Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Philosophical Detective Update

Boring for you, but I want to make a note of it: Chapter 9 is finished, which means I have but three more chapters to write of this first draft. Wordcount is 56,621 so I should be at right around 70K when I finish. I always draft a bit short and things expand during rewrites, but 70K will be pretty healthy, I think. I can work with that so no worries, as the kids say. The writing was awfully difficult these last couple of days but the prose is good. Tonight's bit, about the secret life of the Irish chambermaid, was very good indeed. I feel like John Cheever, running from room to room and shouting about kings riding elephants. Which is a nice way to feel. Some nice jokes earlier in the chapter, too. All in all, I am pleased with what I've got so far. I should have this first draft all written before the end of August, which is Right On Schedule.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Man Booker Prize 2011 Longlist

The Man Booker Prize 2011 Longlist has just been announced:

Julian Barnes - The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape - Random House)
Sebastian Barry - On Canaan's Side (Faber)
Carol Birch - Jamrach's Menagerie (Canongate Books)
Patrick deWitt - The Sisters Brothers (Granta)
Esi Edugyan - Half Blood Blues (Serpent's Tail - Profile)
Yvvette Edwards - A Cupboard Full of Coats (Oneworld)
Alan Hollinghurst - The Stranger's Child (Picador - Pan Macmillan)
Stephen Kelman - Pigeon English (Bloomsbury)
Patrick McGuinness - The Last Hundred Days (Seren Books)
A.D. Miller - Snowdrops (Atlantic)
Alison Pick - Far to Go (Headline Review)
Jane Rogers - The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone Press)
D.J. Taylor - Derby Day (Chatto & Windus - Random House)

I admit that I've not read a one of these novels yet and I have only heard of the deWitt book. Half Blood Blues looks interesting after a few minutes with Google.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Still With Chekhov

I continue to read Chekhov short stories. Last night before bed it was "Gusev" and I wanted to phone everyone I knew and read them the last two pages because they are glorious and beautiful and all the things that literature aspires to be. A wondrous thing indeed. In about 1889 Chekhov began to write longer stories of greater indeterminacy and greater beauty and perhaps, if I believed in an interventionist God, I would point to the existence of Anton Chekhov as proof of that God. Goodness, what a fucking genius he was. I've read "Gusev" several times over the last 20 years or so, and every damned time I am swept up, or away, or slain maybe, by those last two pages. Brilliance.

Where's this brilliance coming from? Partially from beauty of language, sure. The images are so lush and intense and startling and piled one atop the other that your breath is snatched right from your lungs, but what gives these later Chekhov stories their real power is, I must say, their lack of a focused ending. It's not that they fade out or don't know where they're going, it's more that where they go is a very specific point in space/time that doesn't in any way resolve or analyze what has come before. The ending doesn't "justify" the beginning and middle, it throws the whole thing into the air where it spreads out, is blown to the four winds and parts of your soul are caught on bits of the scattering tale and carried away with it and you don't know what it means but your knowledge of the life of the mind (of your very own mind) has been expanded in a way you can't define but is nonetheless real. Yes, that's sort of what it's like.

I shall have to look around and find out if Seamus Heaney has read Chekhov (odds are) and what he has to say about it, because there is a similarity between their works that I have just decided to have seen. I know he wrote one poem explicitly about Chekhov. Maybe I make up this link, but I think it's real. We'll see. Like I have time to read Heaney now and look for Chekhovian influence. Like I have time for anything.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Final Thoughts: Henry James' "The Ambassadors"

Some scattered afterthoughts on reading Henry James’ The Ambassadors:

Henry was a very subtle writer, sometimes so subtle that his meaning was no doubt lost on this reader. But all along the course of the narrative he threw out little clues about his characters’ behaviors and during the last few chapters Henry pulled tight on all the threads he’d left laying about and wove a surprising but inevitable conclusion which was dramatically satisfying but annoying in a “I can’t believe what people are like” sort of way. Which is, you know, the stuff I like in literature.

