Recently in The role of the novelist Category

Sisyphus was a writer

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Maya_Alexandri_in_a_cage_of_her_own_making.jpgP.G. Wodehouse repeated himself - jokes, similes, motivations, plots, quotes from poetry.  I love him so dearly that the repetitions don't bother me at all.  They're a quirk of a beloved - if soused - uncle, and if he didn't repeat himself, I'd ask him to, "Tell me the one about . . ."  

But I don't repeat myself, I thought.  I'm not writing in a genre, like Wodehouse (even if it is a genre of his own invention); each of my books is new and fresh and different and reflects the stupendous growth I've experienced since I finished my last book.

Well, ha.  Ha.  Ha.  And, for good measure, ha ha ha ha ha.  Rereading my second novel, The Swing of Beijing, this past week during the audio recording, I noted numerous instances of writing that I recognized - with a sigh and a resigned grimace - from later works, specifically my fourth novel, The Celebration Husband.  Certainly, the repetitions didn't rise to the P.G. Wodehouse level in either number or their verbatim quality, but I was plainly writing again, and around, and about, familiar themes.

In particular, a theme that manifested itself in similar terms in both books is the experience of feeling humbled before wonders, and how that humility is, in fact, empowering. 

I was interested to see this idea mentioned in Susan Neiman's recent NYT book review of Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly's All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age.  According to Neiman, Dreyfus and Kelly argue that
 
reading great works of literature allows us to rediscover the reverence, gratitude and amazement that were available in Homeric times.  These qualities, [the authors] believe, can be cultivated to provide a bulwark against the nihilism they rightly view as threatening our ability to lead meaningful lives in the 21st century.
. . . .
The reason so many of us feel so miserable is that we can neither find meaning in ourselves alone nor give up the longing to find it somewhere else.
. . . .
[The authors discuss] the Greeks, who were less reflective than we are, and less convinced that they were in control of the world. This left them open to experience a world in which things shine as works of art do, to feel gratitude not only for the bounties of nature but for human excellence in all its forms, itself regarded as a gift.
This quest after meaning, and finding its satisfaction in experiences of "reverence, gratitude and amazement" is a major theme in my life (and, unsurprisingly, my writing).  I hadn't thought I was trendy, or part of zeitgeist, but - worse - a cliché, but turns out I'm not only repetitive, but also unoriginal.  I better hope I at least write pretty.

So here's the writing: judge for yourself.  This first quote is from The Swing of Beijing, when one of the main characters, Tyler, is in a club listening to a jazz singer, called the Marquise:

     The Marquise was now doing her delightful version of "Take Five," in which she scat sang the signature saxophone solo.  Tyler closed his eyes again, enjoying the gravel-tinged honey that was the Marquise's voice, sweet and rough, simultaneously coating and caressing, and jutting against and ricocheting off of, the rhythm.  She sang the way she lived, accepting the rhythm - however strict, however unexpected - as a non-negotiable and nonetheless not letting it get in her way.  And, although neither she nor the song were Chinese, the Marquise's "Take Five" embodied Beijing for Tyler, better than any summation he'd encountered in any medium.  In her interpretation of the song - with its bizarre time signature; its odd drafting of the piano to do the work normally assigned the drums; her willful, beautiful occupation of melody; and the unbelievable way it melded these non-conforming elements to roll over Tyler with a soft power that submerged his individual existence into the flow of music - "Take Five" distilled Beijing, a city that in its near millennium of history had defied lack of water resources and a profusion of invaders, had witnessed profound progress in dark ages and starveling stagnation in eras of modernity, and throughout had inspired big imaginations to draw on its leviathan depths of potential and recreate it.  Like the song, Beijing humbled Tyler with the evidence of his meagerness and uplifted Tyler with its grace in enfolding him anyway; but most of all, it impressed Tyler with its capacity for strange and boundary-less change, a flexibility to which Tyler felt distinctly unequal.
Now compare that paragraph to these passages from The Celebration Husband (and this is a selection; there are other passages I could've excerpted), where the provocation for the experience of uplifting humility is not music, but the landscape:

