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The color of morality isn't Red

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Guy_Burgess_1956_at_Black_Sea.jpgReading Geoffrey Wheatcroft's review of Chapman Pincher's book, Treachery: Betrayal, Blunders, and Cover-ups: Six Decades of Espionage Against America and Great Britain (in The New York Review of Books), I experienced one of those synergies that make me look up from my reading and exclaim, "That's exactly right!"  The passage that provoked my experience quoted Isaiah Berlin, speaking of Guy Burgess, one of the "Cambridge Five," who spied on England for the USSR:  "Guy . . . [was] someone with no moral center to his life."
Knowing little-to-nothing about Guy Burgess (except for the fact that he's not Anthony Burgess, a point I had to reiterate several times in conversation recently), I was excited, not by the personal specifics, but by the general import of Berlin's remark.  Having lived in China for four and a half years, I've had plenty of opportunity to observe the way Communism erodes the moral fabric of a society and the moral integrity of its adherents.

In reflecting on this side-effect of Communism, I've concluded that its mechanism relates to the connection between morality and compassion, and to the further connection between compassion and individuals. 

Morality, in essence, is the intellectual expression of visceral compassion.  When we empathize with another person's pain, we condemn the cause of that hurt in moral terms: e.g., because we feel bad for fatherless children, we define as immoral the behavior of deadbeat dads who shirk their parental duties to their children.

The human capacity for compassion, however, is limited.  Whether by hard-wiring or otherwise, we relate best to other individuals.  Our empathy doesn't spring into its fullest expression until we can lavish it on another individual.  Our moral outrage at deadbeat dads is never stronger than when the neglected children are known and beloved by us.

The fundamental flaw of Communism is its insistence on cultivating compassion for the group, in preference to the individual.  Human beings do this poorly at best.  (The group with which most of us identify most strongly is our family, and even that instance of empathizing with a group tends to pale beside our sympathy for individuals within the family.)  Throw in the typical Communist government modus operandi of instigating betrayal of one's nearest and dearest - children informing on parents, siblings turned against one another, etc. - and Communism produces an individual whose compassionate capacities are well and truly broken.

And without a visceral compassion response in working order, moral reasoning cannot operate properly.

Milan Kundera has repeatedly documented this breakdown as it occurred in (then) Czechoslovakia (viz. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being).  Kundera's example is significant because it suggests that the problem is with Communism, and not China's flavor of Communism.  Isaiah Berlin's observation about Guy Burgess resonated with me because it provides additional support: a man with no moral center would, of course, match with a system that eviscerates the moral backbone of society and person.

I did not match with such a system.  To illustrate just how profoundly I was at odds with Chinese Communism, I'll admit that, upon learning that Guy Burgess defected to the USSR in 1951 and died there, I felt - traitor that he was - pity.

(Image of Guy Burgess sunbathing at the Black Sea in 1956 from Times Online
Henry_VIII_and_Ann_Bolyn.jpgWhen I admitted in a prior blog post that I felt a teeny-bit let down at the end of Wolf Hall because of the novel's dialogue, I was not telling - I must confess - the whole story.  In fact, the plotting also didn't satisfy, but I wanted to address that issue in a separate post because my plot-wise complaints are not directed at Hilary Mantel.

They are directed at history.

History - like individual lives - doesn't unfold in a neat, plot-ready chunks that move from initial provocation, to thickening, to climax, to smug resolution.  While the role of the historical novelist is to shape history, so that the reader can partake in some semblance of the traditional joys of a plotted tale, history (and I feel confident that no one has made this observation before) isn't silly putty: you can't stretch it around however you like.  If the escapades of Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII don't fit neatly into the traditional three act structure of Western plots, then your historical novel isn't going to have a traditional three act plot.

Hilary Mantel surely excelled herself with her plotting of material.  Stephen Greenblatt, writing in The New York Review of Books, points out that the events she covers, including her choice of ending Wolf Hall in the wake of Thomas More's execution, track Shakespeare's treatment of the same topic.  Mantel has probably received shabbier compliments.

But to my taste - and I admit, I harbor a bias in favor of strong plotting - Wolf Hall's plot didn't build enough momentum to carry me through the 650 pages.  

One problem was that it was weighed down by numerous sub-plots that will presumably be fleshed out in Mantel's upcoming sequel - chief among them being the fates of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had a secret wife and daughter.  

Another drawback was that Wolf Hall was weighed down by numerous sub-plots that were resolved within the text, but didn't seem to advance the overall plot.  The in-depth treatment of the Holy Maid, for example, eats up twenty pages, but what do we get?  Additional insight into the character of Thomas Cromwell; a foretaste of the trial awaiting Thomas More; an inkling of what the Inquisition in England looked like; a sense of the insecurity Henry VIII felt about his legitimacy; but how do any of these points advance the plot?  Four hundred and eighty-four pages into the book, I was expecting the plot to be tightening, not loosening its belt and expanding.

But perhaps my expectations are unwarranted.  My guess is that Hilary Mantel covered the Holy Maid episode because it happened.  Because it's history.  And history (to say nothing of Mantel) doesn't give a damn about my plot expectations.

Reading Wolf Hall gave me a new appreciation for the challenges of writing a historical novel, as well as the realization that I am not - contrary to past (unintended) mis-statements - currently writing a historical novel.  The Celebration Husband, my soon-to-be-completed-in-draft-form fourth novel, which is set in East Africa during WWI, is a novel that takes place in the past; it's not a historical novel.  The events described didn't actually happen.  

For the record, the events described in The Celebration Husband conform to a traditional Western plot.  I (not surprisingly) do give a damn about my plot expectations, and the actual historical facts were too scattershot to stick with.  This is why I'm a fiction author: I like silly putty.

(Image of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn from The Mirror)    

With apologies to Hilary Mantel

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Hilary_Mantel.jpgRaising criticisms, however loving or justified, about monumental achievements is embarrassing.  About six months ago, for example, I asked a friend what she thought of Hilary Mantel's novel, Wolf Hall.  I'd just bought the book, but I hadn't yet read it.  "It's me," said my friend, feeling apparently that she had to apologize for not raving passionately about it.  "I'm Tudor-ed out."

Having just finished the novel (no, it didn't take me six months to read; it took me six months to get around to reading it), I feel - like my friend - a teeny bit let down.  And like my friend, I feel like I have to apologize.  Wolf Hall is stunning; it dominated my life for the 48 hours it took me to read it.  The novel every bit earns the adjective "consuming."  Hilary Mantel's writing is so readable, and her organization of this massive tale so masterful, that any non-laudatory comment about Wolf Hall seems ungrateful.  But - call me ungrateful - I was mildly unsatisfied at its end.  If the problem is me, though, it's not because I'm Tudor-ed out.  Like all proper Americans, I lack formal education in history.

One reason for the let-down is undoubtedly the build up.  Wolf Hall won the Booker Prize in 2009.  In The New York Times Book Review, Christopher Benfey calls it "dazzling," while Janet Maslin describes the "book's main characters . . . [as] scorchingly well rendered."  Stephen Greenblatt, writing in The New York Review of Books, sums up Wolf Hall as "a startling achievement, a brilliant historical novel."

But my sense of let-down wasn't merely a function of expectations raised to unfairly vertiginous heights.  Wolf Hall let me down in respect of one reasonable expectation that Stephen Greenblatt elucidates in his NYRB review:

The historical novel . . . . offers the dream of full access, access to what went on behind closed doors, off the record, in private, when no one was listening or recording.  The great realizations of this dream . . . provide a powerful hallucination of presence, the vivid sensation of lived life.  They set the dead in motion and make them speak.
"Historical novels," Greenblatt adds, "generate a sense in the reader best summed up by exclamations like 'Yes, this is the way it must have been.'"

My sense of let-down with Wolf Hall goes exactly to Greenblatt's point: I kept thinking, It couldn't have been this way.

Yes, yes, I have already admitted that I have no formal history education.  How the hell would I know what it must have been like?  A valid objection, I agree.  But the reason I kept getting jolted out of my suspension of disbelief was the dialogue.  Without exception, the dialogue was relentlessly witty.  Too often, dialogue seemed to be either a laugh, a set-up to a laugh, or a set-up to a set-up.  For example, here is Thomas Cromwell speaking to his boss, Cardinal Wolsey:

The servants efface themselves, melting away towards the door.  "What else would you like?" the cardinal says.
"The sun to come out?"
"So late?  You tax my powers."
"Dawn would do."
The cardinal inclines his head to the servants.  "I shall see to this request myself," he says gravely; and gravely they murmur, and withdraw.
(p. 19.)  Here, in another example, is Cromwell speaking with his wife, Liz:

"You're sweeter to look at than the cardinal," he says.
"That's the smallest compliment a woman ever received."
"And I've been working on it all the way from Yorkshire."
(p. 35.)  The only people who so consistently talk that way are in sit-coms.  And even I know that they didn't have sit-coms in the court of Henry VIII.

And, at the risk of appearing really ungrateful, let me elaborate on my complaint by saying, the wit was clearly that of Hilary Mantel; hers is an admirable wit - one that entertains and enchants - but I often felt that the characters were deprived of individual voices.  Is that his sister Kat, his wife Anne or his sister-in-law Johane quipping?  Is that his nephew Richard, his clerk Rafe or his servant Christopher - or for that matter Kat, Anne or Johane - wise-cracking?  To my ear, they all possess the same interchangeable humor.  For instance:

"You'll make the magistrates' bench for sure . . . with your close study of the difference between a corpse and my brother."  (Kat)

"Heaven direct me: boy or hedgehog?" (Liz)
The dialogue is, in fact, tremendously fun to read, and the moments were many when I was smiling or even laughing out loud.  ("Tweet tweet," to those of you who have read the book, left me guffawing.)  

Nonetheless, just as historical characters depicted in movies are always better looking than they'd been in life, the dialogue in Wolf Hall didn't strike me as 16th century speech "the way it must have been.'"  Hilary Mantel may have "set the dead in motion and ma[d]e them speak," but she made them speak like the hippest, sexiest, funniest, most modern, Platonic ideal versions of themselves.

And for that, I'm just a little bit sorry.

(Image of Hilary Mantel from The New York Times)

The man hasn't been to Africa

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"Lines Written in Early Spring" is a poem that's meant to make the reader ponder human depravity.  Sitting in a grove, the poet notices

Through the primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And 't is my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.

The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure: -
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.
And, because the poet is "[i]n that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts/Bring sad thoughts to the mind," he concludes, on the basis of all this natural hedonism - of air-loving flowers and pleasure-hopping birds

If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature's holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?
To which I can only reply:  Will, you got it all wrong.  

Like anyone living in Kenya, I am absolutely swamped by nature, and none of it is chirpy hoppy happy.  The acacia trees do not give me the impression that they enjoy the air they breathe; they have long, spiky thorns that embed themselves in the soles of my Crocs and poke through to pain my feet.  The maribou storks do not seem to thrill with pleasure at every motion; they're carrion birds on the look-out for something dead to eat.  On safari with my mother, we saw the carcass of a camel that had been killed by a lion: it was missing a hind leg and its face was being eaten by vultures.

Well, one might sigh, what can you expect from the Romantics?  The poetry is lovely, but their politics could never be taken seriously.  

But the irony is that reflecting on nature can reveal some very romantic notions about humanity.  What lion has done charitable deeds?  What maribou stork has made a heroic sacrifice?  What acacia tree has died for love?  

When the Romantics argued that we should be more like nature, they misperceived nature: nature is very practical.  What is romantic about human nature is precisely what distinguishes us from the rest of nature: our unique capacity to be motivated by ideas, instead of needs.

Every time we stand up for justice, strive for self-improvement or create something because it's beautiful, we're acting romantically.  (So, of course, were British religious inquisitors who burned heretics at the stake, and Red Guards kicking elderly "intellectuals" in the stomach: romantics all.)  And, despite the invariable excesses of this modus operandi, the highest of human achievements have resulted from acting on ideas.

That said, "what man has made of man" is nothing to be proud of.  Given our potential, humans writ large are obviously more depraved than is tolerable.  But if I were sitting in a grove in early spring, what I'd reflect is that it could be so much worse.

(Benjamin Robert Haydon's portrait of William Wordsworth from The Telegraph)

Show and tell

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The_spectacular_PG_Wodehouse.jpgAnyone who takes a writing creative class these days is admonished to "show, don't tell," and the prescription has escaped the classroom and entered the market.  An industry professional reviewing an early draft of my current novel, The Celebration Husband, noted that I was "telling" more than "showing."

But with all respect accorded to the industry professional, "show, don't tell" is more of an ideology than a precept of good writing.  While in certain instances - particularly the presentation of exposition and other background material, the revelation of character traits, or an action scene - "showing" can be more effective than "telling," the foregoing is not absolutely true.

For instance, P.G. Wodehouse, one of the world's best selling authors, relies heavily on "telling" in all three instances.  In Right Ho, Jeeves, after sighing about the "dashed difficult problem" of how to begin a story, Wodehouse commences with a recitation of Bertie Wooster's trip to Cannes with his Aunt Deliah and Cousin Angela - a classic instance of "telling" background details.  

Nor does Wodehouse wait to let the reader figure out his characters.  Thoughout the Jeeves novels, Wooster is telling you what they're like.  In Thank You, Jeeves, Wooster explains away readers' questions about the presence of his friend, Chuffy, on the pier late at night by telling us that Chuffy is the kind of guy who stands beneath his beloved's window and, if she's on a yacht (as she is), well, then he'll go stand on the pier.  No need for Chuffy to "show" us this side of himself.    

Wodehouse even makes masterful use of the "telling" technique for action scenes.  In Thank You, Jeeves, Jeeves narrates a brawl between two small boys that draws their parents in and eventually results in the breaking off a real-estate deal.  Many other writers would have shown such a juicy squabble, but Wodehouse opts to alternate between showing and telling.  

Wodehouse's style of alternating between showing and telling owes something to drawing room and musical comedies.  In Auntie Mame, for example, the climactic horse race is depicted from the perspective of the crowd watching the race - told, not shown.  Similarly, in Pygmalion, the culminating garden party, where Henry Higgins presents Eliza Doolittle to great acclaim and triumph, happens offstage - we hear the characters talk about it.  

Of course, some of these theatrical choices were pragmatic.  Running a horse race in a theater is obviously a non-starter.  Staging a garden party requires many actors and increases costs.  

But an underlying wisdom supports these choices as well.  "Showing" leaves less room for the imagination than "telling."  When - in the movie of Auntie Mame - we watch the horse race (not the spectators), we see how it happened; in the musical, we imagine other possibilities.  The principle is no less applicable with books.  When Jeeves narrates Gussie Finknottle's attempts - and failure - to reach a fancy dress ball in Right Ho, Jeeves, we imagine Gussie's comic plight; but when we see Gussie give a speech to a boy's school while drunk, we need not imagine anything: the scene is completely detailed.   

Alternating between showing and telling invites the audience to engage its imagination and thereby deepens the audience member's experience of the story.  Engaging the imagination encourages the suspension of disbelief and the immersion in the world the author has created.  Audience members thus become more active participants in the story, as contrasted with their more passive counterparts being shown everything (as, for example, in a James Bond movie).

Active readers are desirable readers.  Their imaginations engaged, they are unlikely to recommend that writer adhere mindlessly to an ideological motto.

(Image of P.G. Wodehouse from The Guardian)

Worth rereading

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tayeb_salih.jpgI have read Tayeb Salih's novel, Season of Migration to the North, more times than any other non-children's book - four or five times by my last count.  I first read it in college (it may constitute my only academic take-away from those years), and my ardor was instantaneous.  

In a sense, my devotion to Season of Migration to the North is odd because, even now, my understanding of the story is limited.  But from the beginning, I grasped that Season of Migration to the North was a book to be read when resiliency was needed, and that its author, Tayeb Salih, was a person of immense wisdom and deep understanding of human behavior and society.  That I never met him (he died last year) is one of the few regrets of my life.

Season of Migration to the North recounts the story of a young man (unnamed) who returns from studying in London to his native Sudan, where he takes a job as a civil servant in the newly-independent country's Ministry of Education.  On a trip to the remote village in which he was raised, he meets a newcomer to the village - Mustafa Sa'eed - who has a mysterious past.

Like the young narrator, Mustafa Sa'eed also studied in London and lived there for 30 years, a sojourn that culminated in tragedy and imprisonment.  After his release from prison, Mustafa Sa'eed returns to Sudan, where he settles down to the life of a farmer and marries a local woman, Hosna.  Confiding part of his backstory to the young narrator when they first meet, Mustafa Sa'eed soon dies and entrusts guardianship of his wife and sons to the young narrator.

Some years later an elderly man, Wad Rayyes, in the village decides that he wants to marry Hosna.  The young narrator is called upon to act - by Wad Rayyes, who wants the narrator to convince Hosna to marry him; by Hosna, who wants the narrator to marry her so that she can be protected from suitors; by the narrator himself, who is in love with Hosna.

Only after unearthing a more comprehensive version of Mustafa Sa'eed backstory than had been originally disclosed is the young narrator able to act.  The choice he makes is simultaneously inadequate to the demands of the situation and momentous, a polarity that Salih urges us to accept and embrace as implicit in the human condition.

Season of Migration to the North unfolds non-chronologically and impressionistically, allowing its story to emerge through juxtaposition of memories, conversations and scribbles.  From Salih's expert (and concise - the novel is a mere 169 pages) use of this technique, a kind of magic results.  The book is a page-turner and a prose poem, an analysis of all the major power dynamics of modern times (East/West, male/female, black/white, Christian/Muslim), as well as an affirmation of the human capacity to reduce such dynamics to irrelevancies.  Symbolically reenacting the confrontation of cultures wrought by colonialism, Season also contains stunning depictions of the destructive potential in sexual passion between individuals.  The novel additionally features some of the most haunting descriptions and quotable phrases I have read (in Denys Johnson-Davies' superb translation).

To this list of achievements, add another: Season's power is so visceral that it compels action.  "[H]alfway between north and south . . . . unable to continue, unable to return," the novel's narrator rejects paralysis and embraces volition.  (p. 167.)  This reader has never been able to read the book without doing the same.  

For this reason, Season of Migration to the North is indispensable.  I have  a copy with me anywhere I live, and I am confident that - given the life span - I will yet read it many more times.

(Image of Tayeb Salih from NPR)

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