“Serious Noticing,” by James Wood – Michigan Quarterly Review

“Serious Noticing,” by James Wood

“Serious Noticing,” by James Wood, appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of MQR. A revised version later appeared in Wood’s memoir, The Nearest Thing to Life.


It sometimes seems to me that I grew up not in the 1970s and 80s, but in the 1870s and 80s. At forty-four, I stand exactly in the middle of an ideal lifespan, endowed with the dubious, Janus-like ability to look both forward and backward equilibriously. When I look back at my childhood, the distance of thirty years or so, the vanishing of certain habits and traditions, and my transfer from England, where I grew up, to America, where I moved in 1995, combine to make my childhood seem impossibly remote. Paradoxically, though, the more pungent are the remembered details. I grew up in a northern English town called Durham, home to a university and a majestic Romanesque cathedral, and surrounded by coalfields, many of them now abandoned (Durham is about fifteen miles from Newcastle, famous for coal). Every house had a hearth and fire, and coal, rather than wood, was used as domestic fuel. Every few weeks, a truck arrived, piled with lumpy burlap sacks; the coal was then poured down a chute into the house’s cellar—I vividly remember the volcanic sound of the coal, as it tumbled into the cellar, and the drifting, bluish coal-dust, and the dark, small men who carried those sacks on their backs, with tough leather pads on their shoulders.

I went to school in Durham, at an ecclesiastical institution strong in subjects like Latin, history, divinity, and music. I sang in the cathedral choir, a kind of glorious indentured servitude—we performed evensong every day, and three services on Sundays. I learned to sight-read music by singing the treasures of the English choral repertory, most of it sixteenth- and seventeenth-century music. Every afternoon, we lined up in two equal columns, to walk from the school to the ­cathedral—dressed in thick black capes that were clasped at the neck and black mortar boards with frondy purple tassels. The dormitories were so cold in the morning that we learned how to dress in bed.

The school’s headmaster was probably only in his early fifties, but seemed to us a fantastically antique figure. He was a bachelor and a clergyman, and wore the uniform of his calling: a black suit, a black buttonless shirt, a thick white dog collar. Except for the band of white starch round his neck, he was entirely colorless—his ancient Oxford shoes were black, his thick spectacles were black, the pipe he smoked was black. He seemed to have been carbonized centuries ago, turned into ash, and when he lit his pipe, it seemed as if he were lighting himself. Like all children, we were fascinated by the match held over the pipe bowl, by the flame steadily journeying along the flimsy match, entranced by the sucking noises of the smoker and the way the flame halted its horizontal passage at these moments and then briefly disappeared vertically into the bowl; and always there was the question: how can he hold the match alight for so long, with such reptilian imperviousness?

This headmaster was quite a kind soul, in his way, but he stuck to the codes of punishment he understood. Boys guilty of major sins were given “six of the best,” six hard, stinging smacks on the bottom, with the back of a large, flat, wooden hairbrush. By the time I left this school, at the age of thirteen, I was rather triumphant about how many whacks of the hairbrush I had accumulated—106, to be precise. It seems a measure of the pastness I am describing that when I announced this enormous sum to my parents, they had no impulse to sue the school and merely inquired, “Whatever have you been up to?” There were marvelous teachers: a Latin master who said that we should begin our essays with a bang, “as Bacon began his essay on gardens: ‘The Lord God Almighty first created a garden.’ Try to emulate Bacon.” A history teacher who strode into class one day, took off his black gown and tossed it onto his desk, upended the contents of a wastepaper bin onto his desk, then proceeded to take the contents of a boy’s desk and hurl it onto the table, at which point he stood behind the desk and grandly declaimed: “In 1482, England was in a mess!”

Sometimes, when I got home, I found a homeless man, a tramp, sitting in a chair in the kitchen, drinking a cup of tea and eating a sandwich my mother had made for him. He was called Tom, and he came every so often for a bite to eat before hitting the road again. He was epileptic, and once had a fit while in our kitchen, rocking back and forth, his eyes tightly closed, his dirty hands twisting the dirty cloth of his trousers. Many years later, poor man, he fell into a fire while having a fit, and was badly burned, and died. Tom had never been on a train, a fact that riveted me when I was a little boy. He had no concept of London, or even of the south of England. When I eventually went away down south, to a big boarding school, Tom, who liked stamps, asked me to bring back any I might acquire, as if the south of England were a foreign country.

