Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Powell studied his father…”

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"Powell studied his father..."

Note: This post is the thirteenth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 12. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Critics, as we all know, have a way of reading meaning into a literary work that the author didn’t realize was there. This tendency covers everything from the crackpots who find ciphers in the works of Shakespeare to serious scholarly analysis, and when a writer comes forward to say that none of the symbolism or themes his critics have uncovered were intentional, we’re likely to take him at his word. The author himself should know his own work best, after all, and it’s likely that many would echo the opinion of the philosopher Frank Cioffi, writing about Freudian dream analysis, who dismisses it an activity similar to “whatever Pyramidologists are doing when they discover allusions to mathematical and scientific truths in the dimensions of the Great Pyramid”—in other words, finding or imposing meaning where none exists. Yet the truth is a little more complicated. Theme, in particular, is a tricky beast, and it has a tendency to manifest itself in ways that even the author can’t anticipate. And when it comes to teasing out the inward meaning of a story, it often happens that the actual writer, who is personally tied up with the text to a greater extent than any reader, is less than capable of seeing the novel as it stands in its own right.

In fact, novels have a lot in common with dreams. When John Gardner talks about the “continuous fictional dream” of fiction, he’s primarily speaking about its effect on its readers, but it also applies to the author himself, who dreams his way into events and characters that never really happened. Colin Wilson takes the connection one step further, speculating that writers and mystics draw on a common intuitive, dreamlike mode of insight, which he called Faculty X. And you don’t need to push the analogy further than common sense would require to find it useful. Every writer knows how it feels to introduce an image or detail on impulse, just because it felt right, only to find later that it fits perfectly into a larger symbolic pattern of which he was only dimly aware. There’s nothing mystical about this: it only reflects how a novel evolves on the largest level in parallel to the smallest, with each piece in constant feedback with every other, and how it all ultimately emerges from the inner life of the author at the time. Much, probably most, is wholly conscious. But the inherent complexity of the writing process means that there will also be emergent properties in the text that the author couldn’t have anticipated when he began.

"A bronze sculpture of Felix Dzerzhinsky..."

And just because these aspects weren’t intentional doesn’t mean they aren’t important, or can’t be a source of meaning. In psychotherapy, dream analysis is less important for the symbolism it uncovers from any particular dream than for the ongoing role it plays in the dialogue between the therapist and the patient—it’s one of many available paths toward insight. The same is true of an author who goes back to reread his own work after a sufficient length of time has passed. Even if he didn’t mean to introduce certain themes or effects, if he notices them there after the fact, it can shed new light on a novel that he thought he knew by heart. When I go back to read City of Exiles, for instance, which is a novel I finished close to two years ago, I’m struck by how it returns repeatedly to themes of parents and their adult children. Part of this was intentional: as I’ve noted before, I wanted to expand the emotional scope of the story so that the characters weren’t as isolated as before. I gave Wolfe a few scenes on the phone with her mother, and here, in Chapter 12, I introduce the figure of Powell’s father, briefly mentioned in The Icon Thief, who suffers from dementia in old age. That much, at least, was deliberate.

When I read Chapter 12 again now, though, I find that this scene—which on the surface feels like a detour from the rest of the novel— encapsulates the rest of the story in miniature. Powell’s father, we learn, was an analyst at Thames House, which is my veiled way of referring to MI5, and his obsession with Russia went a long way toward shaping his son’s career. Now, however, his mind and personality are a shadow of what they once were, and Powell is reduced to looking through his father’s notes and files, which become increasingly disorganized near the end, to find clues to the mystery that he’s trying to solve. He does this in his father’s study, which was once a forbidden area, surrounded by images from the Soviet era: Russian encyclopedias, many of them censored or incomplete, and a miniature sculpture of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Chekist secret police. It’s a mirror, in other words, of the journey that Ilya takes later in the novel, faced with his own surrogate father, Vasylenko, now transformed into a much more sinister figure, but who knows that secrets that Ilya needs to discover. None these parallels were conscious at the time; now, they feel glaringly obvious, even a little schematic. I could say that I didn’t mean it, but that doesn’t make it any less real. The dream has a logic of its own…

Written by nevalalee

January 3, 2014 at 9:34 am

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