Thursday, February 28, 2013

he always indeed looked, constantly the same as and equal

The leading male character in Finnegans Wake, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, is mentioned by name in a bewildering array of variants:

Haroun Childeric Eggeberth
he calmly extensolies.
Hic cubat edilis.
How Copenhagen ended.
happinest childher everwere.
has its clever mechanics and each
Hush! Caution ! Echoland
How charmingly exquisite!
heathersmoke and cloudweed Eire's
Hither, craching eastuards,
hence, cool at ebb,
hatch, a celt, an earshare
here, creakish from age and all now quite epsilene,

and hundreds more versions, some more obscure than others, though my favorite is Here Comes Everybody. HCE is everybody, or every Finnegan, which is to say every Irishman, which is to say every man descended from Adam after the Fall in the Garden. I am pretty sure this is what Joyce is getting at, at least in part. HCE is also short for Howth Castle and Environs, a very old structure that overlooks Dublin Bay. The mouth of the River Liffey is Dublin Bay. This is also significant.

Howth Castle and Environs is a stand in for the city of Dublin, which is also an aspect of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, which means that Dublin is human society post-Fall. The River Liffey (also known as Anna Liffey) is a stand in for Anna Livia Plurabelle, or ALP, or the wife of HCE. The Liffey (the wife, Eve, Ireland itself, the earth, nature, etc) is the pure and innocent place where the sinful HCE has set up shop. I think. Anna Livia Plurabelle, whose monologue ends Finnegans Wake in much the same way Molly Bloom's monologue ends Ulysses, turns out therefore to be the narrator of the entirety of Finnegans Wake, because the final sentence of her monologue wraps around the whole of the book to become the first sentenct of the first chapter. So, as I say, ALP narrates Finnegans Wake. Who is speaking is just as tricky a problem as what is being said.

What is being said, I think, becomes more clear to me as I read on. The language, or Joyce's many languages, are starting to make sense and sounding more like English, which is either a good sign or a bad sign; I can't say which. I don't know what this book is doing to me. Many of the characters in it (maybe all of them?) are asleep, and the language is the language of dreams: symbolic, shifting, confusing and coiling about itself. Possibly the whole thing is a dream dreamt by ALP, by the River Liffey, by Ireland. Ireland dreams of her own fall and wishes for her revival. Maybe. I can't say so I keep reading.

I'm not sure what I think about when I read this book. I am amused often because the tone is comic, a nod I suppose to the comic story of Finnegan's wake, but there's also a great sadness here, a great bitterness and swelling anger at something but I'm not sure what. Perhaps I've read too much Chekhov and so I read into Joyce's novel a sympathy for the Fallen humanity that Joyce doesn't intend. HCE lies about being lied about, and everyone is scandalized but nobody is in any state to be throwing the first stone. Is this what the book is about? I don't know. I keep reading, because I want to see what Anna Livia Plurabelle's soliloquy does after all of this other stuff.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

I'd sooner be the rider than the horse

photo courtesy Michelle Davidson Argyle

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

I’ve abandoned quotation marks

What I’m working on just now is a revision to the novel I’m calling Go Home, Miss America. So far I’ve made it through about one and a half chapters of the MS. The odd numbered chapters tell the story of David Molloy, middle-aged director of a visiting scholars program at a university in Seattle. The even numbered chapters tell the story of Catherine Lark, a twentysomething who has gone to the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of her church’s relief mission. About two-thirds of the way through the novel, the two storylines intersect.

Each of these stories is written in a different prose style. The David Molloy narrative is brisk and a bit frenetic, with a maybe Nabokovian comic tone. I read Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim not long ago, and that novel might be a reasonable comparison, a work similar to what I’m going after, though Amis’ protagonist did not use as much profanity as my protagonist does. “Fuckmotherfuck,” David Molloy says. Often. The Catherine Lark narrative is more languid, more open and—I hope—beautiful. I’m not sure what sort of literary touchstone I’m using for that narrative. Possibly English lyric poetry more than any prose I can think of. Wordsworth and Longfellow, I’d venture. I strive for expansive and breathtaking writing and though I’m sure I fail, it ain’t bad at all.

So here I am, revising two alternating narratives, working on voice and tone and the poetry of the prose, and also of course working on character and theme and story and all those essential elements of a novel. I sort of forget to talk about those elements, because no matter what part of a story you’re working on, you have only a single tool: language. You can be sorting out how to write about the relationship between a husband and his wife, you can be strengthening the value of a recurrent symbol, you can be expanding the size of the fictional stage, and you still only have words, mere words, with which to do it. The entire thing is made up of words, and so I think about prose style a lot when I’m revising, or I tell myself I’m thinking about words even when I’m thinking about other story elements.

