Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Procrastination or healthy re-reading?

I've spent the last few sessions on my novel re-reading and tweaking. I have been given to understand, over the years, that this is procrastination. I should be forging boldly and messily forward, not caring whether what I write makes sense later. I've never been good at that. But I also feel like I need to understand what's happening so far, and tease out some of the implications so that I can expand on them. I worry about swerving irretrievably off course.

I must say that as of today I like my novel, better than I thought I would. However, the original main character has thus far been completely excised from the story. I have lots of material about him that I may not get to use...or will I? If I don't, it probably means leaving the story in a fictionalized version of Bakersfield, which I had previously intended the other and current main character to leave. Sadly, I know very little about Bakersfield, so this means a research trip. Also, maybe, I'll go to Trona.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Ruining "The Cherry Orchard"

I went to a very interesting talk a few weeks ago by James Loehlin of U.T. Austin. The talk was called "Stanislavsky Has Ruined My Play," which is what Chekhov said about the Moscow Art Theater's extremely realistic and lugubrious presentation of The Cherry Orchard. But Chekhov meant it to be a comedy. The ensuing performance history of this play is a battle between humorous (usually more absurdist) and tragic (realistic) stagings. Because Stanislavsky's version was so widely seen, it's had the strongest influence on all subsequent performances--which is why, if you've seen the play or the film (I'm thinking of the recent one by Michael Cacoyannis) you've most likely seen an elegeic and depressingly boring story. But if you play up the humor, as Stanford's Drama Department's version did, and take up the invitation to absurdity, the play is fascinating. It still has very sad moments, and you feel these more because they are not mired in constant weeping and staring out of windows.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Truth and fictional characters

In an article called "Truth and Fictional Characters" from 1980, John Hospers proposes the notion of "behaving in character" as the key test of verisimilitude--that is, the reader's belief that a person like this, in this set of circumstances, "would, (probably or necessarily)...have done (or said, or thought, or felt) what the author portrays him as doing (or saying, or thinking, or feeling)." It is not necessary to recognize a character as being like someone you know in real life. In fact (says Hospers), it may be that literary characters are distinctly unlike people we know; their function is to combine traits and experiences in ways that are new to us. The key to seeming real is this aesthetic unity, which is tested in some kind of action. If this is true, and if it's true that in literary fiction plot is subordinate to character, then plot--what happens--is the test of a character's integrity. Not in the moral sense, but in the aesthetic.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Best death scene

The award for best death scene in literature goes to Edward P. Jones, in The Known World:

Henry had not had to change the night-clothes he had put on at six. About nine he fell asleep and woke not long after. His wife and Fern were discussing a Thomas Gray poem. He thought he knew the one they were talking about but as he formed some words to join the conversation, death stepped into the room and came to him: Henry walked up the stepsand into the tiniest of houses, knowing with each step that he did not own it, that he was only renting. He was ever so disappointed; he heard footsteps behind him and death told him it was Caldonia, coming to register her own disappointment. Whoever was renting the house to him had promised a thousand rooms, but as he traveled through the house he found less than four rooms, and all the rooms were identical and his head touched their ceilings. "This will not do," Henry kept saying to himself, and he turned to share that thought with his wife, to say, "Wife, wife, look what they done done," and God told him right then, "Not a wife, Henry, but a widow."

Monday, November 13, 2006

Maybe King is a real writer

So now the NYT Book Review weighs in on Lisey's Story, and pronounces it real literature.

Boo’ya Moon is “this world turned inside-out like a pocket,” and it’s as real as J. M. Barrie’s Never-Never Land, L. Frank Baum’s Oz or the Grimms’ forest. Like those places, Boo’ya Moon arises from childhood longings for the things not provided by one’s parents or guardians, and it’s as forbidding as it is wonderful. You come away from “Lisey’s Story” convinced of the existence of King’s fantastic realm and of something else rarer still in fiction, a long, happy marriage.

Other reviewers like Janet Maslin downplay the horror and fantasy elements in the book to concentrate on the love story, but this reviewer, Jim Windolf, finds both aspects equally worthy of interest. In Windolf's view, the fantastic aspects don't detract from the detailed portrait of the married couple. The two worlds blend in King's fiction, strenghtening it.

Windolf shows how writers like Michael Chabon and Dave Eggers, nostalgic for the schlock (including King) they grew up on, have become the new literary gatekeepers right under Harold Bloom's nose. And they have let King come on in.

It struck me also, in reading the NYT Book Review yesterday, that many children's books blend fantasy and realism in similar ways. I kept reading the reviews, thinking "that sounds interesting," then finding out it was "for ages 12 and up." Are children's books more daring that adult fiction now?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Naturalistic unreality

Harold Bloom, in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human:

It is difficult to describe Shakespeare's mdoes of representation without resorting to oxymorons, since most of these modes are founded upon seeming contradictions. A "naturalistic unreality" suggests itself, to meet Wittgenstein's annoyed comment that life is not like Shakespeare. Owen Barfield replied to Wittgenstein in advance (1928):
...there is a very real sense, humiliating as it may seem, in which what we generally venture to call our feelings are really Shakespeare's "meaning."

Life itself has become a naturalistic unreality, partly, because of Shakespeare's prevalence. To have invented our feelings is to have gone beyond psychologizing us: Shakespeare made us theatrical, even if we never attend a performance or read a play. After Hamlet literally has stopped the play--to joke about the War of the Theaters, to command the Player King to enact the absurd scene in which Aeneas recounts Priam's slaughter, to admonish the players to a little discipline--we more than ever regard Hamlet as one of us, somehow dropped into a role in a play, and the wrong play at that. The prince alone is real; the others, and all the action, constitute theater.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Is it true?

I wish I could celebrate the huge Democratic victory yesterday. Just about everything, including state propositions like 85, came out the way I wanted... I can't remember the last time this happened. Maybe that's why I don't know how to feel. Also we've lived under this cloud of Republican gloom for so long it's hard to shift gears. Mostly I just don't believe that the Dems could overcome all the bullshit, voter intimidation, media distortions, gerrymandering, and their own frequent cowardice to make this happen. So I'm still waiting for another shoe to drop. But so far all the shoes have been good ones.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Erich Auerbach appreciated

I am rereading Mimesis, the ur-text of comparative literature, and one of the first works of lit crit I read as a grad student. (It should be noted that I read very little lit crit as an undergrad, a sign of the very traditional honors English program at Michigan back in the day... and also the reason I decided to pursue a PhD in literature. I thought I'd be studying literature. Who knew?) But anyway, I loved Auerbach and particularly "Odysseus's Scar," the first chapter, about externalization and presentness. A key early argument is that Homer doesn't attempt to create suspense by using flashbacks, which requires the current action to stay at least somewhat in the reader's mind while the author goes into the past. For suspense to occur, the reader has to remember what's going on in the present and want to get back to it.

On the second page of the library book I took out, a reader has underlined "But Homer--and to this we shall have to return later--knows no background. What he narrates is for the time being the only present, and fills both the stage and the reader's mind completely." And then that reader has noted in very small letters in the margin: "I agree. Dankeschoen E.A." Another reader writes below that, "thank *you,* benny. E.A. (never had no one appreciate me)"

That's just a little appreciation to the anonymous annotators of this copy of Mimesis. I don't normally approve of writing in library books, but you have to love this.