Monday, April 22, 2013

Hamlet, Onset Personality Attributes and the Literary Threshold

When a literary character arrives on the threshold of chapter one I am oft reminded of a house analogy; the residence itself comprising the entirety that is the novel, with the front door opening into the literary preliminaries, the prologue, the initial chapter if you will. The fictional individuals themselves are itinerant drifters, nomadic adventurers, wayfarers of the fictional world, and this house, this narrative, is one stop upon their own literary journey; they arrive on the doorstep bedraggled and travel-worn, burdened down by the various accoutrements which they tow along with them.

Some are singularly somber, scarred by a darkly particular past, others are freshly-unlined and exuberant, naive and idealistic; all, however, spring into the narrative fully-formed like Minerva from the brow of Jupiter, encased in their acquired armor made necessary from the slings and arrows of an outrageous fortune to which we, the reader, have yet to become acquainted. While these whips and scorns of time might belong to an obscurely undefined past, that fictional character has, in some way, been shaped by them: the weight of past experience etched within their physiognomy, formed in furrows between the brows or in the whitened whiskers of a balding mane. Each character emerges from the literary darkness in the full-timbered resonance of complicated three-dimensionality, and perhaps there is just as much to be designated, decided and mulled over in the precursor: in the preceding narrative of this particular character's life prior to their arrival on the doorstep of one's novel. Or perhaps I am plagued by procrastination and will ponder and pontificate on all that precedes the palpable process of putting pen to paper! Say it is not so!

In the meaningful formulation of a fictional individual, one must not only ruminate upon the manner in which they develop throughout the written narrative, but the complicated matrix of their personality at the onset. This process comprises extricating the elements that have unduly influenced them, the encumbrances that weigh them down; postulating some notion of childhood, of the geographical, political and social milieu that comprised this early time of youth, the instilled parental perspective and predispositions; the hiccups of young adulthood and the obdurate opinions of the old - until the character is fixed, like an insect in amber, pinioned in a literary freeze-frame, formulated at a specific chronological age. Just as the players within Hamlet cover a gamut of lifespan, from the doddering Polonius to the youthful Laertes, each comes to the game with a complex set of assumptions and life experiences that quintessentially define their particular personality, proclivities and the manner in which they interact with others. This is where the preliminary authorial work lies: in the back-narrative, the initial formulation that establishes character credibility.

Hamlet is, from the onset, much troubled: afflicted with his father's demise and his mother's precipitous marriage he finds the world a 'weary, stale, flat and unprofitable' place. Having 'lost all [his] mirth, forgone all custom of exercises,' and clad 'in nighted color' Hamlet is but a shadow of his former self; his attire a deliberate criticism of the colorful court who assume 'the trappings and suits of woe.' Ophelia refers to this lighter past of courtier, soldier, scholar and lover: a prince with a tendency to deep rumination and intensity of thought, but one traversing his designated path of seeming complacent happiness - before the smiling villain succumbed to his own ambitions for Crown and Queen. Very early into the play, as Hamlet barely crosses the literary threshold, we become aware of the particular transformation that has immediately preceded his arrival: this melancholic disposition, (prior to ghostly revelations of murder and mayhem) this agitated reflection upon his father's death and his mother's 'o'erhasty marriage.'

As the play proceeds Hamlet's tension heightens and spirals, his despondency transmuted into the agonized rage of a son denied both father and throne with all matter bent to revenge: 'I'll wipe away all trivial, fond records, all saws of books, all forms, all pressures past, that youth and observation copied there, and thy commandment all alone shall live within the book and volume of my brain, unmixed with baser matter.'  These trivialities, this baser matter, that hitherto occupied Hamlet's mind might be fairly construed to be the quotidian occupations of any particular Danish princeling, the engagements of mirth and exercise from which he now abstains. The distance traversed from the 'expectancy and rose of the fair state, the glass of fashion and the mold of form, th' observed of all observers' is all the more dramatic to those unaware of Hamlet's deliberate intent, of his assumed 'antic disposition' which evades and perplexes the scrutiny of the capricious court. The quintessential dramatic tension contained within the fictional frame of Hamlet is born in the inevitable juxtaposition between what he is now (an admixture of dark melancholy and tortured fury inflicted on self as well as others) and what he was before (mirthfully engaged in princely pursuits sheltered by the cheerful triumvirate of an intact nuclear family.)

Before they even traverse the literary landscape the characters are multifaceted complications; only after the formulation of which can one then propel them through the action with a clear understanding of how these back-narratives will predispose them to certain responses, how the intricacies of interactions with others will color their forward action. Little of this might be revealed to the reader; there is, after all, a certain amount of uneasy ambiguity that encompasses Gertrude's marriage of unseemly haste. What prompted this alliance? Can she be subsequently implicated in the death of Hamlet's father? Is she much maligned by Hamlet's hostility or is she receiving her just deserts?

