Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The List of Negatives

The Memoirs of Hadrian is a fictional memoir as it might have been written by emperor Hadrian to his 17-year-old grandson, Marcus Aurelius. When I explained this to my husband, who had caught me reading the battered old library book, he took the opportunity to imitate a smirking Russell Crowe, "You knew Marcus Aurelius?" And then waited for my Oliver Reed, "I didn't say I knew him; I said he touched me on the shoulder." As literature, this book is as dense as cheesecake and just as yummy. I find myself wanting to eat the sentences, bathe in them, smoke them.
Here's some, where the old guy talks about giving up riding. 

My horse knew me not by the thousand approximate notions of title, function, and name which complicate human friendship, but solely by my just weight as a man. He shared every impetus; he knew perfectly, and better perhaps than I, the point where my strength faltered under my will. But I no longer inflict upon Borysthenes' successor the burden of an invalid whose muscles are flabby, and who is too weak to heave himself unassisted upon a horse's back. My aide Celer is exercising him at this moment on the road to Praeneste; all my past experiments with swift motion help me now to share the pleasure both of horse and rider, and to judge the sensations of the man at full gallop on a day of sun and high wind.
The narrator invokes the feeling of riding by suggestion alone. How? I've just finished the section where he talks about his young lover's suicide, which devastated him. He is consoled by his wife, sort of.

Hermogenes ... transmitted some messages from the empress; she behaved decently (people usually do in the presence of death). But such compassion was based on a misapprehension: I was to be pitied provided that I console myself rather promptly. Even I thought that I was somewhat calmed, and was almost embarrassed by the fact. Little did I know what strange labyrinths grief contains, nor that I had yet to walk therein.

Don't look in these pages for traditional plot or scenes. Author Marguerite Yourcenar described her book as a psychological novel and a meditation on history. In February of 2005, the New Yorker ran a great piece on her and her most famous work, which was a huge hit on publication in 1952. Hurry to read it, though, because in a year or so it will become a movie starring Antonio Banderas, a fact that begs for a moment of silence accompanied by two--or perhaps three--bitter tears. 

THE EXERCISE: On page 23, the old emperor describes himself, his life, first calling it a "shapeless mass." Then he becomes more specific. "As often is the case with other men, it is what I have not been which defines me, perhaps most aptly: a good soldier, but not a great warrior; a lover of art, but not the artist which Nero thought himself to be at his death; capable of crime, but not laden with it."
Make a list of things a character is not, or has not become. If in memoir, this could be a list for any one person in the story, a parent, a lover, a friend, or even yourself. We are defined by what we are not, as well as what we are. If you work on fiction, these lists can be especially helpful in figuring out character. Remember that these lists don't have to be criticisms. Some people struggle against negative tendencies and take great pride in never taking up a particular vice or a trait they abhor. 

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