I recently blogged about Herman Melville’s character “Bartleby the Scrivener” as being one of Gothic horror. Having re-read Thomas Mann’s short story, “Mario and the Magician”, I find his portrayal of Cipolla the Conjurer similarly unsettling, and I think it is a tale that carries as vital a message for today as it did in 1929 when it was written.
Harry Kellar was an American magician of the late 19th and 20th centuries, whose devices perhaps bore some resemblance to those of the fictional Cipolla. (Public domain via Wikimedia.)
In Mann’s story, the German narrator and his wife and children are taking a summer holiday at a seaside resort on the Tyrrhenian Sea in Southern Italy. The sun is shining and they should be having a swimmingly good time, but it is the era of Mussolini’s fascist regime in Italy and a sense of intangible menace is abroad.
The story begins: “The atmosphere of Torre di Venere remains unpleasant in the memory. From the first moment the air of the place made us uneasy, we felt irritable, on edge; then at the end came the shocking business of Cipolla, that dreadful being who seemed to incorporate, in so fateful and so humanly impressive a way, all the peculiar evilness of the situation as a whole.”
From the start of their stay, small disagreeable incidents multiply so as to enhance their uneasiness. They are treated with such snobbish disregard at the Grand Hotel, in the face of an aristocratic lady’s unjust complaint against them, that they feel obliged to move elsewhere. Their eight-year-old daughter’s fleeting, but innocent, nudity on the beach earns them a public denunciation from a bowler-hatted busybody, who accuses them of insulting the honour of Italy, and they receive a fine from the town authorities for this apparently unconscionable offence.
Then posters announce the forthcoming performance in town of a magician, “Cavaliere Cipolla”, and the narrator’s children pester him into making a family night-out of it. On the advertised evening the hall is packed, and the performer keeps his audience waiting for an inordinate time before taking to the stage.
When he does appear they see, “A man of age hard to determine, but by no means young; with a sharp, ravaged face, piercing eyes, compressed lips, small black waxed moustache, and a so-called imperial in the curve between mouth and chin.” He is dressed “with a sort of complicated evening elegance,” and he turns back his cape to reveal “a riding-whip with a silver claw-handle” hanging by a leather thong from his left forearm. On removing his hat and outer garments he is revealed as ugly and deformed.
There is a taste of how matters will develop as Cipolla opens by humiliating a heckler, making him stick out his tongue against his will. When the young man challenges him again later, he forces him to double up as if in colic pain. But the first half of the performance largely consists of the familiar “magician’s” fare, such as tricks with cards, numbers and objects, whereby he correctly guesses things he apparently has no way of knowing. The conjuror’s elaborate patter, delivered in a “wheezing, metallic voice”, is taunting and suggestive throughout, and the way he works the audience is insidiously controlling. He makes jokes, but they are often designed to achieve a targeted individual’s humiliation, and he is careful to only treat lower class spectators in such a degrading way. He is personally boastful, and evinces a bombastic patriotism.
Yet despite the underlying reserve, and antipathy, towards the performer that the narrator senses, “the curiosity of the entire audience was unbounded and universal, everybody both enjoyed the amusing character of the entertainment and unanimously conceded the professional skill of the performer.”
As the evening lengthens the narrator and his wife realise belatedly that the spectacle is unsuitable for their children, but find themselves somehow unable to break away. They rationalise their inertia on the ground that leaving would spoil the children’s evident enjoyment. By the time the intermission comes it is already after eleven p.m. and the children are nodding off, but still they stay.
On his reappearance (after a further tantalising delay), the magician discards the surrounding artifice of trickery and nakedly reveals that his real business is bending others to his will thorough hypnotic suggestion: “An elderly lady in a cane-seated chair was lulled by Cipolla into the delusion that she was on a visit to India and gave a voluble account of her adventures by land and sea.” “A tall, well-built, soldierly man”, is unable to lift his arm, despite his strenuous efforts to do so, after being told by Cipolla that he cannot. A lady with an “ethereal lack of resistance to his power” is encouraged to join him on stage, and she follows his beckoning finger even while her distraught husband implores her to return to her place by calling her name. People are made to dance, “in a kind of complacent ecstasy, eyes closed, head nodding, lank limbs flying in all directions.” Each command is accompanied by a swish of Cipolla’s claw-handled riding-whip.
