(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.”
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.
* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *
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.