Friday, October 4, 2013

the dead center of the novel

I have begun work on the final chapter of the first draft of The Hanging Man. I want to end the book by revisiting the images and characters with which it opened, and I want the tone of the final chapter to match (more or less) that of the first chapter, so yesterday afternoon I dug out the first chapter and read it over. It is, I am quite too pleased to say, pretty good stuff. Some of my best work, even. “What was I reading when I wrote this?” I wondered. I had no idea. I began this draft way back in May, and there have been a lot of books read since May, but fortunately I have this blog to tell me what I thought at the time was good writing. My three minutes of research here informs me that while I was writing the first chapter of The Hanging Man, I was finishing up Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls and also Marly Youmans’ Thaliad. You should read both of those books if you haven’t yet. I don’t see the connection between my first chapter and those two books, but if people like the novel I’ll credit Gogol and Youmans; if people don’t like the novel, it is no reflection on those two fine writers. Just so we’re clear.

Last night, quite late, I wrote out a six-point outline for Chapter 12. I may even follow it, though today I’ve got some research reading to do in order to flesh out one or two of the characters who made appearances in Chapter 1. One of them threatens already to overwhelm the chapter, so I must be careful. I have also decided that whatever loose ends there might be by the end of Chapter 11 will just stay loose; no attempt will be made to tie them up in the final chapter. This book has a theme of ambiguity, anyway.

Speaking of ambiguity, I’m about 60% into Gustav Meyrink’s wacky 1915 novel The Golem. It’s uneven and the translation is not brilliant, but some of the ideas Meyrink shoved around are amazing. During a scene in about the dead center of the novel, where Rabbi Hillel’s daughter talks about accepting the miraculous part of faith as well as—or even instead of—the moral/ethical side of religion, I was quite breathless. Good, good stuff:

Wenn ich ihnen dann klarmachen wollte, daß das Bedeutsame— das Wesentliche — für mich in der Bibel und anderen heiligen Schriften das Wunder und bloß das Wunder sei, und nicht Vorschriften über Moral und Ethik, die nur versteckte Wege sein können, um zum Wunder zu gelangen, — so wußten sie nur mit Gemeinplätzen zu erwidern, denn sie scheuten sich, offen einzugestehen, daß sie aus den Religionsschriften nur das glaubten, was ebensogut im bürgerlichen Gesetzbuch stehen könnte. Wenn sie das Wort ‚Wunder ‘ nur hörten, wurde ihnen schon unbehaglich. Sie verlören den Boden unter den Füßen, sagten sie.

Als ob es etwas Herrlicheres geben könnte, als den Boden unter den Füßen zu verlieren!

Die Welt ist dazu da, um von uns kaputt gedacht zu werden, hörte ich einmal meinen Vater sagen, — dann, dann erst fängt das Leben an. — Ich weiß nicht, was er mit dem ‚Leben‘ meinte, aber ich fühle zuweilen, daß ich eines Tages so wie: ‚erwachen‘ werde. Wenn ich mir auch nicht vorstellen kann, in welchen Zustand hinein. Und Wunder müssen dem vorhergehen, denke ich mir immer.

Also, The Golem is set in Prague, and reading it is sparking my interest in parts of that city I hadn’t originally planned to visit.

Also, today is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. Don't forget to bless your pets.

Also, I have been asked what the quoted text means in English. So here's my own loose translation:

Whenever I wanted to make it clear to them that what is significant--what is most important--for me in the Bible and other holy books, are the miracles and only the miracles, not rules about morality and ethics--which may be just hidden ways to get to miracles--they could only answer in platitudes because they were afraid to openly admit that they only believed those religious writings which could just as well be part of the civil code. Just hearing the word miracle made them uncomfortable. It made them feel as if the ground could open up under their feet, they said.

As if there could be something more glorious than for the ground to open up under your feet!

The world is there for us to examine, I once heard my father say--then, and only then, does life begin. I do not know what he meant by 'life,' but I feel sometimes that I will one day 'wake up' to real life. Though I cannot imagine what that will be like. But it will begin with a miracle, I always think to myself.


  1. Gogol and I appreciate your kind mention. Steaming along to a deadline here so this is just a wave, for now...

  2. The Golem is one of the strangest novels I have ever read. Not just for content, but for how it is put together.

  3. Marly, you are quite busy, so a wave is fine, thanks. I am looking forward to your upcoming collaboration with Clive.

    Tom, you are too right about the strangeness of the form. The framing story structure emerges clearly at the end and for a moment it feels like a cheat, but the whole thing is a series of nested episodes (or, maybe, a room without a door in which we keep finding ourselves suddenly manifested?) anyway, isn't it? I'll have to think for a while before I can sort out all of the prophet/Messiah golem/doppelganger themes.

  4. Whenever anyone tells me I forgot to tie up a loose end, I'm going to quote you and say the book is all about ambiguity anyway. Hah. Not really, but I love that.

    I am excited you are almost finished!

  5. Life is full of loose ends and other unknowns. Leave some outcomes as an exercise for the reader, I say.

  6. Me too. It has begun... Didja see the minotaur?

    Wanted to comment on the 666th but could not seem to do it--highly appropriate.


  7. The minotaur is beyond amazing.

    Thanks for the congratulations. I seem to have accidentally turned off the comments on post 666. Blogger bumfuzzles me sometimes with its widgets and settings.

  8. XD

    Yes, he is wonderful!

    I am frittering again--so bad when my nose should be on the grindstone.

  9. By happy coincidence I was recently given The Yale Yiddish Digital collection-soon to be standard in the field I am sure, it included a new translation of The Golem. So far there are nine books in the collection.

  10. Mel, that sounds pretty cool. Is it Meyrink's golem, or one of the earlier versions of the story? Meyrink, I don't think, wrote in Yiddish.