Saturday, December 31, 2011

Books Read, 2011 Edition

Michelle Davidson Argyle Thirds
Michael Bond Paddington Helps Out
Kate Bernheimer (ed.) My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me
Hannah Pittard The Fates Will Find Their Way
Jaimy Gordon Lord of Misrule
Samuel Beckett Molloy
Samuel Beckett Malone Dies
Antonia Byatt Possession
Albert Camus The Stranger
Agatha Christie The Murder on the Links
Phillip Morledge The Technique of the Mystery Story
F. Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby
Louise & Yuan Hsi Kuo Chinese Folk Tales
Louis de Bernieres Birds Without Wings
Virginia Woolf Mrs Dalloway
David Mamet Writing In Restaurants
David Kyvig Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1940
Cleveland Amory Who Killed Society?
Graham Swift Waterland
Theodora Kroeber The Inland Whale
E.M. Forster Aspects of the Novel
Davin Malasarn The Wild Grass
Albert Hourani A History of the Arab Peoples
Henry James The Ambassadors
William Mumford Africans Learn to Be French
Anton Chekhov Forty Stories
Alfred Jarry The Ubu Plays
William Shakespeare Macbeth
Troy Nethercott How To Disappear Completely
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Volume 1
Haruki Murakami The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Volume 2
Tara Maya Conmergence
Agatha Christie The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Volume 3
Alina Bronsky The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine
Dashiell Hammett The Thin Man
Apuleius The Golden Ass
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Volume 4
Peter Carey Oscar and Lucinda
Jose Maria de Eca de Quieros The Illustrious House of Ramires
Angela Carter The Bloody Chamber
JRR Tolkien The Hobbit
Thomas Mann Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories
Victor Pelevin The Life of Insects
Charles Portis True Grit
Kate Chopin The Awakening
G.K. Chesterton The Man Who Was Thursday
William Shakespeare Antony and Cleopatra
Paul Auster The New York Trilogy
Vladimir Nabokov Pale Fire
Samuel Beckett The Unnamable
Harper Lee To Kill A Mockingbird

Plus a bunch of nonfiction that I just don't keep track of properly, mostly read as research for the novels I've been writing and I'll spare you all of that, mercifully. In 2012, my aim is to read a bunch more Chekhov, a bunch of Nabokov and Camus and Faulkner and O'Connor, a bunch more Shakespeare than I managed to fit in during 2011, and I will continue to look for living American authors that I enjoy as much as I enjoy dead European authors. Competition has not been exactly fierce. I also would like to read more from Jose Maria de Eca de Quieros (another dead European), who was one of this year's glorious new finds. Possibly there will be some Joyce and Melville and Stendahl on the list as well; who knows?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on"

The title of this post is of course the last line of Samuel Beckett's novella The Unnamable, which I finished reading yesterday. Beckett puts on quite a performance in this piece, and while I'm not sure I can say I read it--because somehow one doesn't quite engage with The Unnamable the way one does with most texts; one sort of exposes oneself to Beckett exposing himself rather than one properly reads a narrative--I can say I let myself experience the novella as much and as well as I could. Admittedly there was some drifting on my part due to the way Beckett's short phrases so easily fell into a repetitive and partially numbing rhythm, but I certainly didn't sleep through it and gosh, but there's some powerful stuff in there.

Of course it's all about the futility of effort and the meaninglessness of speech or action, typical Beckett fare, but what do you do right after reading Beckett? Jump up and clean the house or start an exercise program? How do you transition from the absolute bleakness of The Unnamable back into your daily life? Me, I had a cookie and then typed up Chapter Five of my own novel in progress. After Beckett, my cruelties to my protagonist seemed charming and harmless in comparison. Well, it's early days yet in that novel (I'm at about 25,000 words or so, which is nothing).

What do you read after Beckett? If you've just finished Waiting For Godot, you can move on to anything, can't you? Godot is slapstick comedy even if it's serious subject matter. Nobody sheds a tear for Vladimir. I was tempted to pick up Shakespeare, and then Faulkner, and then I wavered at the stack of O'Connor I got for Christmas and then thought vaguely of fluffier stuff and of course I mean to read Moby-Dick again either next year or in 2013...Finally I gave the bookshelves a good looking over and picked up Harper Lee. I've been meaning to read To Kill a Mockingbird all year, and I've just got enough time to meet that goal. It's been decades since I read it and it's quite fine. Better, frankly, than I remembered it being.

Blah blah blah, blah blah blah. My next post will finally be about Lydia Davis' short stories and then I'm going to quote some of the best bits from Beckett's Molloy trilogy. See if I don't. After that, maybe, I'll beazle and prolix about the letters of young Anton Chekhov, who promises not to bore his correspondents with talk about his published stories and plays and then writes page after page about his published stories and plays. I did not see myself in that bad habit. No, I did not.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

My 2011 "Advent Ghosts" Story

The smell reached the old man as he chained the barn door: his wife roasting the last of the deer meat. Now they'd no food but grain, though he’d see about that.

He returned to the cabin, shaking snow from his coat.

How are they?

Wild, he answered. Forgotten all language. They still sing: noises not even words but I recognize the melodies.

Terrible. Our children.

They’re animals, he said. Never human. I trained them to build things, now they hide in the dead forest and sing. I found thirteen; the rest starved or froze. There’s fresh water and grain in the barn. That roast smells good.

What will we do? Can you retrain them?

He shook his head. They’ve gone feral. Won’t let me near them, don’t wear clothes and they’re covered with fur. Never saw such a thing.

He sat down, picking up knife and fork. I’ll fatten them up. We’ve slaughtered all the deer.

Oh Papa, the old woman said.

They aren’t human, Mama.

This story is my contribution to Loren Eaton's "Advent Ghosts" annual storywriting collaborative. You can read the rest of the stories at his blog here. Loren is very cool to host this year after year. Thanks, Loren!

The rules are to write a 100-word spooky story for Christmas Eve reading. I have cheated a bit here, coming in at 167 words. My first try was about 300 words. If I found the right angle I could probably get to 100 words, but I'm both happy with the story as it is and a very lazy old man, so I abandon my editing at this stage. Merry Christmas, everyone.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Epistemology with Samuel Beckett

I'm reading the third book in Samuel Beckett's "Molloy" trilogy, The Unnameable. What can I possibly say about a book with no plot, no characters, no conflict to be resolved except that it's a great book?

The Unnameable is a first-person monologue given by a voice, possibly disembodied, possibly deceased, possibly enshrined in a funerary urn in a graveyard or possibly somewhere else. Possibly this is the afterlife musings of an author, for the narrator mentions characters encountered in the first two books of the trilogy, and implies that they are fictitious characters. Though it's impossible to say for sure what's "fiction" and what's "real" here.

This is an epistemological novel. The narrator is compelled to speak, because he has the power to speak (indeed, possibly he must speak because he is the creation of language), but what can he say? How does he know what is true? How does he know what he knows? Does he trust the evidence of his senses, and if so, why?

This is also an ontological novel. The narrator attempts to define categories of things but abandons the attempt over and over. How can he be sure of any of it? Almost all the things he "knows" are in the form of received wisdom and he's seen how many of the truths learned in school turn out to be lies, so why trust any of it? How can you trust any of it?

This is a philosophical novel. The narrator tells you what he remembers, tries to assign meaning to those events, and then realizes that in the end he has no real idea what any of it signified, if any of it mattered beyond the moment.

So what is the narrative like? Most of it is in the form of a single unbroken paragraph that carries the narrator's thoughts from subject to subject, looping back after digressions to the subjects he's trying to think about, but there is nothing more important in his primary subjects than in his digressions and he knows it. Everything is equally unimportant. Being and nothingness, God and godlessness, life and death: it's all the same in the end. As Tom Stoppard might say, for all the points of the compass there is but one destination and you end up, after all the fuss, dead in a box. What can you possibly say about that?

The only way Beckett (or anyone) could carry this off, this existentialist stream of consciousness, is by leavening the bleak realization that there is nothing to say because there is nothing worth saying, with a healthy stream of humor. Like Chekhov and Kafka, Beckett realizes that the absurdity of existence isn't just tragic, it's funny as well. Or perhaps it's like Byron said: "If I laugh at any mortal thing, 'tis that I shall not weep." Hard to say.

On knowledge:

To tell the truth, let us be honest at least, it is some considerable time since I last knew what I was talking about.

On God:

My master then, assuming he is solitary, in my image, wishes me well, poor devil, wishes my good, and if he does not seem to do very much in order not to be disappointed it is because there is not very much to be done or, better still, because there is nothing to be done, otherwise he would have done it, my great and good master, that must be it, long ago, poor devil. [...] A little more explicitness on his part, since the initiative belongs to him, might be a help, as well from his point of view as from the one he attributes to me. [...] Let him enlighten me, that's all I ask, so that I may at least have the satisfaction of knowing in what sense I leave to be desired.

That's good stuff, if you're me anyway. Through a glass darkly, with a sense of humor. There is no "story." But the prose is surprising, alternately absurdist and beautiful. If Modernism is your thing and you've never read Beckett, get thee to a bookstore. I'm reading the 1997 Everyman's Library edition, which is a gorgeous volume that I got last Christmas.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Pale Fire: A Novel I Can't Tell You About

I am nearly finished with Vladimir Nabokov's 1962 novel Pale Fire, and I will admit now that about 70 pages back I stopped thinking about this book as a puzzle to be "solved." This is my third time with this book and while I think this is the best read I've managed to give it so far, I still must throw up my hands and surrender to the author. I don't know what's going on here, not quite. I have my suspicions about Kinbote and Shade, of course, and I naturally suspect that the whole of the book is Nabokov talking about Nabokov (because--and let's be honest--when is Nabokov not talking about Nabokov?), but really I can't do any better than suspicions and vague ideas about the possible "reality" upon which the telling is based. And I'm fine with that, because it's been a splendid ride. Nabokov shakes your head up in a way nothing else can. If nothing else, I'm no longer angry at old Vladimir for being so much smarter than I am.

