Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Ex libris Metro, Tuesday morning edition

Spotted on the bus:

T.E. Lawrence, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom
George R.R. Martin, A Dance With Dragons
Craig Taylor, Londoners
Albert Camus, The Stranger

and other books I was not forward enough to identify.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Worse than Trainspotting: Guy Mannering is uproarious

Maybe it's because I just read Edith Wharton's cheerless Ethan Frome, but I'm finding Walter Scott's Guy Mannering to be a laugh riot. This is my first experience of Scott's writing, and I am delighted, truly happily surprised.

I initially decided to read this novel because I had a brief interest in novels called The Astrologer, which turns out to be the subtitle of Guy Mannering, as the title character is a sometime amateur astrologer though he neither really believes in astrology nor has a firm grasp on the actual methods of the art:
Among those who cherished this imaginary privilege with undoubting faith was an old clergyman with whom Mannering was placed during his youth. He wasted his eyes in observing the stars, and his brains in calculations upon their various combinations. His pupil, in early youth, naturally caught some portion of his enthusiasm, and laboured for a time to make himself master of the technical process of astrological research; so that, before he became convinced of its absurdity, William Lilly himself would have allowed him 'a curious fancy and piercing judgment in resolving a question of nativity.'

On the present occasion he arose as early in the morning as the shortness of the day permitted, and proceeded to calculate the nativity of the young heir of Ellangowan. He undertook the task secundum artem, as well to keep up appearances as from a sort of curiosity to know whether he yet remembered, and could practise, the imaginary science[...]

It will be readily believed that, in mentioning this circumstance, we lay no weight whatever upon the pretended information thus conveyed. But it often happens, such is our natural love for the marvellous, that we willingly contribute our own efforts to beguile our better judgments. Whether the coincidence which I have mentioned was really one of those singular chances which sometimes happen against all ordinary calculations; or whether Mannering, bewildered amid the arithmetical labyrinth and technical jargon of astrology, had insensibly twice followed the same clue to guide him out of the maze; or whether his imagination, seduced by some point of apparent resemblance, lent its aid to make the similitude between the two operations more exactly accurate than it might otherwise have been, it is impossible to guess; but the impression upon his mind that the results exactly corresponded was vividly and indelibly strong.
That's a good joke, the book's principle joke: Walter Scott does not believe in astrology. The reader presumably does not believe in astrology. Guy Mannering does not believe in astrology. And yet, despite us all agreeing that astrology is "imaginary science," the fates of two (at least) of the book's characters will follow the courses of the horoscopes that Mannering has cast for them. Also, let it be noted that a gypsy witch's prognostications at her spinning wheel also support the work Mannering has done by way of prediction. All of this is terribly funny, as are Scott's character sketches whenever someone new walks into the scene. Great stuff, really great. The Scots dialect gives me a headache, though. It's worse than Trainspotting.

I will probably not write about the plot much (what do I care about plot?) but I plan to quote more of Scott's jokes as I read.

O brave new dreams

Last night I dreamed that the manuscript of my current work-in-progress existed as a single, typewritten copy that I kept in a blue loose-leaf binder. I was carrying this binder around with me through the downtown of a city I almost recognize (Washington?), and somehow I managed to leave it lying on a stone bench at a bus stop. I managed to find my way back to the bus stop (after a side trip through a very colorful neighborhood that was animated in classic Walt Disney style), but the manuscript was nowhere to be found. I have no idea what this dream means.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

a terrifying black horse which the driver of the soul can never hope entirely to understand or subdue

Aristotle is never a very considerate writer. Indeed, he regularly asks a great deal of his readers, namely that they keep the whole of his immensely complex analysis of reality vividly before them at all times. But there is a much more important reason for this almost universal misunderstanding, and that is the gross improbability of Aristotle's idea itself--the very suggestion itself that the whole world could be shown to be really flawlessly rational if we but looked closely enough. We look around us and we see that nature, like ourselves, does indeed seem to strive for patterns; and we realize that if it were not for these patterns we should be unable to make any sense of our perceptions of separate experiences and make predictions which will be valid for the future; but we also see, as Plato taught us to do, that these patterns are never actually realized. We have to perceive with our minds, not our eyes, where things are tending, for our eyes give us only an infinite sequence of unique perceptions--similarities but no identities among our experiences in this perpetual flux. Surely, we say, this points clearly to some kind of an irreducible brutishness and irrationality in the very stuff of the world: how, we ask, could Aristotle possibly have avoided that conclusion?
--Thomas Gould, "Aristotle and the Irrational," Arion, Vol 2, No 2, Summer 1963 (pg 64)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

3,000 words into it

Proztvetanov posed, a stack of lumpy black shadow silhouetted against the French windows of his immense ancient library. He stood close enough to the windows that his breath clouded one of the panes. Before him stretched a broad avenue buried under several feet of new-fallen snow, the lime trees ranked along either side rigidly at attention beneath their own tons of snow. The cloudless sky was hard and pale silver until the sun had half-cleared the horizon and then the colors of the world shifted to deep reds and heavy black shadows in bands lying aslant through the avenue as if the land were breaking apart while the lord of the estate watched with sustained pleasure. The sun climbed higher, the atmosphere lost its saturation of red and as the morning came into full wintry glory the snow became once more white and glistening, the shadows deep blue and the heavens a breathtaking spectrum of robin's egg to Caspian Sea and then Proztvetanov gave himself up to loud, hearty laughter, the rasp of which roused Antosha from a light sleep.