Events turn ever uglier, and it is well after midnight when they move to a ghastly climax. The children are awake to see a favourite waiter of theirs from a local restaurant, named Mario, be enticed alone up to the stage. The magician interrogates the simple-natured youth insinuatingly, seeking to extract titillating details of his personal life. He prizes out the fact that Mario loves a girl called Silvestra, but that he is unsure of her feelings for him. He plays on Mario’s uncertainties, suggesting that his beloved Silvestra might like to cavort with rougher types than himself. At last he persuades the hapless waiter that he himself is Silvestra. “It is time that you see me and recognise me, Mario, my beloved!” Cipolla entreats his victim, “Kiss me…Trust me, I love thee.” Mario leans down and kisses his tormentor, but then recoils horribly at the act.
I’ll leave you to find out how it ends, if you’re so-minded. The story is, of course, an allegory of the rise of fascism which Mann had witnessed in Italy and which was to be writ larger in his German homeland. But it’s a timeless tale in that there will always be proselytisers of wicked creeds who seek to hypnotise others into false beliefs. Mann emphasised the importance of the crowd-pressure that fascism relied upon in deconstructing individual will. But nowadays you don’t even need to leave your bedroom to be deceived by internet ideologues into believing that they are your beloved Silvestra.
Certain figures from nineteenth century gothic horror fiction are still very much part of mainstream culture. One thinks of Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula the vampire, and Doctor Jekyll’s murderous alter-ego Mr Hyde. Less well-known, but more unsettling in my opinion, is the figure of “Bartleby the Scrivener” from a short story of that name by Herman Melville (author of Moby Dick) first published in 1853. Bartleby is ostensibly a bland, passive character, who could not be further removed from the nightmarish creations I have mentioned. But, to me, he is scarier than any of them.
Melville’s story is narrated by a successful, elderly lawyer who has his business chambers on the second floor of a Wall Street office building in New York City. In the days before photocopying and digital technology, lawyers had to employ droves of law-copyists, known as “scriveners”, to laboriously transcribe duplicates of legal documents by hand. It is hard to imagine a more monotonous and soul-destroying occupation. At the beginning of his story the narrator already has two scriveners in his service, but needs a third to cope with an expected influx of new work:
“In answer to my advertisement,” the narrator relates, “a motionless young man one morning stood upon my office threshold…I can see that figure now – pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby.” If Bartleby has a first name we never learn what it is, and, despite knowing nothing whatever of him beyond his having the appropriate qualifications, the narrator engages him straightway.
Everything is fine at first, since Bartleby works quickly and efficiently by daylight and candlelight (“he seemed to gorge himself on my documents”), the only cause for unease being that he does so “silently, palely, mechanically”. But when the narrator asks him to help in examining copies against each other, a routine exercise for a scrivener, Bartleby simply says “I would prefer not to.” He does not refuse in any insolent or confrontational manner but “in a singularly mild, firm voice…”. “His face was leanly composed; his gray eye dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him.” Although disconcerted by this, Bartleby’s blank passivity somehow disarms the narrator.
The scrivener will not be shifted from his refusal and the narrator gradually notices that he never leaves the office, indeed when asked to go out on an errand he replies “I would prefer not to.” Needing to call in there one Sunday morning, the narrator finds that he cannot get his key into the lock because there is a one already lodged there from the inside. The door is at last opened from within “and thrusting his lean visage at me, and holding the door ajar, the apparition of Bartleby appeared, in his shirt sleeves, and otherwise in a strangely tattered dishabille, saying quietly that he was sorry, but that he was deeply engaged just then, and – preferred not admitting me at present.”
Bartleby is plainly living at the office, and the narrator finds himself deeply affected by his employee’s apparent loneliness and desolation: “For the first time in my life a feeling of over-powering stinging melancholy seized me.” “What I saw that morning persuaded me that the scrivener was the victim of innate and incurable disorder. I might give alms to his body; but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach.”
An attempt by his employer to elicit some basic facts from Bartleby concerning his previous life and present circumstances receives the inevitable reply, “I would prefer not to”. Soon he stops copying (“I would prefer not to”) and declines to do any work at all. Increasingly, he does no more than stand looking out of a window which is faced by the blank wall of another building only ten feet distant, in a pose the narrator refers to as his “dead-wall revery”. The narrator tries to dismiss him but he will not go, even when offered monetary incentives. All efforts to persuade and reason with him, and tempt him, are met with his standard anodyne rebuff: “I would prefer not to”.
At length the narrator, his other employees, and his clients and business associates grow so unnerved by the baleful and inert presence that the situation becomes intolerable. But still the narrator cannot bring himself to have Bartleby coerced in any way. Instead, he actually moves office and leaves the scrivener in sole occupation of his now empty former premises.
Eventually Bartleby declines to go on living altogether, so he stops eating and passes away. But in a coda to the story, the narrator hears a rumour that the scrivener had previously been employed at the “dead letter” office in Washington. This was where letters that could not be delivered due to their being hopelessly addressed ended up. There, they were opened, and then burned if no return address could be located inside. Anything valuable within would be auctioned off. “Dead letters!” the narrator observes, “does it not sound like dead men?”
Having reread the story recently, I turned to the editor’s (Harold Beaver) introduction to my volume of Melville’s work to find out what it’s supposed to mean. Apparently it comes out of Melville’s own experience as a writer: “…it becomes a parable of all writers in a financial society who refuse to write on demand or to compromise…”. Alternatively, the editor says, it’s a religious parable, with the narrator eventually betraying the Christ-like purity of Bartleby by forsaking him.
But, echoing Bartleby, I prefer not to accept such convoluted abstractions. To me, it’s about a haunting. I read somewhere that all ghost stories are grief stories, and I fancy that Bartleby represents some elemental human grief being visited upon the complacent narrator. As the story ends: “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”
The illustrations are “The Book Auctioneer” from Mayhew’s “London Labour and the London Poor” (which looks like my idea of Bartleby) and “The dead letter office at Washington”. I read “Bartleby” in “Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor, And Other Stories” ed. Harold Beaver
Posted in American History, Herman Melville, Historical, Literary, Literary Criticism | Tagged Billy Budd Sailor, Dead letter office, Dracula, Frankenstein, Gothic horror fiction, Harold Beaver, Henry Mayhew, Herman Melville, Jekyll and Hyde, London Labour and the London Poor, Moby Dick | Leave a comment |
I don’t think I am an especially fussy reader, but I am sometimes mystified by the runaway success of certain books. This is the case with the much-garlanded “H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald, which has recently topped the Sunday Times bestseller list for general paperbacks. I doubt whether I would have read it all had I not been doing so for my book group, which would have been a pity since I did warm to it in its latter stages. The author rather swoops on the reader from the off and pecks mercilessly at them, so I shall assess her book from a prey’s-eye (i.e. this reader’s) viewpoint.
The book is an account of how the author reacted to the overwhelming grief she felt upon her father’s death by immersing herself in training and then hunting with a goshawk. Since childhood she has been obsessed with falconry, has read everything she can find on the subject, and has worked with other kinds of predatory birds. Training a goshawk, however, is apparently a much harder task owing to the particularly complex characteristics of the animal. The book deals with the vicissitudes of their time together, and with the author’s cathartic quest to heal her grief.
Birds of prey are indeed enigmatic and fascinating creatures, and I must say that the book contains a good deal of interesting and absorbing material about them and their place in human history. There is also some excellent and evocative writing about landscape and the natural world. The author is an affiliate at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, so it is no surprise that her work includes a large body of appropriately learned references. The summaries of classic accounts of falconry, that she scatters around the text and sets against her own experiences, are highly informative and are used to good effect. Her device of running the goshawk-training ordeal of the writer T.H. White (as described in his book “The Goshawk” from 1951), parallel to her own, adds an extra dimension (although the distinctly crackers-sounding White is a curious choice of role model for someone in acute emotional distress).
But having read a dozen pages or so, I made the following note of my impressions to date: “Frantic, breathless, gushing, relentless emotional churning – it’s all me, me, me!” These early impressions, I’m afraid, persisted for much of the book. I felt as you do when someone sits next to you in the pub and talks endlessly at you, rather than with you, about themselves. There is also a constant striving for everything to be deep and meaningful, which becomes grating. For me, she makes the cardinal error of taking the reader’s interest in her life, and her every internal preoccupation, for granted, without actually earning it. We have all suffered bereavement, but she does not make me empathise with her condition in particular. This is because she does not establish herself as a sympathetic person, nor establish her deceased father and their former relationship as a reality I can genuinely care about.
There is an abiding self-absorption in the work, and an inability to filter out her internal chatter, that I found tough going and tiresome. Other characters who appear are only incidental to what is happening inside her. When she wants you to pay especial attention to something she is saying, she shouts it in your ear by putting it in italics! And then there is the whole matter, in itself, of “training” these quintessentially wild animals. She describes how she sets about imprisoning her goshawk Mabel, hooding her, and systematically manipulating every aspect of her existence. I sometimes wanted to shout: Why don’t you leave the poor bird alone? The bird (and the struggle to master her) is only ever there as an avatar in the author’s own psychodrama.
To be fair, the author does exhibit some self-knowledge as matters progress. At one point she recognises that, “the narcissism of the bereaved is very great” (p 152). And at another, after a bout of self-pity, she mentally shouts “Get over yourself, Helen,” at herself (p 208). She does come to question the morality of subordinating a wild animal to her own purposes, and does become uncomfortable with her complicity in the animal’s savage bloodthirstiness when they are out hunting together, which they do regularly after the training has been successful.
In time, the author decides that attempting to exorcise her grief by exposing herself to nature red-in-tooth-and-claw is a bit silly really, and she only starts to recover properly after a sensible doctor puts her on anti-depressants. She becomes more likable to me as her obsession with the goshawk shrinks, but then again what do I know of wild animals? My cat offers me simple companionship, and does me the kindness of committing any acts of savage predation he has in mind out of my sight.
A good deal of media attention has surrounded the recent “rediscovery” of “Stoner: A Novel”, by John Williams, first published in 1965, which languished for a long time out of print. On the back jacket of my copy Julian Barnes is quoted as finding it “A terrific novel of echoing sadness”, and Colum McCann as thinking it “democratic in how it breaks the heart.” This is the sort of pseudo-poetic hyperbole one expects from literary types, but how does the book stand up for the literary nobody who writes this blog?
The novel charts the life of William Stoner, who spends his entire educational and professional career at the University of Missouri. He arrives as a freshman in 1910 and dies there in 1956 as an assistant professor. On the first page the author summarises this working lifetime as follows: “Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.” The author’s apparent intent is to present an outwardly anonymous and undistinguished life, which nevertheless has an intense underlying humanity.
On the evidence of this book there is no doubt that Williams, who died some twenty years ago, was a writer of exceptional skill, power and clarity. The narrative pulls you along, even though little of real moment happens for long periods. But I was increasingly bothered by the passive, almost vacant way in which the central character is tossed to-and-fro by events. Stoner comes from a simple backwoods Missouri farming family whose land is harsh and arid. One day his father suggests that he goes to the state university, at Columbia, to study agriculture, which he does. Having taken a supplementary English literature course, which he’s useless at, he switches his studies from agriculture to English literature under the influence of a peculiar but inspiring teacher. He becomes good at it, and it’s suggested that he might stay on to teach, which he does. It’s suggested that he enlist in the army to fight in the First World War, which he doesn’t do. Then he meets a girl, who he clearly has no rapport with whatsoever, and immediately marries her. As the reader anticipates, their marriage is a disaster, but when his wife wants them to have a child he agrees. His parents die and he buries them in their arid ground, without ever becoming close to them while they were alive.
