Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for March 2012

Thomas Henry Huxley on the importance of failure

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I can assure you that there is the greatest practical benefit in making a few failures early in life. You learn that which is of inestimable importance—that there are a great many people in the world who are just as clever as you are. You learn to put your trust, by and by, in an economy and frugality of the exercise of your powers, both moral and intellectual; and you very soon find out, if you have not found it out before, that patience and tenacity of purpose are worth more than twice their weight of cleverness.

Thomas Henry Huxley

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March 31, 2012 at 9:50 am

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Borges and I

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I owe my discovery of Jorge Luis Borges, my favorite modern writer, to the conjunction of a library and an encyclopedia. The encyclopedia was the classic Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Alberto Manquel and Gianni Guadalupi, which has fueled my dream life more than any other reference book; the library was the Library of Babel, whose article I discovered after following a reference from the entry for The Abbey of the Rose. (Our cultural lives, it seems, are really just a vast system of cross-references, all of which can be traced back to one original source—so it’s all the more important that this source be a good one.) My imagination was seized at once by the description of Borges’s library, with its “minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels’ autobiographies,” and the extremely vast, though not infinite, number of books generated from every possible combination of the letters of the alphabet. I sought out the original story at once, in Labyrinths, which is still one of the two or three books I would keep if I could own no others. And nothing was ever the same after that.

The influence of Borges has been enormous, of course, on cultural figures ranging from Michael Chabon to, yes, Karl Rove. Why does he make such an impression on so many different personalities? I can think of three reasons. The first is the fact that he gives us many of the pleasures that we want from popular fiction, but transformed into art by his intelligence, precision, and originality. His best stories—”Death and the Compass,” “The Garden of Forking Paths,” “The Immortal,” “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” all of which I can read again and again—are all transmutations of familiar genres: the detective story, fantasy, science fiction. “The Garden of Forking Paths,” for example, turns on an ingenious trick that wouldn’t be out of place in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine—which, as it happens, is where the story first appeared. Like many great works of contemporary art, from Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills to the works of David Lynch, Borges gains his power from a mingling of the familiar and the strange, giving us both what we want and things we never knew we needed.

The second is the figure of Borges himself, the blind librarian of apparently infinite erudition, or at least the ingenuity and intellectual power to extract boundless riches from the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The range of Borges’s influences and engagements in both fiction and non-fiction is astounding: his works push meaningfully against Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes, The Book of a Thousand Nights and One Night, Martín Fierro, Poe, Chesterton, Thomas Quincey, the cabalists, and such obscurities as William Beckford’s Vathek—and these are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. Borges’s work is a vast hypertext, an impression underlined by the passages that occasionally recur between stories, either for the sake of efficiency or as a clue to a network of larger meanings. The analogy of a web, or a garden of forking paths, is aided by Borges’s productivity and concision: his collected works run to many volumes, but the individual stories are rarely more than a few pages long. The result is, again, something like a universal encyclopedia built by one man, which finally becomes, as Borges has said, a portrait of the author himself.

The third reason is perhaps the hardest to pin down, but also the most important. The recurring images in Borges’s stories—the labyrinth, the encyclopedia, the endless text—are all emblems of how we live with information. Borges, like his fictional Funes the Memorious, was both the master of information and its uneasy witness. His stories are full of anonymous narrators, most of them thinly veiled versions of Borges himself, confronting monsters of complexity: the Aleph, the Library of Babel, Shakespeare’s memory, the hundred volumes of the true encyclopedia of Tlön, the infinite details afforded by a day’s worth of sensory impressions in Buenos Aires. No other major writer has so consistently and elegantly returned to the problem of dealing with what is now called information overload, which makes him more important now than ever. Borges died just as the Internet was being born, bringing us all into the Library of Babel. And in most of his stories, the result is neither triumph nor destruction but a sort of resignation, a willingness to ignore the complexity of the world and focus on one’s translation of the Urn Burial. Which, as time passes, seems like the only sane response there is.

Written by nevalalee

March 30, 2012 at 10:14 am

Quote of the Day

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Any one who has passed through the regular gradations of a classical education, and is not made a fool by it, may consider himself as having had a very narrow escape.

William Hazlitt

Written by nevalalee

March 30, 2012 at 7:50 am

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A few thoughts on readings—and an invitation

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First, a bit of self-promotion: I’m going to be reading tonight at After-Words bookstore on 23 East Illinois Street in Chicago. If you’re in town, you should definitely drop by, if only because this is a truly beautiful bookshop, with a thoughtfully curated selection of new releases on the upper level and a large, brightly lit basement of gently used books. I’ll be there starting at 6:30 pm, talking a bit about Duchamp and the mystery of Étant Donnés before reading a selection from The Icon Thief, followed by questions and a wine reception. Beverly Dvorkin, the owner of After-Words, has been incredibly helpful since the book’s release, and I’m truly grateful for her support. Because among other things, this is my first reading as a novelist, and I’m genuinely curious to see how it goes.

I’ve always been amused by the fact that soon after completing a novel, a writer is suddenly compelled to develop a set of skills that are the exact opposite of those required to write a novel in the first place. Writing a novel requires long hours of daily, solitary work: it’s introspective, introverted, and rewards those who can shut out the rest of the world to focus on a highly personal project. Once a novel is published, however, an author is expected to become a completely different person overnight: extroverted, out in the world, and willing to promote himself and his work to anyone who cares to listen. Very occasionally, you find a writer in whom both aspects seem to comfortably coexist—Norman Mailer comes to mind, although the king of public performance was apparently Dickens—but it’s not surprising that many novelists regard the whole process with ambivalence, if not outright disdain.

I fall somewhere between those two extremes. I have no trouble talking to the press, but given the choice, I’d prefer to write all day without worrying about other responsibilities, promotional or otherwise. Yet I also crave spending time with other people, both in person and online. This is a solitary life, by definition, and I’ll often go an entire day without talking to anyone but my wife. It’s a necessary state of affairs, but also dangerous. Despite a few recent attempts to speak up for introversion, it seems clear that creativity arises largely from collaboration and interaction with those who care about the same things (or care with equal passion about something else). For an author, readings are an essential way of connecting with those who matter most, which is why they’ve always been part of a writer’s life for reasons that have nothing to do with current trends in book promotion.

When I head over to the bookstore tonight, then, I’ll think back to some of the best readings I’ve attended, when both author and audience just seemed to be having a good time: I have fond memories of readings by writers like Audrey Niffenegger, Nick Hornby, Joshua Ferris, and even Mailer himself, whom I saw speak in New York a few years before his death, to my everlasting gratitude. I can’t hope to match masters like this, but I expect it will still be fun. And hopefully I’ll come away with some of the satisfaction that Thomas Mann describes of his own readings: “What has been carefully forged in the course of long mornings is poured out over the listeners in a rapid hour of reading; the illusion of improvisation, of polished extemporization, intensifies the impression; and when others are stirred to marvel, we for our part believe that everything is fine.”

Written by nevalalee

March 29, 2012 at 10:04 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

March 29, 2012 at 7:50 am

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Fifty years later: A Wrinkle in Time

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It’s quite possible that I owe my decision to become a novelist to Madeleine L’Engle. When I was growing up, L’Engle was one of my trinity of great young adult authors, back when they were writing what were still called children’s books, along with Ellen Raskin and Zilpha Keatley Snyder. And while Snyder had the greatest impact on the kinds of esoteric subjects that still fascinate me—The Headless Cupid was an early hint of a tendency that would culminate in The Icon Thief—and Raskin set a standard for ingenuity that no author has matched since, L’Engle’s influence may be the most profound. Her work was my first glimpse of what I’ve since come to think of as the novel of ideas in its most rewarding form: richly imagined, emotional, and dramatic works of fiction whose central subject is the search for meaning in a universe dominated by science and information, which are really forms of protection against the unknown. And all these qualities are already there in A Wrinkle in Time, her most famous novel, which was published fifty years ago this month.

When I first encountered A Wrinkle in Time, I was eight years old, and I immediately sensed that this book was something different than the novels I had been reading up to that point. It was an exciting story that gained much of its texture from digressions into science, art, and history, and was accessible to young readers without the slightest trace of condescension. Its characters were both instantly recognizable and marked by the fervor of their excitement about ideas, which flew off like sparks whenever they spoke, and not simply because they were necessary for the plot. Above all else, there was a sense of the personality of the author herself, who wrote about intelligent people because these were the characters she knew the best. I was young enough so that I didn’t entirely grasp how extraordinary this was, or how hard it would be to find more books like this as I grew older. All I knew that this was the sort of thing I wanted to read, and, ultimately, to write.

Looking back at A Wrinkle in Time, it’s astonishing to realize how modestly scaled it is, at least in terms of length: less than two hundred pages long, but packed with enough invention to fuel five ordinary novels. (Compare this to the length of the last few Harry Potter or Twilight novels, and you see how artful L’Engle’s brevity really is.) And it never seems rushed or artificial. One of L’Engle’s great strengths is to take rather precious conceits, like the two-dimensional planet or the Happy Medium, and make them seem less like a series of set pieces—as they do even in such authors as Lewis Carroll or Norton Juster—than an organic sequence of events. A Wrinkle in Time is an episodic novel, but it feels tightly constructed, thanks largely to the strength of the protagonists, who are idiosyncratic, flawed, and heroic. L’Engle melds the tradition of high-concept fantasy with the believable characters of the best children’s literature, to the point where we’re genuinely curious about how their lives will turn out, which we later learn in the novel’s excellent sequels.

It’s hard to imagine a young adult novel being published today with the range of L’Engle’s influences and interests, largely because it’s the kind of book that creates its own readership, rather than appealing to one that already exists. Indeed, even at the time, it was far from a sure thing: its struggles to get into print are legendary, and it was rejected by something like twenty-six publishers. It’s still a strange, unclassifiable novel, with elements of science fiction, fantasy, and even allegory, although none of the allegorical elements stand in the way of the plot. (It’s frustrating to see some readers reduce it to a Christian or anti-Communist allegory, as if there weren’t so much else going on.) And the book’s singularity reflects that of L’Engle itself, who combined a restlessly curious imagination with religious faith and a refreshing dose of clarity and common sense. She’s simply one of the most inventive authors of the past fifty years, and her books are a model of how to write beautifully rendered fiction for readers of any age. If I could have any writer’s career, it might be hers.

Written by nevalalee

March 28, 2012 at 10:31 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

March 28, 2012 at 7:50 am

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