Friday, August 31, 2012

the reader will see for himself that I have done all I can

I hasten to emphasise the fact that I am far from esteeming myself capable of reporting all that took place at the trial in full detail, or even in the actual order of events. I imagine that to mention everything with full explanation would fill a volume, even a very large one. And so I trust I may not be reproached, for confining myself to what struck me. I may have selected as of most interest what was of secondary importance, and may have omitted the most prominent and essential details. But I see I shall do better not to apologise. I will do my best and the reader will see for himself that I have done all I can. --Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Dostoyevsky is doing pretty well, as it happens. He claims that he might not deliver a good courtroom scene, but the trial of Dmitri Karamazov is (so far) pretty gripping. The reader already knows most of the evidence and in fact already knows who the murderer of Fyodor Karamazov is. We're all just on tenterhooks waiting to find out what the superstar defense lawyer from Petersburg will do and what the verdict will be.

It occurred to me this morning that, while it’s become a commonplace to call Dostoyevsky’s novels messy and disorganized, The Brothers Karamazov actually has a pretty straightforward structure, one that I’ve used myself. There is essentially a single through-action: the murder of Fyodor Karamazov and the subsequent arrest and trial of Dmitri, his son. Dmitri is the obvious suspect for the crime; he’s a real train wreck of a human (just like his father), who has offended almost everyone in town (just like his father) and has publicly (and often) threatened to kill the old man. So Dostoyevsky builds a standard three-act structure:

1) He presents the Karamazov family, shows the tensions between father and sons, shows Dmitri falling apart, angry, drunk, in need of money and claiming that his father has swindled him, and then

2) Fyodor turns up dead with 3,000 rubles missing from his bedroom. Dmitri is arrested and the crime is investigated and it looks pretty certain that he’ll be found guilty, in

3) the trial.

I haven’t finished the book yet, but the trial isn’t going well for Dmitri and the evidence is pretty solid (except, of course…). So that’s the primary action of the narrative. It takes up maybe 500 pages of the 900-page novel. Maybe a bit more.

The other 400 pages are taken up by the internal narrative, the thematic book Dostoyevsky has written and interwoven into the crime novel. There is no actual development of this thematic story, no action. Nobody, I think, changes his mind about anything but the central question of man’s being able to find a moral compass in the absence of God is explored over and over from a variety of angles, with a variety of arguments using a variety of narrative techniques. Characters make claims about human behavior and argue those claims. Characters are shown acting out the possible repercussions of the question. Alexey Karamazov remains steadfast in his belief in God and in his morality. Ivan Karamazov argues that there is no God, or at least that religion exists to control humankind rather than to redeem it, and in the absence of God “all things are legal,” including murder and cannibalism. Morality is a social construct, then, and Ivan wavers regarding an ethical decision he must make. A counterargument to the nonexistence of God seems to be made several times: that the Devil is certainly, undeniably at work in the world. Though does the existence of the Devil automatically prove the existence of God? Even the Devil can’t answer that one.

Dostoyevsky’s imagined Devil gets a great scene and some wonderful dialogue. What is it about the character of Satan that so sparks the imagination of writers, I wonder? Satan is often the most charming, interesting character in novels which feature him. Think of Satan in Paradise Lost, or Wotan in The Master and Margarita. Examples abound, but I digress. I meant to say that it's the interweaving of this 400 pages of philosophy-without-plot that give the novel the appearance of being messy and disorganized. Modern writers would probably have created a secondary plot to investigate these themes, with its own through-action; another tactic would've been to give a secondary story arc to Dmitri himself, which would've taken up the middle of the book and made the third act plot possible. But I think, as I say, that Dostoyevsky is doing pretty well here with his philosophical digressions and anecdotes that lead nowhere except to more questions.

