Saturday, May 19, 2012

. . . Personal Heroes

One of the more common questions you will hear asked among writers when they get together informally is a simple and yet very revealing one: who are your personal heroes?

At most of the major events in the business and tech arena there is an unofficial gathering -- usually a dinner -- for newspaper journalists and columnists that takes place following the first official day of the event, at which writers who work for newspapers gather together to break bread, meet new faces, and basically socialize as they relax following what is invariably a very tense and busy day. Just such a gathering took place after the show at the 2011 CES in Las Vegas.

In terms of painting a mental image of the environment, it was a typical Thursday evening in Las Vegas, which translates to a briskly chilly and wet wind-filled night of the sort that adds exponentially to the attractiveness of a warm and well-lighted restaurant dining room, so the simple act of taking a seat at the large table and wrapping both hands around the hot cup of tea that was placed before us was a very physical as well as emotional act and, as the heat was transferred from the outside of the thick porcelain cup to mildly numb fingers the pleasure of greeting and being greeted by the collection of old friends and strangers who were soon to be new friends was intensified.

As is often the case when I cover events far away from home, I was accompanied by a companion -- and for CES 2011 that companion was one of my oldest and best mates, Geofry Glenn, who I love more than like a brother but as a brother. In simply defined terms our relationship is the sort in which we can say anything to each other and it will be accepted, because we know each other very well and because we care about each other...

So as I took my seat and my first sip of tea on my right was an old friend and on my left an old acquaintance who I first met as a fellow freelance writer in Boston in the early 90's, Gabrial "Gabe" Paxton, who now makes his living writing for a company that provides directed content for company newsletters and the sort of faux-newspapers that are published weekly by major corporations for their employees, and that largely serve as a mixture of internal news relating to the happenings of their companies, as well as related industry or tech news intended to inform about either their own products or the products of other companies with which they have a relationship.

As we settled in Gabe related how his current employer - a well-known consumer electronics manufacturer that, in addition to making television sets and other media tech, was branching out into the world of view-on-demand handheld consumer devices (in this case specifically smart phones) so he was very excited about the different products that were on display at the show from his own and related industry.

Of the two-dozen other faces at this unofficial dinner party there were a handful that I had met before, and sort of knew, but for the most part the rest of the bodies at the table were strangers to me, and naturally as conversations began and moved along we got to know each other. Directly across from me and obviously together as more than simply colleagues from the same newspaper was a man and a woman from Detroit, Michigan whose animated conversation and constant hand-holding at the table made me miss my wife intensely, but that is a different story...

It was the female half of the couple -- who everyone was calling "Gin" but whose name was actually Virginia -- who voiced the familiar question used to facilitate the rituals of getting to know each other: "So, who are your heroes?" Gabe groaned and Geof laughed.

You see I have a long list of personal heroes -- most of whom are writers -- and anyone who regularly reads my newspaper column in the Cape Cod Times is well aware of some of them: Samuel Clemens (more commonly known as Mark Twain) is one, and then Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, L. Frank Baum, and Walt Whitman round out the list of the older ones, who I usually think of as representing the formative deans of American wordsmithing.

Going farther back there is Benjamin Franklin, the poems of the celebrated Samuel "Dictionary" Johnson, and Sir Joseph Banks. Under the heading of relatively more contemporary is historical novelist Patrick O'Brian, who I find to be an incredibly fascinating writer and person both for his body of work but also as a result of his flawed but exceptional character. The name that popped into my mind and so out of my mouth in answer to her question that evening was the French novelist and playwright Françoise Sagan, which I could instantly tell was a surprise to Gin, and also to my friends based upon their reactions...

Geof raised an eyebrow, and it occurred to me that we had never discussed her or her books with each other, but as it turned out he was very well aware of Sagan and, like me, had read her more profoundly revealing works but not her more commercial ones.

"Really?" Gin replied, and it was also evident that she was searching her own mind to try to place that name. The fact that she did not recognize it is not really all that surprising -- as popular as Sagan was on the continent, her popularity here in America was based on a number of more personal events rather than literary ones, so I was prepared to excuse that lack of familiarity, but then her partner instantly leaps in to save the day for her, observing: "Isn't that the French novelist who wrote Bonjour Tristesse when she was little more than a child herself?" he asked...

"That would be her," I agreed, and Geof -- bless him -- chuckled and said "Mauriac called her a charming little monster."

Françoise Quoirez

We rarely have the luxury of influencing the formative events in our lives -- we do not get to pick our parents, or where we are born, and under what circumstances, and even after we begin to live we do not really alter the course of our own lives until we reach the point in our personal destiny at which we begin to question the authority that limits us... Sagan -- whose real name was Françoise Quoirez -- was born in Cajarc and her formative years as the youngest child of what she considered to be bourgeois parents -- her father was a company director (what we call an executive today), and her mother the daughter of landowners -- and in 1954 when she was just 19 years old her first novel, Bonjour Tristesse (Hello Sadness), was published.

The insight and the craft that she demonstrated in Bonjour Tristesse hinted at the very deep well of emotion and talent that existed within her, and it was no surprise to those that knew her well that she was destined to have a long and richly rewarding career as a writer. It was also no surprise to those that knew her that she was destined to live that life as something of an impulsive and indulgent soul -- often referred to as a "loose cannon" or, as François Mauriac did indeed call her on the front page of the French national newspaper Le Figaro, "a charming little monster," and by all accounts she was precisely that.

Sagan's nickname was 'Kiki' and her literary works, crafted with strong but romantic themes that involved wealthy and disillusioned bourgeois characters, tended to focus upon issues like the sexuality of the young during an era in which no matter how progressive it really was, certainly was not ready for dealing openly with that subject.

Bonjour Tristesse was a story about the life of a pleasure-driven 17-year-old named Cécile, and in particular her relationships with her boyfriend and her adulterous, playboy father, and the fact that I read it when I was 17 and during a period of several years in which I was trying very hard to define the purpose of my life (I was such a precocious teenager) and define for myself the boundaries of not just my own life and relations, but for the manner in which it would intersect with the world itself -- I was also in the process of determining what coursework would occupy my first year of university at the time, a fact that should help you in understanding where my head was at through all of this...

At the time that it was published Sagan's character became something of an icon for disillusioned teenagers, a fact that I was aware of thanks to the footnotes in the translation that I was reading and the commentary that one of the previous owners of the book had so helpfully written in the margins, and I was captivated by the emotional turmoil that she laid out on those pages, and her honesty in dealing with subjects that had grown no easier to accept in the thirty years that had passed since she originally wrote about them and when I was reading them, that it instantly stands out in my mind when I read it even today. Of course the association of the book and the period in time when I was reading it for the first time drags out those old memories, but that's OK...

Some of the questions that the book asked were also asked in different ways by other writers -- and in particular the questions it asked silently -- were the sort that were also asked in different ways by Jack Kerouac, J.D. Salinger, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs...

Kerouac's On the Road portrays the story of a fierce personal quest for meaning and belonging, and the rapid-fire observations of life that are the very foundation of the story makes it easy to forget that it was an autobiographical tale -- and that behind the code names for the characters in the book were the real people who in addition to being the sometimes traveling companions of Kerouac helped shape the literary history of the era. The point I suppose is that it was real, and so too were the situations that Sagan wrote about, though perhaps less real in the abstract...

On my home page I have a quote from Sagan -- really a sort of observation that she made about life and writing -- that reads "Writing is a question of finding a certain rhythm. I compare it to the rhythms of jazz. Much of the time life is a sort of rhythmic progression of three characters. If one tells oneself that life is like that, one feels it less arbitrary."

A lot of thought went into that observation, and if you spend any time at all reading the autobiographical writings of Sagan you will realize that she wrestled with the issues of not simply the meaning of life, but the process of it; how the more productive humans (you can substitute "writers" for the word "humans" pretty much throughout) tend to set small and attainable goals for themselves, and how as humans we naturally stop ourselves from examining too deeply the purpose of our own life.

When you examine this too closely you invite the demons in, and leave yourself exposed to the hurtful truth that much of what passes for meaning in life is little more than make-work and fabrications that are designed to conceal the fact that, save for a set of keys that open the door to your home or can be used to start your car, the rest of the everything that we are is little more than a basis for distinguishing between ourselves and the animals in the woods.

The reason that Françoise Sagan numbers among my list of personal heroes has to do with the fact that she viewed life on more honest terms than most people are capable of, and left judgment to others. There is much to be said for that sort of honesty.

E3 is just around the corner and I am in the midst of setting my schedule for it while I work on updating a handful of game guides as I rotate between that and working on my more recent assignment, which is one of The Sims games. As I write this visions of the counter at Mr. Churro at Olvera Street is dancing in my head, and I must confess I am very much looking forward to visiting there and indulging in that oh-so-gooey-goodness.

So how is your day shaping up?

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