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[Note: I wrote the notes to this post some months ago, but I had to translate a novel, and was unable to finish the series of posts until now.]

There is a scene in The Maltese Falcon (the first that, for some reason, springs to mind) when Sam Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy that Joel Cairo has come to see him. We do not know yet what connection there is between O’Shaughnessy and Cairo, but when she hears the name, she says nothing, merely gets up and starts poking at the fire. One of the great advantages that film has is that it can with great immediacy and economy show us the curtain that goes up between what people say and do when they are really thinking about something else, which we are free not to notice if we’re not careful. In fiction, Sam Spade would have to describe the scene to us. He might choose only to relate what he sees — O’Shaughnessy getting up and poking the fire for a moment — or he might interpret it for us and tell us that he took this to be a sign that she was shocked and nervous. (His reactions suggest that this is the case.) If a third person were describing the scene, the choices would more or less be the same, unless he were narrating from O’Shaughnessy’s point of view and was consequently privy to her thoughts. But if the scene were narrated by O’Shaughnessy herself, it would have to be done very differently. The emphasis would have to be entirely on her thoughts and feelings, and not on her appearance at that moment, otherwise it would psychologically fake. She has been lying to Spade about her reason for hiring him, and has kept her involvement with Cairo and the Falcon a secret. But surely when she hired Spade on a false case, the real reason was on her mind. If she were narrating, she would have to be dishonest to the reader and conceal her thoughts about the Falcon. This dishonesty, like Roger Ackroyd’s, could not be justified from within the story by her frame of mind. It would be there for one reason only: to make the writer’s job easier. And this is laziness and sloppiness.

Recently I completed a scene from my novel in which the narrator, an old man, goes for a drive with his granddaughter. They stop for a coffee and some lunch and she surprises him by telling him the real reason for her visit.

As I said in my previous post, the novel is written as a journal-letter from the old man to the granddaughter for her to read one day. I have avoided to my satisfaction the pitfalls that come from the fact that the old man is relating a scene to someone who was there when it occurred. The problem is something else.

The journal entry is written after the revelation that shocks him, and the revelation would have been foremost on his mind from the first moment he picked up his pen. In order to create the feeling of surprise for the reader, the narrator delays it for as long as possible, but this delay is psychologically false. It is done only for my convenience as a writer.

So I realised the scene had to be approached differently. For a while I thought about foregoing the suspense entirely and trying to get some other merit from the scene. But if I did this too often, the novel would begin to lose its dramatic force. Eventually I realised I could still generate enough suspense if I mentioned the revelation at the beginning of the entry, so that the reader would be interested in how it had all come about. Then the narrator (and I) could backtrack a little and describe the trip to the cafe, which would now be suffused with tension and irony.

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Dear Reader

In the previous post, I touched on the subject of a narrator who withholds information from his reader for no other reason than to create a surprise.

It is unavoidable that a narrator who is aware of all the facts of the story at every point of its telling must give some order to those events. Events can be narrated in the order that they occurred, as they most often are, or they (as in works as different as The Great Gatsby, Beowulf and Oedipus Rex) events and details can be revealed out of chronological order, as they are discovered or as they become relevant.

If William Shakespeare were to tell us, “Did I ever tell you the one about the Danish prince who delayed avenging his father’s murder for so long that, by the time he eventually got round to it, eight people, including the prince himself, were dead?” we would say, “No, but you just did.” (Of course, many will object that we read and watch Hamlet over and over, always knowing how it will end, without our enjoyment being diminished in any way, but Shakespeare’s unfolding of the story never changes.) The reader’s desire to be entertained is greater than the desire to know everything as soon as possible. Nevertheless, if the withholding is not done subtly enough, the reader will question the mechanics of the narrative, and will almost certainly be annoyed and feel cheated. (See the previous entry, regarding The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.)

A few years ago I began working on a novel about an old man who, while preparing his house to receive his daughter and granddaughter, finds a journal he had very briefly kept over 40 years earlier, and decides to begin writing in it again. The novel takes the form of this journal.

Although not without its own problems, the approach appealed to me. The narrator is not just a voice speaking something of a vacuum; the act of narrating is now incorporated into and justified in the narrative itself.

When I moved to Greece in January of 1997, I began to keep a journal, which has now reached 17 volumes. I gave to the narrator of my novel the same motive that led me to start my journal: the desire to keep a record of myself that might be of interest to my descendants when I’m gone. I thought how fascinating it would have been for me if my grandfather or great-grandfather had left such a document behind.

