Tuesday, May 11, 2010

La Vita Nuova

Allegra Goodman wrote a beautiful short story titled La Vita Nuova in last week's New Yorker. (Two weeks ago? The white one with the line drawing.) It's the story of a young woman learning to cope after her fiance leaves her, but it's about is love in its many forms. It's about that tricky transfer of love that inevitably follows loss.

I emailed Goodman's story to my friend Lo, who immediately shut her computer in horror of the first sentence and then in horror of the girl recommending that she read it. It's sad, of course it is. But there is something significant to be gained from stories like this one. Besides being absolutely gorgeous prose, this story hit a very raw and honest note of grief without hinting at Sadness's comrades, Bitterness and Pity.

I remember hearing Katherine Paterson, the author of Bridge to Terabithia (who shares my birthday! Thanks, Wikipedia!) speak on NPR one morning about the shift in children's books and films from learning to shielding. We are so much more apt to shield children today from anything remotely harmful or upsetting than we are to let them experience life on their own terms. Paterson touched on topics like loneliness, tragedy, and jealousy--emotions that she truly believed children faced and needed to empathize with in literature.

She spoke of her interest in helping children learn how to feel. How to cope, how to be brave. She wasn't interested in teaching lessons, showing healthy examples, or shielding children from harm. She was interested in helping them cry, helping them grow, helping them learn how to love. Paterson's books were therefore at the center of the banned books witch hunts of the late 70's-- something which she talks about with pride. She firmly stood her ground, never abandoning her young adolescent fans who were affected and healed by her words.

Ludwig Bemelman also has an ever poignant line in his first Madeline book. 'They smiled at the good and frowned at the bad, and sometimes they were very sad.' I'm always so touched to read this inclusion in the happy lives of the twelve little girls in two straight lines. It's a testament to Bemelman's clear understanding of young minds, and to an era not so concerned with shielding children of all that is not-so-good. It's the same point on protection that God of Carnage snuck in there between bites of clafoutis, remember?

And like Bemelman and Paterson, Allegra Goodman refrains from teaching her audience a lesson. She doesn't lecture us or chide her character for neglecting societal norms in grieving. Goodman writes, 'Amanda tried writing a card or something. She wrote that she and her fiancé had decided not to marry. Then she wrote that her fiancé had decided not to marry her. She said that she was sorry for any inconvenience. She added that she would appreciate gifts anyway.'

So good, right? I actually have a lot more to say about the story's prose, and the effectiveness of interweaving the main character's inner dialogue with the physical plot. Isn't that how it always is? That continuing reassessment of past conversations despite our best efforts to forget? Talking with your boss, but thinking about how he once told you that you were his best friend? I also like stories that reference real books within the text, so that we have the option of reading the same books that the character is reading. So fun! (And extremely nerdy, I'm realizing as I type this.) In this case, Dante's La Vita Nuova plays a big role (obvs). At any rate, I need to get to work, so here's a link. Enjoy!

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