Thursday, May 31, 2012

Carson McCullers on the writing process

Here's Carson McCullers on how she writes:
The dimensions of a work of art are seldom realized by the author until the work is accomplished. It is like a flowering dream. Ideas grow, budding silently, and there are a thousand illuminations coming day by day as the work progresses. A seed grows in writing as in nature. The seed of the idea is developed by both labor and the unconscious, and the struggle that goes on between them.

I understand only particles. I understand the characters, but the novel itself is not in focus. The focus comes at random moments which no one can understand, least of all the author. For me, they usually follow great effort. To me, these illuminations are the grace of labor. All of my work has happened this way. It is at once the hazard and the beauty that a writer has to depend on such illuminations. After months of confusion and labor, when the idea has flowered, the collusion is Divine. It always comes from the subconscious and cannot be controlled.

That is a fine description of the creative process. There are some writers who are determined to have theme, plot, character, development all resolved before they even write the first word. I don't understand how to write like that. It's like people who plan their holidays in advance, day by day, hour by hour, so that every single moment of the vacation is spent in predictability. Some people do that, I know. I couldn't ever do it. And, in the same way, I wouldn't want to write a story if I knew even before it started how it was going to end.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The opening of The Doll's House by Katherine Mansfield

The opening of Katherine Mansfield's wonderful story, The Doll's House, is worthy of analysis. Here it is:

When dear old Mrs. Hay went back to town after staying with the Burnells she sent the children a doll's house. It was so big that the carter and Pat carried it into the courtyard, and there it stayed, propped up on two wooden boxes beside the feed-room door. No harm could come of it; it was summer. And perhaps the smell of paint would have gone off by the time it had to be taken in. For, really, the smell of paint coming from that doll's house ("Sweet of old Mrs. Hay, of course; most sweet and generous!") -- but the smell of paint was quite enough to make any one seriously ill, in Aunt Beryl's opinion. Even before the sacking was taken off. And when it was . . .

There stood the doll's house, a dark, oily, spinach green, picked out with bright yellow. Its two solid little chimneys, glued on to the roof, were painted red and white, and the door, gleaming with yellow varnish, was like a little slab of toffee. Four windows, real windows, were divided into panes by a broad streak of green. There was actually a tiny porch, too, painted yellow, with big lumps of congealed paint hanging along the edge.

But perfect, perfect little house! Who could possibly mind the smell? It was part of the joy, part of the newness.

"Open it quickly, some one!"

The hook at the side was stuck fast. Pat pried it open with his pen- knife, and the whole house-front swung back, and -- there you were, gazing at one and the same moment into the drawing-room and dining-room, the kitchen and two bedrooms. That is the way for a house to open! Why don't all houses open like that? How much more exciting than peering through the slit of a door into a mean little hall with a hat-stand and two umbrellas! That is -- isn't it? -- what you long to know about a house when you put your hand on the knocker. Perhaps it is the way God opens houses at dead of night when He is taking a quiet turn with an angel. . . .

The point of view in the opening paragraph is interesting: it is omnisicent third person – an external narrator telling us the story. But it is also closely told from the point of view of Aunt Beryl. “Dear old Mrs Hay” and “Sweet of old Mrs Hay” could almost be her speaking. This is an example of the Uncle Charles Principle, where the voice becomes so linked to a specific character it begins to take on characteristics of that person. The fact that the opening is so closely linked to Aunt Beryl alerts the reader to the fact that she will be a key person in the story.

But then there is an ellipsis (…) which clearly separates this paragraph from the next one. And now the second and third paragraphs are more closely linked to the children. The doll’s house is described in loving detail. “Perfect little house! Who could possibly mind the smell?” This is a totally different POV from the first para. Compare the constant references to paint (and even glue and varnish) with the staid distaste for the smell in that opening paragraph. Could a greater distinction be made between these opposing viewpoints?

And then in paragraph five we have “there you are”, which has the effect of drawing the reader into the story. But which point of view are we drawn into? Aunt Beryl’s or the children’s? It is the children’s, of course, and in this way the reader becomes complicit in their excitement.

In the space of very few words, Mansfield has brilliantly established the tension in the story - the doll's house - and the source of conflict - Aunt Beryl. This opening is rich in description. There is strong characterisation of both Aunt Beryl and the – as yet unnamed but clearly excited – children. But there is clearly a distinction between the reactions of Aunt Beryl and the children, and it is clear that this is where the tension will develop in the story. It is also clear, from that fifth paragraph, where the reader's sympathies are expected to lie.

The economy is exemplary. A brilliant piece of writing.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Across The River And Into The Trees by Ernest Hemingway

The main body of Across the River and Into the Trees is told in flashback by the novel’s central character, Colonel Cantwell. Bookending these reminiscences is the unfolding of Cantwell’s final day before his death from a heart attack. The novel explores love, death and war, and in particular how one can ensure one’s participation in these three eternals is “good”. In Hemingway’s conception, this seems to boil down to an element of competence, which strikes me as a strangely mechanical approach to an evaluation of the strongest of emotions and the most fraught of situations. It makes for difficult reading: there is a dispassion to it that I find thoroughly offputting. Where, in other Hemingway novels, I can appreciate and even accept his particular worldview, in Across the River and Into the Trees I find the sentiments too remote, the thinking too insular. Where is the sense of community or connectedness in this novel?

Richard Cantwell is a retired American colonel returning to Venice in the 1950s after having been involved in its defence during the war. Here, he enjoys a tryst with his nineteen-year-old lover, the aristocratic Renata, and theirs is a passionate, intimate and emotional relationship. It is increasingly clear that we – and they – are coming to a closure, and the novel is imbued with a sense of the elegaic. It could be beautiful. Sadly, it isn’t.

Why? A number of reasons, I suppose. Principal among them is the character of Renata. She is not a real person. No woman like her ever existed. No nineteen-year-old ever swapped such sentiments with her fifty-something lover. Renata, her outlook, her thoughts, her speech, are more middle-aged and male than those of this middle-aged male critic. She is Cantwell duplicated. She is a construct, a blank canvas on which Hemingway has painted a wholly impossible impression of female romantic love. Hemingway doesn’t do women well, some say. Well, he certainly doesn’t do Renata well. She is a complete aberation.

Why else doesn’t it work? The repetitions. The repetitions. “Daughter.” “Tell me you love me.” “Did I tell you I love you?” “Good.” “Whatever that means.” “Don’t be rough.” Repeat the word pencil twenty times and it begins to sound ridiculous. In the same way, Hemingway’s tourette’s-like repetition of these phrases ultimately renders them meaningless.

What else? Narrative. It overstates the matter to suggest, as some critics have, that nothing happens in the novel. As Hemingway himself, rather truculently, observed: “all that happens is the defense of the lower Piave, the breakthrough in Normandy, the taking of Paris ...plus a man who loves a girl and dies.” But of these only the latter happens in real time; everything else is reported. This distances the reader, and it is difficult to see exactly what is gained by Hemingway’s technique in this novel. The central character is a bitter, angry man; the female lead is a two-dimensional cypher; at the very least, the novel needs some driving narrative to sustain interest, but that is never forthcoming.

Anything else? Yes. The glorification of competence. Everything is “good” or “right” or “well.” Everything must be satisfactory. Everything is judged in terms of competence and fitness and some value (but not values) driven sense of worth. It is a caricature of Hemingwayesque manliness. Even Renata has to be a man, to demonstrate her courage and her adaptability. "I want to be like you," she says to Cantwell at one point, completely missing the point that, to all intents and purposes, she already is him. There is a machismo about this reductive nonsense that becomes risible. It is impossible not to laugh at lines like: “ ‘Take a glass of this,’ the Colonel said, reaching accurately and well for the champagne bucket.” Accurately and well? To describe stretching for a bottle? Honestly, that would win the booby prize in a “write like Ernest Hemingway” competition. Or how about:

‘This is the best sausage. There are many other sausages, as you know. But this is the best.’

‘Then give me one-eighth of a kilo of a sausage that is highly fortifying, but is not highly seasoned.’

It is that "one-eighth of a kilo" that gives this exchange such unintended and unfortunate comic overtones. Monty Python do Ernest. Across the River and Into the Trees isn’t a bad book. It’s just not a good one. And, given Hemingway’s obsession with being “good”, there’s a bit of an irony in that, I suppose.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Slow Man by JM Coetzee

Reading Slow Man, one feels like a voyeuristic observer of another man’s existential breakdown. Further, I suspect this is JM Coetzee’s intention. Slow Man is an uncomfortable novel for a number of reasons.

The other day, I asked a group of learners to pick a character from one of their own stories and enter into a metafictional dialogue with them: ask them how they felt about the story, about the way they were treated in the story, what their ambitions and hopes were, how those were supported or frustrated by the progress of the story. I believe this is a good way for a writer to really delve into the characters he or she has created, to understand them, to make them real. I’ve done it myself, and my character has patiently and clearly explained to me what was wrong with my story and what needed to be done to remedy it. I see it as a wholly positive addition to the writing process.

Although Coetzee makes the same sort of authorial intervention into the lives of his characters in Slow Man, I am not convinced that his intention is equally positive. Coetzee has increasingly come to eschew the conventions of novelistic form and his later work appears to stand almost antipathetical towards them. And this certainly appears to be the subtext of Slow Man, in which Coetzee, in the form of Elizabeth Costello, a writer who also featured in Coetzee’s previous novel, becomes embroiled in the lives of the remaining characters. She is accused by Paul Rayment, the central character who has come to believe that she is using his life as material for her own novel, of treating people like puppets. “You make up stories and bully us into playing them out for you," he tells her. There is the uncomfortable sense of a novelist ill-at-ease with the novelistic process and questioning the nature of fiction itself as a mimetic means of understanding the wider concerns of real life.

The novel begins with a superb depiction of a late-middle-aged man, Rayment, being knocked off his bicycle in a traffic accident. The accident is so severe his leg must be amputated above the knee and Rayment, previously a fit and active individual, is suddenly thrust into a passive world of dependence and invalidity. He does not respond well. He becomes embittered and reluctant to take steps to help himself: he stubbornly refuses a prosthetic leg and does not get on with various nurses sent to help him. Then the agency send a new nurse, Marijana, a Croatian immigrant, to care for him and his life begins to change. Gradually, he falls in love with Marijana, building a wholly unrealistic vision of a future in which they can share. His intentions are honourable, so far as he or we can establish, but nonetheless they sound dubious. Marijana’s son, Drago, is in danger of getting into trouble and Rayment offers to pay for him to attend a private school. Not unnaturally, Marijana’s husband is deeply suspicious of his intentions. It is around now that Elizabeth Costello arrives, unexpected and unannounced, and imposes herself on Rayment’s existence. She is a mysterious individual: the reader, of course, knows her from Coetzee’s previous novel bearing her name, and is aware that she is a world-famous author with a philosophical bent. Rayment, however, is perplexed and increasingly irritated by her insistent presence. She arranges a blind date for him – literally so, the woman whom he meets is blind and he himself is temporarily blinded by a flour and water paste for the duration of their encounter. Elizabeth tries to advise him on how to deal with the fall-out of his offer to Marijana. She even moves into his flat for a period.

Through all of this, the novel becomes increasingly metafictional, and the author’s presence looms ever greater over it. It is a claustrophobic experience. Coetzee systematically dismantles the apparatus of the novel, laying bare the edifices on which it is built, the manipulations of character and event which writers impose on their work to give it coherence. It is a riveting read, multi-faceted and complex. It is almost a novel and a how-to guide to creative writing rolled into one. As I asked my learners to do with their characters, Coetzee/Costello interrogates Rayment: "You came to me, that is all I can say. You occurred to me, a man with a bad leg and no future and an unsuitable passion ... where we go from there I have no idea. Have you any proposal?" All the while denying that she is using him as the basis for a character in her novel, she quotes lines from earlier in this novel, thus reinforcing – for us, the readers, but not for him – the sense that he is indeed her construct. But she becomes frustrated with him. She goads him into doing something interesting, in order to provide the usual fodder of fictional entertainment, but he will not. The message seems to be that she has created a dud of a character. "In certain respects I am not in command of what comes to me," she says. "You came, along with the pallor and the stoop and the crutches and the flat that you hold on to so doggedly and the photographic collection and all the rest." But still he will not translate himself into a worthy character for her.

And this, of course, is part of the difficulty with the novel, because Paul Rayment, crotchety, self-obsessed, stubborn, is not a particularly endearing character. Nor is Elizabeth Costello, a prickly and insensitive woman. The remaining characters, meanwhile, the Croatian family, are not allowed to be rounded individuals. The overwhelming sense, then, is of a cast of characters deficient in terms of literary technique. That Coetzee has done this deliberately doesn’t alter the fact that it is so: the trouble with postmodern game-playing is that it becomes self-referential and, ultimately, self-defeating.

What is frustrating is that, until the metafictional narrative intrudes, Slow Man is an engrossing study of age and infirmity and the dangers and inevitability of losing one’s self-reliance. Rayment’s predicament is terrifying precisely because every one of us could be in the same position tomorrow. Every one of us will experience the slow unravelling of independence and it is a haunting prospect. The sense of vitality that Rayment projects onto Marijana through his hopelessly unrequited love for her is tender, moving, pathetic and frightening, all at once. It is beautifully written. But that sense of exploration of the human experience dissipates once Coetzee begins to question the very worth of what he is creating. His work is remarkable, and yet he feels the need to publicly question it in this way. However, the reader’s overriding passion is to understand the psyche of the character. The writer should not interfere in that. It may be his fiction, but it is not his story.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak has died. A brilliant writer and illustrator, he will have hooked millions of children on the joy of reading. That's a wonderful legacy to leave.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Clock Without Hands by Carson McCullers

Clock Without Hands is set in the early 1950s in a small town in Georgia and features four principal characters. JT Malone is a forty year old pharmacist diagnosed with leukaemia and given twelve to sixteen months to live. Judge Fox Clane is a redneck judge with diabetes who is lame following a stroke and lives a life of quiet melancholy, mourning his dead wife and son. His grandson, Jester is a young boy gradually becoming aware of racial prejudice and the tensions in his community. And Sherman Pew is a black boy hired by the Judge to act as his amanuensis and to give him his daily insulin injections. There is an undercurrent of homoerotic desire in Jester for Sherman, but Sherman is increasingly fuelled by indignation at the treatment of blacks in the racist society in which they live. Jester’s father, the judge’s son, committed suicide many years before in circumstances we discover, later, which link him tragically to Sherman. Sherman’s father, we find out late in the novel, was hanged for a crime he probably didn’t commit. This is a novel, then, with a lot of backstory. The narrative meanders along for 180 or so pages before exploding – literally so, with a firebombed house – into life near its conclusion. Even now, though, there are no histrionics. Carson McCullers doesn’t do melodrama: she doesn’t need to.

This, McCullers’s last novel, is certainly the least of hers that I’ve read to date. That isn’t to say it is bad, but it is not a great work, like The Member of the Wedding or The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The McCullers trademarks are here: loneliness, disconnection, a skewed, black humour. But something is missing. There isn’t quite the heart that is in those earlier novels, the beautiful beating promise of human potential. I’m wary of saying there are no characters here who grab our sympathy the way that Frankie or Mick do, because it’s not that: I consistently argue against criticism of novels on the basis that characters should be likeable. And yet I found myself waiting for and wanting a Frankie to enter the narrative, somebody to anchor it in human emotion. Perhaps it is a sense of hope that is missing here. JT Malone, the nearest character to the central Frankie/Mick role in Clock Without Hands, is too passive. Jester, who could fulfil the role, is not well enough drawn. Sherman, who might have fitted the bill best of all, finally falls into caricature. He could be a cousin of Dr Copeland in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, wrapped up in himself and his situation, but he does not ring true in the way that the doctor does.

The judge is the most complex character in the novel. In lesser hands he could have been a caricature of the old south, a reactionary stubbornly clinging to the old ways and the old morality. And indeed, the judge is that. He has a history in the Ku Klux Klan; he has an insane passion to pass a Bill in Congress decreeing that old Confederacy currency (which he possesses by the million) be declared legal tender; his response to the events at the conclusion of the novel is chilling. And yet there is more to him than this. His devotion to Sherman, the young black boy, comes close to paternal affection. His view of black people – racist to the core – is imbued with a wrong-headed but nonetheless genuine intention to do them good. He is a man to be pitied. He is still mourning the death of Miss Missy, his wife who died of breast cancer, and his son, who committed suicide after the death of his wife in childbirth. He is an unhappy man, and his passions and cares and concerns feel genuine. It is possible to be simultaneously repelled by and sorry for someone, and in the judge Carson McCullers has created just such an individual. But it isn’t enough to carry the novel.

I think the biggest disappointment about Clock Without Hands is its evocation of mood. Mood is everything in McCullers. She creates worlds, little sad, hopeful places which draw you in, make you want to be a part of them, even while warning you of their incipient dangers. The mixture of melancholia and hope she conjures is miraculous. But somehow, in Clock Without Hands, it does not come off. I don’t know whether the principal reason is the subject matter, the racism of the south just before desegregation, the casual violence and thoughtless hatred. While there is a timeless quality to the loneliness of Frankie and Mick in The Member of the Wedding and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter the drama of Clock Without Hands now feels dated. It cannot beguile in the same way as her earlier works.