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Archive for October 12th, 2005

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Sucking the Blood out of Literature

Note: This post has been referred to in some of the links to it as a review. It’s not a review in the normal sense of the word. I haven’t attempted to give a well-rounded impression of the book. It’s just a blog post about the first few pages of a book I tried to read. (I actually read two or three hundred pages of it.) I don’t know how you see it, but to me there’s a difference.


This entry is made up of notes I made this summer, and had planned to post, but then forgot about. Recently Dr Zen blogged about bad writing, and it reminded me of the notes. This summer I felt like indulging in a pot-boiler, something I’m rarely able to do. I discussed this with Jamie. I rarely have any interest in or patience for film, and often when I see something, I just want the plot to distract me for a couple of hours. My Tarkovsky days are behind me, I’m afraid. Sometimes, I just want to watch a crappy film. I’m a sucker for courtroom dramas. I enjoy thrillers. When they’re over, I forget them. But when I pick up a crappy novel, I invariably abandon it, even though I started in the same mood. Jamie and I came to the conclusion that a film allows you to turn off your mind for a couple of hours, but reading — for me, at any rate — is a more active endeavour, and I can’t both turn off my mind and read at the same time. Eventually I start to get annoyed with the book, even though it’s providing me with the very thing I sought from it. I’ve tried a few times to read Stephen King, for example, but have never been able to finish anything.

So this summer I’d read that The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova had edged The Da Vinci Code out of first place in the New York Times bestseller list. The first reviews were quite enthusiastic. This was the first book, supposedly, to deal with the historical Vlad Tepes, better known as Dracula, and was much more literary than Dan Brown’s book (which isn’t too difficult). So I bought it.

Even the good reviews mentioned some of the book’s weaknesses, such as Kostova’s inability to create different voices for her three different narrators, who tell their stories in different places and at different times. Another one was her reliance on cliches in her plot. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for anyone to travel by train except to create atmosphere. One reviewer pointed out that it’s absurd to imagine that a couple of scholars would go to the library to take out a copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula when a cheap edition could be got in any old bookshop.

But I wasn’t at all prepared for how bad the writing was. I can actually say that it’s more noticeably bad than Dan Brown’s writing. It’s often said that publishers don’t bother editing what they put out any more, and if anyone wants to see how true this is, all they need to do is read the first chapter or two of The Historian. What irks me more than this, however, is that Kostova holds an MFA and won the Hopwood Award for the Novel-in-Progress. I assume that the award was for The Historian. If not, I’d hate to see how bad the unpublished book was.

I’d like to quote excerpts from the first chapter.

In 1972 I was sixteen — young, my father said, to be travelling with him on his diplomatic missions. […] It seems peculiar to me now that I should have been so obedient well into my teens, while the rest of my generation was experimenting with drugs and protesting the imperialist war in Vietnam, but I had been raised in a world so sheltered that it makes my adult life in academia look positively adventurous. To begin with, I was motherless, and the care that my father took of me had been deepened by a double sense of responsibility, so that he protected me more completely than he might have otherwise.

How do you deepen the care you take of someone? What does that mean? Does Kostova know? I know you can care deeply for someone, but can you take deep care of someone? I don’t think so. I haven’t got to the end of the first paragraph, and I already deeply distrust Kostova as a writer.

My mother had died when I was a baby, before my father founded the Centre for Peace and Democracy. My father never spoke of her and turned quietly away if I asked questions; I understood very young that this was a topic too painful for him to discuss.

Several things here. “Turned quietly away” is bad for two reasons. First, the adverb is unnecessary, since it’s obvious enough that he’s not answering. And second, it’s a melodramatic cliche. Do people really do that? Is he so rude as to ignore her questions and turn away without a word? Would you let someone do that without saying, “Hey! I asked you a question!” And there’s a slight contradiction in what the narrator is telling us, which she does elsewhere. If she was perceptive enough to understand that this was a topic too painful for him to talk about, why the hell was she asking him questions?

The latest of [my] housekeepers was Mrs Clay, who took care of our narrow seventeenth-century town house on the Raamgracht, a canal in the heart of the old city. Mrs. Clay let me in after school every day and was a surrogate parent when my father travelled, which was often. She was English, older than my mother would have been, skilled with a feather duster and clumsy with teenagers; sometimes, looking at her too-compasionate, long-toothed face over the dining table, I felt she must be thinking of my mother and I hated her for it. When my father was away, the handsome house echoed.

I’m not going to go looking through dictionaries to see if “latest” can be used this way. I’m sure it means that Mrs Clay is still the housekeeper, which is not the case. Another contradiction: Mrs Clay, who is both a surrogate parent and clumsy with teenagers, is never shown to be either a surrogate parent or clumsy with anyone. She simply isn’t an important character in the novel, at least as far as I read. And “long-toothed” is a very poor choice in a vampire novel.

And how does the house stop echoing when her father is home? Does he fill it up? The notion that the house echoes is cartoonish: I imagine crickets and tumbleweed rolling down the hall.

No one could help me with my algebra, no one admired my new coat or told me to come here and give him a hug, or expressed shock over how tall I had grown. When my father returned from some name on the European map that hung on the wall in our dining room, he smelled like other times and places, spicy and tired.

I don’t know about you, but to me, a European map is not the same as a map of Europe. And not only do “spicy and tired” not go together, I can’t imagine how anyone smells tired.

While he was gone, I went back and forth to school, dropping my books on the polished hall table with a bang. Neither Mrs Clay nor my father let me go out in the evenings, except to the occasional carefully approved movie with carefully approved friends, and — to my retrospective astonishment — I never flouted these rules. I preferred solitude anyway; it was the medium in which I had been raised, in which I swam comfortably. I excelled at my studies but not in my social life. Girls my age terrified me, especially the tough-talking, chain-smoking sophisticates of our diplomatic circle — around them I always felt that my dress was too long, or too short, or that I should been wearing something else entirely. Boys mystified me, although I dreamed vaguely of men. In fact, I was happiest alone in my father’s library, a large, fine room on the first floor of our house.

Kostova is trying to get poetic, but instead she merely becomes nonsensical. Solitude is not a medium, and you don’t swim in a medium. (Christ!) And then, how is tough-talking sophisticated? Does Kostova even know the meaning of the words she’s using? Now, keep in mind this vague dreaming of men. It’s silly enough on its own, but there’s a funny bit of irony here, and more of the inconsistency we find all over the place, especially when she’s drawing a character. We have a naive, sexless girl in an ivory tower, right?

During his absences, I spent hours doing my homework at the mahogany desk or browsing the shelves that lined every wall. I understood later that my father had either half forgotten what was on one of the top shelves or — more likely — assumed I would never be able to reach it; late one night I took down not only a translation of the Kama Sutra but also a much older volume and an envelope of yellowing papers.

Kostova has done so much to lose the basic trust a reader has at the outset of a book, that I have to assume that the irony that this girl, who sometimes vaguely dreams of men and is mystified by boys, is sneaking peaks into her father’s Kama Sutra, is unintentional. Oh, of course, it’s the translation she wants. She’s not interested in the pictures.

I can’t say even now what made me pull them down. But the image I saw at the centre of the book, the smell of age that rose from it, and my discovery that the papers were personal letters all caught my attention forcibly. I knew I shouldn’t examine my father’s private papers, or anyone’s, and I was also afraid that Mrs Clay might suddenly come in to dust the dustless desk — that must have been what made me look over my shoulder at the door. But I couldn’t help reading the first paragraph of the top-most letter, holding it for a couple of minutes as I stood near the shelves.

Forcibly is unnecessary. Caught is enough. And Kostova seems to have lost control of the English language by the time she gets to “that must have been what made me look over my shoulder”. This kind of cleft sentence suggests that she’s already mentioned that she looked over shoulder, but she hasn’t. And the “must have been” suggests that she doesn’t know for sure, and is basing this conclusion on external evidence. Why doesn’t she know for sure then? And the last sentence is full of unnecessary information, even wrong information. I don’t need to be told that she held the letter (I’m surprised she didn’t tell me she held it in her hand) and that she did it for a couple of minutes, or where she was standing. And the letter is too short, and her reading too furtive, for it to have taken a couple of minutes.

She quotes the letter:

My dear and unfortunate successor:
It is with regret that I imagine you, whoever you are, reading the account I must put down here. The regret is partly for myself — because I will surely be at least in trouble, maybe dead, or perhaps worse, if this is in your hands. But my regret is also for you, my yet-unknown friend, because only by someone who needs such vile information will this letter someday be read.

Does Kostova know what “regret” means? She uses it three times, and never correctly. If the author of the letter is imagining someone in the future, he is actually doing so with hope. It would make more sense to say that he hopes no one will ever have to read this letter. He also regrets imagining the future reader, even while he imagines her. Then he regrets what will most likely happen to him. If what he fears comes true, then it is not regret he should feel for the reader, but pity.

At this point, my sense of guilt — and something else too — made me put the letter hastily back in its envelope, but I thought about it all that day and the next.

And something else? Unfortunately, Kostova forgot to tell us what that something else was. If that’s not lazy writing, I don’t know what is.

When my father returned from his latest trip, I looked for an opportunity to ask him about the letters and the strange book. I waited for him to be free, for us to be alone, but he was very busy in those days, and something about what I had found made me hesitate to approach him. Finally I asked him to take me on his next trip. It was the first time I had kept a secret from him and the first time I had ever insisted on anything.

I can’t understand how someone who hastily puts the letter back for fear of getting caught reading it would then start looking for an opportunity to ask her father about it. Talk about sloppy! Kostova can’t stay consistent in a single paragraph, sometimes in a single sentence. And we have more lazy vagueness: something about what I had found made me hesitate. What does this mean? Why doesn’t she know what this something was? If she does know, why isn’t she telling us?

And are we supposed to believe that this girl, who’s been sneaking into the library to look at her father’s Kama Sutra has never kept any secrets from her father before? I wonder if Kostova’s got the memory of a goldfish.

I won’t try your patience for much longer. I’ll only give you the worst howlers.

The father decides to take her with him on his next trip. After some more lazy, sloppy writing, we get to the city.

Because this city is where my story starts, I’ll call it Emona, its Roman name, to shield it a little from the sort of tourist who follows doom around with a guidebook.

Why is she concealing the modern name of the city? For two reasons: to prevent some people from going there, and because that’s where her story starts. Does the second one make any sense whatsoever?

I strained and craned until I caught sight of the castle through sodden tree branches — moth-eaten brown towers on a steep hill at the town’s centre.

This place must have pretty damn big moths. Either that, or their castles are made of wool.

At a table near the window we drank tea with lemon, scalding through the thick cups, and ate our way through sardines on buttered white bread and even a few slices of torta. “We’d better stop there,” my father said.

“We need to rest up. There’s still 150 feet of sardines to eat through till we break out of this place.”

Then she tells him about the book and the letters.

He sat forward, sat very still, then shivered visibly. This strange gesture alerted me at once. If a story came, it wouldn’t be like any story he’d ever told me. He glanced at me, under his eyebrows, and I was surprised to see how drawn and sad he looked.
“Are you angry?” I was looking into my cup now, too.

Visibly is redundant, and shivering is not a gesture. And since he’s looking at her, from under his eyebrows, and since she’s obviously had to look at him in order to be able to describe it for us, neither of them can possibly be looking at their cup of tea!

All this (and more!) from the first six pages of the book. This is what an MFA is good for.

And I worry about the words I set down on paper.

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