Monday, September 23, 2013

he took a fresh sheet of paper and began

The profession of writing never produced a more assiduous and methodical practitioner than Anthony Trollope. He scheduled in advance the number of words which he proposed to exact from himself week by week and month by month. He entered in his diary his daily progress to make sure that he delivered. Early in the morning, at 5:30, after his coffee, during one long period of his life, he sat down resolutely at his desk and wrote for three hours. He did not stare at the wall or gaze out the window or pace the floor; he put words on paper—250 of them every fifteen minutes. At the end of three hours he ended his session and proceeded to his duties with the Post Office. When he traveled, he wrote on trains or aboard ship with the same relentless perseverance. If he finished one manuscript in the middle of his apportioned writing period, he took a fresh sheet of paper and began the next.

from page ix of the introduction, by Harlan Hatcher, to the Modern Library edition of Barchester Towers and The Warden by Anthony Trollope. Bear in mind also that Trollope had a full time job at the Post Office, a job that involved much travel and the writing of long and tedius reports. We also learn from Mr Hatcher that the combined sales of Trollope's first three novels during their first five years in print was fewer than a thousand copies.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

but the travel writing is good stuff

Few things are duller than writers blogging about writing, and this post promises to be quite dull indeed, so if you are one of my three devoted regular readers, you may freely skip the rest of this and go find something more amusing on the internet. I hear there's some fuss over Franzen and his immense ego, or you could join the tail end of the "holy crap books" debate on twitter, or you could go read about the lunacy that is Swinburne (and his rock star hair) over on Wuthering Expectations. Or you could go play angry birds, which I am told is an online video game although to the best of my knowledge I have never seen the thing. What you don't want to do is waste your time here, is my point.

My novel The Astrologer is going out of print in early October. I don't have a firm date; it will depend on when my publisher officially reverts the rights to me. It will be strange to have been a published author for six months and then, suddenly, to not be. Well, I suppose I will remain a published author, I just won't have a book in print. Hang onto those copies of the novel; they will be worth something someday, I promise you.

I'm reading Agatha Christie's 1938 "Poirot" mystery Appointment With Death. The structure is interesting, especially for a "golden age" detective novel: at page 100, no cime has been committed, though of course we know who the stiff is going to be (although Christie might surprise us, which would be delightful and I hope she does). Hercule Poirot, the detective, drifts quietly along in the distant background of the story, which is also a nice choice by Christie. He's walked through two scenes and interacted with almost nobody, but the reader is aware that he is around. The dramatic writing and characterizations are not brilliant here, but the travel writing (the novel is built around a trip to Palestine, or rather around the intersection of several parties' vacation trips through the Holy Land) is good stuff, all vivid and sharp with colors and textures and emotion. The pathetic fallacy is all over these pages (damn you, Ruskin, for that perjorative; the animation of landscapes and objects is not a failure in prose or poetry, ya big doofus) (if it was Ruskin who coined that term). I have always enjoyed the digressions Christie took in her novels. You can tell that she enjoyed them, too.

My own detective novel in progress, The Hanging Man, is paused in the middle of Chapter 9. The scene that I've just begun to write is pivotal, and I need to think for a bit about the dramatic arc. Once I finish this scene, the book should be pretty quickly finished, all precipitous action and denoument in three chapters of mayhem and dust storm. Three or four weeks at most, I hope.

After I finish The Hanging Man, I am not sure what I'll do, in the way of being a writer of novels. I had planned to work on what I have loosely referred to as "the Haydn novel" or else on something called Nowhere But North. These are two books I've been mulling around and talking about for a couple of years. This morning it occured to me that I might not write either of them. I might work on something else; the call of this something else is getting to be quite loud, and I always write whatever novel most strongly demands my attention. I think, in other words, that I've made a decision about the sort of books I want to write and that sort of book does not include the historical fiction I've been planning. I have rather been avoiding contemporary stories but now I believe I'm going to focus on a story set in the present. I've got ideas about the relationship of now to then, you see. Well, you might see. We'll see.

