Monday, December 30, 2013

Writing a Novel: An Ineluctable Modality - Part 4

(This is the last - I promise - in a series of posts about writing my November Novel, An Ineluctable Modality. You can start at the beginning with Part 1 here; you can begin reading the entire novel, here.)

One thing I've learned from reading about writers or their styles, no matter what somebody comes up with, somebody'd already come up with a term for it. No matter how natural it may seem to you the reader (or you, the author), finding an academic term applied to it makes it sound like one of those “write-a-scene-using-one-of-these-three-techniques” assignments. I suppose it's the way many people speak – without being conscious of what tense, what grammatical or syntactical rules, or whether they're spelling and punctuating it properly. We do it automatically, speaking, having absorbed rules, examples and influences in the process of our education and experience, knowingly or not, without knowing “what it's called.”

It's the same thing in music where critics and theorists can spill a lot of ink trying to tell us about what composers have written or what we're listening to. It often doesn't make compelling reading and often isn't going to help the average listener enjoy it any more. And appreciation may be a different thing than enjoying, anyway: we can appreciate what might have gone into it but, frankly, if you don't like the sound of it, chances are understanding the technical details or the historical background isn't really going to make you like it. If you do like it, then yes, appreciation can deepen your response to it. Or not.

Listening to Frank Delaney's weekly podcasts about James Joyce's Ulysses may seem like a lot of detail (excessive, you might say) and an incredible amount of additional information. (As of Dec. 25th, 2013, three and a half years after his first post, Episode #185 is about a passage in Chapter 4, p.67 to be specific, barely 11% of the book, so far.) “Do I need to know this to understand Joyce's book?” It depends on the depth of understanding you want, I guess.

As someone who drives, I always use the analogy that I don't need to understand the physics behind the combustion engine to get from my home to the grocery store. If I'm trying to figure out why my computer is screwed up (again), do I really need to look up dozens of technical terms that explain the science behind the software?

On the other hand, developing an awareness of what interests me will increase my enjoyment of something I already enjoy. Otherwise, our enjoyment remains purely superficial: some people expect deeper understanding when it comes to certain things that we deem important in our lives but art, no matter what kind of art, is fine at the “I-know-what-I-like” level.

So I'm not particularly interested in dissecting my own writing style and applying the appropriate technical terms to describe this and that. There are things, however, that an author's insight can help explain and would be better than – should it ever come to that – having some third-party thirty years down the road guessing what I might have meant by that.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

One of the things that drew me to writing this novel was the challenge of paying dialectic homage to two of my favorite novels, neither of which are typical novels: James Joyce's Ulysses (begun by 1914) and Proust's In Search of Lost Time (Swann's Way published 1913), both originating around the same few years that Schoenberg wrote his Pierrot Lunaire (premiered in 1912) and Stravinsky was composing The Rite of Spring (premiered in 1913), two of the most important musical works at the beginning of the 20th Century.

And since my starting point was Proteus, the idea that things can change (and suddenly) as Proteus could change, the idea of changing my style – as Joyce did from chapter to chapter – became a given. I wanted the style to change between Joyce and Proust as the novel unfolded or as my narrator's mood changed with the course of a day.

In opera – at least in the standard 17th-to-mid-19th Century operas – if you were telling your story, advancing the plot, you would use a musical approach that, if not outright dialogue, was musically one or two steps beyond speech (called “recitative”); if you were allowing the characters to react to events, to describe their responses (their emotions) to these events, to develop their characters in these responses, you used more poetic language sung to more melodic music, sometimes where the words took second place to beautiful music, where repetition didn't really matter and where, basically, the action came to a halt – but that was okay as long as the music was beautiful or thrilling to listen to.

So I have certain episodes in my novel which are stories, where the narrator is relaying events in a fairly straightforward manner. Then there are episodes where the narrator dwells on the implications of these events or characters in language that might become more poetic, ambiguous, often filled with personal references (not to mention literary allusions). These might, at times, overlap or occur as if shuffled together. Or he might be thinking about creativity – his, in most cases, or how other people react to artists, since this is a very central part of his identity.

Early in Joyce's “Proteus” chapter, he mentions two German words: nacheinander and nebeneinander which ought to be spelled with capital-Ns since they're technically nouns. “Nach-” means, in this case, “one after another, (in time) and “Neben-” means “one next to another” (in space).

Whatever Joyce meant by this, he'd apparently read (and Frank Delaney said it's very likely he knew the essay) Lessing's 1766 essay on the ancient Greek statue Laocoön in which he discusses that fiction is good at describing the “Nacheinander,” as in a tale told sequentially where events happen one after another, and that painting or the plastic arts like sculpture are good at describing the “Nebeneinander” where things (objects) occur side-by-side in space but which can be seen “all at once” or – and I'm not sure if this was Delaney's take, another Joyce scholar's or mine, entirely – where the eye can start on one object and move spatially around to other objects, in other words, non-sequentially to take in the whole piece in a way that might be different from another viewer's.

My own use of these two words – which for me recur frequently throughout my novel – is to imply how one can be sequential and another one can be non-sequential in a quantum physics kind of way, not necessarily in chronological order, the way our own thoughts often sweep through our mind (consciously or otherwise) not always in “correct” order.

In my narrator's mind, ideas, events, people, associations, and the odd word-or-phrase-that-pops-up-unexpectedly can occur either way: since he's writing it down, it's told through his perception, not as a direct observation. And so, in the middle of a “nacheinander” passage will appear a flash of “nebeneinander,” which brings to mind an Italian term used in painting – pentimento – something from the past appearing visible through the present either as a faint imagine behind the surface (as a painter might paint over an already used canvas) or, by way of some “tear-in-the-fabric,” peeking through the surface.

While Proust essentially tells his life-story in chronological fashion once he's past the opening sequence usually called “Overture” - you can read Part 1 here - there are frequent passages that are clearly from other time-planes, past or present. His rich curlicues of historical name-dropping (familiar to his readers in the early-20th century, perhaps, but requiring footnotes today which still don't do anything more than identify who these people were) and references to great paintings of the past (most of them, at least, unknown to me in such detail) are similar instances of this “other-timeness.” One of the most famous of these (and most difficult to explain) is the whole “Swann in Love” episode, nearly half the first volume, which has a viewpoint that isn't Swann's but can't be the narrator's because these events take place long before the narrator's birth. But Proust is fully capable of switching gears in the middle of a phrase with a seemingly additional two hundred words explaining an event, a vision, an emotion experienced in his childhood that can already occupy a hundred words of its own. And even the events he's describing cannot be the same ones seen through the eyes of the narrator as a child: while Swann visits them in Combray, we learn details about Swann's presumably double existence as the son of a stock-broker and the friend of princes, about the various attitudes of the narrator's family – the grandmother, her husband, her well-meaning but completely air-headed sisters, as well as Great-Aunt Leonie and the parents – all in great detail, all the while the narrator is obsessively concerned about the depressing realization his mother will not be coming up to give him her usual good-night kiss.

Compare that to the way Joyce opens A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man which, when I was in high school, I thought was the stupidest stuff I'd ever read – and yet here he's telling it from the vantage point of a five-year-old child, intrigued by the moocow, not as the adult narrator looking back fondly on his childhood. While he'd begun working on it in one fashion or another as early as 1904, he didn't begin rewriting it as the novel it became until 1907, and it wasn't published until 1914 (presumably he went on from there to begin work on what eventually became Ulysses published in 1922). Here, he is “baby tuckoo” whose life-philosophy seems to revolve around wetting the bed – first it's warm (pleasant), then it gets cold (unpleasant). A far cry from Proust's tendril-entwining loops of memory even if at the root of it lies his desire for his mother's kiss.

Since my novel would only be about 50,000 words, there was no need to go into such detail, both past and present. It was merely a short chunk of the narrator's life – the month of NaNoWriMo – in which are embedded memories from the past but nothing so consistent as a life-story though eventually there are sufficient memories to begin forming the idea of one.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

As Joyce plays with words and makes oblique and often inscrutable references (some, in foreign languages) to everything from other writers and an often arcane and unspoken bibliography, I decided I would try this as well, though I'm more likely an imitator badly showing off rather than creating anything nearly as virtuosic as Joyce manages (the whole trick of a virtuoso is to make it seem effortless; those who play at being virtuosos merely imitate and show us, inadvertently perhaps, how difficult it really is).

Though the opening is fairly straight-forward, it is, immediately after the Joycean title, entirely a parody of Proust: instead of going to bed early, as Swann's Way famously opens, my narrator used to wake up early. Here is the idea of changing things, of using (or implying) the opposite. Things contradict. Time, aging and the clock are all quickly presented (with a Joycean interpolation, “tick tock”) but with the appearance of the narrator walking on the beach (wearing borrowed boots) is pure Joyce (Stephen Dedalus on Sandymount Strand in Dublin, wearing boots and trousers borrowed from Buck Mulligan). My narrator inherited his boots from the uncle whose house he also inherited. It is as if the narrator is thinking as much about the same thoughts Joyce's Dedalus is thinking as he walks along his own beach which, eventually, we find out is in Maine.

Mythological references abound – his own name, Proteus; the identity-changing names he assigns to others – come not only from Homer but also Joyce's chapter: the narrator's father is Joyce's Adam Kadmon, the “first man” by way of the Kabala (I had initially thought it had something to do with Cadmus). Since his father would be the “first man” in the narrator's experience, the other fathers in his family tree must be given other names (what comes before “father” in our perception?): grandfather, Adam's father, becomes “Pater Hemon,” from the Greek for “Our Father” and at least is someone the narrator, as a child, meets. The other, even earlier but unexperienced fathers are all faded photographs (see Chapters 8 and 11) – or a memory that his father had of his own grandfather's funeral, Grandfather Khronos (the God of Time, not to be confused with the Titan Kronos, the father of Zeus, who killed his own father and ate his children). There is mention of the Union Ancestor, Great-Grandpa Logos (the Greek for “word,” as “in the beginning was the Word”); his wife is called Bereshith (the first word in the Hebrew Bible, the account of Creation, means “beginning”). What comes before the beginning? There is neither memory nor photographic proof.

On the other hand, the narrator's uncle, his father's older brother, is known only as Junior, even when he dies, a man in his 90s, the family nickname that robs him of his own identity. It is assumed he is Father Hemon, Jr. but it is never mentioned.

The quip about maestro di color che sanno is also quoted directly from Joyce who borrows it from Dante's reference to Aristotle (who was not bald, by the way). It means “master of those who know.” I also use, later, the expression maestro di color che sente, changing it to “those who feel (or sense)” and together refer to the left-side of the brain and the right, regarding an artist's creativity (if not our own non-artistic personalities).

There is also a playful exchange between the Narrator (now introduced as Proteus courtesy of the opening line stolen from Moby-Dick) and Henry Jordan, the would-be author, who addresses Proteus as the “master of those who know.” Proteus calls his friend Herr Liebhaber, “those who have love.” In Goethe's day (if not before) scholars (or professionals) were referred to as Kenner – “knowers,” in other words – and amateurs (from amat, Latin for “he loves”) were Liebhaber or “love-havers.” It is only more recently that this division was made by quality than by training. I have often been tempted to name two contrasting and argumentative characters Dr. Kenner and Mr. Liebhaber, a Dickensian touch.

Among Joycean puns, I would point out those about omphalos (Greek for “navel”) in Chapter 5, especially the umbilical “chord” which resonates throughout the world. From Homer comes Achilles but here, courtesy of Zeno and his paradoxes, he is forever chasing the Tortoise. Later, as a boy, in Chapter 20, the narrator observes a box turtle his elders have named “Achilles.” It is a moment of idyllic happiness and ends with a reference to Goethe's Faust, the moment Faust discovers true happiness: “Stay a while, you are so fair.” With this, as part of their bargain, Mephistopheles can then claim his soul.

In Chapter 6, over dinner, Proteus and Henry are talking about creativity when Henry stumbles on an explanation: “it's like... like a...” and Proteus adds “What is Semele standing in the meadow for?” Semele, the mother of Bacchus, stands in for Henry's unformed simile and what is the difference between that and a metaphor? (You may groan.)

When we first meet Sybil, a discourse on religion turns into her latest crisis and ends with Proteus admitting, yes, he could understand how she feels about it (experiencing someone else's thought through one's own mind), but it ends with a reference to the final line of Joyce's Ulysses, the orgasmic conclusion to Molly's long soliloquy, which suggests a slightly different turn of events as the chapter ends rather abruptly.

The chapter for Veteran's Day begins with a reference to Virgil's Aeneid but focuses mainly on the warriors in the narrator's family and the rivalry between the narrator's father and his older brother, Junior.

Creativity and Experience are frequent topics – how the artist thinks, how the listeners or readers or viewers respond – with frequent references to familiar and unfamiliar pairings (like the styles of Joyce and Proust, often contradictory elements) as well as how the non-artist perceives how the artist works (how one can experience something through someone else – again, a riff on the opening lines of Joyce's “Proteus” Chapter). We (the listeners to music) are comfortable with the traditional forms, for instance (Chapter 26), these “long sonatas of the dead.” This is a line with a somewhat different emphasis taken from Samuel Beckett's Molloy. The narrator's creativity is a “hobbled Prospero” (a reference to Shakespeare's Tempest by way of Beckett) leads to a Latin quotation, Oportet me pergere, non possum pergo, pergam, which is really a (possibly) bad translation of a purposely misquoted line, “I must go on, I can't go on, I will go on” [originally “you must go on...”] which concludes Beckett's Joycean whirlpool, The Unnameable. Later, this changes to “O ineluctable modality, I must see, I cannot see, I will see,” harking back to Joyce's opening lines from the “Proteus” Chapter that set my own novel in motion:

= = = = =
“The ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes.... Shut your eyes and see.”
= = = = =

In the next chapter, one other reference might need explaining: in this chapter, Proteus sees Joyce Diotimopoulos, the new librarian he has long been thinking about but has yet to work up the courage to meet. She is leaving the library with a friend (in a rather Henry James-like turn) “not just two people but people sharing an intimacy.” What he has thought possible (introvertibly) he now sees as a likelihood (extrovertibly) followed by a play on the word “hypostasis” (from hypothesis to the observation of Aristotle's “material substratum underlying change” as well as the psychological use of the term to describe aspects of a personality exhibited through its internal and external realities). Proteus imagines them as Joyce's “red Egyptians” (near the end of the “Proteus” Chapter) and he includes a musical reference to a famous and quite “modernist” madrigal published in 1611 by Don Carlo Gesualdo – “E chi mi può dar vita, ahi, che m'ancide., more or less” – “she who can give me life, ah, kills me” from Moro lasso (“I die, I mourn”).

The chapter in which Proust meets Joyce – the 28th, Thanksgiving Dinner – is not so much stylistic as physical, as referential as it might be irreverent: they share the same space as the narrator, his son Stephen and his friend Sybil (all three of our dramatic threads combining in one space at one time).

Proteus takes his son to dinner at the Balbec Inn, preesumably one of those old grand hotels (fictionalized, of course) typical of the Maine seacoast. This one, however, takes its name from the fictitious seacoast town in Brittany where Proust spent many vacations. In the dining room over by the windows overlooking the sea sits a grandmother speaking quietly in French to her pale grandson, looking out wide-eyed to the sea beyond (Proust's young narrator); meanwhile, at the bar is a tall thin man wearing coke-bottle glasses – clearly, James Joyce who suffered from bad eyesight and wore glasses with very thick lenses (sometimes an eye-patch). When he leaves, he stumbles past the narrator's table, complaining incoherently about gas.

Proust and Joyce, the two greatest literary figures of the age, both lived in Paris but met only once. Instead of being this great discussion of the novel and their respective aesthetics, neither would admit to having read the other, and if they did converse, it went along slowly until Proust (a notorious hypochondriac only a few months before his death) responded to Joyce's complaints about his health. From there, Proust apparently asked him if he knew various aristocrats in Paris society, none of whom Joyce would ever have been able to or be interested in knowing. So my chapter ends with Sybil asking Stephen, Proteus' son, if he knows any of his father's friends, to which Stephen replies, one after another, “no.”

It was pure irony that on the morning of November 1st, setting about to begin my new novel, I was troubled by an attack of “floaters” in my left eye, those wafting dark spots and filaments that create an annoyance more than anything else (scary though they may be, especially to one who cannot afford health insurance). More distracting than anything, waving in slow motion, back and forth, like lace in a breeze – “diaphane; adiaphane,” I thought, from the opening of Ulysses' third chapter – I found myself improvising a patch to place over the left lens of my glasses. Then I picked up my copy of Ulysses which has on its cover a classic photo of James Joyce with his eye-patch. Fortunately, for me, my floaters gradually dissolved rather than required the ten eye surgeries Joyce required during his lifetime, but it was a little too close an homage to be comfortable, however humorous.

When I wrote the novel's last lines – not sure even that morning quite how it would end – I found myself almost unconsciously tying in so many lines from Joyce after one more reference to Goethe's Faust-moment:

= = = = =
...I watch the clouds come in from the east – the sign of a storm: snow, maybe – still. Home. Stay a moment.

Creation here from nothing, the past (historic, personal – the same), pentimento of the future – visible, audible, ineluctably forging the cloud as others see it, hear it, over the living and the dead.

Old man, old creator, stand me now in good stead evermore. The ship comes in, homeward, silent, a way, a lone, and yes, I will say – yes –
= = = = =

There is the pentimento once again looking out from the past, the ineluctability of the visible and the audible from the opening of the “Proteus” Chapter in Ulysses, the cloud as seen by him (is it the same as seen by others?), the coming of storm clouds (from the end of the chapter) with the possibility of snow falling over “the living and the dead” (the final line from “The Dead” which concludes Dubliners).

Then, it's the final line from The Portrait: “Old father, old artificer [Daedalus, of Greek mythology, is an inventor], stand me now and ever in good stead.” Then back to the “Proteus” Chapter, ending with the appearance of the three-masted schooner – earlier references to the ship coming to take away our souls when we die, referring to the flag “Blue Peter” which means the ship is ready to sail, but there's no reference here to that.

Instead, it's off to the final line of Finnegans Wake – “A way a lone a last a loved a long the” – which stops without punctuation, but here morphs into Molly's final “and yes I said yes I will Yes.” (which does end with punctuation).

When I looked at this, I couldn't figure out if Proteus died – between the Faust reference, the quote from “The Dead” and the image of the ship (used already several times, most notably after his “panic attack” at the end of Chapter 19, as an image of Death's possible arrival) and the open-ended dash (accepting death as a door opening to a new journey?) combined with the circular infinality of Finnegans Wake – or if he just fell asleep. Personally, I'm not sure, so I'll leave it up to the reader to decide (or not) for himself.

There are many lines from Joyce's chapter that find parallels in my novel. One I hadn't been aware of until the last day as I finished the first draft is a few pages from the end of the “Proteus” Chapter, and might be overlooked in passing:

= = = = =
“Who watches me here? Who ever anywhere will read these written words?”
= = = = =

Then I recalled in my second chapter, still writing on that first day, where I'd written the typical blogger's lament:

= = = = =
“You don't know me, probably won't, and since no one will likely read this... it is a way for me to express myself without actually telling anyone. It's the internet equivalent of a note-in-a-bottle.”
= = = = =

When finishing something, it is not so much a sense of relief that a work is done – a composition or a novel, in my experience – but a sense of loss. I wait a few days before reading through it, trying not to be too critical (does it hold together?) and a few days later, I go through and take a few more swipes with Occam's razor, cutting out paragraphs that don't fit, tighten things that seem too baggy, reword things that don't flow as well as I'd like, then a few days later, do it again. I'll fuss over the right word (or a better one), adjust a rhythm – put it back, take it out, move it around, leave it alone – wonder if I don't explain this, why would I spend so much time explaining that, keeping in mind a spontaneous bit of “streaming-of-consciousness” is not always so fresh on the third or fourth pass.

As if writing a novel weren't bad enough, it's a bit more hubris to then write an essay about writing the novel, as if anyone not interested in reading my book would be remotely interested in reading about how it was written.

Yet, curiously, there have been slightly more hits on the first two parts of this essay than there have been on the whole novel combined, so far. Maybe I should write more about writing novels than actually writing novels?

Anyway, this is where I now put the essay and its accompanying novel aside and, if I can muster the courage, get back into writing Part Two (of four) of The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben.

To recall Samuel Beckett, “I must go on, I can't go on, I will go on.”

End of story.

Dick Strawser
© 2013

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Writing a Novel: An Ineluctable Modality - Part 3

(Initially, I'd set up this blog to cover (among other things) stuff like creativity, being a composer and writing frequently about music. But since I'm not composing any more (and I say that in order to goad my creativity into jump-starting a new piece of music, with any luck) and instead writing novels (usually about music), I can still write posts about the creative process (at least, my limited experience with it) since this seems to be something people who are not composers or writers are sometimes curious about if not exactly interested in.

These posts are about the process behind writing my most recent novel,
An Ineluctable Modality: you can read the earlier posts here and here, and you can begin reading the novel here.)

One of the things I like about the NaNoWriMo experience is the fact many people who might never try it will actually take the time to find out what it's like trying to write a novel. Those of us who read novels might think it'd be easy to write one – you start at the beginning and keep writing till you're finished. How difficult can that be, right?

But once would-be writers have taken a shot at it, they might realize “just because you speak the language doesn't mean you can write a novel.”

One of the things I don't like about the NaNoWriMo experience is the fact there are an awful lot of bad novels as a result and people who've met the 50,000-word challenge may feel, now that they've written a novel, that the next logical step is getting it published so they can make enough money to retire to that summer beach house they're going to build from its royalties.

There are certain realities of the business that go far beyond the ability to put words on the page to tell a story. Quality of the end result is not the point but unfortunately quantity is not the end of the process – in many cases, it's only the beginning.

While it's fun to reach that goal, I'm not sure receiving an e-mail from somebody on the NaNoWriMo Team congratulating you on becoming An Author (one that is usually rife with grammatical and spelling errors) makes you one. But at least you're finding out what it takes to become one.

And while I don't need to get into the whole American Idol mind-set that society foists on the Arts these days, let's leave it that coming to terms with a dream is good for the soul and sometimes that is success enough.

Rather than sitting down and starting a novel “from scratch” on November 1st and seeing where it went by November 30th (all the while keeping track of my word-count), I decided to do some planning beforehand – though this time, I gave myself less time to plan it because until the day arrived I wasn't even sure I was going to write it. I needed to get to a point in The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben where I could put that one aside to say, “and now for something completely different.”

After all, I spent months working out the details of the plot and the setting and many of the characters before I began writing the opening paragraph of The Labyrinth which will be a novel of less than 150,000 words. As a mystery, it has to have a particular flow to keep the reader's interest going (“and now, once again, our host, Paige Turner”) and, like a piece of music, there needs to be some variety and contrast to keep it together and give it a sense of rhythm. For my taste, too many page-turners are so high-speed – where not only ever chapter ends in a cliff-hanger but almost every paragraph – they leave you breathless, exhausted by the time you reach the goal.

This time with NaNoWriMo, I really only wanted to write a “short” novel (considering my others were planned to be between 130,000-180,000 words – figure the difference between a 50,000-word novel of about 120 pages, and a 180,000-word novel of maybe 425 pages), but I wanted it to be complete, not just the start of a longer novel I would continue working on for several more months beyond December 1st. None of my previous November Novels were intended to be complete in themselves.

Since I had decided my “story” (or “plot,” using these terms loosely) would be told basically in the format of daily blog-posts (a modern-day “epistolary” novel), I felt these episodes (chapters in a more traditional sense) needed not only to be complete but have a place in the overall “arc” or shape of the novel, the usual beginning, middle and end of a traditional story (the exposition, development and denouement – or in music, the recapitulation – that ties it all together).

Now that I had my characters and a setting to place them in, I started fleshing them out. Fortunately, not everything needs to be understood from the very beginning. Notice that my narrator doesn't even introduce himself by name until the opening of Chapter 2. Other characters only hinted at may not show up until considerably later. Others, mentioned in passing, may never show up at all. It's possible that some of this may change – but how: in the way the narrator perceives them or by discovering things he hadn't noticed before? Or is it something that doesn't explain itself well – aside from having blue eyes in Chapter 5 and brown eyes in Chapter 29 – and may need to be rethought? That is what the editing process is all about – checking for inconsistencies and correcting or explaining them if needed or, as happened a few times with me, weeding out things that had nowhere to go (one thing I've remembered, now, is giving the narrator a sister but then never mentioning her beyond that: if she's not going to become a character, that's one thing, but why would he never mention her again?).

Characters may come and go as the story-line requires but why are they in these settings? Why did my narrator end up in Maine? What happened to his wife? How did he become estranged from his son? Why is his friendship with Sibyl such an annoyance? What purpose does Henry and his on-going novel-project serve? How do these lines evolve or intertwine?

As it turned out, Henry's line receded considerably as my writing progressed: eventually, it was there more to remind the narrator his friend was working hard to do something he'd never done before while he's working hard to overcome his own creative issues as a composer who finds himself unable to compose. But no, I didn't want to have Henry calling up and saying “I wrote 3,000 words today” or “at this point, I decided I need to kill off my heroine's friend – how can I best do that?” That was not important to my narrator's thread.

Lots of these details can be left till later – the problem is finding yourself backed up into a corner without any idea how to make the reader believe what's happened unless, of course, the old deus ex machina works for you (it happens more often that it should even in the best of stories and films, the hero arriving in the nick of time against all odds, for instance). But it is sometimes fun for a writer to let his characters (as well as the plot) reveal themselves in the process. How do they react to this situation? Why did they make the choices they've made?

And of course there's always the wonderful “what if” method, wondering what might have happened if they'd made different choices or if something else had happened instead. We all have doubts: why can't our characters have some, too? A novel is as much a personal journey for the characters as writing it can be for the writer.

So given all that, what was I going to do with my handful of characters?

As a composer aware that music either fits into a pre-existing form or creates it own, I started to work out a “form” for my novel, how that beginning-middle-and-end would unfold. Since I like pacing things according to the natural divisions of the Golden Section, I decided there would be three individual threads for my narrator – his own personal concerns; another regarding his son; and a third regarding his friend, Sybil. The main climax of this arc, then, would be his own personal concern about his health which in essence is the result of his creative crisis, his fear of aging and his dread of stagnating, of being useless.

If there are 30 episodes in this story – a month's-worth of daily blog-posts – that means the Golden Section falls in the 19th Episode (not the half-way point). This creates two “halves” of the arc and I chose to put the son's conflict primarily at the Golden Section of each of those sub-segments. The son is a distant figure (in more ways than one) but Sybil is “local,” and so he rubs against her tension more frequently; the Golden Sections of these further sub-segments are given over to various encounters with her. Sometimes they're combined; sometimes they are not the focus of the whole chapter – and then, too, each chapter basically has its own proportionally divided arc.

In between these specific chapters are those needing less tension, the contrasting “release” chapters, which perhaps might not have any character or plot-thread associated with it. These might be more lyrical episodes or, in the manner of one having a creative crisis, meditations on what it takes to be an artist. These might have no “action” in the sense of driving the story forward but they give the narrator, in particular, a chance to evolve. If the other chapters, the “action” episodes, are what the characters do, these episodes might be where the characters think about what they'll do or might do or might not do or why they won't do something or how they reacted in the past, consider their historical legacy to better understand themselves. If we the readers have a chance to watch them act and react to something, we get a better chance to understand “where they're coming from.” And also, eventually, where this novel is going.

Now, because I wanted it to have some sense of “shape,” I decided my series of climaxes (great and small) should somehow reflect each other in the way they build and recede. This was not a mystery where the final resolution needs to happen on the last page – solved it! – but the delineation of a process in which my narrator comes to terms with himself in some way during the course of one month of his life.

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Time, of course, is an important part of this novel, even as short as it – by comparison to Ulysses or In Search of Lost Time – and the flowing of tides (living near the seacoast) is as much a part of it as our perception of the speed with which time flies (or doesn't).

I didn't want to have a strong and tidy resolution at the end – the son doesn't solve his problem, Sybil doesn't find the Man of Her Dreams and the narrator isn't going to wake up with the solution to that elusive new composition he's been trying to get started. At the end of 62,000 words, the son is only taking what might be one step in a possible direction but at least he seems to be taking a step; Sybil is making plans for a change in her life as well, though there's no indication it will work or even happen – again, it is only one small step away from the hamster-wheel of her frustration.

As for the narrator, I'm not even sure how his works out, if it does, since he's writing this himself. It's one of those things that doesn't end as much as it stops – or like Finnegans Wake goes back to the beginning again to start over (the famous last line which, unpunctuated, recirculates to the novel's opening line some 600 pages earlier, a thought overheard in the middle of a sentence).

