Monday, October 31, 2011

Illustrious House of Ramires Part 2

I'm a little more than halfway through Jose Maria de Eça de Queirós' novel The Illustrious House of Ramires, first published (in Portuguese) in 1900. It's a hoot-and-a-half, as Harold Bloom would say. I'm reading it in English because I am an American philistine.*

Ramires is a witty social novel dealing primarily with the vapidity and egotism of the Portuguese ruling class at the end of the 19th century. It's full of fun being poked at the protagonist (Gonçalo Ramires) and his social circle, who vie for money, power and prestige. Every character is fully aware of his/her place within the social fabric though every character seems to believe that he/she is somehow superior to everyone above and below them. Portugal in 1900 or so seems to have been a feudal society on the brink of collapse brought about by representative democracy, though the elected officials all seem to have gotten their positions through nepotism and cronyism.

Our hero Gonçalo is an unemployed member of the landowning class. He's just inherited the Ramires estates (including the noble tower that's stood for a thousand years) from his father but he craves a political career. The first half of Ramires shows Gonçalo working on his plan to achieve notoriety via scholarship and literature: he is writing a novella dramatizing an event from his illustrious family history, to be published by friends of his who are involved in conservative politics (the Regenerator party). Gonçalo has written a couple of chapters of this novella, based heavily upon a poem written by his uncle Duarte (there is a funny passage about plagiarism and who "owns" history) and padded with actual historical research and some odd bits of Walter Scott. The passages about writing historical fiction ring too true and made me laugh out loud.

Interrupting this literary adventure is Gonçalo's enemy, Cavaleiro. Cavaleiro dumped Gonçalo's sister after courting her for a very long time. She has since married a nice fellow who has no idea that Cavaleiro once pursued his wife or that Cavaliero is now again pursuing her to make her his mistress. But Gonçalo knows, and he is enraged. He dreams of marshalling his feudal armies and burning down the house and estates of Cavaleiro, "in the manner of his illustrious ancestors." Alas that the law, the lack of a feudal army and Cavaleiro's sudden willingness to offer Gonçalo a political post with the liberals put the kibosh on this righteous act of revenge!

Will Gonçalo abandon his conservative Regenerator allies and join the forces of Cavaleiro's liberal Historicals? Will he sell out his own sister for political gain? Will he write the novella about his illustrious ancestors and send it off for publication by his conservative pals? Will they publish it if he's part of Cavaleiro's liberal machine? Et cetera. There are more plot threads than this, and it's hugely funny to watch Gonçalo squirm and bluster his way from situation to situation. Gonçalo Ramires and his fellows aren't particularly honest and Gonçalo lacks self awareness but he has--beneath his cowardice, self-doubt and almost crippling pride--a core of kindness. So we'll see.

* I hear that Philistia is actually a nice place.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Off It Goes

I have just this minute emailed the MS for my philosophical detective novel, The Last Guest, to my fabulous and charming agent Ms. Weronika Janczuk. Soon I will be sleeping the sleep of the righteous, or the self-righteous maybe, or maybe just the sleep of the exhausted writer who is pleased with the rewrite of Chapter 10. Tomorrow I can think properly about my new novel, Go Home, Miss America. Yes, that all sounds fine.

A Small, Good Thing

Last night, after a fine dinner of butternut squash soup with hominy bread, I finished rewriting Chapter 10 of my philosophical detective novel, The Last Guest. It was a bit of a chore, and an unexpected one at that. I've put more effort into one long passage in this chapter than I have anywhere else in the novel. I hope that it works now. Tonight I'll type up all my changes (which means edits/revisions to the whole book, not just the new version of Chapter 10) into the master document and then, if I'm feeling up to it, I'll print out the revised Chapter 10 and read through it again to see how it feels now. The hope is that it will feel grand, and I'll finally send the MS off to my patient agent.

One temptation I am resisting is, of course, to rewrite the whole book from first to last. I've got a bunch of new ideas about how a narrative should be shaped and how certain types of details should function within the narrative, and I'm dying to try them out. However, a wise writer would save that for the new book he's trying to write, and just let the perfectly fine detective novel stand on its own. I don't need to remake it according to this week's idea about the perfect narrative. That will make it a different book, but not necessarily a better book. So I resist, as I say, yet another round of serious revisions. No, I'm done with my rewrites and I must ship it off to Manhattan as quickly as I can so that I might turn my attentions to Go Home, Miss America, wherein I can do as much experimentation as I want.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Illustrious House of Ramires

I have been planning to read Illustrious House of Ramires by Eça de Queirós as part of the Wuthering Expectations Portuguese novel reading fest. A coworker claimed to have a copy, and further claimed that I'd be able to borrow it. After weeks of gentle reminders I learned that my coworker can't put his hands on the volume. Meanwhile, October wanes alarmingly. So it was with some relief that I picked up a new copy of the novel this afternoon at the University Bookstore, whose staff were happy (oh, so happy) to special order it on my behalf.

