Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Every Man Hath Business and Desire

So, apparently, on some day in March 2013 one of my early novels--currently titled The Astrologer but that may change--will be officially a published book. I've signed a contract with a small local publisher (Rhemalda Publishing). Possibly I'll try to convince them to use the version with the more pronounced Shakespeare references rather than the version I submitted. That version was called Killing Hamlet and I'm fond of both the title and the overt manhandling of Shakespeare's play in that book. I haven't decided. But still, there it is, a book deal with an indie publisher. So I think that's pretty cool.

Meanwhile, I've pressed on into the second half of Go Home, Miss America. I think this book is the book, if you know what I mean. Even if you don't.

Also meanwhile also, I've gotten to Book II of Our Mutual Friend. Mr Headstone has just been introduced. With a name like "Headstone," you know he's going to be an important character, with his head full of facts and figures about which he seems to feel absolutely nothing. Stone head. Headstone. Get it? Clever Mister Dickens. I wish I had his way with character names. I always end up plundering Butler's Lives or history books.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Make You a Sword of Me

This weekend Mighty Reader, TG, TG's wife AD-G and I went to a showing of Ralph Fiennes' film version of Shakespeare's Coriolanus. A few months ago our foursome could be seen in the audience at one of the Seattle Shakespeare Company's performances of this very play. Between watching the play and seeing the film I've shifted myself to actually read the play as writ by Mr Shakespeare. So while I'm not an authority on Coriolanus, I claim a healthy nodding familiarity with the work. I could pick it out of a lineup if need be.

Coriolanus, the film, is probably the best movie I'll see in 2012. It's probably better than anything that walked away with a little golden statuette at last night's Academy Awards. If it comes to a theater near you, you should go see it. It's certainly an abbreviated version of Shakespeare's text, losing maybe 50% of the dialogue, but you get the protagonist's dramatic through-line pretty solidly and the acting is all very good (Vanessa Redgrave is Best In Show) and Mr Fiennes certainly understands how Shakespeare's speeches should be delivered (a certain Mr Branagh could learn a thing or two about that). Anyway, quite a good film and we recommend it.

But I am not writing today to review a movie, which is why the above paragraph is so cursory in dealing with Ralph's labors. I will say that at several moments during the movie I was moved to think, "Oh, poor Voldemort!" I amuse myself. But where? Oh, not a review. This is not a review.

What I'm actually thinking about is how, in his best plays, Shakespeare's characters are clear about their opinions; everyone gets to state his case with eloquence and usually at some length. You believe that these characters believe, because William respected his characters. Most of the time, too, every character is shown to have strong beliefs that are at odds with reality, which is where the drama comes from. What you don't see so much, is Shakespeare's opinion. Oh, I'm sure it's in there and if one were devoted to scholarship the way I'm not, one could make informed claims about the author's feelings regarding the issues faced by his characters and the reactions made by those characters. Yes, I'm sure of it.

Or maybe I'm not. It seems to me that one of the strongest things about Shakespeare's work is how successfully it resists understanding. We know that we're seeing the true heart of humanity before us on stage, but just as in real life, that heart remains opaque and essentially a mystery. There are a multiplicity of possible meanings to any of Shakespeare's serious plays, and you assign only one to your peril. I've done a fair bit of reading about critical reception of "Hamlet," and I was at first surprised by the lack of consensus as to the meaning of nearly every line of the play. Nobody can state with any real authority how the play should be interpreted, or what the author thought about the story. Which is just as it ought to be. Real life is full of contradictions and situational morality and relativism (even, yes, among those who decry moral relativism), and this is one way that Shakespeare's plays mirror real life. You can watch Coriolanus and maybe announce how you feel about it, but you'll never be able to say how Shakespeare felt about it, and the person in the seat next to you at the performance will not necessarily be able to agree as to what the "meaning" of the play was, because such "meaning" isn't present in Shakespeare. Which is, as I say, one of the enduring strengths of the plays.

Which is not to say they are empty works. Far from it, they are overfilled with ideas and contending moral systems and philosophies. It's just that the overriding philosophy seems to be that life is a complex of battling morals, ideas and desires. Most fiction seems to simplify life, to illustrate the author's prejudices and morality; Shakespeare seems to complicate, to decry the primacy of any moral system, because Shakespeare was telling us how we are, not how he thought we should be. Which is what makes Shakespeare's plays so difficult, such works of terrible beauty, for the plays do not flatter us; we are held up to a mirror, the players are the brief and abstract of the times no matter what the times may be, we do fret and strut upon the stage full of sound and fury. But what is signified is more than nothing; it's everything.

