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E.L. Doctorow: R.I.P.

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Part 1:

The acclaimed American novelist and playwright E. L. Doctorow has given writers like myself many writing tips. He died two weeks ago, on 21 July 2015, in Manhattan at the age of 84 due to complications from lung cancer. I write the following out of appreciation for a writer who, for the most part, remained far out on the periphery of my reading experience in the last 60 years. I have followed his life, as I have followed my own, in the paragraphs below.

Edgar Lawrence "E. L." Doctorow was born in 1931 and became an American author, editor, and professor, best known internationally for his works of historical fiction. He has been described as one of the most important American novelists of the 20th century. He’s America's "very own Charles Dickens", wrote a reviewer of his work in The Guardian.1 He came into my reading life in the mid-1980s when I was an adult educator and lecturer in a college of technical and further education in Australia. I must confess, though, that it was not until his death two weeks ago, as I write this quasi-eulogy, that I really came to know much about his life and his literary work, his epic oeuvre.

He authored twelve novels, three volumes of short fiction and a stage drama. They included the award-winning novels Ragtime (1975, Billy Bathgate (1989), and The March (2005). These, like many of his other works, placed fictional characters in recognizable historical contexts, with known historical figures, and often used different narrative styles. His stories were recognized for their originality and versatility, and Doctorow was praised for his audacity and imagination.2

When asked how he decided to become a writer, he said, "I was a child who read everything I could get my hands on. Eventually, I asked of a story not only what was to happen next, but how was this done? How is it that I am made to live, to experience another world, from just words on a page? And so I became a writer. I knew at the age of 9 that I wanted to be a writer."-Ron Price with thanks to: 1Alison Flood, 17/4/’14, The Guardian; and 2Wikipedia, 3 August 2015.

Part 2:

I, too, have been asked how I became a writer. At the age of 9 I wanted to be a baseball player, having decided against being a brick-layer. But, by the age of 18, I knew I could not make a career out of baseball. At the age of 18 writing had become more important to me than sport and having fun. I have answered the question of how I became a writer in many ways. I became a writer, by sensible and insensible degrees, beginning in my childhood and adolescence, and ending when I retired, also be degrees, from a 50 year life of paid employment, FT, PT and casual in the years 1953 to 2003. I have now been on an old-age pension, and writing FT for a dozen years: 2004 to 2015.

Doctorow has not been part of my literary life in the more than 60 years since I began to spend a great deal of my time with printed matter, and in his career which spans 50 years. I have one book in my possession which he had published in 1984: Lives of the Poets. But it is a book I have yet to read along with literally 100s of other books that are waiting for me to read as I go through my 70s and 80s, if I last that long.

He published his first novel, Welcome to Hard Times, in 1960 following a stint as a script reader for movie studio Columbia Pictures. In 1960 I was just starting to take an interest in writing, but sport and girls, having fun and my studies in grade 11 took priority. In 1960 I was 16, and had just joined the Baha’i Faith. In 1969, Doctorow left publishing to pursue a writing career. He accepted a position as Visiting Writer at the University of California, Irvine, where he completed The Book of Daniel (1971).

As he was beginning his writing career, I was beginning my teaching career in Canada. When his The Book of Daniel was published in 1971, I was beginning my teaching career in Australia, and helping to form the first locally elected Baha’i administrative body in Whyalla South Australia, the first such body outside the capital cities of western and central Australia. This 1971 book was widely acclaimed, called a "masterpiece" by The Guardian, and by The New York Times a book to launch the author into "the first rank of American writers." I knew nothing of Doctorow at the time occupied, as I was, with 60 to 70 hours a week of teaching and community responsibilities, to say nothing of the demands of my personal and family life in a new country far from my home and hearth.

Part 3:

Doctorow’s work depicts various eras and personalities in American history and has been published in 30 languages. In most of his novels he demonstrated "that the past is very much alive, but that it's not easily accessed," writes Jay Parini(1948-), an American writer and academic also known for novels and poetry, biography and criticism. "We tell and retell stories”, Parini continued, “and these stories illuminate our daily lives. Doctorow has shown us again and again that our past is our present, and that those not willing to grapple with 'what happened' will be condemned to repeat its worst errors." "History is the present," the author once said, "that's why every generation writes it anew." American history was "not a conscious decision, but somewhere along the line I must have realized a slice of time was as valid an organizing principle for a novel as a bit of acreage, a place."1 “If you are writing well what you need is things that come to you like you are a magnet, and just when you need something you find it somehow. The idea of being a historian just doesn’t interest me.”2 Yes, all of the above seems to be my experience as well, at least in these last 50-plus years, and especially since I first began to publish what I wrote in the 1970s and 1980s.

In an interview back in the early 1990s, Doctorow made the following point: “Nietzsche said there can be no facts without meaning, so what facts does the historian choose to put together to create his picture, his understanding, his interpretation, and what facts does he leave out? This is also true of the autobiographer. There are no facts which I write about my life “without meaning.” In some ways I feel that I am autobiographer and historian, poet and publisher, online blogger and journalist in this, the evening of my life.

