My husband and I have a running joke about how much I love California, because I seem to interject my home state into every conversation without even realizing it.
He’ll be talking about, well anything (wine, vegetables, weather, bed linens, dogs…), and I’ll respond with “oh, in California is wonderful!” He will say innocently “oh, you like California?” as if it’s the first time I’ve ever mentioned the place.
I just have to smile, because I can’t help myself. California is always on my mind.
When my mother this week suggested I read the book Notes From a Bottle Found on the Beach in Carmel I was sold on the title alone. I downloaded it (sigh, I miss U.S. bookstores) without realizing that it wasn’t an ode to Carmel, but an epic-length poem on the human spirit.
Before I go on, please do not write this off as “ugh, poetry.”
Notes From a Bottle… is poetry because it is written in stanzas, but you won’t find a corny rhyme or a hollow phrase in it. The only other work I can compare it to is Ava by Carole Maso–a novel-length poem about a woman reflecting on her life from her death bed. Ava is one of maybe five books I can say changed my life (and my opinion of what constitutes a novel). Reading Ava and Notes From a Bottle… means not trying to read them as novels and not trying to conform them. Let the words wash over you and you will discover a plot, storyline, and purpose.
The author, Evan S. Connell, sounds a bit like that too, judging from this recently published New York Times piece on his life. California can’t claim him as one of their own (he’s from Missouri), but he spent much of his life in the sleepy seaside town of Sausalito, drinking many afternoons at the No Name Bar.
He was a prolific writer who was well-admired by his peers, but I didn’t hear his name once in the 35 different literature courses I’ve taken over my life. From the Times:
When he was young, Dorothy Parker was a booster. When he was old, the mega-seller James Patterson said that Mr. Connell’s “Mrs. Bridge” was probably the novel that influenced him the most. In between, Mr. Connell, who died two years ago at 88, had episodes of success: “Son of the Morning Star,” his 1985 book about Gen. George Armstrong Custer, was a major best seller and was turned into a TV movie; and in 1990 the Merchant/Ivory filmmaking team made “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge,” based on two of Mr. Connell’s novels. It was Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward’s last movie together.
But Mr. Connell is not really known, and he is seldom read…Mr. Connell left behind few people to keep his torch lit. He was a loner: He never married, had no children, rarely entertained, was scant of friends.
When I think about writing my own novel, stories like Connell’s kind of scare me. I want to accomplish this literary feat, but I don’t want to sacrifice living a full life. Or, ahem, what I define as a full life–friends, family, dinners, conversations, travel. I won’t dwell on that too much now, but leave you with this, from Notes From a Bottle…:
Descartes was preparing to issue his pamphlet on the
Nature of the universe when he was informed of the fate
of Galileo, which is the reason he locked up his thesis
in a desk. It was not published until fourteen years after his death.
I am like a deaf mute with a message
of the utmost importance
addressing someone ignorant of my fantastic language,
who must resort to a frightful pantomime
of sighs and gestures.
Laboriously, I am transcribing reality.
The Eskimo have twenty words
to express the conditions of snow.
The Tokelau Islander
has nine words for the ripeness of coconut.
I have not one word
to express my longing.
- A conversation with Evan S. Connell (The Paris Review)
- Evan S. Connell’s obituary (The Washington Post)