Tuesday, November 25, 2014

In Memoriam: For the Forgotten Writers Among Us

A writer acquaintance of mine was recently labeled as ‘forgotten’ and I find myself wondering what that means precisely. Forgotten by whom? By a demographic that didn’t read him? For doubtless we each have our audience, the readers whose sympathies and inclinations resonate with our own.  And an even larger segment of society that invariably find literary diversion in genres other than that which we labor upon. And being the recipient of such aspersions (for an aspersion it surely is!) what does it mean? I admit to some defensiveness on this individual’s behalf – knowing him to be an exquisitely literary writer in two languages no less! A feat I could not even begin to comprehend myself. His proficiency in this regard reminds me of Joseph Conrad’s literary virtuosity and his enviable command of the English tongue that far outstripped many a native speaker. 

So. Back to the adjective, if I may. Forgotten. The last novel I devoured springs to mind – The Lost Estate. The author of this fine literary work, Henri Alain-Fournier, tragically killed in the first world war, left his next uncompleted.  Given the glorious exposition of the first, the unpublished, unfinished second remains a collective shame for the rest of the reading world, and a reminder of the horrific waste of human life (and all the potential that resided therein!) that World War One entailed. I am now embarking upon the marvelous Bánffy trilogy – a series of novels that detail the enviable languor of the Hungarian aristocracy prior to the assassination of Ferdinand – a trilogy that has, only very recently, been translated into English. So it would, indeed, be absurd to label Bánffy (or the relatively obscure Alain-Fournier) as ‘forgotten’ despite the fact that he was seldom known outside of Hungarian or Romanian literary circles.

But, and I stand corrected, the notion 'forgotten' implies a previous awareness, something that lingered in the faint dimness of memory but has since been extinguished. Forgotten implies a lack of currency, a lack of contemporary attention, a dearth of clamoring readership. And how precisely is this ascertained? For readers tend to be the quiet sort, curling up beneath the lamp, novel in hand, in the darkening of an evening – when the intrusive clamor of the day has subsided, when children are a-bed (dreaming of sugar plums? For ‘tis the season!) So who presumes to know what they are, and are not, reading? 

For the thing is, even after many a marvelous writer has shuffled off this mortal coil, they are still read – whether it be by readers however few in number, or however linguistically specific. In this electronic age, particularly, e-versions whip across the globe with unprecedented alacrity.  I feel some degree of certainty in positing that avid readers of Fifty Shades of Gray have little appreciation for Melville’s lengthy asides on the nineteenth–century whaling industry, or the inclination to wade through Hugo’s background on Parisian nunneries or Waterloo precursors.  I do not mean these statements to be genre-inflammatory or to demean individual reading proclivities but simply reiterate the notion that we, individually, seek out and read specific kinds of novels tailored to our particular tastes. And the classic-lovers, those that yearn for the exquisite phrase (however lengthy the preceding), we are in the minority – the literary lifeboat keeping Penguin Classics and Oxford World Publishing afloat. Could one then postulate, perhaps, that Hugo and Dickens, Dumas and Dostoyevsky, and Bánffy to boot, are ‘forgotten’ by contemporary readers of erotic fiction? Indubitably they are not forgotten by those who appreciate their works, by those who seek them out in preference to many others. But most of us have a passing acquaintance with these literary greats, do we not? Abusing Shakespearean prose in high school English class, or forced to wade through Dickens for a pass-worthy grade. Perhaps they linger on the fringes of memory for those who do not return to the classics as adults, perhaps less appealing later due to the coercive nature of earlier exposure? One did not, after all, have much of a choice if one wanted to pass English in high school; I remember the stilted renditions of Romeo and Juliet in eighth grade: "What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!"

To be utterly candid (as I always strive to be in these Humble Musings – for those who manage to make their way through them to the end – I do apologize – undue verbosity has always been my failing!) I had never even heard of Bánffy prior to a much-appreciated recommendation by Rosalind Brackenbury (read her Becoming George Sand, it is marvelous!) And so while Bánffy was, and still is, unknown by many, his writing is no less diminished by the smaller circle of appreciation. In fact, upon reading the first chapter, I promptly returned the kindly loaned copy back to Rosalind and purchased a copy for myself, knowing that this was a literary work I would want on my shelf for years to come. Pim Wiersinga’s novel ‘The Pavilion of Forgotten Concubines’ is another such literary wonder that will be snugly situated next to these other works of narrative longevity.

I do not mean to be pugnacious. I am simply baffled as to what is meant by 'forgotten' in regards to a writer of great literary merit. Many of the beloved writers represented upon my groaning bookshelf might be said to be forgotten by the multitude - particularly given the resultant difficulty in acquiring their works - but they are dedicated artists to the literary phrase. Their works pay glorious tribute to what it means to be human. And if they are forgotten, then, like Spartacus, I too rise to my feet: "I am forgotten!" And indubitably another: "No, I am forgotten!" Until in resounding accord, the literary multitude cry out: "I am forgotten!" For after all, it is all about the agonized pursuit of literary perfection. And what a particular endeavor that is! What speaks to one, is mute to another. But we, as writers, pursue our calling to the grave. Until we are dust and bones. But the words will remain, however faded upon the page, or intermittent the virtual connection.

