Late Expectations

One of America’s great polymaths, Edward Said (1935-2003), barely managed to finish his final work, “On Late Style: Music and Literature against the Grain,” before becoming late himself. Depending on which facet of the man you examined first, Said was a music critic, a literary critical theorist (Google his “post-colonialism”), an expert in modern American and Arabic literature, and an ardent proponent of Palestinian independence.

My writing of Dickens in the last fortnight and a few weeks ago the valetudinarian exploits of Squire Matt Bramble and his creator, Tobias Smollett, brought Edward Said strongly to mind. While reading the subject of this week’s work under review, I ratified my original sense that “On Late Style” touched an obvious-but-overlooked approach to considering the men and women who have produced some artistic milestones and who may well have died while trying to produce others.

Charles Dickens, an energetic and competitive man, was constitutionally incapable of resting on his laurels with “Great Expectations,” nor did he do his immune system any good, given the way he threw himself into “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” I may be stretching to say Dickens was envious of Wilkie Collins’s technique in Collins’s two enduring mysteries, “The Moonstone,” and “The Woman in White,” but it is no stretch to argue that Dickens was jealous of their success.

Marianne Evans, aka George Eliot, drove herself mercilessly in her attempts to outdo her earlier successes, notably “Middlemarch,” but these examples and the desire to cite more could quickly become a digression.

“Late Style” examines the artistry of works done late in the creator’s career, after notable apprenticeship, success, and the vicissitudes of trying to work against distractions, personal or political turmoil or the clamor of success. He wrote of writers Thomas Mann, Jean Genet, and Giuseppe Lampedusa as well as Luchino Visconti, who directed the film version of Lampedusa’s epic novel, “The Leopard.” He wrote of Beethoven, whose own late style was informed by deafness, and of Mozart, whom Said believed had a presentiment of his early death. (Said did not write of Mark Twain, whose late style was in large measure one of bitterness and pessimism.) The book was the result of a course – “Late Works/Late Style” – Said taught at Columbia University, begun before he realized his writing of it would memorialize his own late style.

Jim Harrison’s new novel, “Returning to Earth,” qualifies as a twofer. Harrison, born in 1937, advancing hard on 70, has written 17 works of fiction, essay, and memoir as well as 10 books of poetry. If he hasn’t arrived at late style, he is at the very least producing accomplished style. Donald, a major player in “Returning to Earth,” is a middle-aged U.P. man (Michiganders will immediately recognize U.P. as Upper Peninsula), who is “laying here talking to Cynthia [his wife] because that’s about all I can do because of my infirmity….I’m forty-five and it seems I’m to leave the earth early but these things happen to people.” Donald’s early style, exemplified by his own recollections and impressions of him from others, was dignity. Now, his awareness of his fate being rushed along by Lou Gehrig’s Disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), Donald’s late style involves the need to get his story down so that his children will have some understanding of him and the Finnish-Chippewa heritage he has contributed to their being. In the dramatic events that follow, the Chippewa background overshadows the Finnish.

Lovely, you say; just what I need – the story of a once powerful man, more than 250 pounds of muscular grace, wasting away. Do we, you might ask, really need to linger on such inevitabilities? On this basis, you’d surely have avoided “Gilead,” Marilynn Robinson’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel in which Congregationalist Minister John Ames, mindful of his approaching death, writes a series of letters of letters to his young son. You might also have missed Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Knowing the ultimate outcome, you’d have also missed Mark Twain’s “Adam’s Diary,” and lost out on an ending that rivals the rhetoric of “Huckleberry Finn.” “Adam at Eve’s tomb: ‘Wheresoever she was, there was Eden.’” No way you’d have put up with “A River Runs Through It.”

OK, enough with the irony and on with the show.

And what a show it is. Never one to go with the formulaic or plot-driven narrative, Jim Harrison has once again produced a stunning, uplifting disquisition on life, particularly emphasizing middle and end games. There is never any doubt about the fate awaiting Donald – only the when and where. Thus it is an inducement to read, rather than a “spoiler” to speak of Donald’s death. Through a series of first-person narratives, “Returning to Earth” becomes a serious eavesdrop on Donald, his wife, his son and daughter, and various in-laws, their friends and lovers. The creation of quirky, life-like characters has always been a given with Jim Harrison. This novel exceeds previous performances, causing us at first to dwell on what effect living in such a remote part of a Midwestern state would have, abandoning that supposition for wondering about the clash of Native American, migrant, and white cultures, then tossing the entire matter up in the air with the realization that Harrison has such a firm touch for observing the inner workings of family. Actually, all three forces collide in “Returning to Earth,” but there is room for more.

At one point after Donald’s death, his brother-in-law is recalling a fishing trip in which Donald was upset about having lost one of David’s books dealing with American Indian tribal attitudes to the bear. On their long walk to the beaver pond where they fished, Donald stopped to investigate a large oak tree that had been blasted by lightning. “These are meaningful spots…places where the gods have touched the world directly.” But sensing David’s lack of interest – or perhaps his sense of discomfort – Donald says, “You think a bear is just a bear.”

On the other hand, Donald’s daughter, Clare, for the longest time, thinks Donald has, in death, become a bear.

When Donald became aware of his affliction and begins to see the inevitability of its consequences, he spends three days with a tribal teacher in a site known and revered by Indians, across Lake Superior in Canada, looking for a vision that will help him understand life and the consequences of death. He returns from the trip well prepared for what is to come, requesting that he be buried in this patch of earth.

“Returning to Earth” is a splendid example of late style, giving us characters made profound and caring through their frankness, their bewilderment and grief, their attempts to find meanings that reach beyond the borders of quick-fix philosophy. As we have seen in Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” the loss of someone dear and important can easily drive the mourner over the edge of sanity and into a terrain where reason stops and the quicksand of emotions takes hold. Harrison brings warmth and understanding. He offers an avuncular hug and a splash of peppermint schnapps in a hot cup of coffee. He also offers humor.

Cynthia, Donald’s widow, has gone to a remote lakeside village to visit Flower, a Chippewa relative of Donald’s, worried that Clare, her daughter, will freeze to death in her studies of her father’s religious beliefs. At length Flower “began laughing so hard tears formed in the corners of her eyes. ‘I thought you were worried your daughter would become a bear and be lost to you….In the old days a few men became bears while they were living but it was real rare for women unless they made love to a bear.”

By writing so lovingly and with such specificity about Upper Peninsula, Michigan, Harrison does what such splendid regionalists as Sarah Orne Jewett, William Faulkner, and John Steinbeck did – take us from there and leave us everywhere. In writing about bears and ravens, he takes us from them and into the lore and wonder of ourselves.