Tuesday, March 31, 2015

'What you are going to do, do quickly.'



Mighty Reader and I spent four days on the coast, where it was sunny and not sunny but there was a big damn ocean and no office jobs. We returned to the city on Sunday, neither riding on an ass nor weeping. The photo above shows the scanty breakfast we ate aboard the ferry that took us across Puget Sound to the Olympic peninsula, from where we drove drove drove south to the central Oregon coast. What you don't see through the window is the open water of the Sound. Did we buy more books while on vacation? Yes, we did.

Wait: now I remember what this post was supposed to be about. Last week I had what I think is a great idea for the novel Go Home, Miss America, which novel I thought I'd finished revising. But the idea refuses to go away so I am compelled to attempt to revise the manuscript, and find out if the idea is actually a good one. So that's what I'll be doing for a while, revising Go Home, Miss America, mostly the chapters about the David Molloy character. I'd planned to work on a different book entirely. But I think the revisions will make GHMA a better book, a richer and funnier book. What is this idea? What are these revisions? Maybe someday I'll talk about that, but only if someone actually publishes the novel. Otherwise, who cares, right? Why am I even typing all of this? Don't ask me, man.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

There can be no more beautiful spot to die in, no spot more worthy of total despair, than one's own novel.

The problem with talking about Kafka's novels is that Kafka never wrote a novel. Amerika, The Trial and The Castle exist as unfinished drafts, as rough manuscripts that have been sometimes cleaned up by translators or editors, but they do not exist as complete novels. I've read essays that point to the internal contradictions in these books as evidence that Kafka was showing us something about the unknowable nature of life. The protagonist of The Castle (an unpleasant fellow named K) claims in the first chapter to have a wife and child. Around a fourth of the way into the story, he becomes engaged to a villager, having apparently forgotten his wife and child. Was he lying about the marriage, or does he intend to become a bigamist? Also in the first chapter, K claims to be a surveyor who has come to the Castle because he was sent for, and his assistants will be joining him soon with his equipment. Later he is assigned two assistants by unknown persons at the Castle, who have neither surveying experience nor equipment, and K's actual assistants and equipment never show up. Still later, K is thinking that he came to the Castle to find work, and had imagined that at the very least he'd get a position as a farmhand somewhere. His coming to the Castle had nothing to do with survey work at all. Which of these things is true? Did Kafka intend that none of them (or possibly all of them) is actually real within the narrative? A reader can point to these (and many more) inconsistencies and make claims about Kafka's philosophy of the unknowableness of things, of the instability and relativistic nature of truth, etc. Or, a reader can point to these things and say that the author never got around to revising the manuscript and making decisions about what was actually going on in his story. What we read when we read The Castle or The Trial or Amerika are works in progress, unfinished comedies, sketches and set pieces and a whirl of ideas and possibilities, but we do not read novels. Which makes it tricky if you come to the books expecting any sort of finished work. Kafka abandoned all three of these manuscripts, maybe because he didn't really know what to do with long form fiction other than keep writing and writing until he stops. Failure or exhaustion? The Castle ends mid-sentence. Kafka wrote to Max Brod that he had to abandon the project forever.

So why read these unfinished notes, these gestures in the direction of novels? Because there are great ideas, great passages in them. Kafka was not a brilliant prose stylist, but sometimes he hits his stride, like in this passage where he equates faith in government edicts with faith in religious scripture:
"I simply want to say that something is there, that Barnabas is being offered something, and that it is only Barnabas' fault if he can achieve nothing with that other than doubt, fear, and hopelessness. And as a starting point I always took the least favorable case, which is actually quite unlikely. For we do have the letters in hand, which I certainly don't trust much, though far more so than the words of Barnabas. Even if they are old worthless letters pulled out indiscriminately from a pile of equally worthless letters, indiscriminately, and with no more sense than that employed by canaries at fairs who pick somebody's fortune out of a pile, even if that is so, then at least these letters bear some relation to my work, are clearly intended for me, though perhaps not for my use, and, as the council chairman and his wife have testified, were personally signed by Klamm, and have, once again according to the council chairman, a significance that, while merely private and scarcely transparent, is nevertheless quite considerable."[...]

"That will greatly encourage him."

