Monday, November 26, 2018


This was the kind of light within which I could recast myself; I could lose my way in this light; I already sensed in the light the shadows of an existence I had yet to know and embrace. I sat at the table, turning the pages, my mind barely aware that I was reading, and my whole life was changing

--Orhan Pamuk
Of course as a writer I want the same thing any good reader wants: enchantment, bedazzlement, the annihilation of self within the powerful vision of the writer. But I'm always looking past the writer's glittering vision to seek out the machinery, the scaffolding and struts and miles of cabling that hold the whole together, often despite itself. Missing the forest for the trees is part of the job description, unfortunately, for novelists are called to grow our own forests and have, therefore, to shape and paint and position each individual tree. The luxury of enchantment with my own work belongs by and large to someone else, though I do long for it.

I have found two basic ways to approach the craft. The first is to work with the materials, to assemble and reassemble events/themes/characters/settings, to push and pull with what I have invented/discovered and to see what more I can add to it, looking for shapes to emerge and then reinforcing those shapes, hoping for surprising combinations of materials, looking and looking and looking for the novel within the gathered elements and the process. The other way is to ignore the usual components of a novel and first imagine a form, a network of symbols or themes or a long narrative shape of a particular type, and then work and work and work to fill that form up with the appropriate details in the appropriate order, carving and sanding away anything that detracts from the intended form until I hold in my hands a novel that matches as precisely as possible what I have imagined, with nothing to either draw the reader's attention away from my formal aims or to obscure the theme I'm attempting to illustrate. This latter method is the way of Flaubert, and Nabokov (though Nabokov's aims can be obscure to me, making reading his novels equivalent to solving a puzzle or passing a difficult exam while the proctor teases and hectors me). There also hybrid methods, including where one works with one's materials in a flux to see what will fall out, hoping to find a familiar shape among the surprises but having more-or-less of a form or a story in mind as one improvises away within the flux.

None of these methods is particularly easy, though I can imagine novice or naive writers using a template, a fill-in-the-blanks model of a novel where the author is called upon to supply only new surface details (setting, character names and appearances) while retelling a familiar story. There is actually software that lets a novelist choose from a list of "story types" and then--following a twelve-or-twenty step process--flesh out the plot points or fill in the empty character description boxes until, voilĂ , a finished novel fills the screen. Most novels fall into this written-to-a-template category (with or without the software), and most readers of novels hope for this sort of book because they are full of familiar flavors and easy on the digestion, though generally lacking in nutrients. Sweet or savory as they may be, even those novels that are immensely popular in their day pass from our awareness quickly enough. Few of these sorts of books last.

What does seem to last is the novel that is not written to the category of most novels. I am thinking just now of Middlemarch, which is a book without a clear-cut and predictable story structure and without a clear authorial opinion of its protagonist. Or one can think of Shakespeare's refusal (in his best works) to pass a moral judgment upon his Lears and his Hamlets, his Prosperos and his Juliets. We see how the plot turns out for these characters, but are the punishments and rewards deserved, meted out by the author as he would if he could give justice to these people in real life? Does he act as a proxy for the audience? Or are the plot machinations instead part of the grand symbolic design, ambiguous because Shakespeare did not presume to know God's opinion, or possibly even his own? I recently read somewhere that "tragedy" belongs exclusively to the ancient Greeks, because only they believed that divine forces were inexorably at play in the lives of tragic heroes, and we moderns (and even early moderns like Shakespeare) believe in causality but not fate, and for real tragedy, tragic fate is required. Hubris and mistakes are not fate, and that is what Shakespeare's tragedies are filled with. But Shakespeare's plays last, ambiguous as they are, spawning multiple interpretations with every passing generation of theater-goers and novelists. Shakespeare's plays last because they resist both interpretation and easy categorization; they are inexhaustible works of art, a well that never runs dry.

It is the same with novels. What does Don Quixote mean? or Moby-Dick? or Middlemarch? or Light in August? All of these books (and all of the best books) defy the reader and reward multiple readings because they are not what you expect. A good book is never what you thought it would be, even a good book you've read once (or twice or thrice) before.

My theory for why this is can only be based on my own experience as a novelist. I have only had one novel published (my poor little Astrologer), but I have written ten of them, and despite my sparse publication history I am going to go ahead and admit that I think pretty highly of, say, the last five novels I've written. I believe, on good days, that I know what I'm doing. And one thing I'm doing is following my instincts when I write. I do not necessarily mean any sort of writerly/artistic instincts, though I believe that with familiarity of craft comes an instinctual (or, I guess, habitual but swift) grasp of the writer's tools and one knows without thinking about it how to structure a scene or write dialogue or sketch a setting. No, what I mean by following my instincts is that I follow my instincts as a human being, writing down what seems right, what seems to fit, without analyzing how what I'm writing fits into some larger ideas of theme or morality I might think I'm pursuing. If I imagine a detail or a character or a symbol and I feel that it should go in the book even if I don't know why it should go into the book, in it goes. This means that there are always elements of my novels that I--the author of the novels--do not understand, have not interpreted, and often cannot interpret. So my conjecture is that the best novelists (well, maybe not all of them) create work that is in some ways impenetrable to even them, work that contains surprises even for them, work that even they do not fully understand. This instinctive, irrational element is a vital part of what gives the work its staying power. The eighteenth-century German literary critics dismissed Shakespeare because his plays lacked, in their eyes, a necessary unity. Tolstoy shared this opinion a century later, sputtering and baffled that people would watch this preposterous stuff. All of these critics missed the point: the disunity of the works, the failure of Shakespeare to fit into the mold of a considered aesthetic movement with definite aims and well-balanced methods, works to strengthen the hold the plays take on the imagination of the viewer. We do not understand life, it is preposterous, irrational, unpredictable and beautiful all at once, and Shakespeare (as do the best poets and novelists) gives us all of this, instead of giving us merely what we think we want.

I do not number myself among "the best poets and novelists," but I do think I'm onto something with this idea, and I believe my own best work strives in this direction despite all the advice I've received from the world of publishing.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

November is German literature month

Yes, November is German literature month. What do I plan to read? I am already reading a book that qualifies: Volume I of Alexander Thayer's Life of Beethoven (first published in German in 1866). I will either still be reading that at the end of November, or I'll have moved on to Volume II. Thayer's book remains the standard biography of Ludwig van Beethoven, and has been updated by various editors over the last century and a half. Quite a fine book.

I also plan to read Erich Kastner's novel-for-kids Emil und die Detektive, of which I've owned a copy for about a year now, a copy that sits right above my desk, visible as I type this post. It's supposed to be entertaining, and I believe I can read it without much resort to my Langenscheidt. Depending on how that reading goes, I will take a run at In Einem Anderen Land, which is the German version of A Farewell To Arms, my favorite Hemingway novel. I will have my pocket Langenscheidt with me for that one, probably. I may also read some more German poetry if I stumble upon any.

I do not anticipate blogging about the Thayer biography, but I might post about the Kastner or the Hemingway. If I do, I will likely attempt to post in German, which guarantees a zero readership for those posts. I wonder what the Russian blogbots will do with that. I get a lot of hits from Russia, mostly for the same old post about watching Agatha Christie mysteries on Netflix. Go figure. What that says about modern Russia, I don't know.