Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Season, Sisyphus, and the Tantalizing Carrot

Sisyphus by Franz Stuck
Writers spend long years arduously composing their literary works, then devote themselves, in what is often a comparable length of time, to subsequent revisions, edits, polishes, and scrubs until the fictional narrative emerges from its literary washing sleekly pristine – or at least as best as we are able to render it. In my limited experience, of both biological as well as literary offspring, some dirt always lingers behind the ears in those hard-to-reach places – which is when one brings in an incisive editor or an equally resolute grandparent.

And then? The progeny is freshly scrubbed to pinkness, attired in its Sunday best, and presented to society, with the last-minute authorial effort to comb the unruly cowlick into respectability. Like the debutantes of eighteenth century England who were conveyed to London for the ‘Season’, they are subsequently paraded in frills and feathers in hope of procuring a marital/literary partner. And there are a number to pick from, parading the dance floor: the ubiquitous vanity presses, glamorously attired and available for a hefty price, the literary agent who hovers on the peripheries, assessing each with a practiced eye, and the haughty mien of the publishing giants who recline in the other room (they seldom attend such gatherings). For those who seek a friendlier reception, there are a promising number of small, independent presses who love to dance. Ideally, the writer fills their dance card and in the process of an enchanted evening decides upon the prospect best-suited. Of course that particular ‘prospect’ must also concur (barring the vanity presses who will obligingly embrace all and sundry) and the process itself is far from done. If aforementioned progeny waltzes off into the sultry night with a fetching literary agent, that agent must still convincingly sell the product to a publishing house with a highly discerning economic nose. My point is, whether the debutante is whisked away by an aristocratic Charming, of the male or female variety, the wedding is still far off. 

Once the glow of evening festivities have subsided, regardless of whether a partner was acquired or no, the writer must begin again, summoning all available neurons to the task (however many have survived the onslaught of the previous year’s ‘Season’), confronting the blank page with a determined optimism and vigor. For beginning is imbued with optimism, pregnant with the possibility of all that is to come. And so it is that the wheel turns and the literary cycle repeats itself, the new novel emerging like tender shoots of green beneath the snowbank. The number of revolutions in the writing rotation are defined by the human life span, providing the writer retains the requisite stamina, focus, and sanguinity (although I am increasingly of the opinion that writers are instinctively inclined – that they can no more cease to write than they can forgo food – that the steady composition of sentences is a dogged thing, perhaps even, at times, an unwilling thing). When deep in the throes of such cyclical endeavors of unforeseen intensity and unknown duration, knowing as one does that the literary offspring might not prove sufficiently alluring to particular aristocratic publishing tastes, a writer might be forgiven for thinking of their task as a Sisyphean one.

Sisyphus, according to Greek tradition, was a fairly nasty fellow; as king of Ephyra, he defied Zeus, seduced his niece, deceived Hades, and contrived to murder his brother. His punishment for these transgressions consisted of pushing a weighty boulder up a steep hill; the rock, enchanted, rolled away from Sisyphus just prior to reaching the summit, consigning Sisyphus to an eternity of futile labor and perpetual frustration. Interminable activities have since been described as Sisyphean. This metaphor finds some similarity with the writing task; while the endeavor seems a ceaseless one, I do not however presume to liken my fellow scribes to such an unpalatable fellow, nor would I ever condemn the vocation to the realms of futility.

Camus in his philosophical essay, Myth of Sisyphus, offers an intriguing perspective. While we strive to better understand the world, seeking to ascribe some measure of meaning to the human endeavor, Camus would tell us (as is ominously proclaimed above the gates to Hades): ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.’ For the fiery collision of this human quest for meaning with the quiet unfathomability of the world results, according to Camusian doctrine, in a contradiction that results in the absurd where true knowledge is impossible, where rationality and science cannot reveal the impenetrable world, and “If the world were clear, art would not exist.”

For the artistic endeavor seeks to make sense of external things, to cast a glance darkly across the murky expanse that so thwarts our understanding. But truth eludes us and writers, according to Camus, are confined merely to the conveyance of experience. And to achieve authentic absurdity, one must not only abandon all hope, but refrain from even alluding to the possibility of such a tantalizing carrot. But Camusian hope is a futile yearning for a resolution of the prevailing contradiction. Camus does (reluctantly?) allow us a form of contented acceptance once one acknowledges the certainty of one’s fate, the futility of one’s task, and the concomitant realization of situational absurdity. But one is not allowed to relinquish the endeavor, voluntarily slip beneath the waves; one must ceaselessly confront the absurdity. Camus concludes: “The struggle itself […] is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

This statement is so profound, with marvelous implications for the writing metaphor I am painfully trying to explicate, that I must repeat it: ‘One must imagine Sisyphus happy.’ And this, for writers, is the answer! One must befriend Sisyphus and love the rock. The journey is everything and if your literary progeny turns out to be a bit of a wallflower, fret not! There are, increasingly, a number of options for the dedicated writer; the important thing is to find happiness in the process, in shoving one’s shoulder to the boulder and hefting it uphill. For even if the rock is heavy and the path forbidding, the view from the heights gladdens the heart and the ‘Season’ rolls around with reliable regularity. And with each uphill foray, the muscles of leg and back are  strengthened, fortified and increasingly equipped for the task; as is the case with each subsequent literary work: our pen becomes ever more refined, our voice emphatically our own. And how can one achieve this without the continuum of literary labor?

Post Script: And insofar as the tantalizing carrot is concerned, unlike Camus I cannot entirely eschew hope. For while the French philosopher laments our inability to find inherent meaning in the understanding of everything, I find myself rather satisfied with understanding a little bit. Can we not be content with incremental growth? To further our humble comprehension in fits and starts by the variety of mechanisms open to us? Is there not hope in this? 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Spivack, Evocative Writing, and Lamenting Literary Noise

I have been pondering lately the distinct pleasure afforded by evocative writing - one in which words are meticulously measured and artfully poised; in which the narrative is defined as much by what is absent rather than blatantly present; where characters are suggested, distinguished by a smattering of habitual behaviors or a particular physical attribute; where space and stillness exist between the lines, the cadence measured, thoughtful and precise. The evocative writer weaves a certain intuitive enchantment; fictional individuals are perceived through a glass darkly, with much of their internal selves concealed like the submerged leviathan detected only by the trajectory of its spout or a hidden rose garden that is intimated by a wafting fragrance.

Recently I lost myself in Kathleen Spivack's Unspeakable Things for which I wrote a review for Literary Fiction Book Review's March postings - so I do not wish to abscond with their literary thunder by duplicating content here - nevertheless, Spivack's novel was extraordinary. Her prose redolent with a deft lyricism, imbued with an almost smoky appeal. Juxtaposed against a subsequent read - the character and plot of which were elaborated upon in tedious detail, Spivack's gossamer eloquence among the literary ranks gleamed ever more brightly.

I think it is also a question of noise – literary noise. In this tech-driven age mobile gadgetry is perpetually at hand, becoming as firmly anchored to 21st century selves as any blood and bone limb, compromising dinner conversations, intruding upon quiet reflection and literary habits with insistent zings and beeps, insatiable in their demand for 'friends' and 'likes'. So I find it with writers that insist upon relating it all, delineating each movement of character – from stair to chair and back again – so that the resultant narrative is overburdened; the prose, predictable with momentum motivated by sequential mechanical action, becomes, at the literary end, stilted, robotic and, quite frankly, tedious. Just as we are inundated with the clang and clamor of environmental noise, riveted by the bombardment of tweets and posts, ceaselessly engaged with trending content (much of which is vacuous), so we are regaled by meaningless matter in books of this kind. And how much more potent and powerful is the implicit narrative!

These novels of quiet power, of space and stillness, of evocative suggestibility, they impart, in the sheer musical repose of finely crafted narrative, a literary restfulness. Spivack shifts with luminous ability between past and present, between the solidity of the corporeal world to the incandescent suggestibility of the spiritual one. Ghosts weave and wander, with sinuous ease, among the piping and the reader feels, like young Maria, the evocative drama of "unspeakable things"; not only referencing dark deeds of the nefarious Rasputin, but also the haunting power of this lovely literary work and the compelling resonance of all that is left unsaid, by character as well as author.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Spokes on the Literary Wheel: Hardy, Henchard and Rekindling the Fire

I have now been long absent from my Musings and while I am embroiled in research, in the formulation of the next work, in the devising of plot and character, I miss the torment and rapture of composition. For while research is devoid of such particular pleasures – it contains, I find, a different kind of intermittent thrill when one stumbles across some resonant theme; a literary gleam in the dark pregnant with fictional possibilities. But to write! That is something else altogether. So I return to my humble fireside and attempt to resurrect a faint and flickering spark slumbering within the cold ash. How well I succeed (these rusted fingers are prompted to movement by equally sluggish neurons), remains to be seen, but the endeavor serves to satisfy my own inclination and perhaps be of some minor interest to those who kindly follow…

As I return to the Musings, I gravitate again, as I have done so many times before, to Thomas Hardy. My reading life is as a literary centrifuge where beloved authors are visited and revisited, with an intermission of months or years, but accompanied nonetheless by an ever-deepening appreciation for the poignant lyricism of the English language (alas, the only one in which I am reading-proficient, much to my chagrin). Or perhaps a wooden wheel might serve as a better literary analogy. Just as wood mellows to a rich and polished hue, each travel-worn spoke is representative of repeated reads - from an initial and awkward adolescent acquaintance to the patient pleasure of more advanced years, with our understanding and appreciation of these fine works only deepening over time. For there is always more to be found between the covers of deeply thoughtful books such as these, lessons lost in youth that resonate in maturity.

The Mayor of Casterbridge is one such well-traveled spoke on my literary excursion. My copy, purchased over twenty years ago, is a well-worn edition, yellowed at the peripheries, and creased at the spine; it includes, as testament to its age, quaint instructions at the book’s end on how to procure print copies via mailed checks to various Penguin offices worldwide. This particular book has accompanied my various perambulations across the seas, from one continent to another, from the bookshelf of an inquiring teen to that of a still-questing adult. For like Socrates, who certainly had a far greater claim to knowledge than myself, I know nothing but am ever-eager to learn. And novels such as these are humanity's emotionally turbulent heart made vividly manifest in ink and paper.

The allure of this novel, to my mind, lie in the tragic stature, the pathos and power, of the primary character: Michael Henchard. At the novel’s onset we meet the ambitious hay-trusser,  listless wife and child in tow, at Weydon-Priors Fair where he, in a state of inebriation, relieves himself of his familial burden by selling wife and child to a stranger. Later, sober, repentant, and consumed by shame, Henchard vows to abstain from drinking one year for each that he has been alive; a vow that deliciously anticipates his own ruination. A lesser man might have sworn never to drink again and either relented or maintained, Henchard, however, is made of sterner stuff; the architect of his own defeat. Coincidence plays a role and Hardy’s evocation of the terrible neutrality of fate, of the silent witness of indifferent gods, bring Oedipal thoughts to mind… 

When we (in the company of wife Susan and daughter Elizabeth-Jane) meet Henchard again, eighteen years later, he is at his apogee – authoritative and commanding,  a thriving corn merchant and the Mayor of Casterbridge. Henchard is also a coarse and untutored fellow, endowed with a sinister laugh that “was not encouraging to strangers.” He remains unable to articulate his emotions, and reverts to an indifferent, solitary life defined by a casual contempt for the failings of others and a lust for commercial success and power.  Despite these flaws, Henchard, when confronted by his previously sold wife and child is determined to rectify the situation as best he may – which he proceeds to do by courting and marrying Susan and acknowledging Elizabeth-Jane as step-daughter most dear (for she must not know of his past transgression!) After Susan’s untimely death shortly thereafter, however, a letter informs Henchard that Elizabeth-Jane was born not of his loins but of those of the stranger to whom her mother had been sold eighteen years previous, and this luckless step-daughter is treated forthwith with a cold and dismissive condescension. 

A ballad-singing Scotsman, Donald Farfrae, off to seek fame and fortune in the New World, does the mayor a good turn and impulsively the latter persuades him to employment with generous terms – the die is cast. Farfrae is, upon brief inspection, a man of principles and charm; as the narrative unfolds, however, he is subtly revealed by Hardy to be somewhat less than the sum of his pretty parts. Spurning Elizabeth-Jane for the wealthy heiress, Lucetta (whose dark past conceals a torrid affair with Henchard himself), Farfrae’s star rises as Henchard’s falls.  Even as the mayor’s fortunes decline, as he publicly acknowledges his old ‘disgrace’, the sale of wife and child, his strength of character grows. At the peak of his contrition, Henchard realizes that not only is he unable to kill Farfae, who has, he feels, so cruelly usurped his life and love, but he cannot bring himself to reveal Lucetta’s past shame. In a flash of insight, Henchard's heavy heart is for the first time buoyed by unselfish affection for another – the oft-spurned Elizabeth-Jane. And this fallen man, devoid of position, penny, and pride, finds himself ambitious now not for political power or commercial success, but for the love of a serious-minded girl born to another.  

Living as proprietor of a modest seed shop, Henchard, enjoying the sweet affections of his step-daughter, is at last content. Hardy would not let him rest overlong. This peaceful existence is interrupted by the arrival of Newson, the merchant sailor to whom his family had been sold so many years ago, and the biological father of Elizabeth-Jane. Desperate to maintain his hold upon the heart of his now beloved step-daughter, Henchard informs Newson of his daughter's death several years before - concealing both his visit and his true paternity from Elizabeth-Jane. Regardless, all will out in the end. Upon discovering his deception, Elizabeth-Jane spurns Henchard who leaves Casterbridge to aimlessly wander the hill and the heath and find, at book's end, a pauper's grave; he leaves behind only a crumpled scrap of paper with dismal instructions for his life to be unremembered, his death unmourned and his body to be interred in unconsecrated ground.

The tragic heights of Hardy’s character lie in Henchard’s conviction that his fate lay in “Somebody’s hand”, that events conspired to ruin him, without realizing that this hand so referred to was in fact his own, that he sought his own destiny with a terrible vigor, his penance the self-imposed punishment that he, ultimately a man of high-conscience, deemed to be his own just deserts. For unlike other repentant men who embrace the harshest of penalties, Henchard did not anticipate redemption through suffering or any lessening of life’s scourge; instead he sought, most fiercely, to secure the happiness of Elizabeth-Jane and in this great and wondrous love, this selfless devotion to another, Henchard finally, in death, becomes something much more; he is elevated beyond the shallow calculations of Farfrae and the fleeting affections of Newson, beyond Lucetta's excessive concern for scandal and even beyond Elizabeth-Jane who could not realize the depth and intensity of her step-father's affection until it was too late. The pantheon of literary characters made room at the table for Michael Henchard.

While I am uncertain as to whether this humble fireside provides anything more than a pale, lackluster warmth, one may at least be assured that my zest for the long-winded remains undiminished! It does feel blissful to move the fingers in such a fashion and I hope to be able to attend the fire with greater regularity henceforth. I return The Mayor to the shelf and wonder what the wheel's turn will suggest next...