Anyway, I have about 150 pages yet to read, so I don’t know if Dostoyevsky will attempt to answer his thematic questions, or if he’ll just bravely ask them and hope he’s given the reader reason to think. I also don’t know how the trial will turn out, but I can’t wait to get back to it. The Brothers Karamazov turns out, not surprisingly, to be a pretty great novel. I have no idea why I abandoned it halfway through all those years ago.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Gunpowder Soprano

The Gunpowder Soprano is the current working title of what I have been calling "the Haydn book." I post it here so I don't forget, because my memory isn't as good as it once pretended to be. What sort of progress have I made on this novel, aside from thinking up a new working title? Not much, that's how much. I have thousands of pages of research material to read through, pages of notes to write, etc. I know the story, but the telling--the assembling of the narrative--will be sort of complex and will demand a lot of details and ideas about voice and character. I think I'll spend most of the writing time just inventing historical personages. Meanwhile, I'm writing Mona in the Desert. In that book, the narrator is talking about how he wanted to be an archaeologist when he was a kid. How lucky that I was just at an exhibition of the treasures of Tutankhamen, eh? The archeology talk will segue into a bit about how the narrator wanted to be an architect when he was a kid. All of this leads into ideas about design/creation and discovery/history and fiction. Though books about novelists writing novels are dull dull dull, so I'm not leaning heavily on this stuff. Anyway, you'll see what I mean, maybe, at some point.

I continue to read Brothers Karamazov. It's a pretty great book. A real mess of a pretty great book. On page 600, Dostoyevski introduces a new character and spends pages on exposition. I have no idea what the point of this section of the novel is, but it's great stuff. Also, for the first time the book has stopped feeling so frantic. Dostoyevski is a writer whose characters are always going somewhere, always in a state of high emotion. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov is forever wandering around St Petersburg. In The Idiot everyone is always jumping into carriages to go to their vacation homes, or jumping into carriages to go back to their homes in the city, or jumping into carriages to race off to casinos. Dostoyevski is not the guy to read when you want characters sitting in pastoral settings, having calm and languid moments.

Monday, August 27, 2012

August 27, 2012

I can think of few better ways to spend a birthday than shopping for books.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Fyodor Writes A Crime Novel

I'm a bit past the 1/3 mark of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's 1880 novel The Brothers Karamazov. I am not going to talk about it in terms of themes or character or even prose style; I'm going to talk about it in terms of it being a crime novel, and how Dostoyevsky is building the crimey aspects of the plot.

Sure, the murder isn't reported until just after the halfway point in the novel, when, after a night of drinking, Dmitri Karamazov is awakened by the police and charged with the murder of Fyodor Karamazov. Fyodor is Dmitri's father. The reader is convinced, of course, that Dmitri is the murderer and the second half of the book, the investigation of the crime and Dmitri's subsequent trial, seem unnecessary. We know who done it, right? How do we know?

Dostoyevski spends the first couple of chapters establishing Fyodor as a truly repellent figure. It's a commonplace in crime novels that the stiff isn't a lovable old chunk of honey, you know. The reader has to accept the victim's departure early on in the book, which means that the writer can't let the reader fall in love with He Who Is About To Be a Piece of Evidence. Dostoyevsky accomplishes this handily, making Fyodor an unforgettable piece of work.

The next thing Dostoyevsky does is aim Dmitri at Fyodor, setting up the expectation that Dmitri is the Most Likely Murderer. Dmitri and Fyodor fight over money (Fyodor has it, Dmitri doesn't; Dmitri is a spendthrift and has in fact gone into debt to his father by the age of 28), they fight over a woman (Grushenka, who's no angel and who is playing both men for fools), and then Dmitri, about a quarter of the way into the novel, assaults Fyodor in the family home, in front of the younger two Karamazov brothers (Ivan and Alexei) and the cook (Smerdyakov, the illegitimate son of Fyodor). Plenty of witnesses to this attack on poor Fyodor, who wears a bright red bandage on his head the next day (he thinks that red looks more flattering than white).

Fyodor takes to barricading himself into the house at night, allegedly to protect himself from Dmitri (Probably, however, this "fortress of solitude" act is really all just more of Fyodor's dramatics; he loves his drama but I wasn't going to talk about character, was I?). Fyodor has gone so far as to set up with Smerdyakov a system of secret knocks: five knocks means that Grushenka has come to visit and Fyodor should unlock the door; three knocks means that Smerdyakov is at the door (with supper or whatever) and Fyodor should let him in. Smerdyakov tells Ivan that Dmitri has "found out" about the system of secret knocks and can trick Fyodor into letting him into the house.

Smerdyakov then tells Ivan that Dmitri knows about a package containing 3,000 rubles which sits in Fyodor's bedroom, waiting for Grushenka. Dmitri could really use that 3,000 rubles. According to Smerdyakov, Dmitri will inevitably trick his way into the house, steal the money and likely attempt to murder Fyodor. Dmitri has nearly confessed this already in front of the reader, so we believe Smerdyakov. Smerdyakov tells Ivan his plan to excuse himself from the coming violence by faking an epileptic fit (Smerdyakov has been having fits his entire life) and taking to his bed for the next couple of days. Smerdyakov is careful, of course, to put this so that Ivan figures out that Smerdyakov will be faking, but Smerdyakov never explicitly admits as much. Smerdyakov (his first name is Pavel) is careful.

And he fakes his fit, apparently falling down the basement stairs and so is carried off to the servants' house next to the main house. Fyodor continues to drink and act like a buffoon, awaiting an evening visit from Grushenka. His valet, Grigory, turns up sick so the only servant about the place is Grigory's elderly wife. Dmitri continues to drink, pursue too many women and need money. The police show up one morning and arrest Dmitri for Fyodor's murder. Who is surprised by any of this? Dostoyevsky has built up this story very carefully, and amid all of the manic speechifying and running to-and-fro of all the characters, the plot has assembled to create Dmitri's means, motive and opportunity for parricide.

There are of course several other stories going on in The Brothers Karamazov, but those stories don't directly influence the crime story so I ignore them here. Tomorrow, maybe, I'll talk about how Dostoyevsky handles the events of the day of the murder.

A lot of this writing is guesswork on my part, assuming that there is some mystery behind Fyodor's murder. I have never read the second half of this novel so I don't know for sure what happens, but I have my doubts and suspicions and Dostoyevsky was a clever guy. So we'll see. Nobody spoil it for me ("It was the monk! He faked his death and then killed the father!") or I shall be quite vexed. I'm joking. I'm pretty sure at this point that the perp is Pavel. Clearly he's doing all this work with Ivan in an attempt to frame Dmitri.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

you're not Falstaff at all

An excerpt from the first draft of Mona in the Desert, Chapter 3:

Roberto watched Mona and Olive O'Hurleighy hurry obliquely into the rays of the setting sun. It was spring and the days still cut themselves short as they'd become accustomed to do during the frigid mid-Atlantic winters. It had been a warm day but there was a growing coldness in the air and Roberto clutched unconsciously at the collar of his uniform blouse. He could still feel the pale woman's bony hip against his leg. He could see the pupils of her eyes, like thick drops of India ink spilled onto precious stones, or like punctures in the fabric of the future, daring Roberto to draw his face close enough to peer into them for a view at whatever secrets the other side held. Ernesto meanwhile had pried the hubcap from the Chevrolet's tire. Let's get the last one and go, Ernesto said. Hey Roberto, come on. Someone might come along and see us. Like those girls, Roberto asked. I don't think they'll be any trouble. Ernesto shook his head. The redhead (by which he meant my mother with her auburn hair) was pretty pushy, he said. You know what Shakespeare said about strong-willed women. Which play do you mean, Roberto asked. If you mean Katherine in "The Taming of--" No, Ernesto said. I mean like in "The Merry Wives of Windsor" or "Lysistrata." That's not Shakespeare, Roberto said. That's Euripides, I think. Ernesto got to his feet and walked around to the rear wheel on the passenger side of the car. I meant willful women in plays generally, he said. Women who make chumps out of fellows like us. And it's Aristophanes, not Euripides. Are you saying I'm Falstaff, Roberto asked. Don't be so literal, Ernesto said. But if you like, all men are Falstaff, which was Shakespeare's meaning. Don't let's get thrown into the river with the dirty laundry. Keep an eye out while I finish up. I didn't like that redhead. Roberto squinted handsomely into the ruddy west but he'd lost sight of my aunt. I liked the other one, he said. Ernesto laughed, the hubcap pulling free of the tire. Then you're not Falstaff at all, he said. You're one of those minor characters, the rustic or the secondary fool who falls in love with the homely and cold-hearted sister for no dramatic purpose except a few jokes to lighten the mood. My friend, Roberto said, you read too much. Let's take our booty and buy some beer to befuddle your misguided intellect. Besides, I'm the hero of my own story. Even your pastoral support characters are at the center of a drama if you look past the archetype the play's named for. Beatrice is as real as Katherine. The men walked along the fence at the edge of the parking lot, each carrying a pair of hubcaps. Beatrice, Ernesto said. You mean Dante's girlfriend? You're just being disingenuous, Roberto said. Of course I mean Hortensio's girl. Roberto and Ernesto continued in this vein all night and managed to drink away all the cash they'd gotten for their stolen goods.

