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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Best Birthday Present Ever

I think I first picked up All the King's Men because I saw my older brother (who just got promoted to Captain, USMC!) reading it and I liked the cover. Yes, I judge books by their covers. So sue me. I was so enchanted by his prose that I decided I had to be a writer, quickly wrote the first two pages of the next great southern novel in close imitation of his voice, and then stopped when I realized I had nothing to write about. Ah well. Such is life. When it came time to study a novel for my senior thesis, I requested to work on this one, but for one reason or another my professor said I had to choose something else. 

I'm not sure why it had such an effect on me. Robert Penn Warren writes in long sentences that gallop in smooth billows, that pull you in. Like Graham Greene (read The Power and the Glory), he makes you feel sticky and dirty and grimy and real when he's describing dust and wet heat. I should say, though, that these are the impressions I'm remembering from when I read it five or six years ago; I haven't gone back to read it since then, though perhaps I will now, excited as I am by this birthday present. What birthday present, did you ask?

A first edition, signed copy of All the King's Men, rescued from my grandfather's attic by my wise and generous uncle. Holy Moly.

I am one lucky girl.

It wouldn't seem right to leave you without a taste of his writing, so here you go. Though the conclusion of this passage needs qualifying, explanation and addition in order to be justified and true, it is nevertheless both striking and musical and, I think, exemplary of Warren's style:
You saw the eyes bulge suddenly like that, as though something had happened inside him, and there was that glitter. You knew something had happened inside him, and thought: it's coming. It was always that way. There was the bulge and the glitter, and there was the cold grip way down in the stomach as though somebody had laid hold of something in there, in the dark which is you, with a cold hand in a cold rubber glove. It was like the second when you come home late at night and see the yellow envelope of the telegram sticking out from under your door and you lean and pick it up, but don't open it yet, not for a second. While you stand there in the hall, with the envelope in your hand, you feel like there's an eye on you, a great big eye looking straight at you from miles and dark and through walls and houses and through your coat and vest and hide and sees you huddled up way inside, in the dark which is you, inside yourself, like a clammy, sad little foetus you carry around inside yourself. The eye knows what's in the envelope, and it is watching you to see you when you open it and know, too. But the clammy, sad little foetus which is you way down in the dark which is you too lifts up its sad little face and its eyes are blind, and it shivers cold inside you for it doesn't want to know what is in that envelope. It wants to lie in the dark and not know, and be warm in its not knowing. The end of man is knowledge, but there is one thing he can't know. He can't know whether knowledge will save him or kill him. He will be killed, all right, but he can't know whether he is killed because of the knowledge which he has got or because of the knowledge which he hasn't got and which if he had it, would save him. There's the cold in your stomach, but you open the envelope, you have to open the envelope, for the end of man is to know. (Harcourt, 2001, 12-13.)

Gosh, he's done it again. One of these days I'll find some novel material.

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