Monday, December 24, 2012

"Frosty" An Advent Ghosts story

My friend Loren Eaton invited me once again to participate in his "Advent Ghosts" scary Christmas story happening and I was supposed to put this up and link to his blog on the 22nd. Which I did not do. But I'm doing it today. So read this, then go read the other stories, and have a nice Christmas.


It’s getting dark, she said. Go check on the kids.

Where were they last, he said.

In the front, building a snowman.

I see the snowman, he said, looking out. Have you seen how big it is? They must’ve stood on each other’s shoulders to put the head on. It’s eight feet tall. I see Ricky’s scarf on the lawn.

He opened the door and called for his children. There was no answer. He turned to his wife and said, Maybe they’re at the neighbors? I swear that snowman’s closer to the house than it was a minute ago.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

saints are misunderstood and scorned: uncollected thoughts regarding Don Quixote

I’m almost finished with Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and I have nothing to say to you about it. Why write on a blog about Don Quixote? Who’s going to go read it? Who cares about Cervantes? What can I possibly say about this 400 year-old pair of novels that hasn’t already been said much better by much smarter readers? I don’t know. I will say that, in case anyone’s wondering, the reason this book remains in print after four centuries is because it’s a good book, a book worth reading. As Dwight says, once you read the Quixote, you start to see its influence everywhere. Not that Cervantes invented the picaresque (he was influenced by Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, or at least he stole one of the more colorful incidents and a great deal of the premise from Apuleius), or the satire (I’m sure Cervantes had read some Aristophanes and I think he mentions Horace by name in Don Quixote), or the tale of romantic knights. I’m not going to claim any familiarity with Spanish/European literature around 1600 beyond the Elizabethan playwrights so I can’t say just what Cervantes did, if anything, that was different from his literary predecessors. But when I read Don Quixote, it feels new, somehow. I get the sense that Cervantes was synthesizing his elements into a fresh form. It’s experimental, tentative here and bold over there and the sense of the author’s fun being had is very strong in a great many passages. In the latter parts of Book II, Cervantes starts playing more with the layers of narrative, with commentary cropping up about the marginalia of the original Arab author, who heard the tale from other sources and had his doubts about some of the events, and then there is the layer of commentary from the translator (not Cervantes) of the original Arabic, who has his doubts about some of the events that the Arab author apparently took at face value. There are other cracks in the presumed reality of the narrative, where one of the narrators (we don’t know if it’s Cervantes, the unnamed translator, or the Arab author) informs us that Don Quixote (the fictional character) recanted some of his tales later on, and of course there’s the whole problem of Book I (as well as the unauthorized sequel by a writer other than Cervantes) having been written, published and widely-read during the five minutes of “story time” that occurs between Book I and Book II. There’s not enough time within the narrative for these books to have been written and read, but there they are, a constant presence in Book II. Apparently the counterfeit sequel appeared while Cervantes was writing chapter 59 of his own sequel and he couldn’t resist commenting on it (Don Quixote roundly condemns the counterfeit sequel, of course, and changes his plans at one point merely to make a liar of the non-Cervantes author). Oh, what larks.

Anyway, this is a good book and if you haven’t read it, you should. Book II is much better than Book I, though Book I has all of the famous episodes people associate with Don Quixote de la Mancha (the windmills, the barber, the inn where Quixote gets knighted, etc). Quixote is a pain in the ass and at the end of Book I we’re wondering why Sancho Panza puts up with him and his arrogance, but Book II paints the Knight of the Sad Countenance (for a while calling himself the Knight of the Lions (an allusion to de Troyes le Chevalier au Lion? I don’t know)) in a more sympathetic light: once Quixote’s story is known over Spain, people begin to fabricate “adventures” for him to reinforce the knight’s delusions and to have a laugh at him. After not very long, the “adventures” take on a cruel edge and we’re presented with a story of bear-baiting a madman. He’s mad, yes, but he’s also noble and of good heart and he is in many ways a better man than the sane folk who are humiliating him. Why all this cruelty, I wondered? Why’s Cervantes being such a bastard? Of course it’s because a man like Don Quixote would be laughed at and made a figure of fun, even by those he’s sworn to serve, even by those he admires, even by those he’d die to defend. What’s the point of all this, then? That chivalry is a madness? That people ain’t no good? That saints are misunderstood and scorned? Maybe. I don’t know. Don Quixote de la Mancha is a good book, though. It’s well worth the time, so go read it, whyncha? I’m going to read something more current next, though. Something from this decade, possibly. It could happen.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Next Big Thing

My friend Rick Daley sent me one of those interwebloggy meme things, which I usually avoid but, you know, it turns out to be an opportunity to talk about myself and that, Reader, is something I cannot resist. The meme thing is called "the next big thing" and concerns the piece I'm currently writing. The form of the meme thing is that of questions and answers. Not quite a Socratic dialogue, and I will likely only answer those questions that amuse me. And so, onward.

What is the title of your next book?
Mona in the Desert

Where did the idea come from for the book?
I don't know, really. I had an image bouncing around in my head, of a woman dressed circa 1950, walking down a highway in the American southwest, heading toward some sort of confrontation. While I was working on a project centered around attempting to find the oldest memories I have, the image of this woman presented itself again and I saw that I could combine the search for memories with the tale of this woman in the desert.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I am not there yet; I've got, I figure, about 10,000 more words to write. If you look in my briefcase, inside the front cover of the spiral notebook in which I'm writing this novel, you'll find a small stack of color-coded index cards. On these cards is the outline for the end of the novel. So I just need to sit down and turn those 12 or so cards into 10,000 words of beautiful prose. A couple of weeks, I guess. I started this project around the end of July.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
An aging writer about to leave his wife constructs fictionalized histories of his family members, focusing on the repeated instances of failed relationships; three primary story lines move in parallel over the length of the narrative. Think Finnegans Wake meets Pride and Prejudice. That won't help you imagine my book, but it's still fun to think about.

Monday, December 17, 2012

And there are sword fights

D. G. Myers has written a post about the term "literary fiction" in which he reveals that his students equate that term with "boring books." This of course brings up the whole problem of how people who love "literary" fiction refer to and define the fiction they love. How do we talk about a type of art without naming it?

"Literary fiction" is a term popularized by New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani. We all know that, right? Kakutani was as unsuccessful at defining the term as the rest of the world has been. I'm not going to attempt to define it either, I hope.

However, I might think that Dr Myers' students are onto something with their description of high-quality interpretive fiction (no, that's not a definition) as "boring." They just don't know what they're actually saying. I'm going to claim that the works in question aren't "boring," so much as they are in some way difficult. What's difficult about the works in question is merely that reading and understanding them requires an active reader who is willing to pay attention and examine the ideas put forth in the works, to be willing to work within narratives that differ formally from other narratives they've read, to read books that might defy their expectations as readers. In other words, the difficulty is that there is work--action--required of the reader, rather than passive reading. This can be, for readers not used to the activity, fatiguing, and I claim that particular fatigue is often mistaken for boredom. (This does not rule out the soporific effects of some books.)

I remember thinking, back in my youth, that a lot of the classics looked hard, impenetrable, difficult, etc. And they were, for someone who'd been reading a lot of light fiction and sci-fi. Good art requires effort on the part of the viewer/reader/listener/whomever. The thing is, though, that once a reader gets habituated to this active manner of reading, he sometimes becomes addicted to it and seeks out literature that engages the mind in this and similar ways, and literature that fails to do so becomes, well, boring. So that's that, all settled for everyone, right?

What I really wanted to say about Dr Myers' post but didn't want to clog up his blog with a long and half-thought-out comment, is that as someone who might be writing "literary fiction," I'm never sure how to talk about my own novels. I have two coming out next year, by the way. Buy them both. See sidebar. I digress. If it's impossible to talk about "literary fiction" as a reader, it's doubly impossible to talk about it as a writer (yes, I know, "impossible" isn't a matter of degree; it is or it ain't, and Wittgenstein would mock me for that "doubly"). So I claim.

"What's your book about?" people are asking me. I flail, unsure how to answer. "It's a riff on 'Hamlet,'" I say. "It's got sword fights and a trained bear," I say. "It's an examination of the idea of the cultural worth of geniuses and the worthiness of leader figures," I might add. "It's about a Renaissance astrologer who turns assassin, in Denmark, around Christmas," I tell you, "But it's not a Christmas story." My interlocutor's eyes begin to glaze and they turn up their nose at the perceived stench of Literature. "It's got sword fights," I say. "Buckets of blood, and ghosts, and comedy and sex." So it's historical fiction, they ask? "No, because I'm not really sticking with history. It's sort of alternative historical fiction. It's well-written," I say. "And there are sword fights." No, I don't know how to answer. I vacillate between the adventure-tale aspects of the narrative and the thematic ideas I was working with, and I know I daren't mention Shakespeare because, you know, the glazed eyes and it's not Shakespeare anyway.

But it's not just that book. I have no real way to discuss any of my novels, do I? And then I realize that "literary fiction" is, primarily, a marketing term. People who read and discuss literary fiction never use the term; they just say, "This is a good book. Have you read it yet?" So I'm apparently thinking of my novels in terms of marketing, which is annoying and difficult. Very likely, I write books that will bore some college students. But I'm not trying to pack them full of intellectual vitamins, or to somehow improve the reader. I think they're just cracking good books. But then I think Moby-Dick and Ulysses and The Ambassadors and The Iliad and True History of the Kelly Gang  and Lord of Misrule and The Sun Also Rises and Wise Blood are all cracking good books. I swear I had something interesting to say here today, but that something seems to have flown away while I stepped out for a meeting. Anyway, sword fights and psychic dwarfs and the rejection or acceptance of father figures as limits to one's own personality. How can that bore anyone?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

First sentences

Writers are told many things about first sentences these days, the implication generally being that the first sentence of your novel is the thing that will win or lose a reader (though of course in most of the conversations had with writers, the first sentence is presumed to be the thing that will win or lose an agent or editor, not a reader*).

So, to a writer, the first sentence of a novel is the Big Moment, the Valuable First Impression, the Opening Gambit upon which the fate of the whole game rests, etc. Bollocks, you know, all of it. I have sat here thinking very hard and I've only managed to come up with a half dozen first sentences of novels I've read, and most of those I only remember because I make a point to avoid writing first sentences modeled on them. "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times" is a stupid way to start a novel, you know. "Every happy family is the same, etc" is a statement of theme that Tolstoy should've buried in the end of the second act of that novel, not hit the reader with on the first page. Leo had a bad habit of tipping his hand sometimes.

What I think matters, really, is an arresting image, not a finely-tuned bit of grandiloquence. The opening of Our Mutual Friend is kinetic and mysterious and I vividly recall the scene on the river, though I cannot tell you what the first sentence of the book was. I have no idea. Nobody can tell me what the opening paragraphs of Tale of Two Cities are supposed to mean, because that's just Dickens clearing his throat and playing with pairs of opposites until he wears out his welcome. Which he does.

I can tell you how The Hobbit opens, because that's my sort of first sentence. It gets the job done of starting off the book, and it takes the tone that the author will continue to use for the whole narrative. Nothing fancy from old John, just a bit of exposition: In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Note the lack of immediate conflict, note the lack of action, note the lack of a clear protagonist. "In a hole in the ground there lived a rabbit?" Tolkein then goes on to talk about the hole, not the hobbit.

My own first sentences are prosaic enough:

It snowed again today, the third time this week.

Gustavus had lost a lot of blood.

They'd arrived on the island, as had most of the other guests, only the day before.

"They will hang me tomorrow," the prisoner said.

It was Thursday, and it was David and Violet Molloy's fifteenth wedding anniversary.

I am sick of Hamlet (I wrote to a friend, another novelist).

None of these sentences is the novel-in-miniature, none of them introduces the protagonist nor the primary story question. None of them is fancy nor do any of them attempt to grab the reader by the throat and refuse to let him go. What they do, I hope, is take the first step toward a vivid image that will draw the reader into the narrative. Very little of that image is visible from these bare little sentences.

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.

Both of those sentences are full of meaning beyond themselves, but that meaning only becomes clear as the novels progress. They are keys to the narrative doors, but they are not the views behind the doors. I don't know where I'm going with all of this. Possibly to suggest--and this is by no means my own idea--that a novelist should simply cut the first paragraph of his latest novel before letting anyone read it, letting the narrative begin at the start of the second paragraph. Chekhov, in his wisdom, suggested doing that very thing (he also suggested cutting the last paragraph as well, and I think that was fine advice).

I remember now: I was thinking about how I've done this very thing with the first paragraph, cutting it and starting the novel a paragraph later. I did this with my upcoming novel The Astrologer when I realized that the paragraph (actually, it was two paragraphs) over which I'd labored long and hard and headachingly was completely unnecessary and most of it was exposition that I repeated a few pages later on, where it really belonged. There was some good stuff in that first paragraph, too: My breath came in clouds of white, as if my own ghost had realized how cold I was and, mistaking me for dead, was taking leave of my body. That's a nice bit of prose. Cut, cut, cut.

*because, yes, agents and editors aren't real readers. They don't read books the way actual people do. I suspect they aren't real people.

Monday, December 10, 2012

"I was old then; I am much older now." A book update

I got initial edits from my publisher this morning for The Astrologer. I'm pleased to report that mostly it was formatting changes, including the addition of a bushel of the hated Oxford commas. But I don't protest; I know that while I despise the serial comma in theory, I don't actually notice it when I'm reading.

It pleases me to realize how much I still like this novel. In the years since writing The Astrologer, I've written three and seven-eighths other books, which means that the novel of mine which will pub in a little over two months is a book that I've forgotten a lot about. I'd forgotten the eels, and I'd forgotten all the blue, and I'd forgotten the narrator's obsessive reportage of the food served at royal banquets. I'd forgotten all manner of little touches I put in just for fun. I'd forgotten how much fun I had with dialogue:

     “I heard a rumor that you were too elderly to maintain your parish, but clearly this is mere slander,” Christian said. “I do not think you have aged a minute since I first laid an eye upon you, Father.”
     “I was old then,” Maltar said. “I am much older now, my lord. I am ancient.”
     “Nonsense, Father. You have a clear eye and a strong voice. I had expected a withered leaf of a man, not a stout oak. You are yet a powerful warrior of Christ.”
     “I am a barrel of lard, you mean.” Maltar put a wounded tone into his voice but he smiled at the prince.
     “You do not waste away and that is an excellent piece of news, Father.”
     “As you insist, my lord.” Maltar raised a hand as if to ward off any further praise. “Tell me, my lord, what do you at St. Ibb’s?”
     “I come to confess.”
     “My lord?”
     “I have joined good Soren’s party out at the old Brahe manor and must take the sacraments here, Father. I am not shriven since going into battle at Copenhagen, and I would confess myself to you, if you will do me the duty.”
     Maltar did not seem to know what to think of this request. He sat on his bench with eyes half closed and shook his heavy head.
     “You recall how to take confession?” Christian prompted him.
     “I do, my lord.” Maltar blinked slowly, an old bear caught hibernating in his den. “Is not the bishop of Copenhagen your confessor, my lord?”
     “He is. The bishop is a most excellent fellow. My mother is fond of him also.”
     “I doubt it nothing.” Maltar turned his face away from the prince. “My lord, I cannot take your confession. The bishop is a nobleman, but I am not. Before I found my calling, I was the son of a journeyman stevedore who worked Elsinore’s wharves. Men such as I, even though we wear cassock and Roman collar, are not fit to be in your confidence. Go to Copenhagen to be shriven, my lord. Or at least to Elsinore. Father Olaf is a gentleman. I am proud to be a peasant and a priest, but I am still a peasant.”
     The old man was talking rubbish. He wanted the crown prince of Denmark to beg him to be his confessor. He would brag about it for years to come.

While I'm certain that I've become a better writer since The Astrologer, I'm also certain that this novel is a book I can still be proud of, a narrative that remains fun and clever even after having read the damned thing scores of times. The symmetrical structure of the narrative still strikes me as a thing of beauty, and the lessons I learned while essentially re-envisioning this story half a dozen times and once rewriting it entirely from scratch, are lessons that have stuck with me, valuable lessons I use every time I pick up a pen. So that's all good news. I won't be ashamed to tell everyone I know on March 1st that it's incumbent upon them to run out and buy a copy of my novel. Because it is. Incumbent. This means you.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The 80% Solution

I have, at this point, written several different beginnings for Chapter 12 of Mona in the Desert, a work-in-progress. I can't quite decide how to continue with the story. The pressure at this point in the drafting process always increases because I am of course terrified that I'm about to ruin the whole thing with a clownish misstep, a sudden misunderstanding of what I'm doing with the book, or a cowardly hiding behind cliche. Or something. Anyway, I keep writing "chapter 12" at the top of a fresh page and beginning again with a different opening gambit. I blame Davin Malasarn, frankly, for egging me on to write my last draft (Go Home, Miss America) without an outline which turned out well enough that I pushed ahead and am now writing Mona without an outline. Which leaves me dangling in space, as it were, unsure where to put my feet next. Damn you, Malasarn.
     I figure I'm about 80% of the way through, which translates into about 10,000 or so more words to write in this first draft. It'll be more short novel than novella, but that's okay, and it'll likely expand a bit more during revisions (slated to begin when? 2014 or so?), but all of that's moot if I can't figure out what chapter 12 is going to be. I am tempted to simply incorporate into the narrative every variant of chapter 12 that I've written (or am writing), giving the reader a succession of abandoned Chapters 12, one after the other. That's an attractive idea sure to annoy prospective agents and editors and even readers, God bless 'em. Which is, of course, all the more reason for me to do it. Which gives me the further idea of going back through the MS and creating variants of other chapters, possibly giving different versions of the story than what's already written. You could have three Chapters 3, or two Chapters 7 and the like. Yes, an intriguing idea.
    Possibly what's missing from Chapter 12 is Olive O'Hurleighy doing the ironing. Yes, that could be it. I'll know more after lunch.
    Current wordcount (I add for my own reference) is 50,669.

     Also, despite all the talk recently about a novel concerning a Wittgensteinian philosopher, a Constance Garnettian translator and a Sylvia Beachesque publisher, I am pretty sure that the next book I write will be the long-awaited Nowhere But North, about an ill-fated American expedition to Antarctica in 1914. I seem to be thinking about that one a lot these days, and making a lot of notes. Surely that's indicative of something, yes?

     Also, also, chapters 3 and 4 of Cervantes' Don Quixote, Book II are clearly prepostmodernist literature (with at least three timelines collapsing impossibly into a single afternoon as the characters discuss reader reception of and continuity errors in the novel Don Quixote, Book I, which, given the lack of a fictional chronological gap between Book I and Book II, has not had--in Cervantes' fictional world--an opportunity to have been written yet), a good 150 years before Laurence Sterne. All of this newfangled experimental literature has always been with us. Everything old is new again, etc.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Wittgenstein versus Pascal (Mona in the Desert, an excerpt)

Roberto leaned against a section of chain link fence, his book open and a cigarette in the corner of his mouth. He looked away from Ernesto even when Ernesto stood close enough that the shadow of his handsome head fell upon the pages of the Confessions. I have not missed your company, Sergeant Grassi. Nonetheless, Ernesto answered, I have come to speak to you. Does it concern the sister of Desdemona O’Hurleighy, Roberto asked. No, Ernesto said. Then I will hear your question, but I cannot guarantee I will answer it. Ernesto rubbed his mustache. It concerns, he said, the sister of Olive O’Hurleighy. And does she have many sisters, Roberto asked. Only one that I am aware of: the one called Desdemona. You know nothing about Desdemona, Roberto said. And as Mr Wittgenstein tells us, whereof you can say nothing, thereof you must be silent. I will tell you nothing, Sergeant Grassi, and you will be silent. Your reaction just now tells me a great deal, Ernesto said. I think I could propose a number of things concerning you and the sister of Olive. Roberto snapped his book shut. You can do no such thing, he said, for you are aware that speaking in the absence of absolute certainty is to speak non-sense, to say nothing. I do not, Ernesto answered, accept Mr Wittgenstein’s claim that provisional awareness is an illusion. Uncertainty is no better than another form of ignorance, Roberto said, and so you must remain silent regarding your inferences about Desdemona. Ernesto smiled. Surely you do not believe this? Mr Wittgenstein makes an elaborate joke of a self-referential semiotic nature, Roberto. He was not in earnest. Had he been sincere, his book would contain nothing but blank pages. If your proposition is true, then you cannot understand me when I tell you that your proposition is false. Preposterous, absurd, Roberto said. Mere air, these words, words, words. You are changing the subject, Ernesto said, and conflating two different plays. Why should I tell you anything, Roberto asked, since I cannot say anything that is not a tautology? Inability to speak absolute uncontradicted truth doesn’t rule out actual knowledge of things, Ernesto said. It only rules out ideal statements about those things. Language doesn’t create the world; the world exists despite our silences. No, Roberto said. Language is existence: in the beginning was the word. Ah, you presume to make true statements about God, do you? Where’s your Mr Wittgenstein now, Roberto? If he’s right, we can’t possibly believe anything we’ve been told about the divine revelation of God’s existence. Roberto nodded. That presents a problem. I am tempted to write to Mr Wittgenstein at Cambridge and put the question to him. He won’t be able to understand your letter, Ernesto said, or so Wittgenstein himself implies. No matter what you write, it will be nonsense. And yet the temptation remains, Roberto said, a slight smile briefly appearing on his face. I confess that I do not enjoy Mr Wittgenstein, Ernesto said. Many of his claims are objectionable. And I tell you in confidence that much of the time I simply cannot understand what he writes about. I become lost in his formulas and my head aches a great deal for hours afterward. He is no poet, Roberto agreed. He consigns to the realm of nonsense all culturally important utterances, such as literature, scripture and the whisperings of lovers. I do not find this sort of philosophy particularly appealing, Ernesto. His denial of causality and subsequent disregard of the ethical ramifications of that are what I find most disquieting, Ernesto said. I could not read beyond the claim that all propositions of logic say the same thing: nothing. This was the case for me as well, Roberto said. The logico-philosophicus is a parody, yes? I much prefer the self-contradictory but genuine philosophical poetry of Pascal. Ernesto raised a cigarette to his lips and Roberto lifted his brass lighter, letting Ernesto lean into the bright flame to puff the cigarette into life. I do not think Mr Wittgenstein would make Pascal’s bet, he said. But not betting, replied his friend, is to wager anyway, as Pascal saw it, yes? Yes, for Mr Wittgenstein says that proposing something in the negative admits the possibility of the affirmative case. I do not think Mr Wittgenstein would say that it is the case that to not wager is in fact to wager. Ah, there I think we must again ask Mr Wittgenstein to clarify his position. I think, Ernesto said after a moment, we can draw an illustrative point from his claim that while tautology and contradiction are without sense, they are however not senseless. What do you suppose he means by that? I have no idea, Roberto said. Nor do I, Ernesto replied. But I think perhaps that Mr Wittgenstein has somehow lost his sense of God, and as Pascal reminds us, a man who has lost his sense of God is capable of seeing it in anything, even in his own destruction. Did Pascal say this? I paraphrase, Ernesto said. But at least he admits the possibility of living with doubt. Indeed, Roberto said, do you know the one about seeing too much to deny and not enough to affirm, putting us all in that pitiful state of wishing Nature would either proclaim God absolutely or erase all signs of Him? It’s as if we are forced to live in a world only half awake. And so we have no choice but to wager, Ernesto said. Though Pascal’s computation of the odds is obscure and doubtful. He works not by arithmetic, but by rhetoric. And Wittgenstein works through arithmetic, Roberto said, not through rhetoric. As Polonius wisely noted, men are so unerringly mad that for them not to be mad would be another type of madness. Ernesto scratched his right cheek. I do not think Polonius said that, he offered. I paraphrase, Roberto said.

--from Chapter 11, Mona in the Desert, a work-in-progress

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

the poor man is incapacitated from showing the virtue of generosity

I have finished the first half (the 1605 book) of Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote. It's a swell novel, and no wonder it's the pride of Spanish literature. You might think it's a picaresque comic novel about a wealthy man who, in his later years, is overcome with delusions that he is a knight errant from the Spanish Middle Ages and sets out to have brave adventures. You'd only be partially right. Don Quixote is in fact a long consideration of the state of Spain on the verge of the Renaissance, examining the tension between a crumbling, ramshackle kingdom where titles are respected above real achievement and a Spain where the money is more and more in the hands of a middle class of merchants and landowners, the peasants just beginning to voice the opinion that perhaps the nobility are less bright and capable than might be thought. It's a book that loves Spain with all its heart but knows the nation's flaws, and possibly Cervantes, who was a professional soldier until his forties and fought in famous battles under the command of famous captains, was mourning a loss of idealism and pride no longer to be found in the Spaniard of his day. When Don Quixote is brought back to his home after the first unsuccessful adventure, the local priest asks him if he isn't aware that he's not really a knight errant, and if he doesn't really know that his brain has been temporarily overwhelmed by a bunch of harmful fiction. The hero's reply?

"I know who I am," replied Don Quixote, "and I know that I may be not only those I have named, but all the Twelve Peers of France and even all the Nine Worthies, since my achievements surpass all that they have done all together and each of them on his own account."

Four hundred or so pages later, after many adventures and humiliations, Quixote is discussing knight errantry and the literature thereof with a canon of the church. The canon has gone on at eloquent length, dismissing Quixote's beloved fables as harmful, empty fantasy. The hero's reply?

"It appears to me, gentle sir, that your worship's discourse is intended to persuade me that there never were any knights-errant in the world, and that all the books of chivalry are false, lying, mischievous and useless to the State, and that I have done wrong in reading them, and worse in believing them, and still worse in imitating them, when I undertook to follow the arduous calling of knight-errantry which they set forth; for you deny that there ever were Amadises of Gaul or of Greece, or any other of the knights of whom the books are full."

"It is all exactly as you state it," said the canon; to which Don Quixote returned, "You also went on to say that books of this kind had done me much harm, inasmuch as they had upset my senses, and shut me up in a cage, and that it would be better for me to reform and change my studies, and read other truer books which would afford more pleasure and instruction."

"Just so," said the canon.

Quixote is not to be convinced, for the literature of knight errantry has given him gifts nowhere else to be found in the Spain he inhabits. Says the hero:

"...since I have been a knight-errant I have become valiant, polite, generous, well-bred, magnanimous, courteous, dauntless, gentle, patient, and have learned to bear hardships, imprisonments, and enchantments; and though it be such a short time since I have seen myself shut up in a cage like a madman, I hope by the might of my arm, if heaven aid me and fortune thwart me not, to see myself king of some kingdom where I may be able to show the gratitude and generosity that dwell in my heart; for by my faith, senor, the poor man is incapacitated from showing the virtue of generosity to anyone, though he may possess it in the highest degree; and gratitude that consists of disposition only is a dead thing, just as faith without works is dead."

Cervantes, of course, shows us how out of place a knight is in 17th-century Spain. Don Quixote's illusions do not have any place in the modern world and he is bound for failure and further humiliation. His adventures are to no purpose: there are no giants to behead, no damsels to rescue, no fair Dulcinea whose heart he might win through his bravery and the might of his right arm. There is nothing for Don Quixote in all of Spain, in all of Europe, except to go back to his business and his property and to put aside his fantastic novels and his fantasies of derring-do. And yet, Cervantes tells us, it is only when our aging middle-class hero believes he is the Knight of the Sad Countenance that he is valiant, polite, generous, well-bred, magnanimous, etc., and the implication is that those Spaniards who surround him, not being knights errant, all lack those qualities. Cervantes' modern Spain lacks those qualities, and the reader of Don Quixote cannot help but sympathize with our poor deluded hero because, we fear, he is right: something has been lost, somehow he is better than those sane folk who surround him, laughing as the fearless knight shatters his ancient lance against windmills.

Friday, November 30, 2012

He was Austrian, you know

Yesterday I survived a Trifecta of Mad Viennese Men: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Alban Berg and Gustav Mahler. Yes, I know: Mahler was born in Bohemia, but he made his fame and his money in Vienna, and I think he was also infected with the Viennese Lunacy.

Wittgenstein, though. I've read enough of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus to start work on Chapter 11 of my novel-in-progress, though even if my fictional characters will have left off reading at about section 5.6, I continued onward through the tract because, you know, I'm more curious than my fictional characters. Section 5, toward the end, and Section 6 deal with real philosophical issues (Wittgenstein would of course deny that these are proper discussion topics for philosophers--indeed he does deny this earlier in the Tractatus--but here they are anyway) like the knowableness of God, solipsism and the existence of the soul. For the record: we can't know if God exists though He might, solipsism is the only true experience of the world, and the soul does not exist. But then Ludwig goes further, implying (if I understand him correctly) that we have no proof that anything exists beyond our own solipsistic worlds, and even if it does, none of it matters because the only true thing is language, and the only true language is bounded by philosophical logic, and all philosophical logical statements are tautologies saying nothing, so the only true thing is nothing, and logic--which is reality--will go on expressing itself whether we are here to see it or not, and anyway we don't matter to the equation, and to sum up, mankind is superfluous. Which is, I think, where Wittgenstein is going all along, that mankind is unnecessary. That seems to reinforce what I know about his sad, lonely and misunderstood life. The whole of the Tractatus seems to be an argument in favor of nullity, and a scary argument at that once you get to the end. "Whereof I cannot speak, thereof I must be silent" is not a warning against careless thinking and speech, it's a call to death. A harrowing, solitary death. Wittgenstein is therefore the philosopher of bleakness, of nothingness. Everything is nothing, all is pointless, best to just lie down and die.

Alban Berg, on the other hand. I've long been a fan of his music, from the early songs for mezzo-soprano and piano through the symphonic works to Lulu and Wozzeck. It's all great stuff. Last night the Seattle Symphony played Berg's Violin Concerto, with Veronika Eberle as the soloist. Ms Eberle has some phenomenal chops, Ludovic Morlot (the Seattle Symphony's new conductor) had a great grasp of the structure of the piece, and it was all just gorgeous and spiky and cool, the Bach chorale section sounding like a church organ, the final ambiguous chord floating in the air for a long time, as if it had disconnected itself from the orchestra and had come alive in the room. Berg was thought to be crazy, being a disciple of Arnold Schoenberg and a founding member of the Second Viennese School (that's serialism and atonality), a writer of non-music etc etc. Not a crazy man, but labeled as such.

Gustav Mahler, as I note above, was born in Bohemia, in what's now the Czech Republic. But I still claim he had the Austrian Crazy in his head, and one proof of it is his Symphony Number 4 in G Major. It's an hour long, but it's only got 17 minutes worth of music in it. The rest of the time is taken up with repetitions of that 17 minutes of music. This would be fine if the 17 minutes was good music, but it's not. Mahler was a composer of effects and textures, but not of, say, melodies or variations on themes (or even themes). There's a great deal happening on the stage at all times, but not much of it's particularly interesting. I get the feeling that Gustav wanted to write something big and significant and Wagnerian, but he just didn't have the ideas, and so he'd drag things into the mix out of desperation. The Symphony Number 4 has woodwind players doubling on several instruments because, you know, it's not enough to have oboes; you have to have the oboes trade off and sometimes play clarinet, too, or whatever. The principal violinist trades back and forth between his normally-tuned violin and a fiddle scordatura during the third movement. Why? Because Mahler says so, that's why. The scordatura passages are repetitive (of course) and not particularly engaging. The first three or four minutes of the slow movement are restful but then the movement drags on and on and goes nowhere at all and then the orchestra runs into one of those pesky da capos and the whole movement starts again. I put my head onto Mighty Reader's shoulder at this point and prayed for sleep, which did not come. The finale is Mahler’s setting of Das himmlische Leben, which means that in the pause between movements, soprano Donatienne Michel-Dansac walked onstage and placed herself beside the podium. She sings nicely enough but it was about when the hymn slowed down and began again, and Michel-Dansac fell into her half-crouched singing posture, that I suddenly felt as if I was sitting in a remote village meeting hall watching an amateur production of an operetta written by the eccentric church choirmaster and performed with baffled enthusiasm for a mystified audience of townsfolk. Yes, I thought, this is the music of a lunatic, of a man who was in pursuit of a vision but was denied that vision and filled reams of manuscript paper anyway, hoping against hope that somewhere in all of this noise he'd shake some real art out onto the face of the world. A crazy man, an eccentric mad scientist building machines full of flashing light and whirling appliances that achieved no practical purpose and had no off switch. Yes, that's Mahler, I thought. At that point, late in the performance, I began to enjoy it. The silence at the end of the symphony, as the last chimes of Mahler's sleigh bells died away, was held by orchestra and audience for a long, long time.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The thought is the significant proposition

I have made it to section 4 ("The thought is the significant proposition") of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, where he might be revealing that the first 3 sections are not actually about language as we use it, but rather describe a perfect logical language that would make philosophical speech possible. Maybe. One problem with Mr Wittgenstein's tract is that he doesn't actually tell you what he's attempting to describe. Nor does he give examples of any of his proposed linguistic elements. Possibly he himself was never sure; there's a lot of nomenclature wrapping around itself in his system, and Wittgenstein never differentiates between the levels. But a fact is a symbol is an object, yes? Why do we need three (and, actually, far more than three) names for the same thing? Is it a function of function within the proposed system? No, I have no idea. Again, some examples would help but apparently Wittgenstein agonized in his notebooks about how to map his proposed logical language to the real world. He could not decide, for example, if his own watch was a "simple object" or not. And whereof he could not speak, thereof he remained silent.

Anyway, once Wittgenstein starts to talk about how actual ("colloquial") language is used, a lot of my objections to his ideas disappear and he seems to be on firmer ground. Or I am, so his writing makes more sense to me. It's impossible for me to know how much of Wittgenstein's writings are solid thinking versus provisional gibberish, because it's impossible for me to recognize the limits of my own mental abilities. In other words, maybe I object to his proposals because I'm not smart enough to understand them but I don't know I'm not smart enough. Certainly that's a common human experience. Certainly I am not the smartest person in whatever room I enter. So here I am in a room with Ludwig Wittgenstein, trying to understand him, unsure which of us knows what we think we're talking about.

My fascination with Ludwig continues to increase, though. He's more interesting than his system is, at least to me. I am sort of attempting to reverse-engineer Wittgenstein from his Tractatus, envisioning a prickly antisocial guy who was forever frustrated by the provisional nature of knowledge and language, who attempted to create a language in which only truth-statements could be made, or at least a language in which one could see whether a statement was true or false. Ludwig may have been, that is, attempting to map human speech to typographical number theory, in which you can make false (either deliberately misleading or mistaken) statements, but it's apparent when you do if you understand the typography well. Wittgenstein was destined, if indeed this was his intent, to fail, for all of the reasons I've already listed in my previous post about his little book.

Still, once Wittgenstein moves away from his proposed language to actual language and begins listing what he thinks philosophical discourse should be (and draws proposed limits to that discourse), he's entertaining and clear enough. So I continue to put off writing my novel's Chapter 11 and keep reading Mr Wittgenstein.

Also, I'm starting to think about a story involving a cranky misunderstood Austrian philosopher like Ludwig Wittgenstein, and a successful English translator like Constance Garnett. That could be interesting. I could throw in a Sylvia Beach character for good measure. That could be very interesting indeed.

Penguins: Natural History and Conservation

I've been waiting for Dee Boersma to write a book about penguins, and she finally has.

"Beautifully illustrated with full-color photographs of each species in their natural habitat and detailed charts and graphs, Penguins will be an invaluable tool for researchers, conservation groups, and policy makers. It will also enchant anyone interested in the lives or the plight of these fascinating animals."

It looks like a fabulous book. It probably doesn't, alas, include the anecdote Dr Boersma once told me about the guy who was hit so hard in the chest by an emperor penguin's flipper that it almost busted his ribs.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

All propositions of our colloquial language are actually, just as they are, logically completely in order

I’ve been reading Pascal’s Pensees and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, to prepare for a scene I’m going to write in my work-in-progress novella Mona in the Desert. The idea was that I’d just skim through this stuff (I read Pascal long ago and had a sort of vague idea of Wittgenstein’s “whereof we cannot speak, thereof we ought be silent” statement regarding mysticism) and basically pull out lines to put into my characters’ mouths and I'd build a meaningful dialogue and scene around it all. There would be quoted stuff about language and truth and then I’d work my way around to Pascal’s Wager, which will turn out to be important to the story later on. The usual sort of shallow research, in other words. The problem I’m having is that Pascal and Wittgenstein were fascinating guys and I’ve been losing myself (and spending a great deal of time) actually reading the boys, not just trolling for bits of dialogue I can refashion in my own narrative’s image. The end result (or the middle result, I guess, as I’m not done with my reading yet) is that I’ve been having a sort of argument with Wittgenstein the last few days. Last night I took Mighty Reader’s suggestion to read the entry on Wittgenstein in her Encyclopedia of Philosophy (eight volumes! fifty pounds! ten-thousand pages!) to get an overview of the Tractatus before I gave myself a bigger headache attempting to make sense of it on my own.

The EoP entry begins with a biography of Wittgenstein, and gosh was he crazy. Filthy rich, educated in math and engineering but lacking—it seems—a grounding in classical literature (remember that), a good clarinet player and very good sight reader, philanthropist (he made anonymous cash gifts to Rainer Maria Rilke and Georg Trakl), school teacher (I pity his young charges in rural Austria, suffering under the humorless and earnest tutelage of Ludwig) and eventually professor of philosophy at Cambridge. When, in 1951, he was diagnosed with cancer, he apparently said, “Good!” because he was ready to die, apparently having been obsessed with his own death since he could first form the idea. Fun guy at parties, I’m thinking.

Anyway, I have issues with both Pascal (his arguments supporting the existence of God—essentially Thomist arguments that point to mankind and declare God necessary a priori—are weak) and Wittgenstein (he seems to say that language is an expression of the world, whereas it seems pretty clear to me that language is an expression of thought; meaning is not contained in sentences and propositions, that is, but is found in the mind of the reader/speaker/listener. Facts are interpretations made in the mind, not empirical realities expressed in sentences), but at the same time I’m aware that I’m not as bright as I’d like to think I am, and likely either I misunderstand these guys or they are misunderstood by me. But none of that matters, because my characters’ understanding of Pascal and Wittgenstein needs to be no better than mine, and their philosophical discussion is actually a metaphor for something else they won’t put into words directly. Which is, you see, a big joke about Wittgenstein, whose philosophy can’t—I think—account for metaphor (or humor, for that matter). I hope to write the damned scene by the end of this week, and get on with the end of the book. My next project will be nothing like this one.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Of the Unexampled and Unheard-Of Adventure Which Was Achieved by the Valiant Don Quixote of La Mancha With Less Peril Than Any Ever Achieved by Any Famous Knight In the World

I am reading Don Quixote, the best-selling 1605 novel by Miguel de Cervantes Saavadra. Don Quixote is the national epic of Spain, considered by many to be the first proper modern novel, a parody of the epic tales of knights errant and a picaresque novel of Spain on the verge of the Renaissance. While reading Qixote I can't help but think of Jose Maria de Eca de Quieros' novel The Illustrious House of Ramires, Benito Perez Galdos' Fortunata and Jacinta and of course Apuleius' The Golden Ass. Part of that has to do with subject matter, but mostly I am reminded of the comic tone of those three novels, which are all connected with the Quixote in one way or another. One also can't help but to think of Borges' many mentions of Cervantes in his own short stories. All of which is another way of saying that Don Quixote is a fine book and I'm enjoying the heck out of it. I'm about 200 pages in (I'm reading J.M. Cohen's 1950 Penguin Classics translation which tips the scales at 940-some pages) and Cervantes' joke has yet to wear thin, which is a pretty good sign.

This is a book I know through allusions in other books, and through excerpts I've read here and there over the years. I've had it on my shelf for a while now, one of those books I look at and tell myself that I'll read it later, having as I do plenty of time to catch up on the classics after I finish the last five volumes of Chekhov and read those final dozen Shakespeare plays (I've avoided the "history" plays all my life but at some point I'll get to them) and then there is all that Nabokov I haven't touched and reams of Dickens and Dostoyevsky and God knows what else. But having read Fortunata and Jacinta, I was put in the mood to finally face Senor Cervantes. I like to have a long book for the winter months (after Don Quixote I'm re-reading Ulysses and after that it's some Walter Scott and then, possibly, a re-read of Moby-Dick; some shorter novels will likely find their way into the spaces between those big books) but mostly, I guess, it was just time for me to read Don Quixote.

It's a rewarding read, and laugh-out-loud funny. A lot of the social commentary is obvious at this historical distance, and Quixote himself isn't such a charmer (one feels oneself drawn onto Sancho Panza's side as he replies, to Don Quixote's exhortation to keep a secret until after that good knight's death, that "I swear to hold my tongue about it till the end of your worship's days, and God grant I may be able to let it out tomorrow.") but the story is imaginative and swiftly-moving. The chapter where the local priest and the barber go through Quixote's library, deciding which books to burn and which to keep, is quite fine. The battle between the herds of sheep is also very good, as is the chapter describing Quixote's victory over the fulling hammers. I had no idea what a fulling hammer was (it's part of a weaving machine--an automatic loom, that is) but the incident is quite clever on Cervantes' part, with Quixote stepping out of the darkness to confront technology and finding no place for knightly action. That's a major theme of the book, nicely encapsulated in a single episode. 280 years later, Flaubert will build the whole of Madame Bovary out of just such thematically illustrative episodes.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

You take me in too dolorous a sense

On Monday, or whenever it was that I last posted, I wrote some vague stuff about action equalling character and how I was sort of making a list of* the significant actions taken by characters in the first half of my work-in-progress so that I could revisit those actions late in the narrative, this time acted out by different characters, in different times and places, to different effect. What I'm maybe getting at by this shilly-shallying with plot is (aside from a late attempt to create a structure for the narrative) to experiment with the idea that meaning in fiction is not necessarily tied strongly to plot. Or, rather, that actions themselves are not character and that Aristotle only gets it half right.

Meaning, therefore, is what was missing from Monday's post. I am playing around with meaning in my novel-in-progress. For example, in the first chapter of the book I (the narrator, that is) tell the reader about the oldest memory I believe I possess: wandering through a dark wood and coming across a brightly-lit clearing. Over the course of the novel, I give versions of this memory to several other characters, and the hope is that the reader will gain some insight into each of those characters, but that the insights will differ for each character. It is also hoped that the reader will think that perhaps certain experiences are common.

I should also come clean and admit right off that the main reason I'm playing with repetitive imagery like this is for my own amusement. It's fun, and it's a nifty intellectual challenge to see if I can reuse these actions in a way that yields satisfactory artistic results. Is it cool? Then it's a good idea.

Mighty Reader pointed out to me, when I told her that I was sort of stalled at the edge of the precipice which is the Third Act of this book, that with each book I write I hesitate at this point while seeking some difficult novelistic challenge to solve in order to keep the narrative interesting to me as a writer. Simply writing out the end of the plot is boring and I have little enthusiasm for that. So certainly this repetitive action piece is probably just to keep me from getting bored with the novel, and I'll go ahead and admit that when my readers come upon Chapter 11's philosophical argument between Pascal and Wittgenstein, their suspicion that it's only in the book because the author thought it would be a fun challenge to write will be well-founded. Also, I promise the reader such an argument in about Chapter 3. Where'd I steal this structure from? Oh, Tristram Shandy. Of course.

I assure my reader that the Pascal v Wittgenstein debate serves to further develop two of the book's major characters and the arguments being batted about will serve as stand-ins for the conflict between these two characters. Again, it looks hard to write but oh such fun when I get it all right. Sometimes I ask myself why I bother writing novels, and then I remember that it's because I get to do stuff like this.

*In truth, "casting an eye over" would be more accurate.

Monday, November 19, 2012

More reasons for this action at our more leisure shall I render you.

Somewhere in the Poetics, Aristotle reminds us that action is character. It's through watching fictional people moving through the world that the reader experiences who these fictional people are. Curiously enough, however, the specific actions taken by fictional characters within fictional narratives might not be all that important, as long as we're shown how the characters react to/interact with the world. The small acts, maybe, tell us more about someone than the grand actions occuring at major plot points where the story structure hinges. I think I'm rambling. Let's try again.

I'm closing in on the final section of my work-in-progress, Mona in the Desert. One of the conceits of this particular narrative is that certain specific actions/events are going to recur throughout the length of the narrative, in different times and places with different characters. These actions/events will have different dramatic purpose and meaning in each instance, and the characters will reveal themselves in different ways in each instance. For example, the narrator, the title character and at least two other characters will come unexpectedly upon clearings in forests, or similar settings. The two main sister characters of the story will repeat each other's speeches, separated by decades. And so on.

My intention had been to make sure I used these repeated images/actions/events in each chapter, but I seem, in the last couple of chapters, to have concentrated on just two of these motifs and I've forgotten what most of my repetitive images were supposed to be. What I'm going to do over the next couple of days is go through the first ten chapters and make a list of scenes I want to reprise during the last couple of chapters of the book. I really had no structure in mind when I began writing this thing, and so the narrative shape is a lot like balls being juggled, with some balls in the air more often than others. To my surprise a single story line has emerged as the central plot and I've been serving that story line while letting the others come and go in bits and bobs and that's not quite what I thought I'd be doing. So I'm putting the brakes on for a moment while I make something of a plan, or at least a list, of things I want to include in the narrative's last 20,000 or so words.

It might seem odd that I'm not creating the action first, or really giving much thought to how the actions will tie into the plots, but I have realized that what the actions taken by characters are is far less important than why they take those actions. This is easy in a book like Mona in the Desert, because I'm not talking about big plot-point actions like slaying a dragon or filing for a divorce or leaving home forever. I'm talking about things like stumbling across a clearing in a wood, or walking as a family across a neighborhood, or going on a field trip or the like. The more of these shared actions in this book, the better, because I want the reader to suspect that the narrator is unsure who did these things and is likewise unsure about the meaning of these anecdotes he tells. So whenever the reader says, "Hey, didn't so-and-so do this in 1963? this can't be right," I've done my job correctly. Is that a spoiler? Pretend I never said that.

Anyway, all of this seems to be a continuation of the project I began in my very first novel, way back 20 years ago, where I started playing with the idea that character actions in and of themselves are meaningless, and it's context that provides meaning. So over the years I've had lines of dialogue pass back and forth between speakers with the meaning changed depending on who speaks it, and I've had symbols appear at different times in narratives with the meaning changed depending on placement of the symbol (oh, that's just a classical use of irony, you see), and I've been doing it with character actions for a few books now, too. The actions, the plots, belong to everybody in the narrative, but the meanings belong to individual characters. Sort of. Is that another spoiler? Maybe. But you can't really spoil postmodern literature. And by the time this little book of mine sees the light of day, we'll all have forgotten about this post. Which is maybe why I'm writing it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Shots fired, downtown Madrid

Last night Mighty Reader and I finished Benito Perez Galdos’ 1887 novel Fortunata and Jacinta. We’d hoped to finish by the end of October, the readalong month, but we lost two weeks while I scrounged up a copy for Mighty Reader. Thanks, Penguin, for letting this title go out of print! I was able to find a used library copy of the University of Georgia edition. It was immense and weighed a ton. Mighty Reader read that copy; I skived off with the still-too-big-and-heavy trade paperback. This is a long book, 816 pages, and the pages are pretty long. Somewhere I read that F&J rivals War and Peace for length, making it the second longest novel I’ve ever read (after War and Peace, of course). So twice as long as Moby-Dick or The Brothers Karamazov. Blah blah blah. Anyway, we’ve finished. Mighty Reader snapped her copy shut at 11:40PM and I followed her at a minute till midnight. We haven’t had time to actually discuss the last 100 or so pages yet, but there was some brief agreement that Senior Galdos went into Dostoyevski territory at the end: madness and death and pistols and redemption and punishment and only the shade of a happy ending. This is a strangely religious novel, like much of Dostoyevski and not much at all like Dickens, to whom Galdos is frequently compared. It’s also a more knowing book than anything I’ve read by Dickens: in a later chapter (somewhere around page 650, maybe) a middle-aged character with a weak heart demands from his doctor permission to have sex if the doctor is sure the activity won’t kill him. Like I say, nothing like that in Great Expectations. An interesting and enlightening novel that I’m happy to have read.

I’ve moved on from 19th-century Spanish literature to 20th-century Portuguese literature, in the form of Jose Saramago’s novel Death With Interruptions. It’s short and briskly paced and awfully funny on many levels. My only problem, at about a third of the way through, is that the joke (in a landlocked—possibly South American—country, people have stopped dying and nobody knows what to do with all the nearly dead, the very old, the horribly injured but unable to recover or die etc people who have overfilled the hospitals and nursing homes and have been sent back to live their horrific half-lives with whatever family they have) is dangerously close to getting old. So far there are no main characters; the novel is told in the form of an archly ironic reportage. But I remain amused and reading, so we’ll see what happens.

After the Saramago, I’m going back to classic Spanish literature to read Miguel de Cervante’s epic Don Quixote, which I’ve never read in its entirety; I’ve read chapters here and there across the years but never the whole thing from start to finish. So that’s my midwinter read. After that I’ll probably retreat behind Chekhov’s back for a while again, and then I have several novels called The Astrologer to read, just because.

Meanwhile, I continue to write my way through the final 25% of my work-in-progress novel Mona In The Desert. Mona is very close to the titular desert right now. Things are happening in the background in various timelines. A boy is about to tell a story he’s made up to amuse his aunt. I’m quite pleased with the 750 or so words I wrote at lunch today. This could be a beautiful little book if I don’t fuck it up. Let’s hope I don’t, then. When this first draft is complete, I’ll pack it away and revise Go Home, Miss America. That’ll be my early 2013 project. So much to do.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Transcendental Detective, Coming Soon

Although we haven't yet signed the contract, and it's traditional not to mention these things until the ink is dry, I defy tradition to tell you that Rhemalda Publishing and I have agreed to bring out my postmodern philosophical detective novel either late in 2013 or early in 2014. I am very excited about this one. It's a fun book that I wrote to amuse myself and Mighty Reader, and it plays with the conventions of Golden Age detective fiction while still managing to be a literary novel (whatever that means, which is apparently anyone's guess). The title is probably going to be The Transcendental Detective. The detective in question is a real hoot, too. An unforgettable character and all that jazz. So I'll keep my handful of readers posted about that book as things develop. There will be, of course, no news at all for the longest time and then suddenly it will be out for sale.

Oh, here's a brief summary of The Transcendental Detective:

In September 1935 at an island resort off the Oregon coast, a violent storm has washed away not only the bridge to the mainland but also the telephone line, leaving guests and staff trapped on the island with no way to call for help. When composer George Pullman is discovered murdered in the hotel garage, vacationing French Algerian police detective Patience Quince leaves off worrying over the marriage proposal she's received from Ali ibn Mustafa al Agba, and begins to employ the methods of transcendental detection she learned in Paris: she will drink, dream and philosophize her way to unmasking Pullman's killer. Patience knows that the wrong suspect is locked in the hotel cellar and none on the island is safe, but a quixotic foreign woman who quotes Immanuel Kant from memory and keeps a loaded pistol in her purse can find it hard to gain the cooperation of suspicious Americans. Even so, Patience has promised the "shadowy man" from her transcendental dreams that she will find him and bring him to justice.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

"Pieces" by Michelle Davidson Argyle, a day late

I forgot to mention yesterday that my friend Michelle Davidson Argyle has cover art for her upcoming novel Pieces. You can see it, and the book trailer, here. Michelle's writing career is going well for her, and I'm happy because she's a perfectly lovely person. We've known each other via the interwebs since 2009 and, although we've never met in person, I am still convinced of her lovely personhood. Right now she's hard at work revising another novel. A writer writes, every day.

Monday, November 5, 2012

"A waste of effort" in Kawabata's Snow Country

Snow Country, a 1937 novel by Nobel prize-winning writer Yasunari Kawabata, is typically described as "haunting," "suggestive," and "haiku-like." It's full of spare, stripped-down prose and Kawabata says very little directly, offering us the shadows and impressions of the characters' emotions, oblique statements of feeling or intention. The protagonist, a middle-aged wealthy man named Shimamura, wonders about the motivations of the mistress he has taken during brief vacations to a hot springs in the snowy Japanese mountains, but not too much, nor does he bother to ask. Komako, the geisha, doesn't ask after Shimamura's wife, family, or occupation in Tokyo except once to inquire if he's always been wealthy (he has; he inherited wealth and lives the life of an indolent dilettante, in one brilliant passage letting us know that he once was a student of classical Japanese dance but he grew frustrated with the modern dancers' attempts to keep the spirit of the dance but somehow make it new again, so Shimamura became a long-distance expert in Western ballet, without once having actually seen a ballet performed).

We don't know anything about Shimamura's wife, except that Shimamura feels no guilt about leaving her behind every once in a while to go off and spend a week with a geisha. Shimamura feels no guilt about breaking promises to the geisha, either. He's one of those sentimentalists who wants to have some sort of authentic experience, I think, who labels his emotions as intense and real but in truth he's just living life on the surface. I have no idea if Kawabata sees his protagonist this way, but that's how he comes across to me. Shimamura is a hollow little man who only pretends to feel, living a hollow little life where he's an expert on things he's never actually seen. All of this sounds like the makings of a good novel, but it's just a tiny handful of details in Snow Country. I am, I realize, making the book sound better than it is.

It's okay, and it's interesting because this world of a resort along a train route through the snowiest region of the world in northern Japan, where businessmen leave their families behind to sit in cold rooms and watch the sunlight change on the mountain slopes and then have carefully-made-up women dote upon them, sing and dance for them, go to bed with them and disappear at dawn while the hotel manager keeps track of the hours (all added to the room bill), is a very alien world to me. I don't much care for this alien world, I admit, and I know I'm missing a lot of the cultural referents. I know that I'm missing a lot of the meaning toward which Kawabata gives hints, so perhaps I don't understand this story at all. Mostly I'm okay with that, because I don't think direct and clear understanding of the artist's culture is a necessary part of enjoying a work of art. My trouble is primarily with the writing, I think, or maybe the translation; a lot of the prose seems to mean nothing on a grammatical/syntactical level:

"I made a mistake. I saw you as soon as I came down from the mountain, and I let myself think that all the geisha here were like you," he laughed. It occurred to him now that the thought of washing away in such short order the vigor of seven days in the mountains had perhaps first come to him when he saw the cleanness of this woman.

I have no idea what that means. I've read that paragraph half a dozen times and I simply cannot parse it. There's a lot of that sort of prose in this novel, stuff that looks like it means something but doesn't actually add up to a coherent thought. The nature writing, and the writing about music and art, and the basic story of a rich dilettante who is interested in the emotions of women as reflections of his own actions are all interesting so I keep reading, but I can't help thinking that when I've done with this book I will have not actually have read it.

"A waste of effort" is Shimamura's judgment of a great deal of human activity, especially creative pursuits done purely for pleasure and not for gain or at a professional skill level. Nothing he does is a waste of effort, but he is surrounded, it seems, with wasted effort. This might be a really cool, really insightful novel, but I'm just not able to find my way into it, which leaves me frustrated.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

About Last Night

Jack O'Lantern, the 2012 edition. I swear he looked scary before we turned out the lights:

(photo credit: Mighty Reader)

The trick-or-treat count was low again this year. I hear that all the kids are commuting to the tonier neighborhood of north Capital Hill. I shake my fist at you, tonier neighborhood.

Our plans to watch a scary movie or read scary stories came to nothing. Instead we fussed with the pictured pumpkin, attended to the occasional costumed child, and read separate books. I finished The Defense and it was excellent. I realize I've read three Nabokovs this year. I've been reading a lot of Russian literature lately, so my next book is a classic of modern Japanese literature. After that, assuming I finish Fortunata and Jacinta any time soon, I'll read Ulysses again, because it seems like the right thing to do. Meanwhile, I'm closing in on the end of Chapter 9 of Mona in the Desert. There's not much of Mona in this chapter; it's all about Olive and her two Ernests. There'll be more of Mona in Chapter 10, I think. More of the Church of the Sleepy God and the Triplets. Flammable materials will be involved, I predict.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

"I imagine you've managed to debauch my little girl thoroughly?"

I am reading Vladimir Nabokov's early novel The Defense (also known as The Luzhin Defense), and I'm a little past the middle of the narrative. In his foreword to the English edition (written decades after the novel's original publication in Russian under his pen name of Vladimir Sirin), Nabokov plays with ideas of symbolic patterns, throws out a few red herrings for the readers and refers to the book as "this admirable novel." And it is a very admirable novel; there is much here to admire.

