The Winter Sun

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

As a writer and thinker, Fanny Howe is fascinated not only with the articulation of words but also with the experiences that motivate them. She calls herself a revisionist, referring to her habit of writing and her efforts to capture an insight, perception, thought, or assessment of her experiences. An inclination to reflect her thoughts and actions in words prompts her analysis of a variety of subjects. In The Winter Sun, her subject is her life. She finds that her life makes sense in retrospect. In thinking and writing about it, she has recalled her compelling experiences, her motivating searches, and the direction that discovered itself. In this memoir, she analyzes the parts of her life inspired by thinkers and artists and explains and demonstrates in emotionally evocative images their impact on her intellectual and spiritual self, that self called to be an artist. Writers and filmmakers influence the book’s structure, which derives in part from techniques Howe appreciates in Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein. She adapts Eisenstein’s innovative filmmaking approaches to storytellingincluding montage, flashback, close-up, and collageto create her own literary memoir.

As she explores her life, she finds several themes reverberating through it. She discovers that both her actions and her art articulate these themes, which derive from her perceptions of her childhood, her search for meaning and direction, her political and social engagement, and her search for spiritually similar voices. She groups connected influences and ideas into sections or chapters of varying length that include “A Vocation,” “The Message,” “Branches,” “America,” “Person,” “Place Time,” “Waters Wide,” “The Chosen,” “The Land of Dreams,” and “Evocation.” The memoir begins with an epigraph, a poem by William Blake that evokes the contrariness of the plight of human naturethat of perceiving in a dream the place one wants to be and being unable to reach that place. Her memoir expresses her attempts to define for herself the metaphorical dreamland she seeks and her attempts to reach it. This metaphorical, theme-connected description of her journey expresses what she has found.

In the first section, Howe explains that her dream was living the life of a poet. This ideal included all of the experiences associated with such a life: radical thinking and behavior; indulgent eccentricities; time for talking, traveling, observing, and taking notes; and struggling with the practical questions of writing such as appropriating thought to form. She found from the outset, however, that life for her generation presented grave contradictions. On one hand, life, at least for a person born into her circumstances of physical and intellectual advantage, was full of promise. Each individual was educated with the expectation that his or her potential was great and would continue to unfold. On the other hand, nihilism prevailed, from the Cold War to the present, with repeated reminders that individual lives are disposable and subject to the violence of nuclear bombs, war, murder, and terror.

Howe describes her present situation as one in which she has chosen, as she often does, to give up almost all of the exotic attributes of the poet’s experience and confine her experiences and activities to the barest and most essential. She wrote this memoir in a hermitage, safe and warm, looking out at a winter landscape, appreciating its stark beauty from a warm vantage point. She has also written in places that reflected the struggles and complications of her life. She has accumulated descriptions of the multiple aspects of her life to ascertain just what she was doing besides writing poems, and she examines her life to see the connections between it and her poetry.

Recalling that a friend once asserted that poetry is a backward logic, Howe examines her life as a critic would a poem, unraveling it to see how technique and form contribute to meaning. She recalls an instructive reflection by Walt Whitman, who said that the poet expresses the result of many experiences and observations uniquely wrought. Looking to identify the motivations that have resulted in her engagement with writing and her art, she recognizes in herself the compulsion Whitman described. Having received accolades for her novels, collections of stories, essays, poems, and other memoirs, Howe in this memoir composes essays, poems, and fragments with the verve, passion, and unique voice characteristic of her work. Together, they constitute her “Notes on a Vocation.”

Howe describes a journey...

(The entire section is 1882 words.)

The Winter Sun Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

The Christian Century 126, no. 25 (December 15, 2009): 27-28.

The Nation 288, no.13 (April 6, 2009): 34-36.

Poetry 194, no. 3 (June, 2009): 244-252.

The Times Literary Supplement, September 18, 2009, p. 27.