Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Dante Alighieri

The variety show

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In this week’s issue of The New York Times Style Magazine, Lin-Manuel Miranda interviews Stephen Sondheim, whom he calls “musical theater’s greatest lyricist.” The two men have known each other for a long time, and Miranda shares a memorable anecdote from their friendship:

Sondheim was one of the first people I told about my idea for a piece about Alexander Hamilton, back in 2008…I’d been hired to write Spanish translations for a Broadway revival of West Side Story, and during our first meeting he asked me what I was working on next. I told him “Alexander Hamilton,” and he threw back his head in laughter and clapped his hands. “That is exactly what you should be doing. No one will expect that from you. How fantastic.” That moment alone, the joy of surprising Sondheim, sustained me through many rough writing nights and missed deadlines. I sent him early drafts of songs over the seven-year development of Hamilton, and his email response was always the same. “Variety, variety, variety, Lin. Don’t let up for a second. Surprise us.”

During their interview, Sondheim expands on the concept of “variety” by describing an Off-Broadway play about “the mad queen of Spain” that he once attended with the playwright Peter Shaffer. When Sondheim wondered why he was so bored by the result, despite its nonstop violence, Shaffer explained: “There’s no surprise.” And Sondheim thought to himself: “Put that on your bathroom mirror.”

“The unexpected, the unexpected, that’s what theater is about,” Sondheim concludes to Miranda. “If you had to patent one thing in the theater, it’s surprise.” This is good advice. Yet when you turn to Sondheim’s own books on the craft of lyric writing, Finishing the Hat and Look I Made a Hat, you find that he doesn’t devote much space to the notions of variety or surprise at all, at least not explicitly. In fact, at first glance, the rules that he famously sets forth in the preface to both books seem closer to the opposite:

There are only three principles necessary for a lyric writer, all of them familiar truisms. They were not immediately apparent to me when I started writing, but have come into focus via Oscar Hammerstein’s tutoring, Strunk and White’s huge little book The Elements of Style and my own sixty-some years of practicing the craft. I have not always been skilled or diligent enough to follow them as faithfully as I would like, but they underlie everything I’ve ever written. In no particular order, and to be inscribed in stone: Content Dictates Form, Less Is More, God Is in the Details, all in the service of Clarity, without which nothing else matters.

Obviously, these guidelines can be perfectly consistent with the virtues of variety and surprise—you could even say that clarity, simplicity, and attention to detail are what enable lyricists to engage in variety without confusing the listener. But it’s still worth asking why Sondheim emphasizes one set of principles here and another when advising Miranda in private.

When you look through Sondheim’s two books of lyrics, the only reference to “variety” in the index is to the show business magazine of the same name, but references to these notions are scattered throughout both volumes. Writing of Sweeney Todd in Finishing the Hat, Sondheim says: “Having taken the project on, I hoped that I’d be able to manage the argot by limiting myself to the British colloquialisms [playwright Christopher] Bond had used, mingled with the few I knew. There weren’t enough, however, to allow for variety of image, variety of humor, and, most important, variety of rhyme.” He criticizes the “fervent lack of surprise” in the lyrics of his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, and he writes emphatically in his chapter on Gypsy: “Surprise is the lifeblood of the theater, a thought I’ll expand on later.” For his full statement on the subject, however, you have to turn to Look, I Made a Hat. After sharing his anecdote about attending the play with Shaffer, Sondheim continues:

[Shaffer said that] it had many incidents but no surprise. He didn’t mean surprise plot twists—there were plenty of those—but surprises in character and language. Every action, every moment, every sentence foretold the next one. We, the audience, were consciously or unconsciously a step ahead of the play all evening long, and it was a long evening…[Surprise] comes in many flavors: a plot twist, a passage of dialogue, a character revelation, a note in a melody, a harmonic progression, startling moments in staging, lighting, orchestration, unexpected song cues…all the elements of theater. There are surprises to be had everywhere if you want to spring them, and it behooves you to do so. What’s important is that the play be ahead of the audience, not vice versa. Predictability is the enemy.

So if surprise is “the lifeblood of the theater,” why doesn’t Sondheim include it in the preface as one of his central principles? In his next paragraph, he provides an important clue:

The problem with surprise is that you have to lay out a trail for the audience to follow all the while you’re keeping slightly ahead. You don’t want them to be bored, but neither do you want them to be confused, and unfortunately there are many ways to do both. This applies to songs as well as to plays. You can confuse an audience with language by being overly poetic or verbose, or you can bore them by restating something they know, which inserts a little yawn into the middle of the song. It’s a difficult balancing act.

The only way to achieve this balance is through the principles of simplicity and clarity—which is why Sondheim puts them up front, while saving variety for later. If you advise young writers to go for variety and surprise too soon, you end up with Queen Juana of Castile. It’s only after clarity and all of its boring supporting virtues have been internalized that the writer can tackle variety with discipline and skill. (As T.S. Eliot pointed out, it’s better to imitate Dante than Shakespeare: “If you follow Dante without talent, you will at worst be pedestrian and flat; if you follow Shakespeare or Pope without talent, you will make an utter fool of yourself.” And Samuel Johnson, let’s not forget, thought that the great excellence of Hamlet was its “variety.”) Miranda had clearly mastered the fundamentals, so Sondheim advised him to focus on something more advanced. It worked—one of the most thrilling things about Hamilton is its effortless juxtaposition of styles and tones—but only because its author had long since figured out the basics. And that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Hollywood in Limbo

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In his essay on the fourth canto of Dante’s Inferno, which describes the circle of Limbo populated by the souls of virtuous pagans, Jorge Luis Borges discusses the notion of the uncanny, which has proven elusively hard to define:

Toward the beginning of the nineteenth century, or the end of the eighteenth, certain adjectives of Saxon or Scottish origin (eerie, uncanny, weird) came into circulation in the English language, serving to define those places or things that vaguely inspire horror…In German, they are perfectly translated by the word unheimlich; in Spanish, the best word may be siniestro.

I was reminded of this passage while reading, of all things, Benjamin Wallace’s recent article in Vanity Fair on the decline of National Lampoon. It’s a great piece, and it captures the sense of uncanniness that I’ve always associated with a certain part of Hollywood. Writing of the former Lampoon head Dan Laikin, Wallace says:

Poor choice of partners proved a recurring problem. Unable to get traction with the Hollywood establishment, Laikin appeared ready to work with just about anyone. “There were those of us who’d been in the business a long time,” [development executive Randi] Siegel says, “who told him not to do business with certain people. Dan had a tendency to trust people that were probably not the best people to trust. I think he wanted to see the good in it and change things.” He didn’t necessarily have much choice. If you’re not playing in Hollywood’s big leagues, you’re playing in its minors, which teem with marginal characters…“Everyone Danny hung out with was sketchy,” says someone who did business with Laikin. Laikin, for his part, blames the milieu: “I’m telling you, I don’t surround myself with these people. I don’t search them out. They’re all over this town.”

Years ago, I attended a talk by David Mamet in which he said something that I’ve never forgotten. Everybody gets a break in Hollywood after twenty-five years, but some get it at the beginning and others at the end, and the important thing is to be the one who stays after everyone else has gone home. Wallace’s article perfectly encapsulates that quality, which I’ve always found fascinating, perhaps because I’ve never had to live with it. It results in a stratum of players in the movie and television industry who haven’t quite broken through, but also haven’t reached the point where they drop out entirely. They end up, in short, in a kind of limbo, which Borges vividly describes in the same essay:

There is is something of the oppressive wax museum about this still enclosure: Caesar, armed and idle; Lavinia, eternally seated next to her father…A much later passage of the Purgatorio adds that the shades of the poets, who are barred from writing, since they are in the Inferno, seek to distract their eternity with literary discussions.

You could say that the inhabitants of Hollywood’s fourth circle of hell, who are barred from actually making movies, seek to distract their eternity by talking about the movies that they wish they could make. It’s easy to mock them, but there’s also something weirdly ennobling about their sheer persistence. They’re survivors in a profession where few of us would have lasted, if we even had the courage to go out there in the first place, and at a time when such people seem more likely to end up at something like the Fyre Festival, it’s nice to see that they still exist in Hollywood.

So what is it about the movie industry that draws and retains such personalities? One of its most emblematic figures is Robert Towne, who, despite his Oscar for Chinatown and his reputation as the dean of American screenwriters, has spent his entire career looking like a man on the verge of his big break. If Hollywood is Limbo, Towne is its Caesar, “armed and idle,” and he’s been there for five decades. Not surprisingly, he has a lot of insight into the nature of that hell. In his interview with John Brady in The Craft of the Screenwriter, Towne says:

You are often involved with a producer who is more interested in making money on the making of the movie than he is on the releasing of the movie. There is a lot of money to be made on the production of a movie, not just in salary, but all sorts of ways that are just not altogether honest. So he’s going to make his money on the making, which is really reprehensible.

“Movies are so difficult that you should really make movies that you feel you absolutely have to make,” Towne continues—and the fact that this happens so rarely implies that the studio ecosystem is set up for something totally different. Towne adds:

It’s easier for a director and an actor to be mediocre and get away with it than it is for a writer. Even a writer who happens to be mediocre has to work pretty hard to get through a script, whereas a cameraman will say to the director, “Where do you think you want to put the camera? You want it here? All right, I’m going to put it here.” In other words, a director can be carried along by the production if he’s mediocre, to some extent; and that’s true of an actor, too.

Towne tosses off these observations without dwelling on them, knowing that there’s plenty more where they came from, but if you put them together, you end up with a pretty good explanation of why Hollywood is the way it is. It’s built to profit from the making of movies, rather than from the movies themselves, which is only logical: if it depended on success at the box office, everybody would be out of a job. The industry also has structures in place that allow people to skate by for years without any particular skills, if they manage to stick to the margins. (In any field where past success is no guarantee of future performance, it’s the tall poppies that get their heads chopped off.) Under such conditions, survival isn’t a matter of talent, but of something much less definable. A brand like National Lampoon, which has been leveled by time but retains some of its old allure, draws such people like a bright light draws fish in the abyss, and it provides a place where they can be studied. The fact that Kato Kaelin makes an appearance in these circles shouldn’t be surprising—he’s the patron saint of those who hang on for decades for no particular reason. And it’s hard not to relate to the hope that sustains them:

“What everyone always does at the company is feel like something big is about to happen, and I want to be here for it,” [creative director] Marty Dundics says. “We’re one hit movie away from, or one big thing away from, being back on top. It’s always this underdog you’re rooting for. And you don’t want to miss it. That big thing that’s about to happen. That was always the mood.”

Extend that mood across a quarter of a century, and you have Hollywood, which also struggles against the realization that Borges perceives in Limbo: “The certainty that tomorrow will be like today, which was like yesterday, which was like every day.”

Hamlet’s birthday

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Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

Last year, on my birthday, I wrote a post reflecting on how it felt to turn thirty-five, drawing liberally on The Divine Comedy, which opens when Dante is the same age—or, as he puts it, “When I had journeyed half of our life’s way.” When I look back, the comparison seems even more forced now than it did then, but it came out of a place of real feeling. I was going through a rough period as a writer, after a number of projects had failed to gain traction, and I was thinking more intensely than usual about what might come next. “A human life,” I wrote at the time, “makes a pattern that none of us can predict. And even as we reach the halfway point, its true shape may only be beginning.” When I typed those words, there was an element of wishful thinking involved, but they turned out to be more true than I could have guessed. Today, I’m working on a book that I couldn’t possibly have anticipated a year ago, and I’m already feeling the impact. In startup jargon, it was a career pivot, or a course correction, and although it emerged naturally from my background and interests, it still took me by surprise. In all likelihood, Astounding will turn out to be the most interesting book I’ve ever written, or ever will, which means that when I wrote that birthday post, I was on the verge of providing an inadvertent case study of how even the most considered plan can continue to generate surprises long after you think its outlines have been fixed. Which, I suppose, is what Dante was saying all along.

It might seem strange to use the age of a literary character as a benchmark for evaluating your own life, but it’s no weirder than measuring yourself against peers your own age or, ugh, even younger, which all writers inevitably do. (My favorite observation on the subject comes courtesy of Tom Lehrer: “It is a sobering thought, for example, that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years.”) And it isn’t just Dante who inspires this kind of reflection. You can hear an echo of it in the trendy notion of “the Jesus year,” which, if anything, is even more pretentious. Most intriguing of all is the case of Hamlet, whose age is as vague as Dante’s is precise. In the first four acts of the play that bears his name, Hamlet strikes us, as Harold Bloom puts it, as “a young man of about twenty or less,” which squares neatly with the fact that he’s a student at Wittenberg University. Yet in Act V, the gravedigger explicitly says that the prince is thirty. This has been explained away as a mistake in the text or an artifact of Shakespeare’s repeated revisions, which overlooks how psychologically and dramatically sound it is: the Hamlet of the last act seems far wiser and more mature than the one we’ve met before, and I actually prefer the joke theory that he somehow ages a decade or more in his brief trip overseas. Hamlet has undergone a dramatic change in his absence, and his illogical increase in age is a subliminal clue as to how we’re supposed to perceive his transformation.

Illustration by Gustave Doré for Dante's Inferno

And that curious fusion of the twenty- and thirty-year-old versions of the prince hints at one of the most unforgettable qualities of his character, even as it also explains why the actors with the ability to play him tend to be closer to forty. In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Bloom notes that “no one else in all Shakespeare seems potentially so free as the crown prince of Denmark,” and he goes on to list a few of the possibilities:

There is a bewildering range of freedoms available to Hamlet: he could marry Ophelia, ascend to the throne after Claudius if waiting was bearable, cut Claudius down at almost any time, leave for Wittenberg without permission, organize a coup (being the favorite of the people), or even devote himself to botching plays for the theater. Like his father, he could center upon being a soldier, akin to the younger Fortinbras, or conversely he could turn his superb mind to more organized speculation, philosophical or hermetic, than has been his custom. Ophelia describes him, in her lament for his madness, as having been courtier, soldier, and scholar, the exemplar of form and fashion for all Denmark. If The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is “poem unlimited,” beyond genre and rules, then its protagonist is character unlimited, beyond even such precursors as the biblical David or the classical Brutus. But how much freedom can be afforded Hamlet by a tragic play? What project can be large enough for him?

But that’s how everyone feels at twenty. Or at least it’s how I did. You think you’re capable of anything, and there were times in my twenties when I felt as potentially free as Hamlet at the beginning of the play. But age closes off the number of paths available, one by one, until you’re more like Hamlet at the end: resigned, with equanimity or otherwise, to the role that fate has assigned to you. That’s why Hamlet continues to fascinate us. He’s our greatest image of youthful potential, until he isn’t, which is why he somehow manages to seem both twenty and thirty within the span of a few weeks. Yet that juxtaposition, for all its absurdity, gets at something fundamental in how we all see ourselves: as a superimposition of all the people we were in the past, coexisting together in the more limited person we necessarily embody today. (Or as Frank Sinatra says more eloquently in Sinatra at the Sands: “Now I guess you folks have heard, or read, or been told somewhere that recently I became fifty years old, and I’m here to tell you right now, it’s a dirty Communist lie. Direct from Hanoi—it came right outta there! My body may be fifty, but I’m twenty-eight!” Sinatra goes on to add: “And I would further like to say that I’d be twenty-two if I hadn’t spent all those years drinking with Joe E. Lewis, who nearly wrecked me.”) Shakespeare, as it happens, was thirty-seven when he wrote Hamlet, or just a year older than I am now. That’s enough to make a mockery of anyone’s ambitions, but it also gives me hope. We’re all walking the same path through the forest—and our greatest consolation is that Dante and Shakespeare have been there before us.

Half of our life’s way

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Illustration by Gustave Doré for Dante's Inferno

When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.

—Dante Alighieri, Inferno, translated by Allen Mandelbaum

Seven hundred and fifty years ago, Dante Alighieri was born. We know this because in The Divine Comedy—which explicitly takes place in the year 1300—Dante states that he had traveled “half of our life’s way” at the time of his journey. Based on the Biblical allotment of threescore and seven years, this would make him thirty-five as the poem begins, implying that he was born in 1265. His exact birthday is unknown, although Dante, as usual, leaves a few tantalizing clues for interpreters. He once told a friend that he was born in May, and based on a reference in Paradiso to the constellation of Gemini, which he notes was in the sky “when I first felt the air of Tuscany,” we can narrow it down even further. Commentators have tried ever since to pin down a specific date, most recently on the Paris Review blog, in which Damion Searls makes a convincing case for May 26, based on internal evidence from the rest of the poem. Still, we don’t know for sure. And while I’m aware that this is just wishful thinking, I’d like to believe that it might be May 31. Why? Because that’s my birthday, too.

In fact, I turned thirty-five yesterday, so the fact that this year also marks Dante’s sesquiquincentenary strikes me as personally significant. I’m well aware that there’s nothing more boring than reading someone else’s thoughts on a particular birthday: if you haven’t reached that age yet, you can hardly sympathize, and if you’re older, the last thing you want to hear is someone younger brooding over the meaning of it all. Yet I’ve been more conscious of this particular birthday than usual. Dante has been important to me ever since I read The Divine Comedy in a course taught by Lino Pertile in my freshman year of college, and at the time, his journey felt like the most vivid allegory that I’d ever encountered for my own progress through life. We all feel charged with significance in our late teens and early twenties, and looking back, I can smile a little at how readily I identified myself with one of the two greatest poets the western tradition has produced. But I never quite shook the sense that, like Dante, I was waiting for a Virgil to appear, and that my life would be spent preparing to answer that call when it came. So even if this birthday doesn’t represent the halfway point in my life, on some level, it feels like it does.

Illustration by Gustave Doré for Dante's Inferno

Dante wasn’t thirty-five when he wrote The Divine Comedy, of course: he seems to have begun drafting the poem around 1308, or eight years after the end of its internal narrative, and continued to labor on it for the next twelve years. Placing the journey earlier in his own life was a conscious poetic strategy. As with other works of encyclopedic fiction, setting it in the recent past allows Dante to prophesy accurately about events that have yet to occur within the poem’s timeline, notably his own exile, which lends credibility to the other predictions he makes. As it happened, one big prediction turned out to be wrong: he died at fifty-six, not seventy, which means that he was well past the midpoint of his own lifespan at the time the poem begins. Obviously, there’s no way that he could have known this—although he speaks with such prophetic authority elsewhere that it seems slightly surprising. But it’s also hard for us to imagine him outliving the poem’s completion. More than any other writer I know, Dante is his major work: it’s all but impossible to separate Dante the Pilgrim from the poet who constructs the seven circles of Hell. And when the poem was done, so was he.

Which feels like a lesson for all of us. It can be easy to forget that Dante’s poem was, in part, a reaction to the fact that his life had not gone as he had planned. As Erich Auerbach puts it so unforgettably:

Beyond a doubt [Dante] was the wisest, most resolute man of his time; according to the Platonic principle which is still valid whenever a man is manifestly endowed with the gift of leadership, he was born to rule; however, he did not rule, but led a life of solitary poverty.

The Divine Comedy was an effort to create, in poetry, the kind of order that he sought but failed to find in his own life. All authors do this to some extent; what sets Dante apart was how brilliantly he succeeded. His poem endures as the events of his time have not, and to the extent that we still care at all about the Gulephs, the Ghibellines, and the Florentine politics of that era, it’s because Dante put them in a poem. (Countless figures of that period, both friends and enemies, endure only because he consigned them to a few lines of torment or redemption.) Dante never ruled, at least not in the way he wanted, but he lives for us in a way that no ruler ever will. Whether or not this provided him with any consolation is unclear—but it consoles me. A human life makes a pattern that none of us can predict. And even as we reach the halfway point, its true shape may only be beginning.

Written by nevalalee

June 1, 2015 at 10:09 am

To be young was very heaven

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David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “Assuming the afterlife exists, in what fictional world do you want to spend it?

Years ago, whenever I thought about the possibility of an afterlife, I’d find myself indulging in a very specific fantasy. After my death, I’d wake up lying on a beach, alone, dressed for some reason in a dark suit pretty much like the one Kyle MacLachlan wore on Twin Peaks. The world in which I’d find myself would be more or less like our own, except maybe a little emptier, and as I explored it, I’d gradually come into contact with other departed souls who had awoken into much the same situation. We’d be curious about who or what had brought us here, but the answers wouldn’t be obvious, and we’d suspect that we were all part of some kind of ongoing test or game, the rules of which were still obscure. And we’d spend the rest of eternity trying to figure out what, exactly, we were supposed to be doing there. (I’m not the first to imagine something like this: Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series is based on a similar premise. And much later, I was amazed to find the same image in the opening scenes of A Matter of Life and Death by Powell and Pressburger, in which the airman played by David Niven—who isn’t really dead, although he doesn’t know this yet—wakes up to find himself on a beach in Devon. He thinks he’s in heaven, and he’s pleased to meet a dog there: “I’d always hoped there would be dogs.”)

What’s funny, of course, is that what I’ve described isn’t so far from the world in which we’ve actually found ourselves. We’re all born into an ongoing story, its meaning unknown, and we’re left to explore it and figure out the answers together. The difference is that we enter it as babies, and by the time we’re old enough to have any agency, we’ve already started to take it for granted. There’s a window of time in childhood when everything in the world is exciting and new—I’m seeing my daughter go through it now—but most of us slowly lose it, as our lives become increasingly governed by assumptions and routine. That’s a necessary part of growing older: as a practical matter, if we faced every day as another adventure, we’d quickly burn ourselves out, although not before rendering ourselves unbearable to everyone else we knew. Yet there’s also a tremendous loss here, and we spend much of our adult lives trying to recapture that magic in a provisional fashion. Part of the reason I became a novelist was to consciously reinvigorate that sense of possibility, by laboriously renewing it one story at a time. (If writers often seem unduly obsessed with death, it’s partially because the field attracts people of that temperament: we’re engaged either in constructing a kind of literary immorality for ourselves or in increasing the number of potential lives we can experience in the limited time we have.)

