Saturday, August 19, 2017

Margot Livesey shows fiction's hidden machinery

The director of the Michener Center for Writers, James Magnuson, has high praise: "There is no finer teacher of writing in America than Margot Livesey." Livesey has published eight novels. a collection of short stories, and is a professor of fiction at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Tin House recently published her small paperback, The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing.

I suspect, based on the titles about writing on my shelves, that at a certain point in their careers most authors knows they have a book about writing in them. For many of us, writing about how to write is easier than creating one more goddamn novel. Also, for many of us who buy these books, it is easier to read about writing than it is to write. All that said, The Hidden Machinery is special and worth virtually any author's time. (The exceptions are those who know everything they need to know.)

Livesey's first essay begins with a quote from Robert Louis Stevenson: "Life is Monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant; a work of art, in comparison, is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing, and emasculate. . . " What this means in practice, I think, is that even a 'slice of life' story
succeeds or fails not in how 'lifelike' it is but how carefully the author has been able to hide the machinery of fiction from the reader, and often from herself.

She writes, "I am using the phrase 'the hidden machinery' to refer to two different aspects of novel making: on the one hand how certain elements of the text—characters, plot, imagery—work together to make an overarching argument; on the other how the secret psychic life of the author, and the larger events of his or her time and place shape that argument." To illustrate, she uses works of E.M Forster and Henry James. This first essay caused me to consider (as best I can) the effect of my psychic life and the events of the time and place in the past about which I am currently writing—and the effects of current events.

Her second essay discusses creating vivid characters. "Vivid characters are not necessarily the sine qua non of memorable fiction, but they certainly a significant part of it and an enormous part of all fiction." (And as I wrote in my last blog post, they are critical in mysteries.) Livesey confesses that she has trouble creating characters that leap off the page, and has come up with a list of prompts, rules. and admonitions for herself and her students: "Name the character . . . Use myself or someone I know . . . Make her act . . . 'Bad' characters must have some strength or virtue: perfect pitch, the ability to recognize edible mushrooms . . . When creating a character very different from myself I often need to create her or him from the outside. I give the character a house, a job, activities, friends, clothes, and, in the course of doing so, I gradually figure out her or his inner life  . . ."

While it is tempting to continue quoting (my copy of the book has a dozen sticky tabs marking passages), I am going to stop myself with a few of Livesey's words about dialogue: "But if all dialogue does is appear natural, then its artifice is wasted. Good dialogue serves the story. It must reveal the characters in ways that the narration cannot and advance the plot while, ideally, not appearing too flagrant in either mission. And it must deepen the psychic life of the story. We should sense the tectonic plates shifting beneath the spoken words. There is text, and there is subtext. Too much dialogue without subtext can quickly become tedious."

The Hidden Machinery has ten essays that explore various aspects of both craft and theory of fiction. In addition to Forster and James, Livesey employs Jane Austin, Virginia Wolfe, Gustave Flaubert, Shakespeare and her own work to illustrate her points. In addition to the essays about creating characters and writing dialogue, she has an essay she titled "How to Tell a True Story: Mapping Our Narratives onto the World" and "He Liked Custard: Navigating the Shoals of Research"; either one alone is worth, in my opinion, the price of admission.

While these essays will be most useful to working and aspiring authors (Francine Prose blurbs on the back jacket, "If only I'd been able to read The Hidden Machinery before I began my first novel. It would have saved me so much trouble!"), any reader with a serious interest in fiction and how it works—or doesn't—can learn from Livesey's insights as an author and teacher.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

What makes a great detective—at least in fiction?

Not long ago I had lunch with an acquaintance whose hobby is genealogy. He had recently broken through a brick wall (genealogy talk for dead end) through the use of DNA. Having solved his personal mystery he remarked that it would make a good book. I didn't contradict him but a good book, mystery or otherwise, generally requires an engaging, memorable character. The mystery is secondary, almost irrelevant.

Which is why The Lineup, edited by Otto Penzler, is such a valuable book for anyone who wants to write a mystery. The subtitle gives the game away: "The world's greatest crime writers tell the inside story of their greatest detectives." It's the inside story behind Harry Bosch, Jack Reacher, Precious Ramotswa, Inspector Morse, John Rebus, Spenser and fifteen more fictional sleuths.

Otto Penzler is the proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City. Several years ago, attacked by big box stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders and the online retailer Amazon (this was before Amazon drove Boarders to the wall), the Bookshop was struggling. "Not being wealthy," he writes in the Introduction, "partially by accident of birth and the failure of my parents to leave me an obscene fortune, I was faced with the increasing difficulty of supporting a business that was bleeding money—some months a mere trickle, others a rushing, roaring hemorrhage. To illustrate the level of desperation to which I had fallen, I called for a staff meeting . . . "

For several years, Penzler had commissioned an original short Christmas mystery from one of the authors he knows. The store printed the stories in pamphlets and gave them to customers as a Christmas present to thank them for their patronage. What about commissioning authors a biography or profile of their series characters, produce only 100 copies of each in hardcover, and sell the autographed, limited-editions to those collectors who also buy a book or five?

"More than two years after initiating this series—" The Lineup was published in 2009. "—we're still in business, which, against all odds, has picked up nicely. Many clients come in, call, or write each month to ask who will write the next profile, and then buy books in order to get a copy."

The profiles vary as much as the original books. But the articles are fascinating. Here's Lee Child writing about the creation of his Jack Reacher series: "Character is king. There are probably fewer than six book every century remembered specifically for their plots. People remember characters. Same with television. Who remembers the Lone Ranger? Everybody. Who remembers any actual Lone Ranger story lines? Nobody. . . " Also. "If you can see a bandwagon, it's too late to get on. . . "

Here's Ian Rankin writing about the creation of John Rebus when he, Rankin, was a 24-year-old graduate literature student. He became fascinated by contemporary literary theory, "enjoying the 'game-playing' aspect of storytelling. Eventually I would name my own fictional detective after a type of picture-puzzle, and the mystery of his first adventure would be solved with the help of a professor of semiotics. That's the problem with Knots and Crosses (and one reason I find it hard to read the book these days)—it is so obviously written by a literature student . . . It seems to me now that I wasn't interested in Rebus as a person. He was a way of telling a story about Edinburgh, and of updating the doppelgänger tradition . . ."

Again: While The Lineup should be of interest to serious mystery readers if only for all the books cited in its pages, it is invaluable for anyone who aspires seriously to write a mystery.

Monday, August 7, 2017

How do you defend the indefensible?

Delayed at an airport and finishing my last book, I browsed the terminal for a novel that would distract me from airplane malaise. I picked up a John Grisham, a brand name author, maybe not great literature but sure to please and who can focus on great literature while his flight is delayed . . . and delayed . . .and delayed?

Rogue Lawyer distracted, impressed, and engaged me through my wait, the flight, and then some. You know you're in good hands from the first paragraph: "My name is Sebastian Rudd, and though I am a well-known street lawyer, you will not see my name on billboards, on bus benches, or screaming at you from the yellow pages . . . I carry a gun, legally, because my name and face tend to attract attention from the type of people who also carry guns and don't mind using them . . . The law is my life, always consuming and occasionally fulfilling . . . ."

Rudd is a rogue lawyer, working alone, though he does have a bodyguard/driver/associate. He is "paid by the State to provide a first-class defense to a defendant charged with capital murder." Grisham does not identify Rudd's state or city (for good reason—U.S. libel laws) and one might wonder how well the state pays, but he gets by. Rudd does well enough, in fact, he's able to buy a piece of a rising cage fighting star. Watching cage fights is one of his diversions.

I thought for the first hundred pages or so that Rogue Lawyer was a collection of short stories, sort of a "My Most Memorable Cases." It turned out to be far more complicated and interesting than that however, as Rudd's old cases and new come to affect, influence, and shape one another. It's not really a mystery; in one of Rudd's cases an elderly man shot a SWOT cop thinking his home was being invaded. In another, an arena full of people watched a fighter commit murder. The mystery is whether Rudd will be able to save his client from execution or worse, life in prison without parole.

Rudd—and I am going to assume his creator Grisham—has a sobering view of police and prosecutors. Police routinely fabricate evidence and coach jailhouse snitches. Prosecutors withhold exculpatory evidence. (The Sunday New York Times Magazine of August 6, 2017 carried an article of such a case in Memphis; the innocent woman spent nine years in prison.) As Rudd ruminates, "Like so many, this trial is not about the truth, it's about winning. And to win, with no real evidence, Huver [the prosecutor] must fabricate and lie and attack the truth as if he hates it. I have six witnesses who swear my client was nowhere close to the scene when the crime was committed, and all six are scoffed at. Huver has produced almost two dozen witnesses, virtually all known to be liars by the cops, the prosecution, and the judge, yet the jurors lap up their lie as if they're reading Holy Scripture."

To even the competition slightly, Rudd has cultivated a source within the police department: "Spurio is a thirty-year veteran of the police force, a genuine, honest cop who plays by the book and despises almost everyone else in the department . . . Over the years, Spurio has refused to play the political games necessary to advance and has gone nowhere. He's usually hanging around a desk, filing papers, counting the days. But there is a network of other officers who have been ostracized by the powers that be, and Spurio spend a lot of time tracking the gossip. He's not a snitch by any means. He's simply an honest copy who hates what his department has become." So Rudd is a voice for honesty in a corrupt and lying world.

Rudd may work alone, but the book is filled with people. Rudd has a son, an ex-wife and her partner; he has his cage fighter and that family; he has to deal with his son's school teacher; and he has clients, ex-clients (including a mob boss Rudd was not able to save from an execution sentence), prosecutors, judges, and more. Grisham never has to jump into another character's head; Rudd tells the entire story.

Because I am no lawyer, I cannot critique the book's points of law. I do wonder about a prison system that is so porous that correctional officers are able to smuggle cell phones into prisoners. Also, in the prisons with which I am familiar, no one—not even an inmate's lawyer—can bring in a cell phone. But this is only a quibble. Rogue Lawyer offers a fascinating view of a subspecialty of the law, defender of the indefensible.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

But what was in Marilyn Monroe's unknown script?


John Herrick had an interesting idea: What if Marilyn Monroe wrote a screenplay while she was married to Arthur Miller? What if she gave it to a young friend, properly stamping each page with her thumbprint to prove authenticity? What if the friend, Del Corwyn, packed the script away and forgot about it? What if today, 72-year-old Del, now facing bankruptcy, discovers the script, which Marilyn titled “Beautiful Mess”?

That’s the armature on which Herrick builds his new novel, Beautiful Mess. If stories about Hollywood, the stresses of fame, the dangers of false gods, and a happy ending are the sort of book that attracts you, stop reading this review right now and add Beautiful Mess to your to-read list. You’ve been warned.

It’s not a bad book. I admire Herrick’s industry. He’s published four earlier novels and a book of non-fiction (8 Reasons Your Life Matters). Beautiful Mess comes with a reading group guide, interview with the author, and a stand-alone short story. In his answer to the question of what motivates him to select one book concept over another, Herrick gives three elements, gut feeling, commercial and target-audience appeal, and “potential to inspire or encourage the reader.”

Expanding on motivation number three, he writes,”The same collection of words triggers diverse responses among readers. It can serve as entertainment for one person. It might inspire another to reach for his or her dreams. And that same novel could uplift someone enduring pain or contemplating suicide. It’s such a privilege, and it’s like fuel during my writing process.” Which may account for my problems with the novel.

Herrick’s main character, Del Corwyn is an actor who almost won an Academy Award years ago. He has a big house in Malibu, runs every day to keep himself in shape, never married, has been living beyond his means, but seems to have no inner life. He was Marilyn Monroe’s friend when is was barely out of his teens and had an acting career that never went anywhere.

Del meets a 25-year-old actress, Nora Jumelle, who is up for an Academy Award for a breakout indie film. Nora is adventurous enough—or screwed up enough—to have a one-night-stand with Del. They agree a May-December relationship will not work (although reportedly the sex was fine) and become friends. Several of the chapters are written from Nora’s point of view.

Del meets Felicia, a minister of certain years (much more age-appropriate for Del) and they become friends. We never learn much about Felicia’s religious calling or what denomination she represents. Del and Nora happen to meet Tristan, a 30-something online wellness coach who makes a good living dispensing “Dear Abby” style advice anonymously and for money.

None of the four main characters seem to have families, friends, or much of a backstory. (Del does have an accountant and an agent.) Herrick, I suspect, started with his concept, then needed characters to move around to make the concept work rather than starting with the character(s) and letting the story grow out of their personalities and experiences.

Another problem for me is the Monroe script at the heart of the book. We never see it, although we do read Marilyn’s letter to Del when she gives him the script. People talk about it, how incredible it is, how the biggest studio in the country is willing to go all in to obtain it. But nothing, really, about it. It is a McGuffin, “a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. The specific nature of a McGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot.” Alfred Hitchcock could get away without explaining the specific nature; I wanted to know more about Monroe’s script.

I also had problems with the writing. Here’s Nora regarding Tristan: “He inspired in her a sense of security, and as she sneaked glances at those blue eyes, her heart told her he was a a guy with romantic potential.” Dell regarding Felicia: “. . .Del could see in her eyes that her heart reached out toward his.” (In Herrick’s world, hearts are wonderfully articulate.) “Del invited Felicia to speak a blessing over their meal, then they began to partake.” Who partakes these days? And then there’s poor Nora; she cannot get a break. She attends the Academy Award ceremony dressed in Armani with Del as her date. However, “Little did she know, the following day, critics would balk at her attire and label her the ceremony’s worst-dressed attendee.”

As I said at the beginning, if the premise intrigues you, read the book. It intrigued me enough to read and review it, but I am afraid that on balance I came away from Beautiful Mess agreeing only with the title’s second word.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Two mysteries, one book, and too clever by half

I did not care for Anthony Horowitz's best selling Magpie Murders but I feel that anyone interested in writing and publishing should read it because, aside from the stories it tells, it includes a wealth of information about publishing, mysteries, and the writing life.

The book begins with Susan Ryeland, a British editor, introducing "Magpie Murders," a new mystery by Alan Conway, the house's most popular author. The next 213 pages (separately numbered, different type) is that manuscript minus the last chapter. The rest of the book is Susan's story of tracking down the missing last chapter and trying to understand why Conway has just committed suicide. Or has he?

Horowitz has (at this writing) written over 40 books including the teen spy series Alex Rider, which he adapted into a movie. The Conan Doyle estate commissioned him to write two new Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Moriarty and The House of Silk, both bestsellers. The Ian Fleming estate commissioned him to write the James Bond novel Trigger Mortis. As a television screenwriter he created and wrote Midsomer Murders and Foyle's War.

Alan Conway's "Magpie Murders," ostensibly the ninth in the August Pünd series, is in the style of Agatha Christie set in a 1955 English village complete with a brilliant, if opaque, private investigator; his faithful, much younger, sidekick; a helpful, if dim, police inspector; two murders, and a half dozen suspects with reasons to kill. That is, everyone but the actual killer which Pünd has to finally expose.

I did not care for either "Conway's" mystery nor the mystery in which it is embedded because they are both puzzle boxes with red herrings, lucky (or unlucky) coincidences, and—for me—unconvincing murderers. Interestingly, we learn that Conway himself did not care for the character and the series that had made him wealthy, and one of the book's many pleasures is learning the connections between Conway's life and his book.

I am in awe of Anthony Horowitz's ability to write in the style of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and others of the period. Here is "Conway's" third-person, omniscient POV introduction to Pünd:

"Dr. Benson examined his patient with a certain amount of puzzlement. The name Atticus Pünd was familiar to him, of course. He was often mentioned in the newspapers—a German refugee who had managed to survive the war after spending a year in one of Hitler's concentration camps. At the time of his arrest he had been a policeman working in Berlin—or perhaps it was Vienna—and after arriving in England he had set himself up as a private detective, helping the police on  numerous occasions. He did not look like a detective. He was a small man, very neat, his hands folded in front of him. He was wearing a dark suit, a white shirt and a narrow black tie. His shoes were polished. If he had not known otherwise, the doctor might have mistaken him for an accountant, the sort who would work for a family firm and who would be utterly reliable. And yet there was something else . . ."

By contrast, here is Susan Ryeland's first person POV description of Alan Conway:

"I didn't like him. I'm sorry to say it but he just struck me as a bit of a cold fish. You'll have seen photographs of him on the book jackets, the slim face, the closely cropped silver hair, the round wire-framed glasses. On television or on the radio he'd always had a sort of eloquence, an easy charm. He was nothing like that then. He was puffy and a little overweight, wearing a suit with chalk marks on the sleeves. His manner was at once aggressive and eager to please. He wasted no time telling me how much he wanted to be a published author but he showed almost no enthusiasm now that the moment had come. I couldn't work him out . . ."

And here is a sample from the thankfully brief excerpt of the kind of book Conway would like the be known for:

"Lord Quentin Crump comes slumping down the staircase, lording it as he always does over the cooks and maids, the under-butlers and the footmen that exist only in his anfractuous imagination, that have in truth slipped hugger-mugger into the adumbration of family history. They were there when he was a boy and in some ways he is still a boy, or perhaps it is more true to say that the boy he was lurks obstinately in the fleshy folds that fifty years of unhealthy living have deposited on the barren winter tree that is his skeleton . . ."

I believe any aspiring mystery writer could study Magpie Murders to understand how a consummate professional describes character and place, drops clues, and propels the story forward, in this case both stories. While puzzle box mysteries are not to my taste (I agree with Edmond Wilson; who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?), I learned a great deal from the book that I plan to use in my own writing.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

History pokes its nasty nose into truffle country

Martin Walker is an interesting guy to be writing mysteries. He's the Senior Director of the Global Business Policy Council at A.T. Kearney, the management consulting firm. Membership in the Council is by invitation-only and the symposium is closed-door. Members include academic, corporate, and government thought leaders, who meet annually to discuss issues that affect the worldwide business climate.

He spent 28 years on the staff of The Guardian newspaper, working as bureau chief in Moscow and the US, European editor, and assistant editor. Passed over as editor in 1999, he jointed United Press International, is now editor-in-chief emeritus of UPI. He's a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, senior fellow of the World Policy Institute at The New School in New York, and a member of the board of directors of the Global Panel Foundation. Born in 1947, he and his wife have a holiday home in the Périgord region of France—truffle country.

And that's where Black Diamond, the third mystery featuring Benoit "Bruno" Courréges is set. Bruno is the police authority in the town of St. Denis, which is on the Dordogne River. There seems to be a problem in the truffle market in nearby Ste. Alvère, and Bruno is asked to investigate.

Black Diamond, which is one way to describe a good-size truffle, is an interestingly complex novel. Although it is set in contemporary rural France, the country's colonial history in French Indo-China and Algeria pokes its nasty nose into present-day affairs. And when Hercule Vendrot, Bruno's elderly friend, hunting companion, former secret agent in Vietnam and Algeria is found brutally murdered in the forest, that history has invaded Bruno's patch.

Bruno is an interesting cop. He's a gourmet cook (don't read this book if you're hungry), still plays rugby, and is former soldier who was wounded on a peacekeeping mission in the Balkans.  He's had an affair with a policewoman who's moved on to bigger things in Paris, and he has a relationship with an English woman who lives in St. Denis. He never carries his official pistol and "has long since lost the key to his handcuffs," but he also has good relations with the larger police organizations and knows the neighborhood and the people.

Given Walker's background, the book feels unusually rich. We learn not only about truffles—how they are found, graded, and marketed—but France's current challenge of illegal Chinese immigrants, friction between the Chinese and Vietnamese, and—not the least—what ordinary life in a French town is usually like.

Black Diamond satisfies my three criteria for a decent mystery: an engaging protagonist/detective, a convincing setting, and a plausible murderer. I'm going back to the first two Bruno mysteries in the series.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Why does Michiko throw the man under the train?

A successful mystery for me, I've concluded, is an engaging mixture of character, place, and plausibility. If the detective, the killer (you have to have a killer), and the supporting cast are not convincing, the mystery fails. If the author is able to evoke a place and the local culture—Bangkok, Tibet, Ghana, Sicily, places I know nothing about first hand—so much the better. Indeed, following an interesting detective around the landscape as he/she interviews witnesses, collects clues, and makes associations is almost all I want in a novel.

Which is why the plausibility factor spoils so many mysteries for me. Who is the killer? What are his/her motivations? (Pure naked viciousness isn't good enough.) Was the murder planned or impulsive? Generally I'm dissatisfied with elaborate puzzle boxes because I find them preposterous, the kind of mystery that concludes with the detective gathering all the suspects in a room and explains the steps that reveals the murderer.

Michael Pronko's debut, The Last Train: A Tokyo Mystery is doesn't do that and in fact is satisfying on all three counts: character, place, and plausibility.

According to his bio, Pronko has lived in Tokyo for twenty years. He has a BA in philosophy from Brown, an MA in comparative literature from Wisconsin, and a PhD in English from the University of Kent at Canterbury. He is a professor of American Literature at Meiji Gakuin University and has published three collections of essays about Tokyo. He says about The Last Train, "My book goes into the realities of Tokyo, the biggest city in the world, looks at the injustices of economics and the unfair position women are put into. It's not just 'set in' Tokyo, it's about Tokyo, in and of Tokyo."

The book begins by following a lovely, and determined young woman as she throws a drunken man into the path of the night's last express train.

In Chapter 2 we meet Hiroshi Shimizu, a police detective specializing white-collar crime, and his senpai, Takamatsu. A senpai is a senior, superior, predecessor, mentor; someone whose calls you take. The body on the tracks is a problem for the police: An American businessman. No sign of robbery. Unlikely to have simply fallen. Yet not someone who would kill himself. The American consulate is interested, as is the American Chamber of Commerce. Takamatsu wants Shimizu on the case because Hiroshi, after college in Boston and a romance with an American woman, speaks fluent English.

Pronko tells his story from the points of view of both Hiroshi and Michiko Suzuki, a woman strong enough and skillful enough in akido martial arts to throw a man in front of a train (and a former sumo wrestler through a plate glass window). Both are well-rounded and their motivations comprehensible. Pronko has lived in Japan long enough to understand the nuances of Japanese culture and behavior. We understand—if not agreeing with—Michiko's decisions, which echo those of the 47 ronin, the loyal retainers who took revenge on the lord who caused their lord's disgrace and death.

We follow Hiroshi and Takamatsu (until he ends up in the hospital after tangling with Michiko) and Sagamichi, the former sumo wrestler, as they visit the Roppongi entertainment district, goes to temples, corporate offices, and industrial wasteland in their effort to make sense of what they learn. In a set piece at the end, Hiroshi fights his way through the maze of Shinjuku Station, something anyone who has been there can empathize with. You don't have to know anything about Japan to enjoy The Last Train, but if you do, much of it will resonate—even learn something new as I did.

Monday, July 3, 2017

What happens if you just walk away from your life?

Am I the only husband who has thought once or twice about walking away from his wife and children? Just taking off and leaving one life behind for an entirely unplanned, unstructured, utterly free new life? That's what Thomas (no last name), a middle-aged, middle-class Swiss accountant does one evening.

He and his wife Astrid have just returned from a vacation in Spain to their small town in Switzerland. They are sharing an evening glass of wine in their garden when a squabble between the children draws Astrid into the house. After she settles Konrad and Ella, rather than return to the garden she goes to bed exhausted after the drive home. And Thomas walks away, leaving his wine unfinished.

So begins Peter Stamm's short novel To the Back of Beyond, his fifth. It is of a piece of his earlier work. The Financial Times wrote of an earlier novel, "Stamm eschews middlebrow concerns of plot and resolution . . . his narrative is centered on the ruptures in his main characters' lives and their consequences . . ." Stamm never gives the reader a neat, pat explanation why Thomas leaves. We can infer possible reasons from what he does, but different readers will make different inferences.

Astrid's first reaction is to lie to the children, lie to Thomas's secretary. When it seems he won't turn up after a day or two, she goes to the police.

The book has no chapters as such, but the narrative switches point of view as first we follow Thomas's peregrination, then Astrid's with almost no access to their thoughts. "Thomas imagined Astrid making two separate piles of clean and dirty clothes . . ." Is about as close as we get to his inner life.

Rather, we watch them do things and move through the landscape, often with precise and lovely descriptions smoothly translated by Michael Hoffmann: "Ahead of him grew his shadow as cast by the streetlamp behind, then it merged into the life of the one following, which cast a fresh shadow behind him, which in turn grew shorter, overtook him, and hurried ahead of him, growing all the while, a sort of ghostly relay of specters accompanying him out of the neighborhood, across the circular road, and into the business district that sprawled away from the village out into the flat land."