Not very likely, I know. You see how it is when I'm left on my own to fill the historical gaps of this tale. I warn you in advance that an upcoming scene will include a debate about the philosophies of Wittgenstein and Pascal.

All the usual caveats, etc.

Friday, August 17, 2012

a station wagon crammed full of family, luggage and White Castle food

I am about 13,000 words into my latest first draft of what might turn into a novella. Hell, it might turn into a novel at this point; I’m only in Chapter 3 and there appears to be a lot of territory to cover before I get to what I think might be at the end of all this writing. Mona in the Desert announces itself as the story of my aunt Mona’s courtship by the man who’ll become her first husband. At this point in the narrative, we’ve met Mona and Roberto (the first husband-to-be) but the author seems to be spending a great deal of time recounting his own childhood: events which took place after Mona had divorced Roberto and, as it happens, after she’d already divorced her second husband. The primary events of the story are still out there somewhere, waiting to be drawn into the narrative. I have no idea if all of this stuff the author is putting in about his own family will have anything to do with the Mona storyline. It will be interesting to see how it develops, if the author can pull this off. Maybe it’s just padding to stretch a short story idea into something much too long. Maybe it’s the influence of Chekhov’s story On the Steppe coming out. I hadn’t really considered that until now. Though there isn’t a stuffed buffalo in the Chekhov, and there are no horse-drawn coaches in Mona in the Desert (there is a station wagon crammed full of family, luggage and White Castle food).

Mighty Reader points out that a few years ago I declared that there were two things I would not do in my own novels: write in first person again and write about the modern world. Yet here I am, doing both. Mona appears to be a sort of heavily-fictionalized memoir told well out of order. I am borrowing from Salman Rushdie the technique of making promises to the reader about the narrative-to-come, throwing out hooks and line for the reader to swallow. I was irritated when Rushdie did this, but only because he did it so clumsily; my use of the technique is much much better. Yeah, that’s right, Sal. I am compelled, I think, to do this because Rushdie’s misuse of craft left me with an unsettled feeling, so I am symbolically smoothing the sheets on the bed he left ill made. Or perhaps my meaning is better illustrated with some better metaphor you can write yourself. But I pause to consider the history of writing as a long series of young writers looking at the work of older writers and saying to themselves, "He was onto something here, but he used his original ideas crudely or only partially. I can do it right." So forward into the breach, fuelled by hubris, I guess.

I’m also playing games with the idea that telling a story is telling a lie, that to assemble a narrative we have to falsify records, to pretend, not only to fill in gaps in our own knowledge but also to present the illusion of causality and meaning, if causality and meaning are important to us. This story so far remains undecided on that question. I don’t think I have to decide, either. The narrator makes a lot of claims about narration, but he’s not backing up those claims. Possibly he’s demonstrating that claims about storytelling can’t be backed up. Possibly I’m just writing another unpublishable book, is what I’m doing. I shall be forced to start up my own publishing company, "Fish Nor Fowl Books."

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Unlike Hillary Hahn

I've been thinking lately about the idea of the virtuoso, who I'll define as someone with advanced command of technique and subtle interpretive powers that are used in service of art. Hillary Hahn, virtuoso violinist, is who got me to thinking about virtuosi. For the longest time I considered Hahn in her role as precocious prodigy, the young lady with the big talent. Then I read a couple of articles she wrote about playing violin in general and about playing the Schoenberg concerto specifically, and I realized that Ms Hahn understands her craft at a very detailed level, but her understanding goes beyond mere technique, encompassing whole worlds of emotion and possible interpretations of the pieces she plays. In short, I realized that she wasn't just a prodigy, but that she'd become a virtuoso (by my definition at least). I'm thinking about Hillary Hahn lately because she's just released an album of improvised music that she recorded with a prepared-piano player. I've not heard the album yet but I grow ever more tempted. But this is not a post about Hillary Hahn and Hauschka (the pianist).