Perhaps Shakespeare had, within the confines of his creative cranium, the answers to these questions. He is, after all, the omnipotent deity of this fictional world: the 'divinity' that Hamlet declares 'shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.' Whether the Bard chooses to reveal these literary undercurrents is another thing. Just as we, the writer, must hold all the cards, shuffling and jostling within our grasp, only a select few are displayed on the table, the rest remain shrouded within the mists of the authorial mind. But I think it critical that these character attributes are formulated (whether or not they are demonstrated or utilized within the subsequent narrative they still comprise the quintessential particulars of that fictional individual) - and it is this precursor construct, this pre-formulated familiarity that breathes vitality into the character that navigates their way through the subsequent pages of one's novel.

Yet as I wade and mire through drier treatises of American intellectualism (engaged as I am in research for my next novel), through the whys and wherefores of western expansionism, and the knotted entanglements of slavery and cotton, I increasingly find that my characters have already experienced much that is interesting before they even deign to grace my narrative: a  Parisian physician devastated by the 1848 Revolution and circumscribed by the conservative medical establishment seeks a new start in the Land of Opportunity; a young Chinese girl lured to the New World under false pretenses and forced into prostitution; a garrulous miner bemoaning hard times and hard prices, hankering after the heady egalitarianism of gold-rush days; a fiery female journalist seeking to forge a literary path for herself in what is still yet a male-dominated frontier.

These characters are shadowy remnants still, partially-formed ideas of themselves, skeletal and shallow, awaiting the literary brush that will define the flesh and provide the thrum and quiver of life-bestowed. But as brilliantly evidenced by Shakespeare's Hamlet, I am intrigued by the juxtaposition of what went before and, fashioned within the literary maelstrom of plot and heated forward-action, what comes after; how this piece of work which is man is contorted and shaped by the subsequent narrative, by the house that is one's novel, and how he emerges at the end of it as something else entirely. For myself, however, the humble architect of this particular abode, I merely hold open the door, beckon the weary travelers across the threshold, echoing as I do so Hamlet's greeting to the actors: 'You are welcome. masters; welcome all!'

Monday, April 8, 2013

Marx, a Faustian Bargain, and the Novel as a Literary Commodity

I was told recently to write a different kind of novel; a fiction more readily marketable to a broader demographic range, with prose less intense, genre less marginalized, plot less convoluted and subsequent economic success more assured. Invariably the financial wherewithal of this or that romance author came to the fore, with skyrocketing sale-success dangling in tantalizing proximity...if only you would...??!!

My immediate thought is of a Faustian bargain. Will I sell my literary soul for potential monetary and bestselling-list acclaim? Now this purveyor of insidious intent is not a Mephistopheles, the devilish intermediary of Goethe fame, but one born of the utterly sincere desire to improve my literary and economic fortunes...and most decidedly, like Faust, the temptation exists; at least the lure of acquisition, the pinnacle of all supposed coveted literary goals - fame and fortune! Who would not want the monetary liberty to write at will, unconstrained by the grinding encumbrance of making-ends-meet-employment, the tedium of necessary engagement that pays the perpetual bills but inhibits and constrains writing time?

This train of thought, however, cast my mind along Marxian lines, with the essential assumption being that the literary work was a commodity that could be arbitrarily replaced by another in the authorial minds eye. The novel, at the end of the factory line, is indubitably a commodity in the sense that it is a product of human labor that is intended for consumption within the broader literary landscape. We write so that we may be read do we not? For a writer without an audience (irrespective of size) is, to my mind, a meaningless thing: an empty vessel which despite an attractive exterior lacks the substance which gives it functional purpose, a deprivation that stunts not only the work itself (unfiltered, unaffected, undiscussed by an engaged readership) but also the literary proclivities and passion of the author - for how does one write feverishly and fervently without the hope of reaching a minority, a minimum of few? Do we not all desire our penned-labors to make some modicum of impact? The ripples need not be widespread nor impressive of size - but we must feel that we are writing for a singular purpose.