Friday, September 13, 2013

"although he still evaded me, I have ever followed in his track" Stalking God in Shelley's Frankenstein

The monster reads Milton:

It moved every feeling of wonder and awe that the picture of an omnipotent God warring with his creatures was capable of exciting. I often referred the several situations, as their similarity struck me, to my own. Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with and acquire knowledge from beings of a superior nature, but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition, for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.

The monster might see himself in Satan, but Shelley conflates Satan with Adam. She also conflates Satan with Prometheus, both enchained and punished after their fall, but the conflation also includes the idea of God the Creator of Man, enchained to the earth and eaten away at by his creation. Man is Satan, is Adam, is Prometheus. God is Satan, all very Blakean. The thing about the metaphysics of Frankenstein is that it is all very much earthbound and all very interlocked and confused. All of creation, including the Creator Himself, is violent and petty, wishing for love and happiness but in the end alienated and persecuted by the works of His own hand. There's a futility to Shelley's universe, an impossibility of movement forward to some greater end.

The creator dies, destroyed by the pursuit of his creation. The monster stands over the corpse of his maker and mourns, his life now utterly without purpose. Frankenstein's life was ruined as soon as he created life; the monster's life was ruined as soon as he realized that he was alone and despised. All of these characters are intended, I think, to point to God and mankind.

But what I was going to say is that Frankenstein is all about God, but the universe Shelley has created is devoid of God, of the Christian God. When Victor Frankenstein kneels in the cemetery over the graves of his murdered family, he prays not to Jehovah but to "the sacred earth on which I kneel, by the shades that wander near me, by the deep and eternal grief that I feel, I swear; and by thee, O Night, and the spirits that preside over thee." Shelley's world is a pagan world, and via her prose it's a world alive, moody and responsive to the actions of its inhabitants. And yet, at the same time, Shelley shakes an angry fist at the indifference of Heaven.

This is a novel about punishment, about guilt and repercussions. Men are forever arresting and hanging the wrong "murderers" while the true perpetrators go free to do more damage. It's impossible to say if Victor Frankenstein, the stand in for God here, was right in his refusal to build a mate for the monster. Frankenstein was horrified by what he'd wrought and spends the bulk of his narrative turn bemoaning his own fate, with each murder committed by his creature he beats his breast and complains of the torture his soul undergoes, as if he is the true victim. That's quite an indictment of the Creator. There is no divine being anywhere in this novel. There are, as I said way up above in this too-long post, gods and monsters and men all rolled into one, all devouring each other until the last one climbs onto the funeral pyre he's built for himself. A real downer, man. But a pretty good novel. Not entirely unlike the Leonardo Sciascia novel To Each His Own that I'm currently reading. Sciascia also builds a bleak world where nobody's hands are clean and nobody's motives are pure. But I was supposed to read more Chekhov after Frankenstein, wasn't I?

Wait: there's something in that comparison, of Chekhov to Shelley. Chekhov, pessimist that he was, had a deep love for humanity. I don't find that in Frankenstein, which is a dismissive story, casting all of us into the pit. But Shelley was barely 19 when she wrote her novel, and she was writing a sort of polemic while hanging out with Percy and Lord Byron. You know what they were like. I'll have to see, maybe someday, what else came from Shelley's pen when she was older.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

"I must pause here, for it requires all my fortitude to recall the memory of the frightful events which I am about to relate, in proper detail, to my recollection."

I continue to read Mary Shelley's short novel Frankenstein. Victor is an ass, and the irony meter is off the scale when he bemoans his fate. He wanders about, indecisive in a Hamletesque manner, for almost a year before...well, continuing to be an ass. If he's Prometheus, I'll eat my hat.

I continue to write the draft of the alleged detective novel The Hanging Man. Yesterday I finished Chapter 8. Today I wrote a brief outline of Chapter 9. The cops get together and drink a lot. I have no idea what will happen with this book after I write it. Probably nothing.