I'm only a few hours away from finishing up my current read, Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda (a sort of exploration of Pascal's Wager, among other things), which means that I might start Illustrious House tomorrow, and actually manage to read a Portuguese novel during October. There are no penalties for failing this challenge, but the book looks amusing and well-written and I never participate in these online reading things so I'd like to have managed this one.

Oscar and Lucinda is quite fab, too, so I'm glad I had time to squeeze that in. Should I say something about that book? It won the Booker in 1988 (when the Booker still meant something) and it's much better than the film (what isn't?). It's a tragedy, and I'm in that part of the tragedy where you can see the machinery of fate grinding the characters between gear teeth and perhaps Mr Carey is going a little bit over the top with tragic imagery. Perhaps also his very large Dickensian cast could be a bit better managed (a few of the characters are too similar to each other, and one character in particular does not seem at all, at his reappearance in the story, like the man we are first introduced to) and the later parts of the second act have not had a proper edit (some alarming repetition where it looks like Carey couldn't decide where to place a couple of bits of exposition so he put it in two chapters in a row and neglected to cut one of the instances). But every good, adventurous novel has its flaws. A flawless narrative is not a brave narrative, and Oscar and Lucinda is a brave narrative.

Speaking of narratives, I report that I haven't yet sent the latest MS to my agent. I decided to rewrite Chapter 10, thanks to an offhand comment Mighty Reader made about Bizet's Carmen that had nothing to do with my book but still managed to illuminate the problem with Chapter 10 that's gnawed at me (but not clearly identified itself) since I wrote the damned thing. Hopefully I'll finish the revision tonight, type up all my changes tomorrow night and send the book off to my agent, who promises to read it right away.

"Carmen" the Singing Shark

On Saturday evening Mighty Reader and I attended Georges Bizet's Carmen as performed by Seattle Opera. It was swell. Who doesn't love bel canto opera? Well, lots of people but I ignore them for now.

Carmen is a popular work because it's got great tunes and a tragic storyline about misplaced affection. It's also not really about the character Carmen so much as it's about one of her short-term lovers, Don Jose. Carmen is to Carmen what the shark is to Jaws: not the protagonist, but a single-minded predator wrecking destruction all around her. But that's not important; one doesn't attend opera for the stories, one goes for the music and the spectacle and Seattle Opera doesn't disappoint.

Mighty Reader and I sat way way up in the upper balcony (we had great orchestra seats for Porgy and Bess and I worried that sitting 100 feet up would make everything--the cast, the sets, the sound--seem tiny and distant) but McCaw Hall has wonderful acoustics and the orchestra and cast (except perhaps the Toreador, whose singing was often lost in the sound of the orchestra) projected up into the not-really-all-that-cheap-seats. The dance sequences are great, especially the dream sequence that opens Act III. So it was a good time, and we're looking forward to Verdi's Attila in January and Gluck's Orpheus in March. We remain undecided about the Puccini, but probably I'll get a pair of tickets at some point, because who doesn't want to hear Madama Butterfly live?

A word about McCaw Hall, though: someone (anyone) needs to redesign the public areas. The performance hall is fine. The building itself is very fine from the outside (note Space Needle peeking over top of the Hall):

But the galleries are really frightful. Whose idea was it to use these thick acrylic toilet lids as bistro tables:

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Exciting For Me, at Least

I just emailed my fabulous agent to tell her that she'll see the MS for The Last Guest in her inbox any day now, as soon as I finish typing up some changes into the Word document. This is one of the nicer things I get to say about being a writer.

I also just emailed some critique notes to a young writer about a first novel. I tried to be nice but I had some hard things to say about the way the story is structured. This is one of the less nice things I get to say about being a writer.

So I dwell on the nervous excitement of sending off a new book to my agent. Because that's a nicer feeling. This is a very stupid post, but it's what I got, kids.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Action and Desire and Character

The structure of my work-in-progress is, at least so far, chapters which alternate between the male lead character (David) and the female lead character (Catherine). David works at a university in Seattle, Washington. Catherine is currently doing missionary work along the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Catherine gets the even-numbered chapters, and I'm now facing off against Chapter 4. With me so far?

During Chapter 2, I realized, we learned very little about Catherine. The setting is so rich and the characters are so particular that we mostly see Catherine as a person surrounded by interesting things and people, though Stuff Happens and Catherine takes a couple of strong positions. Taking a strong position is a form of action; ask Aristotle if you don't believe me.

But her strong positions aren't enough in the way of action to carry a story or even tell me what happens in Chapter 4, which means that I needed to have Catherine doing something in Africa for a reason. Not the missionary work with the nuns, but the purpose behind that. As my old agent used to say, "Your protagonist has to want something." Luckily for me, there were already clues about that in Chapter 2 where Catherine took a stand. No more about that, though (spoilers). Suffice it to say that my female lead has a particular desire which will color her actions and so define her character.

I am pleased with who Catherine is turning out to be. She's a complex character and I'll have lots of things to do with her purposefulness and this purpose might, maybe, show me how to have her story mesh with David's story somewhere in the future when their plots intersect. So that's good.

Reading all that Chekhov has been good for me; the appropriate groupings of character traits and contradictions were more readily apparent for this character than they've been for anyone else I've written. Mr Chekhov was all about grouping narrative elements properly. It's a pity he didn't write more about writing.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Of Course; It's Chekhov

I have committed to my next project, the literary fiction piece currently titled Go Home, Miss America. Enough screwing around already, yes? Today at lunch I wrote a good 500 words, finishing up the sex scene that begins Chapter 3. It's a good scene, I think, almost all internal action and you get to see a little bit about Violet (the lead male's wife) and a couple of neighbors are possibly introduced as well. As I was working on the scene I realized that the way the characters' emotions evolved along the way seemed familiar and then I thought, "Of course; it's Chekhov." Of course. It's Chekhov. Once more I wonder why I read anything else. Pity he never wrote any real novels.

Anyway, this is a Serious Novel but after I've wrestled it to the ground, I'll write a piece of genre fiction, I think. Either another philosophical detective novel or a sort of sci-fi novel. Or, maybe, that Antarctica book at long last. Or that one about Haydn and the builder's wife. Or that one about the devil in Baltimore in 1910. Or the one about Tolstoy and the unicorn. Or the one about...

Monday, October 3, 2011

Chekhov and Oates

Last night I read Joyce Carol Oates' story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" It's amazing and the story developed along lines I didn't see coming. The changes of characterization are very skillfully done and the ending, well. You just have to read it.

Today I'm reading Anton Chekhov's story "The Party." I cannot help but compare and contrast the first two chapters of this story with the party that makes up the last third or so of Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs Dalloway. Clarissa Dalloway is much more in control of her surroundings than is Olga, the protagonist of the Chekhov tale. The general type of party is the same, but the moods of the hostesses are radically different. We know that Virginia Woolf read Chekhov.

In Chapter III, Olga's guests have taken to boats and are heading out to an island for tea and snacks. It is around six in the evening. I cannot help but compare this to the similar party/boating scene in D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers. David Lawrence also read Chekhov; you can see it in Lawrence's plays.

Do I gain anything with all of this comparison and contrast? Probably not, but it happens independent of my intention. I claim no responsibility for the operations of my brain. Reading is an interesting experience, nicht wahr?

The Golden Ass and the Fall of the Roman Empire

I am not a historian and my knowledge of Apuleius, author of The Golden Ass is very thin indeed. I know that he was a Roman citizen from north Africa (Algeria or thereabouts) and that Latin was not his first language. He lived between 125 and 180 AD (or CE). He studied philosophy in Carthage and Athens. His family was wealthy and Apuleius was a priest in several cults and widely traveled as an adult. He was interested in magic, religion, law and politics. I get all of this from the introduction to my copy of The Golden Ass. I don't know how accurate it is.

Anyway, this weekend I finished Apuleius' novel (the only surviving novel-length story from the Roman empire). The final chapter is a bit dull and over-long, being Lucius' metamorphosis back from an ass to a man (which is not a spoiler because all through the narrative Lucius refers to "when I was an ass" and "before I was transformed back to a man") when Isis grants his prayer for release, and his subsequent indoctrination into the mysteries of the cults of Isis and Osiris. More on that in a minute.

The strengths of The Golden Ass are many: Apuleius is funny and insightful into the wickedness of man, his language is colorful and surprising (and that's not just Jack Lindsay's translation; Lindsay in the introduction gives plenty of examples (in Latin) of Apuleius' word games, his coining of new terms, his alliteration and use of cognates, etc), and while the frame story of Lucius-turned-into-an-ass is amusing by itself, the stories-within-the-story are also good stuff. The centerpiece of the narrative is a long version of "Psyche and Cupid" that served as inspiration for too many later authors to list.

The Golden Ass is a picaresque novel that points mostly at the decline of the Roman empire, illustrating how the local Roman governments have become ineffective and corrupt as banditry goes unchecked and populations descend into barbarity. What also interested me, especially in the otherwise dull final chapter, is how the local deities, especially those of ancient Egypt, are more important than any of the official Roman gods. The provinces, by the latter half of the second century at least, were all going native again. This sort of stuff fascinates me in first-hand historical accounts, and it's all by the way from Apuleius. Possibly I'm only fascinated by this because I lack any real historical knowledge of the era.

Anyway, I'm done with Apuleius and Lucius and declared myself happy last night to be free to return to Mr Chekhov. I'm reading "The Party" right now. It's excellent. When I get my hands on Illustrious House of Ramires, I'll lay Mr Chekhov aside for a bit.