Proverbs writ large

The novel encourages – a form of storytelling that promotes our sense of being individual, but never forgetting the bond of our “common humanity” and of the “universal experiences” that we believe the best novels elucidate and comment on
. – From Noah Richler’s blog


Like most candidates for a Masters Degree in Communication and Theatre, I searched for a text that summarized some obscure, but relevant information. I found Kenneth Burke’s Philosophy of Literary Form. It gave me way of thinking about literature and a reason to start writing.

Burke began by analyzing proverbs “Proverbs are designed for consolation or vengeance, for admonition or exhortation, for foretelling.”  They describe recurring social relationships and events and provide advice for surviving almost anything. Proverbs are essentially “equipment for living”. Literature is” proverbs writ large.”

The books that we read, the poetry and the plays and films that we view, are there to provide in a post technocratic society, what existed in the one-liner proverbs of a pre-literate world. Marry in haste regret at leisure becomes Pride and Prejudice. Red sun at night sailor’s delight, red sun in the morning sailor’s warning becomes Moby Dick; the higher up the monkey climbs the easier to see its ass becomes the Great Gatsby.

There is also my mother’s philosophy of literature which sounds like a proverb. She used to say that books are like food. Some books are great appetizers, others the meat and potatoes and there are lots of desserts. She said that we have a little of everything in our cupboards. To this day I read research books in the morning, meat and potatoes during the day and dessert books are piled untidily by my bed. 

My mother used the books that she had read as a girl to keep my brother distracted from the horrible hunger of a war time sojourn in Siberia and Kirgizstan. She told him the plots of Dickens and Victor Hugo. When he finally learned to read, my brother went through the entire library of the refugee camp in Germany so quickly that Eleanor Roosevelt gave him a prize.

I have written screenplays and theatre plays and short stories and there is a big difference between them.  In film and theatre, the subtext or motivation and thoughts and deepest feelings of the persona, are left to the actor. One writes the dialogue on the surface and prays for intelligent interpreters. I realized when writing stories that subtext was my responsibility.  The only way the reader would know what some event felt like was when I described those feelings. It seems so obvious but it really is the most difficult thing to learn. The performing texts need narrative drive, atmosphere, believable personae and dialogue. A good novel provides feelings, thoughts and subtle changes in attitude so that the journey of the characters remains engaging. Great literature provides ways of thinking about the unthinkable. It addresses the most difficult situations that human beings might experience. Literature makes us laugh out loud, helps to ease our pain, provides clues about human nature and teaches how to surmount desperate times.

A novel can take you anywhere in any timeframe on any personal or social journey. We enter the reality of the anthropological “other”. A good book transcends the limitations of our own circumscribed time and space. It can change or enhance the difficult challenges we face.

A friend of mine from Turkey had just enough English to discover Margaret Laurence. He spent weeks alone in the cab of an eighteen wheeler and he fell in love with Canada as he crossed it while struggling painstakingly through “The Diviners” by Margaret Laurence.

Everyone wants to survive and to live better. In agrarian societies, the proverb served as a textbook rich with life enhancing advice. Today we need proverbs with greater subtlety and complexity to provide us with strategies for living. Notwithstanding the information bombardment of internets and multichannel television, we continue to seek the beauty and intricacy of a Huckleberry Finn, Wuthering Heights, Fifth Business, Cat’s Eye, Tom Jones, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina or The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.

There are theories about the loss of the habit of reading. The internet and Google fast information bites, face book and twitter cause our brains to multi-task and condition them in ways that make it difficult to concentrate on large bodies of print. Yet, when we are most at risk or stressed, there is one remedy that can serve us better than any chemical panacea – a good reading light, a long and ample sofa and an engaging book. Literature matters and it survives when parents can keep their children distracted from pain and hunger with the tales of David Copperfield and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. It survives so that we can know each other. It allows us to internalize the global collective wisdom that lives in great books.

Born in a refugee camp outside Stuttgart Germany, Anna Fuerstenberg, is a noted Montreal Playwright and actress, whose works have been performed in Canada and abroad.