And I have not even touched on the richness of northern accents and slang: “all right” was pronounced “owreet”; nose was “neb” (as in, “get your neb out of that”); “me” was often “us” (as in “me back’s killin’ us”); “nothing” was “nowt.” “Back-end” was the phrase for autumn; “claggy” was sticky; “bone-yard” was a cemetery; and—my favorite—the plot you reserve in a cemetery was known as your “lair.”

The dialect has remained, the cathedral is still there—massive, gray, long, solemn—but much of the rest of that world has disappeared. The coalfields were already in serious decline when I was growing up, and most of the collieries had closed. Coal is no longer as potent or as popular as it once was in England; it is surely no longer thrown down the chutes into the cellars of houses. Of course, this also means that fewer men go underground to hack at coal seams in dangerous conditions, as Orwell described so vividly in The Road to Wigan Pier. Fortunately, striking a child’s bottom with a hard object is no longer considered an appropriate punishment; I doubt there is a school in Britain where systematic corporal punishment is still allowed, an astonishingly rapid development that began almost as soon as I entered my teens. And I doubt that tramps come round for sandwiches and tea—though they certainly still go somewhere for sandwiches and tea. You can imagine that when I describe this world to my eight-year-old daughter and six-year-old son, I seem to grow whiskers and a frock coat: they stare with wide eyes at a father now absurdly prehistoric. They live in a much gentler, but oddly sanitized world, in which the only discipline at school seems to be a murmured “time out” from the teacher, and illnesses like epilepsy happen out of sight. No one smokes much, certainly not teachers, and pipes are known only from old films and photographs.

Of course, I don’t want my children to have exactly the same childhood as I did: that would almost be a definition of conservatism. But I do long for them to be assaulted by the pungency, by the vivid strength and strangeness of detail, as I was as a child; and I want them to notice and remember. The carbonized clergyman; dressing in bed; Tom sitting by the kitchen drinking his sweet tea; the coal men with their leather jackets—you all have your equivalent memories. They are the foundation of our writing, because we need to notice in order to write good fiction and poetry, and then in turn the writing and reading of good fiction and poetry make us better noticers, better readers of the world.

Here is a paragraph from Aleksandar Hemon’s autobiographical story, “Exchange of Pleasant Words,” about a drunken and exuberant family reunion—what the family calls a Hemoniad—in rural Bosnia. The viewpoint is that of a child’s, close to the ground, and rather drunk:

The noxious, sour manure stench coming from the pigsty; the howling of the only piglet left alive; the fluttering of fleeting chickens; pungent smoke coming from moribund pig-roast fires; relentless shuffling and rustling of the gravel on which many feet danced; my aunts and other auntly women trodding the kolomiyka on the gravel, their ankles universally swollen, and their skin-hued stockings descending slowly down their varicose calves; the scent of a pine plank and then prickly coarseness of its surface, as I laid my head on it and everything spun, as if I were a washing machine; my cousin Ivan’s sandaled left foot tap-tapping on the stage, headed by its rotund big toe; the vast fields of cakes and pastries arrayed on the bed (on which my grandmother had expired), meticulously sorted in chocolate and non-chocolate phalanxes.

Hemon, who left Sarajevo in 1990 and now lives in Chicago, loves lists like this—and when he has such good material, why wouldn’t he? Notice, in particular, “the howling of the only piglet left alive,” and the phalanxes of cakes and pastries arrayed on the same bed that the grandmother has expired on.

Hemon is probably fortunate to have brought with him to America a set of remembered details from his Sarajevo childhood, details unusual in their force and distinctiveness. But Hemon is not just an autobiographer or memoirist, and he is by no means a straightforward realist—he likes playing games with fiction (deep games, to be sure), and he invents as much as he inherits. I come back to that word pungent, which, you notice, Hemon also used. If our childhoods have not, by and large, offered us much in the way of pungency, then we must invent those details.

I want to talk briefly about noticing, and how literature can make us better, or more serious, noticers. I will speak about three kinds of serious noticing—aesthetic noticing, human noticing, and metaphysical noticing. By aesthetic noticing, I mean the function that poetry and fiction have to help us see the world more closely and carefully—to see better, to look again at our surroundings, natural and manmade, to look more closely at the body, to open the pores of our senses and feel the world. There are at least four areas in which fiction and poetry can tutor us: they help us to see better; they help us to select; they transfigure the world (through metaphor and imagery); and lastly, because they remind us that we are looking at something, they add an element of self-consciousness or self-referentiality to the process of looking that is usually passed over or neglected in ordinary life.

