Tuesday, June 29, 2021

The Great Longing

To this type of writer, fidelity is not the concern
He strains for the lyrical in everything he observes
Comfortable with a tall-tale, or is it a hall of mirrors?
One shouldn't hew too closely to those paragraphs about Paris

He delights in fluttering from town to town
But there's acuity whenever he hits the ground
Picking out people to study and describe
It's no wonder this novel concerns a public scribe

His novels have that quality of floating above a city
All residents are fair game for his detached scrutiny
The fumes of memory are his proving ground
His task is recording the imprint of history's sound

Some writers are like this, they feel so deeply
Even when their work covers a terrain of uncertainty
Yet their commitment holds fast to that roving eye
A compulsion they cannot escape no matter how much they try

It's a sort of out-of-body performance, this authorial detachment
The critics would brand him the laureate of internal displacement
I'm minded of a line from a song called Human Nature
The knowing looks exchanged that the lyricist captured

He traces this compulsion to growing up as a sick child
Confined to bed and to home, experiencing life through others
Starting with imaginary affairs where he pictures himself running wild
Escaping his room and seducing the women who visit his mother

As an adult, in his own real relationships, there is always awkwardness
The flesh can never measure up to the erstwhile fictional goddesses
The determination to eschew participation in favor of bearing witness
Has a pervasive effect, in all engagements he is rendered feckless

He describes towns he has lived in, Fez, Tangiers, all full of traditions
Exquisite portraits, even if some of these places are not happy locations
Take the camp he is sent to as punishment for dissent as a young student
In maturity, in France he can only reminisce about the Morocco he left

A metaphor, perhaps, of the perils of life as a dissident
The squalid end that autocrats decree to crush dissent
The Moroccan antecedent was L'Affaire Ben Barka
The means, fear and blood, that marked such chapters

So who is this écrivain public? And how accurate is his narrative?
The author wears as his disguise a mask of words hidden in plain sight
The indirection of men of letters who craft their narratives of exile
This reader recognizes a fellow traveler bearing a splinter of ice

In days of yore, it was an honorable profession to write letters
To give voice to those requiring correspondence and editorial services
The public scribe took dictation or transformed words into print
From mundane business to, sometimes piquant, the most romantic

The later novels are what endeared him to the academy
But it is this early one that lingers in my memory
The sketches of childhoods with certainties written in sand
And the testimonies on the lack of mercy in the life of man

The lesson is that what matters is documenting the dislocation
We'll have time enough later to deal with truth and reconciliation
The spirit's rhythm of loss is the heart of the matter
The great longing is the main feature of nostalgia



On reading L'√Čcrivain Public by Tahar Ben Jelloun

brass glistens souk of marrakesh africa report 1966-06-058 portfolio of african holidays

The Great Longing, a playlist


A soundtrack for this note ...

Timing is everything
Observers are worried

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Writing log. Concept: January 10, 2011; March 5, 2021

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