Blogger is not letting me comment today, here or anywhere else, so I content myself with quoting the first paragraph (a rough draft) of the story "The Snow Storm." I'm about 3,000 words into this particular story. It seems okay so far.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

rationing likely this summer

Last night I kept dreaming that someone was trying all the doors and windows of the house and I woke up every half hour or so after about 2:00 AM, listening for noises and wondering if I should get up and check all the access points, a flashlight in one hand and a claw hammer in the other, just in case. I did not get up, though.

I have begun writing a new story for the Antosha in Prague collection, this one called (provisionally) "The Snow Storm." Actors (the Moscow Art Theater) and a writer (Antosha Chekhonte) meet at the estate of an ancient playwright (Evgeny Proztvetanov, whose surname is related to the word "процветать") who has one final play he'd like acted. The language is quite complex and pleases me a great deal.

This is the collection's table of contents/plan so far:

"The Connoisseur" (written)
"Defending His Dissertation" (written)
"Under the Limbs of the Silver Birches" (written)
"Setting a Broken Bone" (written)
"The Suitor" (written)
"Ivan Ivanovna" (written)
"The Father of This Family" (written)
"To My Hands Alone" (written)
"Olivier Salad" (written)
"Dressing for the Opera" (written)
"Bela" (hypothetical)
"The Snow Storm" (in progress)
"Antosha in Prague" (written)
"Caspian Terns" (hypothetical)
"It's a long time since I drank champagne" (outlined)
"A White Sparrow" (outlined, half written)

I should probably have written "Bela" before starting work on "The Snow Storm," but them's the breaks. The book is about 65,000 words long so far. I think it will be about 85-90K when finished. We'll see. Length has never really mattered to me, but I have so far written nothing but compact novels.

It's sunny and warm in Seattle. There has been so little snowfall in the Cascades that water rationing is likely this summer.

Monday, February 9, 2015

There's nothing in the world better than Moscow! Let's go, Olya! Let's go!

IRINA. Yes, how petty our Andrey has grown, how dull and old he has become beside that woman! At one time he was working to get a professorship and yesterday he was boasting of having succeeded at last in becoming a member of the District Council. He's a member, and Protopopov is chairman. . . . The whole town is laughing and talking of it and he's the only one who sees and knows nothing. . . . And here everyone has been running to the fire while he sits still in his room and takes no notice. He does nothing but play his violin . . . [nervously]. Oh, it's awful, awful, awful! [Weeps] I can't bear it any more, I can't! I can't, I can't! [sobs loudly]. Throw me out, throw me out, I can't bear it any more!

OLGA [alarmed]. What is it? What is it, darling?

IRINA [sobbing]. Where? Where has it all gone? Where is it? Oh, my God, my God! I've forgotten everything, everything . . . everything is in a tangle in my mind. . . I don't remember the Italian for window or ceiling . . . I'm forgetting everything; every day I forget something more and life is slipping away and will never come back, we'll never, never go to Moscow. . . . I see that we won't go. . . [restraining herself]. Oh, I'm miserable. . . . I can't work, I'm not going to work. I've had enough of it, enough of it! I've been a telegraph clerk and now I have a job in the town council and I hate and despise every bit of the work they give me. . . . I'm already twenty-three, I've been working for years, my brains are drying up, I'm getting thin and old and ugly and there's nothing, nothing, not the slightest satisfaction, and time is passing and you feel that you are moving away from a real, a beautiful life, moving farther and farther away and being drawn into the depths. I'm in despair and I don't know how it is I'm alive and haven't killed myself yet. . . I kept expecting we should move to Moscow and there I should meet my true love. I've been dreaming of him, loving him. . . . But it seems that was all nonsense, nonsense. . . .

[Enter ANDREY.]

ANDREY. Where's Olga? [OLGA comes from behind the screen.] I've come to ask you for the key of the cupboard, I have lost mine. You've got one, it's a little key.

[OLGA gives him the key in silence; IRINA goes behind her screen; a pause.]

