#WritersWednesday: Blank Page, a reflection on Gustave #Flaubert

Albert CamusI read that Gustave Flaubert thought the “Communeux” – the revolutionaries who fought the losing battle of the Paris Commune in 1871, and got massacred – had wanted to “return to the Middle Ages”. Yet he was a discerning writer and observer of the French society…

This prompted some musing on the role of writers in our troubled times. But then, when was a time of real peace? The page stays blank, for if there is a lot to say, it would be pointless to write. This is what Flaubert avoided: he scored on impersonality, a detachment from associating himself with his characters, let alone exercising judgement on their actions or circumstances. He wrote that he was bored when writing Madame Bovary, so remote was he from his “ordinary” subject. His carthagenese rump – Salammbo – a story of a slave revolt against the ruler of Carthage (the super-power of the time), was high in colour, rich in gore, and outraged the bourgeois commentators of the mainstream press. Later his “Education Sentimentale” stripped the hypocrisy of the 2nd Empire’s society bare, all a few years before the catastrophe of 1870.

Maybe it takes a national defeat to reveal the true nature of contemporary literature: Remarque, Proust (who thought Germany’d have won the war), the French existentialists, the great Japanese novelists of the 50’s…

Image: Albert Camus laughing, from “Philosophers’ quotes & photos

#Promptbox: Clouds

OdetteSince they’d settled in the city, by now he has almost forgotten when that was, he rarely thinks of the old town. Only in Spring, as the resurgence of colours, the clothes of women in the street, and the smiles on children’s faces, made him long for a past of peace and smallness, when himself was a kid, and the world was still vast.

In his study of Neukölln, surrounded by pictures of their travel, through Europe and North America, and portraits of his wife, Sarah, and of his one-time lover Melissa, the girl from Köpenick, sometime together, once or twice in a trio with Helga, his therapist, he continues to write, now on his second novel, now richer than ever, but still a disturbed soul.

This morning, Sarah’s out with Melissa, on a shopping expedition that may also take them to the haven of the Gendarmenmarkt apartment, and the renewed complicity of their mutual affection. His mind, unconcerned, at peace with heir present life, is floating away, to narrow streets, to medieval lanes bordering overgrown and haunted gardens, to a busy street where pedestrians wear old-fashioned clothes, and where he, alone, for a while friendless, seeks answers to questions that will elude him for ages to come.

There, behind clouds and the sharpness of an ancient Spring, he’s looking for her, near the old school, not far from his parents’ house, perhaps even along the river where his mother walks to admire the kingfisher. The sounds are low and a little hesitant, blurred by the silence of his room, and the low notes of jazz drifting from the lounge: this is an imperfect journey, as if he were reluctant to go all the way, resisting the call from these years of solitude and longing, from his childhood.

He’s near the church; he sees the pharmacy on the right, next to the barber where his father and he have their haircuts on Saturdays. The wide square has recently been redesigned, and the rubbles from the war cleared, and replaced by an elegant parterre of flowers. To his left he knows a short walk would take him to the bridge, over the little river. To the right is the main street, and somewhere, half way to the town limits, is the house with the courtyard.

He can see her now, a young girl, naked like him, and bathing in the old stone tub, near the fountain, at their feet the rounded stones reflect the sunlight: she’s laughing and throwing water at him, her face that of sheer pleasure. House and yard may be the oldest in the town, at the back is a workshop: her dad’s working space. Her face upturned to him, she sees their future, no doubt, and her smile fades. She starts crying, small tears keep flowing on her rosy cheeks. He does not understand, he thinks she’s angry with him, he holds her hands in silence. Calmer, she kisses his cheek. Her mum calls them both inside, to get dry and clothed.

At night, in his room, or rather the corner of the house where he sleeps, he can hear the rats running inside the hollow walls. His mum says they are as old as the house. He’s no longer there, time must have passed, he’s now bigger, stronger, but he’s still looking for her. He cannot remember, there is a small lane, near a nightclub: he knows this is important, or it will be. Some shadows obscure his vision: Helga did say he should not attempt to go there. A crime was committed there, not by him, he was far away then.

This is it, he was far away, and he should not have been: Julian knows the truth, he betrayed his childhood love, he is inconsolable. No amount of work, of success, no therapy, can ever change that fact.

Inherent Vice #ThomasPynchon #PaulThomasAnderson #atthemovies

Inherent ViceFor decades I have been a fan of Thomas Pynchon’s novels. The first one I read was “V”, still one of my favourites, but, really, I love all of them. There is some geographical and historical magic Pynchon distils in his writing, that permeates his characters in a unique way. Maxine Tarnow, in Bleeding Edge, is the girl of the 90’s, immersed in what is already the nightmarish world of post 911.

Doc Sportello, the pot-smoking gumshoe and hero of Inherent Vice, is, in many ways, a happier character than some, in Pynchon’s world. He, and his vanishing groovy girlfriend Shasta, live in late 60s LA, in post-hippy California, already governed by Mickey-Mouse Ronald Reagan, already busy dismantling the public services and tax legislation that had made California the most prosperous state in the Union. Worst would come later. Tricky Nixon is president, not yet disappeared down the Watergate plughole. ‘Nam is about to be left to her destiny…

I love the story for its nostalgic atmosphere and evocation of a fast disappearing species: happy Americans. Thus I was a little anxious to go and see Paul Anderson‘s film, drawn from the novel. Rarely I enjoy movies taken from loved books, almost never.

This is a brilliant exception. Mr Anderson scores all rounds: a mastery direction, wonderful camera shots, and perfect actors: it’s all there, and it is Inherent Vice. Joaquin Phoenix is Doc Sportello, and Katherine Waterston his ravishing and gifted girlfriend. I was impressed by Josh Brolin’s Bigfoot, the hippy-hating cop with a taste for ice-cream… Owen Wilson is a marvellous Californian double snitch, who loves his wife and family.

This is, of course, a very funny movie, in a very Pynchonesque style. We hear the surf, we look at the cars, we admire Shasta’s grooviness, we fear the sinister FBI…

I left the theater wishing we could go back in time, before Mickey-Mouse became president and ruined us all. Luckily Thomas Pynchon is still around to write novels that may inspire Paul Thomas Anderson… In fact I’d fancy Miss Waterston as Maxine.

#FiveSentenceFiction: Falling

fallingAt their school she had a poor reputation: a girl who “went” with men, and of course, he could not care less, what he felt was her kindness, the softness of her lips, the smile he wanted to drown into…

Later, much later, he looked for her, without realising it, he was now a writer, and this masterpiece needed a hero – so he reinvented her, and, kindly, she reappeared, transformed, the lover of his youth.

Like Pygmalion, he fell again for her, and this time, she would not let go.

At first he was surprised, charmed, expecting, and called her by the name he remembered, the name of their childhood.

And now he was enslaved, fallen back in time, the prisoner of his beloved ghost.

 

In a deep well, reflections on reading Haruki Murakami’s Wind-up Bird Chronicle

The Wind-up Bird ChronicleIt is a rare writer who can combine the spectra of recent history in its full horror, the dreams of love, and the mysteries of the soul. So is Monsieur Murakami.

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle was published in Japan in 1995, and once again, I regretted my inability to read the novel in the writer’s language. Yet Jay Rubin’s translation is a wonder on its own right. This was perhaps, for this reader, the most difficult Murakami’s novel so far, considerably harder reading than 1Q84 or, my all-time favourite, Kafka on the Shore. Kafka’s influence, among many others, is there, for the central character, Toru Okada, has to endure a metamorphosis of his own, once the house cat disappears, shortly followed by mysterious and fragile Kumiko, Toru’s wife.

However I won’t spoil this read for my followers, those who haven’t yet read this extraordinary work. The story is rooted in the memories of the atrocious war fought on the periphery of the Asian continent, in the country Imperial Japan named Manchukuo. There the Japanese army faced the might of the Soviet Union, from the late thirties, before the war extended to the whole of Asia and Europe.

Perhaps uniquely in its descriptions, the Wind-up Bird Chronicle is pitiless in plunging the reader in the depth of man’s inhumanity to man, and nature. Toru, surrounded by strange women who may not all be human, just about survives the metamorphosis imposed on him, through the grace of friendship, and the skills of his protector, unforgettable Nutmeg. The truth, factual or not, is to be found at the bottom of the well.

In the strange loops that link the characters, across time and spaces, humble objects such a red vinyl hat, or a baseball hat, there resides the mystery of the human soul. And a small cat’s tail…

 

#FiveSentenceFiction: Pages

In memoriam: Pauline Réage

Histoire d'OI read the words, the sentences, slowly turn the pages: your novel.

Looking back, through the mist of time, I imagine you, at night, under the feeble light of post-war Europe, patiently moving your pen along the lines, writing for him, just for him.

The woman you invented, was she you, was she your sister, your doppelgänger?

He wanted to publish, you were not so sure, after all, you would be the object of scandal, but his will was stronger: how could you resist him?

The story has survived the winds of fashion, and she, your heroine, is still in our hearts.

 

#SundayMusing: Susan holds the pen

Continuing the never-ending dialogue with those elusive characters, it is my pleasure to hand over the pen to Susan, perhaps the most sinful creation of this writer’s delirious imagination.

Leonard Cohen's quoteI dislike your introduction: yes, I recognise that you have placed me in situations that many readers may find distasteful. But, pray, remember that yesterday’s taboos are today’s fads, and, perhaps even, tomorrow’s traditions. The ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, had habits in cooking, dressing, and, yes, loving, that were anathemas to the Victorians. Und so weiter, and so on…

Still, I rather like what you have written of me and Paul, although, he, has another opinion of you (this will have to wait until he gets the pen!) I enjoyed the beginning of the story, and revel in the new “Retour à Roissy“, which is, really, a new beginning. I felt inspired to write this, and intend to continue the adventures of Myriam and O.  I am fascinated by O, and a little infatuated with the woman who created her. If we try and place ourselves in her time and place, the grim France of the after-War, a time of bigotry and falsehoods, that she could write a story of such audacity, was a miracle.

As for my relationship with Mistress G, I make no secret that we are very good friends – and more. She too is a source of inspiration, and I have learnt a lot from her. I do mean to ask her to train my new pet, you know, the one Paul drilled enthusiastically not so long ago. Miss G and Helen, are, in a nutshell, what I aspire to become, in the fullness of time, with pet. Yes, I hear from your corner of the room, more question marks than I will bother to answer: I do not crave your intimacy. You are the writer, not, underlined, not, my lover.

By the way, you haven’t given pet a name. Shall we call her… Justine? I know, not very original for this genre, but, Justine appeals to me, and it will suit her too. Talking about names, I have to say you confused us, Paul and me, totally, with the tale of the multiple Melissa’s. How many versions are they? Which one is “real”, which one is ghostly?

As for your style, and sense of storyline, well, to be absolutely honest, I think you are far too complicated. But then, it’s up to your readers to judge! See you around…

On page turning #amwriting #amediting

LoveEvery writer reaches this point, I expect, sooner or later, when a decision has to be taken: continue the story, or close it, refine it, not just through careful editing, but perhaps rewriting too.

After forty odd thousand words the story has its own momentum, and the characters their own agenda. Once one reaches the 100k, changing direction is like navigating the proverbial tanker! What interests me is the dynamics between author-story-characters as the work progresses. In this case the story is anchored on the City, and the characters’s ballet is centred on the City. One could say that the City is one of the characters, not a mere backdrop for the story. The City influences the (other) characters, some more deeply than others. In short, there is the trio of people who make up the current narrative, the City (and its siblings) and the author. Who best controls the story? Who is best placed to decide the future?

There may be a conflict of interests. The characters want to continue with their lives, and don’t give a damn about polishing or refining, or, for that matter, publishing! Since the City is more real than the story, it sees itself, should I say herself? – as the arbitrator. The author, of course, wishes to see a finished product. But the author also depends on the characters for inspiration, and on the City for belief. The City hosts the story, and protects the author against the inevitable drift and diversions. In one sense the book can only come to life, be born, in the City.

There are many ways to close the story. Killing one or more characters is one way. Getting the plot(s) to an unexpected ending is another. Needless to say the former is not popular with characters. Nor is the latter, since it means the end of their hopes and perhaps lives, in another way, just as final as death. There the characters and the City have a common cause.

I expect the author will have to work at two levels, and one of them is to continue with the story! The other being the boring stuff made of editing, and taking out, and rewriting, and… Stuff that!

To conclude: I suspect the author to be too much involved, and enjoying herself, with her characters to attempt anything final

#AtoZAprilChallenge: Zadig

Zadig He is a fictional character, without historical substance, but his author intended him to show how little control mankind has on her destiny.

The year was 1747, and Voltaire also wanted to say something about orthodoxy, the established order and the rule of logic. The Book of Fate is a work of considerable influence on writers across the western world, from the Marquis de Sade to Thomas Henry Huxley.

“As Zadig was immensely rich, and had consequently Friends without Number; and as he was a Gentleman of a robust Constitution, and remarkably handsome; as he was endowed with a plentiful Share of ready and inoffensive Wit: And, in a Word, as his Heart was perfectly sincere and open, he imagined himself, in some Measure, qualified to be perfectly happy. For which Purpose he determined to marry a gay young Lady (one Semira by name) whose Beauty, Birth and Fortune, rendered her the most desirable Person in all Babylon. He had a sincere Affection for her, grounded on Honour, and Semira conceived as tender a Passion for him.”

Abstract from Zadig, or The Book of Fate, at the Project Gutenberg

#AtoZAprilChallenge: Fiction

You can't stop me “Fiction has the interesting double sense of a kind of Imaginative Literature and of pure (sometimes deliberately deceptive) invention… A general use, ranging between a consciously formed hypothesis (‘mathematical fictions’ 1579) and an artificial  and questionable assumption (‘of his own fiction’), was equally common. Fictitious, from C17, ranged from this to the sense of deceptive invention; the literary use required the later fictional. The popularity of novels led to a curious C20 back-formation, in library and book-trade use, in non-fiction (at time made equivalent to ‘serious’ reading…)

Novel, now so nearly synonymous with fiction, has its own interesting history. The two senses now indicated by the noun (prose fiction) and the adjective (new, innovating, whence novelty) represent different branches of development from Latin novus – new. Until C18 novel, as a noun, carried both senses: (i) a tale; (ii) what we now call, with the same sense, news…

(In) Fielding: – ‘What novel’s this? – Faith! It may be a pleasant one to you.’

It was from this range of senses that novelist meant successively any kind of innovator (C17), a newsmonger (C18) and a writer of prose fiction.” (Keywords)