In Saul Bellow’s novella, Seize the Day, Tommy Wilhelm, who is in his forties, helps an old man, Mr. Rappaport, across the street. He takes him by the arm and is struck by the man’s “big but light elbow.” It might not seem the most extraordinary piece of writing, but consider for a moment the precision of the paradox—the bone of the elbow is large because the old man is so skinny and gnarled; but it is unexpectedly light, because Mr. Rappaport is really just skin and bone, and is gradually disappearing into his own longevity. I like to imagine the youngish writer sitting at his manuscript in 1955, or so, and trying to imagine (or perhaps remembering and imagining) the exact experience of holding an aged elbow in his hand: big . . . big but . . . big but light!

In the same novel, Tommy Wilhelm is running through the health club of a hotel, looking for his elderly father, who is getting a massage. As he rushes from room to room, he briefly catches sight of two men playing ping-pong; they have just come out of the steambath and are wearing towels round their waists. “They were awkward and the ball bounded high.” Again, let us imagine our youngish writer at his desk. He sees, in his mind’s eye, his protagonist running from room to room; he sees his protagonist notice the two men in their towels. And though he doesn’t linger on the detail, he sees that the men are made awkward by their towels, and that, as a consequence, they are playing ineptly—fearful that their towels will slip, they are just pretending to play, and so “the ball bounded high.”

And just as great writing asks us to look more closely, it asks us to participate in the transformation of the subject through metaphor and imagery. Think of the way D. H. Lawrence describes, in one of his poems, the “sloping Victorian shoulders” of a kangaroo; or how Nabokov describes a piece of tissue paper falling to the ground with “infinite listlessness,” or how Aleksandar Hemon (again) describes horseshit as looking like “dark, deflated, tennis balls,” or how Elizabeth Bishop describes a taxi meter staring at her “like a moral owl.”

In ordinary life, we don’t spend very long looking at things or at people, but writers do. And good writing also involves us self-consciously in the process of looking. That’s to say, literature reminds us that something or someone is being looked at, as painting does, of course. John Berger has some good words on this, in an essay on drawing:

To draw is to look, examining the structure of experiences. A drawing of a tree shows, not a tree, but a tree-being-looked-at. Whereas the sight of a tree is registered almost instantaneously, the examination of the sight of a tree (a tree-being-looked-at) not only takes minutes or hours instead of a fraction of a second, it also involves, derives from, and refers back to, much previous experience of looking.

(Some of you might think of the famous tree in War and Peace, which Prince Andrei rides past first in early spring, and then, a month later, in late spring. On his second journey, he doesn’t recognize the tree, because it is so changed. Before, it had been leafless and wintry. But now, it is in full bloom, surrounded by other trees similarly alive: “Juicy green leaves without branches broke through the stiff, hundred-year-old bark, and it was impossible to believe that this old fellow had issued them.”)

John Berger’s phrase, “examining the structure of experiences,” nicely applies to our second category, human noticing. In practice, of course, it doesn’t make much sense to separate aesthetic noticing from human noticing. All noticing is human noticing; in fiction and poetry, detail is always someone’s detail, whether it’s the writer’s or the character’s. I separate the two categories because I want to emphasize that part of serious noticing that observes the self, in all its performance and pretense, its fear and secret ambition, its pride and sadness. I’m not here to tell you everything literature can do in this area, because I’d be here all day, and because in your own reading and writing you have already discovered, or are discovering, the massive capacities of the language. What I can do is select a few areas for illumination. Obviously, it is by noticing people seriously that you begin to understand them; by looking harder, more sensitively, at people’s motives, you can look around and behind them, so to speak. Fiction seems to me extraordinarily good at dramatizing how contradictory people are. How we can want two opposed things at once: think of how brilliantly Dostoevsky catches this contradiction, how we love and hate at the same time, or how quickly our moods, like clouds on a windy day, scud from one shape to another.