Something the author writes about Stoner’s wife strikes me as applying rather more to Stoner himself for long stretches of the book: “Her life was invariable, like a low hum…”. Things just seem to happen to him, usually bad ones, and he never seems to consider in advance whether his various life choices are likely to be sound. The very first time he and his intended are alone together, “he felt that they were strangers in a way that he had not thought they would be, and he knew that he was in love.” A rather perverse thought process, one might think. In fact, his wife turns out to be inadequate and malevolent to an almost cartoonish degree. On the suicide of her father, she sets aside every object the man’s ever given her and systematically destroys it. After neglecting her for years, she suddenly takes an oppressively controlling interest in their daughter Grace, purely, it seems, to destroy the previously warm relationship existing between father and daughter. (Though my mother, who’s smarter than me, has an explanation for this: She speculates that the wife was abused by the father as a child – hence her destructive display on his death, and the withdrawal of her own daughter from Stoner in case he should prove an abuser also.) She casts Stoner and all his belongings out of his study, previously his only refuge in their house, and forces him to squat on a leaky glazed-porch with bad temperature control.
Though his pursuit of her was ill-advised in the first place, Stoner’s wife does go into their match voluntarily and it’s not clear why she comes to hate him so much. Despite a conflict with them, it’s also not clear why a student and an academic superior at the university are so hostile to him that they come near to destroying his career at one point. If Stoner has objectionable qualities that attract such ill-feeling, they are never spelled out. Indeed, how Stoner comes across as a personality to others is never made plain. He only ever seems to have had two close (male) friendships, and even these relationships are shown as lacking real intimacy. He seems uninterested in any pastimes or diversions aside from his profession. We are encouraged to think that he feels something elemental about his studies, but the actual business of academia is presented as solidly sterile and unenlightened. Stoner later has a love affair with a colleague, but she does not manage to relieve the “low hum” of his life to any great degree, and their relationship is ended by the nasty academic superior who apparently has an undying antipathy towards Stoner (though, strangely, the superior pays tribute to Stoner on the latter’s retirement, perhaps through guilt?).
I’m afraid that the “echoing sadness” sensed by Julian Barnes in the novel often strikes me as contrived and manipulative, and in my case the novel was not democratic enough to “break the heart” (whatever that over-used phrase might actually mean in the context of simply reading a book). I’m never really sympathetic to William Stoner, nor ever find his wife more than a man-hating caricature. The author apparently wants to present his hero’s as an ordinary life that has a kind of nobility in spite of itself, but in doing so alternates between the mundane and the melodramatic. So, having said all this, I’m not sure why I found the novel such an excellent and compulsive read.
It’s a truism that nothing dates more surely than that which tries to be bang-up-to-the-minute (one only has to think of eighties pop music and fashion!). In literature, the truism applies especially to satire and to works which adopt modish narrative devices of their day. Authors giving advice on how to write (or more often dispensing a series of spurious “rules” that tell you how to write like them) generally discuss “viewpoint” in the sense of choosing first- or third-person etc., narration. The question of the narrator’s viewpoint in time is less regularly aired.
A good example of the “bang-up-to-the-minute” novel is furnished by Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop – a satire on the press written in the 1930s – which my book group discussed recently. In this story, a farcical chain of events leads to a totally unqualified reporter being sent out by the Daily Beast, in place of his namesake who should have gone, to cover a non-existent war in an African state. Though press venality and cynicism are topics of current relevance for sure, the book’s style of humour and its underlying attitudes fix it firmly in its original time-frame. It’s obviously meant to be table-thumpingly hilarious but the comedy is all about funny names, puerile pratfalls and idiotic misunderstandings, and the archetypal characters it presents (such as self-deluding press baron “Lord Copper”) are not readily recognisable today. I may be a po-faced miserablist taking a comic romp too seriously, but Waugh’s routine use of the racist language and stereotypes of his time do give proceedings a queasy feel for today’s reader.
By contrast, another book my group has read recently manages to be timeless despite being written in the 1950s about events occurring before the First World War. The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley is a marvellous novel about a boy on the cusp of adolescence, who is exploited as their secret messenger by a couple having a forbidden relationship during a country-house summer. The agony of childhood fantasies colliding with adult realities is brilliantly rendered, as events go on to inflict lasting emotional harm on their vulnerable subject. This works so well because it is narrated as him looking back from his advanced adulthood, trying to make sense of what happened then and what it has done to his life.
Hartley was, of course, recalling a time within his own memory. He could recount how it was then, or at least how he saw it, whereas writers of historical fiction set out to recreate eras they never actually knew. Historical sources can only take one so far, and no-one alive can truly describe the sights, sounds and smells of, say, taking a rail journey in the 1860s with complete accuracy. But that degree of separation can encourage the creation of a timeless world of imagination, one which lasts when current fads and preoccupations are forgotten. Not that there’s anything wrong with writing about the present, but the backward-looking narrator can be a rewarding guide. “The past is a foreign country:” Hartley wrote, “they do things differently there.”
Every day that I spend writing , I first read through the chapter I am currently working on, so far as it goes, to make such improvements as may seem felicitous. Often the changes I make are very small, but they all serve to aid the overall flow and to add another layer of polish to the text. Sometimes, though, I find myself so dissatisfied with what I am reading that I attempt to rewrite it, only to find myself equally dissatisfied with the rewrite the next day and attempting to rewrite it again. This can go on for several weeks with me trying to recast the thing this way and that, until I finally realise that there must be something fundamentally wrong with the chapter in question. The principal defect I discover, more often than not, is that the writing is labouring under what I think of as the “dead-hand of exposition”.
What I understand by “exposition” is that a situation has been set up purely in order for some information about the plot to be conveyed to the reader, thus rendering it a dramatically inert contrivance. I was struggling with a section recently in which I had some characters meeting so that one of them could tell the others about something that had happened previously. I kept changing the setting, until it stuck me that no amount of tinkering would render the scene any less artificial. People certainly do sit around telling each other about past happenings, but they do not spend their social lives giving each other bullet point hand-outs concerning relevant plot developments. During a night out on the town one character will not say to his quaffing companions, for instance: “Here we all are in the early summer of 1914, and I harbour deep forebodings in my breast about the imminent outbreak of a general European military conflagration. And, as you may be aware, my wife went off with the coalman last autumn and left me felling utterly bereft; he is a man with a soul as dark as the coals he shoulders etc…etc…”
Another similar contrivance might be to suddenly discover that one of your characters keeps a particularly eloquent and descriptive diary, and to reproduce a conveniently informative passage from it. This sort of vice is particularly tempting when you have, as I do, a first-person narrator who does not necessarily witness every scene you wish the reader to know about. I particularly object to the abrupt switch to a different narrative voice, or to the narrator who effectively hands the narrative to another character while he listens to them. The challenge is to convey everything that is needful for the story’s development, whilst weaving it within the on-going dramatic thread. I find it useful to have my aged narrator write about events of his youth, fifty years before, because he therefore has a good excuse to explain things about those times. Another viewpoint to adopt, of course, is for a third-person narrator to waft in and out of any character’s memories, thoughts and perceptions as they please. Despite this being the chosen viewpoint of some of our greatest writers it seems to me an unwarranted presumption, because we each only ever have access to our own inner lives. Watch out for the dead-hand of exposition, however it manifests itself.
I managed to get my application for a New Writing North writers’ award in by the January deadline, and it had to include a synopsis of the latest novel I’m working on. The prospect of writing a synopsis strikes fear into the heart of the most hardened scribbler. It was tough enough to produce a summary of my first novel once it was complete. You put considerable effort into writing what you think is a carefully constructed work that (with luck) builds over 100,000 words or so into a satisfying whole, only to then have to reduce it down to perhaps a mere page of text (as some literary agents require). It’s even more daunting to try this with a piece of work you’ve only just embarked upon.
But I have learned that the exercise of synopsis writing (however tiresome) is a good test of whether you have a viable story, nonetheless. Some practitioners, of course, consider the whole idea of linear narrative an outdated irrelevance, perhaps preferring to pen something voiced across multiple time-frames by a chorus of kitchen appliances. For those of us who do value storytelling, however, its success really does stand or fall on whether there is a coherent ark of development overall, and the same for each significant character. For a reader to be fully engrossed, events do need to be consequent upon one another. And if it’s impossible to render the sense of that movement in synopsis length, then the piece probably needs rethinking. This was certainly true of the very first draft of my first novel, which defied all attempts at succinct summarising (actually, it could best be summarised as a dog’s breakfast).
Having said this, though, the process of writing has to remain dynamic rather than be pegged to a blueprint. It’s good to start out with a synopsis so you’ve some idea of where you’re heading and by what route, but the essential creative decisions have to be made as you go. Since submitting the synopsis to New Writing North I have, for instance, already revised it in some important respects. And the work I submitted to them in support of it has also, already, been significantly rewritten. I find it best to approach each chapter by asking myself what it needs to show to serve the overall plan, and then asking myself afterwards if it has successfully done so. I’m always reluctant to move further forward until I’m satisfied of this.
Happy writing (and endless revising) in 2014.
I have decided to enter for one of the awards that New Writing North give out each year to support writers’ work (Northern Writers’ Awards). They are asking for up to 5,000 words and a synopsis of the contemplated whole, and the deadline for submissions is 17th January next year. This will give me a target to aim at, and so help me in getting my new (second) novel properly under way. I have already written a synopsis, though it needs a fair bit of tightening and my ideas do, of course, change all the time as the work develops. 5,000 words will be about right for the opening two chapters. The first one is pretty much written and the second well in progress, so I hope to have something I am satisfied with before the deadline.
But what sort of writing are the organisers looking for? Another New Writing North award, now opened for entries, is the Gordon Burn Prize. I read through the blurb for this to see if I might fruitfully enter my first novel; having done so I decided definitely against it. Mine is an historical book, but does it “dare to enter history and interrogate the past” as we are told the prize judges expect? I certainly hope my writing transports readers’ minds into my version of the past, but I am not sure how one sets out to “interrogate” an inanimate concept. A recent article in the Sunday Times Culture section cited this word as a meaningless cliché routinely used by curators of art exhibitions.
And there is a contradiction apparent in the Gordon Burn prize specification. It calls for “Literature which challenges perceived notions of genre and makes us think again about just what it is that we are reading.” Beyond the further dose of art-curatorial speak evident here, this requirement strikes me as actually prescribing a rigid formula for entrants to adopt, even though it says elsewhere that they want to attract “intrepid” authors. Surely originality does not consist of everyone trying to write like Gordon Burn, even if the prize does carry his name? And presumably a writer will have failed, by the standards set, if readers of a particular work do know what it is they are reading? I hope that readers of any good writing know exactly what it is, and recognise the uniqueness that comes from it being the vision of a single human being, rather than it being fashioned to fit a formula.
I knew very well what I was watching, for instance, when I attended the production of Sondheim’s musical “Sweeney Todd” at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds back in October. It was a brilliant staging of a brilliant narrative, which advances a compelling reason for Todd to become the monster that he does. Though nominally set more recently in this production, the piece oozes a sense of the Victorian London wherein the tale originates. This is the quality of past evocation that I would aspire to in my own work, and I do hope it could not be termed an “interrogation”. Maybe the judges of the Northern Writers’ Awards are freer to look for genuine originality.
So that is my blog for December. I daresay that I have now chucked away any chance of getting an award from New Writing North. Merry Christmas everybody!