Tuesday, October 30, 2012

"I imagine you've managed to debauch my little girl thoroughly?"

I am reading Vladimir Nabokov's early novel The Defense (also known as The Luzhin Defense), and I'm a little past the middle of the narrative. In his foreword to the English edition (written decades after the novel's original publication in Russian under his pen name of Vladimir Sirin), Nabokov plays with ideas of symbolic patterns, throws out a few red herrings for the readers and refers to the book as "this admirable novel." And it is a very admirable novel; there is much here to admire.

I don't merely admire the book's features that appeal to me as a writer of fiction, for I'm certainly emotionally invested in the principal characters and I fear for the futures of both Aleksandr Luzhin (emigre Russian chess grandmaster) and the unnamed woman with whom he falls in love. This despite Nabokov having spoiled the ending in his foreward. So as a story, as an amalgam of plot and character and setting, it's certainly an admirable novel. The prose is also wrought beautifully; possibly this is the most beautiful writing-as-writing that I've seen from Nabokov: it's precise and surprising and alive on the page without suffering from some of the self-indulgent cleverness of some of the later novels ("what? heresy!"). Absolutely lovely writing, this.

So it's an admirable novel when I speak as a reader of fiction, but I confess that I'm moved to write about what Nabokov is doing with the craft, maybe. I'm not sure what I'm going to say. Yesterday I wrote a great--truly some of my best work--post about this novel, but because I am short on sleep I managed to delete the whole thing before I could publish it. That just after I managed to delete an important and carefully-crafted business email that I still haven't managed to reconstruct. So today I remain moved to write about The Defense but I not only feel like I've already said what I had to say even though there's no proof of that saying, I also am thinking about different aspects of the novel today than I was yesterday. So my thoughts are a bit of a mess and you'll just have to bear with me or skip this post entire. I have lost my train of thought.

The Defense is the story of a middle-aged Russian chess grandmaster named Luzhin who was once a child prodigy with a bleak, emotionally isolated childhood. He is the son of a minor fiction writer (a long list of adventure stories for boys that featured a hero who was likely an idealized version of Luzhin the son) who was the son of a virtuoso violinist, as I recall. Aleksandr Luzhin, the chess player, lives in a private world where there is only chess, the abstraction of chess where the real world--including chess boards and pieces--is an annoying barrier to the purity of the game. But I was not going to give a summary of the plot.

What I wanted to talk about were two things: the Nabokovian description of the artistic mind, and the use of clowns in tragedy. Both are large subjects and I can only hope to give them glancing blows. So here are those tiny fists:

One of the most remarkable parts of The Defense is the description of Luzhin's inner world, a place devoid of solid objects and people and civilization; his mind is given over as much as possible to the abstract forms and strategies of chess. As I said, Luzhin doesn't imagine games in terms of pieces on a board; he envisions lines of force and areas of density, strong regions and weak regions, networks and nets and possibilities and this abstraction is more real to Luzhin than the physical world he inhabits. It's so abstract that Luzhin cannot express it in words, for there is no human language that applies to the deepest understandings of pure chess. It's all quite remarkable and I'm sure that this is not only a description of the mind of a chess master, but is also and primarily (via metaphor) Nabokov's representation of the artist's inner world, maybe especially that of the novelist, who sees a narrative not as a story with people and events, but as a sort of electromagnetic field, the words on the page just the pattern in iron filings that the energy leaves behind as a footprint of some kind. Or something like that. I said better, smarter stuff yesterday; you'll have to take my word for that. But if you look at the planning Luzhin's father was doing for his final novel, you'll find very similar stuff going on (the prosaic aspects of the narrative, like character and plot, are pushed aside while Luzhin Senior creates a symbolic network into which he'll write the story; he's for the first time really tapping into his inner understanding of the power and possibility of narrative).

The other thing, the thing that struck me so profoundly today, was how brilliantly Nabokov solved one of the big structural problems of the novel. At the midpoint of the narrative Luzhin faces his nemesis, an Italian grandmaster named Turati who has beaten Luzhin in the past. The "Luzhin Defense" of the title is an elaborate strategy Luzhin has devised to combat Turati's manner of play. So Luzhin and Turati meet in Berlin at a competition and their game goes on and on, a miniature version of the novel itself, which is instead maybe a larger version of the game, and after hours of gruelling play the game is suspended for the evening, to be resumed the next day. Luzhin, who has not been sleeping and has become lost in a state where he cannot tell where abstract chess ends and the real world begins--or vice versa--breaks down completely and wanders alone into the night, seeking his boyhood Russian home, collapsing eventually in a public park. It's a heartbreaking chapter and I was afraid to turn the page and see what came next.

Where do you go from such a tragic scene? A lesser writer would've just continued the narrative with Luzhin, or maybe cut to his fiancee worrying over him since he never returned home from the match, pulling back on the emotional intensity but still keeping a serious tone. This would've been a mistake for a variety of reasons I won't bore you by listing. What I will tell you is Nabokov's ingenious solution: comedy.

In "Macbeth," after Macbeth and Lady M have murdered the king and smeared his blood over his drunken knights, Shakespeare stops the action to give us a comic scene with a porter, or doorman. The porter appears nowhere else in the play. Macduff is banging on Macbeth's castle door, come to see the king. The porter has been roused from his drunken slumber to answer the door. He has some difficulty, and also a monologue wherein he invents "knock knock" jokes. I'm not kidding.

In "Hamlet," after Ophelia's suicide is discovered and Hamlet sends a threatening letter to the king and the king plots with Laertes to murder Hamlet, things have got about as tense as they can possibly get. The emotional level has to be brought back down so that the ending tragic action will have full resonance with the audience. So what does Shakespeare give us? The gravedigger scene, full of jokes and puns about lawyers. The fight between Laertes and Hamlet in Ophelia's open grave would not be so shocking or emotional had it come right on the heels of Laertes' conspiring with Claudius.

Just so, after Luzhin collapses in madness, alone on the grass of a public park in Berlin, Nabokov sends in the clowns: two drunken German gentlemen staggering home, following a third. The very world comes alive around the drunks, who swim over the bucking and swaying pavements and reel from walls and streetlamps in their altered state. A taxi is hailed. The wrong German is placed inside and spirited away. The remaining drunken Berliners find Luzhin and mistake him for one of their party. The same taxi is hailed. Luzhin is carried on board, the drunks climbing in after. Luzhin is delivered to his fiancee's home. The proper story continues from there, at a much reduced level of tension. It's laugh-out-loud funny and a perfect solution to Nabokov's having written himself into a corner in the previous chapter.

This is too long. I am very short on sleep and I've no idea if I've said anything but I do admire this novel very much and everyone should read it. Hopefully I'll still feel that way when I've actually finished the damned thing. Maybe tomorrow. We shall see.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Gearing up to All Hallows' Eve

Last night Mighty Reader and I indulged in a bit of scary story reading and listening, preparatory to Halloween. We also bought a pumpkin at the market (where Mighty Reader was dressed as a witch because it was the local "Harvest Festival" where the neighborhood closes down the main street and merchants set up booths and children of all ages wander about in costume begging for candy) but that's by the way. Our scary stories kicked off with a listening of Neil Gaiman's "Click Clack the Rattlebag," which you can download for free. It's for a good cause and Mr Gaiman reads the story himself, and he's a good reader. I don't know if it's true that his accent has been insured for a million dollars, but I have heard that rumor.

While we were listening to Gaiman's story, Mighty Reader piped in with, "Hey, this is just 'The Open Window,' that O. Henry story." I did not know the O. Henry story, so naturally dinner preparations were interrupted to search the interwebs, where it was discovered that the story in question is actually by Saki. You can read it here. Mighty Reader read it to me (she's a fine reader) and I enjoyed the tale though I spotted the trick halfway through and afterward said, "Oh, that's nothing so scary as 'The Monkey's Paw,' which Mighty Reader did not initially recall though she later remembered it, because who hasn't read it? You haven't, you say? Then you should get yourself to this page and give it a looking over. It has a classic three-act structure as well as being a solid example of the classic horror story structure. Mighty Reader declared it good and scary and was immediately afterward driven to watch a video of a singing cat to clear the fright from the atmosphere.

We might read more scary stories to each other leading up to Halloween. We might not. We'll see, is what we'll do. I have no idea what we'll do on the night in question; we don't get much in the way of trick-or-treat children in this neighborhood. The pumpkin will be transformed into a ghoulish jack-o-lantern, surely, and possibly Mighty Reader will again don her witch costume while I dress as a writer relaxing after work (lazy? unimaginative? me?). Possibly we'll watch one of the BTVS Halloween episodes or maybe I'll lobby for a Hitchcock film. Don't know. I like the scary story idea best.

Though there is also, of course, this:

(photo by Mighty Reader)

Monday, October 22, 2012

We shall rest. We shall rest. We shall rest.

I realize that for the last couple of weeks I've read little aside from Chekhov: a volume of his short stories, the last hundred pages or so of his Collected Letters, and most recently his four full-length plays, "The Cherry Orchard," "Uncle Vanya," "Three Sisters" and "The Seagull." His plays, if you've not read them, are remarkable. If you're a writer, you owe it to yourself to read them through, not just to see them performed (I think you can find well-cast productions of all of them on youtube, likely violating copyrights like nobody's business), because there's something about seeing the language on the page that gives one (me, at least) a better sense of how the writing is put together as writing.

Like I say, these plays are remarkable things, full of vitality and motion and insight and yet Chekhov has managed, in each of them, to bring all motion to a complete halt at the end, to present us with a moment of stasis in which we've no choice but to ask ourselves what just happened, unable to move forward until we've answered that question. At least, that's where the plays leave me.