Sometimes I think of myself as a virtuoso writer. The greatest thing about being a writer is that it offers tremendous opportunities to learn humility, so that whenever I start to think of myself as a virtuoso, something happens to let me know that I'm not one. Life is fortunate like that, eh? But even if I'm not a virtuoso, I still sense (or delude myself into thinking I sense) the possibility of becoming a virtuoso. I might be able to develop my technique and sensitivity to the human condition enough to be really really good at this. Maybe. I'm not sure, however, if I know what such virtuosity would really look like.

Like Hillary Hahn, I play violin. Unlike Hillary Hahn, I'm not very good at it. There is an unbridgeable gulf between the best violin playing I'll ever manage to do and what Hahn already does at her young age. She's aware of aspects of playing and music that will remain invisible to me forever, and I know it. I like to think that I'm aware of aspects of fiction writing that are invisible to most writers, but I have no way of knowing that. Humanity has an almost infinite capacity for self-delusion. To repeat myself, being a writer offers tremendous opportunities for learning humility. For a couple of years, say 2008 and 2009, I was certain that I was writing fiction that was as good as anyone else's. At some point I discovered the flaws in my work while simultaneously discovering a bunch of novels that were well beyond me in terms of technique and emotional depth. So there I was again, just a hack. I'm much better as a writer now than I was then, but I still think I'm just a hack (except during those bright shining moments when I'm sure I'm a virtuoso, of course).

If you were to ask me what my Ideal Writer looked like, I couldn't tell you. I don't like the idea of an Ideal, anyway. Haydn is different from Bartok but both of them were virtuosi composers, and both of them, as it happens, had their limitations and their flaws. So virtuosity, apparently, is not the same as flawlessness, except when it is, which means during a performance. Though that's not true. A brave, risk-taking performance where some of the risks don't come off successfully can still be a virtuoso performance. And "come off successfully" will mean different things to different readers and all of that relativism. I'm also not foolish enough to equate "virtuosi" with a mere list of writers I like.

Possibly I think that the virtuoso requires a connoisseur in order to exist, which makes me a snob, doesn't it? Probably.

Do I have a point here? No, I do not. There's something beneath all of this consideration of virtuosity that I've been doing lately, but unfortunately I haven't uncovered it while writing this essay. Perhaps I'll try again and do better. There is something important here, though. Maybe it has to do with the growing feeling I have that, as I get better as a writer, I am actually less in control during the writing than I used to be. When the writing has that "spark," I seem to be writing less carefully, with less concern about technique. I don't know what that means. If it means anything except that I'm getting older and less bound by rules and possibly guided more often by instinct than any kind of clear vision. It's like I'm a painter who only looks at the canvas out of the corner of his eye, as if a good look at the work will somehow spoil it. Which seems antithetical to my idea of what a virtuoso is and how he works.

Also, would a virtuoso writer necessarily be a virtuoso reader? I don't know. Certainly non-novelists seem to have better insight into the novels they read than novelists do. I don't know what that means, or even if I'm right about that.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

the church of the sleepy God

I've been writing my new novel(la) for almost two weeks, and I think that I'm about 1/5 of the way through with the first draft. Which means that I should, at this rate, be done with the draft by the middle of September, which is record speed for me writing any damned thing. This draft is going to be very rough, I'm afraid. Especially because I'm following the Malasarn Method of not knowing anything about the story until I've written it (though admittedly on the back cover of the notebook in which I draft this I have been writing down cryptic notes to myself like "the church of the sleepy God" which will, I think, take up a big chunk of Act II if there happens to be an Act II in this narrative, which is doubtful but Chapter 3 opens with a mention of the above-mentioned church so one assumes that there will be more of it in the story itself and look: I am trapped in a parenthetical!), so I don't know how the book ends or even what the overall shape of the thing is going to be. I have no idea what it is that I'm writing, not really. Not that it seems to matter, as my narrator would say. Yesterday that narrator had a name, but today I seem to have forgotten it.

Ironically, I seem to be leaning heavily on a few of Salman Rushdie's narrative conceits from Midnight's Children, a book I didn't exactly love. There's also a bit of Joyce and maybe even some Sebald and certainly some Nabokov but not the way you might think. I try hard not to think about any of that; my job is to create an object that pleases me aesthetically, nothing more. So we'll see how that goes. I'm pretty sure the first chapter, written when I didn't know I was really going to be writing something, will need to be heavily revised. I blame Malasarn. And Sam Beckett, because there's a lot of Beckett in this. Sort of.

Meanwhile, I continue to revise Cocke & Bull. I think the new scenes are going to add to the overall mood in a good way. Cocke & Bull is a historical fiction, set in summer/fall of 1749. Flintlocks, criminals, love and longing, slavery and murder and justice. A good time, I think. It's interesting to be reading Brothers Karamazov while working on that novel. Karamazov is, at one level, a novel about a murder, but the murder doesn't take place until somewhere past the halfway point in the narrative. Dostoyevsky was a digressive writer, freely interrupting whatever the plot might be to allow his characters the space to discuss whatever happens to be on their minds at whatever length they require. I don't see myself writing 800-page novels ever, but I am working on becoming a less compressed writer, a writer who allows more of the atmosphere of the fictional world to be felt by the reader. I've been trying out a variety of techniques for this with a variety of results. Possibly what will happen will be the abandonment of my ideas of narrative unity. I'm not comfortable with that. I like narrative unity and remind myself that all art is artifice. The only real way to map the living world is to go out and live in the world, not to write things down. The creation of novels involves sorting, deleting, ignoring, implying causality and doing all sorts of filtering that don't happen in reality. How realistic is Realism? Not a lot, that's how much. It's a poser; a real head-scratcher. Mona in the Desert with her church of the sleepy God is just one more experiment in creating realist fiction that doesn't look like Realism. But I think I'm having a good time with it and I think it might add up to something. We'll see. Not that it seems to matter.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A Meme for Michelle Davidson Argyle

My longtime friend Michelle Davidson Argyle has, uncharacteristically, allowed herself to be bitten by a goofy writing meme bug, and I have (equally uncharacteristically) decided to play along, at least partly. I am expected to turn to page seven in my work-in-progress and find the seventh line and then display, here, the next seven lines. "Line" is ambiguous and my current work exists entirely in longhand, in a small notebook, so I'm taking "line" to mean "sentence." Anyway. Here it is, some rubbish from the first chapter of a possible novel(la) called Mona in the Desert:

My fourth year, maybe: from it I recall a walk through the neighborhood with my brothers (I remember Sean and Nigel being there and I suppose but have no proof that Jerzy and Michael were also present). My mother led the way, my father being at work. As my older brothers came along--unless I am mistaken about that detail--it must have been during their summer break from school. The walk seemed to take hours, the entire afternoon, as my family walked for miles from our house, my brothers and me following my mother like chicks after a hen, down street after street to the refrigerated utopia of an ice cream parlor where we each were allowed one scoop of any flavor we liked on a sugar cone. Then we made the long trek back over hot sidewalks, miles to go until we were delivered safely home again. Of course in truth the walk must have been short, well under a mile, and it must have taken less than an hour to complete the entire expedition. Everything seemed to take longer when I was a child; time expanded then just as it now collapses and time is the thing of which I have the least.

That all reads unfortunately like memoir, I see. I might cut all of this from the draft. I don't know.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

I am always injuring myself with my politeness

Fyodor Karamazov is one of the best characters in all of literature. He's a total ass, a brilliant comic invention on the part of Dostoyevsky; he jumps right off the page:

A cheap little clock on the wall struck twelve hurriedly, and served to begin the conversation.

"Precisely to our time," cried Fyodor Pavlovitch, "but no sign of my son, Dmitri. I apologise for him, sacred elder!" (Alyosha shuddered all over at "sacred elder".) "I am always punctual myself, minute for minute, remembering that punctuality is the courtesy of kings."

"But you are not a king, anyway," Miusov muttered, losing his self-restraint at once.

"Yes; that's true. I'm not a king, and, would you believe it, Pyotr Alexandrovitch, I was aware of that myself. But, there! I always say the wrong thing... And I'm always like that, always like that. Always injuring myself with my politeness. Once, many years ago, I said to an influential person: 'Your wife is a ticklish lady,' in an honourable sense, of the moral qualities, so to speak. But he asked me, 'Why, have you tickled her?' I thought I'd be polite, so I couldn't help saying, 'Yes,' and he gave me a fine tickling on the spot. Only that happened long ago, so I'm not ashamed to tell the story. I'm always injuring myself like that."

"You're doing it now," muttered Miusov, with disgust.

Father Zossima scrutinised them both in silence.

