Wednesday, February 24, 2016

He has the arrogance to say nothing.

I keep thinking I'll translate a page of Max Frisch's Homo faber and post it here, and I keep not doing that. It seems that my bag has neither pen nor paper in it, and so during my lunch breaks I have no choice but to read rather than Englishify Frisch's novel. But I make the effort, for you, dear reader:
I thought about Ivy.

When I held Ivy I was also thinking: I should have my film developed, phone up Williams! I could solve chess problems in my head, while Ivy said I'm happy, o Dear, so happy, o Dear, o Dear! I felt her ten fingers on the back of my head, saw her epileptically happy mouth and the picture on the wall--it was hanging crooked again--I heard the elevator, I tried to figure out what the day's date was, I heard her question--You're happy?--and I shut my eyes, in order to think about Ivy, who I held in my arms, and kissed by accident my own elbow. After that it was all forgotten. I forgot to phone up Williams, even though I had been thinking about it the whole time. I stood at the open window and finally smoked my cigarette while Ivy left the bedroom to make tea, and it suddenly occurred to me what the date was. But it played no role in my life that day, the actual date. Everything happened anyway! Then I heard that someone had come into the room and I turned to find Ivy in her dressing gown, bringing our two cups in, then I went to her and said: Ivy! and kissed her, she's such a good fellow, even if she doesn't get it that I prefer to be alone--
The narrator continues on like this the whole while, declaring himself a loner while constantly clinging to the people around him, distracted and claiming his distractions are his real life, pointing out how rational and sensible he is, how grounded in reason and science his worldview is, all the while acting more and more irrationally. His employer has suggested that the narrator needs a vacation. The narrator wonders why his stomach hurts constantly, then assures the reader that he has never been in better health. I assume that "I forgot to phone up Williams, even though I had been thinking about it the whole time" means that the narrator was thinking about phoning up Williams the whole time he and Ivy were having sex.

Frisch, in his Paris Review "Art of Fiction" interview, says that the narrator's prose is deliberately flat, self-consciously overlooking details, colors, beauty, the messages of the senses. The narrator, Walter Faber, says nothing because he denies everything even as his denial crumbles around his ears. "He has the arrogance to say nothing," Frisch says of Faber. Frisch goes on to explain why so many of his protagonists lead similar lives, and have such similar personal habits. The short answer: laziness on the part of the author. I like Frisch's honesty. "I grab the things that are here in the living room; I'm too lazy to go look at what's in the kitchen."

Monday, February 22, 2016

people in transit

The smith stared at his son who stood wraithlike in that weird, dank mist. It took him a minute to see Duny's meaning, but when he did he ran at once, noiselessly, knowing every fence and corner of the village, to find the others and tell them what to do. Now through the grey fog bloomed a blur of red, as the Kargs set fire to the thatch of a house. Still they did not come up into the village, but waited at the lower end till the mist should lift and lay bare their loot and prey.

The tanner, whose house it was that burned, sent a couple of boys skipping right under the Kargs' noses, taunting and yelling and vanishing again like smoke into smoke. Meantime the older men, creeping behind fences and running from house to house, came close on the other side and sent a volley of arrows and spears at the warriors, who stood all in a bunch. One Karg fell writhing with a spear, still warm from its forging, right through his body. Others were arrow-bitten, and all enraged. They charged forward then to hew down their puny attackers, but they found only the fog about them, full of voices. They followed the voices, stabbing ahead into the mist with their great, plumed, bloodstained lances. Up the length of the street they came shouting, and never knew they had run right through the village, as the empty huts and houses loomed and disappeared again in the writhing grey fog. The villagers ran scattering, most of them keeping well ahead since they knew the ground; but some, boys or old men, were slow. The Kargs stumbling on them drove their lances or hacked with their swords, yelling their war-cry, the names of the White Godbrothers of Atuan: "Wuluah! Atwah!"

Some of the band stopped when they felt the land grow rough underfoot, but others pressed right on, seeking the phantom village, following dim wavering shapes that fled just out of reach before them. All the mist had come alive with these fleeting forms, dodging, flickering, fading on every side. One group of the Kargs chased the wraiths straight to the High Fall, the cliff's edge above the springs of Ar, and the shapes they pursued ran out onto the air and there vanished in a thinning of the mist, while the pursuers fell screaming through fog and sudden sunlight a hundred feet sheer to the shallow pools among the rocks. And those that came behind and did not fall stood at the cliff's edge, listening.
I'm reading Ursula K. LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea, the first book in the "Earthsea" trilogy. I have heard that there are actually more than three novels in this series now, but I've only read the first three. A Wizard of Earthsea was originally published in 1968. I don't know when I first read it, but it must've been in the early 1970s. I think I read these books before I read Lord of the Rings. I've always remembered "Earthsea" fondly, and when I found a set on the bookshelves at a house I was sharing eleven years ago, I read them and I was pleased to find them as fine as I'd remembered. Mighty Reader got me a set (in the original covers, hurrah!) for Christmas last year, and this seems to be when I've decided to read them again. I report that the books remain as good as I'd always thought they were.

The prose is quite rhythmic and propulsive, as you can see from the above excerpt. It has both the flavor of the tale-teller's art and of Modernism, I think. The surface simplicity of fairy tales and the angular rolling along of Fitzgerald or Hemingway. It's also a compact story, each volume being more a novella than a novel, not at all what one imagines nowadays when one thinks of a high fantasy trilogy.

The other thing "Earthsea" contains is the entire Harry Potter story, in compressed form. There's the proud boy whose mother died when he was a babe, the school of wizardry, the connection/battle with a dark half of himself, and even the scar on the boy wizard's face. What Rowling takes 7,000 pages to do, LeGuin managed in about 400. But I am not here to compare the two works. LeGuin's novels, I assume, have in some way informed my own novels. I recognize the sparse prose, the brevity of the action, the intimate focus on a single character, and the movement. LeGuin's characters are always leaving home, going somewhere, traveling. It came as a shock to me when I saw how every novel I write is essentially about someone on a journey. Not the hero's transformative journey, but by gum my protagonists are not at home. All of the novels I have planned for the future are also about people in transit. Huh, I say. Huh. I will have to write something soon about people who stay home.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Seven Years, Six Words, no Hat

Today is the seventh anniversary of this blog, which is not about hats at all, but is plenty about words. I created this online presence, back in February of 2009, because I had completed a novel and was just beginning to shop it around to literary agents. Literary agents, I had discovered, expect an author to have an online presence. Preferably, an author will have a blog, a Facebook page, a twitter account, an Instagram account, a Pinterest page, a MySpace account, and a million-and-five loyal followers foaming at the mouth to buy the author's novel as soon as it hits the stands (or, better yet, to pre-order the novel on Amazon as soon as it's available). So I got a free blog on this thing called blogger, which is apparently owned by Google or something, because I wanted to get a literary agent to represent my novel. I do not have a million-and-five online followers, loyal or otherwise. But I did get this blog.

Time flew, as it does, and I got an agent and blogged about it, and I wrote more books and blogged about that, and then I parted ways with that first agent and got a new agent and I blogged about that, and I blogged about books I was writing and gave a lot of bad and simplistic advice about writing novels to nice folks I'd never met and then my second agent shopped two of my novels around to a couple of dozen publishers who admired the writing but not, alas, the novels themselves and then my second literary agent wished me well and we parted company. Eventually that original novel was published, and then republished, and has so far sold a few thousand copies (and like every other novel these days, there are scads of pirate digital editions all over the internets and who knows if anyone even looks at those). You can read all about this on the blog. It is not a particularly interesting or useful tale, so you'd be better served looking at other people's Instagram accounts. I do not, I pause to reveal in dramatic fashion, have accounts with Facebook, twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, or MySpace. I may be lying about Pinterest, but I'll be darned if I know how to access it if I have that account. I digress.

Time continued to flew, as it sometimes ungrammatically does, and here I am. I have learned to stop giving advice to aspiring novelists, especially as my own standing as a knowledgeable writer is sketchy at best, and for the last several years I've been mostly blogging about the books I've been reading. This harmless change in the direction of the blog resulted in the loss of most of my regular readers. I miss them, whoever they were. Now I only blog about the books I write when I am weak or overly excited about something, which is still far too often. I rarely look at blogs written by other writers (though there are a couple of exceptions). I do look at a number of blogs written by some very perceptive and interesting readers, and I attempt to model my online work on theirs, because they seem to know what they are doing, and I don't know what I'm doing. To those perceptive and interesting bloggers: thanks.

What I do at six words for a hat is, I tell myself, write about the experience of reading a book; I don't write reviews, and usually by the time I've finished reading a novel I have lost all enthusiasm for writing about it, because most of the book's mysteries have gone away and I am attracted to--excited by--the mystery of the experience, not by the sum of the work, the conclusions drawn by the author, etc*. I don't care how novels end; I am a huge fan of middles, however, and I tend to start blogging about a book when I've reached the end of the first act. That's where the good stuff is usually found. S/he's going to do what? I expect to be amazed, and I frequently am. A good middle is a good book, and vice versa. Despite my abnormal enthusiasm for mostly middles, I think I've done some okay work here, especially that weird and pointless series on Chernyshevsky and the posts I've written about D.H. Lawrence. If I keep writing this blog, I might come up with a few other posts that are worth reading. That would be good, I think. To anyone who's ever left a comment here: thanks.

Today is also the feast of Blessed John of Fiesole, whom you might know as Fra Angelico. I add this note for no particular reason except that I like Fra Angelico's paintings.

* Also, usually, I'm too busy being excited by whatever new novel I'm just started to read.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

ten to fifty pages

Sometimes I think of myself as a "novelist," which is a person who writes novels. I have actually written some novels. You probably didn't know that. One of my novels is called Mona in the Desert. It's a family story spanning sixty-odd years, etc. Cervantes, witches, Shakespeare, cigarettes, sex. The synopsis is not important. What is important--to me at least--is that I'd like Mona in the Desert to be a published novel, and so I have begun to send emails to people called "literary agents." Literary agents market manuscripts to editors at publishing companies. Publishing companies purchase the right to publish (that is, edit and design and print and distribute) editions of books. Many publishing companies will only consider purchasing the rights to manuscripts brought to their attention by literary agents. They will not consider manuscripts brought to their attention by people who actually write the books. There are many reasons for this state of affairs; we won't go into that.

The emails one sends to a literary agent, soliciting her services as representative of one's manuscript, are known as "queries." "I am querying William Morris with my latest piece," one might say. I am querying a variety of literary agents with my novel Mona in the Desert.

The form of a query, or query letter as it is sometimes called, is pretty standardized. Salutation, brief mention of personal or professional connection to the agent, statement of book's marketing niche (or genre). Then follows a brief (three-to-five sentences, usually) paragraph of advertising copy describing the Most Interesting Thing About the Book. This is known as the "pitch." An author's pitch will often find its way onto the cover of a published book, having traveled with the manuscript all the way through the publication process. A fragile pitch cannot survive this journey. After the pitch is a listing of the writer's previous publications (called "pub creds" in the business), any relevant biographical information, and the author's wish to hear from the literary agent soon. That is a query, bounded in a nutshell.

Frequently, one is invited to paste a portion of the novel into the body of the query email. This portion will range from ten to fifty pages, or from one to three chapters. This sample, always the beginning of the novel, is called a "partial." If a literary agent requests the full manuscript to read, they are looking at the "full." Sometimes literary agents will wish to be the only literary agent reading your full, and they ask for an "exclusive." To this request, it is always best to say yes. "Yes" is easily said.

I have been pasting the first ten-to-fifty pages of my novel Mona in the Desert into the bodies of query emails. I have been reading random paragraphs of the novel, and making minor changes here and there. This does not mean that the novel is still in need of revisions. It means that I cannot keep my hands off of things, and will always wonder what the prose would look like if it were different here or there. This means that I am sending out many slightly different versions of the first part of the novel. I don't think that really matters very much. I am never finished with a piece of prose; I am always merely between rounds of tinkering. Progress is, after all, just a myth; all we have is ongoing difference, change, fussing.

I continue to think that Mona in the Desert is a beautiful and startling and very good book.

Monday, February 1, 2016

"Damit war dieses Gesprach zu Ende*" The thoughts of the working man, by Max Frisch

"Ich bin Techniker und gewohnt, die Dinge zu sehen, wie sie sind. Ich sehe den Mond uber der Wuste von Tamaulipas--klarer als je, mag sein, aber eine erreichbare Masse, die um unseren Planeten kreist, eine Sache der Gravitation, interessant, aber wieso ein Erlebnis?"

"I am a technician and I live to see things as they are. I see the moon over the desert of Tamaulipas--clearer than anywhere else, maybe, but a thing we can reach, that circles around our planet, a source of gravitation, is interesting, but how is it an experience?"
And so Herr Faber, the narrator of Max Frisch's novel Homo faber, describes himself. Faber is an engineer working for UNESCO, employed on projects that improve the lives of citizens in undeveloped nations. Faber could care less about the citizens; he's only interested in the projects, the technology. Faber doesn't like people, and despite his own highly-strung nature he has no patience for nor understanding of the emotions of others.

The novel opens in 1957 with Faber boarding a jumbo jet bound from New York to Mexico City. The plane is delayed for hours on the tarmac by a snow storm. Faber, a Swiss, is forced to listen to his chatty German seatmate, a young man whose name Faber didn't quite catch and isn't interested in hearing repeated. The German likes to think of himself as a world traveler, disparaging everyone he's met, particularly the Russians. "I've been to the Caucasus," he says. "I know Ivan, I can tell you. The only thing Ivan understands is a weapon. Oh, I know Ivan, all right." It's a long flight and Faber spends most of it sleeping, pretending to sleep, hiding in the toilet, wondering if he can switch to a new seat, and otherwise behaving as a classic comic misanthrope. When the plane lands in Houston for a brief layover, Faber hides in the men's room of the airport bar rather than having a drink with his German seatmate. In the men's room, Faber has a panic attack, passing out in front of the sink. He's discovered by the cleaning woman while the final boarding call for his flight is being given. Faber decides not to get on his plane; as the loudspeaker calls his name over and over, Faber hides himself in a closet until he hears the noise of a jumbo jet's engines. He is not sure why he's hiding. Faber, the engineer, the technician, has no curiosity about the workings of his own psyche. He's as unreal to himself as everyone else is. Of course he is discovered and escorted to the plane, still waiting on the tarmac. The plane lifts off, and several hours later one of the four engines dies. The passengers, all but Faber, are quite concerned. Faber knows that the plane can operate with only three engines, but even so he has another panic attack and launches into a monologue about the Mexican city of Tampico, where the pilot intends to make an emergency landing.
Ich kannte Tampico von fruher, von einer Fischvergiftung, die ich nicht vergessen werde bis ans Ende meiner Tag.

"Tampico," sagte ich, "das ist die dreckigste Stadt der Welt. Olhafen, Sie werden sehen, entweder stinkt's nach Ol oder nach Fisch--"

Er fingerte an seiner Schwimmweste.

"Ich rate Ihnen wirklich," sagte ich, "essen Sie keinen Fisch, mein Herr, unter keinen Umstanden--"

Er versuchte zu lacheln.

"Die Einheimischen sind naturlich immun," sagte ich, "aber unsereiner--"

Er nickte, ohne zu horen. Ich hielt ganze Vortrage, scheint es, uber Amoeben, beziehungsweise uber Hotels in Tampico. Sobald ich merkte, dass er gar nicht zuhorte, mein Dusseldorfer, griff ich ihn am Armel, was sonst nicht meine Art ist, im Gegenteil, ich hasse diese Manie, einander am Armel zu greifen. Aber anders horte er einfach nicht zu. Ich erzahlte ihm die ganze Geschichte meiner langweiligen Fischvergiftung in Tampico, 1951, also vor sechs Jahren--


I knew Tampico from earlier, from a fish-related food poisoning, that I will not forget until the end of my days.

"Tampico," I said, "is the filthiest city on earth. Oil ports, you'll see, stink like either oil or fish--"

He fingered his life jacket.

"I advise you sincerely," I said, "to eat no fish, sir, under any circumstances--"

He tried to smile.

"The inhabitants are naturally immune," I said, "but one of us--"

He nodded, without hearing. I kept up my lecture, it appears, about amoeba, or rather about the hotels in Tampico. As soon as I noticed that he wasn't listening at all, my Dusseldorfer, I grabbed him by the arm, which is not at all my way, on the contrary, I hate those fellows who take each other by the arm. But otherwise he wouldn't have listened at all. I explained to him the entire story of my boring fish-related food poisoning in Tampico, 1951, which was six years ago--
* "And with that, the conversation came to an end." All translations from the German here are mine.