Thursday, May 30, 2013

Re: To Our Valued Customers

When a first draft of a novel is under way, it’s imperative that I am excited about the process and the materials, and vitally interested in trying out new ideas and taking risks (as Tom Hornbein--physician and climber of mountains--says, “Uncertainty--which is to say risk--is the spice that makes life worth living”), and it’s also important that I ignore the flaws in the work and the shortcomings of my craft. I allow myself to be guided primarily by instinct, at least during the creation of prose. No, that’s not quite right. Yet it is. I am tangled up in contradictions already, because I do a lot of outlining and preproduction work, as it were, and each chapter (at least) is outlined before I write it out, but while I’m writing it out I am of course improvising and don’t know how closely—if at all—I’ll stick to my outline, so I am working above a net that I might fall clear of because some parts of the high wire are stretched high above ground not covered by the net, see? But that’s not what I meant to say. Yet it is.

I am thinking about the process of writing as a form of self-evaluation of craft, maybe. There is a time in the genesis of a novel when a writer must be aware of every flaw, every weakness he has, and he must concentrate his efforts to overcome those weaknesses and eradicate those flaws and write the greatest novel that’s ever been written. Yes, that’s what I said: every writer is accountable to one standard, the standard of the greatest work possible. I compare my own writing to those works that I consider the absolute best examples of fiction, and judge my work accordingly. I fail, of course, but I know at least what I’m trying to do. Or outdo, really. Fuck you, Mr Chekhov, I’d like to say; this is how it’s done in the pros. Mr Chekhov’s spirit laughs at me but that’s okay.

Right now I’m drafting a new novel (current working title THE HANGING MAN) while making revisions to two other novels (THE TRANSCENDENTAL DETECTIVE and GO HOME, MISS AMERICA). The revisions work is what I’ve described above, where I try to make my novels into the most excellent novels anyone has ever written. The drafting work is what I rant about in the first paragraph of this non-essay, where I let my instinct bully the text around and I try to pretend I can do no wrong because it’s all provisional and I’m working on new ideas of craft and voice and other narrative elements and I want the freedom to experiment.

I can easily imagine a writer of fiction who tries to remain in one or the other of these mindsets; this writer either refuses to look critically at his own novels or refuses to let himself explore new territory. Either way, he is not taking the necessary risks to become a good writer. Confronting one’s basic level of competence full in the face is a risk because we might not be aware of how far we fall short of our imagined perfect novel we’re trying to write. Confronting the richness of one’s imagination is a risk because we might not be aware of how little we are actually using our imagination, how much we rely on cliché or stereotype in our storytelling. None of which is to say that imagination and craft are that separable, that they are opposite poles or any such foolish thing. No, what I mean is…well, I’m not sure. Maybe I’m just fascinated with my own processes, as usual, and it strikes me as interesting this morning that I am trying to make two novels into perfect narratives while trying to make one new novel into as huge a mess as I can in the hopes that something cool will turn up in all the mess. Or maybe it’s not even a mess at all, and it’s just that I can’t see the shapes and colors of the novel yet because so much of that shape and color is still hypothetical, potential, unwritten as yet.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

It may not or maybe a no concern of the Guinnesses but.

"Whyfor had they, it is Hiberio–Miletians and Argloe–Noremen, donated him, birth of an otion that was breeder to sweatoslaves, as mysterbolder, forced in their waste, and as for Ibdullin what of Himana, that their tolvtubular high fidelity daildialler, as modern as tomorrow afternoon and in appearance up to the minute (hearing that anybody in that ruad duchy of Wollinstown schemed to halve the wrong type of date) equipped with supershielded um-brella antennas for distance getting and connected by the magnetic links of a Bellini–Tosti coupling system with a vitaltone speaker, capable of capturing skybuddies, harbour craft emittences, key clickings, vaticum cleaners, due to woman formed mobile or man made static and bawling the whowle hamshack and wobble down in an eliminium sounds pound so as to serve him up a mele-goturny marygoraumd, eclectrically filtered for allirish earths and ohmes. This harmonic condenser enginium (the Mole) they caused to be worked from a magazine battery (called the Mimmim Bimbim patent number 1132, Thorpetersen and Synds, Joms-borg, Selverbergen) which was tuned up by twintriodic singul — valvulous pipelines (lackslipping along as if their liffing deepunded on it) with a howdrocephalous enlargement, a gain control of circumcentric megacycles ranging from the antidulibnium onto the serostaatarean. They finally caused, or most leastways brung it about somehows(that)the pip of the lin(to)pinnatrate inthro an auricular forfickle (known as the Vakingfar sleeper, mono-fractured by Piaras UaRhuamhaighaudhlug, tympan founder Eustache Straight, Bauliaughacleeagh) a meatous conch culpable of cunduncing Naul and Santry and the forty routs of Corthy with the concertiums of the Brythyc Symmonds Guild, the Ropemakers Reunion, the Variagated Peddlars Barringoy Bni-brthirhd, the Askold Olegsonder Crowds of the O’Keef–Rosses ant Rhosso–Keevers of Zastwoking, the Ligue of Yahooth o.s.v. so as to lall the bygone dozed they arborised around, up his corpular fruent and down his reuctionary buckling, hummer, enville and cstorrap (the man of Iren, thore’s Curlymane for you!), lill the lubberendth of his otological life."

