Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for July 2016

The wandering naturalist

leave a comment »

Niko Tinbergen

The reward of becoming aware of the variety of life patterns comes only when one is prepared to combine concentration on one special thing with what we could call an “open interest.” Scientific examination naturally requires concentration, a narrowing of interest, and the knowledge we gained through this has meant a great deal to us. But it has become increasingly clear to me how equally valuable have been the long periods of relaxed, unspecified, uncommitted interest…Also an extremely valuable store of factual knowledge is picked up by a young naturalist during his seemingly aimless wanderings in the fields.

Nor are the preliminary, unplanned observations one does while relaxed and uncommitted without value to the strict experimental analysis. I believe strongly in the importance of natural or unplanned experiments…The difference…is one of degree mainly and this difference is often slight. In the planned experiment all one does is to keep a few more possible variables constant; but it is amazing how far one can get by critically selecting the circumstances of one’s natural experiment.

Niko Tinbergen, Curious Naturalists

Written by nevalalee

July 31, 2016 at 7:30 am

Jazz and the left margin

with 2 comments

Robert Pinsky

There’s a lot of cant about poetry and jazz. And yet there is something there in the idea of surprise and variation, a fairly regular structure of harmony or rhythm—the left margin, say—and all the things you can do inside it or against it. There are passages, like the last two stanzas of “Ginza Samba,” where I try to make the consonants and vowels approach a bebop sort of rhythm.

In Poetry and the World, I wrote: “Poetry is the most bodily of the arts.” A couple of friends who read it in draft said, Well, Robert, you know…dancing is probably more bodily than poetry. But I stubbornly left the passage that way without quite having worked out why I wanted to say it like that. Sometimes the ideas that mean the most to you will feel true long before you can quite formulate them or justify them. After a while, I realized that for me the medium of poetry is the column of breath rising from the diaphragm to be shaped into meaning sounds inside the mouth. That is, poetry’s medium is the individual chest and throat and mouth of whoever undertakes to say the poem—a body, and not necessarily the body of the artist or an expert as in dance.

In jazz, as in poetry, there is always that play between what’s regular and what’s wild. That has always appealed to me.

Robert Pinsky, to The Paris Review

Written by nevalalee

July 30, 2016 at 7:30 am

Head of the class

leave a comment »

Meryl Street at the Democratic National Convention

The Democratic National Convention was filled with striking moments, but the one that lingered in my mind the most was the speech given by Meryl Streep, which was memorable less for what she said than for what she represents. Streep is undoubtedly the most acclaimed actress of our time, maybe of all time. At the peak of her career, she could come across as artificial and mannered—Pauline Kael once quoted a friend who called her “an android”—but she almost glows these days with grace and good humor. Even if this is just another performance, it’s a virtuoso one, and she maintains it with seeming effortlessness as she continues to rack up awards and nominations. Streep, in short, doesn’t need to be jealous of anybody. But as an article in the New York Times points out, there’s at least one exception:

Meryl Streep, the most accomplished, awarded and chameleonic actress of her generation, once confessed something approaching envy for Hillary Clinton: For women of her age, Ms. Streep said, Mrs. Clinton was the yardstick by which they inevitably measured their lives—sometimes flatteringly, sometimes not.

The idea that Meryl Streep, of all people, might bite her hand a little when she thinks of Clinton made me reflect on how each generation settles on one person who serves as a benchmark for the rest. And it’s often either the first to win the presidency or the first who might have a good shot at attaining it. It’s no accident that one of the earliest biographies of Bill Clinton was titled First in His Class.

I’m at a point in my life when people my age have just reached the point of eligibility for the Oval Office, and there isn’t an obvious frontrunner. (As a friend of mine recently said at an informal college reunion: “I guess nobody we know is going to be president. By now, we’d know it.”) But it’s still something I think about. One of my favorite examples of the role that a president—or a candidate—can play in the inner life of an ambitious novelist is Norman Mailer’s obsession with John F. Kennedy. Judging from how frequently he returned to the subject, it was second only to his fascination with Marilyn Monroe, which in itself was probably an outgrowth of his interest in the Kennedys, and he revisited it in works from “Superman Comes to the Supermarket” to Harlot’s Ghost. In An American Dream, he puts Kennedy right there in the opening sentence, which is like inviting a guest into the holy of holies:

I met Jack Kennedy in November, 1946. We were both war heroes, and both of us had just been elected to Congress. We went out one night on a double date and it turned out to be a fair evening for me…Of course Jack has gone on a bit since those days, and I have traveled up and I have voyaged down and I’ve gone up and down…The real difference between the President and myself may be that I ended up with too large an appreciation of the moon, for I looked down the abyss on the first night I killed: four men, four very separate Germans, dead under a full moon—whereas Jack, for all I know, never saw the abyss.

Mailer isn’t speaking as himself, but as a fictional character, but it’s hard not to interpret these lines as a conjuring of an alternate life in which he was friends with the man whom he had missed, by just a few years, at Harvard.

John F. Kennedy

Kennedy and Mailer did meet briefly, and it resulted in a moment that speaks volumes about the uncanny prominence that a presidential candidate our own age can take in our thoughts. In “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” Mailer writes:

What struck me most about the interview was a passing remark whose importance was invisible on the scale of politics, but was altogether meaningful to my particular competence. As we sat down for the first time, Kennedy smiled nicely and said that he had read my books. One muttered one’s pleasure. “Yes,” he said, “I’ve read…” and then there was a short pause which did not last long enough to be embarrassing in which it was yet obvious no title came instantly to his mind, an omission one was not ready to mind altogether since a man in such a position must be obliged to carry a hundred thousand facts and names in his head, but the hesitation lasted no longer than three seconds or four, and then he said, “I’ve read The Deer Park and…the others,” which startled me for it was the first time in a hundred similar situations, talking to someone whose knowledge of my work was casual, that the sentence did not come out, “I’ve read The Naked and the Dead…and the others.” If one is to take the worst and assume that Kennedy was briefed for this interview (which is most doubtful), it still speaks well for the striking instincts of his advisers.

I like this story best for what Mailer called its significance “to my particular competence.” A favorable remark, even in passing, from the man who had ascended to a level that no writer could ever hope to achieve was one that Mailer would savor forever. And then it was over.

Most of us never get that close, but it doesn’t matter: even from a distance, a president or a candidate makes everyone’s imagination follow a similar track, like a magnet acting on iron filings. That particular mixture of envy and admiration is especially visible among products of the Ivy League. A writer for The Simpsons once noted in an audio commentary that if the writing staff loved to write presidential jokes—like the one in which Grandpa Simpson claims to have been spanked by Grover Cleveland on two nonconsecutive occasions—it’s because the ones who went to Harvard can’t quite get over the idea that they could have been president themselves. You can feel the same sense of agonizing proximity in Mailer, who attended Harvard at a time when his Jewishness made him an outsider among heirs to power, and who later channeled that need into an absurdly unsuccessful candidacy for mayor of New York. As he later wrote:

Norman was lazy, and politics would make him work hard for sixteen hours a day for the rest of his life. He was so guilty a man that he thought he would be elected as a fit and proper punishment for his sins. Still, he also wanted to win. He would never write again if he were Mayor (the job would doubtless strain his talent to extinction) but he would have his hand on the rump of History, and Norman was not without such lust.

He concludes: “He came in fourth in a field of five, and politics was behind him.” But the memory of Kennedy lived on. Mailer wrote these lines in Of a Fire on the Moon, which chronicled the Apollo mission that Kennedy had set in motion. Kennedy would alter the future, and Mailer would write about it, just as Streep might play Clinton someday in a movie. But we’re all writing or acting these roles in our minds as we measure ourselves against the head of the class, even if we’re not sure who it is yet.

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

Written by nevalalee

July 29, 2016 at 7:30 am

“The need for change is there…”

leave a comment »

"The need for change is there..."

Note: This post is the sixty-first installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 60. You can read the previous installments here.

Vladimir Putin is still here. I type these words not because we need to be reminded of that fact—I can’t think of another foreign political leader whose shadow has loomed so ominously over a peacetime presidential race—but to consider what it means. When I began writing The Icon Thief, more than eight years ago, Putin was ostensibly on his way out: he was ineligible to run for a third term, so the reigns of power were passed to Dmitry Medvedev, his chosen successor. Instead, Medvedev appointed him prime minister, and a few years later, Putin was back in the presidency, as if he’d never been gone. It isn’t hard to imagine him pulling the same trick forever, or for as long as his health holds out, which might be for quite some time. He’s only in his early sixties now, which is practically his young adulthood compared to some of the decrepit Russian leaders of the past, and he’s in what he takes pains to assure us is peak physical condition. It’s a situation that ought to keep most of us up at night, but it’s also a boon to suspense novelists. As I once pointed out, Putin’s name is the most evocative word in the lexicon of the modern thriller: it calls up an entire world of intrigue and implication, allowing a novel to do in a few sentences what might otherwise require five pages. As a rhetorical device, it isn’t just confined to fiction, either. Putin wouldn’t be evoked so often in this election if he didn’t have such a powerful hold over our imaginations, and recent events have only confirmed, as I’ve said from the beginning, that nothing that a writer can invent about Russia can possibly compare to the reality.

Incorporating a contemporary or historical political figure into a thriller is nothing new, of course. The gold standard was set, as it was in so many other things, by Frederick Forsyth, who built The Day of the Jackal around an assassination attempt on Charles de Gaulle, and who gave prominent speaking parts to Margaret Thatcher in several of his later novels. It’s a trick that grows stale when a writer uses it too often, as Forsyth sometimes does, but its easy to understand its appeal. For a certain kind of thriller, the story is less about something that could happen than about what might be happening right now, or that has already happened without our knowledge. Such novels often set up a sliding scale of verisimilitude, starting with big, obvious figures like Putin, working their way down through historical figures or events that aren’t as familiar, and finally entering the realm of pure fiction. Even if you’re reasonably conversant with current events, you can have trouble telling where fact leaves off and invention begins, especially when the novel starts to show its age. (For instance, I have a feeling that most contemporary readers of The Day of the Jackal aren’t aware that the opening sequence, which depicts a failed attempt on de Gaulle’s life, is based on fact—an interesting case of a novel outliving the material that it once used to enhance its own credibility.) Ideally, the transition from someone like Putin to the fictional characters at the bottom of the pecking order should be totally seamless, at least in the moment. We know that Putin is real and that most of the other characters aren’t, but in some cases, we aren’t sure, and the overwhelming fact of Putin himself serves to organize and enhance the rest of the story.

"The protesters were wearing white ribbons..."

Eternal Empire is literally framed by Putin, both in terms of how the novel was conceived and of how it was finally published. It opens with an epigraph from Rachel Polonsky’s Molotov’s Magic Lantern, which describes how Putin asked to have a fragment of the polar seabed brought back to him as a nod to the underground kingdom of Shambhala, and it ends with an excerpt from a New York Times article from December 10, 2011, which describes the abortive protests that flared up that year against the Putin regime. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the entire novel unfolded like a paper flower from those lines in Polonsky’s book, and it isn’t hard to see why they struck me. In juxtaposing the steely figure of Putin, the ultimate pragmatist, with the gauzy myth of Shambhala, it encapsulates the tension that defined the rest of the series, which in many ways is about the collision between practical spycraft and the weirder elements that have a way of impinging on the rational picture. (As Powell says to Wolfe of the Shambhala story: “That doesn’t sound like the Putin I know.”) The closing epigraph attracted me for many of the same reasons. Its image of protesters with white flowers and ribbons was derived from an actual event, but it could easily stand for something more. A white flower can mean just about anything, so it wasn’t hard for me to tweak the story so that the protests seemed to emerge from the Shambhala plot. And the entire narrative was timed to culminate at this moment, which would serve as the visible eruption of the forces that my characters had spent the entire book marshaling in secret.

Now that five years have passed, the image that concludes the trilogy, of Maddy watching the protesters on television, feels very different in tone. The protests themselves are little more than a footnote, and Putin’s hold on power has never been stronger. Since the plot hinges on a plan to change Russian politics from the inside, the historical outcome might seem to undermine the whole story. I’m not sure it does, though. Maddy notes that Tarkovsky has bought himself “a few years” to prepare, which might well mean that his plan is underway even now—although I doubt it. More pragmatically, the characters observe, both here and in the epilogue, that most attempts at reform are crushed, and that a revolution is more likely to die than to endure. (You can picture me typing those lines, more than three years ago, as a way of hedging my bets.) But if there’s a thread that runs through all these novels, it’s the importance of small, private victories in the face of the indifference or hostility of larger systems. I began the series with a conspiracy novel, which is a genre that implicitly raises the issue, even in its pulpiest incarnations, of the relationship between the individual and the impersonal forces to which he or she is subjected. All three books conclude on a similar note, which is that we can try to get glimpse behind the mask, if only for a moment, and then return to the more achievable task of establishing what little order we can in our own lives. It isn’t much of an answer, but it provides just enough consolation to see us through, both in a novel and in the real world. Putin survives, as I suspect I always knew he would. But so do Wolfe and Maddy. And that’s how their story ends…

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

Donald Justice

[Poetic] meters serve as a neutral and impersonal check on self-indulgence and whimsy; a subjective event gets made over into something more like an object. It becomes accessible to memory, repeatedly accessible, because it exists finally in a form that can be perused at leisure, like a snapshot in an album. Memory itself tends to act not without craft, but selectively, adding here to restore a gap, omitting the incongruous there, rearranging and shifting the emphasis, striving, consciously or not, to make some sense and point out of what in experience may have seemed to lack either.

Donald Justice, “Meters and Memory”

Written by nevalalee

July 28, 2016 at 7:30 am

Days of Futurians Past

with one comment

The Futurians

On July 2, 1939, the First World Science Fiction Convention was held in New York. It was a landmark weekend for many reasons, but it was almost immediately overshadowed by an event that took place before it was even called to order. The preparations had been marked by a conflict between two rival convention committees, with a group called New Fandom, which the fan Sam Moskowitz had cobbled together solely for the purpose of taking over the planning process, ultimately prevailing. On the other side were the Futurians, who were less a formal club than an assortment of aspiring writers who had collected around the brilliant, infuriating Donald A. Wollheim. As the convention was about to begin, Wollheim and a handful of Futurians—including Frederik Pohl and Robert A.W. Lowndes—emerged from the elevator and headed toward the hall. What happened next has long been a matter of disagreement. According to Moskowitz, he was initially willing to let them in, but then he saw the stack of pamphlets that the group was planning to hand out, including one that called the convention committee “a dictatorship.” Thinking that they had come only to cause trouble, he asked each of them to promise to behave, and those who refused, in his words, “chose to remain without.” Wollheim later gave a very different account, claiming that the decision to exclude the Futurians, later known hyperbolically as “The Great Exclusion Act,” had been made months in advance. In any event, Wollheim and his friends left, and although there were some rumblings from the other attendees, the rest of the convention was a notable success.