Map of Middle-earth

On a similar level, when we fantasize about spending our afterlives in Narnia or the Star Trek universe, we’re really talking about recapturing that sense of childlike discovery with our adult sensibilities and capacities intact. This planet is as wondrous as any product of fantasy world-building, but by the time we have the freedom and ability to explore it, we’ve been tied down by other responsibilities, or simply by a circumscribed sense of the possibilities at our disposal. So much speculative fiction—or really fiction of any kind—is devoted to rekindling the sense of wonder that we should, in theory, be able to feel just by looking all around us, if we hadn’t gotten so used to it. Video games of the open world variety are designed to reignite some of that old curiosity, and there’s even an entire subreddit devoted to talking about the real world as if it were a massively multiplayer online game, with billions of active players. It’s a cute conceit, but it’s also a reminder of how little we take advantage of the potential that life affords. If this were a game, we’d be constantly exploring, talking to strangers, and poking our heads into whatever byways caught our interest. Instead, we tend to treat it as if we were on rails, except in those rare times when the range of possibilities seems to expand for everyone, as it did to Wordsworth during the French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.”

This inability to live outside our own limits explains why the problem of boredom is one that all creators of speculative afterlives, from Dante to Mark Twain, have been forced to confront, with mixed results. Even eternal bliss might start to feel like a burden if extended beyond the heat death of the universe, and to imagine that we’ll merely be content to surrender ourselves to that ecstasy also means giving up something precious about ourselves. Dante’s vision of purgatory is compelling because it turns the afterlife into a learning process of its own—a series of challenges we need to surmount to climb that mountain—and his conception of paradise is significantly less interesting, both poetically and theologically. But if we can start to see heaven as a place in which that sense of childlike discovery is restored, only with full maturity and understanding, it starts to feel a lot more plausible. And, more practically, it points a way forward right now. As Wordsworth says later in the same poem:

[They] were called upon to exercise their skill,
Not in Utopia, subterranean fields,
Or some unsecreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us,—the place where in the end
We find our happiness, or not at all!

That revolution, like most utopian ideals, didn’t end as most of its proponents would have wished. But in this life, in incremental ways, it’s the closest thing we have to paradise. Or to put it even more vividly: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Written by nevalalee

February 27, 2015 at 9:34 am

Hell is other movies

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Robert Altman

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What’s your personal pop culture hell?”

Dante has always been one of the shrewdest and most surprising of writers, and the most striking aspect of his vision of hell is how its residents create it for themselves. Unlike Shakespeare, whose greatest gift lies in the depiction of personality in transition, Dante gives us a series of figures captured in a single characteristic moment for all eternity. The effect is both heightened, like a series of frescoes, and strangely realistic. We like to think of ourselves as creatures who are constantly evolving, but from a godlike or four-dimensional perspective, as Rust notes in True Detective, our lives would appear as a single emblematic shape. (Borges says much the same thing in one of his essays, in which he defines a divine intelligence as one that could grasp the inconceivable figure traced by all of an individual’s movements throughout a lifetime as easily as we see a triangle.) And because Dante is visiting the souls of the damned, their shapes take the form of their worst moments, whether it’s the act of suicide that transforms Pietro della Vigna into a dead tree or leaves Paulo and Francesca whipped by the winds of illicit passion.

Much the same can be said of artists, who, after they’re gone, leave behind a visible legacy in the form of a shelf of books, a monograph of paintings, or a stack of movies or episodes. When we think back on the careers of the artists we know best, it often seems oddly sculptural, as if each successive film or novel were a component in a larger edifice being built over time. One of the hardest parts about working in any creative field is sensing what that larger shape will be when you’re considering projects from moment to moment. You see this in stark terms, for instance, in the résumés of actors and actresses, who need to engage in a complicated calculation that weighs the immediate merits of any given role against its place in the overall picture. I’ve written before about what I call the starlet’s dilemma, in which the pressure to extend one’s prime earning years can lead to decisions that compromise any prospect of a lasting career. And if there’s one recurring theme in Will Harris’s wonderful Random Roles interviews on The A.V. Club, it’s that when you’re focusing on the parts that happen to be available at the time, you end up with a filmography that can take you by surprise, and not always in a good way.

Harrison Ford and Shia LaBeouf in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Every lasting career has its ups and downs, of course, and you could argue that too much consistency is the mark of a mediocre artist: any creative decision is a risk, and what feels like a step forward can turn out to be going in the wrong direction. If we’re lucky, over the long run, the hits will outweigh the misses, and our failures will be blessedly forgotten. Robert Altman, for one, was the kind of director who almost obstinately refused to be kept to any one path, leading to a famous piece of admiring snark from Pauline Kael:

Robert Altman is almost frighteningly nonrepetitive. He goes out in a new direction every time, and scores an astonishing fifty percent—one on, one off. M*A*S*H was followed by Brewster McCloud, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller has now been followed by Images. I can hardly wait for his next movie.

Which, it turns out, was The Long Goodbye, his best movie, at least to my eyes, and lasting proof that this kind of approach can pay dividends over the long run. But it also means that you could compile a festival of Altman’s misfires and come away with the impression that he was the worst director in the world.

If I were curating a film festival for my own personal hell, then, I’d approach the problem in Dantesque terms, and feature all of my favorite directors at their worst moments. I’m not talking about movies that are merely disappointing, like Shutter Island, or ambitious failures, like The Fountain or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. We’re looking at the likes of Attack of the Clones or U-Turn or The Ladykillers: movies so dire they make you wonder what you saw in these directors in the first place. They’re films in which virtues are twisted into vices, and the decisions and idiosyncrasies that drew you to a filmmaker’s work become monstrously distorted. In this life, we’re lucky enough to be able to ignore the duds from the artists we admire, and we can judge them only by their best. Hell, however, operates by different rules. In the seventh circle, Dante is confronted by the shade of Brunetto Latini, a man he loved, racing on foot forever through the circle of the sodomites, and although he’s compelled by poetic logic to put him there, it breaks his heart. It’s a special kind of torture to see your heroes’ mistakes without their corresponding successes, and that’s the hell I envision for myself. It even has a name: The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

“It was over in less than a second…”

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"It was over in less than a second..."

Note: This post is the fifteenth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 14. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Violent scenes in a suspense novel are like the big numbers in a Hollywood musical: if they aren’t something that you feel you can write, you might just need to switch genres. I’ve had an ambivalent relationship toward the violence in my own novels for a long time, and I’ve found that I can approach them best as a technical and stylistic challenge that comes with its own set of rules. Writers are often advised, for instance, to keep detailed descriptions of violence to a minimum, which makes intuitive sense. We’re told that suspense and the slow buildup of dread are more effective as narrative tools than a blow-by-blow account of the action, and that any violent moments that we describe can’t compare to the version in the reader’s imagination. This is true enough in itself, but it also raises a few questions of its own. We aren’t advised to avoid describing a beautiful landscape because it won’t be as good as what the reader can imagine; if that were the case, novels would read more like screenplays, with the bare amount of description necessary to get from one plot point to the next. So why is violence any different?

For a clue, we can turn to the work of James M. Cain, arguably the greatest pure stylist that the suspense genre ever produced. I’ve always liked Tom Wolfe’s take on the subject in his introduction to the excellent Cain x 3 anthology, which I recommend to anyone interested in an overview of such essential elements as violence, momentum, and telling detail. Wolfe writes:

The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity are about murders, but Cain takes no relish in the brutality. In Double Indemnity he passes up the blow-by-blow description almost completely, telling the reader, in effect, “The guy breaks the man’s neck—O.K.? Fill in the gasps, gurgles, hyoid snaps, and blue bloat any way you like…” Yet you come away feeling like you have been through a long and extremely violent experience.

For purposes of illustration, here’s the passage that Wolfe is referencing:

I raised up, put my hand over his mouth, and pulled his head back. He grabbed my hand in both of his. The cigar was still in his fingers. I took it with my free hand and handed it to her. She took it. I took one of the crutches and hooked it under his chin. I won’t tell you what I did then. But in two seconds he was curled down on the seat with a broken neck, and not a mark on him except a crease right over his nose, from the crosspiece of the crutch.

"On the top shelf of the closet..."

This is clearly an effective passage, and it exemplifies Cain’s brilliant use of selected details: the cigar in the victim’s hand, the oddly gentle way in which the killer takes the cigar and hands it to his adulterous accomplice, and the final image of the crease over the dead man’s nose, which feels—as Ruskin says of Dante’s description of the centaurs in the Inferno—like the sort of thing that no writer could have thought of unless he’d seen it for himself. But the crucial point here is that Cain’s reticence is less about trusting to the reader’s imagination than a question of pacing and narrative context. The murder isn’t the key element of interest; we’re more curious about the aftermath, as the narrator tries to make it look as if the dead man—who was killed in the driver’s seat of his own car—later went on to board and fall from a moving train. Cain is a master of structure, and he knew that a full description of the murder would only distract the reader’s attention from what really mattered. Violence, in other words, can be as fully described as anything else, but only at points in the narrative that can sustain the full burden of that emotional assault.

Once we start to think of violence as a category in itself, which is likely to overwhelm the rest of the story if it isn’t kept in control, the rationale behind minimizing its description starts to make more sense: it isn’t about squeamishness, or even about allowing the reader’s imagination to do the work, but a matter of emphasis, or of managing a specific kind of scene that would otherwise throw the rest of the work out of balance. Chapter 14 of City of Exiles, for example, contains perhaps the coldest murder in any of my work, in which Renata Russell, who for all her flaws is fundamentally an innocent bystander, is killed by Karvonen solely because she stumbled across something she shouldn’t have seen. The murder itself is over in a few lines, and I described it as obliquely as I could. And although I’m not sure if I was thinking in those terms at the time, looking back, I suspect that I deemphasized it both to highlight the inherent cold-bloodedness of the act—Karvonen himself doesn’t seem particularly bothered by it—and to concentrate on what I found more interesting: the aftermath, the cleanup, and the consequences. Violence draws so much attention to itself that it needs to be reined in, just as a matter of sensible authorial practice, except when it serves as a climax. And we’ve got a real violent climax just around the corner…

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January 23, 2014 at 10:02 am

Agnosticism and the working writer

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Note: To celebrate the third anniversary of this blog, I’ll be spending the week reposting some of my favorite pieces from early in its run. This post originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, on June 6, 2011.

Being an agnostic means all things are possible, even God, even the Holy Trinity. This world is so strange that anything may happen, or may not happen. Being an agnostic makes me live in a larger, a more fantastic kind of world, almost uncanny. It makes me more tolerant.

Jorge Luis Borges, to the New York Times

Of all religious or philosophical convictions, agnosticism, at first glance, is the least interesting to defend. Like political moderates, agnostics get it from both sides, most of all from committed atheists, who tend to regard permanent agnosticism, in the words of Richard Dawkins, as “fence-sitting, intellectual cowardice.” And yet many of my heroes, from Montaigne to Robert Anton Wilson, have identified themselves with agnosticism as a way of life. (Wilson, in particular, called himself an agnostic mystic, which is what you get when an atheist takes a lot of psychedelic drugs.) And while a defense of the philosophical aspects of agnosticism is beyond the scope of this blog—for that, I can direct you to Thomas Huxley, or even to a recent posting by NPR’s Adam Frank, whose position is not far removed from my own—I think I can talk, very tentatively, about its pragmatic benefits, at least from a writer’s point of view.

I started thinking about this again after reading a blog post by Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin, who relates that she was recently talking about the mystical inclinations of W.B. Yeats when a self-proclaimed atheist piped up: “I always get sad for Yeats for his occult beliefs.” As Crispin discusses at length, such a statement is massively condescending, and also weirdly uninsightful. Say what you will about Yeats’s interest in occultism, but there’s no doubt that he found it spectacularly useful. It provided him with symbolic material and a means of engaging the unseen world that most poets are eventually called to explore. The result was a body of work of permanent importance, and one that wouldn’t exist, at least not in its present form, if his life had assumed a different shape. Was it irrational? Sure. But Wallace Stevens aside, strictly rational behavior rarely produces good poets.

I’ve probably said this before, but I’ll say it again: the life of any writer—and certainly that of a poet—is so difficult, so impractical on a cosmic scale, that there’s often a perverse kind of pragmatism in the details. A writer’s existence may look messy from the outside, but that mess is usually the result of an attempt to pick out what is useful from life and reject the rest, governed by one urgent question: Can I use this? If a writer didn’t take his tools wherever he found them, he wouldn’t survive, at least not as an artist. Which is why any kind of ideology, religious or otherwise, can be hard for a writer to maintain. Writers, especially novelists, tend to be dabblers, not so much out of dilettantism—although that can be a factor as well—as from an endless, obsessive gleaning, a rummaging in the world’s attic for useful material, in both art and life. And this process of feathering one’s nest tends to inform a writer’s work as well. What Christopher Hitchens says of Ian McEwan is true of many novelists:

I think that he did, at one stage in his life, dabble a bit in what’s loosely called “New Age,” but in the end it was the rigorous side that won out, and his novels are almost always patrolling some difficult frontier between the speculative and the unseen and the ways in which material reality reimposes itself.

Agnosticism is also useful for another reason, as Borges points out above: tolerance. A novelist needs to write with empathy about people very different from himself, and to vicariously live all kinds of lives, which is harder to do through the lens of an intractable philosophy. We read Dante and Tolstoy despite, not because of, their ideological convictions, and much of the fire of great art comes from the tension between those convictions and the artist’s reluctant understanding of the world. For a writer, dogma is, or should be, the enemy—including dogma about agnosticism itself. In the abstract, it can seem clinical, but in practice, it’s untidy and makeshift, like the rest of a writer’s life. It’s useful only when it exposes itself to a lot of influences and generates a lot of ideas, most unworkable, but some worthy of being pursued. Like democracy, it’s a compromise solution, the best of a bad lot. It doesn’t work all that well, but for a writer, at least for me, it comes closer to working than anything else.

How will you be remembered?

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The Sanders portrait of William Shakespeare

All artists are shaped by the times in which they live, but we don’t always appreciate how deeply their times can be shaped by them—especially once they’re no longer around. To take an obvious example, I don’t think even an educated nonspecialist reader would be able to name such playwrights as Fletcher, Beaumont, John Ford, or even Ben Jonson if they hadn’t lived at the same time as Shakespeare, who stands as the kind of overwhelming figure who brings an entire generation of fellow writers to our attention. (Marlowe, I suspect, is the only one who might be able to hold his own.) I’m not even sure if we’d be as interested in the earlier history of England, or even the Elizabethan age that the poet prudently avoided engaging in his own work, if Shakespeare had never existed. The presence of one major writer may be the only thing that keeps a century alive in our imaginations, and that writer’s identity can often come as a surprise. It’s probably true that we only remember such figures as Oliver Goldsmith and Colley Cibber because of their association with Samuel Johnson, but for a lot of readers, we only know Johnson himself through Boswell.

This is all the more striking in the case of a poet like Dante, thanks to whom countless historical figures—Farinata, Cavalcanti, Bertran de Born—still exist for us solely because they appear in a few lines of the Inferno. Dante, unlike Shakespeare, was aiming for this deliberately: he was keenly aware of how a passage in an epic poem can preserve a name forever, and I’d like to believe, along with Borges, that he wrote the entire Divine Comedy as a way of enshrining a few images of Beatrice Portinari. The earliest function of poetry, at least in its epic form, was to serve as a kind of cultural memory, and it worked; it’s no accident that the oldest historical figure whose name is reasonably known to us is Gilgamesh. The poem remains, even after the civilization and the petty territorial disputes that fueled its indignation have fallen away. To the extent that international readers care at all about the Gulephs and the Ghibellines, it’s because Dante was there at the time. And nothing could have come as a greater surprise to his contemporaries than the fact that they would continue to exist only in the work of a solitary exile.

Illustration by Gustave Doré for Dante's Inferno

Even stranger is the case of the diarist, who, unlike novelists, poets, and playwrights, writes in secret, but whose works can be just as lasting. Countless figures persist only as an offhand mention in the journals of Samuel Pepys, and most of them would be shocked by which details have been passed down to posterity. As W.H. Auden writes in A Certain World:

The historical reputation of a public figure is based upon a large number of known data, some favorable, some unfavorable. Consequently, a single derogatory remark in a contemporary memoir affects his reputation, for better or worse, very little. In the case of an obscure private individual, however, the single derogatory remark may damn him forever, because it is all we shall ever hear about him.

January 3, 1854. In the evening went to a party at Mr. Anfrere’s. Very slow—small rooms, piano out of tune, bad wine, and stupid people.—Benjamin John Armstrong

Poor Mr. Anfrere! No doubt he had many virtues, but to posterity he is simply an incompetent host.

And it’s interesting to see the same process at work in the artists around us. Some authors are deservedly known as chroniclers of their time: in the New Yorker piece I discussed yesterday, Claudia Roth Pierpont regrets that we won’t have a chance to hear Updike or Roth on the age of Obama, thanks respectively to death and retirement. Updike, in particular, was one of our great chroniclers of the everyday, and there are countless scraps of ephemera from the latter half of the twentieth century—advertisements, jingles, products, packages—that live on because they briefly passed through Rabbit’s consciousness. It’s another reason to regret the death of the daily comic strip, which, at its best, preserves this sort of material forever: if I’m aware of such disparate figures as Caspar Weinberger and Jessica Hahn, it’s because of my dogeared Bloom County collections. (The wonderful thing about movies is that they pick up all this incidental detail in the fly, so that time turns the movies of, say, Robert Altman into priceless works of reportage.) We all fight so hard to be remembered, and we think we have a good sense of our achievements, but really, if any memory of us persists at all, it’s likely to be in a form we can’t expect, in the work of someone whose name we’ve never heard.

Should you imitate Dante or Shakespeare?

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Portrait of T.S. Eliot by Irving Penn

When I affirm that more can be learned about how to write poetry from Dante than from any English poet, I do not at all mean that Dante’s way is the only right way, or that Dante is thereby greater than Shakespeare, or, indeed, any other English poet. I put my meaning into other words by saying that Dante can do less harm to any one trying to learn to write verse than can Shakespeare. Most great English poets are inimitable in a way in which Dante was not. If you try to imitate Shakespeare you will certainly produce a series of stilted, forced, and violent distortions of language. The language of each great English poet is his own language; the language of Dante is the perfection of a common language. In a sense, it is more pedestrian than that of Dryden or Pope. If you follow Dante without talent, you will at worst be pedestrian and flat; if you follow Shakespeare or Pope without talent, you will make an utter fool of yourself.

T.S. Eliot, Selected Essays

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May 11, 2013 at 9:50 am

The pleasures of underlining

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The author's copy of Proust

There are some readers who would never dream of marking up a book’s pristine pages, but I’m an inveterate underliner. In some ways, I don’t think I’ve really read a book until I’ve had a chance to go through it with a pen. Back in high school and college, I tended to underline books in their entirety, and when I look back at my old copies of Dante or The Anatomy of Melancholy, it can be hard to find an unmarked sentence. This might seem to defeat the practical purpose of highlighting selected passages, but I wasn’t thinking in terms of later reference: it was my way of blazing a trail, of reminding myself how far I’d gone into Dante’s dark forest. Underlining a phrase leaves a distinct, permanent signpost for my future self long after the details of the book have faded. These days, my memory for what I’ve read is spotty at best, but when I open a book and see a passage I’ve marked, I know for sure that I’ve been there.

But I’m a little more selective about what I underline now than I was a decade ago. With nonfiction, I tend to focus on striking facts or insights, especially if I think they might be helpful later, either because I might put them in a story or because they offer useful perspectives or advice. (Many of the Quotes of the Day on this blog were originally found this way.) When I’m doing research for a novel, underlining serves a clear purpose: I’ll usually read through the book once, marking whatever catches my eye, then go back over it again to transfer the major points onto notecards. I’ve found that it saves time to indicate important passages with a thin pen or pencil line in the margin, much as readers of an earlier era scored the page with their thumbnails, which allows me to quickly flip through the book to find what I’ve marked. And a passage that seemed only mildly interesting at the time can later turn out to have enormous resonance. When I’m trying to figure out the plot of a novel, I always go through my old notecards to see if there’s anything I can salvage, and something I wrote down in passing will often have an important role to play years later.

The author's copy of Walden

With fiction, the process is a little harder to pin down. The real test is whether I think an underlined passage will give me pleasure when I come back to it in the future, and I’ll often hesitate for a second before committing myself. It might seem like I’m overthinking it, but I’ve found that looking back through a book I’ve selectively underlined is one of my great joys as a reader. When I revisit my marked copies of Proust or Thoreau, with my eye skipping from one passage to the next, I hit all the high points at once, and whenever I’m reading this way, I never want to do anything else. Just opening The Magic Mountain at random, for instance, I find this:

On the whole, however, it seemed to him that although honor had its advantages, so, too, did disgrace, and that indeed the advantages of the latter were almost boundless.

Even more interesting is when I come across a passage that I don’t remember, and which at first glance doesn’t seem to hold much of interest. If I look more closely, however, I’ll often find that it struck me for reasons that have since lost their urgency, leaving a fossil or snapshot of my emotional life at the time. The result is the closest thing I have to an intellectual autobiography. When I underline a book, it becomes a part of me.

As a result, most of the books I’ve bought in the last ten years are full of highlighted passages, as well as notes on the endpapers, where I’ll often jot ideas or observations if I don’t have a notebook handy. (Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve even been known to lightly underline library books, although only in pencil, and I always go back to erase my work once I’m done.) And it isn’t nearly the same in a Kindle, although it can be interesting to see what other readers have marked. Underlining a physical book brings the hand and the mind into a sort of temporary harmony, and I often feel, rightly or not, that I’m reading more deeply or attentively when I’m holding a pen. Just as I think it’s important to use pen and paper whenever possible while writing, I take pains to keep reading a tactile experience: marking it by hand turns a book from one of thousands of identical objects into something that belongs to me alone, and in the end, it comes to feel like a living being, or a friend.