I think it's about a short-wave radio set in Earwicker's pub. I think. It's great stuff, whatever it is. This entire chapter, which I know does take place in HCE's pub, is wonderful and strange and opaque and translucent. There's a marriage proposal and a wedding which might be that of HCE and ALP, but then again it might not. The book is a dream transcribed in all the languages of Europe, containing the biblical history of mankind and the history of Ireland and the history of the Earwicker family and lots and lots else. Who knows how much else?

This is a book that lulls you to a waking sleep and teaches you anew how to dream. I read Finnegans Wake on the bus, commuting to and from work, and I often feel like I'm reading a book writ in a foreign language that I very nearly but do not quite speak, and the sounds of Joyce's novel become the sounds of normal communication after a while, the way speech is supposed to be spoken, and then someone--another rider on the bus--says something and the words coming out of that rider's mouth are all wrong, all flat and empty and unpoetical and I am irritated at having been pulled from the dream of IrelandthegardenofEdenthepubonthehilltheshiningseathecastleElsinoreandeverywhereelse. It's a beautiful work of art, this book, this book I read at a distance of absolute and attempted full faithful misunderstanding.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Urban defense tool

Today at lunch I purchased a copy of Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais, in the 1982 Franklin Library edition, which means that it's a big, red, faux leather-bound book that weighs a couple of pounds. I'll be dragging it around for a couple of weeks while I read it and I expect to be either in much better shape or hunchbacked when I'm done. Yes, kindle schmindle sit on a spindle, you. I could beat a bear to death with this volume, if it came to that, so color me prepared.

I was pleased to see the book (a collection of five picaresque and allegedly scatological novels from the 16th century) because I've been wanting to read it for some time but I never remember to actually look for a copy when I'm in a book shop. This edition's size and color, with the gauche gilt trim on the spine, rather jumped off the shelf at me, and it was only $15 so how--how, I ask you--could I refuse to buy it? Lately I've been thinking that I needed something sprawling and goofy to read, something not written by a Russian, an Irishman or an American, and so there's this. And like I say, I'm prepared in case of a shirty bear.

Also, page 80 of Marly Youmans' excellent Thaliad scared the bejesus out of me today. Death as negation, as violent unmaking, humanity replaced by--by what? I don't know--beautifully and graphically observed, well done indeed.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

"Circus in the Dust," first paragraph, maybe

The station master, a man past fifty with thick side whiskers and vague blue eyes, checked his pocket watch again and looked to the west, following the dark parallel lines of the track as they snaked away from town. Despite his age, the station master had good vision and normally he'd trace the path of the rails all the way to the horizon, spotting any movement at all, but the late afternoon air was hazy, filled with a fine brown tint and tasting, in the station master's opinion, like a freshly-dug grave. The atmosphere was darkened, the distances murky. The sky had been full of dirt all spring and summer and the whole town had forgotten what clean air was like.

