Recently in The well-told story Category

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Great artists are so frequently assholes that I have learned to compartmentalize. Ok, so Lord Byron was loathsome in his relations with women; doesn't stop me from admiring his work unstintingly.

Whether such compartmentalization is difficult to maintain or distasteful - probably a bit of both - it's not a popular approach.  People prefer judgments.  There's a pleasing equanimity in being able to say, for example, that because Picasso hated women, Cubism amounted to a visual violence against women - cutting up the planes of their faces and bodies and rearranging them - and that our assessment of Picasso's achievement should be accordingly tempered.  In a world where bad produces bad, we find stability.

Such a world is not the one in which we find ourselves. 

As a result, many people require a certain amount of creative narrative to rationalize situations in which bad produces good.  Maurice Malingue is one such person.

Malingue was the editor of Paul Gaugin's letters to Mette Gad, his wife, and others.  Working in the middle of the last century, Malingue attempted to reconcile aspects of Gauguin's life that were in some tension: on the one hand, he was a genius painter; on the other hand, he was an asshole. 

The facts supporting Paul Gaugin's categorization as an "asshole" are as follows:  After fathering five children, he quit his job, lived apart from his family and contributed little to his family's support or upkeep.  He was openly unfaithful to his wife.  He did not return home either when his favorite daughter, Aline, or his favorite son, Clovis, died, both in their early twenties.  That Gauguin had syphilis, apparently of the variety that leads to madness, is something of a mitigating factor, though he seems to have contracted it after he set himself on the path of abandoning his family.

What Malingue made of these facts is laugh-out-loud funny to today's reader, who is at least 150 years too removed from the Romantics to be reflexively sympathetic to Gauguin's choices.  Malingue has no such scruples.  With a zeal unknown to generation acclimated to a divorce rate of roughly 50%, Malingue - in the Preface to Letters to his Wife and Friends - attacks Gauguin's wife, Mette Gad, and condemns her for expecting Gauguin to support his family:

[Gauguin's] letters constitute the most . . . overwhelming indictments in the trial of Mette Gauguin, who can now be charged with incomprehension of the artist, indifference towards the man, and with having as a wife failed the father of her five children.
. . . .
Mette, in contrast with wives of innumerable artists, found it difficult to contemplate poverty for herself and her children.
. . . .
It is probable that Mette, the daughter of an official, brought up with some degree of mental freedom but in the observance of somewhat rigid moral principles, never could understand how a father of five children could throw up a comfortable position without bothering what was to become of his family. 
Of Gauguin's abandonment of his children, Malingue remarks:

[Gauguin] is a father who suffered keenly in living apart from his children.  Obviously, he could have had them with him if he wanted to.  He renounced his paternal duties deliberately, because constrained to do so by the demands of his art.  The presence of his children would have imposed on him paternal obligations.
As for Gauguin's infidelity, Malingue takes a (dare I suggest typically French?) brazen line:

[Gauguin] plunged into casual amours at Pont-Aven, set up house in Paris with a Javanese, and in Tahiti bedevilled hussies invaded his bed every night.
These "bedevilled hussies" were 14 year-old girls who Gauguin took as his live-in companions.  (In Mario Vargas Llosa's telling - in This Way to Paradise - far from finding his bed "invaded" every night, the aging, broke and syphilitic Gauguin, whose legs were covered with sores, and who lacked money necessary to feed even himself, struggled to find girls willing to live with him.)

Of course, Malingue is full of shit.  Mette might not have been a creative woman, but she was in no way wrong (or even "rigid" in her morals) to expect financial support from her husband and the father of her many children.  Caring for five children might be inconvenient for Paul Gauguin, but the existence of children - not their presence or absence - imposes parental obligations; abandoning one's children geographically does not absolve a parent of responsibilities, however much one's time needs to be devoted to art.  As for adulterous husbands, at a minimum one can demand that they be discrete and steer clear of minors.

In fairness to Malingue, he lived in a different era, when he was not alone in being relatively receptive to justifying the bad acts of a genius, done in the name of his art.  All the same, Malingue's thinking - in any age - is slavish and lazy, the automatic "yes" of a dazzled fan.

Today, the trend is towards the opposite error, of dismissing Gauguin's mastery because he was an adulterous pedophile and a deadbeat dad.  But such reasoning would be equally slavish (to PC standards) and lazy.

We live in a world in which good can come from bad.  In which - Malingue is almost certainly right - Gauguin could desperately miss his children, and yet do nothing to be with them or help them.  In which Gauguin's actions can be wrong and sick, and still the general public is much the better for them.

The accurate narrative is the critical and rigorous one, the one that describes the world in its ambiguity, and that captures and conjures what beauty there is in such a world as ours.  It's not an easy narrative to tell or to absorb, not a narrative that likely to gain popular currency.  And yet it's the narrative in Gauguin's painting; it's the reason, in fact, that Gauguin is great.

(Image of Paul Gauguin's Self-portrait with the Yellow Christ from the National Gallery of Australia website)

With failure like this, who needs success?

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My last post constituted a kind of footnote to my penultimate post, and now I have to confess something embarrassing about footnotes: I've never written just one.  They always seem to proliferate on me.

So here's another footnote to that penultimate post, in which I casually referred to E.M. Forster's A Room with a View as, variously, "uneven" and "at times . . . implausible."  I hadn't included any evidence supporting those judgments in the post and, though I think the judgments are warranted, I also think that, without elaboration, they're unfair.  So I elaborate.

My concerns rest on two scenes.  Both involve conversational confrontations that lead to personal transformations.  Both seem to reflect, not human behavior as lived and observed, but characters' behavior as imagined by an optimistic author determined to craft salvation for his creations, whether deserving or no.

In the first scene, Lucy Honeychurch tells Cecil Vyse, her fiancé, that she won't marry him.  As her reason, she proffers that he's "the sort who can't know any one intimately."  She condemns him for "always protecting" her and not "let[ting] me be myself."  She calls him "conventional" because he "may understand beautiful things," but he doesn't "know how to use them."  (p. 201.)

Cecil, up until this point, has been controlling, condescending and conniving about getting his way.  He seems well-defended against any reality that shows his asshole personality.  Nor does his asshole personality seem to encompass being a good sport about rejection.  Nonetheless, wholly outside of his character, he replies:

It is true.
. . . .
True, every word.  It is a revelation.  It is - I.
. . . .
He repeated: "'The sort that can know no one intimately.'  It is true.  I fell to pieces the very first day we were engaged.  I behaved like a cad to Beebe and to your brother.  You are even greater than I thought."
(p. 202.)  Then, with dignity and grace, and without much further ado, he departs.

Now I have, in my day, broken up with one or two men.  I've also taken other men to task for asshole behavior, actions which - in a more or less direct way - led to them breaking up with me.  And based on these experiences, I find Cecil's response so implausible that I'm tempted to hazard that E.M. Forster has never witnessed - or received an accurate second-hand account of - an actual break-up between a male and a female.

This scene is a contrivance.  Resulting not from organic interaction between the characters, but from authorial sentimentality for Cecil and a need to advance the plot and deepen Lucy's character development, the scene is a gentle redemption of Cecil that paves the way for Lucy's redemption two chapters on.  Unsurprisingly, Lucy's redemption is the second scene with which I take issue.

In this second engineered exchange, George Emerson's father talks Lucy into marrying George.  His technique is a bit brutal by Edwardian standards.  He "mean[s] to shock" Lucy with references to the carnal: "I only wish poets would say this, too: love is of the body; not the body, but of the body. . . . Ah! for a little directness to liberate the soul!"  And he warns Lucy that, "It isn't possible to love and to part. . . . You can transmute love, ignore it, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you.  I know by experience that the poets are right: love is eternal."  (p. 237.)  He urges her, "When I think what life is, and how seldom love is answered by love - Marry him; it is one of the moments for which the world was made."  (p. 238.)

This entreaty frightens Lucy, but it also revolutionizes her.  Despite her commitment to travel to Greece, despite having spent her mother's money on travel arrangements, despite being revealed as untrustworthy and unreliable to her family and Mr. Beebe, despite her ordinariness, prudishness and inexperience, she will now radically alter her life's course and marry George.  Mr. Emerson's speech had "robbed the body of its taint, the world's taunts of their sting; he had shown her the holiness of direct desire."  (p. 240.)

Without getting too graphic, I'll assert that I think I know a thing or two about the holiness of direct desire, and I've never experienced it in conversation with a lover-to-be's father.  I won't go so far as to say that my experience is definitive, but I feel myself on comfortable ground calling this scene, as I did previously, a deus ex machina.  It's a wondrous machine for transporting sheltered little Lucy into the wide-open world of adult love . . . but none of us have ever traveled in such a machine because it doesn't exist.  What does exist - and what constitutes the conduit from innocence to sexual maturity that most (if not all) of us traverse - is a poorly-lit path, pitted with potholes and lined with muggers and thieves.

This reliance on artifice and contrivance, rather than the grit of reality, may be one reason why Forster is so often demoted from the top ranks of novelists:  "There's something middling about Forster," writes Zadie Smith in The New York Review of Books, "he is halfway to where people want him to be."

And yet, despite my own objections to Forster's rude artifice, despite my sense that it adds "uneven" and "implausible" elements to his work, I don't think these flaws make Forster "middling."  Shakespeare, too, is uneven (Henry VIII anyone?) and implausible elements abound in his works (A Winter's Tale, hello?); still, Shakespeare is tops, and anyone who disagrees is a "three-inch fool."

Forster reached for artifice (I'm guessing) for the best reasons: he was imagining a world that didn't exist.  He was giving us a nudge to head for the horizon and, if his vision of what lay beyond didn't accord with what was actually there, it doesn't make him less of a visionary.  As Zadie Smith notes about Forster's literary criticism, he had an uncanny ability to be "right" about his contemporaries, to make judgments with which later generations agree - to see accurately in the midst of the thicket. 

Forster, I think, had the same gift of insight about human behavior.  What he seems to have lacked in A Room with a View was the ability to imagine the alternatives that humans eventually adopted, as well as the literary and narrative capacities to allow his characters to lead him where he wouldn't have otherwise have gone.  Still, a truly middling novelist is unlikely to have failed as graciously, and as entertainingly thought-provokingly, as Forster.     
 
(Image of E.M. Forster from BBC)

This celluloid doesn't lie

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To my surprise, I found Peter Bogdanovich's film adaptation of Henry James' Daisy Miller an excellent augment to the novella.

The faithfulness of the adaptation is commendable and shows both Bogdanovich's confidence and his understanding of the story.  (The vast majority of the dialogue, for example, seems to have been transposed directly from James.)  As a result, the movie highlighted shades in the book that I'd perceived, but which I'd questioned out of concern that I was missing something, or that I was too ignorant of the historic period and Victorian writing generally to interpret them correctly.

For instance, based on the text, I didn't find Daisy sympathetic.  In fact, I thought her annoying, and Frederick Winterbourne's enduring infatuation with her struck me as difficult to fathom.  I was curious to see how the movie would handle Daisy's characterization, since an unsympathetic female protagonist is a hard sell in Hollywood.  (And, indeed, the critics seemed not to buy it, although they tended [unfairly in my view] to blame Cybill Shepherd.)  But Daisy was every bit as tiresome on the page as she is in the movie.

Reflecting on the film, I think part of the problem is that immature females can quite easily be intrinsically annoying and tiresome.  In my own writing, depicting women moving from states of relative immaturity to relative maturation, I've found myself becoming fed up with my own creations (my fault as the author - I own it - but a fault easily indulged given the reality).

But I also think Henry James missed an opportunity.  His Daisy Miller bears more than passing resemblance to Marianne Dashwood in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.  Like Daisy, Marianne is also impulsive and emotional; she also cultivates an unwise attachment to an unsuitable man; and Marianne also suffers illness as the fallout of the relationship. 

