Keynote Gets Us Going

By Nancy Klingener

Princeton professor and contemporary fiction expert Michael Wood gave the John Hersey Memorial Lecture at the San Carlos Institute and it was illuminating. Wood even managed to work Hersey himself, a beloved writer who spent many winters in Key West, into the talk, when he read the opening lines of three works: “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka and “Hiroshima” by Hersey. In those opening lines, he said, “all the signals of strangeness are lacking” even though exceedingly strange things are happening — a man is facing a firing squad, a man believes he has turned into an insect, an entire city has been obliterated in an instant.

Wood also discussed the Latin American literature commonly called magical realism, and pointed out that the power of these works comes from their style, not flying carpets or impossible lifespans. Magical realism is “a way of talking, not an investment in strange fact,” he said.

Latin America has the same laws of physics as everywhere else, he said, but it is a place where stories matter, where they are told over and over. “All stories that matter to you are true in some sense,” he said. “Even if they seem far-fetched.”

One thought on “Keynote Gets Us Going

  1. I’d like to add a few points to Nan’s summary of the keynote for those in the higher reaches of the balcony who had trouble hearing. I apologize for errors in my paraphrasing. Please make corrections.
    Dr. Wood began by saying that truth is stranger than fiction — and that truth is also not stranger than fiction. Many truths are boring; others are unbelievable. It is strange, he said, that we might need to be told that truth is stranger than fiction. He decided to explore the five faces of strangeness to discover “what is stranger than what.”
    The strange is neither false nor true. It is not a miracle of wonder. The strange is whatever we are not used to. Magic realism provides a modest introduction to the places where we are not.
    One of the faces of strangeness appears in the expression of the strange. In the examples of writing which Dr. Wood read, the signals of strangeness are gone. The language suggests the signals of reality. Strange things may appear in the place of normality but they are in the “small change” language of everyday life. The author simultaneously evokes two worlds:
    – the author will register the sudden eruptions of stangeness in the everyday world (i.e. Kafka’s protagonist in The Metamorphosis awaking as an insect)
    – at the same time the author will remain true to the everyday in his or her expression.
    We don’t mistake the strange for the normal. We just treat it as normal in the hopes of getting back to everyday life.
    A previous way of writing was to keep the strange safely in the metaphor, in the “as if” — but Kafka did not say Gregor Samsa felt as if he were an insect. He awoke and discovered that he was an insect. This way of writing is used by Hersey, Kafka, and Garcia Marques. In fiction you can alter the world. Outside the safety of metaphor, the reader must grapple with the strange directly.
    Another face of strangeness discussed by Dr. Wood concerned the features of “home” and the features of “abroad.” Home seemed to be “any place which remains what it is when we change” and “which changes when we stay the same.”
    Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities involves conversations between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. Dr. Wood read the final words of this book:
    He [Khan] said: ‘It is all useless, if the last landing-place can only be the infernal city, and it is there that, in ever-narrowing circles, the current is drawing us.’
    And Polo said: ‘The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognise who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.'”
    Dr. Wood concluded by saying strangeness will make us free, but we have to learn to live with it, give it space.

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