Thursday, June 28, 2012

Realism Under Construction

I am still reading Flaubert's Madame Bovary. I am a slow reader, much slower now than in my youth. I figure I'm not quite a third of the way through the book. Emma and Leon are becoming attracted to each other in a vapid sort of way. Both of them are bubble-heads who feel put upon by the mundanity of life. Why do I not have some other, more glamorous life, in some other, more glamorous place? They ask themselves this and sigh.

My current impression of the novel is that it's uneven. There are large patches of glorious prose that carry me along quite happily, and there are large patches of more rather heavy weather, where Flaubert is building, putting together a symbolic landscape into which he'll eventually bring Charles and Emma. Some of that construction (I refer here to the opening pages of the Yonville part) is not so pleasant to sit through. I can see why Flaubert needed to construct the elaborate set, but I did not enjoy the noise of the hammers and saws. I am speaking in metaphor, damn it. I blame Gustave.

The symbolic network Flaubert creates is elaborate and I do admire the craft. Alas, I think this might be one of those novels I admire more than I enjoy. We'll see, I guess, how the scales are weighted when I reach the end. But because I am familiar with the plot of the book, I can see that Leon shuffling sadly past Emma's bedroom window (both Emma and Leon convinced they are suffering from the lack of glamour and pining for each other) might parallel and contrast with the profane beggar who sings a bawdy outside the window of the room in which Emma dies, later on in the book.

I am also growing too much aware, I think, of the editorial nature of the symbolic landscapes, and I must say that Flaubert might have overdone it. For example:

They returned to Yonville by the water-side. In the warm season the bank, wider than at other times, showed to their foot the garden walls whence a few steps led to the river. It flowed noiselessly, swift, and cold to the eye; long, thin grasses huddled together in it as the current drove them, and spread themselves upon the limpid water like streaming hair; sometimes at the tip of the reeds or on the leaf of a water-lily an insect with fine legs crawled or rested. The sun pierced with a ray the small blue bubbles of the waves that, breaking, followed each other; branchless old willows mirrored their grey backs in the water; beyond, all around, the meadows seemed empty. It was the dinner-hour at the farms, and the young woman and her companion heard nothing as they walked but the fall of their steps on the earth of the path, the words they spoke, and the sound of Emma's dress rustling round her.

The walls of the gardens with pieces of bottle on their coping were hot as the glass windows of a conservatory. Wallflowers had sprung up between the bricks, and with the tip of her open sunshade Madame Bovary, as she passed, made some of their faded flowers crumble into a yellow dust, or a spray of overhanging honeysuckle and clematis caught in its fringe and dangled for a moment over the silk.

That's all very fine, yes? But the thing is, it's a method Flaubert uses constantly: to present a long long list of beautiful things and then, at the end, to continue on with an image of destruction or decay. As I said on Monday, I think, Flaubert infuses the prose little by little with toxins. There is nothing wrong with this little trick, except that Flaubert is using it in a repetitious manner. Emma is spoiling everything nice; everything that Emma thinks she desires is actually ruinous. The individual uses of this conceit are all very fine and inventive, but the continuous use of this conceit--even with the great variation of surface detail--is becoming tiresome. I understand, however, that because Madame Bovary was stylistically unique when it was first published, Flaubert's readers were not necessarily trained to read novels closely, to recognize the importance of symbols in prose literature the way one does with poetry. So I cut Flaubert slack and sit through his detournement of lists. Because a lot of the lists are entertaining.

Anyway, I continue with Madame Bovary but I am not filled with the desire to read more Flaubert after this book. I miss Chekhov, po pravdi govorya.

Also: A quick update on the WIP. I am at about 75,000 words, pushing forward with Chapter 15 (the penultimate chapter). I think it's pretty good so far. I see that there are some things that will need to be adjusted early on in the story, because there were things I didn't know when I was first writing the novel and so I have continuity errors (by which I really mean mischaracterizations) in the opening chapters. But that's all easy stuff. I think my own symbolic background is working out and my metaphorical wagers are paying off. I think. I don't really know, but I have a good feeling. I should have this draft finished in a couple of weeks, and then I will ignore the MS while Mighty Reader subjects herself to the first draft and attempts to give me feedback that I will attempt to ignore before claiming her advice and her ideas as my own. She's become used to my behavior in this regard, but that doesn't excuse it, I know.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Note to Self: Gustave Now, Anton Later

This is from Anton Chekhov's long (about 150 pages) story "The Steppe," which I read on Sunday:

The low hills were still plunged in the lilac distance, and no end could be seen to them. There were glimpses of high grass and heaps of stones; strips of stubble land passed by them and still the same rooks, the same hawk, moving its wings with slow dignity, moved over the steppe. The air was more sultry than ever; from the sultry heat and the stillness submissive nature was spellbound into silence. No wind, no fresh cheering sound, no cloud.

But at last, when the sun was beginning to sink into the west, the steppe, the hills and the air could bear the oppression no longer, and, driven out of all patience, exhausted, tried to fling off the yoke. A fleecy ashen-grey cloud unexpectedly appeared behind the hills. It exchanged glances with the steppe, as though to say, "Here I am," and frowned. Suddenly something burst in the stagnant air; there was a violent squall of wind which whirled round and round, roaring and whistling over the steppe. At once a murmur rose from the grass and last year's dry herbage, the dust curled in spiral eddies over the road, raced over the steppe, and carrying with it straws, dragon flies and feathers, rose up in a whirling black column towards the sky and darkened the sun. Prickly uprooted plants ran stumbling and leaping in all directions over the steppe, and one of them got caught in the whirlwind, turned round and round like a bird, flew towards the sky, and turning into a little black speck, vanished from sight. After it flew another, and then a third, and Yegorushka saw two of them meet in the blue height and clutch at one another as though they were wrestling.

A bustard flew up by the very road. Fluttering his wings and his tail, he looked, bathed in the sunshine, like an angler's glittering tin fish or a waterfly flashing so swiftly over the water that its wings cannot be told from its antenna, which seem to be growing before, behind and on all sides. Quivering in the air like an insect with a shimmer of bright colours, the bustard flew high up in a straight line, then, probably frightened by a cloud of dust, swerved to one side, and for a long time the gleam of his wings could be seen.

Then a corncrake flew up from the grass, alarmed by the hurricane and not knowing what was the matter. It flew with the wind and not against it, like all the other birds, so that all its feathers were ruffled up and it was puffed out to the size of a hen and looked very angry and impressive. Only the rooks who had grown old on the steppe and were accustomed to its vagaries hovered calmly over the grass, or taking no notice of anything, went on unconcernedly pecking with their stout beaks at the hard earth.

There was a dull roll of thunder beyond the hills; there came a whiff of fresh air. Deniska gave a cheerful whistle and lashed his horses. Father Christopher and Kuzmitchov held their hats and looked intently towards the hills. How pleasant a shower of rain would have been!

One effort, one struggle more, and it seemed the steppe would have got the upper hand. But the unseen oppressive force gradually riveted its fetters on the wind and the air, laid the dust, and the stillness came back again as though nothing had happened, the cloud hid, the sun-baked hills frowned submissively, the air grew calm, and only somewhere the troubled lapwings wailed and lamented their destiny.

And this is from Gustave Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary, which I am currently reading:

So Charles set to work again and crammed for his examination, ceaselessly learning all the old questions by heart. He passed pretty well. What a happy day for his mother! They gave a grand dinner.

Where should he go to practice? To Tostes, where there was only one old doctor. For a long time Madame Bovary had been on the look-out for his death, and the old fellow had barely been packed off when Charles was installed, opposite his place, as his successor.

But it was not everything to have brought up a son, to have had him taught medicine, and discovered Tostes, where he could practice it; he must have a wife. She found him one--the widow of a bailiff at Dieppe--who was forty-five and had an income of twelve hundred francs. Though she was ugly, as dry as a bone, her face with as many pimples as the spring has buds, Madame Dubuc had no lack of suitors. To attain her ends Madame Bovary had to oust them all, and she even succeeded in very cleverly baffling the intrigues of a port-butcher backed up by the priests.

Charles had seen in marriage the advent of an easier life, thinking he would be more free to do as he liked with himself and his money. But his wife was master; he had to say this and not say that in company, to fast every Friday, dress as she liked, harass at her bidding those patients who did not pay. She opened his letters, watched his comings and goings, and listened at the partition-wall when women came to consult him in his surgery.

She must have her chocolate every morning, attentions without end. She constantly complained of her nerves, her chest, her liver. The noise of footsteps made her ill; when people left her, solitude became odious to her; if they came back, it was doubtless to see her die. When Charles returned in the evening, she stretched forth two long thin arms from beneath the sheets, put them round his neck, and having made him sit down on the edge of the bed, began to talk to him of her troubles: he was neglecting her, he loved another. She had been warned she would be unhappy; and she ended by asking him for a dose of medicine and a little more love.

The Flaubert, to me, seems a bit frantic, a lot more kinetic and sort of whirling with forward motion than the Chekhov. Both of these pieces (I mean, both "The Steppe" and Madame Bovary) are attractively written, and I can see uses for both the compressed, angular and madly-dashing forward Flaubert style, and for the static, wondering Chekhov style. In fact, I mostly post this as a reminder to myself that, while I'm writing Chapter 15 of my work-in-progress, it would be a fine thing to be influenced by the pushiness of Flaubert, but when I go to write Chapter 16, I'd like to remember "The Steppe" and the languid stasis Chekhov achieved there. I'd like that stillness of voice that Chekhov found even while describing a storm blowing over the land. Yes, I just want to remind myself in a couple of weeks to stop, stay where I am; there is no hurry at all. Also, goats!

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Madame Bovary Drinking Game

I am currently reading Gustave Flaubert's 1856 novel Madame Bovary, alleged to be the first "realist" novel. I have no opinion about that "first" bit; my job isn't to construct a history of narrative technique, it's to just read books and see what the writer has done (and, not incidentally, to steal anything that looks to be useful if applied to my own work). This is the only Flaubert I've read at this point, so I had no idea what to expect. It's pretty good, though. I don't know why I've waited so long, aside from my general disregard for French novels and my already-impossibly-long "to be read" list. I am digressing in about seven different directions, amn't I? What about that drinking game, Scott?

When I read James Wood's collection of essays How Fiction Works, I couldn't help noticing how often Wood pointed to Flaubert's "invention" of free indirect style, which is essentially third-person omniscient in my world. So since I was familiar with free indirect style (and so are you if you've read Henry James or any of the Modernists), Wood's book didn't fill me with curiosity about Flaubert and his craft. See above comment about the length of my "to be read" list. Anyway, what I'm noticing in Bovary is not Flaubert's use of point of view, but his use of detail as foreshadowing. A great deal of the novel (or at least the first five chapters, because that's all I've read so far) is in narrative summary* but the dramatized scenes are full of concrete details. In fact, they are overfilled with concrete details, at least for a narrative style as crisp and light as this.

Look at the wedding chapter, for example. It comes in three or four sections, and each section begins with a list of things, all displayed in a positive and festive light:

The procession, first united like one long coloured scarf that undulated across the fields, along the narrow path winding amid the green corn, soon lengthened out, and broke up into different groups that loitered to talk. The fiddler walked in front with his violin, gay with ribbons at its pegs. Then came the married pair, the relations, the friends, all following pell-mell; the children stayed behind amusing themselves plucking the bell-flowers from oat-ears, or playing amongst themselves unseen. Emma's dress, too long, trailed a little on the ground; from time to time she stopped to pull it up, and then delicately, with her gloved hands, she picked off the coarse grass and the thistledowns, while Charles, empty handed, waited till she had finished.

See at the end there, where Emma's dress is "too long" and Charles is "empty handed?" Flaubert has begun to introduce imperfections into the gaiety. And let's not ignore the image of the bridal gown soiled and from time to time "pulled up" to be picked clean of all the detritus that's accumulated. Five bucks says that's a billboard of foreshadowing, as are Charles' empty hands. A little later in that same paragraph we have this:

The other wedding guests talked of their business or played tricks behind each other's backs, egging one another on in advance to be jolly. Those who listened could always catch the squeaking of the fiddler, who went on playing across the fields. When he saw that the rest were far behind he stopped to take breath, slowly rosined his bow, so that the strings should sound more shrilly, then set off again, by turns lowering and raising his neck, the better to mark time for himself. The noise of the instrument drove away the little birds from afar.

Flaubert plays that trick over and over during the wedding. The guests arrive in all sorts of finery (we are given a long and cheerful enumeration of the variety of coats the men are wearing) but there are not enough footmen to deal with the carriages and some of the poorer relations, it must be admitted, are not dressed so finely and will find themselves at the foot of the reception table where they will be convinced that they have been given the worst of the wedding meats and sweets and will gather in small angry knots to gossip about the father of the bride and wish him ill in the future. So it's that sort of game Flaubert plays with details, starting off in a positive mood and then coloring it darker and darker as he adds more detail, infusing toxins into the scene. It's a fine trick and an amusing one that lots of people have used, and possibly they all stole it from Flaubert. I'll keep an eye out for any other tricks, I will.

But that's none of it the Madame Bovary Drinking Game, is it? No, it's not. One thing I noticed is that this book should be called Mes Dames Bovary, because there are three Madame Bovaries (so far): the mother of Charles Bovary, the first wife of Charles Bovary (Heloise), and the second wife of Charles Bovary (Emma). I am hoping that Charles' mother continues to be a character in the novel beyond the wedding scenes, because the MBDG is, of course, having a drink every time the phrase "Madame Bovary" appears in the narrative. I am not sure what that drink should be, though. What did people drink as cordials in 1856? Emma and her father live in the country where they drink hard cider, but I don't think so. Perhaps it's time to lay in a new bottle of port?

*and since the narrative is written from the point of view of a specific individual--an unnamed person the same age as Charles Bovary who met him in high school--is it really free indirect style? And does the narrator ever reveal himself in the narrative? I don't know.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Friday! Filler! Backwards, in Latin

1. Yesterday evening, on the bus ride home, I finished drafting Chapter 14 of Go Home, Miss America. Two final chapters to go! That's still about 10K words, but I think I can finish this book by the end of July, which would put me Ahead of Schedule.

2. Next week I'm reading Gustave Flaubert's 19th-century sexy novel Madame Bovary, and a few other people will also be reading that book. You too should join the fun, whoever you are. There's a recent translation by Lydia Davis. You could sing the Lydia Davis translation song.

3. It's raining in Seattle! On the second day of Summer! Who is surprised by that?

4. In August I'll be revising Cocke & Bull. Maybe in September, too, depending on how much additional material I decide to add to the narrative. I look forward to this. Fingers crossed that the folks at Rhemalda Publishing will want the book. (Aside to Diane, Emmaline and Rhett: You will want the book.)

5. Sometime in the coming months I should have cover artwork for The Astrologer to share. That'll be fun! That'll also mean that I can actually do something useful with my vanity website, which has been sitting ignored for a long long time. Poor little vanity website. Soon it will contain artwork, maps, illustrations and excerpts from the novel. Won't that be exciting! Yes, it will! Will it drive sales of the book next year? Oh, we doubt it, but it will still amuse me and that, really, is what art is all about: the amusement of the artist. I swear I read that in one of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks. Backwards, in Latin.

6. This weekend, maybe, we'll buy lumber and pour concrete! If it ever stops raining and if we don't decide to go canoeing instead. Canoes are cool. Hell, I'm now hoping for the canoe option.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

French literature I have not read

It occurred to me while reading Tom's excellent and entertaining posts about Victor Hugo that I've read very little in the way of French literature. It's a whole world of books and poetry that remains outside of my experience, and I should do something to rectify that.

Of course I've read some of the French literature that stereotypical broody American self-styled "artists" all read: Camus, Sartre, Beckett (translated into English by Beckett; does Beckett count as "French" literature? No? Damn), a smattering of Montaigne, Voltaire of course, some Jules Verne, the first volume of Proust's "Lost Time" books, a bit of Verlaine, a bit of Rimbaud, a bit of Baudelaire, some Ionesco and Genet. Does Pascal count? What about Rousseau, or Diderot, or Barthes or Foucault? Oh, I read a Houellebecq novel, Atomised, last year or the year before that. Anyway, that tidy list pretty much covers my slim exposure to French writing. Not so impressive.

Where to begin if I want to get serious about this literary culture? Hugo? Stendhal? Flaubert? Zola? JMG Le Clezio? Should I finish Proust first? I have more Camus and two by Gide on my TBR stack already. God only knows what Mighty Reader has on the shelves waiting for me. So I guess I'll look around.

Why am I suddenly picking on the French? Why not?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Me and Antoshka, not writing

I have reached the point in the first draft of Go Home, Miss America where I'm about to write the final dramatized scene of the Catherine Lark story line. There's one more scene in the last chapter of the book involving Catherine, but that's mostly denouement where we learn the consequences of Catherine's actions; the scene I'm supposed to write next is--or should be--the last chance we have of seeing Catherine's story developing. It's the scene that should make the ending of her story line clear. It will point the way beyond the last page of the book into Catherine's future, etc. I'm not writing this scene.

Instead, I'm reading Volume 7 of Tales of Chekhov. Right now I'm reading the 1887 story "The Murder." It's quite fine. I can't wait to read the 150-page story "On The Steppe." I'm also reading Chekhov's letters, and last night I pawed through a short chapter of Bulfinch's Mythology and I'm also reading some Yeats poetry. I'm doing a lot of reading. And look: I'm writing a blog post. So I'm writing, too. I'm just not writing that last scene in Chapter 14 of my work-in-progress.

Frankly, I have very little idea what happens in that scene. Catherine is waiting at a bus stop. Violet Molloy crosses the street and waits at the same stop. The talk. They do not get along. A bus comes. They both board and sit together and continue to talk. We get Catherine's impressions of Violet. We get Violet's impressions of Catherine. Catherine gets off at her stop. We get Violet's internal monologue about love, life, marriage. End of chapter. Yes, that's the climatic scene in Catherine Lark's story line. I know, it fails to give the appearance of a climax. Such is the way of this book. I promise that there's some bodily harm in Chapter 15, though.

Yes, I said yesterday or whenever that whatever scene I was writing then was the most important scene in this chapter, but it turns out that I was wrong. This new unwritten scene is the most important scene in the chapter. Color me crazy at this point in the process. Go ahead.

As I say, I am not writing that scene. I know it's the right scene at the right time, but I can't find the hook, the entry point into the scene and so I sit and think about it and read my outline and notes again and fuss with other scenes in the chapter but I don't write that scene. So today, I swear, I'll get a good start on it. It may be the wrong way to begin the scene, but I'll do it anyway. If it's wrong, its wrongness will only make apparent what the right approach is. So I'll do it, but I don't like it. This book has been, in a lot of ways, a real bitch to write. Chapter 15 should be pretty easy. So I tell myself. It will be raining, and rain is always good.

I only write this post so that at this stage in the next novel, I can look back and assure myself that I've lived through this hell before so I can do it again. So nothing to see here. Move along.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

last chance to see

Yesterday I wrote a scene for Chapter 14 of the work-in-progress novel. The scene, as written, was essentially just a plot point: I had two characters interact to move the clock forward and say a few important lines of dialogue. I knew when I was writing it that it wasn’t brilliant. In fact, I thought of it as a placeholder that I’d revise later. It’s sort of a skeleton of a scene, really: there’s a location, a man and a woman, and a realization. That’s plenty enough for a good scene, but for some reason it lay flat on the page. It had no life of its own, this scene. Ironically, I have one character say to another, “Are we supposed to be having an emotional scene now?” Within the scene, the other character says, “No.” But in fact they are supposed to be having an emotional scene just then. I just didn’t remember what emotion it was supposed to be, or what the dramatic purpose or the narrative purpose of the scene was.

Luckily, I remembered this morning that this scene is actually the last place in the entire novel where the reader will get inside the Catherine Lark character’s head. This is the last available space on the page for me to make what happens to the character in the final-chapter-to-come credible and meaningful. This is the last chance I have to pull together all the threads of symbolism and theme and foreshadowing for Catherine’s story, and by gosh I’d best take those threads in hand and give a good hard tug, hadn’t I? Yes, I had better. So I keep going back into the scene and expanding things, adding moments, placing objects into the set and reblocking the action and it’s getting better as I go along, and by “better” I mean “more meaningful in terms of the story.” Anyway, the thing I must keep in mind while working over this particular scene is that it is the most important scene in the last third of the book so really, I’d better make it count. (The second most important scene in the last third of the book comes at the end of the next chapter, but it’s all physical action and will take care of itself. Really it will.)

I’ve done a lot of writing in this fashion while building this first draft. I begin writing scenes and while I know that the central action or image is important to the story, I don’t quite know why it’s important until I’ve written a fair bit, and then I have to stop, go back and reorganize scenes while still writing them, a couple of times writing new beginnings to scenes or chapters that are quite long and stitching them into place. Since I write longhand, in notebooks, you can imagine the mess this creates.

I’m still not sure if the idea I have for today’s session of going back into the scene-in-progress is the right idea, if it does what needs to be done in order to justify the outcome of the Catherine character’s story. It seems to fit in some way and I’m trying not to think too much about the mechanics of the story, the working of the plot or theme. I’m trying to just work my way through by feeling my way along, trusting my intuition more than my ideas about tripartite form and causal narratives. So we’ll see. I of course blame Davin Malasarn for this attempt at intuitive writing. If the book is unsuccessful, you all know whose fault it is.

Anyway, I was writing scenes as if this was a plot-driven novel, where the characters matter less than the action. I should remember to write scenes as if this is a character-driven novel, where the actual action is almost beside the point because the internal action is what counts. The scene in question takes place in the kitchen of an apartment, but it could just as easily happen in a park, in a restaurant, on a bus or at a shopping mall. The interaction between the characters matters and I have to remain focused on that, not on how many chairs are at the kitchen table (3) or what color the walls are (blue) or what’s on the radio (a baseball game, bottom of the third). None of that matters; it’s all just an arbitrary setting for the real action. Know what the real action is, kids. It’s not always physical. And know why that real action matters. You know: basic stuff that’s easy to forget in the dash toward the end of a first draft. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m still writing, not just finishing up.

Also, it’s true that I mistrust my own endings when they don’t end in death. Death is such a nice, clean way to end a story. Life is so much messier and entails greater risk for the novelist. Just like in the real world, I suppose. Hey, look: accidental trite philosophy!

Monday, June 18, 2012

getting ahead of myself

On Saturday night, Mighty Reader and I went to a nice Turkish restaurant and drank a lot of wine and raki (they called it "arack") while listening to a couple of bands. Les Pamplemousses is a French cabaret-style duo and I was delighted to discover that Marchette DuBois, world citizen, was the accordionist. I've long been a fan of Ms DuBois and I confess I was disappointed when she didn't do any singing. Marchette has an amazing voice, not that Ines Andrade was any slouch. Shades of Edith Piaf, I say, and good goofy fun it was. Sonerion was the headliner, and they rocked the house with Breton music and a special guest appearance by Stanley Greenthal, famous Seattle folk scenester. Stan's wife Kip was there, and she's a good writer and we talked about revisions and agents for too brief a time. I appear to have agreed to someday sit in for a song or a suite of songs with Sonerion, but I did have a bit more to drink than usual so perhaps I didn't actually agree to anything. But it would be fun, so Ron and I'll have to discuss repertoire. Sona's new button accordion rocks (as does Sona), and Daniel's groove-oriented bass playing is totally amazing. I was visibly impressed and it's too bad that Cafe Paloma lacks adequate room for a mosh pit.

Les Pamplemousses at Cafe Paloma:

Sonerion at Cafe Paloma:

None of that was what I was going to write. No, I was going to say that yesterday morning I climbed out of bed and stumbled down the hall to the "office" where I grabbed a pen and paper and scribbled out the first chapter of the next book I'm going to write. I had only meant to write down the first sentence (because one should strike while the iron is hot, etc) but stuff just kept coming so I went with it. Now I will ignore that chapter and finish Go Home, Miss America, but it's nice to know that I'm excited about the next project and it's sort of cool to have actually begun writing it. I've started poking about with research and I think that my plans for the plot and characters are all going to fall into place nicely with actual world events of 1790 so this will be a lot of fun. Alas, I have loads of work to do with existing books, too. But Book Seven, Chapter One is already written down. I just need to finish Book Six, finish fussing with Book Four and see if the folks at Rhemalda want to publish it after they publish Book Three, and decide what I want to do with Book Five. And stuff. Lots to do, as I say.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Bloomsday, 2012

--You, Cochrane, what city sent for him?

--Tarentum, sir.

--Very good. Well?

--There was a battle, sir.

--Very good. Where?

The boy's blank face asked the blank window.

Fabled by the daughters of memory. And yet it was in some way if not as
memory fabled it. A phrase, then, of impatience, thud of Blake's wings
of excess. I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling
masonry, and time one livid final flame. What's left us then?

--I forget the place, sir. 279 B. C.

--Asculum, Stephen said, glancing at the name and date in the
gorescarred book.

--Yes, sir. And he said: _Another victory like that and we are done

That phrase the world had remembered. A dull ease of the mind. From
a hill above a corpsestrewn plain a general speaking to his officers,
leaned upon his spear. Any general to any officers. They lend ear.

--You, Armstrong, Stephen said. What was the end of Pyrrhus?

--End of Pyrrhus, sir?

--I know, sir. Ask me, sir, Comyn said.

--Wait. You, Armstrong. Do you know anything about Pyrrhus?

A bag of figrolls lay snugly in Armstrong's satchel. He curled them
between his palms at whiles and swallowed them softly. Crumbs adhered to
the tissue of his lips. A sweetened boy's breath. Welloff people, proud
that their eldest son was in the navy. Vico road, Dalkey.

--Pyrrhus, sir? Pyrrhus, a pier.

All laughed. Mirthless high malicious laughter. Armstrong looked round
at his classmates, silly glee in profile. In a moment they will laugh
more loudly, aware of my lack of rule and of the fees their papas pay.

--Tell me now, Stephen said, poking the boy's shoulder with the book,
what is a pier.

--A pier, sir, Armstrong said. A thing out in the water. A kind of a
bridge. Kingstown pier, sir.

Some laughed again: mirthless but with meaning. Two in the back bench
whispered. Yes. They knew: had never learned nor ever been innocent.
All. With envy he watched their faces: Edith, Ethel, Gerty, Lily. Their
likes: their breaths, too, sweetened with tea and jam, their bracelets
tittering in the struggle.

--Kingstown pier, Stephen said. Yes, a disappointed bridge.

The words troubled their gaze.

--How, sir? Comyn asked. A bridge is across a river.

For Haines's chapbook. No-one here to hear. Tonight deftly amid wild
drink and talk, to pierce the polished mail of his mind. What then? A
jester at the court of his master, indulged and disesteemed, winning a
clement master's praise. Why had they chosen all that part? Not wholly
for the smooth caress. For them too history was a tale like any other
too often heard, their land a pawnshop.

Had Pyrrhus not fallen by a beldam's hand in Argos or Julius Caesar not
been knifed to death. They are not to be thought away. Time has
branded them and fettered they are lodged in the room of the infinite
possibilities they have ousted. But can those have been possible seeing
that they never were? Or was that only possible which came to pass?
Weave, weaver of the wind.

--Tell us a story, sir.

--O, do, sir. A ghoststory.

--Where do you begin in this? Stephen asked, opening another book.

-_-Weep no more,_ Comyn said.

--Go on then, Talbot.

--And the story, sir?

--After, Stephen said. Go on, Talbot.

A swarthy boy opened a book and propped it nimbly under the breastwork
of his satchel. He recited jerks of verse with odd glances at the text:

_--Weep no more, woful shepherds, weep no more
For Lycidas, your sorrow, is not dead,
Sunk though he be beneath the watery floor..._

It must be a movement then, an actuality of the possible as possible.
Aristotle's phrase formed itself within the gabbled verses and floated
out into the studious silence of the library of Saint Genevieve where he
had read, sheltered from the sin of Paris, night by night. By his elbow
a delicate Siamese conned a handbook of strategy. Fed and feeding brains
about me: under glowlamps, impaled, with faintly beating feelers: and
in my mind's darkness a sloth of the underworld, reluctant, shy of
brightness, shifting her dragon scaly folds. Thought is the thought of
thought. Tranquil brightness. The soul is in a manner all that is: the
soul is the form of forms. Tranquility sudden, vast, candescent: form of

Talbot repeated:

_--Through the dear might of Him that walked the waves,
Through the dear might..._

--Turn over, Stephen said quietly. I don't see anything.

--What, sir? Talbot asked simply, bending forward.

His hand turned the page over. He leaned back and went on again, having
just remembered. Of him that walked the waves. Here also over these
craven hearts his shadow lies and on the scoffer's heart and lips and
on mine. It lies upon their eager faces who offered him a coin of the
tribute. To Caesar what is Caesar's, to God what is God's. A long
look from dark eyes, a riddling sentence to be woven and woven on the
church's looms. Ay.

_Riddle me, riddle me, randy ro.
My father gave me seeds to sow._

Talbot slid his closed book into his satchel.

--Have I heard all? Stephen asked.

--Yes, sir. Hockey at ten, sir.

--Half day, sir. Thursday.

--Who can answer a riddle? Stephen asked.

They bundled their books away, pencils clacking, pages rustling.
Crowding together they strapped and buckled their satchels, all gabbling

--A riddle, sir? Ask me, sir.

--O, ask me, sir.

--A hard one, sir.

--This is the riddle, Stephen said:

_The cock crew,
The sky was blue:
The bells in heaven
Were striking eleven.
'Tis time for this poor soul
To go to heaven._

What is that?

--What, sir?

--Again, sir. We didn't hear.

Their eyes grew bigger as the lines were repeated. After a silence
Cochrane said:

--What is it, sir? We give it up.

Stephen, his throat itching, answered:

--The fox burying his grandmother under a hollybush.

He stood up and gave a shout of nervous laughter to which their cries
echoed dismay.

A stick struck the door and a voice in the corridor called:


They broke asunder, sidling out of their benches, leaping them. Quickly
they were gone and from the lumberroom came the rattle of sticks and
clamour of their boots and tongues.

Sargent who alone had lingered came forward slowly, showing an open
copybook. His thick hair and scraggy neck gave witness of unreadiness
and through his misty glasses weak eyes looked up pleading. On his
cheek, dull and bloodless, a soft stain of ink lay, dateshaped, recent
and damp as a snail's bed.

He held out his copybook. The word _Sums_ was written on the headline.
Beneath were sloping figures and at the foot a crooked signature with
blind loops and a blot. Cyril Sargent: his name and seal.

--Mr Deasy told me to write them out all again, he said, and show them
to you, sir.

Stephen touched the edges of the book. Futility.

--Do you understand how to do them now? he asked.

--Numbers eleven to fifteen, Sargent answered. Mr Deasy said I was to
copy them off the board, sir.

--Can you do them yourself? Stephen asked.

--No, sir.

Ugly and futile: lean neck and thick hair and a stain of ink, a snail's
bed. Yet someone had loved him, borne him in her arms and in her heart.
But for her the race of the world would have trampled him underfoot,
a squashed boneless snail. She had loved his weak watery blood drained
from her own. Was that then real? The only true thing in life? His
mother's prostrate body the fiery Columbanus in holy zeal bestrode.
She was no more: the trembling skeleton of a twig burnt in the fire,
an odour of rosewood and wetted ashes. She had saved him from being
trampled underfoot and had gone, scarcely having been. A poor soul
gone to heaven: and on a heath beneath winking stars a fox, red reek
of rapine in his fur, with merciless bright eyes scraped in the earth,
listened, scraped up the earth, listened, scraped and scraped.

Sitting at his side Stephen solved out the problem. He proves by algebra
that Shakespeare's ghost is Hamlet's grandfather. Sargent peered askance
through his slanted glasses. Hockeysticks rattled in the lumberroom: the
hollow knock of a ball and calls from the field.

Across the page the symbols moved in grave morrice, in the mummery of
their letters, wearing quaint caps of squares and cubes. Give hands,
traverse, bow to partner: so: imps of fancy of the Moors. Gone too from
the world, Averroes and Moses Maimonides, dark men in mien and movement,
flashing in their mocking mirrors the obscure soul of the world, a
darkness shining in brightness which brightness could not comprehend.

--Do you understand now? Can you work the second for yourself?

--Yes, sir.

In long shaky strokes Sargent copied the data. Waiting always for a word
of help his hand moved faithfully the unsteady symbols, a faint hue of
shame flickering behind his dull skin. _Amor matris:_ subjective and
objective genitive. With her weak blood and wheysour milk she had fed
him and hid from sight of others his swaddling bands.

Like him was I, these sloping shoulders, this gracelessness. My
childhood bends beside me. Too far for me to lay a hand there once or
lightly. Mine is far and his secret as our eyes. Secrets, silent, stony
sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts: secrets weary of their
tyranny: tyrants, willing to be dethroned.

The sum was done.

--It is very simple, Stephen said as he stood up.

--Yes, sir. Thanks, Sargent answered.

He dried the page with a sheet of thin blottingpaper and carried his
copybook back to his bench.

--You had better get your stick and go out to the others, Stephen said
as he followed towards the door the boy's graceless form.

--Yes, sir.

In the corridor his name was heard, called from the playfield.


--Run on, Stephen said. Mr Deasy is calling you.

He stood in the porch and watched the laggard hurry towards the scrappy
field where sharp voices were in strife. They were sorted in teams and
Mr Deasy came away stepping over wisps of grass with gaitered feet. When
he had reached the schoolhouse voices again contending called to him. He
turned his angry white moustache.

--What is it now? he cried continually without listening.

--Cochrane and Halliday are on the same side, sir, Stephen said.

--Will you wait in my study for a moment, Mr Deasy said, till I restore
order here.

And as he stepped fussily back across the field his old man's voice
cried sternly:

--What is the matter? What is it now?

Their sharp voices cried about him on all sides: their many forms closed
round him, the garish sunshine bleaching the honey of his illdyed head.

Stale smoky air hung in the study with the smell of drab abraded leather
of its chairs. As on the first day he bargained with me here. As it was
in the beginning, is now. On the sideboard the tray of Stuart coins,
base treasure of a bog: and ever shall be. And snug in their spooncase
of purple plush, faded, the twelve apostles having preached to all the
gentiles: world without end.

A hasty step over the stone porch and in the corridor. Blowing out his
rare moustache Mr Deasy halted at the table.

--First, our little financial settlement, he said.

From the second chapter, sort of, of James Joyce's Ulysses.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

unwinding down

The final three chapters of Go Home, Miss America are unspooling onto the page at a pretty good clip; yesterday I managed the first third of chapter 14 and it’s hanging together and moving in the desired direction, which will be as big a relief to readers as it is to me, I’m sure. I am trying very hard to push all thoughts of meaning or theme or interpretation out of my head during this final stretch, because one thing I hate is an author who sums things up or moralizes in the end. So I’m concentrating on images and actions and emotions and ignoring the very idea that it might all add up to anything. Which is liberating, in a way, but alarming in others. Anyway, this first draft should be finished soon, and I really mean it this time. This will be my sixth novel. Huh.

While that book is falling at long last into place, I begin to think about my next book, which has the working title of “the Haydn book” because nobody likes the title The Builder’s Wife, which was the working title for the last couple of years while I was writing other books. So I’ll have to find a real, proper title, but that can wait. I’ll just write the book and see what comes out of it.

The Haydn book will be great fun, I think. Franz Joseph Haydn, innovative and famous-during-his-lifetime composer of symphonies, operas, concertos and chamber music (inventor of the string quartet, no less) is reaching the end of his long tenure as the Kappelmeister for Prince Esterhazy. The prince is about to die, but nobody knows that. Haydn is getting on in years. He is attempting to have an affair with a much younger woman (the builder’s wife of the rejected title), but the woman is oblivious to the uncertain charms of Herr Haydn (a decidedly unhandsome man who most women think of as a talented but eccentric sort of uncle or grandfather). She is already having an affair, with the assistant principal violinist of Haydn’s orchestra. When the builder’s wife and the assistant principal violinist run off together to Vienna, they are pursued by the angry builder, the angry Haydn, and the angry wife of the principal violinist (who has a mad passionate unrequited love for the assistant principal violinist). In Vienna, folks get involved on the fringes of a plot to assassinate the Emperor at the Vienna Opera during a performance of a Mozart opera. Mozart, being dead by 1790, is not officially in attendance but his ghost is there and narrates some of the action. Yes, that’s right: Mozart’s ghost will narrate a few chapters.

That’s the formal game I’m playing with this book: it will be a series of first-person narratives wherein the active characters will narrate the events of the other characters. The builder will tell us what happens to the assistant principal violinist. Haydn’s wife will tell us what happens to the builder, maybe. Haydn will tell us what happens to the builder’s wife. And like that, around and around in a widening gyre. It will be a high degree of difficulty, will be a lot of fun for me, and if I pull it off I’ll be a total rock star. So I’ve got that to play with next year, and I look forward to it. In the meanwhile, I’ll prepare for this activity by playing a lot of Haydn’s music on my violin, reading Jane Austen and Voltaire, studying up on the Austro-Hungarian empire and maybe having a look at Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum again. It’s been years.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

I could pitch better than that

A stray breeze brought the metallic sound of a music box to them and Catherine glanced up to see Toby in the distance, surrounded by children and their parents. Catherine and Joanne walked along beneath the limbs of tall sycamores. The mottled gray, green and brown skins of the trees looked cool to the touch and a blue and orange nuthatch made its way down one thick trunk, spiraling around the tree to disappear from sight. Warblers and goldfinches fluttered about overhead, white wing and tail feathers flashing between dark branches that spread like long fingers among the glowing green leaves. Here and there the sun broke through the canopy, bright and startling and hot. Catherine smiled and Joanne talked about digging ditches in Dominican mud and the air was soft on Catherine’s face, gently tugging at her sun-bleached hair and stirring the rushes and long grass along the lake shore. The rolling park lawn was soft and green and Catherine thought that every living thing around her was safe and clean and that this was home and she thought I’m fine I’m fine I’m fine.

They got back to the ball field and sat on the bleachers with the other young women of the parish of Saint Catherine of Siena and Joanne talked about how Toby Robertson had grown a beard and was a biologist and had gone to Russia and had asked Catherine out to dinner. Sally Burns couldn’t believe that Catherine had accepted the invitation. I hear he’s an atheist now, she said. Amina Kwatye said that not everyone who goes to Mass was a believer and there was no way to tell. Catherine said that not everyone who leaves the Church is an atheist and Joanna Rheims said let’s talk about something else.

The Catholics were behind by two runs at the bottom of the sixth inning. Father Murphy has walked a lot of batters, Amina said. I could pitch better than that. I didn’t think you liked sports, Sally said. I don’t, not really, but I don’t want us to lose the game.

The sun had crept around and now shone in the eyes of the young women of the parish of Saint Catherine of Siena. Catherine found her sunglasses and put them on. Through the tinted lenses the grass was more yellow and the bright halos of the sunlit trees glowed brown and gold and beautiful. Her mouth tasted like vanilla ice cream and she licked her lips and smiled and wondered if she should change into something nicer for her dinner with Toby Robertson and she thought yes, I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine.

I'm about 67,000 words into Go Home, Miss America. If I try really hard and stay focused, I might actually finish the first draft by the end of July. I predict it will be the end of August, though.

Somehow I've begun planning my next book, the one about Haydn in 1790. I just realized that I'm going to do something weird and different with this book. I don't know what that will be; I just know that it will happen. Possibly I'll have Ludwig Van Beethoven narrate the story. No, I'm kidding about that one. Ghost of Mozart, though? No, again I kid you. But something weird and different and, mostly, fun for me will be going on here. I don't know what that will be. Possibly time travel. I'll let you know. Or not.

Friday, June 8, 2012

maintaining a certain established mood

Yesterday evening, during my bus commute, I finished writing Chapter 13 of my first draft for Go Home, Miss America. The book's now about 65,000 words. I'm looking for around 80,000 words for the first draft, and we'll see what happens during revisions in the fall or winter. I assume the word count will go up the way it always does, despite the cold-hearted cuts I'll make everywhere. Xeno's manuscript, you know. Even if you don't.

The literary conceit of having two story lines that begin far from each other and then connect 2/3 of the way through the book seems to be working, as does the additional literary conceit of having each of the main characters remain support characters in each other's stories. When the chapter belongs to David Molloy, Catherine Lark is a side character, and vice versa. David is more in the background in Catherine's chapters than she is in his, but even in David's chapters Catherine is mostly a prop. So that's interesting and I worry that it creates emotional distance in unintended ways but now, three chapters from the end of the book, is no time to stop and think about that. This is a time for charging forward, sticking to my notes as well as I can, and getting those three final chapters written come what may. Come what may, I tell you. The last chapter will be tricky; it could easily slide into treacly denouement if I let it. I won't let it, though.

What else was I going to say about this book? Oh, something about the language and how when one writes a novel, one creates a list of rules to set boundaries within which the narrative is formed. Part of those rules have to do with voice, with the sorts of figurative language used to engage with character emotions. What always seems to happen with me is that by the time I'm most of the way through the first draft I feel restricted and oppressed and maybe just bored with the voice boundaries I've created for the project. I begin to feel that I'm just using the same words over and over, writing the same sorts of images, just maintaining a certain established mood or symbolic framework until the end of the novel because I've set it into motion and now must maintain it for the reader and this maintaining of the narrative boundaries wears on me and I wish I was writing something else, something bounded by different narrative rules and I want to use a new set of images and a different vocabulary and the danger is that I'll do something radical just for its own sake. That's not always a bad thing; some of the "gosh I'm bored and I'd like to do something weird now" bits toward the end of Cocke & Bull and The Last Guest are actually pretty cool. But really, I just need to focus and write and finish the damned first draft. But I begin to feel hemmed in by my own artistic decisions. Which is merely another part of the drafting process.

Is all of that what I was going to say? Not exactly, I don't think. What I really meant to say was that I need to learn more verbs and adjectives. Motion verbs, mostly. No, I have no idea what I'm talking about now.

I'm also thinking that I should mention my friend Michelle Davidson Argyle's novel The Breakaway. The more I think about it, the more I like it. Michelle presents her story as a sort of naive romance, but it's actually just the protagonist who is naive and romantic. Michelle's book is knowing and moral and the author is much more aware than is her protagonist. I don't know quite how to talk about it without giving away the story, but it's a fine book and bits of Michelle's symbolism keep cropping up in my mind as I move through my day. I haven't figured out everything she is doing with color in the book, not yet. And the big tree must be more than just a big tree and a plot device, right? Yes, it must.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

he never asks for a second cup at home

This morning I found out that Victor LaValle has a new novel out. I read Big Machine two years ago, I think, and it was weird and strange and interesting, so I'm probably going to read The Devil in Silver when it comes out in August.

Are there any other new/upcoming books I'm looking forward to? I'm not sure. Peter Carey has a new one out, and I like Peter Carey well enough though I haven't read his last two so I don't know about this one. We'll see what Mighty Reader says about it. I think The Chemistry of Tears features an android. Cybernetics are cool, apparently. But that's the end of my list. I can't think of anyone else's newest release I'm dying to read. Hmm.

I just read Michelle Davidson Argyle's The Breakaway, which pubbed not long ago. I'm about to read Davin Malasarn's The Pagani Project, which is so new that it doesn't have a publisher yet. I'm going to read a Colm Tobin novel soon, and a W.G. Sebald book, and a couple of John Hawkes novels, but none of that last group is a new novel. They're recent, or recent compared to Shakespeare or Tolstoy or Chekhov or Nabokov, I suppose. I think I have a healthy portion of 20th-century lit in my reading diet, don't I? But that's not really the question.

The question, at least a question I'm asking myself today, is if I read enough current literature. Do I read enough books that are being written today, by living authors? How much is enough? Isn't it incumbent on living writers to read other living writers? If so, why? I don't know. I will not fall into the trap of thinking that current writers are inferior to the greats of the past, but I'm not sure I recognize the greats of the present. I used to think I'd be one of the greats of the present, but I know better now.

Do I have expectations of the literature of Now? Do I want books written today to be a certain type of book? I don't think so. I want to be pleasantly surprised, that's all. I want to fall in love. Modern literature, at best, seems to offer an "irritated in a good way" sort of experience, but that's not enough.

Anyway, I like Victor LaValle, so I'll bet I will enjoy his new one this fall, and that'll be nice for me.