Within and Without: Raskholnikov, Maritime Medicine and the Intensity of Character

I am currently engaged, with all due intensity (to the detriment of home, hearth, and offspring), upon a new literary endeavor. In the concluding acknowledgements of my last novel Killing the Bee King, I extended apologies to husband and children for the bouts of frenzied obsession, neglectful musings, grumpy irritability (when required to interact while writing - oh, the horror!), and the general lack of sociability that living with a writer often brings. And I have a feeling that such self-abasement will again be required at the conclusion of my next literary work.

My current novel aspires to an eighteenth-century maritime adventure, spanning the Tunisian slave-trade in the Mediterranean to the colonial enterprise in the Banda Seas as economic interest is supplemented by military might. I am interested, most acutely, in examining the interaction of cultural groups, of unlikely dependencies (the Portuguese preference for Indian healers, for example) and domineering religiosity; of the cannon and the spice - and the intricate way in which policy and culture, trade and  acquisition, shaped the relationships not only between nations and sultanates, but between one individual and another.

With a broader notion of plot-line established, I am currently fixated on the formulation of  characters of depth and engagement. There are, it seems, two aspects to the well-elucidated character: the external trappings and the internal ruminations. The former, perhaps, are more particular to the historical fiction genre and set that character apart in regard to attire, tools, and accoutrements - the outward manifestation of that individual's place within his or her cultural context. A ship's surgeon will make an appearance in my next novel and I have been delving into his historical medical chest and examining his modus operandi which consisted predominately of the restoration of Gallenic humors via bleeding, the lancing of boils, and the sprinkling of vinegar to dispel noxious miasmas. And, naturally enough, he has a vast compendium of powders, poultices, and pills within his medical chest to be dispensed during his twice-daily rounds (according to regulations that govern his duties under sail). In the mid-eighteenth century in particular, these medical chests were valuable commodities - not only to the unscrupulous surgeon who might pilfer high-quality prescriptions, replacing them with shoddy substitutes, but to those who were taking their lives into their own hands venturing into the far east, rife with tropical fevers and wasting diseases. This chest, and the man who governed its usage, epitomized hope - hope that the rhubarb tea concoction would ward off dysentery, that elixir of viterol might prove a hardy antidote to scurvy-related complaints. I digress! But isn't it rather marvelous? It is precisely this juxtaposition between past and present that I find utterly intriguing, whether it be the relative gap in understanding of viral mechanisms, the differentiation in attire, in attitude, in politics - so that when the connections are made, when the humanity of an individual transcends the chasm of time, when the reader feels an immediacy despite chronological separation - is that not a significant measure of success for a work of historical fiction? To expose and elucidate the gap and then to provide a bridge across it? Pewter cups, mortar and pestles, syringes and nozzles, 'vomiting root' and mercury are some of the many physical accoutrements that bespeak the surgeon's trade - the literary clues that are dropped like breadcrumbs to suggest a place, a period, or a prevailing notion. The significant challenge, however, for the writer is the conveyance of what is less readily ascertained by the material assemblage - the preoccupations, the thoughts, the ruminations, the mental ponderings.

For the critical aspect that renders a fictional character more than the superficial sum of his or her parts  is what simmers within. This nameless surgeon may be singularly well-equipped for his trade in the mid-eighteenth century, have all requisite chests and tools at his disposal, but until he is intrinsically developed as a complex mental being he is but a shallow, lackluster shadow of a thing. So, in seeking depth and complexity for my character-strain, my literary concoction, the recipe that encapsulates the fictional protagonist, I revert to the masters. Specifically, Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and the gloriously enthralling moodiness that is Raskholnikov - an expelled university student barely subsisting in abject poverty, eking out a meager existence in the cramped dinginess of a closet-room, who seeks to redeem his fortunes and extricate himself from misery in one swift stroke by the murder of an old pawnbroker.

In the opening pages of Crime and Punishment, and indeed through much of what follows, we are plunged into the "morbid state of tension and irritability" that is Raskholnikov. There is an immediacy to the narrative, an unrelenting focus on the psychology of the central character - we arrive without ceremony, without backstory, in St. Petersburg, accompanying Raskholnikov on his initial distracted meandering through the streets as he contemplates the murder of the miserly pawnbroker, a vile and reprehensible hag who has subjected her mentally-sluggish sister to servitude. For the intellectually-inclined Raskolnikov, poverty-stricken and ill, wishes to raise himself to the stature of greatness that financial independence can initiate.

Napoleon (an old acquaintance of mine from Bee King days), having crushed so many in his path to greatness, is lauded by Raskholnikov as a military genius, as a leader of renowned accomplishment. And what could he not achieve with the quick death of this parasitic witch who preys upon the poor and the downtrodden? For Raskholnikov seeks to "hold the fate of the world in his two hands" but (as stipulated in his own published article) exceptional men are a consequence of other fashionable notions that "are in the air," some "happy conjunction of race and breeding," a "mysterious law." He is trapped between his own passionate promptings, his own fervent desire to "struggle into life," and the invariably cold precision of external laws, dogged by a sense of fate, of some Darwinian evolutionary mechanism that grinds onwards, unseen by human eyes.

 There is a singular intensity to this psychological drama. In the aftermath of the murder, Raskholnikov is acknowledged by many as a fretful shadow of his former self: absorbed as he is in a dream-like trance, plagued by the fearfulness of detection, and subject to shivering fevers that weaken his limbs and cloud his vision. Raskholnikov distances himself from his friend Ruzmukhin and from his doting mother and sister until he, in this self-inflicted isolation, becomes consumed by a morbid delirium, a distillation of anguished despair. The other characters are brilliantly utilized as foils to Raskholnikov's internal state - their buoyant normalcy, their happy expectations of a family reunited, Ruzmukhin's growing tenderness for Dunya, all of which is set against Raskholnikov's preoccupied misery and solitude.

The exchanges with Porfiry, the examining magistrate, exquisitely elucidate Raskholnikov's mental descent into near-madness, his agitated uncertainties, and his escalating anger at what he perceives to be Porfiry's calculated manipulations. For Porfiry appears, in all of his mocking cheerfulness, to possess an intuitive, prior knowledge about the murderer (in whom he recognizes grand qualities) and struggles to save him by bringing about his repentance - suggesting perhaps the role of an objectified conscience. These encounters are portrayed through the opaque filter of Raskholnikov's frenzied fever, an increasingly unreliable perspective - so it is that we, along with Raskholnikov, are kept in agitated uncertainty as to Porfiry's true state of knowledge regarding the identity of the murderer. And while we keep fretful company with the beleaguered student during these interviews, so within Raskholnikov the imperative for self-preservation battles bitterly with the tendency to self-destruction.

It is a brilliantly nuanced portrayal. Raskholnikov is not remorseful for his crime, but descends into a paroxysm of despair and paranoia, weakened by illness and plagued by dark dreams. He is, with marvelous ambivalence, simultaneously 'victim' and 'monster' - a notion gloriously evoked at the threshold of the crime, just prior to the enactment of the bloody deed, where Raskholnikov waits, still and quiet, before the pawnbroker's door, and she within - each like mirror images of one another: "Someone was standing silently just inside the door listening, just as he was doing outside it, holding her breath and probably also with her ear to the door."

Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment under the most excruciating of circumstances. His literary career had been interrupted by ten years of penal servitude and exile; he had suffered the death of his wife and shortly thereafter that of his brother. Feeling financial pressure to support his stepson, as well as the family of his brother, and desperately short of funds with which to do either, he accepted the terms of a rogue publisher to deliver the manuscript in a timely fashion or be deprived of his authorial rights for nine years. Unable to fulfill these requirements, he fled abroad to escape creditors, his mistress abandoning him for another, until all was lost at the gaming tables at Wiesbaden. In a hotel room Dostoyevsky could ill afford, attempting to subsist on tea, he conceived the idea for Raskolnikov. 

So, in the formulation of character, sea-surgeon or otherwise, the example of Raskholnikov looms large - an intensely focused psychological drama in which the supporting cast reflect and accentuate the protagonist's internal turmoil. Whether one's narrative highlights a primary character or a multitude, whether the fictional work is a psychological drama or a maritime adventure, a writer can benefit immensely from examining literary works, such as Crime and Punishment, and authors such as Dostoyevsky who, quite simply, excelled at their craft. Must a writer endure agony before being able to adequately portray it in words? Or will a profound empathy serve its turn? One must hope for the latter, or familial apologies will scarcely suffice if I am to dispense altogether with home and hearth and take to the wharfs in search of the downtrodden and afflicted. But a notion that perhaps is not without merit? To understand true desperation one must bear witness, one must step out of one's skin and slip into another's - accommodating oneself to an uncomfortable fit. For there is that literary imperative to understand - whether it is the self-complacent East India Company directors who dismissed scurvy as the ailment of lazy men (swelling due to accumulating fluids that should have been vigorously exercised into appropriate arterial channels!) or the horror of the sailors incarcerated within the hospital hulks among the festering, the suppurating, the still-oozing dead...one can imagine! But to aspire to Dostoyevsky-greatness in regard to doing it so very well! I, for one, am eternally grateful to have such superlative examples of what the careful construct of language can achieve.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Bravery of the Writer and the Dilemma of the Delicate Dermis

There has been all manner of speculation, in recent times, about the dinosaur epidermis - the texture, the tint, whether feathered or scaled, armored with coarse hide, or bristling with horns and spikes; a variety of evolutionary solutions to the ongoing bloody battle of tooth and claw.

 I have been pondering lately the fragility of the writer's skin - that delicate membrane so easily pierced. What defense mechanism can we employ against the critic's barb, the agent's dismissal, and the reader's disdain? And I wonder again at the path we have chosen. To spend years upon years in a dedicated literary endeavor - to agonize in the darkest hours, before the world awakens, over scene-setting or plot point.

