Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Season, Sisyphus, and the Tantalizing Carrot


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Spivack, Evocative Writing, and Lamenting Literary Noise

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 6, 2015

Marburg, Cathedrals and the Artistic Investment



There is a cathedral not far from my house, Lutherische Pfarrkirche St. Marien, the oldest parish church in Marburg. The back pew is the best, where one has an unrivaled view of the rising columns and the graceful curve of stone where it meets the apex above. This is a quiet, little-visited place; one must climb a multitude of steps and navigate a maze of narrow cobblestone streets in order to find it. The steeply-pitched, shingled spire marks the way, sitting slightly askew; a peaked hat in jaunty rebellion aslant the brow or perhaps teetering as if finally wearied of holding itself erect after this long passage of time. It is small, so far as cathedrals go; the stained-glass windows tall and slender but interspersed with robust exterior walls that suggest Romanesque roots. One does not have to travel far to find a cathedral in this part of the world – indeed, they seem dotted upon the landscape like daisies on a spring lawn. But for all their abundance, they remain, to me, unfailingly magnificent.

Within, ribbons of burnt orange line the column flutes, forming an elegant star where they connect far overhead in the soaring splendor of the cross-vault, and faded frescoes cover the eastern wall. I sit, quiet and still, breathing in the musty scent of centuries past. There seems a higher degree of receptivity here, within the cool smoothness of old-quarried stone where space and light expand to impossible heights, where a rich kaleidoscope of color spill from narrow windows. A place of elegant quietude amidst the tumult of the modern world; a retreat – even for a heathen such as I.  Where the mind can roam and wander, until one reaches the inevitable conclusion that such commonplace thoughts, whatever they may be, are dull indeed in the face of such astounding architectural achievement. For at last there is nothing left but to simply marvel at the manner in which stone (a noun oft associated with a heavy solidity of form, a dense, immobile weight) is here transformed into slender flutes, elegant curlicues and lofty arches. It is colossal but it is also fluid, even supple, as if it is life itself riveted, pinned and wielded into place; the skeletal interior of some long-dead creature turned to stone, fixed by Medusa’s glare, its delicate curve of rib now the vault beneath which men worship. 

Someone told me yesterday that he thought we had lost something in recent centuries; that the skill of true artisans - of the wood carvers who created the rococo intricacies that decorate palatial interiors, of stonemasons who fashioned the languid flow of robe and hair in a medium that seemed impervious to such fluidity – is, in short, a thing of the past. And that technology, for all of its conveniences, also plays a role in homogenizing cultural disparities. Elizabethkirche, St. Marien’s more famous architectural cousin, is perpetually thronged with curious travelers recording their impressions of Germany’s oldest Gothic cathedral through the screen of an i-phone or tablet. And I cannot help but wonder if they ever saw the original or only its miniature facsimile within the flickering medium of bits and bytes. Doubtless monarchical absolutism was an essential economic precondition for such massive building projects, but it seems it is also a matter of what we choose to invest in. Not only the architecture we leave behind (the concrete bunkers of the 60’s and 70’s still pain the collective sensibilities), but the art – whether it be in paint, wood, stone or bound within the covers of a printed book. Perhaps for writers of historical fiction, there is a visceral need to hang on to something – to try to enliven some aspect of the past, an element still discernible within fictional clothing. For a literary work cannot be historically accurate in every respect (and indeed should not strive to be so – for where then lies the power of the imagination?) but most seek to illuminate, however obliquely, some past truth that lies in shadow; a historical personage that should not be forgotten, an event that seemed too strange to be true, a particular conjunction of people and places that define a pivotal moment - these provide the requisite fodder for writers of historical fiction.

I muse upon these themes as I sit in my pew, keeping company with solemn-eyed saints who gaze down from their elevated perches. For despite the gold cloth that drapes the altar and the thick bible that sits upon the pulpit (both of which denote a working-cathedral – St. Marien earns its keep still), I am often alone in this place; the parishioners temporarily absent. Truth be told, I find myself envious of those who regularly attend to their religious devotionals beneath these awe-inspiring walls. I am not, however, preoccupied with religious matters, in my quiet seat in the back, nor do I wish for the company of a congregation in this sacred space. Instead, I am thinking of toiling artisans, of stoneworkers and architects, of lifetimes spent in the labor of construction, and the profound pleasure of modern living (however briefly) among such architectural marvels. For this is a visceral experience of medieval history that I have seldom experienced – having long resided in youthful nations where two centuries constitutes a localized antiquity. While there is an exuberant freshness to those young lands  (America, a great democratic experiment that is still, perhaps, in the throes of self-invention),  the crumbling castles and the grand splendor of ancient estates, the elaborately formal gardens and gilded rococo palaces, the plaster and timber houses with awkward thresholds and warped, sagging beams have a humbling history that is felt in the bones…not just for a writer of historical fiction, but for anyone enamored of the past and the long path that winds out behind. Whether our ancestors numbered among these laborers or their overlords, whether our particular past finds root in the heartland of Europe or not, it is still representative of a common and collective heritage of mankind – of what can be achieved in art and architecture and the profound effect of it still a millennium later.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Literary Introspection: Seeking the Quiet

