Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Making of a Character

You may note that Natasha, Ben's mother in my novel  Apart from Love, has few lines of dialogue--and yet she leaves a profound, sometimes troubling affect on the other characters. 
Every time Natasha appears in the story, it is to mark the distance between what she is and what she used to be, a distance that is expanding in time. Her first line of dialogue occurs in the first chapter, The White Piano. She asks her husband, "Are you having a thing again." You might not notice this at the first read of the story, but the use of the word thing is the first inkling you get that unfortunately, words started to escape her as early as 17 years ago. 
In a later chapter, She Is Looking Out the Window, we take another glimpse at her forgetfulness. In Ben's words:

I had just finished reading my Haftora. And the pearls, they scattered to the floor, and were dinging all over the place, because the clip had snapped. Or maybe because you had forgotten to fasten it properly, again.

The crucial word here is again. Without even realizing that she has been touched by a terrible disease, Ben is describing a pattern of memory problems, a pattern that has become visible as far back as 14 years ago, if not even earlier. In another chapter, Where Was There, Ben gives us a flashback to a time 11 years ago, when his mother asks him to "get that thing from there." Thus from one flashback to another he describes her diminished capability. Here he describes her last letter to him, 2 years ago:

But then, this note—the last note she sent me—which I can see before my eyes as if it were right here, rustling in my hands, this one, I must admit, was different. It had none of these delicate pen strokes. On the contrary, here was an ugly mess. The words were scattered. Some of them were scratched over, as if some frenzied chickens got loose on the page.

Ironically, Natasha used to be a renowned pianist, one trained from childhood in memorization techniques. To block his pain, Ben clings to a state of denial by idolizing his mother, remembering her virtuosity, her brilliance at the height of her career. 

The walls vanished and so did the clutter, because it was so riveting to watch her. You could see her long, delicate fingers as they went flying over the keys, to the point of turning, magically, into a blur. Her hands became transparent, and her ring, I remember, turned into a glow. She was air, she was music! Even when she stopped playing, those strings inside were still reverberating.

I have read many chapters of this story in front of small audiences, and so I know that some listeners bond closely with Ben, some with Anita (his father's new wife.) I have heard lively discussions between listeners from the two opposite camps.
But somehow, few bond with Natasha. If you are one of them, beware, because you are bonding not with her, but her image in the memory of others. As you follow her journey by examining the traces left behind, ask yourself if Natasha is a character, or the void of one. 
 "A feast for the armchair psychologist. 
Reveals insights that can touch and frighten each of us"


  1. My father sang and that was my deep connection to music.

    1. That is a the strongest connection I can imagine, the one we inherit, which is why I used it, with all the implied emotions, as the hidden instrument behind the character's connection to music.