Some people feel the need to address someone when they’re writing a journal entry, like Anne Frank’s Kitty, or simply by writing “Dear Diary”. My narrator begins keeping a journal for whatever descendants may come across it days before meeting his granddaughter for the first time, and then the idea occurs to him to address the journal to her, at which point the novel essentially takes on the epistolary form.

The problem with this approach is that if the narrator is addressing someone involved in the story, then he runs the risk of embarking on exposition to someone who is already well enough aware of the facts. When this happens, the characters are talking over each other and to the reader. One need only see this done in a film to see how artificial and annoying it is. It is a technique used by Theo Angelopoulos in his last films, especially the last two, The Weeping Meadow and The Dust of Time. The latter in particular was so full of this kind of exposition that most of the action had occurred somewhere else, in another time, and the film consisted mainly of people standing around relating things which had already happened and which everyone involved already knew about.

But what I like about these inherent risks is that they are, more than anything else, challenges that, when they are overcome, make your writing stronger.

My next entry will be about a specific problem that I am in the process of dealing with.

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A Return

This blog has been inactive for nearly three years. I have often thought of returning to it, but the thought of physically writing a post would leave me weary before I even started. Then the desire to do so, except for these brief moments, when I didn’t even have a subject in mind, would simply disappear. There was a sense of community and excitement when I started it back in late 2004, which I feel is gone now, at least for me, and so I have to start again in another frame of mind, another spirit, and slowly reacquire a readership.

Lately, though, I’ve been giving some thought to writing about something has occupied some of my time over the past few years: the writing of my novel. I’ve thought of charting its development and the technical problems I face in its composition. I’ve even thought that blogging about it would be a sort of commitment that would encourage me to write more regularly in the novel, as well as here.

The central problem that I’ve grappled with has been one of perspective, more so than most readers would be interested in, and but less so than some writers and critics whose works I’ve dipped into. The question has been this: Who is telling the story, and why is he telling it? If the story is told in the third person, the question leads me to the answer – however unsatisfactory – that there is a silent understanding between the reader and the writer, or the narrator (or both) that can be summed up thus:

  • I, the writer, will entertain you by relating a sequence of events as they though they were true and you will visualize them as though you believed them;
  • I will play with the pretense of being omniscient about what is happening in various places, at various times, as though I had access to people’s thoughts and knew their motives, although these things have no reality (although they may resemble reality) outside my own mind (i.e. my inability to know something is merely my refusal to imagine and create it);
  • since your entertainment is my ultimate goal, and since that is based on sustaining your desire to know what happens next, I will withhold any details from you until such time as their revelation will heighten the entertainment, and in exchange, you will agree not to question the logic of this withholding.

By “withholding” I mean when a narrator decides not to tell the reader something he already knows about simply because it will ruin the surprise or the suspense. For most readers, the surprise is more important than the question of why the narrator, who already seems to know all the facts, has played the game this way. But I suspect readers are becoming increasingly impatient with this technique.

One of the worst examples in this respect is Agatha Christie’s Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which the unreliable narrator admits in the final pages that he is the murderer. One can easily understand his reason for concealing this fact: he doesn’t want to get caught. But the act of narrating occurs after the events, when Poirot has already discovered the truth, and the narrator has already been caught. Once our shock and surprise subside, if we continue to think about the transparent mechanics of the plot, we feel cheated. The only reason the facts were withheld was to create the surprise at the end.

The use of tense, one can see from this example, also plays a role. In a Greek book about fiction writing (Το εργαστήριο του μυθιστοριογράφου του Παντελή Καλιότσου, The Novelist’s Workshop by Pantelis Kaliotsos) I read the following:

[The tale-teller’s] story, even if we already know it, creates an illusion which can lead to this unconscious thought: “Here is a person who finally knows the whole story! Let’s listen to him carefully…” The secret sense of relief is enough for us, although we know that it is an illusion.

The writer doesn’t feel the same magic. He does not have the authority of the omniscient tale-teller, because although he too narrates a story that has happened already occurred, he does not appear to know what is going to happen, since all his verbs are in past tenses.

And later:

I ascertained that with the present tense, the writer moves farther away from the tale-teller, because, when the action is in continuous development, no one knows where it will lead, not even the writer. This uncertainty reduces his authority as opposed to the tale-teller (who knows where it will lead). The present tense is enough to remove the writer from the story.

Kaliotsos says that, for this reason, he returned to writing in the past tense after using the present tense for one book. But for myself, the illusion that the narrator does not know the outcome, and the questioning of his authority, are things I want to maintain. And I want, as much as possible, the mechanics of the narrative to be an inherent part of the narrative itself.

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Wasting my boredom

The most nagging problem in my life, the most central source of unhappiness, is the fact that I want the slowness of time that boredom brings, the stasis and silence, the stopping of time, the sense of time not passing, and yet I always end up doing things and filling up my time with things that make it pass quickly, things that distract me from its passing. Or I sleep, which is the worst of all. Boredom is not necessarily inactivity. It is the confrontation of time and its passing.

In other words, I waste my boredom.

How could I slow time down more? By removing as many things as possible from my life: my books, my films, the computer, everything except perhaps music, which accompanies my boredom like a soundtrack instead of distracting me from it. No, even music could go, if I really wanted austerity. But what about my notebooks and my writing?

When time has passed too quickly, when I have squandered my boredom, the ache and remorse I feel present themselves in the form of this thought: that in this lost, passed time, I could have written something.

I am sure, though, that writing is the only activity that both keeps boredom at bay and allows my time to pass without remorse. And this is because I feel productive.

(I remember somewhere Elytis describing time as being that which takes you closer to or farther from the thing you love.)

For me, the white page, the page that remains white as the clock ticks, is a symbol of remorse.

*

A large part of remorse is finding yourself again at some point which you should have left behind. Once again at the blank page, leaving it blank yet again. Once again leaving the notebook unopened. The waste is that you can never learn from experience: I am still here: I have learned nothing from all the conscience-pangs.

Some people want to fill pages without writing, and others want to write without filling pages. This occurred to me the other night, but I don’t remember which one I am. Or if they’re not really the same thing.

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I recently bought Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. I had been seeing his name around a lot. The first time I’d seen it was in the Greek translation of Antonio Tabucchi’s Last Three Days of Fernando Pessoa. Various blogs started mentioning him a lot last year, including The Blog of Disquiet (404’d). Then, last summer, in Lisbon, I saw his statue outside the cafe A Brasileira. I promised myself that when I got back, I would get his book. (I was surprised that I could not find a single English edition in any of the shops I went into in Lisbon.)

The book is, to say the least, very strange. To begin with, the first thing a reader has to deal with is Pessoa himself, who is everywhere in the book, and yet not quite there. Throughout his life, he wrote through over 70 different personae (he called them heteronyms) with elaborately imagined lives, and in some cases even deaths, filled with details that didn’t even enter into what he wrote under their name.

Pessoa was a dreamer, in the sense that he lived the life of the imagination, removed from the life of action and or experience, and as a writer he was a dreamer in that he knew that any book he imagined he could write would be an imperfect shadow of the book he had imagined and planned and outlined. Nevertheless, for most of his life he worked on this constantly changing book, a book of fragments and scraps, a record of his uneventful, nonexistent life, a “factless autobiography”, a book about the impossibility of writing the book of his dreams and imagination.

I cultivate hatred of action like a greenhouse flower. I dissent from life and am proud of it. (103)

Life is whatever we conceive it to be. For the farmer who considers his field to be everything, the field is an empire. For a Caesar whose empire is still not enough, the empire is a field. […] I’ve dreamed a great deal. I’m tired from having dreamed but not tired of dreaming. No one tires of dreaming, because dreaming is forgetting and forgetting doesn’t weight a thing; it’s a dreamless sleep in which we’re awake. In dreams I’ve done everything. I’ve also woken up, but so what? How many Caesars I’ve been! […] I’ve been truly imperial while dreaming, and that’s why I’ve never been anything. My armies are defeated, but the defeat was fluffy, and no one died. I lost no flags. […] How many Caesars I’ve been, right here, on the Rua dos Douradores [the street that Bernardo Soares, the book’s heteronym, lived]. (102)

I’ve always been an ironic dreamer, unfaithful to my inner promises. Like a complete outsider, a casual observer of whom I thought I was, I’ve always enjoyed watching my daydreams go down in defeat. I was never convinced of what I believed in. I filled my hands with sand, called it gold, and opened them up to let it slide through. Words were my only truth. When the right words were said, all was done; the rest of the sand that had always been. (221)

Perhaps the personae facilitated writing for him. If his life was as uneventful as he said, it’s logical that he could only write if it was through someone he had dreamed up. Persona, the Latin word for an actor wearing a mask, is thought by some to mean a sounding-through (sonare = to sound, per = through). If this is not actually the case, it’s still insightful. If Pessoa took off the mask, he would fall silent.

(Thanks to the Dude for pointing out that pessoa is actually Portuguese for person.)

When Pessoa died in 1935, the manuscript of The Book of Disquiet, a collection of loose sheets of paper, not a “book” at all, ended up in a trunk with all his other writings until it was published in 1982. More complete editions followed in 1991 and 1998. Richard Zenith, writing about the fragmentary nature of the book, says

Since a loose-leaf edition is impractical, and since every established order is the wrong order, the mere circumstance of publication entails a kind of original sin. Every editor of this Book, automatically guilty, should (and I hereby do) (1) apologise for tampering with the original non-order, (2) emphasise that the order presented can claim no special validity, and (3) recommend that readers invent their own order or, better yet, read the work’s many parts in absolutely random order.

When I started reading the book, and Zenith’s introduction, I had the confusing sense that Pessoa had suffered from some kind of insanity. Bernardo Soares was, according to Pessoa, a “semi-heteronym” because he most closely resembled Pessoa, was a “mutilation” of Pessoa. As a result, one can assume that it’s a self-portrait, albeit a mutilated one. The book is so odd that one feels it must be sincere.

And it occurred to me that we are of the first or second generation to read this book, and that a body of exegesis has not yet grown around it, that we don’t really have a fully developed critical apparatus with which to approach the work. And I wonder if the fragmentary, disorderly nature of the book, the fact that there can never be an authoritative edition of it, subverts or undermines any attempt to develop such a critical apparatus.

* * * * *

In my last year of university, I went one afternoon to the Robarts Library and sat down in some corner of the seventh or eighth floor, by a window that overlooked the west end of the city. I thought about how many of those streets below I had never walked down, and would never walk down, although I felt that the city was actually part of me. I thought about all the various houses on those streets, the rooms in those houses, the people who lived in them, the rooms in their lives, rooms I would never walk through, people I would never know. (A large part of this was due to the fact that I knew I would be leaving in a year or two.) I felt a strange sense of nostalgia, something like a nostalgia for the future, a nostalgia for all the possibilities and opportunities that I would never be able to take advantage of.

The Book of Disquiet is a book of self-absorption, but it is not boringly so. There are passages of exquisitely lyrical nostalgia of the kind I describe above. I would like to quote extensively from two such passages, for the benefit of anyone who’s not sure if this book is for them.

(more…)

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The imaginative space

In my experience, the single question most often asked during question-and-answer periods in university auditoriums and classrooms is: “Do you write with a pen, a typewriter, or what?” I suspect the question is more important than it seems on the surface. It brings up magical considerations — the kinds of things compulsive gamblers are said to worry about: When one plays roulette, should one wear a hat or not, and if one should, should one cock it to the left or to the right? What colour is the luckiest? The question about writing equipment also implies questions about that ancient daemon Writer’s Block, about vision and revision, and, at its deepest level, asks whether or not there is really, for the young writer, any hope.

As any writer knows — both the experienced and in the inexperienced — there is something mysterious about the writer’s ability, on any given day, to write. When the juices are flowing, or the writer is “hot,” an invisible wall seems to fall away, and the writer moves easily and surely from one kind of reality into another. In his noninspired state, the writer feels all the world to be mechanical, made up of numbered separate parts: he does not see wholes but particulars, not spirit but matter; or to put it another way, in this state the writer keeps looking at the words he’s written on the page and seeing only words on a page, not the living dream they’re meant to trigger. In the writing state — the state of inspiration — the fictive dream springs up fully alive: the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols. The dream is as alive and compelling as one’s dreams at night, and when the writer writes down on paper what he has imagined, the words, however inadequate, do not distract his mind from the fictive dream but provide him with a fix on it, so that when the dream flags he can reread what he’s written and find the dream starting up again. This and nothing else is the desperately sought and tragically fragile writer’s process: in his imagination, he sees made-up people doing things — sees them clearly — and in the act of wondering what they will do next he sees what they will do next, and all this he writes down in the best, most accurate words he can find, understanding even as he writes that he may have to find better words later, and that a change in the words may mean a sharpening or deepening of the vision, the fictive dream or vision becoming more and more lucid, until reality, by comparison, seems cold, tedious, and dead. This is the process he must learn to set off at will and to guard against hostile mental forces.

John Gardner, On Becoming A Novelist, pp 119-120 (Gardner’s italics)

Writers are often asked: “How do you write? With a word processor? an electric typewriter? a quill? longhand?” But the essential question is: “Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write? Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas – inspiration.” If a writer cannot find this space, then poems and stories may be stillborn. When writers talk to each other, what they discuss is always to do with this imaginative space, this other time. “Have you found it? Are you holding it fast?”

Doris Lessing,  Nobel Lecture, 2007

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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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