Friday, June 28, 2013

Finnegans

Earwicker
Eire wicker
Eire waker
Ireland waker

That should've been obvious from page one, but it wasn't. Also, the closer the reader is brought to an actual description of HCE's crime, the more opaque the language becomes. The crime is never really made clear. Possibly because HCE, who is dreaming all of this, isn't quite sure of what he's really guilty, but he has an overwhelming feeling of guilt anyway.

It did not help that what I thought was a description of the crime turned out to be a description of a page of the Book of Kells. Good one, Jimmy.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

I guess this is someday: coming to the end of Finnegans Wake

So Anna Porter is awake and checking on her three children: Kevin, Jerry and Isobel. Mr Porter, whose first name may be Humphrey but is probably not, has shut off the lamp and gone back to sleep. Kevin, Jerry and Isobel are quite young yet, so the stories of Shem as a writer and Shaun as—I think—a postman and Izzy as a nun are all dreams of the future that Mr Porter is having, I guess. Kevin and Jerry might be teens; it’s hard to say how old anyone is here, but as I approach the final chapter of Finnegans Wake, a lot of the action is being explained; a lot of sense is pouring into the narrative. I blame it on Anna Livia Plurabelle Porter having left the bedroom where her husband sulks after his middle-of-the-night sexual advances were rebuffed by Anna. I pause here to note that the marriage bed has been an important character all the way through the novel, the four great bedposts taking on the forms of four men who descend again and again on Mr Porter to accuse and judge him of all manner of crimes. This bed, with these four bedposts personified variously as drunks in a bar, judges on the bench and the authors of the four gospels, gives Finnegans Wake a kind of kinship with the Odyssey, where the marriage bed, the architectural and emotional center of Ulysses' and Penelope's house, plays such an important role. I find this interesting. It's tempting to call Finnegans Wake a version of Ulysses, too.

Finnegans Wake is said to be a book that people worship from afar, that nobody actually reads, and of course that’s hogwash because if you spend just a little bit of time you can find all sorts of commentary written by all sorts of people who’ve read the book. It is not “readable” in the traditional sense, no, but it is a performance anyone can witness. I admit that the middle 200 pages were some heavy going, much like the middle pages of Moby-Dick; and like Moby-Dick, the last third of Finnegans Wake is a richer experience for being prefaced by all of that heavy going middle. Aha, I say, oho I get it I see I do see. So this is, I suppose, a book which presents some considerable difficulty for the reader and might not welcome a reader who puts his expectations ahead of the experience of the novel. Finnegans Wake is not what you think it is, but then again no good book is what you think it is. Every great work of literature surprises us and confounds our expectations and refuses in large measure to be what we want it to be; it insists on being itself instead—it insists on being something bigger than we are, bigger than the writer is, something that doesn’t give a fig how we feel about it. Finnegans Wake, kids, is a great book. I have about 60 pages left to read. I don’t know how anything I read after this will seem remotely interesting.

And yet, I have an enormous TBR pile, with new additions made weekly, much more quickly than I can read the damned things. This weekend I picked up a copy of Anzia Yezierska’s 1925 novel The Breadgivers, mostly because D.G. Myers has raved about the book. I should read it soon, so that if I don’t like the novel, I will have time to complain to Myers before he dies. I have a feeling that when he is very sick indeed, Myers will begin to recommend excruciatingly awful books, as a joke. Perhaps he’s already doing that. Have you seen his blog lately?

I’m also reading James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. Boswell does his best to paint Johnson as a creative genius, but the eccentric crankiness of Samuel keeps bleeding through between the lines. It’s a fun book, this Life. It was an impulse buy, but also one of those books I always figured I’d read someday. I guess this is someday.

Last night I picked up a recent novel by a young American writer and read the first twenty or so pages. I don’t think I’ll read this book, and I won’t say what book it is, but I will say that like a lot of American first novels, this is a collection of striving-for-over-the-top “edgy” images that scream “outsider” and not much else. Yes, it sucks to be bright and sensitive and alienated. I have read this book too many times by too many debut authors. Writers so often think they’ve discovered pain--a pain about which no one has ever written--and they are somehow misled into thinking that by writing about this personal pain, they are breaking new creative ground. But “life sucks” is not particularly interesting as a theme. Life does suck in a lot of ways, sure, but writing a novel with a first-person narrator who declares “MY life sucks, pay fucking attention while I list all my most embarrassing moments for you” is not, my children, doing something new. Please find something else about which to write. My own first novel, written some 20 or so years ago, was just this sort of thing, full of earnest pain and anger and a big theme involving religion and (of course) a delusional first-person narrator, but I had the good sense to drown that book while it was young and bury its corpse in the back yard, beneath the roses.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The rest is marketing, continued

