Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for November 3rd, 2017

The unstrung hero

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Despite the fact that writers have an obvious interest in talking about their lives, there are surprisingly few truly satisfying portraits of novelists in fiction. Until recently, I would have said, in all seriousness, that the best depiction of a writer that I’ve ever seen is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. But my new favorite, which I discovered just a few weeks ago, is Edward Gorey’s early illustrated story The Unstrung Harp. This little book, which first appeared in 1953, was included two decades later in the collection Amphigorey, which I bought last month for my daughter. Its central figure is Mr. Clavius Frederick Earbrass, “the well-known novelist,” whose books include A Moral Dustbin, More Chains than Clank, Was it Likely?, and “the Hipdeep trilogy.” (Even in the first two sentences, you can hear the voice, more Edwardian than any Englishman could manage, that makes it all the more startling to realize that Gorey was born in Chicago and spent most of his life on Cape Cod.) In November of every other year, we’re told, Mr. Earbrass starts a new novel, and we meet him as he’s about to commence work on The Unstrung Harp, a title that he chose “at random from a list of them he keeps in a little green note-book.” This is all good stuff, but a passage on the fourth page is what really caught my eye:

Several weeks later, the loofah trickling on his knees, Mr. Earbrass mulls over an awkward retrospective bit that ought to go in Chapter II. But where? Even the voice of the omniscient author can hardly afford to interject a seemingly pointless anecdote concerning Ladderback in Tibet when the other characters are feverishly engaged in wondering whether to have the pond at Disshiver Cottage dragged or not.

This is so close to my own experience of writing that I began to read the book more closely. Two pages later, there’s a line that feels inexpressibly right: “[Mr. Earbrass] cannot help but feel that Lirp’s return and almost immediate impalement on a bottle-tree was one of his better ideas.” On the next page, however, we find the writer “engaged in making diagrams of possible routes and destinations, and wishing he had not dealt so summarily with Lirp, who would have been useful for taking retributive measures at the end of Part Three. At the moment there is no other character capable of them.” This is frighteningly accurate. Every page or so, there’s another exquisite detail, as when Mr. Earbrass thinks of the perfect epigraph, but can’t remember the source of the lines: “His mind’s eye sees them quoted on the bottom third of a right-hand page in a (possibly) olive-bound book he read at least five years ago.” And Gorey’s description of the revision process is one of the best that I’ve found:

Some weeks later, with pen, ink, scissors, paste, a decanter of sherry, and a vast reluctance, Mr. Earbrass beings to revise TUH. This means, first, transposing passages, or reversing the order of their paragraphs, or crumpling them up furiously and throwing them in the waste-basket. After that there is rewriting. This is worse than merely writing, because not only does he have to think up new things just the same, but at the same time try not to remember the old ones.

It’s the combination of “a decanter of sherry” and “a vast reluctance” that gets at the heart of what every writer feels when approaching a new draft. I’m feeling it this morning.

What’s remarkable about The Unstrung Harp is that it seems to know so much about writing and publication, but it was actually Gorey’s first book—it came out when he was just twenty-seven, in the same year that he moved to New York to work for Doubleday. As for its origins, Gorey unhelpfully recalled in the interview collection Ascending Peculiarity: “I remember I started writing The Unstrung Harp to order, except I don’t know if anybody gave me the idea for it. They just said give us an idea for a book that you think we might find feasible. Why they found that feasible, I cannot imagine at this late date.” The result turned out to be the longest story that he would ever write, at least in terms of word count, and it was also an outlier, compared to the themes and tone that he would develop and refine so obsessively over the next few decades. After it was reprinted, Gorey’s good friend Peter F. Neumeyer wrote to him:

I’m just delighted with [The Unstrung Harp], not because it’s a masterpiece…but because it’s rich and warm and represents directions which are potential in your writing which you may sometime, when life has taken you there, draw on again, after perhaps a year or so more of the strange syntax in the minuets which you favor now frequently.

As it happened, Gorey never seems to have revisited this early mode, leaving it as something singular and strange in his body of work, which would find its greatest success in darker places.

But The Unstrung Harp reads now like the work of a young man with both an unusually strong voice and an uncanny sense of what he might become. Gorey spent the next seven years turning out book covers and illustrations for Doubleday, where he must have learned far more about the business of publishing, but it’s hard to imagine anything better than his description of “the worst part of all in the undertaking of a novel,” the preparation of the clean copy from the revised manuscript: “Not only is it repulsive to the eye and hand, with its tattered edges, stains, rumpled patches, scratchings-out, and scribblings, but its contents are, by this time, boring to the point of madness.” Or the day when Mr. Earbass has to review his page proofs:

The galleys have arrived, and Mr. Earbrass goes over them with mingled excitement and disgust. It all looks so different set up in type that at first he thought they had sent him the wrong ones by mistake. He is quite giddy from trying to physically control the sheets and at the same time keep the amount of absolutely necessary changes within the allowed pecuniary limits.

But my favorite moment, and one of the most purely humane that Gorey ever allowed himself, is when Mr. Earbrass decides impulsively to spend a few weeks on the Continent, with the last page of the book capturing him in a state of mind that all writers must know well: “Now, at dawn, he stands, quite numb with cold and trepidation, looking at the churning surface of the Channel…Though he is a person to whom things do not happen, perhaps they may when he is on the other side.”

Written by nevalalee

November 3, 2017 at 8:25 am

Quote of the Day

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In our work we are always between Scylla and Charybdis; we may fail to abstract enough, and miss important physics, or we may abstract too much and end up with fictitious objects in our models turning into real monsters to devour us.

Murray Gell-Mann, Selected Papers

Written by nevalalee

November 3, 2017 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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