"But he needs no encouragement [...] He'll never accomplish anything; no matter how much you keep encouraging someone who is blindfolded to stare through the cloth, he still won't see a thing; it's only when you take off the blindfold that he can see."
That's good stuff. So is
"Let us come back to you, sir," they cried, as if K were the land and they were about to sink in the floods.
The Castle somehow equates government and feudalism with religion, and the unknowability of God is mirrored (maybe) by the unknowability of the intentions of government, and the well-meaning (maybe) fumbling of government clerks and officials is an allegory of the behavior of the clergy. Maybe. Somehow, now that I've finished The Castle, I've managed to have read all of Kafka's fiction. That was never my intention. This post is just a sort of shot across the bow at Kafka. I think I have more to write about, in a little while.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Antosha In Prague, first draft finished: a dull post

Very exciting for me, that I have finished another novel, or a novel in stories, or whatever it is that I've wrought. Here are the story titles at the completion of the first draft:

"The Connoisseur"
"Defending His Dissertation"
"Under the Limbs of the Silver Birches"
"Setting a Broken Bone"
"The Porcupines"
"Ivan Ivanovna"
"The Father of This Family"
"To My Hands Alone"
"Olivier Salad"
"Dressing for the Opera"
"The Snow Storm"
"Antosha in Prague"
"Good Old Russia"
"It's a long time since I drank champagne"
"A White Sparrow"

There were three story ideas I did not end up using. Maybe I'll add them in during a revision; it will depend on how the narrative flows, I guess. "Good Old Russia" was a last-minute addition, an idea I had while out running. Right now, the book is about 82,000 words long, so a decent short novel. My books always grow during revisions, no matter how much I cut.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

I feel sorry for the dog, Bormenthal. He was naughty but I couldn't help liking him.

Subject of experiment: Male dog aged approx. 2 years.
Breed: Mongrel.
Name: 'Sharik'.
Coat sparse, in tufts, brownish with traces of singeing. Tail the colour of baked milk. On right flank traces of healed second-degree burn. Previous nutritional state -poor. After a week's stay with Prof. Preobrazhensky -extremely well nourished. Weight: 8 kilograms (!). Heart: . . . Lungs: . . . Stomach: . . . Temperature: . . .
December 23rd At 8.05pm Prof. Preobrazhensky commenced the first operation of its kind to be performed in Europe: removal under anaesthesia of the dog's testicles and their replacement by implanted human testes, with appendages and seminal ducts, taken from a 28-year-old human male, dead 4 hours and 4 minutes before the operation and kept by Prof. Preobrazhensky in sterilised physiological fluid.
Immediately thereafter, following a trepanning operation on the cranial roof, the pituitary gland was removed and replaced by a human pituitary originating from the above-mentioned human male. Drugs used: Chloroform - 8 cc.
Camphor - 1 syringe.
Adrenalin - 2 syringes (by cardiac injection ).
Purpose of operation: Experimental observation by Prof. Preobrazhensky of the effect of combined transplantation of the pituitary and testes in order to study both the functional viability in a host-organism and its role in cellular etc. rejuvenation.
Operation performed by; Prof. P. P. Preobrazhensky. Assisted by: Dr I. A. Bormenthal. During the night following the operation, frequent and grave weakening of the pulse. Dog apparently in terminal state.
The dog in question, Sharik, survives the operation. The replacement of his canine glands with those of a criminal who died in custody causes the dog to metamorphose into a short, ugly, brutish human who calls himself Polygraph Polygraphovich Sharikov.
The creature walked round the flat today for the first time. Laughed in the corridor after looking at the electric light. Then, accompanied by Philip Philipovich and myself, he went into the study. Stands firmly on his hind (deleted) ... his legs and gives the impression of a short, ill-knit human male.
Laughed in the study. His smile is disagreeable and somehow artificial. Then he scratched the back of his head, looked round and registered a further, clearly-pronounced word: 'Bourgeois'. Swore. His swearing is methodical, uninterrupted and apparently totally meaningless. There is something mechanical about it - it is as if this creature had heard all this bad language at an earlier phase, automatically recorded it in his subconscious and now regurgitates it wholesale. However, I am no psychiatrist.
The swearing somehow has a very depressing effect on Philip Philipovich. There are moments when he abandons his cool, unemotional observation of new phenomena and appears to lose patience. Once when the creature was swearing, for instance, he suddenly burst out impulsively: 'Shut up!' This had no effect.
After his visit to the study Sharik was shut up in the consulting-room by our joint efforts. Philip Philipovich and I then held a conference. I confess that this was the first time I had seen this self assured and highly intelligent man at a loss. He hummed a little, as he is in the habit of doing, then asked: 'What are we going to do now?'
I'm talking about Mikhail Bulgakov's 1925 novel Heart of a Dog, quoting Michael Glenny's translation. In a way Bulgakov is rewriting Frankenstein, but mostly he's satirizing the Soviet state. Heart of a Dog was repressed in the USSR until the 1960s. At the time Bulgakov was writing the novel, however, it was not at all clear that the Soviet regime would outlast the year. Bulgakov had no reason to believe he would die long before his novel was published in Russian. There was censorship in the Soviet Union, but there'd been censorship in Russia for a century already, before the October Revolution. It turned out that Stalin had less of a sense of humor than the tsars. Bulgakov presents the dog/man, Sharikov, as the result of Soviet cultural reformations:
'No more sleeping in the kitchen. [Philip Philipovich said.] Understand? I've never heard of such behaviour. You're a nuisance there and the women don't like it.'
The man scowled and his lips began to pout.
'So what? Those women act as though they owned the place. They're just maids, but you'd think they were commissars. It's Zina - she's always bellyaching about me.'
Philip Philipovich gave him a stern look.
'Don't you dare talk about Zina in that tone of voice! Understand?'
Silence.
'I'm asking you - do you understand?'
'Yes, I understand.'
'Take that trash off your neck. Sha . . . if you saw yourself in a mirror you'd realise what a fright it makes you look. You look like a clown. For the hundredth time - don't throw cigarette ends on to the floor. And I don't want to hear any more swearing in this flat! And don't spit everywhere! The spittoon's over there. Kindly take better aim when you pee. Cease all further conversation with Zina. She complains that you lurk round her room at night. And don't be rude to my patients! Where do'you think you are - in some dive?'
'Don't be so hard on me. Dad,' the man suddenly said in a tearful whine.
Philip Philipovich turned red and his spectacles flashed.
'Who are you calling "Dad"? What impertinent familiarity! I never want to hear that word again! You will address me by my name and patronymic!'
The man flared up impudently: 'Oh, why can't you lay off? Don't spit . . . don't smoke . . .don't go there, don't do this, don't do that . . . sounds like the rules in a tram. Why don't you leave me alone, for God's sake? And why shouldn't I call you "Dad", anyway? I didn't ask you to do the operation, did I?' - the man barked indignantly - 'A nice business -you get an animal, slice his head open and now you're sick of him. Perhaps I wouldn't have given permission for the operation. Nor would . . . (the man stared up at the ceiling as though trying to remember a phrase he had been taught) . . . nor would my relatives. I bet I could sue you if I wanted to.'
Sharikov is one great literary invention.

