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Archive for May, 2006

Nodding on the bus

In ancient times, they had interesting notions about the body — mainly interesting because they're so different from ours.

For example, the word phren (φρην), midriff, also meant heart and mind, since the heart is obviously located in the torso, and they believed the mind was found in the heart. Later on, they believed that the personality was made up of different combinations of liquids in the body: black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm. These ideas seem very strange to us now, even if remnants of these ideas still persist. Black bile, which has never been observed in nature, was too good a metaphor to give up. It's where we get melancholia. And although we don't believe the mind is found in the midriff, we still have words like phrenetic and schizophrenia.

There seems to have been in Homeric times the belief that strength had its seat in the knees. Probably this comes from the observation that when one is terrified, the knees give way.

"Aged sir, if only, as the spirit is in your bosom,
so might your knees be also and the strength stay steady with you" (IV.313-314)

"Come then, hold up your hands to Zeus, and let go an arrow
at this strong man, whoever he may be, who does so much evil
to the Trojans, since many and great are those whose knees he has broken." (V.174-176)

This leads, no doubt, to another custom which I find the strangest in Homer: the gestures in the act of supplication. When Thetis goes to see Zeus to petition in favour of her son Achilles,

She came and sat beside him with her left hand embracing
his knees, but took him underneath the chin with her right hand
and spoke in supplication to lord Zeus son of Kronos. (I.500-502)

I imagine they held the knees in recognition of the person's (or god's) power. It's hard to imagine this, especially the part about the chin, but it survives in at least one famous vase painting.

Nessus the centaur is begging Heracles to spare him, and is reaching back to take his chin. Clearly, he has no time to hold the knees.

But what did the chin symbolise? The question is too much for me, but I notice one thing: if the person or god agreed or consented to what was being asked, they turned their chin down towards the suppliant. If they denied their request, they turned their chin away. Homer even had a verb for each gesture. The first, κατανεύω (kataneuo), meant to turn the chin down, or to nod. It meant to give assent, or to promise something. The second, ανανεύω (ananeuo), meant to refuse or make a motion of prohibition.

She spoke in prayer, but Pallas Athene turned her head from her. (VI.311)

The curious thing is that these gestures still exist among Greeks today, after so many years. When a Greek says no, he nods upwards, raising his chin. Sometimes he will also raise his eyebrows. (Sometimes, if he is lazy — which is quite often — he will only raise the eyebrows.) Often, too, this gesture is accompanied by a clicking or tsk sound.

Growing up in Canada, I never made this gesture, of course. I would shake my head from left to right, like everyone else. Here in Greece, when I do this, people often think I'm saying I didn't hear them, and repeat themselves.

A Greek professor I had in university had told us once, "What separates us from Homer? Eighty grandfathers. That's all." It seems dubious, but an amusing thought nonetheless.

* * * * *

I really shouldn't, I know, but I get really annoyed when people stand at the bus door, or even get on, and ask people where the bus is going, or what bus it is. I myself never get on a bus if I don't know where it's going, or which one it is, but some people don't have time. People look absolutely stupid when they do it: they look around with a wide-eyed look of panic and say, "Is this the 203?!"

"It's a little late to be asking now, isn't it, you moron!" I feel like saying, but I can't be bothered. Most people ignore them, but someone eventually tells them whether it is or not. If it isn't, they get off at the next stop, and try their luck with whatever other public transport vehicle happens to stop near them.

Today I was going to work, and I was seated near the back door. We came to a stop on Vasilissis Sophias Street, near the Benaki Museum. A woman came to the door when it opened and shouted, "Is this going to Syntagma?"

No bus or trolley on that street goes to Syntagma, not exactly, and anyway she was close enough to walk. But no one was answering her. When I saw the beseeching, desperate look on her face, I felt nearly overcome with weariness. How do you explain such things to people like her? All I did was raise my eyebrows. I couldn't even be bothered to raise my chin.

And I thought, a moment or two later, how far I've come.


The translations are from Richmond Lattimore's Iliad, which follows the same line breaks as the original.

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A Troubled Student

Yesterday I had one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult lessons I've ever had. I have a student, A., who's very quiet, sits at the back of the room and hardly ever speaks. In the first lesson, when we were introducing ourselves, I asked him what he did for a living, and he refused to answer. I found out later from one of the secretaries that he's a cop.

He seemed to get along well with everyone in the class, which wasn't really difficult, because everyone in that group got along well. They're a friendly bunch of people, ranging from about 20 to 36 years old. Occasionally he would refuse to answer a question, even if it was multiple choice. I'd say, "Come on, you have a 25% chance of getting it right," but he would shrug his shoulders helplessly. (This is not uncommon. I've seen people do this when there were only two choices.) But apart from that, he participated when asked to. He wrote a lot of compositions, too, in a large, messy script. Once we had a composition about what job we had or wanted to have, and he wrote the whole thing without ever stating what he actually did.

One thing that sticks out in my mind as atypical of what I imagine cops to be like is that he liked Rimbaud and Baudelaire a lot.

Sometimes he came to class without his books. I thought that maybe the course was being paid for by some sort of work-related programme, and he simply had to put in the hours. I still don't know if this was the case. At any rate, I've seen this sort of thing many, many times, and I thought nothing of it. After the Easter break, though, he started to get very strange. He'd sit in class with these huge sunglasses that made him look like a fly. At the school where I work, we share classes with another teacher. For example, I teach this class on Tuesdays, and the other teacher on Thursdays. The other teacher told me that A. had said some strange things in class. He'd raised his hand and started talking about music and radio, when it had nothing to do with what the class was discussing. He left after only an hour. He'd left early in my class too, but had not spoken.

Yesterday I saw him sitting at his desk at the back, without the huge sunglasses this time, with a pack of Marlboros and a CPE textbook on his desk. But it was the wrong book. We don't use that one. In a joking sort of tone, I asked him what he was doing with that one.

"I prefer this one," he said, in broken English. (He usually responds to English with Greek.) "I think it's a very good book."

I told him that the author of it produces good stuff.

"But actually at the moment I'm not interested in Cambridge or Michigan. I listen to the radio. [He may have said something about Eurovision.] And I'm smoking a lot."

Before you joke about what he's smoking, let me make it clear that I immediately understood this as a sign that he was under stress of some kind, and was smoking the way some people drink when things are difficult. I don't remember people resorting to cigarettes so much in Canada at times like that, although I know they do. But it seems they do it even more here in Greece.

Anyway, the lesson got under way. I knew better than to ask him any questions, since he didn't have the book, and I knew he wasn't interested enough. I didn't ask him to sit with someone who had the book. The first hour was fine. I don't remember him doing or saying anything. In the teacher's room during the break, I was telling the others about the little exchange we'd had about the book when one of the secretaries came in and said, "You wouldn't happen to have a student who's acting a little strangely today?" I said I did. He told me that A. had been saying strange things things to some students in the waiting room before class had started, and had alarmed them. I learned from the secretary that he had told one of the girls in the class that he wanted her to be the mother of his children.

In the second hour, the situation became clearer to me. A. was in love with the girl whose children he said he wanted to father. After the first break, he began to talk more in class, and things became awkward. I hoped he would leave again, but he didn't. He didn't even leave the room to smoke — he stood at the window at the back of the classroom.

In the second hour, he took out a blank sheet of paper from somewhere and began to write quickly. In only a few minutes he'd written a page and a half. He seemed inspired. Later, he started tearing up paper in small squares, about 3×3 inches, and writing on those. When the hour was over, and I was leaving the room, he asked me a question. It started out having to do with English, but in mid-sentence was about Madonna and a few other things. "You know?" he said at the end of it, and I just said, "No." Some people laughed.

In the third hour, he was much more talkative, and I spent it dreading every time he opened his mouth or raised his hands. The rest of the class were trying very hard to be conscientious about the lesson, and keep up the appearance of order.

"Have you seen the video clip for 'November Rain'?" he asked me at one point, although it had nothing to do with anything. I told him I hadn't, and he shrugged, disappointed, and remarked that I was obviously clueless then.

At one point he suddenly spoke up and said he was dying for a cigarette. I told him he could go out and have one if he wanted to. He started saying things I couldn't understand, although the others in the class realised he was talking about the girl who was ignoring his advances. The oldest student, who is my age, and who sits at the front of the class, told him to give it a rest. I gathered that he'd talked about it before. Then she said quietly, so that only those around her could her, "He's not well."

There were moments of lucidity, though. He raised his hand and proposed that, since the course is ending, I tell them how I thought they had done in things like their compositions, if I was disappointed with them in any way, or give them any last bits of advice. I made a few brief comments and moved on. Another time, he raised his hand and asked a question that had nothing to do with what we were discussing, and then, realising his mistake, said, "Don't mind me — I'm raving."

The verb defect came up, and I was explaining what it meant. The oldest student, who is often the only one to pick up on the cultural references that I make in class, mentioned Baryshnikov, whom the others didn't even know. She wondered if Nureyev had defected. I mentioned Solzhenitsyn, but jokingly, since I knew that if they hadn't heard of the other two, they would have a clue who he was. A. raised his hand and said there was also Dostoevsky and Pushkin, and that the latter was a philhellene.

"But they lived before the formation of the USSR," I said.

"And then there's Lorca, who said he was going to burn the Parthenon," he quickly added. He made some remark to the effect that this is the kind of stuff we Greeks have to deal with.

Finally, the last hour came to an end. I knew the girl he was in love with was not going to leave alone. She went to the secretary, who's a much bigger guy than A., and some of the students waited for her, I believe. (I know they went as a group and complained.) I had to get ready for the next class. (I have a weird one in that class too, probably on medication, but I'll take ten of him before A.) When A. was leaving, he passed the drinking fountain and slammed his book on it, and left it there. Later in the evening, I looked at it in the secretary's office. It was new, untouched, except for the indentations his writing had made on the cover when he was writing on the paper.

I dread to think what he'll be like next time, if he comes back. I hope he doesn't. I dread the thought of him becoming violent, if it comes to that. It's tough when you know that, should it come to that, you'll have to do something. If he does something to bother the girl, you'll have to step in, even though he may be able to send you flying.

And I hope he's not working. I can't imagine him staying at work (let alone carrying a gun) in that state. I hope he's on some kind of disability leave. They say he was being transferred to Thessaloniki and wasn't going to register for the rest of the course. But who knows now.


Update:

Tonight I said to my boss, "I guess you heard about the incident with A." Not only had she heard, but she knew much more than I did. She told me that A. had given a letter to the girl saying that he was either going to kill somebody or kill himself, or both. Her parents called the school and said that they were going to take legal action against him.

Unfortunately, the administration's attitude has been to wait and see. They don't want to do anything about it because there are only three more lessons, and he's not going to come back anyway when the course ends. Meanwhile, we teachers (not to mention the girl, if she decides to come again) have to go into a classroom with a disturbed policeman who has threatened to kill "someone".

The next class for that group is tomorrow night (18 May). Then there are two more lessons next week. I hope the girl doesn't come. She's a sweet kid, but she should stay home. She'll continue the course when he's gone anyway. (Unless her parents decide — quite logically, in my opinion — to put her somewhere he won't be able to find her.) 

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4th European Social Forum

I don’t normally go to demonstrations or marches — in fact, I hardly ever go. I went to the big march on Sunday 6 May more for research than anything else, because there’s a march like this in the novel I’m writing. I took quite a few pictures, most of which I’ve uploaded to my Flickr page.

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Last pictures from Crete…

… till next time, that is.

When I returned to Athens, I noticed that none of the photos looked good on my own computer. I thought my monitor was good, but the one I was using in Crete was much better.

I took this as a flight of pigeons began to take off. I thought they were going to hit me.

It was hard to get a good picture of all of St Minas in one shot. It’s huge. You can check out more of them here. In the larger versions you can see the same seagull sitting on top of the uppermost cross in all the pictures. It never moved. The view must have been great from up there.

This is a marble plaque in the wall of the small St Matthew’s church in the old district of Lakkos, which is being fixed up. I have a book on the area, written by an anthropologist. When you walk through it, you can see that a colourful piece of the city’s history is disappearing. And I didn’t even take any pictures of it. I’ll try again later this summer, when I visit again.

I took a lot of pictures of churches. I’ve never been particularly interested them, but you tend to see things differently through the lens of a camera.

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A response to the screenplay-novel

I have been challenged by Finn Harvor to answer some questions about the state of things in the publishing world, and in the novel in general, a challenge I won't take up in its entirety. The main reason is that I'm not qualified to talk about the publishing industry; I have no first-hand experience of it. (I'm talking about fiction here, not EFL publishing.) I can only repeat what I've read in articles and other blogs. My main concern is the novel itself — how to write it and how to read it. As far as the latter is concerned, so many have been written, in so many languages, that I can't possibly hope to skim the surface. I have so many unread books in my own library that if I could manage to read one a week, I would need more than thirty years. I still buy books even though I know I already have more than I will ever be able to read in my lifetime. It's hard, then, for me to get too worried about the state of things.

I won't get into what a novel is for me and what I want from it, mainly because I'm not interested in persuading anyone that it is the way. But for me this is something fixed (even though it's exciting when a writer comes along and writes one in a very different way, and seems to reinvent the novel). It is a kind of ideal. And by that I mean that if the novel changes in such a way that it no longer offers me what I want, then I will have no problem with turning my back on its future. As I said, I already have enough to me keep me busy for the rest of my life, and there are many great works I haven't even bought, let alone read. So publishing for me is not an end in itself. My main concern as a writer is to write the kind of book I like, or the kind of book I'd like to read but which hasn't been written yet. For me, writing is a long process of discovery and surprise, which is why I could never write a novel that had already been tightly plotted out beforehand. I enjoy the sense of not knowing exactly where it's going. If I lost that, I would never be able to maintain my interest in writing. I'd simply give up. Even if the prospect of publication were ensured, it would be too much of a chore. My point, then, is that, although I would love to be a successful novelist, I would only want to be so on my terms. If those terms were not accepted by any publisher, I'd either give up or publish it myself. For this reason, I would also prefer to be published by a small publisher whose vision of literature I shared than with a big publisher whose main concern is to sell a blockbuster (the kind of book I don't read anyway). I had begun another post, and have left some comments on Harvor's blog, with some objections to his "manifesto", but have since thought better of it. I will only respond on a personal level and try to account for why the kind of writing he is advocating offers me no enjoyment at all.

* * * * *

A couple of months ago, I watched Apocalypse Now for the first time in years, and I was struck again by something that occurred to me when I first read Heart of Darkness. (I had seen the film first.)

For me, the most fundamental difference between the two works is how they approach Kurtz. Both the book and the film create a strong sense of anticipation; you hear a lot about him, for a long time, before you see him, and he begins to grow in your imagination. But in the film, when we finally see Kurtz, it's someone who pontificates, whereas in the book he remains relatively silent. Brando's semi-improvised speeches have an anticlimactic effect. They are, for the most part, a combination of the pretentious and pedestrian. (Anyone who has seen Hearts of Darkness, the documentary, cannot envy Coppolla having to salvage something from the two weeks he worked with Brando. Perhaps the now-classic line, "I swallowed a bug!" could have been left in the film without detracting from it much.)

Conrad, though, knew what he was doing, and had his Kurtz keep his mouth shut. No one knows — except Marlowe, who tells you that you simply had to be there — what Kurtz experienced. But we see the result, and we get this final judgement: "The horror!" Our imagination must work on the material to justify the unquestionable result: Kurtz's state at the end of the book. And the imagination cannot fail to convince itself. If it does, you try again, or say, "I can't imagine, but it must have been horrible if it had such an effect."

The film, however invites the viewer to say, "I'm not convinced that those experiences would lead to this." We can even fail to be impressed with the result. This is because film as a medium must show. The novel has access to the interior world of its characters, and film is a direct, simultaneous representation of the exterior world.

(Of course, there are exceptions to this. Ironically, Apocalypse Now fails where it tries to show the interior — if Coppolla had left more to the imagination, it would have worked — and Heart of Darkness succeeds because it avoids delving first-hand into Kurtz's inner life.)

To have access to the interior world of its characters in such a way, a film must use some kind technique like the voice-over or have the actor think aloud. When voice-over is used too often, critics often complain that the film is using the technique as a crutch, to compensate for what it has not been able to do in the language and with the methods of film. It's using methods that are not visual and therefore not best suited to the medium.

I don't want to sound rigid in my expectations. I'm not. I'm well aware that novels can deal almost entirely with appearances. Robbes-Grillet comes to mind, and then there's this curious example:

The temperature is in the nineties, and the boulevard is absolutely empty.

Lower down, the inky water of a canal reaches in a straight line. Midway between two locks is barge full of timber. On the bank, two rows of barrels.

Beyond the canal, between houses separated by workyards, a huge, cloudless, tropical sky. Under the throbbing sun, white facades, slate roofs, and granite quays hurt the eyes. An obscure distant murmur rises in the hot air. All seems drugged by the Sunday peace and the sadness of summer days.

Two men appear.

In his "Notes on an Unfinished Novel", John Fowles made this comment:

Here (the opening four paragraphs of a novel) is a flagrant bit of writing for the cinema. The man has obviously spent too much time on film scripts and can now think only of his movie sale. […] It first appeared on March 25, 1881. The writer's name is Flaubert. All I have done to his novel Bouvard et Pecuchet is to transpose its past historic into the present.

I recommend the essay to anyone interested in the question of the two media. You can find it in his Wormholes.

* * * * *

My main objection is with Harvor's notion of vividness in writing. "Less is more vivid" says the header on his blog. He has also rightly said that we get more mileage out of Jack Nicholson raising his eyebrow and sighing than we can with some dialogue. Robert De Niro once said that such a gesture was worth an entire page of script. The irony, of course, is that these examples serve to reduce the script, to do away with the cumbersome, less effective written word in the visual medium of film. Both are examples of an immediate vividness that writing cannot aspire to.

A writer, however, can try to create the vivid image. Some may write, "Jack smirked ironically", but this is hardly vivid. A vivid image is always impressed upon us. In this example, the reader needs to have a clear idea beforehand of what an ironic smirk looks like and then to consult this image quickly. This is a considerable amount of imaginative work on the part of the reader, more even than the writer was prepared to do. A careful, attentive and imaginative reader, however, is quite likely to lose patience here, to demand more from a writer. The reader who does not lose patience is the one who does not consult an image, but simply takes in the ironic smirk as a mere fact, as a bit of information, and moves on. Reader and writer are doing a small but equal amount of imaginative work.

If the writer had described the raising of an eyebrow, the crooked smile, the sideways glance, the brief puff of breath out of the nose (all the while never resorting to the word "ironic"), then a vivid image perhaps would have been created. (I can't speak for the success of an off-hand attempt.) The reader would see it clearly. They might not understand it as ironic, but that's a risk all writers must take.

Grumpy Old Bookman made some good observations in this post:

But you see, while the literati despise cliches, the truth is that, in certain contexts, they serve a useful purpose. You and I, being sophisticated folk, probably would not use a phrase such as 'avoid like the plague' in writing; and maybe not in conversation. But to many readers/listeners, such a phrase communicates an idea instantly and effectively.

Instant and effective communication is what commercial fiction is all about. And to criticise an artefact for being eminently suitable for its purpose seems to me to be unreasonable.

Ditto for 'cardboard characters'. Which might more fairly be described as broadbrush, or well defined characters. And ditto for repetitions of key facts. Modern readers, as I keep on saying, are not reading their books for two hours at a stretch in a peaceful environment. They read commercial novels, in particular, in snatched moments, on crowded trains. Giving such readers a few reminders of key facts is not a practice which is deserving of criticism. On the contrary.

The democratic, interactive sounding "We are all directors now" overlooks the fact that readers don't want to be directors. They want the writer to be the director. Some of them want the sort of chunks of ready-made information that the Grumpy Old Bookman talks about, which can be quickly processed with little effort, and others want sharper, more discrete details that can be put together and interpreted.

When Harvor writes

NEVILLE: [nervously, clearly wanting to say something more] Sure. Let's go for coffee. I'd like that.

or

PAUL: Oh. Okay. Thanks. [beat] Did the person say who they were?
JENNIFER: [without significance] Your dad.
PAUL: Oh. Great. [Sighs] Okay. I’ll be there in a sec.
JENNIFER: [cheerfully] Bye!

or

PAUL’S FATHER: [astounded] Tomorrow?! But this is important!
PAUL: Well, okay, if it’s so important, what is it?
PAUL’S FATHER: [dramatically] I can’t say.

this is not vivid. It does not invite the reader to create a vivid image. It is lazy writing. At times it is cartoonish:

ASIAN FRIEND: She not like you, Luis.
LUIS, THE HANDSOME MEXICAN GUY: [astounded by the suggestion] Not like?!

The "direction" is so superfluous even the comic-book punctuation explains it. In general, the directions are trying to do something the dialogue itself can handle. Another example:

PAUL: [to Jennifer] Where is it?
JENNIFER: What?
PAUL: The phone.
JENNIFER: Oh. Right here. [She indicates a phone mere inches away from her.]

When the secretary says "Right here", we don't need to be told that she points to the telephone on her desk. We understand that it's close. Otherwise she would have said, "Over there."

And sometimes, as with "without significance", they're simply perplexing.

I believe I've known Finn for a long enough time to say that if he'd seen it himself in a block of prose, in a conventional or traditional piece of fiction, he would agree.

One could say that the problem lies with the practioner. Surely there's room in the screenplay novel for more vivid description? There is, but then we are turning back to the methods already used in the novel. The reader who is willing to do the work to properly read a carefully written piece of fiction has no need to turn to the screenplay novel (unless it contains advantages I can't see). The only thing that changes is the way we write the dialogue.

Check out Finn Harvor's blog, http://screen-novel.blogspot.com, and read his novel here, and decide for yourselves.

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