Anyway, yes, I know: all of this is obvious. Everything I write is obvious; I only see that after having written. Maybe that's why I write.

Edited to add: For all of you people who've come to this post after googling "make you a sword of me meaning," I suggest that when Coriolanus (still called Marcius at this point) has returned from behind enemy lines after fighting his way alone back to the Roman position and he asks for volunteers to go again with him into battle, he likens himself to a sword, which is an unquestioning tool of war. Look at his speech there: "If any think brave death outweighs bad life and that his country's dearer than himself...wave thus (waves his sword)...and follow Marcius." The soldiers all wave their swords, volunteering for what might be a suicide mission. Marcius' heart swells and he exclaims, "O, me alone! make you a sword of me?" He wants to be an unquestioning tool of war; that is his sole desire, to be pure and simple and deadly. Will his soldiers, his country, use him properly? He so wants to be nothing but a sword for Rome. He has contempt for any man who does not. Marcius believes himself to be a mythological figure. He is not only a warrior, he is the living symbol of warriors, a metaphor for himself. His soldiers are good brave men, but he is better and more brave and he knows it and he thinks it makes him superior. Look at all of the many many uses of the word "sword" in the play.

There is also the image of a sword, a blade held out before you as you fight, the weapon pointing at your opponent's heart etc. Marcius is asking his volunteers to follow him as a warrior follows his sword forward; a sword feels no fear and has but one purpose. "O, me alone! Make you a sword of me?" He will be the weapon placed between them and the enemy. They are to follow him, to use him, to make him their sword. Plus, it's an amazing line, one of those moments of Shakespeare's absolute brilliance where he gives us the whole of a character in a handful of words. "O, me alone! Make you a sword of me?" That is Coriolanus in a nutshell. Things go awry when he has to be a politician and a citizen, not a sword. That scene outside the gates of Corioles--where Marcius appears covered in blood before the Roman troops and begs them to return with him to the fight--is a thing of beauty. It's as pure as Marcius wants to be.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Our Mutual Friendship with Language

For me, the joy of Dickens is not his stories or his plots, but his language. The best bits are the connecting tissues of the narrative, the little gears and rods that move the big spinners and flashy chunks of plot around.

'Good-night, Miss!' said Lizzie Hexam, sorrowfully.

'Hah!--Good-night!' returned Miss Abbey with a shake of her head.

'Believe me, Miss Abbey, I am truly grateful all the same.'

'I can believe a good deal,' returned the stately Abbey, 'so I'll try to
believe that too, Lizzie.'


It's that "try to" which is brilliant here.

As that was all the rum and water too, or, in other words, as R. W.
delicately signified that his glass was empty, by throwing back his head
and standing the glass upside down on his nose and upper lip, it might
have been charitable in Mrs Wilfer to suggest replenishment. But that
heroine briefly suggesting 'Bedtime' instead, the bottles were put away,
and the family retired; she cherubically escorted, like some severe
saint in a painting, or merely human matron allegorically treated.


"Allegorically treated" by whom? By the narrator, of course. This is all delicious in a Laurence Sterne sort of way, isn't it? Yes, it is.

Here Boffin is hiring Wegg to read to him every night, from Gibbons' The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

'Half a crown,' said Wegg, meditating. 'Yes. (It ain't much, sir.) Half
a crown.'

'Per week, you know.'

'Per week. Yes. As to the amount of strain upon the intellect now. Was
you thinking at all of poetry?' Mr Wegg inquired, musing.

'Would it come dearer?' Mr Boffin asked.

'It would come dearer,' Mr Wegg returned. 'For when a person comes to
grind off poetry night after night, it is but right he should expect to
be paid for its weakening effect on his mind.'

'To tell you the truth Wegg,' said Boffin, 'I wasn't thinking of poetry,
except in so fur as this:--If you was to happen now and then to feel
yourself in the mind to tip me and Mrs Boffin one of your ballads, why
then we should drop into poetry.'

'I follow you, sir,' said Wegg. 'But not being a regular musical
professional, I should be loath to engage myself for that; and therefore
when I dropped into poetry, I should ask to be considered so fur, in the
light of a friend.'

At this, Mr Boffin's eyes sparkled, and he shook Silas earnestly by the
hand: protesting that it was more than he could have asked, and that he
took it very kindly indeed.

'What do you think of the terms, Wegg?' Mr Boffin then demanded, with
unconcealed anxiety.

Silas, who had stimulated this anxiety by his hard reserve of manner,
and who had begun to understand his man very well, replied with an air;
as if he were saying something extraordinarily generous and great:

'Mr Boffin, I never bargain.'