Often, in life, I have felt that an essentially novelistic understanding of motive has helped me to begin to fathom what someone else really wants from me, or from another person. Sometimes, it is almost frightening to realize how poorly most people know themselves; it seems to put one at an almost priestly advantage over people’s souls. This is another way, I suppose, of suggesting that in fiction we have the great privilege of seeing how people make themselves up—how they construct themselves out of fictions and fantasies and then choose to repress or forget that element of themselves. I have mentioned Dostoevsky’s characters, who go backward to the eighteenth-century Diderot, and to Lermontov’s great hero, Pechorin (late 1830s), and forward to the narrator of Thomas Bernhard’s novel The Loser, a wonderful book narrated by a man who is convinced that his friend, a pianist named Wertheimer, who has committed suicide, was “a loser.” The narrator means by that word (Der Untergeher is the German title, which means something like one who is drowning or sinking) that when he and Wertheimer were young, they were both desperate to be great pianists. They studied with Glenn Gould, and deeply envied Gould’s pianistic genius. By comparison with Gould, who of course made it as an internationally famous pianist, the narrator and his friend Wertheimer are losers. They have not succeeded; they are obscure provincials by comparison with Gould. But over the course of the book, the narrator’s desperate need to present his friend as a loser, to exempt himself from that dread category, and ultimately his distasteful tendency to see Wertheimer’s suicide as the ultimate mark of his loserdom, become highly suspect. We slowly see that the narrator may not be entirely sane, that he has a kind of murderous envy of Gould, a competitive rivalry with Wertheimer, and a deep guilt over Wertheimer’s suicide. Of all this he seems largely unaware.

We may not be as insane or as drastically obscure to ourselves as the narrator of The Loser, but we are all fantasists; we are all internal expansionists. We live life in two time signatures: there is the public rhythm of our existence, and the private rhythm, and these two rhythms are asynchronous. Fiction is superbly equipped to dramatize this asynchronicity because of its ability to represent thought on the page (poetry can do it well, too, though only perhaps by recourse to the dramatic monologue). My favorite example is from Chekhov’s story, “The Kiss.” A regiment of soldiers is billeted in a provincial town. The owner of the town’s biggest house invites the soldiers to a ball. One of the soldiers, a naive and innocent young man, does not find it as easy as his confident peers to dance with the women. Hiding his embarrassment, he goes wandering in the large house and gets lost, finding himself in a dark corridor. Suddenly, behind him, he hears rushed footsteps. A woman approaches and kisses him—and instantly realizes that she has kissed the wrong man and retreats. The incident grows in size and importance in the young soldier’s mind. He has never kissed a woman before. All night he thinks about it, and then next morning, while his fellow soldiers are reading the newspapers and happily remembering the party, he summons the courage to tell his story. He does tell it, but is disappointed, writes Chekhov, because “he thought his story would take all morning to tell, but it only took one minute.”

What a serious noticer a writer must be to see that the story we tell in our heads is the most important one; that, painfully, we both need and don’t need an audience for this internal story; that such private fictions are more important to us than the truth; and also—this, I think, might be Chekhov’s joke—that most of us are fairly poor storytellers.

All this is well and good, but what do I really mean by serious noticing—for instance, what would unserious noticing be? One definition of unserious noticing might be noticing that is entirely conventional, that simply repeats all the conventional literary noticing of other writers, anything from, “He had dark shiny hair and wore a striped shirt,” to “She twisted the spaghetti on her fork and sighed.” Another might be a form of noticing—or writing—in which nothing very serious is at stake. A middle-aged man is looking at his wife: “He held back a lock of her mocha hair, and grazed her forehead. Her hair was thinner than it had been in college, when they’d met. How searchingly beautiful she’d been. But lovelier to him now, at peace within herself, at last. Lovelier because graying.” This is by a serious writer—it is from Richard Powers’s novel, The Echo Maker, which won the National Book Award. But it is not a serious piece of noticing, and essentially just recycles middlebrow novelistic clichés.

Truly serious noticing leads me to my third category, rather pompously called “metaphysical noticing.” By this, I mean the importance of using literature to ask the deepest questions about our existence. The asking of such questions gets harder every day. Emerson once said that society was a mob, conspiring against the sovereign strength of the self. Now we are an electronic mob, and the forces of distraction are powerfully arrayed against us. It has always been the case that society never wanted a writer to write a book, something you will discover when you leave this place and try to create the space and time to write. Society doesn’t want your book of stories or poems, and you will have to push against society, as if you had your shoulder to the door of a crowded room; you will have to shove your book into existence, birth it violently. As I say, this was always the case. But now, inside that crowded room whose door is pushed shut by the press of bodies, a crazy party is going on. It’s not just that society doesn’t want your book. Worse in some ways, it does want a book from you, but not a serious one; it wants you to enter that room and join the party and entertain everyone. We are the luckiest, most pampered, most permanently distracted, permanently entertained people who have ever lived, and while many will want you to write thrillers, and film scripts, and juicy memoirs, and TV shows, and even political speeches, very few will want you to write a serious book—a book that has the slight severity of beauty, that severity we find in great work, that still shocks us, for instance, every so often when we watch an old film (by Renoir, say, or De Sica, or Ozu, or Godard), and we realize that the filmmaker doesn’t care whether we are watching or not. Indeed, the great work of art seems almost to turn away from its audience, seems almost to say: “I don’t care if you encounter me or not. I exist on my own terms.” How hard it will be, to be art-pleasers in an era of crowd-pleasing.

There is a beautiful chorale prelude by Bach, called “Alle Menschen Müssen Sterben” “All Men Must Die”). That knowledge, central both to life and art-making for centuries, is remarkably light a presence in our contemporary lives. As long ago as the 1930s, Walter Benjamin, in his great essay “The Storyteller,” defined classic storytelling as shaped around death, and noted that whereas fifty years earlier, people died at home, and thus death was a constant domestic presence, now they die offstage, in hospitals. Nowadays, one can get to my age and have parents still alive and have only attended the funerals of grandparents. In the nineteenth century, as you know, writers were surrounded by death: children of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky died, and poor Karl Marx lost three children; so overcome by grief was he at the funeral of one of his sons that he had to be restrained from throwing himself into the grave. In a paragraph of serious noticing from A House for Mr. Biswas, V. S. Naipaul describes seeing a man riding a bicycle with one hand, and a child’s coffin under his other arm. (He, or his hero, Mr. Biswas, is remembering a scene from Trinidad in the 1930s, or earlier.)

All men must die is really the theme of Tolstoy’s great novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Ivan Ilyich thinks that death does not apply to him. He understands that people die but refuses to include himself in that company. When he is sick and dying, his servant, Gerasim, is his greatest comfort, lifting his legs to ease his master’s pain, helping him sit on the commode to empty his bowels. Gerasim says that he does this because he knows that everyone must die, and he hopes someone in turn will help him. Philip Roth’s Everyman is obviously a contemporary rewriting of Tolstoy’s novella, but an even better book was written last year on this theme, by the Australian novelist and journalist Helen Garner. Her novella, The Spare Room, is really a memoir about a friend of the writer who is very ill with cancer, and who comes to stay in the writer’s home, while pursuing a course of alternative treatment. The writer of the book finds, at first, that she can’t stand having this dying but strongly egotistical woman in her house. She feels inadequate to the task of comforting her dying friend, let alone the daily chores of washing bedsheets and clothes. Eventually, however, she shares the burden of caring for her with other friends, and late in the book there is a passage that is surely a direct response to Tolstoy’s Gerasim: “For this too would be required of me: like others who served her, whom I came to love in the intimacy of our labor, I would have to help carry her to the lavatory, where I learned to wash her arse as gently as I had washed my sister’s and my mother’s, and as someday someone will have to wash mine.”

A story is told about the artist Oskar Kokoschka, who was leading a live drawing class. The students were bored, and doing dull work, so Kokoschka whispered to the model, and told him to collapse to the ground. Kokoschka went over to the prone body, leaned over him, listened to his heart, and pronounced him dead. The class, of course, was deeply shocked. Then the model stood up, and Kokoschka said: “Now draw him as though you were aware he was alive and not dead!” But perhaps drawing someone as if he or she were alive also implies drawing him as if he were dead too, or at least, as if he would one day be dead, like all of us. I close with a serious piece of noticing, again by Saul Bellow, this time from a late story, “Something to Remember Me By.” It is a paragraph about a drunken Irishman, who has passed out—expired almost like Aleksandar Hemon’s grandmother—on a couch. The writing is a kind of still-life, a study of a body both alive and shadowed by mortality: “I looked in at McKern, who had thrown down the coat and taken off his drawers. The parboiled face, the short nose pointed sharply, the life signs in the throat, the broken look of his neck, the black hair of his belly, the short cylinder between his legs ending in a spiral of loose skin, the white shine of the shins, the tragic expression of his feet.”

That is serious noticing.


Image via Electric Literature.

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