Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Ada

“Karvonen surveyed the crowd…”

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"Karvonen surveyed the crowd..."

Note: This post is the nineteenth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 18. You can read the earlier installments here.)

On the short list of books that all writers should read at some point, two of the most interesting are Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature and Lectures on Russian Literature. Nabokov was the most formidably learned and technically skilled American novelist of the century, and for all his wit and playfulness, he can be a little daunting; as we speak, I’m working my way through Ada for the first time, and I’ve found myself repeatedly grateful for Brian Boyd’s excellent online annotations. The lectures, which were originally delivered at Wellesley and Cornell, present Nabokov at his most accessible—they were designed as a kind of oral performance, so they’re looser and less semantically dense than his written work, while still allowing his full intelligence and insight to shine through. (In particular, they’re a much better place to start with Nabokov as a critic than his commentary on Eugene Onegin, an insane work of scholarship that I love for other reasons.) And because Nabokov was one of the few modern writers both willing and qualified to go head to head with the likes of Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce, and Kafka, it affords a unique glimpse into a first-rate creative mind as it grapples with its peers.

If there’s one theme that recurs throughout these lectures, it’s the importance of precise visualization by both the author and the reader. Nabokov’s original notes are filled with sketches, diagrams, and delicately rendered maps, all meant to encourage us to picture the settings, costumes, and incidental furniture of a story as accurately as possible. Writing about Anna Karenina’s railway journey from Moscow to St. Petersburg, for instance, he begins: “To comprehend certain important aspects of Anna’s night journey, the reader should clearly visualize the following arrangement…” He follows this with a detailed breakdown of the sleeping car’s seats, layout, and occupants, complete with a floor plan and a little illustration of the candle lantern that Anna uses as a reading lamp. Some of this is undoubtedly due to Nabokov’s own natural obsessiveness, as well as to his frustration with translators, like those of Onegin, who render Russian texts into English without any clear idea of what they’re describing. But even for us mortals, there’s a lesson here: if we can vividly envision the physical setting of a story, it serves as a coherent stage on which the real action of interest can take place.

"Two doors led into a pair of conference spaces..."

I’ve tried to follow this practice in my own fiction, although on a much less elevated level. Elsewhere, I’ve spoken of my love of location research, and how the physical constraints of a real building or neighborhood are often play a crucial role in figuring out how a particular scene ought to unfold. If I’m unable to visit the location myself—as in the case of Eternal Empire, with its extended closing sequence in Sochi—I’ll do what I can to fill in the gaps with nonfiction accounts, guidebooks, photographs, and Google Maps. Occasionally, I’ll need to fudge the real geography of a place for the sake of the narrative, but when I can, I stick to reality as much as possible, to the extent of counting the number of paces from one point of importance to the next. Part of this is my sense that accuracy, or at least plausibility, in trivial matters primes readers to accept the larger leaps that a story inevitably takes, as well as a desire to avoid being called out on an obvious mistake. Ultimately, though, it’s about furnishing the set, which in turn influences the behavior of the players, and I learned long ago that it’s a waste of energy to think these things up from scratch when the world is already bursting with detail.

You see this clearly in Chapter 18 of City of Exiles, which Karvonen, my Finnish assassin, arrives at the chess tournament at the Olympia Exhibition Center, where many of the other characters are already converging. Much of the chapter is devoted to Karvonen’s study of the layout through the lens of his camera, in his guise as a photojournalist, and I spend a page or two making sure that the relative placement of rooms and other landmarks is clear. Really, I could have rearranged this space however I liked—I doubt many readers would have objected—and a sense of the geography is only incidentally important to the action that follows. Again, though, the attention I give to the scenery here is less critical in itself than in its effects. Even if I’d invented a chess tournament out of thin air and situated it in an imaginary conference center, the space needs to seem real, both for my own sake and for that of the reader. In the course of the next few chapters, there’s going to be a chase, a confrontation, and a pair of murders, all of which needs to be timed so that the complicated sequence of events remains clear. Spatial logic leads to narrative logic. And the first step is to set the stage as clearly as possible…

Written by nevalalee

February 20, 2014 at 9:29 am

Stumbling into a story: top down or bottom up?

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To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.
Herman Melville

Writers, we like to believe, are drawn to their craft in order to express themselves, but in most cases, the urge to write a novel comes long before any sense of what the story will actually be about. Even the greatest works of art, which seem inevitable now, were often the result of a lengthy selection process. Milton, we’re told, drew up a list of nearly one hundred possible subjects for an epic poem, including the Arthur legend and various topics from British history, before finally deciding on Paradise Lost. This systematic search for a theme, working from the top down, is one way of finding a story; but for most of us, when the time comes to choose a subject, it often makes more sense to work from the bottom up, so that we arrive at our “central” theme almost by accident.

At first glance, this seems to contradict one of the most common assumptions about writing fiction, which is that the subject of a novel must be of great personal importance to the writer himself. In my experience, however, this isn’t necessarily the case. If anything, I’d advise most writers not to choose a deeply felt or meaningful subject, especially for a first novel, because it’s hard to be objective about it. The best writing, I’m convinced, is the product of detachment as much as deep emotional engagement, and of the two, detachment is probably the more valuable quality. Which isn’t to say that you should choose a subject to which you’re utterly indifferent—after all, it’s probably going to consume a year or more of your time. But it’s better to tether your emotional involvement to a small, even invisible corner of the novel, and let the main theme emerge from there.

The history of literature is filled with books where the large, obvious elements of the story—the ones that readers assume must have engaged the writer’s interest in the first place—were incidental or secondary to the author’s original intentions. The Stand began as a novel about the Patty Hearst case. I’ve been told, rightly or not, that Nabokov invented the vast alternate universe of Ada, which takes place in a parallel world called Antiterra, mostly so he could have his characters indifferently speak in English, Russian, and French. Umberto Eco has written at length about how important elements of The Name of the Rose, including its location, themes, and historical setting, arose from specific requirements of the plot, not the other way around. And in film, Paul Thomas Anderson once set out to make a small movie about a woman in Los Angeles, which grew from that seed, character by character, until it became Magnolia.

My own experience tells me that it’s very common, and possibly preferable, to stumble backwards into the subject of a long novel. When I first began researching The Icon Thief, it was only with the vague intention of writing a book about the New York art world, with overtones of conspiracy and information overload. A passing reference in an article about art collecting, which noted that recent sales were being driven by Russian money, made me think that Russia might be a good backdrop for the story I had in mind. The result, rather to my surprise, has been a sequence of two novels, and possibly a third, in which Russian history and politics has been hugely important, to the point where it will probably end up consuming four or more years of my life. A reader might think that I was drawn to the subject by an existing fascination with Russia, when, in fact, the reverse was true: I just sort of stumbled into it. And I’m very glad I did. Because in Russia, I guess, the mighty theme chooses you.

Written by nevalalee

June 28, 2011 at 10:00 am

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