'So I should have thought of you!' said Mr Boffin, admiringly.

'No, sir. I never did 'aggle and I never will 'aggle. Consequently
I meet you at once, free and fair, with--Done, for double the money!'


There's so much in just this short passage. The joke about poetry, Wegg's superior attitude and Boffin's snobby innocence, and the raising of the price at the end! It's all hy-sterical. Any of this is better than the heroes and the heroines, the brave men and ladies and their struggles. Any of this is better than the social commentary; you can get that anywhere, really. Does Dickens say anything regarding society that Voltaire hasn't already? I don't know. No, what I value in Dickens is his shrewd eye for detail and his honest portrayals of human weaknesses. And his humor. And his Shakespearean way with dialogue. It's all priceless, lads.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Three Years of Six Words For A Hat

Today is the third anniversary of this blog. Huh. I like to think that over the last three years I've grown wiser and am therefore a more interesting essayist now than I was in 2009, but likely that's just wishful thinking. Still, three years. Huh.

I started this blog because I wanted to be a published novelist and I had heard somewhere that if you want to be published, you should have a "web presence." That turns out to be not true, so the original purpose for all this blogging is gone, and now I just post because it's become habitual and sometimes it amuses me. But it is, I realize, done to no purpose. Which is fine, because I also think that purpose is a myth.

Some good things have come through blogging. I've met folks that I really like and admire, and I've thought seriously about some writing issues and I've worked on my nonfiction writing once I realized that I was a bad nonfiction writer. So that's all had use, or it would, if I believe in things being useful, which I really don't. But as I say, it's been fun and interesting sometimes. Dull most times, and I apologize for that, but I can only do so much. Or, rather, I'm only willing to put so much effort into this and "so much" is frequently not much.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Faulkner's "Sanctuary" : Final Thoughts

In the pavilion a band in the horizon blue of the army played Massenet and Scriabin, and Berlioz like a thin coating of tortured Tchaikovsky on a slice of stale bread, while the twilight dissolved in wet gleams from the branches, onto the pavilion and the sombre toadstools of umbrellas. Rich and resonant the brasses crashed and died in the thick green twilight, rolling over them in rich sad waves. Temple yawned behind her hand, then she took out a compact and opened it upon a face in miniature sullen and discontented and sad. Beside her her father sat, his hands crossed on the head of his stick, the rigid bar of his moustache beaded with moisture like frosted silver. She closed the compact and from beneath her smart new hat she seemed to follow with her eyes the waves of music, to dissolve into the dying brasses, across the pool and the opposite semicircle of trees where at sombre intervals the dead tranquil queens in stained marble mused, and on into the sky lying prone and vanquished in the embrace of the season of rain and death.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Like Cold Smoke

You know Faulkner is lying about having written Sanctuary for quick cash when he uses prose like this:

He walked quietly up the drive, beginning to smell the honeysuckle from the fence. The house was dark, still, as though it were marooned in space by the ebb of all time. The insects had fallen to a low monotonous pitch, everywhere, nowhere, spent, as though the sound were the chemical agony of a world left stark and dying above the tide-edge of a fluid in which it lived and breathed. The moon stood overhead, but without light; the earth lay beneath, without darkness. He opened the door and felt his way into the room and to the light. The voice of the night--insects, whatever it was--had followed him into the house; he knew suddenly that it was the friction of the earth on its axis, approaching that moment when it must decide to turn on or to remain forever still: a motionless ball in cooling space, across which a thick smell of honeysuckle writhed like cold smoke.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Down and Out in Mississippi

In the author's preface to the 1932 edition of Sanctuary, William Faulkner says the book "was deliberately conceived to make money. ... I took a little time out, and speculated what a person in Mississippi would believe to be current trends, chose what I thought would be the right answer and invented the most horrific tale I could imagine and wrote it in about three weeks and sent it to (Harrison) Smith, who had done The Sound and the Fury and who wrote me immediately, 'Good God, I can't publish this. We'd both be in jail.'"

Faulkner is being untruthful. Almost every word of the above statement is a lie. But as a result of those lies, Sanctuary was long regarded as a throwaway novel, a bit of light work, a sensational story about rape written for quick cash. Critical evaluation of the book has been generally unkind purely because Faulkner publically disparaged it. But you can't believe an author talking about his own work, especially when the author pretends to disown the work. Sanctuary is no pulp fiction dashed off over a weekend or two; apparently the original manuscript was worked over intensely by Faulkner, with more care and attention to detail in his revisions than he gave to any of his other books except Absalom, Absalom!