Monday, March 16, 2015

observe Glossin's body lying doubled across the iron bar, in a posture that excluded all idea of his being alive

No kidding, Walter, I say in reference to the line I cribbed for the title of this post.

I finished Walter Scott's 1815 novel Guy Mannering last night, the last fifty pages being essentially a tying up of loose ends and a final working out of all the plot threads. The heroes have been heroic, the heroines brave and pretty if essentially otherwise useless, the villains have been villainous but are now all dead after having been publicly stripped of whatever false honor they may have been cloaked in, etc. Nothing--absolutely nothing--that happens in the last fifty or seventy pages of this novel comes as a surprise, except possibly the level of violence. Still, anyone who's read Dickens or Shakespeare will have seen more implausible denouements and higher body counts, so all's well that ends well. Scott pulls the ending of his story around to bookend the beginning:
Bertram here produced a small velvet bag, which he said he had worn round his neck from his earliest infancy, and which he had preserved, first from superstitious reverence, and latterly from the hope that it might serve one day to aid in the discovery of his birth. The bag, being opened, was found to contain a blue silk case, from which was drawn a scheme of nativity. Upon inspecting this paper, Colonel Mannering instantly admitted it was his own composition; and afforded the strongest and most satisfactory evidence that the possessor of it must necessarily be the young heir of Ellangowan, by avowing his having first appeared in that country in the character of an astrologer.
Highly unlikely, Walter. Highly unlikely. My next book by Scott, I think, will be Waverly, his first novel. I don't know when I'll read it. I have a lot of other books sitting in the way. I don't know which of them I'll pick up tonight.

Also finished this weekend was the short story "The Snow Storm," part of my novel-in-progress Antosha in Prague. I am very close to being done with the first draft of that novel. I'm writing the penultimate story at present, and the ultimate story is almost finished as well (I started that one months and months ago). My plan is to have this draft wrapped up by Friday, see if I don't. And then, thank Heaven, I won't have to think about this book for quite some time, and you, my imaginary readers, won't have to read about it again. Luck for all.