David Myers, critic and literary historian at the Melton Center for Jewish Studies at the Ohio State University (and author of the definitive history of creative writing), has reviewed my novel The Astrologer on his Commonplace Blog. "The delight of reading it lies in the discovery and tracing of Bailey’s scheme." So go read it, already. Some spoilers, I warn you.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Transcendental Update

Very soon there will be official cover art for my upcoming novel The Transcendental Detective (November 2013 release!), and it's looking to be a pretty swell cover. Mel is really doing a great job (so are you, Rhett) and she disguises her understandable annoyance with the fussy and interfering author (so do you, Rhett). Anyway, as soon as there is a final design and I have permission from my publisher, I'll post the cover here. It's very American Modernist, which fits the book.

Meanwhile, I have to ask some other writers to read and possibly blurb the novel. I am not sure what the point of blurbs is; I don't read them when I'm shopping for books and in fact I almost never read them even after I've taken the book home. Do readers give blurbs much weight? I have no idea, really I don't. The blurbs I got for The Astrologer were lovely and a lot of fun, and certainly it's a nice ego boost for the author to see praise for his novel. Certainly publishers like to have people say nice things about books they're publishing.

In other meanwhile news, yesterday I finished writing Chapter Two of the first draft of The Hanging Man, which is intended to be a sequel to The Transcendental Detective, which is a book you haven't read. Chapter Three of The Hanging Man will largely concern France in the 1920s and circuses in the 1930s. Amusement tax and Social Security tax and organized labor and that sort of thing. Of course there is still the mystery of the hanging man to be investigated, and there is also a bear named Charles, and some funny business with a train schedule.

Book III of Finnegans Wake is marvelous, by the way. I am annoyed that I'm not able to sit and read it right now.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Go, and never return! Nikogda!

Mighty Reader and I are making our way through the 7-hour adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevski's Bratya Karamazova on DVD. We've seen five of the 12 (I think) episodes. It's not a perfect adaptation, and of course every reader of the novel is going to have his own ideas about the story, the characters, et cetera. The subtitling is also not brilliant, often slipping into literal word-for-word translations that make us laugh. But on the whole, the acting is pretty good and the production values are quite high, and 19th-century Russia is much prettier than I always imagined. But what I really wanted to say are two things:

1. The director has truly caught the frenetic nature of Dostoyevski's narrative; people fly around rooms, leaping from chair to sofa to chair, voices raised, glasses of sherry and cognac and vodka thrown back left and right, champagne flutes smashed to the floor. Excellent, I say. Characters storm from houses and across fields, marvelously angry and confused, blind to everything but their own desire and frustration, well done indeed.

2. The director, or the actors, or the screenwriter, or all of them, have captured the essential confused striving of Dostoyevski's world. Nobody is certain of the truth, and if anyone claims to be speaking the truth he knows he is probably lying to himself and his listener but that self-serving lie is all he has to build his life upon, but still he knows it's not the truth and what is necessary is, after all, some sort of certainty but none is forthcoming and so there is misery and yes, I will have another glass of vodka, spasiba vam bolshoy.

The "Grand Inquisitor" episode was well done, though quite too short. I'd have given over an entire 45-minute episode to it, instead of the 15 or so minutes it gets. As we all know, the "Grand Inquisitor" chapter of The Brothers Karamazov is one of the finest things Dostoyevski ever wrote. I couldn't hide my delight when the Inquisitor used the familiar form of address ("ti" rather than "vi") with Christ; that's something you miss if you read the book in English. I assume it was true to the book, anyway. Someday, maybe, I'll read The Brothers Karamazov in Russian. That would be a hoot.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

like water parted from the sea

Dour douchy was a sieguldson. He cood that loud nor he was young. He cud bad caw nor he was gray Like wather parted from the say.

For be all rules of sport 'tis right That youth bedower'd to charm the night Whilst age is dumped to mind the day When wather parted from the say.

From Dancingtree till Suttonstone Theres lads no lie would filch a crown To mull their sack and brew their tay With wather parted from the say.

