Post Road Magazine #23

Naked with Innocence

Holly LeCraw

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje (Knopf, October, 2011)
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (Vintage)

Eleven. Even before the noxious but useful term "tween," eleven was acknowledged as a significant age, a cusp, especially in the less sexualized, not-so-distant past. I still played with dolls, albeit self-consciously, at eleven, which is the essence of the age: one is still standing in the room of childhood, but with one's toes curled over the threshold of adult life. The vista is spread out, but one does not know exactly how to look at it, or even what one is seeing. And sometimes, one is pushed through the doorway all at once, to negotiate this new country all alone.

By the time this piece is printed, Michael Ondaatje's latest, The Cat's Table, will be published, and my best guess is that his readers will be relieved, secretly or otherwise, to have a book that is slightly more traditional in structure than 2008's Divisidero, which made a good many demands on the reader and did not offer much in the way of linearity or resolution. The Cat's Table, by contrast, uses a familiar trope: it is a coming-of-age story within the context of an actual journey. An eleven-year-old ("Michael"), free of parents, takes a twenty-one-day sea voyage from Ceylon to England that moves him, literally and permanently, out of childhood. By the end, he, along with two compatriots, has seen many adult mysteries up close, mysteries he spends the rest of his life unraveling, as the book swerves in the Ondaatje manner into others' lives both past and future.

This novel-cum-memoir put me in mind of Maxwell's quiet masterpiece, So Long, See You Tomorrow—another coming-of-age story featuring boys' friendship and an abrupt transition, illuminated by simultaneous stories of adults' baffling passions. Both have as frames the true and central events of the authors' lives: Ondaatje's removal from Ceylon; and the death of Maxwell's mother when he was (almost) eleven, when his own childhood, he later said, ended in one day. All fiction is refracted autobiography, and these books especially; still, I'd prefer not to know the degree of refraction. There's a great deal I want to remain as mysterious, and pliable, as fiction can be: Michael's two friends on board (one of whom has a sister he later marries); the Indian circus and the brave deaf girl; the ghostly dogs; the beautiful cousin, the jazz lover, the woman who carries pigeons in her pockets. And also Maxwell's unnamed narrator's friend, Cletus, and his mother's affair, and the lover's murder, and the father's suicide. And the narrator's encounter with him years later, in the crowded hall of a Chicago high school, when neither spoke.

I thought I was rather clever yoking these two books, published thirtyone years apart, and then saw what I must have remembered only subconsciously—the blurb on the cover of my copy of So Long (interestingly, also a galley. And also with a moody black-and-white photo on the jacket): "This is one of the great books of our age. It is the subtlest of miniatures that contains our deepest sorrows and truths and love—all caught in a clear, simple style in perfect brushstrokes"—Michael Ondaatje.

It is a particular thrill to discover two dissimilar writers who have great regard for each other. It's like finding an obscure but essential puzzle piece. Actually, I'm not sure what Maxwell thought about Ondaatje, although he might have published him during his long tenure as fiction editor of The New Yorker. But here's more Ondaatje on Maxwell:

It is a learning process. It's why I'd rather read a book that is completely unlike something I could do, in the way it's written, than read a book that's very similar to my habits or style or subject. William Maxwell—I couldn't write like him if I had a gun to my head, but I love a book such as So Long, See You Tomorrow. (1)

But that was in 1997. And now we have these books with, at least, some surface similarities. What are these differences that Ondaatje senses? Here's a later quote, from a conversation with Colum McCann:

McCann: I sometimes feel like a ghost on the outside of your pages. You create a kind of photograph through your writing, and I lower myself into the background of that photograph. You never tell us how to think, but you allow us to feel in the most extraordinary way.
Ondaatje: I don't want to control the response in the scenes that I create.

It's true that Ondaatje's characters, even his first-person narrator, rarely discuss their emotions, which is another way of saying he never tells us how to think. He has a remarkable ability to lay out almost pure action in poetic prose. Analysis is rare. A typical surface-skating:

[Mr. Mazappa] seemed suddenly alone and incapable of talk, and he became my preoccupation during the meal. . .I noticed Miss Lasqueti was also regarding him, her head lowered, gazing at him through the fence of her eyelashes. At one point she even put her hand over those still fingers, but he pulled his away. No, being within the stricter confines of the Red Sea was not an easy time for those at our table.

It's a bit ominous, and anticipatory. We know the simplicity is a guise and that some of these observations will be unpacked later. And some not.

Maxwell, on the other hand, is openly full of feeling. His narrator even discusses going to his therapist. He lays out his own heartbreak and regrets, and openly parses the same in others: "There is a limit, surely, to what one can demand of one's adolescent self. And to go on feeling guilty about something that happened so long ago is hardly reasonable. I do feel guilty, even so. A little." And yet, in a strange way, Maxwell also avoids telling us how to think. Feeling, or perhaps compassion, is the great backdrop for his work, a compassion that exists also in Ondaatje although at a greater remove, and presents itself more as pure curiosity. Maxwell is able to achieve the near-impossible: a great regard for the emotions of his protagonist self (for all his characters) that does not veer into narcissism, and definitely not into sentimentality. For Ondaatje the same feat is perhaps more effortful (although, ultimately, successful)—hence the greater remove. And the admiration.

In both books, the narrators are essentially alone. One of the hallmarks of adolescence is the sense, probably some Eriksonian developmental stage or other, of feeling oneself a newly independent agent. Michael has had this feeling for some time—"Who realizes how contented feral children are?" he says, speaking of his life in Ceylon. But on board the Oronsay, he has lost even the supervision of distant relatives, and has only a lackadaisical chaperone, housed far away in First Class, and sometimes the Captain himself, who yells at him more than once for his deathdefying escapades. Maxwell's narrator, in contrast, breaks no rules and is thrust overnight into his isolation by his mother's death and his father's grief. Sometimes "in a prison of my own making," sometimes in a more benign and bemused mood, he observes the adults around him, apparently invisible ("Once, looking over Grace's shoulder, I saw her make a grand slam in clubs when the highest trump card in her hand was the nine"), just as his counterpart, Cletus Smith, helplessly watches as his mother and his father's best friend fall in love:

"I caught Cletus looking at us."
"What do you mean?"
"As if we'd turned into strangers."
"You imagine it," she said, and kissed him.

It could be that both these narratives are photographs that the narrators have created for themselves, transforming themselves into readers so that they can re-feel, reimagine their own histories. Ondaatje's narrator says, "This was an era without benefit of photography so the journey escaped any permanent memory. . .Whatever we did had no possibility of permanence." And so they can be revisited years later, given new interpretations, details, even outcomes. Maxwell, in his turn, writes, "Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life to ever be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end." But more important than any self interest is the fact that these two are artists, whose first impulse is to take what they have been given and make a thing, a purely creative impulse that is also by definition generous, for the thing is to be shared, sometimes even with ghosts. (Asked by a therapist what he would say if he could speak to his mother, Maxwell responded, "Here are these beautiful books, that I made for you." (3)

All fiction might be refracted autobiography, but why comb through these books, or any books, looking for breadcrumbs of reality? Ondaatje seems to agree. Readers can, of course, always turn to Ondaatje's own memoir, Running in the Family, for clues, even though Ondaatje said of that book, "I must confess that [it]. . .is not a history but a portrait or 'gesture.'" (4) But in a conversation with the actor Willem Dafoe, he makes a declaration that, in this age of the cult of personality, is an enormous refreshment and relief:

Dafoe: Because you jump around [in your narratives], people want to be reassured that their reaction is all right. I think so much of, even criticism, involves that impulse. And the extension of that is wanting to find out who you are, so they can interpret the work through your personality.
Ondaatje: Some things are too important to share. It's not even about protecting myself, it would just be spoiling the book.

In our culture, too hurried and nervous to make the effort art requires, we have allowed ourselves to believe that reality can serve the same transformative purposes (or that we do not need transforming), and to believe that exhibitionism is the same thing as honesty. Dafoe's characterization of readers' earnest insecurities is perhaps more generous. But the point is that the embroidered, obscuring, revealing and enlarging lies of fiction are the truths we need most.

Charles Baxter remarks that So Long is unique "in that other people are not minor characters in the pageant of the author's life." (5) But I'd argue that, as of 2011, the same can be said of Michael Ondaatje and The Cat's Table. Early on, Mr. Hastie, onboard-kennel-keeper and bridge player, tells Michael and his friends ("It was easy to fool the three of us, who were naked with innocence") that men have two hearts. "'Two ways of life. We are symmetrical creatures. We are balanced in our emotions. . .' For years I believed all this." Later, speaking from adulthood, Michael says:

I once had a friend whose heart "moved" after a traumatic incident that he refused to recognize. It was only later, while he was being checked out by his doctor for some minor ailment, that this physical shift was discovered. And I wondered then, when he told me this, how many of us have a moved heart that shies away to a different angle, a millimeter or even less from the place where it first existed, some repositioning unknown to us. Emily. Myself. Perhaps even Cassius. How have our emotions glanced off rather than directly faced others ever since, resulting in simple unawareness or in some cases cold-blooded self-sufficiency that is damaging to us? Is this what has left us, still uncertain, at a Cat's Table, looking back, looking back, searching out those we journeyed with or were formed by, even now, at our age?


(1) Michael Ondaatje by Willem Dafoe, BOMB 58/Winter 1997.

(2) "Adventures in the Skin Trade." A conversation with Michael Ondaatje and Colum McCann at the New York Public Library in conjunction with the PEN World Voices festival 2008.

(3) Ellen Bryant Voight, "Angel Child," in A William Maxwell Portrait, eds. Baxter, Collier and Hirsch. Norton: 2004.

(4) Running in the Family, p. 206, Vintage International edition, 1993.

(5) Charles Baxter, "The Breath of Life," in A William Maxwell Portrait, ibid.

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