I continue to also have no idea what will happen to The Astrologer when the fine folks at Rhemalda Publishing shut their doors for good. I have no interest in self-publishing it, but through some quirks of contract law, that would mean there would be an audiobook version of it on the market for seven years while no print version of the book exists. Which would be odd, but the universe is an odd place.

There are several early versions of the book that became The Astrologer, some of them very different from what Rhemalda printed. I've had a look at the one called So Honest A Man and it was a fine little book. It's strange to write books that only one or two people will ever read. Some day, maybe, there will be a volume that has The Astrologer, So Honest A Man, Elsinore and possibly Killing Hamlet. That would be fun. A lot of work for a silly novel about "Hamlet," I know. I lack all critical distance from any of these books, so I can't tell you if any of them is any good. The scenes at the University of Wittenberg are good, and Astrid as Horatio's wife was a good character, and young Fortinbras exhibiting the behavior of a wolf was good stuff, too. And all the blue in Ophelia's madness in the early versions; that was quite clever of me.

Anyway, Victor Frankenstein is an ass but I'm almost finished with his sorry tale. I continue with Rabelais, that old drunk. I think I'm going to read Volume 13 of the Garnett Chekhov soon. It's been too long since Anton and I spent any time together. Mighty Reader got me a fine edition of Chekhov's Sakhalin Island for my birthday, and I look forward to reading that. There are a lot of good books to read.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

"It is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original era of my being" Mary Shelley versus Jehovah

Mary Shelley's short novel Frankenstein is less about monsters than it is about gods. Shelley gave her novel the subtitle "A Modern Prometheus," and certainly young Victor Frankenstein creates a man and steals fire (the spark of life) to bring his man into being. Certainly, also, Frankenstein is punished for his hubris, although the means of his punishment is his own creation rather than an agent of the gods. And that's where things get interesting and confused.

Frankenstein claims to be a reworking of the Prometheus myth, but it's closer in spirit and in content to Paradise Lost, or perhaps the Book of Job and the Book of Genesis. The story is not of a man who betrays the gods and is therefore punished. The story is of a god who betrays his creation. Frankenstein (that is to say, Mary Shelley) indirectly questions what obligations God has to Adam (and the rest of us descendants of Adam). I will illustrate this with excerpts from Chapter 10, where Frankenstein speaks to his monster for the first time. The narrator of these passages is Frankenstein.

"Devil," I exclaimed, "do you dare approach me? And do not you fear the fierce vengeance of my arm wreaked on your miserable head? Begone, vile insect! Or rather, stay, that I may trample you to dust! And, oh! That I could, with the extinction of your miserable existence, restore those victims whom you have so diabolically murdered!"

Note if you will the tone of chastisement Frankenstein uses with his monster. This is very like the Old Testament Jehovah. Note also, however, the impotence of the rage and the emptiness of the threats. Frankenstein is a small sickly man, while the monster is a giant who could easily crush his maker.

"I expected this reception," said the daemon. "All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us. You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my conditions, I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends."

There is also a thread of the theme of youthful mistakes coming back to haunt us later that runs through the narrative. Possibly Shelley is thinking of a bastard child who confronts his father, the child being a hated thing, dehumanized in the eyes of the father. Frankenstein's building of the monster is more or less something he does in college, a brief obsession while he's studying chemistry and natural philosophy. It's all about the idea, the the science behind it all, for Frankenstein. He never stops to consider that he's actually creating a living being who will continue past the conclusion of his experiment. But the monster is living that continued life, and demands his due. "Do your duty towards me." The monster says more:

"I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king if thou wilt also perform thy part, the which thou owest me. Oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due. Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous."

Happiness, then. Does God owe us happiness, since He created us? Shelley would imply, maybe, that God owes us something, but is indifferent to our suffering. If Frankenstein is any kind of allegory, then I think we are meant to side with the monster against our indifferent God, who makes us and then looses us into the world naked and in pain. God could alleviate our suffering and give us dignity, but He does not. Mary Shelley is an angry author, an angry 19 year-old woman.

Frankenstein, the maker of life, has no idea how to respond to his creation.