So why should we care about a petty squabble that took place nearly eighty years ago, the oldest players in which were barely out of their teens? (One of the few Futurians who made it inside, incidentally, was Isaac Asimov, who wandered nervously into the convention hall, where he received an encouraging shove forward from John W. Campbell.) For me, it’s fascinating primarily because of what happened next. New Fandom won the dispute, leaving it in an undisputed position of power within the fan community. The Futurians retreated to lick their wounds. Yet the names of New Fandom’s leaders—Moskowitz, Will Sykora, and James V. Taurasi—are unlikely to ring any bells, except for those who are already steeped in the history of fandom itself. All of them remained active in fan circles, but only Moskowitz made a greater impression on the field, and that was as a critic and historian. The Futurians, by contrast, included some of the most influential figures in the entire genre. Asimov, the most famous of them all, was a Futurian, although admittedly not a particularly active one. Wollheim and Pohl made enormous contributions as writers and editors. Other names on the roster included Cyril Kornbluth, Judith Merril, James Blish, and Damon Knight, all of whom went on to have important careers. The Great Exclusion Act, in other words, was a turning point, but not the sort that anyone involved would have been able to predict at the time. The Futurians were on their way up, while the heads of New Fandom, while not exactly headed downhill, would stay stuck in the same stratum. They were at the apex of the fan pyramid, but there was yet another level to which they would never quite ascend. Next month, I’ll be taking part in a discussion at the 74th World Science Fiction Convention, which in itself is a monument to the house that New Fandom built. But the panel is called “The Futurians.”

New Fandom

And it’s important to understand why. As the loose offspring of several earlier organizations, New Fandom lacked the sheer closeness of the Futurians, who were joined by mutual affection, rivalry, and a shared awe of Wollheim. Many of them lived together in the Ivory Tower, which was a kind of combination dorm, writer’s colony, and flophouse. They were united by the qualities that turned them into outsiders: many had been sickly children, estranging them from their peers, and they were all wretchedly poor. (In Damon Knight’s The Futurians, Virginia Kidd, who was married to James Blish, describes how the two of them survived for months on a single bag of rice.) More than a few, notably Wollheim and John Michel, were sympathetic to communism, while others took leftist positions mostly because they liked a good fight. And of course, they were all trying—and mostly failing—to make a living by writing science fiction. As Knight shrewdly notes:

This Futurian pattern of mutual help and criticism was part of a counterculture, opposed to the dominant culture of professional science fiction writers centering around John Campbell…The Futurians would have been happy to be part of the Campbell circle, but they couldn’t sell to him; their motto, in effect, was “If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em.”

Like all countercultures, the Futurian lifestyle was a pragmatic solution to the problem of how to live. None of them was an overnight success. But by banding together, living on the cheap, and pitting themselves against the rest of the world, they were able to muddle along until opportunity knocked.

The difference between New Fandom and the Futurians, then, boils down to this: New Fandom was so good at being a fan organization that its members were content to be nothing but fans. The Futurians weren’t all that good at much of anything, either as fans or writers, so they regrouped and hung on until they got better. (As a result, when a genuine opening appeared, they were in a position to capitalize on it. When Pohl unexpectedly found himself the editor of Astonishing Stories at the age of nineteen, for instance, he could only fill the magazine by stocking it with stories by his Futurian friends, since nobody else was willing to write for half a cent per word.) New Fandom and its successors were machines for producing conventions, while the Futurians just quietly kept generating writers. And their success arose from the very same factors—their poverty, their physical shortcomings, their unfashionable political views, their belligerence—that had estranged them from the mainstream fan community in the first place. It didn’t last long: Wollheim, in typical fashion, blew up his own circle of friends in 1945 by suing the others for libel. But the seeds had been planted, and they would continue to grow for decades. The ones who found it hard to move on after The Great Exclusion Act were the winners. As Wollheim said to Knight:

Years later, about 1953, I got a phone call from William Sykora; he wanted to come over and talk to me…And he said what he wanted to do was get together with Michel and me, and the three of us would reorganize fandom, reorganize the clubs, and go out there and control fandom…And about ten years after that, he turned up at a Lunacon meeting, out of nowhere, with exactly the same plan. And again you had the impression that for him, it was still 1937.

%d bloggers like this: