Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Shots fired, downtown Madrid

Last night Mighty Reader and I finished Benito Perez Galdos’ 1887 novel Fortunata and Jacinta. We’d hoped to finish by the end of October, the readalong month, but we lost two weeks while I scrounged up a copy for Mighty Reader. Thanks, Penguin, for letting this title go out of print! I was able to find a used library copy of the University of Georgia edition. It was immense and weighed a ton. Mighty Reader read that copy; I skived off with the still-too-big-and-heavy trade paperback. This is a long book, 816 pages, and the pages are pretty long. Somewhere I read that F&J rivals War and Peace for length, making it the second longest novel I’ve ever read (after War and Peace, of course). So twice as long as Moby-Dick or The Brothers Karamazov. Blah blah blah. Anyway, we’ve finished. Mighty Reader snapped her copy shut at 11:40PM and I followed her at a minute till midnight. We haven’t had time to actually discuss the last 100 or so pages yet, but there was some brief agreement that Senior Galdos went into Dostoyevski territory at the end: madness and death and pistols and redemption and punishment and only the shade of a happy ending. This is a strangely religious novel, like much of Dostoyevski and not much at all like Dickens, to whom Galdos is frequently compared. It’s also a more knowing book than anything I’ve read by Dickens: in a later chapter (somewhere around page 650, maybe) a middle-aged character with a weak heart demands from his doctor permission to have sex if the doctor is sure the activity won’t kill him. Like I say, nothing like that in Great Expectations. An interesting and enlightening novel that I’m happy to have read.

I’ve moved on from 19th-century Spanish literature to 20th-century Portuguese literature, in the form of Jose Saramago’s novel Death With Interruptions. It’s short and briskly paced and awfully funny on many levels. My only problem, at about a third of the way through, is that the joke (in a landlocked—possibly South American—country, people have stopped dying and nobody knows what to do with all the nearly dead, the very old, the horribly injured but unable to recover or die etc people who have overfilled the hospitals and nursing homes and have been sent back to live their horrific half-lives with whatever family they have) is dangerously close to getting old. So far there are no main characters; the novel is told in the form of an archly ironic reportage. But I remain amused and reading, so we’ll see what happens.

After the Saramago, I’m going back to classic Spanish literature to read Miguel de Cervante’s epic Don Quixote, which I’ve never read in its entirety; I’ve read chapters here and there across the years but never the whole thing from start to finish. So that’s my midwinter read. After that I’ll probably retreat behind Chekhov’s back for a while again, and then I have several novels called The Astrologer to read, just because.

Meanwhile, I continue to write my way through the final 25% of my work-in-progress novel Mona In The Desert. Mona is very close to the titular desert right now. Things are happening in the background in various timelines. A boy is about to tell a story he’s made up to amuse his aunt. I’m quite pleased with the 750 or so words I wrote at lunch today. This could be a beautiful little book if I don’t fuck it up. Let’s hope I don’t, then. When this first draft is complete, I’ll pack it away and revise Go Home, Miss America. That’ll be my early 2013 project. So much to do.


  1. I'm curious to to know if you have any particular method for intertwining your timelines, or for handling the passage of time in general.

  2. Tara Maya, every book is different, but most of my books have a single main storyline that runs in chronological order from first chapter to last, and will be interrupted by flashbacks. Depending on the purpose of the flashback, it will either be a long 3-part scene usually in the form of a single character's memory (3-parts because I lean heavily on the 3-act structure, all the way down to scenes and dialogue passages within those scenes) or it will be a brief interruption of a paragraph or two, a quick aside. The book I'm writing now has one central story that is almost constantly interrupted by flashbacks of a page or two that tell a couple of other long stories in bits and snatches. The organizing principle I'm using in this book is one of theme or subject: whenever the main story is talking about one of the primary themes of the book, all the subplots will horn in on the main plot and display scenes that reflect on that primary theme. I'm making this one's structure up as I go along at this level; it's more a kaleidoscope than a map through dangerous terrain, if you know what I mean.

