Wednesday, January 18, 2017

a statement of theme

Very often one comes across a more-or-less bald statement of theme in a novel's latter pages. This is the one I discovered today, from about page 705 of Le Côté de Guermantes (Moncrieff translation):
[...]the very purity of the Duchess’s language was a sign of limitation, and that, in her, both her intelligence and her sensibility had remained proof against all innovation. Here again, Mme. de Guermantes’s mind attracted me just because of what it excluded (exactly the content of my own thoughts) and by everything which by virtue of that exclusion, it had been able to preserve, that seductive vigour of the supple bodies which no exhausting necessity to think no moral anxiety or nervous trouble has deformed. Her mind, of a formation so anterior to my own, was for me the equivalent of what had been offered me by the procession of the girls of the little band along the seashore. Mme. de Guermantes offered me, domesticated and held in subjection by her natural courtesy, by the respect due to another person’s intellectual worth, all the energy and charm of a cruel little girl of one of the noble families round Combray who from her childhood had been brought up in the saddle, tortured cats, gouged out the eyes of rabbits, and; albeit she had remained a pillar of virtue, might equally well have been, a good few years ago now, the most brilliant mistress of the Prince de Sagan. Only she was incapable of realising what I had sought for in her, the charm of her historic name, and the tiny quantity of it that I had found in her, a rustic survival from Guermantes. Were our relations founded upon a misunderstanding which could not fail to become manifest as soon as my homage, instead of being addressed to the relatively superior woman that she believed herself to be, should be diverted to some other woman of equal mediocrity and breathing the same unconscious charm? A misunderstanding so entirely natural, and one that will always exist between a young dreamer like myself and a woman of the world, one however that profoundly disturbs him, so long as he has not yet discovered the nature of his imaginative faculties and has not acquired his share of the inevitable disappointments which he is destined to find in people, as in the theatre, in his travels and indeed in love.
Marcel is becoming disappointed that the glittering high society of Paris turns out to be populated by vain, envious, backbiting mediocrities who just happen to have money, good looks and famous names. Marcel is very soon to meet again with the Baron de Charlus, an inhabitant of Paris high society and a cousin of the Duchess discussed above. Marcel has not yet realized that Charlus is an infamous sexual predator.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

the lady had felt hot and had stopped dancing

The river, the women's dresses, the sails of the boats, the innumerable reflexions of one thing and another came crowding into this little square panel of beauty which Elstir had cut out of a marvellous afternoon. What delighted one in the dress of a woman who had stopped for a moment in the dance because it was hot and she was out of breath was irresistible also in the same way in the canvas of a motionless sail, in the water of the little harbour, in the wooden bridge, in the leaves of the trees and in the sky. As in one of the pictures that I had seen at Balbec, the hospital, as beautiful beneath its sky of lapis lazuli as the cathedral itself, seemed (more bold than Elstir the theorician, then Elstir the man of taste, the lover of things mediaeval) to be intoning: "There is no such thing as gothic, there is no such thing as a masterpiece; this tasteless hospital is just as good as the glorious porch," so I now heard: "The slightly vulgar lady at whom a man of discernment would refrain from glancing as he passed her by, would except from the poetical composition which nature has set before him-—her dress is receiving the same light as the sail of that boat, and there are no degrees of value and beauty; the commonplace dress and the sail, beautiful in itself, are two mirrors reflecting the same gleam; the value is all in the painter's eye." This eye had had the skill to arrest for all time the motion of the hours at this luminous instant, when the lady had felt hot and had stopped dancing, when the tree was fringed with a belt of shadow, when the sails seemed to be slipping over a golden glaze. But just because the depicted moment pressed on one with so much force, this so permanent canvas gave one the most fleeting impression, one felt that the lady would presently move out of it, the boats drift away, the night draw on, that pleasure comes to an end, that life passes and that the moments illuminated by the convergence, at once, of so many lights do not recur.
from Le Côté de Guermantes by Marcel Proust, Translated from the French by C. K. Scott Moncrieff

I read this and I thought about the abstract landscapes of Turner and I thought, yes, that's it, the world does in fact look like a Turner even at his most abstract, if you think about it the right way; the vision of the artist is the value of an artwork, yes, which is what places art outside of history and separates the true value of art from it's price at auction. All of which made me think that I could buy an easel and some paints and some canvas and set up as a painter again. Which I won't do, but I had that happy thought for a minute or less.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Reading in 2017: a preposterous list

I really have no idea what I'll read in 2017, so I have no idea what makes me think this post is a good idea. And yet.

Proust. Yes, Proust. I'm not quite halfway through the six volumes of In Search of Lost Time. I imagine I'll have finished by the spring. It's a remarkable novel, this thing of Proust's, a sort of endless knot of desire and irony.

Tolstoy. War and Peace to be precise. I read this book when I was fifteen or sixteen, so almost forty years ago. I am certain I have forgotten most of what I read except for the Battle of Borodino (that spinning cannonball, have I got that right?) and the early scene in the bar with the English and German soldiers and the Russian officer (I think) who insisted on translating everything into English for the Englishmen, who protested that they did speak Russian. Or something like that. Anyway, it's such a long book that I figure there must be some other scenes in there that are worth remembering.

Miscellany. The Long Ships. Thayer's Life of Beethoven (again). More poetry (I shall force myself to swallow some of the Romantics, with whom I've always had difficulty). Erich Kaestner's Emil und die Detektive. The NRYB collection of "New York" stories by Henry James. More literary criticism, probably. More philosophy, very likely, hopefully with an emphasis on Augustine and Kierkegaard. Some sociology texts I happen to have to hand. Blah blah blah. A focus, possibly, on values and morals and art. I'm not really sure.

I have vague ideas about (re)reading all of Conan Doyle's "Holmes" stories and books this year, though I pretty much doubt that will happen. I think 2017 might be heavy on nonfiction. It feels like it, though I'm not sure why. Although, of course, there is no real reason to label literary criticism and philosophy as "nonfiction".

Other ideas. The Iliad again. Herodotus, Xenophon. That sort of thing. Aurora Leigh and other long poems. Long poems, yes. That's the ticket. Middlemarch, finally. This list is already too impossibly long.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

builds strong bones and teeth

While reading a book of Dylan Thomas' letters, I came across one from 1951 or so, written to Marguerite Caetani, publisher of the Italian literary journal Bottega Oscura. Thomas is, as usual, begging for money, offering Caetani the first rights to a "play for voices" called, provisionally, "Llareggub", which is obviously a fake Welsh place name and also "bugger all" spelled backwards. Thomas offered the as-yet-incomplete play to Caetani for £100. I'm not sure he got the money, and I am sure the play actually went to the BBC rather than to Italy. That is not the point. The point is that Thomas describes the play to Caetani in a long breathless and inspired paragraph, clearly in love with the idea and possibly making some of it up in the heat of the moment. The description of the play in Thomas' begging letter made me want to not only read Llareggub, but to write my own version of it. Yes, I said, that's a grand idea, a sort of "Our Town" influenced by Proust's ideas of memory and Joyce's ideas of character and language and the further influence of whatever American writers have seeped into my bones, with no doubt a larding of Shakespeare for good measure. I feel that I could do something with those ideas, that there are many possibilities to be discovered within the work. By now I've read the first part of "Under Milk Wood" (the name Thomas eventually settled on for the play) and it seems pretty terrific. I see that a couple of films have been made of it. I am particularly interested in the first version, with Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton, and Elizabeth Taylor. Why would I not be? I digress.

Anyway, this is an attractive idea despite the fact that it's highly unoriginal of me. I would of course not write a play; the novel seems to be the form that's chosen me. And I've sworn off writing novels after I complete the current work in progress. And yet. It is an attractive idea that looks interesting in all the right ways. I know a small town on the Colorado plains that I could take as a model. Of course "Under Milk Wood" is quite well known (there's a statue of Captain Cat in Swansea) and I'm like a man in a rowboat washing ashore on Coney Island and thinking he's discovered the New World, despite the millions of people already living in Brooklyn.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Books read, etc., 2016 edition

No messing around in 2016; here's the list:

Stendahl The Red and the Black
Robert F. Scott Antarctic Diary
Michael Smith Tom Crean: Unsung Hero
Eliot Bliss Saraband
Anton Chekhov The Bishop and Other Stories
Arthur Conan Doyle His Last Bow
JRR Tolkien "Leaf By Niggle"
JRR Tolkien "Farmer Giles of Ham"
William Shakespeare "Troilus and Cressida"
Gertrude Stein Paris France
Kaethe Recheis Lena: Unser Dorf in der Krieg
Ursula K. Le Guin A Wizard of Earthsea
Ursula K. Le Guin The Tombs of Atuan
Ursula K. Le Guin The Farthest Shore
E. B. White Here is New York
Max Frisch Homo faber: ein Bericht
Juan Rulfo Pedro Páramo
Anton Chekhov The Party and Other Stories
Francis Beaumont "The Knight of the Burning Pestle"
Magda Szabó The Door
Anton Chekhov The Story of a Nobody
Richard Henry Dana Two Years Before the Mast
Robert Louis Stevenson Treasure Island
George Orwell Down and Out in Paris and London
H.W. Tilman Mischief Goes South
Thomas More Utopia
Abraham Lincoln Selected Speeches and Writings
Anton Chekhov "Three Years"
H.W. Tilman Mischief in Patagonia
Ernest G. Draper Lectures in Navigation
Agatha Christie Cat Among the Pigeons
William Faulkner Selected Short Stories
Kino: The Poetry of Nikola Vaptsarov
Gertrude Stein The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
Frank Kermode The Classic
Georgi Gospodinov The Physics of Sorrow
Roland Barthes Mythologies
Anton Chekhov Selected Stories (P&V, trans.)
Arthur Rimbaud A Season in Hell
Leopoldo Alas La Regenta
Anton Chekhov The Prank
Nathanael West Miss Lonelyhearts
Apsley Cherry-Garrard The Worst Journey in the World
T.H. White The Once and Future King
John Williams Stoner
Sigmund Freud Civilization and its Discontents
Isak Dinesen Seven Gothic Tales
Marcel Proust Swann's Way
Beowulf (Burton Raffel, trans.)
Charlotte Smith Elegiac Sonnets and Other Poems
John Ruskin The Crown of Wild Olive
Charlotte Smith "The Emigrants"
Georgi Gospodinov Kleines morgendliches Verbrechen
Georges Bataille The Blue of Noon
Charlotte Smith Beachy Head & other poems
Marcel Proust Within a Budding Grove
Simon McCartney The Bond
The Epic of Gilgamesh
Chase, Nickerson, et al. The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale
Selected Letters of Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas "Under Milk Wood"

No rhyme or reason to my reading this year, though there was a lot of interest in Antarctica and sailing ships. And in long books: I am currently 2 1/2 volumes into Marcel Proust's Remembrances of Times Past or whatever you wish to call it, and by now it feels less like reading a novel than like meeting an acquaintance for lunch almost every day to hear him reminisce about his life. Which is a fine thing. It continues to be a good book, each volume better than the last.

I didn't read nearly as much poetry or Shakespeare as I wanted to this year, and I find myself re-reading more these days, making less room for things as-yet unread. I have observed that this is a natural pattern in aging readers, so I think I'm on schedule. The half-remembered classics of my youth have been getting my attention, which explains Beowulf and The Once and Future King. Next year I might read Mallory and The Long Ships, both new to me but logical steps from the immediately-aforementioned books. Perhaps next year I'll stop using so many hyphenated words, too.

I'm not sure if I'll continue reading the letters of dead writers. The Dylan Thomas book I've about finished is quite frustrating: one wants to reach back in time and give the little Welsh brat a good wallop.

More successful, for me as a reader, was the collection of speeches and letters from Abraham Lincoln. I picked it up in March, I believe, at the gift shop inside the Lincoln Memorial. Certainly I have my opinions about some of the possibly unconstitutional actions of Lincoln during his administration, but I feel much more kindly toward old Abraham than I used to do. Him being a yankee and all. Eye-opening, funny, moving, etc. Way better than what I imagine Eat, Pray, Love to be like.

Also in nonfiction, I enjoyed Simon McCartney's The Bond. It is the memoir of a retired elite mountain climber who valued friendship over personal glory. You don't find much of that in the sporting world, so this story is a refreshing change of tone. The book won the 2016 Jon Whyte Award at the Banff Mountain Book Competition, and also the 2016 Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature. If you want, you can read my short review of it here. I'm all about human decency in late 2016.

Speaking of which, I report that as I sit typing this post, I have not quite finished drafting the novel I began this year, a thing called Nowhere But North that's part creation myth, part Henry James romance, and part Melville. Possibly the only novel I have written that I will claim is an actual work of art. Clearly unpublishable, but hopefully in early 2017 I'll finish the first draft and then set the book aside while I revise the novel I wrote last year (was it last year?), a Bildungsroman in stories, letters, and a stageplay, called Antosha! I hope to flog that novel to agents and publishers sometime in mid-2017. Fingers crossed, etc. Antosha! might be less unpublishable than other books of mine.

This year I shopped around a novel called Mona in the Desert, a beautiful novel about family, divorce, memory, and literary criticism. It's still with a couple of small presses for consideration, so we'll see. In a world where carpenters get resurrected, etc. I also sent out an older novel, Go Home, Miss America, to a few select publishers. At least one of them is actually reading the MS, so who can say what will happen?

For no real reason I mention that I'm working on Vittorio Monti's little salon piece Csardas, an exciting bit of fluff that is nowhere as difficult as it looks, and Wolfgang Mozart's lovely violin concerto in G major, which is much more difficult than it looks, like every bit of Mozart's music. The violin is a very satisfying hobby; every technical solution is also an artistic solution, much the way it is with writing fiction.

Next year: Shakespeare's "history" plays! More poetry! More German-language fiction! More Chekhov again! More obscure 20th-century English women! More Proust! More Euripides! No Antarctic nonfiction! No age-of-sail books! More Bulgakov! Dumas! Woolf! Hugo! Murdoch! Goethe! Boll! et innumerabilis alios!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

in a single room, in three acts without denouement

I have noticed lately that the novels I write generally involve travel, and a great deal of it. I seem to somehow have gotten stuck in the habit of writing literal journeys:
  • The Jack of Hearts Remembers Me is a classic American road trip taken by a pair of evangelists (one of whom is mad, and the other might be imaginary).
  • The Astrologer is a voyage-within-a-voyage, as plucky Soren Andersmann sails off to the island of Hven during a royal trip to Kronberg castle in Elsinore.
  • Cocke & Bull's protagonists flee from Joppa, Maryland to the Great Dismal Swamp in the Carolinas, trekking through the Cumberland along the way. And then back to Joppa.
  • The Transcendental Detective is an episode during Patience Quince's peregrinations in America while avoiding her lover, whom Patience has left behind in Algiers.
  • Go Home, Miss America involves travel from Seattle, Washington to the Democratic Republic of Congo. There is also a lot of movement within Seattle, much wandering around the city.
  • The Hanging Man is yet another episode of Patience Quince in America, this time a side quest while her train is delayed by dust storms in Kansas. There's some good stuff about trains, and a lot of walking around. Also someone is pursued by a bear, as the bear is itself pursued.
  • Mona in the Desert tells of two parallel pilgrimages to Albuquerque, New Mexico: one in 1950, the other sometime vaguely in the 1990s.
  • Antosha! drags its characters all over Mother Russia and then to Italy, Switzerland, Bohemia, and America.
  • Nowhere But North is a long voyage from Manhattan to the South Pole. A wide variety of vehicles are involved.
I'm not sure what this says about me, but one thing I do not do is write stories of people sitting quietly while they muse about life or whatever. I seem to create odysseys, or at least the sort of noisy ramshackle flying about that one finds in Dostoyevsky.

Certainly the voyage, the hero's journey thing, is a useful framework (thematically/metaphorically and narrative-structure-wise) for a large scale work of fiction, and certainly the idea of motion is natural enough to this writer, who has had uncountable addresses over the decades. Still, I find it curious and possibly alarming (and no doubt very telling to someone--not me--with the appropriate amount of critical distance) that there is so much moving around in everything I write. I just thought of the two most recent short stories I wrote, and both of them involve a character walking along a city street having strange encounters.

Perhaps this is all because I have a fantasy of home being a place where nothing happens, where there are no adventures, where all is stable and at peace. My characters are none of them at home because they are none of them at peace, so I cannot allow them to remain at rest. Home is not an option for my poor protagonists, or at best it is very remote. Perhaps I have a secret wish to be one of the stodgier residents of Hobbiton.

I've just remembered that this is the sort of cursory analysis of my writing that I do when I'm wrapping up a first draft. I am, you see, close to the end of the first draft of my Antarctica novel, and as usual I'm wondering what I think I'm doing, writing all of these novels, wondering again if I keep writing the same story again and again, dressing up the same small set of characters in different costumes and sending them off on the same journey but having repainted the canvas backdrops and shuffled the props. Maybe. I don't know. I would like my next novel, should there be one, to be the tale of someone or someones who manifestly refuse to leave home. Like a Beckett story, maybe, all taking place in a single room.