Books, Lent, The Moviegoer, True Self, Walker Percy, Writing
Had it not been for the controversy stirred up by that small panel of judges who decided the winner of the 1962 National Book Award for fiction, I would have devoted most of my November reading time to another novel. Those now classics that were heavily favored to win — J.D. Salinger’s Franny & Zooey and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 — were bested by an almost unknown novelist, Walker Percy, who received the award for his slim debut novel, The Moviegoer.
I like this story behind the story. I like it very much, in fact, since surprise keeps us on our toes and helps us not sleepwalk through life. The latter, in fact, is one of the central themes of the book. But in spite of the wake-up call offered between its covers, reading Walker Percy’s story sometimes left me limp with sadness. I don’t know why; but the fault may lie with the lurking villains of despair and malaise that cast long shadows upon the story. So with that, I’ll confess that it helps to read the novel on sunny days. And too, that it can’t hurt to linger on that epigraph, from Søren Kierkegaard, rather than rush past it as I did the first time:
“….the specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.”
The back cover summarizes the story as a “portrait of a boyish New Orleans stockbroker wavering between ennui and the longing for redemption… on the eve of his thirtieth birthday.” Inside the covers lies Percy’s beautiful prose and the deep thoughts he serves up like some trifle. There are too many to share. So I’ll move on by saying how I like that the story was a time capsule of the early sixties South. It was interesting to contrast life then and now, and ponder places where we’ve changed and where we have not. But it was meeting the unforgettable protagonist, Jack “Binx” Bollings, who narrates the tale in a colorful first-person voice, that hooked me from the first paragraph:
“This morning I got a note from my aunt asking me to come for lunch. I know what this means. Since I go there every Sunday for dinner and today is Wednesday, it can mean only one thing: she wants to have one of her serious talks. It will be extremely grave, either a piece of bad news about her stepdaughter Kate or else a serious talk about me, about the future and what I ought to do. It is enough to scare the wits out of anyone, yet I confess I do not find the prospect altogether unpleasant.”
I’ve read that Percy admired Tolstoy. He mentions War and Peace in the text. And like Tolstoy, Percy possesses the courage and willingness to touch upon weighty matters affecting the human spirit. Over and over, I learned of some loved one Jack had lost. His brother on page one or two. His father, a few more pages in. Others, later on. But physical death aside, Percy touches upon the illusory curing power of money and sex and drugs and religion and even war. And since this story is set in the sixties South, there was plenty of discrimination to bump up against: Women and racial and not just between blacks and whites. Sometimes, Binx stepped on my toes with his truth. In one passage, it happened to my particular truth du jour:
“Once I thought of going into law or medicine or even pure science. I even dreamed of doing something great. But there is much to be said for giving up such grand ambitions and living the most ordinary life imaginable, a life without the old longings; selling stocks and bonds and mutual funds; quitting work at five o’clock like everyone else…”
I’ve been thinking a lot on how sweet life would be if I were not trying to realize that dream of fictionalizing my father’s story, who coincidentally, also happened to be a moviegoer by the name of Jack. It would be easy to coast through days if my biggest challenge turned on the decision of what to fix for dinner. How easy and lovely to while away hours in the garden or painting the exterior of my house or my dining room for the fifth time. What joy to simply feast upon the artistic endeavors of others …while enjoying the taste of a few bonbons on my tongue.
Too bad the The Moviegoer is not a bonbon eating sort of book. Instead, it’s the sort some keep company with every Lent. Its existential subject is made for mulling over. And its New Orleans setting into time makes it perfect for Lent, since the story takes place the week leading up to Mardi Gras. But writing this hits me hard, since Lent is not about feasting and bonbons at all — and more about fasting in the wilderness and facing up to personal demons — for forty days and nights — which biblically speaking, translates to a helluva lot of time.
So do forgive me… if I leave those ends a little loose, to keep the noose from growing tight, in order to travel down a different line of thought. Having spent a lot of time with this cagey old novel, I know that good ‘ole Binx would agree that it’s easier to be a spectator than a doer. It’s much more enjoyable to read (or see) a good story than to try and write one. And if my year boils down to any thoughts on writing, it’s that it takes a lot of desire and hard work to write fiction. And that I’ve learned I lack what it takes in both departments. Which is not all bad, since this year spent working on my father’s story has shattered whatever false illusions I once had about story-making.
I part ways with The Moviegoer with a lot to wonder over. For one, if I can’t imagine writing at a publishable quality, how difficult was it for the newly published author Walker Percy to think his writing ‘good enough’ for some prestigious award. His own publisher didn’t support his nomination; it came by unconventional channels, which a surprised Percy didn’t learn of until a few days after the ceremony.
I also wonder over those other ten finalists who lost that year. How did they feel after coming so close — after all that hard work — with all those expectations of taking the prize?
I’d like to think that maybe a few of them pick up The Moviegoer to see what Percy had to say. It’s not a bad notion to think upon… for some sunny day…or over forty days of some upcoming Lent. If the idea grows to reality in my life, it would make my third time to read it. I don’t mind saying that there’s something holy and complete about that number three that I’ve always found difficult to resist. Much harder than a mere box of bonbons.
I was pleased to see your post yesterday Janell, and to return to it this morning. I rose early to finish the book. I feel content with the ending. I don’t want to make a spoiler for others who may not have read the book but may I say that I felt warmth towards Binx with his way of taking care of Kate.
I had not known the controversial background story of how ‘The Moviegoer’ was selected for the prize and won. Thank you for linking to the Slate article.
I’m glad you enjoyed the back story as much as I did.
I was surprised at how much is still being written about this old novel. One of my favorite finds was an early 2008 series of posts in the Reading Room blog of The New York Times. Here’s the link, if you would like to take a look — you can navigate through the posts by clicking on the advance tab at the bottom right corner of each post. The first ten articles are free each month. Looking at more requires a subscription.
As for the end, I too liked the gentle way Binx supported Kate — and his step-brother Lonnie, too. Though, perhaps it’s fair to say that the supporting went both ways. It usually does in relationship. We are who we are, in part, because of the company we keep.
Thanks for the company and your thoughts.
This sounds like something I should read, especially after Tolstoy’s. Anyone quoting Kierkegaard, and with a book title The Moviegoer, and a theme of from ennui to redemption sounds like what I like to read. Tolstoy and movie, still quite relevant today. Have you seen his new adaptation?
I haven’t made it to the movie theater since Tuesday, when it was too cool to work on my latest outdoor project. I saw Silver Linings Playbook, which was excellent — one of those rare feel-good films having a little something for every adult. I do look forward to seeing Anna, though I’ve read more than a few mixed reviews at the staging device used to tell Anna’s story. Funny thing though….instead of putting me off, the reviews have only served to pique my interest — it sounds more like a response to Tolstoy’s story than the story itself. Maybe I’ll go today. But more likely it will be Tuesday, since the weather forecast that day looks a little dicey for painting soffits and facia boards. My oldest daughter mentioned something about going together… would be nice if that played out…
As for The Moviegoer, it does seem a perfect fit for your interests. Walker Percy’s story is interesting, and this first novel, as many are, is somewhat autobiographical. If you decide to pick it up, let me know, and maybe we can read it together — it’s shorter than typical read-along selections, but it’s weighty matter makes for a slow read. Maybe Vanessa and others will join us.
It’s Advent. I’m sure you’ve selected something good to read. The possibilities are endless and fun to ponder over…
As Bellezza suggested, let’s have a Anna K. ‘watch-along’. After we’ve seen the movie, share our thoughts on a review post. I’ve just got mine posted. But maybe you’d like to watch the movie first before reading so to keep a “neutral” mind. 😉
Oh as for Moviegoer read-along, that sounds like a good idea. But it’ll have to be after next spring. Cause in the winter months, it’s Bonhoeffer for me and in the spring Proust. But I’m eager to go with you and Vanessa on The Moviegoer after that.
Also… in reply to your Advent ‘query’, yes, I’ve selected C. S. Lewis’ Surprised By Joy.
I haven’t read this autobiography of Lewis — I’ve read a few of his children’s novels and also The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity — the last more than once. But for now, I can only say I’ve heard of the book and that the title sounds perfect for Advent. If you decide to share your thoughts about this experience with Lewis, I’ll look forward to reading them.
The Moviegoer will keep for the right time. Perhaps others will be interested — but even if not, I’d like to read it again. There’s something about that story I can’t get my arms around — maybe it’s brevity keeps it from being fully known. In this way, the book is like an acquaintance you share a deep conversation with on an airplane, then go your separate ways. I go on too much…but the story still works upon me.