"Am I? Would you believe it, I was aware of that, too, Pyotr Alexandrovitch, and let me tell you, indeed, I foresaw I should as soon as I began to speak...I'm like the philosopher, Diderot, your reverence. Did you ever hear, most Holy Father, how Diderot went to see the Metropolitan Platon, in the time of the Empress Catherine? He went in and said straight out, 'There is no God.' To which the great bishop lifted up his finger and answered, 'The fool has said in his heart there is no God' and he fell down at his feet on the spot. 'I believe,' he cried, 'and will be christened.' And so he was. Princess Dashkov was his godmother, and Potyomkin his godfather."

"Fyodor Pavlovitch, this is unbearable! You know you're telling lies and that that stupid anecdote isn't true. Why are you playing the fool?" cried Miusov in a shaking voice.

"I suspected all my life that it wasn't true," Fyodor Pavlovitch cried with conviction.

From Chapter 7 of The Brothers Karamazov, translation by Constance Garnett (ellipses by me).

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

"It is quite possible that both versions were true"

Last night I started Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov for the second time. I don’t remember when it was that I read the first half of this novel: a dozen years ago? a score years? In any case, I couldn’t make it past about the halfway mark and it’s one of the few novels I didn’t finish. In the intervening years/decades I’ve read Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and Notes From Underground and I am fond of those works. So this year’s Big Summer Book for me is a return to the murder of Fyodor Karamazov by one of his three sons.

I’m reading the Constance Garnett translation. I’m aware that Garnett had her flaws as a translator, leaving out sentences she didn’t understand, and filtering everything through a single sort of English Victorian prose style, but it’s a prose style I’m fond of (I adore Garnett’s translations of Chekhov and anyone who has a problem with that had best put up his dukes, boyo) and I have (see previous parenthetical) a loyalty to old Connie so it’s her version I’m going to read. I could beazle and prolix on about the vagaries of translation and how, at some point, one simply has to decide to just read the actual volume they’re holding in their hand because on a very important level we’re engaging with a book not an author so just read the damned book you own. But I won’t say any of that. I will say that despite her possibly giving some of Dostoyevsky’s prose a shade of meaning the original author wouldn’t have given it, I am enjoying Garnett’s work immensely. I shall now dispense with all talk of Constance Garnett.

I’m enjoying this novel immensely so far. It’s Dostoyevsky so it’s mad and sloppy and digressive, but after reading Salman Rushdie, it seems frankly pretty calm. I like the way the narrator (who I think is a monk at the local monastery; it’s not entirely clear but there seems to be at least one use of “we” where he is referring to the monks but he could just mean “we” as in “citizens of this town and its environs” but I’ll keep an eye out for more clues) hedges his bets by declaring that he has no way of knowing what some characters’ motivations were for certain actions, and he admits that he’s not in possession of some of the historical facts so you must just excuse those lapses. He comes across as human and honest, which of course will allow him later to make the most fantastic claims and relate events and inner experiences that he can’t possibly have witnessed or in any way known about; his early show of narrative innocence lulls the reader into accepting whatever he says as being true. So that’s a good novelist’s trick from Mr Dostoyevsky. You can see more of that sort of thing in almost any volume of Nabokov. I'd also forgotten how funny Dostoyevsky can be, how he's not all tragedy and confused Christian anarchy; his darkness is infinitely black but his light is as pure as anyone's. And at some point I'm going to compare The Idiot with a Henry James novel. Maybe The Ambassadors or Portrait of a Lady. See if I don't.

So this is fun so far. I have, I trust, learned patience as a reader during the many years since I last attempted this novel. I don’t plan to write much about Brothers Karamazov because I’m sure that five minutes with Google will net you far more useful critical commentary than I can ever hope to produce. I don’t have a lot of time to read just now, as I’m revising one of my own novels during lunch breaks and writing a first draft of a new novel(la) during my commutes home and so I only read the Karamazovs at home in the evenings. It’s a long book, too, but I hope to finish by the end of September because I’m determined to be part of the Fortunata and Jacinta readalong, and that’s an even longer book than the Dostoyevsky.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Mona in the Desert: a possible novel's first page

I am sick of Hamlet (I wrote to a friend, another novelist). I want to write about a woman who abandons her car in the middle of the Arizona desert and walks along the road wearing heels and a tight sleeveless blue dress and big sunglasses as she smokes a cigarette and in her handbag with the cigarettes and lighter there's something else, something dangerous--not necessarily a gun--and there's someone waiting for her to show up in the car somewhere, maybe Phoenix or maybe elsewhere, but she's not going to ever show up even though there's nothing wrong with the car; she's tired of driving and she doesn't want to meet whoever is waiting for her (it's some man, of course); she's just going to walk and she doesn't want anyone to stop and offer her a ride though men will stop and offer her rides, of course, because she's pretty and she's wearing that blue dress which is silvery gray when the sun hits it just right, the shimmering sway of her walk visible for a mile down the highway.

