Monday, March 25, 2019

we think of the boy Laptev

I'd forgotten that just after the first story ("The Darling") in the 13-volume collection of Constance Garnett's translations of Chekhov, the editors inserted an article by Tolstoy about that story, in which the Count blunders and blusters and praises the tale while simultaneously insulting Chekhov. How very very Tolstoy, I thought, amused. How well he misses the mark. I'm pleased to be reading Chekhov again. I can't explain how comforting I find his works, no matter how unhappy his characters. The editors have followed Tolstoy's critical article with "Ariadne," which serves as a subtle argument against the criticism. What fun it must be to play these games.

When I picked up this volume yesterday afternoon and flipped through the pages to remind myself which stories were in it, I was surprised to discover that someone had marked up the final 150 or so pages, underlining passages and inserting marginalia. All of it written in my own hand, too.

I have no memory of it, but apparently when I was starting work on Antosha! I went through the story "Three Years" and made an analysis of it, working out the themes, character development, and plot movement. There's some kind of annotation on nearly every page of the story.

When, sometime last year, I opened my copy of "The Tempest," I was similarly surprised to discover that I'd filled the margins of that play with notes as well. At least I remember having done that, while I was writing a long story based very loosely on Shakespeare's work. Don't remind me that I've promised myself more than once that I was never going to base anything ever again on Shakespeare. I have Shakespeare in my blood and bones; I can't get away from him. I do not have any photos of the marked-up "Tempest."

I try not to underline or add commentary to works of fiction, because Mighty Reader finds it distracting and possibly sacrilegious. Nonfiction, on the other hand, is a different story. I tend to read nonfiction with pen in hand, quite deliberately. The funny thing (at least I find it funny) is that many of the notes I find on the flyleaves of nonfiction books have to do with possible novels I could write, ideas inspired by the factual texts. I'm not, apparently, really trying to learn anything so much as I'm trying to get away with things. To pervert and corrupt and raise mere fact up to the holy level of fiction, to make dirty old reality into something useful and good, like art.

Even the nonfiction I'm reading now (Pound's essays about poetry and Rosen's book about Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven) serve, in some ways, as fodder for the story mill. It's endless, is what it is. This is not a complaint by any means. The Pound and the Rosen are excellent as what they are, too. Don't mistake my meaning there.

Friday, March 22, 2019

places I don't remember

Eventually, I think, most novelists try their hand at being Proust. I'm reading Friend of My Youth by Amit Chaudhuri, which I picked up because the cover copy said it was a novel about the terrorist bombings in Bombay during November 2008, and I wanted to read something that was better written than Karan Mahajan's Association of Small Bombs, which is about a different but similar series of terror attacks in India. I have no idea why Mahajan's novel won all those awards. But I digress, for I was talking about novelists using the excavation techniques of Proustian memory.

Chaudhuri's narrator travels to Bombay, city of his youth, and experiences the usual dislocation one feels when visiting a place once well known but now changed. Things that don't belong have sprung into being, upsetting memories, and things remembered no longer exist in the real world. People have changed, or they have not while we have. The world no longer matches our mental map of it. In the section I just read, the narrator is looking up at the face of an apartment building he used to live in when he was in high school. Looking up, he notes, is different from looking down. Looking down from a height, you see everything as your vision spreads to the horizons. Looking up, you see the thing before you, and surrounding it mostly empty space. The narrator prefers looking up, excluding the wider world, isolating himself with an object. I prefer looking down and seeing everything. Chaudhuri is alone and bored in Bombay, complaining about a situation of his own making. He has few connections to Bombay, by choice. What connections he does have are awkward and artificial. Landmarks of his youth were destroyed by terrorists while he was away at Oxford, many of them now rebuilt. He senses the difference, but the destroyed places were no more part of him than the reconstructed or still-missing places are. The city is intimately familiar yet unimportant and foreign.

I think about my own past addresses, a long string of them running backward in time, all the way to my original address: my mother's womb, in which I was conceived in late 1961, possibly on Christmas night or at least I am fond of telling myself that. In December 1961 Kennedy had just visited Venezuela. Earlier that year Adolf Eichmann had been convicted in Israel. The Beach Boys' first single was out. The first American was killed in action as the Viet Nam war heated up. Charles de Gaulle announced that the French army would leave Algeria. Some things do not change. This paragraph is less Proust than it is Tristram Shandy.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Homer off the rails

It was not until I had finished reading Colson Whitehead's 2016 novel The Underground Railroad that I realized what he was doing with the conceit of having the railroad be not just a metaphor but an actual physical locomotive on iron tracks running through a system of tunnels from the slave states to the north. There seemed, as I read the book, to be no greater point to the literal underground railroad than Whitehead simply wanting to run with the image. After all, the train could well be removed from the bulk of the narrative with no loss to the story (although it is a pretty cool idea). But then I got to the last chapter and I saw how the long dark tunnel was essential to the ending of the book, an important structural element that makes Cora's emergence into the light possible. Sure, she comes up in a different part of the same old America, but this is still the transformational journey of the hero(ine) and Cora walks anew into her future after having passed through a mythical underworld. So yes, that all made sense in retrospect. The Underground Railroad is a pretty fine novel. I almost didn't read it, but I'm glad that I did.

I might write about the Homer character and wonder about unconscious parallels between him and Whitehead. After all, The Underground Railroad is a mythological text with heroes and monsters and a journey. What is Whitehead willingly chaining himself to as he writes all of this down? Or perhaps Homer is a foil character to the narrator? I'm not sure but that's a possibility. The idea of Homer being linked to the narrator/author just hit me while I was typing the first paragraph of this wee essay, so I haven't sorted anything out yet. But any time a novelist puts a writer character into a novel, a reader would do well to pay attention.

Friday, March 15, 2019

arts and crafts

I've been working away at revisions to a big novel, making slow but more or less steady progress. I worry about how long this book will be at the end of the revisions. The initial draft was already about 100,000 words, and it's only getting longer as I beaver away, filling in what turns out to be a lot of sketchy writing. I must've been in a real hurry to write the final section, and fleshing out those somewhat skeletal chapters is going to add a lot of bulk. It's going to be a big old book when I'm done. Which is fine, but unexpected. My writing has always been pretty lean, and I try to compress ideas and action into few words. I am tempted to blame Melville, whose book on whaling is an influence over the novel I'm revising. I take my time, I feel free to be expansive, I digress if it suits me. I'm in no hurry.

I'm also interested in the writing process more now than I have been in several years. Part of me is watching me as I work, observing the changes I make in the manuscript, wondering about the decisions I make moment to moment. I am aware, maybe, of my technique having improved, or clarified in some way. My craftsman's eye, if indeed I actually have one, sees the page in a new way and I find myself acting with more direction, by which possibly I mean that I can see the function of details more vividly than I used to do, feel more in control of every word and punctuation mark, whereas before I've sort of been following a kind of flow, repainting drafts until they matched my aesthetic measures without necessarily understanding the miniature spinning gears and springs and levers of how the aesthetic was supported by the prose itself. None of this happened in anything like an epiphanic moment. I just, I tell myself, see that I see things in a different way and feel a more direct contact with the work.

Possibly what has made me aware of this new awareness (if, indeed, this "new awareness" exists at all) is the work I'm doing relearning some basic techniques on the violin. I've played the violin for a long time, but I was not particularly well taught in my formative years, and though I've continued to play more difficult and interesting repertoire, it's been despite ill-formed technique and bad playing posture. Since last autumn I've been working with a talented player to rebuild my foundational skills so that I can not only play harder works but also not injure myself (a real risk when you engage in repetitive activities, especially when you're repeating strenuous and ergonomically awkward actions). For some weeks I was concentrating on the basic motions of putting a fingertip down on the string and playing a single note, making sure I kept my left hand in the new basic shape my teacher and I have decided to adopt. We'd already spent a month convincing my right hand to abandon a Franco-Belgian bow hold and adopt something more like a Russian hold, which is working out well. Blah blah blah, all these details. The point is, these days when I play the violin, if I look at my left hand, for a moment I'm startled because I don't recognize it; it's as if some other person is playing my violin, so altered is the basic way I'm holding the instrument. It is an interesting moment and I am aware of the technical aspects of what my hand is doing, seeing it as the machine that it is, able to notice not only when something is not working as it should but also knowing why it isn't working.