ANDREY. What a tremendous fire! Now it's begun to die down. Damn it all, that Ferapont made me so cross I said something silly to him. Your honour . . . [a pause]. Why don't you speak, Olya? [a pause] It's time to drop this foolishness and sulking all about . . . . You're here, Masha, and you too, Irina -- very well, then, let us have things out thoroughly, once and for all. What have you got against me? What is it? [greatly confused]. Don't excite yourself. I ask you quite calmly, what have you against me? Tell me straight out. I'll say what I have to say and then go. Directly. . . . First, you have something against Natasha, my wife, and I've noticed that from the very day of my marriage. Natasha is a splendid woman, conscientious, straightforward and honourable -- that's my opinion! I love and respect my wife, do you understand? I respect her, and I insist on other people respecting her too. I repeat, she is a conscientious, honourable woman, and all your disagreements are simply caprice. . . [a pause]. Secondly, you seem to be cross with me for not being a professor, not working at something scholarly. But I'm in the service of the Zemstvo, I'm a member of the District Council, and I consider this service just as sacred and elevated as the service of learning. I'm a member of the District Council and I'm proud of it, if you care to know . . . [a pause]. Thirdly . . . there's something else I have to say. . . . I've mortgaged the house without asking your permission. . . . For that I am to blame, yes, and I ask your pardon for it. I was driven to it by my debts . . . thirty-five thousand. . . . I'm not gambling now -- I gave up cards long ago; but the chief thing I can say in self-defence is that you girls -- you get a pension . . . while I don't get . . . my wages, so to speak . . . [a pause]. They won't listen. Natasha is an excellent, conscientious woman [paces up and down the stage in silence, then stops]. When I married her, I thought we should be happy . . . happy, all of us. . . . But, my God! [Weeps] Dear sisters, darling sisters, you must not believe what I say, you mustn't believe it . . . [goes out].
I have edited this scene down to a couple of long speeches because they illustrate an idea about fiction that I've been mulling over for the last I-don't-know-how-long. A couple of weeks, at least. In Chekhov's play "Three Sisters," from which I've snipped the above, the machine that is the plot and the machines that are the characters grind away at each other from beginning to end of the piece, slowly but inexorably, and the texture of the play, the tapestry of dialogue and situation, becomes increasingly thicker and more emotional. Chekhov constantly stirs more elements into the pot, adds more wood to the fire, etc write your own metaphor. In each scene, it seems that these characters have all reached the breaking point, beyond which it is impossible to go, and yet Chekhov pushes them on, down, forward as things keep grinding away. At the point I've jumped into the action above (the end of Act III), Chekhov has achieved an effect I think of as "taking all the air out of the room." Elizabeth Strout does much the same thing in the majority of her stories in Olive Kitteridge, her 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection.

Who cares? Why am I writing this? I am working on a theory. Not a theory really about fiction or art, but more a theory about exhaustion and what sort of fiction I personally like, and maybe the sort I write. I have read books (and stories and plays) where the writer stops being interesting (I actually use the term impressive rather than interesting when I think about it) midway through the book and things dissolve, rather, and reading the piece becomes a pointless exercise in completion. Some writers get interesting ideas for premises or characters, but don't actually have anything to do with those premises or characters. For example, I was given Gene Wolfe's four-book series Claw of the Conciliator for Christmas. I don't read much in the way of science fiction, but I have to admit that the writing in the first fifty or so pages is pretty darned interesting, and I was drawn into the book. Eventually, however, it all became flat and stale and pointless, and when I reached the last page of the first book in this four-book set, I found that I had no interest in reading the remaining 750 pages of the saga. Wolfe packed his story with world-building extravagances, mysteries, violence, romance, language-play, weirdness, and still nothing was moving, Wolfe had stopped impressing me. I was unmoved and counting the pages remaining to be got through.

I seem to be evading my point, which I think is that I like a story where a writer keeps working as he goes along, rather than sets up a game board and then simply unspools the plot. This is why I don't care much for detective fiction, unless the detective character is a hoot or the writer digresses into interesting subjects (which explains my addiction to Christie's Poirot books). Gene Wolfe pushes things in the first fifty pages, and then he stops pushing. Chekhov, in his plays and his best stories, never stops pushing, never stops impressing with where he can go with his fictional elements. The sudden speech from Andrey where he declares the shallow and deceitful Natasha to be a loving wife, when everyone knows she is having an affair with Andrey's employer Protopopov, is a surprise that seems inevitable (or perhaps unavoidable is a better word), and it is deeply moving. Irina's disillusionment about work and adult life is no surprise, but it's fuel on the fire of the story, and grinds against her expectations and her desire to engage with the world (and to move to Moscow).

Who else? I have been meaning to write more about Marly Youmans' latest novel Glimmerglass, the second half of which features an adventure that is part fever dream, part mystical experience, and part thrilling escape. The protagonist of the tale encounters characters from scripture, myth, from literary history, and from her own subconscious. There is an admirable angel character who may or may not be Satan; it works either way, which is some trick. Some day soon, hopefully, I'll write about Glimmerglass, but for now I want to say that this is a book where the writer continues to push things, to work with her materials and find something new all along the course of the narrative. Yes, that's what I want to say, and that's what I want to find in a story. I get bored otherwise. I'm easily bored. Look: I've managed finally to condense this whole post into three little words.