Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘A Study in Scarlet

Solzhenitsyn’s rosary

leave a comment »

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Note: I’m taking a few days off for Thanksgiving, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on July 11, 2016.

When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned in the Soviet gulag, along with so many other sufferings, he was forced to deal with a challenge that modern writers rarely have to confront—the problem of memorization. He wanted to keep writing poetry, but he was unable to put anything on paper, which would be confiscated and read by the guards. Here’s the solution that he found, as he recounts in The Gulag Archipelago:

I started breaking matches into little pieces and arranging them on my cigarette case in two rows (of ten each, one representing units and the others tens). As I recited the verses to myself, I displaced one bit of broken match from the units row for every line. When I shifted ten units I displaced one of the “tens”…Every fiftieth and every hundredth line I memorized with special care, to help me keep count. Once a month I recited all that I had written. If the wrong line came out in place of one of the hundreds and fifties, I went over it all again and again until I caught the slippery fugitives.

In the Kuibyshev Transit Prison I saw Catholics (Lithuanians) busy making themselves rosaries for prison use…I joined them and said that I, too, wanted to say my prayers with a rosary but that in my particular religion I needed hundred beads in a ring…that every tenth bead must be cubic, not spherical, and that the fiftieth and the hundredth beads must be distinguishable at a touch.

The Lithuanians were impressed, Solzhenitsyn says, by his “religious zeal,” and they agreed to make a rosary to his specifications, fashioning the beads out of pellets of bread and coloring them with burnt rubber, tooth powder, and disinfectant. (Later, when Solzhenitsyn realized that twenty beads were enough, he made them himself out of cork.) He concludes:

I never afterward parted with the marvelous present of theirs; I fingered and counted my beads inside my wide mittens—at work line-up, on the march to and fro from work, at all waiting times; I could do it standing up, and freezing cold was no hindrance. I carried it safely through the search points, in the padding of my mittens, where it could not be felt. The warders found it on various occasions, but supposed that it was for praying and let me keep it. Until the end of my sentence (by which time I had accumulated 12,000 lines) and after that in my places of banishment, this necklace helped me write and remember.

Ever since I first read this story, I’ve been fascinated by it, and I’ve occasionally found myself browsing the rosaries or prayer beads for sale online, wondering if I should get one for myself, just in case—although in case of what, exactly, I don’t know.

Joan Didion

But you don’t need to be in prison to understand the importance of memorization. One of the side effects of our written and interconnected culture is that we’ve lost the ability to hold information in our heads, and this trend has only accelerated as we’ve outsourced more of our inner lives to the Internet. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: there are good reasons for keeping a lot of this material where it can be easily referenced, without feeling the need to remember it all. (As Sherlock Holmes said in A Study in Scarlet: “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose…It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent.” Although given the amount of obscure information that Holmes was able to produce in subsequent stories, it’s possible that he was just kidding.) But there’s also a real loss involved. Oral cultures are marked by a highly developed verbal memory, especially for those whose livelihoods depend on it: a working poet could be expected to know hundreds of songs by heart, and the conventions of poetry itself emerged, in part, as a set of mnemonic devices. Meter, rhyme, and conventional formulas allowed many lines of verse to be recited for a paying audience—or improvised on the spot. An oral poem is a vehicle for the preservation of information, and it takes advantage of the human brain’s ability to retain material in a pattern that hints at what comes next. When we neglect this, we lose touch with some of the reasons that poetry evolved in the first place.

And what makes memorization particularly valuable as a creative tool is the fact that it isn’t quite perfect. When you write something down, it tends to become fixed, both physically and psychologically. (Joan Didion gets at this when she says: “By the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.”) An idea in the brain, by contrast, remains fluid, malleable, and vital. Each time you go back to revisit it, whether using a rosary or some other indexical system, you aren’t just remembering it, but to some extent recreating it, and you’ll never get it exactly right. But just as natural selection exists because of the variations that arise from errors of transcription, a creative method that relies on memory is less accurate but more receptive to happy accidents than one that exists on the page. A line of poetry might change slightly each time we call it up, but the core idea remains, and the words that survive from one iteration to the next have persisted, by definition, because they’re memorable. We find ourselves revising and reworking the result because we have no choice, and in the process, we keep it alive. The danger, of course, is that if we don’t keep notes, any ideas we have are likely to float away without ever being realized—a phenomenon that every writer regards with dread. What we need is a structure that allows us to assign an order to the ideas in our head while preserving their ripe state of unwrittenness. Solzhenitsyn’s rosary, which was forced on him by necessity, was one possible answer, but there are others. Even if we’re diligent about keeping a pencil and paper—or a smartphone—nearby, there will be times when an idea catches us at a moment at which we can’t write it down. And when that happens, we need to be ready.

Written by nevalalee

November 23, 2017 at 9:00 am

“Knowledge of Politics—Feeble”

with 2 comments

Illustration by Sidney Paget for "The Five Orange Pips"

In A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes adventure, there’s a celebrated passage in which Watson tries to figure out his mystifying roommate. At this point in their relationship, he doesn’t even know what Holmes does for a living, and he’s bewildered by the gaps in his new friend’s knowledge, such as his ignorance of the Copernican model of the solar system. When Watson informs him that the earth goes around the sun, Holmes says: “Now that I do know it, I shall do my best to forget it.” He tells Watson that the human brain is like “a little empty attic,” and that it’s a mistake to assume that the room has elastic walls, concluding: “If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.” In fact, it’s clear that he’s gently pulling Watson’s leg: Holmes certainly shows plenty of practical astronomical knowledge in stories like “The Musgrave Ritual,” and he later refers casually to making “allowance for the personal equation, as the astronomers put it.” At the time, Watson wasn’t in on the joke, and he took it all at face value when he made his famous list of Holmes’s limitations. Knowledge of literature, philosophy, and astronomy was estimated as “nil,” while botany was “variable,” geology was “practical, but limited,” chemistry was “profound,” and anatomy—in an expression that I’ve always loved—was “accurate, but unsystematic.”

But the evaluation that has probably inspired the most commentary is “Knowledge of Politics—Feeble.” Ever since, commentators have striven mightily to reconcile this with their conception of Holmes, which usually means forcing him into the image of their own politics. In Sherlock Holmes: Fact or Fiction?, T.S. Blakeney observes that Holmes takes no interest, in “The Bruce-Partington Plans,” in “the news of a revolution, of a possible war, and of an impending change of government,” and he concludes:

It is hard to believe that Holmes, who had so close a grip on realities, could ever have taken much interest in the pettiness of party politics, nor could so strong an individualist have anything but contempt for the equalitarian ideals of much modern sociological theory.

S.C. Roberts, in “The Personality of Sherlock Holmes,” objected to the latter point, arguing that Holmes’s speech in “The Naval Treaty” on English boarding schools—“Capsules with hundreds of bright little seeds in each, out of which will spring the wiser, better England of the future”—is an expression of Victorian liberalism at its finest. Roberts writes:

It is perfectly true that the clash of political opinions and of political parties does not seem to have aroused great interest in Holmes’s mind. But, fundamentally, there can be no doubt that Holmes believed in democracy and progress.

Sidney Paget illustration of Mycroft Holmes

In reality, Holmes’s politics are far from a mystery. As the descendant of “country squires,” he rarely displayed anything less than a High Tory respect for the rights of landed gentry, and he remained loyal to the end to Queen Victoria, the “certain gracious lady in whose interests he had once been fortunate enough to carry out a small commission.” He was obviously an individualist in his personal habits, in the venerable tradition of British eccentrics, which doesn’t mean that his political views—as some have contended—were essentially libertarian. Holmes had a very low regard for the freedom of action of the average human being, and with good reason. The entire series was predicated on the notion that men and women are totally predictable, moving within their established courses so reliably that a trained detective can see into the past and forecast the future. As someone once noted, Holmes’s deductions are based on a chain of perfectly logical inferences that would have been spoiled by a single mistake on the part of the murderer. Holmes didn’t particularly want the world to change, because it was the familiar canvas on which he practiced his art. (His brother Mycroft, after all, was the British government.) The only individuals who break out of the pattern are criminals, and even then, it’s a temporary disruption. You could say that the entire mystery genre is inherently conservative: it’s all about the restoration of order, and in the case of Holmes, it means the order of a world, in Vincent Starrett’s words, “where it is always 1895.”

I love Sherlock Holmes, and in a large part, it’s the nostalgia for that era—especially by those who never had to live with it or its consequences—that makes the stories so appealing. But it’s worth remembering what life was really like at the end of the nineteenth century for those who weren’t as fortunate. (Arthur Conan Doyle identified, incidentally, as a Liberal Unionist, a forgotten political party that was so muddled in its views that it inspired a joke in The Importance of Being Earnest: “What are your politics?” “Well, I am afraid I really have none. I am a Liberal Unionist.” And there’s no question that Conan Doyle believed wholeheartedly in the British Empire and all it represented.) Over the last few months, there have been times when I’ve thought approvingly of what Whitfield J. Bell says in “Holmes and History”:

Holmes’s knowledge of politics was anything but weak or partial. Of the hurly-burly of the machines, the petty trade for office and advantage, it is perhaps true that Holmes knew little. But of politics on the highest level, in the grand manner, particularly international politics, no one was better informed.

I can barely stand to look at a newspaper these days, so it’s tempting to take a page from Holmes and ignore “the petty trade for office and advantage.” And I often do. But deep down, it implies an acceptance of the way things are now. And it seems a little feeble.

“Their journey so far had been uneventful…”

leave a comment »

"The overnight train from Paris to Munich..."

Note: This post is the twenty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 28. You can read the previous installments here.

In evolutionary theory, there’s a concept known as exaptation, in which a trait that evolved because it met a particular need turns out to be just as useful for something else. Feathers, for instance, originally provided a means of regulating body temperature, but they ended up being crucial in the development of flight, and in other cases, a trait that played a secondary or supporting role to another adaptation becomes important enough to serve an unrelated purpose of its own. We see much the same process at work in genre fiction, which is subject to selective pressures from authors, editors, and especially readers. The genres we see today, like suspense or romance, might seem inevitable, but their conventions are really just a set of the recipes or tricks that worked. Such innovations are rarely introduced as a conscious attempt to define a new category of fiction, but as solutions to the problems that a specific narrative presents. The elements we see in Jane Eyre—the isolated house, the orphaned heroine, the employer with a mysterious past—arose from Charlotte Brontë’s confrontation with that particular story, but they worked so well that they were appropriated by a cohort of other writers, working in the now defunct genre of the gothic romance. And I suspect that Brontë would be as surprised as anyone by the uses to which her ideas have been put.

It’s rare for a genre to emerge, as gothic romance did, from a single book; more often, it’s the result of small shifts in a wide range of titles, with each book accidentally providing a useful tool that is picked up and used by others. Repeat the process for a generation or two, and you end up with a set of conventions to which later writers will repeatedly return. And as with other forms of natural selection, a secondary adaptation, introduced to enable something else, can evolve to take over the whole genre. The figure of the detective or private eye is a good example. When you look at the earliest works of mystery fiction we have, from Bleak House to The Moonstone, you often find that the detective plays a minor role: he pops up toward the middle of the story, he nudges the plot along when necessary, and he defers whenever possible to the other characters. Even in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes is only one character among many, and the book drops him entirely in favor of a long flashback about the Mormons. Ultimately, though, the detective—whose initial role was purely functional—evolved to become the central attraction, with the romantic leads who were the focus of attention in Dickens or Collins reduced to the interchangeable supporting players of an Agatha Christie novel. The detective was originally just a way of feathering the story; in the end, he was what allowed the genre to take flight.

"Their journey so far had been uneventful..."

You see something similar in suspense’s obsession with modes of transportation. One of the first great attractions of escapist spy fiction lay in the range of locations it presented: it allowed readers to vicariously travel to various exotic locales. (This hasn’t changed, either: the latest Mission: Impossible movie takes us to Belarus, Cuba, Virginia, Paris, Vienna, Casablanca, and London.) The planes, trains, and automobiles that fill such novels were meant simply to get the characters from place to place. Over time, though, they became set pieces in their own right. I’ve noted elsewhere that what we call an airport novel was literally a story set largely in airports, as characters flew from one exciting setting to another, and you could compile an entire anthology of thriller scenes set on trains or planes. At first, they were little more than connective tissue—you had to show the characters going from point A to point B, and the story couldn’t always cut straight from Lisbon to Marrakesh—but these interstitial scenes ultimately evolved into a point of interest in themselves. They also play a useful structural role. Every narrative requires a few pauses or transitions to gather itself between plot points, and staging such scenes on an interesting form of transport makes it seem as if the story is advancing, even if it’s taking a breather.

In Eternal Empire, for instance, there’s an entire chapter focusing on Ilya and his minder Bogdan as they take the Cassiopeia railway from Paris to Munich. There’s no particular reason it needs to exist at all, and although it contains some meaningful tidbits of backstory, I could have introduced this material in any number of other ways. But I wanted to write a train scene, in part as an homage to the genre, in part because it seemed unrealistic to leave Ilya’s fugitive journey undescribed, and in part because it gave me the setting I needed. There’s a hint of subterfuge, with my two travelers moving from one train station to another under false passports, and a complication in the fact that neither can bring a gun onboard, leaving them both unarmed. Really, though, it’s a scene about two men sizing each other up, and thrillers have long since learned that a train is the best place for such conversations, which is why characters always seem to be coming and going at railway stations. (In the show Hannibal, Will and Chiyo spend most of an episode on an overnight train to Florence, although they easily could have flown. It ends with Chiyo shoving Will onto the tracks, but I suspect that it’s really there to give them a chance to talk, which wouldn’t play as well on a plane.) Ilya and Bogdan have a lot to talk about. And when they get to their destination, they’ll have even more to say…

“Her face was that of a woman with secrets…”

leave a comment »

"She had never considered herself particularly Indian..."

Note: This post is the thirteenth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 14. You can read the previous installments here.

Of all the misconceptions that frustrate aspiring writers, one of the most insidious involves the distinction between flat and round characters. As formulated by E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel, a flat character is one that expresses a single, unchanging idea or quality, while a round character has the ability to change or surprise us. One certainly sounds better than the other, and as a result, you’ll often find writers fretting over the fact that one character or another in their stories is flat, or wondering how to construct a suitably round character from scratch, as if it were a matter of submitting the proper design specifications. What all this misses is the fact that Forster’s original categories were descriptive, not prescriptive, and a round character isn’t inherently more desirable than a flat one: as with everything else in writing, it depends on execution and the role a particular character plays in the narrative as a whole. It’s true that Forster concludes by saying: “We must admit that flat people are not in themselves as big achievements as round ones.” But he also prefaces this with three full pages of reasons why flat characters can be useful—or essential—in even the greatest of novels.

So why should we ever prefer a flat character over a round? Forster notes that flat characters often linger in the memory more vividly after the novel is over; they can be brought onstage in full force, rather than being slowly developed; and they’re easily recognizable, which can serve as an organizing principle in a complicated story. (He even says that Russian novels could use more of them.) In the work of writers like Dickens, who gives us pretty much nothing but flat characters, or Proust, who uses almost as many, their interest arises from their interactions with one another and the events of the plot: “He is the idea, and such life as he possesses radiates from its edges and from the scintillations it strikes when other elements in the novel impinge.” If Forster had lived a little later, he might have also mentioned Thomas Pynchon, whose works are populated by caricatures and cartoons whose flatness becomes a kind of strategy for managing the novel’s complexity. Flat characters have their limitations; they’re more appealing when comic than tragic, and they work best when they set off a round character at the center. But most good novels, as Forster observes, contain a mixture of the two: “A novel that is at all complex often requires flat people as well as round, and the outcome of their collisions parallels life more accurately.”

"Her face was that of a woman with secrets..."

And a memorable flat character requires as much work and imagination as one seen in the round. A bad, unconvincing character is sometimes described as “flat,” but the problem isn’t flatness in itself—it’s the lack of energy or ingenuity devoted to rendering that one vivid quality, or the author’s failure to recognize when one or another category of character is required. A bad flat character can be unbearable, but a bad round character tends to dissolve into a big pile of nothing, an empty collection of notions without anything to hold it together, as we see in so much literary fiction. The great ideal is a round, compelling character, but in order to surprise the reader, he or she has to surprise the writer first. And in practice, what this usually means is that a character who was introduced to fill a particular role gradually begins to take on other qualities, not through some kind of magic, but simply as the part is extended through multiple incidents and situations. Sherlock Holmes is fairly flat as first introduced in A Study in Scarlet: he’s extraordinarily memorable, but also the expression of a single idea. It’s only when the element of time is introduced, in the form of a series of stories, that he acquires an inner life. Not every flat character evolves into roundness, but when one does, the result is often more interesting than if it were conceived that way from the ground up.

My own novels contain plenty of flat characters, mostly to fill a necessary function or story point, but the one who turned into something more is Maya Asthana. She began, as most flat characters do, purely as a matter of convenience. Wolfe needed to talk to somebody, so I gave her a friend, and most of her qualities were chosen to make her marginally more vivid in what I thought would be her limited time onstage: I made her South Asian, which was an idea left over from an early conception of Wolfe herself, and I decided that she’d be planning her wedding, since this would provide her with a few easy bits of business that could be introduced without much trouble. But as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Asthana got caught up in a radical shift in the logic of the novel itself: I needed a mole and a traitor within the agency, and after my original plan turned out to be unworkable, I cast around for someone else to fill that role. Asthana happened to be handy. And by turning her into a villain without changing a word of her initial presentation in City of Exiles, I got something far more intriguing than if I’d had this in mind from the beginning. Chapter 14 of Eternal Empire represents our first extended look at Asthana from the inside, and I like how the characteristics she acquired before I knew her true nature—her vanity, her intelligence, her perfect life with her fiancé—vibrate against what she became. Not every character turns out this way; these novels are filled with minor players content to occupy their roles. But Asthana, lucky for me and unlucky for everyone else, wanted to be more…

%d bloggers like this: