Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Melville Price

I did not know, until a minute ago, that Melville Price was the name of an actual person, an expressionist painter who died in 1970. I am writing something called "Melville Price's Atlas Of," and I named my character after Herman Melville and the Price (originally Preiss) family in another of my novels. Now, I don't know. Color me quite surprised. I'll probably change "Price" to something else. Maybe "Preiss," but that's not likely. Hrmm, hrmm, etc. Hrmm. I confess myself vexed.

It will be necessary to come up with a new name. I'm keeping "Melville," damn it. But what for "Price?"

Melville King?
Melville Preiss?
Melville Nabokov?
Melville Melville?
Melville Beckett?
Melville Green?
Melville Half-Price?

It's a poser, and no mistaking.

Edit to add: December 2, and Melville's new last name is Hart. We'll see if that sticks. I do not like the way the vowel sounds carry forward from the "a" in Hart as well as I liked it from the "i" in Price. Vowel sounds, rhythm and stress are all important to me when constructing prose. I have a hard time making people understand this.

Monday, November 25, 2013

there are pictures of cats and goats

This is one of those posts that reinforces my reputation for being a dull man who talks primarily about himself as a novelist. I write it only to help myself think through a couple of things. You are encouraged to stop reading now and find something more interesting on the internet. I hear there are pictures of cats and goats to be seen.

I find myself working on a number of projects right now, which would normally be disorienting because I enjoy focused activities rather than what is termed “multi-tasking” (an ugly, hateful word). Yet here I am, with multiple projects underway. Possibly I’m able to divide my attention because I don’t so much write with the goal of publication anymore, so it doesn’t matter if I spend the rest of my life poking about with a bunch of unfinished novels. Perhaps that will become my art form. There is a grand tradition of that sort of writing already.

The item at the top of my imaginary “to do as a novelist” list is finishing the first of who-knows-how-many revisions of my newest novel, The Hanging Man (once upon a time called Circus in the Dust). I’m about 25% of the way through that. It seems to be a good book. We’ll see. There is a lot of cigarette smoking in it. Some days the novel strikes me as annoyingly artificial in the way that Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is annoyingly artificial, where every event and character is a stand in for some thematic idea, and everything is tightly controlled and aimed in the same direction. That control, that aiming of things, was once my idea of a proper way to write a novel, but lately I have my doubts. Why should there be a certain expected form for a novel? Why isn’t this applied to the other arts? I know that it is, that there are people who reject all painting that isn’t representational, for instance, but most art lovers don’t take those people seriously. Yet people can make claims that a novel must have a particular sort of integration of elements in order to be well-formed, must accomplish certain specific goals to label itself “a story,” and that sort of thing, and people say this all with straight faces as if it’s axiomatic. Which it is not. Anyway, I am pushing and pulling at my most recent manuscript and wondering if it’s too much the sort of novel in which I am rapidly losing faith as a writer. We’ll see how that goes.

Waiting in the wings is another new manuscript, a long novella called Mona in the Desert, which right now is in pretty much rough first-draft shape. It will require some considerable work to turn into something I will consider readable. I have been struggling for six months or so to come up with a plan for the revisions to that book. I don’t actually know what to do with it. It pleases me a great deal, and it displeases me a great deal. I’m not sure how to rid it of the displeasures it provides, to replace them with more pleasures. It’s quite vexing I assure you. I have a long list of ideas that I’m sure will not work. Possibly I’ll begin work on revisions to Mona in January or February.

I’m actually, I realize, writing something new during all of this. I wrote the opening couple of chapters of something, some long piece of fiction that might be a lengthy story or a novella or even a novel—no idea which yet—during the first days of the trip Mighty Reader and I took to Prague and Vienna in October. I have plenty of probably good ideas for what to do with that fiction, and I think I’ll keep poking away at it while I work on everything else I’m working on. You can see the bits of this new thing that I’ve so far typed up if you click on the tab marked “Melville Price’s Atlas Of” at the top of the page. There’s plenty more I haven’t typed up. I am not aware that I have an overall structure planned for this piece. It seems pretty clear, however, how it should be written out, so I’m just writing it as I go along. I don’t see any problems with that plan. Or non-plan, I guess.

