Stuff 3: Books 2 June 6, 2016

So there I was on a Sunday, proud of myself for banging together an Ikea bookcase for our Stuff project, following the idiot-proof instructions step-by-step, failing only in not being the two cartoon men pictured at the top of the instruction page (I hate Ikea) but one hammer-bearing woman.

I banged it together, anchored it to the wall where I was sure I’d found a stud, filled it with books right down to the final shelf. I was kneeling there feeling satisfied, slotting in the final volumes when there was a loud crack, and the bookcase tore away from the wall.

It happened so quickly, a huge weight about to fall on me. Luckily, I managed to raise both arms and hold the bookcase roughly upright. Yet as I crouched there, books tumbled off the shelves and onto my bent head, neck, elbows, forearms. I couldn’t move even one arm to protect my head and had to wait for them to stop falling, aware of the irony of a writer being pelted by books. Fortunately most were paperbacks, although since this was part of my husband’s library, some were Tomes.

E.M. Forster

E.M. Forster

When the tomes stopped falling, I heaved the Billy upright and realized I had a sore head, thinking a bit disconnectedly about that being old slang, something my father would say. He’s a sorehead: he’s a bad loser, mean, untrustworthy, vindictive. I also half remembered the climax of E.M. Forster’s novel, Howard’s End, where a character dies under a falling bookcase.

More to the point, I wondered whether I had a concussion, although I’d never passed out, wasn’t dizzy or nauseated, and had no trouble with the basic neurological tests my husband performed, which you get all the time yourself when you have MS, as he does. Follow the finger up, down, side to side…

I thought I’d had a lucky escape. But when the headache persisted into mid-week, my doctor diagnosed a mild concussion, which she said would probably go away in seven to ten days. No Mohammad Ali-like damage, poor man. Likely no post-concussion syndrome, written about so shockingly by Julia Nunes in The Toronto Star. The doctor was more worried about my sore neck, Rx massage, which brightened me up considerably.

Long story short, having a dull headache for six days slowed life down, my work backing up to the point where I’ve had a long hiatus from Stuff. For the past few weeks, I’ve only done what I had to: going to a meeting at my publisher’s about my upcoming novel, doing the final tweaks on a feature film script so the producers can go for financing, fingers crossed, and hosting a whirlwind of family—and to them, eternal thanks. They roared through the house a couple of weekends ago, anchoring bookcases securely to walls, switching the furniture in the bedroom and my husband’s study, and beginning the daunting process of moving books so we could decide what to keep and what to toss (somewhere) as soon as I was able.

Meanwhile, trying to take it easy, I re-read Howard’s End, which proved to be one of those serendipitous gifts. I remembered liking it in university, but everything besides the falling bookcase was a blank, so I might as well have been reading it for the first time. And its wisdom, Forster’s wisdom, astonished me.

On the most basic level, it’s the story of two sisters, Margaret and Helen Schlegel, half German but wholly English, and their long, erratic pinball from the brief engagement of one sister to the marriage of the second to the former fiancé’s father. The sisters live in London but visit the countryside. Along the way, a clerk they want to help is sacrificed ironically beneath their falling books in the titular house, Howard’s End.

The tone and pacing of the novel are very different than anything written these days, discursive and allusive. Crucial events happen off-stage, characters deepen but don’t necessarily change, and life flows slowly into climaxes that send the characters caroming off in unexpected directions. Taken together, this series of authorial decisions creates the feeling of a very different time, one with a more explicitly rigid class system—Forster finished it in 1910—yet one where people very like us live their lives as best they can.

Over the past few years, I’ve found that many literary editors and agents have picked up the vocabulary of movies, which to my mind are different creatures than novels. Many now speak of character arcs, a term which, ten years ago, I’d only heard in film. Do protagonists in novels have to have an arc? (Do they have to in film?) Does action have to happen onscreen? Do protagonists have to be admirable? Either admirable or utterly unreliable? Can’t they do awful things, as people do–as we do ourselves–and can’t it often be for the kindest possible reasons?

Forster breaks all the usual rules, and more. His characters make mistakes and life goes on. When they’re right about something, things can go strangely wrong. I don’t think Forster completely approves of any of his characters, but in the end he forgives them all. Meanwhile they talk about the big things in life, when so many modern novels pride themselves on their small and  spiky insights; on being individual and particular.

“Looking back on the past six months, Margaret realized the chaotic nature of our daily life, and its difference from the orderly sequence that has been fabricated by historians. Actual life is full of false clues and signposts that lead nowhere. With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes.”

Soon enough, Margaret says, “’I believe that in the last century men have developed the desire for work, and they must not starve it. It’s a new desire. It goes with a great deal that’s bad, but in itself it’s good, and I hope that for women, too, “not to work” will soon become as shocking as “not to be married” was a hundred years ago.”

And later: “There is certainly no rest for us on the earth. But there is happiness, and as Margaret descended the mound on her lover’s arm, she felt that she was having her share.”

One book that won’t be tossed.

Margaret loses her happiness, by the way, and I don’t think she ever quite finds it again, but she achieves balance, of which Forster approves, and a degree of peace.