Sunday, January 31, 2010

Short Circuit: a discussion with Vanessa Gebbie (3)


Okay, the final lap of the extended blog spot from Vanessa Gebbie, talking about her book of advice for aspiring writers, Short Circuit. Previously we’ve discussed the nature of the short story itself, and issues relating to character and theme. Today, we’re going to look at writing craft in general.

TC: Graham Mort says that, as a teacher of creative writing, he is wary of a sense of orthodoxy creeping into his workshops. How do you strike a balance between teaching craft but encouraging creativity – taking risks, doing something different?

VG: By saying and doing just that, really. I don’t run to a formula. I remember working with a person a while back who kept her workshop outlines in a neat folder, and just ran the same one over and over again. I thought how awful that was, for her, how boring it must be. I don’t plan a workshop until I know the people I’ve got. I always put in a plan ‘b’ and a plan ‘c’. I always put in a bag of prompts – things – postcards, stuff from home, a model car, a hat. Anything. But mostly, the outline of the workshop will be so I don’t chunter on too long about any one thing. People PAY for this, and I have a job to do, to get through the outline I set. But within the sessions, I have no idea often how it will go – I will respond to something from the people - use their thoughts, ideas – I think you have to be ready to ditch your own plans and run with the group energy. So there is then a lot of energy around. Energy breeds more of the same. If I as a teacher take risks in the format, I am to some extent ‘living’ what I’m suggesting they do – being creative. Not stuck in a formula. Seems to work. But maybe the best people to ask are some one the people who’ve been in a workshop with me. They may say its awful!

TC: Clare Wigfall says something very interesting: “In my work a lot is left out, deliberately... I do not expect every reader to interpret my story in the same way.” This goes back to taking risks and avoiding orthodoxy: is there a danger that some writers are being coached into a kind of literary straitjacket, where everything has to resolve, and every character has to behave identifiably and every action has to assume meanings on different levels so that the reader can be led to a logical conclusion? Life isn’t like that, and maybe literature shouldn’t be either?

VG: I don’t know, Tom, what is being coached at establishment level. But we used to play a game in BC [Boot Camp], spot the MFA writer – I don’t know if they still do that? Without fail, in a journal, you used to be able to pick a style, a density of prose, a studied competence... and a ‘dead’ story which ticked all the boxes and probably got a good mark from another MFA success from a few years back who got his from an MFA success a few years before that... ad infinitum... It can’t last, can it?

TC: There was a good article by Zadie Smith on this subject in The Guardian recently, in which she picked up on a new book suggesting that literature is losing out to non-fiction for this very reason – it is becoming too stylised and polished for its own good. I think there is something in this. I wrote about it here.

VG: A great post.

TC: A number of your contributors talk of the importance of reading a lot, and this seems to me to be one of the biggest areas of weakness among aspiring writers. They just don’t read widely. Until recently I was guilty of this myself but, having read a great deal in the past eighteen months or so, I can see massive failings in my writing that I simply wasn’t aware of before. Also, reading great literature always makes me want to get back to writing myself – not to mimic the greats, but simply to get something down. From your work with writing groups, do you agree this is an issue? Is there a reluctance to read, and to read different things, not just within your comfort zone?

VG:I think this could be a huge post all on its own. Two years back I had a lunch with a top agent, the then Lit Ed of a broadsheet and a successful novelist. (The lunch was prize in a comp – five winners). One of the winners proudly announced that he didn’t read anything because he didn’t want to dull his own genius. The lit agent visibly shuddered.

I don’t see how you can swim in a river without getting wet. We’re PART of something, here, doing this. It all informs, and feeds, and inspires, doesn’t it? Like you, I don’t do enough, and would like the last ten years back, please... and to be fair, the writing groups I’ve been in (not many – Fiction Workhouse was the main one after BC), all had a reading element to them. A section where we discussed great stories, or bad stories, or great novels, poetry. Anything. One of the things my writing friends will still always ask when we meet is ‘what are you reading?’...

TC: How is Short Circuit selling? I hope it’s doing well because I think it is a fine compendium of excellent advice.

VG: Thank you for such a lovely endorsement, Tom. It means a lot that a writer of your calibre and with your analytical powers appreciates what I was trying to do!
Re sales, so far, so good as far as I can tell. Indications aren’t bad - the book came out on 15th November, and whizzed straight to third place in Salt Publishing’s Top 20 pre-Christmas sales (www.saltpublishing.com - there’s a list on the home page of their website). I regularly check the Amazon UK stats, and Short Circuit is currently the best seller of all Salt’s books - and a few days ago it was at number two. Mind you, all it takes is for a single copy to be bought on Amazon and the stats waft around quite alarmingly. Anyway, we’d all rather it was bought from Salt than the Behemoth, who don’t need any more profits at Salt’s expense!

I also find writers I don’t know talking about it on their blogs, having heard about it ‘from a friend’ - so the word is spreading – writers telling writers that this is a good book, and word of mouth is by far the best advertisement, n’est-ce pas?

TC: You’ve been reading and re-reading William Golding recently, and you’ve mentioned him a couple of times already. How is your reading of Golding going?

VG: I’m having a great time thanks! I went to a talk at the Bridport Lit fest back in November, by John Carey, Golding’s biographer. Here is the review on The Independent.

It was so good – he lit a real spark of interest in me, to go back and rediscover Lord of the Flies – but he also said that in his opinion, Pincher Martin was Golding’s finest novel, and The Inheritors is a close second – a view held by Golding himself, who despaired somewhat of LOTF being turned into a campus text by the US universities.

I had never, to my shame, heard of either Pincher or The Inheritors. I’ve now read LOTF again, and Pincher Martin twice, and am deeply impressed for all sorts of reasons. Like The Road, it seems to work on so many levels – pitting man against himself, man against nature, the body against the psyche, free will against some spiritual tug. It was a joy re-reading LOTF - There is the most fabulous essay entitled Fable by Golding himself in the edition I have – an ‘educational’ version. I tell you – you’ll have a whole different view on theme if you read that essay.

The Inheritors is fascinating – looking at the rise of Homo Sapiens at the expense of Neanderthals – which is ‘better’, which should have survived if ‘goodness’ as opposed to cleverness was the criterion of success. Golding was very preoccupied with the nature of man, and the nature of faith/belief. Fascinating, challenging stuff thematically. I’m still reading that one.

But what impresses me is his prose, his way with words, his overt desire to write fable, his ability to look his themes in the eye - and how he approaches that without being didactic.

TC: I read a lot of Golding in my youth, but haven’t in a lot of years. I suspect, though, that my style owes more to him than I realise. I’m looking forward to reading those again. Finally, what’s next on the horizon for you? You’ve been extraordinarily busy in the past year or so – is it more of the same?

VG: I would love to finish the novel – so have applied for a Grant for the Arts to work with a great writer to polish the thing. I’m waiting to find out if I’m successful. That will be Feb/March/April.

I’ve just sent off the manuscript for the third book, due out in June. And at the end of April/early May I’m off to teach creative writing with Short Circuit at Stockholm University. A fantastic invitation, co-tutoring an extra-curricular course for 40 undergrads. I’m going over in the next week or so just to touch base with my oppo, and to get contract signed.

In June the said third book comes out. Ed’s Wife and other Creatures – a collection of micro-fictions and some surreal flashes, co-ordinating with two more collections of short short work from Salt Publishing. So there’ll no doubt be lots of readings, a bit of fun, marketing the new book – I love doing that, but it does take you away from writing. However. I shall use that space to take stock.

What’s next? I don’t know yet. I need to stop being blown about by the wind, and begin planning more rigorously. I need to start saying “No!” more often, and remind myself that I am first and foremost a writer, much as the cash from teaching is welcome.

What I do NOT want to do is become a person who used to write, and who now teaches/facilitates instead and does a bit of half-hearted scribbling on the side, and pretends that this is writing.

I have a few ideas about what I’d like to write next – something has been bubbling away for a while now. Something very weird and a bit of a challenge. I also have 40,000 words of an aborted collaboration to cut up and reshape and recreate.

TC: Lots in the pipeline then. I’m sure, with your energy, you’ll pull it off. Best of luck with it all.

VG: Tom, thanks so much for such a fascinating debate, discussion, series of questions – whatever you want to call it. I appreciate this enormously.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Censorship watch update

Southern Californian schools have now banned the dictionary. The reason? An entry for oral sex.

I recall, as a kid, regularly skimming the dictionary for dirty words. It probably even helped me with my alphabet. It didn't turn me into a raging sex maniac. More's the pity...

Short Circuit: a discussion with Vanessa Gebbie (2)


Okay, so I had a baker’s dozen questions for Vanessa on the new book she has edited, Short Circuit, with the intention of asking them on her stop-off here during her blog tour. But we got chatting and didn’t manage to progress beyond question 2 yesterday. So here’s questions 3 to 7.

TC: There are some other interesting differences in the articles in Short Circuit. A number, for example cite character as the key element – Zoe King certainly thinks so, and so does Alison MacLeod, who says: ‘A short story is language, image and event, but it is fundamentally about character.’ Nuala Ni Chonchuir, however, is much more focused on language. She says: ’Story and character are obviously crucial in fiction too; the language is only the means to tell the story. But when words are used in surprising ways to tell a surprising story, there is nothing more beautiful for a reader.’ Very similar, but there is a subtle difference, I think. Where do you stand on this? Character first and foremost? Or the beauty of words?

VG: I think this, and I’m only echoing Alex Keegan because I haven’t found anything to supercede his views, yet. They seem somewhat incontrovertible.

If a piece of work needs wonderful language it must have it, and if it is not given language, the piece of work will patently miss something. But if on the other hand the piece of work doesn’t need wonderful language, then the wonderful language, if used, would become intrusive, would not fit, would spoil the thing. And would therefore no longer be wonderful language, because language is there to serve its master. The story. Instead it would only show up the writer as lacking.

Example. Imagine A Small Good Thing written in poetic prose. Nah. The very simplicity of the prose pushes the poignancy and the mis-communication into relief. Likewise, the modern translations of The Bible detract (for me) from the experience and strength of those old stories, whether you are a religious nut or not. The lovely old language added weight, beauty, depth.

John Banville. Would The Sea have been as strong without the language??? Wouldn’t it have become ‘just another novel’? To me the language fitted perfectly, because the character demanded it. Superimpose Will Self’s prose, as in How The Dead Live. Or the language used by a contemporary lad-lit writer. Better, or worse??? Worse. Banville’s main character was a language professsional. It just wouldn’t gel. But then we’re talking writer’s craft – and maybe these things wouldn’t even be noticed by someone reading for ‘what happens’?

Nuala notices language, loves language - she’s a poet. Our teacher [Alex Keegan], when he let himself, could get lost in the most stunning language, utterly beautiful stuff... and I don’t mean forced, or overblown. Just the perfect word for the moment. But then I think he may be a poet even more than he is a prose writer when he grows up - but don’t tell him. There’s precious little ££ in poems.

TC: Mention of Alex Keegan brings me to my next question. Alex is, of course, firmly of the character school. In his article he gives a beautiful summary of the TV programme, 24: ‘The first things I remember are the small islands of humanity in the long story. That is, despite all the "bells and whistles", it’s all about character.’ He firmly believes theme in stories comes through character, and you must know your characters in order to write the story. Your brilliant dissection of the process behind the story Words from a Glass Bubble suggests you think the same? The story finally took shape when the characters emerged. Is that right?

VG: Yes – but I need to define ‘emerged’. I needed to feel that the voice was ‘right’. That the character was flowing, the story flowing. I needed to feel right. That I wasn’t pushing the car uphill. I’m not sure it is a brilliant analysis, although thanks for the momentary glow. I think we ought to be able, with distance, to see our own processes clearly. And as always, bugger that man, he puts it so well. It’s the little moments, the islands, that make a character live. Not the great sweeps of narrative. The looks, the touches, the things unsaid.

TC: The other thing that AK is famous for, of course, is writing blind, letting the story flow and develop as it chooses. Alison MacLeod gets it spot-on, for me, when she writes about the act of not knowing where a story is going. Nuala Ni Choncuir calls it ‘free-writing’. It’s the most exhilarating way to write. Yet, when I’ve suggested this to other aspiring writers, talking about ‘writing blind’ or ‘writing drunk’, more often than not I get looks of bafflement. Do you find that with your students?

VG: If I can respond to these last two questions together, a bit further?

The simple answer to the question on character is yes – as far as I’m concerned, if you havent ‘got’ your characters, you are moving puppets about on the page and it shows. But your next question about writing blind begins to look at process – and we are returning to the conversation I had with Tobias Hill - intuitive writing versus plotted and planned writing. Learning to flash-write/write ‘drunk’ (maybe we’d better explain that this does not require alcohol!), learning to access both voice and character almost ‘automatically’ is the highly ‘intuitive’ end of the spectrum. Yes, it is exhilarating - and also one of the most difficult to explain.

But, see, I’m not sure we have to explain it - that is entering into non-intuitive territory. If you go to a workshop, sometimes, you just want to be led. So I don’t explain, up front – I just throw out the challenge to students, provide a prompt, or rather they make them up themselves. I might even shake them up a bit by changing the way they write physically - make them stand up, sit on the floor – anything.
I want to show them what writing like this feels like. Letting go, breaking whatever little rituals you habitually surround yourself with. I will explain the theory, such as it is, afterwards, when the results show.

TC: Is there a tendency to both plot and research too much? And do you agree that this affects a story?

VG: The answer to that is, it depends. If the student needs to plot then let him, I say. Who am I to stop anyone doing what they need to? But if they are more comfortable writing more loosely, let’s say, then I’m fine with that too. I think the important thing is to let everyone experiment – encourage them to experiment, to find out there they sit on the creative continuum between chaos and ‘structure’. To discover that they do not need to plot, perhaps. Or that actually, they do. And to understand that they may shift, too, depending on so many personal factors.

Does a lack of ‘free-writing’ affect a story? Yes, in beginners’ work, it does, when they haven’t settled into their best method and think everything must be planned. Over-plotted work is tight and bloodless. Lacks zip. But then too much drunk writing can end up as directionless waffle. Like morning pages. I’ve just reviewed a short story collection in which one piece is like this – it contains some marvellous connections, images, flights of imagination. But it is also a self-contradicting ramble – full of mixed metaphor and comes over as just dire. We intuitive writers usually need to edit!!! And editing is a conscious, craft-driven skill we all have to engage with.

TC: Apart from lack of confidence, one of the reasons I think writers plot or research too much is because they have too much they want to say. They’ve decided on a THEME and they’re damned well going to get their message across, so they plot and research it to the point of overkill and become didactic. And then the opposite of having too much to say is not having enough. When I was in [Alex Keegan’s] Boot Camp, I always found Theme most difficult to score and discuss, because very often the story didn’t appear to have any theme. It didn’t really seem to have anything to say at all. Why do you think writers have such difficulty getting the balance right and really nailing the theme of their story?

VG: If the theme that underpins a story is something deeply felt that shapes the writer’s view of the world, to the extent that it drove him to write a piece of fiction to illustrate that preoccupation – then why the need to look up anything at all? We know what we believe. If, on the other hand, the writer decides on a premise they don’t know anything about... then they don’t believe it, do they?

The writer researches subject matter, settings, details. Not theme. Discuss…?! Maybe that’s why some stories end up like concrete and others fly? A bit like me being drawn to write about a disabled guy, a semi-recluse who wants to discover where poetry is found. My character decided to get a job in a mortuary. Huh? So I researched what people do in mortuaries, so his job would make sense. I didn’t need to research what it is to be drawn to make words, to really need to find the fount/muse, or how there is beauty in the least likely things – because I live/ believe those things. (I did not know the word cannula, or know much about plastic tubing, or about draining the blood out of the body, or what skin looks like days after death. Now I do!). Not a particularly brilliant story – but well published.

Scoring theme, as per Bootcamp. OK – this was something I found hard. I had to do two things – firstly, understand what it was that the writer was being driven to say, and secondly – understand how good a vehicle he had created for it, how well it got through to me, ONE reader. How on earth to score how well it might work for others?? Because this one, of all the elements, does rely on a subjective value-based response.

I found it very difficult – because to be moved by something, you need to empathise somewhat with the underlying values, to understand the motivating force behind the work. And secondly, you need to click with/understand the vehicle chosen to carry the message.

I do think so much of the reader’s engagement with a piece of work depends on personal factors. Give a story that illustrates some form of frustration at impending death to a healthy teenager interested only in alcohol and clubbing and to a late middle-aged reader interested in philosophy, and they are bound to respond differently to the theme. One will care, because if successful, the story will make them reflect on their own mortality apart from anything else it might do. The other may not care so immediately.

Use a vehicle (subject) that means something or not to the reader, and their response will also change/deepen/lessen. It’s so imprecise. Unscientific.
I don’t think we have to ‘nail the theme’ of the story we are writing, and if we try to, we might interfere with and halt the flow. We may be able to look back once it is written, and identify the theme more easily? And if I’m right – (see above, beginning of this discussion on theme) it will be easily recogniseable anyway. But look too closely, and try to analyse what you are doing, as you are writing - I think it would kill most writers!

Now – lets move on to a stunningly great writer. Sorry, it’s Golding again. He wrote Lord of the Flies BECAUSE he wanted to say something very specific about human nature. He wanted to write a fable, very deliberately, as he was teeming with things he felt he had to say, post his experiences in WWII. But he knew that most readers actively battle against anything overtly moralistic in their reading – so he created something to temper/hide/sweeten the pill (his words). He took the template of Coral Island, and wrote his own version of what was after all a saccharine and two-dimensional look at human behaviour. His later novels look at the same things – they were his preoccupations to the extent that they drive his work throughout. But he is master enough to create something marvellous with his imagination, and knows when to let it run. If you can, read his essay Fable in which he talks about being taken by surprise when the pig’s head speaks to Simon... because it was reiterating the very reason for writing... but said by something outside him.

TC: I haven’t come across that essay. I’ll have a look for it. That scene with Simon and the pig’s head is one of the first pieces of literature that really, really got through to me. I think it was the first time I understood that literature works on different levels. It opened my eyes to what literature can do.

Moving on, Nuala Ni Chonchuir quotes John McGahern: ‘In writing, style is personality.’ As well as the voice of a particular story, which obviously changes (or should change) in each story, is there a deeper voice, that of the author him or herself, the personality, which remains largely constant? If you think of really great collections of short stories, even though individual stories may be radically different, there is still an underlying coherence to them. That’s why I think Peter Carey’s short stories, although very good, ultimately fall short of greatness – I just can’t see any unifying force behind them. Perhaps what I’m talking about is knowing why you write. If I take myself as an example, all the time in Boot Camp I don’t think I really knew what I was trying to say and I’m only beginning to figure it out now. How many of the writers you come into contact with do you think actually know? And does is affect their writing?


VG: Back to the point above, really. Yes. I think for most writers, it does affect their writing. I’m not a grown-up enough writer to be able to do what I’d like. I’m finding this novel absolutely killing to write, because I KNOW what I am saying. But I’m struggling on, and every so often I’m getting a ‘pig’s head moment’...I think its part of the learning curve. Or the learning about how we like to work best, and the fear of doing anything else. Comfort zones...

But (and again, I’m speaking personally here) if a collection of short stories is too ‘samey’ in their thematic delivery (my words), I find it sometimes, a little predictable? Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, for example. A wonderfully written book, which explored the same things very closely, it seems to me, in story after story.