Which means that I have a strong urge right now to not read or write another word for, say, a year while I sit very still and consider Chekhov's four major plays. They really do deserve the time, and I really ought to just start over reading again at the beginning, and devote hour upon hour to the study of craft and the interpretation of meanings. But I won't, because life is short and I have too many other things to read and I'm an impatient fellow, I guess. If there's an afterlife, I share Borges' hope that it's in the shape of a library. I'll re-read everything when I'm dead, is what I'm saying.

Instead of meditating over the brilliant plays of Anton Pavlovich, I'm moving ahead with the readalong of Benito Perez Galdos' Fortunata and Jacinta. I'm closing in on the end of Volume II. It's no Chekov, is what I have to say, but it is pleasant enough and Galdos skewers his cast in an admirable and humorous manner. I'm also moving ahead with the first draft of the novel(la) Mona in the Desert, and I'm a bit past the halfway point (I think) of Chapter 8. That puts me about 65% of the way through the draft, I'm guessing. Some good work was done today during lunch. I continue to have no idea at all what this book is supposed to be, but I've gotten past whatever barrier I encountered at the end of Chapter 7 and I think that really, all I have to do is keep an eye on my notes to myself and write the story out until the end and it'll pretty much take care of itself. There's no shortage of ideas, which is a good thing. Maybe I can finish this by the end of the year and finally get working on rewrites to Go Home, Miss America. Which is also no Chekhov, but we do as well as we can, right?

Friday, October 19, 2012

It is work without poetry, without meaning

IRINA. How tired I am!

TUZENBAKH. And every day I'll come to the telegraph office and walk you home. I'll do it for ten years, for twenty years, till you drive me away . . . [Seeing MASHA and VERSHININ, delightedly] Oh, it's you! How are you?

IRINA. Well, I'm home at last. [To MASHA] A lady came just now to telegraph to her brother in Saratov that her son died today, and she couldn't think of the address. So she sent it without an address -- simply to Saratov. She was crying. And I was rude to her for no reason. Told her I had no time to waste. It was so stupid. I must rest. I'm tired.

TUZENBAKH [with a smile]. When you come from the office you seem so young, so forlorn . . . [a pause].

IRINA. I'm tired. No, I don't like telegraph work, I don't like it.

MASHA. You've grown thinner . . . [whistles]. And you look younger, rather like a boy in the face.

TUZENBAKH. That's the way she does her hair.

IRINA. I must find some other job, this does not suit me. What I so longed for, what I dreamed of is the very thing that it's lacking in, . . . It is work without poetry, without meaning. . . .

Chekhov's play "Three Sisters" wrestles with the Big Existential Question: What's the point of life? None of the characters can claim to be happy; all of them have thwarted ambitions or are trying pitifully to either extricate themselves from some situation they've become entrapped by, or to find a way to take their minds off of their entrapment (affairs, alcohol, gambling, etc). Meanwhile, a discussion continues across the length of the play about how the future will be better, that living as an unhappy but enlightened person now will bring about widespread happiness and enlightenment in the future, in two hundred or three hundred years. Nobody seems to be convinced or comforted by this argument. Meanwhile, the town has caught fire and while some people proclaim the value of labor, others see the emptiness of most wage earning positions, and at least one person observes that laborers, when they grow old and are no longer able to earn their keep, should be put out into the country like old horses or cattle, "good for nothing now." All of this from the Chekhov who was accused during his lifetime of avoiding any social issues in his writing.

Chekhov was actually a great and consistent social writer, it's just that he never preached or drew conclusions for his readers. We all fall short, Chekhov shows us; we are all flawed and selfish but that doesn't necessarily make the whole project of humanity worthless. I won't attempt to sum up Chekhov's philosophies, because likely I just read them how I please.   Anyway, behind all of the "a man and a woman and a reason to be unhappy" in "Three Sisters" there is an interesting argument taking place, an argument whose solution is impossible to find because it takes place in an unknowable future. We can only guess and hope and keep moving. The characters in Chekhov's play are always at risk of stopping, putting down their things and refusing to live another moment. We can see why: to strive forward into the future is exhausting, but I think that Chekhov sees refusal to go on as true defeat. So we must go on, as Beckett so cheerfully put it. Unlike Beckett, Chekhov isn't mocking us. We must go on, and we ought, if nothing else, love each other as companions in the same impossible struggle.

MASHA. If only we knew. If only we knew. [curtain]

Thursday, October 18, 2012

All Hail The White Whale

Today Moby-Dick is, apparently, 161 years old. I am compelled to quote some of this remarkable and beautifully mad novel. Forget "Call me Ishmael." Here's how the book actually begins:

(Supplied by a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School)

The pale Usher--threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.