These are all more or less prefatory remarks to build a backdrop for the appearance of James Joyce on the scene. While I’m working on my two conjoined narratives and thinking about Nabokov and Amis and Fitzgerald and Woolf and Wordsworth, I happen to be reading Finnegans Wake. One certain fact about Finnegans Wake is that what Joyce does with language in that book is never predictable. Finnegans Wake is an immense linguistic world, with a surprising and active and constantly shifting narrative language. Say what you will about Joyce, he was not lazy when it came to his prose. For better or worse, reading FW forces me to ask myself, when I look at my own writing, if I am working hard enough. Am I allowing my vocabulary to contract, am I looking for interesting ways to describe action, am I painting a vivid portrait or am I merely suggesting, those sorts of questions. Joyce was pushing against the framework of art, seeing what he could do, seeing what he could make his one and only tool—language—do that might open doors into new territories. I don’t think all of Finnegans Wake necessarily “works” as an experiment in prose, but Joyce was clearly trying as hard as he could, and the passages that do work—impenetrable as they might be—are breathtaking. So I am trying to work as hard as I can with Go Home, Miss America. Maybe all of it won’t “work,” but I think enough of it does to make the experiment worthwhile. I also know that because I’m more or less a realist, most readers won’t even see the ways I’m abusing my mother tongue. They’ll just notice that I’ve abandoned quotation marks. That’s like the first warning sign of experimental writing, isn’t it?

Monday, February 25, 2013

It is certain this ape is not an astrologer

" Spain there is not a jade, or page, or old cobbler, that will not undertake to set up a figure as readily as pick up a knave of cards from the ground, bringing to nought the marvellous truth of the science by their lies and ignorance. I know of a lady who asked one of these figure schemers whether her little lap-dog would be in pup and would breed, and how many and of what colour the little pups would be. To which senor astrologer, after having set up his figure, made answer that the bitch would be in pup, and would drop three pups, one green, another bright red, and the third parti-coloured, provided she conceived between eleven and twelve either of the day or night, and on a Monday or Saturday; but as things turned out, two days after this the bitch died of a surfeit, and senor planet-ruler had the credit all over the place of being a most profound astrologer"

--Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, Book II, Chapter 25, "The Prophesying Ape" (trans. Ormsby)

Friday, February 22, 2013

The rest is marketing, part one

A reading! A book signing! A round of drinks for all takers immediately afterwards (location TBD)!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

to satisfy his literary as well as his criminal aspirations

I continue with Finnegans Wake, attempting to ride along the Joycean river Liffey, looking at those things to which Joyce points and names, misnames, renames; hearing those snatches of conversation which Joyce quotes, misquotes, paraphrases, rephrases, reshapes, deforms, rebuilds. The landscape becomes the action becomes the characters becomes the mythos becomes the prose itself and much of it exists for me just beyond the limit of intelligibility but the rhythms and sounds continue to draw me in, draw me on, draw me forward. So it’s going well, I think. Am I reading a novel? I don’t think so, though I’m certainly experiencing some sort of story, amn’t I? Yes I am.

This morning on the bus I was thinking about the music of Kristen Hersh, especially her early albums with the band Throwing Muses. One of the hallmarks of that band was opacity; there was no way to immediately interpret Hersh’s lyrics, ostensibly written in English my mother tongue, but the combination of free-associative poetry and Hersh’s amazing glossolalia resulted in a music full of dark and dense areas of impenetrability. There was no way of knowing what those globules of opacity really contained or hid or revealed, but I realize that it was those very points of unknowable stuff that made the music so valuable to me. I realize that I am drawn strongly to art which cannot be easily and immediately understood. There’s a theory forming in the back of my mind somewhere that these masses of opacity in works of art function as negative space into which the imagination of the audience can move. The audience has the opportunity to inhabit the work of art, to crawl into it here and there in a way that isn’t possible with more easily understood texts. There are lots of interesting things that can happen when a reader begins to inhabit the negative spaces within a text. Connections are made between reader and text that aren't possible when a reader remains on or against the surface of a text. So perhaps "opaque," yes, but "impenetrable" no. I'm not sure.

This resistance to immediate (or any) interpretation is not a function of complexity, either. The techniques of opacity used by Joyce in Finnegans Wake are pretty easy to see. He network of allusions is complex—possibly in the end it grew beyond even the understanding of the author himself—but the craft he used is straightforward. This is all interesting to me. I have no idea how to apply it to my own work. I don’t think I want to write something that mimics Finnegans Wake in terms of form or surface. Certainly the idea of texts resisting interpretation is not a new one, either; the best of Shakespeare’s plays ask more questions than they answer, even while seeming to wrap up all the action in the fifth act.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

from swerve of shore to bend of bay

Is it possible that Finnegans Wake is an early feminist text? There could be an argument running the length of the book that patriarchy is the enslavement of women, that prostitution was invented for men by men, that coitus is--from the male perspective--little better than rape, that men build self-serving civilizations upon the backs of women, etc. Maybe. The HCE sex crime is a stand-in for The Fall which is an allegory of all male activity, maybe. The preoccupation of men is rape, and everything rises from that impulse. The fall of Ireland was/is the failure of men. Maybe. I begin to see how this historical view would actually raise men to being the engine of all history, which is pretty prideful, Mr Joyce, if that's what you're saying in your book. I don't claim that this idea is clearly outlined. Perhaps my reader wasn't aware that there is a bit of opacity built into Joyce's text. I'll keep reading and see what turns up.

Finnegans Wake, I maintain on this my second attempt to read it, is a magic book. By that I mean that reading it sparks the creative centers of my writerly brain and makes me sensitive to greater possibilities within novelistic form. That's some good magic, kids. What has Joyce shown? That you can bring anything into your narrative, in any way you like. He's shown a lot of other things, too.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

I vaguely felt that her rare beauty was accidental, unnecessary, and, like everything on earth, of short duration

It sometimes happens that clouds are huddled together in disorder on the horizon, and the sun hiding behind them colors them and the sky with tints of every possible shade--crimson, orange, gold, lilac, muddy pink; one cloud is like a monk, another like a fish, a third like a Turk in a turban. The glow of sunset enveloping a third of the sky gleams on the cross on the church, flashes on the windows of the manor house, is reflected in the river and the puddles, quivers on the trees; far, far away against the background of the sunset, a flock of wild ducks is flying homewards. . . . And the boy herding the cows, and the surveyor driving in his chaise over the dam, and the gentleman out for a walk, all gaze at the sunset, and every one of them thinks it terribly beautiful, but no one knows or can say in what its beauty lies.

I was not the only one to think the Armenian girl beautiful. My grandfather, an old man of seventy, gruff and indifferent to women and the beauties of nature, looked caressingly at Masha for a full minute, and asked:

"Is that your daughter, Avert Nazaritch?"

"Yes, she is my daughter," answered the Armenian.

"A fine young lady," said my grandfather approvingly.

An artist would have called the Armenian girl's beauty classical and severe, it was just that beauty, the contemplation of which--God knows why!--inspires in one the conviction that one is seeing correct features; that hair, eyes, nose, mouth, neck, bosom, and every movement of the young body all go together in one complete harmonious accord in which nature has not blundered over the smallest line. You fancy for some reason that the ideally beautiful woman must have such a nose as Masha's, straight and slightly aquiline, just such great dark eyes, such long lashes, such a languid glance; you fancy that her black curly hair and eyebrows go with the soft white tint of her brow and cheeks as the green reeds go with the quiet stream. Masha's white neck and her youthful bosom were not fully developed, but you fancy the sculptor would need a great creative genius to mold them. You gaze, and little by little the desire comes over you to say to Masha something extraordinarily pleasant, sincere, beautiful, as beautiful as she herself was.

At first I felt hurt and abashed that Masha took no notice of me, but was all the time looking down; it seemed to me as though a peculiar atmosphere, proud and happy, separated her from me and jealously screened her from my eyes.

"That's because I am covered with dust," I thought, "am sunburnt, and am still a boy."

But little by little I forgot myself, and gave myself up entirely to the consciousness of beauty. I thought no more now of the dreary steppe, of the dust, no longer heard the buzzing of the flies, no longer tasted the tea, and felt nothing except that a beautiful girl was standing only the other side of the table.

I felt this beauty rather strangely. It was not desire, nor ecstacy, nor enjoyment that Masha excited in me, but a painful though pleasant sadness. It was a sadness vague and undefined as a dream. For some reason I felt sorry for myself, for my grandfather and for the Armenian, even for the girl herself, and I had a feeling as though we all four had lost something important and essential to life which we should never find again.

--from "The Beauties" by Anton Chekhov, trans. Constance Garnett

Monday, February 18, 2013

doom and date

Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck,
And yet methinks I have astronomy,
But not to tell of good, or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons' quality,
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell;
Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well
By oft predict that I in heaven find.
But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And constant stars in them I read such art
As truth and beauty shall together thrive
If from thy self, to store thou wouldst convert:
    Or else of thee this I prognosticate,
    Thy end is truth's and beauty's doom and date.

--William Shakespeare, Sonnet #14

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Feasts of Sts Cyril and Methodius

I have finished the first rough revision of the first draft of Mona in the Desert, which is my way of saying that I've done a hasty read-through and corrected the largest areas of self-contradiction and made vague note of the things that will require work in the future, by which I mean sometime in 2014 should I live so long. The point of this revision was to produce a rough draft that wasn't too rough for Mighty Reader to have a look at. Mighty Reader gets to see all of my first drafts, by which I mean my second drafts. Anyway, that's done and now I can turn my attentions to Go Home, Miss America. That narrative is in pretty good shape, but I need to write new scenes and insert them at strategic places in the second half of the story to better prepare the ending of the Catherine Lark storyline. I also want to add a scene that invokes the Seattle waterfront and skyline as seen from the west, because the David Malloy storyline seems to spend far too much time indoors and so I'll give the characters a chance to look around at the sky and breathe the salt air. The new Catherine Lark scenes are going to be a job of work, but I have a bunch of detailed notes and a pretty clear idea of what I'm trying to do so it's not completely daunting. Possibly I'll get started on that work next week. This week I'm busy fighting to remain upright while a flu virus fights to pull me into the grave. Damn you, flu virus.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

She had got out of the habit of thinking of her past

I am reading Chekhov again, and I tire my reader with the same old comment: I don't know why I read anything else. Chekhov was brilliant. Yes, it took him a couple of hundred stories before he was able to consistently be brilliant, but once he got there he was there. He was brilliant.

I noticed something for the first time about Chekhov's writing last night. We all know that as Chekhov got better as a writer (or maybe just older), his stories became more realistic and the endings became more indeterminate, open and unresolved. Many people label these endings as miserable endings, because characters walk onstage unhappy and are generally found, at the end of the stories, standing center stage even more unhappy than they were at the start, or maybe just more aware of their unhappiness. What I hadn't seen before last night is that, while Chekhov is working out how to write an indeterminate and realistic ending, his sympathy for his characters deepens and the stories become richer in love for humanity. Yes, Anton Pavlovich learned to write detailed, carefully-observed tales of sadness and existential crisis, but he wrote with such kindness, really; I can't think of any writer so accepting of his characters' failings, so able to perform the miracle of uniting his reader's empathy with his own. That sentence fails to say quite what I mean. Chekhov loved humanity deeply, I think, and his later stories display that love and open the world of the story up to the reader's love for humanity, possibly a little forcefully. Which is what gives Chekhov lasting value. What I mean is that while Chekhov's awareness of craft improved, his awareness of the humanity in his stories deepened at the same time. There was a parallel development happening. Have I belabored this point enough? Good.

Right now I'm reading Volume Nine of Tales of Chekhov, translated by my beloved Constance Garnett. I was well pleased to open the volume and see that the first story is "The Schoolmistress," one of my favorites. The opening is an example of amazing writing:

At half-past eight they drove out of the town.

The highroad was dry, a lovely April sun was shining warmly, but the snow was still lying in the ditches and in the woods. Winter, dark, long, and spiteful, was hardly over; spring had come all of a sudden. But neither the warmth nor the languid transparent woods, warmed by the breath of spring, nor the black flocks of birds flying over the huge puddles that were like lakes, nor the marvelous fathomless sky, into which it seemed one would have gone away so joyfully, presented anything new or interesting to Marya Vassilyevna who was sitting in the cart. For thirteen years she had been schoolmistress, and there was no reckoning how many times during all those years she had been to the town for her salary; and whether it were spring as now, or a rainy autumn evening, or winter, it was all the same to her, and she always -- invariably -- longed for one thing only, to get to the end of her journey as quickly as could be.

Do you see what he did there? Such lovely writing about nature and the first edge of springtime, all soured by the appearance of our protagonist, Marya, whom we learn to love and pity. What does she want of the thawing landscape? To be out of it as soon as possible.

Later, the prose opens up the world to infinite possibility in a passage I'd steal if I could:

And she began crying, she did not know why. Just at that instant Hanov drove up with his team of four horses, and seeing him she imagined happiness such as she had never had, and smiled and nodded to him as an equal and a friend, and it seemed to her that her happiness, her triumph, was glowing in the sky and on all sides, in the windows and on the trees. Her father and mother had never died, she had never been a schoolmistress, it was a long, tedious, strange dream, and now she had awakened. . .

