Thursday, November 17, 2011

Stealing Life

In Per Petterson's sparse yet stunning novel, Out Stealing Horses, the 67 year old protagonist has a conversation with his daughter in one of the final scenes. He's gone to live in the Norwegian woods, near the Swedish border and is at first incredulous that his grown child has even found him. To be sure, he welcomes the visit, but the reader can't help wondering if he's disappointed that he's realized it's really impossible to escape. It may not even be desirable, he's coming to realize. Still he's not disappointed, and savors his isolation as a chance to reflect on his life and life's work.
In a reflective moment the daughter says, "You were always reading Dickins at home...I remember you in your chair with a book, miles first you didn't recognize me and then you replied "Dickins," with a serious look, and I thought that reading Dickins was not the same as reading other books. I thought it was a special kind of book that only we possessed." She then tells her father that she recalls him reading aloud to her on occasion. Asking if he still has a copy of David Copperfield, the daughter quotes the opening from memory:
"Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show."
The daughter concludes by urging her father to read those pages again and adds, "I always thought those opening lines were a bit scary because they indicated we would not necessarily be the leading characters of our own lives...a sort of ghost-life where I could do nothing but watch that person who had taken my place and maybe hate her deeply and envy her everything, but not be able to do anything about it because at some point I had fallen out of my life, as if from an aeroplane...and could not get back to it, and someone else was sitting fastened into my seat, although that place was mine and I had the ticket in my hand."
Aside from this profound conversation, the novel offers many more stop and think moments. But this one referenced here seems particularly applicable to life today. This notion of turning out to be the hero of one's life or of forfeiting that to someone else applies to many issues and critical junctures we all face. The writer Baharati Mukhergee once suggested that we murder past selves and create new new ones in the images of dreams. I think it's true even though murder is a strong word. Because if we aren't sure those former incarnations of our self are gone, they are sure to return. So who is the hero of your life? And what are the characteristics of a hero? In our tabloid culture we confuse heroes with celebrities for the most part. But aren't we confronted with our own heroism constantly? Not just making the right choice or the moral decision; I'm coming to believe there is a component that involves coming to terms with our faults and failings as well.
Most biographies have some sort of subtitle that includes the words "a life." A life in politics, or as in Joe Klein's biography, Woody Guthrie: A life. When that book first came out, Woody's old friend Bob Dewitt told me it should be called Woody Guthrie: What a life!
As I move through this world and my years add up, I rather hope my story will have a label similar to the one Les Blank chose for his documentary of bluesman Mance Lipscomb. A Life Well Spent.

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