Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

[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.


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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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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.


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!


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?
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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Last summer I gave up on my fountain pens. It was getting too difficult to find paper that didn’t let the ink bleed through. I kept fussing over my pens. I bought a 1947 Parker 51, which wasn’t working as well I’d been expecting, and my Duofold had stopped working entirely. I decided to stop wasting time and just use ball points. Lately I had even started using roller balls pens. But every once in a while, I’d read about some fountain pen I was interested in, and the itch to get another one would come back. But I kept resisting.

One of the pens I’ve wanted for quite some time is the Namiki Vanishing Point fountain pen, also known as the Pilot Capless. It’s an unusual fountain pen, the only one of its kind. It has no cap, and its nib is retractable, as these two pictures show:

Last week I was walking up Benaki Street and I saw one in a shop window. I went in and asked to look at it. I ran the nib across some paper and across the back of my hand — the latter is something I do with all uninked pens I pick up. I can feel how smooth the end of the nib is that way. This one was very smooth, probably smoother than any other I’d ever felt. The next day I went and bought it.

What impresses me is how it’s both smooth and sturdy. The nib is 18 karat white gold and has just a little flex.

The main reason that I bought it is that I’d been reading that they could be used in Moleskines without feathering or bleeding through. I like using Moleskines. I find the cult surrounding them ridiculous, but at the same time, I can understand it. In an age when people do most of their writing on computers, or some other kind of machine, more and more people are enjoying a return to something simpler and more basic, and something which can carry their own personal character in it: their handwriting, their sketches, doodles, whatever. The marketing of the notebook even satisfies some people’s desire to be participating in some kind of tradition: they’re using the notebooks that Picasso, Hemingway, Van Gogh, and Chatwin used. (As several people have pointed out, they’re not. No one has commented on the irony that the makers of the notebook themselves point out that le vrai moleskine n’est plus.)

I like the notebook because it’s handy. I like the elastic band that keeps it closed. I like the binding that keeps it completely open. I like the sturdy hard cover. I like the acid-free paper, but wish it was more fountain pen friendly. I’ve been lucky with mine. I’ve managed to do a lot of writing in them.

When I’m writing, I have to enjoy the physical act. It may seem silly, but it’s no sillier than writing made-up stories about people who have never existed. If I’m using a ball point pen that makes my handwriting look horrible and has blotchy ink, I’m distracted from what I’m writing. If the pen skips or scratches the paper a little bit and makes even a little bit of noise, it distracts me. No matter how absorbed I am in what I’m writing, I can’t forget that I’m actually holding a pen and gliding it across some paper. (If things are going well, and it’s a good pen, it glides. Other times it just drags and scrapes.)

A few nights ago I noticed that in the month since I started this notebook, in which I’m only writing my novel, I had written over fifty pages. For me this very productive. And there’s a lot more in the previous notebook. I wanted to mention that here, because I often complain about my writing not going well, about not having enough discipline, there being too many distractions. And because that’s why I haven’t been posting much. I’m interested enough in the plot, subject matter and characters that the pen has been gliding a lot, even when I was using a cheap ball point or roller ball.

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I can’t help but cringe when I read that a story or novel should have a “hook”. While I agree that a beginning should be interesting, all the writing manuals in the world have emphasised this point so strenuously that every mediocre, or even less-than-mediocre writer has learned to start his story with one. Well, I’m not fooled. The hooks are transparent. They’re easy, and by no means an indication that the rest of the story is going to be interesting. Here are the kinds of opening sentences that are meant to hook the reader.

By the time we’d got Simon disentangled, the mailman was dead.

For years I’d been looking half-heartedly for my name in the dictionary. Nothing, however, prepared me for the shock of actually finding it.

“You can pray all you want,” Chris said. “God’s not listening. And besides, he’d never take an interest in dominos.”

I admit they’re silly, but that’s all there is to it. You could fill volumes with them. (Calvino, in his lecture on Quickness, mentions a Guatemalan writer, Augusto Monterroso, who wrote a story consisting only of one sentence: “When I woke up, the dinosaur was still there.” ) They’re so easy to come up with, and the writers who insist on them so mediocre, that they are a guarantee that what you read will not live up to the promise (if you can truly say there is any) of that first sentence. They should, like Monterroso, just stop there, because that’s as good as it gets.

How’s this for a first sentence?

Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.

Not particularly promising by today’s standard. I can hear the whining shits in writing workshops complain, “The hook’s not strong enough.” And yet, it’s from one of the greatest stories ever written, “The Dead”. Joyce’s story is the opposite of the hook-approach. The reader is lulled by forty-odd pages of interesting but somewhat uneventful writing into thinking that nothing is going to happen and shocked by the magnitude of what eventually does.

The writing that is taught in manuals, and I imagine in workshops, is so formulaic, and its practitioners so unimaginative that for some time I had been suspecting that its effect was not only to lead writers (and publishers too, I suspect) to think that there is only one way to begin a story, but was also creating a new kind of reader: one who immediately punishes the piece of writing that fails to observe the rules by refusing to read it.

This suspicion was confirmed a few days ago when I was browsing around in Amazon. I’ve been interested in Paul Auster lately. I don’t know, and am not that interested, in how good a writer he is. He has rekindled my interest in story-telling, and I’m reading everything I can find by him and letting his influence on me run its course. I find it liberating. I went to Amazon to check out people’s comments on Leviathan. While I was there, I came across Roger Angle.

Angle is supposedly a writer, and claims to have been nominated for a Pulitzer once for reporting. I rarely go to Amazon. It’s enough to make someone who wants to be a writer give it all up. If I ever entertained populist notions, I’d be cured in about two seconds of browsing there. It’s depressing. I’ll admit they’re cheap shots, and have little to do with the main point of this post, but I can’t help but quote some of Angle’s critical gems.

Of Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, he writes:

The narrative lacks a sense of place. Although it is set in Tokyo, we don’t see it or hear or smell it. We don’t learn anything about the city or way it is laid or out or how it would feel to be there. The focus is on the main guy and his day-to-day life. Although it is set in Tokyo, there is no sense that this is a romantic or exotic place.

You know why, Roger? Because Murakami’s Japanese, and Tokyo isn’t the least bit romantic or exotic to him. It just happens to be the city he lives in.

Most of Angle’s reviews are of pulp, although he sometimes reviews more “serious” fiction. I find the one on Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost quite funny, especially in light of the Auster review.

I loved this book and can’t wait to read it again. The older I get the less I can stand best-sellers, with their rampant exposition and lack of trust in the reader. This is just the opposite. Ondaatje trusts you to figure out the story, to add two and two, which is part of the pleasure of novel reading, I think. His use of language, his keen insight into the characters, the depth to which he plumbs the human heart — all make this a first-rate novel. The only novels I would rank above it are Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian,” Melville’s “Moby Dick” and James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

This guy who claims his favourite novel is Ulysses actually spends most of his time reviewing crime fiction and reviews books he hasn’t even finished. Now, keep in mind what he writes about “rampant exposition and lack of trust in the reader” and Ondaatje’s belief in the reader “to add two and two”. Although he finds it harder to stand best-sellers, this is his review of Leviathan after reading only ten pages.

The strategy of the story-telling didn’t work for me.
I found the first ten pages so annoying and tedious that I couldn’t read any further.
What I gather from the first 10 pp is that:
1. The dead guy had a “terrible secret.” I need to know up front what this is, to keep reading. I won’t read another page to find out.
2. The narrator knew the dead guy but doesn’t want to tell FBI. I can’t imagine why, and I don’t care. This is supposed to be a hook, I guess, but it doesn’t work that way for me. Just tell me, right off the bat. At least give me a hint.
3. The dead guy blew himself up for a reason. We don’t know what that is. Right now-during the whole 10 pp-I don’t give a tinker’s damn. I guess this is supposed to be another hook. You have to give me at least a hint. Otherwise I just do a dim-out.I took a workshop from the novelist John Rechy one time. He said: If you keep saying, in your book, “I have a mystery that I’m going to tell you,” and you say it over and over again, it becomes maddening. It will make you put the book down. That is what happened to me here.
Thank God I can just put it down and forget about it.
Whew. What a relief.