Then, when finally complete, to endure the long-winded rebuttal of remote publishing agencies who read little, if any, of the submitted work. And if so fortunate to persevere beyond this, to emerge in the full-independence of self-publishing, or to find a House that suits, then of course inevitably follows another battery to which our frail covering seems singularly inept. For not only does our Pragmatic Critic lurk in the shadowed peripheries of our own mind, but there are, indubitably, those bothersomely opinionated sort that exist beyond our private residential allotment - who will proceed to voice their thoughts regarding plot, character and dialogue - done well, or not - many of which, despite the validity of independent opinion (are some more valid than others? A provocative suggestion for which I doubtless deserve a slap on the wrist!), can itch and aggravate our delicate dermis.

But of course Praise and Accolades are always coveted additions to the literary fireplace - greeted with open arms and a grateful heart. The knitted brow,  the pursed lip  (tight with disapproval), the head shake, the low-toned skeptical muttering - that is another thing. Rather like those remote relatives, with whom one is barely acquainted, that impose themselves with unerring regularity upon the rest of the family. And who must, of course, be duly tolerated. As a recipient of literary criticism - how ungrateful I am! After all, I suppose that this external critic (as opposed to my own internal Pragmatic variety) has gone to the considerable trouble to read my novel (no mean feat at 180,000 words! - they earn points for stamina, surely?) and certainly should be accorded the respect every thoughtful response deserves? But how, then, to continue? I was told once that I possessed an 'awkwardness for the historical material', and that I should consider a profession other than the penning of fiction past. Dagger to the heart!

What defensive mechanisms might we writers employ upon such occasions? Spitting venom? An inert facsimile of death? Or perhaps we could acquire a carapace of toxic hue, mimicking more venomous cousins? What evolutionary mechanisms might serve the literary purpose? What robust exoskeleton might protect the soft innards of the writing endeavor? And if there is such that suits, how do we acquire it? For I am eagerly waiting in line! For what is it we wish for most devoutly? To be impervious to critical asides, to the snickering of those who uncannily target the areas of  maximum vulnerability? Perhaps the only reason criticism achieves full velocity,  impaling upon the bulls-eye, is because it insidiously coincides with our own private fears. For we are, figuratively speaking, chewing our fingernails to the quick over this or that...secretly wrestling with whether that plot turn was effective, or that dialogue appropriately portrayed, whether the opening pages proved too dense and unfathomable; whether, in short, the work engages. What armor have we? Absolutely none. Just a thin and pitifully permeable membrane - thinner than the average probably. After all have we not years of hopes, fears and anxieties accumulated behind this particular venture? And is it not a hard-birthed literary offspring that we bring into the world? We are, truly, as invested as the most doted of parents, surreptitiously cleaning faces with spit, straightening attire, and hissing urgent whispers: "stand up straight! Smile!" It is not that we seek mindless affirmation (although doubtless rather nice in doses!) as much as thoughtful confirmation. Yes - you are on to something here! Yes - this resonates with me! Yes - this lives beyond the rigidity of page and ink!

And there is a place, of course, for criticism of the thoughtful kind; some jabs that must be allowed to penetrate the casing. After all is that not what enables growth? Keeps us attuned to the perspective of others - which must be considered when it is these others for which we ultimately write? So - an armor casing of some flexibility - an intelligent sheath that enables some to pass and keeps others at bay. (Which of course the human immune system achieves splendidly!) Naturally, we lack this shell, this protective mechanism. We bare our shivering skin to the elements; our nakedness, with all attendant blemishes, wrinkles and sags, on display for all to see. This is the reward for years of labor (devoted as it may be).

And then? Then we must stand proud, raise our faces to the warmth of the sun, grasping hold of each other's hands - others engaged upon a similar task. For most of us there is no particular financial reward for this path taken - quite the opposite in fact; doling out for this review blitz or that blog-promise, time spent on media platforms in the fruitless hope that of the thousands who follow, one might buy. For it is extraordinarily difficult to separate oneself from the numbers, isn't it? The paltry sales, the quiet oblivion into which the hard-worked novel seems to be resigned? How to distinguish this from private notions of literary worth pondered over in the dimness of predawn hours? I do not entirely know. Perhaps the answer lies in the burning light within that sustains the literary endeavor. For there is a flame, a driving need, a restless imperative to write that overcomes all else. That will not be denied. That is, perhaps, stronger than the fear of novel-reception, stronger than the worry of hours spent and the lack of industry-related financial remuneration.

 The overwhelming evidence is for the continuity of life - the feathers a tantalizing thread tying lumbering quadrupeds of yore to the hollow-boned flying familiars we see gracing the skies today. Simply a matter of quiet perseverance, is it not? The insignificant rodent-like mammals that roamed the Jurassic landscape, furtive as they were, survived to become the dominant species in present time. So we too, writers of all hue, must be similarly brave - baring our literary works to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune; many of which will draw blood. But true courage stems from a dedicated doggedness despite fears of the outcome; from striding headlong into the fray ready to engage regardless of the dread that bids us cower and hide. For can a writer be truly happy without a pen in hand, without a plot to forge, without characters to ponder? And so I salute all writers, impressed beyond measure with the courage of those who pursue this calling, and proud indeed that I can number myself among these inestimable peers of the pen.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Stendhal, the Urgency of Prose, and a Place in which to Write

There is a place, beneath the thick leaves of a mangrove tree, where the water is still and clear, where amidst the detritus of dead leaves and submerged roots, the burnt orange of lobsters scuttle, and tiny schools of silver fish flash and dart beneath the surface. It is a place of stillness; removed from the perpetual shrill and clang of the modern world. One must kayak there, for the intermittent shallows would ground a deeper-draughted vessel. But this is as it should be. For the clamor and roar of mechanized engines would be deplorably intrusive; there is, instead, only the occasional cry of nesting seabirds and the plaintive squawks of their young, the soft murmur of water against the hull, and the hum of insect life that thrives in stagnant pools. It is a place to ponder and muse. A place to write in one's head, or scribble on damp paper (that must be subsequently confined to waterproof bags for the homeward journey).

Stendhal wrote The Charterhouse of Parma (of nearly five hundred pages in length) in just 53 days. He closeted himself away in rented lodgings in Paris, barred the door and gave instructions to all callers that he had departed for the country to shoot. And he wrote, in all furious haste, the novel that Balzac later called 'a great and beautiful book.' Begun on the 4th of November, 1838, the novel was completed on the 26th December of that same year, and delivered to Stendhal's friend Romain Colomb in the form of six 'enormous exercise-books' with instructions to find a publisher. While this might be considered a exhausting tempo of composition, even for the most prolific of writers, Stendhal valued prose that was urgently compelling and free from artifice - an imperative served by writing unconstrained by editorial revision.

For myself, the decade of endeavor (that has, at long last, come to a happy conclusion - with Killing the Bee King now available online in all requisite formats) seems an interminable stretch in comparison. And Stendhal's strategy certainly holds appeal - this notion that one can avail oneself of an uninterrupted place,  removed from the larger world, and write with unimpeded ferocity. For, while I have not the happy talent to write bountiful prose unneedful of editorial red (my mistakes are indubitably many), there is something intriguing about the fresh exuberance of Stendhal's approach. Granted, despite Balzac's favorable review he did allow himself some criticisms of Stendhal's work; criticisms that the latter took sufficiently to heart to undertake unprecedented revisions (being, as he was, a writer who disdained wasting time on second thoughts, or drafts for that matter); rewrites that were, however, later abandoned due to ill-health. Stendhal's manner of work, imbued with a fervent spontaneity, seems to find echo within the personalities of his primary fictional characters: Fabrizio del Dongo, and his aunt, the Duchess Gina Sanseverina, are governed not by reason or cool expediency, but by their passionate natures, and thus present a stark contrast to the timid calculations of the courtiers by whom they are surrounded.

But one must, of course, have the place and the time - free of the entanglements of life and work. Stendhal's fifty-three days of frenetic writing was wrested from quotidian obligations (just as our own might be); plagued by debt, the French author had, with sour disgruntlement, accepted a post of consul at the port town of Civitavecchia. The Charterhouse of Parma was penned while on extended leave from his consulship - having been granted a month, he took (thanks to ministerial favor and influence) two and a half years. With full pay as opposed to the conventional half. Stendhal's literary stars had indeed aligned!

While Stendhal had his Parisian retreat at 8, rue Caumartin, I have developed the improbable notion that this outlying mangrove island is the place in which the Muse might visit me; in the secluded quiet, free of the tempestuous racket that defines regular hours, with only the seabirds for company. Here, my mind can turn unfettered to the maritime adventure which waits on the peripheries: to a new assemblage of characters who begin to take nebulous shape, to the sharp tang of salt and the gentle warmth of a sea-borne breeze, the flap of canvas sail, and the rattle of a loosed anchor chain, of the heavy humidity of tropical islands, and the heady lure of the exotic spice...a new novel awaits!

And, inspired by Stendhal's masterful work and his focused dedication to the process, I am hoping the undertaking will not require the decade devoted to the first; perhaps, with acquired experience, the second novel will be written with an improved ease and fluency, that, true to Stendhal's mandate, exude an intensity of prose free of contrivance or artifice. Assuming this waterlogged writing retreat of limited accessibility, my Muse will have to be content (as will I) with intermittent visitations; my character is insufficiently stalwart to endure the requisite 53 days of kayak living - not to mention the innumerable pages dropped and blotted, forming nests for shadowy ocean-dwellers, or fodder for scavenging nest-makers. No, Stendhal's locale seems far more pragmatic than my own. A much better place for the penning of a marvelous new novel. But perhaps mine might find its sandy beginnings in this quiet place - where, along with the lobster hatchlings  and baby frigatebirds, a literary work might be born.

Monday, June 16, 2014

My Writing Process : A 'Blog Hop' Tour

Beth von Staats, a talented writer of Tudor-era short stories, kindly invited me to participate in the Blog Hop Tour "My Writing Process," prior to which, I had little notion as to what a 'Blog Hop' comprised, or what kind of physical and mental contortions might be required - being, still, a technological novice in all but the most basic aspects of social media. Fortunately, given my excess of left feet, mastering the 'blog hop' seems to comprise of answering four questions pertaining to the writing process - that I can do!

What are you currently working on?


I have, most recently, completed a decade-long literary endeavor: Killing the Bee King, which will be released by Regal House Publishing at the end of July. It is, essentially, a spy-themed thriller set in Paris and London in 1803 and revolves around Napoleon's intent to invade England; it is a tale of secret agents and assassins, torture in dark ancient prisons, an emperor's obsession, and a dying man's magnificent triumph. It is a tale of two nations at war, and a man and a woman torn by conflicting loyalties, who in a time of secret agendas and shadowy plots, must learn not only to trust each other but to forgive themselves.

Now, freed from the constraints of editing, and the endless rounds of tweaking that invariably accompany a work in it's final conclusion, I am simply ecstatic to move on to another historical narrative.

My next novel is located in mid-eighteenth century Southeast Asia, and will comprise a maritime adventure through the Banda Sea at a time when the great European powers were seeking domination of the spice trade. The narrative revolves around the character of Lucie, a young lady of some gentility who harkens from Georgian England, whose trans-Mediterranean journey en route to India is intercepted by Tunisian pirates; pirates who dominate the North African slave trade. From thence, seized and ransomed to the sultan of Malacca, Lucie finds herself in company with a Portuguese shipowner who seeks to liberate his brother from imminent execution on the spice island of Ternate. Pursued by the ruthless sultan Marshid Khan, battling storms, Achenese pirates, the usual shipborne diseases, and each other, the two navigate the political and social intricacies of colonial outposts in their desperate attempt to reach Ternate in time.

So I am currently embroiled in research, examining Georgian England in the attempt to define the context from which Lucie emerged, and to better understand the evolution of her particular character as the various pitfalls and impediments within the plotline befall her. I am immersed in colonial politics of the mid-eighteenth century, historical accounts of Portuguese merchants, naval architecture, tropical food and colonial fashions. And, of course, the history of the spice trade. It is of utmost importance to me to maintain the highest degree of historical authenticity in my fictional works, and so to this end, the research might last six months prior to beginning writing the actual novel. Although, I have cheated somewhat and already penned the first three chapters!

How does your work differ from others of  its genre?


I am unsure how to adequately answer this question; I do not read a great deal of contemporary historical fiction. I can only speak to my own literary imperative - which is to create an atmospheric work of great suspense; to render a world in words, one in which the reader feels viscerally immersed; a historical environment saturated with authentic detail that lends a vibrancy to the narrative without weighing it down unduly. And therein lies the challenge!

Why do you write what you do?


I have long been fascinated by ancient and historical cultures; my academic background is in archaeology, a scientific endeavor that seeks to piece together the past. I have harnessed the writing of historical fiction to a similar purpose (although one can dispense with those dreaded footnotes, and has some license for fabrication - which tends to be frowned upon within archaeological circles!)

I find an intriguing juxtaposition between cultures of the past (and the associated constraints under which fictional characters operate), and that of modernity. A dramatic tension exists, for example, simply in a reference to eighteenth-century medical practice, where disease-ridden miasma's provoked ailments that only bleeding could cure. Within the context of this singular reference, however brief it may be, the reader is dramatically aware not only of the distance traveled in medical science, but the relative speed with which those innovations have occurred; and in these moments, within an historical narrative that is authentically portrayed, the reader is perpetually invited to compare the then and now. And, at times, with unexpected results.

The characters are critical, as they are in all genres of fiction, but for historical fiction I think of them as Virgil, guiding not Dante through the circles of Hell, but taking the readers' hands and leading them through the narrative. A guide through whose perspective we become acquainted with an unfamiliar world. In this regard, the characters are the structural bones upon which all else hangs.

In its essentials, I am seeking a reviving. A resurrection of a parallel universe (to challenge the complexities of modern astrophysics) that might have existed in the past. For so much of Killing the Bee King was based on factual accounts, and so many of its characters (for whom I retain a great fondness) were inspiring in their historical fortitude; so much so, that every part of the novel played out in all it's vivid intensity within the confines of my imaginative self. It was as if I was the sole ticket-holder to a cinematic pre-screening, and I had settled myself, with all necessary refreshments, into the plush velvet seat - and it all played out up there on the big screen. And not just on the big screen. Perched on my nose were my special spectacles, that enabled not only three-dimensional viewing, but with the added benefit of olfactory-stimulation. After all, how tragic to visit early nineteenth century Paris and London and not smell the stagnantly oozing puddles, the seeping sewage, and the heavy muskiness of unwashed bodies. No, no, no! It must not be! And so, with full sensory satisfaction, I tipped back in my seat, lost in the momentum of it; tense, apprehensive, tearful, delighted...wanting to see how it was all going to end. And, part of me, hoping it never would. Then, of course, like all of us that relate with relish a much-enjoyed film, I wanted to share this narrative with others.  I wanted to depict this period of the past with as much veracity as I could muster, perhaps kindling, for the reader, an interest in a time and place with which they might not be so very well acquainted.

How does your writing process work?

A 'process' sounds like a formulated plan; a literary methodology that has been rigorously proven to be effective; a set manner of proceeding that produces the best possible outcome, and one which is utilized consistently from one novel to the next. I have no particular process. I read non-fiction voraciously throughout. When writing Killing the Bee King, I read articles in obscure architectural history journals about the renovations of the Louvre, historical works about about culinary innovations, numerous biographical books about all my historical personages - William Pitt, Napoleon, Talleyrand..and of course, book upon book upon book about the French Revolution and the immediate aftermath. This obsession with the historical record is probably the only constant within any literary 'process' I adhere to. Then, with historical accounts fresh in mind, I write furiously...then wonder, ponder, muse about this or that...then revert to non-fiction yet again with an almost maniac devotion to extricating some measure of 'truth.' Creative initiative, at least for me, is not so easily harnessed; and I progress in fits and starts with constant referral to this non-fictional work or that...writing chapter upon chapter that feel sublimely perfect in the first draft, and then being stymied for days on end as to how best to proceed.


Marta Merjver-Kurlat

Marta Merjver-Kurlat

I am utterly delighted to introduce a wonderful Argentinean writer as the next one 'tagged' in this blog hop, and I have no doubt she will accomplish this feat far more deftly than I! Her brilliant novel Just Toss the Ashes is a sublime examination of grief, love and loss within the complications of the family dynamic. Marta is also a translator and psychoanalyst who publishes in Spanish and English with Jorge Pinto Books, Inc., New York. 


Pim Wiersinga

Pim Wiersinga
I am thrilled to introduce an incredibly talented writer whose marvelous work The Pavilion of Forgotten Concubines will be released by Regal House Publishing later this year. It is a simply exquisite work from an already renowned Dutch author, but this particular novel represents his English debut. I, for one, am excited to see what Pim is going to come up with next! In the meantime, visit his blog to find out his answers to the blog hop questions!


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Alain-Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes, and the Poignant Romanticism of Youth

Alain-Fournier's exquisite novel Le Grand Meaulnes seems less a crafted fictional tale than an ethereal dreamscape. It describes the arrival, at a rural school in Sologne, of the charismatic Meaulnes who captivates his schoolfellows with his brash confidence and inclination for adventure. After abruptly disappearing for several days, Meaulnes returns, travel-stained and disheveled, and confides in the young and admiring François: while lost among narrow pathways and rural lanes, amidst meadows and hedgerows, the older boy glimpsed "the spire of a grey turret rising above some fir trees". Meaulnes subsequently found himself welcomed to a  strangely dilapidated mansion with crumbling outbuildings and carefully raked driveways, festooned with colored lanterns and jumbled collections of antiquated goods. He moved through the estate with the dazed uncertainty of a somnambulist but imbued with an inexplicably idyllic contentment: "a feeling of perfect, almost intoxicating tranquility: the certainty that he had reached his goal and that henceforth only happiness awaited him."

This curious manor was inhabited, and organized it appeared, by an assemblage of children dressed in the formal attire of a bygone era: "frock coats with high velvet collars, stylish low-cut waistcoats...and patent leather shoes from the start of the century."  All seemed to reside under an enchantment, where innocent pleasures were defined by childish whimsy, where young girls in petticoats shrieked with exuberant laughter, and a distant piano-player evoked a sense of melodic serenity. Participating in the fete that followed, having discovering that it was occasioned by the imminent marriage of Frantz de Galais, Meaulnes is transfixed by the delicate beauty of Frantz's sister, Yvonne. When the wedding failed to eventuate and the guests dispersed, Meaulnes found himself unceremoniously deposited back at the Sologne school with little notion as to where he has passed these idyllic days, nor the route by which he may return.

The narrative, in the latter part of the novel, is depicted through the older eyes of François (who has acquired a certain wise pragmatism in the intervening years); he expresses his incredulity at Meaulnes' despondency: at "this emptiness, this distance, this inability to experience happiness" that persisted even after obtaining the affections of his Yvonne - his Beatrice, his Dulcinea. For it is not her Meaulnes seeks so particularly, as much as he is obsessed with the Lost Estate itself: "the little girls, the driver of the old berlin, the racing ponies...he was inquiring about this with extraordinary eagerness as though trying to persuade himself that there was nothing remaining of his great adventure...that they had not both dreamt it all." For Meaulnes, these later years are plagued by a dismal ennui. Frantz, likewise, is unable to relinquish the pampered permissiveness that characterized his time at Les Sablonnières (The Lost Estate): he is ever the "imperious, capricious, easily-discouraged" child who, despite chronological maturity, insisted upon "playing this ridiculous part of the young romantic hero." For it is those that persistently, and fruitlessly, sought happiness in a resurrection of the past, that seemed most doomed to misery in present times.

This Lost Estate is the distillation of happiness that Meaulnes desperately seeks, and the self-indulgent liberty that Frantz cannot escape. This is, in short, childhood; and these simple pleasures of youth have a tightly focused appreciative when remembered under the greater anxieties of adulthood; when, fraught and entangled by the necessity of wage-earning, burdened by the responsibilities of career-path, and confined by strictures of all that is deemed socially acceptable, the early years seem comparatively carefree. For childhood is the provenience of immortals; as far as the young are concerned, the days last forever, and the years stretch ahead in interminable succession. There will always be time: the hour glass perpetually turned, its sandgrains replenished; the darkly hooded figure with the scythe who lurks on the peripheries is disdainfully dismissed, if, indeed, he is thought of at all. But, when remaining years of a generously self-allotted lifespan seem to be dwindling, when one feels that they are accelerating with alarming rapidity down the other chronological side...the perspective is an entirely different one. In the face of diminishing time, one begins the restless quest for meaning and purpose; the grail often obstinately elusive. But perhaps the key to its whereabouts lies in the idyllic contentment of past remembrances, gilded and enshrined by the foibles of memory and the indistinctness of intervening time.