The longer I think about where Lambert Strether ends up at the novel’s conclusion, the more I realize that he lacks real self-awareness, despite his opinion otherwise. He’s also got something of a martyr complex, which explains his life as toady to the rich and powerful. As the novel progresses, James does an excellent job of contrasting Strether’s self-image as Important Man and Paternal Figure with the image of him held by everyone who knows him, which is sort of a sad old underbutler character. People feel sorry for him, and Strether doesn’t quite see that. The reader doesn’t see it at first either, but James lets the realization come slowly, a word at a time here or there over many chapters. When the Pococks show up from America, at first you wonder why Strether’s been pushed aside and left out of all the family maneuverings but soon after you understand that, well, Strether is more family dog than family and he was never really part of any of the decision making. Poor Strether.

The chapter where Strether is wasting time waiting for someone to tell him what’s actually going on and so spends a day out in the countryside is absolutely gorgeous and possibly the finest prose to ever come from Henry James’ pen.

E.M. Forster, as I’ve said before, is wrong wrong wrong about James’ books being devoid of humanity for the sake of formal and prose concerns. This is a very felt book. I think a lot of readers find James’ delicacy of expression to be too emotionally distant (especially in this day of "voice-driven" and "high concept" writing), but all the emotional lives of the characters are right there, on the page. James’ prose is more cumulative than immediate, like a long hot bath maybe. A better simile will hopefully come to me.

Anyway, that's all I've got about The Ambassadors. I won't bother with plot summaries or any of that, because you don't care and I'm lousy with that sort of thing. Mighty Reader and I, last night, were laughing at how we both thought this book was about international diplomacy because of the title. It's not, of course, and "ambassadors" is an apt metaphor and it's a book well worth reading.

Now I'm on a happy binge of Chekhov stories, reeling around like a drunk. After that, I believe, I will finally read the Ubu plays.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Transcendental Detective Update (redux)

I have finally written Chapter Eight ("The Grieving Widow") of my detective novel. It was touch-and-go there for a while. Last week I wrote about 1000 words that I ended up cutting and rewriting because the final scene in the chapter just wasn't working. My story needed to go due west but the writing was going north-northeast and, while it was interesting stuff, it was the wrong stuff. So snip snip snip out it went. Happily, on Saturday morning Mighty Reader listened to me whinging about the trouble I was having and made a simple suggestion that allowed me to work it all out properly. Such is the brilliance of Mighty Reader, such is her way with Gordian knots, etc. Anyway, last night I sat me down with my notebook and pen and rewrote the reimagined scene and even though it needs a bit of work still, and will require some work in earlier passages of the story (but what doesn't at this stage?), I'm ready to move onward to Chapter Nine, where a Second Corpse will be proclaimed! Hurrah! About time!

Is it cheating to present the detective's thoughts to the reader but not explain them? Does that violate Chesterton's rules of engagement? I don't think so. Misdirection, as they say, is good.

Anyway, I'm at about 50,000 words right now. I imagine that the first draft will roll in at about 70,000 words, and will bulk up somewhat during revisions. We'll see. Blah blah blah boring work-in-progress blah blah blah apologies.

In more interesting (possibly) news, I am close to finishing Henry James' The Ambassadors. Poor Strether has been kicked to the curb by his fiancee, though he admits now to several people that really it was never about love and was a lot about status and money but that's all gone away now. Strether has no real skills and no real job aside from being factotum to the wealthy Mrs Newsome. Which puts him on the street, basically, with no prospects. How he'll work that out will be interesting to see. The Pococks from Woollett have delivered the message of disapprobation from America and are leaving Paris. Chad Newsome is expected to follow them back to Massachusetts, but he's announced to Stether that he has no intention of leaving his beloved Madame Violette. The thing about Chad, though, is that you never really know what he's thinking. He's very much about appearances, very much like his mother in that way. He could disappoint the Paris contingent in the end. We'll see. I can't wait to read more over lunch.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Reading Chekhov in the Rain

I have laid Henry James' The Ambassadors aside today (but just for today, I tell you) in order to read some Chekhov stories. I have a business purpose behind reading Chekhov just now, but one should read him on a regular basis anyway. There's a thirteen-volume set of his complete stories that I might like for Christmas, if anyone I live with is reading this post. Just saying, as the kids say.