It's a creepy story with creepy characters and people make bad choices on every page, but that doesn't make it cheap fiction. The prose is amazing and the characters are lively and believable. Sanctuary is a good book, so far. Not perfect (one of Faulkner's devices for ratcheting up the tension is getting on my nerves and I wish he'd cut it out), but pretty darned good. I can feel the end of Act One coming soon; Faulkner might blow it during Act Two, but I doubt it. We'll see.

Why is the girl named Temple? Is that symbolic? Of what? The ruined manor house is a bit obvious. The spring is interesting and brings to mind the discovery of Moses in the rushes, because every time the spring shows up in the narrative, one character is there to do something innocent and is discovered by another character who is not so innocent. There's also a baby in a box. Hmm.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Tokyo versus Mississippi: 2 falls out of 3

So far it's only round one of this contest but Faulkner is seriously putting the hurt on Yoshimoto. Banana may be carried out of the ring on a stretcher.

What in God's name am I talking about? Last week I read Banana Yoshimoto's novella Kitchen because I've encountered little snippets here and there and my pal Davin Malasarn admires the book so it seemed high time I finally read it. This week I'm reading William Faulkner's Sanctuary for the first time. Before the Yoshimoto I read Vladimir Nabokov's novel Invitation to a Beheading. Got all that?

Perhaps reading Kitchen between books by Nabokov and Faulkner was unfair, because the latter writers are amazing prose stylists and Banana is--at least in this translation--a writer of fairly flat, style-free sentences. When the writing takes aim at being imaginative it usually fails, stumbling into cliche or silliness. Nabokov and Faulkner, on the other hand, had rich control over their prose and forged new trails through language. Tonight, maybe, I'll do a compare-and-contrast.

I'm not sure if I'm writing this to express my disappointment in Kitchen, which I really wanted to like but didn't (it's only 150 pages long but it seemed to drag forever and say nothing except hey, you know, stop grieving and get on with things; it also reads like a college student's journal, with self-conscious "profundities" that are really commonplaces), or to express my surprise and delight about Sanctuary which, at only 30-odd pages in, is already deep and layered and beautiful and grotesque and alive in a way the Yoshimoto never managed. Again, I see no reason to compare the books but I end up doing it anyway.

This was supposed to be the year where I read nothing but Chekhov, Nabokov and Shakespeare, but there are just too many other delicacies lying about. Will my next read be Volume 6 of Tales of Chekhov, or will it be something by Camus? I'll know when I get there.

Also, Chapter 8 of the work-in-progress is now underway. It will be a busy chapter, I think. It threatens to be very talky, but I'm battling that threat. I hope I remember that I want to do something with contrasts between being enclosed in dark places and being out in the open under a tremendous sky. Possibly a trip in an aeroplane is neccessary. Possibly.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

In and Out of the Castle with Vladimir

There's a sequence in Nabokov's Invitation To A Beheading where the protagonist, Cincinnatus C., crawls through a tunnel in an attempt to go from a fellow prisoner's cell back to his own, but instead finds a way out of the castle in which he's being held. He scrambles into the early evening light and looks around at the beautiful world, the sky deepening into purple to the west, the river and its bridge hazy and shadowed at the foot of the mountain and, beyond the bridge, the city where Cincinnatus lived unhappily free. It's a very nice, quiet moment in an otherwise frenetic narrative.

I was imagining that Cincinnatus would sit on the mountainside, his back to the oppressive prison tower, and consider his life, possibly living through significant events again and fantasizing about his future as a man escaped from the clutches of a tyrannical government. Naturally there is no place in the world for Cincinnatus and, I imagined, after some time he'd resign himself to his fate and crawl back into the tunnel and find his cell, there to await his execution.

That's not what happens, because this isn't that sort of novel, and Cincinnatus isn't that sort of character. Nabokov's people in this book are all symbols; not one of them has blood or a heart. Invitation to a Beheading is a novel about ideas, not a novel about people. Repressive regimes are horrific farces staged by men who rarely show their true faces, who bend truth to fit the fairy tale of institutional happiness, who claim to own Progress while leading nations into barbarism, &cet &cet &cet. Yes, we know this. And yes, the novel's power lies in showing us this horrific farce, but the lack of people (as opposed to puppets) is leaving me with an empty feeling. So a good book, certainly (and if I had to choose between this and, say, Gulag Archipelago, I'd pick Nabokov nine times out of ten), but Beheading is probably a minor novel. It's no Lolita, that's for sure. Maybe if Nabokov had given Cincinnatus a sense of humor or at least an awareness of irony, I'd be enjoying this more.

Anyway, the book where the prisoner escapes from prison, reflects on his past and supposes his future and then returns to the prison? I might write that one myself, unless I have stolen the premise from someone and just can't remember who.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Red Tophat

or, uncollected thoughts about Vladimir Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading.

1. Why is the protagonist named Cincinnatus? Is he a noble protector of the republic (which has clearly been lost in the future world of the novel)? Can one be noble when one is trying to hide one's true self? I doubt that. What's in a name? I don't know in this case.

2. Does Nabokov expect us to read the preface? I think he does. If he doesn't think that his novel is informed by the repression in the Soviet Union and the Third Reich, why does he make a point of telling us he wrote Beheading after having experienced some of that repression? VN is disingenuous. Again.

3. Why is the prison cell painted yellow?

4. This novel is a farce, a circus ring full of murderous clowns. Reality, escapist daydreaming and metaphor all merge into one. It's self-contradictory in subtle, important ways. It's sloppy, too. Funny and grim and Kafkaesque though Nabby points out that when he wrote this, he hadn't as yet read any Kafka but he doesn't mind the comparison.

5. Oh, comparisons to other writers; aren't you funny with your Sebastian Knight joke, Mr N? Though apparently he was no fan of George Meredith.

What else? Loads, but I've no time at present. I wonder what my next Nabokov read will be.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Out of the blue, and into the black

Anton Chekhov, one of the greatest writers of fiction, never wrote a novel. He tried, and even published some long works that he thought would one day become a proper novel in the vein of Tolstoy, but Chekhov never managed to figure out how to structure a novel-length work. He moans about it in letters to his publisher and promises one month to finish and the next month he throws up his hands and declares the novel an impossible form. Some people, maybe, are best left off as miniaturists. Which is fine. Chopin wrote no symphonies, and a great deal of the best music of the “classical” period is the chamber music writ by guys best known for their orchestral works. So small is nothing to be ashamed of. The short story is a form that continues to confound me, after all. This preamble is all to say that some people shouldn’t write novels.

Edgar Allen Poe, possibly, is one of those people. His short novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, while certainly influential over everyone from Melville to Twain and beyond, is not a very good book. Formally, it’s a hash. The three sections have little to do with each other and the ending is abrupt (though the endnote by Poe is amusing and points to one possible interpretation of the final act of the story), and there has been considerable critical noise to the effect that Poe simply abandoned the novel when he realized he had no ending. A good case can be made for Pym being an artistic failure. And nobody can tell you what Poe was getting at with this book; what—if any—the overarching themes are is an unanswerable question though plenty of critics have given it a go. The last footnote in the text is quite long and really funny; if I had the book to hand I’d quote it, for it lists about fifty ways Pym has been interpreted, as everything from promotion of the “hollow-earth” theory to a wish-fulfillment fantasy of Poe’s having to do with his hated foster father. A great deal of evidence supports the idea that the third act, at least, is a shrill warning to the South that the Northern states with their abolitionists are going to stir up a bloody rebellion among the black slaves and the white race ought to be wary because you cannot trust the North and you certainly cannot trust the black race. Poe was writing in 1837 and lots of critics have pointed out all of the white=good/black=evil images in Pym. See also, I suppose, Mat Johnson’s recent novel Pym, which I have not read but I’ve read about, and which book actually got me to read the Poe, for I plan to read Mr Johnson’s novel this year some time.

So not a good book, as I say, a total mess that takes forever to get anywhere and may at its heart carry a frightened racist message. Still, one can’t help but see how Pym has influenced other writers. Moby-Dick is Poe’s novel writ much larger, Melville showing Poe how it ought to be done. Everyone should know that Moby-Dick is a masterpiece even though it is a leisurely stroll with many nonfiction digressions and a pretty abrupt ending, just like Poe’s book. You can see ripples of Pym in Moby-Dick, and you might see other ripples in Huck Finn, though the message about race is turned on its head by Twain. Certainly you can also draw comparisons between Pym and Heart of Darkness, with Conrad hewing pretty closely to Poe's symbolism and possible fear of a black planet. Hmm. Conrad wrote in 1899. Twain in 1884. Melville in 1851. I don't know what any of those dates really mean regarding theme and interpretation or why I added them to this post, but there they are for the curious.

There’s more to be said about Poe’s only novel, but I’m too scattered, too whelmed with deadlines at the office, and too much not the right guy to speak intelligently about literature to say more than I have. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is an odd little failure of a book, but I’m glad I read it. I am sure that there are many novels that fail as novels yet are still worth reading.