Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Forward and backward: Writing in 2014

Writing in 2014: I have mostly worked on the new one, the work-in-progress called Antosha in Prague. It's a good novel, I think. A lot of fun to write and to read (hopefully). It's a collection of Chekhovesque stories about a fictional character named Antosha Chekhonte, who is loosely based on the Russian writer/playwright Anton Chekhov. You've heard of him. This is the list of story titles (with progress status) so far:

"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" (written)
"The Father of the Family" (in progress)
"To My Hands Alone" (written)
"Dressing for the Opera" (written)
"Olivier Salad" (hypothetical)
"Bela" (hypothetical)
"The Storm" (outlined)
"Antosha in Prague" (written)
"Caspian Terns" (hypothetical)
"It's a long time since I drank champagne" (outlined)
"A White Sparrow" (outlined, half written)

I think I've got about 56,000 words of the first draft written now. If things continue to go the way they've been going (a vague statement, that), the completed first draft will be about 85,000 words long. So I'm a good way into the manuscript. A couple more months of work, to be sure, maybe as many as four or six months before the draft is written. I don't seem to be in a hurry.

Also this year I did some work on a novel called Go Home, Miss America. That novel is out on submission now to a couple of wee publishers. In the spring or summer of 2015 I will begin another revision to a novel called Mona in the Desert. I have a lot of notes for that revision. It will be a job of work, I think. There is a slender possibility that there will be time left at the end of 2015 for me to start in earnest on a new novel, which will probably be the one called Nowhere But North. That work may be delayed until 2016.

Last night I read Browning's poem "An Epistle," and now of course I want to write a long novel based on it. I won't, but still.

Monday, December 29, 2014

"O' the lazy sea her stream thrusts far amid" in the little city by the bay with Robert



Also, I am still reading a book of Robert Browning's shorter poems. "Caliban Upon Setebos" is very good. Browning reminds me that Caliban is one of Shakespeare's greatest inventions. Browning's Caliban is also quite fine: the poet got the tone and voice just right, and his primitive theology wholly believable. My favorite line comes right at the end, when a storm hits the island and Caliban fears that his musings have offended the god Setebos:
What, what? A curtain o'er the world at once!
Crickets stop hissing; not a bird—or, yes,
There scuds His raven, that hath told Him all!
It was fool's play, this prattling! Ha! The wind
Shoulders the pillared dust, death's house o' the move,
And fast invading fires begin! White blaze—
A tree's head snaps—and there, there, there, there, there,
His thunder follows!
"there, there, there, there, there" is wonderful, the rhythmic repetition of Caliban's sudden fear at the manifestation of the horrible deity. The poem is about what? superstition, maybe, explaining the divine in the lowly terms of humanity? filling the blank spots in our knowledge with the blind spots in our self knowledge? Great stuff.

Perhaps I'm attracted to this poem because it reflects similar ideas to the snippet from George Santayana that Umbagollah has posted over at Pykk:
from the describable qualities of things, we repeat the rationalistic fiction of turning the notions which we abstract from the observation of facts into the powers that give those facts character and being.
I've been thinking about these sorts of things a lot these days, of how we paint over the face of the universe with portraits of ourselves as a way of claiming to understand reality.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

"Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt, Whene'er I passed her" An early villain from Browning

That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will't please you sit and look at her? I said
"Frà Pandolf" by design: for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not
Her husband's presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say "Her mantle laps
Over my lady's wrist too much," or "Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat:" such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, 'twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—(which I have not)—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, "Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark"—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
—E'en then would be some stooping: and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will't please you rise? We'll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master's known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we'll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me
Gosh, but Robert Browning could write villains well. The above is the poem "My Last Duchess," from Browning's 1842 collection Dramatic Lyrics. It's one of the Browning poems that everyone knows, if they know any Browning. It's also a good strong step in the direction of Count Guido Franceschini. In "Duchess" we have a speech from Alfonso II d'Este, the fifth Duke of Ferrara, who is favorably settling marriage negotiations with the representative of the Count of Tyrol, Ferdinand II. The duke's last duchess, Lucrezia de' Medici, is no longer with us, and this speech explains why Duke Alfonso is in the market for a bride. The bride he seeks is Barbara, eighth daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I.

Alfonso is a real piece of work. "I choose never to stoop," he says. He could not bear Lucrezia's holding him as no more special than anything else on earth, giving the same smile to him that she gave to servants and cherries and sunsets, and so "I gave commands; then all smiles stopped together." The line "Looking as if she were alive" is a strong clue as to the duchess' fate, if you need the hint. The 16th century must've been a good market for gravediggers and undertakers in Italy.

Did I mention that I'm reading a book of Browning's shorter poems? I am. It's uneven, but when it's good, it's so good. Alfonso bragging of his last wife's murder to the brother of his bride-to-be is quite a display of chutzpah.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Books Read, 2014

Books! Books! I read a lot of books this year. I will attempt to say a few words about a few of them, as if I am delivering a eulogy, apparently. Though few of these books are dead despite the less-than-ideal physical condition of many of their authors. I digress.

Chekhov and Shakespeare are always a delight; I wish I'd read more Shakespeare but we saw a good number of plays performed so I don't feel deprived. We're seeing "Three Sisters" in January sometime, and that'll be swell I am sure. I continue to digress.

The Confessions of St Augustine was well worth reading again, after lo so many years. It was instructive to see how his initial difficulties with faith were based upon fundamental misunderstandings of the nature of God, rather than differences with actual Christian theology. He was repulsed by his imagined God that was nothing like the God of Christianity. One encounters this sort of unintentional straw-manning all the time.

I seem to have been heavily influenced this year by Tom at the Wuthering Expectations blog. Tom invited people to read along with him through the great Russian novel chain of Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, Nikolai Chernyshevky's wacky What is to be Done?, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground. I kept going on past these books, reading The Devils (a lot of fun though less mad, perhaps, than it's made out to be) and finding some connections between all of this and Anton Chekhov's story "An Attack of Nerves." So I've had a good time with the old Russians this year. Next year I'll read Chekhov's nonfiction book about the prison colonies of Sakhalin Island. At that point I will have run out of Chekhov. Perhaps next year I'll finish reading all of Shakespeare's plays, too. I've read most of them by now. I think I have eight left. We'll see. Another digression.

Tom of Wuthering Expectations also read Robert Browning's masterpiece The Ring and the Book, and his posts led me to also read it, and I don't exaggerate when I say that it was a life-changing event. A long and difficult book in verse, full of all sorts of surprises and delights and horrors too, yes. Excellent.

This year I discovered Danish author Henrik Pontoppidan, and I read two of his novels including his long brilliant Lucky Per, which you should read if you can find it at a library (or if you can spare the $50 to buy a copy). I have an early Pontoppidan novel on the shelf at home, waiting to be read. Maybe in 2015. Lucky Per is great stuff.

I want to read more Latin/South American books in 2015, and more Japanese books, and more poetry. I also have a lot of Ruskin waiting in the wings to be read next year, which is good to know. Comforting. More French books, more African books. More of everything.

Mighty Reader and I have briefly discussed a simultaneous reading of Proust's In Search of Lost Time novels, tentatively over the summer. She read the whole thing a couple of years ago, and I've only read Swann's Way but have long meant to read all of it. The fly in the ointment of that plan is that we'd need to purchase a second set of the seven novels to accommodate two readers. Are we that mad? Maybe.

I continue to read mostly old books. I don't know quite why that is; I follow the scent of the reading and it leads me where it will. It's all discovery, and very little intent.

And now, the dull as dirt actual list:

William Shakespeare The Tragedy of Richard II
Angela Thirkell August Folly
Charles Dickens Bleak House
Michelle Argyle Catch
D.H. Lawrence Sons and Lovers
Henrik Pontoppidan The Apothecary's Daughters
Michelle Argyle Out of Tune
Leo Tolstoy Cossacks
Hans Christian Andersen Tales
Ivan Turgenev Fathers and Sons
Henrik Pontoppidan Lucky Per
Thomas Bernhard Concrete
John Ruskin The Stones of Venice (abr.)
St Augustine of Hippo Confessions
Reinhold Messner My Life at the Limit
Nikolai Chernyshevsky What is to be Done?
Rebecca West The Return of the Soldier
Cesar Aira Ghosts
Gabriel Garcia Marquez Memories of My Melancholy Whores
Benito Perez Galdos My Friend Manso
Angela Thirkell Summer Half
Fyodor Dostoevsky Notes From Underground
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Vol 9 (trans. Garnett)
Francois Rabelais Gargantua and Pantagruel
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Vol 5 (trans. Garnett)
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Vol 2 (trans. Garnett)
Franz Kafka The Trial
John Cowper Powys Weymouth Sands
Iris Murdoch The Sea, The Sea
Harold Bloom The Anxiety of Influence
Yasunari Kawabata The Sound of the Mountain
Fyodor Dostoyevsky The Devils
Felisberto Hernandez Piano Stories
Michael Hearn (ed.) The Victorian Fairy Tale Book
Graham Greene The Heart of the Matter
Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov, Ann Dunnigan, trans.
Anton Chekhov The Shooting Party
Angela Thirkell High Rising
Heinrich Boll Billiards at Half-Past Nine
Gabriel Garcia Marquez Collected Stories
Henri Troyat Daily Life in Russia Under the Last Tsar
Robert Browning The Ring and the Book
Benito Perez Galdos Nazarin
Saul Bellow Henderson the Rain King
Orhan Pamuk Snow
James Joyce Dubliners
Anton Chekhov Three Sisters
Knut Hamsun Mysteries
Elie Wiesel Night
E.T.A. Hoffmann The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr
Wilkie Collins The Woman in White
William Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet
Robert Browning The Shorter Poems*
John R.R. Tolkien The Hobbit*

There are some pretty good books in that list.

* As I write this post, I'm still reading these two books, but I assume I'll have finished both of them by the end of the month. They are short books and I have over a week, after all.

Friday, December 19, 2014

I Saw Lightning Fall: An Advent Ghosts Story


We waited, reading the heavens. He's coming, I said. Polly held my hand. We were protected by scarves, mittens, hats and overcoats. He's coming, Polly said. It was a moonless night: the million stars aflame within the black. I see the Mikky Way, Polly whispered. She was only four. She raised a hand and pointed to a dazzling movement of starlight high in the east. There he is! This racing glittering thing was followed by another, and then dozens burst forth, arcing swiftly down to strike against the earth. A host of burning white cities mushroomed into the Christmas sky.

[This is my contribution to Loren Eaton's annual "Advent Ghosts" shared storytelling event.]

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A drop of sweet sorrow within the fallen world: Romeo and Juliet

The Verona of "Romeo and Juliet" is a violent, pornographic world in which wealthy young men (and their servants) stalk the streets, armed with swords and spoiling for deadly combat to fan the flames of ancient feuds while making obscene puns with every breath, claiming that all men are lechers and all women are bawds. Their elders would end this long-running mafia-style warfare, and have even forbidden the combat, but they cannot control the sex-and-violence-obsessed wealthy young men. Fathers lock up their daughters, making them socially available only during chaperoned parties and church services. The prince of Verona and the working classes are all sick of these rich families, sick of them committing murders in the streets, sick of them treating the city as a debauched playground. But even the prince's own man runs with the Montague gang, bragging of sexual exploits and making endless filthy jokes. Verona is the Fallen World, a sinful world, a cynical world where innocence exists merely to be mocked and defiled. It is within this awful city of Verona that William Shakespeare has trapped the innocents named Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet. They will attempt to live in a different Verona, a pure city hidden inside the depraved city. As the opening prologue tells us, they will fail.

Romeo begins the play as one of the disaffected violent young men, son of one of the merchant families who have grown to become more powerful, maybe, than the nobles who "rule" Verona. Romeo spends much of his time alone, brooding, as does his cousin Benvolio. They are bored young men, rich and without occupations; no wonder they roam Verona looking for sex and death. Romeo, however, will rebel against this disaffected lifestyle and stand away from his friends when he meets and falls in love with Juliet. Much critical ink has been spilled already about Juliet and Romeo's separateness from the decay around them, the poisonous air of Verona.

What's Shakespeare getting at here? I am tempted to read the play as a condemnation of the rising merchant class and the lowered respect given to the nobility. The prince would have order, if anyone listened to him. Count Paris would have Juliet for a wife, if that ratbastard merchant's son Romeo hadn't wooed her already. The priest would have us believe that words have meaning, that the word of the law and the word of God insist upon order, but the young men of Verona speak in puns and double-meaning because even language--even the intention behind any given thought--can be transgressed, violated. When we laugh at the jokes, are we implicating ourselves in the fall of civilization? Maybe that's all too much. Maybe Shakespeare just used what he found, and "Romeo and Juliet" was well-known to English audiences when Shakespeare took it up. Maybe the play's version of Verona is so foul because Shakespeare thought it was funny to write it that way, and the dislocation of Romeo and Juliet within that foul Verona exists only because the playwright wanted to preserve the possibility of sentimentality in telling the lovers' part of the tale.

Am I going to quote anything here? No, I am not going to quote anything here. I'm reading the Pelican edition, edited and with notes by Peter Holland.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

It's a Man's Man's Man's World

I'm quite far along with Wilkie Collins' 1860 sensationalist novel The Woman in White. Observations: titles and social graces will be routinely mistaken for good morals and trustworthiness; women are the victims and servants of men, who get things done; foreigners are not to be trusted (and the middle classes are the Strength of England); when a man recovers from a serious illness, he gains fortitude but when a woman recovers from a serious illness, she is left forever weakened; have I mentioned that foreigners ain't no damned good?

Count Fosco is a great invention, a truly magnificent character. Mr Fairlie is also delightful, and the more socially blinkered of the supporting cast are finely drawn and ironically comic. Good stuff, Wilkie. I'd like to have a look at the original case that inspired Woman in White. The plot twists and labyrinthine machinations of the villains could begin to strain credulity, but that's part of the fun. "No way, Collins! Who believes that?"

Here's a bit from Mr Fairlie's narrative:
Louis suddenly made his appearance with a card in his hand.

"Another Young Person?" I said. "I won't see her. In my state of health Young Persons disagree with me. Not at home."

"It is a gentleman this time, sir."

A gentleman of course made a difference. I looked at the card.

Gracious Heaven! my tiresome sister's foreign husband, Count Fosco.

Is it necessary to say what my first impression was when I looked at my visitor's card? Surely not! My sister having married a foreigner, there was but one impression that any man in his senses could possibly feel. Of course the Count had come to borrow money of me.

"Louis," I said, "do you think he would go away if you gave him five shillings?"

Friday, December 5, 2014

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

There in your hand is the paper that offers you perpetual choking mouthfuls of country breeze for four months' time: The Woman in White

I'm reading the 1950 Dolphin edition of Wilkie Collins' sensation novel The Woman in White. The paper in this edition is wonderful, really quite fine, but I come here to quote the sales copy on the back cover:
The curious narrative of The Woman in White is gradually unfolded through the diaries, letters and memoranda of several characters. Its plot was taken from a dilapidated volume of French criminal cases that Wilkie Collins found while browsing with Charles Dickens through a Paris bookstall.
Why, it's The Ring and the Book!

Well, maybe not quite. Browning's epic poem is a masterpiece; Collins' novel, while entertaining, is not a great book. A pretty good book and worth reading, yes, but not great. Like Dickens, Collins gives us instantly memorable minor characters but earnest and lifeless protagonists. I have no idea why these main characters are generally relegated to being story-telling devices rather than something more like humans, but that's the way of it. Man-shaped lenses, but not men, that's what Dickens and Collins wrote. Still and all, it's mostly delightful fluff and I'm pleased to finally be actually reading it.