I’m on my travels again for Cinnamon Press. Last Thursday the launch of Sue Hubbard’s exquisitely lyrical novel, Girl in White, a fictionalised interpretation of the life of Paula Modersohn Becker told through her daughter’s search for her mother on the cusp of Nazi Germany (Paula died of an embolism six weeks after giving birth to Mathilde). It’s a story full of human contradictions – the clashes between loyalty and betrayal, the flashes of integrity and the accommodations that are made along the way. Above all it’s a highly particular story and I was reminded of that forcefully, reading the last third of Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist on the train on the way to the launch. Leo, an academic mentor to the main character makes the point that,
As an artist the nuance is your task. Your task is not to simplify, but to impart the nuance, to elucidate the complication, to imply the contradiction … to see where, within the contradiction, lies the tormented human being. To allow for the chaos, to let it in.
Literature disturbs the organisation … because it is not general …the intrinsic nature of the particular is to fail to conform … Keeping the particular alive in a simplifying, generalising world — that’s where the battle is joined.
Leo sees the world in clear camps, and I would want to nuance some of his own certainties, but I resonated with his analysis that the antagonism between political solutions to suffering and narrative treatments of suffering often revolves around this dualism (perhaps false like so many dualisms) between the general and the particular. In particular the main character, Nathan Zuckerman, who appears in several Roth novels, is unable to make the final leap to side with left wing influences in his life and join the revolution because, as he says of himself,
I lacked …a heart without dichotomies.
Of course a heart that is over-abundant in dichotomies can be reduced to a murky pool of liberal guilt and sentiment unwilling or unable to take any stand, but a heart with none would be ill equipped to empathise with Paula Modersohn Becker’s story or any human story. As a writer and publisher I hope to go on lacking a heart without dichotomies.