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  Given the glorious exposition of the first, the unpublished, unfinished second remains a collective shame for the rest of the reading world, and a reminder of the horrific waste of human life (and all the potential that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.