If "plot" is what happens to characters in a story, To the Back of Beyond clearly has a plot (pace Financial Times). Astrid does try to find Thomas. The police are as helpful as they can be, although as one sympathetic officer tells her, "An adult has the right to disappear." (Some readers, I know, will be put off by the novel's lack of quotation marks; others like myself will have no trouble following the dialogue.)

Among the novel's strengths are the questions it provokes in the reader: Is the life we're living the one we want? What motivates us to obey our routines? Can one person ever truly know another? In a sense the questions are unanswerable, but Stamm's To the Back of Beyond makes a fascinating stab at addressing them, at least for this very ordinary, but extraordinary, Swiss couple.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Following Elena Ferrante's extraordinary journey, Part 2

Elena Ferrant's Frantumaglia: A Writer's Journey is a collection of letters and e-mail responses to interviewer and reader questions. In Part 1 of this blog, I wrote about her unusual relationship with her publisher. I now want to quote her extensively on writing, starting with her observation that "when you begin a story, you have to be the sole source of the story, you have to get lost in it, because there are no predetermined maps; and if perceptible traces of what you have learned from books remain, they have to be eliminated without indulgence, assuming it's possible. Because it's not always possible, nor is it good: writing is also the story of what we have read and are reading, of the quality of our reading, and a good story, finally, is one written from the depths our our life, from the heart of our relations with others, from the heights of the books we've liked."

It should be clear to anyone who reads her novels that Ferrante has written, if not for the ages (as if one could), but from as deeply within herself as she can. She is not interested in the well-plotted story in which all the pieces fit together neatly, all loose threads tied off by the last page. Nor is she interested (pace MFA programs) in "beautiful" writing. She wants to write a story that has the energy to create a world, "not because it strings together metaphors. . . . The problem, if anything, is the cult of the beautifully wrought page, a recurring feature that I've long struggled with in myself. Today I throw out the pages that are too written—I prefer the rough draft to the final version."

Frantumaglia is full of gems for working fiction writers like this observation about dreams in novels. They are "difficult to relate; as soon as you write them they force you to invent, to put in order, and they become false. In novels especially they are so shamelessly functional to the requirements of the psychological construction of the character that their artificiality becomes intolerable."

One of the questions serious writers ask themselves often when no one seems willing to publish their books is: Why write at all? Is it simply a form of self-pleasuring? Pure solipsism? Apparently Ferrante has always believed that a book will find its readers. Her international success has validated her belief. She asks therefore, is it possible to make an immaterial organism of language, ethics, stories, experience "a concretely narratable object, that is, to employ techniques capable of conveying that organism to the reader as one does with the wind, the heat, the feeling, the events that make up the plot? To control that noisy permanent fragmenting in your head, explore that transformation into words that lasts as long as the story lasts is, I think, the secret ambition of anyone who fully dedicates himself to writing."

She notes that writers ask themselves "what experiences do I know I can be the voice of"? But that, says is not the most urgent question. "The more pressing questions are: what is the word, what is the rhythm of the sentence, what is the suitable tone for the things I know? These seem like questions of form, of style, all in all secondary. But I am convinced that without the right words, without long practice in putting them together, nothing alive and true emerges."

As I hope I've indicated in this quick review I believe Frantumaglia to be interesting and inspiring for anyone seriously interested in serious writing, that is someone who believes she has something deeply truthful to say and wants to express it in a profound and profoundly honest way. The book may also interest readers of Ferrante's novels for her notes on her characters and why she has insisted on remaining anonymous. And asked whether readers can expect to see more from her, she gives perhaps the one rule of writing: "If you have nothing worth writing, don't write any more."

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Following Elena Ferrant's extrarordinary journey, Part 1

This is the first of two posts about Elena Ferrante's Frantumaglia: A Writer's Journey. The book offers too much to readers and writers to pack into a single note.

"Elena Ferrante" is the pen name of an Italian author, who, I suspect, has very mixed feeling about the success and consequent attention her recently-published extraordinary tetralogy My Brilliant Friend has provoked. (Rights sold in forty countries, New York Times best seller.)  

"Frantumaglia" in the Neapolitan dialect means "a jumble of things." Ferrante describes it as the word her mother used to name "a disquiet not otherwise definable, it referred to a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in a muddy water of the brain." The book is a collection of letters and e-mail responses to interviewers, a jumble of things all related to the author's writing, literature, feminism, and what she has attempted to do in her novels.

Ferrante's first letter in the book, dated September 21, 1991, informs the publisher of her first novel, Troubling Love, that she will do nothing personally to promote the book—no TV, no radio, no personal interviews. "I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won't." What, after all, do we need to know about Shakespeare's childhood, methods of working, or thoughts about other playwrights to appreciate and enjoy his plays? Until very recently when an Italian reporter apparently revealed Ferrante's identity, she had been able to remain anonymous—no book jacket author photo, no potted author biography.

It's a position that contradicts everything I know about American publishing today that, in general, believes an author is a brand and should be marketed as such. What the author produces is almost secondary. Faithful readers are buying King, Steele, Roberts, Cussler, Patterson, Grisham, Woods, Child; their books have to meet a certain level of interest, entertainment, engagement but not much more. With the tens of thousand of books published and self-published every year, how else is an author going to stand out enough for readers to find her.

What I find extraordinary in Ferrante's journey as a writer is that her publisher, Edizioni E/O, with whom she has stuck through nine books, was willing to make that deal. An editor had to fall in love with Troubling Love and be willing to defend it as a publishing investment without the author's participation. Ferrante (and the publisher) were also fortunate that an Italian movie director fell in love with the book and made a well-received film based on it. Ferrante commented extensively on the script, and Frantumaglia includes her observations about and suggestions for the script.

Her publisher was also willing to wait ten years for her next manuscript. Ferrante says that she wrote constantly during those ten years, but produced nothing she felt met her own standards. For her next novel, however, The Days of Abandonment, she had softened enough to answer in writing and at considerable length (70 printed page, including outtakes from the manuscript itself) five relatively short questions from an Italian magazine. To sell foreign rights to My Brilliant Friend, the publisher promised an e-mail interview with Ferrante . . . which is why I suspect she has mixed feelings about the book's popularity.

Finally, I found it extraordinary that Ferrante wrote all four volumes of My Brilliant Friend—1,682 total pages in the English edition—in one go. She writes that she does not think about how long a book should be (or not be) when she's writing. She tells the story that has to be told . . . and I imagine the publisher had to figure out how to put it into a  form a bookstore can actually stock.

So one appeal of Frantumaglia to Ferrant's fans is the insight the author can give to the characters and their stories, all skillfully translated by Ann Goldstein. If you enjoyed The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love, The Lost Daughter, The Beach at Night or the Neapolitan quartet: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child you should find this collection of self-contained
fragments a fascinating appendix.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

What happens after the terrorist's bomb explodes?

We read about or watch news stories about terrorist bombers. So many dead, so many wounded. A group claims response or doesn't. The bomber dies or doesn't. And that's it. There's a blast and then it's over. But who are these people? What do they want? What's the point? And what happens to the survivors? Their relatives? The bystanders? The authorities?

The Association of Small Bombs, a novel by Karan Mahajan, published in 2016, was a National Book Award finalist, and named one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review. The author was born in1964 and grew up in New Delhi. He's a graduate of Stanford University and the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, Austin.

It is not an easy book. It is populated with Indian characters and a casual reader may have difficulty keeping names and relationships clear. It begins with a bomb set off in a neighborhood market in Delhi in May 1996. Three boys, friends, have gone to the market without parental permission. Two brothers are among those killed, the third wounded.

It's only a small bomb. The Kashmiri activitists who planted it are disappointed that it killed only a handful of people, but the psychological damage it does to the families of the dead boy and the surviving boy is incalculable. Much of the book is the story of how these extended families cope or don't with the tragedy.

Moreover, Mahajan takes the reader into the mind of the bomber and shows us his actions, his drives as, in the course of the book, he initiates a Delhi resident into the movement. The Indian police do arrest an activist and torture him, but he is only (only!) a theoretician of the movement, not a bomber himself. On the evidence given in The Association of Small Bombs, the men who prepare and set the bombs, foot soldiers in a murky war, don't really understand the larger point, have no coherent political goals themselves. It's also difficult (impossible) to see how killing innocent Hindu and Muslim shoppers helps the cause unless it boils down to: "You want to stop the bombings? Give us Kashmir."

And the red thread running through the novel is the tension—hostility—between Hindu and Muslim. For the boys, the difference hardly mattered. Once two are dead and the other survives, the difference matters to the families and swells over time.

Aside from the power of the story, which at times is almost too strong to read, Mahajan writes lovely passages like this: "Vikas [the father] was awfully partial toward Tushar [one of the dead boys], though he would nave never acknowledged it. Nankul [the other dead boy, his brother] was popular in school, good at sports, intense, competitive, moody—just like Vikas, in other words—whereas Tushar was lumpy, effeminate, eccentric, troubled, getting pushed around in school, and moseying up to his mother in the kitchen with the halting eyes of an abused animal, always eager to please, reading the newspaper and engaging his father in incessant chatter about politics, a pet topic for him, one he had honed through quiz competitions in school, the one area in which he shown."

The action in the book concludes in 2003, and it feels as if we have lived with the characters through their entire lives, pre-bomb and post. The Association of Small Bombs engages the reader in a exotic yet comprehensible world. I think it's an important book, and the world is one in which more and more of us seem to be living with every news cycle.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Why we argue even when we can't win

Prolific Stanley Fish, perhaps best known for How to Write a Sentence (which I reviewed in this blog), has just published his eighteenth book, Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn't Work in Politics, the Bedroom, the Courtroom, and the Classroom.

The title is a double entendre. It could mean "here's how to win arguments" or it could mean "here are arguments that win." The jacket flap copy author took the latter meaning: ". . .  Stanley Fish . . . reveals how successful argument can be used to win over popular opinion." Actually, it doesn't.

Indeed, Fish argues (you'll excuse the word) persuasively that a successful argument only provokes further argument. "Argument could produce certainty only if we lived in a world where a settled dispute stays settled because its resolution has been accomplished by a measure everyone accepts and accepts permanently." But, as he points out, we don't live in that world.

Rather than tell readers how to frame their arguments for maximum effect, Fish does something much more interesting. He indicates why no argument is going to persuade a Trump supporter or a Clinton supporter to change. No scientific data will persuade a climate-change denier that it is real or man-made. No husband's entirely reasonable defense of working late will ease his wife's feelings of abandonment. No academically certified Holocaust denier will find a job teaching a university that prides itself on being open to all ideas, even the most abhorrent.

Fish, who is a professor of law at two universities, does point out that it is possible to win an argument in a court of law, but it's not the participants who decide who won. It's a judge or a jury. (The same is true in an academic setting in a formal debate.) In a courtroom, unlike in a political debate, in a bedroom, or in a classroom, formal rules constrain what can be used in one's argument. No discussion of a criminal defendant's character for example. But even a decision of the US Supreme Court can be overturned (eventually). After all as Chief Justice Taney wrote in 1857, "[Negroes] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit." And a civil war, not argument, changed that decision.

Rather than explaining how to win an argument or providing examples of winning arguments, this relatively short book helps the reader (this reader at least) understand the function of argument in life, when not to argue (an argument with one's spouse is almost always a bad idea), and how to spot a flawed argument (not that it would change your mind anyway).

Fish gives an example of this last point: In any issue involving science—smoking/cancer, human activity/global warming, immunization/autism, evolution/intelligent design—there can be no absolute and conclusive answer. A research consensus "is merely the present thinking of fallible men and women." New evidence or discovering a flaw in the source data can always disrupt the consensus. (Too bad for those who want clear, unambiguous conclusions.) Therefore the consensus should not be the basis for action. I.e., we shouldn't spend money to discourage smoking or regulate acid rain until there's conclusive evidence that smoking causes cancer, human activity causes global warming, immunizing children causes autism, and more and more and more.

But! But! But! We've just argued that, for a scientific question, the evidence is never all in. As Fish writes, "if incomplete evidence is the inevitable condition of inquiry, you can't cite the incompleteness of evidence as a reason for failing to act on the evidence that is in."

Much as I enjoyed Winning Arguments, I would have enjoyed it more if it had an index and a bibliography. Fish bases some of his points heavily on other works and it would have been handy to have them easily available. Still, the book is a provocative and fascinating discussion of an important topic.


Saturday, June 10, 2017

Revenge as a dish best served cold

The Hogarth Press was founded by Virginia and Leonard Woolf in 1917. It was relaunched in 2012 as a partnership between Chatto & Windus in the UK and Crown in the U.S. In 2015 Hogarth launched the Hogarth Shakespeare program to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. "The project sees the Bard’s plays retold by acclaimed, bestselling novelists and brought to life for a contemporary readership." Hag-Seed is Margaret Atwood's take on The Tempest.

When the novel opens, Felix Phillips is the Artistic Director of a Shakespeare Festival theater in Ontario (shades of "Slings & Arrows," the Canadian TV series), rehearsing a production of The Tempest and starring himself as Prospero. His wife died shortly after childbirth, a late marriage for him, and three years later his daughter, Miranda, also died. In his grief, Felix buries himself in the artistic side of the festival, leaving all administrative, fund-raising, director-massaging activities to Tony, the festival's second-in-command. Tony forces Felix out in a board-room coup, claiming artistic mismanagement. By page 35, Felix has withdrawn from the world, is living in an isolated two-room shack, and communicating from time to time with his daughter Miranda's living spirit.

Nine years later, Felix spots an opportunity to teach in a nearby prison. He convinces the woman responsible for the job, a woman of a certain age who has known and admired Felix in his earlier life, that a program of mounting Shakespeare's plays in the prison would be valuable. He's hired to work three months a year, and produces Julius Caesar, Richard III, and MacBeth employing inmate actors and technicians. The plays are recorded on video and played through the prison's CCTV system (no assembling a large inmate audience in a medium-security prison) and well-received by the prisoners and administration.

In his fourth year at the prison Felix learns that Tony Price and Sal O'Nally, the two who colluded in sacking Felix from the Festival and now both government Ministers, will be visiting the prison in the spring: "The one place in the world where, with judicious timing, he might be able to wield more power than they could." Felix decides to produce a contemporary version of The Tempest, a revenge play as a vehicle for revenge.

Margaret Atwood is a sorceress. She never slips into mechanically moving her characters around to fit the plot while she does manage to set up echoes and resonances with Shakespeare's play.

—Felix, as theater director, is the wizard controlling events as he plays Prospero who employs magic to enchant his enemies.

—The prison might be an island.

—The relationship between Price, O'Nally, and Felix echo the relationship of Antonio, who usurped his brother Prospero's title as Duke of Milan; Alonso, the King of Naples; and Prospero, the rightful Duke.

—O'Nally brings his son Freddie into the prison to watch the production where he's attracted to the actress who plays Miranda; Alonso's son Ferdinand, also magically shipwrecked, falls in love with Miranda.

—Felix spends twelve years in his cell of a shack; Prospero spends twelve years before Alonso's ship strays close enough to his island that he can use his magic to simulate a shipwreck.

Because this is a contemporary production, in a prison, with inmates, directed by a man willing to push theatrical limits, Felix's Tempest includes raps that the cast—i.e., Atwood—writes. For example:

I'm the man, I'm the Duke, I'm the Duke of Milan,
You want to get pay, gotta do what I say.
Wasn't always this way, no, no,
I was once this dude called Antonio,
I was no big deal and it made me feel so bad, so mad,
Got under my skin, 'cause I couldn't ever win,
Got no respect, I was second in line,
But I just kept smilin', just kept lyin', said everything's fine . . . .

You don't have to know The Tempest to enjoy Hag-Seed. You will have to suspend disbelief if you are familiar with prison routine (although, to be fair, perhaps Canadian prisons operate differently than American). If you know your Shakespeare, however, I believe you'll find Hag-Seed a marvel and a joy.


Sunday, April 30, 2017

Whose writing tools should we use?

The New York Times Book Review has an interesting opinion piece by Viet Thanh Nguyen, "Your Writing Tools Aren't Mine." It begins by pointing out that American literature is being read around the world and that the American way of teaching writing is also spreading. "The writing workshop, with all its unexamined assumptions, has spread to Britain and Hong Kong, a model of pedagogy that is also an object lesson in how power propagates and conceals itself."

Nguyen touches on his own experience as a refugee from war, from an Asian country in a workshop that deliberately or otherwise, "produces a particular kind of writing." He says that workshops typically focus on "strategies of the writing 'art' that develop character, setting, time, description, theme, voice and, to a lesser extent, plot."

They generally do not have anything to say about politics, history, theory, philosophy, or ideology. Writing teachers avoid these subjects for fiction, not because they put off readers or because the teachers are unqualified to teach them, but because they threaten the workshop's origins.

As an institution, Nguyen writes, "the workshop reproduces its ideology, which pretends that 'Show, don't tell' is universal when it is, in fact the expression of a particular population, the white majority, typically at least middle-class and often, but not exclusively, male."

It's an interesting argument. (And it echoes themes in Minae Mizumura's The Fall of Language in the Age of English, which I discussed recently.) If nothing else, the piece is sending me to read Nguyen's novel The Sympathizer, which won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize and a ton of other awards. I am curious to see how his own fiction reflects his ideas. In any case, his fiction provokes strong feelings among readers as few minutes skimming through the 1,478 Amazon reviews suggests:

" . . . simply superb. Written with an unflinching eye and great humor . . ."

" . . . boring. Nothing actually happened, there was no plot . . ."

" . . . a fabulous book that brought so many memories of my two Viet Nam tours . . ."

" . . . overrated, predictable, no plot twist at all . . ."

" . . . a very serious story, but with wonderful humor interlaced with the tales of political intrigue."

" . . . a potentially interesting theme and plot ruined by the narrator's flippant attitude to everything . . ."

But you get the idea. And I wonder how far Nguyen is willing to go. 

Should writers not develop character, describe a scene, set a time, have a theme (in my experience, a work has a theme whether you want one or not), tell not show? Which is not to denigrate or dismiss politics, history, theory, philosophy, and ideology. It seems to me that the more tools a writer can employ effectively, the more engaging, the richer a work is likely to be. 

I'd be interested in hear other opinions. 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Who writes incredible dialogue?

Here is Dave Barry on the author he thinks writes the best dialogue. To make this interesting, I've edited out the author's name; can you guess who Barry is talking about?

"When you read him and then read somebody else, you realize that everyone else is doing writing that's supposed to be the way people talk, whereas [he] is writing exactly the way people talk. Which is more difficult than anybody can imagine. He has this phenomenal ability to tear away all the thing we don't say, and leave out all the things people really leave out, so that much of the thoughts are poorly express or incomplete—writers have a lot of trouble doing that, they wan to tell you to make sure you get it. But [he] relies on your ear to fill in things that weren't there and thing that go unsaid, and to deal with the ambiguities that real life forces you to deal with. He does that so incredibly well and he does it very consciously; it's not effortless. He works really hard to get that feel and sound to his writing. I don't think anybody does it as well as he does . . . "
—Ronald B. Schwartz, For the Love of Books: 115 Celebrated Writers on the Books They Love Most, (Gosset/Putnam, 1999), p 12.

The author Dave Barry is talking about is:










Elmore Leonard

Thursday, April 20, 2017

A breathtakingly original and unsettling novel

Rachel Cusk is a British author I'd never heard of until I began reading rave reviews her new novel, Transit, so I immediately picked up a copy of her novel Outline. Reportedly, Transit is the second novel in a trilogy; Outline is the first. They join Cusk's seven other works of fiction and three works of nonfiction. How have I managed to miss her all this time?

Because Outline is extraordinary. I'll go with Julie Myerson, writing in The Observer because I cannot improve on the sentiment: "This has to be one of the oddest, most breathtakingly original and unsettling novels I've read in a long time."

While I am skeptical that I can convey what makes the book so powerful (to start with, I cannot write as well as Cusk, nor can I think as deeply), let me say a little bit about it.

Outline is narrated by a writer who has been invited to teach a week-long workshop in Athens. She is divorced, has two young sons back in London. On the flight to Greece, she falls into conversation with her seatmate, a much older, much divorced man; in Greece she twice goes out on his boat with him; she leads her writing class; she spends an afternoon with a friend and a lesbian Greek writer; she talks the woman who is taking over the apartment in which she's been staying. That's it.

Cusk violates many of the "rules" of fiction. It is not clear what the narrator wants—and if we don't know what a character is trying to accomplish, how can we root for her? (If an author is as good as Cusk, we—or I—will follow her anywhere.) There is no story arc except that the narrator, whose name is used only once in the 249 pages, flies to Athens, spends a week there, and is about to return to London when the book ends. On the other hand, the book is full of stories; the people the narrator meets and her writing students tell her stories. Self-serving, sad, charming, off-putting and on-putting stories.

Meanwhile, the pages are studded with comments like this: "Sometimes it has seemed to me that life is a series of punishments for such moments of unawareness, that one forgets one's own destiny by what one doesn't notice or feel compassion for; that what you don't know and don't make the effort to understand will become the very thing you are forced into knowledge of." Think about that for a few minutes and see where it takes you.

At the same time, Cusk is brilliant at description: "The woman who said this was of a glorious though eccentric appearance, somewhere in her fifties, with a demolished beauty she bore quite regally. The bones of her face were so impressively structured as to verge on the grotesque, an impression she had chosen to accentuate—in a way that struck me as distinctly and intentionally humorous—by surrounding her already enormous blue eyes in oceans of exotic blue and green shadow and then drawing, not carefully, around the lids with an even brighter blue; her sharp cheekbones wore slashes of pink blusher, and her mouth, which was unusually fleshy and pouting, was richly and inaccurately slathered in red lipstick."

One last quote and then I'll stop before I begin to flirt dangerously with the 'fair use' exception of the copyright law: "There was a great difference, I said, between the things I wanted and the things that I could apparently have, and until I had finally and forever made my peace with that fact, I had decided to want nothing at all." Something else to think on for a while.

As a writer, I am dazzled by Cusk's use of language. Consider what would happen to her second quote above if an idiot editor insisted—as idiot writing teachers have insisted—she excise all adverbs.

As a reader I waiting to immerse myself in Transit when my copy arrives. But start with Outline.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

What happens to literature when English dominates?

Minae Mizumura is a Japanese novelist I've written about in the past. I've discussed two of her novels, A True Novel and Inheritance from Mother in my blog that focuses on Japan and Japanese culture. Her new book—new for Western readers—is The Fall of Language in the Age of English. It was originally published in Japan as When the Japanese Language Falls: In the Age of English (Nihongo ga horobiru toki: Eigo no seiki no naka de) in 2008 where it became an enormous best-seller. The English version, translated by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter, is somewhat different from the original which addressed Japanese readers. The Fall of Language in the Age of English makes a more general, more universal argument.

Mizumura was born in Tokyo in 1951, moved with her family to Long Island, New York, when she was twelve years old. She lived in the States for twenty years but never felt entirely at ease here. She studied French literature and literary criticism at Yale as both an undergraduate and graduate student. She has taught at Princeton, University of Michigan, and Stanford and in The Fall of Language she gives her account of her experience in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 2003. She currently lives in Tokyo.

Her book makes a clear distinction between a local language, a national language, and a universal language. A local language is the one you grow up speaking; it may or may not have a writing system. As I understand her argument, a local language in Italy is something like Neapolitan, Calabrese, Sicilian, Venetian—more than a dialect or an accent—a language that outsiders cannot understand; the national language would be Italian. In Japan, local languages include Tohoku-ben, Kansai-ben, Hakata-ben, and more local; the national language is Japanese. A national language Mizumura says "is an elevated form of a local language" and a country like Belgium might have two national languages.

A universal language is one used internationally for science, business, diplomacy, and more. In the middle ages, Latin was a universal language. Today, thanks to British colonial efforts, trade and US strength after WWII, English has become the universal language. More Chinese may speak Mandarin, but "what makes a language 'universal' has nothing to do with how many native speakers there are, and everything to do with how many people use it as their second language . . . What matters is that English is already used and will continue to be used by the greatest number of nonnative speakers in the world." (Italics in the original.)

One of the things this means is that translation becomes far more important than most people realize. If an author writes in her local or national language, her readers are only those who can read it. If an author writes in English, her prospective readers are all over the world, not only in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. Many more Japanese are able to read a novel in English than Americans are able to read a novel in Japanese. This suggests that if an ambitious author wants a wide audience, she ought to write in English even though her native language may be Hausa, Tagalog, Tswana, or Tigrinya.

Translation, however, is at best a limited answer to the challenge of literature written in languages other than English. As Mizumura points out "the works that are usually translated into English are those that are both thematically and linguistically the easiest to translate, that often only reinforce the worldview constructed by the English language, and preferably that entertain readers with just the right kind of exoticism." Readers therefore "are not condemned to know that there is thus a perpetual hermeneutic circle—that in interpreting the world, only 'truths' that can be perceived in English exist as 'truths.'"

And machine translating, while clearly improving almost weekly, has real problems with languages remote from English like Japanese and Chinese. In a news article or instruction manual where the meaning rests mostly on the surface, a machine version may be adequate. But in a work of literature where much of the meaning—and pleasure—is in the nuance, the implications, the way words can resonate against one another, machine translation, as I can testify from my own experience, has a long, long way to go. And—sudden thought—by the time it gets there, (which is not a sure thing), it may be useless because English has so overwhelmed all other languages that no one is bothering to write literature in her native language anyway.

Given her interest, Mizumura has much to say about Japanese literature, its remarkable florescence during the late 19th and early 20th centuries (i.e., during the Meiji and Taisho eras) and, in her opinion, its current low state. Indeed, when her book was published in Japan, she was attacked for her judgment: "She talks down about contemporary Japanese literature, when even Americans say it's great!" As if American opinion is the measure of quality.

I  found the book fascinating. Anyone interested in language, literature, Japan, or all three can read The Fall of Language in the Age of English profitably. Because most of us tend to think in our native language most of the time, we are usually no more aware of it than a fish is of the water in which it swims. Mizumura helps us consider the medium in which we think and write, what we're doing, and the effect the spread of English is having on the rest of humanity.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

A counter view to life during Italy's "Years of Lead"

Edoardo Nesi's new novel, Infinite Summer (translated from the Italian by Alice Kilgarriff), takes place in Tuscany between August 1972 and August 1982, right in the middle of the period known in Italy as the "Years of Lead," a period of social and political turmoil marked by left-wing and right-wing killings and bombings. Knowing a bit of this history gives the novel a feeling of unfolding in an alternate Italy, an Italy of booming growth, expanding global markets for Italian goods, and limitless possibilities.

Nesi is a translator, writer, filmmaker, and politician. He has translated Bruce Chatwin, Malcolm Lowry, Stephen King, and David Foster Wallace among others. He's written a dozen books, one of which, Fughe da Fermo, was made into a film that he directed. In 2013 he was elected to the Italian Parliament's Chamber of Deputies.

Infinite Summer weaves together the stories of four characters: Ivo Barrocciai, the expansive, optimistic son of a modest Tuscan textile manufacturer; Cesare "The Beast" Vezzosi, a small-time building contractor; Vittorio, Cesare's young son; and Pasquale Citarella, "a hard-working foreman and house painter from the South." In other words, a representative of the upper, middle, and lower classes.

Ivo has a vision: Build a textile factory on the outskirts of Florence that will be "the envy of the Milanese." The factory must be huge, larger than any factory in the region. It must have two stories. Ivo's own office must be as large as a tennis court and a white Carrara marble staircase must lead to it. As frosting on this cake, an Olympic-size swimming pool must be built on the roof. Ivo's vision includes Vezzosi as the contractor and Citarella as site manager. Because Ivo's goals are so outrageous and because neither Caesare nor Pasquale have any experience in their assigned roles, I expected the enterprise to collapse in a heap of debt and recriminations.

But it doesn't. There are complications, but it won't spoil the book to know that at the end Ivo can enjoy his rooftop pool. Between the first chapter in which we meet eight-year-old Vittorio and the last, we follow Ivo, Cesare, Vittorio, and Pasquale change and grow, picking up insights into Italian life and culture along the way—one of the many pleasures of Infinite Summer.

The book is interestingly constructed. Some chapters are virtually all description, some are all dialogue. Some limit the point of view to a single character, some take an omniscient point. Early in the book, Nesi takes the time to describe in considerable detail a pickup soccer game that includes this:

" . . .The ball—a gnarled, rough, rubber sphere adorned with the word 'Yashin' in honor of the great Russian goalkeeper of the 1960s whom none of the boys had ever seen play—rises so high that Arianna [Vittorio's mother] sees it trace an arch through the sunset burning brightly below the low, distant hills. It's a brushstroke, a satellite, a signature that strokes the sky . . . "

And here is Ivo, persuading Cesare to build his beautiful factory:

" . . . Think about it, Cesare, I'm always abroad selling, and while I'm in Germany, or America, or Japan, or Cape Town in South Africa, my business needs loyal, honest, tireless workers, people who care about the business as much as I do. They're the ones who'll keep it going. I call the shots, of course, but they're the ones who do all the work, and if they aren't any good, if they don't give their hundred percent, if they don't want to stay that extra hour, the company won't go anywhere, you see?"

In one sense, Infinite Summer is a brief for capitalism and global trade. Ivo is able to obtain financing to build his factory, hire and motivate skilled workers, and sell his innovative fabrics around the world. The problems are personal; men—and women—are attracted to inappropriate sexual partners and complications ensue. All in all, a fascinating and convincing picture of a certain time in Italy and an engaging and persuasive portrait of characters who were living through it.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

For anyone interested in literature, Iran, or another culture

Last fall, I talked about Azar Nafisi's book, The Republic of Imagination. I have finally caught up with her first book, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, which was published in 2003. It was deservedly a best seller and deserves to be read fifteen years after it was published.

Azar Nafisi, says her website, "is a Visiting Professor and the executive director of Cultural Conversations at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, where she is a professor of aesthetics, culture, and literature, and teaches courses on the relation between culture and politics. Azar Nafisi held a fellowship at Oxford University, teaching and conducting a series of lectures on culture and the important role of Western literature and culture in Iran after the revolution in 1979. She taught at the University of Tehran, the Free Islamic University, and Allameh Tabatabai before her return to the United States in 1997 . . . In 1981, she was expelled from the University of Tehran for refusing to wear the mandatory Islamic veil and did not resume teaching until 1987."

Reading Lolita in Tehran fills out the picture of what happened to her and her family during and after the 1979 revolution, adds stories of her students and colleagues, and connects all this to works by Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, Jane Austen, and more. She lived through—and describes in painful detail—the rise of the theocracy. (You don't want to live in one, not Muslim, not Christian.) She lived through the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, the one in which the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein. She held private classes in English literature for eight young women in her living room. She tried to open minds under a regime that—my impression—was doing its best to limit them.

For example, one of her senior colleagues in the university did not want her to teach The Great Gatsby. "The novel was immoral. It taught the youth the wrong stuff; it poisoned their minds—surely I could see. I could not. I reminded him that Gatsby was a work of fiction and not a how-to manual. Surely I could see, he insisted, that these novels and their characters became our models in real life? Maybe Mr. Gatsby was all right for the Americans, but not for our revolutionary youth . . ."

With the revolution, came new government regulations punishable by fines, lashings, and jail. Nafisi writes, "Now that I could not call myself a teacher, a writer, now that I could not wear what I would normally wear [new rules ordered women to wear only chador or long robe and scarf in public], walk in the streets to the beat of my own body, shout if I wanted to or pat a male colleague on the back on the spur of the moment, now that all this was illegal, I felt light and fictional, as if I were walking on air, as if I had been written into being and then erased in one quick swipe."

Toward the end of the book, she writes that the dilemmas of the girls she taught "stemmed from the confiscation of their most intimate moments and private aspiration by the regime. This conflict lay at the heart of the paradox created by Islamic rule. Now that the mullahs ruled the land, religion was used as an instrument of power, an ideology. It was this ideological approach to faith that differentiated those in power from millions of ordinary citizens . . ." My opinion is that ideologues make terrible presidents, senators, representatives, judges, and mayors.

My selection of quotations may unfortunately give the impression that the memoir is a screed against the Islamic Republic. Nafisi certainly points out the difficulties of living in a theocracy even if one is a believer. What makes the book far more than war stories of living through a revolution, however, is Nafisi's and her students' thoughts and observations about the books they read. Anyone who is interested in literature, in Iran, in another culture, or in all three should find and read Reading Lolita in Tehran.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Skeleton God is more than a challenging puzzle

I asked to review Skeleton God, the ninth mystery in Eliot Pattison's Inspector Shan Tao Yun series, because I had just read The Skull Mantra, the first in the series.

At the beginning of The Skull Mantra, Shan, who is Chinese, is in a Tibetan prison camp having pursued an investigation too aggressively back in Beijing. When a prison work gang finds a headless corpse on a windy Tibetan mountainside, Colonel Tan, the district commander, springs Shan from the prison with the understanding that Shan will solve the murder before an American tourist delegation arrives and do it in a politically expedient manner, which may require executing an innocent monk—something Shan cannot permit.

As Pattison's website says, Shan is thrown into a maelstrom of political and religious intrigue involving American mining interest, Tibetan sorcerers, corrupt Party officials, a secret illegal monastery, and the Tibetan resistance movement.

I have some quibbles about The Skull Mantra. The maelstrom into which Shan is thrown is complex, and between the Chinese and Tibetan names and Pattison's efforts to convey the recent history of Chinese/Tibetan relations (not to mention Tibetan Buddhist customs and spirituality), it can be heavy sledding to follow the plot's twists. Nevertheless, The Skull Mantra is a superior and fascinating first effort.

Eight books later in Skeleton God, Shan is the constable of a remote Tibetan town. Colonel Tan, while not Shan's friend, recognizes his value and uses him as best he can. Shan's son, Ko, mentioned but not appearing in the first book, is now a prisoner in Shan's former prison. The story begins when Shan investigates a report that nun has been assaulted by ghosts. In an ancient tomb by the old nun, Shan finds the mummified and gilded remains of Buddhist saint buried centuries ago, the remains of a Chinese soldier murdered fifty years before, and an American man (!) murdered only hours earlier (!!). What is going on?

It is to Pattison's credit that what goes on is plausible and engaging. He is able to use historic events—an 1897 earthquake, the predations of the Red Guards, the Chinese looting of Tibetan shrines and monasteries—serve his again complex plot.

Shan is an interesting character. He speaks Tibetan and English as well his native Chinese. Because official China has been doing its best to eliminate Tibetan customs and culture for the last fifty years, the local people regard Shan warily when not actively hostile. Because Shan's beloved son is a prisoner and could be shipped to a much harsher prison (although the 404th Construction Brigade is hardly a Boy Scout camp), Shan has to be careful on whose toes he treads. Because the careful reader can figure out who the bad guy is about halfway through the book, we still want to know (I still wanted to know) exactly what he did and why he did it. It all makes for interesting tension.

Either because I had just read The Skull Mantra and was thereby familiar with the names and language or because after writing eight Inspector Shan mysteries Pattison made Skeleton God easier to follow. A friend felt that the first book should come with a Cast of Characters and a Glossary of Buddhist Terms. I disagree.

Part of the novels' pleasure is learning from context about Tibetan culture and its recent history. The mystery is interesting, but both The Skull Mantra and Skeleton God offer much more than challenging puzzle. Pattison tells me something about a world I know nothing about, and I trust his word.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

How Ove is saved in spite of himself

Ove is not an easy character to like or to sympathize with. Okay, he's fifty-nine years old, his wife has died recently (the only person who could have stood him), he has no children, he's out of work, and his world has changed in ways he neither understands nor wants to understand.

In Chapter 1 of Fredrik Backman's best-selling A Man Called Ove, Ove shops for a computer. He's both ignorant and impatient; he does not trust the store clerk, assuming the worst. For example, if a laptop does not come with a keyboard—and Ove knows computers need keyboards—it's "Because you have to buy it as an 'extra,' don't you?" he sputters (Ove has a very short fuse). The sale does not go well.

In Chapter 2 we watch Ove go through his inflexible morning routine: make coffee, inspect his housing development's garages, make sure as always (with three tugs) his garage door is properly locked, confirm that no cars in the guest parking area have been parked more than 24 hours (he jots down license numbers), separates a glass jar from its lid, dropping the former into the glass recycling bin, the latter into the metal recycling bin (muttering "incompetents"), and, back home, prepares to hang himself in his living room. The chapter ends when he's interrupted by "a long scraping sound. Not at all unlike the type of sound created by a big oaf backing up a Japanese car hooked up to a trailer and scraping it against the exterior wall of Ove's house."

Well, guess what. It is a big oaf backing up a Japanese car hooked up to a trailer and scraping it against the exterior wall of Ove's house. It's his new next door neighbors, a Swede like Ove, his very pregnant Iranian wife, and two small children. Here's how Backman describes the husband: "He's wearing a knitted cardigan and his posture seems to indicate a very obvious calcium deficiency. He must be close to six and a half feet tall. Ove feels an instinctive skepticism towards all people taller than six feet; the blood can't quite make it all the way up to the brain."

A couple examples of Backman's method of showing the reader Ove's views of—attitude toward?—the world: "He's wearing his navy suit . . . Ove's wife likes that suit. She always says he looks to handsome in it. Like any sensible person, Ove is obviously of the opinion that only posers wear their best suits on weekdays. But this morning he decided to make an exception. He even put on his black going-out shoes and polished them with a responsible amount of boot shine." Not too much polish, a responsible amount.

One more example: "Ove didn't dislike this cat in particular. It's just that he didn't much like cats in general. He'd always perceived them as untrustworthy. Especially, as in the case of Earnest [a cat Ove's wife loved], they were as big as mopeds. It was actually quite difficult to determine whether he was just an unusually large cat or an outstandingly small lion. And you should never befriend something if there's a possibility it may take a fancy to eating you in your sleep." Throughout the book, Backman (or his translator) employs interesting metaphors and adjectives.

Few readers, however, read a book for its metaphors and adjectives (or, for that matter, it adverbs). I thought A Man Called Ove is an interesting exercise in working out how a man could become a curmudgeon, so depressed he wants to join his wife in death (and is certain he will join her, although he'll be a suicide), and, through the goodness of other people and his inherent decency, is returned to life. With an uplifting message like that, a book deserves to be a best seller.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

John Rebus retired is still solving crime

You don't have to have read all of Ian Rankin's John Rebus mysteries (I haven't) to enjoy the latest, Rather Be the Devil, but it would help. For one thing, you would know something about Detective Inspector (Ret.) John Rebus, DI Siobban Clarke, DI Malcolm Fox, and Edinburgh crime boss (and Rebus nemesis) Big Ger Cafferty. Fortunately, while it may increase your pleasure in the book knowing all the past cases involving these characters, Rather Be the Devil stands on its own.

The plot is complex involving a 35-year-old cold case, international money laundering, a significant murder, competition between Edinburgh and Glasgow criminal gangs, and more. Adding to the mix is the fact that Rebus is no longer a DI and cannot flash a warrant card in suspect's face. He is also trying to give up cigarettes and has been diagnosed with a shadow on his lung.

I guess you could read the book for the puzzle, and Rankin is a master of inventing plausible criminal puzzles. Edinburgh is large enough to have a substantial criminal underworld, small enough that a player in that would could reasonably have played a very minor part in the unsolved 1978 murder. Teasing apart all the threads along with Rebus, Clarke, and Fox is one of the book's pleasures.

Another pleasure comes from being in the hands of a crackerjack writer. Here are the book's first four sentences:

Rebus placed his knife and fork on the empty plate, then leaned back in his chair, studying the other diners in the restaurant.
"Somebody was murdered here, you know," he announced.
"And they say romance is dead." Deborah Quant paused over her steak.

One more example. Malcolm Fox has been left in the station house where he's been reading a book that may be relevant to the case. Rebus asks where the rest of the team working the case has gone. Fox says,

"They're also going through Chatham's house, seeing if there's anything on his computer or tucked away in a drawer somewhere . . ."
"While you're left her to read a library book?" said Rebus.
"Playing to one of my many strengths."
"What? Basic literacy?"

How many mysteries make you laugh out loud? 

Yet another pleasure, which may be based on an illusion, is seeing the way the Scottish police work, the bureaucracy, the mechanics of how the system works. I say it may be an illusion because I have no idea whether what Rankin describes is accurate or not. Suffice it to say, the procedures, the infighting, the limitations, and the eventual results sound spot on. I still sure to what Rather Be the Devil refers; that, however, did not diminish my pleasure at all.