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May 7, 2013 at 9:50 am

Turning pages both ways

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Infinite Jest

A physical book is a wonderful object, but one of its less appreciated features is the fact that you can easily turn pages in both directions. Most works of narrative art unfold in a fixed fashion—unless you pause and rewind, you can’t go back to an earlier scene of a television show or movie to clarify a point you missed, and you’re even more stuck if you’re watching a play—but printed books, while superficially linear, give you easy access to every page at once. In theory, so do electronic editions, but in practice, they’re less accessible than they seem, especially if, like me, you tend to remember where you read something earlier based on its physical location, and spend a minute or two scanning the bottom of every page on the left until you find the part you remember. Kindle books are great for a lot of things, but they aren’t especially good for skimming, and there’s something particularly satisfying about going back in a book to reread an earlier section while holding your current place with a finger.

Books weren’t always like this: the earliest extended works on parchment or papyrus were scrolls, which made it a little more difficult to skip back to the beginning. And the tangible properties of a conveniently bound volume are what make certain kinds of storytelling possible. When reading Infinite Jest, the first thing that strikes most readers, aside from its sheer size, is its back matter, which takes up close to a hundred pages of closely printed notes at the end of the book. Most of us probably wish that the notes were a little more accessible, as did Dave Eggers, who observes of his first experience reading it: “It was frustrating that the footnotes were at the end of the book, rather than at the bottom of the page.” Yet this wasn’t an accident. According to a New Yorker profile of the late author, Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch, suggested that readers might find footnotes less cumbersome, but Wallace was adamant, saying that endnotes would “allow/make the reader go literally physically ‘back and forth’ in a way that perhaps cutely mimics some of the story’s thematic concerns.”

A page from Dictionary of the Khazars

Well, it is cute, but it also works: the notes exist as a kind of parallel but separate entity, discursive and digressive, in a way that wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if Wallace has put them at the bottom of the page, as Nicholson Baker did in The Mezzanine. They also make the notion of the novel’s “end” deliberately unclear. And I don’t think it would have the same impact in electronic form, with each note provided with a convenient link: much of the meaning of Wallace’s notes comes from the act of departure, in which we temporarily escape from the main continent of the text to visit a nearby peninsula. Similarly, books like Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, or Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which essentially demand constant nonlinear navigation through the text, would lose much of their power on Kindle. We’re so used to moving from one link to another online that any structural novelty the books possess would disappear, or be rendered invisible, if they were read on a tablet or screen.

In fact, it’s these weird, nonlinear antibooks that paradoxically make the strongest case for books as a physical medium. These stories push deliberately against the constraints of their form, but that doesn’t mean they want to be liberated: they gain their significance from the act of turning pages back and forth. And there’s a related point here that needs to be stressed. There’s been a lot of discussion about the future of the book, and of how novels and stories can fully utilize the act of reading online. But all of our great novels are hypertexts already. As far back as Dante, you had an author who was hoping to be read both vertically and horizontally—each canto in The Divine Comedy has thematic parallels with the canto of the same number in the two other sections—and any reader of Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow ends up confronting every part of the text in relation to any other. Which implies, at least to me, that the true future of the electronic novel is one that pushes the other way: toward an unnatural linearity that removes the possibility of going back. Of course, I have no idea how this would look. But it’s exciting to think about.

All I want for Christmas

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Beatrix Evelyn Nevala-Lee, my daughter, was born in Chicago in the early morning of December 19. Both mom and baby are doing fine. Beatrix, as astute readers may have already guessed, is named for both one of my favorite figures in world literature and one of my favorite characters from any recent movie, both of them strong female role models. “Evelyn” was chosen largely because it goes nicely with my last name—nobody seems to know what it means, with derivations ranging from a variant of “Ava” to the French for “hazelnut”—and it also allows me to pretend that she was named after Evelyn Beatrice Hall, the English biographer best known for a famous fake quotation from Voltaire.

She’s less than a week old, but I’m learning something new from Beatrix every day, and it was clear from the moment I first looked into her eyes that my life would never be the same. I expect that the changes will be visible both on this blog and in my other work, and I’m looking forward to sharing some of my discoveries here. As an author, the greatest lesson I’ve taken away so far is that even after a lifetime of writing, there are still fundamental things about human existence that I have yet to experience firsthand, and I have a feeling that even my best work will start to feel, in retrospect, like only a fraction of the story. But if nothing else, to quote another great fictional character, Beatrix is already the best thing my name has ever been attached to.

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December 24, 2012 at 9:50 am

The better part of valor

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This morning, I published an essay in The Daily Beast on Karl Rove’s curious affection for the great Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, a connection that I’ve found intriguing ever since Rove mentioned it two years ago in a Proust questionnaire for Vanity Fair. Borges, as I’ve mentioned before, is one of my favorite writers, and it’s surprising, to say the least, to find myself agreeing with Rove on something so fundamental. It’s also hard to imagine two men who have less in common. While Rove jumped with both feet into a political career, and was cheerfully engaging in dirty tricks before he was out of college, Borges survived the Peron regime largely by keeping his head down, and in later years seemed pointedly detached from events in Argentina. It’s a mistake to think of him as an entirely apolitical writer—few authors of his time wrote more eloquently against the rise of Nazism—but it’s clear that for much of his life, he just wanted to be left alone. As a result, he’s been criticized, and not without reason, for literally turning a blind eye on the atrocities of the Dirty War, claiming that his loss of eyesight made it impossible to read the newspapers.

This policy of avoidance is one that we often see in the greatest writers, who prudently decline to engage in politics, often for reasons of survival. Shakespeare was more than willing, when the occasion demanded it, to serve as the master of revels for the crown, but as Harold Bloom points out, he carefully avoided any treatment of the political controversies of his time, perhaps mindful of the cautionary fate of Christopher Marlowe. Discretion, as Falstaff advises us, is the better part of valor, and also of poetry, at least if the poet wants to settle into a comfortable retirement in Stratford. Dante, Shakespeare’s only peer among Western poets, might seem like an exception to the rule—he certainly didn’t shy away from political attacks—but his most passionate jeremiads were composed far from Florence. “Beyond a doubt he was the wisest, most resolute man of his time,” Erich Auerbach writes. “According to the Platonic principle which is still valid whenever a man is manifestly endowed with the gift of leadership, he was born to rule; however, he did not rule, but led a life of solitary poverty.”

Borges, too, chose exile, spending his declining years overseas, and finally died in Geneva. It’s a pattern that we see repeatedly in the lives of major poets and artists, especially those who emerge from nations with a history of political strife. The great works of encyclopedic fiction, as Edward Mendelson reminds us, tend to be written beyond the borders of the countries they document so vividly: the closing words of Ulysses, the encyclopedia of Dublin, are “Trieste-Zurich-Paris.” This is partly the product of sensible caution, but it’s also a professional necessity. Most creative work is founded on solitude, quiet, and a prudent detachment from the world, and any degree of immersion in politics tends to destroy the delicate thread of thought necessary for artistic production. Even when writers are tempted by worldly power, they’re usually well aware of the consequences. Norman Mailer, writing of his doomed run for mayor of New York, observes of himself, in the third person: “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.”