Even in Proust, the plot is ultimately circular – the whole time Proust's narrator is describing (in often excruciating detail) the story of his life, it is only at the end he discovers he has the necessary life-experience if not the skill, finally, to write the great book he has always dreamed of – and it's the book you've just read.

In Homer's tale as well as Joyce's riff on it, Odysseus and Leopold Bloom reach their destinations – the conjugal bed, beside their wives – but Stephen Dedalus' own journey is not yet resolved: his search will continue past his final appearance, past the final curtain of Molly's famous soliloquy, whether the novel you've just read will actually be the one he now feels mature enough (as a person but more importantly as an artist) to write.

In this sense, I drew two parallel lines, one from the opening to the main Golden Section (phi) which will include 19 chapters, the other from there to the end, which will include 11 chapters. The beginning and the ending are therefore parallel points on the now potentially connectable lines.

Then, I marked the various levels of climaxes, given Greek letters to distinguish them – the narrator's at phi, the son's at the two alpha points and Sybil's at the four beta points – at corresponding, parallel points. These should be related if not necessarily in some mirror-like fashion as they approach and recede from the central phi-climax.

The chapters in between these climactic points could be about almost anything, but I decided, however they fit in, they would also follow this structural mirror. The content of these non-climactic episodes may change in the writing process (and usually did), but I knew that whatever topic I chose for this early episode would be met again in the corresponding later episode. In the process, these correspondences may become more ambiguous than initially planned; on occasion this outline only became a point-of-departure. The whole thing, after all, is only meant to give the writing process just that, a point-of-departure, rather than starting each day from scratch and wondering “what next?”

So now I have a kind of graph for my novel – a skeleton, more than a map. Within this – rather than thinking of it as hills and valleys – are sections that increase tension and others that resolve it or, as often happens in music and many other novels, disperse it with contrasting material: another plot thread, a different sense of rhythm and energy, reflection rather than action, background rather than forward motion, perhaps even a change of style.

Now comes the flesh. I was ready to begin.

(You can read the next – and final – installment, here.)

Dick Strawser

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Writing a Novel: An Ineluctable Modality - Part 2

Places & Names in An Ineluctable Modality

(The second in a series of posts about writing my November novel. You can read the first post, here. You can read the entire novel beginning here.)

In the sense of Proteus as the shape-changing mythological figure in Homer's Odyssey and the way Joyce applied it to his third chapter of Ulysses, I decided to “change” some real places into my fictionalized setting. Because I wanted to reflect some of the references in the “Proteus” Chapter, I saw the line “bald he was and a millionaire” with a reference by way of Dante to Aristotle (who was not bald – one of the changes Joyce applied) and saw there was a place called “Bald Head” just down the Maine coast from a place near Kennebunkport called “Prouts Neck.”

Marcel Proust
Now, another book that is important to me and to this particular writing challenge is Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time (it was still Remembrance of Things Past the first time I read all seven novels back in the '80s). Since I first started Swann's Way (volume 1) in the late-70s, then, I have read the whole novel once, the first half a second time, Swann's Way yet a third time in the new Penguin Edition and recently begun the second novel (now entitled In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower as opposed to Within a Budding Grove) which I put aside because I had started writing a novel of my own, again, and didn't want to be distracted by Proust or any other writer who would influence my style (reading other writers' mysteries becomes “research” but reading Proust or Henry James or James Joyce becomes a distraction, I'm afraid). I have just purchased the annotated Centennial Edition of Swann's Way and hope to read at least two or three pages of it a night whether I go to bed early or not.

One important historical conjunction is the publication of Swann's Way in November of 1913 and James Joyce beginning work on the novel Ulysses in 1914, as it evolved out of a story originally intended for Dubliners. Ulysses was not finished until it was serialized between 1918-1920 and not published in book-form until 1922. Proust completed In Search of Lost Time in 1922, the year he also met (tangentially) James Joyce, and then died later that year.

As disparate as their styles may seem to the average reader, I liked the idea of combining them in some way in this novel of mine because, when you get down to it, both of them deal with elements of time, perception, creativity and the subconscious, just approaching them in different manners.

Another thing that drew me to “Proteus” as a source was the very essence of the chapter, with Stephen Dedalus walking along the beach having, basically, a creative crisis (among other things). That Proteus – at least in Greek myth – was a constantly changeable god or demon also appealed to me. Though I was not initially aware of the extent of “change” in Joyce's chapter, with a little research I found he is not only constantly changing his literary style from chapter to chapter in the whole novel, he is often changing information or concealing the truth behind statements that, if you “got” his puns and ambiguous references, would add an entirely different, perhaps parallel possibility to what you're reading.

Stephen, in his walk, experiments with experiencing what he sees – and then, by walking with his eyes closed, doesn't see. He also imagines stories behind the people he sees (as many of us do when “people-watching”) and other things he experiences. When do we realize our perception of what we experience and the whole idea of something we experiences through our own senses is not always being the same thing someone else experiences? One of the first puns I came up with was, dwelling on this solipsism, to have a teacher named Sol Lipsitt.

So I decided that, in and out of this novel, there would be numerous and frequent references to Joyce's “Proteus” Chapter specifically, Ulysses more generally and occasionally from The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and, less, from Finnegans Wake.

But I also wanted to tie in Proust's novel, like Ulysses a search for artistic identity: like Stephen Dedalus, Proust's narrator is also trying to build out of his voluminous experiences the person who would eventually become the Great Writer capable of giving voice to his inner novel which, at the end of seven volumes, becomes the novel you've just finished reading.

In this sense, my novel opens not with a line from Joyce (the title aside) but with a parody of the famous opening line of Proust's Swann's Way: “For a long time, I went to bed early” becomes “For a long time, I used to wake up early.” The first of many such contradictory changes.

In this sense, every person who ventures forth on November 1st to engage their creativity in the NaNoWriMo Experience is recreating this journey of self-discovery whether for the first or (as Stephen Dedalus points out near the end of The Portrait) for the millionth time. In the case of my novel, here, one of the characters is doing just that – but my narrator (whom I decided to name Proteus) declines the challenge, instead facing his own crises in the process: in addition to his on-going creative dilemma which lies behind almost every chapter, there is the conflict with his friend Sybil and with his son whom I named Stephen, as well as his own health and the thoughts of a man on the verge of his 65th birthday (at one point, the narrator refers to The Portrait of the Artist as a Middle-Aged Has-Been).

First, the names of places (itself a pun on two lengthy segments of Proust's novel: Place-Names: the Name and Place-Names: the Place).

As I said, rather than just plopping everything down in an existing realistic setting or creating an entirely fictional place, an American Wessex or a New England version of Yoknapatawpha County, I chose a real place but changed the names to protect the innocent – also as I said because I am in no real sense familiar with them (and did not wish to encourage “tours” of my locations as Dan Brown, through his voluminously detailed research, does in his novels set in Paris, Rome or Washington D.C. – or, ironically, Joyce in Dublin, for that matter).

Aside from “Bald Head” being an actual location south of Ogunquit, Maine – and I needed a place with a beach like Dublin's Sandymount Strand – I found one of the hills not far inland was named Mount Agamenticus. Considering all the Native-American names associated with Maine for places not tagged by British colonials, this one had a strange ring to it and I immediately decided it would become Mount Agamemnon, after one of the major players in Homer's Odyssey. This is where I placed my narrator's home. He is a fairly recent transplant to the area, moving here after his retirement: a former college music professor and composer used to small cities and proximity to New York City who is neither a beach person nor a mountain-and-lake person – but the house has been in his father's family since the years following the Civil War. In a sense, he has “come home,” whether he likes it or not.

And that means the nearby towns are spread out along the shore of southeastern Maine between Portsmouth, NH, and Portland, ME. Mt. Agamenticus is near York and the village of Cape Neddick. These, through a process of association, become Langley and Cape Edmund – “Ned” being a nick-name for Edward or Edmund (Edmund, I was thinking initially of the villainous character in King Lear) and Langley from the historical if not necessarily Shakespearean first Duke of York, Edmund of Langley.

The fact the CIA is based in Langley VA has nothing to do with my choice of name but if it resonates with a reader, so much the better: isn't the whole process of writing a novel and creating a character a process of spying on people to gather information to form them? Many of the incidents told in the course of this novel may be ones I experienced directly or picked up (and often adapted) from friends or acquaintances (Facebook is a great resource in collecting potentially fictional experiences) or from what I might hear (or read) in the news.

And of course there are also those that are borrowed (in the light of “parody”) from other literary situations.

In the Thanksgiving Day chapter, the narrator and his son go to the restaurant at the Balbec Inn which takes its name from the seaside resort where Proust's narrator spends his holidays with his grandmother and meets, among others, his future obsession, Albertine.

There are three unnamed characters among the other diners at my Thanksgiving dinner: one couple is a grandmother talking quietly in French to her pale grandson who is looking wide-eyed out at the sea; the other is a tall, thin man with coke-bottle glasses standing at the bar who lurches past the narrator's table on his way out, mumbling incoherently about gas.

These are Proust's narrator and his grandmother, transplanted from Swann's Way; and the other is the biographical James Joyce himself, with his thick-lensed glasses (his eye-sight was always delicate and he underwent several operations to improve it) and his penchant for drink.

Though Joyce spent much of his life in Paris where Proust lived, they only met once, at a party given to celebrate a recent collaboration between Stravinsky and Picasso. As great meetings between the leading literary figures of the age went, it was quite the anticlimax and much of their conversation, such as it was, is recreated near the end of this chapter between the name-dropping Sybil (standing in for the mature, name-dropping Proust) and Stephen (standing in for the out-of-his-element Joyce). While it might not be LOLful comedy per se, it is only one example of what might pass for literary humor in this particular novel.

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As for the characters' names, my narrator starts off Chapter 2, "Call me Proteus" in a direct reference to the opening line of Melville's Moby-Dick (which also gave me a line I had to use, when Ishmael describes the “damp drizzly November in my soul” as his reason for setting out to sea again). And he calls himself this because, in the past, the music he writes has been described as “Protean” and because he is often accused of being inconsistent which he views as both a teacher's and a creative artist's prerogative. He also says, “in the realm of blogs, real identity stands for nothing,” and so none of his characters are given their real names.

For instance, we've already met his friend, the painter turned would-be novelist, Henry Jordan. Originally, he was going to be named (in the manner of conflicted artists dealing with right-brain and left-brain personalities) Henry James Joyce after my two favorite and wildly disparate authors. But I also liked the “would-be novelist” idea which was more important here – I'll save Henry Joyce for later – and so I borrowed Jordan from Monsieur Jourdan, the “would-be gentleman” of Moliere's play, Le bourgeois gentilhomme. (As it happened, I was preparing a blog-post about Strauss' incidental music/ballet for a setting of the play which the Harrisburg Symphony would be performing in November.)

Would I expect a reader to “get” that? No, but someone might and it would be one slightly deeper level of frisson rather than just calling him Henry Smith. I usually do that more obviously with the comic thrillers I write where characters are given punning names as we've already seen here with the archetypal teacher, Sol Lipsitt. Or the detective from The Lost Chord named Jenna St.-Croix (from “je nais c'est quoi” which seemed so perfect for somebody who uses deduction for a living). And, of
course, who can forget Yoda Leahy-Hu?

While Madeleine LeMare, the family lawyer who makes a brief appearance in Proteus' inheriting the old family homestead on the road leading up to Mt. Agamemnon, is taken directly from Joyce's “Madeline the mare” where it is a pun on Proust's episode of the memory-inducing pastry and the cup of tea, with Stephen standing by the sea (la mer), the constantly induced memory of Proteus' late wife, Madeleine Elstir, is something of a double pun. Trained as an artist, a painter, she gave up her hopes for a career to become a wife and mother – I could point to several such examples both known and known-of – while her husband strives to pursue his own career as a composer. The Proustian madeleine aside, Elstir is the name of a painter in Proust's novel; and Madeleine Elster is the name of the mysterious woman in Hitchcock's film, Vertigo.

Proteus' friend Sybil became, unfortunately, a one-dimensional character whose obsession with her failed romances is the main conflict between her and Proteus – friends who place their friendship in constant turmoil by her single-minded selfishness (speaking of solipsisms). “Sybil” was originally from the clinical study of a patient with multiple personalities but of all my names in this short novel, one I might, in another pass, change to something more obsessive. Or I may simply let it go as a Joycean contradiction – a woman of implied multiple personalities who is focused entirely on only one.

(At one point, Proteus imagines she would make an interesting character in the novel he might write, if only he could make her sympathetic.)

Her last name, mentioned twice, is Icarus, after the son of Daedalus, famous for his “flying machine.” It is Icarus who flies too close to the sun, melting the wax holding the wings together. This causes him to crash and burn – something Sybil has a long history of doing in her relationships.

And of course, Proteus' son is named Stephen – after Stephen Dedalus in Joyce's novels. There is a brief moment in the Thanksgiving Dinner scene where Proteus realizes the woman talking to his son at the restaurant is Sybil, perhaps trying to pick up a new boyfriend. He introduces her to his son as “my friend, Sybil Icarus.” If that was something you'd “get,” you'd probably smile.

And Stephen, a gay man in his thirties, is a recently laid-off California-based computer engineer whose partner is Leopold or Leo (as he's usually referred to), of course a reference to Leopold Bloom, the Odysseus at the heart of Joyce's novel. When Leo leaves Stephen, it is because he wants to go off and experience adventures “before he's too old to care,” but that journey is for another story. They are, like the characters of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple, an unlikely pair of attracted opposites – again, a reference to inexplicable inconsistencies.

Meanwhile, Proteus himself is becoming obsessed with an unknown woman he has yet to meet: the new librarian in Langley named Joyce Diotimopoulos. Her first name, of course, is James Joyce's last name and her last name (her own family's or her husband's is not made clear) comes from Diotima, the advocate of Platonic Love in Plato's Symposium. Diotima is also the nick-name given to the main character's cousin in Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, but that's another association.

At one point, Proteus (who finds himself going to the town library more frequently, now, in hopes of meeting her there) observes her leaving the library with another man in a situation indicating he is more intimate with her than “just a friend.” Considering Henry James' The Golden Bowl, the process of jumping to such ambiguities could create a whole new world of near-experiences (it is the process behind the entire plot of his slightly earlier novel, The Sacred Fount): Proteus sees the two of them as the “Red Egyptians” Stephen Dedalus sees (and fantasizes about) on the strand in Joyce's “Proteus” Chapter.

There's even a box turtle who gets a Homeric reference: he is named Achilles as a pun on the famous paradox of Zeno about Achilles and the Tortoise (also famous from Lewis Carrol's parody of it), itself frequently referenced throughout my novel.

Proteus is a small child visiting his grandfather's neighbors on Mt. Agamnenon, where they've rescued the turtle who's lost a foot due to a trap or a predator. The neighbor is named Homer Eckles – Homer, clearly, from the Odyssey's bard – his children are Thena (from Athena) and Troy – but Eckles is specifically from Eccles Street in Dublin, where Leopold Bloom lives in Ulysses. In fact, Joyce often referred to his novel with its blue-colored cover as “The Blue Book of Eccles” and as such it puts in an appearance in Finnegans Wake. There are frequent puns on the Latin words, ecce homo for the biblical line, “Behold the man” – so perhaps Homer is more than just a reference for the Greek Bard (see how these associations can work?) – as well as in ecclesiam referring to “in the church” (a constant conflict with Stephen Dedalus' faith). And so I named Troy Eckles' son Sam.

These names may have been an arduous process – they were the last I came up with and that was actually after the November challenge closed – but even though it may seem an incidental experience in the narrator's memories, it ties in in the end to something more profound and more worthy a degree of association than simply calling them Jones.

Another character, also introduced late in the novel, is Ferdinand, a former student of Proteus' who had helped him out years ago after he'd had his heart attack and who returns for a Thanksgiving holiday visit. This is an awkward name as names go, but the association here is with the son of the King of Naples in Shakespeare's Tempest – my character even arrives from Naples, FL – and since Proteus once referred to himself as a “hobbled Prospero,” the idea of Ferdinand developing at least a potential relationship with Proteus' son Stephen (since I couldn't exactly call him Mirando) is one of the implied tidinesses at the end of the novel.

To be continued: you can eventually read the next installment, Reference and Reverence.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Writing a Novel: An Ineluctable Modality - Part 1

The Theory behind One Very Small Bang: the Beginnings of a Novel

(This is the first in a series of posts about writing a novel. You can read the entire novel, An Ineluctable Modality, starting here.)

Several years ago, a friend of mine said he was “taking the NaNoWriMo Challenge.” I'd never heard of it before but once he explained it, I thought it sounded interesting. Unfortunately, with my work schedule (and also being at the time in the middle of working on a new composition), I knew I wouldn't have the time to write 50,000 words during the month of November. Then, after I was laid off six years ago and suddenly had all the time in the world, I decided to try it. I have now spent each November since then working on a novel.

This year, I thought I would “live-blog” my novel – it was designed as a novel-told-in-blog-posts, 30 posts or a chapter-a-day. Considering all I needed to make the goal was an average of 1,667 words a day and my typical posts can reach 4-5,000 words easily, it seemed perfectly doable.

It didn't take many days till I realized how much artistic hubris was involved in this plan. While there were days I could write over 2,500 words, there were days where, as much as I tried, I couldn't finish a day's post with only 400 words, considering the novel I was planning on writing.

The idea was not to just post whatever I wrote that day: each day (each chapter) was a self-contained element of the story (as much as this novel tells one) and in that sense it needed to be complete. I quickly found myself a day, then two days behind schedule.

Plus I also hadn't counted on the need to edit, revise and re-edit each day's work and that, frankly, is another project in itself, taking up time I would rather spend writing the first draft. The whole point behind NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words toward the rough draft of a novel, not write a complete and fully edited novel...

Since I saw no point in publishing the first draft, I decided to delete the chapters already posted, then eventually finish the novel and finally work on the editing process. I have now posted the third draft and feel the novel is done and ready to share. That doesn't mean it's “complete.” I can imagine going through and tweaking a word here or a rhythm there, but basically, yes, it's done.

You can read its first chapter, here. Each post ends with a link to the following chapter.

Ultimately, I passed the 50,000-word goal on Thanksgiving morning in what was Chapter 25. When the end of the last day of the month rolled around, I had just started the opening segment of Chapter 27 at some 53,107 words, so for the sixth year in a row I became a “winner.”

The rest of the novel, about 3.75 chapters and an additional 9,000 words, however, took a week to finish – I decided, after writing every morning for anywhere from 4 to 9 hours a day, I would take a couple days off – and I didn't finish work on the rough draft of the entire novel until December 9th, clocking in at 62,138 words.

I still wanted to post the complete novel but since it was meant to reflect daily posts written during the month of November (complete with references to specific dates), it seemed odd posting them in December with titles for each chapter being a day in November... so I back-posted them as they were initially intended to be.

Now that I've made two more passes through the editing process, the posting is complete. Now, it looks like I'm going to write a few thousand words about writing the novel in the first place.

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First of all, a few days before November 1st, I was still wondering what to write about: I wasn't interested in writing a journal though I wanted it to read like my narrator's journal which meant it was going to be more than me waking up and writing about whatever came to my mind.

Which also meant I had to have a character who would be narrating this novel and I needed to know more about him and those who would inhabit his world. What should be happening in his life, if anything? And how do I plan the arc of a narrative if I haven't thought this out?

Another thing I didn't want was it to be an “improvisation,” thirty etudes about nothing in particular. The fact that some novels seem to start out that way doesn't mean I couldn't tie things together as I went, see where things lead, discover the connections that present themselves. Even Finnegans Wake (this always surprises me) has a plot.

Keep in mind that I've been working on a different novel for most of the past year, having finished the second of three “classical music-appreciation thrillers” beginning with The Doomsday Symphony and continuing with The Lost Chord (not the one posted on the blog which is actually an earlier parody of a Dan Brown novel) which I finished earlier this year.

Even before I'd finished that one, a third one, tying so many things (plot details and characters) together, The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben was inevitable. On October 30th, I finished Part One of its four parts and decided, for the month of November, to take a break and write – what else – another novel.

So I left Dr. T. Richard Kerr and his sidekick Cameron Pierce at Phlaumix House (having just made some surprising discoveries, only one of which is the appearance of a character who will later be revealed to be Klavdia Klangfarben, one of the central villains of the series) in order to write some completely different – a lyrical novel that is not, at least on the surface, as intricately plotted as a mystery-thriller needs to be.

But I still needed some place to start: I didn't even have a setting. I had agreed that my narrator would not have a name – you can read most of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time and not be aware his narrator has a name: it's only rarely mentioned, referred to, on occasion, as Marcel: therefore, the entire novel of seven volumes becomes suddenly autobiographical. The narrator's identity in Joyce's Finnegans Wake is just one of countless things you might never figure out. Even in Ulysses, there are so many twists and turns on this journey, one can never be sure where the narrator is speaking and where the author is telling his own story.

I love May Sarton's journals and I've read many of the observations Henry David Thoreau wrote in his various journals, but a journal (or diary) does not have a “story arc” which is something I feel a novel ought to have. The idea of writing a novel unfolding in a series of letters (or its updated version, e-mails) is one thing, but I thought a journal-entry-a-day as part of a blog might be an interesting variation on this (whether it's been done before is immaterial) as long as I could give it some kind of narrative arc – giving insights into the character and allowing his observations to unfold as any story might.

But what story?

The entire premise was based on having my nameless narrator turn down an invitation from a friend to join him on the NaNoWriMo Challenge and having him decline because he couldn't imagine himself writing 50,000 words in 30 days – and yet he writes daily posts for his blog and ends up writing some 62,000 words instead without even realizing it.

Hardly enough to write 50,000 words about, though.

Who was my narrator? Who offered him the challenge? Did they become adversaries and did the fact one was writing a novel become the tension of a traditional plot? The tension came in the fact that his friend, a painter who wanted to try writing a book, had taken on the challenge but then said nothing about it until it was over, while my narrator, a composer who has been dealing with a lengthy creative block, was unable to get a new composition started and is dwelling on it almost constantly.

But the would-be novelist would not be the story's antagonist, at least not directly. In watching the very enjoyable British series The Last Tango in Halifax on our local BBC affiliate, it was fascinating to watch the story unfold as it did: the elderly couple at the center are blissfully happy while their families around them are dealing with one dramatic dysfunctionality after another. The drama, in the theatrical sense, happens to people around the main characters (until they, too, have a crisis though one more of faith than events), and so I decided my narrator would have his inner conflicts but be involved in or sucked into those of the other people around him: in this case, I chose two – a friend who is constantly in chaos, and his son who has trouble reacting to significant life-changes.

In the end, nothing is wrapped up neatly though some possibilities are presented. And how does this affect the narrator?

Where is my narrator? In order for him to react to the world around him, he must be in some place, after all, and I had no idea what I wanted to do with this. My mysteries all have their settings, mostly comically far-fetched – full of parallel universes and underground mazes. Another would-be novel is set in an entirely fictional city which, for some reason, I placed in Massachusetts where I've never lived (four years in Connecticut is as close as I got though for Sarah Palin, it would be enough).

Rather than placing my narrator in my house in the community where I live, I wanted him to be someplace else – partly because I didn't want it to be so autobiographical people who might read this would think I am this person, that I know these people (and if they know me, are they these people) and that they could recognize parts of town just as James Joyce gave us a capsule tour of Dublin on a June day in 1904.

I don't know why I chose to place him in Maine. I don't think I've ever even driven into Maine as I once drove through New Hampshire to attend some friends' wedding one exit from the Canadian border (making me almost as much an expert on life in Canada, then).

Reading May Sarton's journal from The House by the Sea, located in York, Maine, for the first time back in the late-80s made me think how wonderful it might be to live there except I kept forgetting I hate winter.

But never having been there, I couldn't write “realistically” about the town without someone ultimately pointing out the library is in the wrong place or there is no diner at that end of town or this road doesn't go anywhere near the coast. But I looked at a lot of on-line maps and started coming up with some ideas. I decided to fictionalize specific places: if they're not accurate, they're not real, either. And I gave them fictitious names that may protect their identity but might also be only a few degrees removed.

James Joyce, 1915
Another important factor was having read the “Proteus” chapter from Joyce's Ulysses a few weeks earlier, some of the densest writing in the whole of a novel that is often considered unintelligible. And of course, the whole of Joyce's novel is famously built upon references to Homer's epic, The Odyssey, that Leopold Bloom is Ulysses and Stephen Dedalus (generally a stand-in for the author) is Ulysses' son Telémachus (though he is not Bloom's son): both are involved in journeys of discovery – Ulysses to get home to his wife and Telémachus to find his father. These weave in and out of numerous other references, many of which are so obscure, the average reader would never comprehend the wealth of detail.

The name Dedalus itself refers to the man in Greek mythology associated with man's first attempt at flight – it was his son Icarus who failed – but he was also the man who designed the great labyrinth to house the Minotaur in Crete. This would be a much more potent reference considering a novel as a form of labyrinth hiding the author's inner secrets, and Stephen's quest in three of Joyce's novels – the early, unfinished and unpublished Stephen Hero, in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and in Ulysses – is to find his creative voice so he can, ultimately, write the Great Irish Novel which is Ulysses itself.

(The Irish writer Frank Delaney is doing a weekly 10-minute podcast about Joyce's novel - called, suitably, Re:Joyce - which offers far more detail than the average reader would need to be aware of to enjoy it, but many of the things he reveals are so fascinating, I find it worth the ride even though he's spent some 15 months on the Proteus Chapter alone and it's only 14 pages long! Here is the first podcast, #90, Feb. 29, 2012. He concludes the chapter with podcast #157, June 12, 2013! Admittedly, I discovered Delaney's website well into November and have not listened to all of the pertinent episodes.)

So I decided my own slim narrative, such as it is, would not be based on Homer as Joyce's novel is, but on one small chapter of Joyce's novel-based-on-Homer. Originally, I was calling it a “rhapsody on Joyce's Proteus.”

Eventually, I decided to call my novel An Ineluctable Modality, after the famous opening line:

Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read...

And so it began.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

To be continued: read “Names and Places,” here.

Friday, December 06, 2013

The Classical Grammy Nominations for 2014

The Grammy nominations were released tonight – and yes, Virginia, there is a division for classical music! (Who knew?!) You won't find much coverage of them in the usual press, so here are the different categories and the various nominations in the Classical Music division.

Atterberg – Orchestral Works (Vol. 1) – Neeme Järvi, & the Gothenburg Symphony on Chandos
Lutoslawski: Symphony No. 1 – Esa-Pekka Salonen & the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Sony
Schumann: Symphony No. 2, Manfred Overture, Genoveva Overture – Claudio Abbado & Orchestra Mozart on DG
Sibelius: Symphonies No. 1 & 4 – Osmo Vänskä & the Minnesota Orchestra on Bis (take that, Minnesota Orchestra Board of Directors)
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring - Simon RFattle & the Berlin Philharmonic on EMI

Adès: The Tempest – Thomas Adès conducting, Simon Keenlyside &c, Metropolitan Opera on DG
Britten: The Rape of Lucretia – Oliver Knussen conducting, Ian Bostridge &c, Aldeburgh Festival on Virgin Classics
Kleiberg: David & Bathsheba – Tonu Kaljuste conducting, soloists, Trondheim Symphony on Lindberg Lyd
Vinci: Artaserse – Diego Fasolis, conducting, soloists, chorus & Concerto Köln on Virgin Classics
Wagner: The Ring of the Nibelung – Christian Thielemann conducting, Vienna State Opera & Orchestra on DG

Berlioz: Requiem – Colin Davis, conducting, Barry Banks, London Symphony & Choruses – on LSO Live
Palestrina: Volume 3 – Harry Christophers, conducting The Sixteen on Coro
Parry: Works for Chorus & Orchestra – Neeme Jarvi conducting BBC National Orchestra & Chorus of Wales on Chandos
Pärt: Adam's Lament – Tonu Kaljuste conducting the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Sinfonietta Riga & Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, Latvian Radio Choir & Vox Clamantis on ECM New Series
Whitbourn: Annelies – James Jordan conducting Ariana Zukerman, the Lincoln Trio and Westminster Williamson Voices on Naxos

Beethoven: Violin Sonatas – Leonidas Kavakos & Enrico Pace on Decca
Cage: The 10,000 Things – Vicki Ray, William Winant, Aron Kallay & Tom Peters on MicroFest Records
Duo – with Helene Grimaud & Sol Gabetta on DG
Roomful of Teeth – Brad Wells & Roomful of Teeth on New Amsterdam Records
Time Go by Turns – New York Polyphony on Bis Records

Bartók, Eotvos & Ligeti – Patricia Kopatchinskaja with Peter Eotvos conducting Ensemble Modern & Frankfurt Radio Symphony on Naive
Corigliano: Conjurer – Concerto for Percussionist & String Orchestra – Evelyn Glennie, with David Alan Miller conducting the Albany Symphony on Naxos
The Edge of Light – Gloria Cheng and the Calder Quartet on Harmonia Mundi
Lindberg: Piano Concerto No. 2 – with Yefim Bronfman, Alan Gilbert conducting the New York Philharmonic on DaCapo Records
Salonen: Violin Concerto; Nyx – Leila Josefowicz, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Finnish Radio Symphony on DG
Schubert: Piano Sonatas D.845 & D.960 – Maria João Pires on DG

Drama Queens with Joyce DiDonato, Alan Curtis conducting Il complesso barocco on Virgin Classics
Mission with Cecilia Bartoli, Diego Fasolis, Philippe Jaroussky and I barocchisti on Decca
Schubert: Winterreise with Christoph Pregardien and Michael Gees on Challenge
Wagner with Jonas Kauffman, Donald Runnicles conducting Chorus & Orchestra of the German Opera of Berlin on Decca
Winter Morning Walks with Dawn Upshaw, various conductors and ensembles on ArtistShare

for BEST CLASSICAL COMPENDIUM (listing only the conductors)
Hindemith: Violin Concerto, Symphonic Metamorphoses and Konzertmusik – Christoph Eschenbach conducting on Ondine
Holmboe: Concertos – Dima Slobodeniouk conducting on DaCapo Records
Tabakova: String Paths – with Maxim Rysanov on ECM New Series

Magnus Lindberg: Piano Concerto No. 2 – with Yefim Bronfman, Alan Gilbert & the New York Philharmonic on DaCapo Records
Arvo Pärt: Adam's Lament – with Tonu Kaljuste, the Latvian Radio Choir, Vox Clamantis & Sinfonietta Riga on ECM New Series
Esa-Pekka Salonen: Violin Concerto – with Leila Josefowicz, Esa-Pekka Salonen & the Finnish Radio Symphony on DG
Maria Schneider: Winter Morning Walks – with Dawn Upshaw & the Australian Chamber Orchestra on ArtistShare
Caroline Shaw: Partita for 8 Voices – with Brad Wells & Roomful of Teeth on New Amsterdam Records

Winners will be announced on January 26th, 2014.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

An Ineluctable Modality: Chapter 30

An Ineluctable Modality is a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo's 2013 Challenge where the goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. This year, I wrote a novel-in-blog-posts: this is its final chapter. You can read the previous chapter, here.

= = = = = = =

Though I knew he was in the area visiting family, Ferdinand's call was still a surprise when it came in Friday afternoon, asking if he could stop by. I figured Stephen wouldn't mind the distraction of a handsome young man – at least one who could hold a conversation beyond just talking about modern music – and the change in tone would undoubtedly be beneficial for both of us. A serious conversation stretching over the morning had led us nowhere but to more tenuous ground. If nothing else, I would be happy to find out more about Ferdinand, what he's gotten into after he left the university and I'd moved into the southlands.

A few, rarely detailed letters and barely more informative phone calls aside, I hadn't seen Ferdinand for years and I figured he would be much less dramatic than having Sybil stop by, depending on the baggage he might bring with him. Even if he stayed only a few hours, it would be a few less hours Stephen and I would need to dance around those issues still standing between us and could, with any luck, wear away at the barriers.

Stephen realized, only because I practically battered him over the head with it, he was at that stage I had been when Evan sounded the sirens' call of Paris – or at least of nouvelle aventure, wherever it might have taken me. Without family responsibilities, now, he was a younger me contemplating terra subdeorsa incognita, researching the possibilities of discovery, for whatever reasons then I decided instead to stay in port. He, I neglected to point out, had no port to stay in.

The opportunity for discovery was the option, here, not that it had to be a different country, just a different place beyond the boundary of his traditional comfort zone. It was the incognita part he had the chance to explore, to contemplate, at least to consider, the actual journey aside.

Was it a question of finding the same job in another company? Is that really what he wanted to do? He had walked into it, half-unexpectedly, in the first place, a chance to practice taking interviews, an opportunity to not get the job but not be disappointed because it seemed so unlikely. And yet they offered it to him. Should he have said "no"? Should he have decided to leave after a few years because as a temporary gig it had run its course? But it became easy and he felt comfortable there, not to mention he got to do a lot of traveling in the process.

But the traveling became repetitive, the work predictable, the excitement about the job eventually flat-lining. His own lack of enthusiasm may have done more to lose him his job than he thought, complicated by a boss who thought it better to find someone new to burn up rather than recycle an old success. Did he really like what he was doing? That was the question. No?

Perhaps it should have happened sooner, years earlier. Thank God it hadn't happened twenty years later. Fate was kinder than it might have been, then; one could always look at it that way. And given the economy, there were worse things that could have happened, if you could ignore the fact whatever happened to you was always worse than the merely theoretical.

"If you could pick a job – any job, something out of the blue – what could you see yourself doing?" Speaking, of course, of the purely hypothetical, I asked him. "What would you want to be doing, if you had the chance?"

He was silent a long time but pensive if not exactly resistant to expressing himself. "Is this going to be one of those 'fireman/Indian chief' exercises?" he was probably thinking. By this time, we had moved into the den, watching the shadows journeying slowly across the yard.

"I don't know," he said after several minutes. "That may be part of the problem. I'm so used to doing what I've been doing, I'm not aware of anything I'd rather do."

It wasn't of course just his job that affected him: he had lost his relationship, too, and whether or not he'd want his old job back (as if, through some oversight, a mistake had been made), one of the things I suspect he hoped to find in his frequent e-mail checking, old habits aside, was an apology from Leo that might signal some reconciliation.

For myself, I chose to tackle one issue at a time. Whether Leo was off on a new journey of his own was for the moment immaterial. It felt logical to me for Stephen to find a job (or better, a career) and then, after relocating himself, seek out a new partner to share it with.

I nearly jumped out of my seat when the doorbell rang, an unwanted flashback to Sybil's frequently unannounced arrivals or the appearance of Monday's doddering proselytes. Stephen, for his part, was more surprised at my reaction than the interruption of the bell – a welcome eruption in an otherwise too quiescent day. Dringadring. But I was already up and went to answer it.

"It's that student of yours, isn't it? Former student, Ferdinand, is it? You said he might stop by." You could understand the unstated 'what's the fuss?' behind his tone. Dringadring Dring.

"I'll be right back – he's just stopping to say hello."

Why was I nervous? Having Sybil join us – what were the odds of keeping that from happening once she'd showed up beside our table? – had proven uncomfortable, as if Stephen was swept away by the sheer force of her juggernauts.

I haven't seen Stephen in a few years and it's been years since I've seen Ferdinand who had done so much for me, back then. Of course they would both show up for a visit at the same time. Rains, pours. I shrugged my shoulders and heaved open the door.

Ferdinand had hardly changed. He swept past me, hoisting up some plastic grocery bags full of containers and without saying hello, sailed in with the familiarity of old times only briefly interrupted.

"I brought along some leftovers. Hope you don't mind – after you said you'd be eating at a restaurant yesterday, and my sister had made way too much food for the six of us!" He looked expectantly for me to lead him into the kitchen.

This is apparently how young people – or, like Sybil, how people who wanted to appear young – acted today. Whoosh, bang, zap! No need for small talk – "How are you? I haven't seen you in ages: you're looking good!" That sort of thing.

I led the way into the kitchen and Ferdinand dutifully placed the bags on the countertop.

"How are you," I asked, "it's been ages – you're looking good," I added, helping move some cups that were in the way.

He ignored these comments artfully. To consider it rude would have been to ignore the fact he had brought us lunch.

"Here's some homemade stuffing made with black walnuts and dates" – he held up one plastic container – "and some red potato salad with chives and sour cream (very decadent) and" – flourishing a tall cylindrical container – "some cranberry relish that's actually made with horseradish and onions – I don't know how it works, but it's fabulous – and here's a plate with slices of white and dark meat – no gravy, I remember you didn't like gravy (not good for the heart, anyway) – and some steamed vegetables, mostly cauliflower with turmeric and broccoli with shiitake mushrooms. Oh, shit!" He looked about as if he'd left a bag in the car. "I forgot the hummus!"

"I hadn't been aware the pilgrims offered Squanto any hummus: are you sure you've got the right Indians, here?"

Stephen appeared in the doorway with his coffee cup.

"Stephen, hello – Proteus said you'd be here: good to see you again."

"Wait, you two had met before?"

It sounded like news to me and Stephen, who started looking through the containers with the curiosity of a child, said "Yes, Dad, you'd spent a lot of the time unconscious when I was here after your heart attack."

"Well, or sleeping," Ferdinand said. "We just sat there and talked for hours."

Neither of them had ever mentioned this before.

"I hope you don't mind my bringing all this stuff. Sis practically forced it on me, you know. Greeks bearing gifts and all that."

"But you're not Greek and you're supposed to be afraid of Greeks bearing gifts," I said.

"Oh, right. Do you have any crackers? I need to get some hummus."

I knew what hummus was but had never tried it. If he forgot to bring it, why does he need to go get some?

"The only thing I have are some oyster crackers and saltines, I'm afraid."

Ferdinand looked at me as if I'd just come up with the most completely wrong answer imaginable.

"I'm guessing that probably won't do, will it?"

Ferdinand took a quick look in the refrigerator as if he'd always lived here, mentioned a few things he didn't find and announced there was this "really cool little store" down in Cape Edmund where he knew he could get a few things.

Before I could say it wasn't really necessary, Stephen invited himself to go along and before I was even aware of it, they were gone.

Not long after I watched Ferdinand's car glide out the driveway, the phone rang.

"The more things change, the more they stay the same," Sybil said without bothering to say hello. "Does that mean it's also true the more things stay the same, they're really changing? I never understood that."

"Hello, Sybil," I said, adamantly sticking to the old rituals. Perhaps forced into it, I felt more strongly the need to resist changing certain things. "Are you referring to a bargain you thought you got while shopping yesterday?"

She laughed. "No, silly. Just, you know, stuff in general? If things are constantly changing, how do they also stay the same?"

"You probably didn't call to banter away the morning discussing the finer points of philosophy, even of cliches. What's prompted this?"

This was a loaded question aimed directly at my brain.

"All I can remember is it's originally French and sounds like something Voltaire might have said but I think it's later than that. Or maybe an old proverb."

"Oh, French, well," she said. I could see the dismissive wave of a free hand. "I never could understand French."

We discussed the finer points of chaos and how, given events in her life, chaos (at least in her relationships) seemed to be a bit of the norm. For all the men in her life, the faces on the surface may change but the underlying current has a familiar consistency about it: she couldn't deny that.

As for how to break the change, as if her life really needed "shaking up," as she put it, the idea of meeting someone she could settle into a more long-term relationship with would be something new.

"Startling, in fact," she added, "not to mention welcome."

Then she asked me what would "change" my life, at this point?

"My life," I explained to her, "is one of unmitigated sameness, it seems – habit, routine, frustration at not being able to compose any more." Depressing, I felt like adding but didn't want to rain on her own parade.

"Sounds like you could use some 'shaking up,' too."

Fortunately she couldn't see the involuntary frown that passed across my face, wondering what exactly she might have had in mind.

Initially, she had been the one not interested in moving our friendship any further along and it wasn't much later before I discovered she had been right. A matter of convenience, seeking company, was different than finding what we might consider love.

It had happened so effortlessly with Madeleine, I figured it could happen again. But perhaps that very ease got in the way. Not that there weren't other warning signs when it came to Sybil.

Friends, yes, I could see that – but sharing our lives together on a daily basis, not very likely. The chaos that was not just in her relationships was more than enough turmoil for my daily life, one constant I did not need. Perhaps this would change over time but somehow I didn't think it possible.

Finding myself exhausted after a few hours in her presence, imagine what it would be at the end of a full day of it? And she clearly had no comprehension of what I needed in order to work, a stability that Madeleine not only understood but nurtured.

Is what's lacking – and what is likely to remain lacking – the word known to all men? The word that touches us, the lonely us – wasn't it a precondition for artistic creativity? (Was it Shakespeare who said that? Probably, Shakespeare said almost everything – except "the more things change...")

And what of that, I wondered: did my creativity (my ability to create) die with Madeleine or was it more with the loss of her love? No, there were problems with my composing before that. A new meaning to a "dying art."Ars paralitica.

"Well," she said after a pause, weighing her words, "I've applied for this job in Boston. A friend of mine told me about it – she said I'd be perfect for it though it's a little out of my line."

"But it's good to change things up, move outside your comfort level," (there it was, again) "if you can take the risk." She also had no responsibilities, no family here.

"That's a big 'if,' coming from you." She laughed.

She told me a little about the company – it would be a "lower mid-level management" position – but I think mostly she liked the idea of moving back to a big city where she could be around more people.

"I was going to take a couple days off, go down to Boston, check it out," she said, leaving it curiously open-ended.

I wished her well but said that I had guests just pulling in the drive and had to go.

"But keep me posted – let me know what you think, when you get back."

Lunch was prepared and quickly dispatched, the three of us sitting around the table, Stephen, Ferdinand and I, on this cold, clear, not-yet-winter afternoon. It had been a while, I thought, since I'd had guests here and it was pleasant just to hear this conversation, their easy laughter. Relaxed, I basked in the warmth of food too good for my system, these days, but pleasurable for a change, a different modality of senses to enjoy. I observed before being drawn back into the banter and told Ferdinand old stories of Stephen as a boy (this time, he laughs rather than acts annoyed, embarrassed), how once he told us the story of Alice through the Lurking Glass, how we shall come rejoicing, singing in the trees. A seachange this, after skating on the peripheries: we're enjoying ourselves immensely, thanks.

Ferdinand, not quite settled into a career yet, is looking for a job – New York, perhaps – no marketable skills, he says, just a degree in music, a masters (che sanno): a composer (che sente) – how does one make a living with that? He does not blame me nor does he look at his studies as a waste – an experience, yes, the learning of a skill – yes, and the emptying out of a tide's worth of talent, flowing out, flowing in, five fathoms, there. Claritas – quidditas. But practical?

Putting away the dishes and clearing out the sink, Ferdinand and Stephen packed up the left-overs of the left-overs into their various containers and slid them into the refrigerator. A simple act of domesticity, long unfamiliar in this house, this camaraderie of souls: how is it said – "The soul is always searching for itself and takes pleasure in finding itself mirrored in the world." I'm not sure where I read that, perhaps Plato's Symposium or maybe not.

It was Ferdinand who suggested we go out to see a movie before dinner, a late-afternoon show at the Langley mega-plex. Not one for movies, I declined but mostly to give them a chance to be by themselves. My half-hearted excuse of back trouble made Stephen smile. They decided to go see The Book Thief, too serious a film for me for a holiday's entertainment, but thought-provoking, an intelligent choice (I approved, quietly).

An hour passed and the phone rang again, startling me out of some new, unexpected reverie – piano music in the back of my awareness, nothing recognizable, perhaps something of my own beginning to percolate.

"I've finished it," Henry said with considerable enthusiasm, interrupting my congratulations to confess it wasn't actually complete, but he'd passed his 50,000-word goal on this, the last day of the challenge.

"That's excellent! When do you think the novel will actually be done?"

"Oh, I don't know if it will ever be done. I think I just wanted to prove to myself I could do it – you know, the 50,000-word thing."

"But it seems a shame to put all that time into it and then not do anything with it. I couldn't imagine writing 50,000 words in a month!"

However, I also understand the desire to never 'finish' something, either. There is a different kind of creative thrill to go back over something, polish a bit here, change a little something there. For some, there's an endless joy in the planning, the preparation, the contemplation of the finished product. But there is, for some of us, no need to produce a finished product. We do not work on an hourly wage, judged for our efficiency, tallying up successes and failures.

I promise Henry we will go out for a celebratory dinner as soon as he feels it is time – another week, perhaps, to put "The End" on the final page, not to mention the endless editing, an entirely different blood-letting exercise (save that for latter: rest now, recuperate first). He promises he will call me, then.

"Fifty thousand words!" The idea staggers me but he did it, whatever the quality of that eventual product will be. That's not the point. He's done something he hadn't thought possible and by applying discipline, he's managed to accomplish a goal – some new adventure in his life. Finishing the novel would be another goal and like Achilles and the Tortoise, it may still prove elusive, receding into the horizon.

My birthday is next month – hard to believe that tomorrow will be December, already – and as I prepare to say good-bye to the Old Year, I will already be beginning a new year (new era) in my life, one nacheinander after another. But this is always a curious time of overlap for me and I have been glad, at this stage, to be so long past the concern about gifts and festivities. No one has mentioned it, the inevitable if uncomfortable acknowledgment of age – 65, if that's so hard to imagine (it is, thinking back on it, viewing it from the past). I do not look forward to its celebration but yet I would be disappointed to find it forgotten, overlooked. I do that with others, often enough: I would deserve the same.

It is time to pin this down, to grapple with the inner chameleon, karma or not, and face the age-old challenge if I am to start anew – a new composition, a new age, the acceptance of becoming old (preferring it to the alternative), not enough to say "I will do this thing" but do it. Yes, easier said, I know, as if I haven't told myself this before. The chameleon sheds its skin, is resurrected, new and shiny. It makes me laugh, this image: in the past, I have thought too much of the skin, of the painful process, this sloughing away of the past. Pentimento.

That October visit when I was a child and spent the day in the Eckleses' yard, that visit when Grandmother Hemon died, I remember when my father said it was time to let the box turtle return to the forest. His leg had healed and he would find someplace there to spend the winter – perhaps he would come back in the spring.

"I'm sure Homer will let us know if he sees him again." The old man promised me he would. They took a photograph of me, petting the turtle held out to me, a photograph I remember but have not yet found again. (Perhaps it lies hidden in some book, somewhere.)

"He'll be happier there – it's his home, you know," Dad said. "Everyone's happier in his own home."

I barely understood the fact he was losing his mother, day by day, fading away to disease. I wondered why the turtle at least couldn't stay here longer if Grandma was going to be going away, when the ship came in for her, leaving her home behind.

The turtle shuffled off through the leaves as I watched, his stump of a leg hardly slowing him down. I'm sure he did not turn to look back, to say good-bye, but I imagine it still as I waved to him.

We grow up – "growing" older, eventually old, slipping like the summer months into the gradual decay toward winter, discovering new things about us unnoticed before. The soul, still present, is not without its contaminating matter accumulated over the intervening years, hylomorphs of our existence – letters become words become sentences and soon a novel is almost complete; notes become chords become a progression of sounds that move from beginning to end and a symphony is almost complete, a span of time filled in by sounds my soul brings into being. One experience becomes another and a life is formed, is almost complete. Is that how it works? It sounds so simple.

I sit in my chair with my coffee and my cats, a forgotten book falling from my grasp. I watch the clouds come in from the east – the sign of a storm: snow, maybe – still. Home. Stay a moment.

Creation here from nothing, the past (historic, personal – the same), pentimento of the future – visible, audible, ineluctably forging the cloud as others see it, hear it, over the living and the dead.

Old man, old creator, stand me now in good stead evermore. The ship comes in, homeward, silent, a way, a lone, and yes, I will say – yes –

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Harrisburg PA
Friday, November 1st, 2013 to
Monday, December 9th, 2013

You can eventually read more about the novel, An Ineluctable Modality, here.

Dick Strawser