Surprisingly, I also find myself reading a bunch of nonfiction in order to research the “Manhattan” section of the long-awaited (by one person only, but hey, that’s something) novel Nowhere But North. I’m reading about Greenwich Village in 1910 or so. Henry James might get a cameo appearance in this book, if I’m feeling particularly wicked. You never know. Nowhere But North has a complex, carefully-mapped-out structure which, I realized, will make it easier rather than harder to draft. It’s actually four separate sections that overlap but can be written as four separate sections so it won’t require the sort of sustained concentration my previous first drafts have taken. I can work on it in 10,000-word chunks, which for me is a pretty leisurely pace. There are ten 10,000-word chunks to this narrative. 10,000 words is like two chapters for me. So piece of cake. I don’t know if I’ll actually begin to write prose for Nowhere But North while I’m poking about with Melville Price’s Atlas Of. I don’t see why I can’t.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

"the night's smother of warmth": inaccurate statements about A Death At The White Camellia Orphanage

A couple of days ago I finished Marly Youmans' beautiful 2012 novel A Death At The White Camellia Orphanage. I come here not to review the book, except to say that it's a wonderful novel and I recommend it to you. I can't review it because not only do I not know how to write a proper review, I'm not sure what to say about the novel. I don't know how to talk about it without diminishing it.

On the surface, Youmans has written a sort of picaresque bildungsroman, the story of a young boy cast adrift into the world to find his way, to have adventures of love and loss, and to learn that the world contains all that is evil and all that is good. And ADATWCO works on that level. The young protagonist, Pip Tatnall, journeys across America and grows from child to young man (or from young boy to older boy, I suppose is more accurate). He solves the mystery of his younger brother Otto's murder and is reconnected with his own family. So the book works very well on the surface level, on the level of "what happens next?" It's a solid tale, quite pleasingly told, and even if Youmans doesn't give us the traditional coming-of-age story arc, the narrative has a satisfying shape to it. No, no: let me rephrase that. Youmans gives us a nontraditional story arc, which surprises and succeeds entirely.

But ADATWCO is more than that. There is a spiritual underpinning to the novel that is perhaps less easy to discuss than the characters, setting and plot, though I would claim this spritual underpinning is by far the more important part of the book. The Christian images pile slowly up and the symbolic net is drawn tighter as the novel progresses, and Youmans' best formal trick--the palindromic structure of important thematic elements--becomes the shape of the entire novel, the theme of the whole work. I'm not sure how much of that to talk about. The first shall be the last. What is low shall be raised high, etc. The Alpha and the Omega. The prodigal son, the Church as home, the Father as father, Mary as mother and home and church, etc. It's all there, all subtle and below the surface. Youmans never browbeats you with her message, and the novel, as I say, or should have said by now, works beautifully on this symbolic level just as it works beautifully on the surface level. It's quite a feat.

Anyway, I'm not sure at all how to talk about this book, because it can be viewed happily from several angles, and I worry that a discussion of the foundation of faith upon which the story of Pip Tatnall is built will be somehow off-putting for potential readers. A Death At the White Camellia Orphanage is not Pilgrim's Progress; it's not didactic or moralistic. It is, however, a deeply moral book, written in gorgeous glittering prose, entirely earthbound in its story and not afraid of poking into the dark corners of real life but also fearlessly--if in a more subtle way--pointing away from that darkness. If wherever God dwells is therefore His temple, then the whole of the universe is a temple, and the temple is filled with both good and evil, yet is entirely holy and we are always in His presence; and so we are always home if we only look up and take note of that fact. That's something, that's some trick. I am sure I mis-state Marly Youmans' themes here. That shouldn't stop you from buying and reading her novel.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

"A Tale of Seven Lamps" or "The Two Cities of Architecture"

During the summer of 1851, Dickens' reading "took in all the minor tales as well as the plays of Voltaire, several of the novels (old favorites with him) of Paul de Kock, Ruskin's Lamps of Architecture, and a surprising number of books of African and other travel for which he had an insatiable relish."

(from John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens, Volume II, 439-440)

There is a vast quantity of idle energy among European nations at this time, which ought to go into handicrafts; there are multitudes of idle semi-gentlemen who ought to be shoemakers and carpenters;

(from John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Chapter VII. Published May 1849. Ruskin is here talking about the French aristocracy.)

The garret, built to be a depository for firewood and the like, was dim and dark: for, the window of dormer shape, was in truth a door in the roof, with a little crane over it for the hoisting up of stores from the street: unglazed, and closing up the middle in two pieces, like any other door of French construction. To exclude the cold, one half of this door was fast closed, and the other was opened but a very little way. Such a scanty portion of light was admitted through these means, that it was difficult, on first coming in, to see anything; and long habit alone could have slowly formed in any one, the ability to do any work requiring nicety in such obscurity. Yet, work of that kind was being done in the garret; for, with his back towards the door, and his face towards the window where the keeper of the wine-shop stood looking at him, a white-haired man sat on a low bench, stooping forward and very busy, making shoes.

(from Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, Chapter 6. Published in 30 installments beginning April 1859.)

The shoemaker in Dickens is, of course, Dr Alexandre Manette, gentleman and brilliant physician, who spent eighteen years in the Bastille. My claim is that Dickens first met the image in the Ruskin passage I have here quoted, and eight years later Ruskin's artistocrat-turned-shoemaker made its way into A Tale of Two Cities. I think this is an original discovery, or at least fifteen minutes on JSTOR has not proved me wrong. And even if I'm late to the party the way I was when I connected Rabelais and Melville, it's still awfully fun to stumble across this stuff. Yes, yes, even if it's just coincidence.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The sun was risen upon the earth: finishing up Ruskin's Seven Lamps of Architecture

Ruskin finally lets loose again in the middle of Chapter VI of The Seven Lamps of Architecture. Chapter VI is "The Lamp of Memory," in which the author talks about building not for the present, but for posterity:

The benevolent regards and purposes of men in masses seldom can be supposed to extend beyond their own generation. They may look to posterity as an audience, may hope for its attention, and labor for its praise: they may trust to its recognition of unacknowledged merit, and demand its justice for contemporary wrong. But all this is mere selfishness, and does not involve the slightest regard to, or consideration of, the interest of those by whose numbers we would fain swell the circle of our flatterers, and by whose authority we would gladly support our presently disputed claims. The idea of self-denial for the sake of posterity, of practising present economy for the sake of debtors yet unborn, of planting forests that our descendants may live under their shade, or of raising cities for future nations to inhabit, never, I suppose, efficiently takes place among publicly recognised motives of exertion. Yet these are not the less our duties; nor is our part fitly sustained upon the earth, unless the range of our intended and deliberate usefulness include not only the companions, but the successors, of our pilgrimage. God has lent us the earth for our life; it is a great entail. It belongs as much to those who are to come after us, and whose names are already written in the book of creation, as to us; and we have no right, by anything that we do or neglect, to involve them in unnecessary penalties, or deprive them of benefits which it was in our power to bequeath. And this the more, because it is one of the appointed conditions of the labor of men that, in proportion to the time between the seed-sowing and the harvest, is the fulness of the fruit; and that generally, therefore, the farther off we place our aim, and the less we desire to be ourselves the witnesses of what we have labored for, the more wide and rich will be the measure of our success. Men cannot benefit those that are with them as they can benefit those who come after them; and of all the pulpits from which human voice is ever sent forth, there is none from which it reaches so far as from the grave.

Nor is there, indeed, any present loss, in such respect, for futurity. Every human action gains in honor, in grace, in all true magnificence, by its regard to things that are to come. It is the far sight, the quiet and confident patience, that, above all other attributes, separate man from man, and near him to his Maker; and there is no action nor art, whose majesty we may not measure by this test. Therefore, when we build, let us think that we build for ever. Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, "See! this our fathers did for us."

This is all excellent stuff, as you can see for yourself. It is surrounded, however, with a sort of attempted summation of Ruskin's general theory of art, a summation which fails and waffles and wanders and keeps failing, for page after page. It's his last chance to push his own aesthetic, an aesthetic founded upon chance and temperament and self-image and God knows what, but Ruskin wants to tell us--tries hard to tell us--that his aesthetic is based upon objective qualities of art. Like I say, he fails. I pushed on, and things got weirder as Ruskin's thoughts moved from the particular to the general, from architecture to social engineering.

Ruskin ends the book with a plea for a national English architectural style, legislated by the government, taught in academies, licensure and certification and all the rest. He argues for less effort on the part of mass transportation and teaching men to move dirt about in wheelbarrows so that other men might place iron rails in lines across the island; he calls instead for a shift in effort from railways to building, men and women trained to raise houses and schools and hospitals in the new Official English style. Ruskin is afraid of losing England, afraid of chaos. He cries out for order, pointing to the Continent and the corrupt middle class under an idle aristocracy. He ends the book fearfully:

I have paused, not once nor twice, as I wrote, and often have checked the course of what might otherwise have been importunate persuasion, as the thought has crossed me, how soon all Architecture may be vain, except that which is not made with hands. There is something ominous in the light which has enabled us to look back with disdain upon the ages among whose lovely vestiges we have been wandering. I could smile when I hear the hopeful exultation of many, at the new reach of worldly science, and vigor of worldly effort; as if we were again at the beginning of days. There is thunder on the horizon as well as dawn. The sun was risen upon the earth when Lot entered Zoar.

Ruskin is afraid. He wants order. He suspects, I suspect, that The Seven Lamps of Architecture does not show the way into the future; Ruskin fears that what he has written is not an introduction to art; Ruskin is afraid that he has written a eulogy.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

the heat waves of its solar outcry: reading A Death At The White Camellia Orphanage

Eyes still closed, the boy leaped from the steps into the sand yard, plunging through the heavy odor of hedge. "When I get to be a man," he thought, "I will go to England and see the battlegrounds,and I’ll be a titled Childe of noble and gentle birth, and I’ll know what a train-band is and what a rampire is. I’ll ride on wings of horse." It was a part of the boy’s strangeness that he could draw to mind great swaths of the words in the three books that had belonged to his dead father even though he hardly knew what some of them meant or who Prince Rupert or the writer, the Earl of Clarendon, might be. His teacher at school had been no help, scorning his questions—did not like any of the pupils in overalls with no shirts whether they were from the orphanage or not.

That's from the first chapter of Marly Youmans' 2012 novel A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, a historical novel set in the American South during the Great Depression. The prose nods to Faulkner, to Shakespeare, to Yeats, to epic poetry; it vibrates with rich color and detail and feeling.

"Otto!" Pip cried, his voice returning with an "O, o, o" as he shouted the name over, and the dagger in the sky came nearer, searing the furnace of the cotton fields with its heat as the boy bounded up, yelling his brother’s name, and laughter with a fragrance of hedge sprang from his mouth. His voice pulsed out of his throat like blood, and merriment battled out of his chest like the beating cry of a war drum. And the helpless roar that from the distance of The White Camellia Orphanage sounded so like a scream seemed to involve the very skies in its clamor, as in a rhythm of call and response. The sun swelled and soared to become a rosy "O" burning above the plum trees, and the heat waves of its solar outcry aroused the tobacco leaves and the rosined pines and the snake-dripping swamps like immense but unheard mirth.

Pip is Pip Tatnall, a ten year-old boy whose father, an aging builder of bridges across Georgia's many rivers, has died. Pip's mother has already passed on and it is discovered that Tatnall the bridge builder has fathered possibly scores of children on a dozen or twenty women, not all of them white. Pip and his half-brother Otto are sent to the White Camellia Orphanage, a charity workhouse where boys and girls work in cotton fields and receive regular beatings. Pip is crying Otto's name because he has found Otto murdered, crucified to a barbed wire fence on an early summer morning. Otto, we learn, was a light-skinned mulatto. Someone has decided that a child with Negro blood has no right to the charity of the White Camellia Orphanage.

Otto is dead, and Pip has no tie to the orphanage, the village nearby, the earth or anyone left on it. When a year or so has passed, Pip steals away from the farm and hops a freight train and is swept away on an odyssey. I am still reading the novel, so I can't say anything about the plot. Not that I would anyway, as I don't read for plot so much. Let me just say that A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage (winner of the Ferrol Sams Award for Fiction and named by D.G. Myers as one of 2012's best books) is a beautiful book writ in beautiful lyrical prose and I don't know why I put off reading it for so long. I may quote more from it tomorrow or later this week, if I can come up with the right sort of reductionist simile to describe Youmans' writing. One is definitely inside the narrative as one reads, surrounded by color and shape. It comes to life vividily off the page, does this story, which is no surprise given that Youmans is also an award-winning poet.