Angle, you’re in no position to comment on what Auster says “over and over again”. After a mere ten pages, you have nothing but false impressions. You don’t know jack shit about this book’s strategy. Auster never delays explaining the explosion. The explosion isn’t the point. If Auster has made any mistake, it’s trusting fools like you to put two and two together.

What really impressed me about this review was that it confirmed what I’d been suspecting for some time: that now lazy, formulaic writers have become lazy, formulaic readers, unable to go on if someone hasn’t followed the rules and written the proper opening. When I read it, I hadn’t read Angle’s profile and didn’t know that he’s supposed to be a writer (he doesn’t really mention getting published). The reference to the workshop said it all. Roger Angle just had to put the book down: John Rechy had told him to find it maddening.

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Ένα απόσπασμα από το έκτο κεφάλαιο της Πριγκηπέσσας Ιζαμπώς:

Άναψαν το λυχνάρι, σφάλισαν την πόρτα, κ’εκεί, μέσα στο στάβλο, έγιναν οι τελευταίες ετοιμασίες.Ο Ιλαρίωνος είταν αγουροξυπνημένος και χασμουριόταν. Έτσι που κάθησε στη γωνιά, ως που να συγυριστούνε, τον πήρε ο ύπνος γερμένον πάνω στο φάρσωμα. Το ροχαλητό του τράνταξε την παράγκα ίσαμε την ώρα που είχε πια φωτίσει καλά έξω, κι ο Σγουρός ντυμένος με το ράσο του, το κεφάλι μπουμπουλωμένο, φόρτωνε πάνω στη μούλα τα πράματά του τυλιγμένα σε σκουτιά. Ένα κοντό ρωμέϊκο σπαθί, το λωρίκι, τα τσαγγία του και το σωκάρδι με το ταμπάρο.

Καβακίλεψε τη μούλα και ξεκίνησαν κ’ οι τρείς.

Πίσω από το θεόρατο μαύρο βράχο, ο ουρανός ερρόδιζε. Σύννεφα μελανά κι άλλα σταχτοκίτρινα τρέχανε στον ουρανό — η θάλασσα κάτω, μαβιά μ’ασημωτά λέπια αικίνητα, ανάβραζα, έτρεχε καταπάνω στη στεριά και την κοπανούσε άγρια, μανιασμένη. Κάτι είπε ο Ιλαρίωνος, όμως ο άνεμος πήρε τα λόγια του, τα σκόρπισε πέρα. Η βάγια πορευότανε με σκυμμένο κεφάλι, πένθιμη και βουβή.

Όταν το πρωτοδιάβασα, σταμάτησα σ’αυτή τη λεπτομέρεια, εκεί πού ο Ιλαρίωνας κάτι λεει που μήτε ο Σγουρός μήτε ο συγγραφέας δεν άκουσε. Με εντυπωσίασε η λεπτότητα του Άγγελου Τερζάκη, η παρατηρητικότητά του κι αυτό που ο Calvino αποκάλεσε ελαφρότητα. Μια μικρή λεπτομέρεια, καθόλου απαραίτητη, αλλά για μένα αξέχαστη. Στα γραπτά μου θάθελα να βρίσκονται τέτοιες λεπτομέρεις. Μ’αρέσει πως ακρίβως σ’αυτήν την εύστοχη παρατήρηση ο συγγραφέας δε προλαβαίνει να ακούσει τι είπε ο Ιλαρίωνας. Η εικόνα όμως είναι ζωντανή.

Είναι στιγμές που διαβάζω και θαυμάζω τις επιλογές ενός συγγραφέα — όπως την επιλογή του Τολστόι, παραδείγματος χάριν, να μας παρουσιάσει το πώς ερωτεύονται η Άννα Καρένινα και ο Βρόνσκι όπως το βλέπει η Κάτια κι όχι ο παντογνώστης αφηγητής — και νιώθω πως μαθαίνω ο ίδιος πώς να γράφω. Η λογοτέχνια είναι σχολή των συγγραφέων. Μπορεί αυτό να φαίνεται αυτονόητο, αλλά συχνά απορώ αν υπάρχει σχολή πεζού λόγου στην Ελλάδα. Καλοί συγγραφείς σίγουρα υπάρχουν, αλλά στους περισσότερους κυριαρχεί — πώς να το πω; — μια χαλαρότητα, μια νωθρότητα, και μια αυταρέσκει που δεν τους επιτρέπει να κοπιάζουν και να πετύχουν τέτοιες λεπτομέρειες όπως ο Τερζάκης. Μου φαίνεται πως δεν υπάρχουν επιμελητές που ξέρουν ή τολμούν να πουν ότι ένα βιβλίο ακόμα θέλει δουλειά πριν το εκδώσουν.

Επαναλαμβάνω πως υπάρχουν καλοί συγγραφείς. Πέρσι, για παράδειγμα, διάβασα της Σώτης Τριανταφύλλου τη Φυγη και το θαύμασα. Ειδικά το πρώτο κεφάλαιο, όπου γίνεται σκηνογραφία με πολλή λιτότητα. Ο Θανάσης Βαλτινός επίσης δείχνει μια σπάνια οικονομία του λόγου. Και τονίζω πως οι αδεξιότητές μου στην ελληνική γλώσσα δεν με εμποδίζουν να ασκήσω κριτική.

Είχα σκεφτεί να γράψω γι’αυτό το θέμα όταν άρχισα να διαβάσω Τις Τελευταίες Ημέρες του Κωνσταντίνου Καβάφη από τον Φίλιππο Φιλίππου. Δεν κατάφερα ποτέ να το τελειώσω όμως. Ο Φιλίππου μ’εκνευρίζει κάθε φορά που το ανοίγω το βιβλίο.

Στο μυθιστόρημα ο Ιταλός φουτουριστής ποιητής Φίλιππο Τομμάζο Μαρινέττι επισκέπτεται τον Καβάφη στο σπίτι του. Είναι το 1933, μετά την τραχειοτομία του Έλληνα.

Φορούσε κάτι καφετιά δερμάτινα γάντια πολύ λεπτά και αρκετά ζαρωμένα από την πολυκαιρία (φοβόταν πάντα τα μικρόβια που έχονταν απ’έξω με φορέα το σώμα των επισκεπτών του). Η απώλεια της φωνής του τον υποχρέωσε να μη με προσφωνήσει με το κλασικό “Χαίρε, φίλε!”, όπως συνήθιζε να κάνει παλιά. Με καλωσόρισε μ’ένα νόημα των ματιών του, εκείνων των υπέροχων μαύρων ματιών, των πονηρών και διεισδυτικών ταυτόχρονα. Η γλυκύτητα που ήταν περιχυμένη στο κάτω μέρος του προσώπου του, γύρω από το στόμα και το πιγούνι, έδειχνε πως ο χρόνος που είχει περάσει από τότε που είχα να τον δω δεν είχε αμβλύνει την καλή του διάθεση επέναντί μου.Δεν περίμενα, βεβαίως, να μου μιλήσει, αφού η κυρία Σεγκοπούλου με είχε προετοιμάσει για το τι επρόκειτο να δω. Εξακολουθούσε να είναι ένας λεπτός ηλικιωμένος κύριος, αστός οπωσδήποτε, με στόφα ξεπεσμένου αριστοκράτη. Φορούσε ένα σκούρο κασκόλ για να κρύβει την πληγή στο λαιμό και τα ίδια γυαλιά με τον ασημένιο σκελετό. Τα πυκνά του μαλλιά, που τώρα είχαν αραιώσει ελαφρώς, τα είχε, όπως πάντα, χωρίστρα — καμιά τρίχα δεν ξέφευγε ούτε προς τ’αριστερά ούτε προς τα δεξιά και, κυρίως, καμιά δεν καβαλίκευε τ’αυτιά του. Αναρωτιόμουν αν φρόντιζε ο ίδιος για την κόμμωσή του, με χτένες, τσατσάρες και βούρτσες, ή αν ήταν η ερίτιμος κυρία που εκτελούσε χρέη γραμματέως εκείνη που έκανε τις επεμβάσεις στην εμφάνισή του. Δε ρώτησα, φυσικά, κανέναν γι’αυτό το ζήτημα, είχαμε άλλα θέματα να θίξουμε.