Because old V is so much smarter than I am, I find that I can't really say anything worth reading about Pale Fire. I recommend it to everyone but don't come running to me with your questions about it. Five minutes with Google will gain you far more scholarship than I can pretend to offer. Not just because Pale Fire is a book that's smarter than this reader, but also because, I'm coming to realize, I don't actually know how to talk about reading.

I'm a far brighter person when I sit down to write fiction than I am when I sit down to write about fiction. I think I'm at my absolute best--intellectually, that is--when I am writing a story. This weekend I did a lot of work on my piece for the Literary Lab's "Variations on a Theme" anthology, and there are passages of shining brilliance there that I'll never equal in writing outside of a story. I'm good at fiction. I'm not so good at this, what I'm doing now: talking about fiction.

But I can write well enough to say that even though Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire might leave you as baffled as it leaves me, you should get yourself a copy of it and read the damned thing. It's short, it's funny as hell, it will make you think in ways you probably don't usually think, and it's full of surprises and pathos and no, I don't remember how it ends (I have 40 or so pages to go) but good readers don't read for the endings, they read for the experience of having been in contact with the narrative. Or whatever. I don't know why good readers read, but it has nothing to do with discovering how the plot works out. Note that I use the phrase "good readers" to mean "people like me." I make no apology for that.

Anyway, there's this from page 272 of the Vintage trade paper edition:

If I correctly understand this succinct observation, our poet suggests here that human life is but a series of footnotes to a vast obscure unfinished masterpiece.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Misreading "Pale Fire"

It occurs to me (and likely others have gotten here long ago before me) that Charles Kinbote, when he looks at John Shade's poem "Pale Fire" and sees it filled with references to his own life, is not necessarily doing anything more than any other reader of poetry or prose. Possibly part of Nabokov's project in Pale Fire (the novel, not the poem within the novel) is to suggest that every reader who feels he has "connected" to a text is at least partly misreading the text, projecting himself onto and into the work, interpolating his own ideas with those of the innocent author. Which means that perhaps Kinbote isn't as mad as he seems (though he's quite mad, of course), and you and I are more mad than we might like to think. When I read the poem (or the commentary on the poem) and misunderstand an allusion (and doubtless I've done this), how much am I twisting the intended meaning of the text? Is my misreading an invalid reading, or--as semioticians might claim--am I making a new reading that's just as valid as what Nabokov intended? And if that's so, why not claim that "Pale Fire" isn't about John Shade's relationship to the idea of his approaching death, but is in fact nothing more or less than a poem about the last king of Zembla?

Also, this:

Which is a blurry photo of Mighty Reader and me riding the Christmas Carousel downtown, at about 8:00 PM last night. It was quite a fine time.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

(Help me, Will! Pale Fire)

I'll example you with thievery:
The sun's a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea; the moon's an arrant thief,
And her
pale fire she snatches from the sun;
The sea's a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears; the earth's a thief,
That feeds and breeds by a composture stol'n
From gen'ral excrement- each thing's a thief.

--William Shakespeare, "Timon of Athens" Act IV, Scene III

I hadn't yet read Timon of Athens the first two times I read Nabokov's novel Pale Fire, so I didn't get the reference. The parallels between Kinbote and Timon are clear now, too. Oh, Vladimir, you are so clever. There's more than Shakespeare references in the 999-line poem that is allegedly the centerpiece of this novel. There's "Hurricane Lolita," and Zembla of course, which is possibly the setting for the nonsense tale by O. Henry, though neither prisoners nor Zembla are named in that tale. I am nearly infinitely charmed by Mr Nabokov. Which is what always happens when I read his books. At some point I'll wish to hurl the volume as hard as I can into a wall or a fireplace, but I'm not there yet.

Anyway, I'm about five pages into the "commentary" section of the novel. I have ignored Kinbote's advice to read the comments before reading the poem and I'm reading the book in the order it's printed. The poem, which I never liked before, seems quite fine this time around, though once again all of the shaving imagery is a bit off-putting. Is there some connection between "shave" and "shade?" I don't know.

If you've never read the book and wonder what I'm yammering about, I tell you that a poem titled "Pale Fire," the final and possibly incomplete work of a poet named John Shade, is discussed at some length by a Professor Charles Kinbote, who moved into the rental house next door to Shade a few months before the poet's death. Both Shade and Kinbote lecture at a university in the fictional town of New Wye, Appalachia. Kinbote claims to have been asked by Shade to take the poem and have it published, Shade being sure he was close to death. Possibly Kinbote stole the manuscript and forged a letter giving him power of attorney over the work. In any case, as we begin to learn from the second page of the introduction onward, Kinbote is off his nut and is not to be trusted.

The poem itself is a rumination on death as written by an old man. He thinks back over his life as a poet, over the unhappy life and early death (possibly a suicide) of his daughter, and he thinks over his long marriage to Sybil. The whole poem is written to Sybil; she is the "you" to whom Shade constantly directs his thoughts. "Pale Fire" is a fine poem, too. It's not just a prop to support the games of the novel.

Kinbote's introduction, where he justifies his having edited, published and commented upon Shade's poem, is about 15 pages long. The poem itself takes another 33 pages, and the rest of the novel is 225 pages of Kinbote's commentary, allegedly about the poem but actually about himself. There's also a 10-page index to the work, put together by Kinbote, which is a marvel of egotistical psychopathy. Or psychopathic egotism; take your choice. In any case, Kinbote is an utter solipsist and he steals the fire of Shade's poem (Shade/shave/Shakespeare? I don't know) to glorify himself and what are probably his delusions of grandeur. Have I said too much? All the wrong things? No idea. Pale Fire is a brilliant short novel and if you haven't read it, why haven't you?

Monday, December 12, 2011

burning a whole stack of them in the pale fire of the incinerator

There was so much frost this morning that when I first glanced out the bedroom window, I thought it had snowed during the night. The lawn, the parking strip and the lids of the curbside recycling bins were all white, glowing hazily under the streetlamp. Alas, no snow. Not yet. It was also warmer than I thought it would be. I walked down the hill and only thought to put on my gloves when I arrived at the bus stop and began to wait for an express coach. Along the way I’d glanced up to see the moon setting in the west, clear and hard white like bone against the indigo sky. A heron passed overhead, huge and silent and improbable, his long legs trailing behind him, his wings beating with slow deliberation. What’s he doing up at that hour? The fishes must all be asleep still, deep down in the riverbed.

I am reading, again, Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, which book features my favorite of Nabokov’s unreliable narrators, Charles Kinbote. I’d forgotten how much fun Kinbote’s madness is, and how Nabokov lets that madness crack through the academic façade of Kinbote’s narrative. I’ve forgotten much about this book, I’m sure. Only a few pages in, I can tell you that the prose is wonderful ("ecstatic" is the word used in Updike’s back cover blurb) and the humor is pure Nabokov: the author and the reader share jokes that the narrator isn’t in on. What fun there is in store for me.

Last night Mighty Reader and I watched "It’s a Wonderful Life." Jimmy Stewart was a fabulous actor. I always forget that and I’m always surprised, year after year. What any of this has to do with anything else in this mess of an essay, I’ve no idea.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Auster In A Locked Room

I am pushing to finish reading "The Locked Room," the final story in Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy. I hope that by the time my evening bus commute is done, I'll have seen the end of this book. While a lot of what Auster does in these stories is clever and fun, I just have to say that by the time "The Locked Room" is underway it's clear that Paul is not, as the kids say, bringing it. If the kids still say that, or if they ever did. This story is not brilliant work.

Admittedly I'm not getting all of the references Auster has woven into the narrative, and I suppose that there could be whole levels of meaning that I'm too ignorant to even see in this trilogy. But the main problem with "The Locked Room" is that the story itself is not compelling and the prose is sort of flat. Auster attempts to create suspense with the cliche of his narrator announcing, "It was then that I should have seen what was to come" or "Little did I know then that I was living in denial" and cetera, in order to prick up our ears and fill us with expectation. Alas, too much of this stuff (like, more than zero instances) is just a boy crying wolf, and by the time Auster's protagonist claims "I was going to find him and I was going to kill him," I am merely yawning. Whatever, Mr Narrator. Maybe the point of all this meaningless action is that action has no meaning, but at least put some effort into your presentation. I'm doing all the work here, and it's not worth the time or labor.

Well, I have one more chapter to go. It'd best be one hell of a chapter. Next up, I'm reading either Beckett or Nabokov.

Edited on 12/9/11 to add: I just don't think the final chapter spun the whole trilogy into shape the way I guess it was intended to, but the last couple of pages were quite fine and I like the image Auster leaves the reader with. So my verdict is that The New York Trilogy is, as my friend Carl says, "a fine first novel" but it doesn't live up to the reviews it got at the time. As I said in my last post, that probably says a lot more about reviews and reviewers than it says about Auster or his book. There were big swaths of these stories that I liked a lot, but I just can't make myself unreservedly recommend them. The stories concern themselves primarily with the relationship of writers to writing, with the author to the work, but in the end the narratives aren't actually self-referential in what seems a meaningful way; there's no real center, no fixed point. I get that the lack of a fixed point is part of Auster's theme, but I just don't think he really got there with this set of stories. Though I think that writers would find them valuable studies. Certainly I've gotten some interesting ideas by mulling over what Auster did and didn't do here. I will likely read more of his books, because I'd like to see what Auster can do with his looping postmodernism when he's not writing about writing.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Nabokafka With Paul Auster

I am reading Paul Auster's 1986 debut novel The New York Trilogy, which is actually a collection of three novellas (City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room) that bear some superficial resemblance to detective stories. This is one of those books I've read about but never read until now, and I am not sure exactly what I'd come to expect from Mr Auster but reviews routinely call the collection "genre-bending," "brilliant," "remarkable" and "innovative." And they're not; not quite, not if you've read Nabokov or Kafka or Borges.