    Looking beyond the station, Tanya absorbed the Eastern Rift Valley: game-rich forest and fertile farmland punctuated by the voluptuous protrusion of the extinct volcano, Mount Longonot, to the west.  Verdant green after the rains and dusty yellow during the dry season, Mount Longonot hid from Tanya's view Lake Naivasha, a vast stretch of fresh water so well integrated into the landscape that it often deceived observers into thinking it was part of the sky.  Augmenting the Valley's grandeur were the clouds, transformed by moody and variable weather into actors in an epic drama, involving much darkening and glowing, rearing up, rolling about, thunder-and-lightning sound effects, and honey-cognac lighting.
    Pitched midway on the escarpment that descends into the Valley, Kijabe afforded Tanya a prime vantage point for this spectacle.  As her eye roamed the scene, grey and gold clouds floated at eye level, so that the capacious sky seemed to arch overhead and then drop below her into the Valley.  Tanya had never before known the sensation of sky beneath her.  Kijabe elevated her; Tanya felt that the scenery demanded that she present a better, more noble self.
. . . .
    Arduously, achingly, she angled herself on her knees so that she faced Mount Kilimanjaro.  On the corridor of plain stretching before her, round white butterflies fluttered, their wings beating like nuns' wimples in a breeze.  Looking on the mountainous sanctum in the distance, Tanya saw that a cloud mass had swept over the snowy peak.  Her view of the colossus now occluded, Tanya remembered von Lettow-Vorbeck's remarks about Kilimanjaro's ability to dwarf an event as monumental as battle.  The mountain was so miraculous that it could remove any vastness from her perspective, even itself. 
    As it is with the mountain, let it be with me, she thought.  Let Kilimanjaro be my cathedral, let my perspective be guided by the light it filters onto me.  If war itself vanishes into the maw of the mountain, let me cast my pain upon it, and let my sorrows dwindle in its immensity.
    Then, still kneeling, Tanya bent her torso forward until her forehead touched the prickly ground.  She had seen Hassan bow this way during prayer, and the action had puzzled her.  She didn't understand how Hassan could willingly adopt a posture of such abject submission.  Now she imitated him intuitively.  She'd had no expectations of the movement; she had prostrated herself unthinkingly.  And yet, with this motion, she gained a sense of power.  Bowing to the mountain, Tanya was blessed with the insight that triumph, too, can emerge from surrender.
Seeing this theme emerge in different stories, in various words, written over four years of my life, I can feel how deeply I want my characters to undergo the liberation of humility, and how persuaded I am of edifying effects of such experiences.  I just hope audiences can bear with me (that I can bear with myself) as I write the same damned thing over and over again, trying (vainly) to pin the ineffable on paper.

Uncle Wodehouse, can you tell me the one about the peak in Darien?

(Photo of Maya Alexandri in the art cage of her own making by Andrew McConnell)

Facing the music in the audiobooth

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Over the past week, I've been recording an audiobook of my second novel, The Swing of Beijing.  Although I'd last read the book only two years ago, I remembered little of the details, and reading the book aloud has been an interesting experience.

My literary mentor, DM Thomas, wrote about the stresses and discoveries of re-reading all his novels, and his experience was much in my mind as I sat in the audio booth, reacquainting myself with The Swing of Beijing.

DM Thomas had been anxious that, upon rereading his works, he might find that his novels were "dead."  I wasn't worried about that, so much as discovering that the novel was crap.  Roberto Bolaño summed up my concern in one of the many breathtaking passages in his stupendous novel 2666

Ivanov's fear was of a literary nature.  That is, it was the fear that afflicts most citizens who, one fine (or dark) day, choose to make the practice of writing, and especially the practice of fiction writing, an integral part of their lives.  Fear of being no good.  Fear that one's efforts and striving will come to nothing.  Fear of the step that leaves no trace.  Fear of the forces of chance and nature that wipe away shallow prints.  Fear of dining alone and unnoticed.  Fear of going unrecognized.  Fear of failure and making a spectacle of oneself.  But above all, fear of being no good.  Fear of forever dwelling in the hell of bad writers. 
(p. 722.)  I am not immune to reading my own work and thinking, wait a minute, I know why this hasn't been published yet!  It's because it's no good.

Certainly, such thoughts and their variants crossed my mind when I was in the audio booth. 

But on the whole, I think those thoughts were too harsh.  Yes, some scenes were too complicated; writing them, I learned how to write scenes like them better in later novels. 

And, yes, some of the characters posed challenges for the reader - that is, me - in empathizing.  I still haven't fixed that issue to my satisfaction, but I could see my growth as a writer depicting difficult characters in empathetic ways, even from chapter to chapter in this book.

The turning point came in the second half of the novel, with a long monologue by a character named Gao Yi, a Chinese smuggler.  In truth, I'd forgotten the monologue in its particulars, and reading it I was captivated by its freshness, surprise and humanity.  Those characteristics are, of course, relative and - given the way I'd been feeling about the foregoing pages - I won't make any judgments about the absolute quality of the monologue; but I was confident that it wasn't "no good."

And after that monologue, I began to feel similarly about the writing that followed.  The Swing of Beijing is not a masterpiece by any stretch.  Maybe not even worth publishing beyond the audiobook version - maybe not of interest except as a record of my growth as a writer (and possibly only of interest in that respect to me).  But it's not "no good."

Then again, to quote DM Thomas assessing his own novels, "Who could ever trust an author's own view of his work?"

Tarik_Jarras.jpgAt the end of the reading, my sound engineer, Tarik Jarras, said that he wanted to know more about the characters, and that maybe I should write a sequel.  Bless him.      


(Image of Maya Alexandri taken by Tarik Jarras; image of Tarik Jarras taken by Maya Alexandri)

Whither the women of the 1%?

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Dale_Peck.jpgIn the course of a New York Times book review of the two recently-released translations of the work of the late Austrian author Thomas Bernhard, novelist, critic and literary infant terrible Dale Peck drew a distinction between novelistic traditions.  The first, representing 99% (in his estimate) of Western novels, finds its roots in ancient Greek forms of storytelling and, in its journey through Rome, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Victorian Era, has evolved to chart the vicissitudes of "an increasingly representative cast of characters and behaviors." 

The second tradition
 
wends its way through various misfits, misanthropes and criminals constitutionally incapable of resigning themselves to the social contract: Cervantes's Don Quixote, Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Dostoyevsky's underground man, Knut Hamsun's self-starving doppelgänger in "Hunger."  In lieu of ­offering a rational critique of the world they inhabit, the antiheroes of the second tradition simply hate or reject it, just as their creators, far from seeing literature as a tool for cultural or even individual salvation, write only to give voice to a sense of alienation from oneself, one's peers and one's place in history.
The phrase "constitutionally incapable of resigning themselves to the social contract" delighted me - not least because of how deeply I identify with it - but also raised an immediate question: why were women authors absent from this disaffected 1%?  (I don't think the issue lies in Peck's list of examples; aside from Peck's very public philogyny, I can't think of a woman author who should have been included.)

The absence is noteworthy.  Women, after all, have very good reasons to reject the social contract.  Succinctly: we've been on the shit end of the deal - of every social deal - in Western history and maintain our sorry status in current times.  There's never been a Golden Age for women, a time during which it was good to be female.  We perennially do more to get less, find ourselves without outlets or mentors for our talents, and alone in our grief; and that's the fate of lucky women - the unlucky ones are the subjects of unremitting abuse, exploitation, degradation and violence.

So why doesn't literature by women reflect these inarguable facts?  Why aren't women writing characters that "hate or reject" the world?  Why aren't women authors writing "to give voice to a sense of alienation from oneself, one's peers and one's place in history"?

These are "big" questions, and a blog post is structurally incapable of admitting comprehensive (or even potentially worthy) answers.  Nonetheless, just as I struggle against other structurally-imposed constraints in my life, I'll attempt an inadequate (and possibly unworthy) answer here, one based on women's historic connection with the existence of the novel.

As Walter Ong explains in his masterwork, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, up through the nineteenth century, rhetoric-heavy academic training shaped literary style in the West, except in the case of female authors, who received no such training:

In medieval times and after, the education of girls was often intensive . . . , but this education was not acquired in academic institutions, which taught rhetoric and all other subjects in Latin.  When they began to enter schools in some numbers during the seventeenth century, girls entered not the main-line Latin schools but the newer vernacular schools. . . . Women writers were no doubt influenced by works that they had read emanating from the Latin-based, academic, rhetorical tradition, but they themselves normally expressed themselves in a different, far less oratorical voice, which had a great deal to do with the rise of the novel.
(pp. 111-12.)  And which no doubt had a great deal to do with the low esteem with which novels have been held since time immemorial - see, for example, this declamation by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey:

Although [novelists'] productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. . . . [T]here seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances that have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.
(p. 22.)  Novels, in short, are a woman's medium.  Don Quixote notwithstanding (and Don Quixote to my mind is at least as much an example of a transitional epic poem as it is of an early novel), novels were largely invented, refined and patronized by women.  The prevalence of male novelists in the list of "greats" is just another yawn-inducing example of the achievement possible for a gender unsaddled by the lion's share of procreative and domestic work, a gender that moreover (and because of the foregoing advantage) has historically enjoyed the privilege of making the fucking list in the first place.

Which is to say, a novel (as contrasted with, say, a blog post) isn't a terribly logical medium for a woman's expression of hatred, rejection and alienation: it may be the Western cultural medium from which women are least alienated.  For a woman (or, at least, this woman), novels aren't either "a tool for cultural or even individual salvation," or a forum for voicing alienation: they are her metaphoric home, the place where she can experience unmolested enjoyment of her intellect and emotions.  A novel isn't about therapy or "salvation," but rather the mere necessities of existence: whether reading or writing one, in the confines of a novel, a woman finds a space in which she has penned the terms of the social contract. 

By the same token, fouling a woman's nest with vituperative hatred, rejection, mockery and self-pitying howls of alienation is exactly the kind of asshole behavior to be expected from a sensitive male genius writer.

(Image of Dale Peck from New York magazine)

Real combat

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David Grossman's To the End of the Land might be a great book, but it's a mess.  It has tics, like its characters.  (And this is a book in which a boy rhymes incessantly for months, and then graduates into OCD hand-washing/lip-puffing/face-contorting, etc.).
 
Grossman's protagonist, Ora, is a little too emotional, and a little too unintelligent, to hold the book together.  It flies apart with her tantrums, her sudden impulses to cook, to flee, to write, to argue.
 
Like Ora, the story occillates.  The book begins powerfully, with evocative scenes in an isolation ward in a hospital during the 1967 war.  Fast-forwarding to 2000, the book continues strongly, with a devastating sub-plot involving Ora's Arab driver, Sami.  But - too soon - Sami disappears.  Ilan, Ora's husband, and Adam, her oldest son, have disappeared before we meet Ora in 2000, and her younger son, Ofer, vanishes into a military campaign shortly before Sami takes off.  All this fleeing leaves Ora alone with Avram, a man of severe incapacities, on a hike along the Israel Trail, from northen Israel back down to Jerusalem.  The narrative for the next four hundred pages or so must rise and fall with Ora, and she isn't up to the burden.
 
Grossman tries to help her out.  At one point, feral dogs menace Ora and Avram, with the upshot that Ora attracts - and functionally adopts - a dog who follows their meanderings for the remainder of the book.  At another point, Ora and Avram meet an elderly pediatrician, hiking alone, wearing two wedding rings and asking intimate questions.  The doctor finds a notebook Ora dropped, and Ora later retrieves it from him while he naps.  In my favorite of these tangents, Ora and Avram are picked up by a jester of sorts, a holy fool named Akiva, whose job is as a "gladdener of the dejected."  
 
But none of these narrative life-savers thrown by the author gets Ora to swim.  She swirls along with the currents and the breezes, and by the end of the book the narrative seems to expire from exhaustion.  The desperately important sub-plot with Sami is left hanging; the fate of Ofer in the military campaign limps to an ambiguous closure; the rupture in Ora's relations with her husband, Ilan, and her son, Adam, raises its head, but barely receives a pat. 
 
Instead, we get Ora's final tantrum, which occurs after she's invaded Avram's privacy by checking his voicemails without his knowledge and intercepted a sensitive message from his girlfriend in which she seems obliquely to be confessing to an abortion.  Ora - though the aggressor and the violator in this scenario - is hurt and acting out, and in the context of everything else with which she and Avram have been dealing over the course of the book (horrorific torture, war crimes, divorce, abandoment, helplessness to protect one's children), Ora's behavior rings a sour and petty note on which to conclude the book.  But the ending feels like Grossman simply couldn't go on: Ora wore him down.  He had to close the book on her. 
 
And yet the book has the ambition, the empathy and the sheer compulsion - the sense that it ripped itself from its author's guts and loins - that makes it great: "great" in the sense that the great Roberto Bolaño defines great books in his great and monumental novel 2666:

What a sad paradox . . . . Now even bookish [readers] are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown.  They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters.  Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.
(p. 227.)
 
Bolaño has distilled the issue perfectly.  In To the End of the Land, Grossman struggles mightily against what terrifies us all, literally amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.  And he has produced an imperfect, torrential work that blazes into the unknown.  
 
For Grossman, for Bolaño, and most of all for ourselves, we mustn't fear to take it on.

(Image of David Grossman from The Guardian)

The best museum exhibit guide ever

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The Tate Modern's Gauguin show sparked an interest in Gauguin's life that prompted me to buy books.  As I mentioned in a previous blog post, one of the books upon which my hand fell (in the gift shop) was Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence.  Luckily, sitting beside Maugham's clunker was the Mario Vargas Llosa novel, This Way to Paradise, which I also snatched up.

A fictional double portrait of Paul Gauguin and his part-Peruvian grandmother, Flora Tristán, This Way to Paradise finds Vargas Llosa projecting himself into Gauguin's mind as he paints a number of his masterpieces, including "Manao tupapau" (pictured above), "Pape moe" (based on the Charles Spitz photograph below), "Nevermore" (below), "The Vision after the Sermon" (here).