I don't merely admire the book's features that appeal to me as a writer of fiction, for I'm certainly emotionally invested in the principal characters and I fear for the futures of both Aleksandr Luzhin (emigre Russian chess grandmaster) and the unnamed woman with whom he falls in love. This despite Nabokov having spoiled the ending in his foreward. So as a story, as an amalgam of plot and character and setting, it's certainly an admirable novel. The prose is also wrought beautifully; possibly this is the most beautiful writing-as-writing that I've seen from Nabokov: it's precise and surprising and alive on the page without suffering from some of the self-indulgent cleverness of some of the later novels ("what? heresy!"). Absolutely lovely writing, this.

So it's an admirable novel when I speak as a reader of fiction, but I confess that I'm moved to write about what Nabokov is doing with the craft, maybe. I'm not sure what I'm going to say. Yesterday I wrote a great--truly some of my best work--post about this novel, but because I am short on sleep I managed to delete the whole thing before I could publish it. That just after I managed to delete an important and carefully-crafted business email that I still haven't managed to reconstruct. So today I remain moved to write about The Defense but I not only feel like I've already said what I had to say even though there's no proof of that saying, I also am thinking about different aspects of the novel today than I was yesterday. So my thoughts are a bit of a mess and you'll just have to bear with me or skip this post entire. I have lost my train of thought.

The Defense is the story of a middle-aged Russian chess grandmaster named Luzhin who was once a child prodigy with a bleak, emotionally isolated childhood. He is the son of a minor fiction writer (a long list of adventure stories for boys that featured a hero who was likely an idealized version of Luzhin the son) who was the son of a virtuoso violinist, as I recall. Aleksandr Luzhin, the chess player, lives in a private world where there is only chess, the abstraction of chess where the real world--including chess boards and pieces--is an annoying barrier to the purity of the game. But I was not going to give a summary of the plot.

What I wanted to talk about were two things: the Nabokovian description of the artistic mind, and the use of clowns in tragedy. Both are large subjects and I can only hope to give them glancing blows. So here are those tiny fists:

One of the most remarkable parts of The Defense is the description of Luzhin's inner world, a place devoid of solid objects and people and civilization; his mind is given over as much as possible to the abstract forms and strategies of chess. As I said, Luzhin doesn't imagine games in terms of pieces on a board; he envisions lines of force and areas of density, strong regions and weak regions, networks and nets and possibilities and this abstraction is more real to Luzhin than the physical world he inhabits. It's so abstract that Luzhin cannot express it in words, for there is no human language that applies to the deepest understandings of pure chess. It's all quite remarkable and I'm sure that this is not only a description of the mind of a chess master, but is also and primarily (via metaphor) Nabokov's representation of the artist's inner world, maybe especially that of the novelist, who sees a narrative not as a story with people and events, but as a sort of electromagnetic field, the words on the page just the pattern in iron filings that the energy leaves behind as a footprint of some kind. Or something like that. I said better, smarter stuff yesterday; you'll have to take my word for that. But if you look at the planning Luzhin's father was doing for his final novel, you'll find very similar stuff going on (the prosaic aspects of the narrative, like character and plot, are pushed aside while Luzhin Senior creates a symbolic network into which he'll write the story; he's for the first time really tapping into his inner understanding of the power and possibility of narrative).

The other thing, the thing that struck me so profoundly today, was how brilliantly Nabokov solved one of the big structural problems of the novel. At the midpoint of the narrative Luzhin faces his nemesis, an Italian grandmaster named Turati who has beaten Luzhin in the past. The "Luzhin Defense" of the title is an elaborate strategy Luzhin has devised to combat Turati's manner of play. So Luzhin and Turati meet in Berlin at a competition and their game goes on and on, a miniature version of the novel itself, which is instead maybe a larger version of the game, and after hours of gruelling play the game is suspended for the evening, to be resumed the next day. Luzhin, who has not been sleeping and has become lost in a state where he cannot tell where abstract chess ends and the real world begins--or vice versa--breaks down completely and wanders alone into the night, seeking his boyhood Russian home, collapsing eventually in a public park. It's a heartbreaking chapter and I was afraid to turn the page and see what came next.

Where do you go from such a tragic scene? A lesser writer would've just continued the narrative with Luzhin, or maybe cut to his fiancee worrying over him since he never returned home from the match, pulling back on the emotional intensity but still keeping a serious tone. This would've been a mistake for a variety of reasons I won't bore you by listing. What I will tell you is Nabokov's ingenious solution: comedy.

In "Macbeth," after Macbeth and Lady M have murdered the king and smeared his blood over his drunken knights, Shakespeare stops the action to give us a comic scene with a porter, or doorman. The porter appears nowhere else in the play. Macduff is banging on Macbeth's castle door, come to see the king. The porter has been roused from his drunken slumber to answer the door. He has some difficulty, and also a monologue wherein he invents "knock knock" jokes. I'm not kidding.

In "Hamlet," after Ophelia's suicide is discovered and Hamlet sends a threatening letter to the king and the king plots with Laertes to murder Hamlet, things have got about as tense as they can possibly get. The emotional level has to be brought back down so that the ending tragic action will have full resonance with the audience. So what does Shakespeare give us? The gravedigger scene, full of jokes and puns about lawyers. The fight between Laertes and Hamlet in Ophelia's open grave would not be so shocking or emotional had it come right on the heels of Laertes' conspiring with Claudius.

Just so, after Luzhin collapses in madness, alone on the grass of a public park in Berlin, Nabokov sends in the clowns: two drunken German gentlemen staggering home, following a third. The very world comes alive around the drunks, who swim over the bucking and swaying pavements and reel from walls and streetlamps in their altered state. A taxi is hailed. The wrong German is placed inside and spirited away. The remaining drunken Berliners find Luzhin and mistake him for one of their party. The same taxi is hailed. Luzhin is carried on board, the drunks climbing in after. Luzhin is delivered to his fiancee's home. The proper story continues from there, at a much reduced level of tension. It's laugh-out-loud funny and a perfect solution to Nabokov's having written himself into a corner in the previous chapter.

This is too long. I am very short on sleep and I've no idea if I've said anything but I do admire this novel very much and everyone should read it. Hopefully I'll still feel that way when I've actually finished the damned thing. Maybe tomorrow. We shall see.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Gearing up to All Hallows' Eve

Last night Mighty Reader and I indulged in a bit of scary story reading and listening, preparatory to Halloween. We also bought a pumpkin at the market (where Mighty Reader was dressed as a witch because it was the local "Harvest Festival" where the neighborhood closes down the main street and merchants set up booths and children of all ages wander about in costume begging for candy) but that's by the way. Our scary stories kicked off with a listening of Neil Gaiman's "Click Clack the Rattlebag," which you can download for free. It's for a good cause and Mr Gaiman reads the story himself, and he's a good reader. I don't know if it's true that his accent has been insured for a million dollars, but I have heard that rumor.

While we were listening to Gaiman's story, Mighty Reader piped in with, "Hey, this is just 'The Open Window,' that O. Henry story." I did not know the O. Henry story, so naturally dinner preparations were interrupted to search the interwebs, where it was discovered that the story in question is actually by Saki. You can read it here. Mighty Reader read it to me (she's a fine reader) and I enjoyed the tale though I spotted the trick halfway through and afterward said, "Oh, that's nothing so scary as 'The Monkey's Paw,' which Mighty Reader did not initially recall though she later remembered it, because who hasn't read it? You haven't, you say? Then you should get yourself to this page and give it a looking over. It has a classic three-act structure as well as being a solid example of the classic horror story structure. Mighty Reader declared it good and scary and was immediately afterward driven to watch a video of a singing cat to clear the fright from the atmosphere.

We might read more scary stories to each other leading up to Halloween. We might not. We'll see, is what we'll do. I have no idea what we'll do on the night in question; we don't get much in the way of trick-or-treat children in this neighborhood. The pumpkin will be transformed into a ghoulish jack-o-lantern, surely, and possibly Mighty Reader will again don her witch costume while I dress as a writer relaxing after work (lazy? unimaginative? me?). Possibly we'll watch one of the BTVS Halloween episodes or maybe I'll lobby for a Hitchcock film. Don't know. I like the scary story idea best.

Though there is also, of course, this:

(photo by Mighty Reader)

Monday, October 22, 2012

We shall rest. We shall rest. We shall rest.

I realize that for the last couple of weeks I've read little aside from Chekhov: a volume of his short stories, the last hundred pages or so of his Collected Letters, and most recently his four full-length plays, "The Cherry Orchard," "Uncle Vanya," "Three Sisters" and "The Seagull." His plays, if you've not read them, are remarkable. If you're a writer, you owe it to yourself to read them through, not just to see them performed (I think you can find well-cast productions of all of them on youtube, likely violating copyrights like nobody's business), because there's something about seeing the language on the page that gives one (me, at least) a better sense of how the writing is put together as writing.

Like I say, these plays are remarkable things, full of vitality and motion and insight and yet Chekhov has managed, in each of them, to bring all motion to a complete halt at the end, to present us with a moment of stasis in which we've no choice but to ask ourselves what just happened, unable to move forward until we've answered that question. At least, that's where the plays leave me.

Which means that I have a strong urge right now to not read or write another word for, say, a year while I sit very still and consider Chekhov's four major plays. They really do deserve the time, and I really ought to just start over reading again at the beginning, and devote hour upon hour to the study of craft and the interpretation of meanings. But I won't, because life is short and I have too many other things to read and I'm an impatient fellow, I guess. If there's an afterlife, I share Borges' hope that it's in the shape of a library. I'll re-read everything when I'm dead, is what I'm saying.

Instead of meditating over the brilliant plays of Anton Pavlovich, I'm moving ahead with the readalong of Benito Perez Galdos' Fortunata and Jacinta. I'm closing in on the end of Volume II. It's no Chekov, is what I have to say, but it is pleasant enough and Galdos skewers his cast in an admirable and humorous manner. I'm also moving ahead with the first draft of the novel(la) Mona in the Desert, and I'm a bit past the halfway point (I think) of Chapter 8. That puts me about 65% of the way through the draft, I'm guessing. Some good work was done today during lunch. I continue to have no idea at all what this book is supposed to be, but I've gotten past whatever barrier I encountered at the end of Chapter 7 and I think that really, all I have to do is keep an eye on my notes to myself and write the story out until the end and it'll pretty much take care of itself. There's no shortage of ideas, which is a good thing. Maybe I can finish this by the end of the year and finally get working on rewrites to Go Home, Miss America. Which is also no Chekhov, but we do as well as we can, right?

Friday, October 19, 2012

It is work without poetry, without meaning

IRINA. How tired I am!

TUZENBAKH. And every day I'll come to the telegraph office and walk you home. I'll do it for ten years, for twenty years, till you drive me away . . . [Seeing MASHA and VERSHININ, delightedly] Oh, it's you! How are you?

IRINA. Well, I'm home at last. [To MASHA] A lady came just now to telegraph to her brother in Saratov that her son died today, and she couldn't think of the address. So she sent it without an address -- simply to Saratov. She was crying. And I was rude to her for no reason. Told her I had no time to waste. It was so stupid. I must rest. I'm tired.

TUZENBAKH [with a smile]. When you come from the office you seem so young, so forlorn . . . [a pause].

IRINA. I'm tired. No, I don't like telegraph work, I don't like it.

MASHA. You've grown thinner . . . [whistles]. And you look younger, rather like a boy in the face.

TUZENBAKH. That's the way she does her hair.

IRINA. I must find some other job, this does not suit me. What I so longed for, what I dreamed of is the very thing that it's lacking in, . . . It is work without poetry, without meaning. . . .

Chekhov's play "Three Sisters" wrestles with the Big Existential Question: What's the point of life? None of the characters can claim to be happy; all of them have thwarted ambitions or are trying pitifully to either extricate themselves from some situation they've become entrapped by, or to find a way to take their minds off of their entrapment (affairs, alcohol, gambling, etc). Meanwhile, a discussion continues across the length of the play about how the future will be better, that living as an unhappy but enlightened person now will bring about widespread happiness and enlightenment in the future, in two hundred or three hundred years. Nobody seems to be convinced or comforted by this argument. Meanwhile, the town has caught fire and while some people proclaim the value of labor, others see the emptiness of most wage earning positions, and at least one person observes that laborers, when they grow old and are no longer able to earn their keep, should be put out into the country like old horses or cattle, "good for nothing now." All of this from the Chekhov who was accused during his lifetime of avoiding any social issues in his writing.

Chekhov was actually a great and consistent social writer, it's just that he never preached or drew conclusions for his readers. We all fall short, Chekhov shows us; we are all flawed and selfish but that doesn't necessarily make the whole project of humanity worthless. I won't attempt to sum up Chekhov's philosophies, because likely I just read them how I please.   Anyway, behind all of the "a man and a woman and a reason to be unhappy" in "Three Sisters" there is an interesting argument taking place, an argument whose solution is impossible to find because it takes place in an unknowable future. We can only guess and hope and keep moving. The characters in Chekhov's play are always at risk of stopping, putting down their things and refusing to live another moment. We can see why: to strive forward into the future is exhausting, but I think that Chekhov sees refusal to go on as true defeat. So we must go on, as Beckett so cheerfully put it. Unlike Beckett, Chekhov isn't mocking us. We must go on, and we ought, if nothing else, love each other as companions in the same impossible struggle.

MASHA. If only we knew. If only we knew. [curtain]

Thursday, October 18, 2012

All Hail The White Whale

Today Moby-Dick is, apparently, 161 years old. I am compelled to quote some of this remarkable and beautifully mad novel. Forget "Call me Ishmael." Here's how the book actually begins:

(Supplied by a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School)

The pale Usher--threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.

"While you take in hand to school others, and to teach them by what name a whale-fish is to be called in our tongue leaving out, through ignorance, the letter H, which almost alone maketh the signification of the word, you deliver that which is not true." --HACKLUYT

"WHALE.... Sw. and Dan. HVAL. This animal is named from roundness or rolling; for in Dan. HVALT is arched or vaulted." --WEBSTER'S DICTIONARY

"WHALE.... It is more immediately from the Dut. and Ger. WALLEN; A.S. WALW-IAN, to roll, to wallow." --RICHARDSON'S DICTIONARY


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Like A Sixth Finger

VERSHININ. You read English then?

ANDREY. Yes. Our father, the Kingdom of Heaven be his, oppressed us with education. It's funny and silly, but it must be confessed I began to get fatter after his death, and I've grown too fat in one year, as though a weight had been taken off my body. Thanks to our father we all know English, French and German, and Irina knows Italian too. But what it cost us!

MASHA. In this town to know three languages is an unnecessary luxury! Not even a luxury, but an unnecessary encumbrance, like a sixth finger. We know a great deal that's unnecessary.

VERSHININ. What next! [laughs] You know a great deal that's unnecessary! I don't think there can be a town so dull and dismal that intelligent and educated people are unnecessary in it. Let's suppose that of the hundred thousand people living in this town, which is, of course, uncultured and behind the times, there are only three of your sort. It goes without saying that you cannot conquer the mass of darkness round you; little by little, as you go on living, you'll be lost in the crowd. You'll have to give in to it. Life will get the better of you, but still you'll not disappear without a trace. After you there may appear perhaps six like you, then twelve and so on until such as you form a majority. In two or three hundred years, life on earth will be unimaginably beautiful, marvellous. Man needs such a life and, though he hasn't got it yet, he must have a presentiment of it, expect it, dream of it, prepare for it; for that he must see and know more than his father and grandfather [laughs]. And you complain of knowing a great deal that's unnecessary.

MASHA [takes off her hat]. I'll stay to lunch.

From "Three Sisters"

Very likely all of this has been said before, but: I'm reading the collected plays of Anton Chekhov, in translations by Constance Garnett. I've seen "Uncle Vanya" performed once, a long time ago, and I read "The Cherry Orchard" when I was a teenager, which was an even longer time ago than the "Uncle Vanya" performance. Which is to say that I had forgotten pretty much everything I knew about Chekhov's plays; all I had was a sense that they were sort of abstract and not realistic. In the last year or so I've read eight volumes of Chekhov short stories and novellas as well as a collection of 400 or so of his letters, so while I'm no expert on Chekhov, I claim a pretty solid familiarity with his stories and I've read at least some of his own writing about writing including being a playwright. All of which left me somehow unprepared for "The Seagull," "The Cherry Orchard" and the first act of "Three Sisters," which is how far into Collected Plays I've gotten so far.

It goes without saying that the plays are different than the stories, because a play is of course a script, meant to be acted out before an audience. But that's not really the difference I'm confronted by here. The movement of characters within the plays is the same sort of character movement you see in Chekhov's stories and novellas, and the indeterminate endings where people have moved from one form of sadness to a different form of sadness are also there in the plays. So that's all familiar Chekhovian territory. What is really different is the dialogue. I suppose that's an obvious sort of observation, plays being essentially dialogue. I have no familiarity whatsoever with 19th-century Russian plays aside from Chekhov, so I don't know if Chekhov's way with dialogue was innovative or if he was just writing plays the way Russians did at the time. I do know that Chekhov read a lot of plays that were being performed at the time (he spent most of his final years at Yalta and I think that the few plays he actually saw on stage during that period were his own), and he was familiar with the tragedies of Shakespeare. So he wasn't an outsider coming to the form, either.

What's different about Chekhov's dialogue in his plays, as compared to dialogue in Chekhov's stories, and compared to the expectation of realist prose I had when I sat down with this book, is that Chekhov's characters often make long speeches in a poetic vein exposing their inmost thoughts and emotions. Since you don't have a narrator in a play to tell you what people are thinking, the only way to get at it directly from a character is to have the character speak it, yes? And you might point to the soliloquys in Shakespeare's plays, where folks bare their souls and admit all sorts of things. But in Shakespeare, the soul is bared to the audience only; rarely (or ever; I can’t think of an instance) is there another character directly addressed. However what you'll find in Chekhov are characters who will make these philosophical, confessional, poetical speeches in a room full of people, usually family and friends but yes, even in front of strangers, and the high-flown soliloquy is treated as if it's everyday speech. That's different. That's not realism.

So I had to just accept that this was how Chekhov wrote and get on with reading the plays. I provisionally forgave Anton Pavlovich for this until I came to my senses and realized that Dr Chekhov knew what he was doing and that the clumsiness was all mine. I think that upon closer inspection you'll see that characters treat these confessional poetical speeches as everyday speech because they are in fact internal monologues, they aren't by and large actually heard by the other characters. If they are, they're brushed aside the way in real life when someone says “I'm unhappy, you know,” we don't really engage with that statement, especially among families and friends. So Chekhov has invented a form of speech which combines the internal monologue with the external dialogue, but he doesn't place any markers in the play to let us know where the boundaries are between these two forms of speech. At least, that's my theory today. Maybe I'm still feverish. I've not been well, you know.

And no, the dialogue quoted above from "Three Sisters" doesn't illustrate my point. I posted it before I knew I wanted to write about Chekhov's use of dialogue, because I read that scene at lunch and it made me laugh, nearly out loud.