The Purpose of Epigrams and L’Esprit de L’Escalier

A couple of days ago I had the pleasure of attending the Plymouth Book Club in Grand Rapids, Michigan at the Plymouth United Church of Christ.   I met some great people and we had a wonderful discussion of the novel Angel. 

One of the questions that I was asked had to do with the epigrams that begin each of Angel’s chapters.  Some people don’t like them and tend to skip them, which doesn’t bother me, and shouldn’t impact the understanding of the story much.

So why put them there?

I gave an answer to the question, but not a very good one.  Rather than explaining why they were there, I talked about the process of finding them and deciding which illustrations to use.  After the fact, I thought about this question a bit more and I have come up with a better answer.  

This phenomenon is called Treppenwitz in German and l’esprit de l’escalier in French.  Both expressions refer to finding the perfect rejoinder or answer the moment the other person has left the room.  Writers are the masters of Treppenwitz.  In fact, I have a theory that a large portion of literature is made up of the things writers thought of later and wished they had said at the time.  They have their characters say it instead.

(One such Treppenwitz of my own, which found its way into Angel, was Paul’s response to a woman who said that gays shouldn’t advertise their sexual orientation, which Bishop Craig Bergland mentioned in an article on his blog Engaged Spirituality.)

It can be difficult as a writer to articulate why you wrote something the way you did.  This is not because you don’t know why you did it.  Rather it is because finding the right words and style is more a matter of feeling than intellect. 

I put the epigrams there because I felt they belonged there.  That’s the short answer.

The longer answer, now that I have analyzed it, is this:

The novel Angel was inspired by Mount Rainier in Seattle.  The mountain provides the spiritual center of the story.  It was the image that I kept going back to in order to find the right feel for the events of the story.  In the book club meeting we talked about some of the things the mountain represents in Angel

It symbolizes the church and is tied into an internal church debate about whether or not to repair a crumbling steeple.  The steeple is a man made mountain, designed to remind us of our smallness and humility in relation to divine forces.

It is also a symbol of natural forces that are of a scope that does not allow them be controlled through human will (as is the attraction the character Paul feels toward Ian).

The mountain also symbolizes the relationship of the protagonists.  I consciously thought of Ian and Paul as being like the mountain, where heaven and earth meet, so Ian is earthy and Paul has his head a bit in the clouds.  This shaped the characters and what makes them compatible. 

The mountain symbolizes beauty and the fear that sometimes accompanies our experience of beauty.  (Our experience of the mountain is one of of “beauty and terror” as the author Bruce Barcott wrote.)  Thus as Paul discovers his attraction to Ian’s natural beauty, he is forced to face his fears.  And like the dormant volcano that is Mount Rainier, the relationship has the potential to be destructive in the future. 

The cycle of destruction and renewal that a volcano represents also ties into a theme of resurrection that is a subtext of the novel.  It comes into the novel through Paul’s discussion of the mass with Ian, Ian’s participation in communion, and the new life direction that each finds through his relation to the other.  (At the cost of the death of a previous way of existence.)

Finally, a volcano, so seemingly solid, is a reminder that everything beautiful is transitory and therefore we should remember to cherish it.

The mountain informed the story for me from the beginning and infuses every aspect of the story.  It is the breath of the story.  So I wanted it to remain a poetic presence.  In the body of the narrative itself, however, I did not want to constantly refer to the mountain.  Ian and Paul’s story is their story, not a metaphor. 

The epigrams at the beginning of the chapter, however, ask the reader to back up for a moment and view the intimate and personal events of the story in light of universal truths, the types of truths that are difficult to articulate, but which can be discovered and felt by contemplating nature.  It asks the reader to connect the specific to something that is, like Mount Rainier, larger than the story and its characters. 

This is what I would have said at the book club if I’d been able to go off in a corner and write my reply.  That might be a good way to interview authors in general, really.

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