Charles_Spitz_Tahitian_drinking.jpgVargas Llosa's imaginative reconstruction of Gauguin's psychology in the moment of creation captivated me.  I was excited by Vargas Llosa's audacity, combined with the singular opportunity that the Tate Modern's show afforded: I could stand in the presence of the paintings and test whether Vargas Llosa's words made me experience Gauguin as the paintings had made Vargas Llosa experience him.

The second time I went to the Tate Modern's Gauguin show, I took This Way to Paradise with me and read the passages that discussed paintings in the exhibit.  Here's Vargas Llosa on "Manoa Tupapau":

The raw material was in his memory, the image he saw every time he closed his eyes.
. . . .
The naked girl would be obscene without the fear in her eyes and the incipient downturn of her mouth.  But fear didn't diminish her beauty.  It augmented it, tightening her buttocks in such an insinuating way, making them an altar of human flesh on which to celebrate a barbaric ceremony, in homage to a cruel and pagan god.  And in the upper part of the canvas was the ghost, which was really more yours than Tahitian, [Paul]. . . . It was an old woman in a hooded cloak, like the crones of Brittany forever fixed in your memory.
(p. 23.)  I didn't see it.  The girl's eyes didn't show me fear, nor did I see an incipient downturn of her mouth - to me, she appeared to be smiling coyly.  The arch of her body was wrong for what Vargas Llosa was describing.  Far from the tautness that Vargas Llosa sees, the girl's lower half looked slack: her ankles are crossed, and her legs seem to be hanging off the bed.  And however much I ran between the galleries to compare the crones of Brittany with the spirit in "Manao tupapau," I didn't glimpse the connection.

Nevermore_Gauguin.jpgBut it didn't matter.  Tracking Vargas Llosa through Gauguin allowed me insight into the impact of visual arts on another writer's process.  This Way to Paradise isn't art criticism; Vargas Llosa isn't informing or educating his public about what they should see in the paintings.  He's exposing instead what he sees when he looks at them. 

That looking at "Manao tupapau" makes Vargas Llosa think about how Gauguin came up with the image reveals a mind intrigued by the artistic process, and one additionally that sees parity in the process between visual artists and writers.  Although I have wondered how other artists arrive at their images, I hadn't speculated previously about Gauguin's, in part because (before the Tate Modern show) I didn't identify with him: but Vargas Llosa must have.  And, although I sense that Vargas Llosa's connection with Gauguin is very masculine - a bond I can't share - Vargas Llosa nonetheless showed me one way of empathizing with Paul Gauguin.

Empathizing - with oneself, with other artists, and with one's characters - is part of the novelist's job, and it's not the easy part.  Somerset Maugham couldn't do it for Paul Gauguin (nor likely for himself), which is why Maugham depicts a Gauguin-like character, Charles Strickland, as being without compassion (discussed here).

But Vargas Llosa's way of always doing the hard part - and doing it well - is why I admire him so intensely.  Even his lesser works (and This Way to Paradise isn't his masterpiece) deepen and enrich my experience of life and art. 

I've never before entered a blockbuster art exhibit clutching a novel.  After This Way to Paradise, I'm not sure I'll be able to enjoy future shows as fully without one.

(Image of "Manao tupapau" from Shafe; of "Nevermore" from Tate; and of Charles Spitz' photograph from Cultor College

Making the audience work

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Throughout time, authors have found ways of challenging their audience, as if the egotism of authorship had caused writers to feel that the price paid for their books was insufficient to earn the entertainment gleaned from their pages.  

Laurence Sterne, for example, intersperses the text of Tristram Shandy with blank pages.  Samuel Beckett's Watt drags on interminably with redundant sentences.  Most people die without getting through all (or even any) of the volumes of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Time Past.

But no author, I believe, has ever posed a greater challenge to the reader than René Descartes.  I do not refer to his extremely long sentences with extended use of subordinate clauses.  I am talking about his demand, in Discourse 5 of Discourse on the Method of Properly Conducting One's Reason and of Seeking the Truth in the Sciences, that readers do the following prior to perusing his description of the circulation of blood:

I would like those who are not versed in anatomy to take the trouble, before reading [further], to have cut open in front of them the heart of some large animal which has lungs, because it is, in all of them, similar enough to that of man, and to be shown its two ventricles or cavities.
(p. 66.)

The only other creator, in my awareness, who requires his audience to sacrifice animals in conjunction with the partaking of his words is God.

Then again, the man who wrote, "I have hardly ever encountered any critic of my opinions who did not seem either less exacting or less equitable than myself," has never, to my knowledge, been accused of modesty.   

(Image of dissected cow heart from University of Utah site)
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