Where was I? Oh, my Anton. So far today I've read "Death of a Government Clerk," "Sergeant Prishibeyev," "Kashtanka" and the first part of "The Grasshopper." They are all different, they are all quite good, they are all Chekhov. I am not familiar enough with his work to know how his style developed over the years and over the course of his writing 1,000 or so stories so I can't say if the folktale quality of the first three of these stories has to do with them being from a particular period of his life. Certainly Chekhov rarely strayed far from the ironical voice of a self-aware and self-mocking 19th-century Russian, and that ironical self-mocking and loving but critical eye cast upon the Russian character is one of the enduring charms of reading Chekhov.

But some of his stories are more serious in tone, maybe more urbane, for lack of the actual word I want, than others. "The Lady With the Little Dog" is ironic without being ironical; the humor is more gentle, the beating heart of the characters more delicately and sympathetically exposed. In "The Grasshopper," Olga Ivanovna is a type, certainly, and you know right away that because she is weak and vain and self-absorbed she will do wicked things, but Chekhov uses some of his most gorgeous prose to tell her story:

On a still moonlit night in July Olga Ivanovna was standing on the deck of a Volga steamer and looking alternately at the water and at the picturesque banks. Beside her was Ryabovsky, telling her that the black shadows on the water were not shadows, but a dream, that it would be sweet to sink into forgetfulness, to die, to become a memory in the sight of that enchanted water with the fantastic glimmer, in sight of the fathomless sky and the mournful, dreamy shores that told of the vanity of our life and of the existence of something higher, blessed, and eternal. The past was vulgar and uninteresting, the future was trivial, and that marvellous night, unique in a lifetime, would soon be over, would blend with eternity; then, why live?

And Olga Ivanovna listened alternately to Ryabovsky's voice and the silence of the night, and she thought of being immortal and never dying. The turquoise colour of the water, such as she had never seen before, the sky, the river-banks, the black shadows, and the unaccountable joy that flooded her soul, all told her that she would make a great artist, and that somewhere in the distance, in the infinite space beyond the moonlight, success, glory, the love of the people, lay awaiting her. . . . When she gazed steadily without blinking into the distance, she seemed to see crowds of people and lights, to hear triumphant strains of music, cries of enthusiasm; she saw herself in a white dress as flowers showered upon her from all sides. She thought, too, that beside her, leaning with his elbows on the rail of the steamer, there was standing a real great man, a genius, one of God's elect. . . . All that he had created up to the present was fine, new, and extraordinary, but what he would create in time, when with maturity his rare talent reached its full development, would be astounding, immeasurably sublime; and that could be seen by his face, by his manner of expressing himself and his attitude to nature. He talked of shadows, of the tones of evening, of the moonlight, in a special way, in a language of his own, so that one could not help feeling the fascination of his power over nature. He was very handsome, original, and his life, free, independent, aloof from all common cares, was like the life of a bird.


That, kids, is great stuff and no mistaking. Another thing about Chekhov that makes him worth returning to often is that no matter how naive the surface of his stories, no matter how simple his characters (Olenka, the protagonist in "The Darling" sweeps to mind), there is something more--usually several layers of something more--waiting under the surface for the reader. I don't want to sound like too much of a cranky old man, but a lot of today's short fiction writers could do well to spend some time with Mr Chekhov. Certainly I should. The pleasures of reading Anton Chekhov's stories are superior to the pleasures of reading almost anyone's short stories since his (I except, of course, the stories of Cheever and my pal Davin Malasarn, which amaze and annoy me with their superiority).

Anyway, go read Chekhov to see how it's done. Don't just read one story; the benefits accumulate quickly if you read them in groups of half a dozen or so. One cannot be a writer and remain unimproved after exposure to Anton's tales.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Americans Are Disobeying

I continue to read Henry James' The Ambassadors. I used to read much more quickly when I was younger. I've been with this book (a mere 320ish pages) for weeks now. But I am still with it, and I'm still enjoying the novel.