"You have left me no power to consider whether I am just to you or not. Begone! Relieve me from the sight of your detested form."

"Thus I relieve thee, my creator," he said, and placed his hated hands before my eyes.

It is a certainty that I am as usual late to the party, and that all of this has been observed many times before, and put much better by many previous writers. But this is what I got. It's a pretty good book, is what I'm telling you.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Chapter Three, "The Haydn Book," possible excerpt

Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna (deceased)

My darlings, you have no idea what terrible things they used to say about me before I was beheaded. They compared me to Messalina, Brunhilda, Fredegund and Catherine Medici. I have met Mademoiselle Messalina, and you cannot believe anything you may have read about her. Those little men at my trial described me as a scourge, sucking the blood of the French, and implied that I had midnight meetings with supernatural beings as if I were a sorceress. I leave it to you to decide if you will believe an honest Christian woman, wife and mother, or if you will believe an aging lunatic, a parasite who slept with an axe under his pillow and an armed guard at his bedchamber door, so afraid was he of those very peasants his revolution was going to elevate to noble status. The Revolutionary Tribunal was a circus of character assassination and nothing more, excuses by petty little men for committing murders by the hundreds. Did the Roman soldiers who drove the nails into the palms of our Savior become suddenly His betters? They did not, my darlings. They did not. Here I am of course beyond such pettiness, here beyond the arcing sun as it parades far above the face of the earth, here in the glow of Him. I am quite beyond the peevishness of wagging tongues, my darlings. But oh, I must tell you that I have as yet failed to grow beyond sadness, which must mean I retain my human compassion, which I claim as a mark of saintliness. That is not merely a prideful remark: I cast my gaze down upon the beloved cities of Paris and Vienna where such awful events transpire and my heart is encased in a chill as tears come forth unbeckoned. My family, you see. My friends. My everything, all wet with blood. But men have always been idiots. What could I have been expecting, you might well ask. Well, that's precisely what they did ask me, isn't it? Who was it who asked me that? I forget, I confess. It all seems so long ago now, so distant from where I recline, suspended in His holy grace. I have my head and beautiful tresses; what does it matter by whom I was so insolently interrogated? And now here I see that I've been completely absorbed with gossiping tongues and have told you nothing of that which I meant to tell. I beg your forgiveness, my darlings. I shall begin anew, as I've so often done. A moment, I beseech you. Just a moment.

A little rough, but that's the idea, I think.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

We are mayflies, etc etc

This morning’s vexing news is that Rhemalda Publishing, the very sweet folks who published my debut novel The Astrologer and had planned to publish my philosophical detective novel The Transcendental Detective in November of this year, are closing up shop. It’s a rough world for small presses and after three years and a couple dozen titles, Rhett and Emmaline have had enough. Good luck and God bless them, those plucky kids from central Washington.

What this means for me is that The Transcendental Detective no longer has a home. The rights revert back to me and I can do what I like with it, and there are a couple of other small presses I’m looking at, so we’ll just see what happens there. No promises. Also, The Astrologer will go out of print, probably sometime in January 2014. If you want to buy a copy, now is the time to do it. Me, I’m running to the University Book Store at lunch and picking up every copy they have on the shelves. I tell myself that one day they will be valuable collector’s items. Or tinder, if the winters get colder and snowier.

In the meanwhile, I continue to write the first draft of The Hanging Man, the sequel to The Transcendental Detective, because I really like the book so far and I’ve promised Mighty Reader something new by Christmas. I also have several other irons in the fire, and I have vague plans to write more short stories, or possibly a couple of wee novellas, in 2014. Not sure; we’ll see.

I confess myself quite exhausted today. The three-day “Labor Day” weekend was spent constructing and erecting a 13-foot picket fence out of recycled lumber. All of the pickets were individually cut down from much wider boards, and if I never hear the sound of a circular saw again, I shall be a happy man. If I can get a photo of the fence from Mighty Reader, I’ll post it here later.

Later: This is not a great photo of me, but it's a pretty good picture of the fence: