Tuesday, September 30, 2014

D. G. Myers

When Myers asked me last April when I was going to send him a review copy of The Astrologer, I felt like a real novelist for the first time. The Astrologer must be the worst novel Myers has ever recommended to people, but I will be forever struck by the interest he showed in new authors, and in books nobody had heard of. No one will be surprised when I say that I met him first through an online disagreement. Myers was a strong personality and he'd argue with anyone if he thought the topic important enough. So my first exposure to him was through internet scraps, scraps which for me quickly became exercises in overcoming fear; during any exchange with him, I was aware that Myers was the adult in the room and I should think carefully before I typed, even when I was calling him wrong-headed. "Respect me enough to argue with me," he said (or something very like that) on Twitter. Myers respected others enough to argue with them; if he addressed you, he thought you were smart enough to evaluate the opinions being batted around, yours and his both. I'm another one of those folks who knew Myers primarily through his blog, and while his taste in fiction did not greatly overlap mine, I find that his opinions on the cultural and personal worth of fiction and the duty of writers to "write well" (by which he meant to write with absolute honesty) have changed me, hopefully into a better reader and writer. His life touched mine but briefly, mine his but barely. And yet. Go with God, David Myers.

Monday, September 29, 2014

"that by merely writing you down, you would obtain some sort of independent life"

I first saw her—is this the way to go on? She had a large bouquet of white and yellow flowers in her arms. A flower begins to die immediately upon being cut away from its roots and usually a bouquet of daffodils or roses reminds me of some kind of portable mortuary, a colorful bundle of corpses bound for the temporary crypt of a vase and then, eventually, the rubbish heap. There is nothing romantic in flowers, which are the sexual organs of plants and therefore a species of public obscenity. She had a large bouquet of fresh spring flowers in her arms, and though she moved quite assertively through the crowd, she protected the flowers as if she carried a fragile newborn child.

Many pedestrians on the Charles Bridge carry bouquets of flowers, especially this time of year when women yearn to bring color and life into houses and apartments which have lain cold and dark all winter long. Florists do a brisk business in the spring; that is easily proved. Why it is that I took notice of this particular woman is unclear.

Perhaps—no, I am only attempting to tell the lies a writer tells in order to appear clever. She is beautiful and wore a yellow coat, which caught my eye before the flowers, which seemed at first to be an extension of her coat, or she—her whole body—an extension of the flowers. We begin to die immediately upon being cut free of our mothers. A body is a kind of portable mortuary, bound for crypts called school, university, the office, marriage, death. These are not original observations, and I make them only in retrospect. For the past three weeks I was not thinking of mortuaries or how a fragile newborn child eventually finds his way to the rubbish heap. The sunlight was thick and glowed heavily on her yellow coat and her armload of fresh spring flowers. There must have been fifty feet of bridge span and three hundred people between us, but my eye somehow picked her from the crowd. Her hat was dark gray and the brim was turned up over her left ear. She had jet black hair, glossy and falling to her shoulders. It interests me that I saw how beautiful she was even at that distance among so many other strangers, since her features could not have been clear to me, and the sun shone down hard, the brilliance distorting and blurring the world. Nonetheless she is a beautiful woman, which I confirmed later. She was weaving her way east through the midday throng, going in the same direction I was, and so without any evil purpose I was entitled to follow her across the bridge, past one after another of the famous bronze monsters our Christian masters have erected over the Moldau. She did not look up at the statues, her attention given entirely over to the protection of her flowers. Her left ear, when I was close to her, looked like a soft pink blossom, a tulip perhaps but my knowledge of flowers is quite limited. The delicate petals of her ear beckoned to me and I trailed in her wake, paying little mind to the passersby.
from "Antosha in Prague," a story from a book in progress

Friday, September 26, 2014

"Da reisst dem Hans die Geduld" (oder) Deutsch Literatur Monat im Internet!

November, I see, is going to be German literature month in some corners of the internet. What larks! What will I read? I have no idea! I'm already reading a bunch of Grimm's "household tales," both auf Englisch and in the original Deutsch. By November, I might be in the thick of Helles und Dunkles, a collection of short stories published by Ginn & Co. in 1948 that includes some Stefan Zweig. Again, all in the original Deutsch, in dark Gothic script, with a handy lexikon at the back. What else, though? Will I read Joseph Roth? Will I revisit the "Danzig trilogy?" I can't say. But something, surely.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

That old Romantic poetry trope

Sometimes, but not too often, I read literary criticism related to texts I'm actually reading. For example, I'm reading Robert Browning's epic poem thing The Ring and the Book, and I have trolled around JSTOR to find Truth and "The Ring and the Book:" A Negative View by L. J. Swingle, in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 6, No. 3/4, An Issue Commemorative of the Centennial of the Publication of "The Ring and the Book" (Autumn-Winter, 1968), pp. 259-269.

It's an interesting set of claims about Browning's poem, is this article. I don't know who L. J. Swingle is/was, aside from someone with a lot of Romantic poetry criticism publication credits, and I think a faculty appointment (at least at one time) at the University of Kentucky. Credentials aside, Swingle seems to have made a pretty intelligent reading of The Ring and the Book and makes a pretty good case that Browning's aims in the poem were not epistemological, but were rather ontological. That is, Ring is not (contrary to the great bulk of 20th-century interpretation of the poem) about how truth is subjective, but it is instead about how existence is fleeting and the great strength of art is the ability to bring back to life persons and events that have passed into the shadow world of things forgotten. I accidentally quoted Browning saying that very thing in a prior post about the poem. So being rather than truth is Browning's concern here. The quality of having been real is what matters about his characters, not what they might try to convince us of. Browning has already told us, in Book I, what is true, who is lying and who is not. There is no question of the truth--objective truth it is, too--for the author of the poem. There is no question to be answered at all. Browning is bringing people to life, showing us how life passes and is forgotten, and reminding us that we too, etc. That old Romantic poetry trope, you see?

Do I quote more of the poem to illustrate Swingle's claims, or do I just let you find the article on your own, you imaginary persons who are interested in this argument? Well, I'll just hit "publish" and move on.

Monday, September 22, 2014

We actually had no malt, but otherwise more-or-less accurate.

This is the cat That killed the rat That ate the malt That lay in the house that Jack built:

She keeps her deadly paws and mighty jaws off the birds, though.

Friday, September 19, 2014

"I killed Pompilia Franceschini" -- the testimony of Count Guido

I killed Pompilia Franceschini, Sirs;
Killed too the Comparini, husband, wife,
Who called themselves, by a notorious lie,
Her father and her mother to ruin me.
Oh, Browning. You are such a card. Yes, Count Guido Franceschini is testifying before the court, the defendant in a murder trial, accused of butchering his wife and her parents. Guido admits to all if it, see? It's a fair cop, and fairly done, and fair is fair so let him go. The wench was an adulteress, her parents frauds; what choice did Guido have?

There is much humor in Guido's testimony, though all in the ironic vein. Guido has been tortured prior to appearing in court, to help loosen his tongue and encourage him to speak honestly. Guido is not a young man, nor is he used to such rough handling, but he is grateful to the court for having him racked:
Not your fault, sweet Sir! Come, you take to heart
An ordinary matter. Law is law.
Noblemen were exempt, the vulgar thought,
From racking, but, since law thinks otherwise,
I have been put to the rack: all’s over now,
And neither wrist — what men style, out of joint:
If any harm be, ’tis the shoulder-blade,
The left one, that seems wrong i’ the socket — Sirs,
Much could not happen, I was quick to faint,
Being past my prime of life, and out of health.
In short I thank you — yes, and mean the word.
"No, that's okay, I passed out from the pain, your Honors!" But why does he thank the court? The change in form of Guido's punishment was a relief:
Needs must the Court be slow to understand
How this quite novel form of taking pain,
This getting tortured merely in the flesh,
Amounts to almost an agreeable change
In my case, me fastidious, plied too much
With opposite treatment, used (forgive the joke)
To the rasp-tooth toying with this brain of mine,
And, in and out my heart, the play o’ the probe.
Four years have I been operated on
I’ the soul, do you see — its tense or tremulous part —
My self-respect, my care for a good name,
Pride in an old one, love of kindred — just
A mother, brothers, sisters, and the like,
That looked up to my face when days were dim,
And fancied they found light there — no one spot,
Foppishly sensitive, but has paid its pang.
That, and not this you now oblige me with,
That was the Vigil-torment, if you please!
Ho ho ho, Guido, good one! The rack is better than living with that wife of his, gentlemen! Thanks for the diversion; were he stronger, he'd ask for another taste. "vigil torment" refers to the cheerful habit of Renaissance Italian prisons to deny sleep to a condemned prisoner, just to add to the misery. Guido implies that living with his young wife was a torture he endured while awaiting death, which could not come too soon, your Honors. Ho ho ho, Browning. This martyrdom of Guido's is the central pillar of his defense, so it's important that he establish his great relief at his wife's somewhat forced demise, no matter the consequences to Guido himself, brave lad that he is. He done her in but she had it coming, you see. At some length Guido will explain why. Who can blame him, sir? Well, it turns out that the law blames him, and will chop off his head by way of repercussion. But that's later. For now there's the martyrdom--the sainthood, really--of Guido Franceschini, the poor dear man.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"Push lines out to the limit": a lesson in writing fiction with Robert Browning

I'm reading Robert Browning's long verse epic The Ring and the Book. I don't read a lot of poetry, but Tom's posts on this work sparked my interest, and I managed to stumble across a fine old edition of the book while on vacation a few weeks back. The Ring and the Book is some fun, kids. Read Tom's posts for all the stuff (or a lot of the stuff) that I won't be talking about.

What I want to post about is Browning's framing device, which is a lecture on literary/poetic technique. The whole poem can be seen as a lesson on how to write historical fiction, if you like. Hell, the title The Ring and the Book is not about the story at all; it's about Browning's method and materials as the author of The Ring and the Book. Imagine Melville calling Moby-Dick something like, I donno, Elijah and the Wreck. (A better analogy will occur to me after I actually post this, of course.)

The Ring is a finely-worked gold ring Browning apparently gave to his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. A goldsmith had told Browning that in order to make elaborate designs in gold, which is a soft metal, smiths usually alloy pure gold with some stronger metal. The alloy is then able to be cast, drawn, filed, hammered, pried, cut et cetera. I see on the internets that if a smith alloys the gold with copper, placing the finished item in a nitric acid bath will remove the copper but leave the gold remaining. I'm not sure this is exactly the process Browning's unnamed goldsmith described, but here, let's let Browning tell it:
There’s one trick,
(Craftsmen instruct me) one approved device
And but one, fits such slivers of pure gold
As this was — such mere oozings from the mine,
Virgin as oval tawny pendent tear
At beehive-edge when ripened combs o’erflow —
To bear the file’s tooth and the hammer’s tap:
Since hammer needs must widen out the round,
And file emboss it fine with lily-flowers,
Ere the stuff grow a ring-thing right to wear.
That trick is, the artificer melts up wax
With honey, so to speak; he mingles gold
With gold’s alloy, and, duly tempering both,
Effects a manageable mass, then works.
But his work ended, once the thing a ring,
Oh, there’s repristination! Just a spirt
O’ the proper fiery acid o’er its face,
And forth the alloy unfastened flies in fume;
While, self- sufficient now, the shape remains,
The rondure brave, the lilied loveliness,
Gold as it was, is, shall be evermore:
Prime nature with an added artistry
That's the ring, then: you take pure gold, perfect as nature created it, add something to stiffen it enough that you can work it into an artistic form, and then burn away that additive. What's left is nature's perfect substance, made into art. The added something I will get to in a minute. First, we must learn what Browning's gold is, in other words, the Book.

Browning's source material for his epic poem came from what became known as "The Old Yellow Book," a vellum-bound volume of written testimony and legal briefs relating to a 1698 Roman murder trial. Browning found the Old Yellow Book while trolling through the market stalls of the Piazza di San Lorenzo on a June day in 1860. "One glance at the lettered back, and a lira made it mine." He carried the book home, reading as he went, and stayed up all night reading until he'd followed the story of the trial to the end. It's not known how the official Roman court documents were collected, bound and put up for sale at a flea market, one hundred sixty-two years after the trial. But however it got there, Browning found it, bought it, read it, and a fire was lit in his imagination. He constructed, while reading the testimony of the accused and the accusers, the stories leading up to the triple homicide and five executions. He saw the houses, the streets, the victims and criminals, the murderous Guido and his henchmen knocking on a house door in the dead of night, ready to sweep in with swords drawn.
The untempered gold, the fact untampered with,
The mere ring-metal ere the ring be made!
The book, the Old Yellow Book, is Browning's lump of pure gold, precious material ready to be worked. His imagination and skill are the alloy mixed with the gold, and his 21,000-line poem The Ring and the Book is the finely-wrought artwork that results.

Browning spends some time building an argument in defense of historical fiction, his argument both an extension of the metaphor of goldsmithing and a lesson in the art of fiction:
From the book, yes; thence bit by bit I dug
The lingot truth, that memorable day,
Assayed and knew my piecemeal gain was gold,—
Yes; but from something else surpassing that,
Something of mine which, mixed up with the mass,
Made it bear hammer and be firm to file.
Fancy with fact is just one fact the more;
To-wit, that fancy has informed, transpierced,
Thridded and so thrown fast the facts else free,
As right through ring and ring runs the djereed
And binds the loose, one bar without a break.
I fused my live soul and that inert stuff,
This was it from, my fancy with those facts,
I used to tell the tale, turned gay to grave,
But lacked a listener seldom; such alloy,
Such substance of me interfused the gold
Which, wrought into a shapely ring therewith,
Hammered and filed, fingered and favoured, last
Lay ready for the renovating wash
O' the water. "How much of the tale was true?"
I disappeared; the book grew all in all;

[...] and so produced my book.
Lovers of dead truth, did ye fare the worse?
Lovers of live truth, found ye false my tale?
Well, now; there's nothing in nor out o' the world
Good except truth: yet this, the something else,
What's this then, which proves good yet seems untrue?
This that I mixed with truth, motions of mine
That quickened, made the inertness malleolable
O'the gold was not mine,—what's your name for this?
Are means to the end, themselves in part the end?
Is fiction which makes fact alive, fact too?

I find first
Writ down for very A B C of fact,
"In the beginning God made heaven and earth;"
From which, no matter with what lisp, I spell
And speak you out a consequence—that man,
Man,—as befits the made, the inferior thing,—
Purposed, since made, to grow, not make in turn,
Yet forced to try and make, else fail to grow,—
Formed to rise, reach at, if not grasp and gain
The good beyond him,—which attempt is growth,—
Repeats God's process in man's due degree,
Attaining man's proportionate result,—
Creates, no, but resuscitates, perhaps.
For truth, and stopping midway short of truth,
And resting on a lie,—"I raise a ghost"?
"Because," he taught adepts, "man makes not man.
"Yet by a special gift, an art of arts,
"More insight and more outsight and much more
"Will to use both of these than boast my mates,
"I can detach from me, commission forth
"Half of my soul; which in its pilgrimage
"O'er old unwandered waste ways of the world,
"May chance upon some fragment of a whole,
"Rag of flesh, scrap of bone in dim disuse,
"Smoking flax that fed fire once: prompt therein
"I enter, spark-like, put old powers to play,
"Push lines out to the limit, lead forth last
"(By a moonrise through a ruin of a crypt)
"What shall be mistily seen, murmuringly heard,
"Mistakenly felt: then write my name with Faust's!"
I know, nobody's going to read through all of that verse, but I just couldn't stop myself from quoting so much of it. It's magnificent stuff. All of it is, the whole long poem as far as I can see (since the outcome of the trial is given right away in Browning's introductory passages, there's no reason not to skip about through the text, so I have been doing that very thing). Perhaps I should've summarized more, shown how well I can interpret Browning for my reader. But why? Why not just give you The Book itself, or pages therefrom?

Friday, September 12, 2014

"Antosha in Prague" updated updates update

Yesterday afternoon I finally finished the draft of the title story of the collection. I think it's pretty good, frankly, for a first draft especially. The ending steals a technique from Latin American fiction, to excellent effect. Now it's onward to the other (shorter) stories. I say "shorter" there in that parenthetical because the story "Antosha in Prague" is pretty long. Maybe not quite novella length, but up there. It'll probably take up a third of the total narrative.

To remind myself, to keep tabs on my progress, I insert my imaginary table of contents, with notes on the status of each story:

"The Connoisseur" (written)
"Defending His Dissertation" (written)
"Under the Limbs of the Silver Birches" (written)
"Setting a Broken Bone" (written)
"The Suitor" (written)
"Ivan Ivanovna" (in progress)
"Nikolai Must Rest Now" (hypothetical)
"The Father of the Room" (outlined)
"Dressing for the Opera" (written)
"Bela" (hypothetical)
"The Storm" (outlined)
"Antosha in Prague" (written)
"Sakhalin" (hypothetical)
"Caspian Terns" (hypothetical)
"It's a long time since I drank champagne" (outlined)
"A White-Crowned Sparrow" (outlined, half written)

Possibly I'll have a few more story ideas. Certainly I will.

I know: boring, right? This is supposed to be mostly a blog about what I've been reading, but my time has been devoured by all of that reading, and what time I have left for writing is being given over to writing and revising new fiction. The last thing the world needs is another writer's blog. It's a conundrum. Or a quagmire.

Also, this good advice:

Enjoy your walk!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

sick, remember?

It was hard to think about the moment when the hammer would pound the nails into the green wood and the coffin would creak under its certain hope of becoming a tree once more. His body, drawn now with greater force by the imperative of the earth, would remain tilted in a damp, claylike, soft depth and up there, four cubic yards above, the gravediggers' last blows would grow faint. No. He wouldn't feel fear there either. That would be the prolongation of his death, the most natural prolongation of his new state.[...]

The biblical dust of death. Perhaps then he will feel a slight nostalgia, the nostalgia of not being a formal, anatomical corpse, but, rather, an imaginary, abstract corpse, assembled only in the hazy memory of his kin. He will know then that he will rise up the capillary vessels of an apple tree and awaken, bitten by the hunger of a child on some autumn day.
That's from "The Third Resignation," a story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, published in 1947 and translated from the original Spanish by Gregory Rabassa. I'm reading Collected Stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, twenty-six stories from 1947 to 1972. When I read Marquez' early works, like the one I quote above, I can see the hand of Felisberto Hernandez. When I read Marquez' later works, I can see how themes and technique have flowed from Marquez to younger writers like Cesar Aira. Perhaps I assume incorrectly that all Latin American authors are familiar with each other despite the different languages. Anyway, I realize that I haven't read enough Marquez, or Aira, and that some day I need to see about Roberto Bolano.

I like the Marquez passage quoted above because, among other things, of the play on Christian themes. "In sure and certain hope of the resurrection" transformed by Marquez into the rebirth of the tree rather than the human protagonist in the coffin, and then his transformation into the tree, and the innocent child eating the apple, the image of Original Sin, of mankind passing his original sin from generation to generation. All very tidily done in a couple of sentences, none of it forced on the reader and none of that material's being understood even strictly necessary to keep reading the story. He will know then that he will rise up the capillary vessels of an apple tree and awaken, bitten by the hunger of a child on some autumn day is a beautiful bit of poetry no matter the meaning. Nicely done, GGM.

I thought I had more to say about the Hernandez-Marquez-Aira literary influence, but I guess not. It did strike me, this morning as I sat in the garden reading Marquez and watching--out of the corner of my eye--an Anna's hummingbird whose feathers are oddly yellow rather than the usual bright green, that writers carry the works of other writers around in their heads, collecting them up, interleaving pages of various books, memorizing and cannibalizing them at some level, all without any effort on the part of the writer. Probably people who don't write do this, too. Someone said once--I don't remember who it was--that to be a reader is to confront the entirety of literature as if all of it's being written today; that Shakespeare is writing his plays now, alongside Juno Diaz's novels and Cervantes' Don Quixote; that when you read something for the first time, you read it as a modern reader, and it bangs up in your reader's mind against whatever else you're reading and have read, and that all of history is happening at once. Which I claim is a good thing. I've been carrying 100 Years of Solitude around in my head for at least 27 years, and I have no idea how it's mixed in with all the Chekhov and Shakespeare and Burroughs (Edgar and William both) and Woolf and whatever else I've read.

Alongside--or maybe in alternation with, I suppose--the Marquez collection, I'm reading Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book, which Tom at Wuthering Expectations read and wrote about last month, apparently against his will. Mighty Reader and I were on a long vacation last week (extending into today's post-vacation sick day, alas) in Oregon, which is a rural part of the North American continent for those of you not familiar with the geography. There's a nice used book store in Salem where I found an 1899 edition of The Ring and the Book in a single volume, the pages a bit brittle and easily torn but I'm trying to be gentle with the poor old thing. I also found a collection of bits from Ruskin's works, essays and articles about painting and aesthetics, with illustrations, very nice. I've poked around in it some, but mostly I was distracted by reading Heinrich Boll's midcentury modernist novel Billiards at Half-Past Nine, which was startling and brilliant until the final fifty pages, when it became rushed and a bit treacly. I'm not sure how quickly I'll seek out something else by Herr Boll. Forgive the lack of umlauts over those os. I can't be bothered today. Sick, remember?

Although I took along my notebook and pens, I made no progress at all on the draft of Antosha in Prague. I seem to be in a holding pattern regarding writing just now. A crisis of indifference, you might say. I'm not sure if that crisis will resolve itself. Likely it doesn't matter. I find myself with a huge pile of work to do on previous books, work that won't do itself, work that must be done before I shift myself and attempt to shill any of those previous books to agents or publishers. A crisis of indifference, as I say.