Wednesday, January 30, 2013
The musical genre derives it's name from the Italian divertire 'to amuse' and oft formed the lilting backdrop for social entertainments, a light-hearted accompaniment to tea, ices and the usual post-medieval repast of blood sausages and peacock pie. I, for one, cannot imagine engaging in idle gossip and societal chit-chat while Eine kleine Nachtmusik is being performed by a modest ensemble in close-room proximity; this particular work leaves me stricken, reaches inside to the heart and literally seizes the emotional seat. The piercing beauty of this piece (and indeed Mozart's other divertimentos) is almost painfully experienced: there is an internal resonance, vibrations of a molecular kind as if the very electrons that comprise the atoms of me have re-arranged their tiny dance to coincide with the cadence of Mozart; a deeply visceral response where the music flows and swells through blood and bone like an exotic elixir. The poignant rendering of notes escalate into delicate harmony that leave me breath-held, marveling at the improbable perfection of each succeeding musical phrase, astounded that these pieces, these divertimentos, were often composed and intended for immediate consumption - that is to say they were performed once - commissioned by leading families (during Mozart's Salzburg period) for single celebratory occasions such as birthdays, weddings or feast-days - and then promptly discarded like something old-fashioned, out-dated, unwanted and used up; which is why divertimentos and serenades often have not survived for posterity - these sumptuous musical marvels were symphonic supernovas that lit up the night in a crescendo of brilliance and just as quickly extinguished.
And so it is that this cool morning finds me embroiled in the deep expressivity of Mozart's divertimentos; my quiet mind soars with the notes as they come into cascading existence and then are as quickly gone like the perfection of a snowflake before the melt. Isn't this what we are seeking as writers? To provoke a resonance in our readers - to thrill and enthrall, to engage and empassion with literary snowflakes that are endowed with longevity? A little bit of Mozart encased in resin. Oh, to somehow capture and freeze that tender pathos of Nachtmusik brilliance! But of course Mozart is movement, always transitioning from one incomparably sublime musical phrase to another; each note born for a heartbeat and then gone, momentarily gilded like a fading dust mote in the dying light of the sun. It is, like the short extent of human life, a transitory pleasure.
Music and literature approach, intertwine and move apart in a sinuous weave of mutual influence; while both arose as a single activity (often in combination with dance) the subsequent proximity of literary and musical arts were culturally and chronologically-specific: interfused in the madrigals of Elizabethan England but less apparently so in the Augustan period. This musical-literary reciprocity is made manifest in the folk balladeer, Homeric minstrel, Anglo-Saxon scop, and the twentieth-century Yugoslavic singer of tales - none of whom could function without a musical instrument. In the literary epics, however, it has been at best vestigial and the musical connection with the Aeneid and Paradise Lost, for example, seems negligible. The current connectivity between music and literature is apparent on the musical stage (the broadway performance of Les Misérables being an obvious example) and in the opera with the librettist providing the literary counterpoint to the musical note. Within the operatic genre there is an auditory association with the dramatic, the timbre and pitch of anxious expectation, of choked expressiveness, of poignant yearning; the inked words are only a component of the final product with ongoing debate as to the dominant contribution: the musical score or the libretto?
Just as the beauty of Mozart's divertimentos plays the anatomical instrument (the molecular strings and ivory keys of heart and blood) the intonation of language can evoke a similar physiological response, arousing in the readership an affinity for the beauty of expression in the literary form. Shakespeare comes to mind - predominately as a poet rather than a playwright, and to truly appreciate the lyricism of his work, the rhythm and cadence of his language, his plays must be read aloud (as of course originally intended). The impassioned nature of dramatic soliloquy demands vocal declamation. I wonder whether poetry might comprise a bridge between music and literature? A form that seems to possess a closer acquaintance with musical cadence and syllabic rhythms, while prose is generally less constrained. But then I think of the great literary works and I cannot help but feel that they are imbued with poetry; that literature is no less laden with aria: it is the narrative sung by the author's soul.
So in the meantime - thank goodness for Mozart - and the deeply-felt resonance of his work, a thrill that seems grounded in anatomical roots, poignantly vibrant in the molecular dance...one which profoundly brightens the world. Of Eine kleine Nachtmusik Mozart's biographer Wolfgang Hildesheimer writes, "even if we hear it on every street corner, its high quality is undisputed, an occasional piece from a light but happy pen." So perhaps if we imagine words as individual musical notes, each a lyrical part of the whole, enabling transition from one segment to another, one scene to another...words indubitably as influential, as expressively passionate; however Mozart's music transcends page and deliberate thought, and speaks directly to the deepest emotive part of ourselves. Writers, to my mind, have to wrestle with words, have to twist and contort them into a fashion that conveys intended meaning; they are an imperfect vehicle tainted by varied interpretation, imprecise usage, and cumbersome coupling in our perpetual quest to express it more precisely. For it is one thing to perceive with studied delight the perfection of a snowflake, it is quite another to render that beauty in words: for better or for worse ours is a yearning defined and grounded in the permanency of ink.
Friday, January 25, 2013
implying a superficial, restrained skimming of the surface of printed ink....with Hugo, however, one descends beneath the membrane to the throbbing pulse of things, embroiled and immersed in the emotional and social turbulence of nineteenth-century France.
I have been thinking about the manifestation of character angst - and the degree to which it is conveyed via internal monologue or through outwardly observed action. The scene that lingers in my mind from a previous reading of Les Misérables is that in which Valjean paces his candelit room beset with mental agonies: to reveal himself as 24601 and exchange his honorable life as Mayor of Montreuil-sur-mer for the ignominious despair of prison: "the chain gang and the convict-smock, the plank bed and the cell, all the horrors that he knew;" a confession that would entail abandonment of the multitude that depended upon his business and charity; or alternatively by remaining silent he consigned an innocent to the darkness of a living hell in his place. Through the course of this chapter (entitled 'A Tempest in a Human Skull') Valjean is possessed by a furious tumult of fear, despair and agonized indecision.
His character (sombre, silent and brooding, fused and defined by the interminable years of imprisonment) proceeds through the novel, gently but firmly rebuffing Cosette in her bid to understand the taciturn man that had become her father: his enigmatic travels, his intermittent melancholy, and their resolute isolation. Jean Valjean is, necessarily, an intensely private individual and the reader is provided a privileged insight into his innermost feelings only when he examines them himself in the quietness of solitude. The ebb and flow of his meditations exist as darkly-swift undercurrents; emotional riptides on which the reader is a half-drowned companion; an essential inclusion, for as we have already noted Valjean is a master of countenance-control, his turbulence of mind scarcely perceptible in the icy exterior.
Several nights ago I also completed Just Toss the Ashes by Marta Merajver; an intensely brilliant psychological novel that investigates suicide and its aftermath. It details the angst of a woman who has endured an abusive childhood at the hands of an egocentric mother - and the impact that traumatizes the next generation. This novel serves, predominately through the perspective of the embittered son, to illustrate the complexity of privacy, of the individual ways in which one compartmentalizes family issues and the insecurities that accompany abuse.
Obviously these books are utterly disparate in every respect, separated by a thematic, geographic and chronological divide; Victor Hugo, a French Romantic whose hefty tome details the plight of the poor in nineteenth century Paris, and Marta Merajver, an Argentinian writer whose slim contemporary novel examines suicide and the hidden depths of self; however it seems in recent reading of both of these works, an element that I find intriguing is the manner in which these two authors treat character angst. Jean Valjean's afflictions are privately revealed, the reader comprises an audience of one, often an exclusive witness to the extent and nature of his sufferings; we gain unprecedented access to his internal monologue, are intimately intertwined with his emotional state, and a fierce adherent to his cause. This insinuation into the tortured monologue of a private man, one who has been unjustly served by the overzealous application of the law, serves as a brilliant mechanism to secure the attention and advocacy of reader.
Merajver's primary character is already deceased at the opening pages of her novel, however Sylvia Meyer proceeds to enthrall and engage through the subsequent narrative despite the pointed lack of internal monologue that characterized Valjean (albeit there is a brief European interlude where her youthful voice is heard); the intriguing point here is that this character is initially depicted in all her strident venom and strife, full of sound and fury, and it is not until later in the novel that one begins to understand the complicated composite that is Sylvia. This growing awareness of cause and motivation is provided not by the primary character herself, but through the various perspectives of friend, husband, son and occasionally via letter through the deceased herself. While Sylvia is undoubtedly the dynamic force within the narrative, her angst, her ferocity of emotional turmoil and despair is brilliantly chronicled through the slant of third-party perspective. So the reader, as well as the son (whose journey we accompany in search for the 'truth') is left with a multitude of filtered still-shots with which to resurrect the essence that was Sylvia.
Character angst and the degree and manner in which it is utilized within the narrative remains a literary element of profound interest to me. Perhaps because internal strife, stress and self-reflection seem inextricably a part of thinking man (and woman), and an aspect of novels which facilitates an almost immediate empathetic connection with its readership. Reading these two novels in close proximity, I was struck by the disparate manner in which each author conveyed character angst - both effective in their own distinct way, viscerally engaging the reader within the turbulent mindset of their primary characters.
Monday, January 21, 2013
My protagonist upcoming is a mid-nineteenth century physician - absorbed as I am by the late-medieval preoccupation with noxious miasmas and the attendant quacks and apothecaries that extolled a multitude of dubious remedies. Since reading Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, I have long felt that health and well-being, for a historical novelist, is imbued with dramatic possibility - the periodic devastation of disease (cause and prevention equally uncertain) found its victims among all strata of society with equal ferocity.
Despite the mid-nineteenth century being of such relatively recent occurrence (at least from an archaeological perspective) the perception of disease could not have been more removed from current beliefs; while diversions and politics, fashion and food, and all manner of quotidian preoccupations are readily comprehended by the modern reader, the practice of medicine seems a vestigial barbarity of a more ancient age. Sickness often resulted in the ubiquitous and prolific application of bloodletting and mercury treatments, a therapy more honored in the breach than the observance, and one which had the unmitigated effect of hastening death rather than avoiding it.
In the course of my research I have discovered that physicians tended to be of the obsequious sort; absent the economic and cultural superiority enjoyed today, they encountered competition amongst independent village healers and a profusion of graduates from newly-born medical colleges that mushroomed nationwide like fungus post-wet in the rich mulch of federal funding; doctors were forced to cultivate the most impressive of bedside manners to obtain and maintain their client list. A multitude of manuals from the period provide suggestions for society-insinuations, a crisply professional bearing, and the manner in which a medical diagnosis should be couched to simultaneously inhibit common-learning while maximizing perceived elevation of the profession. Other physicians, however, were naturalists and statisticians, seeking commonalities in mortality from one region to another, delving into geology, geography, and physiological science in an attempt to further their understanding of disease processes. They were Renaissance men on the cusp of molecular microbiology as inaugurated by Louis Pasteur several decades later.
And of course there are the disinterred corpses: the black market in cadavers that served the insatiable appetite of anatomical science, the investigation of which facilitated a rise in practical understanding of physiology; a practice, which was, however, conducted with all the surreptitious secrecy of nighttime body-theft and darkly rumored anatomy-murder. Gloomy narrative elements that are seductively alluring in a lurid Sherlockian kind of way. At least I have always found it so. Perhaps it is the chronological proximity of dark superstition, of fantastical explanations for the cause and transfer of disease (it was widely believed that noxious fumes exhaled from geological formations were instrumental in causing sickness) that seem incomprehensible to our accustomed molecular mindset. Our readers are reminded in a most visceral way that while the mid-nineteenth century displayed many of the trappings of civilized modernity, medical science (which affected each and every individual in a most intimate way) was still enshrouded in remnants of medieval theory and practice.
From an authorial viewpoint, there is great dramatic potential in the application of mid-nineteenth century medicine, particularly in juxtaposition with the modern understanding of physiological processes. Add in the environs: the dense cluster of hovel and tenement, the crowded obscurity of dockside populations, of sailors and prostitutes, the almshouses with their incarcerated insane, the early hospitals fetid with the unwashed and festering, heavily bled and relegated to a dank corner to shuffle off their mortal coil as quickly as might be convenient - for another awaited the use of that particular bed. To this canvas add a dash of cholera that flares, engulfing a community with equally horrifying rapidity and mortality.
But this scenic backdrop might be just that - representative of my protagonist's character and experience - all critical for formulating his forward momentum through plot and dialogue. Perhaps the overall narrative is not disease-centric insomuch as it is concerned with political intrigue and murder, with infirmity and infection hovering on the peripheries like a darkly shrouded figure wielding the scythe. For the novelist seeking the bones of the book, a scaffold on which to hang the beating heart and the delicate fabric of lungs, the mystery of context, of ambiance, can be served by scientific, cultural or social predispositions....they can weave through the narrative, providing the rich hue of flesh-tone with all its dimpled imperfections. The medical investigation was a single investigative thread which I pursued, like Theseus through the Cretan maze, to the discovery of a mythic beast of a theme; a narrative element that weaves together disparate threadlines in a shadowy construct of tapestry, a dramatic backdrop which gives breath and vitality (of the however sickly sort!) to the stark and polished bones of plot.
Tuesday, January 15, 2013
I have ruminated on villainy before, and have concluded that shades of gray were a requisite insofar as rendering believable antagonists were concerned; that each (hero and villain) were made up of complicated parts that defied simplistic classification. Dwelling upon the thought, however, I am reminded of Quilp - in point of fact I am, quite unashamedly, obsessed with him; he seems the physical manifestation of the gloomy alleyways of mid-century that hold me enthralled.
Quilp, from The Old Curiosity Shop is the epitome of Dickensian nastiness in it's most repugnant form. He is a villain without virtue of any kind. The best introduction is that offered by the paternal pen: "..an elderly man of remarkably hard features and forbidding aspect, and so low in stature as to be quite a dwarf, though his head and face were large enough for the body of a giant. His black eyes were restless, sly, and cunning; his mouth and chin, bristly with the stubble of a coarse hard beard; and his complexion was one of that kind which never looks clean or wholesome. But what added most to the grotesque expression of his face, was a ghastly smile, which, appearing to be the mere result of habit and to have no connexion with any mirthful or complacent feeling, constantly revealed the few discoloured fangs that were yet scattered in his mouth, and gave him the aspect of a panting dog." One can scarcely imagine a more repulsive creature - however, the quintessential horror of this character, of course, is not his physical appearance but his unmitigated commitment to the infliction of fear and torture on those infinitely more vulnerable than himself.
The half-grown beard, the grime, the 'ghastly smile' that belies inner malice, the disproportionate hat and shoes, the gigantic head and dwarfish body; his diminutive stature, reminiscent of the l'enfant terrible, startles us, and at every opportunity Dickens emphasizes the almost aggressive lack of decency and proportion that encapsulates our idea of the grotesque. Oft compared to one of the canine breed, he has a similar propensity to sprawl inappropriately on furniture, exhibiting the easy satisfaction of a 'doglike' smile prior, perhaps, to the bite; reminiscent of Hamlet: "That one may smile, and smile and be a villain." And Quilp's 'ghastly grin' is in perpetual evidence throughout the course of the narrative.
But Quilp is not simply an ugly gargoyle within the novel's architecture: his demonic energy not only embodies the novel's primum mobile, but serves to extricate him from the literary clutches of caricature. Coleridge's description of Iago 'motive-hunting of a motiveless malignity' coincides with uncanny precision to Dickens' villain. The incentives that propel Quilp's actions throughout the narrative are of a varied multitude: lechery and avarice ostensibly prompt his pursuit of Nell and her grandfather; a resentful envy of Fred Trent's suspected relationship with Mrs Quilp accounts for his deception in regard to Fred and Dick; an increasingly intense and complicated jealousy of Kit drives the labyrinthine plot with the Brasses. But the sum total of these catalysts cannot fully account for the admixture of pure unmitigated glee with which Quilp savors his nefarious role. It is in this appetite for destruction that echoes of Shakespeare's master villains, Iago and the deformed Richard III, resound most strongly. The renowned actor Edmund Kean (two decades before The Curiosity Shop was written) enthralled audiences with his powerful portrayal of these characters: establishing the convention of playing these villains as monstrous intruders from the infernal regions, cackling with delight and rubbing their hands at the torments they inflict; an interpretation that remained the prevalent interpretation in theater for more than a century; no less apparent in Laurence Olivier's characterization in Richard III.
How much of Dickens' own dark side was incorporated into Quilp is an intriguing, if ultimately fruitless, source of speculation; that he was similarly beguiled by this particular creation is evident throughout the novel: as he nears the character's death, he writes "Quilp's last appearance on any stage...is casting its shadow upon my mind." Quilp takes his place, along with Iago and Richard III, as literature's most reprehensible of reprobates, without any appearance, however slight, of mitigating circumstances or features to soften his propensity to vice. The reader of The Curiosity Shop (and indeed it's author) remains transfixed by the dwarfish miscreant and the resultant tableau (largely provoked by his own manipulations) at the end of the novel. The tremendous success of this character forces me to re-examine degrees of villainy and acknowledge the presence and validity of the darkest kind.
The danger of shallow lampoonery is one strenuously to be avoided, and I ruminate on the manner in which Dickens and Shakespeare created these most malignant of malefactors without risk or recourse of caricature-reduction. These antiheroes avoid this literary fate precisely because of the expressive intensity with which they are described; there is a terrible motion about them, a demonic energy that stirs adjacent words on the page, a violent almost jerky charisma that is predominately absent in other characters within the narrative. Perhaps their resonance lies also in the malignant power with which they manipulate others in a tidal force of scheming unconstrained by moral or judicial law. As characters, as the vilest of villains, they are broadly open to all dramatic possibilities whereby the protagonist tends to be ethically compelled. Perhaps it is this frisson of uncertainty that excites us; perhaps it is when the hero is daubed with that darkness that they are also most engaging, as we, the reader, perceive that lines are being crossed (the extent to which remains ambiguous), distinctions are blurred, and tidy classifications eschewed. There is a dramatic power in the unpredictable, an anticipatory tension which enthralls and engages breathlessly onwards to the final resolution; a literary niche for the most grim of literary blackguards.
Wednesday, January 9, 2013
I am pondering the exigencies of these literary dualities - hero and sidekick - and looking for ways in which to distinguish one from the other, to more closely define each within the sphere of plot and narrative requirements. What designates the cohort to a subservient role? Examining most particularly Don Quixote and Sherlock Holmes, I am increasingly under the impression that the literary value of this character couple is not necessarily their distinct, individual contributions as much as the connective thread that unites them: the mutual symbiosis which defines their literary dance.
While Holmes and Don Quixote are the primary instigators of action within their novels, Watson and Sancho embody the 'everyman' inclusion who provide pragmatic counterbalance to the eccentricities of their hero-counterparts. Their perspective enables the reader a closer connection with the lofty heroes who otherwise might become farcical; forming the critical function of humanizing the protagonist and drawing the reader into a more familiar narrative of quotidian normality. One without the other, hero without sidekick, is one half of a literary whole; it is not the mere presence of the principal player that is mandated for the success of the fictional work, but the inclusion and elaboration of his or her cohort, and an exploration of the relationship that exists between the two.
If the reader of my humble musing will forgive a few rather improbable metaphors...The chemical properties of water spring to mind, with an analogy of atomic parts: Hero and Sidekick represented by two hydrogen atoms bonded through the course of the narrative, through events and dialogues that establish that critical relationship. Atomic bond strength is dependent upon temperature, pressure, bond angle and environment; perhaps the connective ties between literary partners are also intensified with plot heat, pressure of action, and environmental considerations. The biological equivalent of this (which is referred to as persistent mutualism) can be found in the goby fish which often co-habitates with a housekeeping shrimp who digs and cleans up the burrow the two share. The shrimp, being of a visually-challenged variety, is vulnerable to predators topside but benefits from the goby's tail-touch to warn of impending danger which sends both scurrying back to burrow. The point of these somewhat dubious analogies is that both are equal partners in the literary endeavor, and while one may take center stage more often than not it is only because the other has engaged the audience sufficiently to remain in their seats.
So to examine the character of sidekick in closer detail; I submit for your perusal one John H. Watson: medical doctor, journalist, connoisseur of women, valiant and loyal friend. Present in 56 of the 60 published adventures he serves as buffer between the reader and the cold searing light of Holmes' intellect. The blinding brilliancy of Holmes' deductive logic elevates him beyond all others in the narrative, his analytical mind working on a plane inconceivable (as Watson himself admits) to his doctor compatriot. However Watson is the tether that ties Holmes to terra firma, grounds him, humanizes him. Interestingly, while Holmes is indubitably the star of the literary work, Watson is accorded a particular status insofar as his intimacy with the reader is concerned; we are informed most particularly about Watson's background before we even meet the famed detective, who himself remains maddeningly elusive. Watson's character develops and grows throughout the course of subsequent mysteries: by the end of Conan Doyle's stories the doctor is depicted as a 'father confessor,' tolerant of human frailty and well aware of his own limitations, while Holmes' consistent refusal to acknowledge his own reduces him to an oddity, albeit a fascinating and brilliant one. From the onset a man who walked with kings (Bohemian monarch in Scandal in Bohemia) yet never lost the common touch (yellow-backed novels and sea stories of William Clark Russell remained his favorite reads) Watson was the ballast upon whose reassuring weight Holmes came to increasingly rely. The few stories depicted sans Watson, or in which he plays a minor role, are arid and disappointing, lack humanity, and embarrass one with Holmes' shameless narcissism. While these personal attributes tend to alienate Holmes from the reader, they also isolate the character within the narrative with opiates providing a refuge from the loneliness of his condition; just as Watson aids in weaning Holmes from his addiction, lessening his isolation and facilitating interpersonal interactions, he also is instrumental in bringing Holmes and the reader into more comfortable proximity.
Watson has the endearing ability to appear less astute than the reader, rendering himself more approachable than the aloof and awesome Holmes, without sacrificing respect for his own native intelligence. The thinness of this particular literary highwire is best appreciated when one falls off, a frequent occurrence among those who have attempted to duplicate the endeavor. Said the detective, sorely missing his friend's assistance in The Blanched Soldier: "A confederate who foresees your conclusions and course of action is always dangerous, but one to whom each new development comes as a perpetual surprise, and to whom the future is always a closed book, is indeed an ideal helpmate." This symbiotic relationship, of enduring and loyal friendship, is a poignant one within the literary compendium - where the two together fit like adjacent pieces of a puzzle, both equally instrumental in the final depiction of picture.
Don Quioxte's staunch companion is the illiterate peasant Sancho Panza, a character who offers an interpolated narrative voice throughout the tale, a fictional device invented by Cervantes. Sancho is a literary precursor to the conventional sidekick and personifies practicality over idealism, pragmatism over fancy. His is the only character to exist within and outside of Don Quixote's madness, and while his master battles windmills and mistakes inns for castles, Sancho's preoccupations are indubitably of the earthy kind: money in his pocket, food in his belly, and the restorative power of sleep (Panza in Spanish meaning 'belly' or the English equivalent of 'paunch.') Where Don Quixote is intent and serious, Sancho has a quick sense of humor, displaying the faults and foibles of his contemporaries but possessing an underlying honorable and compassionate streak others predominately lack. His character provides the most varied perspective within the narrative, imbued with a simple wisdom and propelled forward by his insatiable curiosity about the world. The humble squire serves not only as foil for his master, but for the ill-conceived equation of class and worth; irregardless of Sancho being ignorant, illiterate, and cowardly, he nevertheless proves himself a wise and just ruler (despite Don Quixote's fantastical and foolish advice), a better governor than the educated, affluent and aristocratic Duke. At the conclusion of the narrative Sancho comes to relinquish concerns of material wealth and political power and demonstrates a simple happiness with homelife and humble station.
Though not sharing his master's delusional 'enchantment' until late in the novel, Salvador de Madariaga has suggested that through the course of the book there is a gradual "Quixotization" of Sancho and a "Sanchification" of Don Quixote, so much that, when the knight recovers sanity on his deathbed, it is Sancho who tries to convince him to become pastoral shepherds. Regardless of what one finally believes, there is a poignancy in this assessment - for after all one does not exist in isolation and as the influence extends from protagonist to companion so it comes back in full measure with the ultimate value being the connective thread in-between, the relationship rather than one or other individual engaged within it; there is again that sense that both together comprise a whole, that each is equally and inextricably part of the other. As he lays dying Don Quixote expresses his affection for his loyal companion: "And if when I was mad I was party to giving him the governorship of an isle, now that I am sane I would give him a kingdom, where I able, for the simplicity of his nature and the fidelity of his conduct deserve it." Sancho tearfully urges him:"get out of bed...perhaps we shall find the lady Dulcinea behind some hedge, disenchanted and pretty as a picture.."
Like Watson, Sancho humanizes the narrative, bringing dignity and poise, but also humor and compassion. They are not only complex individuals in their own right who display personal growth during the progression of adventures (more so it might be argued than their illustrious counterparts) but it is the nature of their engagement with their eccentric companions that gives depth and a poignant humanity to these great literary works. The shrimp and the goby, a bond of two-like minded atoms, two halves of a critical literary whole. I would hesitate to ascribe hierarchical concepts to characters (despite both works named for the primary protagonist) within these novels when both individuals are utterly instrumental to the success of the fictional entirety.
So for the work-in-process, for the novel-to-be-formulated, for the construction of companion, the 'sidekick recipe' is perhaps simpler than one might have thought: once protagonist has been arrived at, in theory, the cohort is already in imaginative existence: it is just a matter of fleshing out the necessary correlations, the quotidian to the eccentric, the tether that secures a high-flyer to the earth, the humanity-providing counterpart that draws the reader in. Not that anything so sublime can be so simplistically reduced - the literary dance of hero and sidekick is a complicated endeavor, a literary highwire act defined by the narrowest of paradoxes: for both protagonist and companion are simultaneously steady and teetering, stalwart and feeble, incisive and undiscerning. It is in their collaboration, fluidly defined through the narrative, where the true magic lies. Often an affinity best conveyed when it is unexpressed: evident in the undercurrent of exchange, the eddies beneath the surface, the matter that lies between and beneath: the raised eyebrow or skeptical glance that indicates, more effectively than words, conmingled emotional ties, the headlong heedless rush to protect, the quiet of evening harmony, the mutual acceptance of shortcomings and a cognizance of the ties that bind: in short the reciprocity of two.
Friday, January 4, 2013
The novel waiting in the dusky wings of my mind is one of a young nation; a flawed, dynamic, hopelessly optimistic nation, already of proud achievements and horrendous racial transgressions; a nation embroiled in the Great Democratic Experiment with the eyes of the world upon them. Although my novel is set a generation or two after the Revolution, San Francisco in the mid-nineteenth century represents a new beginning, a precocious metropolis newly-born from the salty fogbanks and citrus herbs of the Californian coast; a multicultural conglomeration of immigrants seeking opportunity, drawn by the gleam and luster of golden veins that threaded through the Sierras and dusted rocky escarpments in a glittering promise of wealth and influence. In my later period, however, the gold deposits have diminished and those multitude that sought to depart weighed down by nuggets are still skulking in the dark end of Kearny Street, and loitering in Portsmouth Square. Despite devastating fires and recurring cholera epidemics, the burgeoning port city expanded across the hillside in growth ungoverned by any overarching administrative plan. There is a lack of constraint that intrigues me: manifest in mob law, racial persecution, unbridled prostitution and gambling, and the rough justice of vigilantism. I want to write a novel that examines the roots of things; to examine how 'Americanism' is engendered in such a community at such a time.
So what of other authors? Of other intents in the fictional-weave? There comes a point in the life of every novel when it first embarks, when it is newly-disseminated and the plot and characters are freshly evaluated by a discerning readership. Novels provide a reflection of ourselves as perceived through the authorial lens. The weaving of a fictional account pulls threads from the fabric of reality, creating in the process a narrative that is viscerally familiar but author-manipulated to convey a subjective truth. We discern the depths of ourselves within the projected characters, recognizing the undercurrents that propel them through the pages and ourselves through the course of our lives. This cognizance of the literary-self is not always a comfortable sensation; like the medieval hairshirt it prickles and irritates, particularly when the portrayed perspective is one unpalatable to preconceived notions (not that pointed literary truth is comparable to religious self-flagellation!) Victorian sensibilities were thusly offended when Thomas Hardy released Tess of the d'Urbervilles in 1891, widely condemned for its sympathetic portrayal of a 'fallen woman.'
And so I remain still embroiled in the Victorian period, my musings wandering from the Dickensian squalor of old London to the rural decline depicted in Thomas Hardy's great works. Jude the Obscure published four years after Tess met with an ongoing hue and cry from the Victorian public for its frank treatment of sex, oft being referred to as 'Jude the Obscene.' Lambasted for its apparent attack on the institution of marriage through the presentation of concepts such as erotolepsy (read: sexual recklessness - term coined by Hardy himself) booksellers sold the novel surreptitiously concealed within brown paper bags; the Bishop of Wakefield is reputed to have burnt his copy. In his postscript of 1912, Hardy humorously referred to this incident in the course of the book's career: "After these hostile verdicts from the press its next misfortune was to be burnt by a bishop - probably in his despair at not being able to burn me."
Slightly more than two decades later, the San Francisco News hired John Steinbeck to cover the desperate conditions wrought by the Great Depression in California's Central Valley. Discovering entire communities devastated by disease and hunger Steinbeck was enraged, and compelled, as a result, to pen his magnificent novel The Grapes of Wrath; within this work he confronted an inconvenient truth that undermined the national mythology inherent in the American Dream: hard work and virtue do not guarantee success. Upon publication in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath was accused of being false, offensive and communist; despite such detractors it sold out immediately and ultimately won him the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The Winter of Our Discontent continued the theme, fostering a new awareness of the Faustian bargain that underlay the moral degeneration of 1950's culture. During a presentation speech awarding Steinbeck the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, Secretary Anders Österling described the writer as an "independent expounder of the truth with an unbiased instinct for what is genuinely American, be it good or bad."
Hardy and Steinbeck's novels ran the gauntlet of societal disapproval, they challenged complacent assumptions and lay bare prejudices and abuses within the political and cultural enterprise; both were roundly censured as a result: the former for daring to sympathetically portray a woman of 'blemished' virtue and his candid depiction of sex, and the latter for daring to expound upon the truth of things, to call comfortable national mythology into question. They are, to my mind, heroes of the literary pantheon who did not veer from their compositional calling, nor shy from the challenge of depicting the miseries that they perceived...regardless of the hairshirt-discomfort they may have caused to themselves and others along the way. Works of this kind challenge the status quo, present a glaring picture of consequences post-cataclysm, traveling forward upon current paths to bewail repercussions of deliberate political or social ignorance...to write a book which somehow changes the perceptions and understandings of things, which presents an alternative thought-experiment - what a thing that would be indeed! In determining my own authorial intent I only hope that I can muster a voice so clear and true as those two magnificent writers who came before.