    But mostly, the main story is linear but interrupted. I don't feel any obligation to account for stretches of time where nothing interesting happens; I just jump ahead to where the action is. I feel free to interrupt the primary action--even, or maybe especially during critical scenes at fever pitch--to go into a flashback (or flash forward in the case of my current novel or the last chapter of "The Astrologer," if you remember how the prince's swordfight is interrupted by the narrator telling the reader what will happen in years to come) in order to discuss the meaning of the action, to comment in an aside, as it were. So no matter how I dress it up or make it look complex, I'm really doing pretty straightforward and simple things with timelines.

    In my last novel, I had two storylines that alternated chapters and sort of merged 2/3 of the way through, but each alternating chapter still stayed focused on different main characters. My single guiding thought when I move through the story is "KEEP GOING FORWARD AT ALL COSTS" by which I mean that the timeline you're in doesn't matter as much as the fact that the ideas in the book are constantly being developed, and as long as you develop those ideas through dramatized scenes rather than abstract reflection. I turn out to be a very actiony sort of writer.

    I have written a lot of words but likely haven't said a damned thing. Sorry.

  3. That was illuminating, have no fear. I like the kaleidoscope image. "KEEP GOING FORWARD AT ALL COSTS" is good advice, although deceptively simple...

  4. Wait, so Mona hasn't been in the desert yet? I thought she was walking through it for most of the book. That's been the whole imagined plot for me, just her walking and kicking up dust.

    I've never read Don Quixote. I keep trying and then giving it up. But I'd like to read it.

  5. Mona has already been in the desert. Mona is about to be in the desert. Mona hasn't yet heard of the desert. Mona is in the desert right now. Mona has always been in the desert. Mona will never be in the desert. All of this and more!

    Mighty Reader has convinced me that I should read an Ishigiro before I read the Quixote. We'll see how that goes.

    You should rent "The Man From La Mancha." It's really cheesy, but it's got Peter O'Toole.

  6. Sorry, nowhere near War and Peace! Roughly 392,000 words (in Spanish) versus Tolstoy's 587,000 (in English). But the Galdos novel felt - and apparently is - somewhat longer than the typical big Victorian novel (e.g., David Copperfield, 368,000 words).

    Your Dostoievsky comparison is apt. The Dickens stuff really applies to setting and breadth rather than content.

  7. I'm sure I read War and Peace more quickly than I read Fortunata, but there was that long break to scrounge up another copy for M.R. I've only read Dickens' shorter novels. I don't know if I've read any big Victorian novels.

    I was surprised by how indeterminate the ending was. Surprised and approving. The characterizations, especially of secondary characters, was very Dickens, and no mistaking. The ironic take on society was very Dostoyevski. Interesting book, but I am not moved to seek out more Galdos. 2013 might be my year for more EdQ, however.

  8. I'm a fan of Ishiguro, so I support Mighty Reader. Remains of the Day is good. I have a complicated relationship with Never Let Me Go. I hated it while I read it, and then, months later, I saw the book in a bookstore and nearly broke down in tears. It is the book that has created the most sadness in me. That is why I like Ishiguro so much.

  9. I'm going to read one that hasn't been made into a film yet, so my experience is untainted.

    Sad books are good. Though in "Mona" I'm going for sad-but-sort-of-sweet while attempting to avoid sentimentality and cliche. Possibly you'll see a first draft of it around New Year's, if the Mayans are wrong about the end times and all of that. I keep forgetting that the world is supposed to end in a month. I should eat more sweets and fattening foods if that's true.

  10. Glad to see you finished F&J. No need to seek out more by him--that was the top of the heap although others are very good. You can just read my summaries of them instead.

  11. I could be tempted by a shorter Galdos novel, if I could find one in an English translation. I see a lot of Spanish-language editions of his books in print, but nothing I can read. My Spanish is pretty elementary (I can ask for directions to the bathroom and order a beer, but not much else).

  12. Our Friend Manso is another very satisfying Galdós book, shorter than F&J and more complete than Doña Perfecta.

    1. I did go on to read Manso, and it was a good book. After that I read another novel, Nazarin, that I also enjoyed. Hopefully I'll remember to read more Galdos in the future.