.  Maybe I feel like reading a novel is an opportunity cost – I could be learning something from a non-fiction text.  Whatever the reason, reading a novel is tough slog for me.

A couple of weeks ago, I came face to face with this challenge.  For some reason, my art professor has decided to inflict a great books reading program on me to accompany the figure drawing class.  It started slow with a couple of Beatrice Potter books followed by a Babar book. I could handle that. But then the reading program took a quantum leap with a 1901 novel by Frank Norris – The Octopus.  A novel!  Literature!!  Yikes!!!

I read the really long (to page xxv), esoteric introduction written in 1958 by Kenneth Lynn – a Harvard professor.  That about did me in, but I tackled the first 33 page chapter. I think that took me a week of mentally exhausting effort to get that far.  I decided to quit right there.  But, alas, my professor ragged on me all through the next class about giving up.

With that goading, I decided, I’d at least read the last chapter to see where the heck this thing was going.  That helped.  I spent most of Sunday slogging through another 130 pages or so of the 448 page missive.  I have to admit, I’m (sort of) interested.

Why does my professor think this is good for me?  He says great reading helps creativity.  Maybe it’s also because Frank Norris spent two years in Paris studying painting before embarking on his writing career.  This training sure shows up in his prose.  He describes the physical aspects of his characters and settings in rich detail -- seeing them with an artist’s eye:

“Her neck was thick, and sloped to her shoulders, with full, beautiful curves, and under her chin and under ears, the flesh was white and smooth as floss satin, shading exquisitely to a faint delicate brown on her nape at the roots of her hair.  Her throat rounded to meet her chin and cheek, with a soft swell of the skin, tinted pale amber in the shadows, but blending by barely perceptible gradations to the sweet warm flush of her check. The color on her temples was just touched with a certain blueness where the flesh was thin over the fine veining underneath.”

This goes on for two pages.  Looks like there was some figure drawing in Paris and that he remembered it.

As I said, I’m kind of interested now.  The unintentional part of the novel, perhaps, is the picture it paints of late 1800s and early 1900s life and values.  And I’m going to make it through this quest.  I figure if I can read about 70 pages for each of the next four days, I’ll arrive at the finish line.

Who knows, maybe I’ll learn something.  The only downside is that I think my professor has more novels on my great books list program.  And they’re not Pigling Bland or Peter Rabbit!