In the end, as Mailer notes acidly, “He came in fourth in a field of five, and politics was behind him.” Which is all for the best—otherwise, we never would have gotten The Executioner’s Song or Of a Fire on the Moon, not to mention Ancient Evenings, which is the sort of foolhardy masterpiece, written over the course of a decade, that could only be written by a man whose political ambitions have been otherwise frustrated. Besides, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, novelists don’t make good politicians. And their work is often the better for it. In the case of Borges, there’s no question that much of what makes him great—his obsession with ideas, his receptivity to the structures of speculative fiction, his lifelong dialogue with all of world literature—arose from this tactical refusal to engage in politics. Unable or unwilling to criticize the government, he turned instead to a life of ideas, leaving behind a body of extraordinary fiction defined as much by what it leaves out as by what it includes. And I don’t think any sympathetic reader would want it any other way.

Dante, builder of worlds

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During my first semester in college, along with classes on Latin, expository writing, and, for some reason, the literature of science in the English Renaissance, I took a class on Dante. At that point, my knowledge of Dante was very limited: I’d read the Inferno, in the comically inadequate prose translation included in my set of the Great Books of the Western World, but it was easy to see that this was one work where I’d benefit from a more guided approach. The class I took, taught by Professor Lino Pertile, was that and more: it was a transformative experience that set the tone for the next four years of my life. People go to college for all kinds of reasons, but what I wanted, in the most earnest way possible, was to enter a world of ideas. And while it’s always good to be taken by the hand and led through a major work by a talented teacher, at that moment, Dante, in the excellent translation of Allen Mandelbaum, came to represent both the life of the mind that I wanted and an adventure that I alone had survived.

The result, weirdly enough, is that I’ve come to regard the poem that Borges has called “the most justifiable and the most solid book of all literature” as something like my own personal property, and an intimate part of my own life. Some of this is due to the fact that Dante, as far as I can tell, is rarely taught in American public schools, and if he is, students invariably stop at the Inferno, which is only part of the story. But even more important is the conviction, which is hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t read the Comedy, that I somehow lived this story with Dante. You can approach this poem from any number of angles, but the really strange thing is how convincing it all is. I know that Dante is essentially writing fantasy, albeit with a theologically unimpeachable grounding in Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, but I still sometimes find it hard to believe that the historical Dante Alighieri didn’t actually experience the journey he describes here. Because if you want to talk about world-building, this is by far the greatest example in all of literature.

How does he do it? Dante is a reminder, perhaps the ultimate one, that the greatest philosophical conceptions can be less persuasive than a single well-chosen detail. In some ways, the elaborate architecture of Dante’s afterlife is the least impressive part of the poem: many theologians of Dante’s time, or fantasy writers today, would be capable of constructing the nine circles of hell, but few, if any, would be able to imagine Chiron, the centaur, dividing his shaggy beard with the arrow in his hands before he can talk. (Ruskin called this image “a thing that no mortal would ever have thought of, if he had not seen the centaur do it.”) Dante is full of such astonishing, concrete, mysterious touches, including his poem’s most controversial aspect, the meting out of divine justice after death. Far from simply condemning his enemies and rewarding his friends, Dante uses his choices to convey the incomprehensibility of the divine mind: he punishes men he loved in life, like Brunetto Latini, and elevates Ripheus, a figure who appears in two lines in the Aeneid, to the level of the highest saints, as if to represent how little we can really know about God’s intentions.

Of all the many tributes to Dante, I stumbled across one of the strongest only the other day, in the chapter “Farinata and Cavalcante” in Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis. Auerbach is an unparalleled close reader, with an attention to detail that borders on the absurd (he describes one of Dante’s phrases as “a future clause of adhortative import with an adverbial qualifier”), so it’s all the more powerful when he opens up into unstinting praise:

But if we start from his predecessors, Dante’s language is a well-nigh incomprehensible miracle. There were great poets among them. But, compared with theirs, his style is so immeasurably richer in directness, vigor, and subtlety, he knows and uses such an immeasurably greater stock of forms, he expresses the most varied phenomena and subjects with such immeasurably superior assurance and firmness, that we come to the conclusion that this man used his language to discover the world anew.

This sense of both discovering and building an entire world, like the cycle of dream creation described in Inception, is one that all writers of fantastic fiction have tried to create, but none has done it better than Dante. As a result, even today, when I haven’t read the Comedy in many years, its images still burn in my imagination, as if I’d been to hell and back myself. To an extent that no other work of art has matched, it’s a world made of words. And it’s a journey that every writer needs to take.

Written by nevalalee

February 15, 2012 at 10:46 am

Quote of the Day

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Beyond a doubt [Dante] was the wisest, most resolute man of his time; according to the Platonic principle which is still valid whenever a man is manifestly endowed with the gift of leadership, he was born to rule; however, he did not rule, but led a life of solitary poverty.

Erich Auerbach, Dante: Poet of the Secular World

Written by nevalalee

October 5, 2011 at 7:37 am

“Previously, on Dante’s Inferno…”

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There’s an amusing tradition, at least as old as Boccaccio, that Dante wrote the first seven cantos of the Inferno before his exile from Florence, and then took up the story again with Canto VIII, after a gap of months or years in the writing process. To mark the resumption of his work, Dante opens the canto with the words Io dico, seguitando: “I say, continuing…” The story is almost certainly apocryphal, but it’s as good an illustration as I know for the fact that long stretches of inactivity may interrupt a writer’s work on a novel, or any long writing project, but that the final result needs to look as continuous as possible. (Unless, of course, you’re aiming for an impression of discontinuity, which may also be an illusion.)

Gaps can occur in the writing process for all sorts of reasons. Usually, it’s because other obligations of life or work have gotten in the way. Sometimes it’s because you feel inspiration flagging and decide to work on another project for a while instead. Or, most frighteningly, it’s because you’ve hit a wall, don’t know where to go with the story, and feel compelled to set it aside for a long time, possibly forever. (John Gardner was unable to work on one of his novels for months because he couldn’t decide if a certain character would accept a drink offered to her at a cocktail party.) And whatever the reason, when you do go back to work, you’ll often find that it’s hard to pick up again precisely where you left off.

This last problem is one that I’ve often encountered, simply because of the way I approach long writing projects. As I’ve said before, I tend to outline in great detail, but I also like being surprised by the story, and it’s hard to reconcile these two impulses. The only solution I’ve found, which has worked well enough for me so far, has been to outline the novel in installments: I’ll put together a detailed outline for Part I, then write that section of the novel, with only a vague sense of what happens in Part II. Then, once I’ve finished the first section, I’ll repeat the process for the next part. This way, I have the structure I need for each day’s work, but I’ve also retained the possibility of surprise, even if it means going back and heavily revising what I’ve written before.

But how do you pick up the thread of a story after taking such a long time off? In my experience, it helps to do what Dante did, or is alleged to have done: write a page or two tacitly acknowledging that you’re returning to the story after a long absence—a transitional scene, a long description, even a recapitulation of what has happened so far—as long as you revise it into invisibility in a subsequent draft. After all, this is only an extreme version of what happens every day when you’re writing a first draft, much of which consists of transitional material that you need to ease yourself into and out of the fictional dream. Nearly all of this stuff, especially at the beginning and end of each scene, will need to be cut. Which is fine. Nobody will ever see it but you. And once its purpose is served, like a military bridge, it can be blown to smithereens. The important thing, the only thing, is to get to the other side.

Written by nevalalee

April 11, 2011 at 9:52 am

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