As for Anna Karenina (the film), I promise to respond in some fashion, but it may come as a comment to your own post rather than one of my own. I look forward to reading your thoughts on the film — if I don’t go see it tomorrow — then I’ll at least content myself with reading your reflections about the movie.
It’s good to have this to look forward to, as I begin this last week of painting outside.
Just posted my plans for read-along next year. I’d love to read The Moviegoer with you and Vanessa after May 15. Let me know what you think. You be the host. Also, glad you’d enjoyed Anna K the film, guess much more than I did. 😉
Yes. Next year. How can it be? But a blank year ready to write upon and to live and move around in sounds good. Both inviting and spacious.
I did find AK (2012) brilliant, without exception. Each passing scene made me feel as if I were walking through one of the world’s great art museums admiring one glorious painting after another. That last scene with Karenin and Anna’s two children in the field surrounded by Queen Anne’s Lace still lives in me, two weeks later. I hold out hope of going again. I know I didn’t catch everything, first time around. I never do.
I may join in for Proust in March. The title certainly intrigues and I know nothing about it. But here’s the obstacle to me making firm commitments to either it, The Moviegoer, or anything else — for now: I don’t know what next year will bring. And though none of us knows the answer to that, I know change is coming. My husband is retiring from Dow Chemical at the end of January after 35+ years. So my plan for now, with respect to Proust, is to wait until March before deciding.
Life in our household will certainly be different, though I don’t know exactly how. Will we travel more? Discover some joint project to work on together? Sometimes I think life is limited only by my imagination and, too often, an overly full plate of plans and doings.
I know I can’t swing the other way and never make plans, for I may never get anything accomplished. But for now, it seems the best course for the next few months, at least.
Oh, my. Such richness here, and so many paths to travel.
First, I have to acknowledge that the Slate article was worth reading just to get to the final paragraph. Anyone even slightly steeped in the sweetness and corruption of Louisiana life would love this:
“If I understand it correctly,” Percy wrote, “had it not been for Mr. Liebling (and his recent interest in Louisiana) The Moviegoer might never, would never have been considered. To think then, that if it hadn’t been for old Earl, etc. For the first time, I feel kindly toward the Longs.”
That’s flat funny.
Now, I’m no Walker Percy. But as amazing as it sounds, I just had an experience akin to his book prize, and at the risk of going on a bit long, I’ll tell you of it.
A couple of Saturdays ago, I went out to the Anahuac Wildlife Refuge. I wanted to work at taking some better photos. I took about a hundred – maybe more. I came home and ditched the out-of-focus, the truly awful and the boring. I had maybe twenty left. I processed a half dozen I really liked, and threw them up on my little Weather Underground site.
The next thing I know, I’ve been contacted by the director of a Chambers County organization dedicated to community development in the area and post-Ike recovery. She wanted to know if she could link to my wonderful photos on their Facebook page, site, etc.
Did I laugh? You bet. And yet there it was – my little “prize” for focusing on creation rather than competition and marketing.
I know a lot of so-called, would-be and developing writers who run around in a frenzy from Facebook to Twitter to LinkedIn to wherever, trying to whomp up support for their work. To paraphrase you, it’s much more enjoyable to read about writing and market writing than to write. That’s as coherent as I can get, but I feel like I’m on the trail of something really important.
In the meantime, from the esteemed Miss Flannery: “Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.”
Loved this post – both the information and your reflections.
Your words of encouragement mean more than I can say, in these days where I have little desire to write… and a lack of willpower to work through the drought of desire.
Your response was richer than my post, but isn’t that the way it often works out?
I loved your photography story and the way the prize found you. Congratulations — it’s the second time you’ve mentioned, here, your deeper interest in photography this year. It’s nice to see all that desire to learn and share your developing art (no pun intended!) finding an appreciative audience.
As for the marketing, etc. aspects of writing, I’m with you. I told a writing group that I joined last September that I have no interest in marketing my own work. If whatever work I eventually create can’t stand on its own merits — if it can’t find an appreciative audience — then I will have least answered my own ‘what-if’ question.
Glad you enjoyed the Slate article. Even knowing a little about the Louisiana Long’s, I too, appreciated Percy’s words that you pulled out to share. Perhaps you need to do a post on the Long family — or have you already?