This little post is not doing justice to the novel. I may take another stab at it. For now this is what I got, though.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

all kinds of strange and startling expressions: more Ruskin on architecture

...it is at least interesting, if not profitable, to note that two very distinguishing characters of vital imitation are, its Frankness and its Audacity; its Frankness is especially singular; there is never any effort to conceal the degree of the sources of its borrowing. Raffaelle carries off a whole figure from Masaccio, or borrows an entire composition from Perugino, with as much tranquillity and simplicity of innocence as a young Spartan pickpocket; and the architect of a Romanesque basilica gathered his columns and capitals where he could find them, as an ant picks up sticks. There is at least a presumption, when we find this frank acceptance, that there is a sense within the mind of power capable of transforming and renewing whatever it adopts; and too conscious, too exalted, to fear the accusation of plagiarism,--too certain that it can prove, and has proved, its independence, to be afraid of expressing its homage to what it admires in the most open and indubitable way; and the necessary consequence of this sense of power is the other sign I have named--the Audacity of treatment when it finds treatment necessary, the unhesitating and sweeping sacrifice of precedent where precedent becomes inconvenient.

Ruskin, from Chapter V of The Seven Lamps of Architecture. Chapter V is titled "The Lamp of Life," and concerns the manner in which an artist, when exploring the possibilities of his materials and his design, is free to improvise and to ignore ideas of perfection, to mold and shape his artwork by feel, as it were, to create beauty that is not bounded by ideas of mathematical perfection. This is, so far, the greatest chapter in Seven Lamps, and I am tempted to quote the entirety of it, but I won't. The book is available, even on the internets for free, and you should go read Chapter V yourself. The unrestrained joy with which Ruskin describes the glorious imperfectness of St Mark's in Venice frankly took my breath away. I read this chapter in one sitting, glued to the page as it were.

Ruskin, in the chapter, is talking about "the Vitality of Assimilation, the faculty which turns to its purposes all material that is submitted to it," or in other words, the life of the artwork, the way in which the artist rises above ideas of mere craft, and is guided by imagination, vision, a drive to bring energy to the work:

a well intended and vivid impression [...] is oftener got by rough than fine handling. I am not sure whether it is frequently enough observed that sculpture is not the mere cutting of the _form_ of anything in stone; it is the cutting of the _effect_ of it. Very often the true form, in the marble, would not be in the least like itself. The sculptor must paint with his chisel: half his touches are not to realize, but to put power into the form: they are touches of light and shadow; and raise a ridge, or sink a hollow, not to represent an actual ridge or hollow, but to get a line of light, or a spot of darkness. In a coarse way, this kind of execution is very marked in old French woodwork; the irises of the eyes of its chimeric monsters being cut boldly into holes, which, variously placed, and always dark, give all kinds of strange and startling expressions, averted and askance, to the fantastic countenances. Perhaps the highest examples of this kind of sculpture-painting are the works of Mino da Fiesole; their best effects being reached by strange angular, and seemingly rude, touches of the chisel. The lips of one of the children on the tombs in the church of the Badia, appear only half finished when they are seen close; yet the expression is farther carried and more ineffable, than in any piece of marble I have ever seen, especially considering its delicacy, and the softness of the child-features. In a sterner kind, that of the statues in the sacristy of St. Lorenzo equals it, and there again by incompletion. I know no example of work in which the forms are absolutely true and complete where such a result is attained; in Greek sculptures is not even attempted. (ellipsis mine)

This is all good stuff for me, because I have a tendency to lean too hard upon craft and ideas of formal perfection, and over the last few years I've been learning about other ways to make a vivid impression, to bring life to a piece. I'm almost done with Seven Lamps, and after that I'll be reading Ruskin's Lectures on Architecture and Painting, from 1853.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

the trouble and wrath of life: more from Ruskin's "Seven Lamps of Architecture"

...the Power of architecture may be said to depend on the quantity (whether measured in space or intenseness) of its shadow; and it seems to me, that the reality of its works, and the use and influence they have in the daily life of men (as opposed to those works of art with which we have nothing to do but in times of rest or of pleasure) require of it that it should express a kind of human sympathy, by a measure of darkness as great as there is in human life: and that as the great poem and great fiction generally affect us most by the majesty of their masses of shade, and cannot take hold upon us if they affect a continuance of lyric sprightliness, but must be serious often, and sometimes melancholy, else they do not express the truth of this wild world of ours; so there must be, in this magnificently human art of architecture, some equivalent expression for the trouble and wrath of life, for its sorrow and its mystery: and this it can only give by depth or diffusion of gloom, by the frown upon its front, and the shadow of its recess.

Too, too fine, Mr Ruskin. I could say more, quote more, but that's plenty for now. I have begun to look at buildings as aggregations of light and shadow. I already look at literature that way.

Monday, November 4, 2013

There for every reader to see: John Ruskin's "The Seven Lamps of Architecture"

"I must be prepared to bear the charge of impertinence which can hardly but attach to the writer who assumes a dogmatical tone in speaking of an art he has never practised."

That's John Ruskin from his preface to The Seven Lamps of Architecture, published in 1849 and being read by me in its 1854 first American edition, a fragile book despite the library binding; I have to watch myself lest the front matter come tumbling free of the spine.

Ruskin was never a practicing architect, nor a builder, but he felt so strongly about the fine decorative arts (and so many other things, as will be revealed) that he was compelled to write a long argument against the destruction of fine Gothic buildings and the erection of aesthetically displeasing mid-19th-century buildings. Ruskin breaks his argument into seven major sections (the "lamps," by which he means more like the spirit, or guiding principle). Ruskin begins each section (so far, anyway) with a statement of his theological and philosophical basis for the "lamp" to be discussed.

A month ago, in a comment to one of my dull posts, Umbagollah said:

"Ruskin telling the reader that he is "consistent" (which he does more than once) reminds me how inconsistent he is, until the sight of Ruskin writing "I am consistent" says everything to me except "Ruskin is consistent." But he is writing down a desire there, I think, rather than a thought (I mean: a thought based on observation and facts that he can point to, as he does when he's discussing granite or feathers); and the desire uses the same language that a thought would have used if he'd had absolute factual rock solid evidence that he was actually consistent, which he doesn't and in fact the opposite situation pertains throughout his work"

And I find this to be true of The Seven Lamps of Architecture. Ruskin has his beliefs, which are complex and clearly much thought-over, and as long as his claims about art and architecture match up with his beliefs, he is "consistent." But his system of beliefs is itself inconsistent, contradictory, and sometimes just capricious and arbitrary. All in all, this amuses me despite (and I must say it, as Ruskin no doubt felt compelled) Ruskin's near-hysterical attacks on Catholicism. A man holding Anglicism up as the One True Faith has no room to talk, my dears. But I am able to forgive Ruskin his occasional religious lunacy because of this beautiful paragraph about the men who built and decorated the great Catholic cathedrals of Europe:

...it is to its far happier, far higher, exaltation that we owe those fair fronts of variegated mosaic, charged with wild fancies and dark hosts of imagery, thicker and quainter than ever filled the depth of midsummer dream; those vaulted gates, trellised with close leaves; those window-labyrinths of twisted tracery and starry light; those misty masses of multitudinous pinnacle and diademed tower; the only witnesses, perhaps that remain to us of the faith and fear of nations. All else for which the builders sacrificed, has passed away--all their living interests, and aims, and achievements. We know not for what they labored, and we see no evidence of their reward. Victory, wealth, authority, happiness--all have departed, though bought by many a bitter sacrifice. But of them, and their life, and their toil upon the earth, one reward, one evidence, is left to us in those gray heaps of deep-wrought stone. They have taken with them to the grave their powers, their honors, and their errors; but they have left us their adoration.

Ruskin writes engagingly and with great affection (and, even if he may be absolutely wrong about facts, with great certainty) for his subject, which is the art of decoration as opposed to the art of building. He is interested, he tells us, in the "useless" features of buildings, though even that claim of "uselessness" is contradicted when he's talking about the aesthetics of structure. Ruskin writes finely, around and around in great spirals, caught up with whatever has caught his eye, and as long as he believes it at the moment of writing, he need not reconcile those momentary clashes where his claims knock against each other. None of that really matters, because Ruskin is not an architect, and he really just wants us to appreciate beauty and learn to separate truly beautiful adornment from mere adornment which might dazzle but fails to please. Or something like that.

Ruskin isn't to be read (or at least this book isn't to be read) to learn about architecture. What's good about The Seven Lamps of Architecture is the philosophical writing at the head of each section. There, Ruskin writes breathtakingly and with conviction, and you can see the light shining from his eyes:

We are too much in the habit of looking at falsehood in its darkest associations, and through the color of its worst purposes. That indignation which we profess to feel at deceit absolute, is indeed only at deceit malicious. We resent calumny, hypocrisy and treachery, because they harm us, not because they are untrue. Take the detraction and the mischief from the untruth, and we are little offended by it; turn it into praise, and we may be pleased with it. And yet it is not calumny nor treachery that does the largest sum of mischief in the world; they are continually crushed, and are felt only in being conquered. But it is the glistening and softly spoken lie; the amiable fallacy; the patriotic lie of the historian, the provident lie of the politician, the zealous lie of the partizan, the merciful lie of the friend, and the careless lie of each man to himself, that cast that black mystery over humanity, through which any man who pierces, we thank as we would thank one who dug a well in a desert; happy in that the thirst for truth still remains with us, even when we have wilfully left the fountains of it.

It is educational, I say, to see a man try to discuss art and the broader world in the light of his ethical system, aware that his discussion is alleged to be situated within his ethics, there for every reader to see. That's quite enough for now.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Feast of All Saints, in a cloud of doubt

I have been spending some of my off time typing up the first draft of my novel The Hanging Man into the hated Microsoft Word™. Last night I typed up Chapter 8, so I now have only the final four chapters to convert from my crabbed scrawl into a legible manuscript. I’m at that point in the narrative when—and I recall this quite distinctly—as a writer I lost all faith in the traditional story arc of a mystery novel, where in the end the detective brings clarity and a return to the status quo to the fictional world. A bright shining truth called out to me: there is no absolute clarity for any of us, and life is full of events upon whose peripheries we stand, never to know the motivations of the principle players despite our best efforts. I found that I could not, that is, sew up all the action and the mysteries of my mystery into a nice tidy ending. I abandoned that ship, letting the stubborn crew of rats pilot the vessel into the rocks, etc. Or something. What I’m trying to say is that, as I wrote that section of my novel wherein the confusion and unknowns were thickest, I was spurred on not to resolve and dispel this confusion. The murkiness, the lack of clarity of the situation, the possibility that nobody in the story actually possessed the facts and that the truths sought might not be found, became the interesting thing about the story. I spent the next several chapters offering up several possible versions of the truth, several good suspects for the perpetrators of the various crimes committed in the novel, and let the reader know what the official reports would say. But I did not, in the end, clear anything up. Not really. I’m not sure I know who killed whom or when or why they done it.

As I say, this confusion, this great cloud of doubt, became the thing that I wanted to explore. A detective, at least in a detective novel, is supposed to perform the magic trick of pulling the rabbit of truth from the hat of mystery, right? Bad simile and I apologize, but once I had “magic trick” I felt the urge to go for the cliché. Where? A fictional detective is supposed to cut through the knot of clues and red herrings and say without doubt at the end, “He done it, and here's how; arrest him, gentlemen.” Exit the perp, in irons. I discovered that this sort of third act held absolutely no appeal for me as a writer. On the other hand, learning how much I could reasonably muddy the waters of Wilburton, Kansas was a fascinating experiment. I have no idea if this has made for good fiction. Once again I’ve produced something that is not a detective novel, but is instead a novel with a detective in it. Your guess is as good as mine as to what the fate of these books will be. The first one, The Last Guest, is I think a good book. This new one might be, too. I’ll have to read it first to find that out.

Anyway, spoilers, as the kids say. And I seem to have begun a new novel already, something called Melville Price’s Atlas Of. That novel will contain an extended discussion of Pablo de Sarasate’s “Carmen Fantasy.”