Ο Φιλίππου είναι συγγραφέας του επίθετου. Σ’αυτό το απόσπασμα μόνο, υπάρχουν 18 επίθετα και 12 επιρρήματα. (Κι ο Τερζάκης τα χρησιμοποιεί, αλλά μ’εντελώς διαφορετικό τρόπο, και για διαφορετικό σκοπό. Ο Τερζάκης δε μας λεει ότι ο Ιλαρίωνας είναι τεμπέλης. Μας δείχνει πως κοιμάται την ώρα που φορτώνει ο Σγουρός τη μούλα.) Ο Φιλίππου δηλαδή δείχνει εμπιστοσύνη στα επίθετα και ζητάει από αυτά να κάνουν τη περισσότερη δουλειά. Αρκει να μας πει ότι η κυρία Σεγκοπούλου είναι “ευγενική” (σε άλλη σελίδα) και “ερίτιμος”. Δε νιώθει την ανάγκη να μας δείξει πώς συμπεριφέρεται μια ευγενική και ερίτιμος κυρία. Αυτή είναι η αυταρέσκεια, άρνηση του συγγραφέα να κοπιάσει να στήσει σκήνη όπως κατάφερε ο Τερζάκης.

Το άλλο μεγάλο ελάττωμα του Φιλίππου και πολλών άλλων συγγραφέων είναι η περιττολογία. Τη στιγμή που μας έχει πει για τη τραχειοτομία του Καβάφη, δε χρειάζεται να μας πει ότι “η απώλεια της φωνής του τον υποχρέωσε να μη με προσφωνήσει με το κλασικό ‘Χαίρε, φίλε!’, όπως συνήθιζε να κάνει παλιά.” Μάλιστα, αργότερα γράφει “Τον είδα να προσπαθεί να μ’ευχαριστήσει με λέξεις, αλλά δεν τα κατάφερε πάλι, το στόμα του ανοιγόκλεινε χωρίς να βγάζει ήχους.” Ο συγγραφέας δε χρειάζεται να μας υπενθυμίσει ότι ο Καβάφης δε μπορεί πια να μιλήσει. Οι δυο ποιητές επικοινωνούν συνεχώς με σημειώματα.

Κάποια στιγμή εμφανίστηκε μια μαύρη γάτα που ακολουθούσε έναν πλανόδιο ψαρά με λερωμένο κόκκινο φέσι νιαουρίζοντας θρηνητικά: νιάου νιάου νιάου. (σελ. 40)

Δε μας φτάνει το “νιαουρίζοντας”; Κατάλαβα πως του Μαρινέττι του άρεσε η ηχομιμητική, αλλά μετά από λίγο είναι πολύ κουραστικό.

Κάποια στιγμή από μακριά έφτασε ένα βουητό, μια βροντή, μπρουουουμ, και ύστερα μια δεύτερη, παρατεταμένη, μπρουουουμ, μπρουουουμ. (σελ. 72)Ταυτόχρονα η γάτα έβγαλε ένα παραπονεμένο ννννιάαααουου, λες και έδινε ένα σήμα κινδύνου για το αφεντικό της. (σελ. 73)

Ακριβώς την ώρα εκείνη ακούστηκαν οι πρώτες σταγόνες της βροχής που έπεφταν πλαγίως στα ξύλινα παραθυρόφυλλα, σιγανά στην αρχή, δυνατότερα στη συνέχεια, τζιτζι, τζιτζιτζι, τζιτζιτζιτζι, τζιτζιτζιτζιτζιτζιτζιτζι. (σελ. 74)

Φανερά ευτυχής για τη χαρμόσυνη είδηση που του κόμισα, ο Καβάφης μισόκλεισε τα μάτια και θώπευσε λίγο σκληρά την γκρίζα γάτα, που άνοιξε το στόμα της και παραπονέθηκε, νιάου νιάου νιάου νιάου. (σελ. 85)

Οι μαύρες χάντρες στα δάχτυλα του Καβάφη δεν έκαναν κλακ κλακ κλακ, αλλά κρικ κρικ κρικ, ήταν ΄χιοι που με συνεπήραν, καθόλου μελωδικοί, βεβαίως, αλλά εντελώς πρωτότυποι, βάλσαμοι για την ακοή μου. (σελ. 86)

Πεινούσα όμως φοβερά λόγω της καθυστέρησης του σερβιρίσματος (η κοιλιά μου διαμαρτυρόταν απρεπώς, γουρ γουρ γουρ!) και περίμενα ν’αρχίσει πρώτος να τσιμπολογάει. (σελ. 94)

Οι μόνοι ήχοι που ακούγονταν σ’εκείνο το δωμάτιο ήταν οι θόρυβοι των κουταλιών και των πιρουνιών στα πιάτα, ντιν ντιν ντιν, ο ήχος των χειλιών μας όταν εκείνα τα μεταλλικά αντικείμενα απόθεταν τις τροφές στο στόμα μας, φς φς φς, και το γουργουρητό της κοιλιάς της γάτας, γουρ γουρ γουρ. Μερικές φορές — λίγες όμως — ακουγόταν και ο θόρυβος της μύτης του ποιητή, χρ χρ χρ, καθώς προσπαθούσε να καταπιεί. (σελ. 96)

Δεν άντεξα άλλο. Δε μ’ενδιαφέρει αν έγραφει έτσι ο Μαρινέττι. Το ότι έγραφε έτσι δεν το κάνει λιγότερο εκνευριστικό.

Φέτος αγόρασα το μυθιστόρημα του Τάσου Ρούσσου Αυτός στο πέτρινο σπίτι, το οποίο, αν θυμάμαι καλά, πήρε και το κρατικό βραβείο. Το βιογραφικό του Ρούσσου με εντυπωσίασε: περίπου 20 βιβλία, ποίηση και πεζογραφία, και πολλές μετφράσεις. Αν όμως ο Φιλίππου μου προκάλεσε εκνευρισμό, το τι βρήκα στου Ρούσσου το βιβλίο μου προκάλεσε οργή.

Τα αμαρτήματα ξεκινάν μόλις στην τρίτη σελίδα (σελ. 14):

“Να δεις που θα βρέξει”, είπε ο δάσκαλος πίνοντας λίγο απ’τον καφέ του.

Πώς γίνεται να μιλάει και να πίνει κάποιος ταυτόχρονα;

“Όχι ακόμη. Σε λίγες μέρες, όταν θ’αρχίσουν οι νοτιάδες. Αλλά, ό,τι και να γίνει, θα ζεστάνει κι ο καιρός. Μπαίνουμε στην άνοιξη πια”, τον διόρθωσε ο θεολόγος.

Είναι προφανές ότι τον διόρθωσε ο θεολόγος. Δε χρειάζεται να μας το πει.

Ύστερα η συζήτηση πήγε σε πολλά και διάφορα, για να καταλήξει στο μοναδικό θέμα που από το περασμένο φθινόπωρο κέντριζε την σκέψη και την φαντασία όλων: στον ένοικο του πέτρινου σπιτιού.”Είναι σαν πραγματικός ερημίτης”, είπε ο θεολόγος, “κι οι περισσότεροι ερημίτες βρισκονται κοντά στην αγιότητα ή καταλήγουν αργά ή γρήγορα σ’αυτήν”.

Ο δικηγόρος χαμογέλασε:

“Σε παρακαλώ, μην περιορίζεις το θέμα”.

“Γιατί το περιορίζω;”

“Γιατί το πας αμέσως σε θρησκευτικές περιοχές”.

“Δεν το πηγαίνω εγώ, μόνο του πηγαίνει”.

“Ας μιλήσουμε πρώτα γενικά για το θέμα κι αν η κουβέντα το οδηγήσει στην θρησκευτική του εκδοχή, τότε το αναλύουμε”.

Ο θεολόγος επέμεινε:

“Είπα την άποψή μου. Περιμένω ν’ακούσω τις δικές σας”.

Επέμεινε. Πάλι προφανές. Οι πράξεις και τα λόγια τους αρκούν.

“Η αγιότητα προϋποθέτει αγνότητα, κι αυτός βέβαια δεν έιναι και τόσο αγνός”, σχολίασε ουδέτερα ο συνταξιούχος.

Δε χρειάζεται το “σχολίασε” — πάλι προφανές είναι. Αλλά πώς “ουδέτερα”; Δε μου λεει τίποτα το επίρρημα. Δε δημιουργεί καμία είκονα στο μυαλό.

“Πώς μπορείς να το ξέρεις αυτό;” ρώτησε ο δάσκαλος.

Πάλι, αφού υπάρχει ερωτηματικό, είναι προφανές ότι ρώτησε. Φτάνει το “είπε”.

“Δεν το ξέρω, το συμπεραίνω. Είναι πενηντάρης, κι όπως λεει ο κόσμος, πλούσιος και κοσμογυρισμένος. Έχει ζήσει δηλαδή την ζωή του στα γεμάτα”.”Και πήγε στην άγρια ερημιά για ποιο λόγο;” παρενέβη ο Αργύρης Δομέστιχος.

Δε βλέπω καμία παρέμβαση. Ο Ρούσσος μάλλον δε βλέπει λόγο να μας δείξει παρέμβαση. Είναι συγγραφέας ο κύριος, και ό,τι πει δεν αμφιβάλλεται.

“Υπάρχουν ένα σωρό αιτίες”, απάντησε ο Βαλμάς. “Ας πούμε ότι είναι εκκεντρικός ή ότι θέλει να ξεπεράσει κάποια μεγάλη απογοήτευση ή ότι βαρέθηκε την ζωή που έκανε ως τώρα ή ότι ξαφνικά του αρέσει η μοναξιά και τα λοιπά”.”Ή ότι ξύπνησε ξαφνικά μέσα του ο Θεός”, συμπλήρωσε ο Γιάννης Ιωακείμ.

Προφανές και περιττό το “συμπλήρωσε”.

“Να μην περιπλακούμε τώρα σε εικασίες που δεν οδηγούν πουθενά”, μπήκε στη μέση ο Δημήτρης Αποστόλου. “Δεν έχουμε γεγονότα για να κρίνουμε βάσει αυτών”.”Αλλά τι έχουμε δηλαδή;” έκανε με αφέλεια ο δάσκαλος.

Πώς; Αυτή η αφέλεια δεν αξίζει τη προσοχή μας; Δεν θάπρεπε ο Ρούσσος να μας δώσει μια εικόνα, να μας δείξει την αφέλεια; Γιατί να αρκεί μόνο να μας λεει ότι υπάρχει;

“Αυτά που λεει ο κόσμος όλο τον χειμώνα, τις διαδόσεις για παράξενα κι απίστευτα περιστατικά που τον αφορούν. Μπορούμε όμως να βασιστούμε σε υπερβολές και σε φαντασιώδεις φήμες;””Όπου υπάρχει καπνός, υπάρχει και φωτιά”, απάντησε ο δάσκαλος λίγο αφηρημένος, με το μυαλό του αλλού. Θυμήθηκε ότι δεν τάισε το αγαπημένο του καναρίνι το μεσημέρι.

Αν τυχόν δε καταλάβαμε τι σημαίνει “λίγο αφηρημένος”, μας το εξηγεί με το απόλυτα περιττό “με το μυαλό του αλλού”. Και αφού μας δείχνει πού είναι το μυαλό του (στο καναρίνι του) δε χρειάστηκε να μας πει ούτε μια φορά πως ήταν αλλού.

Ο συνταξιούχος τον κοίταξε:”Ωραία. Ας πάρουμε αυτές τις διαδόσεις ως πιθανές αλήθειες. Τι μας λένε; Ότι αυτός ο άνθρωπος διαθέτει κάποιο είδος δύναμης”.

“Αυτό ήθελα να πω κι εγώ προηγουμένως, αλλά δεν πρόλαβα, δεν μ’αφήσατε να ολοκληρώσω τον συλλογισμό μου”.

“Τι ήθελες να πεις ακριβώς;” τον ρώτησε ο δικηγόρος ειρωνικά.

Ό,τι είπα για το “με αφέλεια” ισχύει κι εδώ. Πώς ειρωνικά; Γιατί ειρωνικά; Θέλω μια εικόνα.

“Θά έλεγα ότι αγιότητα προϋποθέτει αγνότητα κι αυτή με την σειρά της παράγει δύναμη. Φαίνεται απ’όσα λεει ο κόσμος, ότι αυτός στο πέτρινο σπίτι έχει κάποια δύναμη”.”Δεν μπορούμε ωστόσο να τον πούμε ερημίτη ή ό,τι άλλο σχετικό”, διαφώνησε ο Βαλμάς.

Προφανές. Περιττό.

“Με λίγους μήνες στην ερημιά δεν γίνεται κανείς ασκητής, δηλαδή δεν αποκτά ιδιότητες σαν αυτές που του αποδίδουν”.”Όταν είσαι συνεχώς μόνος μέσα στην φύση, αρχίζεις και την προσέχεις, την ακούς, την καταλαβαίνεις, κατανοείς πολύ καλύτερα τον κόσμο”, είπε ο θεολόγος.

“Αυτό δεν σε προικίζει απαραίτητα με δύναμη. Δηλαδή αν πήγαινες κι εσύ εκεί πάνω στην ερημιά και καθόσουν μερικούς μήνες, θα γινόσουν ερημίτης και θ’αποκτούσες δύναμη;”

“Δεν ξέρω, μπορεί”, απάντησε ο Δομέστιχος με ύφος παράξενο.

Πώς; Γιατί; Πιο συγκεκριμένα;

Ο δικηγόρος τον κοίταξε και περιορίστηκε να κουνήσει το κεφάλι του διφορούμενα.

Τα καταραμένα επιρρήματα! Πώς διαφορούμενα; Ναι ή όχι δηλαδή; Και τα δυο; Πρέπει ο συγγραφέας να περιγράψει πώς κουνάει κάποιος το κεφάλι. Αν δεν αξίζει το κόπο, δεν υπάρχει λόγος να εφιστεί την προσοχή μας στο γεγονός.

“Το θέμα της συζήτησής μας δεν είναι αυτό, αλλά τι άνθρωπος είναι αυτός εκεί πάνω”, μπήκε στην μέση ο Αποστόλου.”Μα πρόκειται για άνθρωπο ή …” αναρωτήθηκε ο δάσκαλος χαμογελώντας σαρδόνια. “Εγώ δεν είμαι και πολύ βέβαιος με τόσα που λέγονται γι’αυτόν”.

