Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Year In Books, 2013 edition

Highlights in reading, in order of appearance, hit-and-run style:

1. Muriel Spark The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: Jean Brodie is an amazing creation, and the novel's dense looping structure was a delight to behold. I will read more of Ms Sparks' novels as they fall into my hands. A Far Cry From Kensington was good, but it was no Brodie. Still, I'll keep an eye out, and we have Memento Mori on the shelf already.
2. James Joyce Finnegans Wake: I tried to read this a few years ago and only managed 100 pages. This time around I stopped fighting against Joyce's language and just let it carry me along. Finnegans Wake is a beautiful and dazzling failure but even as a failure it remains a great work of art: unknowable, mythical, yet wholly human; funny and puzzling and finally moving. The Anna chapter that closes the book still makes me weepy if I think about it. I also sometimes shake my fist at the ghost of Joyce because in a way I can't quite describe, I have been estranged from fiction ever since reading this novel.
3. Leonardo Sciascia The Day of the Owl: Sciascia's novels of crime and justice in Sicily break the mold for detective fiction. This book showed me how to free myself from the restrictions of genre conventions, and was the lifeline that pulled me through the drafting of The Hanging Man (see below). Sciascia writes brief, dense books where heroes do not save the world, for the world is not there to be saved.
4. John Ruskin The Seven Lamps of Architecture: Great stuff, sometimes even about architecture. Sometimes full of lunacy. I am looking for more Ruskin but have had, surprisingly, a difficult time finding it around here. For now I'll have to be satisfied with the (extremely) abridged Stones of Venice I picked up at Magus Used Books last week.
5. Anton Chekhov: This year I finished up the 13-volume Tales of Chekhov set of 300+ stories translated by the beloved Constance Garnett. In 2014 I will begin reading the set again, starting with the first volume. I'm also reading Chekhov in other translations, mostly because Garnett did not translate all of Chekhov's stories. I cannot begin to say how important Chekhov is to me as a reader and a writer. Very, that's how much. Lots, too. Heaps, etc. I have however not yet finished my long-term project of reading all of Shakespeare's plays. I've read most of them. Those English history plays languish on the shelf. But I started in on "Richard II" last night, so there, Mr Shakespeare.

The living author who I'm most pleased to have discovered this year is Marly Youmans, who wrote Thaliad and A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage. I'm looking forward to reading more from young Ms Youmans. She has an impressive catalogue.

These are most of the books I read in 2013 (I'm not listing nonfiction titles I'm plundering as research for my own marginal novels):

Muriel Spark The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
William Shakespeare Pericles
Joan Aiken The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Graham Greene Brighton Rock
Eduard Mörike Mozart's Journey to Prague
Ivan Turgenev A Lear of the Steppes and Other Stories
Yukio MishimaThe Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea
Kingsley Amis Lucky Jim
Miguel de Cervantes The Dialogue of the Dogs
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Volume Nine
Michael Sims (ed.) The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime
Voltaire Candide
Michelle Davidson-Argyle Out of Tune
Franz Kafka Amerika
Arthur Quiller-Couch On The Art of Writing
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Volume Ten
Nikolai Gogol Dead Souls
Chandler Klang Smith Goldenland Past Dark
Vladimir Nabokov Mary
Marly Youmans Thaliad
Aristotle Poetics
James Joyce Finnegans Wake
Anne Gallagher The Earl's Engagement
Leonardo Sciascia The Day of the Owl
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Volume Eleven
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Volume Twelve
Sarah Jewett The Country of the Pointed Firs
Maurice Dakobra The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars
Andre Gide The Counterfeiters
Albert Camus The Plague
Vladimir Nabokov Lectures On Literature
Flannery O'Connor A Good Man is Hard to Find and other Stories
Mary Shelley Frankenstein
Leonardo Sciascia To Each His Own
Artistotle Ethics
Agatha Christie Appointment With Death
Muriel Spark A Far Cry From Kensington
Anton Chekhov The Undisovered Chekhov
Gustav Meyrink The Golem
Miranda July No One Belongs Here More Than You
Graham Greene Stamboul Train
Anzia Yezierska Bread Givers
James Boswell The Life of Samuel Johnson
Gao Xingjian Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather
Howard P Lovecraft The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories
John Ruskin The Seven Lamps of Architecture
Marly Youmans A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage
John Ruskin Lectures on Architecture and Painting
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Volume 13
Vladimir Odoevsky Two Days in the Life of the Terrestrial Globe
Robert Louis Stevenson The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and other stories
Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt The Most Beautiful Book in the World
Charles Dickens Oliver Twist
Flannery O'Connor The Violent Bear it Away
Jack London The Sea-Wolf

Writing 2013 was rather a mixed bag. My debut novel, The Astrologer, was published on March 1st by Rhemalda Publishing. In September, my book went out of print when Rhemalda Publishing went out of business. So there was that. I have since wasted many hours seeking a new agent and/or a new publisher. No good news on either front yet, although I have received a handful of polite rejection notices to assist me in my ongoing battle against the sin of pride. Mostly, you know, the submissions process is just a big vacuum into which one shouts as loudly as one can. Not even an echo is heard.

I wrote a new book this year, a sort of detective novel that ignores the conventions of the mystery genre. Very soon a revised draft of that will be in the hands of three eager readers. I'm already onto another project, revisions to the novel Mona in the Desert. I expect great things from this little book. Not a book deal, but other, greater things you could not possibly understand. I am also laying the groundwork for the drafting of Melville Hart's Atlas Of, which will be sad and beautiful and, hopefully, baffling and maddening. We shall see.

Monday, December 30, 2013

"I scarcely know where to begin" with Jack London's The Sea-Wolf

I am reading Jack London's 1904 novel The Sea-Wolf. London wrote a lot about wolves, didn't he? The wolf in the Sea-Wolf is not a canine, nor is it, I was surprised to find, the name of the ship. This is a seafaring novel, you see, or rather it's a philosophical argument in the shape of an adventure story set on an American seal-hunting vessel called the Ghost, captained by a terrible Dane named Wolf Larsen. Larsen is the sea wolf of the novel's title. I am not relating this in a straightforward manner, I see.

The Sea-Wolf is the story of Humphrey Van Weydon, a 35 year-old American literary critic who lives primarily on inherited money. The novel begins when Van Weydon is lost at sea as his ferry boat is rammed by another ferry boat during a thick fog over San Francisco Bay. Van Weydon clings to his life preserver and drifts out into the Pacific where he is picked up by the Ghost, on her way to the sealing territories off of Japan. The Ghost's captain, Wolf Larsen, has no interest in turning about and setting Van Weydon down in San Francisco, nor does he wish to put the castaway onto any vessel headed toward California; instead, he makes Van Weydon a deal: he can jump overboard and try to swim back to America, or
"My mate’s gone, and there’ll be a lot of promotion. A sailor comes aft to take mate’s place, cabin-boy goes for’ard to take sailor’s place, and you take the cabin-boy’s place, sign the articles for the cruise, twenty dollars per month and found. Now what do you say? And mind you, it’s for your own soul’s sake. It will be the making of you."
Van Weydon takes the offer, as he has no choice. Thus begins his apprenticeship under Wolf Larsen, a sort of Nietzschean uberman who rules through brutality, unfeeling cruelty, and outright murder when he deems it necessary. He is soundly hated by his crew, but also feared and respected. At one point a character compares Larsen to Bill Sykes; the two villains are cut from much the same cloth, but Larsen would eat Sykes for breakfast if you ask me.

The character of Wolf Larsen is not called into being by London to provide a frightening antagonist against whom the hero of the piece will struggle. Larsen displays right off that he is physically capable of killing Van Weydon; it would be easy, maybe even pleasurable, but there's no profit in it just yet. The new cabin boy becomes valued immediately for his knowledge of literature and philosophy, and Van Weydon spends much of the book's first half discussing with Larsen a form of social Darwinist self-reliance, a "materialism" that denies everything except survival of the fittest and the meaninglessness of it all:
“I believe that life is a mess,” he [Larsen] answered promptly. “It is like yeast, a ferment, a thing that moves and may move for a minute, an hour, a year, or a hundred years, but that in the end will cease to move. The big eat the little that they may continue to move, the strong eat the weak that they may retain their strength. The lucky eat the most and move the longest, that is all. What do you make of those things?”

He swept his arm in an impatient gesture toward a number of the sailors who were working on some kind of rope stuff amidships.

“They move, so does the jelly-fish move. They move in order to eat in order that they may keep moving. There you have it. They live for their belly’s sake, and the belly is for their sake. It’s a circle; you get nowhere. Neither do they. In the end they come to a standstill. They move no more. They are dead.”
So there you have the dominant philosophy aboard the Ghost, and on that ship there is no place for Van Weydon's idealism or his impulses toward charity or improvement of civilization. All is vanities (Ecclesiastes is quoted triumphantly by Larsen), etc. When Van Weydon admits to the captain that his life is being threatened by the ship's cook, the captain sees it as a teaching moment, another proof of his eat-or-be-eaten mindset:
“So you’re afraid, eh?” he sneered.

“Yes,” I said defiantly and honestly, “I am afraid.”