Thursday, March 12, 2015

composed of the most vulgar materials: Walter Scott visits Edinburgh

Colonel Mannering, after threading a dark lane or two, reached the High Street, then clanging with the voices of oyster-women and the bells of pye-men; for it had, as his guide assured him, just' chappit eight upon the Tron.' It was long since Mannering had been in the street of a crowded metropolis, which, with its noise and clamour, its sounds of trade, of revelry, and of license, its variety of lights, and the eternally changing bustle of its hundred groups, offers, by night especially, a spectacle which, though composed of the most vulgar materials when they are separately considered, has, when they are combined, a striking and powerful effect on the imagination. The extraordinary height of the houses was marked by lights, which, glimmering irregularly along their front, ascended so high among the attics that they seemed at length to twinkle in the middle sky. This coup d'aeil, which still subsists in a certain degree, was then more imposing, owing to the uninterrupted range of buildings on each side, which, broken only at the space where the North Bridge joins the main street, formed a superb and uniform place, extending from the front of the Lucken-booths to the head of the Canongate, and corresponding in breadth and length to the uncommon height of the buildings on either side.
Walter Scott provides his reader with a trip to Edinburgh and descriptions of local color: the streets, the houses, the high-jinks in the taverns, a middle-class funeral, etc. Why? Because he can, that's why. Mannering is sent on a trip to the City to settle business that could have been done via post, in two pages of narrative, because Walter Scott wants to talk about the view of the Firth of Forth from Lawyer Pleydell's library. He also wants to remind the reader that Scotland was home to many of the great philosophical and literary minds of the 18th and 19th centuries (lunch with David Hume*, John Clerk, Adam Smith and others, though alas all off-screen).

I was originally going to put Scott's description of Edinburgh against bits from John Ruskin's lectures about that city's architecture ("Of all the cities in the British Islands, Edinburgh is the one which presents most advantages for the display of a noble building; and which, on the other hand, sustains most injury in the erection of a commonplace or unworthy one."), but I have decided not to. The reader is encouraged to imagine such a juxtaposition, however.

This morning it occurred to me that Guy Mannering is, in some important ways, a book about fatherhood, or at least about father figures and the treatment of children. So again, a clear precursor to Dickens. I might write more about that. Or, I might not. I'm sure that twenty-three seconds spent on google or JSTOR would reveal a great wealth of scholarly writing about this subject that would make any contribution of mine redundant.

*In a chronological slip-up (a constant danger for writers of historical fiction), Scott has Mannering dine with Hume sometime in the early 1780s, by which time Hume was already dead. I sympathize with Scott, for a variety of reasons.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

quite so near the agonies of the expiring salmon: more Guy Mannering

I feel the terrors of a child who has in heedless sport put in motion some powerful piece of machinery; and, while he beholds wheels revolving, chains clashing, cylinders rolling around him, is equally astonished at the tremendous powers which his weak agency has called into action, and terrified for the consequences which he is compelled to await, without the possibility of averting them.
The above is the ending of a letter from Julia Mannering to her bosom friend, Matilda Marchmont. It could also stand as notice from Walter Scott, author of Guy Mannering, that the machinery of the novel's plot has built up a good head of steam and is about to go crashing through the landscape of western Scotland. Guy Mannering is a very plotty romance (by which I mean 19th-century adventure-with-heroes) novel; you can see the influence Scott had on Dickens.

To illustrate, I'll give you a summary of the events of, say, the first half of the book:
  • Guy Mannering, young Oxford student on vacation in Scotland, is benighted at Ellangowan manor on the night where Lady Ellangown gives birth to a son, Harry. Mannering was raised in part by a vicar who practiced astrology, and so Mannering thinks it would be a good lark to cast young Harry's horoscope. See my previous post about astrology in Guy Mannering.
  • Mannering returns to Oxford, then invisibly joins the English army and goes off to India. Five years after the opening scenes, young Harry goes missing; he's believed murdered by smugglers.
  • Seventeen more years pass:
    Our narration is now about to make a large stride, and omit a space of nearly seventeen years; during which nothing occurred of any particular consequence with respect to the story we have undertaken to tell. The gap is a wide one; yet if the reader's experience in life enables him to look back on so many years, the space will scarce appear longer in his recollection than the time consumed in turning these pages.
    Lord Ellangowan is in financial disgrace and his estate is being auctioned off. His teenaged daughter Lucy is being very brave about it all. Enter Guy Mannering, now wealthy and retired from the army, a heroic veteran of all sorts of heroic action in India. He rents an estate up the way from Ellangowan, which is sold to a young punk (a lawyer, of all things) who made a lot of money abetting the smuggling trade.
  • Before Mannering and his daughter (the above-quoted Julia) move into their rented estate, Julia is pursued by one Mr Brown, a young officer who served under Mannering in India. To nobody's surprise, Brown is in fact Harry Ellangowan, who was kidnapped and raised in Holland. Brown is pitching woo to Julia. Mannering, unaware of Brown's true identity, disapproves.
  • Mannering, after moving into his rented estate, has a violent run-in with smugglers. One smuggler--the very one who kidnapped Harry Ellangowan/Mr Brown seventeen years ago--is shot dead.
  • Mr Brown has taken a long and interesting (to Walter Scott, at any rate) walking tour of Scotland, during which he has run foul of smugglers and had all of his possessions stolen. He is saved by one Meg Merrilies, a gypsy who recognizes Brown as Harry Ellangowan now fully grown. Meg gives Harry a purse full of his own family jewels and a lot of cash. Later, Brown has an unfortunate tangle with Mr Hazelwood, the son of a wealthy neighbor of the Mannerings. During their scuffle, Hazelwood's fowling piece goes off and the shot wounds Hazelwood. Brown flees, and is now wanted for attempted murder. This scene, which causes Julia Mannering to write the passage which begins this post, is, I must admit, highly unlikely.
  • Gilbert Glossin, Esquire, the corrupt lawyer who purchased Ellangowan estate 150 pages back, is now one of the magistrates of the county, and he has decided to diligently pursue the arrest of Mr Brown, in order to gain the favor of the local lords, who have always (rightfully, we are told) despised and shunned him. Glossin puts two-and-two together: Mr Brown is Harry Ellangowan, returned to Scotland. If Harry/Brown becomes known, then Glossin will have no right to Ellangowan estate, as Harry is the true heir and the original auction was illegal. Glossin conspires with his smuggler friends to have Harry/Brown removed from Scotland. "Oh, don't kill him, not if you don't have to," he tells the smugglers. "Leave that to us," the smugglers reply.
  • You can see, of course, where all of this will end, who will marry whom, who will get his comeuppence, etc. The usual exciting stuff.
Like I say, it's a very plotty romance novel, and as the immense chunks of plot swing and collide I am constantly put in mind of Dickens, whose novels all work in this same way: a small group of people are involved in some intrigue, are separated for years, and then brought back together by a series of coincidences while the consequences of their meeting become increasingly dire. Good stuff. This is exactly the sort of structure I am incapable of creating as a novelist.

I thought I'd quote more of the novel in this post, but apparently I'm not doing that. It's a good book, even if I point out the ridiculous nature of the plot. I don't read for plot, so I am not put off by the ridiculousness. But here, here's a bit from the middle of the book, where Scott gives us a couple of chapters that describe, in some detail, all of the manly arts of hunting as were popular in Scotland in the mid-late eighteenth century:
Without noticing the occupations of an intervening day or two, which, as they consisted of the ordinary silvan amusements of shooting and coursing, have nothing sufficiently interesting to detain the reader, we pass to one in some degree peculiar to Scotland, which may be called a sort of salmon-hunting. This chase, in which the fish is pursued and struck with barbed spears, or a sort of long-shafted trident, called a waster, is much practised at the mouth of the Esk and in the other salmon rivers of Scotland. The sport is followed by day and night, but most commonly in the latter, when the fish are discovered by means of torches, or fire-grates, filled with blazing fragments of tar-barrels, which shed a strong though partial light upon the water. On the present occasion the principal party were embarked in a crazy boat upon a part of the river which was enlarged and deepened by the restraint of a mill-wear, while others, like the ancient Bacchanals in their gambols, ran along the banks, brandishing their torches and spears, and pursuing the salmon, some of which endeavoured to escape up the stream, while others, shrouding themselves under roots of trees, fragments of stones, and large rocks, attempted to conceal themselves from the researches of the fishermen. These the party in the boat detected by the slightest indications; the twinkling of a fin, the rising of an airbell, was sufficient to point out to these adroit sportsmen in what direction to use their weapon.

The scene was inexpressibly animating to those accustomed to it; but, as Brown was not practised to use the spear, he soon tired of making efforts which were attended with no other consequences than jarring his arms against the rocks at the bottom of the river, upon which, instead of the devoted salmon, he often bestowed his blow. Nor did he relish, though he concealed feelings which would not have been understood, being quite so near the agonies of the expiring salmon, as they lay flapping about in the boat, which they moistened with their blood. He therefore requested to be put ashore...
I think we'll all go ashore at this point, but first I note that one of the fishermen, a certain Gabriel, is of course one of the smugglers involved in Harry's original kidnapping. There is so much looping back with every character in this book that I sometimes feel I'm reading Graham Swift's Waterland.