Academic journal article Antipodes

You Could Have Been There (Unmasking the Fictional Voice)

Academic journal article Antipodes

You Could Have Been There (Unmasking the Fictional Voice)

Article excerpt

[T]he mask, given time, comes to be the face itself.

-Marguerite Yourcenar.

The author of that great baggy novel Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne, put it more simply than I intend to here, when he said, "My pen guides me, I guide not it." The unfolding of the story, that is, through invented characters who on closer examination turn out to be not distant and exotic creatures but intimates to the life of the author.

I was having coffee with my wife in our sunroom when she said to me, "Remember how excited you were when you discovered Spiess's voice. It was a revelation to you and you kept talking about it. You said things like, 'Spiess could write this book for me.' Finding Spiess's voice was a liberation for you," my wife said. She looked at me: "Don't you remember?" I said, I'd forgotten. But she was right. It was the first time it had happened to me. Finding the voice of this wholly imaginary character nearly a quarter of a century ago while I was struggling to write my third novel, The Ancestor Game, signaled the end of the agony and the beginning of the joy of writing that book. These days I would know it at once, that magical offer, that prompt from the unconscious, the authentic intervention of the imagination, the sense of wonder, and I would grab it and run with it. Back then I was simply astonished and humbly grateful. Humbly because I had no idea where the giftof Spiess's voice came from and felt no responsibility for it. It was my first experience of writing above myself. My first experience of being in the zone with the work. August Spiess, a German medical doctor and orientalist living in Shanghai in 1927. I thought him an exotic figure as far removed from any autobiographical connection with me as it was possible to be. But I was wrong about that.

In the following excerpt, Dr. Spiess is a visitor in the house of Madame Feng's father, the aged Wen-Jen artist, in the old city of Hangzhou. Dr. Spiess has just delivered Madame Feng of the little boy who is in later years to become his pupil and will be the principal character in the story. Spiess writes in his Journal that night:

My emotions compel me to record the event. Two hours ago, at seven o'clock this morning, Madame Feng was delivered of a son after an heroic labor of more than twenty seven hours duration. When I leftthem a moment ago they were both sleeping. A little after one this morning, at that hour when the human will sinks to its lowest point and the aged and the sick give up the ghost, I believed she was entirely spent. I decided there could no longer be any hope of saving them both. Despite the certainty that I would thereby earn Feng's undying enmity, I decided without hesitation to sacrifice the life of his son in order to save the life of his wife. I saw how Madame Feng was slipping deeper every minute into a state of great depletion. Without either assistance or the proper facilities, and in her weakened condition, a caesarean delivery of the infant was not possible. I did not consider it, but readied myself for the gruesome task of butchery that lay before me. As I prepared my instruments by the uncertain lamplight in her cold room, observed all the while from the shadows by the two old women who had been attending her before my arrival, I reflected with a strange detachment that I felt no fear of Feng. As the moment approached for me to use the knife it was not of myself that I thought but of the child, whose torso and limbs hung helplessly from her body, its head locked firmly behind the android formation of its mother's ungenerous pelvic bone. When I moved to the side of the bed to do my work Madame Feng must have sensed my purpose, for she opened her eyes and spoke to me. I do not know by what means she roused herself from the deep exhaustion into which her labors had driven her; there is no sufficient medical explanation to account for such a re-awakening. It was if she had visited a secret shrine hidden within the far recesses of her soul and there been granted a renewal of her will. …

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