These stories are about identity, in that the loss of the protagonist's personal identity is the primary dramatic action of the stories (I admit that I haven't read The Locked Room yet but I assume--possibly wrongly--that it generally follows the large-scale pattern of the other two stories). City of Glass concerns a writer, Daniel Quinn, who--under the pen name William Wilson (which is also the name of a character in an Edgar Allen Poe story)--writes books about a detective named Max Work ("max work" is one possible translation of the Latin "magnum opus," so this is, like, a funny joke). Quinn lives a solitary live, with no friends or direct contact with his publisher or agent or family (his wife and son died a few years before the story begins). He feels close to nobody except his fictional detective.

One evening Quinn gets a phone call asking for the Paul Auster Detective Agency. "There's no Paul Auster here," Quinn says. After a few more of these calls, Quinn decides to pretend to be Auster and he takes the case of Peter Stillman, whose father (also named Peter Stillman) is about to be released from prison. Stillman Jr is afraid Stillman Sr is going to kill him. So Quinn, telling himself to act like detective Max Work, pretends to be Auster and begins to spy on Stillman Sr in order to protect Stillman Jr. The case goes nowhere and nothing seems to have any meaning or purpose and Quinn becomes frustrated and obsessed and loses himself in the search for patterns in the behavior of others--which is of course the work of a detective. At his wit's end, Quinn finally goes to the apartment of Paul Auster, whose address Quinn finds in the phone book. Auster, of course, is not a detective. He's a writer, working for now on a book about Don Quixote and Cervantes' relationship to the work. Or possibly Quixote's relationship to the work, if Don Quixote is a true story as it claims itself to be. Who wrote Don Quixote, Cervantes or Quixote? Who is writing City of Glass? Paul Auster? "Paul Auster?" Who is the unnamed narrator who bursts into the narrative on the final page, the friend of "Paul Auster" who is apparently investigating the disappearance of Daniel Quinn? Et cetera. There's loads more stuff going on, and lots of pairing of character and action and image that may or may not supposedly mean something.

So Auster presents us with layer upon layer of identity (or perhaps not layers so much as colliding theories or a soup of commentary about theories), implying that the relationship between an author and his work (or a father and his son, or God and his creations, or a man and himself) is mysterious and possibly unknowable. Or so it might seem. On the surface.

Which is my problem with the two stories I've read of this trilogy so far: it's all merely taking place on the surface. It's all playing games with homonyms and names and duplication of actions, but there's no true exploration of identity other than the claim that your name is not your identity and that your name is just a word and the meanings of words change and therefore your identity itself is subject to change. Some shadow play about the nature of language also being the nature of reality, which is a nice image if you're a writer, but really there's not much of any depth here. There's not much beyond the surface games.

Granted, the surface is highly attractive and enjoyable. The stories remind me a lot of Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," which is a dandy play and a rollicking fine film was made of it but of course beneath all Stoppard's word games and references there isn't really anything there. It's pretty and clever and witty but hollow, and that's what I tend to feel about The New York Trilogy. It's a well-made and entertaining shiny hollow ball, but it's still hollow. Auster has crafted a dazzling collection of interesting gestures, and has borrowed some ties and shoes from the closets of Nabokov and Kafka and Borges, but he hasn't really said anything with all of it. Ghosts seems to comment upon City of Glass, but does it comment on the latter, or does it merely borrow images from it?

I'm enjoying the collection--hell, this morning I almost missed my stop because I was so caught up in the writing--but at the same time I feel let down because there's just not more to The New York Trilogy than the cleverness of the forms and allusions. Possibly I'm being unfair to Auster, though. The writer, I mean, not the detective. This is a better book than most and if I'd read it after The Man Who Was Thursday instead of after Antony and Cleopatra, I'd probably be gushing about it instead of dissecting it. I'm a difficult audience and I know it. I keep trying to come up with a positive sentiment with which to end this post, but I keep running into the difficulty that no matter what I want to say about The New York Trilogy (and really, I think it's worth reading so go read it), I am compelled to temper my praise and I realize that what I'm actually objecting to is not Mr Auster's novellas, but to the critical reception of those novellas. The problem isn't that Auster has failed in any way (he says himself, in his guise as Paul Auster, fictional novelist in City of Glass, that the primary duty of a novel is to entertain, and the primary goal of a novelist is to see how much he can get away with in the way of telling tales), but that the reviews I've read of the novel have been written by people who aren't familiar with the works from which Auster is deriving his stories; if you've never read Nabokov or Kafka or Borges, Auster can seem like a magician. If I hadn't read any of the reviews before reading the book, I'd be enjoying myself more than I am. I should rewrite this little essay and turn it into a review of reviews, but I won't because time is short and I am lazy.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

this story irritates the hell out of me

The title of this post is from the notes to myself that I made last week regarding the fifth chapter of the new novel. In truth, this story irritates me. It fills me with great discomfort and I am tempted often to walk away from it and work on something else, which I take as a sign that I'm on the track of something good here and I should keep writing this book. My best work--by which I of course mean my favorite work--has always come out of my areas of discomfort, because I'm picking away at something of real meaning to me. Very likely this irritation is also felt by the reader, which is why I am not a published author. But still, it's what I do so I'll keep doing it.

I'm not working at any great pace on the new book; I think I'm getting about 500 or so words a day onto the page is all. But last night's 500 words are pretty good. They're almost all dialogue, which is one of my strong suits. I credit my facility with speakybits to having read all that Shakespeare. When all you have is dialogue, you have to do everything with it: mood, backstory, plot, character, and all the rest. Likely all my reading of Shakespeare also explains why my novels are such talky things.

I recently read somewhere about a young writer who hates dialogue. I forget her name, but I have to say I think she's being a dope. She needs to read more Shakespeare, and some Chekhov wouldn't come amiss either.

Monday, November 28, 2011

G.K. Chesterton: And Then I Woke Up

I read a lot this weekend, which is My Kind Of Weekend. I finished Kate Chopin's The Awakening (which had a satisfyingly unsettling tragic ending and it's a shame Chopin only wrote the one novel), read fifty pages or so of Lydia Davis short stories (uneven in both length and quality but when she's good, Ms Davis is great), and read the entirety of G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday (a nightmare). This is the only Chesteron I've ever read, and I am now chary of picking up anything else by him, though possibly TMWWT is an anomaly.

The thing about this book is that the first two thirds of it are pretty great, but the ending (despite Chesterton's warning in the subtitle) is a cheat, I think. Here's the story, in brief: a "philosopher detective" from Scotland Yard infiltrates a worldwide anarchist organization, getting elected by the local anarchist branch to a seat on the president's council. There are seven members of the council, and the council members go by the names of the days of the week. Our hero is Thursday, hence the title of the book. The president of the anarchists, a Moriarty-like arch criminal, takes the name of Sunday. They are planning, as a first step toward world anarchy, to blow up the President of France and the Czar of Russia (the novel was written in 1908). Intrigue and hilarity ensues, including various unmaskings to reveal surprise secret identities, flight across the Channel and pursuit by an anarchist army, a duel fought with swords and oh, so much more. There is a lot of funny metafictional stuff about police work and detection and the ongoing discussion of who would really benefit from the pulling down of government is very lively and possibly timely as well ("The poor will resent that they are governed wrongly, but the rich will resent that they are governed at all").

Chesterton is funny and the wordplay is very very good, harking back to the comedies of Shakespeare. The protagonist's riffing about which words should be included in a secret code is priceless, as he argues in favor of terms that are poetic and have a beautiful sound, rather than for words that might actually apply to the case at hand. There's a later bit where he plans a dialogue between himself and an enemy, writing down the 43 verbal exchanges he assumes will come to pass. Alas, at the crisis moment he is forced to improvise.

So this is all great stuff, and plotwise Chesterton turns the spy story on its head and his reader has no idea why anything is happening or who Sunday really is or how the story will all work out and things build to a fever pitch and then...[SPOILER]...we are presented with a fairy tale Christian allegory centered around the week of Creation (hence the days of the week trope) and we learn that the whole thing was a dream and on the last page of the novel, the protagonist wakes up. I cry foul, I do. Deus ex machina most foul. Horrible, horrible, most horrible. You get the idea. But before someone tells me that Chesterton had the right to craft whatever story he wanted to, I will say that the most foulness was that the last chapter was not well written. Had not Chesterton lost all his sense of fun and playful language, I might accept his bait-and-switch. But he did, so I don't.

Right now I'm reading Shakespeare. There is no bad Shakespeare.

Monday, November 21, 2011

True Grit: Not Just For Breakfast Anymore

“Who is the best marshal they have?'

The sheriff thought on it for a minute. He said, 'I would have to weigh that proposition. There is near about two hundred of them. I reckon William Waters is the best tracker. He is a half-breed Comanche and it is something to see, watching him cut for sign. The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don't enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now L.T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and then but he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake. Also the court does not pay any fees for dead men. Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best they have.'

I said, 'Where can I find this Rooster?”

According to the New York Times, “Charles Portis, the reclusive author of the 1968 novel True Grit, is a cult writer's cult writer, cherished by a small but devoted following.” Portis is not exactly a household name. I saw the original “True Grit” film when it first came out in 1969. I was a wee lad and my family was packed into a station wagon to watch the film at a drive-in. Possibly it was the first movie I ever saw at a theater of any kind, and as such holds a special place in my heart, though I believe I’ve only watched it once as an adult, maybe 20 years ago. Anyway, if I have a point with all this rambling, it’s that from the time I saw the movie as a kid until Portis was awarded The Oxford American's Award for Lifetime Achievement in Southern Literature in April of 2010, I never once thought of there actually being a novel on which the film was based, and so I never once gave a thought to a novelist named Charles Portis. And that’s my loss.

True Grit is a pretty good novel, and I say this as someone who doesn’t read westerns. The prose pulled me in right away; the story is told by Mattie, the teenage daughter of Frank Ross who was shot down in cold blood by “the coward Tom Chaney” and Mattie’s voice is stern and formal, lacking in contractions and chiding the reader who disagrees with her opinions, pointing to scripture to support her views and digressing here and there into the partisan politics of Arkansas.

I had hated these ponies for the part they played in my father's death but now I realized the notion was fanciful, that it was wrong to charge blame to these pretty beasts who knew neither good nor evil but only innocence. I say that of these ponies. I have known some horses and a good many more pigs who I believe harbored evil intent in their hearts. I will go further and say all cats are wicked, though often useful. Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces? Some preachers will say, well, that is superstitious "claptrap." My answer is this: Preacher, go to your Bible and read Luke 8: 26-33. ["The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs..."]

It’s a ripping yarn, as they say, and it’s damned funny. The comedy is almost always ironic and subtle, a lot of it coming out of dialogue. I’d quote some here, but the way Portis sets up the jokes is by carefully crafting scenes where the meaning of facts is batted back and forth between two verbal combatants and the punch lines would make no sense out of context. But the three or four pages where Mattie settles with the horse trader who sold her father six ponies is brilliant, as is the testimony of Marshal Cogburn at the trial of a man whose father and several brothers were shot dead by the marshal during his arrest:

MR.GOUDY: I believe you testified that you backed away from Aaron Wharton.
MR.COGBURN: That is right.
MR.GOUDY: You were backing away?
MR.COGBURN: Yes sir. He had that ax raised.
MR.GOUDY: Which direction were you going?
MR.COGBURN: I always go backwards when I am backing up.

My only problem with this book might be that I don’t necessarily believe Mattie Ross is a 14 year-old girl. Certainly there could be (and maybe there are) 14 year-olds with the business acumen to outwit a horse trader and the ramrod spine to outtalk and bully a 40 year-old Federal marshal who spent four years in the Confederate army and more years after that as a highwayman, but the only reason we believe Mattie is a girl is because Portis has her say she’s one. Otherwise, True Grit is sort of your basic story of men on an adventure. If you make Mattie into a 14 year-old boy, you don’t have to change more than a few dozen words in the book. Certainly you don’t have to make any changes in Mattie’s character. I do not know what conclusions to draw from this observation. I also can’t say that there are any differences between 14 year-old boys and 14 year-old girls that aren’t entirely learned behavior so maybe Mr Portis is a wiser man than I am. If anyone has read the novel and has an opinion about this, do tell. Especially if you also have direct experience with/as a 14 year-old person.

Portis' other novels look pretty good. I plan to read Norwood sometime soon.

This weekend I also read the short novel The Life of Insects, by Victor Pelevin. It’s a postmodern or whatever comic novel about Gorbachov-era USSR, where the characters are presented as either insects or humans or some vacillating state in between. The dung beetles claim that every insect (and therefore every person) is a dung beetle even if he doesn’t know it, and that there is no difference between the dung and the beetle. That might serve as Pelevin’s statement of theme. The moths fly into the light, but there is no point to it. The mosquitoes suck the blood of whoever’s around, but their avarice gets them no happiness and it’s a dangerous game. A lot of this feels like Beckett in Waiting For Godot, but while the action is plenty violent, the humor is perhaps more gentle than in Beckett. Anyway, it’s good that TLoI is just a novella, because Pelevin’s idea just about overstayed its welcome at 176 pages. Though the chapter towards the end about the cicada was really gorgeous and sad.

I haven't decided if I'm going to read Pelevin's novel Omon Ra, which is apparently about a cosmonaut in a training program that bears a strong resemblance to Kafka's castle.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Enough of That, Mister Mann

I'm nearly finished with Death In Venice and Seven Other Stories, the collection of Thomas Mann works I've been reading. This is my first exposure to Mann, and I have to admit that the stories are pretty uneven. "Disorder and Early Sorrow" may be the best thing I've ever read, but it's hard to say because I read it in the context of other Thomas Mann stories so critical distance isn't perfect. But it's a damned fine story. "Death in Venice" is a technical marvel, showing absolute control over the formal elements of the narrative and for a few hours after finishing it, I was sure it was the best thing I'd ever read. "Tonio Kroger," "The Blood of the Walsungs" and "Felix Krull" fare less well, being not as focused on character or possibly they're just too self-consciously symbolic and pedantic for my tastes. "Mario and the Magician" is a violent, mean-spirited tale that made me laugh all the way through it. "Tristan" is sad and quite fine. "A Man and His Dog" should be required reading for all students of writing, as a teaching tool for how to properly write a digressive story and how to write about nature.

Anyway, if you are interested in reading some Thomas Mann, the stories I recommend are "Death In Venice," "A Man and His Dog," and "Disorder and Early Sorrow." They are all on the longish side. Did I mention that Thomas Mann won the Nobel Prize for literature? Some day I'll read The Magic Mountain or Doktor Faustus.

I hope that this exposure to Mann has an influence on my own writing. Certainly I feel the urge to make my prose more like his, though really what I like about Mann is his observing eye and the way he lingers over expressive details. I'd like to steal that, though Mann knew a lot more natural history than I do.

Even so, I'll be glad to put the volume back on the shelf this evening and pick up something else. God knows what that will be. I have a surfeit of unread books at home and every time I look in their direction I am convinced that I have nothing to read. Possibly some Faulkner, though. Or some Camus. Or MacMurty. Or the last book of Beckett's "Malloy" trilogy. Or some Paddington Bear stories. Or I could start making an effort on my Variations on a Theme story, now that I've got a (fabulous postmodern) idea for it. Time will tell, etc.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

It Won't Write Itself

It suddenly strikes me that this is November, NaNoWriMonth and all, and while there are thousands (or tens of thousands) of folks feverishly churning out novels, I'm not so much pushing as hard as I could on my current work in progress. Which is fine, actually, because even though I'm not ratcheting up the word count on a daily basis, I've been thinking a lot about the story and I count that as writing time and effort. All of which is a long wind-up to the pitch, which is that I worked my way through a tricky passage at lunchtime today, and my heroine is back in the DR Congo after a detour through a confessional at St. James' cathedral. What larks for Miss Lark! By the end of the week I will have this chapter finished, by gum. Because if I don't do it, who will?

Recently I've given thought to a couple of ideas regarding my writing. First, it becomes ever more clear that each of my novels is going to be quite a bit different from whatever I've written before, and I doubt very much that I'll settle down and write a particular type of book in a particular way. That would be dull, I think. I'm less interested in showing what I can do with a novel than I am in discovering what's to be done with one, if you see the distinction.

I've also been thinking about the idea I have that what I attempt in novels is to say something true (though not necessarily factual, if you see the difference). I begin to wonder if, like Flannery O'Connor, I am limiting my observations to a certain narrow field of truths and if, having recognized that, it is incumbent upon me to broaden my horizons in some way, and if so, I wonder how and how much. I don't have any answers to that one. My plan is to let the answers arise through the course of the writing, while I continue to doggedly pursue whatever ideas interest me and attempt to say nothing dishonest. If nothing else, it's a plan.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Weekend In Books

I'm a little over halfway through Death In Venice and Other Stories, the Thomas Mann collection I'm reading. "A Man and His Dog" is the current story, and it's pretty good. I'm not sure where all the symbolism is leading (some stuff about expectations versus reality and reality being pretty fine even if it falls short of expert opinion), but I like it so far. The stories here are a bit uneven in quality, by which I mean that sometimes Mann could be pedantic and that's not so enjoyable for this reader. "Death in Venice" is a well-crafted story but I think that it's become a standard text because of Mann's (perfect) formal control over the narrative elements, not because it necessarily is his most beautiful or human effort. Because it's not. "Disorder and Early Sorrow" gets my vote for that, today at least. It is one of the most beautiful stories I have ever read, and I was tempted to quote passages of it but really you must read the whole thing because every line of it is sympathetic and lovely and true. "Tonio Kroger" started out as a heartfelt character study but degenerated into a long series of monologues about Art and I was glad to be shut of it. "Mario and the Magician" proves that Mann had a healthy sense of humor and could laugh at himself. The bits about the protagonist and his family facing off with the locals is hysterically funny. I'll be interested to read the rest of the stories in the collection. Will I go on to read Mann's novels? I haven't decided yet.

I interrupted my reading of Mann for an impulse reading of JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit, which I've not laid eyes on since about 1978. I just wanted to read something escapist, you know? Anyway, what surprised me again and again was how good the book is. The writing is pretty solid and even knowing, actually, and I was struck by the fact that Tolkien's protagonists aren't forced to carry out the climax action of the principal conflict. That is to say, Bilbo doesn't kill the dragon (and in LOTR, Frodo doesn't destroy the Ring). You could not get away with that in today's publishing marketplace. I amuse myself with imagined conversations between Tolkien and his agent.

Some books also somehow found their way into our house: Nabokov's Pale Fire to be reread sometime in 2012, a couple of Camus titles (The Fall which I love and which was the first Camus I read, decades ago; and another novel I've not read yet and whose title escapes me), The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier because it got good reviews and has an interesting premise (the dead enjoy afterlives only as long as they are remembered by living people on Earth and so souls will eventually fade away from Heaven or wherever it is and dead folks are desperate to be remembered; all of which sounds very sad so Right Up My Alley). An armload of new books from Mighty Reader's employer, as well. I also recently bought Marina Neary's historical novel Brendan Malone, The Last Fenian because it's about an Irishman and because Ms Neary emailed me and told me I might like her books. So we'll see, Ms Neary. I hope I do like it.