Thanks for the dose of encouraging medicine from Flannery. She is so “write” on with her descriptions….
To close this out, I’ll horse-trade you back another Flannery story, this one with Walker Percy. The excerpt comes from the Reader’s Almanac blog:
“As part of his award-winning ordeal, the reticent Percy had to appear on The Today Show the morning after the awards. Asked by host Hugh Downs why the South produced such good literature, Percy famously answered “Because we lost the war.” Shortly after returning home to Covington Percy received a congratulatory note from a fellow Southern writer whose opinion he highly prized:
Dear Mr. Percy,
I’m glad we lost the War and you won the National Book Award. I didn’t think the judges would have that much sense but they surprized [sic] me.
I bought this book a few months ago, attracted by its title. Only now do I realize its significance, esp. after reading your post here. You may be interested to check it out:
The Language of Grace: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Iris Murdoch by Peter S. Hawkins, published by Seabury Classics, NY, 2004.
I’m even more interested to read The Moviegoer now. Hopefully later in the next few months. Hope you’re enjoying a good new year of reading and writing.
Gosh, Arti, this sounds like something right up my alley, too. And with plenty of used copies available on Amazon.com, it was too easy not to pick up my own copy just now. Thanks for making me aware of Hawkins’ book.
The new year, so far, has been full of helping my adult children — well, three out four anyway. Which means, between this and fighting off nasty viruses, I’ve read less than usual and written almost nothing. I did enjoy Jess Walters Beautiful Ruins and I’m in the midst of Kingsolver’s newest novel, Flight Behavior. Progress has been slow, as mostly, I sit down to read and fall asleep with the book on my lap. Until I wake myself with coughing fits…
I would like to read The Moviegoer again … and something… anything of O’Connor’s. I’m not familiar with Murdoch, but maybe I should be??? Isn’t is interesting, Arti, how reading one book can lead us to another, and not just for ourselves, but others that we share life with?
Though wading through the many changes of daily life is exciting right now — it does feel good to be able to help as I can — I’m ready for life to grow quieter, as January’s typically are…
I hope you are being blessed with your time spent with Bonhoeffer. Though I’m not reading along this time, I’ll still follow the posts with interest.
Here’s the NYT article “Has Fiction lost its Faith”, which prompted me to look for Hawkins’s book which I’d forgotten, and relating to your post here.
Here’s another article that just come out today. This time at WSJ. Both are noteworthy.
The second link doesn’t work in my comment above. Here’s the article at WSJ: “Whispers of Faith in a Postmodern World”. I’ve embedded the link in the title, hopefully this time it works.
Both were interesting reads though I’d side more with WSJ’s whisperings viewpoint than the former. Which I guess, if I’m not delusional (and we really ARE living more behind door #1 than door#2) suits me fine, since it’s hard to capture the mystery in words anyway. What works best for me is just an allusion siding up and parallel parking next to Reality or some modern day parable offered up as a lens to see the bigger hidden picture — and as I think about it, at least as far as The Moviegoer goes, it’s more these than outright preaching on the corner that Percy adopts with his mysterious SEARCH… I DO look forward to hearing your thoughts about the novel when the time comes, as you may walk away with a different take…
Perhaps I see what I want to see, but I find evidence of faith in modern literature everywhere. I sense it moving upon the page in Kingsolver’s latest, and here, I’m not speaking of the overt biblical soundbites that season the chapters and the characters thinking. It was stamped upon, perhaps in blood and guts, in Keven Powers The Yellow Birds — I don’t think I’ll ever forget his poetic allusion to Holy communion offered in the desert amidst bombs bursting in air. Even Jess Walters Beautiful Ruins and Micheal Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue became parables of faith for me….
Oh well. Now I feel it’s as if I’m the one preaching on the lonely corner surrounded by closed storefronts.. to you, the lovely choir’s voice. All this leaves me with wondering though, Arti, what you and your unfinished screenplay is about and me and my unfinished manuscript….? Will our faith be a central or supporting character? And why don’t I write and see what will come, rather than continuing to circle around it?
Having this faith question before me as I read each new offering this year will prove interesting. Though I pray another year doesn’t slip by without my picking up Miss Flannery and making her acquaintance … and maybe Miss Iris, too. And a second something from Percy holds promise, too.
Thanks for sharing your jewels.