But if the novel is (once transcribed in ink across the page, packaged and shipped, virtually available on all possible e-forums) indeed a commodity it was not always so. Before it becomes an item that is purchased for a sum, it is a living and breathing thing; a snugly intimate companion within the darkly pulsing neural framework; a fanciful invention of whimsical threads, a fabricated reality that has no roots in commodity, or use value, or economic imperative - produced instead by an immeasurable emotional engagement, by a painstakingly meticulous attention to words, to phrases, and the torturous need to depict the fluidity of action that is cast across the internal screenplay of the writer's mind. This commodity is birthed in passion, in the unmitigated desire to string words together in a meaningful way. For the toiling writer the subsequent manuscript is a soulful heartsong given literary wing; an improbably bejeweled insect in delicate flight.

Before emerging as 'commodity' this winged one is necessarily encased, confined, stamped, packaged and distributed. It is a version of solidity, a dragonfly immobilized in amber that is no less beautiful in the translucence of wing and the ambiguity of molten gold - arrested in the ethereal elegance of winged flight. But the novel is no longer the same as it was - it is now a collection of pages, stamped in ink, a series of like-spines on a bookseller's shelf, a meandering association of binary bits for sale at kindle prices. It is now subject to all the vagaries of the reading public - to be damned or elevated on the whims of the occasional reviewer - to be consigned to publishing oblivion or thrust forth into the spotlight of orchestrated literary applause.

But it is the beginnings that most intrigue me. I am after all a writer of prose; a fashioner of literary dreams; an avid collector of dragonflies before their flight is stilled. I do not merely write to demand, not do I construct with one eye to commercial viability, I write the lyrical song that thrums through my blood, that reverberates across the rhythmic thud of heartbeat, that echoes from the polished cavity of bone. So to the earnest interlocutor, to those who do not labor over ink-stained manuscripts as the darkness fades into dawn, to those who do not birth literary passions, but whom indubitably mean well - I simply smile and thank them. For as with a leopard's allocated spots, we as writers are just as indubitably bound by the uniqueness of our particular resonating theme; one that moreover seems to choose us more particularly than otherwise - a statement more readily comprehended by the scribbling ilk than not I fear. For this is not something I would say to my well-meaning interlocutor. They would gaze at me with irritable perplexity - as if I was deliberately choosing an obscure literary fate deprived of economic succor simply to spite them - but this is an understood thing. How could it be otherwise? Because they see only the commodity! It is one and the same; this book or that, this well-run theme or that commercial-success formulaic, and our obdurate refusal to comply is simply a self-defeatist masochism for which we should, at the end of it all, be thoroughly chastised!

For I believe that great writers are possessed of an inward-gaze; utterly focused on the literary endeavor (ofttimes it can be said to the utter detriment of subsequent marketing efforts). But it should be so. For that is where the wellspring lies, the much-belabored creative source, the seedlings that give rise to mightiest of literary oaks. So when tempted by the easy incline of commercial formula, of the 'guaranteed' publishing success of this other genre or that, or by this kind of writing or that, the writer must carefully consider their own internal imperative and whether or not they are utterly impassioned by the harmony of the literary song - to the point that they will expend an untold accumulation of time, each page hard-won and stained with the residual trails of blood and sweat. For at the very least, at the end of such Sisyphean labor (for does one not then begin again?) do we not want to look upon our literary offspring with maternal pride? To feel it an exercise glorious and an endeavor instilled with a meaningful truth?

For once the Faustian bargain is struck payment indubitably comes due - years or decades later, when all  those delicate threads of potential literary marvel have become knotted and entangled, accumulating in acidic discomfort like a hard bellystone of unrelenting regret - yes one might achieve monetary wealth from novels frequently-churned, but is one's writing accompanied by a frisson of utter delight? Is the manifestation of the literary thing, commodity or otherwise. a piece of work of which one can proudly say "yes, that one in all it's imperfections, yes, that one is mine" ?

Monday, April 1, 2013

Haffar, 'Leah' and the Literary Intangibility of Mood



I am ruminating upon the theme of literary mood; that overarching fluidity of nebulous things, defined and captured not in the solidity of word or specificity of phrase, but a prevailing emotional connection that enthralls, entangles and ensnares...that keeps one riveted to page after page. In short not only the beckoning power of a given work but the hypnotic tendrils that tighten and hold, maintaining beguilement once the reader is singularly immersed.  Leah by Dana Haffar is just such an evocative pleasure.

This novel is centered on the island of Puerto Franco, of uncertain geographical location, set apart from the world in its wild isolation, shaped and buffeted by tempestuous winds. The narrative is depicted predominately through the eyes of Mar, a mainlander encumbered by grief for the death of her father and stillborn child, neglected by a selfish spouse, and consumed with fear for the safety of her surviving daughter Lemay; she seeks, on this apparently idyllic island retreat, to regain a sense of her stable self and to reconnect with the painting that sustains her. Despite her name (suggestive of the Latin mare meaning sea) Mar, who cannot swim, fears the turbulent swell of sea and the treacherous riptides that swell and pulse beneath the most placid of surfaces; she is an awkward addition to the island, distinguished from the bare-foot abandon of its inhabitants in her long linen, sunglasses and wide-brimmed hat.

Gradually entangled in insular affairs, Mar becomes aware of the dark tides that surge beneath the apparently amiable fa├žade and the terrible secret that dwells at its depth. The evocativeness of the weather, and manner in which it eerily parallels the inclinations of the Puerto Francan residents reminds me of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights; deaths and accidents coincide with uncanny precision to the gathering of stormclouds, the lashing of rain on roof, and the ferocious winds that drive the crested waves to fury. Hushed mutterings of spell-casting and dark curses thread through the narrative, and Mar herself is the recipient of repeated visits by the ghostly Leah who had drowned thirty years previously under darkly uncertain circumstances. Typically I am wary of the supernatural element within literature, while entertaining a relish for dark drama ghostly apparitions tend to leave me skeptical…Haffar, however, manages this thread masterfully, with a deft subtleness that is indubitably perfect within the confines of this novel. Leah is nuanced rather than manifested in the tread of footsteps in shifting sand, the skin-tingling deliberation of words formed in condensation, and the haunting sound of a child’s weeping. Just as Leah’s enigmatic brother Sebastian (a fisherman to which Mar is increasingly drawn) is defined by his physical solidity, his drowned sister is revealed not by her appearance but by a delicately eerie sensory imprint drawn in gossamer threads.

While the island mists seem to both reveal and conceal, a recurring motif throughout this marvelous novel is the ability ‘to see,’ to penetrate what lies beneath. Mar, plagued by vision difficulties that result in white blurred patches on one eye, learns from El Ciego, the elderly blind man, of devious doings; these are intimated rather than communicated, expressed in riddles that Mar must still decipher for herself; a Tiresius-like seer, El Cieglo ‘sees’ what others cannot.

The island itself is more than just a backdrop to the action that takes place upon its shores, it infiltrates the narrative, permeating the individuals who reside there (reminiscent of mid-nineteenth century physicians who thought geological outcrops the source of virulent disease) and in the process presents a distinct personality of its own: the rocky outcrop of terra firma, detached and withdrawn from the bustle of the larger human society, itself enveloped by a deep watery expanse; representative perhaps of the individual self: with the forbidding ‘Wild Side’ where few dare venture and vegetation is sparse and wind-bent, expressive of both tumultuous ferocity and the placid serenity of calm, with dark undertows scarcely seen beneath.

This vivid depiction of the island reminds me also of the evolutionary thread of island biogeography where uniquely exotic species thrive in isolation; protected by their watered moats, secure from the predatory tooth and claw, they develop to gigantic (or diminutive ) size, with lush cascading feathers or bizarre anatomical protuberances; suggested not only by the New Zealand kiwi and the Australian platypus, but even the version on the human evolutionary tree, the dwarf-sized Homo floresiensis (nicknamed the hobbit) discovered on the Indonesian island of Java. The general tenor of island biogeography essentially is the manifestation of the wild abandoned and insulated, of a circumscribed gene pool that gives rise to new strains of possibility and a secluded environment in which to nourish them. With the human animal however, the secluded isolation of island life tends to the macabre, to the ominous, and one reflects on Lord of the Flies or the ratcheting despair of the Pitcairn Island castaways. Puerto Franco is neither of these, the inhabitants have intermittent access to mainland amenities that are brought in by boat but they are, by and large, characterized by the rigid independence that has become necessary for their survival. The dramatic edginess of confinement, however,  the heightening tension of a circumscribed landmass encapsulated by an unforgiving sea, where the darkest threads of human nature are unleashed; this is a drama most particular to an island setting, and one Haffar ingeniously exploits to dramatic conclusion.

Leah is imbued with mood, with a literary-generated atmosphere of a wind-swept landscape peopled with characters vividly-drawn; where the reader accompanies Mar, a stranger to the island, as she unravels not only the dark enigma, the wellspring of curses, that lingers and stalls over the island like a gathered cloud of evil portent, but rediscovers her own inner strength. She learns to swim.

Mood is an elusive literary element that resists definition of any determined kind. It is a sweeping pull, much like the riptides that plague the coastal shores of Puerto Franco; or a mist, pervading a given work, that reaches out to encompass you within its swirling obscurity. It is a sustained emotional connection to a work you cannot put down, that evocative need for resolution that keeps you riveted to the page. Something intangible, ethereal, but nonetheless palpable, felt in the quickening of heart and the focused intensity of mind.