There is a path nearby; a path that winds its way - gloriously forlorn - through the low-lying mangrove forest. It is the preserve of the key deer, the diminutive cousins of the continental variety, that brave the inter-keys waterways, tackling currents and voracious denizens of the not-so-deep in their perpetual quest for tender shrubbery. The key deer, apparently, have found the preserve buffet rather insufficient to their tastes and have taken nighttime forays into my garden to nibble upon succulent tropical grasses, newly planted. As they venture into mine, so I go into theirs. The path starts at the barrier prohibiting vehicular progress, but welcoming pedestrians with a narrow sideways twist.

The path, bordered by a tangled profusion of silver buttonwood, iron-bark, and golden weed, is a lonely one - devoid of architectural monstrosities, of man-made obstructions, of the metallic jangle and whirr of electronic technology, of the incessant noise that seems inextricably part and parcel of urban life; instead there is only the curl of quiet branch and leaf, the intermittent flower, the industrious hum of bee and the regal solitude of eagle perched. A quiet place. A haven for key deer and reclusive writer alike. For it is in places like these where I do my best thinking; about plausible character motivation - what does propel and inflame a young woman of Edwardian society? - and plot twists - the dubious connections of an Indian nabob to Banda Sea spice trade...

And I wonder - do others of the writing ilk seek this kind of quiet in which to muster thought? The path terminates in the barren dust of a permanent low-tide. Or so I thought - always having ventured this way in the early morn or late dusk. But lately, I ventured forth at an unusual hour of the day (what an adventuress am I!) to find salty brine at the paths-end! And not only water shin-deep, but infant lemon sharks carousing in the ripples! The pull of the moon - that incandescent sphere - that transforms the mangroves from dirt-trodden parched to the wet harbor for babies of the family Carcharinidae - a species of shark threatened - as perhaps are quiet reserves for foraging deer and contemplative writers?

This quiet path seems the very repository of imaginative pursuits - for the mangrove branches seem to emerge from placid, rusty pools like limbs of the drowned; for the darkly clouded sky seems to portend something more than mere rainfall; there is something ominous in the feathered vultures that wait in the leafy wings, in the skeletal remains of the raccoon that are cleanly picked by the path-side (I am tempted to retrieve them - an assemblage of bones that seems quaintly reminiscent of the Victorian collector - but a nameless scavenger makes off with the bony booty before I can make up my mind to act). Rattlesnakes have sunned themselves on these asphalt plains, slithering in languid alarm before human intrusion; deer have foraged, with young by their side, before darting away into neighboring undergrowth. For this is a place where we are the strangers. Where life is governed by access to low-lying pools and scurrying mammalian buffets. Perhaps this is why I like it so much. It is almost a relief to feel a momentary qualm when the red-skinned vulture swoops so low - am I prey? Quick - a hasty movement to assure my feathered friend of life and limb and ability to strike back (as ineffectual as fists and fingers might be against talon and claw!) - for this is not our natural environment. There is neither brick nor glass, steel nor cement...but grass and twig, root and leaf. Here, nature rules; the bloody battle of tooth and claw. And for a moment, we are a vulnerable part of it - thin-skinned and feeble; an evolutionary remembrance of Jurassic-times where we scurried silent and fearful while voracious velociraptors roamed.

And I muse on the necessity of such pathways - for writers particularly - a quiet route (less traveled or, hopefully, often traversed) in which one can ponder the immutable privileges of simply being alive in this most glorious world.
















Tuesday, November 25, 2014

In Memoriam: For the Forgotten Writers Among Us


A writer acquaintance of mine was recently labeled as ‘forgotten’ and I find myself wondering what that means precisely. Forgotten by whom? By a demographic that didn’t read him? For doubtless we each have our audience, the readers whose sympathies and inclinations resonate with our own.  And an even larger segment of society that invariably find literary diversion in genres other than that which we labor upon. And being the recipient of such aspersions (for an aspersion it surely is!) what does it mean? I admit to some defensiveness on this individual’s behalf – knowing him to be an exquisitely literary writer in two languages no less! A feat I could not even begin to comprehend myself. His proficiency in this regard reminds me of Joseph Conrad’s literary virtuosity and his enviable command of the English tongue that far outstripped many a native speaker. 

So. Back to the adjective, if I may. Forgotten. The last novel I devoured springs to mind – The Lost Estate. The author of this fine literary work, Henri Alain-Fournier, tragically killed in the first world war, left his next uncompleted.  Given the glorious exposition of the first, the unpublished, unfinished second remains a collective shame for the rest of the reading world, and a reminder of the horrific waste of human life (and all the potential that resided therein!) that World War One entailed. I am now embarking upon the marvelous Bánffy trilogy – a series of novels that detail the enviable languor of the Hungarian aristocracy prior to the assassination of Ferdinand – a trilogy that has, only very recently, been translated into English. So it would, indeed, be absurd to label Bánffy (or the relatively obscure Alain-Fournier) as ‘forgotten’ despite the fact that he was seldom known outside of Hungarian or Romanian literary circles.

But, and I stand corrected, the notion 'forgotten' implies a previous awareness, something that lingered in the faint dimness of memory but has since been extinguished. Forgotten implies a lack of currency, a lack of contemporary attention, a dearth of clamoring readership. And how precisely is this ascertained? For readers tend to be the quiet sort, curling up beneath the lamp, novel in hand, in the darkening of an evening – when the intrusive clamor of the day has subsided, when children are a-bed (dreaming of sugar plums? For ‘tis the season!) So who presumes to know what they are, and are not, reading? 

For the thing is, even after many a marvelous writer has shuffled off this mortal coil, they are still read – whether it be by readers however few in number, or however linguistically specific. In this electronic age, particularly, e-versions whip across the globe with unprecedented alacrity.  I feel some degree of certainty in positing that avid readers of Fifty Shades of Gray have little appreciation for Melville’s lengthy asides on the nineteenth–century whaling industry, or the inclination to wade through Hugo’s background on Parisian nunneries or Waterloo precursors.  I do not mean these statements to be genre-inflammatory or to demean individual reading proclivities but simply reiterate the notion that we, individually, seek out and read specific kinds of novels tailored to our particular tastes. And the classic-lovers, those that yearn for the exquisite phrase (however lengthy the preceding), we are in the minority – the literary lifeboat keeping Penguin Classics and Oxford World Publishing afloat. Could one then postulate, perhaps, that Hugo and Dickens, Dumas and Dostoyevsky, and Bánffy to boot, are ‘forgotten’ by contemporary readers of erotic fiction? Indubitably they are not forgotten by those who appreciate their works, by those who seek them out in preference to many others. But most of us have a passing acquaintance with these literary greats, do we not? Abusing Shakespearean prose in high school English class, or forced to wade through Dickens for a pass-worthy grade. Perhaps they linger on the fringes of memory for those who do not return to the classics as adults, perhaps less appealing later due to the coercive nature of earlier exposure? One did not, after all, have much of a choice if one wanted to pass English in high school; I remember the stilted renditions of Romeo and Juliet in eighth grade: "What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!"

To be utterly candid (as I always strive to be in these Humble Musings – for those who manage to make their way through them to the end – I do apologize – undue verbosity has always been my failing!) I had never even heard of Bánffy prior to a much-appreciated recommendation by Rosalind Brackenbury (read her Becoming George Sand, it is marvelous!) And so while Bánffy was, and still is, unknown by many, his writing is no less diminished by the smaller circle of appreciation. In fact, upon reading the first chapter, I promptly returned the kindly loaned copy back to Rosalind and purchased a copy for myself, knowing that this was a literary work I would want on my shelf for years to come. Pim Wiersinga’s novel ‘The Pavilion of Forgotten Concubines’ is another such literary wonder that will be snugly situated next to these other works of narrative longevity.

I do not mean to be pugnacious. I am simply baffled as to what is meant by 'forgotten' in regards to a writer of great literary merit. Many of the beloved writers represented upon my groaning bookshelf might be said to be forgotten by the multitude - particularly given the resultant difficulty in acquiring their works - but they are dedicated artists to the literary phrase. Their works pay glorious tribute to what it means to be human. And if they are forgotten, then, like Spartacus, I too rise to my feet: "I am forgotten!" And indubitably another: "No, I am forgotten!" Until in resounding accord, the literary multitude cry out: "I am forgotten!" For after all, it is all about the agonized pursuit of literary perfection. And what a particular endeavor that is! What speaks to one, is mute to another. But we, as writers, pursue our calling to the grave. Until we are dust and bones. But the words will remain, however faded upon the page, or intermittent the virtual connection.

Within and Without: Raskholnikov, Maritime Medicine and the Intensity of Character

I am currently engaged, with all due intensity (to the detriment of home, hearth, and offspring), upon a new literary endeavor. In the concluding acknowledgements of my last novel Killing the Bee King, I extended apologies to husband and children for the bouts of frenzied obsession, neglectful musings, grumpy irritability (when required to interact while writing - oh, the horror!), and the general lack of sociability that living with a writer often brings. And I have a feeling that such self-abasement will again be required at the conclusion of my next literary work.

My current novel aspires to an eighteenth-century maritime adventure, spanning the Tunisian slave-trade in the Mediterranean to the colonial enterprise in the Banda Seas as economic interest is supplemented by military might. I am interested, most acutely, in examining the interaction of cultural groups, of unlikely dependencies (the Portuguese preference for Indian healers, for example) and domineering religiosity; of the cannon and the spice - and the intricate way in which policy and culture, trade and  acquisition, shaped the relationships not only between nations and sultanates, but between one individual and another.

With a broader notion of plot-line established, I am currently fixated on the formulation of  characters of depth and engagement. There are, it seems, two aspects to the well-elucidated character: the external trappings and the internal ruminations. The former, perhaps, are more particular to the historical fiction genre and set that character apart in regard to attire, tools, and accoutrements - the outward manifestation of that individual's place within his or her cultural context. A ship's surgeon will make an appearance in my next novel and I have been delving into his historical medical chest and examining his modus operandi which consisted predominately of the restoration of Gallenic humors via bleeding, the lancing of boils, and the sprinkling of vinegar to dispel noxious miasmas. And, naturally enough, he has a vast compendium of powders, poultices, and pills within his medical chest to be dispensed during his twice-daily rounds (according to regulations that govern his duties under sail). In the mid-eighteenth century in particular, these medical chests were valuable commodities - not only to the unscrupulous surgeon who might pilfer high-quality prescriptions, replacing them with shoddy substitutes, but to those who were taking their lives into their own hands venturing into the far east, rife with tropical fevers and wasting diseases. This chest, and the man who governed its usage, epitomized hope - hope that the rhubarb tea concoction would ward off dysentery, that elixir of viterol might prove a hardy antidote to scurvy-related complaints. I digress! But isn't it rather marvelous? It is precisely this juxtaposition between past and present that I find utterly intriguing, whether it be the relative gap in understanding of viral mechanisms, the differentiation in attire, in attitude, in politics - so that when the connections are made, when the humanity of an individual transcends the chasm of time, when the reader feels an immediacy despite chronological separation - is that not a significant measure of success for a work of historical fiction? To expose and elucidate the gap and then to provide a bridge across it? Pewter cups, mortar and pestles, syringes and nozzles, 'vomiting root' and mercury are some of the many physical accoutrements that bespeak the surgeon's trade - the literary clues that are dropped like breadcrumbs to suggest a place, a period, or a prevailing notion. The significant challenge, however, for the writer is the conveyance of what is less readily ascertained by the material assemblage - the preoccupations, the thoughts, the ruminations, the mental ponderings.

For the critical aspect that renders a fictional character more than the superficial sum of his or her parts  is what simmers within. This nameless surgeon may be singularly well-equipped for his trade in the mid-eighteenth century, have all requisite chests and tools at his disposal, but until he is intrinsically developed as a complex mental being he is but a shallow, lackluster shadow of a thing. So, in seeking depth and complexity for my character-strain, my literary concoction, the recipe that encapsulates the fictional protagonist, I revert to the masters. Specifically, Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and the gloriously enthralling moodiness that is Raskholnikov - an expelled university student barely subsisting in abject poverty, eking out a meager existence in the cramped dinginess of a closet-room, who seeks to redeem his fortunes and extricate himself from misery in one swift stroke by the murder of an old pawnbroker.

In the opening pages of Crime and Punishment, and indeed through much of what follows, we are plunged into the "morbid state of tension and irritability" that is Raskholnikov. There is an immediacy to the narrative, an unrelenting focus on the psychology of the central character - we arrive without ceremony, without backstory, in St. Petersburg, accompanying Raskholnikov on his initial distracted meandering through the streets as he contemplates the murder of the miserly pawnbroker, a vile and reprehensible hag who has subjected her mentally-sluggish sister to servitude. For the intellectually-inclined Raskolnikov, poverty-stricken and ill, wishes to raise himself to the stature of greatness that financial independence can initiate.

Napoleon (an old acquaintance of mine from Bee King days), having crushed so many in his path to greatness, is lauded by Raskholnikov as a military genius, as a leader of renowned accomplishment. And what could he not achieve with the quick death of this parasitic witch who preys upon the poor and the downtrodden? For Raskholnikov seeks to "hold the fate of the world in his two hands" but (as stipulated in his own published article) exceptional men are a consequence of other fashionable notions that "are in the air," some "happy conjunction of race and breeding," a "mysterious law." He is trapped between his own passionate promptings, his own fervent desire to "struggle into life," and the invariably cold precision of external laws, dogged by a sense of fate, of some Darwinian evolutionary mechanism that grinds onwards, unseen by human eyes.

 There is a singular intensity to this psychological drama. In the aftermath of the murder, Raskholnikov is acknowledged by many as a fretful shadow of his former self: absorbed as he is in a dream-like trance, plagued by the fearfulness of detection, and subject to shivering fevers that weaken his limbs and cloud his vision. Raskholnikov distances himself from his friend Ruzmukhin and from his doting mother and sister until he, in this self-inflicted isolation, becomes consumed by a morbid delirium, a distillation of anguished despair. The other characters are brilliantly utilized as foils to Raskholnikov's internal state - their buoyant normalcy, their happy expectations of a family reunited, Ruzmukhin's growing tenderness for Dunya, all of which is set against Raskholnikov's preoccupied misery and solitude.

The exchanges with Porfiry, the examining magistrate, exquisitely elucidate Raskholnikov's mental descent into near-madness, his agitated uncertainties, and his escalating anger at what he perceives to be Porfiry's calculated manipulations. For Porfiry appears, in all of his mocking cheerfulness, to possess an intuitive, prior knowledge about the murderer (in whom he recognizes grand qualities) and struggles to save him by bringing about his repentance - suggesting perhaps the role of an objectified conscience. These encounters are portrayed through the opaque filter of Raskholnikov's frenzied fever, an increasingly unreliable perspective - so it is that we, along with Raskholnikov, are kept in agitated uncertainty as to Porfiry's true state of knowledge regarding the identity of the murderer. And while we keep fretful company with the beleaguered student during these interviews, so within Raskholnikov the imperative for self-preservation battles bitterly with the tendency to self-destruction.

It is a brilliantly nuanced portrayal. Raskholnikov is not remorseful for his crime, but descends into a paroxysm of despair and paranoia, weakened by illness and plagued by dark dreams. He is, with marvelous ambivalence, simultaneously 'victim' and 'monster' - a notion gloriously evoked at the threshold of the crime, just prior to the enactment of the bloody deed, where Raskholnikov waits, still and quiet, before the pawnbroker's door, and she within - each like mirror images of one another: "Someone was standing silently just inside the door listening, just as he was doing outside it, holding her breath and probably also with her ear to the door."

Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment under the most excruciating of circumstances. His literary career had been interrupted by ten years of penal servitude and exile; he had suffered the death of his wife and shortly thereafter that of his brother. Feeling financial pressure to support his stepson, as well as the family of his brother, and desperately short of funds with which to do either, he accepted the terms of a rogue publisher to deliver the manuscript in a timely fashion or be deprived of his authorial rights for nine years. Unable to fulfill these requirements, he fled abroad to escape creditors, his mistress abandoning him for another, until all was lost at the gaming tables at Wiesbaden. In a hotel room Dostoyevsky could ill afford, attempting to subsist on tea, he conceived the idea for Raskolnikov. 

So, in the formulation of character, sea-surgeon or otherwise, the example of Raskholnikov looms large - an intensely focused psychological drama in which the supporting cast reflect and accentuate the protagonist's internal turmoil. Whether one's narrative highlights a primary character or a multitude, whether the fictional work is a psychological drama or a maritime adventure, a writer can benefit immensely from examining literary works, such as Crime and Punishment, and authors such as Dostoyevsky who, quite simply, excelled at their craft. Must a writer endure agony before being able to adequately portray it in words? Or will a profound empathy serve its turn? One must hope for the latter, or familial apologies will scarcely suffice if I am to dispense altogether with home and hearth and take to the wharfs in search of the downtrodden and afflicted. But a notion that perhaps is not without merit? To understand true desperation one must bear witness, one must step out of one's skin and slip into another's - accommodating oneself to an uncomfortable fit. For there is that literary imperative to understand - whether it is the self-complacent East India Company directors who dismissed scurvy as the ailment of lazy men (swelling due to accumulating fluids that should have been vigorously exercised into appropriate arterial channels!) or the horror of the sailors incarcerated within the hospital hulks among the festering, the suppurating, the still-oozing dead...one can imagine! But to aspire to Dostoyevsky-greatness in regard to doing it so very well! I, for one, am eternally grateful to have such superlative examples of what the careful construct of language can achieve.