The Faraway Nearby
Rebecca Solnit (2013, Penguin Books)
A friend recently described me a nonfiction snob. My inner ten-year-old lawyer rises to object. On the one hand, of course, it's true that I don't like novels as well as essays, history, biography, or memoirs of travel, illness, and grief; but I don't think I regard that taste as anything to feel superior about, any more than liking choral music better than symphonies, or football better than soccer. My excessively literal turn of mind seems like just one of the coves and inlets that make up the coastline of my personality. So I trust that you take all these musings with due allowances.
The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit's book of essays, hits all the high spots of the reasons I like non-fiction. It's storytelling based in the real world, seen in lives beginning and ending; in connections across time and space, from Burmese monks to South American lepers to Arctic explorers; in actions as mundane as preserving fruit and as challenging as rafting down the Grand Canyon. They are stories that haven't necessarily ended, yet we can make sense out of how far they have come.
Some years ago, Solnit had one of those ghastly years: as she watched over the unravelling of her mother's mind in senile dementia, she had her own breast cancer scare, and her boyfriend ended their relationship. By way of recovery and escape, she accepted an opportunity to spend a summer in Iceland, near the Arctic Circle, where she read and contemplated older stories of the frozen North. The environment reminds her of Mary Shelley, who set the framing story of Frankenstein on an ice-bound exploration vessel. In fact, her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, had also written a book about traveling in Scandinavia – the best stories extend into the past as well as the future.
Solnit spins tales out of abiding and evolving metaphors. One of these is spinning itself, taking short strands of fiber and turning them, by hand, into a long, continuous strand. Is that not what writing is, and indeed reading? Think of all the myths and fairy tales about spinning: it is a task of perseverance, usually under some compulsion. "Scheherazade forestalls her death by telling a story that is like a thread that cannot be cut; she keeps spinning and spinning, incorporating new fragments, characters, incidents, into her unbroken, unbreakable narrative thread." The strand may serve healing, as did the sutures after Solnit's breast biopsy. It may connect, literally, as in the cognate 'sutra', the word for the thread that bound Buddhist wisdom into books of palm leaves; as well as metaphorically, as in the transmission of Buddhist wisdom itself.
Having spun a thread, you may take it into a labyrinth, which is not a maze; you can't truly get lost, but you can journey into the unknown, and come back to where you started, changed by the journey. Solnit seeks relief from all the light in Iceland by visiting a labyrinth, a piece of art experienced in the dark like a high-concept fun-house. "It was easy to believe that what was dark was solid, what was light was spaciousness into which you could move, but reality as you bumped into it was often the other way around, with open blackness and hard pale surfaces." This recalls what she said of her mother, even before Alzheimers: "It was as though she travelled by a map of the wrong place, hitting walls, driving into ditches, missing her destination, but never stopping or throwing out the map."
Like light and dark, heat and cold are more complex than we sometimes imagine. In the far North, "Nothing decays, and so time stops for the dead, if not the living. Cold is stability and warmth can be treacherous." This is a thread that connects the ancient Europeans found intact in glaciers to cryogenically preserved people, and to Snow White. On her retreat in Iceland, Solnit looked into the books of a Danish explorer called Peter Freuchen. He told a story from 1905 about a lethally sudden thaw. A party of Inuit travelers had their sleds, which were made of frozen meat and hide, eaten by their dogs when the temperature rose; they made shelters and ate the dogs, and one woman eventually survived by eating the bodies of her companions as well, including her husband.
Freuchen recorded the story three times, with varying details; did his memory get better or worse? The survivor, Atagutaluk, went on to marry again, and become a matriarch of her village. Surely her telling of it was altered over time, and different people heard it differently. Solnit says, "Freuchen saw only a corner of the picture. The picture always gets bigger; there is always more to tell; one thread is tangled up with all the others; even when it stops, other threads carry the story onward, beyond the horizon."
The Faraway Nearby gives us story on story, image on image, laid out in a beautifully labyrinthine structure. Solnit's mother doesn't get better, but she does become happier. "She forgot the stories that fueled her wrath, and when they were gone, everything was different. ...She had achieved something of the state people strive for through spiritual practice: a lack of attachment to the past and future and a wholehearted participation in the present. It had come as part of a catastrophic terminal illness, not a devotional pursuit, but it came."
What saved Solnit in the darkest times was to face outward, to seek the perspective of oceans, and of centuries. This is advice most grief memoirs could use more of: "To dig deeper into the self, to go underground, is sometimes necessary, but so is the other route of getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you need not clutch your story and your troubles so tightly to your chest."
New Years blessings on all your stories - may they go on and on.
Any Good Books – January 2016