This notion, encouraged by the disillusionment that oft-characterizes maturity (and to which Meaulnes was particularly susceptible), is the quintessential dream of eternal youth; expressive, perhaps, of the adult yearning to  recapture that sense of simple delight, that ability to immerse oneself utterly within the present moment. For life becomes complicated as one ages. François' mother, so beautifully depicted within Alain-Fournier's novel, is so distraught by the appearance of frugality that she closets herself away to repair hats in secret, lest the family's necessary economies become the subject of village gossip. And Monsieur Seurel, François' father, seems a distracted, rather unapproachable fellow. Who would not prefer the rambunctious ramblings of boisterous boys through woods and grottos - climbing wild cherry trees, robbing woodpeckers' nests, with all their "stifled laughter" and physical exuberance? For Frantz and Meaulnes it was not a coming-of-age narrative as much as a refusal-to-age, and the poignant pain associated with this particular path.

What a marvelous theme it is upon which Alain-Fournier expounded! It brings to my mind the mythic island of Hy-Brasil that appears once every seven years somewhere off the Irish coast, shrouded in fog and mist and inhabited by fairies and wizards. Any so fortunate to set foot upon this miraculous isle are granted eternal life, but to those who seek it, it remains perpetually elusive, invisible between the waves, impenetrable and indiscernible. As Les Sablonnières becomes for Meaulnes - a mirage that lures him on, that promises fulfillment but leaves him perpetually yearning.

The Lost Estate takes its place alongside palaces of memory, where reminiscences become inextricably located in architecture, and childhood is indeliably linked with the overgrown manor house, pregnant with possibility. I remember something of this kind from my own early years - the old Raffles hotel in Singapore, before the modern renovations, before the whitewashed exterior and the sleek website. It had been a dilapidated mansion, dusty and cobwebbed, redolent with myth and legend. We would come for tiffin, for that rich succulence of Sunday curry, then we, the children, would be released from the company of adults, free to explore - and one could not, indeed, imagine a more enthralling place. We would scamper up narrow back stairways, through cavernous rooms filled with heavy colonial furniture, gaping at billiard tables beneath which tigers had crouched (or so the story went!), entranced by faded photographs of bearded men and solemn women in sepia; fascination existed in forgotten corners, in dark remnants of bygone times, in the faded carpet and timeworn stairs. And so, perhaps, it was for Meaulnes and his lost estate. For he must have imagined, as did I, that this crumbling architecture was more than just a receptacle for neglected furniture and dusty books. Perhaps it is the notion that some sort of old wisdom resides in places such as these, that past inhabitants still dwelled within its walls, whispering ancient secrets to those who would listen. But time, and progress it seems, wait for no man. Raffles was sterilized, revamped and regenerated, reborn, glorious and pristine - all vestiges of  inconvenient colonial embarrassments concealed beneath a freshly painted exterior. And the fate of Les Sablonnières? Utterly demolished, so that scarcely even memory remained; a wasteland, the provenience of rabbit burrows and tangled weeds. Gone with the rapidity that is youth. For when Meaulnes returned, years later, the Lost Estate was again irretrievably lost to him - as indeed it had always been. It existed only in the remembrance, in the later re-telling.

Perhaps, this yearning for a pristine past characterizes societies and nations as well as individuals. Napoleon Bonaparte comes to mind, and his attempt to evoke the glories that were Rome within architectural facades, ranking nomenclature, and the organization of a nation of which he crowned himself emperor. Because this illustrious past, this glorious heritage that all acknowledged to be the very root and legitimacy of power, this was better, surely, than the humble Corsican parentage from whence he had come?

It is not that childhood is always idyllic, or that maturity is bound to be the wellspring of malcontents, but it is, instead, about the dream of perfect happiness. A place of peace, a haven from the turbulent upheavals of life. Reminiscent of mythic after-worlds where virgins abound, and perpetual peace and contentment reign. Not only does such a place not exist in the earthly realm (as Meaulnes and Frantz find to their respective grief), but perhaps the irony lies in the probable dissatisfaction one would find there after residing overlong! Perfect peace? Calm contentment? Where, then, is the passion, the heat, the dissension, the conviction, argumentative or otherwise, the dialectic that engenders growth? The debate that stimulates further thought? The emotional upheavals that define the human experience?

This marvelous novel Le Grand Meaulnes is all the more poignant due to Alain-Fournier's own tragic death on the Meuse in 1914 at the tender age of twenty-seven. Little more than a youth himself. This novel captures, in all its sensitive intensity of prose, this yearning that has subsequently come to characterize so many brilliant works of literature, and to which readers today remain equally enthralled.