It took me almost a year to realize that the woman I was writing my friend about is my aunt Mona, and that what I wanted was to tell the story of Mona being courted by the man who became her first husband, Roberto. The Arizona desert is not part of Mona's story, nor I think is the abandoned car at the side of the highway. Aunt Mona is no longer available to confirm or deny the specifics of the tale, but I'm certain she was never in Arizona and more importantly that she never owned a tight shiny dress of blue silk that turned silver in the sun. I remember my aunt wearing white cotton blouses that buttoned up the front to high forbidding collars, and full skirts in drab grays, probably always of wool no matter the weather. She was a thin, nervous woman but she never perspired even on the hottest days of the year. I am making that up; I only saw Aunt Mona during the fall and winter, during the holiday season. In the summer she may have worn a bikini and shone with sweat, sitting on the back steps of that hideous two-story rental house, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer from cans. It's possible, for there is of course a great deal I don't know about most of the people I know. The Mona I remember forever wore her hair yanked back hard into a severe and unflattering ponytail. She did smoke cigarettes. That's something I'm sure I remember. Other details will be more of a problem, for I am no longer young, Mona is gone and my memory has never been very accurate. My imagination has always had a stronger grip on me than has any fidelity to facts, and I am prone to believe amusing and colorful stories that never actually happened. For example, ever since I wrote that letter to my friend about a possible story (I was writing a book about misreadings of Shakespeare at the time), I've begun to believe that Aunt Mona actually did abandon a car on an Arizona roadside and was, back in 1950 or so, quite the looker in her fashionable clothes. This imagined Mona O'Hurleighy has so caught my attention that she is forever standing between me and the embittered, thrice-divorced Mona O'Hurleighy I actually knew. I will press on anyway.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

"How can a blind multitude carry out for itself so great and difficult an enterprise as a system of legislation?"

Earlier today I was gently chiding a fellow author about procrastinating on her revisions to a novel. Later it occurred to me that I have been putting off work on two of my own novels. So tonight, I swear to Zoroaster or whomever, I'll type up my final changes to The Astrologer and begin to mark up my clever-clever working print of Cocke & Bull. Perhaps, if I remember, I'll post a photo of the clever-clever working print. It's not just clever, it's clever-clever. I have a couple of weeks worth of stuff to do to that particular book, and that stuff ain't writing itself while I screw around with other projects. Even I know that.

But what fun the other projects are! The stuff I'm doing tracking down memories of my earliest childhood is really good, and has given me strong and interesting ideas about a future novel. The reading I'm doing about the 18th century is also sparking a lot of ideas. The Dittersdorf autobiography is a hoot and a half, and he relates long dialogues with characters who'll appear in my own novel. Fabulous, oh thank you internets! I'm also reading history and philosophy of the era, and that's given me some good and fun ideas for the narrative. Now I know that I'll have Marie Antoinette discussing Rousseau, mostly through quoting indignantly out of context. ("These peasants love to quote their Rousseau, but has any one of them read him? I do not think they have, for Rousseau says right here that the people 'must be compelled to bring their wills into conformity.' Only a king can compel a rabble. Anyone can see that.") Great stuff, that'll be. I promise. The Mozart chapters will be similarly hi-larious.

I've also been delving into the biographies of Mr Haydn's retinue, and the story/plot is getting both weirder and more solid. I need to investigate Bohemian anarchists at some point. The only real problem I'm having is finding sources relating to Haydn's wife (no, not Boccerini, you). I'll keep looking, though. And of course when all else fails, I'm a fiction writer, so I can fill in the gaps with acts of imagination. I do like to have some ideas about the historical truths to push against, though. I think of factual history as sort of a dance partner, but one who never ever gets to lead.