“That’s the way with you fellows,” he cried, half angrily, “sentimentalizing about your immortal souls and afraid to die. At sight of a sharp knife and a cowardly Cockney the clinging of life to life overcomes all your fond foolishness. Why, my dear fellow, you will live for ever. You are a god, and God cannot be killed. Cooky cannot hurt you. You are sure of your resurrection... And it is all very beautiful, this shaking off of the flesh and soaring of the imprisoned spirit. Cooky cannot hurt you. He can only give you a boost on the path you eternally must tread. Or, if you do not wish to be boosted just yet, why not boost Cooky? According to your ideas, he, too, must be an immortal millionaire...He’s bound to go on living, somewhere, somehow. Then boost him. Stick a knife in him and let his spirit free. As it is, it’s in a nasty prison, and you’ll do him only a kindness by breaking down the door. And who knows?—it may be a very beautiful spirit that will go soaring up into the blue from that ugly carcass. Boost him along, and I’ll promote you to his place, and he’s getting forty-five dollars a month.” [ellipses mine]
Don't worry, Van Weydon does not "boost" the cook and take his job. He does, however, learn over the long voyage quite a bit of seamanship, and is eventually promoted to first mate (at sixty-five dollars a month, mind you). Wolf Larsen's domination of his crew and his surroundings gradually comes to seem rational to Van Weydon and to the reader. It is a philosophy that works, you see. But it only works aboard the Ghost because Wolf Larsen has complete control of his closed society; those who fight against his form of fascism find themselves "boosted." Van Weydon does not see that he is living in essentially irrational conditions, and so his point of view is skewed. And so is the point of view of the reader. At the halfway point in the novel, there is a brilliant and exciting chapter wherein Larsen and Van Weydon, alone on the ship while the rest of the crew are out on seal-hunting boats, pilot the Ghost (which is a three-masted schooner) in the face of a tremendous storm that sweeps down upon them on the open sea. It's a magnificent episode, and the captain and his mate are brave and triumphant against the forces of Nature. Yes, we all say, the strongest and the hardest will triumph. It is exhilarating, truly it is.

And then the Ghost picks up a life raft carrying four survivors from the wreck of a steamer bound for Japan. One of the survivors is a woman, Maud Brewster. Miss Brewster and Humphrey Van Weydon have never met, but they know each other through the world of American letters; he has read her poetry and essays, she has read his essays and criticism. They are both, it turns out, respected in literary circles. At dinner in the captain's cabin, Maud and Humphrey sparkle and shine and bask in a long talk of poetry and poets, of William Dean Howells and much else, while the seal hunters and Captain Wolf Larsen sit silently by, outclassed and outthought and superfluous. It is a brilliant thing that Jack London has done here, you see: he has made the protagonist and the reader complicit in the violence and domination of the uberman Wolf Larsen, and then suddenly he has introduced the civilized world again, and the coarse brutality and meaninglessness of blind self-determination is even more sharply displayed than when we first encounter it. Maud Brewster's hair pins and batted eyelashes and propensity to faint are more successful foils for Larsen's murderous rages than are all the corpses he's produced thus far. So well played, Jack London. This is not a great novel, but it's a pretty darned good novel. I'm not finished with it yet. Lots of stuff happens in the second half of the book and the philosophical waters are further muddied. Also, some innocent seals get clubbed by our hero. It's that sort of book.

Update! Finished. Quite exciting, I tell you, was that book. And strange, too. I'll be puzzling over London's philosophy for a while, I think. There's a sort of pro-caveman theme toward the end, and Larsen is transformed into a sort of fallen angel character, almost heroic. Curious.

Monday, December 23, 2013

no bear involved

I'm moving swiftly along with revisions to my novel Mona in the Desert, which maybe one day will find a publisher and you'll all get to see what I babble about. Odds are against, but I continue to revise nonetheless. I've written a new opening chapter, not to replace the original first chapter, but to go in front of it. The original first chapter is now the second chapter in the book, sandwiched between Chapter One and Chapter Two, and titled "A Note Regarding the Author's Method." It contains, predictably enough, a note regarding the narrator's method. The new opening chapter is about 4400 words in length and is, I think, quite fine. I might do all my first chapters this way from now on: write the book except for the first chapter, let the MS sit for about a year, then go back and write the first chapter. No, I won't do that, but it was interesting in this case and probably I could only get away with that method for books which are nonlinear narratives that spoil themselves as they go along, if you believe in spoilers, which I'm not sure I do. Anyway, things are moving along. I awoke today to an idea for an additional chapter which will, I think, find itself about 3/4 of the way through the narrative. This chapter will fill in some of the blanks created by the original narrative. What will be tricky is finding a way to present the material to the reader without presenting it to the narrator, who will be a) unaware of the events that take place in this chapter, and b) unaware that this chapter is even in the book he is writing. I have some ideas, though. It will be an amusing project for me. I would like to avoid typographical solutions (e.g. having the "hidden" chapter in italics or a different type face than the rest of the novel). But I think I can work it. This is, yes, the typical Bailey "high degree of difficulty" maneuver I make toward the end of all of my novels. There is however no bear involved. Not yet, anyway. I have so far but the barest inkling of what this chapter will contain. It will be interesting to write. I really do love this admirable little novel. I hope someone wants to publish it someday.

Also, I'm reading Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away. I read this book about 20 years ago, and can barely remember it. Yet it all seems familiar, as if I'm walking through the reconstruction of a house I knew in my youth, and as I enter each new room I say, Yes, that's how it was, I recall those windows and that patch of shadow, and yes, here is where I stood when I looked through the door, etc. It's like I'm aware of the ghost of the novel looking over my shoulder while I'm reading it. Which is not a complaint, merely an observation.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Contents May Settle During Shipment

This is my entry in Loren Eaton's Advent Ghosts scary yuletide story exchange. I am almost a whole day late, but I have finally written something. "Advent Ghosts" is an annual affair hosted by Mr Eaton on his blog I Saw Lightning Fall, and the idea is to write a 100-word tale of fright having something to do with Christmas. So here's mine. Delicate types might want to skip it.

Contents May Settle During Shipment

“What is it?”
“It’s a present, of course. Open it.”
“That’s a pretty bow.”
“I take no credit for that. This is how it came from the store.”
“You’re so sweet. Look how big this is.”
“Merry Christmas, babe. Well, open it up.”
“The wrapping goes all around it. How do I…?”
“Just rip it open. Use your nails.”
“I may have to bite the end off. Don’t look.”
“There’s a lot of packing material.”
“No, that’s okay. Where’s the…Oh.”
“Pretty, huh?”
“What is it?”
“It’s a baby. Just pull it right out of there.”
“Oh, delicious!”
“Merry Christmas, babe.”

Positively stuffed with lights

This morning it snowed, a rarity in Seattle. Mighty Reader pulled on her boots and photographed the house in the predawn dark. The holiday greeting text is also her work. The extra-bright Rudolph was a joint project we undertook last night. He is positively stuffed with lights.

I had promised Loren Eaton, who blogs at I Saw Lightning Fall that I'd have a story for his "Advent Ghosts" storytelling event this year. I have not written that story, because I forgot to write down the idea I had about ten days ago, and now it's lost. And then today sort of sprung itself on me by surprise. So I have no story and I've broken my promise to Loren, who is a nice guy and I feel bad. But there it is. Perhaps I'll write something for "Advent Ghosts" later today. It could happen. I am traditionally late to the party for this event anyway.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

his nerves were rendered stouter and more vigorous, by showers of tears

Being only familiar with David Lean’s film Oliver Twist and with the Lionel Bart musical “Oliver!” I was not prepared for the long midsection of Dickens’ novel, where the author introduces a complete additional story arc and set of additional characters and also gives us the subplot of Mr Bumble’s difficult marriage (the first downward steps in Bumble’s “pride comes before the fall” didactic story). As I said to Mighty Reader last night, it’s as if someone has taken all of the characters I know from Oliver Twist and written a new story with them. “It’s Oliver Twist fan fiction,” I said. You know, like that Peter Carey book Jack Maggs.

I have to admit that I don’t enjoy a lot of this midsection story arc and I’ve had to bear down and push through some chapters just to make it to the safety of the following one, but on the other hand I can see how Dickens is now interlocking this central section with the Fagin/Sikes/Nancy/Brownlow plot and I really am impressed with that. If I had that sort of plotting ability, all of my books would be twice as long as they are because if you can work the materials this way, why not? But as I say, I lack the sort of imagination to create this kind of Dickensian controlled sprawl.

This, then, is a lovely (long, too) excerpt from Mr Bumble’s new married life. I laughed out loud on the bus this morning:

There are some promotions in life, which, independent of the more substantial rewards they offer, require peculiar value and dignity from the coats and waistcoats connected with them. A field-marshal has his uniform; a bishop his silk apron; a counsellor his silk gown; a beadle his cocked hat. Strip the bishop of his apron, or the beadle of his hat and lace; what are they? Men. Mere men. Dignity, and even holiness too, sometimes, are more questions of coat and waistcoat than some people imagine.

Mr. Bumble had married Mrs. Corney, and was master of the workhouse. Another beadle had come into power. On him the cocked hat, gold-laced coat, and staff, had all three descended.

'And to-morrow two months it was done!' said Mr. Bumble, with a sigh. 'It seems a age.'

Mr. Bumble might have meant that he had concentrated a whole existence of happiness into the short space of eight weeks; but the sigh—there was a vast deal of meaning in the sigh.

'I sold myself,' said Mr. Bumble, pursuing the same train of relection, 'for six teaspoons, a pair of sugar-tongs, and a milk-pot; with a small quantity of second-hand furniture, and twenty pound in money. I went very reasonable. Cheap, dirt cheap!'

'Cheap!' cried a shrill voice in Mr. Bumble's ear: 'you would have been dear at any price; and dear enough I paid for you, Lord above knows that!'

Mr. Bumble turned, and encountered the face of his interesting consort, who, imperfectly comprehending the few words she had overheard of his complaint, had hazarded the foregoing remark at a venture.

'Mrs. Bumble, ma'am!' said Mr. Bumble, with a sentimental sternness.

'Well!' cried the lady.

'Have the goodness to look at me,' said Mr. Bumble, fixing his eyes upon her. (If she stands such a eye as that,' said Mr. Bumble to himself, 'she can stand anything. It is a eye I never knew to fail with paupers. If it fails with her, my power is gone.')

Whether an exceedingly small expansion of eye be sufficient to quell paupers, who, being lightly fed, are in no very high condition; or whether the late Mrs. Corney was particularly proof against eagle glances; are matters of opinion. The matter of fact, is, that the matron was in no way overpowered by Mr. Bumble's scowl, but, on the contrary, treated it with great disdain, and even raised a laugh thereat, which sounded as though it were genuine.

