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.

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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

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