But Petina Gappah’s collection Elegy for Easterly manages to be unified without being predictable. Would be interesting to discuss.

TC: I haven’t read that one. That’s another I’ll look out for. Anyway, enough for now. Back tomorrow for the third and final part of this brief (!!) discussion on Short Circuit.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Short Circuit: a discussion with Vanessa Gebbie (1)


Last year saw the publication of a new guide to writing short stories, Short Circuit: a guide to the art of the short story, edited by Vanessa Gebbie and published by Salt Books. Since then, Vanessa has been on a periodic blog tour of various writing blogs to promite the book, and today she turns up here. With neither Vanessa nor I known for our reticence, however, the discussion stretched on a bit, so instead of a blog visit, it's ended up a sleepover, and over the next three days I'll be featuring our conversation as we discuss Short Circuit and short story writing in general.


TC: I want to start by talking about the nature of the short story itself. In Short Circuit, Graham Mort points to its fragmentary nature, the way it focuses on a tiny patch or patches of time. Tania Hershman gives a good example of this from a Grace Paley story which ends abruptly and the reader is left not knowing the outcome.

VG: Yes, I think some superb stories do indeed spin round short patches of narrative time – but I’d ask the question, do they have to? And the answer seems to be no. That’s too tight a definition – as if there was one! It’s not just a question of timelapse. I have read plenty (and written plenty) that deal with greater stretches of time, in which the reader is almost bounced across the surface of the time of the narrative as the story delivers itself in snippets. The point is the coherence of what is delivered – and if fragmented time hinders it then its not worked as well as it might. If however, the writer creates a structure that feels ‘right’ then however they manipulate time, the story works.

Does ‘structure’ in the short story equal ‘time’ in some measure?? Question for mulling. You wont often find a straight single answer I’m afraid… ha!

TC: I guess in a way it might do, yes. Even with postmodern works – think Barthelme’s The Indian Uprising, for example, which deliberately play with time, such as a sentence starting at one particular time with one character and ending in a completely different time with a different character – the very fact it is playing with time takes you back to the idea that story structure and time must be linked. They have to have been linked in the first place for Barthelme to unlink them. Or something like that.

Elaine Chiew calls this focusing on a fragment of time ‘open closure’, where not everything may be resolved and there may be a sense of openness. My partner, a voracious reader, hates short stories for that reason – ‘they just stop,’ she says, ‘you start to get interested in the characters and then they just stop.’ She wants neatness, resolution, all ends properly tied up.


VG: But aren’t we moving to a different consideration here? And then a third? The second seems to be a question about how a story resolves itself or not. And the third seems to differentiate between the length of the reading experience as distinct to the narrative timeline. All very different issues.

TC: I tell my partner, ‘So finish it yourself. You have all the evidence. You know the characters. What’s going to happen to them?’ But she can’t see that. For her, reading is not a two-way process, but entirely one-way – the author in control, telling the reader, dictating the action.

VG: But there is a fundamental issue to do with reader-engagement here. You went on back there to say that your partner is frustrated at the way short stories ‘just stop’ –when she begins to get interested in the characters. Then that she looks for neatness, all ends tied up.

Well, a lot of stories do resolve themselves… A Small Good Thing, for example – you could not really carry on after the breaking of bread – it would be unnecessary. It would be another story – how the couple carry on with their lives after the episodes in ASGT. As far as this story is concerned, it has all been said. It is ‘done’. The final scene echoes the opening perfectly. And The Ledge – the ending is perfect too, it finishes everything that needs finishing, and yet still leaves me with such echoes... I can’t just pick up another piece without breaking off to do something different.

Conversely, it seems to me that some novels do not resolve themselves. Well, thrillers or whodunnits might – but take The Road (I know you have issues with this one!) which has been likened to a superb short story – does that resolve itself? Nope. Leaves you hanging, jangled, hoping, thinking... exactly how I like to feel at the end of a story, meself! Hearing the echoes of the story somewhere inside.

Maybe your partner’s frustration is in not hearing those echoes when she knows you do yourself?

TC: Yes maybe. Graham Mort talks of ‘shared consciousness’, where the text is ‘activated’ by the reader, creating an imaginative ‘experience’. Is that how you see short stories, and is that a particular vision of the short story writer?

VG: Graham Mort talks about the reader ‘completing’ the story by meeting the writer in that hard-to-define ‘space’ left for the purpose, and that ‘completion’ does not, in my interpretation, mean ‘ending’ – more ‘completing the experience’. There has to be interaction. Reading a quality short is not a passive thing, or it will leave the reader unmoved and dissatisfied.

But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with passive reading. Seems to me it’s what most readers want, hence many blockbuster successes. There’s nowt wrong with a good plot – even our old guru [Alex Keegan, of whom more tomorrow] wrote five well-plotted crime thrillers before discovering that actually, writing shorts is in some ways more challenging, and ultimately, more satisfying.

But if short stories don’t satisfy her reading needs – no problems. My partner does not read fiction at all. In thirty plus years of marriage, this intelligent bloke - interested in hundreds of things from classics to architecture, the law to travel – has read precisely three works of fiction. Driving over Lemons. Disgrace. And a few pieces of my collection. Count yerself lucky that she reads fiction at all!

TC: This vision thing - is that what makes us short story writers different from novelists? Why do we focus on single events or particular moments, rather than a grand narrative sweep?

VG: So – do I see the short story as being the only fiction that responds rewardingly to active reading? Of course not. Go back to McCarthy and read The Road as you would a short story... or Pincher Martin and Lord of the Flies by Golding (my current passion). Skim for plot and that’s one thing. Engage with the text fully, and they are very different beasts. Are we getting perilously close to saying that literary fiction responds to active reading, and some genre work doesn’t – it is what it is, and there is nothing to discover bar the plot? Probably. I’ll send you an invite to my forthcoming trial.

TC: Well, it’s a fair point. Another McCarthy work is a good example here: No Country For Old Men is, at first sight, a thriller. If you read it as a thriller you come to the conclusion it is weak, because the plot is full of holes. But it clearly isn’t a thriller, it is just borrowing some of the thriller’s conventions. That ending – the one you get instead of the formulaic showdown between goodie and baddie, is perplexing. A better example of forced active reading it would be hard to find.

Anyway, let's move on to my second question (!): I’ve said previously in my review of Short Circuit that what I like about it is that it doesn’t present an identikit list of things you must do and things you mustn’t do if you want to be a successful writer. Some of the advice in the articles is almost contradictory, and so it should be, because not every writer is the same and we’re not all writing from the same motivations or with the same ambitions. For example, Tobias Hill talks about the two distinct ways of writing – plot-based and character based – and I think he’s broadly right. How different do you think the skills sets need to be for these? Do they have much in common?


VG: I really enjoyed my talk with Tobias Hill. He taught me a lot – and the most useful thing (so far) is that a writer needs to be able to do both plotty writing and intuitive writing. I love the thought that there is a friction that builds up between the two sets of skills and that produces a third energy.

You ask how different the skills are – well, plotting is a far more left-brained activity, isn’t it? Planning, researching – working out the intricacies before you start to write creatively? Don’t you need to be organised, clear-headed, focussed, non-chaotic? That is so different to how I am used to approaching my writing. I will know roughly the scenario I’m wanting to explore, but I try to let the characters just act things out without too much direction, and it is than that surprising things leap in out of left field. I would hate it if things didn’t happen like that, myself.

But there again, I wonder (thinking out loud now) whether it is far easier to ‘let go’ in a short piece and ‘write into the void’ as Marian Garvey so succinctly put it in her wonderful essay, whereas in a longer one, the writer needs to be more consciously in control of at least some structure, what’s happening, ... juggling a whole huge cast of characters and events and approaching it blind might be giving ourselves more problems than we need? Open question. For discussion!

TC: It’s certainly a discipline that has to be learned. I like the idea of two sets of skills creating a third energy. A while back I started on a novel, and it was totally different from anything I’ve done before. It had to be intricately plotted because it was a series of different plot threads which had to converge at the end. I compiled a detailed story plan, worked everything out, had it all arranged and colour-coded on an Excel spreadsheet – and got stuck. The third energy didn’t happen for me. I think, having worked out the story, I felt I’d already finished it, so couldn’t force myself to get down to the actual writing. It’s my personality type, I think. I need to be a little out of control, reeling it in. Once I think I’ve got on top of it I want to do something else.

Anyway, I had a long list of questions, but we’ve run out of time for now. Back tomorrow for the second tranche of the Short Circuit interview.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson


Ruth Stone is a beautiful young woman. By that, I do not mean physical beauty – I’m not sure her appearance is even described in any detail – but in her personality, her humanity. She represents all that is vulnerable, that is hopeful, that is fearful in each of us and all of us. She represents the individual. She represents life.

Ruth and her sister Lucille live in the small western town of Fingerbone, on the edge of the Fingerbone Lake. Their early life is disrupted by the death of their mother, following which they are brought up by their grandmother who, despite the generational gap, tries to instil some normality in the girls’ lives. She dies, however, and the girls are subsequently looked after by their great-aunts, Lily and Nona, a pair of fatalistic old maidens who are quite unsuited to bringing up two young girls. The girls quietly rebel, missing school more often than they attend and living their own lives of wild freedom entirely apart from the rest of Fingerbone, even their peers - a friendless existence that comprises just the two of them. In despair, Lily and Nona try to contact the girls’ aunt, their mother’s sister, Sylvie, a black sheep who left home very young and has lived a nomadic existence riding trains from somewhere to nowhere, making casual acquaintances and living lightly. Against the odds, Sylvie responds to their entreaty and returns to the old family home in Fingerbone. She agrees to take over the upkeep of the girls, much to the relief of Lily and Nona, who retreat to the safety of their previous, structured existence back in Washington state. Thus, the girls are left in the care of yet another housekeeper, the quixotic and unpredictable Sylvie. Her approach to the task is unconventional, to say the least, and it gradually becomes clear that her behaviour is far from what passes for normal in old-fashioned Fingerbone.

And so the girls’ lives twist once more. For Lucille this proves a turning point. She is alienated by the lack of order in Sylvie’s chaotic existence. She returns to school and concentrates on her studies, she breaks the close bond with Ruth and makes new friendships; ultimately, she is repelled entirely by Sylvie’s lifestyle and leaves home altogether, staying instead with her home economics teacher. She chooses convention. Now Ruth is alone with Sylvie, and a curious, though inevitable bonding begins. Ruth, a sensitive child still affected by the death of her mother, is drawn to the ethereality of her aunt, to her free-spiritedness, her unwillingness to be bound by conventions. Although Ruth, like Lucille, has returned to school, she agrees to miss an exam in order to accompany Sylvie on a trip to the lake and thus we reach the turning point of the novel, in which Ruth and her aunt make decisions which will shape their lives forever.

Housekeeping
is an extraordinary novel, haunting and humane, with a quiet depth which resonates more powerfully for its lack of overblown rhetoric or fanciful mythography. On the contrary, with her clear, crystalline prose and pitch-perfect symbolism, Marilynne Robinson creates characters who are wholly believable and a situation which is at once desperate and beautiful: perhaps what unfolds is not best for either Sylvie or Ruth, but who would deny them the opportunity to experience it? Who would wish to shackle these free spirits or diminish their glow? Who would make them live a life more ordinary?

The locale of the novel is essential to its understanding. It takes place around the lake after which the town of Fingerbone is named. There is something primordial about it. It is home to the dead – countless unfortunates reside within it, including the girls’ grandfather and mother, and yet, because everything in Housekeeping is placed in opposition to something else – it is also the bringer of life, water, the sustenance that all existence requires. So we have water and land, death and life, and there is no neat division between them. Thus, the lake floods the town every year and things which people might wish to keep separate are comingled – life in death, death in life, order through chaos.

In this way, then, Ruth’s early life is dominated by death and water and, in particular, the unfortunate confluence of the two. Her grandfather dies in an accident when his train plunges from a bridge into the lake. Years later, her mother commits suicide by driving into the same lake. Water suffuses the novel, from the flood that engulfs the family house for days on end to a night Ruth and Sylvie, spend adrift on the lake in a small rowing boat. Water, of course, is the most inconstant of materials, eternally fluid, kinetic, permanently impermanent. And such, of course, is the nature of human interaction, particularly for outsiders like Ruth and Sylvie, people with one foot in reality and another somewhere else, somewhere simultaneously internal and exterior, people who reside at once in their heads and in some otherworld.

The central metaphor of the novel is that of housekeeping – the ways in which human beings try to exert control over nature and their external surroundings, imposing order, conformity. At the same time it represents the ways in which communities bind together through convention and usage. Grandmother Sylvia responds to her new task of bringing up the girls by imposing a routine of housekeeping, rigid and conservative like the community of Fingerbone in which they reside: controlling nature, conforming to society. It is futile: nature cannot be controlled, nor can the human spirit be tramelled against its wishes. When she dies and the free spirit Sylvie takes over the housekeeping, she throws open the windows to the elements. Not long after, floods symbolically claim the lower floor of the house while Sylvie and the girls retreat to the upper levels. Sylvie hoards tins and papers instead of cleaning and tidying, and the house turns into a calamitous mess. All the while she shuns the Fingerbone community, making no friends, speaking to no-one, living entirely outside their norms. It cannot last. The community turn against her, accuse her of being unfit to bring up Ruth. Thus, the metaphor of housekeeping, as elucidated by first the grandmother and then Sylvie, stands for doomed defiance of both nature and civilisation, of the impossibility of taming the chaos of the cosmos or escaping the strictures of community.

Nonetheless this is an upbeat book and its ending offers hope. Ruth is the heroine of the novel, and so is Sylvie, and the pair of them, heroines, forge a pact that is as uplifting as it is foolish, and quite, quite beautiful.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Tim Powers

Alison Flood has a book blog entry in The Guardian today about Tim Powers' The Anubis Gates. I read this, and quite a lot of Tim Powers, quite a few years ago, but I haven't come across him in a long, long time. Reading Alison's review brought back to me just how good those books are.

Powers is a fantasy writer - not silly elves and the like, but gut-renching, terrifying stuff. His best book, On Stranger Tides, includes, I seem to recall, Byron and Shelley hamming it up in Venice, and a lamia and various man-eating monsters. It is so relentlessly inventive in its descriptions of terror the reader is just swept along by it. Terrific stuff. I don't recall seeing his books in the bookshops for a long time now, but if you want some escapist fun he's definitely worth a read.

Monday, January 25, 2010

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey


Let’s deal with the Heart of Darkness question first. Like Heart of Darkness, discussion of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is depressingly likely to be focused on its alleged racism (and sexism) rather than the essential themes it is seeking to explore. Sensible criticism of Heart of Darkness now appears to be virtually extinct, and it is likely that Cuckoo’s Nest will go the same way. The ‘baddies’, after all, are the ‘black boys’, while in Nurse Ratched we surely have the personification of Leslie Fiedler’s Castrating Female archetype? Thus, the argument goes, Cuckoo’s Nest must be racist and sexist. But just as it is facile to consider Heart of Darkness purely in terms of racism, so it is to dismiss Cuckoo’s Nest in this way. In my view, this is not a debate worth having but, if it must be had, here’s an answer: in the novel, Kesey is constructing an inverted world where sane is insane and insane is sane, where there is a sense that the system, the ‘combine’ is a malevolent force stripping away our humanity and turning us into machines. Everything is twisted, Kesey is telling us, what we think is real is not real and vice versa. Bromden, supposedly deaf and dumb, is neither. And not for nothing does McMurphy describe the inmates as doctors when they are on their fishing trip: the division between sanity and insanity is not always clear-cut and is, in any case, a matter only of definition. Thus, it is entirely appropriate that, in his invented and inverted world, Kesey should assign the roles of master and enforcers to women and black people, groups more commonly associated with oppression by the white, male system. Therefore, it is neither racist nor sexist, but simply an ironic reversal.

Having decided what it isn’t, what is it? As much as anything, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is about power. Harding even says at one point: ‘mental illness [can] have the aspect of power, power,’ while Nurse Ratched makes this chillingly clear when she tells McMurphy, ‘You’re committed… Under jurisdiction and control.’ The system is in charge, and it organises itself in order to maintain its control. Daily life is designed for the perpetuation of the status quo: the inmates are not cured, they are maintained in their current state, they are controlled by drugs so that they do not – cannot – change. They are encouraged to tell tales on one another, writing overheard gossip in a book so that all can read it. Therapy sessions concentrate on discussing their failures, the men urged to confess to their crimes or shortcomings. In this way they are diminished, their place under the control of the system is reinforced. They are, as McMurphy describes them, rabbits. Worse than that, they are the rabbits of the rabbit world, demasculated, impotent, helpless. This is hell. No man is in control of his own destiny, nor is there the vaguest prospect that he might one day be able to do so. Anyone who attempts to subvert the careful control of the system is dealt with, like the unfortunate Tabor. These poor men, in William Schopf’s chilling description, ‘lie pathetically locked in sub-humanity.’ Meanwhile, the power feeds itself.

Janet Sutherland suggests three themes for the novel. Firstly, we must look beyond appearances to judge reality. This is most clearly demonstrated through Chief Bromden who, once his perceptions of the world change, begins to see himself in a more palatable light. Secondly, the notion that ‘fools and madmen have wisdom’ and, through them, we can better see the faults in our society. And thirdly, the idea ‘that the bumbling fool may be transformed into a worker of good deeds’, as personified by McMurphy who, according to Sutherland, ‘almost assumes the stature of the typical quest hero at his death.’

These are, indeed, characteristics of the novel, and important ones at that. Sutherland extends her thesis by arguing that the novel ‘works through the eyes and action of madmen to go from a vision of the world where all things are profane to a vision of the world where all human things are potentially sacred.’ This is the key to it, because what we have in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is a paean to humanity, a humanity that is resolved, through even the severest constriction, to aspire, to fly, to soar. Chief Bromden, when he makes his escape from the asylulm, describes it thus: ‘I remember I was taking huge strides as I ran, seeming to step and float a long ways before my next foot struck the earth. I felt like I was flying. Free.’ Thus, we have a novel in which humanity overcomes oppression, and the instinctive personality of the individual can find contentment.

Elaine Ware, however, suggests a less optimistic interpretation of Chief Bromden’s flight. Although he has clearly progressed throughout the novel, Ware points out that, after killing McMurphy, Bromden initially retires to his bed and it is Scanlon who urges him to make his escape. Further, when he does escape he describes himself as a ‘professional Indian wrestler’, the vocation which McMurphy had jokingly suggested for him: Bromden then, according to Ware, ‘still cannot take the responsibility of defining himself and may continue to submit to outside pressures to determine his actions.’ I think Ware is too pessimistic. She links the ending to an earlier scene, in which Bromden looks out at night at a skein of Canadian geese flying past and a dog cavorting in the grounds of the institution. The scene concludes with the dog running off, apparently on a collision course with an approaching car. Ware connects this dog to the Chief, suggesting that through it he experiences a vicarious freedom. However, its fate, although unresolved, may be to be run over by a car – crushed, that is, by the system.

Ware is correct to highlight this scene, as it is the most important in the novel, but her pessimistic interpretation is wrong. It is here, as the Chief looks nostalgically out of the window, that he first begins the tentative recovery of his sense of self and his humanity. He has hitherto been confined, both literally and psychologically, and has lost all ability to see himself within the context of general daily life. He has essentially removed himself from reality, making himself deaf and dumb, an invisible. Remember , too, that Bromden, an Indian, comes from a largely oral tradition, and so his use of silence as a defence mechanism must have been desperately difficult. The transformation scene unfolds beautifully. First the gamboling dog and then the geese absorb Bromden’s attention and he starts to become real again, and from there he is thrown into a reminiscence from his childhood, reinforcing that fragile sense of recovery of self. He is not rescued yet, of course. He remains an inmate. He becomes aware of a presence behind him. The ‘whir of fear’ starts up in his head. His reverie is over, his moment of freedom finished. The black boy and the nurse coax him back to bed, oblivious of the transformation that has come over him. But from here the scene is set. The Chief will recover, and he will succeed, and he will escape.

Indeed, for the novel to succeed, Bromden has to escape and find equanimity: to do otherwise would be counter to its unfolding thematic intent. If the Chief did not ultimately succeed, this would mean that McMurphy’s assault on the system had failed. The novel, as John A Barsness notes, is essentially a depiction of the heroic quest of McMurphy to break Nurse Ratched and the Combine. He does fail, of course, and meets his doom, as heroic questers customarily do. If that were the truly the end, however, Kesey would be presenting a dismally bleak picture of the prospects for humanity, and I do not believe that to be the case. McMurphy dies and Nurse Ratched wins, but her victory is pyhrric and his death glorious, one might even say, if a Christian interpretation were to be made, transcendent. His actions are the catalyst for change. The rabbits become men. One by one the inmates take action: Harding recovers his self-esteem and walks out the front door, Fredrickson and Sefelt discharge themselves. So do others. Only a handful remain. Nurse Ratched’s control over her domain has been broken. Finally, the Chief recovers his sense of self and escapes from his confinement – literal and psychological – out of the fog and into the freedom of nature. And thus we have the essential point – the real hero of the novel is Bromden. McMurphy is the catalyst, the one whose action and energy impel the others to action, but Bromden, the silent observer, misses nothing. For all McMurphy’s bluster and brio, the Chief notes what nobody else does, that he is ‘dreadfully tired and strained and frantic.’ By the end, both McMurphy and the Chief know that McMurphy cannot win: his final, fatal confrontation with Nurse Ratched after Billy Bibbit’s suicide is as inevitable as it is tragic. But even as he does so, McMurphy is handing the baton to the Chief, and the Chief finally takes responsibility, doing the one good thing he could possibly do, freeing McMurphy from the hell of defeat.

That flight at the end, then, is truly a moment of beauty. The dog may or may not have been on a collision course with the car, but the Chief surely is not. He is able to choose his destiny. Note how ambiguous his ideas are in the following description of his plans:

I might go to Canada eventually, but I think I'll stop along the Columbia on the way. I'd like to check around Portland and Hood River and The Dalles to see if there's any of the guys I used to know back in the village who haven't drunk themselves goofy. I'd like to see what they've been doing since the government tried to buy their right to be Indians. I've even heard that some of the tribe have took to building their old ramshackle wood scaffolding all over that big million-dollar hydroelectric dam, and are spearing salmon in the spillway. I'd give something to see that. Mostly, I'd just like to look over the country around the gorge again, just to bring some of it clear in my mind again. I been away a long time.

This is not, as Ware suggests, the uncertainty of a man who is still not ‘self-reliant.’ Rather, it is the gentle equivocalness of being free.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Writing a story

So how do you write a story? Over on the blog of my erstwhile writing tutor, Alex Keegan, AK has produced a thought-provoking essay on the matter. His starting point is: 'Dorthea Brande argued that when we are "tweaked" by something ... it's because the image, the something, the snippet of conversation, a smell, a colour, a sunset, whatever, CONNECTS TO SOMETHING INSIDE.'

It's all subconscious, of course. AK explains:

We do not need to ever KNOW what the original thing was, or the pains if they were pains, but we "revisit" the swelling darkness of it, and allow it to work its psychic dark magic on us.

What the memory or memories is or are is hardly the point. A common error when reading this is to imagine that we must REMEMBER, actually recall the specifics.

Instead, he argues, we should use the sensations/emotions that have been wrought in us in order to create something new. Do not try to recall the original event or whatever - you're writing, not self-psychoanalysing - but instead use the itch that has been created in you to explore something entirely new. It's all good advice. Alex is firmly of the belief that you should sit down and begin writing - not plot or research or plan or worry about this or that, just write. A character will emerge. That character will dictate the story. You just write it down.

Alex has run his online Boot Camp for a number of years, and has just re-launched it apparently. It's not for the faint-hearted - criticism is fair but direct- and it isn't free, but if you want to improve as a writer Alex can definitely help you.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Doctorow on style - and on Hemingway

Here's E.L. Doctorow, quoted in an interview in today's Guardian:

"I don't have a style, but the books do. Each demands its own method of presentation, and I like that. My theory about why Hemingway killed himself is that he heard his own voice; that he reached the point where he couldn't write without feeling he was repeating himself. That's the worst thing that can happen to a writer. A new reader shouldn't be able to find you in your work, though someone who's read more may begin to."

I'll be touching on this point in a few days, in a discussion with Vanessa Gebbie, who has edited a new collection of writing craft articles, called Short Circuit. I think Doctorow is correct at the end and incorrect at the start of this quote. I think all writers do (or should) have a style of some description, however hidden that may be. I don't just mean extremes like Cormac McCarthy, whose style is unmistakable, but anyone who wishes to be a writer has something that motivates them, some territory they wish to explore, and I think that can be seen as a thread running through their work. Doctorow is right, though, that it shouldn't be too obvious. If a writer can be too easily parodied there may be something wrong.

I think Doctorow may be correct about Hemingway, too.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Collaborative writing


I came across a fascinating article today by Carolyn Know-Quinn on a collaborative writing class conducted by Ken Kesey and students from the University of Oregon in 1990. The collaboration lasted an entire academic year – three terms – and culminated in the publication of a novel, Caverns, published by Viking in 1990 under the pseudonym of U.O. Levon.

Kesey’s view is that he wanted to teach writing, not re-writing.

“You teach wrestling by having guys get out and wrestle. You teach basketball by having them play basketball, and you teach writing by having them sit and write. Writing and rewriting are different things. A lot of college people learn how to rewrite well, but not how to write well. I've had an interesting thought lately. You don't become Isaac Stern to make a recording. You become Isaac Stern to play the violin. You don't learn to write just to publish. You learn to write so that you can write; you can feel it flowing through you.”


And so, rather than students all working on their own material and coming to class to read and discuss it, Kesey’s class was completely hands-on. They started with character. Each student was asked to describe a character on card, looking at his needs, motivations etc. From there, once the characters were agreed, the plot began to emerge, and they started to write it, together. They wrote, edited, re-wrote, edited, then finally, in the third term, performed it. Classes were three hours long, and work was done on a computer with a large screen so that people could see it. Kesey explains:

This is how, as a professional, I can teach stuff. I couldn't teach writing without doing it. I have to be writing this stuff. People have to be looking over your shoulder [at the monitor] as you do this, as you see that this phrase here is redundant and this is bad. Outside of the context of the thing, general abstractions don't work, unless you've got something specific for it to go on.


It’s a fascinating approach, I have to say, and I can’t help feeling it would work especially well with particular groups, like disengaged young men and students on alternative key stage 4. Obviously not a novel length, which would be way too long, but something shorter: the collaborative, participative nature would perhaps help pull them in. Certainly food for thought.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Saints At The River by Ron Rash


Somebody mentioned Ron Rash in a comment on another post and he wasn’t an author I’d heard of, so I decided to give him a try. An award-winner in his native southern Appalachia and a professor at Western Carolina University, Rash is a poet, novelist and short story writer with, typically for writers of that area, an acute sense of place and facility for evoking landscape and environment. It is no surprise, then, that in Saints at the River, the South Carolina landscape is a vital character in its own right. The novel begins with the tragic death by drowing of a young girl in the Tamasee River. The Tamasee is designated as ‘wild and dangerous’ and it is therefore illegal to do anything to the river which would damage its natural state. However, the family of the dead child, Ruth Kowalsky, want to build a portable dam in it in order to retrieve her body; environmentalists are implacably opposed. The central dilemma of the novel is posed.

Thus, we have a novel with a strong environmentalist core, and it debates the issues fluently and, it must be said, seamlessly. It is woven into the narrative well and only occasionally comes across as slightly sanctimonious, such as when Luke, the humourless environmentalist says without any apparent sense of irony, ‘A human being’s puny compared to a river.’ The debate over whether or not to build the dam creates divisions within the small community, with the majority of the locals opposed, and the motives of those who are in favour being questioned: greed, big business, the construction of ghastly new commuter towns by the banks of the river, this ‘holy place,’ are seen to be the end goal of some of those who ally behind the grieving father, Herb Kowalsky. In the middle of all of this is a young photographer, Maggie Glenn, and it is Maggie who provides the emotional core of the novel.

Aside from the environmental theme, the novel explores issues of kinship and community, and of the implacable hold of the past. Maggie is sent to cover the drowning story alongside journalist Allen Hemphill because she was born and raised in Tamasee, but doing so forces her to confront issues she has repressed for many years. In particular, her relationship with her father, who is dying from cancer, broke down many years before and they spend much of the novel in an antagonistic impasse. A tragic accident in her childhood had led to her brother being badly burned and Maggie finds it impossible to forgive her father for the apparent coldness of his reaction. “He carries what he feels for people deep inside,” Maggie’s Aunt Margaret once told her but, for Maggie, ‘I had wondered then as I did now what good love was that couldn’t be expressed.’ Years of anger have ossified into bitterness and, even though she wants to reach out to him, she is unable to do so.

Meanwhile, Allen Hemphill has a tragic history too and, like Maggie, the drowning of Ruth forces him to confront it. His wife and young daughter were killed a couple of years before in a car accident and as he watches Herb Kowalsky’s ceaseless attempts to bring his daughter to rest, he empathises strongly. Against their respective struggles with the past, then, Maggie and Allen come together in the present and try to forge some form of relationship.

Saints at the River is a good novel but I feel sure Rash will write (indeed may already have written) a far better one. He is clearly a fine writer, and he has a beautiful, lyrical style. The opening sequence, in particular, in which he describes the death of Ruth Kowalsky, is impressive. (It can, incidentally, be read here.) But overall there is something artificial about the novel. It is too neat, the characterisations too pat. For example, Maggie just happens to find a memory of her father being kind and solicitous, one that she has repressed for years and that re-emerges just at the most convenient moment in the plot, in response to the increasing frailty of her father. It feels unconvincing, forced. It makes you think ‘writer’, not ‘story’. The character is being manipulated for the sake of the plot.

And there is, overall, a curious bloodlessness about the novel. Maggie, the narrator, is positioned in the middle of the opposing factions, sympathetic to the needs of the Kowalsky family but understanding the sensitivities of her community, and what we hear from her, then, is a balanced analysis of the debate. It’s almost like a public service broadcasting report, ensuring everyone’s point of view is given, and no-one is depicted too negatively. Moreover, everyone portrays their respective griefs in very decorous terms, grief by numbers, nothing too intrusive, no prospect of embarrassing scenes. It isn’t like that, though, is it? Rash makes reference to two southern greats - an explicit reference to Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian and an implicit nod to Faulkner in a piece of dialogue. Those are two authors unafraid to try something different. I think I would have preferred a bit more blood and thunder. The author should probably let go a bit.

Nonetheless, Ron Rash is someone I will look out for again and Saints at the River is a worthwhile read.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Long March by William Styron


The Long March is a short novella – only 88 pages – which nonetheless packs a great deal of philosophical discourse into its brief narrative. It tells the story of a group of men in their thirties, men who saw duty in the Second World War and remained enlisted as reserves, little expecting to be called up again. They are, of course, because of the Korean War, and find themselves rudely withdrawn from the life of the American Dream to which they have become accustomed, back into the mindless rigour of military discipline in a Marine training camp in the Carolinas. This military insistence on conformity to the point of lunacy is symbolised by an overnight, thirty-six mile route march the troops are forced to undergo: it is a pointless exercise for which most of the men, reservists out of physical condition and no longer with a military mindset, are wholly unprepared to undertake. The march is, it seems, the folly of the arrogant Colonel Templeton who, some of his troops believe, is forcing them into it in an act of self-aggrandisement. That the march to nowhere occurs against the backdrop of an accidental explosion which has killed eight of the troops merely adds to the sense of absurdity.

The main protagonists are Culver and Mannix, mature men who can no longer reconcile themselves to the de-humanisation of military ways. Mannix is a close cousin of Cass Kinsolving in Styron’s earlier novel, Set this House On Fire, a man for whom outrage at society burns uncontrollably, while Culver plays the role of Peter Leverett, the outsider who is not, quite, a rebel. And so, in The Long March, we have Mannix, raging against the lunacy of the enforced march, allowing his emotions to become heightened to irrational levels, whereby he refuses to stop marching even when a nail in his boot causes serious injury to his foot, while Culver, whose voice is the one the story is told through, offers nothing more than blank, incomprehending opposition. Thus, we approach from different perspectives this question of the power of the military to impose blanket, meaningless discipline.

As Welles T. Brandriff notes, by the end of the novella Culver’s illusions have been shattered and what ideals he still had have been eroded. He has become a disillusioned man. Mannix, meanwhile, in his irrational ‘one-sided antagonism’ towards Templeton, is left broken, his actions culminating in, as Melvin J. Friedman describes it ‘probable tetanus, insubordination, and a very certain court martial.’ Brandriff extrapolates from this that the most significant theme of the novel is the ‘thin, fabricated veneer called civilization, and one man's growing awareness of the essential disorder which lies just beneath the surface of this veneer. It also concerns the state of psychological disorder into which Culver slides, as he gradually becomes aware of the presence of this disorder.’

There is some merit to this argument, but Brandriff, a First Lieutenant in the US Air Force, is using it to downplay the attack on the military ‘system’ which is clearly a part of Styron’s intent. Yes indeed, the novel focuses on civilisation, but it also focuses more intently on the role of the individual in that civilisation and, in particular, the uncomfortable life of the non-conformist in an ultra-conformist setting. Marc L. Ratner hints at this when he suggests: ‘Styron, like Camus, is absorbed with the psychological condition of the rebel. For rebellion even in its failure is preferable to Faulkner’s or Hemingway’s stoic “endurance.”’ Peter Hays and August Nigro go even further when they suggest, invoking T.S. Eliot’s ‘mythical method’, that there are analogies with Prometheus and Christ. Nigro goes on to explain that there are three related stories within the novella. The first two can be summarised as the corruption of life caused by military organisation and the suppression of the American Dream but, in the context of Mannix’s character, the third is the most interesting:

the story of the degeneration of the hero in western civilization, from a figure who personifies the aspirations of the common man and the values of society to a grotesque anti-hero who makes a futile but necessary, attempt to assert his personal freedom and identity in the face of a society which is consistently demanding that he sacrifice both.


Eugene McNamara agrees that such individual protest is doomed, and that conformity will dominate. Given the ending of the novel, with Culver defeated and Mannix unnecessarily self-martyred, it is hard to argue against him. Styron is clearly arguing, whatever Brandriff might say, against the corruption of military – and, by extension, conformist, government-controlled – life. He presents in Culver and Mannix two everymen who, in different ways, try to accommodate something that is innately unable to accommodate them. The system cannot allow for individuals or brook dissent; it can only progress through edict and, once that edict has been made, however pointless, it cannot be withdrawn. It is alienating and brutalising. It cannot be attacked on its own terms and it cannot, as the disparate experiences of Culver and Mannix show, be broken by dissent. The message we are left with is a bleak one.

Joan Mellen remains unconvinced, citing what she calls Styron’s ‘consistent failure to make credible the moral psychology of his characters by allowing them to remain in touch with the historical exigencies of their own experience.’ This is unfair. She reaches this contention because, despite having ‘endured and lasted’ his ordeal, Mannix’s only reward is a court martial and further tours of duty in Korea. But such an outcome, I would suggest, proves the complete opposite of Mellen’s conclusion: however bleak it may be, the fate of Mannix is, as he knew it would be, to be beaten by the system. To follow the Christ analogy of Hays or Nigro, the result, for Jesus Christ, of his preaching was his death on Calvary Cross, as he knew all along it must be. The ‘moral psychology’ for either Christ or Mannix, and the self-evident implications of that moral psychology, are clear and profound. It is the existentialist dilemma writ large: life is absurd, and yet there is no alternative but to pursue it.

The Long March
, then, is a powerful work. Nonetheless, there is a curious passivity about much of Styron’s writing, the language at times appearing at odds with the strength of belief the author appears to feel. There is a distancing, almost as though, despite the profundity of his feelings, the author is still projecting them through some form of intellectual or aesthetic filter. This is a weakness Thomas Mann was accused of, and it may be pertinent to Styron, too. Joan Mellon picks up on this point in her self-styled polemic against the author, when she suggests:

[The Long March’s] heroes, Mannix and Culver, are also portrayed as passive victims of an overwhelming and destructive social order. They have "slept a cataleptic sleep" which has lasted from the end of World War II until the Korean War. They have made no effort to understand or to change their society, yet they are angry at the incursion upon their freedom when called upon once again to submit to military discipline. Mannix and Culver have no convictions, however, to pit against the closed if insane logic of the Marine Corps. Although "at heart" they are passionately against it, they passively agree to the necessity of a long march which has no purpose other than to condition the men. They are mesmerized by the bullying confidence of Colonel Templeton for whom the act of submission is both sufficient and necessary cause for the ordeal. The sole reasoning offered is that "if they meet an aggressor enemy next week they might have to march a long, long way."


Again, I think Mellon seriously overstates her case. To call Mannix passive, for example, is clearly ridiculous, and she presents a fatally slanted interpretation of the protagonists. To me, what passivity there is in the novella resides not in the characters but in the writing, in the detachedness which typifies Styron’s style. This distancing is unfortunate, because when he does let himself go, Styron is able to mix it with the best of the southern grotesquers, such as in the opening of the novella, when he evokes the viscera and detritus of the accident:

One noon, in the blaze of a cloudless Carolina summer, what was left of eight dead boys lay strewn about the landscape, among the posion ivy and the pine needles and loblolly saplings. It was not so much as if they had departed this life but as if, sprayed from a hose, they were only shreds of bone, gut, and dangling tissue to which it would have been impossible ever to impute the quality of life, far less the capacity to relinquish it.


More of that and the reader would be storming the ramparts to come to the aid of Mannix and Culver in their futile reaction against reaction. Instead, we shake our heads in resignation. And that is why, ultimately, Mannix is no Christ, no leader of men. Until one turns up, we are all of us consigned to the long march.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Kesey's use of description to build character

Here is a fine piece of descriptive writing from One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest:

I realised I still had my eyes shut. I had shut them when I put my face to the screen, like I was scared to look outside. Now I had to open them. I looked out the window and saw for the first time how the hospital was out in the country. The moon was low in the sky over the pastureland: the face of it was scarred and scuffed where it had just torn up out of the snarl of scrub oak and madrone trees on the horizon. The stars up close to the moon were pale; they got brighter and braver the farther they got out of the circle of light ruled by the giant moon. It called to mind how I noticed the exact same thing when I was off on a hunt with Papa and the uncles and I lay rolled in blankets Grandma had woven, lying off a piece from where the men hunkered around the fire as they passed a quart jar of cacturs liquor in a silent circle. I watched that big Oregon prairie moon above me put all the stars around it to shame. I kept awake watching, to see if the moon ever got dimmer or if the stars got brighter, till the dew commenced to drift onto my cheeks and I had to pull a blanket over my head.

As an example of how to integrate descriptive writing into narrative, this cannot be beaten. The narrator is Chief Bromden, an inmate in an asylum who is doubly cloistered by the perception in his head that the world is under the control of ‘The Combine’, which controls thoughts and actions in secrecy. Not long before this passage, there was a harrowing scene in which the Chief describes the impenetrable fog which he thinks The Combine brings down on the world in order to go about its business. This, then, is a man wholly confined. And yet, of course, he is a countryman, used to freedom and open spaces. It is a tragic situation he has found himself in.

And so, in this passage, we get the first inkling of the Chief looking outward once more. He notices for the first time the rural location of the hospital and gives a vivid description of it. This seamlessly leads him into a reminiscence of a happy experience from his childhood. The shift is beautifully handled – a moment of relaxation in the present, releasing repressed memories of the past. In this way, description of landscape is being used specifically to build character and character development. It is beautifully handled.

The passage continues, and it is worth quoting at length because it is superbly done:

Something moved on the grounds down beneath my window – cast a long spider of shadow out across the grass as it ran out of sight behind a hedge. When it ran back to where I could get a better look, I saw it was a dog, a young, gangly mongrel slipped off from home to find out about things went on after dark. He was sniffing digger squirrel holes, not with a notion to go digging after one but just to get an idea what they were up to at this hour. He’d run his muzzle down a hole, butt up in the air and tail going, then dash off to another. The moon glistened around him on the wet grass, and when he ran he left tracks like dabs of dark paint spattered across the blue shine of the lawn. Galloping from one particularly interesting hole to the next, he became so took with what was coming off – the moon up there, the night, the breeze full of smells so wild makes a young boy drunk – that he had to lie down on his back and roll. He twisted and thrashed around like a fish, back bowed and belly up, and when he got to his feet and shook himself a spray came off him in the moon like silver scales.

He sniffed all the holes over again one quick one, to get the smells down good, then suddenly froze still with one paw lifted and his head tilted, listening. I listened too, but I couldn’t hear anything except the popping of the window shade. I listened for a long time. Then, from a long way off, I heard a high, laughing gabble, faint and coming closer. Canada honkers going south for the winter. I remembered all the hunting and belly-crawling I’d ever done trying to kill a honker, and that I never got one.

I tried to look where the dog was looking to see if I could find the flock, but it was too dark. The honking came closer and closer till it seemed like they must be flying right through the dorm, right over my head. Then they crossed the moon – a black, weaving necklace, drawn into a V by that lead goose. For an instant that lead goose was right in the centre of that circle, bigger than the others, a black cross opening and closing, then he pulled his V out of sight into the sky once more.

I listened to them fade away till all I could hear was my memory of the sound. The dog could still hear them a long time after me. He was still standing with his paw up; he hadn’t moved or barked when they flew over. When he couldn’t hear them any more either, he commenced to lope off in the direction they had gone, towards the highway, loping steady and solemn like he had an appointment. I held my breath and I could hear the flap of his big paws on the grass as he loped: then I could hear a car speed up out of a turn. The headlights loomed over the rise and peered ahead down the highway. I watched the dog and the car making for the same spot of pavement.

The dog was almost to the rail fence at the edge of the grounds when I felt somebody slip up behind me. Two people. I didn’t turn, but I knew it was the black boy named Geever and the nurse with the birthmark and the crucifix. I heard a whir of fear start up in my head. The black boy took my arm and pulled me round. ‘I’ll get ‘im,’ he says.

‘It’s chilly at the window there, Mr Bromden,’ the nurse tells me. ‘Don’t you think we’d better climb back into our nice toasty bed?’

‘He cain’t hear,’ the black boy tells her. ‘I’ll take him. He’s always untying his sheet and roaming ‘round.’

There is an astonishing poignancy to this. We have this man, physically trapped in an asylum and mentally enclosed by his own irrational fears, and it is counterpointed by, firstly, the flighty dog, then the skein of geese and finally by a car – all of them free, going about their own business unhindered. Meanwhile, the Chief describes all of this in exquisite detail – ‘blue shine of the lawn’, the ‘black, weaving necklace’ of geese, the steady and solemn lope of the dog. Be clear, whatever the Chief’s current situation, here is a man at ease with nature.

And then the reality, perhaps portended by the arrival of that car – humanity, modern progress – and the Chief becomes aware of a presence behind him. The ‘whir of fear’ starts up in his head. His reverie is over, his moment of freedom finished. The black boy and the nurse deal with him gently enough, but consider the nurse’s words, her patronising use of the first person plural, the childish description of a ‘toasty bed’. This to a man who could conjure such magical descriptions, who demonstrates a remarkable sensitivity to nature, but the nurse blithely assumes that there is nothing happening in his brain, that he is some sort of zombie wandering the ward aimlessly and staring vacantly into space. And the scene concludes chillingly, with that reminder of the Chief’s situation, the sheet that has to be tied around him nightly to confine him to his bed. It is clear that the Chief may have found a solitary, fleeting moment of escape, but it was a chimera. He is unable to comprehend our world. But we, to our shame, are equally unable to comprehend his. A more poignant description of mental illness it would be hard to find.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The human sky

In spite of the suppression of the Gnostic heresy it continued throughout the Middle Ages under the disguise of alchemy. It is a well-known fact that the latter consisted of two parts indispensible to each other – on the one side the chemical research proper and on the other the “theoria” or “philosophia.” ... The religious or philosophical views of antique alchemy were clearly Gnostic. The alter views seem to cluster round a peculiar, unclear idea. It could perhaps be formulated in the following way: The anima mundi, the demiurge or the divine spirit that incubated the chaotic waters of the beginning, remained in matter in a potential state, and the primary chaotic condition persisted with it. Thus the philosophers or the “sons of wisdom” as they called themselves, took their famous prima materia to be a part of the original chaos pregnant with the spirit. By “spirit” they understood a semimaterial pneuma, a sort of “subtle body,” which they also called “volatile” and identified chemically with oxides and other dissoluble compounds. They called the spirit Mercury, which was chemically quicksilver and philosophically Hermes, the god of revelation, who, as Hermes Trismegistos, was the arch-authority of alchemy. Their intention was to extract the original divine spirit out of the chaos, which extract was called quinta essenita, aqua permanens,... or tinctura. A famous alchemist, Hohannes de Rupescissa (1378) calls the quintessence “le ciel humain,” the human sky or heaven. To him it was a blue liquid and incorruptible like the sky.
Carl Jung

The human sky is a beautiful description. What a pity it appears to have been coined to describe something the exact opposite of human potentiality. The sky as a lid, rather than an opening.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Vonnegut on writing

Kurt, cutting to the chase again:

1. Find a subject you care about.
2. Do not ramble, though.
3. Keep it simple.
4. Have the guts to cut.
5. Sound like yourself.
6. Say what you mean to say.
7. Pity the readers.

I actually wrote a story today, first one in a while.

1 and 7 I'm fine with. 2 to 6 need a bit more attention...

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Profile of McCarthy


There have been a few profiles of McCarthy in the British press in the past couple of weeks, to coincide with the British launch of the film of The Road. Most of them have just been the usual cuttings jobs, but this one from today's Sunday Times is quite interesting.

I also rather like one of the little 'further information' sidebars at the bottom, which takes you to further information about people/things mentioned in the article:

See full profile:
1.Cormac McCarthy
2.The Road
3.Annie DeLisle
4.William Faulkner
5.God

God, at number five, somehow seems quite Cormackian...

But I'm distinctly unimpressed that not a single cinema in my area is showing The Road.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges


Ficciones is – astoundingly so – a work of imagination. All fiction is, of course, but the sheer sweep of invention in Ficciones is remarkable. From the first story, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, relating a fantastical conspiracy stretching across continents and generations to challenge God by compiling the entire natural, social, political and cultural history of an imagined planet, Borges’ collection of short stories examines the intractable nature of time and reality, of what it means to be human, of art and literature and philosophy and life. There are reviews of wholly imaginary books (The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim, An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain, both pre-dating Nabokov’s Pale Fire), works of fantastic fiction (The Library of Babel, in which near infinitude resides every book that ever, possibly, could have been or will be written), genre stories (Death and the Compass, a quasi-detective story, magic realism (The Garden of Forking Paths) and so on. Think of any postmodern trope and you’ll find its progenitor among these seventeen stories.

What is perhaps most remarkable about Borges is the way he addresses huge themes – time and reality – with such compressed narratives. His stories are very short, mostly under ten pages, and his language correspondingly crisp, unadorned, and yet he achieves a depth of meaning which is almost antithetical to his brevity. Mario Vargas Llosa picks up this point: ‘The revolutionary thing about Borges' prose is that it contains almost as many ideas as words, for his precision and conciseness are absolute.’ In this, Vargas suggests, Borges is not typically Latin American. He explains:

To us [Latin American writers], ideas are formulated and captured more effectively when fleshed out with emotion and sensation or in some way incorporated into concrete reality, into life – far more than they are in a logical discourse. This, perhaps, is why we have such a rich literature and such a dearth of philosophers. The most illustrious thinker in the Spanish language in modern times, Ortega y Gasset, is above all a literary figure.

Essentially, Borges seems to have been driven by a need to explore ideas. His stories, he once declared, largely come from ‘half-forgotten memories.’ He goes on: ‘I don’t think we’re capable of creation in the way that God created the world.’ And yet he does create. He writes into being an extraordinary range of characters and situations and temporal paradoxes – the library of Babel, for example, stretching into infinity, recording every possible variation of history: such truly is the work of a god, and the Chief Librarian in charge of the library must surely be a deity? And the god of The Secret Miracle, who grants Hladik the reprieve he requests at the moment of his death – is this not, too, a beautiful vision of humanity, a mundane and not a transcendent vision of heaven? Yet it is achieved in a mere few pages, unadorned, simple, storytelling at its most basic.

Thus, we have profundity-through-lightness. Llosa notes:

This lightness of literary touch freed Borges to explore more deeply. Borges was not a writer imprisoned behind the heavy bars of national tradition, as European writers often are, and this facilitated his journeys through cultural space, in which, thanks to the many languages he knew, he moved with consummate ease. This cosmopolitanism, this eagerness to be a master of so far-ranging a cultural sphere, this construction of a past upon a foundation both national and foreign, was a way of being profoundly Argentine – which is to say, Latin American. But in Borges' case, his intense involvement with European literature was also a way of shaping his own personal geography, a way of being Borges.

And what does ‘being Borges’ entail? Borges himself said:

When I write a story or a poem I am simply concerned about that story or that poem, but I have no general philosophy; I have no message to convey. I am not really a thinker. I am a man who is very puzzled – and generally speaking, very pleasantly puzzled – by life and by things, especially by books.
Borges is surely being modest. His explorations of time and reality are profound, all the more so for their lack of didacticism. His stories consistently explore the same territory – what it means to be human in a world that cannot be tied down or defined or controlled or even, frankly, understood. In this, as Seymour Menton notes in an article addressing magic realist tendencies in Borges’ works, Borges adopts a Jungian perspective:

Magic Realism adheres to the Jungian collective unconscious, to the idea that all mankind is compressed into one, that all time periods are compressed into the one moment of the present, and that reality itself is dream-like. From his own texts, it's obvious that Borges shares Jung's view of the world and rejects Freud's.

What we have, then, is an exploration of the general from the point of view of the specific, the public from the private, the hopes, fears, beliefs and actions of humanity as seen through the eyes of humans. Thus, for all the irreality of the writing, there is a reality shining through. Funes the Memorious, condemned to remember every instant of his existence in tortuous detail, represents the fears of a humanity dwarfed by the terrifying presence of eternity, but Hladik, in his long, long moment of death, in which he both triumphs and expires, is a fine symbol for us all.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

The Magic Mountain (6): Approaches to Mann



6. Approaches to Mann

Mann is not much read these days, or at least he is not much in vogue. Partly, this is due to current tastes – his eclecticism, his repeated classical allusions, his – to use one of his own favourite words – pedagogy are now considered to be stilted. Also, our modern culture has a dislike of ambiguity: morals have to be clearly presented and unquestionable – think of the film Crash, for example, a good film with a good message, but one that is ultimately laboured to the point of triteness. And Mann, of course, does not ever give us certainty. His meanings are not easily extracted from the narrative and cannot easily be appropriated by the idle reader for one’s own. But also, I sense, there remains some residual doubt about Mann’s views, about the debate he certainly had with himself about rational humanism and reactionary forces, and the power of each to influence human destiny. As long ago as 1965 Georg Lukacs was calling him ‘the most violently debated figure of twentieth century German literature’ while Irving Stock also points to some of this ambivalence when he notes:

[The Magic Mountain] is thought by many to sink under its enormous freight of ideas; and, by those who don't disapprove of ideas in art, it is often considered unsatisfactory because Mann believes in none of them himself, his famous irony being at bottom nihilistic.


Such critics, Stock suggests, are missing the point: ‘As for the novel's meaning, what we find in Hans Castorp's education is that Mann's smile at all ideas doesn't mean "no"; it means "yes, but." [Mann] seems a nihilist only to those who look for ideas in which they can come to rest.’ So The Magic Mountain is not nihilistic, but is it apolitical? Sidney Bolkosky certainly thinks so: ‘[Mann’s] post-war work through The Magic Mountain – itself agonizingly irresolute, remarkably apolitical, and socially disengaged – remained introverted and unconcerned with problems outside the artist and his existence.’ This is overstating the case. Bolkosky goes on: ‘Most critics have argued that not until Nazism became a clear and present danger did he convert from the apolitical, aloof, detached man of mind to a morally engaged spokesman against sociopolitical ills in this his "first political literary work."’ There is a degree of truth in this, although being apolitical does not necessarily mean that Mann displays no political consciousness at all, something which Bolkosky concedes when he concludes that ‘[h]is writing reveals a political and social consciousness that predated the rise of Fascism.’ The truth of this is evident in The Magic Mountain, nowhere more so than when Naphta warns Settembrini that not all revolutions result in democracy. Within years of the completion of this novel, Hitler had come to power in Mann’s Germany and the revolution of Nazi totalitarianism had begun.

Yet still the suspicion lingers that Mann was unworldly, an intellectual occupying rarefied heights of consciousness and not truly connecting with everyday reality. Oskar Seidlin, for example, notes:

No matter how assiduously the critics and interpreters of Thomas Mann's works have made them the conveyors of ideological, political, or sociological problems and questions, no matter how seriously Mann himself took the responsibility of speaking out against the crimes and outrages of an inhuman regime, in the last analysis he considered art – his art – not as a vehicle to carry time-bound messages, but as the great comforter man invented to assuage his sufferings.


This is unfair. This is to trivialise both Mann’s message and the depth of his convictions. It is also, frankly, not the case. For example, early in The Magic Mountain, Mann writes:

A man lives not only in his personal life, as an individual, but also, consciously or unconsciously, the life of his epoch and his contemporaries. He may regard the general, impersonal foundations of his existence as definitely settled and taken for granted, and be as far from assuming a critical attitude toward them as our good Hans Castorp really was; yet it is quite conceivable that he may none the less be vaguely conscious of the deficiencies of his epoch and find them prejudicial to his own moral well-being.

This is presented to us through the authorial voice, not through the various mouthpieces for Mann’s dialectical debates; it is, in other words, Mann’s thought, presented directly to his reader. Is it, as Seidlin would no doubt contend, an example of Mann assuaging his suffering – the faults of the world being depicted in terms of one’s own wellbeing – or is it to suggest that the individual and society are inextricably connected? I would suggest the latter and, as such, it suggests in Mann a wider awareness than critics such as Seidlin would grant him. Mann debates the grand philosophical, metaphysical and political issues in his own way, using his own tools, the only tools a novelist could feasibly use – words. As Settembrini says to Naphta:

"You are silent... You do not love the Word, or you have it not, or you are chary with it to unfriendliness. The articulate world does not know where it is with you. My friend, that is perilous. Speech is civilization itself. The word, even the most contradictious word, preserves contact – it is silence which isolates.”


And Settembrini concludes, displaying a prescience that may owe more to his author than to himself: ‘The suspicion lies to hand that you will seek to break your silence with deeds.’ And so, in Germany, it came to pass. Of course, ever the dialectician, Mann also explores the opposite view, allowing Naphta to suggest:

“All educational organizations worthy of the name have always recognized what must be the ultimate and significant principle of pedagogy: namely the absolute mandate, the iron bond, discipline, sacrifice, the renunciation of the ego, the curbing of the personality.”


Perhaps this is what exasperates critics – Mann’s insistence on exploring all alternatives, his schoolmasterly tendency to analyse and discuss. But this is to simplify his work too much. Yes, indeed, Mann is scrupulous in presenting and debating opposing beliefs, but to say that he is guilty of equivocation is to overstate the case. It is perfectly clear what Mann thinks of Naphta, for example. And it is equally clear that the ideals of Settembrini are close to those of the author himself. But far from being naïve, Mann is calculatedly honest in his understanding of human nature. The battle between Settembrini and Naphta – between libertarianism and totalitarianism – is ultimately unwinnable. Piers Lewis, in his perceptive blog articles on The Magic Mountain, explains this point perfectly:

[Naphta’s suicide] dramatizes the great fact that the argument between liberal humanism and de Maistrian—or Marxist—totalitarianism (Settembrini and Naphta) has no rational outcome. This book provides no aid or comfort — none — to believers in Reason. There is no escape from the nightmares of history. History never proves anything. Hume was right: reason is and can only be the slave of the passions. That's why people and their states fight wars.


Mann’s view was that the twentieth century was falling into irrationality. Siegfried Marck notes that his work reflects the tension between demonism and humanism, while Tedlock suggests it is founded on a ‘dualism between reason and unreason in human life.’ Tedlock quotes, in evidence, from Mann’s essay on Schopenhauer:

The twentieth century has in its first third taken up a position of reaction against classic rationalism and intellectualism. It has surrendered to admiration of the unconscious, to a glorification of instinct, which it thinks is overdue to life. And the bad instincts have accordingly been enjoying a heyday. We have seen instead of pessimistic conviction deliberate malice. Intellectual recognition of bitter truth turns into hatred and contempt for mind itself.


This is as clear an explication of Mann’s thought as it is possible to find. He was an intellectual, and his observations of twentieth century developments were those of an intellectual, but to say that he was thus removed from the reality of this clash between reason and unreason is to do him a disservice. He saw it clearly, and it pained him. Hans, when he finally considers leaving the magic mountain, does so because:

he was frightened. It seemed to him ‘all this’ could come to no good, that a catastrophe was impending, that long-suffering nature would rebel, rise up in storm and whirlwind and break the great bond which held the world in thrall; snatch life beyond the ‘dead point’ and put an end to the ‘small potatoes’ in one terrible Last Day.


Even now, perhaps, Mann appears to affirm his doubters: what is Hans’s response to this thought? He ‘went on playing patience’. Equivocal to the last, then, one might say, but no, because he continues: ‘...and gazing into the eye of the demon, whose unbridled sway he foresaw would come to an end of horror.’

And so we have an author who sees the beauty in humanity, but sees also its weakness. “I have made a dream poem of humanity,” says Hans Castorp at one stage. And so, of course, has Thomas Mann, but he knows, too, that dreams can turn into nightmares, and that there is nothing we can do to prevent it.


1. Hans Castorp and the magic mountain
2. Time
3. Death and nature
4. Science and myth
5. Rationalism and reaction