Literature and Life: Painting the Darkness

My blog has focused heavily on the major aspects in my books: Scottish and medieval history, music, and time travel, along with interviews with other authors and some pieces on the craft of writing.  I have begun branching out with broader themes, and will also now be doing pieces on poetry and on the meaning of literature (and other arts) in our lives, in a series of pieces called Literature and Life, which will talk about the impact of literature on our lives.

If you would be interested in writing guest posts on how literature has impacted your life, please contact me.

About a year ago, my Emmanuel's Light exhibit had an opening night reception in which I gave a talk about the importance of art in our lives.  They are regarded by some as frivolous, and of course there are times in life where we need to be saving lives or feeding children, rather than playing a symphony or painting.  And yet, it is a philosophical point that life without the arts is merely existing--remaining alive--and not really living at all.

This is a point that Amy and Angus discuss on a mountain top on their way to Monadhliath in The Water is Wide, as Angus has just told her about watching a child die, a child he couldn't reach on a rescue.

Laura Vosika, great books, time travel fiction, outlander, after outlander, diana gabaldon, scotland, medieval scotland, historical fictionHe sank onto a boulder.  She dropped down next to him.  His head fell on her shoulder.  He was still, but she knew it was coming out inside.  A gust of wind shot up the mountain slope.  Angus tightened his arms protectively around James, bundled under his blankets.  "I'm just a musician."  Amy bowed her cheek against Angus's coarse, dark hair.  "I don't save anyone's life.  Ever."
"You've no idea," he said.  "When I've watched a child die before my eyes, when I couldn't save him, what music does.  You save souls."  He lifted his head off her shoulder, studied her face with eyes dry and red.  "People like me, Amy, we need people like you, too."

~ The Water is Wide, The Blue Bells Chronicles, Book Three

A similar point is made in Dan Blum's excellent novel The Feet Say Run.  In one of the scenes I found most vivid and poignant (in a book full of vivid and powerful scenes), Hans and Hilda attend the first post-war performance of the Berlin Symphony, in a city still ravished by war, with people still subsisting on starvation rations.  Just before this scene, Hans tells us:

Dan Blum, holocaust, literary fiction, wwii fiction, great booksThe city was still mostly in ruins. Nobody had nearly enough heat or enough food. We received our nine hundred calories a day in rations. We had hardly any clothes. No mattress. No furniture. We slept on the floor, on top of our few clothes, and used a pile of rags that Hilda had collected for our pillows. Outside, the whole city looked like we felt. Cold and hungry and exhausted.
And then one evening, when I had practically forgotten about the business I had wanted to start, someone actually brought me an instrument to be fixed. A frail old man with an oboe. What a remarkable feeling that was. Looking up into the eyes of that very first customer. Someone was thinking about something besides food! Life—not just existence, but actual life, civilization, was trying to awaken! I showed the oboe to Hilda, played a few notes once I had it playable. “You see this?”
“This means we’re not dead.” She looked at me strangely. I went on. “Someone wants to play this again. To make music. We’re alive.”
She cried.

There have been entire books written on the questions of why art is so vital to our lives.  It's a question my co-author Chris Powell and I will explore in our work in progress, Theology of MusicJust one of those reasons, for literature, is: we learn something about life, about how to live.  When we read great books, we acquire the wisdom of multiple lives, rather than only what we can learn from our own, limited, experiences.

What makes a great book?  I'm going to go out on a limb and give my definition: one that impacts us for the better, one that leaves us a better person, a deeper and kinder and more thoughtful person, ennobled, and ready to put more good into the world. 

Such a book has to be a good story, readable, able to take us away into its world.  But it must be more than mere entertainment.  It must also share some deeper truths about life and humanity.

robert goddard, painting the darkness, lessons in literature
One such book that has remained vivid in my memory is Painting the Darkness by Robert Goddard.  "It has all the ingredients of a first-class melodrama," The Times says.  It is melodramatic, full of intrigue and mystery.  It is the mysterious story of Constance Trenchard, contentedly, though not passionately, married to a good man, some years after James Norton/ James Davenall, her fiancé, commits suicide.  And then...that supposedly dead fiancé shows up and introduces himself to her husband.

The story weaves through the question of who this man really is, even as it takes us deeper and deeper into her dead?  not dead? fiancé's ancestral tree, eventually taking us back four generations and a hundred and fifty years.

The deeper story that struck me most was the powerful message about the consequences of our actions.  I suppose I'm partial, as this theme is strong in my own writing, as Shawn begins to understand the far-reaching consequences of his hedonism, to numerous people, to people he's never even met, as the ripples of his actions spread across lives.  The story looks at how his life was impacted by men he never met, by way of their impact on Clarence, 'the boy' who killed his father.

In Painting the Darkness, we see how actions and consequences stretch even further, impacting generations yet unborn.  As the mystery of James's identity is slowly unraveled by Constance's husband, we learn of his ancestor's hedonistic, self-indulgent, and self-centered life (sound familiar, anyone?) and we gradually come to learn how tragically his behavior has affected all those around him, even to the fourth and fifth generation--all while he no doubt chose to believe that his choices were his own business.

In our world today, this is a powerful lesson.  What do you want future generations to say about you?  How do you want your life to be remembered?  Do you want to be the source of joy or pain for those who are impacted by your behavior?

  • February 10, 2017, 7 pm: I'll be reading and signing books at Magers and Quinn with Genny Kieley.  Complimentary wine and a medieval dessert!
  • February 12, and 19, I'll be reading on the Vehicle of Expression, part of the Art Shanty Project
  • February 25, 2017: I will co-host Food Freedom on AM 950 with Laura Hedlund and Karen Olson Johnson.  Guests: Michael Agnew, craft beer expert and Ross Fishman on Russian literature.  We'll taste Russian beer: listen to the whole program from last month.

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