His bludgeon's bruk, his drum is tore. For spuds we'll keep the hat he wore And roll in clover in his clay By wather parted from the say.

The gangstairs strain and anger's up As Hoisty rares the can and cup To speed the bogre's barque away O'er water parted from the say.

The letter that ALP writes accusing her husband HCE of a sex crime, the letter she is urged to write by her son Shem the Penman, may well be this book itself, this thing called Finnegans Wake. If Shem is Joyce. Ireland is his mother, Dublin his father, Man an evil thing on the back of the Earth, brawling and lying and thieving and raping, and the Earth can only testify to the evil done her, but she cannot stop it. Maybe, for Shem's mother is also Eve, who tempted Adam? Anna Livia Plurabelle who put ribbons in her hair and wanted all the boys to notice her at the market, to fight over her? The question of guilt runs all through Finnegans Wake, and everyone accuses HCE, even his wife, even his sons, even Ireland, but is he worse than them, and is the accusation even true, or is it a dream of Shem's, to undo his father, to undo Dublin?

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Wilburton is not a passenger stop

Another provisional excerpt from The Hanging Man:

Patience climbed up three wooden steps and stood at the western edge of the platform, which was nearly fifty feet long from end to end. The station house was dark but for a single light in the office, shining through a small, dirty window. A man in a dark suit with a pale shirt and no hat paced back and forth along the eastern end of the platform, taking small steps ten feet in one direction, gazing momentarily at the stopped train and then shuffling ten feet the other way, to the back of the platform. Patience did not like the man or his poorly-concealed desperation. She knew that a desperate man was often dangerous. Wilburton is not a passenger stop, the porter had said. Patience wondered who or what this man could be waiting for. She remembered how, in 1933, a man in a dark suit had waited at the small station in Bamako for a train scheduled to pause there only long enough to take on water and coal. The waiting man, when the train arrived early in the afternoon, threw himself onto the tracks and slithered under one of the passenger cars. Beneath his dark suit the man wore a waistcoat made of dynamite and blasting caps, and his hand gripped a small detonator powered by a magnesium battery. In the passenger car, which was destroyed by the blast, had been the deputy minister of culture with his family—a wife and three children, the youngest sleeping in a crib—as well as thirty-nine other travelers, all en route to Dakar for a holiday. The Algerian army burned four Arab villages to the ground in reprisal, though of course no one knew who the waiting man was or from where he had come. Things were very tense in Algiers for many months afterward. Ali had been of the opinion that the exploding man was an Egyptian rather than an Algerian. Patience Quince believed, though she could not prove it, that the man who blew up the train in Bamako was a desperate lover, and he’d died attempting to murder a rival suitor to some woman or other. Patience further believed that the rival suitor was likely not on the train, or at least not in the passenger car which was destroyed. Desperate men in love, experience had shown, were rarely careful planners of violent crimes. The Algerian minister of culture, his wife and children, thirty-nine other passengers and eleven train crew as well as two innocent dogs that hung around the station, had all died terrible deaths because a desperate man had no idea what to do but found it imperative he do something. Patience scowled down the platform at the pacing man. She did not like him at all.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

THE HANGING MAN, an excerpt from Chapter One

When she had known Ali for only a few weeks, the two of them had driven from Algiers into the desert to the south, over and through the red stone hills into a land of glowing sand, white streaked with sunflower yellow. They had left the police station hurriedly, forgetting their map and canteens and after driving for three hours without encountering the village they sought, Patience Quince and her Arab interpreter Ali ibn Mustafa al-Agba were irritable and parched.

“I will perish,” Patience said. “My death will be a permanent blot upon your service record, Ali.”

“Nonsense,” Ali said, and he turned the car off the road, driving across hard flat sand wastes to a dark spot in the distance that dissolved and resolved in the wavering hot desert air until they were close enough that Patience recognized it as an oasis, a cluster of palm trees and large stones. Ali parked the car in a starburst shadow beneath a palm and he led Patience between the rough white boulders to a still blue pond surrounded by rushes within the swaying circle of tall palms. Ali, in his tan linen suit and black civil service necktie, lay on the pond’s bank and bent his face to the surface of the water and drank.

“It is cool and delicious,” he said. “Let it be put down on my service record that I have saved your life, Detective.”

“Let us hope neither of us regrets it,” Patience said, and dropped to the ground beside Ali, snaking forward and lowering her lips to the cool, delicious water of the oasis.

All the usual caveats about this being rough, etc.