But unlike Daisy, Marianne has depths that she reveals in the text.  Marianne is passionate, hard-working and unspoiled.  I got the impression that James expected us to like Daisy because she is beautiful and American, but those qualities are too superficial to inspire the reader's empathy.  (In this respect, Bogdanovich added a lovely touch when he had Daisy sing for Frederick, an episode that doesn't appear in the book, but which allows us to see Daisy's talent, as well as her beauty.)

And, unlike Daisy, Marianne doesn't die.  She marries a mature man, making a sensible choice that assures her a future both less romantic and more complicated than any situation in James' story.  Indeed, by comparison to Marianne's fate, Daisy's death looks mawkish and sentimental - another cheap, easy way of pushing the audience's sympathy buttons.

Bogdanovich handles the ending extremely well and, with Barry Brown's exceptional performance, manages to wring genuine regret from Daisy's death.  All the same, if the film seems like an over-expenditure on a slight tale, the cause seems to lie (and I say this with apologies to the Master) in the source material. 

(Image of Cybill Shepherd and Barry Brown in Peter Bogdanovich's film version of Daisy Miller from BAM)

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)

The East African Novel

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Quick: what play involves an incestuous uncle, a sword fight to avenge the honor of a family member, a poisoned goblet of wine drunk by an unintended victim, and a pile of corpses at the play's close?  (If you said, Hamlet, that's a correct answer, but not the play about which I was thinking.)  I'm referring to Thomas Middleton's Women Beware Women, a kind of Jacobean Desperate Housewives, absent the suburbs, and plus verse. 

Women Beware Women and Hamlet, side-by-side, illustrate how playwrights of the late-Elizabethan, early-Jacobean era manipulated certain standardized or formulaic set pieces in order to craft their stories.  The fluency, eloquence and sophistication with which they maneuvered these story components, as contrasted with their originality in devising new components for the story, constituted their skill.  (Hence, Shakespeare borrowed plots from other sources, rather than making up his own.)  This mode of story telling is, in fact, quite ancient: Walter Ong describes how oral poets of Homer's time composed epic poems using "standardized formulas . . . grouped around equally standardized themes, such as the council, the gathering of the army, the challenge, the despoiling of the vanquished, the hero's shield, and so on and on."  (Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, p. 23.)

So I felt an odd delight when I realized that, quite unconsciously, I'd been working in the same tradition on my latest novel, The Celebration Husband, which takes place in East Africa during the first three months of World War I.  Upon hearing that I'd written this novel, a friend gave me his seriously tattered-jacketed copy of Bartle Bull's Africa adventure, The White Rhino Hotel.

Reading The White Rhino Hotel, I felt an intriguing sense of recognition.  The novel contained many familiar scenarios, as if Bartle Bull and I had attended the same writing seminar and had both completed the assignment to "write a scene in the following circumstance: East Africa, nineteen-teens, go."

My novel contains: (a) a lion attack, (b) people captivated by the sight of wildlife, (c) crossing Kenya on a train, (d) riding around Kenya on a motorcycle, (e) farmers bemoaning the punishing conditions from which they are attempting to coax agricultural produce, (f) Masai and Kikuyu warriors in oppositional confrontation, (g) descriptions of bush cooking, (h) references to hunting safaris, (i) invocation of the classics, (j) a woman facing down a potential rapist, (k) a close friendship between a smart black African and a naive white colonist, and (l) arcane explanations and depictions of equipment and weaponry.

Every one of those elements appears in The White Rhino Hotel

I can think of a number of reasons for this overlap.  Bull and I might have read the same authors and texts in our research (e.g., Lord Cranworth, Elspeth Huxley, Karen Blixen, Beryl Markham are all fairly ubiquitous as sources on East Africa in the early twentieth century).  Also, these elements all correlate to regularly-occurring events in the reality of East African life between 1914 and 1921 (when The White Rhino Hotel ends), which is why they might crop up repeatedly in the relevant historical texts or stories handed down over the generations.

In short, these elements have become standard set pieces, the lion attack analogous to the Elizabethan / Jacobean sword fight.  They are (what in copyright law is referred to as) mise-en-scene: essential or stock elements of a particular genre.  See, e.g., Universal City Studios v. T-shirt Gallery, Ltd., 634 F. Supp. 1468, 1474 n.5 (S.D.N.Y. 1986).

I hadn't seen my writing from this perspective before, and - although to our novelty-centric culture, the prospect might be threatening or induce a sense of competitiveness - I found unexpectedly comforting aspects in it.  In contradistinction to the isolated novelist in a cottage in Naivasha, which I was for the duration in which I wrote The Celebration Husband, I felt myself in a tradition of storytellers captivated by East Africa in the early twentieth century, all of us sorting and reordering standardized story components of The East African Novel in our individual attempts to ignite the magic of suspension of disbelief.

In a surprising way, it felt good.

(Image of Bartle Bull and the cover of his novel, The White Rhino Hotel, from The New York Times and Fantasticfiction.co.uk respectively)

Breaking the dove's wings

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Wings_of_the_Dove.jpgTaking a delightful dig at a certain type of imaginatively-constrained reader or critic, Henry James included the following passage at the opening of The Turn of the Screw:

"Who was it she was in love with?"
"The story will tell," I took upon myself to reply.
. . .
"The story WON'T tell," said Douglas; "not in any literal, vulgar way."
"More's the pity, then.  That's the only way I ever understand."
(pp. 3-4.)

Apparently, that's the only way Iain Softley thought his audience would understand his 1997 film adaptation of The Wings of the Dove.   And more's the pity.

The movie, not to put too fine a point on it, stinks.  Where Henry James drips the poisonous motivations into the plot, Softley floods the story with them.  Where James is indirect, Softley charges like a blundering drunk.  Where James refers to sex, Softley stages street corner couplings and full-frontal nudity.  To say that much is lost in the story's translation from novel to screen is an understatement.

I will not here deny that I had issues with the pacing of the novel, The Wings of the Dove.  The gambit to seduce Milly in order to inherit when she dies was apparent well before the characters speak unflinchingly of it.  But in the strategic creep of the deception, the reader - as much as the characters - acclimates to it, gets drawn in and is ultimately seduced by the plan.  In the film, however, rapidity causes shock and revulsion at the deception; the viewer recoils.  (Sample comments from my companion in watching the film, my mother: "That woman is evil"; "What a devious bitch.") 

Nor will I deny that a certain frustration attends to James' "blanks."  For example, Kate Croy's father's badness remains unspecified in the novel.  The reason everyone finds him despicable is simply not named, nor even hungered after: 

What was it, to speak plainly, that Mr. Croy had originally done?
"I don't know - and I don't want to . . . ." Kate explained.
(p. 75.)

I have written before of how James leaves these lacunae to be filled by the readers' imagination, but the film cannot tolerate such ambiguity, even at the expense of the viewer's engagement.  In the film, Kate Croy's father is an addict: mystery concluded.

As for the sex, I was frankly bowled over by the explicitness of James' reference to an act of lovemaking ("Come to me").  Nonetheless, James keeps the "who did what to whom" out of sight, so as to heighten its sensual power.  After Merton persuades Kate to make love with him before she departs with her aunt for London, Kate's presence is constant in his rooms in Venice, a goad and a talisman, proof of her love and a guarantee (to himself) of the justification of his actions.  In the film, on the other hand, the kissing, groping, entangling and disrobing is so cavalier that it can't signify anything.  It's mere prurience.

To proceed on the supposition that the film's approach to storytelling is the only way an audience will "understand" is a profound error and a terrible disservice.  Far from fostering understanding, this "literal, vulgar way" of telling a story undercuts comprehension.  Having slashed mercilessly at the progressive development of the novel's plot, the film of The Wings of the Dove descends into inscrutability.  (Why Kate takes off her clothes in the film's penultimate scene is an unanswerable question of a magnitude second only to why Merton follows suit.)   

More importantly, from the film, no one could possibly see why the novel, The Wings of the Dove, is great.  More's the pity indeed.     

(Image of Helena Bonham Carter and Alison Elliott playing Kate Croy and Milly Theale in the 1997 film production of The Wings of the Dove from Film Reference)
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