Friday, September 19, 2014

"I killed Pompilia Franceschini" -- the testimony of Count Guido

I killed Pompilia Franceschini, Sirs;
Killed too the Comparini, husband, wife,
Who called themselves, by a notorious lie,
Her father and her mother to ruin me.
Oh, Browning. You are such a card. Yes, Count Guido Franceschini is testifying before the court, the defendant in a murder trial, accused of butchering his wife and her parents. Guido admits to all if it, see? It's a fair cop, and fairly done, and fair is fair so let him go. The wench was an adulteress, her parents frauds; what choice did Guido have?

There is much humor in Guido's testimony, though all in the ironic vein. Guido has been tortured prior to appearing in court, to help loosen his tongue and encourage him to speak honestly. Guido is not a young man, nor is he used to such rough handling, but he is grateful to the court for having him racked:
Not your fault, sweet Sir! Come, you take to heart
An ordinary matter. Law is law.
Noblemen were exempt, the vulgar thought,
From racking, but, since law thinks otherwise,
I have been put to the rack: all’s over now,
And neither wrist — what men style, out of joint:
If any harm be, ’tis the shoulder-blade,
The left one, that seems wrong i’ the socket — Sirs,
Much could not happen, I was quick to faint,
Being past my prime of life, and out of health.
In short I thank you — yes, and mean the word.
"No, that's okay, I passed out from the pain, your Honors!" But why does he thank the court? The change in form of Guido's punishment was a relief:
Needs must the Court be slow to understand
How this quite novel form of taking pain,
This getting tortured merely in the flesh,
Amounts to almost an agreeable change
In my case, me fastidious, plied too much
With opposite treatment, used (forgive the joke)
To the rasp-tooth toying with this brain of mine,
And, in and out my heart, the play o’ the probe.
Four years have I been operated on
I’ the soul, do you see — its tense or tremulous part —
My self-respect, my care for a good name,
Pride in an old one, love of kindred — just
A mother, brothers, sisters, and the like,
That looked up to my face when days were dim,
And fancied they found light there — no one spot,
Foppishly sensitive, but has paid its pang.
That, and not this you now oblige me with,
That was the Vigil-torment, if you please!
Ho ho ho, Guido, good one! The rack is better than living with that wife of his, gentlemen! Thanks for the diversion; were he stronger, he'd ask for another taste. "vigil torment" refers to the cheerful habit of Renaissance Italian prisons to deny sleep to a condemned prisoner, just to add to the misery. Guido implies that living with his young wife was a torture he endured while awaiting death, which could not come too soon, your Honors. Ho ho ho, Browning. This martyrdom of Guido's is the central pillar of his defense, so it's important that he establish his great relief at his wife's somewhat forced demise, no matter the consequences to Guido himself, brave lad that he is. He done her in but she had it coming, you see. At some length Guido will explain why. Who can blame him, sir? Well, it turns out that the law blames him, and will chop off his head by way of repercussion. But that's later. For now there's the martyrdom--the sainthood, really--of Guido Franceschini, the poor dear man.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"Push lines out to the limit": a lesson in writing fiction with Robert Browning

I'm reading Robert Browning's long verse epic The Ring and the Book. I don't read a lot of poetry, but Tom's posts on this work sparked my interest, and I managed to stumble across a fine old edition of the book while on vacation a few weeks back. The Ring and the Book is some fun, kids. Read Tom's posts for all the stuff (or a lot of the stuff) that I won't be talking about.

What I want to post about is Browning's framing device, which is a lecture on literary/poetic technique. The whole poem can be seen as a lesson on how to write historical fiction, if you like. Hell, the title The Ring and the Book is not about the story at all; it's about Browning's method and materials as the author of The Ring and the Book. Imagine Melville calling Moby-Dick something like, I donno, Elijah and the Wreck. (A better analogy will occur to me after I actually post this, of course.)

The Ring is a finely-worked gold ring Browning apparently gave to his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. A goldsmith had told Browning that in order to make elaborate designs in gold, which is a soft metal, smiths usually alloy pure gold with some stronger metal. The alloy is then able to be cast, drawn, filed, hammered, pried, cut et cetera. I see on the internets that if a smith alloys the gold with copper, placing the finished item in a nitric acid bath will remove the copper but leave the gold remaining. I'm not sure this is exactly the process Browning's unnamed goldsmith described, but here, let's let Browning tell it:
There’s one trick,
(Craftsmen instruct me) one approved device
And but one, fits such slivers of pure gold
As this was — such mere oozings from the mine,
Virgin as oval tawny pendent tear
At beehive-edge when ripened combs o’erflow —
To bear the file’s tooth and the hammer’s tap:
Since hammer needs must widen out the round,
And file emboss it fine with lily-flowers,
Ere the stuff grow a ring-thing right to wear.
That trick is, the artificer melts up wax
With honey, so to speak; he mingles gold
With gold’s alloy, and, duly tempering both,
Effects a manageable mass, then works.
But his work ended, once the thing a ring,
Oh, there’s repristination! Just a spirt
O’ the proper fiery acid o’er its face,
And forth the alloy unfastened flies in fume;
While, self- sufficient now, the shape remains,
The rondure brave, the lilied loveliness,
Gold as it was, is, shall be evermore:
Prime nature with an added artistry
That's the ring, then: you take pure gold, perfect as nature created it, add something to stiffen it enough that you can work it into an artistic form, and then burn away that additive. What's left is nature's perfect substance, made into art. The added something I will get to in a minute. First, we must learn what Browning's gold is, in other words, the Book.

Browning's source material for his epic poem came from what became known as "The Old Yellow Book," a vellum-bound volume of written testimony and legal briefs relating to a 1698 Roman murder trial. Browning found the Old Yellow Book while trolling through the market stalls of the Piazza di San Lorenzo on a June day in 1860. "One glance at the lettered back, and a lira made it mine." He carried the book home, reading as he went, and stayed up all night reading until he'd followed the story of the trial to the end. It's not known how the official Roman court documents were collected, bound and put up for sale at a flea market, two hundred sixty-two years after the trial. But however it got there, Browning found it, bought it, read it, and a fire was lit in his imagination. He constructed, while reading the testimony of the accused and the accusers, the stories leading up to the triple homicide and five executions. He saw the houses, the streets, the victims and criminals, the murderous Guido and his henchmen knocking on a house door in the dead of night, ready to sweep in with swords drawn.
The untempered gold, the fact untampered with,
The mere ring-metal ere the ring be made!
The book, the Old Yellow Book, is Browning's lump of pure gold, precious material ready to be worked. His imagination and skill are the alloy mixed with the gold, and his 21,000-line poem The Ring and the Book is the finely-wrought artwork that results.

Browning spends some time building an argument in defense of historical fiction, his argument both an extension of the metaphor of goldsmithing and a lesson in the art of fiction:
From the book, yes; thence bit by bit I dug
The lingot truth, that memorable day,
Assayed and knew my piecemeal gain was gold,—
Yes; but from something else surpassing that,
Something of mine which, mixed up with the mass,
Made it bear hammer and be firm to file.
Fancy with fact is just one fact the more;
To-wit, that fancy has informed, transpierced,
Thridded and so thrown fast the facts else free,
As right through ring and ring runs the djereed
And binds the loose, one bar without a break.
I fused my live soul and that inert stuff,
This was it from, my fancy with those facts,
I used to tell the tale, turned gay to grave,
But lacked a listener seldom; such alloy,
Such substance of me interfused the gold
Which, wrought into a shapely ring therewith,
Hammered and filed, fingered and favoured, last
Lay ready for the renovating wash
O' the water. "How much of the tale was true?"
I disappeared; the book grew all in all;

[...] and so produced my book.
Lovers of dead truth, did ye fare the worse?
Lovers of live truth, found ye false my tale?
Well, now; there's nothing in nor out o' the world
Good except truth: yet this, the something else,
What's this then, which proves good yet seems untrue?
This that I mixed with truth, motions of mine
That quickened, made the inertness malleolable
O'the gold was not mine,—what's your name for this?
Are means to the end, themselves in part the end?
Is fiction which makes fact alive, fact too?

I find first
Writ down for very A B C of fact,
"In the beginning God made heaven and earth;"
From which, no matter with what lisp, I spell
And speak you out a consequence—that man,
Man,—as befits the made, the inferior thing,—
Purposed, since made, to grow, not make in turn,
Yet forced to try and make, else fail to grow,—
Formed to rise, reach at, if not grasp and gain
The good beyond him,—which attempt is growth,—
Repeats God's process in man's due degree,
Attaining man's proportionate result,—
Creates, no, but resuscitates, perhaps.
For truth, and stopping midway short of truth,
And resting on a lie,—"I raise a ghost"?
"Because," he taught adepts, "man makes not man.
"Yet by a special gift, an art of arts,
"More insight and more outsight and much more
"Will to use both of these than boast my mates,
"I can detach from me, commission forth
"Half of my soul; which in its pilgrimage
"O'er old unwandered waste ways of the world,
"May chance upon some fragment of a whole,
"Rag of flesh, scrap of bone in dim disuse,
"Smoking flax that fed fire once: prompt therein
"I enter, spark-like, put old powers to play,
"Push lines out to the limit, lead forth last
"(By a moonrise through a ruin of a crypt)
"What shall be mistily seen, murmuringly heard,
"Mistakenly felt: then write my name with Faust's!"
I know, nobody's going to read through all of that verse, but I just couldn't stop myself from quoting so much of it. It's magnificent stuff. All of it is, the whole long poem as far as I can see (since the outcome of the trial is given right away in Browning's introductory passages, there's no reason not to skip about through the text, so I have been doing that very thing). Perhaps I should've summarized more, shown how well I can interpret Browning for my reader. But why? Why not just give you The Book itself, or pages therefrom?

Friday, September 12, 2014

"Antosha in Prague" updated updates update

Yesterday afternoon I finally finished the draft of the title story of the collection. I think it's pretty good, frankly, for a first draft especially. The ending steals a technique from Latin American fiction, to excellent effect. Now it's onward to the other (shorter) stories. I say "shorter" there in that parenthetical because the story "Antosha in Prague" is pretty long. Maybe not quite novella length, but up there. It'll probably take up a third of the total narrative.

To remind myself, to keep tabs on my progress, I insert my imaginary table of contents, with notes on the status of each story:

"The Connoisseur" (written)
"Defending His Dissertation" (written)
"Setting a Broken Bone" (in progress)
"Under the Limbs of the Silver Birches" (written)
"The Suitor" (written)
"Ivan Ivanovna" (outlined)
"The Father of the Room" (hypothetical)
"Dressing for the Opera" (written)
"The Storm" (outlined)
"Antosha in Prague" (written)
"Sakhalin" (hypothetical)
"Caspian Terns" (hypothetical)
"It's a long time since I drank champagne" (outlined)
"A White-Crowned Sparrow" (outlined, half written)

Possibly I'll have a few more story ideas. Certainly I will.

I know: boring, right? This is supposed to be mostly a blog about what I've been reading, but my time has been devoured by all of that reading, and what time I have left for writing is being given over to writing and revising new fiction. The last thing the world needs is another writer's blog. It's a conundrum. Or a quagmire.

Also, this good advice:

Enjoy your walk!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

sick, remember?

It was hard to think about the moment when the hammer would pound the nails into the green wood and the coffin would creak under its certain hope of becoming a tree once more. His body, drawn now with greater force by the imperative of the earth, would remain tilted in a damp, claylike, soft depth and up there, four cubic yards above, the gravediggers' last blows would grow faint. No. He wouldn't feel fear there either. That would be the prolongation of his death, the most natural prolongation of his new state.[...]

The biblical dust of death. Perhaps then he will feel a slight nostalgia, the nostalgia of not being a formal, anatomical corpse, but, rather, an imaginary, abstract corpse, assembled only in the hazy memory of his kin. He will know then that he will rise up the capillary vessels of an apple tree and awaken, bitten by the hunger of a child on some autumn day.
That's from "The Third Resignation," a story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, published in 1947 and translated from the original Spanish by Gregory Rabassa. I'm reading Collected Stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, twenty-six stories from 1947 to 1972. When I read Marquez' early works, like the one I quote above, I can see the hand of Felisberto Hernandez. When I read Marquez' later works, I can see how themes and technique have flowed from Marquez to younger writers like Cesar Aira. Perhaps I assume incorrectly that all Latin American authors are familiar with each other despite the different languages. Anyway, I realize that I haven't read enough Marquez, or Aira, and that some day I need to see about Roberto Bolano.

I like the Marquez passage quoted above because, among other things, of the play on Christian themes. "In sure and certain hope of the resurrection" transformed by Marquez into the rebirth of the tree rather than the human protagonist in the coffin, and then his transformation into the tree, and the innocent child eating the apple, the image of Original Sin, of mankind passing his original sin from generation to generation. All very tidily done in a couple of sentences, none of it forced on the reader and none of that material's being understood even strictly necessary to keep reading the story. He will know then that he will rise up the capillary vessels of an apple tree and awaken, bitten by the hunger of a child on some autumn day is a beautiful bit of poetry no matter the meaning. Nicely done, GGM.

I thought I had more to say about the Hernandez-Marquez-Aira literary influence, but I guess not. It did strike me, this morning as I sat in the garden reading Marquez and watching--out of the corner of my eye--an Anna's hummingbird whose feathers are oddly yellow rather than the usual bright green, that writers carry the works of other writers around in their heads, collecting them up, interleaving pages of various books, memorizing and cannibalizing them at some level, all without any effort on the part of the writer. Probably people who don't write do this, too. Someone said once--I don't remember who it was--that to be a reader is to confront the entirety of literature as if all of it's being written today; that Shakespeare is writing his plays now, alongside Juno Diaz's novels and Cervantes' Don Quixote; that when you read something for the first time, you read it as a modern reader, and it bangs up in your reader's mind against whatever else you're reading and have read, and that all of history is happening at once. Which I claim is a good thing. I've been carrying 100 Years of Solitude around in my head for at least 27 years, and I have no idea how it's mixed in with all the Chekhov and Shakespeare and Burroughs (Edgar and William both) and Woolf and whatever else I've read.

Alongside--or maybe in alternation with, I suppose--the Marquez collection, I'm reading Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book, which Tom at Wuthering Expectations read and wrote about last month, apparently against his will. Mighty Reader and I were on a long vacation last week (extending into today's post-vacation sick day, alas) in Oregon, which is a rural part of the North American continent for those of you not familiar with the geography. There's a nice used book store in Salem where I found an 1899 edition of The Ring and the Book in a single volume, the pages a bit brittle and easily torn but I'm trying to be gentle with the poor old thing. I also found a collection of bits from Ruskin's works, essays and articles about painting and aesthetics, with illustrations, very nice. I've poked around in it some, but mostly I was distracted by reading Heinrich Boll's midcentury modernist novel Billiards at Half-Past Nine, which was startling and brilliant until the final fifty pages, when it became rushed and a bit treacly. I'm not sure how quickly I'll seek out something else by Herr Boll. Forgive the lack of umlauts over those os. I can't be bothered today. Sick, remember?

Although I took along my notebook and pens, I made no progress at all on the draft of Antosha in Prague. I seem to be in a holding pattern regarding writing just now. A crisis of indifference, you might say. I'm not sure if that crisis will resolve itself. Likely it doesn't matter. I find myself with a huge pile of work to do on previous books, work that won't do itself, work that must be done before I shift myself and attempt to shill any of those previous books to agents or publishers. A crisis of indifference, as I say.

Friday, August 29, 2014

the prize awarded to a dancing girl

It's not as if the books I've been reading are lackluster; Graham Greene is always good and The Heart of the Matter is satisfyingly grim, Chekhov is always a pleasure (and The Shooting Party, Chekhov's only novel, a book typically written off as "lightweight juvenilia," is actually a pretty dandy crime novel that--while certainly not being Chekhovian in the sense of Chekhov's mature works--is funny and Gogolian and worth a read), and I like Angela Thirkell's Barsetshire novels the more of them I read. No, it's just been busy and frankly August has been a damned stressful month this year. Despite the birthday cake.

I continue, despite the damnable heat and the damnable life and deaths, to work on my latest project, Antosha in Prague. The title story is nearly complete, I think, despite the way my prose seems in the last year to have expanded into a digressive crawl that takes me forever to get from one plot point to the next. I write and I write and I write and my protagonist manages to stand up, maybe, and put a hand in his pocket. I have become possessed by Henry James, maybe. Which isn't so bad. Though that's probably going too far, the Henry James claim. Still, there's a lot of good stuff in this story but I hope to have the "Kafka" section complete in the next day or so. There's just one final event to relate, but relating it will entail discussing Christian versus Jewish ideas of confession of sin, and church bells and birds must be invoked, as well as out-of-tune fiddle music on a bridge, and that sort of thing. So I have some way to go before I'm done with this story and I can go on to the other tales that will make up this book. After I finish writing this collection, I may not work on anything new for a while. I am exhausted, and I should make an effort to sell some of the other novels I've got lying around the house, right?

Other people out there have been doing some fine blogging work. See my sidebar for recommendations. Pykk is having an argument with a dead poet, very exciting. I keep looking for places to jump into the conversation, but neither she nor the dead poet need my assistance, so I remain on the sidelines holding my breath. Marly Youmans' latest book is about to be born, and that's also exciting.

Today is the feast of the martyrdom of John the Baptist. Remember that we are all called to witness our faith, if we have any. Keep the faith, children, and play nice. No loving God demands that you kill for Him. If anyone tells you differently, he is either gravely mistaken or a damned liar.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

"Bestir yourselves, good Christian folk, in such a terrible mischance!"

She was sorry to part from the village and the peasants. She remembered how they had carried out Nikolay, and how a requiem had been ordered for him at almost every hut, and all had shed tears in sympathy with her grief. In the course of the summer and the winter there had been hours and days when it seemed as though these people lived worse than the beasts, and to live with them was terrible; they were coarse, dishonest, filthy, and drunken; they did not live in harmony, but quarrelled continually, because they distrusted and feared and did not respect one another. Who keeps the tavern and makes the people drunken? A peasant. Who wastes and spends on drink the funds of the commune, of the schools, of the church? A peasant. Who stole from his neighbours, set fire to their property, gave false witness at the court for a bottle of vodka? At the meetings of the Zemstvo and other local bodies, who was the first to fall foul of the peasants? A peasant. Yes, to live with them was terrible; but yet, they were human beings, they suffered and wept like human beings, and there was nothing in their lives for which one could not find excuse. Hard labour that made the whole body ache at night, the cruel winters, the scanty harvests, the overcrowding; and they had no help and none to whom they could look for help. Those of them who were a little stronger and better off could be no help, as they were themselves coarse, dishonest, drunken, and abused one another just as revoltingly; the paltriest little clerk or official treated the peasants as though they were tramps, and addressed even the village elders and church wardens as inferiors, and considered they had a right to do so. And, indeed, can any sort of help or good example be given by mercenary, greedy, depraved, and idle persons who only visit the village in order to insult, to despoil, and to terrorize? Olga remembered the pitiful, humiliated look of the old people when in the winter Kiryak had been taken to be flogged. . . . And now she felt sorry for all these people, painfully so, and as she walked on she kept looking back at the huts.
This is from Anton Chekhov's long 1897 story "Peasants." Apparently the Tsar's censors hacked away at this tale of poverty, ignorance and local government corruption in the wake of the Great Decree. Chekhov found himself in the middle of a very public debate about the future of Russia when "Peasants" was published. The Marxists praised the story, while their opponents condemned it. It is, I think, possibly Chekhov's most overtly political story, though the censors only said that it painted peasant life in too somber a manner. What "Peasants" does is depict an entire subculture in Mother Russia populated by illiterate, impoverished, irreligious, drunken, unthinking and lazy people who have neither use nor reason for hope, and "none to whom they could look for help," which is a finger pointed directly at government, which means His Imperial Majesty the Tsar. A bold story from Dr Chekhov, then. Allegedly (though there is no evidence aside from anecdotes) Tolstoy condemned "Peasants," claiming that Chekhov had betrayed the life of the people. As if Tolstoy knew the life of the people.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

In a tabernacle

Today is of course the Feast of the Transfiguration, a day which almost always reminds me that we live in a miraculous world. So bear that in mind as you go about your business.

I write today's post primarily to remind myself of a few things: first, that I am nearly finished with the first draft of the long long story "Antosha in Prague," which will be the title story, probably, of the collection I'm currently writing. "Antosha in Prague" seems like a pretty good story to me. In a day or so I'll begin working on the final pages, which comprise the "Kafka" section. I'll be interested to see how I solve the formal problems of that section.

I have also decided to drag poor Vladimir Nabokov into the book, in a story I'm calling "A White-Crowned Sparrow." Working on this new story has made me aware of Nabokov's prose in a new way, which has been an interesting experience. I am attempting, I tell myself, to in some manner invoke the style of Nabokov's later prose in a few passages of the story I'm writing:
Arrayed carefully across the small desk behind which Vladimir sat were a sheet of plain white typing paper, a sharpened pencil that terminated in a pink button of rubber crimped into a brass ferrule, a fountain pen with a fine tip and a reservoir full of dark red ink, a wooden ruler, and a pair of sharp scissors.
Things like that. The description of the pencil's eraser is Nabokovian, I think. I'll have to do some more work on the fountain pen, changing the reservoir into a belly and that sort of thing. I'm also working on the fictional Nabokov's attitude:
A hack writer, Vladimir thought, would open a story with "It all began when he turned off the radio." A pistol would doubtless be quickly introduced into the narrative, and then would appear a woman with a slightly open mouth, her lips crimson with waxen color, her golden hair in disarray. The pistol and the open mouth were always in close proximity in those sorts of tales, everything as vulgar as the mean imagination of the hack would permit. Vladimir did not trust stories that required the casting of such cheap reticulate cliches designed to catch the attention of a reader. A reader in any case, he believed, should leap bravely into a tale with a sense of wonder, prepared to encounter whatever forces the author placed before him. Else why read at all? There is an art to reading, Vladimir had relentlessly reminded his students during those long years when he'd lectured on literature. Learn to be an artist among lecteurs, he'd told them, or they could go home and learn how to read the TV Guide.
And so on in the same general style, whatever that is. The trick is to also make this story feel like a Chekhov story. I believe I've solved that problem with the ending. Don't ask; spoilers, you know.

I also write to exhort you all to go to the Melville House website where they've got a heck of a sale going on. Melville House may have passed on one of my novels, but I still think they're an admirable independent publisher. The sale to which I've linked is one in which you must appear in person, but I also believe they've got something like a 40% off thing going right now. Melville House books are cheap at full price, so you cannot lose. And now it's time for my afternoon coffee break.