Όλοι γέλασαν, εκτός από τον συνταξιούχο, που κοίταξε προς το μέρος του σαν ξαφνιασμένος και σχολίασε:

Σαν; Είναι ή δεν είναι ξαφνιασμένος; Γιατί ο αφηγητής, που άλλωστε ξέρει τις σκέψεις του ενός για το καναρίνι του, δε μπορεί να μας πει εδώ κάτι τόσο απλό;

“Έχεις απρόσμενο χιούμορ, Γιάννη, αλλά τώρα μιλάμε σοβαρά”.Επικράτησε για λίγο σιωπή αμηχανίας. Ο δάσκαλος άναψε τσιγάρο. Ο νους του πήγε πάλι στο καναρίνι του. Δεν πιστεύω να πάθει τίποτα νηστικό τόσες ώρες, σκεφτηκε ανήσυχος.

Εκείνη την στιγμή άνοιξε τρίζοντας — πάντα έτριζε — η πόρτα του καφενείου και μπήκε ένας άγνωστος με φωτεινά μάτια, λιγνός, γύρω στα πενήντα. Χωρίς να χαιρετήσει κανέναν, πήγε και κάθισε στο τραπεζάκι της γωνιάς και παράγγειλε ένα ζεστό τσάι. Και οι τέσσερις της συντροφιάς τον παρακολούθησαν σιωπηλοί και με κάποια ανεξήγητη ανησυχία. Ο ξένος σού δημιουργούσε μια φευγαλέα αίσθηση μυστηρίου.

Όχι για τους αναγνώστες πάντως. Αλλά, αν τη δημιουργούσε, είναι λογικό να πούμε ότι η ανησυχία είναι ανεξήγητη;

Σώπασε κι έπειτα στράφηκε στον δάσκαλο, που βρισκόταν στην άκρη της συντροφιας.”Μην ανησυχείς, το καναρίνι σου είναι καλά”, του είπε με αδιόρατη ειρωνεία.

Αδιόρατη ειρωνεία;! Μα τι είναι αυτή; Πώς να τη φανταστώ;

Ως εδώ πια! Ο συγγραφέας μας προσβάλλει. Είτε μας λεει αυτά που είναι αυτονόητα, είτε μας βάζει σε θέση να φανταστούμε μόνοι μας αυτά που βαριέται ο ίδιος να μας περιγράψει. Σαν αναγνώστης είμαι έτοιμος να δώσω προσοχή, αλλά πρέπει και ο συγγραφέας να μπει στο κόπο και να γράψει.

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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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Chasing Genius

Late this summer I returned to a book I started writing a year or two ago. Every time I looked deeper into my characters, their individual stories emerged and they became fuller. A simple enough beginning of a story swelled till it contained several. Then came the familiar sense of losing control over my material. My characters were getting too real for me. Soon they no longer even seemed to be inhabiting the same place.

When I finished the TOEIC book earlier this summer, I finally had time to do my own work, but when I returned to it, I felt as if I were running around trying to catch chickens that escaped from their coop.

I wanted to write something simple, fable-like, and started outlining a story I’ve toyed with in the the past. I planned to write it in Greek, as well. I spent a couple of weeks drafting that, and liked how it was looking, till even there I started probing a little deeper into even the more minor characters. Just when it seemed this too would get out of hand, I put away the notebook and turned on the laptop. I went back to the first novel. Unaccountably, I felt hopeful about it. I completely reworked the second chapter, and started the seventh.

For me, the greatest part of writing (both in the qualitative and quantitative sense) is the momentum. The first chapters are the most difficult, but after a while there’s enough book behind me that I’m pushed along by it. In the same way, the work I did yesterday pushes me along today. If I miss a day or two, the wind is gone from my sails. I open the notebook, or turn on the computer, look at what I’ve done, but find I can’t relate to it. It’s a world too strange, too different from the one I inhabit on a daily basis. So I close the notebook, or shut off the computer, frustrated. More days pass, and I drift further away from the book and its world. Soon the air is perfectly still, all is stasis, and I’m too crestfallen to start paddling.

I want, when I return to the manuscript, to be immediately engaged in the writing of it. It’s a crucial, delicate moment, where dogged persistence is vital, but it’s always where I suffer my crisis, where my laziness and despondency take over.

* * * * *

Someone I’ve never met wrote me a letter and mentioned my “talent”. It made me examine my circumstances again, and this in turn led to the decision to put things on hold for a while.

Like most people, I imagine, I have no real understanding of where my talent — such as it is — lies. I have no confidence in it. Most of the time I don’t believe it exists. Or I believe it exists, but it simply doesn’t seem enough. Sometimes I think I had the makings of it, but wasted my developing years not developing it. Readers of the blog sometimes tell me that I write well, which both pleases and disturbs me. It disturbs me because I don’t try very hard here. When I try to write my fiction, I get bogged down in complications and ungainly charmless prose.

I began to ask myself what it is in my blog writing that doesn’t seem to find its way into my other writing. Is a talent only for expository writing? Is it when I’m writing in a less self-conscious, intuitive sort of way, when I’m writing quickly, not so concerned if it’s going to be art or not? Perhaps, deep down, I don’t really understand fiction as well as I simply understand prose.

As I responded to the letter, I had occasion to use the word “genius”. And something from Milton’s “Lycidas” came back to me.

Henceforth thou art the Genius of the shore

Milton was using the word here in its original Latin sense, meaning a guardian spirit or deity. I thought about how this word had come to mean “a person of natural intelligence or talent”, and how difficult it is actually to characterise the trait. Not inspiration, I thought, but something similar. Some sort of possession by a spirit.

I have, over the years, picked up a few books about the act of writing, and most of them are worthless. One book, however, stands out, for me: Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. The title sounds naive, but it’s a very practical book, and it’s a very comforting one. And Brande has some interesting things to say about the habit of genius, worth extensively quoting.

The author of genius does keep till his last breath the spontaneity, the ready sensitiveness, of a child, the “innocence of eye” that means so much to the painter, the ability to respond freshly and quickly to new scenes, and to old scenes as though they were new; to see traits and characteristics as though each were new-minted from the hand of God instead of sorting them quickly into dusty categories and pigeonholing them without wonder or surprise; to feel situations so immediately and keenly that the word “trite” has hardly any meaning for him; and always to see “the correspondences between things” of which Aristotle spoke two thousand years ago. This freshness of response is vital to the author’s talent.[T]he dual character of the genius is almost a commonplace. As a matter of fact, it is a commonplace for all of us, to some extent. Everyone has had the experience of acting with a decision and neatness in an emergency which seem later to him to savor of the miraculous; this was the figure which Frederick W. H. Myers used to convey his idea of the activity of genius. Or there is the experience of the “second wind” that comes after long grinding effort, when suddenly fatigue seems to drop away and a new character arise like a phoenix from the exhausted mind or body; and the work that went so haltingly begins to flow under the hand. There is the obscurer, but cognate, experience of having reached a decision, solved a problem, while we slept, and finding the decision good, the solution valid. All these everyday miracles bear a relation to genius. At such moments the conscious and the unconscious conspire together to bring about the maximum effect; they play into each other’s hands, supporting, strengthening, and supplementing each other, so that the resulting action comes from the full, integral personality, bearing the authority of the undivided mind.

The man of genius is one who habitually (or very often, or very successfully) acts as his less gifted brothers only rarely do. He not only acts in an event, but he creates an event, leaving his record of the moment on paper, canvas, or in stone. As it were, he makes his own emergency and acts in it, and his willingness both to instigate and perform marks him off from his more inert, less courageous comrades.

Later, Brande describes the difficulties and the despondency that most writers eventually feel:

He worries to think of his immaturity, and wonders how he ever dared to think he had a word worth saying. He gets as stagestruck at the thought of his unseen readers as any sapling actor. He discovers that when he is able to plan a story step by step, the fluency he needs to write it has flown out the window; or that when he lets himself go on a loose rein, suddenly the story is out of hand. He fears that he has a tendency to make his stories all alike, or paralyzes himself with the notion that he will never, when this story is finished, find another that he likes as well. He will begin to follow current reputations and harry himself because he has not this writer’s humor or that one’s ingenuity. He will find a hundred reasons to doubt himself and not one for self-confidence. He will suspect that those who encouraged him are to lenient, or too far from the market to know the standards of successful fiction. Or he will read the work of a real genius in words, and the discrepancy between that gift and his own will seem a chasm to swallow his hopes. In such a state, lightened now and again by moments when he feels his own gift alive and surging, he may stay for months or years.

It strikes me now that when I wrote the first part of this post, I hadn’t yet got out Brande’s book, and find the similarity of this passage to the first part humbling.

Brande’s point in her book is about developing habits, even a programme, for writing. Many books have prescribed this, but hers was an early one, published as it was in 1934. It seems countless books have parroted her advice without explaining why writers should develop this habit. She pays her reader the compliment of knowing that no really intelligent person is going to get up early in the morning, every morning at the same time, and write, regardless of what’s in his head, just to get used to the physical act, without first having a good understanding of why he’s doing it. Brande explains why.

But this is not the place to go into that.

* * * * *

So, why did I put away the projects I was working on?

Perhaps Brande would say it was because I hadn’t really listened to her and hadn’t done what she’d prescribed. And I suppose she’d be right.

I started thinking about voice, the voice of authority that some writers have, the voice that says, Trust me, I know what I’m talking about. I felt that, as far as my present habits are concerned, I needed to think about how I will approach my writing. I need to think about what sort of story-telling I want to do. I’ve already written one complete novel, and don’t want to start filling up pages again, just to see where my material takes me. Perhaps, in time, I’ll decide that this is actually the best plan, but for now I want to wait, and think, and read. Perhaps I’ll only need to wait until I feel I can’t wait any more. Or perhaps I’ll find that I’m content to wait, and think, and read.

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Crad Kilodney Ramble

When I was thirteen or fourteen and my interest in literature was awakening, I used to go to my friend Allen’s house and look at the books on his shelves. Allen was precocious in his tastes and his habits, but I’m sure many of the books he had exceeded his understanding. Can you imagine, for example, a thirteen-year-old reading James Joyce’s Ulysses?

The books were mysterious things. I loved merely holding them, especially the soft, grey or green Penguins. Allen took me down to Toronto’s Soho district on Queen Street between University and Bathurst. The area was filled with used bookshops. I can still remember some of them: About Books, Steven Temple’s, Gail Wilson’s, Abelard’s, Letters. In the mid to late 80s, this strip of Queen Street started to get trendier and trendier, and as the rents went up, the bookshops went away. I don’t know how many of the old ones are still there. When most of them had gone, the city put new street signs calling the area The Fashion District (it was part of the traditional textile district) but most people just called it “Queen West”.

Used bookshops are what I miss most about Toronto, especially all those ones where I made so many discoveries and acquaintances. Shops of that kind are practically non-existent here in Athens. The few I’ve seen are more like junk shops with stacks of mouldy pulp. When I was preparing to leave Canada, I sold all the books I didn’t want to bring with me and bought anything I could find that I thought I’d want Some people we knew were sending a container with furniture to Greece, and we put all my books, at the time at least 1,200 of them, in 26 boxes and shipped them over.

Three books from Allen’s shelves caught my attention and have stayed in my mind. They represented the shocking, subversive quality that books had for me then. They were typed on a typewriter and cheaply printed.




Allen told me they had been published by the author himself, who also sold them on the street. His name was Crad Kilodney.

* * * * *

I don’t remember the first time I saw Kilodney himself. The earliest book I have is The Blue Book (1985).

Kilodney would stand on the busiest streets in Toronto with a small cardboard sign hanging from his neck. They would read

Pleasant Bedtime Reading
Putrid Scum
Slimy Degenerate Literature
Dull Stories for Average Canadians
Literature for the Brain-Dead
Worst Selling Author — Buy My Books
Rotten Canadian Literature
Albanian Chicken Stories

Crad Kilodney was born in 1948 in the borough of Queens, New York. He studied astronomy in Michigan and moved to Canada in the early 70s. In 1978 he set up his own imprint, Charnel House, and began selling his books on the street as his sole occupation.

His face was serious, even forbidding to some people who passed by and happened to make eye contact with him. I don’t remember ever feeling intimidated by him or if I spoke to him much the first time I saw him. Soon enough, however, I knew him well enough to stand around and chat with him whenever I saw him. He would complain about how bad business was and gape stupidly at passers-by who ignored him. I remember him once droning, “Hockey books. Hockey books. Get your hockey books.”

Once, a tough-looking teenager passed by as we were talking and shot him a glance.

“You know,” I said when the kid was about five paces away, “I don’t think he’s going to mention to his friends that he saw you today.”

“Are you kidding?” Crad said. “He’s forgotten me already.”

* * * * *

“If things go bad for me on the street, my mood deteriorates quickly. I’m apt to be simultaneously angry and depressed. My anger goes right to my stomach. I may make fierce eye contact with passers-by, which makes them even less likely to stop. I choose my most provocative or insulting signs to wear when I’m in the most aggressive moods because deep down I want to strangle these people. Most days I make less than $15 on the street. After paying for subway fares, snacks, and groceries, I may return home poorer than when I left the house. I wallow in self-pity. I have very confused ideas about success and failure, which I can’t sort out rationally. I look at the cartons of books at the foot of my bed and wonder how I will ever sell them. I wonder whether it’s worth continuing this way, year after year. Even if I were selling the greatest book ever written my immediate situation wouldn’t change. No book can change the world. No book can change these people. But these people can grind me down by their insensate banality, their stupidity, even their outright hostility. Man looks for hope wherever he can. I have a little hope left, just enough to let me face the street another day. But at this time in my life, hope is fading…”

Crad Kilodney, Excrement, 1988

* * * * *

Standing on the street all day exposed Crad to all kinds of abusive weirdos. At some point he began to wear a tiny microphone under his shirt collar so that he could record his encounters. I have the first two cassettes. (I think there was a third) On one of them he went to the business district and asked people why the earth has seasons. The answers are astounding.

Crad did not hide the fact that he liked to seek revenge when he felt he had been unjustly treated. In 1988 he published a story called “Who Is John Copping?” in which Kilodney claims to have been hearing the name John Copping everywhere he goes. A teenage girl tells her boyfriend that she is pregnant with John Copping’s child; a mother tells her child to do his homework so he won’t grow up stupid like John Copping; the owner of a strip club tells the bouncer never to let John Copping back in. One day he’s walking past City Hall when he hears the following exchange between two of Toronto’s most illustrious lawyers:

“As you know, Clay, I’m categorically opposed to capital punishment… With one exception.

“What’s that?” asked Ruby.

“John Copping!” said Greenspan vehemently. “He should be put to death!”

At a supermarket, he sees a sign in the meat-cutting room that says SAVE TAINTED MEAT FOR JOHN COPPING.

When he can stand it no longer, he asks a friend who this John Copping is, and is given a piece of paper. On it, and fully reproduced in Kilodney’s book, is a bad review someone named John Copping had written of three of Crad’s books.