Alas for the protagonist, Lewis Strether, though. The Pococks from Woollett, Massachusetts (Jim, Sarah and Mamie) have arrived to drag young Chad back to America, Stether having been judged useless at the task. He's spent months in Paris, it's true, and he's lost all interest in doing the bidding of his financee (and patroness), Mrs Newsome. So the trio of Woollettites have arrived in Paris and none of them are behaving themselves. Jim could care less what happens with Chad as long as he personally has a good time in the City of Lights. Jim's wife Sarah appears to have become taken with Strether's friend Waymarsh. Shame, Sarah Pocock. Mamie Pocock, the young woman who is intended to be the future bride of Chad Newsome, is apparently coming under the sway of an American expatriate artist called Bilham. Mamie and Sarah have worked quickly, I must say. Mrs Newsome would be quite put out by all of this frufrura. She didn't send her daughter and inlaws to Paris in order that they amuse themselves and engage in foreign infidelities. No, she did not. Meanwhile, the French contingent who desire Chad to remain in Europe are making strategic errors and are running a bit panicked. Lewis Strether sees the danger but is being pushed out of the circle of people able to influence matters. Oh, it's a shambles. When it all falls apart for everyone, I won't feel sorry for anyone.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Edgar Rice Burroughs and Me

I hate to admit it, but Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Mars" books were an important part of my youth. I read a lot of scientifiction in those days, and I didn't realize it at the time but early SF was anything but sexy (I'm looking at you, Asimov and Heinlein and Verne and the rest). I didn't know, frankly, that books could be sexy until I read A Princess of Mars (or was it John Carter, Warlord of Mars?). Dejah Thoris? Oy vay Maria, boys. Especially with the Boris Vallejo covers.

It puzzles me that nobody's made these books into films yet (they're 100 years old next year, for God's sake), but that, at long last, is changing. Disney (I know, but still) is making a trilogy of films, the first one to be released in 2012. I should be cool and intellectual and indifferent, but I'm not: I'm really excited. I could totally geek out over this. I really hope the films aren't just pure crap (like, you know, almost every movie made is pure crap) because I really don't want to be disappointed. Not that, mind you, I even remember much about the books. I just know that I loved them when I was a kid and I might be in the mood for something cheesy come the fall.

I am tempted to read one of these books, to run out to the used shops and find an old copy, just to see how much of ERB's pulpy style has influenced my ideas of narrative design and characterization and plot and writing in general. I hesitate because I don't want to know. One likes to maintain at least a pretense of sophistication.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Noumenon Diet

From: The Librarian
Sent: Friday, July 08, 2011 10:33 AM
To: Scott Bailey
Subject: lunch?

Lunch?

Lunch at Saigon Deli?

Lunch at Hillside Quickie? (A word about this place: probably the most distinctive sandwiches in town, but very greasy and usually I leave with a ~slightly~ upset stomach -- but it's worth it, in my opinion. Oh, and it's 100% vegan. It's a place you either love or hate.)

From: Scott Bailey
Sent: Friday, July 08, 2011 10:39 AM
To: The Librarian
Subject: lunch?

Yes! If after 12:15. I am intrigued by "the most distinctive sandwiches in town." That's a phrase which could mean nearly anything. Greasy is good.

From: The Librarian
Sent: Friday, July 08, 2011 11:17 AM
To: Scott Bailey
Subject: RE: lunch?

Their website has accurate photos of these "distinctive sandwiches."

As for the name, "Hillside Quickie," well, in the world of phenomena, just forget the quickie part, as this place takes a very long time to produce a sandwich. The stoners that work there appear to be straddling a noumenon of some sort, and it slows them down, I don't think they realize...

From: Scott Bailey
Sent: Friday, July 08, 2011 11:21 AM
To: The Librarian
Subject: lunch?

Speed is relative, of course. Possibly the noumenal world doesn't contain linear time and it only appears as if the stoners at HQ move slowly. We have only our sense data, which we cannot trust, but perhaps our speculative reason allows us to postulate a noumenal wherein we have already eaten lunch. My stomach argues against the idea. "That Kant be true," it says.

From: The Librarian
Sent: Friday, July 08, 2011 11:32 AM
To: Scott Bailey
Subject: RE: lunch?

I think we have uncovered a get-rich scheme: the new diet craze: The Noumenon Diet. Inhabit the world where you are not hungry. You make the world yourself. If someone fails and finds him or her self eating a quart of ice cream, it's his/her own fault. This will leave them guilty and crawling back for more. We will have them hooked. We will purchase waterfront property and buy jet skis, home theaters and Audi automobiles etc etc.

From: Scott Bailey
Sent: Friday, July 08, 2011 11:42 AM
To: The Librarian
Subject: lunch?