On hearing this most unexpected sound, Mr. Bumble looked, first incredulous, and afterwards amazed. He then relapsed into his former state; nor did he rouse himself until his attention was again awakened by the voice of his partner.

'Are you going to sit snoring there, all day?' inquired Mrs. Bumble.

'I am going to sit here, as long as I think proper, ma'am,' rejoined Mr. Bumble; 'and although I was _not_ snoring, I shall snore, gape, sneeze, laugh, or cry, as the humour strikes me; such being my prerogative.'

'_Your_ prerogative!' sneered Mrs. Bumble, with ineffable contempt.

'I said the word, ma'am,' said Mr. Bumble. 'The prerogative of a man is to command.'

'And what's the prerogative of a woman, in the name of Goodness?' cried the relict of Mr. Corney deceased.

'To obey, ma'am,' thundered Mr. Bumble. 'Your late unfortunate husband should have taught it you; and then, perhaps, he might have been alive now. I wish he was, poor man!'

Mrs. Bumble, seeing at a glance, that the decisive moment had now arrived, and that a blow struck for the mastership on one side or other, must necessarily be final and conclusive, no sooner heard this allusion to the dead and gone, than she dropped into a chair, and with a loud scream that Mr. Bumble was a hard-hearted brute, fell into a paroxysm of tears.

But, tears were not the things to find their way to Mr. Bumble's soul; his heart was waterproof. Like washable beaver hats that improve with rain, his nerves were rendered stouter and more vigorous, by showers of tears, which, being tokens of weakness, and so far tacit admissions of his own power, pleased and exalted him. He eyed his good lady with looks of great satisfaction, and begged, in an encouraging manner, that she should cry her hardest: the exercise being looked upon, by the faculty, as strongly conducive to health.

'It opens the lungs, washes the countenance, exercises the eyes, and softens down the temper,' said Mr. Bumble. 'So cry away.'

As he discharged himself of this pleasantry, Mr. Bumble took his hat from a peg, and putting it on, rather rakishly, on one side, as a man might, who felt he had asserted his superiority in a becoming manner, thrust his hands into his pockets, and sauntered towards the door, with much ease and waggishness depicted in his whole appearance.

Now, Mrs. Corney that was, had tried the tears, because they were less troublesome than a manual assault; but, she was quite prepared to make trial of the latter mode of proceeding, as Mr. Bumble was not long in discovering.

The first proof he experienced of the fact, was conveyed in a hollow sound, immediately succeeded by the sudden flying off of his hat to the opposite end of the room. This preliminary proceeding laying bare his head, the expert lady, clasping him tightly round the throat with one hand, inflicted a shower of blows (dealt with singular vigour and dexterity) upon it with the other. This done, she created a little variety by scratching his face, and tearing his hair; and, having, by this time, inflicted as much punishment as she deemed necessary for the offence, she pushed him over a chair, which was luckily well situated for the purpose: and defied him to talk about his prerogative again, if he dared.

'Get up!' said Mrs. Bumble, in a voice of command. 'And take yourself away from here, unless you want me to do something desperate.'

Mr. Bumble rose with a very rueful countenance: wondering much what something desperate might be. Picking up his hat, he looked towards the door.

'Are you going?' demanded Mrs. Bumble.

'Certainly, my dear, certainly,' rejoined Mr. Bumble, making a quicker motion towards the door. 'I didn't intend to--I'm going, my dear! You are so very violent, that really I--'

At this instant, Mrs. Bumble stepped hastily forward to replace the carpet, which had been kicked up in the scuffle. Mr. Bumble immediately darted out of the room, without bestowing another thought on his unfinished sentence: leaving the late Mrs. Corney in full possession of the field.

Mr. Bumble was fairly taken by surprise, and fairly beaten. He had a decided propensity for bullying: derived no inconsiderable pleasure from the exercise of petty cruelty; and, consequently, was (it is needless to say) a coward. This is by no means a disparagement to his character; for many official personages, who are held in high respect and admiration, are the victims of similar infirmities. The remark is made, indeed, rather in his favour than otherwise, and with a view of impressing the reader with a just sense of his qualifications for office.

When Dickens gets to the word “coward,” he has made the whole scene pay off brilliantly. Well done, Charles. Well done indeed.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Many of the lamps were already extinguished

It was market-morning. The ground was covered, nearly ankle-deep, with filth and mire; a thick steam, perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle, and mingling with the fog, which seemed to rest upon the chimney-tops, hung heavily above. All the pens in the centre of the large area, and as many temporary pens as could be crowded into the vacant space, were filled with sheep; tied up to posts by the gutter side were long lines of beasts and oxen, three or four deep. Countrymen, butchers, drovers, hawkers, boys, thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade, were mingled together in a mass; the whistling of drovers, the barking dogs, the bellowing and plunging of the oxen, the bleating of sheep, the grunting and squeaking of pigs, the cries of hawkers, the shouts, oaths, and quarrelling on all sides; the ringing of bells and roar of voices, that issued from every public-house; the crowding, pushing, driving, beating, whooping and yelling; the hideous and discordant dim that resounded from every corner of the market; and the unwashed, unshaven, squalid, and dirty figures constantly running to and fro, and bursting in and out of the throng; rendered it a stunning and bewildering scene, which quite confounded the senses.

From Oliver Twist, Chapter XXI, "The Expedition." This is in the midst of a description of daybreak in a small village north of London, the world slowly awakening for commerce. Men are everywhere scrabbling to do their dirty jobs. Oliver, meanwhile, is en route with Mister William Sikes to the scene of their own dirty job to be done. The image of a helpless, dirty animal trapped in a cage prefigures the big scene that comes a few pages after. Very good stuff, Mr Dickens.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

the most fortunate and enviable circumstance that can possibly befall a human being

Mighty Reader and I have decided to have another Dickens readalong, this time with Oliver Twist. I have never read this one; Mighty Reader has. She warns me that it is much closer to the David Lean film than to the musical "Oliver!" we just saw. Which is fine.

This was Dickens' first proper novel (I am led to believe, by the critic who introduces my edition of Oliver Twist, that Pickwick Papers and the "Sketches of Boz" stories are not novels; I have read neither, so I don't know.) It will be interesting to compare it, both in terms of style and technique, with his later works. Mighty Reader and I read Our Mutual Friend last year, if you remember. Even if you don't.

The book starts strong:

Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born; on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events; the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.

For a long time after it was ushered into this world of sorrow and trouble, by the parish surgeon, it remained a matter of considerable doubt whether the child would survive to bear any name at all; in which case it is somewhat more than probable that these memoirs would never have appeared; or, if they had, that being comprised within a couple of pages, they would have possessed the inestimable merit of being the most concise and faithful specimen of biography, extant in the literature of any age or country.

Although I am not disposed to maintain that the being born in a workhouse, is in itself the most fortunate and enviable circumstance that can possibly befall a human being, I do mean to say that in this particular instance, it was the best thing for Oliver Twist that could by possibility have occurred. The fact is, that there was considerable difficulty in inducing Oliver to take upon himself the office of respiration,--a troublesome practice, but one which custom has rendered necessary to our easy existence; and for some time he lay gasping on a little flock mattress, rather unequally poised between this world and the next: the balance being decidedly in favour of the latter. Now, if, during this brief period, Oliver had been surrounded by careful grandmothers, anxious aunts, experienced nurses, and doctors of profound wisdom, he would most inevitably and indubitably have been killed in no time. There being nobody by, however, but a pauper old woman, who was rendered rather misty by an unwonted allowance of beer; and a parish surgeon who did such matters by contract; Oliver and Nature fought out the point between them.

That's good stuff. Even with the jokes, this is all about death. Look at the vocabulary:

the item of mortality
sorrow and trouble

The all-about-deathness continues as the chapter develops. And what's this "rather unequally poised between this world and the next" business? Oliver spends most of the novel unequally poised between worlds, yes?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

I inherited my poor recall of facts from my mother

Modeling my habits on those of Trollope, I have begun revisions to Mona In The Desert immediately after having pushed my way through a jolly fine round of work on The Hanging Man. A rolling stone, dust never settles upon, etc. I think The Hanging Man is in good enough shape to ignore for a while, which is exactly what I'll do with it. Possibly for a few years. For now it's back to Mona, which I am surprised to find is longer than I'd thought. It's nearly 70,000 words already, and a month or two from now it will likely be quite a bit longer than that. And here I'd thought I'd written a skimpy old novella.

Mona in the Desert seems like a fine book, if you look at the second through fifteenth chapters (including all six Chapters 12). Chapter 1 is a mess, though. What it requires is story. This will take some work on the part of the author. Right now I am kidding myself that I'll sit down and calmly read through the whole ms before I begin fussing with it. As if I haven't already been rewriting the first pages for a month now. Anyway, that's my winter project, to turn the opening section of Mona into something that properly leads into the bulk of the novel, and also to expand on some of the ideas already in the narrative in abbreviated form. Wish me luck. None of the ideas I've had for the first chapter have worked so far. No, I can't just start it at Chapter 2. I've already thought of that, and no. And no. I have a few new, as yet untested, ideas I'll be pushing around next. Maybe one of them is the thing. The book is good, though. Really good. Some of my finest work.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

listen carefully to the band during Fagin's numbers

A delightful surprise for me: Dr Miriam Burstein, Associate Professor of English at the College at Brockport, SUNY, has listed The Astrologer in her Year In Books roundup on her blog. Look under "Favorite reworking of Shakespeare." I would be thrilled if Dr Burstein actually teaches the text. Quietly thrilled, I promise. Restrainedly thrilled. Etc.

In non-Shakespeare news, Mighty Reader and I saw the 5th Avenue Theater production of Oliver! last night. It was pretty good. If you are in Seattle and have the time, you should go. The house was packed, so buy your tickets today while there is still time. If there is still time. The performance was colorful, energetic, well-danced, well-acted, well-cast and well-sung. Just don't have the sparkling wine during the intermission. Headache inducing stuff.

I would like to point out that the orchestra has a fine violinist (there are some very good violin parts in the score to Oliver!); if you go, listen carefully to the band during Fagin's numbers. I don't know why none of the musicians' names are listed on the 5th Avenue Theater website. That's not right, kids.

Monday, December 2, 2013

spinning wheels and shiny gears: mumblings about revision

I think I'm about 2/3 of the way through the first attempt at a revision to the new novel I'm calling The Hanging Man. I am not exactly reading it; when I've made my way to the last sentence of the MS I will still not have read the book. Which is odd and a bit disorienting, but that's the way of it. I'm elbow-deep in details of prose and character and story, but I can't stand back and have a look at the whole yet. I am still working to build up a sense of the whole from the spinning wheels and shiny gears and connecting rods and levers of the narrative. I have no real idea what it will look like when I'm done; I'm not done yet.

The novel is full of conflict, unsettlement and dissatisfaction. It rubs itself the wrong way. This is what I think I intended, but I have no idea how successful it will be. No idea at all. I'm trying some new ideas out, small new ideas to be sure; this is not a reinvention of the novel like Finnegans Wake or To The Lighthouse, but I am exploring new territory, I think. I can't be sure at this stage. Plus, there is a metaphysical stance at the root of this story that perhaps makes me uncomfortable. I am uncomfortable because I believe the metaphysical stance to be a statement of truth, of uncomfortable truth. Spoilers, sorry.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Melville Price

I did not know, until a minute ago, that Melville Price was the name of an actual person, an expressionist painter who died in 1970. I am writing something called "Melville Price's Atlas Of," and I named my character after Herman Melville and the Price (originally Preiss) family in another of my novels. Now, I don't know. Color me quite surprised. I'll probably change "Price" to something else. Maybe "Preiss," but that's not likely. Hrmm, hrmm, etc. Hrmm. I confess myself vexed.

It will be necessary to come up with a new name. I'm keeping "Melville," damn it. But what for "Price?"

Melville King?
Melville Preiss?
Melville Nabokov?
Melville Melville?
Melville Beckett?
Melville Green?
Melville Half-Price?

It's a poser, and no mistaking.

Edit to add: December 2, and Melville's new last name is Hart. We'll see if that sticks. I do not like the way the vowel sounds carry forward from the "a" in Hart as well as I liked it from the "i" in Price. Vowel sounds, rhythm and stress are all important to me when constructing prose. I have a hard time making people understand this.

Monday, November 25, 2013

there are pictures of cats and goats

This is one of those posts that reinforces my reputation for being a dull man who talks primarily about himself as a novelist. I write it only to help myself think through a couple of things. You are encouraged to stop reading now and find something more interesting on the internet. I hear there are pictures of cats and goats to be seen.

I find myself working on a number of projects right now, which would normally be disorienting because I enjoy focused activities rather than what is termed “multi-tasking” (an ugly, hateful word). Yet here I am, with multiple projects underway. Possibly I’m able to divide my attention because I don’t so much write with the goal of publication anymore, so it doesn’t matter if I spend the rest of my life poking about with a bunch of unfinished novels. Perhaps that will become my art form. There is a grand tradition of that sort of writing already.

The item at the top of my imaginary “to do as a novelist” list is finishing the first of who-knows-how-many revisions of my newest novel, The Hanging Man (once upon a time called Circus in the Dust). I’m about 25% of the way through that. It seems to be a good book. We’ll see. There is a lot of cigarette smoking in it. Some days the novel strikes me as annoyingly artificial in the way that Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is annoyingly artificial, where every event and character is a stand in for some thematic idea, and everything is tightly controlled and aimed in the same direction. That control, that aiming of things, was once my idea of a proper way to write a novel, but lately I have my doubts. Why should there be a certain expected form for a novel? Why isn’t this applied to the other arts? I know that it is, that there are people who reject all painting that isn’t representational, for instance, but most art lovers don’t take those people seriously. Yet people can make claims that a novel must have a particular sort of integration of elements in order to be well-formed, must accomplish certain specific goals to label itself “a story,” and that sort of thing, and people say this all with straight faces as if it’s axiomatic. Which it is not. Anyway, I am pushing and pulling at my most recent manuscript and wondering if it’s too much the sort of novel in which I am rapidly losing faith as a writer. We’ll see how that goes.

Waiting in the wings is another new manuscript, a long novella called Mona in the Desert, which right now is in pretty much rough first-draft shape. It will require some considerable work to turn into something I will consider readable. I have been struggling for six months or so to come up with a plan for the revisions to that book. I don’t actually know what to do with it. It pleases me a great deal, and it displeases me a great deal. I’m not sure how to rid it of the displeasures it provides, to replace them with more pleasures. It’s quite vexing I assure you. I have a long list of ideas that I’m sure will not work. Possibly I’ll begin work on revisions to Mona in January or February.

I’m actually, I realize, writing something new during all of this. I wrote the opening couple of chapters of something, some long piece of fiction that might be a lengthy story or a novella or even a novel—no idea which yet—during the first days of the trip Mighty Reader and I took to Prague and Vienna in October. I have plenty of probably good ideas for what to do with that fiction, and I think I’ll keep poking away at it while I work on everything else I’m working on. You can see the bits of this new thing that I’ve so far typed up if you click on the tab marked “Melville Price’s Atlas Of” at the top of the page. There’s plenty more I haven’t typed up. I am not aware that I have an overall structure planned for this piece. It seems pretty clear, however, how it should be written out, so I’m just writing it as I go along. I don’t see any problems with that plan. Or non-plan, I guess.

Surprisingly, I also find myself reading a bunch of nonfiction in order to research the “Manhattan” section of the long-awaited (by one person only, but hey, that’s something) novel Nowhere But North. I’m reading about Greenwich Village in 1910 or so. Henry James might get a cameo appearance in this book, if I’m feeling particularly wicked. You never know. Nowhere But North has a complex, carefully-mapped-out structure which, I realized, will make it easier rather than harder to draft. It’s actually four separate sections that overlap but can be written as four separate sections so it won’t require the sort of sustained concentration my previous first drafts have taken. I can work on it in 10,000-word chunks, which for me is a pretty leisurely pace. There are ten 10,000-word chunks to this narrative. 10,000 words is like two chapters for me. So piece of cake. I don’t know if I’ll actually begin to write prose for Nowhere But North while I’m poking about with Melville Price’s Atlas Of. I don’t see why I can’t.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

"the night's smother of warmth": inaccurate statements about A Death At The White Camellia Orphanage

A couple of days ago I finished Marly Youmans' beautiful 2012 novel A Death At The White Camellia Orphanage. I come here not to review the book, except to say that it's a wonderful novel and I recommend it to you. I can't review it because not only do I not know how to write a proper review, I'm not sure what to say about the novel. I don't know how to talk about it without diminishing it.

On the surface, Youmans has written a sort of picaresque bildungsroman, the story of a young boy cast adrift into the world to find his way, to have adventures of love and loss, and to learn that the world contains all that is evil and all that is good. And ADATWCO works on that level. The young protagonist, Pip Tatnall, journeys across America and grows from child to young man (or from young boy to older boy, I suppose is more accurate). He solves the mystery of his younger brother Otto's murder and is reconnected with his own family. So the book works very well on the surface level, on the level of "what happens next?" It's a solid tale, quite pleasingly told, and even if Youmans doesn't give us the traditional coming-of-age story arc, the narrative has a satisfying shape to it. No, no: let me rephrase that. Youmans gives us a nontraditional story arc, which surprises and succeeds entirely.

But ADATWCO is more than that. There is a spiritual underpinning to the novel that is perhaps less easy to discuss than the characters, setting and plot, though I would claim this spritual underpinning is by far the more important part of the book. The Christian images pile slowly up and the symbolic net is drawn tighter as the novel progresses, and Youmans' best formal trick--the palindromic structure of important thematic elements--becomes the shape of the entire novel, the theme of the whole work. I'm not sure how much of that to talk about. The first shall be the last. What is low shall be raised high, etc. The Alpha and the Omega. The prodigal son, the Church as home, the Father as father, Mary as mother and home and church, etc. It's all there, all subtle and below the surface. Youmans never browbeats you with her message, and the novel, as I say, or should have said by now, works beautifully on this symbolic level just as it works beautifully on the surface level. It's quite a feat.

Anyway, I'm not sure at all how to talk about this book, because it can be viewed happily from several angles, and I worry that a discussion of the foundation of faith upon which the story of Pip Tatnall is built will be somehow off-putting for potential readers. A Death At the White Camellia Orphanage is not Pilgrim's Progress; it's not didactic or moralistic. It is, however, a deeply moral book, written in gorgeous glittering prose, entirely earthbound in its story and not afraid of poking into the dark corners of real life but also fearlessly--if in a more subtle way--pointing away from that darkness. If wherever God dwells is therefore His temple, then the whole of the universe is a temple, and the temple is filled with both good and evil, yet is entirely holy and we are always in His presence; and so we are always home if we only look up and take note of that fact. That's something, that's some trick. I am sure I mis-state Marly Youmans' themes here. That shouldn't stop you from buying and reading her novel.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

"A Tale of Seven Lamps" or "The Two Cities of Architecture"

During the summer of 1851, Dickens' reading "took in all the minor tales as well as the plays of Voltaire, several of the novels (old favorites with him) of Paul de Kock, Ruskin's Lamps of Architecture, and a surprising number of books of African and other travel for which he had an insatiable relish."

(from John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens, Volume II, 439-440)

There is a vast quantity of idle energy among European nations at this time, which ought to go into handicrafts; there are multitudes of idle semi-gentlemen who ought to be shoemakers and carpenters;

(from John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Chapter VII. Published May 1849. Ruskin is here talking about the French aristocracy.)

The garret, built to be a depository for firewood and the like, was dim and dark: for, the window of dormer shape, was in truth a door in the roof, with a little crane over it for the hoisting up of stores from the street: unglazed, and closing up the middle in two pieces, like any other door of French construction. To exclude the cold, one half of this door was fast closed, and the other was opened but a very little way. Such a scanty portion of light was admitted through these means, that it was difficult, on first coming in, to see anything; and long habit alone could have slowly formed in any one, the ability to do any work requiring nicety in such obscurity. Yet, work of that kind was being done in the garret; for, with his back towards the door, and his face towards the window where the keeper of the wine-shop stood looking at him, a white-haired man sat on a low bench, stooping forward and very busy, making shoes.

(from Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, Chapter 6. Published in 30 installments beginning April 1859.)

The shoemaker in Dickens is, of course, Dr Alexandre Manette, gentleman and brilliant physician, who spent eighteen years in the Bastille. My claim is that Dickens first met the image in the Ruskin passage I have here quoted, and eight years later Ruskin's artistocrat-turned-shoemaker made its way into A Tale of Two Cities. I think this is an original discovery, or at least fifteen minutes on JSTOR has not proved me wrong. And even if I'm late to the party the way I was when I connected Rabelais and Melville, it's still awfully fun to stumble across this stuff. Yes, yes, even if it's just coincidence.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The sun was risen upon the earth: finishing up Ruskin's Seven Lamps of Architecture

Ruskin finally lets loose again in the middle of Chapter VI of The Seven Lamps of Architecture. Chapter VI is "The Lamp of Memory," in which the author talks about building not for the present, but for posterity:

The benevolent regards and purposes of men in masses seldom can be supposed to extend beyond their own generation. They may look to posterity as an audience, may hope for its attention, and labor for its praise: they may trust to its recognition of unacknowledged merit, and demand its justice for contemporary wrong. But all this is mere selfishness, and does not involve the slightest regard to, or consideration of, the interest of those by whose numbers we would fain swell the circle of our flatterers, and by whose authority we would gladly support our presently disputed claims. The idea of self-denial for the sake of posterity, of practising present economy for the sake of debtors yet unborn, of planting forests that our descendants may live under their shade, or of raising cities for future nations to inhabit, never, I suppose, efficiently takes place among publicly recognised motives of exertion. Yet these are not the less our duties; nor is our part fitly sustained upon the earth, unless the range of our intended and deliberate usefulness include not only the companions, but the successors, of our pilgrimage. God has lent us the earth for our life; it is a great entail. It belongs as much to those who are to come after us, and whose names are already written in the book of creation, as to us; and we have no right, by anything that we do or neglect, to involve them in unnecessary penalties, or deprive them of benefits which it was in our power to bequeath. And this the more, because it is one of the appointed conditions of the labor of men that, in proportion to the time between the seed-sowing and the harvest, is the fulness of the fruit; and that generally, therefore, the farther off we place our aim, and the less we desire to be ourselves the witnesses of what we have labored for, the more wide and rich will be the measure of our success. Men cannot benefit those that are with them as they can benefit those who come after them; and of all the pulpits from which human voice is ever sent forth, there is none from which it reaches so far as from the grave.

Nor is there, indeed, any present loss, in such respect, for futurity. Every human action gains in honor, in grace, in all true magnificence, by its regard to things that are to come. It is the far sight, the quiet and confident patience, that, above all other attributes, separate man from man, and near him to his Maker; and there is no action nor art, whose majesty we may not measure by this test. Therefore, when we build, let us think that we build for ever. Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, "See! this our fathers did for us."

This is all excellent stuff, as you can see for yourself. It is surrounded, however, with a sort of attempted summation of Ruskin's general theory of art, a summation which fails and waffles and wanders and keeps failing, for page after page. It's his last chance to push his own aesthetic, an aesthetic founded upon chance and temperament and self-image and God knows what, but Ruskin wants to tell us--tries hard to tell us--that his aesthetic is based upon objective qualities of art. Like I say, he fails. I pushed on, and things got weirder as Ruskin's thoughts moved from the particular to the general, from architecture to social engineering.

Ruskin ends the book with a plea for a national English architectural style, legislated by the government, taught in academies, licensure and certification and all the rest. He argues for less effort on the part of mass transportation and teaching men to move dirt about in wheelbarrows so that other men might place iron rails in lines across the island; he calls instead for a shift in effort from railways to building, men and women trained to raise houses and schools and hospitals in the new Official English style. Ruskin is afraid of losing England, afraid of chaos. He cries out for order, pointing to the Continent and the corrupt middle class under an idle aristocracy. He ends the book fearfully:

I have paused, not once nor twice, as I wrote, and often have checked the course of what might otherwise have been importunate persuasion, as the thought has crossed me, how soon all Architecture may be vain, except that which is not made with hands. There is something ominous in the light which has enabled us to look back with disdain upon the ages among whose lovely vestiges we have been wandering. I could smile when I hear the hopeful exultation of many, at the new reach of worldly science, and vigor of worldly effort; as if we were again at the beginning of days. There is thunder on the horizon as well as dawn. The sun was risen upon the earth when Lot entered Zoar.

Ruskin is afraid. He wants order. He suspects, I suspect, that The Seven Lamps of Architecture does not show the way into the future; Ruskin fears that what he has written is not an introduction to art; Ruskin is afraid that he has written a eulogy.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

the heat waves of its solar outcry: reading A Death At The White Camellia Orphanage

Eyes still closed, the boy leaped from the steps into the sand yard, plunging through the heavy odor of hedge. "When I get to be a man," he thought, "I will go to England and see the battlegrounds,and I’ll be a titled Childe of noble and gentle birth, and I’ll know what a train-band is and what a rampire is. I’ll ride on wings of horse." It was a part of the boy’s strangeness that he could draw to mind great swaths of the words in the three books that had belonged to his dead father even though he hardly knew what some of them meant or who Prince Rupert or the writer, the Earl of Clarendon, might be. His teacher at school had been no help, scorning his questions—did not like any of the pupils in overalls with no shirts whether they were from the orphanage or not.

That's from the first chapter of Marly Youmans' 2012 novel A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, a historical novel set in the American South during the Great Depression. The prose nods to Faulkner, to Shakespeare, to Yeats, to epic poetry; it vibrates with rich color and detail and feeling.

"Otto!" Pip cried, his voice returning with an "O, o, o" as he shouted the name over, and the dagger in the sky came nearer, searing the furnace of the cotton fields with its heat as the boy bounded up, yelling his brother’s name, and laughter with a fragrance of hedge sprang from his mouth. His voice pulsed out of his throat like blood, and merriment battled out of his chest like the beating cry of a war drum. And the helpless roar that from the distance of The White Camellia Orphanage sounded so like a scream seemed to involve the very skies in its clamor, as in a rhythm of call and response. The sun swelled and soared to become a rosy "O" burning above the plum trees, and the heat waves of its solar outcry aroused the tobacco leaves and the rosined pines and the snake-dripping swamps like immense but unheard mirth.

Pip is Pip Tatnall, a ten year-old boy whose father, an aging builder of bridges across Georgia's many rivers, has died. Pip's mother has already passed on and it is discovered that Tatnall the bridge builder has fathered possibly scores of children on a dozen or twenty women, not all of them white. Pip and his half-brother Otto are sent to the White Camellia Orphanage, a charity workhouse where boys and girls work in cotton fields and receive regular beatings. Pip is crying Otto's name because he has found Otto murdered, crucified to a barbed wire fence on an early summer morning. Otto, we learn, was a light-skinned mulatto. Someone has decided that a child with Negro blood has no right to the charity of the White Camellia Orphanage.

Otto is dead, and Pip has no tie to the orphanage, the village nearby, the earth or anyone left on it. When a year or so has passed, Pip steals away from the farm and hops a freight train and is swept away on an odyssey. I am still reading the novel, so I can't say anything about the plot. Not that I would anyway, as I don't read for plot so much. Let me just say that A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage (winner of the Ferrol Sams Award for Fiction and named by D.G. Myers as one of 2012's best books) is a beautiful book writ in beautiful lyrical prose and I don't know why I put off reading it for so long. I may quote more from it tomorrow or later this week, if I can come up with the right sort of reductionist simile to describe Youmans' writing. One is definitely inside the narrative as one reads, surrounded by color and shape. It comes to life vividily off the page, does this story, which is no surprise given that Youmans is also an award-winning poet.

This little post is not doing justice to the novel. I may take another stab at it. For now this is what I got, though.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

all kinds of strange and startling expressions: more Ruskin on architecture

...it is at least interesting, if not profitable, to note that two very distinguishing characters of vital imitation are, its Frankness and its Audacity; its Frankness is especially singular; there is never any effort to conceal the degree of the sources of its borrowing. Raffaelle carries off a whole figure from Masaccio, or borrows an entire composition from Perugino, with as much tranquillity and simplicity of innocence as a young Spartan pickpocket; and the architect of a Romanesque basilica gathered his columns and capitals where he could find them, as an ant picks up sticks. There is at least a presumption, when we find this frank acceptance, that there is a sense within the mind of power capable of transforming and renewing whatever it adopts; and too conscious, too exalted, to fear the accusation of plagiarism,--too certain that it can prove, and has proved, its independence, to be afraid of expressing its homage to what it admires in the most open and indubitable way; and the necessary consequence of this sense of power is the other sign I have named--the Audacity of treatment when it finds treatment necessary, the unhesitating and sweeping sacrifice of precedent where precedent becomes inconvenient.

Ruskin, from Chapter V of The Seven Lamps of Architecture. Chapter V is titled "The Lamp of Life," and concerns the manner in which an artist, when exploring the possibilities of his materials and his design, is free to improvise and to ignore ideas of perfection, to mold and shape his artwork by feel, as it were, to create beauty that is not bounded by ideas of mathematical perfection. This is, so far, the greatest chapter in Seven Lamps, and I am tempted to quote the entirety of it, but I won't. The book is available, even on the internets for free, and you should go read Chapter V yourself. The unrestrained joy with which Ruskin describes the glorious imperfectness of St Mark's in Venice frankly took my breath away. I read this chapter in one sitting, glued to the page as it were.

Ruskin, in the chapter, is talking about "the Vitality of Assimilation, the faculty which turns to its purposes all material that is submitted to it," or in other words, the life of the artwork, the way in which the artist rises above ideas of mere craft, and is guided by imagination, vision, a drive to bring energy to the work:

a well intended and vivid impression [...] is oftener got by rough than fine handling. I am not sure whether it is frequently enough observed that sculpture is not the mere cutting of the _form_ of anything in stone; it is the cutting of the _effect_ of it. Very often the true form, in the marble, would not be in the least like itself. The sculptor must paint with his chisel: half his touches are not to realize, but to put power into the form: they are touches of light and shadow; and raise a ridge, or sink a hollow, not to represent an actual ridge or hollow, but to get a line of light, or a spot of darkness. In a coarse way, this kind of execution is very marked in old French woodwork; the irises of the eyes of its chimeric monsters being cut boldly into holes, which, variously placed, and always dark, give all kinds of strange and startling expressions, averted and askance, to the fantastic countenances. Perhaps the highest examples of this kind of sculpture-painting are the works of Mino da Fiesole; their best effects being reached by strange angular, and seemingly rude, touches of the chisel. The lips of one of the children on the tombs in the church of the Badia, appear only half finished when they are seen close; yet the expression is farther carried and more ineffable, than in any piece of marble I have ever seen, especially considering its delicacy, and the softness of the child-features. In a sterner kind, that of the statues in the sacristy of St. Lorenzo equals it, and there again by incompletion. I know no example of work in which the forms are absolutely true and complete where such a result is attained; in Greek sculptures is not even attempted. (ellipsis mine)

This is all good stuff for me, because I have a tendency to lean too hard upon craft and ideas of formal perfection, and over the last few years I've been learning about other ways to make a vivid impression, to bring life to a piece. I'm almost done with Seven Lamps, and after that I'll be reading Ruskin's Lectures on Architecture and Painting, from 1853.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

the trouble and wrath of life: more from Ruskin's "Seven Lamps of Architecture"

...the Power of architecture may be said to depend on the quantity (whether measured in space or intenseness) of its shadow; and it seems to me, that the reality of its works, and the use and influence they have in the daily life of men (as opposed to those works of art with which we have nothing to do but in times of rest or of pleasure) require of it that it should express a kind of human sympathy, by a measure of darkness as great as there is in human life: and that as the great poem and great fiction generally affect us most by the majesty of their masses of shade, and cannot take hold upon us if they affect a continuance of lyric sprightliness, but must be serious often, and sometimes melancholy, else they do not express the truth of this wild world of ours; so there must be, in this magnificently human art of architecture, some equivalent expression for the trouble and wrath of life, for its sorrow and its mystery: and this it can only give by depth or diffusion of gloom, by the frown upon its front, and the shadow of its recess.

Too, too fine, Mr Ruskin. I could say more, quote more, but that's plenty for now. I have begun to look at buildings as aggregations of light and shadow. I already look at literature that way.

Monday, November 4, 2013

There for every reader to see: John Ruskin's "The Seven Lamps of Architecture"

"I must be prepared to bear the charge of impertinence which can hardly but attach to the writer who assumes a dogmatical tone in speaking of an art he has never practised."

That's John Ruskin from his preface to The Seven Lamps of Architecture, published in 1849 and being read by me in its 1854 first American edition, a fragile book despite the library binding; I have to watch myself lest the front matter come tumbling free of the spine.

Ruskin was never a practicing architect, nor a builder, but he felt so strongly about the fine decorative arts (and so many other things, as will be revealed) that he was compelled to write a long argument against the destruction of fine Gothic buildings and the erection of aesthetically displeasing mid-19th-century buildings. Ruskin breaks his argument into seven major sections (the "lamps," by which he means more like the spirit, or guiding principle). Ruskin begins each section (so far, anyway) with a statement of his theological and philosophical basis for the "lamp" to be discussed.

A month ago, in a comment to one of my dull posts, Umbagollah said:

"Ruskin telling the reader that he is "consistent" (which he does more than once) reminds me how inconsistent he is, until the sight of Ruskin writing "I am consistent" says everything to me except "Ruskin is consistent." But he is writing down a desire there, I think, rather than a thought (I mean: a thought based on observation and facts that he can point to, as he does when he's discussing granite or feathers); and the desire uses the same language that a thought would have used if he'd had absolute factual rock solid evidence that he was actually consistent, which he doesn't and in fact the opposite situation pertains throughout his work"

And I find this to be true of The Seven Lamps of Architecture. Ruskin has his beliefs, which are complex and clearly much thought-over, and as long as his claims about art and architecture match up with his beliefs, he is "consistent." But his system of beliefs is itself inconsistent, contradictory, and sometimes just capricious and arbitrary. All in all, this amuses me despite (and I must say it, as Ruskin no doubt felt compelled) Ruskin's near-hysterical attacks on Catholicism. A man holding Anglicism up as the One True Faith has no room to talk, my dears. But I am able to forgive Ruskin his occasional religious lunacy because of this beautiful paragraph about the men who built and decorated the great Catholic cathedrals of Europe:

...it is to its far happier, far higher, exaltation that we owe those fair fronts of variegated mosaic, charged with wild fancies and dark hosts of imagery, thicker and quainter than ever filled the depth of midsummer dream; those vaulted gates, trellised with close leaves; those window-labyrinths of twisted tracery and starry light; those misty masses of multitudinous pinnacle and diademed tower; the only witnesses, perhaps that remain to us of the faith and fear of nations. All else for which the builders sacrificed, has passed away--all their living interests, and aims, and achievements. We know not for what they labored, and we see no evidence of their reward. Victory, wealth, authority, happiness--all have departed, though bought by many a bitter sacrifice. But of them, and their life, and their toil upon the earth, one reward, one evidence, is left to us in those gray heaps of deep-wrought stone. They have taken with them to the grave their powers, their honors, and their errors; but they have left us their adoration.

Ruskin writes engagingly and with great affection (and, even if he may be absolutely wrong about facts, with great certainty) for his subject, which is the art of decoration as opposed to the art of building. He is interested, he tells us, in the "useless" features of buildings, though even that claim of "uselessness" is contradicted when he's talking about the aesthetics of structure. Ruskin writes finely, around and around in great spirals, caught up with whatever has caught his eye, and as long as he believes it at the moment of writing, he need not reconcile those momentary clashes where his claims knock against each other. None of that really matters, because Ruskin is not an architect, and he really just wants us to appreciate beauty and learn to separate truly beautiful adornment from mere adornment which might dazzle but fails to please. Or something like that.

Ruskin isn't to be read (or at least this book isn't to be read) to learn about architecture. What's good about The Seven Lamps of Architecture is the philosophical writing at the head of each section. There, Ruskin writes breathtakingly and with conviction, and you can see the light shining from his eyes:

We are too much in the habit of looking at falsehood in its darkest associations, and through the color of its worst purposes. That indignation which we profess to feel at deceit absolute, is indeed only at deceit malicious. We resent calumny, hypocrisy and treachery, because they harm us, not because they are untrue. Take the detraction and the mischief from the untruth, and we are little offended by it; turn it into praise, and we may be pleased with it. And yet it is not calumny nor treachery that does the largest sum of mischief in the world; they are continually crushed, and are felt only in being conquered. But it is the glistening and softly spoken lie; the amiable fallacy; the patriotic lie of the historian, the provident lie of the politician, the zealous lie of the partizan, the merciful lie of the friend, and the careless lie of each man to himself, that cast that black mystery over humanity, through which any man who pierces, we thank as we would thank one who dug a well in a desert; happy in that the thirst for truth still remains with us, even when we have wilfully left the fountains of it.

It is educational, I say, to see a man try to discuss art and the broader world in the light of his ethical system, aware that his discussion is alleged to be situated within his ethics, there for every reader to see. That's quite enough for now.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Feast of All Saints, in a cloud of doubt

I have been spending some of my off time typing up the first draft of my novel The Hanging Man into the hated Microsoft Word™. Last night I typed up Chapter 8, so I now have only the final four chapters to convert from my crabbed scrawl into a legible manuscript. I’m at that point in the narrative when—and I recall this quite distinctly—as a writer I lost all faith in the traditional story arc of a mystery novel, where in the end the detective brings clarity and a return to the status quo to the fictional world. A bright shining truth called out to me: there is no absolute clarity for any of us, and life is full of events upon whose peripheries we stand, never to know the motivations of the principle players despite our best efforts. I found that I could not, that is, sew up all the action and the mysteries of my mystery into a nice tidy ending. I abandoned that ship, letting the stubborn crew of rats pilot the vessel into the rocks, etc. Or something. What I’m trying to say is that, as I wrote that section of my novel wherein the confusion and unknowns were thickest, I was spurred on not to resolve and dispel this confusion. The murkiness, the lack of clarity of the situation, the possibility that nobody in the story actually possessed the facts and that the truths sought might not be found, became the interesting thing about the story. I spent the next several chapters offering up several possible versions of the truth, several good suspects for the perpetrators of the various crimes committed in the novel, and let the reader know what the official reports would say. But I did not, in the end, clear anything up. Not really. I’m not sure I know who killed whom or when or why they done it.

As I say, this confusion, this great cloud of doubt, became the thing that I wanted to explore. A detective, at least in a detective novel, is supposed to perform the magic trick of pulling the rabbit of truth from the hat of mystery, right? Bad simile and I apologize, but once I had “magic trick” I felt the urge to go for the cliché. Where? A fictional detective is supposed to cut through the knot of clues and red herrings and say without doubt at the end, “He done it, and here's how; arrest him, gentlemen.” Exit the perp, in irons. I discovered that this sort of third act held absolutely no appeal for me as a writer. On the other hand, learning how much I could reasonably muddy the waters of Wilburton, Kansas was a fascinating experiment. I have no idea if this has made for good fiction. Once again I’ve produced something that is not a detective novel, but is instead a novel with a detective in it. Your guess is as good as mine as to what the fate of these books will be. The first one, The Last Guest, is I think a good book. This new one might be, too. I’ll have to read it first to find that out.

Anyway, spoilers, as the kids say. And I seem to have begun a new novel already, something called Melville Price’s Atlas Of. That novel will contain an extended discussion of Pablo de Sarasate’s “Carmen Fantasy.”

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Don't like novels? Don't write one, then.

I have been, I realize, slowly sort of groping my way toward a response to the currently fashionable idea (in some circles) that narrative long-form fiction—that is to say, the novel—no longer presents a meaningful way to present stories and ideas about life. There is today a constant babble of “reality,” which is shorthand for, primarily, internet news soundbites and bullet-pointed miniature articles, a babble that continually interrupts the narrative flow of our days. It is foolish to embrace the artifice of the unbroken long-form story, a self-sustaining and self-contained world unto itself, as a reasonable representation of “the world” in which we live, and therefore readers of today are estranged from the novel because it is not a mirror of the times. What readers today can embrace is a form of narrative where fiction is interrupted by—or interleaved with—bits of “reality.” What readers want, we are being told, is a narrative experience that is broken into—or perhaps made out of—the constant babble which surrounds us. David Shields, a failed traditional novelist himself, has written that book Reality Hunger, you know, a pastiche of quotations from better writers shaped into something that appears, prima facie, to be an argument in favor of “narrative nonfiction” or whatever you choose to call it. The novel is broken, you see, the novel is artificial and false, the realist novel is unreal and we must seek some other form. That’s the argument.

The response, of course, is that these claims about the novel are pure nonsense. “Nonsense” is easily said, and certainly sums up how I feel about all of this, and has been expanded into essay length articles by brighter folks than me, but I should probably do my own expanding here, since it’s me who has broached the subject, right? Here is the thing: this “reality hunger” argument is predicated on at least two false assumptions:

1. That the novel has at some time been an accurate depiction of “reality” and that this depiction is now no longer accurate, and
2. That there is a growing number of readers who are unable to engage meaningfully with the outdated novel form.

So let’s take these one at a time. First, the novel’s history is long and complex, and many people might be quite surprised to learn that there has been no linear evolution of the form. Everything that’s going on right now in novels has been going on for a long time. All of the experimentation of today’s most experimental post-post-postmodernist experimentalists has been done already, hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Check out Book XII of Homer’s Iliad, why don’t you, where the poet leaps forward in time for hundreds of years, to talk about the appearance of the Trojan beaches after the Greek ships have all withdrawn and the Greek fortifications have all been pulled apart by the waves and storms, while meanwhile the primary narrative has gotten nowhere near that point in time. Nowadays we’d point to cinema and claim that the author has been influenced by “Pulp Fiction.” Good one, Homer. Good one, Quenton. But I digress and miss my own point.

The novel is and has always been a work of art, of artifice, an abstraction of a set of ideas about the world. A novel is—and pretends to be—no more “real” than a symphony, a painting, or a dance. Novelists might talk about life and the world, but they are not creating an accurate map of life and the world. To ask the novel to accurately mirror our own lives is to ask the novelist to do something that isn’t his job. Apuleus’ Golden Ass is clearly only a glancing blow against reality. The same can be said of Shakespeare, of Chekhov, of Chaucer, of Dickens, of Tolstoy, of O’Connor, of Woolf, of Manning, of whomever you care to name. Tristram Shandy contains many truths about life, but it is not a strict depiction of reality. The same can be said of Finnegans Wake. The same can be said of The Old Man and the Sea, or Lolita, or A Visit From the Goon Squad. I will also point out tangentially that every good book is an amalgam of what the author believes to be factually true and what the author has invented. The ratio of fact to invention is no indicator of the success of the book. And every representation of the world is imaginary, because the only accurate representation of the universe is the universe itself; anything else is an abstraction, an illusion, a fantasy, a falsehood, if you will. Art is artifice. There has never been a “realist novel” that was not a fantasy. There has never been an epoch where a work of fiction was equivalent to the actual experience of life.

As to the second claim, that readers are no longer able to engage meaningfully with the novel, I confess that I just don’t believe it. What I do believe is that there are now more people who have tried unsuccessfully to write novels and have afterwards managed to publish essays about how the novel-as-form is meaningless. David Shields, for example, has not managed to make a career for himself as a novelist. In the wake of his failure, Shields has successfully become the figurehead of the latest “the novel is dead” movement. The claims of Shields and his supporters seem to really come down to their own failure to engage with fiction, and a generalization from that experience resulting in a call for something new to take the place of the novel. Some form that, maybe, David Shields can understand and create. The death knell of the novel is being rung by folks, I am telling you, who do not understand the novel, do not enjoy the novel, and cannot despite their best efforts write a novel. I believe this is actually a small group, who are nonetheless pretty vocal just now.

There have always been people who don’t like to read fiction. This does not point up a failure in fiction. Novels remain a hugely popular method of communication between writers of fiction and readers of fiction. The classics of the world continue to be printed and sold in large numbers, because they continue to be read in large numbers. The novel is not failing humanity, and humanity is not turning its back upon fiction. There are some writers who want to write books, but who don’t get along with the novel, or with fiction. Some people, you know, read mostly memoir, a form I don’t much appreciate. I am aware however that my lack of engagement with memoir does not indicate a failing on the part of memoirists. I just don’t dig the form, that’s all. David Shields just doesn’t dig the novel. The novel, I must assume, doesn’t much care and goes on about its business despite the hectoring from Shields and his admirers, who I maintain are small in number despite their relative noisiness.

To sum up: bollocks to you, you hungerers after “reality.” Go ahead and write your narrative nonfiction or whatever (you might notice that “gonzo journalism” has been around for almost fifty years by now, and probably people were doing it for a long time before Hunter Thompson got there), but kindly lay the fuck off the novel. The more you guys talk about the limitations of the novel, the more clear it becomes that you know very little about the novel and what it does. It’s sort of like Jonathan Franzen saying that writers of historical fiction have “no skin in the game” and cannot be taken seriously as writers; which only shows, I think, that Franzen is ignorant of the importance of both history and fiction to culture. Oh Jonny, you’re such an adorable little dope. Were you not real, it would be necessary to invent you. I apologize for being possibly unnecessarily unfair to Mr Shields (who is, after all, employed by the same university that issues my own paycheck); he is, I think, just a guy trying to figure out why his own fiction is so unsatisfying. But he needs to stop blaming the novel for his failure. He needs to show us the worth of his work, and “it’s not a traditional novel” isn’t a good enough reason to read him. He needs to try harder. He needs to stop damning the forms in which he cannot work, and find the one in which he can.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

"Mitzi, Mitzi, Mitzi, I adore ya"

Mighty Reader and I are just back from ten days in the Old World, specifically Prague and Vienna. Mighty Reader took a thousand-and-some photos and I might post a few at some point. I might say a few words about Praha and/or Wien at some point, too, but probably not; I find that Wittgenstein was, after all, correct. I will say, however, that the most striking thing about Austria turned out to be--no, not the proliferation of shops offering shoe and key repair (which still strikes me as a curious combination)--it's the Viennese Bread Scam, which works as follows: the diner enters a restaurant/cafe; the diner orders a meal and with it, a side dish of bread; an order of bread in this example is one slice of brown bread and costs 1.4 Euro; the server brings a dish with two pieces of brown bread; no mention is made to the diner that extra bread has been brought to the table; the diner shares his second piece of bread with his fellow diner; the server adds 1.4 Euros to the final bill for the second serving of bread. This Viennese Bread Scam is common practice at restaurants no matter the price/trendiness/whatever of the place. It took us quite by surprise, and thankfully it only happens with bread (we imagined servers saying to us "Did you eat the entire bowl of soup? That was two servings and I must charge you 5 Euros 70 additional."). Mighty Reader pointed out the strong possibility that whenever bread is brought to table in Vienna, half of it has been pawed over by previous diners. Wien, Sie sind eine seltsam Stadt, but it was a good time anyway.

Edited to add: This is my favorite photo from the trip, Mighty Reader on the Charles Bridge in the shadow of the castle (yes, that castle). No golems spotted.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Best stay inside tonight: Finished with The Hanging Man for now

"Best stay inside tonight" is the last sentence in the final chapter of the first draft of the novel The Hanging Man. I wrote that sentence about 45 minutes ago, at lunch. So that's novel number (pause to consider for a second) eight, I think, though possibly I've lost count along the way. Only one of those eight has been published. It would be nice if someday I could get another one to market, but I'm not holding my breath. Still and all, I have finished the first draft of the novel I've been writing and that's a relief and I don't have to think about it until next month, when I will actually read what I have wrought and do a provisional sort of revision before setting it aside for several months. The final pages of The Hanging Man please me a great deal.

I pause yet again to consider the state of American publishing. I confess myself baffled by it. It's rare when a new novel comes out that excites me, and when I look at the catalogues of independent presses I feel a definite estrangement from the books they're putting out. Everyone claims to be transgressive or experimental, but to me it's just a lot of formal gameplaying to hide, I strongly suspect, some pretty pedestrian ideas and inelegant writing. One is not supposed to say that aloud, if one is a writer, but there it is. I am aware that every novelist who can't get a book deal says the same thing. I am unable to critically evaluate my own novels, of course, as every novelist is unable to critically evaluate his own novels. So I can't even claim, honestly, that I write good books. I can only claim that I write books, that I have written eight of them. The most recent book I've written is called, for now, The Hanging Man, and I wrote the final sentence of the first draft around 1:00 PM, PST, today.

Also, Blogger informs me that this is my 666th post. Huh.

Friday, October 4, 2013

the dead center of the novel

I have begun work on the final chapter of the first draft of The Hanging Man. I want to end the book by revisiting the images and characters with which it opened, and I want the tone of the final chapter to match (more or less) that of the first chapter, so yesterday afternoon I dug out the first chapter and read it over. It is, I am quite too pleased to say, pretty good stuff. Some of my best work, even. “What was I reading when I wrote this?” I wondered. I had no idea. I began this draft way back in May, and there have been a lot of books read since May, but fortunately I have this blog to tell me what I thought at the time was good writing. My three minutes of research here informs me that while I was writing the first chapter of The Hanging Man, I was finishing up Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls and also Marly Youmans’ Thaliad. You should read both of those books if you haven’t yet. I don’t see the connection between my first chapter and those two books, but if people like the novel I’ll credit Gogol and Youmans; if people don’t like the novel, it is no reflection on those two fine writers. Just so we’re clear.

Last night, quite late, I wrote out a six-point outline for Chapter 12. I may even follow it, though today I’ve got some research reading to do in order to flesh out one or two of the characters who made appearances in Chapter 1. One of them threatens already to overwhelm the chapter, so I must be careful. I have also decided that whatever loose ends there might be by the end of Chapter 11 will just stay loose; no attempt will be made to tie them up in the final chapter. This book has a theme of ambiguity, anyway.

Speaking of ambiguity, I’m about 60% into Gustav Meyrink’s wacky 1915 novel The Golem. It’s uneven and the translation is not brilliant, but some of the ideas Meyrink shoved around are amazing. During a scene in about the dead center of the novel, where Rabbi Hillel’s daughter talks about accepting the miraculous part of faith as well as—or even instead of—the moral/ethical side of religion, I was quite breathless. Good, good stuff:

Wenn ich ihnen dann klarmachen wollte, daß das Bedeutsame— das Wesentliche — für mich in der Bibel und anderen heiligen Schriften das Wunder und bloß das Wunder sei, und nicht Vorschriften über Moral und Ethik, die nur versteckte Wege sein können, um zum Wunder zu gelangen, — so wußten sie nur mit Gemeinplätzen zu erwidern, denn sie scheuten sich, offen einzugestehen, daß sie aus den Religionsschriften nur das glaubten, was ebensogut im bürgerlichen Gesetzbuch stehen könnte. Wenn sie das Wort ‚Wunder ‘ nur hörten, wurde ihnen schon unbehaglich. Sie verlören den Boden unter den Füßen, sagten sie.

Als ob es etwas Herrlicheres geben könnte, als den Boden unter den Füßen zu verlieren!

Die Welt ist dazu da, um von uns kaputt gedacht zu werden, hörte ich einmal meinen Vater sagen, — dann, dann erst fängt das Leben an. — Ich weiß nicht, was er mit dem ‚Leben‘ meinte, aber ich fühle zuweilen, daß ich eines Tages so wie: ‚erwachen‘ werde. Wenn ich mir auch nicht vorstellen kann, in welchen Zustand hinein. Und Wunder müssen dem vorhergehen, denke ich mir immer.

Also, The Golem is set in Prague, and reading it is sparking my interest in parts of that city I hadn’t originally planned to visit.

Also, today is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. Don't forget to bless your pets.

Also, I have been asked what the quoted text means in English. So here's my own loose translation:

Whenever I wanted to make it clear to them that what is significant--what is most important--for me in the Bible and other holy books, are the miracles and only the miracles, not rules about morality and ethics--which may be just hidden ways to get to miracles--they could only answer in platitudes because they were afraid to openly admit that they only believed those religious writings which could just as well be part of the civil code. Just hearing the word miracle made them uncomfortable. It made them feel as if the ground could open up under their feet, they said.

As if there could be something more glorious than for the ground to open up under your feet!

The world is there for us to examine, I once heard my father say--then, and only then, does life begin. I do not know what he meant by 'life,' but I feel sometimes that I will one day 'wake up' to real life. Though I cannot imagine what that will be like. But it will begin with a miracle, I always think to myself.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Let's just say that I give away the ending

"The War is long over, Mademoiselle Helga. We are no longer in Europe. Your hatred of me serves no purpose."

"So all is forgiven because we meet in Kansas rather than in Alsace and Lorraine? Nein. Ich bin Amerikanerin now, Fräulein. I am free to despise whomever I like. This is the glory of the constitutional democracy."

That's from Chapter Six of my soon-to-be-complete-in-draft-form novel The Hanging Man. Yesterday I began writing Chapter 11, the penultimate chapter. There's a huge dust storm and some other hijinks. Chapter 12 is all denouement, and will be pretty short, I think, which means that this first draft should be complete within the next two weeks, and I'll take a nice break from writing at that point.

I've been telling Mighty Reader that this one is a better mystery-as-mystery than The Transcendental Detective, and I also think it's a better novel-as-novel than that one. I also realize that my idea of structure for a detective novel has been influenced by the two Leonardo Sciascia books I read this year, which has had...erm, interesting results.

I'm not actually sure how to talk about what I've done with this novel, especially in the last third or so of the story. Spoilers, you know, for the handful of people I'll let read the second draft in a couple of months. Let's just say that I give away the ending far in advance and worked to give the reader reasons to keep reading past that point. Novelistic reasons, that is, as opposed to mystery-fiction reasons. I don't know how that'll all work out. I think it's a pretty good book, though. Full of irony and ambiguity. Likely traditional mystery fans will despise it. I'm not sure I care much about that, though.

Sometime this winter, I guess, I'll start work on revisions to Mona in the Desert. The plan at this point is to cut away about 30% of the draft and write gobs of new text. I still think this will be a shorter sort of novel, maybe 60,000 or so words. Unless I get a really good idea that requires a lot of room. So far, I have not had such a really good idea. I may find, once I begin carving away at the book, that there really isn't anything left, and I might abandon the project or turn it into a long short story. Hard to say.

When that's all done, whatever that ends up being, I just don't know. I just don't know. I am beginning to think about taking up a different hobby.

Update: (3 October) I have finished Chapter 11, which looked like it was going to be a lot of chatting in the dark, but then I found interesting things to do with the material so I'm happier with this chapter than I thought I'd be. It's quite a short chapter, for this book, but that's fine. I was writing along, as one does, when suddenly I found myself composing the concluding lines of the chapter, not quite aware how I had arrived at that point. Onward now to the final chapter, which takes place on a train. The first chapter of the novel takes place on the same train. This is a technique known as bookending, which is not to be confused with a framing device. It's entirely possible that I'll have this first draft finished by the end of the weekend. As usual, I am once more surprised to discover that I've apparently written an entire novel.

Monday, September 23, 2013

he took a fresh sheet of paper and began

The profession of writing never produced a more assiduous and methodical practitioner than Anthony Trollope. He scheduled in advance the number of words which he proposed to exact from himself week by week and month by month. He entered in his diary his daily progress to make sure that he delivered. Early in the morning, at 5:30, after his coffee, during one long period of his life, he sat down resolutely at his desk and wrote for three hours. He did not stare at the wall or gaze out the window or pace the floor; he put words on paper—250 of them every fifteen minutes. At the end of three hours he ended his session and proceeded to his duties with the Post Office. When he traveled, he wrote on trains or aboard ship with the same relentless perseverance. If he finished one manuscript in the middle of his apportioned writing period, he took a fresh sheet of paper and began the next.

from page ix of the introduction, by Harlan Hatcher, to the Modern Library edition of Barchester Towers and The Warden by Anthony Trollope. Bear in mind also that Trollope had a full time job at the Post Office, a job that involved much travel and the writing of long and tedius reports. We also learn from Mr Hatcher that the combined sales of Trollope's first three novels during their first five years in print was fewer than a thousand copies.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

but the travel writing is good stuff

Few things are duller than writers blogging about writing, and this post promises to be quite dull indeed, so if you are one of my three devoted regular readers, you may freely skip the rest of this and go find something more amusing on the internet. I hear there's some fuss over Franzen and his immense ego, or you could join the tail end of the "holy crap books" debate on twitter, or you could go read about the lunacy that is Swinburne (and his rock star hair) over on Wuthering Expectations. Or you could go play angry birds, which I am told is an online video game although to the best of my knowledge I have never seen the thing. What you don't want to do is waste your time here, is my point.

My novel The Astrologer is going out of print in early October. I don't have a firm date; it will depend on when my publisher officially reverts the rights to me. It will be strange to have been a published author for six months and then, suddenly, to not be. Well, I suppose I will remain a published author, I just won't have a book in print. Hang onto those copies of the novel; they will be worth something someday, I promise you.

I'm reading Agatha Christie's 1938 "Poirot" mystery Appointment With Death. The structure is interesting, especially for a "golden age" detective novel: at page 100, no cime has been committed, though of course we know who the stiff is going to be (although Christie might surprise us, which would be delightful and I hope she does). Hercule Poirot, the detective, drifts quietly along in the distant background of the story, which is also a nice choice by Christie. He's walked through two scenes and interacted with almost nobody, but the reader is aware that he is around. The dramatic writing and characterizations are not brilliant here, but the travel writing (the novel is built around a trip to Palestine, or rather around the intersection of several parties' vacation trips through the Holy Land) is good stuff, all vivid and sharp with colors and textures and emotion. The pathetic fallacy is all over these pages (damn you, Ruskin, for that perjorative; the animation of landscapes and objects is not a failure in prose or poetry, ya big doofus) (if it was Ruskin who coined that term). I have always enjoyed the digressions Christie took in her novels. You can tell that she enjoyed them, too.

My own detective novel in progress, The Hanging Man, is paused in the middle of Chapter 9. The scene that I've just begun to write is pivotal, and I need to think for a bit about the dramatic arc. Once I finish this scene, the book should be pretty quickly finished, all precipitous action and denoument in three chapters of mayhem and dust storm. Three or four weeks at most, I hope.

After I finish The Hanging Man, I am not sure what I'll do, in the way of being a writer of novels. I had planned to work on what I have loosely referred to as "the Haydn novel" or else on something called Nowhere But North. These are two books I've been mulling around and talking about for a couple of years. This morning it occured to me that I might not write either of them. I might work on something else; the call of this something else is getting to be quite loud, and I always write whatever novel most strongly demands my attention. I think, in other words, that I've made a decision about the sort of books I want to write and that sort of book does not include the historical fiction I've been planning. I have rather been avoiding contemporary stories but now I believe I'm going to focus on a story set in the present. I've got ideas about the relationship of now to then, you see. Well, you might see. We'll see.