In 1989, after having one of his stories, “Girl on the Subway”, rejected in the first round of a CBC short story competition, he submitted six stories, under pseudonyms and typed up on different typewriters, by writers such as Kafka, Faulkner and O. Henry. He went public with his hoax when every story was rejected.

Around that time he also typed up a manuscript of poems by Irving Layton, one of Canada’s most respected poets, and submitted them, again under a pseudonym, to publishers all over the country. They were rejected by everyone, including McClelland & Stewart, Layton’s own publisher.

* * * * *

As for Crad’s books, it’s difficult for me to discuss or assess them. I have a sentimental blind spot for some of them.

His style is very simple and draws no attention to itself, a sign that he cared about the writing and worked at it. The humour, for the most part, might strike people as immature. Certainly, it’s uneven, especially the later stuff. But there were times when he was brilliant. One of my favourites was “The Man Who Died Of His Opinions”, in Blood-Sucking Monkeys From North Tonawanda (1989), about two psychologists who are studying whether the human brain actually has a limit to its capacity for storing facts. They have a patient, an incredibly annoying bigot and philistine who cannot distinguish between fact and opinion. He has opinions on every conceivable subject, and rants all day long. Eventually, he overloads his brain, and dies. What makes this story so good is the discussions between the two doctors and the perfectly-captured voice of the patient.

Sometimes the humour was very satirical, as in “No Chekhov at Yorkdale”, in which he relates his findings after searching through one of Toronto’s biggest shopping malls for a book of stories by Chekhov:

You can buy an assortment of fruit-flavoured bubble baths at The Body Shop for only $17.65. You can spend $99.99 for a skateboard or $24.99 for an anti-theft device for your skis at Collegiate Sports. At Club Monaco you can buy authentic Club Monaco jeans for a mere $49. And at Classic China you can get a lovely bone china chipmunk for $95. But nowere in this Mecca of Mass Merchandising can you acquire a book of stories by the great Russian author Anton Chekhov, the greatest writer of stories who ever lived.

“I Chewed Mrs Ewing’s Raw Guts” seems autobiographical (except for its grizzly ending, to be sure). It details his dealings with a landlady so obnoxious you’re glad he’s killed her off in the end. There’s a febrile quality to the story that reminds you of Dostoevsky.

But his best works were his serious ones, which also tended to be autobiographical. Cathy (1985), is perhaps my favourite. It’s the story of a girl who comes to rent the basement of his parents’ house, and his doomed love for her. Excrement is based on his journals and his experiences on the street. It’s a nakedly honest, fascinating document. There was a follow-up, Putrid Scum, but by that time, Kilodney’s books had ceased to be enjoyable. The bitterness had got the best of him.

* * * * *

Although one wouldn’t know it from just looking at his books, but one of Kilodney’s biggest influences, by his own admission, was Henry Miller. He has none of Miller’s messy, vacuous philosophising. But he had Miller’s pessimism, and he had a sense of mission as a writer. Writing was very important to Kilodney, and he seems to have been very idealistic about it in the early days. Despite the underground feel of his work, he genuinely wanted acceptance and recognition and to make a difference in the world. But perhaps he also had fallen for the notion of the writer as a tortured, suffering soul. He was a glutton for punishment.

I remember him telling me once about having gone to Calgary for a few days. He had sold far more books on the streets there than he ever managed to in Toronto. Toronto was the worst place for him, and he chose the worst places to stand and sell his books: Yonge Street, with its hordes of consumers and suburban teenagers, and Bay Street, the city’s equivalent of Wall Street. It was precisely because Toronto was the least hospitable place for him that he stayed there for so many years.

In the late 80s and 90s, his bitter resentment had found its way into the writing and most of his later books made even some of his most loyal fans uncomfortable. (“I Chewed Mrs Ewing’s Raw Guts” was, despite its title, a successful story because he had let his material speak for itself. In the later ones, Kilodney is lashing out, often very offensively. There’s a strong undercurrent of racism in these stories, as well.)

In the end, you can’t help but wonder, if Kilodney had such a strong sense of mission, and took his art and his calling so seriously, why this seriousness wasn’t reflected more in his writing. Most of it was funny, but in an adolscent way, wanting more than anything else, to shock the reader with its outrageousness. No matter how funny it was, it never affected you the way Cathy and Excrement did.

* * * * *

In 1991 Kilodney was charged with “exposing goods for sale without authority” and later that year (ironically during Arts Week in Toronto), he was convicted in by-law court. Of course, there was no license available for what he was doing. He took the city to court, and lost. He appealed several times. In the mean time, he continued to sell on the street. It had been, after all, his sole occupation for thirteen years.

Then in 1995, Crad told me that his father back in New York had died, and that he had come into an inheritance. He gradually became more and more scarce, and then, without any fanfare, when no one was even paying attention, he was gone. He dropped out. He stopped publishing and stopped selling his books.

There were odd rumours. I read this totally inaccurate account on usenet:

I liked Crad Kilodney’s four-year experiment in Toronto of selling his books on the street. Of course he immediately became homeless. It gave his work a certain edge, let’s say. He had great placards: “Canadian Literature, Cheap. $4.” He was often highly rated and has a cult following, but darn it wasn’t enough to keep him out of the shrubbery.

In fact, Crad still writes from time to time, I think. He’s told me that he has a lot of stuff sitting around that he could still publish. Some of it can be found at his blog.

Since he gave up writing for a living, Crad has been playing the stock market. He enjoys it and it has become a passion. He does quite well. He’s given me tips from time to time, which have always been good. He also likes to compose logic puzzles. He remains very disillusioned with writing. When I was trying to get my first novel published, he told me that trying to get published was like buying a raffle ticket for a microwave; even if you win, your life won’t change much.

* * * * *

Postscript (15 April 2014)

Nine years have passed since I wrote the above post. I have cleaned up some of the out-of-date additions from over the years and adding what will most likely be the last bit.

Yesterday, after his third bout with cancer, Crad Kilodney died at the age of 66. I wrote to him last October, and he told me that he was seriously ill. I occasionally checked up on him to see how he was doing, and in my last email to him, I mentioned a very successful dichloroaceteate treatment a friend of mine in Toronto was undertaking. Crad’s response was characteristic of him:

I’m not going to hunt for some miracle like a million other desperate people who want to avoid death.  If my doctors had any useful ideas, they would have told me.  I’m 66 and have finished the important work of my life.  I’m not afraid to die.

Thank you for thinking of me.
My one thought about him now was that, since he had no family in Toronto, there might not be anyone to take care of him. Fortunately, he had a friend by his side throughout the weeks he spent at the hospice, the writer and artist Lorette Luzajic. She has written on the Facebook page she set up for him:
I have been with him every day; he is in and out of consciousness, disoriented, and weak. He is peaceful, in relatively little pain, and wants to go. We thank you for your well wishes and Crad thanks all his readers.

A few hours before he died, she added:

Crad has been more or less unconscious and I am surprised each day that he is still ticking. His wonderful nurses assure me that he is still comfortable and not conscious of the minimal amount of pain he might be feeling; he is still receiving pain management just in case. Crad continually expressed his gratitude for your well wishes up until he was no longer able to speak at all, and I know he wishes to repeat this now.

* * * * *

Crad told me in a letter once that he had given all his papers and his diaries to some university library, or perhaps to the National Library in Ottawa, I can’t remember which. The archive is not to be opened till after his death. I predict that they will be his greatest legacy. I have no doubt that, aside from their literary value, they will prove to be a fascinating document of what was a very unusual life.

* * * * *

Please go to Crad’s blog and read his final published work. It is beautiful.


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Conflict of Style

In university I barely read novels. I only read what I studied, and I believed only poetry could stand up to the intensive sort of study I went in for. I could find more to say about a single page of poetry than I could about an entire novel.

