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.