"While you take in hand to school others, and to teach them by what name a whale-fish is to be called in our tongue leaving out, through ignorance, the letter H, which almost alone maketh the signification of the word, you deliver that which is not true." --HACKLUYT

"WHALE.... Sw. and Dan. HVAL. This animal is named from roundness or rolling; for in Dan. HVALT is arched or vaulted." --WEBSTER'S DICTIONARY

"WHALE.... It is more immediately from the Dut. and Ger. WALLEN; A.S. WALW-IAN, to roll, to wallow." --RICHARDSON'S DICTIONARY


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Like A Sixth Finger

VERSHININ. You read English then?

ANDREY. Yes. Our father, the Kingdom of Heaven be his, oppressed us with education. It's funny and silly, but it must be confessed I began to get fatter after his death, and I've grown too fat in one year, as though a weight had been taken off my body. Thanks to our father we all know English, French and German, and Irina knows Italian too. But what it cost us!

MASHA. In this town to know three languages is an unnecessary luxury! Not even a luxury, but an unnecessary encumbrance, like a sixth finger. We know a great deal that's unnecessary.

VERSHININ. What next! [laughs] You know a great deal that's unnecessary! I don't think there can be a town so dull and dismal that intelligent and educated people are unnecessary in it. Let's suppose that of the hundred thousand people living in this town, which is, of course, uncultured and behind the times, there are only three of your sort. It goes without saying that you cannot conquer the mass of darkness round you; little by little, as you go on living, you'll be lost in the crowd. You'll have to give in to it. Life will get the better of you, but still you'll not disappear without a trace. After you there may appear perhaps six like you, then twelve and so on until such as you form a majority. In two or three hundred years, life on earth will be unimaginably beautiful, marvellous. Man needs such a life and, though he hasn't got it yet, he must have a presentiment of it, expect it, dream of it, prepare for it; for that he must see and know more than his father and grandfather [laughs]. And you complain of knowing a great deal that's unnecessary.

MASHA [takes off her hat]. I'll stay to lunch.

From "Three Sisters"

Very likely all of this has been said before, but: I'm reading the collected plays of Anton Chekhov, in translations by Constance Garnett. I've seen "Uncle Vanya" performed once, a long time ago, and I read "The Cherry Orchard" when I was a teenager, which was an even longer time ago than the "Uncle Vanya" performance. Which is to say that I had forgotten pretty much everything I knew about Chekhov's plays; all I had was a sense that they were sort of abstract and not realistic. In the last year or so I've read eight volumes of Chekhov short stories and novellas as well as a collection of 400 or so of his letters, so while I'm no expert on Chekhov, I claim a pretty solid familiarity with his stories and I've read at least some of his own writing about writing including being a playwright. All of which left me somehow unprepared for "The Seagull," "The Cherry Orchard" and the first act of "Three Sisters," which is how far into Collected Plays I've gotten so far.

It goes without saying that the plays are different than the stories, because a play is of course a script, meant to be acted out before an audience. But that's not really the difference I'm confronted by here. The movement of characters within the plays is the same sort of character movement you see in Chekhov's stories and novellas, and the indeterminate endings where people have moved from one form of sadness to a different form of sadness are also there in the plays. So that's all familiar Chekhovian territory. What is really different is the dialogue. I suppose that's an obvious sort of observation, plays being essentially dialogue. I have no familiarity whatsoever with 19th-century Russian plays aside from Chekhov, so I don't know if Chekhov's way with dialogue was innovative or if he was just writing plays the way Russians did at the time. I do know that Chekhov read a lot of plays that were being performed at the time (he spent most of his final years at Yalta and I think that the few plays he actually saw on stage during that period were his own), and he was familiar with the tragedies of Shakespeare. So he wasn't an outsider coming to the form, either.

What's different about Chekhov's dialogue in his plays, as compared to dialogue in Chekhov's stories, and compared to the expectation of realist prose I had when I sat down with this book, is that Chekhov's characters often make long speeches in a poetic vein exposing their inmost thoughts and emotions. Since you don't have a narrator in a play to tell you what people are thinking, the only way to get at it directly from a character is to have the character speak it, yes? And you might point to the soliloquys in Shakespeare's plays, where folks bare their souls and admit all sorts of things. But in Shakespeare, the soul is bared to the audience only; rarely (or ever; I can’t think of an instance) is there another character directly addressed. However what you'll find in Chekhov are characters who will make these philosophical, confessional, poetical speeches in a room full of people, usually family and friends but yes, even in front of strangers, and the high-flown soliloquy is treated as if it's everyday speech. That's different. That's not realism.

So I had to just accept that this was how Chekhov wrote and get on with reading the plays. I provisionally forgave Anton Pavlovich for this until I came to my senses and realized that Dr Chekhov knew what he was doing and that the clumsiness was all mine. I think that upon closer inspection you'll see that characters treat these confessional poetical speeches as everyday speech because they are in fact internal monologues, they aren't by and large actually heard by the other characters. If they are, they're brushed aside the way in real life when someone says “I'm unhappy, you know,” we don't really engage with that statement, especially among families and friends. So Chekhov has invented a form of speech which combines the internal monologue with the external dialogue, but he doesn't place any markers in the play to let us know where the boundaries are between these two forms of speech. At least, that's my theory today. Maybe I'm still feverish. I've not been well, you know.