I made no progress on the first draft of Go Home, Miss America but I did have a great idea for the middle section of the upcoming Antarctica novel that's got me very excited. Now I need a great idea for the third section of that same novel. This week I plan to finish Chapter 4 of Go Home, Miss America and begin work on Chapter 5. That should put me about 25% of the way through the first draft, I think. I'm not sure how long the middle of the book will be. It depends on if I want to include the Violet chapter, which will maybe be something like the Addie episode in As I Lay Dying or maybe something like the Molly Bloom chapter in Ulysses. I have not decided yet, but it seems like an attractive idea for now.

Also, I should say something about how my agent and I have parted ways, and that seems sufficient enough for now.

Monday, November 7, 2011

V Nabokov and H James in Venice

Last night I read Thomas Mann's long short story Death In Venice. I admit to having never read any Thomas Mann before. I can't account for it, but it's true. Anyway, DiV last night.

It's the story of an aging German writer named Aschenbach, famous and beloved since his youngest days, who gets the sudden idea (planted in his imagination by Death, who appears thrice in the tale in different guises but always played by a thin man with a snub nose*) to travel in an effort to reinvigorate his passion for writing. Our hero has loads of technique but no longer really has the fire in his blood. Aschenbach ends up in Venice, where the authorities are keeping a cholera outbreak as secret as they can so that the tourist industry won't be harmed.

In the dining room of his immense beach side hotel, Aschenbach sees a Polish family. They have two daughters and a son, named Tadzio. Tadzio is a perfect specimen of European male youth, a little carven Greek god come to life. Aschenbach, who has long abandoned sentiment and irony and the passions of youth for a deliberate and careful classicism, a regimented art and life, finds himself drawn to Tadzio. So drawn to him that he begins to stalk him on the beach and on family outings in the city. A few days of this and Aschenbach wants to speak to the boy, wants the boy to speak to him, and our hero realizes that he's in love, and not in a purely aesthetic way either. Things progress from there.

About halfway into the story I got the strong impression that I was reading a sketch of Lolita as written by Henry James. An old writer lusting after a youth, with layer upon layer of symbolism and irony. The entire story is a symbol for itself, a large irony about irony, a reckless joke about art not being life which is pulled off by art becoming lifelike. It's a fabulous machine, at once self-conscious and proud of its artifice while also being both bigger than and more subtle than all the formal and symbolic games. A nice piece of work, in other words. Not at all what I was expecting. Much much better.

* Each of Death's appearances mocks Aschenbach by being an exaggerated and comic version of our hero. In fact, everything in this story is a mocking, ironic symbol of one sort or another.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Sweet Mother Goose in Her Bordello

I'm halfway through Angela Carter's short collection of revised fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber. For a while, after a startling paragraph in the title story, I was worried that the collection would go off into The Story of O territory, but Carter followed the premises and characters and let the eroticism simmer in the background rather than boil over as the primary design.

A couple of things about these tales (which, by the way, I recommend):

1. You can see how people like Kate Bernheimer build on Carter's work, unless there was already a tradition of fairy tale detournement, if I'm spelling that correctly and I see that I am. Take that, Situationists Internationale! Where?

2. The first three stories in the collection concern virginal young girls being sold off or otherwise traded like commodities. Each time, however, the young girl takes control of the situation and comes out happier in the end.

3. Carter's language is constantly surprising, even at this late date. My favorite phrase right now is "tintinabulation of cut-glass chandeliers." It works just as well for tinkling glass as it does for bells bells bells. You'd think nobody could get away with "tintinabulation" after Edgar, but you'd be wrong.

4. These stories are more about the promise of violence than about actual violence. Carter isn't out to shock you so much as to twist you up in tension and then let you go, a little careworn and exhausted and maybe more wary than you were. But there's not so much blood in The Bloody Chamber. Though perhaps why these are considered to be feminist stories is that the promises of violence are made about young women, and the voice promising sexual violence is the loudest voice in the room. There is actually a lot to be said about the threat of rape in this collection, but others have addressed that with more intelligence and patience than I've got. And then, see point Number 2.

5. Also regarding point Number 2, I have to say that each of the stories I've read so far ends pretty sweetly for the protagonist and her allies. They are clearly more the tales of Perrault charged with sexuality, than they are the tales of the Brothers Grimm. Mother Goose as madame in a swank Parisian bordello. There is almost, I dare say, a gentleness to these tales: below the blood, below the threat of violence, below the sexuality, below the threat of sexual violence. A layer of honey that Carter gradually exposes is possibly a weak metaphor I can use here. Yes, I seem to have done.

It's fine that I don't find these stories shocking, and that once I saw what Carter was doing I found the stories pretty and sweet. I didn't come to Angela Carter to be shocked or to be taught a lesson in the power of women over the hoary old tropes of male-dominated culture or for titillation. I picked up the book because I had heard that Ms Carter was a good writer, and I'd been peripherally aware of the collection for a good while and it seemed like it was time to read it. And I'm happy I am. Angela Carter is a good writer. Her sentences are gorgeous pieces of ornate jewelry, brilliant and hard and glittering away, and no matter how bizarre the sets and costumes in the tales, no matter how many beasts and perverts, you see after a short while that Carter is writing about humanity and vulnerability and how good it is, after all, to be good and brave and pure at heart. Which is, come to think of it, exactly what Mother Goose was trying to tell us in the first place.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Illustrious House of Ramires Part 3

Last night I finished Jose Maria de Eça de Queirós' novel The Illustrious House of Ramires. It's not a great novel, but it's a darned fine novel and the more I think about the third act, the better I think the book is. The third act essentially turns all of the symbolism and characterization of the first two acts on its head; you realize that you've been marvelously set up. The Tower, which represents the ancient authority and strength of the family? Forget about it. The election? The novel? Whatever you thought they stood for, you were right and you were wrong.

This is a moral book, and while it has a message or two at the end, it's not a book with a moral and Eça de Queirós isn't moralizing. What I mean by that is that the author has a definite point of view, definite opinions about people and society and politics, but he doesn't editorialize. So I'm fine with him ending on a sweet and sentimental note. It's not quite Chekhov though some of the humor is there; maybe it's more like Cervantes but I only grasp at Cervantes. Certainly it's not like Thomas Hardy (hurrah for that). By which perhaps I mean The Illustrious House of Ramires keeps a grip on Romanticism while resisting a lot of the grittiness of Naturalism. Eça de Queirós' wealthy landowners are not D.H. Lawrence's wealthy landowners, either.

What am I saying? I don't know. If you like your stories to have dirt under their fingernails and to offer up a believable everyday reality, this is not the book for you. But then neither is Shakespeare, so you can fuck off. This is a good book, and I had a blast reading it. It's well crafted and funny and sad and the final chapter is very interesting from a formal perspective, especially considering that it was written in 1900. If this was an English-language novel, literary historians would be pointing to this final chapter and calling it a precursor of Modernism, maybe.

Also, The Illustrious House of Ramires has a book-within-the-book, and I really like the way Eça de Queirós handled the transitions into and out of that interior novel. Also also, I clearly don't know how to talk about books except as a writer; I focus on technique and so you aren't getting a feel for why I think this book was worth my time and why you should go read it. But it was, and you should. Honest.

The Bloody Chamber and the Bloody Chapter

This morning I started Angela Carter's collection of rewritten fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber. Carter's work is--it probably doesn't need to be said--quite different from what I just finished reading, Jose Maria de Eça de Queirós' novel The Illustrious House of Ramires.

Ramires is a 19th century novel, a traditional 3-act hero's journey story which ends on a sweet and sympathetic note despite the fact that the big reversal at the end of Act 2 is so violent and bloody. I plan to read more Eça de Queirós in the future.

But let's get back to Ms Carter. I got well into the title story of the collection on the bus this morning. It was clear from a few pages in that this is a retelling of Bluebeard's Castle, and so of course I'm wondering now if Carter will take the story in one of the two traditional paths trod by rewriters of this tale (the wife either becomes her husband's next victim or she somehow takes control over him in a surprising twist). Hopefully Carter is going to surprise me and do neither of these things. Really, though, how she ends the story is the least important thing. I don't read for plot.

Carter's prose, possibly because it's so different from that of Eça de Queirós, is exhausting me. Maybe I'm just in that "getting to know you" phase through which I always labor whenever I begin reading a book and things will settle down after another couple of pages. Maybe not. Bloody Chamber is so far told almost entirely in summary, by which I mean that there are no dramatized scenes. The writing is rich and the language is alive with imagery, but it's all held at a distance; we are never inside the story even though it's a first-person narrative. Carter has a lot of ground to cover so her use of summary makes sense, but I'm hoping that she puts me into the story present soon. I hope the entire book isn't written at this narrative distance.

Carter's prose also exhausts me because it is so thick and imagistic. The sexual metaphors come constantly: the train's "pumping pistons," the husband's "leathery scent," the causeway "rising from the sea," et cetera. Those are the least of them. Try this excerpt:

Even when he asked me to marry him, and I said "Yes," still he did not lose that heavy, fleshy composure of his. I know it must seem a curious analogy, a man with a flower, but sometimes he seemed to me like a lily. Yes. A lily. Possessed of that strange, ominous calm of a sentient vegetable, like one of those cobra-headed, funereal lilies whose white sheaths are curled out of a flesh as thick and tensely yielding to the touch as vellum. When I said that I would marry him, not one muscle in his face stirred, but he let out a long, extinguished sigh. I thought: Oh! how he must want me! And it was as though the imponderable weight of his desire was a force I might not withstand, not by virtue of its violence but because of its very gravity.

I should quote Carter about the collection's dark eroticism: "I was taking ... the latent content of those traditional stories and using that; and the latent content is violently sexual."

I had no idea when I picked up this book that "violently sexual" retellings of fairy tales had become Carter's thing and that "The Bloody Chamber" is taught in almost every modern fiction class in the English-speaking world. And possibly because of my deeply-ingrained prudery I wouldn't have purchased the book had I known all this, so it's good that I was ignorant in the store and all I thought when I saw the row of her books on the shelf was, "Hey, she's supposed to be a pretty good writer. Isn't she dead or something?"

But enough about Angela Carter. Maybe more tomorrow; maybe not. I also wanted to say that I'm continuing, with some difficulty, to write the first draft of my new book and the absolute disorganization of what I'm putting onto the page is driving me mad. It's all coming out of any order and for the life of me I can't figure out what goes where, so I'm just for now trying to capture all of it, throw it all up onto the canvas as it were, with the hope that I'll be able to make sense of it later. I don't like working this way. I like to have a more deliberate process, even during a first draft. This book is not cooperating. It's much harder work than I like.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Illustrious House of Ramires Part 2

I'm a little more than halfway through Jose Maria de Eça de Queirós' novel The Illustrious House of Ramires, first published (in Portuguese) in 1900. It's a hoot-and-a-half, as Harold Bloom would say. I'm reading it in English because I am an American philistine.*

Ramires is a witty social novel dealing primarily with the vapidity and egotism of the Portuguese ruling class at the end of the 19th century. It's full of fun being poked at the protagonist (Gonçalo Ramires) and his social circle, who vie for money, power and prestige. Every character is fully aware of his/her place within the social fabric though every character seems to believe that he/she is somehow superior to everyone above and below them. Portugal in 1900 or so seems to have been a feudal society on the brink of collapse brought about by representative democracy, though the elected officials all seem to have gotten their positions through nepotism and cronyism.

Our hero Gonçalo is an unemployed member of the landowning class. He's just inherited the Ramires estates (including the noble tower that's stood for a thousand years) from his father but he craves a political career. The first half of Ramires shows Gonçalo working on his plan to achieve notoriety via scholarship and literature: he is writing a novella dramatizing an event from his illustrious family history, to be published by friends of his who are involved in conservative politics (the Regenerator party). Gonçalo has written a couple of chapters of this novella, based heavily upon a poem written by his uncle Duarte (there is a funny passage about plagiarism and who "owns" history) and padded with actual historical research and some odd bits of Walter Scott. The passages about writing historical fiction ring too true and made me laugh out loud.

Interrupting this literary adventure is Gonçalo's enemy, Cavaleiro. Cavaleiro dumped Gonçalo's sister after courting her for a very long time. She has since married a nice fellow who has no idea that Cavaleiro once pursued his wife or that Cavaliero is now again pursuing her to make her his mistress. But Gonçalo knows, and he is enraged. He dreams of marshalling his feudal armies and burning down the house and estates of Cavaleiro, "in the manner of his illustrious ancestors." Alas that the law, the lack of a feudal army and Cavaleiro's sudden willingness to offer Gonçalo a political post with the liberals put the kibosh on this righteous act of revenge!

Will Gonçalo abandon his conservative Regenerator allies and join the forces of Cavaleiro's liberal Historicals? Will he sell out his own sister for political gain? Will he write the novella about his illustrious ancestors and send it off for publication by his conservative pals? Will they publish it if he's part of Cavaleiro's liberal machine? Et cetera. There are more plot threads than this, and it's hugely funny to watch Gonçalo squirm and bluster his way from situation to situation. Gonçalo Ramires and his fellows aren't particularly honest and Gonçalo lacks self awareness but he has--beneath his cowardice, self-doubt and almost crippling pride--a core of kindness. So we'll see.

* I hear that Philistia is actually a nice place.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Off It Goes

I have just this minute emailed the MS for my philosophical detective novel, The Last Guest, to my fabulous and charming agent Ms. Weronika Janczuk. Soon I will be sleeping the sleep of the righteous, or the self-righteous maybe, or maybe just the sleep of the exhausted writer who is pleased with the rewrite of Chapter 10. Tomorrow I can think properly about my new novel, Go Home, Miss America. Yes, that all sounds fine.

A Small, Good Thing

Last night, after a fine dinner of butternut squash soup with hominy bread, I finished rewriting Chapter 10 of my philosophical detective novel, The Last Guest. It was a bit of a chore, and an unexpected one at that. I've put more effort into one long passage in this chapter than I have anywhere else in the novel. I hope that it works now. Tonight I'll type up all my changes (which means edits/revisions to the whole book, not just the new version of Chapter 10) into the master document and then, if I'm feeling up to it, I'll print out the revised Chapter 10 and read through it again to see how it feels now. The hope is that it will feel grand, and I'll finally send the MS off to my patient agent.

One temptation I am resisting is, of course, to rewrite the whole book from first to last. I've got a bunch of new ideas about how a narrative should be shaped and how certain types of details should function within the narrative, and I'm dying to try them out. However, a wise writer would save that for the new book he's trying to write, and just let the perfectly fine detective novel stand on its own. I don't need to remake it according to this week's idea about the perfect narrative. That will make it a different book, but not necessarily a better book. So I resist, as I say, yet another round of serious revisions. No, I'm done with my rewrites and I must ship it off to Manhattan as quickly as I can so that I might turn my attentions to Go Home, Miss America, wherein I can do as much experimentation as I want.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Illustrious House of Ramires

I have been planning to read Illustrious House of Ramires by Eça de Queirós as part of the Wuthering Expectations Portuguese novel reading fest. A coworker claimed to have a copy, and further claimed that I'd be able to borrow it. After weeks of gentle reminders I learned that my coworker can't put his hands on the volume. Meanwhile, October wanes alarmingly. So it was with some relief that I picked up a new copy of the novel this afternoon at the University Bookstore, whose staff were happy (oh, so happy) to special order it on my behalf.

I'm only a few hours away from finishing up my current read, Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda (a sort of exploration of Pascal's Wager, among other things), which means that I might start Illustrious House tomorrow, and actually manage to read a Portuguese novel during October. There are no penalties for failing this challenge, but the book looks amusing and well-written and I never participate in these online reading things so I'd like to have managed this one.

Oscar and Lucinda is quite fab, too, so I'm glad I had time to squeeze that in. Should I say something about that book? It won the Booker in 1988 (when the Booker still meant something) and it's much better than the film (what isn't?). It's a tragedy, and I'm in that part of the tragedy where you can see the machinery of fate grinding the characters between gear teeth and perhaps Mr Carey is going a little bit over the top with tragic imagery. Perhaps also his very large Dickensian cast could be a bit better managed (a few of the characters are too similar to each other, and one character in particular does not seem at all, at his reappearance in the story, like the man we are first introduced to) and the later parts of the second act have not had a proper edit (some alarming repetition where it looks like Carey couldn't decide where to place a couple of bits of exposition so he put it in two chapters in a row and neglected to cut one of the instances). But every good, adventurous novel has its flaws. A flawless narrative is not a brave narrative, and Oscar and Lucinda is a brave narrative.

Speaking of narratives, I report that I haven't yet sent the latest MS to my agent. I decided to rewrite Chapter 10, thanks to an offhand comment Mighty Reader made about Bizet's Carmen that had nothing to do with my book but still managed to illuminate the problem with Chapter 10 that's gnawed at me (but not clearly identified itself) since I wrote the damned thing. Hopefully I'll finish the revision tonight, type up all my changes tomorrow night and send the book off to my agent, who promises to read it right away.

"Carmen" the Singing Shark

On Saturday evening Mighty Reader and I attended Georges Bizet's Carmen as performed by Seattle Opera. It was swell. Who doesn't love bel canto opera? Well, lots of people but I ignore them for now.

Carmen is a popular work because it's got great tunes and a tragic storyline about misplaced affection. It's also not really about the character Carmen so much as it's about one of her short-term lovers, Don Jose. Carmen is to Carmen what the shark is to Jaws: not the protagonist, but a single-minded predator wrecking destruction all around her. But that's not important; one doesn't attend opera for the stories, one goes for the music and the spectacle and Seattle Opera doesn't disappoint.

Mighty Reader and I sat way way up in the upper balcony (we had great orchestra seats for Porgy and Bess and I worried that sitting 100 feet up would make everything--the cast, the sets, the sound--seem tiny and distant) but McCaw Hall has wonderful acoustics and the orchestra and cast (except perhaps the Toreador, whose singing was often lost in the sound of the orchestra) projected up into the not-really-all-that-cheap-seats. The dance sequences are great, especially the dream sequence that opens Act III. So it was a good time, and we're looking forward to Verdi's Attila in January and Gluck's Orpheus in March. We remain undecided about the Puccini, but probably I'll get a pair of tickets at some point, because who doesn't want to hear Madama Butterfly live?

A word about McCaw Hall, though: someone (anyone) needs to redesign the public areas. The performance hall is fine. The building itself is very fine from the outside (note Space Needle peeking over top of the Hall):

But the galleries are really frightful. Whose idea was it to use these thick acrylic toilet lids as bistro tables:

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Exciting For Me, at Least

I just emailed my fabulous agent to tell her that she'll see the MS for The Last Guest in her inbox any day now, as soon as I finish typing up some changes into the Word document. This is one of the nicer things I get to say about being a writer.

I also just emailed some critique notes to a young writer about a first novel. I tried to be nice but I had some hard things to say about the way the story is structured. This is one of the less nice things I get to say about being a writer.

So I dwell on the nervous excitement of sending off a new book to my agent. Because that's a nicer feeling. This is a very stupid post, but it's what I got, kids.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Action and Desire and Character

The structure of my work-in-progress is, at least so far, chapters which alternate between the male lead character (David) and the female lead character (Catherine). David works at a university in Seattle, Washington. Catherine is currently doing missionary work along the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Catherine gets the even-numbered chapters, and I'm now facing off against Chapter 4. With me so far?

During Chapter 2, I realized, we learned very little about Catherine. The setting is so rich and the characters are so particular that we mostly see Catherine as a person surrounded by interesting things and people, though Stuff Happens and Catherine takes a couple of strong positions. Taking a strong position is a form of action; ask Aristotle if you don't believe me.

But her strong positions aren't enough in the way of action to carry a story or even tell me what happens in Chapter 4, which means that I needed to have Catherine doing something in Africa for a reason. Not the missionary work with the nuns, but the purpose behind that. As my old agent used to say, "Your protagonist has to want something." Luckily for me, there were already clues about that in Chapter 2 where Catherine took a stand. No more about that, though (spoilers). Suffice it to say that my female lead has a particular desire which will color her actions and so define her character.

I am pleased with who Catherine is turning out to be. She's a complex character and I'll have lots of things to do with her purposefulness and this purpose might, maybe, show me how to have her story mesh with David's story somewhere in the future when their plots intersect. So that's good.

Reading all that Chekhov has been good for me; the appropriate groupings of character traits and contradictions were more readily apparent for this character than they've been for anyone else I've written. Mr Chekhov was all about grouping narrative elements properly. It's a pity he didn't write more about writing.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Of Course; It's Chekhov

I have committed to my next project, the literary fiction piece currently titled Go Home, Miss America. Enough screwing around already, yes? Today at lunch I wrote a good 500 words, finishing up the sex scene that begins Chapter 3. It's a good scene, I think, almost all internal action and you get to see a little bit about Violet (the lead male's wife) and a couple of neighbors are possibly introduced as well. As I was working on the scene I realized that the way the characters' emotions evolved along the way seemed familiar and then I thought, "Of course; it's Chekhov." Of course. It's Chekhov. Once more I wonder why I read anything else. Pity he never wrote any real novels.

Anyway, this is a Serious Novel but after I've wrestled it to the ground, I'll write a piece of genre fiction, I think. Either another philosophical detective novel or a sort of sci-fi novel. Or, maybe, that Antarctica book at long last. Or that one about Haydn and the builder's wife. Or that one about the devil in Baltimore in 1910. Or the one about Tolstoy and the unicorn. Or the one about...

Monday, October 3, 2011

Chekhov and Oates

Last night I read Joyce Carol Oates' story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" It's amazing and the story developed along lines I didn't see coming. The changes of characterization are very skillfully done and the ending, well. You just have to read it.

Today I'm reading Anton Chekhov's story "The Party." I cannot help but compare and contrast the first two chapters of this story with the party that makes up the last third or so of Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs Dalloway. Clarissa Dalloway is much more in control of her surroundings than is Olga, the protagonist of the Chekhov tale. The general type of party is the same, but the moods of the hostesses are radically different. We know that Virginia Woolf read Chekhov.

In Chapter III, Olga's guests have taken to boats and are heading out to an island for tea and snacks. It is around six in the evening. I cannot help but compare this to the similar party/boating scene in D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers. David Lawrence also read Chekhov; you can see it in Lawrence's plays.

Do I gain anything with all of this comparison and contrast? Probably not, but it happens independent of my intention. I claim no responsibility for the operations of my brain. Reading is an interesting experience, nicht wahr?

The Golden Ass and the Fall of the Roman Empire

I am not a historian and my knowledge of Apuleius, author of The Golden Ass is very thin indeed. I know that he was a Roman citizen from north Africa (Algeria or thereabouts) and that Latin was not his first language. He lived between 125 and 180 AD (or CE). He studied philosophy in Carthage and Athens. His family was wealthy and Apuleius was a priest in several cults and widely traveled as an adult. He was interested in magic, religion, law and politics. I get all of this from the introduction to my copy of The Golden Ass. I don't know how accurate it is.

Anyway, this weekend I finished Apuleius' novel (the only surviving novel-length story from the Roman empire). The final chapter is a bit dull and over-long, being Lucius' metamorphosis back from an ass to a man (which is not a spoiler because all through the narrative Lucius refers to "when I was an ass" and "before I was transformed back to a man") when Isis grants his prayer for release, and his subsequent indoctrination into the mysteries of the cults of Isis and Osiris. More on that in a minute.

The strengths of The Golden Ass are many: Apuleius is funny and insightful into the wickedness of man, his language is colorful and surprising (and that's not just Jack Lindsay's translation; Lindsay in the introduction gives plenty of examples (in Latin) of Apuleius' word games, his coining of new terms, his alliteration and use of cognates, etc), and while the frame story of Lucius-turned-into-an-ass is amusing by itself, the stories-within-the-story are also good stuff. The centerpiece of the narrative is a long version of "Psyche and Cupid" that served as inspiration for too many later authors to list.

The Golden Ass is a picaresque novel that points mostly at the decline of the Roman empire, illustrating how the local Roman governments have become ineffective and corrupt as banditry goes unchecked and populations descend into barbarity. What also interested me, especially in the otherwise dull final chapter, is how the local deities, especially those of ancient Egypt, are more important than any of the official Roman gods. The provinces, by the latter half of the second century at least, were all going native again. This sort of stuff fascinates me in first-hand historical accounts, and it's all by the way from Apuleius. Possibly I'm only fascinated by this because I lack any real historical knowledge of the era.

Anyway, I'm done with Apuleius and Lucius and declared myself happy last night to be free to return to Mr Chekhov. I'm reading "The Party" right now. It's excellent. When I get my hands on Illustrious House of Ramires, I'll lay Mr Chekhov aside for a bit.

Friday, September 30, 2011


Looks pretty good to me.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Writing Toward the First Line

Today at lunch, I forced myself to pick up a pen and push onward into Chapter 3 of Go Home, Miss America, the work-in-progress. After scribbling down a few hundred words in the space of an hour, I stumbled over what should be the first line of the chapter, which gave me the image that will open the scene and recur through it. I am simultaneously proud of myself, humbled by good fortune, and annoyed that I seem to have forgotten one of my basic tenets of the fictional art: write in scenes.

I see that I was having such difficulty getting on in this chapter because what I was writing was a bunch of character observations about my leading male and his wife, but there was nothing happening. There was no context, no action, no scene. The comments about who these people are were just sort of floating in space, disconnected from the story. Once I actually began to write about the husband and wife in motion, actually doing something, it all fell into place and I can see the next few thousand words of story. With a little more thinking, this whole chapter should fall into place fairly quickly now that I've remembered to write dramatically rather than thematically. So that's all cool, kids.

And so in a week I'll be fretting about Chapter 4, which concerns the leading female character. I have at most three sentences worth of material for this upcoming chapter, and no idea at all what sort of scenes will flesh out those meager sentences. But hopefully I'll at least remember that I am looking for scenes, not character attributes. Some days I'm a real dope.

This is how the first draft of the book is going to be, I think. Since I'm not outlining it, since I have no idea how it ends or even what the second half of the book will contain, I have only the barest faintest inkling of what I'm doing as I go along, and that means that I discover it as I write it, day by day. This does not make me happy as a method, but the resulting prose seems, so far, to be acceptable. I can't say how successful the story I'm building is yet. And despite my promise not to plan the book ahead of time, I really really (really) hope I figure out the ending before not much longer because I am operating far outside of my comfort zone and I am having to work much harder than I'd like.

Anyway, Chapter 3 of Go Home, Miss America is underway and I am no longer tempted by all the other story ideas floating around in my head.

A Plague of New Ideas

Today at lunch I had two (2) exciting ideas for possible novels. I also have been thinking about the Antarctica novel I have outlined, as well as the abandoned written-on-the-blog-a-paragraph-at-a-time novel I was writing earlier this year, and on top of that there are ideas spinning and congealing that have to do with the possible sequel to the transcendental/philosophical detective novel I've just finished. All of these ideas are a fog descending upon my brain, a curse, a plague.

Why so grim about my overactive muse? Because I know that I'm only thinking so much about all the novels I could be writing as a way to avoid the one novel I should be writing, the novel I've got 11,000+ words of already, the one that stops after the first paragraph of Chapter 3, the one that I carry around with me in my briefcase, swearing that I'll work on it during lunch or on the bus ride home. Yes, I am avoiding that particular novel. Why? Because it's hard work, that's why. It's labor and I know that to actually commit to this book is to commit to a lot of serious thinking and to chain myself to an exhausting project for God knows how long. Maybe I'd be playing avoidance games no matter what novel I was pretending to write? Maybe I'm just enjoying not writing, enjoying the freedom to read as much as I want during my designated writing hours. Well, that can't last. A writer writes, et cetera ad nauseum. And I should be writing. I need to find a joke around which to build the first scene in Chapter 3. Jokes are always helpful when imagining scenes.

As Mighty Reader's nephew would say, "First World problems." I disparage my whining. But I don't--you may well note--delete it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Golden Ass

I am reading The Golden Ass, a picaresque novel from the end of the 2nd century CE (or AD for you old-school types), written by an Algerian Roman citizen named Apuleius. The proper name for this work is The Metamorphosis but I prefer Augustine's title because when I think of The Metamorphosis I am put in mind of Kafka (or Ovid) and I don't need the confusion. Where was I?

Oh, Apuleius and the story of Lucius, a randy little traveler who runs foul of possessed wine skins, a witch, a gang of robbers and others. What larks, I tell you. This is one of those books that I know by excerpts or allusions, and I'm finally getting around to reading the whole thing and gosh, it's a lot of fun. A lot of bawdy fun and the farther along I get in the narrative, the more I suspect that this ancient tale was known to a great many other authors I've read. Certainly Laurence Sterne knew it, and Cervantes steals the assault on the wine skins scene for Quixote, and the general tone and sexual punning of James Branch Cabell's "Poictesme" books comes straight from Apuleius. Voltaire doubtless read The Golden Ass. Did Kafka? I wonder.