Ironically, when I went to university I also gave up all pretension of being a poet, and started writing fiction. I wrote two massive, unreadable and incomplete novels back then, which combined would probably come out to half a million words.

It was only when I was approaching graduation that I began to read novels more seriously. In 1991 I read Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea and loved it. A couple of years later I found a couple of her books in the library and read them too. The first was The Italian Girl, one of her slighter books. Then, immediately after, I read A Word Child, one of her best. I enjoyed it so much I decided to read everything of hers that I could get my hands on.

I decided to search through used bookstores in Toronto till I had found and read all 25 of them. (I had read them all by the time her 26th book, Jackson’s Dilemma, came out, already showing signs of the Alzheimer’s disease which she would be diagnosed with two years later, and which would hasten her collapse and death after another two years.)

What drew me to Murdoch’s books was how crammed they were with the mess and unmanageability of life. (A recurrent word in all her work is “muddle”.) She spent long paragraphs exploring what was going on inside her character’s heads – sometimes even the heads of her characters’ pets.

If I had been born in England, I probably wouldn’t have liked her books as much. For me, the setting alone was fascinating. Even her admirers have complained that the mundane world of labour, or even that of the regular 40-hour week, was completely missing from her books, that she concerned herself with characters wealthy enough to devote themselves exclusively with the plots she spun for them.

The plots, however, put these characters through various kinds of humiliation, or at the very least a great deal of stress. A typical Murdoch novel involves somebody who might, say, have some dark story in their past, which they want to escape and which comes back suddenly to haunt them. Somebody they don’t want to see appears from the past and demands that something be dealt with. At the worst possible moment, various other people show up unexpectedly, all making demands on the main character (or even on each other). A Murdoch novel could take place over one hectic weekend. I’ve always admired this relative unity of time and place. It created a surprising amount of suspense.

Most writers, I’m sure, write the kind of books they would like to read. For years I wanted to write Murdoch novels. (I have one completed/abandoned manuscript, however, which bears no resemblance to her work.) I still do, in some ways. I have a natural inclination to let my imagination sprawl and to explore the psychology and motivations of my characters, and to place the story in a some kind of domestic setting.

I’d be ready to sacrifice a wider readership if I could produce those kinds of books (naturally with my own personal stamp, something I take for granted and am not able to discuss objectively), but it’s very difficult to achieve this apparently rambling style of hers and still be interesting, or even, at times, relevant. If we think of Murdoch’s discourse with the reader as an aside, it’s very difficult to bring it to a satisfying conclusion and return to the story.

One also needs to sound authoritative (it’s no coincidence that an author is an authority) so that the reader doesn’t feel he’s wasting his time. Where this authority comes from is something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to lately, although I don’t have an answer yet.

In more recent years, my tastes in fiction have changed dramatically. The sort of book I want to write has changed. Two writers I admire very much now are Bruce Chatwin and J.M. Coetzee, especially the latter, since he’s written more novels, or more conventional ones. Their style is more impersonal, spare and unostentatious. Readers who are not particularly interested in style are probably hardly aware of them as authors, as voices. The details speak for themselves, and often at barely more than a whisper.

It’s difficult to talk about their style, or even to grasp what it is that defines it, because essentially they do very much with very little. With Coetzee in particular, I’m baffled by how he manages to convey so much intelligence and authority and still be so impersonal. I might even have thought that authority itself is composed of these features, except that writers like Delillo and Roth establish it with a voice that is almost the direct opposite of Coetzee’s.

The novel I’m writing now is giving me a lot of trouble. I have a clear enough idea of where it’s going, and what happens in it, but on every page I’m faced with problems of execution. I still haven’t exorcised the influence of Murdoch, nor do I feel sure I want to. I rend my clothes and gnash my teeth, but I know that I’ll have to reconcile these two different approaches, if they can, in the end, be reconciled at all. Can I open my characters up and allow the reader a glimpse? Can I portray the unmanageable muddle of life with Doric precision?

Just as I wrote those words, it occurred to me that Anna Karenina, which I’m currently reading, might just achieve this effect.

So all I need to do is write like Tolstoy.


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Great verses

When I was in high school, an English teacher I couldn't stand, but who managed to exercise a considerable amount of influence over me, told us that the fourth verse in Shakespeare's 73rd sonnet is considered to be the greatest in English literature:

That time of year thou may'st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold;
Bare ruin'd choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

I don't remember ever coming across this claim again, but certainly it has captivated people. I was struck then by the sound of the words, although the true meaning of the verse escaped me completely. Or at least the generally accepted meaning. But it wasn't till I was in university, studying Hopkins, that I came to be dazzled by it.

Originally, the 1609 Quarto version had it:

Bare rn'wd quiers, where late the ſweet birds ſang.

The general consensus is that the choirs are the chancels, where the choristers stood. Since the publication of William Empson's Seven Kinds of Ambiguity, many believe that this refers also to the ruins of churches and abbeys after Henry VIII's destruction of monasteries. But I found an interesting discussion at Languagehat of an entry at Eudaemonist, which states that a "quire" was

A set of four sheets of parchment or paper doubled so as to form eight leaves, a common unit in mediæval manuscripts; hence, any collection or gathering of leaves, one within the other, in a manuscript or printed book.

The entry continues:

For Shakespeare […] it’s almost impossible to deny the pun. The yellow leaves lingering on the branches might just as well be the leaves of a book—pages which must be unwritten, of course, when the poet dies (just as the branches ‘where late the sweet birds sang’ become ‘bare ruin’d choirs’). The full quires containing the sonnets, however, will continue their serenade (dare I say, ‘twittering’?) despite the changing seasons, despite death, in a typical declaration of immortality…

When I was studying Hopkins, I had an excellent professor, Joaquin Kuhn, who made prosody fascinating, and as interesting as any other aspect of poetry. (How sad that such a statement should need to be made. He was the only professor I had who spent any time on prosody, and knew more about it than others I've known who call themselves poets.) I also studied Shakespeare's sonnets in one of his courses. I tried applying what I knew to the fourth verse of the 73rd sonnet, and things got very confusing.

Possibly, "rn'wd" was pronounced as two syllables, but I doubt it. Many, many words which seem to be disyllabic are actually monosyllabic in poetry. "Heaven" is the first one that comes to mind. This is why so many editions write it as "heav'n". "Choirs" would also be monosyllabic, as it should always be, so each word in the verse is only one syllable.

As there are only nine words, there are only nine syllables, one too few. (Trying to talk about about feet here is pointless.)

Try to scan it, and your real difficulties begin. There's absolutely nothing iambic about the line. It looks like a classic example of sprung rhythm. If you make the stressed syllables bold, you could get

Bare ruin'd choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

But I prefer

Bare ruin'd choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

Seven out of the nine syllables are stressed! And twice there are three consecutive stressed syllables. It reminds me of Hopkins, as I imagine him, pounding his fist on the table as he recites

The heart grows wings bold and bolder.

How does Shakespeare manage to depart so dramatically from the prosody of his sonnet without drawing any attention to the fact? Why does the verse work, when it really it shouldn't? I have not, in the over ten years since I first struggled with the question, been able to answer it.

My favourite verse in English literature yields its pleasures more readily, but I never tire of letting it roll of my tongue. It's from Arnold's "Dover Beach", and I quote the entire stanza it's found in.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

The fifth verse shows what can be done with a language where vowels can have such different sounds, something which cannot be done in Greek, for example. Each vowel in that verse, with the exception of the y in "melancholy", grows more and more expansive, till you swear you can hear the sea retreating and leaving nothing but a vast emptiness.

Say it aloud. Say it again. Slowly.

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