There is not a single flaw in that plan. We will rule everything. I'm hungry now. Is that a failure of my reasoning?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

E. M. Forster = Big Fat Dope

Last week I re-read E.M. Forster's classic set of lectures on literature, Aspects of the Novel. In general, I like what Forster had to say about writing. But he talks, in his chapter on "Rhythm and Pattern," at some length about Henry James (using as his example the very James novel I'm reading now, The Ambassadors). Forster says that he admires James' use of language and James' formal control over his story, but James' novels always leave him cold because they are so controlled that they become almost inhuman, all about the form and the language and there's no beating heart under it all. Forster claims that, in order to read a Henry James novel, you must first accept that all human life has been removed from the narrative. When I was reading Forster's book, I was almost convinced he was right and that I should put away my James lest it poison my delicate artistic sensibilities.

Today at lunch I spent more time with The Ambassadors. And you know what? E.M. Forster was an idiot. The chapter I just read was amazing and human and funny and warm and is what a good novel should be. You can see a real emotional crisis about to explode for the protagonist, and you know that he can't see it coming. That's dramatic tension, right at the hinge between the second and third act. Just like you get in any E. M. Forster novel. So. There we are. Hurrah for art. I might also add that all of James' short stories and novellas are fabulous and rich and perhaps Forster just had no patience for James' long strands of fine observation. But Forster's impatience does not make Henry James cold and inhuman. It's worth noting that Forster admires D.H. Lawrence, and his novels were clearly influenced by the novels of Henry James (Forster claims Melville as Lawrence's primary influence, which is interesting but I think mistaken). I also pause to note that Virginia Woolf (whom I quite adore) couldn't stand Henry James, but her "interior" novels come hard on the heels of what James was doing. Woolf's problem (and, I think, Forster's as well) has to do with a dislike of the lower classes. Neither Woolf nor Forster understood the working classes or the poor, and while both of them were deeply interested in the life of the mind, I think they had definite ideas about what the mind contained, whereas James had more curiosity than preconceived notions. James' curiousness, his centipede-burrowing-through-a-dictionary way with words and his constantly provisional characterizations all probably meant nothing to his English critics.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

That Nice Fellow Jay Gatsby

Here is a post by Roger Ebert that likely most of you have seen by now. I'm happy to not be the only curmudgeonly old man on the internet.

Anyway, there is no good to be done by paraphrasing great works of literature, because the work itself is the point. Fitzgerald's vibrant, provocative language is at least half of the experience of Gatsby. When the paraphrase changes/misses the essential meaning of the original work, we're no longer even talking about that work, are we? So what't the point of it? They are not equivalent at all. Approaching apoplexy now. Must stop.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Transcendental Detective Update

Yawn, you say. Another one of those "wordcount" posts. Sorry, but that's what I got and I do after all use this blog to track this kind of stuff.

Anyway, I did a lot of typing this weekend (as well as a lot of other, non-bookish stuff) and I've finally caught the Word(tm) document up to the handwritten manuscript so I can say with some authority (sorry) that I've got 46,735 words of detective novel written. I'm at the start of Chapter 8 now. The detective has just made a public accusation of murder. Very, very exciting stuff.

The plan was for Chapter 7 to end with "You are the murderer!" and for Chapter 8 to take up the scene in the following moment, with all the resultant action opening the new chapter. But I realized that I can actually skip the whole scene. Yes, I can, because for important reasons, the detective must discuss the scene again later with another character and why play it all through twice for the reader? So we only get the recap and a discussion of the (moral and ethical) consequences of the accusation, but not the action post-accusal. Which is a better way to handle this. It also allows me to put in a couple of jokes and to display some important things about character which otherwise wouldn't get in there. So well done, me.

There was a moment (a long moment that stretched for a couple of weeks, to be honest) where I had absolutely no idea how I was going to structure this part of the book and I thought that All Was Lost. But things are falling together pretty well and I'm nicely excited to get on with the last third of the novel. The plot is complicating itself and generating all sorts of misdirection under its own power. I call that success. I think I'll have a look at the Second Act during revisions and see if I can stir in even more misdirection, which is very ironic of me but I won't bother to say why, not just yet. Possibly when I've finished with the novel and sent if off to my agent I'll be willing to talk about the shell game that is a detective novel. But not yet.

Anyway, 46,735 words. Take that, Malasarn!

Also, courtesy of Mighty Reader, a Monetesque view of the flower beds: