Archive for November, 2006

Ultimatum (or, Growing Up)

Yet we English have been so successful at the novel – and at poetry – very much because of this tension between private reality and public pretense. If the glory of the French is to be naked and lucid about what they realy feel and make, ours is to be veiled and oblique. I do not see this as evidence of our finer taste and greater seemliness. I think we just enjoy it more that way, in bed as in books; for the second simple truth is that creating another world, however imperfectly, is a haunting, isolating, and guilt-ridden experience, very similar to the creating of a “real” perspective on the actual world that every child must undertake. As with the child, this experience is heavy with loss – of all the discarded illusions and countermyths as well as of the desires and sensibilities that inexorable adulthood (or artistic good form) has no time for.

The cost of it is a contant grumbling-bass in the Hardy novel I wish to consider, The Well-Beloved. Pierston-Hardy feels cursed by his “inability to ossify,” to mature like other men. He feels himself arrested in eternal youth; yet he also knows(the empty maturity of his contemporaries, such as Somers, gets savagely short shrift elsewhere) that the artist who does not keep a profound part of himself not just open to his past but of his past, is like an electrical system without a current. When Pierston finally elects to be “mature,” he is dead as an artist.

John Fowles, “Hardy and the Hag” (1977)

* * * * *

I’ve often used this blog as a forum for writerly self-flagellation to lament that I wasn’t filling as many pages as I should be; lack of discipline; laziness; lack of ideas, and all the rest. Over the past year, my posts here have grown more sparse, partly because of work, and partly because I simply grew bored of it. (Most of my posts date back to a period of unemployment.)

My life is going to take a big change after this summer. N. and I are getting married, we’ll be moving and trying to start our own business. Discipline will be even more important if I am to continue (trying) (pretending?) to write. Perhaps my focus will sharpen. Perhaps I simply won’t have time. I’ve been preparing myself for both possibilities.

The more I read about the way the publishing industry is run, especially the way a product with such limited appeal is so desperately hyped and directed towards the general public, the less I think I actually want to be a published writer. I know I don’t want to write the sort of thing that would make me a more publishable writer. (How could I write that kind of stuff if I can’t even read it?)

So, about a month ago, I was thinking about how there’s no real excuse for my not writing more than I do, now that I have more time, and I decided to give myself an ultimatum. I have until this summer, until the wedding, to finish the first draft of my novel, the plot of which is clearly mapped out in my head, or I stop tormenting myself by wanting to much something I’m not willing to work hard enough at getting. If I don’t get the draft done by then, I will begin to work on not wanting it any more, and concentrate on the other things in my life.

(And if that doesn’t work, we’ll just have to see.)

When I made this ultimatum, I set about typing up everything I had in my notebooks – quite a lot, actually. I’ve been very busy with work the past couple of weeks, my schedule has filled, but I’ve managed to type up 20,000 words so far (not all of it is usable) and I estimate there’s at least another 20,000 or 30,000 to go. When I’ve finished typing it up, I’ll get to work on finishing telling the story.

* * * * *

An excerpt from one of the notebooks, a story one of the characters tells:

I was born during the German Occupation. I don’t remember anything of the hunger, of the famine, only what my parents, aunts and uncles told me afterwards, when I was a little older. But I do have some memories of the Civil War.

I grew up in a small village in the mountains outside Tripolis. Like the War of Independence in 1821 and after, that whole area saw a lot of action. Not for any real strategic reasons, but simply because the mountains allowed the fighting to go on for much longer. Classic guerrilla warfare. I remember the sound of gunfire, a cracking sound that echoed across the mountains. I was only five or six at the time, so I had no real sense of what was going on. And I don’t mean, of course, that I couldn’t understand the politics; I had no idea what politics was. I mean I couldn’t comprehend the danger of it. They were just noises that made my mother nervous. I suppose I thought it was something like hunting, although I don’t know if I understood much about hunting either. My father was rarely in the house. I have only a handful of memories of him in the house late at night, talking to my mother in near whispers. Then he’d leave again.

Once, a stray bullet entered through an open window. We had one of those old stone houses where the ground floor was used for storage, where some animals were kept too, and we lived up above. The bullet came in at an upward angle and went into the ceiling. My mother grabbed me and we fell to the floor. Even then I had no sense of fear, no sense of the danger.

When the war was over – when the cracking and popping sounds stopped echoing across the mountains, and when the men of the village started returning, my other memory of that time is of running through a forest with some other children and stopping at a ravine with a sheer drop. Along the opposite bank a man lay on his back. The bank was so sheer that he seemed to be standing upright. His arms were stretched out and one leg was bent back at the knee, as if he were walking. He had a thin pencil moustache and his teeth were showing in his rigid humourless grin. There was blood all over his stomach, on the jacket and trousers of his army uniform. I realise now it was blood. Then it was just a very large rust-brown stain. I think now he had probably been disembowelled.

I felt a kind of shock, as if I had seen something morally wrong or improper, something I should not have seen. Out there in the forest, in the outdoors, I felt as if I were intruding in something private.

We stood there breathless for a moment, although I remember it as a long time. I didn’t understand what I was looking at. It was something unnatural, grotesquely comic and undignified.

“He’s dead,” said one of the boys in a whisper.

“He’s from EAM,” another boy said, this time louder, with more confidence. I’ll never forget his name: Stephanos. “I know, I’ve heard my father talking about them.”

I remember that the word sounded new to me, I was sure I’d never heard it before. I thought, whatever it meant, it was something like a sickness, something that had made the man look like that. I had caught a tinge of disgust in the boy’s voice when he’d said it.

“Maybe he’s a German,” another boy said. “Or an Italian.”

“No, he’s an EAMite. That’s what they call them. My father says they’ve lost the war and he says they should kill the lot of them before they have a chance to run off to Russia.”

“Russia? Why Russia?”

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe that’s where they’re from.”

“No, they’re Greek. My father also said some of them were hanged in one of the squares. They even hanged Mitropoulos’s father.”

Everyone turned to me. Although I had heard my name, I hadn’t fully understood what they were saying, that they were talking about me. The words, of course, were burned in my memory. They looked at me and waited to see how I’d react. I was too stunned to move.

“They say he was already dead before they’d hanged him. They just put him there for everyone to see.”

I turned away. Could my father have become something as grotesque and undignified as this grinning soldier across the ravine? I should have punished Stephanos then and there for saying such a thing, but I only wanted to run home and hide. Days later, however, I got my revenge: after only the slightest provocation, I knocked him down and stomped on his head till a passing adult held me back.

* * * * *

For the curious: EAM

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Attic Light

I took a break from my work today to step out onto the balcony and take a few pictures. The sun was starting to set, it had been a cloudy day. I liked the contrast of the sky, the clouds, the buildings across the street.

I took a few in black and white to see how they’d turn out.

Later on, I was in the kitchen, making a pot of tea. I went into the living room again to change some music I was listening to, and saw an almost unnatural burst of colour in the sky. I ran to get my camera. Despite the brightness and vividness in the pictures, they’re still not as impressive as they were in real life. But then, that’s always the case.

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Pedestrian Alert

I forgot to mention that I finally got my driving license. It’s common practice here to bribe the examiners and just be done with the whole thing, a hundred euros each. My instructor said that 90% of them take the money. I wanted to avoid the test, and was willing to spend the money. Taking the test costs 150 euros alone, so if you need to take it three or more times, you end up saving money. There’s a lot of stupid unnecessary things you have to do in the test, like turn around a corner in reverse in three smooth movements, which you’d never have to do in real life, and this is where most people fail.

My test was on Friday the 13th, and I was sure that this was a good sign. That weekend there were municipal elections throughout Greece. Here, if you leave your home town or village and come to the big city, you’re still registered to vote back where you came from, unless you go through the bureaucracy of changing it. Most people don’t. (The whole process of offering election promises seems to work best locally.) Athens empties on such weekends as people return to their villages, towns and islands to vote. A lot of instructors had done the same that weekend, with the result that the director of the examining committee, who only tests people who are candidates for becoming instructors, came down to test us. He is not a man to accept a hundred-euro bribe. But he’s just.

Everyone failed. I was second last. Everything was OK till about sixty seconds into the test. I came to a corner where I was told to turn left. I came to a full stop, but to my right, someone had parked right at the corner, blocking my vision. I started edging out slowly so that I could see better. It was a two-way street, so I shot a quick glance to my right. At that precise moment, some guy came barrelling down the road on my left. My instructor, who was sitting in the passenger seat, stepped on the brakes. The car is fitted with an alarm for when he does this. The examiners in the back seat, a woman and the director, heard it, and the test was over.

The guy after me failed before even getting started. When he started in parked position, on the right of the road, he looked back before starting and moving into traffic, but he took too long to do so, and by the time he did, a car had appeared, coming up behind him. He didn’t see it, and started moving out. That was it.

My instructor and I decided not to take the test the following weekend, because there were still more elections. We didn’t want to run the same risk. So I took it two weeks later. I paid the 200, went out for a little spin, and that was all.

Driving back afterwards, I asked my instructor what he thought about this bribe-taking business. He said that most people fail out of sheer nervousness, and do something stupid.

“When your time has come to take the test, you’re ready,” he said. “I decide when you’re ready. I’ve been in the car with you for days. They’re in the car with you for ten-fifteen minutes. I won’t put you in the position to take the test if I don’t think you’re ready.”

He added, of course, that if someone is not ready but insists on doing the test, after the obligatory 20 hours of practical lessons, he can’t stop them, but he will refuse to pass the bribe on. He said he would be responsible for letting someone who’s not ready out onto the road.

This system only works, of course, as long as there are instructors like mine, who are actually quite passionate about teaching people to drive safely and responsible.

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