Chekhov learned the technique of internal writing, of closing the emotional distance between narrator/reader and his characters until the reader was inside the characters. Interestingly, Chekhov was more successful at this internal writing when he used a third-person point of view and the narrator moves from outside the characters to inside, as if zooming in on details of a painting. It's the shift of perspective that gives a lot of power to the emotional emphasis Chekhov's providing. When he wrote first-person narratives, the narrator's claims about his own emotions are less moving. Chekhov can only get his reader to feel the emotion when there's irony in the situation, the narrator not seeing what's really happening. I don't know if Chekhov ever solved that particular narrative problem. Maybe it didn't present itself as a problem to him.

Also, of course, statements about feelings sound more true when spoken by an impersonal voice than when spoken by the person doing the feeling. "She was miserable" is more easily believed than "I am miserable." I don't know why that is. Possibly we've all been trained to doubt when folks bear witness to their own emotions. What's that say about us?

Monday, February 11, 2013

time for love of you

When I consider every thing that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment.
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment.
When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheered and checked even by the self-same sky:
Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
And wear their brave state out of memory.
Then the conceit of this inconstant stay,
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wasteful time debateth with decay
To change your day of youth to sullied night,
    And all in war with Time for love of you,
    As he takes from you, I engraft you new.

--William Shakespeare, Sonnet #15

Saturday, February 9, 2013

So you see, Scipio, what a lot of harm a little bacon can do

As I was saying, I was well cut out for the job of guarding the flock, because I felt that I was earning the fruits of my labors, and that I was a stranger to laziness, the root and mother of all vice. If by day I rested, at night I didn't sleep, what with striking out and giving chase to the wolves. The shepherds had hardly cried, "After him, Barcino!" when I took off, outpacing the other dogs to wherever they said the wolf was. I ranged over valleys, scoured the mountains, plunged through forests, jumped gullies, crossed highways. In the morning I'd return to the fold without finding any trace of a wolf, panting, tired, stumbling, my paws torn by thorns--only to discover, right there in the flock, a dead sheep or a gutted lamb, half-eaten by the wolf. I despaired to see how little good my fanatical care and attention were doing. Then the owner would appear. The shepherds would approach him with the pelt from the carcass. He'd scold them for negligence, then order the dogs punished for laziness. Blows rained down on us, and recriminations on top of them.
    One day, seeing that they were punishing me for no reason, and seeing that my care, sure-footedness, and bravery were proving useless to catch the wolf, I resolved to change my strategy. I wouldn't chase after the wolf as I'd been doing, far from the flock, but stay near it instead. That way, when the wolf came, I'd stand a better chance of catching him.
    Week in and week out they'd raised the alarm, and one sable-black night I lay in ambush for those wolves against whom I'd failed to protect the flock. While the other dogs tore out ahead of me, I lay doggo behind a bush and watched two shepherds mark out one of the best lambs in the fold and kill it--and in such a way that in the morning, everyone would think the wolf had done it.
    It flabbergasted me. I gasped when I saw that the shepherds were the wolves, and were raiding the flock they were supposed to guard. They notified the master of the "wolf's" depredations right away, giving him the pelt and part of the meat, but they wolfed down most of it themselves, and not the worst part, either. The master reprimanded them again, and again the dogs got the worst of it.
    There had never been any wolves, and the flock was still shrinking. I wanted to blow the whistle, but I found myself mute, filled with confusion and outrage. God deliver us, I said to myself, who can defeat this evil? Who has power enough to proclaim that the defenders are doing the attacking, that the sentinels sleep, the trusted plunder, and those who watch over us are killers?

--Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, El Coloquio de los Perros, 1613. Translated by David Kipen

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Monday, February 4, 2013

Another general shout

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves that we are underlings.

--William Shakespeare, "Julius Caesar," Act I, Scene II

Saturday, February 2, 2013

three dwarf Nigerian goats

On Thursday, Mighty Reader and I dashed down to Portland, Oregon for the night. One thing we did while in Portland was go to a reading at Powell's Books (Jennie P. Grant read from her City Goats and also provided a dandy slide show). Another thing we did was visit three dwarf Nigerian goats, who were all very sweet. One other thing we did was get me a new author photo taken:

This was our late-afternoon lunch at Kenny & Zukes, one block from Powell's. The happy hour burgers and fries were excellent. The beer was pretty good, too. I highly recommend Kenny & Zukes. When I have my reading at Powell's, we'll go back for more pints and nosh. Portland is a fine walkable town with many fine bridges. I now possess a t-shirt covered with profiles of a lot of Portland bridges. The bus lines served us handily when we were too tired to walk. My only regret is that Rimsky Korsakoffee wasn't open when we dropped by.

These, by the way, are the three goats:
photo credit: Mighty Reader