And no, the dialogue quoted above from "Three Sisters" doesn't illustrate my point. I posted it before I knew I wanted to write about Chekhov's use of dialogue, because I read that scene at lunch and it made me laugh, nearly out loud.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Astrologer Cover Art

I got this from my publisher this morning. Release date: March 1, 2013.

I don't know what the cover copy will be, but here's something provisional:

In a fictional Europe, historical characters act out a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. It is 1601 and Denmark is suffering a hard winter. The King divides his time between suppressing local rebellions, pursuing the pleasures of the flesh and acting on his impulses toward petty vengeance by having famed astronomer Tycho Brahe murdered. Brahe's one-time apprentice Soren Andersmann, now royal astrologer and tutor to the crown prince, swears to avenge the murder. When the King, fearing an uprising close to Copenhagen, moves the court to the remote castle at Elsinore, Soren accompanies the royal family, looking for an opportunity to strike down the King. Meanwhile the King and Queen suspect each other of infidelity; the Prince has disappeared during the midst of battle; and the elite Swiss guards suspect that Soren is up to something treacherous.

I know, it's neither actiony nor thinky enough. It's too much plot, not enough with the ideas behind the book. Working on it. There will also be blurbs from other authors, which is nice. Also there's this excerpt, which might give a hint about the book's themes:

“As long as Denmark looks backwards, my lord, there will be bloodshed.”

“Backwards? As long as Denmark is awake, there will be bloodshed no matter in what direction she looks. Save Paradise for eternity. You should be a priest, not a writer of philosophical treatises. What would you have of us? We are Danes.”

Monday, October 15, 2012

Moby-Dick Reads Itself To You

The Moby-Dick Big Read! Seriously, kids, Moby-Dick as a free audiobookish type thing. Tilda Swinton reads Chapter One.

Tilda Swinton! "Call me Ishmael." Why aren't you making with the clickityclick?

My hype not good enough for you? Here's the official hype from the website:

‘I have written a blasphemous book’, said Melville when his novel was first published in 1851, ‘and I feel as spotless as the lamb’. Deeply subversive, in almost every way imaginable, Moby-Dick is a virtual, alternative bible – and as such, ripe for reinterpretation in this new world of new media. Out of Dominion was born its bastard child – or perhaps its immaculate conception – the Moby-Dick Big Read: an online version of Melville’s magisterial tome: each of its 135 chapters read out aloud, by a mixture of the celebrated and the unknown, to be broadcast online in a sequence of 135 downloads, publicly and freely accessible.

Really, I just listened to Chapter One over coffee and pie. It was awfully cool. Moby-Dick is a perfect "read aloud" book. Don't know why I never thought of that.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Toward a Unified Theory of Chaos

In a letter to a young writer, Chekhov once said that all you need for a story is "a man, a woman, and a reason for them to be unhappy." That advice holds true for most of Chekhov's stories and it certainly holds true for The Seagull, his 1895 play that I spent the afternoon reading. The "man and a woman" is however expanded for this play into interlocking sets of malfunctioning love triangles, with Irina loving Boris who is loved by Nina; with Medvedenko loving Masha who loves Konstantin (who loves Nina); and with Paulina, wife of Iliya, in love with Dorn. There are accessory unhappy characters as well. It's a swell play and Chekhov's use of irony is delicious and subtle and I'd love to see it performed.

After finishing the play I thought about how much of a mess it is, from a thematic standpoint. Nothing is wrapped up at the end; nobody has learned any valuable lessons to carry forward into a better life. Certainly there's the idea of wasting one's existence, pursuing an idea while running blindly past those things and people that might help us have fulfilling lives, and doing damage all around without even seeing it and misunderstanding the pains and joys of everyone we know. Life, that is, in all it's messiness. But there is no simple, single idea that The Seagull can be reduced down to, which is one of the work's great strengths. It is a complex play that resists easy interpretation and summation.

This complexity and resistance to interpretation is also one of the hallmarks (and strengths) of the plays of Shakespeare. When art holds the mirror up to humanity, you don't get a comic strip, you get an inchoate tapestry with no causation, no neat story arc, and no ultimate meaning. I'm strongly attracted to works like this, because I think that despite the artifice of any art, the inevitable failure of all mimesis (if I'm using that word properly), we are at least able to say that we see what we see and we can put it down honestly and even if we don't fully understand it, reporting what appears to be scrupulously true (whatever that might mean) might be a good approach to art, might be a way to create literature with some value. Maybe. This paragraph is too close to a list of platitudes so I'll move away from it quickly.

Anyway, I think that in my own writing I'm moving away from ideas of tightly-knit story structures, and toward whatever else there is. The Seagull is a nice bit of encouragement for that project. Chaos, then, rather than order. Also, there's this nice bit, where the novelist Trigorin is being questioned by Nina (aspiring actress) about the life of the writer:

TRIGORIN: ...Violent obsessions sometimes lay hold of a man: he may, for instance, think day and night of nothing but the moon. I have such a moon. Day and night I am held in the grip of one besetting thought, to write, write, write! Hardly have I finished one book than something urges me to write another, and then a third, and then a fourth--I write ceaselessly. I am, as it were, on a treadmill. I hurry for ever from one story to another, and can't help myself. Do you see anything bright and beautiful in that? Oh, it is a wild life! Even now, thrilled as I am by talking to you, I do not forget for an instant that an unfinished story is awaiting me. My eye falls on that cloud there, which has the shape of a grand piano; I instantly make a mental note that I must remember to mention in my story a cloud floating by that looked like a grand piano. I smell heliotrope; I mutter to myself: a sickly smell, the color worn by widows; I must remember that in writing my next description of a summer evening. I catch an idea in every sentence of yours or of my own, and hasten to lock all these treasures in my literary store-room, thinking that some day they may be useful to me. As soon as I stop working I rush off to the theater or go fishing, in the hope that I may find oblivion there, but no! Some new subject for a story is sure to come rolling through my brain like an iron cannonball. I hear my desk calling, and have to go back to it and begin to write, write, write, once more. And so it goes for everlasting. I cannot escape myself, though I feel that I am consuming my life. To prepare the honey I feed to unknown crowds, I am doomed to brush the bloom from my dearest flowers, to tear them from their stems, and trample the roots that bore them under foot. Am I not a madman? Should I not be treated by those who know me as one mentally diseased? Yet it is always the same, same old story, till I begin to think that all this praise and admiration must be a deception, that I am being hoodwinked because they know I am crazy, and I sometimes tremble lest I should be grabbed from behind and whisked off to a lunatic asylum. The best years of my youth were made one continual agony for me by my writing. A young author, especially if at first he does not make a success, feels clumsy, ill-at-ease, and superfluous in the world. His nerves are all on edge and stretched to the point of breaking; he is irresistibly attracted to literary and artistic people, and hovers about them unknown and unnoticed, fearing to look them bravely in the eye, like a man with a passion for gambling, whose money is all gone. I did not know my readers, but for some reason I imagined they were distrustful and unfriendly; I was mortally afraid of the public, and when my first play appeared, it seemed to me as if all the dark eyes in the audience were looking at it with enmity, and all the blue ones with cold indifference. Oh, how terrible it was! What agony! 

NINA: But don't your inspiration and the act of creation give you moments of lofty happiness? 

TRIGORIN: Yes. Writing is a pleasure to me, and so is reading the proofs, but no sooner does a book leave the press than it becomes odious to me; it is not what I meant it to be; I made a mistake to write it at all; I am provoked and discouraged. Then the public reads it and says: "Yes, it is clever and pretty, but not nearly as good as Tolstoy," or "It is a lovely thing, but not as good as Turgenov's 'Fathers and Sons,'" and so it will always be. To my dying day I shall hear people say: "Clever and pretty; clever and pretty," and nothing more; and when I am gone, those that knew me will say as they pass my grave: "Here lies Trigorin, a clever writer, but he was not as good as Turgenov." 

NINA: You must excuse me, but I decline to understand what you are talking about. The fact is, you have been spoilt by your success. 

TRIGORIN: What success have I had? I have never pleased myself; as a writer, I do not like myself at all. The trouble is that I am made giddy, as it were, by the fumes of my brain, and often hardly know what I am writing. I love this lake, these trees, the blue heaven; nature's voice speaks to me and wakes a feeling of passion in my heart, and I am overcome by an uncontrollable desire to write. But I am not only a painter of landscapes, I am a man of the city besides. I love my country, too, and her people; I feel that, as a writer, it is my duty to speak of their sorrows, of their future, also of science, of the rights of man, and so forth. So I write on every subject, and the public hounds me on all sides, sometimes in anger, and I race and dodge like a fox with a pack of hounds on his trail. I see life and knowledge flitting away before me. I am left behind them like a peasant who has missed his train at a station, and finally I come back to the conclusion that all I am fit for is to describe landscapes, and that whatever else I attempt rings abominably false.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Why Shakespeare?

If you cannot understand my argument, and declare "It's Greek to me", you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool's paradise - why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then - to give the devil his due - if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I were dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then - by Jove! O Lord! Tut, tut! for goodness' sake! what the dickens! but me no buts - it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare.

(Levin, Bernard. Quoted in The Story of English. Robert McCrum, William Cran and Robert MacNeil. Viking: 1986)

Friday, October 5, 2012

Juan springs from his sickbed: Fortunata y Jacinta

I've completed Volume One of Fortunata and Jacinta, Benito Pérez Galdós' 1887 novel about life and politics in Madrid. Since this 800-page novel is divided into four volumes of more or less equal length, it seems sensible to just treat it as a series of four novels and talk about each one as I finish it. So here I am, talking about the first one. I have no idea what I'm about to say. Since the book is 125 years old and the only English-language translation is now out of print (what the hell, Penguin?), this is not a review, because what's the point? Besides, I don't know how to write book reviews.

Fortunata and Jacinta, Volume One begins as the story of Juan(ito) Santa Cruz, his upbringing, his family and his social world. When he begins to drift into dissipation his mother arranges Juan's marriage to his cousin Jacinta. On the surface this is a lightweight domestic story, where Jacinta and Juan go off on an extended tour of Spain for their honeymoon, making kissy faces on the trains and dining in good restaurants. There's some distinctly Bronte-esque foreshadowing on the wedding day which I quite enjoyed. During the honeymoon, Jacinta begins wheedling the story of Juan's past affair with a lower-class woman named Fortunata out of him, and then Jacinta and Juan return to Madrid where they go on to have a happy enough domestic life. Jacinta settles into her position as a wealthy woman with few real worries. Nagging at her, however, is the suspicion that Juan has an illegitimate child by his former mistress. This suspicion and the heartbreak it causes Jacinta is fueled by her own lack of children (not for want of trying) and when Jacinta hears that Juan does indeed have an illegitimate son living in the slums of Madrid, Jacinta tracks the child (an unruly little boy) down and attempts to adopt him into the family. These manueverings do not involve a lot of conflict, and the reader is never placed on pins and needles.

I've done a bit of poking into Spanish history and the whole thing does seem to be an allegory for the Spanish revolutions and political tumult of the period in which the book is set. When the king abdicates, the wealthy bankers and merchants are less concerned about blood in the streets than they are about the value of their investments. We get regular reports on the prices of shares, but little discussion of the violence at the barricades takes place at the Santa Cruz dinner table. When the republic is declared, the focus of the novel shifts from playboy Juan to his saintly wife Jacinta, who steps out of the house and begins to interact with the working and poor classes. You see how this is an allegory of the republic, no? The wealthy and lazy and self-involved Juanito spends most of the republican years, apparently, in bed with a bad cold and he insists that the women of the family tend to his every whim. Is that representative of Isabella in exile, perhaps? Juan's nickname among his rich family, who have ties to the highest echelons of nobility, is the Dauphin. So perhaps he's a stand-in for the aristocracy in exile. When the revolution ends with a military coup in support of a constitutional monarch (if I've got the history right), Juan springs from his sickbed, takes charge of his wife's attempted adoption of the boy from the ghetto, and resumes his place strutting about town, the well-dressed and impressively well-spoken cavalier with nothing to do except pursue women.

So is the book any good? Yes, it is. It's a very relaxed narrative, I will tell you. It takes a long time for anything to actually happen, and what happens is not particularly exciting. What's good about the novel is the interplay between the characters and the classes, and the social commentary--despite Galdos' almost total disregard for the sweeping political changes going on in the background--is quite fine. The descriptions of people and places (and especially clothes) are all captivating and Galdos is just a funny guy. My only real quibble with this book might be with the translation. At times the prose seems a bit forced, especially when characters are speaking in lower-class dialect, which is here rendered in a clumsy manner too often. I don't speak Spanish so I can't argue with the decisions the translator made, but Agnes Gulon hasn't maintained a beautiful and flowing style throughout and I'm going to throw in with the author and blame Gulon for the rough spots. It's my way, and it's likely unfair and misguided. Anyway, things are going pretty well so far with me and Senor Galdos, and I look forward to whatever Volume Two holds. I assume Fortunata will make a grand entrance. We'll see.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Mozart and Ravel: they're already retired. Dead, too.

Last night Mighty Reader and I went to hear the Emerson String Quartet. This was the fourth or fifth time we've seen the wee lads, and it was our last chance to see David Finckel play with the group, as he's leaving at the end of this concert season. We'll miss him; he may be Mighty Reader's favorite cellist, though it's hard to say. She likes pretty much every cellist simply because they've chosen to play the cello, but Mr Finckel is highly regarded at our house. Also, he made the photo of Alban Berg into a cartoon on the CD booklet he autographed after a show a few years ago, and you've got to like that. So Paul Watkins, the replacement cellist, has a high bar to meet. Cartoons, Watkins. Cartoons.

So what about the concert? The program was:

Haydn: String Quartet in D Major, Op 20, No 4.
Ades: The Four Quarters
Brahms: String Quartet No 2 in A Minor, Op 51
Bach: Fugue as arranged by W.A. Mozart (encore)

The ESQ always play fabulously. We sat in the third row last night, so we had a good look at how much eye contact the members make during the performances, and it's a lot, kids. They really do become a unit, a four-headed musician, during the concert. But I digress yet again.

The Haydn was, of course, great. I love Haydn's quartets. He wrote something like 76 of them and they are all masterpieces. This one dates from 1770 or so and it had everything that makes Haydn who he was: the propulsive rhythms, the reworking of small motifs into large-scale structures, the false recapitulations, the weird extended phrases that pull the melodies forward, etc. At some point I was transfixed by Eugene Drucker's bow arm and very nearly went into a trance. Mighty Reader thought I'd fallen asleep because I came out of the trance with a bit of a jolt. I admire Mr Drucker's bowing, that's all. The final movement of the Haydn slips between the grand classical style and an imitation of a gypsy dance band, and the first time that happened I was absolutely delighted. This is what they mean when they talk about the humor in Haydn's music: a sense of play, of wonder, of just getting away with stuff because who else is going to write music like this? Ah, Papa, how we miss you.

The Ades is a new work, from 2010, and while the opening movement didn't grab me (it's derivative of the inner movements of Bartok's later quartets), from about two minutes into the second movement onward, I was sold. I'll have to listen to this one again and I hope the Emersons have a recording of it. That second movement begins with pizzicato on all instruments, in overlapping arhythmic lines of sort of descending thirds and fourths that might represent raindrops falling randomly. I had the thought that such music was probably hard to play but it was probably trivial to write, and I was ready for it to end when the musicians one by one picked up their bows and began to play arco, and suddenly the movement made sense and I retroactively understood the pizzicato section. The piece jumped into life, active and electric and leaping forward into space. Tres cool, kids. The third movement reminded me of Nino Rota's music, sort of atonal Italian cafe pieces. The final movement was very much Bartok and Debussey (beyond the Debussey influences already present in Bartok's music, that is), with the harmonies sort of stacking up against each other and melting away in layers. Like Bartok improvising in a duet with Debussey. It was also pretty keen.

Maybe we were just tired and feeling under the weather, but the Brahms after the intermission did nothing for either of us. Yes, it was good writing and typical Brahms: very thick and virtuostic and broody and after the Ades one can't hear pizzicato the same way, but somehow I couldn't get caught up in the music. The audience seemed to prefer this piece over the first half's music and the applause was thunderous. Well-earned, yes, because the ESQ are a great group. I just wish I'd enjoyed the Brahms more. I like Brahms, too. Maybe we were tired.

The group often plays a Bach fugue as an encore, and it's always pretty and crystalline and better than you'd think it would be. I credit Mr Mozart, I suppose. Anyway, it was all fine and I'm ever so glad we've seen the Emersons as often as we have over the last few years. I suppose we should get tickets to the Juilliard SQ in February and the Tokyo SQ in April, because the Tokyo are calling it quits as a band at the end of this year. They'll be playing Mozart and Ravel, and I love the Ravel. And I love Mozart. And they're retiring. Not Mozart and Ravel: they're already retired. Dead, too. But why are all these quartets opening their programs with pieces in D major? I can't help but noticing that. It's weird, man.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

I don't know where this took place and I only know the names of those two cities

An excerpt from Chapter 7 of Mona in the Desert:

Sergeant Ernesto Grassi almost died of meningitis when he was six years old. The infection got into his head and spine when Ernesto was recovering from a skull fracture he got when his older brother Marco threw a chunk of asphalt the size of a baseball at him. It wasn’t deliberate, Marco maintains. Purely an accident. The Grassi family lived along a road at the western edge of a small city in Ohio. I don’t know what city. There was a cluster of houses inhabited by large Italian families, and a road that curved out of town toward a lake whose shores were thick with broadleaf trees. A creek ran in a parallel course to the road, a creek that ran dry in the summers but when the rains came in early fall, filled again and the first brown and gold leaves dropped by the elms or maples would whirl along on the creek’s surface, dragged downstream to the lake. In the late springtime, as the creek dried out it was transformed into a wide ditch with pools of stagnant water where frogs laid eggs by the millions and tadpoles wriggled by the hundreds of thousands and frogs leapt away to the nearby forest by the thousands. The ground between the creek and the narrow road was soft and once in a while a sinkhole would appear on the shoulder of the road, filling with dark still water, the edge of the asphalt crumbling away. Young boys would take the bits of broken asphalt and throw them straight up as far into the air as they could throw, and have contests for which of them made the biggest splash in the sinkhole. Winning this contest was important to Marco Grassi. He could throw a chunk of asphalt the size of a baseball higher than anyone, spinning it to make its splash even greater. This was in Toledo. Or even Cleveland. I don’t know where this took place and I only know the names of those two cities—though there’s Cincinnati, too, and Akron. Cooperstown sounds like Ohio, I’m told.

All the usual caveats about this being a first draft, etc.