Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Anna Karenina

The great scene theory

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The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David

“The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” Thomas Carlyle once wrote, and although this statement was criticized almost at once, it accurately captures the way many of us continue to think about historical events, both large and small. There’s something inherently appealing about the idea that certain exceptional personalities—Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon—can seize and turn the temper of their time, and we see it today in attempts to explain, say, the personal computing revolution though the life of someone like Steve Jobs. The alternate view, which was expressed forcefully by Herbert Spencer, is that history is the outcome of impersonal social and economic forces, in which a single man or woman can do little more than catalyze trends that are already there. If Napoleon had never lived, the theory goes, someone very much like him would have taken his place. It’s safe to say that any reasonable view of history has to take both theories into account: Napoleon was extraordinary in ways that can’t be fully explained by his environment, even if he was inseparably a part of it. But it’s also worth remembering that much of our fascination with such individuals arises from our craving for narrative structures, which demand a clear hero or villain. (The major exception, interestingly, is science fiction, in which the “protagonist” is often humanity as a whole. And the transition from the hard science fiction of the golden age to messianic stories like Dune, in which the great man reasserts himself with a vengeance, is a critical turning point in the genre’s development.)

You can see a similar divide in storytelling, too. One school of thought implicitly assumes that a story is a delivery system for great scenes, with the rest of the plot serving as a scaffold to enable a handful of awesome moments. Another approach sees a narrative as a series of small, carefully chosen details designed to create an emotional effect greater than the sum of its parts. When it comes to the former strategy, it’s hard to think of a better example than Game of Thrones, a television series that often seems to be marking time between high points: it can test a viewer’s patience, but to the extent that it works, it’s because it constantly promises a big payoff around the corner, and we can expect two or three transcendent set pieces per season. Mad Men took the opposite tack: it was made up of countless tiny but riveting choices that gained power from their cumulative impact. Like the theories of history I mentioned above, neither type of storytelling is necessarily correct or complete in itself, and you’ll find plenty of exceptions, even in works that seem to fall clearly into one category or the other. It certainly doesn’t mean that one kind of story is “better” than the other. But it provides a useful way to structure our thinking, especially when we consider how subtly one theory shades into the other in practice. The director Howard Hawks famously said that a good movie consisted of three great scenes and no bad scenes, which seems like a vote for the Game of Thrones model. Yet a great scene doesn’t exist in isolation, and the closer we look at stories that work, the more important those nonexistent “bad scenes” start to become.

Leo Tolstoy

I got to thinking about this last week, shortly after I completed the series about my alternative movie canon. Looking back at those posts, I noticed that I singled out three of these movies—The Night of the Hunter, The Limey, and Down with Love—for the sake of one memorable scene. But these scenes also depend in tangible ways on their surrounding material. The river sequence in The Night of the Hunter comes out of nowhere, but it’s also the culmination of a language of dreams that the rest of the movie has established. Terence Stamp’s unseen revenge in The Limey works only because we’ve been prepared for it by a slow buildup that lasts for more than twenty minutes. And Renée Zellweger’s confessional speech in Down with Love is striking largely because of how different it is from the movie around it: the rest of the film is relentlessly active, colorful, and noisy, and her long, unbroken take stands out for how emphatically it presses the pause button. None of the scenes would play as well out of context, and it’s easy to imagine a version of each movie in which they didn’t work at all. We remember them, but only because of the less showy creative decisions that have already been made. And at a time when movies seem more obsessed than ever with “trailer moments” that can be spliced into a highlight reel, it’s important to honor the kind of unobtrusive craft required to make a movie with no bad scenes. (A plot that consists of nothing but high points can be exhausting, and a good story both delivers on the obvious payoffs and maintains our interest in the scenes when nothing much seems to be happening.)

Not surprisingly, writers have spent a lot of time thinking about these issues, and it’s noteworthy that one of the most instructive examples comes from Leo Tolstoy. War and Peace is nothing less than an extended criticism of the great man theory of history: Tolstoy brings Napoleon onto the scene expressly to emphasize how insignificant he actually is, and the novel concludes with a lengthy epilogue in which the author lays out his objections to how history is normally understood. History, he argues, is a pattern that emerges from countless unobservable human actions, like the sum of infinitesimals in calculus, and because we can’t see the components in isolation, we have to content ourselves with figuring out the laws of their behavior in the aggregate. But of course, this also describes Tolstoy’s strategy as a writer: we remember the big set pieces in War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but they emerge from the diligent, seemingly impersonal collation of thousands of tiny details, recorded with what seems like a minimum of authorial interference. (As Victor Shklovsky writes: “[Tolstoy] describes the object as if he were seeing it for the first time, an event as if it were happening for the first time.”) And the awesome moments in his novels gain their power from the fact that they arise, as if by historical inevitability, from the details that came before them. Anna Karenina was still alive at the end of the first draft, and it took her author a long time to reconcile himself to the tragic climax toward which his story was driving him. Tolstoy had good reason to believe that great scenes, like great men, are the product of invisible forces. But it took a great writer to see this.

“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

“And they lived happily ever after…”

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Harold Bloom

In old age, I accept unhappy endings in Shakespearean tragedy, Flaubert, and Tolstoy, but back away from them in lesser works. Desdemona, Cordelia, Emma Bovary, and Anna Karenina are slain by their creators, and we are compelled to absorb the greatness of the loss. Perhaps it trains us to withstand better the terrible deaths of friends, family, and lovers, and to contemplate more stoically our own dissolution. But I increasingly avoid most movies with unhappy endings, since few among them aesthetically earn the suffering they attempt to inflict upon us.

Harold Bloom, Genius

I’m starting to feel the same way. For most of my life, I’ve never shied away from works of art with unhappy endings: in movies, the list begins and ends with Vertigo, the greatest of all sucker punches ever inflicted on an audience, and includes films as different as The Red Shoes, The Third Man, and Dancer in the Dark. When I’m given a choice between ambiguous interpretations, as in Inception, I’m often inclined to go with the darker reading. But as time goes on, I’ve found that I prefer happy endings, both from a purely technical standpoint and as a matter of personal taste.

Which isn’t to say that unhappy endings can’t work. Yesterday, I cited Bruno Bettelheim on the subject of fairy tales, which invariably end on an unambiguously happy note to encourage children to absorb their implicit lessons about life. As adults, our artistic needs are more complicated, if not entirely dissimilar. An unhappy ending of the sort that we find in the myth of Oedipus or Madame Bovary is psychological training of a different sort, preparing us, as Bloom notes, for the tragic losses that we all eventually experience. Just as scary movies acquaint us with feelings of terror that we’d rarely feel under ordinary circumstances, great works of art serve as a kind of exercise room for the emotions, expanding our capacity to feel in ways that would never happen if we only drew on the material of our everyday lives. If the happy endings in fairy tales prepare and encourage children to venture outside the safe confines of family into the wider world, unhappy endings in adult fiction do the opposite: they turn our attention inward, forcing us to scrutinize aspects of ourselves that we’ve been trained to avoid as we focus on our respectable adult responsibilities.

Kim Novak in Vertigo

In order for this to work, though, that unhappiness has to be authentically earned, and the number of works that pull it off is vanishingly small. Endings, whether happy or unhappy, are very hard, and a lot of writers, including myself, are often unsure if they’ve found the right way to end a story. But given that uncertainty, it’s wisest, when you don’t know the answer, to err on positive side, and to ignore the voice that insists that an unhappy ending is somehow more realistic and uncompromising. In fact, a bleak, unearned ending is just as false to the way the world works as an undeserved happy one, and at greater cost to the reader. A sentimental happy ending may leave us unsatisfied with the author’s work, but that’s nothing compared to our sense of being cheated by a dark conclusion that arises from cynicism or creative exhaustion. Simply as a matter of craft, stories work best when they’re about the restoration of order, and one that ends with the characters dead or destroyed by failure technically meets that requirement. But for most writers, I’d argue that being able to restore a positive order to the tangle of complications they’ve created is a sign of greater artistic maturity.

And while it’s nice to believe that a happy or unhappy ending should flow naturally from the events that came before, a casual look at the history of literature indicates that this isn’t the case. Anna Karenina survived in Tolstoy’s first draft. Until its final act, Romeo and Juliet isn’t so different in tone from many of Shakespeare’s comedies, and if the ending had been changed to happily reunite the two lovers, it’s likely that we’d have trouble imagining it in any other way—although it’s equally likely that we’d file it permanently among his minor plays. On the opposite end of the spectrum, The Winter’s Tale is saved from becoming a tragedy only by the most arbitrary, unconvincing, and deeply moving of authorial contrivances. In practice, the nature of an ending is determined less by the inexorable logic of the plot than by the author’s intuition when the time comes to bring the story to a close, and as we’ve seen, it can often go either way. A writer has no choice but to check his gut to see what feels right, and I don’t think it’s too much to say that the burden lies with the unhappy ending to prove that it belongs there. Any halfway competent writer can herd his characters into the nearest available chasm. But when in doubt, get them out.

Written by nevalalee

January 7, 2014 at 9:26 am

The Pi paradox

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Life of Pi

Any consideration of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi needs to begin with the point that, objectively speaking, this may be the most visually astonishing movie ever made. Yet it’s likely that many, if not most, viewers will come away with a limited sense of the film’s accomplishments. This is a movie that, for a solid hour or more, consists of a single sustained visual effect, in which every shot has been created for us out of almost nothing, but at first glance, it doesn’t feel that way. Indeed, it sometimes seems more like a small, intimate chamber piece, a two-hander that just happens to be about a boy and his tiger. Except for a limited number of shots, however, that tiger isn’t real, a point that seems to have eluded more than a few reviewers. It is, in fact, the most lifelike special effect I’ve ever seen in a movie, and the result is both totally miraculous and strangely invisible: this isn’t a tiger constantly showing off how tigerish it can be, but a living, breathing animal that we simply accept as part of the fabric of the story. (I suspect that Borges, who was obsessed by tigers of his imagination, would have found this movie both fascinating and problematic.)

As a result, I have a hunch that Life of Pi may lose the Oscar for Best Visual Effects to a showier but less accomplished movie, like Prometheus, much as 2001 didn’t win the award for makeup in the year of Planet of the Apes, allegedly because, as Arthur C. Clarke has claimed, the voters failed to realize that the monkeys weren’t real. And I can’t entirely blame them. As I watched Life of Pi, I had to constantly remind myself that I was witnessing a bravura display of visual effects, even as Lee and his collaborators seemed determined to conceal their wizardry as much as possible. I’ve noted more than once that in movies like Jurassic Park or Terminator 2, the special effects still hold up magnificently, because those few precious minutes of footage were the result of years of thought and care. These days, computer effects have become so routine that even the most spectacular examples of digital mayhem, as in The Avengers, start to look like cartoons, so it’s heartening to find a movie, and a director, willing to lavish that kind of old-fashioned attention on more than an hour’s worth of visual magic.

Keira Knightley in Anna Karenina

But when trick effects become so seamless that artifice can no longer be distinguished from reality, it’s also something of a loss. Artifice for its own sake, when pursued with the same kind of love as perfect realism, can be a joy, as in Joe Wright’s recent adaptation of Anna Karenina. The movie has its problems, but I think that if I’d seen it twenty years ago, it would have instantly become one of my favorites. I went through a phase in my early teens when I was fascinated by movies that gloried in their artifice, either to pay homage to the films of an earlier era, like Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, or to push forward into a stylized world of their own, like Coppola’s One From the Heart. With its stage sets and images of model trains moving through tabletop snowscapes, Anna Karenina is a movie that embraces its artificiality, like Coppola’s Dracula or the late movies of Powell and Pressburger. In fact, it’s arguably the most ambitious recent attempt to make what Michael Powell has called “the composed film,” in which every element has been planned by the director in advance.

Of course, this can lead to its own set of pitfalls, and if Anna Karenina has one major flaw, it’s that its actors are rarely allowed to find lives for their characters apart from the production design. (Indeed, Keira Knightley’s performance depends entirely on costuming and makeup to dramatize Anna’s descent: as David Thomson has observed elsewhere, Knightley “is still more credible as a faintly animated photographer’s model than as an actress.”) Finding the right balance between artifice and realism, as Powell and Pressburger did in their best films—along with Welles, Kubrick, and Hitchcock—is the province of our greatest directors, and such moments are the ones, as a moviegoer, that I treasure above all others. Hence my love for the sequence in Life of Pi in which the screen briefly elongates to Cinemascope proportions, allowing a swarm of flying fish not just to come right out at the audience, but spill over the edges of the frame. It goes by in a blink of an eye, and Lee notes that most viewers don’t even notice it, but it’s a thrilling example of what a great director does best: giving us something that not only reproduces reality, but advances on it—at least if we’re willing to watch carefully.

Written by nevalalee

December 10, 2012 at 10:19 am

What I read when I’m writing

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When Norman Mailer was writing The Naked and the Dead, the novel that made him famous at age twenty-five, he had a simple method for getting ready to work in the morning. Mailer says:

I had four books on my desk all the time I was writing: Anna Karenina, Of Time and the River, U.S.A., and Studs Lonigan. And whenever I wanted to get in the mood to write I’d read one of them. The atmosphere of The Naked and the Dead, the overspirit, is Tolstoyan; the rococo comes out of Dos Passos; the fundamental, slogging style from Farrell, and the occasional overrich descriptions from Wolfe.

And Mailer isn’t the only writer who kept a few favorite books on his desk. I imagine that many novelists have books that they keep at the ready for when they feel inspiration starting to flag. Sometimes it’s the same book over the course of an entire career; more often, I suspect, it varies from project to project. In my own case, I start each writing day by reading a few pages of a book that embodies the tone or voice I’m trying to achieve—as if something of the author’s talent will magically transmit itself—and return to it more than once as I continue to work. And rather to my surprise, when it comes to the novels I read while writing, I find myself sticking to a limited, strictly defined circle of books.

As I mentioned yesterday, I generally do a fast, rough draft of an entire chapter first thing in the morning, which usually takes a couple of hours. I’ve found from experience that the best books to read while I’m doing that messy initial version are rich, ripe, stylistically powerful books that encourage my own writing to be a little more florid—qualities that I pare down relentlessly in subsequent revisions, but which are often good to have in a first draft, where the point is to get as many ideas or images onto the page as possible. For me, the ideal author for this purpose is John Updike. Our styles as writers couldn’t be more different, but something in his ornate sentences just puts my brain to work. (It’s the Heist school of writing: I imagine a writer better than I am, then figure out what he would do.)

At the moment, then, I’m starting each morning with a few pages of Updike’s Terrorist. Later in the day, though, when I’m polishing what I’ve already written, I feel that it’s a mistake to read something so dense and mannered, because I run the risk of ending up with mere self-indulgence (a quality to which even Updike himself isn’t immune). For later drafts, it’s better to go with an author whose prose is a little more restrained, clean, and elegant—someone like Ian McEwan, say. While writing Kamera, I worked my way through Atonement, Amsterdam, Saturday, The Innocent, Black Dogs, and The Comfort of Strangers. Right now, since I’ve already read all the McEwan I own, I’m doing something similar with Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, which has the kind of spare, classical style that I’m hoping will restrain the worst of my impulses.

There’s a negative side to all this, too. While I’m writing, I avoid books that I think will noticeably infect my style, for better or worse. This includes bad books, of course, but also good novels where the author’s style clashes with mine. I also try to avoid books in translation, reasoning that it’s better to read books by great stylists who originally wrote in my own language. The problem? Since I’m always writing, my reading for the past few years has been extremely constrained. I haven’t read Cloud Atlas, for instance, because I’m afraid of being overly influenced by it, and because I don’t want to read anything in translation, I haven’t gotten around to Mario Vargas Llosa, among many others.

Obviously, this state of affairs can’t stand: as much as I like Updike and McEwan, I don’t want to be stuck with them for the rest of my life. And reading and being influenced by radically different authors is an important part of growing as a novelist. At some point, then, I’ll probably need to rethink this approach. (Although not until I finish this draft.)

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