I'm sure it will change markedly over time under my revising hands, but it's a good provisional start for now. I think it's more Chekhov than Faulkner, but I'm fine with that. This is not all I've written, but it's all I'm typing up here today. The station master's name is Louis, in case you're curious.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

we see those things to which others are blind, mon ami

Today at lunch I finished my last-minute revisions to the manuscript for The Transcendental Detective, and as soon as I type up my changes into the master Word™ document, the book will be ready to send off to my editor at Rhemalda. I didn’t do much work, since the book was in pretty good shape already. There were some sentences to tighten up, a few bits of exposition to rearrange, a Napolean reference to insert, and that sort of fussing, but not much else. On the whole, I declare it a fine enough little book. The last chapter is really good, I tell you. I mean, it’s all pretty good but the last chapter made me very happy as I read it over again. I haven’t had a glance at this manuscript in over a year so my memory of it was fuzzy, you know. The prose is quite influenced by Fitzgerald, which I remember was a deliberate choice. I’d just read The Great Gatsby when I began to draft The Transcendental Detective. I’m not sure what the stylistic reference points are going to be for the sequel, which I’ve begun writing (not much beyond a detailed draft and a first scene and notes for scenes along the way, but that’s something). I’m not going to re-read Gatsby. I have a vague feeling that it will be more along the lines of Hemingway, but obviously that still puts me into the American Modernist camp of prose, which is a fine place to be so I don’t apologize. I also appear to be rambling a bit. The main thing, I think, is that I’m about to get serious with the drafting of a new novel, which means that, alas, my reading time will diminish to almost nothing and also the number of blog posts I write about the process of writing novels is about to increase exponentially, so you’ve all been warned to brace yourselves and also to take cover. Feel free to abandon me for the next five or six months, because really, even I don’t want to read what I’ll be posting here. Though I promise that there will be excerpts along the way, for those whose interests can be piqued.

I had a point when I began writing this. Oh, maybe this was it: the new detective novel’s provisional title is Circus in the Dust, but I expect that will change. It sounds too much like that Faulkner novel, for one thing, and also I just hope to stumble across something better, with more spark to it. One Day a Ghost Town, maybe. Or, Pursued By a Bear. The Stranger works, too. I could work in a Camus reference even. Those sorts of cheap jokes never fail to amuse me.

Monday, May 6, 2013

It would be better for the reader, if he is willing, to make up the end of that story for himself.

I am only a couple of pages away from finishing Nikolai Gogol's novel Dead Souls. The final chapter has been the backstory--the early history--of Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, the protagonist, the buyer of dead souls. Gogol tells how Chichikov led a life of striving for money, primarily as a dishonest civil servant who specialized in graft and corruption. It's been a life of ups and downs, as Chichikov gained one position after the next where he made a great deal of money by illegal means and was then fired in an office purge. He lost half a million rubles earned illicitly in the Customs department, and found himself disgraced, unemployed, middle-aged, in possession of a dozen nice shirts, a couple of suits, an old carriage and two drunken serfs. This is, more or less, the Chichikov we encounter at the beginning of the novel. I have no idea just what Gogol will put onto his final ten pages, and likely I won't say anything more about this book on this blog when I've finished reading Dead Souls (hopefully in a few hours during my lunch break), except for the usual bit of influence spotting that I always do when talking about books. Dead Souls, I'm sure I've said already, is formally influenced by Don Quixote (and also, I just realized, by The Iliad). I don't know how it's thematically influenced, but I can see how Gogol in turn influenced Dostoyevski, Chekhov and Bulgakov, at least.

This is not a novel to take as a model, not really, as it's quite messy in shape. See above comment about Dostoyevski, though. What I mean is that nowadays, in general, a novel is found in the tightly-structured three-act shape of Flaubert's Madame Bovary. I think Gogol would have a difficult time selling Dead Souls to an agent or an editor. Insert here all the usual writerly gripes about the current narrowmindedness of the publishing world and how famous author X could never get a book deal today. Dead Souls, no matter how it actually ends, is a marvelous mess of a book. It's funny and cutting and wild, though Gogol in the final chapters proves that he can write with true feeling and compassion for even an antihero. You know Gogol disapproves of Chichikov, but he doesn't judge him so much as he examines him. Gogol holds his scoundrel up to the light, turning him so we are able to see his many facets, and declares him, in the end, human. Chekhov will learn much from this, and as we are all better off for knowing Chekhov, we are better off for knowing Gogol.

I am going to try not to read more Russian novels for a while, to sort of clear my head. I will, of course, be reading volumes 11-13 of Chekhov's stories during the remaining months of this year, God willing. Possibly I'll wrap around and start in on the first volumes of the collection before the year is over. That doesn't count as reading Russian novels, though. But wait: I planned to read The Devils this summer. Huh. Well, there's plenty of time before summer begins.

In other news: My debut novel continues to sell steadily, if in smaller numbers. Go buy a copy, whyncha? Right now I'm doing a last-minute revision to The Transcendental Detective, because my publishers will want to have it in a month or two for editorial. It seems like an admirable little book, and I think it will be a lot of fun once it's been published. I am, I admit, writing a sequel to this novel. I have no idea how to write a sequel, so in a lot of ways I'm just pretending it's a whole new book. One hopes it will be better than Gogol's sequel to Dead Souls. One hopes that I, at least, will live to finish it. After the detective sequel, I will finally--I swear by all that's holy--write the Antarctica novel Nowhere But North. I will also be shopping a new novel around to agents. We'll see how that works. I will also be adding material (and a possible new first chapter) to the short novel Mona In The Desert. So, lots to do. Also, I am working on Vittorio Monti's Czardas. It's a fun sort of intermediate violin piece that is not as difficult as it looks. My sautille needs work, but I think I can manage those passages after a bit more practice. Kreutzer, probably, will be deployed for this task. Maybe Sevcik as well. We'll see. Then, I think, it's Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances. I need to find a pianist. Or an accordionist. Yes, that would be fun.

Edited to add:
"The troika flies, sails, bright as a spirit of God. O Russia, Russia! whither goest thou?"

Thursday, May 2, 2013

soaring high above all other geniuses in the world

Happy the writer who, passing by characters that are boring, disgusting, shocking in their mournful reality, approaches characters that manifest the lofty dignity of man, who from the great pool of daily whirling images has chosen only the rare exceptions, who has never once betrayed the exalted turning of his lyre, nor descended from his height to his poor, insignificant brethren, and, without touching the ground, has given the whole of himself to his elevated images so far removed from it. Twice enviable is his beautiful lot: he is among them as in his own family; and meanwhile his fame spreads loud and far. With entrancing smoke he has clouded people's eyes; he has flattered them wondrously, concealing what is mournful in life, showing them a beautiful man. Everything rushes after him, applauding, and flies off following his triumphal chariot. Great world poet they name him, soaring high above all other geniuses in the world, as the eagle soars above the other high fliers. At the mere mention of his name, young ardent hearts are filled with trembling, responsive tears shine in all eyes...No one equals him in power--he is God! But such is not the lot, and other is the destiny of the writer who has dared to call forth all that is before our eyes every moment and which our indifferent eyes do not see--all the stupendous mire of trivia in which our life in entangled, the whole depth of cold, fragmented, everyday characters that swarm over our often bitter and boring earthly path, and with the firm strength of his implacable chisel dares to present them roundly and vividly before the eyes of all people! It is not for him to win people's applause, not for him to behold the grateful tears and unanimous rapture of the souls he has stirred; no sixteen-year-old girl will come flying to meet him with her head in a whirl and heroic enthusiasm; it is not for him to forget himself in the sweet enchantment of sounds he himself has evoked; it is not for him, finally, to escape contemporary judgment, hypocritically callous contemporary judgment, which will call insignificant and mean the creations he has fostered, will allot him a contemptible corner in the ranks of writers who insult mankind, will ascribe to him the quality of the heroes he has portrayed, will deny him heart, and soul, and the divine flame of talent. For contemporary judgment does not recognize that equally wondrous are the glasses that observe the sun and those that look at the movement of inconspicuous insect; for contemporary judgment does not recognize that much depth of soul is needed to light up the picture drawn from contemptible life and elevate it into a pearl of creation; for contemporary judgment does not recognize that lofty ecstatic laughter is worthy to stand beside the lofty lyrical impulse, and that a whole abyss separates it from the antics of the street-fair clown! This contemporary judgment does not recognize; and will turn it all into a reproach and abuse of the unrecognized writer; with no sharing, no response, no sympathy, like a familyless wayfarer, he will be left alone in the middle of the road. Grim is his path, and bitterly he will feel his solitude.

― Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls, Chapter VII 

This passage is in Guerney's translation of the novel, but curiously it's not in Hogarth's. Gogol here is refusing to apologize for making his protagonist, Chichikov, a realistic rather than a heroic character. Good on Gogol. No naive fairy tales with easily-understood moral victories on the final page as writ for naive readers, not from Nikolai.