An obituary in The New York Times by Bruce Weber on 21/7/’15 emphasized Doctorow’s myriad storytelling strategies, strategies which deployed, in different books, the unreliable narrator, the stream-of-consciousness narrator, the omniscient narrator and multiple narrators, Mr. Doctorow was one of contemporary fiction’s most restless experimenters.

Part 4:

“Storytelling is the most ancient system of knowledge we have,” said Doctorow in an interview, “and the storytellers in the oral, in the Bronze Age, whether it was Homer or the people who essentially eventually put The Bible--The Old Testament--together, worked under a system, the only system they had. Their science was religious illumination. They didn't separate the functions of language the way we do; we have science and we have religion and we have daily communication; we have poetry, we have all these things, but in the Bronze Age, they were fused; there were no differences among these things.

And so it was that they able to pass along information, to educate the young, to connect the visible to the invisible, the past to the present, and to distribute the suffering so something new could be born. The very act of telling a story had a presumption of truth. The very act of telling a story meant it was the truth, but then along came the Enlightenment and Galileo, and Bacon said, "You have to make observations and prove things to make them true." At that point, storytelling lost its authority, and today, it's only children who believe the act of telling a story carries with it a presumption of truth. Children and fundamentalists.

Part 5:

“At a certain point, the difference between music in music, and music in words became elided in my mind," Doctorow says. "I became attentive to the sound of words and the rhythm of sentences in some way that I'm not even aware of." That has certainly been true of my experience of writing as it developed over the years. The connection between music and words has fuelled much of my writing and the writing of E.L. Doctorow as well. These days, he listens to less music than before. "I seem to appreciate quiet," he says. "When I'm writing, I like to seal everything off and face the wall, not to look outside the window. The only way out of the silence and the solitude is through the sentences." I could not have put my own experience, now as I go through my 70s, more accurately.

F. O. Matthiessen(1902-1950) was an educator, scholar and literary critic influential in the fields of American literature and American studies. He quoted what George Santayana called "the genteel tradition." George Santayana(1863-1952), was a philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist. Santayana said that the result of this genteel tradition "has been to make art an adornment rather than an organic expression of life, to confuse it with politeness and delicacy . . . and to think of literature as somehow dependent upon the better born groups of richer standing."3 I’m not so sure this is still true but, whatever the case, E.L. Doctorow’s work stands outside this tradition. “Doctorow was one of America's greatest novelists. –Ron Price with thanks to:1Alison Flood, The Guardian, 17/4/’14; 2 Saeed Kamali Dehghan, 29/7/’15, The Guardian; and 3Jack London, Hemingway and the Constitution, reviewed by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in The New York Times, November 4, 1993.

Part 6:

Doctorow described, admiringly, the true poet as follows: “what defined a poet was that he didn't stop being a poet between poems. Poetry was not something one practiced but a state of being in which every moment of one's existence was amplified." This state of being grew on me slowly as the decades advanced and, by my 60s, that state of being stayed with me. Doctorow is a writer whose style and vision remain too cerebral, too lyrical -- too writerly -- to survive translation into a series of images. Making his novels into films is, therefore, not easy. ''The literary experience that is the act of reading or writing a novel extends visual impressions into discourse. It flowers to thought with nouns, verbs, objects. It thinks. Film implodes discourse, it deliterates thought, it shrinks it to the compacted meaning of the preverbal impression or intuition or understanding.1-Ron Price with thanks to 1The New York Times, 5/3/’00, a review of Doctorow’s The City of God by A.O. Scott.

Often, Doctorow argues “a famous person often composes a fiction about himself or herself, which he or she tries to present to the world before the writer even gets to him, and my little joke is that if you want to read real fiction about JP Morgan, read his authorised biography. Henry Kissinger has written several volumes of self-justification, which he claims to be accurate and objective about his sometime unsavoury accomplishments,” he chuckled.”1-Ron Price with thanks to 1 Saeed Kamali Dehghan, op.cit.

Doctorow explained why writers are often at odds with politicians. “When you pick up a novel, you know it’s fiction. When you hear a politician speaking, he claims it’s not fiction. Politicians, like novelists, know that reality is amenable, politicians know that, writers know that, which is why writers are usually in trouble with politicians,” he said. “In order to see on to the unseen, you may have to change some things around, but the truth is there, the truth is not totally attainable by facts. That’s the novelists’s point of view, that there are greater truths to be reached. It is literature, “intuitive, metaphysical, mythic”, which takes us to the heart of the social reality of life. When you construct a sentence not obligated to the factual endowments, your intuition and imagination define the greater truth.”2-idem.

Part 7:

His books taught me much, and he will be missed.--President Obama, 22/7/’15.


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