The fiction that I am most attracted to serves Italo Calvino’s definition of the existential function of literature as being “the search for lightness as a reaction to the weight of living.” I think this is because my childhood and many of its accordant memories were (are) such a weight upon my spirit that I have spent my entire life trying to crawl out from beneath. When I think of writing, I think of a sense of release, as if the images/thoughts/feelings transfer from my soul to the paper to the air we breathe in a mysterious, ethereal manner. I picture my words like feathers or autumn-colored leaves lifted by a stiff wind and carried to a distant place: A place of tranquility, where sorrows can rest and cease to haunt.
Grief is heavy. Have you ever noticed someone in the midst of intense grief? Their posture reflects the burden placed upon them. Only during our dreamtime are we free, so that when we awake in the morning, we feel light. We have momentarily forgotten our seemingly unendurable reality. If you have recently lost someone, you know those pleasurable beginnings of each day when the possibility that that person is here on earth, where you are, swims before you.
Our spirits are free of our earthly bodies, planted by gravity, to wander the heavens. Have you ever felt a departed loved one’s presence and how over time, their spirit moves away, moves to another reality? In James Agee’s A Death in the Family, the family is visited by their recently departed loved one; they feel his spirit move through the house. Lightness is movement.
Virginia Woolf claimed that her parents were an obsession of hers until she captured them in To the Lighthouse. Is this why some of us are writers? Is it our purpose sometimes to capture, to bring back to life, those that have left? When my father passed, I couldn’t escape the disturbing thought that he was utterly gone and what remained of him was in a photograph, a document, a worn baseball cap. This person that took up so much of my life and my heart now took up zero space on earth. Can our lives be reduced down to a few things that could be destroyed in a fire or a flood or lost to decay? Aren’t we all searching for immortality?
Life is messy, muddy, sticky, heavy at times. In fiction, we primarily don’t concern ourselves with the times in life when joy is pervasive. If there is no conflict in a story, we aren’t interested. We already know how to survive those times that are gifts: those happy moments. What we’re never sure of is how to get through the times that make us feel as if we are Sisyphus pushing an enormous boulder up a difficult mountainside. After all, we could lose our grip and be crushed beneath the boulder.
There has to be an element of lightness imparted to a work that has as its core a topic that none of us wants to push up the hill. Otherwise, the piece is too difficult to read. Lightness is not a happy ending or an insincere revelation that life is peachy or a decision to ignore pain, discomfort, sorrow. It is a technique in which the author: lightens language (the texture seems weightless), narrates with subtle and imperceptible elements or abstraction, and/or uses visual images with emblematic value.
I know that I am searching for lightness as a reaction to the weight of the life I have lived. I am searching for it in my own writing and in the literature I read. I think most people are.