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by Nick Arvin
We are forsaken like children lost in the woods. When you stand before me and look at me, what do you know of my sufferings, and what do I know of yours? And if I fell at your feet and cried and told you, would you know any more about me than you know about hell when they say it is hot and sets one shivering? Therefore we men should stand before one another with as much awe, thoughtfulness, and love as before the gates of hell.
That’s a quote from Kafka, which I recently encountered as the epigraph to a remarkable novella, “The Island,” by the Polish writer Gustaw Herling.
For the moment I’m going to leave it there. I’ll come back to it.
In college I studied engineering and along the way I crammed literature and writing classes into the corners of my time. I knew I wanted to write, and specifically I knew I wanted to write fiction, but, fearful I would discover that I wasn’t any good at it, I avoided taking a fiction writing class until my last semester.
It was a writing workshop with some good writers in it and some terrible writers, and by the end I still wasn’t sure which kind I was. But I had never studied literary short stories before, and perhaps the most important thing I took from it was an anthology of stories assigned the class, You’ve Got to Read This, edited by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard. The short stories I read for the first time in that book have stayed with me ever since. They reorganized my idea of what a story could do and how it could be done. They were stories that made me want to be a writer, regardless of whether I would be any good at it. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” by Flannery O’Connor. “Goodbye, My Brother,” by John Cheever. “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” by Delmore Schwartz.
And the one that I think of first and most often: “Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases,” by a Swedish writer, Lars Gustafsson.
The protagonist of “Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases” is severely mentally disabled. He has very little vocabulary, extremely limited intellectual capacity, poor understanding even of the passage of time. Not much happens in the story by way of conventional plot, but things happen to him, and he feels these things strongly.
For example, this is his attitude toward knots:
The knots in his shoelaces were the worst. The knot was a small, evil animal that the lace passed through. The lace and the knot weren’t the same thing, for you could make the same knot with different kinds of lace.
His knots were always terribly complicated.
His life passes, other people dimly come and go, and as the years pile up his understanding of events outside himself slows almost to a standstill. He seems to be a character of no consequence in the world, and yet, as the story says, “He was, in a way, the center of the world.” And he has a world within his mind — the story ends this way:
He was as slow as the galaxy and as mysterious.
In the shadows of the leaves which moved more and more insistently against the wall, he saw old mushrooms growing once more, from the first soft mound shooting up through the moss to the last black-brown pyramid of shapeless, pungent tissue in December.
For years, he allowed them to grow freely as he sat there; he made them more and more remarkable, more and more fantastic; each and every one the only one of its kind, saw them live and die; knew since long ago that all time and everything that grew were as mysterious and great as he was himself.
It is a beautiful story, with an effect that is impossible to capture with a couple of excerpts. It made me feel as if, for a moment, I had been brought into the mind of this person — a mind that I never would have thought to enter, a disabled mind, but shown nonetheless to have enormous beauty.
Sometimes I think about the fact that written fiction — the literature of short stories and novels — is only one mode for telling a story. A story can also be presented as a movie, a play, an opera, a video game, a comic book, or all sorts of other things. When I’m working on a story I ask myself why should this story be written as a story or novel, not some other format? A question behind that one is: What are the unique strengths of literature? What can a prose writer offer the reader that can’t be done in a movie or a TV series or play?
I’m sure there are infinite answers to that question, but I think that one of the great strengths of literature, perhaps the great strength, is the ability to enter and completely take over the reader’s mind for a time, and in that moment to put the reader’s mind into a different way of seeing the world, and to even put the reader’s mind into another mind.
That’s what “Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases” does for me; it makes me feel as if I have slipped into someone else’s mind. It is extraordinary and magical. This author, a man in Sweden, Lars Gustafsson, who I have never met, constructed a device made only of words, which crossed time and space and even a translation between languages, was given to me in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and provided me the incredible experience of entering another person’s mind.
Kafka wrote, “When you stand before me and look at me, what do you know of my sufferings, and what do I know of yours?” We could add, what do we really know of one another’s joys and melancholies and rages, longings and sorrows and delights? And the answer is: very little. We each live a lifetime trapped in our own mind.
Except, perhaps, when we read a great story, a story that brings us into the mind of another, a story that grants us the experience of a new way of thinking, seeing, feeling. That kind of literature I regard with as much awe (as Kafka says, although for the opposite reason) as if standing before the gates of hell.
This post is part of our Lit Matters series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts is meaningful to them. Lit Matters stories will be posted throughout the month of November, leading up to Colorado Gives Day on December 9. Mark your calendar for Colorado Gives Day or schedule your gift now. Thank you!