How far?

In the final round of my second manuscript, I find myself struggling with things that, from a distance, sound either amateurish or effete: what happens next? how does this phrase sound? have I given this character two different names?

There’s a troubling disconnect between the writing I not only love but find inspiring, and what’s been emerging from my own fingertips. It seems conventional, laborious, and weighted mostly by mechanical problems that are distractions from a higher goal. And I have to admit that, contra my initial goal of just writing a “ripping yarn” in my first MS, my goal is actually to produce art. My current topic, the trauma of war, is an easy one for drama but not an easy one for art. My objective from the beginning was to avoid writing 400 pages of “Oh, the horror”, but I seem to have slipped into it, which is to say I may have taken the easy road.

The other day I sat back and asked what writers I found most exciting, the ones who could be called (and often are) writer’s writers. They were, in no meaningful order: Don DeLillo, WG Sebald, Lydia Davis, Shirley Hazzard, William Blake, Donald Barthelme, John Milton, Paul Kingsnorth, Samuel Beckett. They have nothing in common, except that my common experience on reading them is of waking up or seeing that, as the communists say, another world is possible.

When I first looked at that list, my only thought was “They went far.” Not necessarily in being experimental or avant-garde. You only have to read a page of Hazzard to experience prose that feels like someone spent a century refining it, balancing every syllable and phoneme before carefully sanding away every hint of artifice. DeLillo goes over the edge sometimes, Blake never did.

Here’s a paragraph I wrote last month, about a girl who’s an indentured slave:

And yet in everything she did there was the perfect serenity of someone sealed up in her own world, in a secret prison unknown even to her owners. She was making a small batch of noodles for the soup, and as she worked the soft dough over the floured board with a rolling pin, she stared into its blankness. The flour rose up into the air around the board and settled on her arms as though to mask the bruises. She looked up for a moment and smiled as she stretched the dough out. Long life, of course, because everything must stand for something else. I watched as her arms stretched out gently through the flour like spring streams into a dusty bed.

I haven’t gone for enough. For the next MS, which I’ve already begun to sketch, that will be the first question.

How far?

Dusty cretonne

James Joyce, “Eveline”

Today is James Joyce’s birthday, which means it’s time to talk about my favorite work of his, Dubliners. I’ve read everything but Exiles and Finnegans Wake, but anyone who claims the latter as a favorite is a liar.

Had Joyce never written anything after Dubliners he would of course be very different to us, but he’d be no less magnificent. The Joyce of mad wordplay, of HCE and met-him-pike-hoses, doesn’t appear in the short stories. Indeed, Ulysses is all the greater because we have Dubliners to reminder us that polyglot compressions and pastiche (think the Oxen of the Sun episodes) were not his first concerns.

But that’s all I want to say about Joyce in general, because I write these posts to record what makes reading enjoyable. Throughout the stories there are perfect musical constructions. There’s the closing paragraph of “The Dead”, and there’s this in “Araby”:

While she spoke she turned a silver bracelet round and round her wrist.

That is an incredibly oblique and yet powerful expression of the young narrator’s yearning and proto-love. As for the music of the sentence, you just have to read it. I still remember reading it as an undergrad for the first time, and it was always that sentence that stood out.

But my favorite story in the collection, indeed the one I’m almost obsessed with, is “Eveline”.

Dubliners is full of silent, fading women, and Eveline is their doomed daughter. They whisper their anguish then tidy up. Nothing says this better than the passage I think is the heart of the story, its second paragraph. It’s here that we start the free-fall into the entrapment of the past, but the narrative looks up into the light for one brief moment of tragic insight, a two-word sentence and the sole glimmer of the present tense:

The children of the avenue used to play together in that field — the Devines, the Waters, the Dunns, little Keogh the cripple, she and her brothers and sisters. Ernest, however, never played: he was too grown up. Her father used often to hunt them in out of the field with his blackthorn stick; but usually little Keogh used to keep nix and call out when he saw her father coming. Still they seemed to have been rather happy then. Her father was not so bad then; and besides, her mother was alive. That was a long time ago; she and her brothers and sisters were all grown up her mother was dead. Tizzie Dunn was dead, too, and the Waters had gone back to England. Everything changes. Now she was going to go away like the others, to leave her home.

You can read the story here. From Librivox, you can enjoy Taidgh Hynes’ excellent reading.

Dusty cretonne

Pffffrrrummppp

Anthony Burgess, Inside Mr. Enderby

I am deeply antisocial. This is obvious in two ways.

First, I am one of the few people still steamed about the near-oblivion of Anthony Burgess’ work. (By the way, I am under 90.) I admit he was due to recede a little from the high he occupied in the 80s, but a reappreciation is long overdue.

Second, to mark the great kick-off at some unknown point in the future, I’ve sketched a funeral plan for myself. The therapeutic goal of the program is to distract people from any sadness by making them regret they ever showed up at all for the service. The event, ecclesial or not, will be long, bracingly unmusical, and will strain the faculty of attention. There will be long readings of selected literary works, not necessarily in English, nor necessarily in languages widely known or even alive (Classical Nahuatl is at the top of the list), and there will be no explanatory programme dispensed by the ushers. Either focus, leave, or join me in the casket.

But there will be comic relief, at least once. And this will come as a reading of the opening chapter of Burgess’s Inside Mr. Enderby. I’ve only read the book three times, but whenever I’ve needed a laugh, I go and read the first chapter. Read about the book here or here (on Goodreads, where it gets 3.8 like everything else) to learn what it’s about, but do it quickly. The writing is pure Burgess: shameless low comedy enriched with vibrant language and eye-watering portrayals of human failure. (The title of this post is the book’s first word.)

There are too many to list and talk about, but here’s the one segment that always puts me on the floor. Enderby, a disheveled poet who can only write while on the toilet, and who lives off greasy pies and stale bread, goes to the local seaside pub, a place frequented only by people far older than him:

“How,” asked a gentle tremulous man made of parchment, “how,” his hand shaking his drink like a dicebox, “how is the stomach?”

“Some quite remarkable twinges,” said Enderby. “Almost visible, you know. And flatulence.”

“Flatulence,” said the major-general, “ah, yes, flatulence.” He spoke of it as though it were a rare old vintage. “Many years since I’ve had that. Now, of course, I eat nothing. A little bread soaked in warm milk, morning and evening. I swear it’s this rum that’s keeping me alive. I told you, did I, about that contretemps over the rum ration at Bruderstroom?”

“Several times,” said Enderby. “A good story.”

“Isn’t it?” said the general, painfully animated. “Isn’t it a good story? And true. Incredible, but true.”

A plebeian crone in dirty black spoke from a bar-stool. “I,” she said, “have had part of my stomach removed.” There was a silence. The aged males ruminated this gratuitous revelation, wondering whether, coming from a female and a comparative stranger, it was really in the best of taste. Enderby said kindly, “That must have been quite an experience.” The old woman looked crafty, gripped the counter’s edge with papery hands that grew chalky at the knuckles, canted her stool towards Enderby and said, very loudly, “Pardon?”

“An experience,” said Enderby, “never to be forgotten.”

“Six hours on the table,” said the woman. “Nobody here can’t beat that.”

Now, stop wasting your life and buy a copy.

Pffffrrrummppp