Right now, poor Lucius is tied up outside the robbers' cave, listening to the tales of one gang of thieves as related to another gang. (Yes, it's one of those books that contains a lot of shorter tales, but at least in this one, the frame story is interesting all on its own.) Lucius has been in the guise of an ass for a few days now. Who among us hasn't?

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Thin Man: Asta is a Girl!

I have an interest in classic detective fiction and so in July I picked up a copy of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man. I’ve never read any Hammett but like everyone else, I like the films that were made of The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man. Hammett, by the way, did not have anything to do with the sequels to The Thin Man. But that’s all by the way.

For someone who’s seen the movie but not read the book, there are surprises: Nick Charles is Greek! Asta is a girl! Nora doesn’t give Nick a pistol for Christmas! It’s a good bet that Nick is drunk if he’s awake! Though he also manages Nora’s inherited business, buying stock in gold mines and selling off failing companies. All of which is a load of fun.

The narrative is almost entirely dialogue and what action there is comes across as stage direction, so it reads like a play. A breathless, very talky play with clever banter and a lot of sass. The Thin Man is a classic two-corpse murder mystery, beginning with the discovery of one body and a second stiff to be produced toward the end of the second act. I’ve seen the movie plenty of times and so far it seems to hew pretty closely to the plot of the novel, so of course I know who the murderer is already. This lets me look at how the mystery and detection thereof is structured in the book. I can tell you that almost all of the action is nothing but misdirection. Here and there the actual murderer does something subtle that in no way points to guilt, but that’s in the background, behind a colorful and very active parade of bickering and suspicious activity by a large cast of loud and angry extras. Nick Charles, who repeatedly declares that he’s not investigating anything, asks a lot of questions and has dinner and drinks cocktails and sleeps very late, having breakfast while the rest of the world lunches, and thinks about the crime. He is not the sort of detective to visit a crime scene and scrabble about on hands and knees, searching for clues that have eluded the police. No, he wonders about motivations and character and asks Nora to mix another shaker of martinis. He does not appear to be working, nor particularly interested in solving the mystery. It’s a real page-turner and I expect to finish reading it tonight after work.

I am also reading The Golden Ass by Apuleius, which is a lot of fun. Greek tales of transformation and magic, mostly revolved around sexual relationships between men and women who haven’t been formally introduced. What larks. I’m reading the 1960 Jack Lindsay translation. Next week I’ll read some Portuguese literature.

Also, I just saw this about a remake of The Thin Man starring Johnny Depp. I am not sanguine about this affair.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Wuthering Anniversary

One of my favorite blogs, Wuthering Expectations, is four years old today. I admit that I've not followed Amateur Reader's explorations of 19th-century literature for more that the last 10 months or so, but in that short span of time I've become rather addicted to the daily (mostly) musings about the reading life. I've also had some great fun going back through the archives at Wuthering Expectations, where there are all sorts of gems to be unearthed.

Wuthering Expectations isn't so much writing about books as it is writing about the experience of reading. There's a sort of way of life one might have that puts books pretty high on the list of priorities, and a sort of way of thinking about books one gets when reading good books is a central activity in life. Authors and people who write about books are always talking about good books you've never read (or never heard of) and so there is a lifetime of discovery and exploration open to a good reader. Over time a good reader becomes entangled in a large and ever-expanding web of connected literature, influences and responses all around him and the world of the imagination becomes a truly immense place filled with and by other smart and imaginative people. Or something. I'm just rambling and trying to give a sense, in my own poor way, of the sort of thing Wuthering Expectations does. I'm not doing a very good job of it.

Here's the thing: some people read good books and write about what that's like. Some people do it better than others. Amateur Reader will, in his charming and self-effacing way, deny that he writes well or even coherently about the reading life, but you must ignore those lies. Wuthering Expectations is a cool blog and I hope it lasts at least another four years.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Chekhov and Turgenev

From "An Anonymous Story":

"Turgenev teaches us in his novels that every exalted, noble-minded girl should follow the man she loves to the ends of the earth, and should serve his idea," said Orlov, screwing up his eyes ironically. "The ends of the earth are poetic license; the earth and all its ends can be reduced to the flat of the man she loves. . . . And so not to live in the same flat with the woman who loves you is to deny her her exalted vocation and to refuse to share her ideals. Yes, my dear fellow, Turgenev wrote, and I have to suffer for it."

"What Turgenev has got to do with it I don't understand," said Gruzin softly, and he shrugged his shoulders. "Do you remember, George, how in 'Three Meetings' he is walking late in the evening somewhere in Italy, and suddenly hears, 'Vieni pensando a me segretamente,'" Gruzin hummed. "It's fine."

"But she hasn't come to settle with you by force," said Pekarsky. "It was your own wish."

"What next! Far from wishing it, I never imagined that this would ever happen. When she said she was coming to live with me, I thought it was a charming joke on her part."

Everybody laughed.

"I couldn't have wished for such a thing," said Orlov in the tone of a man compelled to justify himself. "I am not a Turgenev hero, and if I ever wanted to free Bulgaria I shouldn't need a lady's company. I look upon love primarily as a necessity of my physical nature, degrading and antagonistic to my spirit; it must either be satisfied with discretion or renounced altogether, otherwise it will bring into one's life elements as unclean as itself. For it to be an enjoyment and not a torment, I will try to make it beautiful and to surround it with a mass of illusions. I should never go and see a woman unless I were sure beforehand that she would be beautiful and fascinating; and I should never go unless I were in the mood. And it is only in that way that we succeed in deceiving one another, and fancying that we are in love and happy. But can I wish for copper saucepans and untidy hair, or like to be seen myself when I am unwashed or out of humour? Zinaida Fyodorovna in the simplicity of her heart wants me to love what I have been shunning all my life. She wants my flat to smell of cooking and washing up; she wants all the fuss of moving into another flat, of driving about with her own horses; she wants to count over my linen and to look after my health; she wants to meddle in my personal life at every instant, and to watch over every step; and at the same time she assures me genuinely that my habits and my freedom will be untouched. She is persuaded that, like a young couple, we shall very soon go for a honeymoon -- that is, she wants to be with me all the time in trains and hotels, while I like to read on the journey and cannot endure talking in trains."

An example of so-called "double coding" here is the phrase, "if I ever wanted to free Bulgaria I shouldn't need a lady's company." which is a reference to Turgenev's novel On The Eve. I will confess that I don't understand how "double coding" is postmodernism, since literary allusions have been going on for a very long time. And so, frankly, has postmodernism. Don't get me started on literary theory today.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Transcendental Revisions, Part 3

Late last night, or possibly very very early this morning, I finished the second pass at revisions on The Last Guest. As usual, the confidence in the book that I lost during the middle of the revisions (when everything I've written no longer resembles any Earthly language) returned by the final section and I think, kids, that it's a pretty good book.

I'm currently in the middle of Agatha Christie's The Mysterious Affair At Styles. Reading Agatha Christie was a big influence on me, one of the reasons I wrote my own detective novel. I look at what Ms Christie has written and I compare it to what I've written and I don't see a lot of similarity (except for the trope of a detective solving a murder, that is). That could worry me, but it doesn't. My book is a lot more clear about what's actually going on during the investigation than Ms Christie's is. Possibly I tip my hand too early, but I don't think my book is about "who did it" so much as it's about what the hell my detective thinks she's doing. There's too much Nabokov, Woolf and--possibly now--Murakami in my head to write a truly straightforward whodunit. Is that good or bad? I've no idea.

What is bad is that my next task is to sit down and type all of my changes into the master document. I really really really (really) hate that step. It's the sort of thing I enjoy not doing, and I will probably stretch the work out over at least a week. After that I get to read the whole book again, hurrah! My eyes are crossed in anticipation of yet another read through.

I'm also thinking about my interrupted work in progress, Go Home Miss America. I have a pretty good idea of what the next chapter will be like. The chapter after that is still vague. Somewhere I've got two or three sentences scribbled down about it, but that's not much help. I think there's a goat, and a trip to a village, and then some automatic weaponry. Maybe.

This is a very dull post, but I like to keep track of this stuff and a blog is, if nothing else, a handy sort of diary.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Chekhov's "Volodya" and Point-of-View

Toward the end of "Volodya," Chekhov's short story about adolescent suicide, the protagonist finds a revolver in his neighbor's room. Volodya can't name the parts of a gun, nor does he have much idea about how a pistol actually works. Here's how Chekhov describes Volodya exploring the pistol:

Volodya put the muzzle of the revolver to his mouth, felt something like a trigger or spring, and pressed it with his finger...Then felt something else projecting, and once more pressed it. Taking the muzzle out of his mouth, he wiped it with the lapel of his coat, looked at the lock. He had never in his life taken a weapon in his hand before...

Aside from the sad creepiness of the moment (an unhappy teenage boy who feels completely cut off from the world and is putting the barrel of a gun into his mouth), this is a wonderfully written passage. As omniscient narrator Chekhov could give us a precise description of what Volodya's doing, but instead we move a step closer to the character and share his ignorance of firearms. "something like a trigger or spring" he says. Volodya's heard the word "trigger" and the word "spring" but he can't directly apply those terms to the object in his hand. A minute later Volodya "pressed something with his fingers" but he doesn't know the name or function of it; he's just pushing and pulling at the revolver and trying to make it fire.

I'm generally a proponent of precise language, of using the proper names of objects (though not in an obsessive David Foster Wallace way), but I also believe in the power of vagueness, of obscurity. Sometimes characters don't know what they're doing. Sometimes real people have moments where they sort of float above or alongside reality and language fails to connect with the moment. That disconnect can be captured in prose (Chekhov captures it by leaving out detail, by inserting ignorance into the narrative). The lack of concrete language in Volodya's consideration of the pistol reflects his separation from the real, solid world around him. The voice of the narrative has shifted and taken on the characteristics of the protagonist's mood, which is excellent writing.