Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Graham Greene

From Rolling Stone to Brighton Rock

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I haven’t had the chance recently to read much for my own pleasure, but as soon as I have enough time and distance from my current project, I’m hoping to check out Sticky Fingers, the new biography of Jann Wenner by Joe Hagan. Part of my interest lies in professional curiosity—it’s hard to imagine two men less alike than Wenner and John W. Campbell, but both were powerful magazine editors who shaped the culture out of a combination of vision and good timing—and its backstory is unusually intriguing. As the New York Times reported shortly before the book’s release:

Two previous attempts at an authorized Wenner biography had come to nothing. In 2003, Mr. Wenner enlisted Lewis MacAdams, a longtime friend and former Rolling Stone contributor, only to pull out after reading a few hundred pages…In 2011, a similar arrangement with the Rolling Stone writer and author Rich Cohen made it to the proposal phase—Spiegel & Grau offered a reported $1 million—before Mr. Wenner revoked his cooperation.

If nothing else, Hagan went into the book with both eyes open, and he evidently did everything that he could to thread a difficult needle, as the Times article notes: “When he was in the final stages of writing this year he prepared a memo detailing ‘every instance in which [Wenner] had sex with anybody in the book’ and anything else ‘super personal.’” It didn’t work, and Wenner has refused to promote or endorse the result, of which he says: “My hope was that this book would provide a record for future generations of that extraordinary time. Instead, [Hagan] produced something deeply flawed and tawdry, rather than substantial.”

Wenner’s reaction doesn’t seem to have adversely affected the book’s critical or commercial reception, which has been very positive, but it inevitably sheds light on the fraught relationship between a biographer and a living subject. Perhaps the most fascinating case in recent memory is that of Norman Sherry and Graham Greene, which produced three massive biographical volumes that I confess I’ve only sampled in places. In his preface to the first book, Sherry describes his initial encounters with Greene with an air of intimacy that seems harmless enough:

[Greene said] with what I am sure was the instinctive decision of a novelist, “If I were to have my biography written, I would choose you,” and later, as we parted in Brook Street, he made up his mind. I was to be his biographer, and we shook hands on it…It was only very gradually that a mutual trust developed and I think it was expressed when we were crossing St. James’s Street in London and narrowly escaped being knocked down by a taxi. He said, “You almost lost your subject there,” and I replied, “That’s not half as bad as losing your biographer.” He laughed and I knew we had become friends.

Greene, like Wenner, was particularly guarded about his sex life, later writing to Sherry from the Royal Albion Hotel in Brighton to ask him “not to interview certain women he had known.” (Wenner asked Hagan to omit “the name of the woman with whom he had lost his virginity.”) And although Greene didn’t live to see the final volume, it led to a similar dispute with with the writer’s family, as well as a bizarre controversy over Sherry’s exclusive access to Greene’s papers that hinged, according to a great gossipy article in the New York Times, on a single comma.

Some of the criticisms voiced by Greene’s relatives are strikingly reminiscent of those leveled against Hagan. Both biographers have been accused of inordinate attention to their subjects’ sexual activity. “His obsession with brothels far surpasses that of his supposed subject,” Greene’s son said of Sherry, while Joe Landau of Rolling Stone feels that Hagan went too far in his treatment of sex: “I believe Jann was entitled to expect a little more empathy from his biographer. To me it’s a question of degree and tone.” (In this line, I can’t resist mentioning the passage from Sherry in which he quotes Mario Soldati, the Italian movie director, who says that he spent his last conversation with Greene “confessing the varieties of oral sex we’d performed,” which I frankly find hard to imagine.) Sherry was also accused of inserting himself gratuitously into his work:

Mr. Sherry has interjected himself into the narrative, dropped in bits of his own poetry, even included a picture of himself riding on a donkey in Mexico as he retraced Greene’s research for the novel The Power and the Glory…“This book is not about Graham Greene, but about Sherry,” Greene’s son and literary executor, Francis, 67, said.

Many biographers have succumbed to this temptation, but Sherry didn’t do himself any favors, saying in response to the accusation that he minimized Greene’s relationship with his son: “I was the nearest thing to being a son to him as could possibly be.” Sherry claimed to have ruined his health and his personal life in his pursuit of his subject, and he summed it all up in words that would do equal credit to a biographer or a serial killer: “I often felt I must be him. I lived within him.”

On the other hand, I could list examples of the ambivalence of biographers toward their subjects for days. There’s Peter Manso, whom I’ve quoted here so often recently, who used the long afterword to the reissue of his oral biography of Norman Mailer primarily as a means of settling scores. And then there’s Roger Lewis, who seems to have realized about halfway through writing a biography of Anthony Burgess that he hated his subject. If familiarity breeds contempt, few people would have more reason to be contemptuous, as Lewis implies:

The sum of the parts [of an artist’s work] will not be greater than the totality—and nor is it, with Burgess. Though his work demonstrates great versatility, the versatility is always the same. To read one’s way through all of Burgess’s work (and how many have done that—except me?) is to make a startling discovery. It’s all the same.

I’ve never forgotten that aside: “And how many have done that—except me?” This is something that most biographers have probably caught themselves thinking, and if there’s a common denominator between the cases that I’ve mentioned, it’s that they all hinge on the fundamental weirdness of an enterprise that requires the writer to spend years “living within” someone else. If that person is alive, it can lead both to resistance from the subjects—who naturally see the work as an uncanny valley version of themselves—and to excessive identification by the writer. The victim, in both cases, is the work itself. Neither subject nor biographer, it seems, can be trusted to read the book objectively. And it may be as much a matter of luck as professionalism if the result ever ends up being close to the truth.

The simplicity of excitement

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Graham Greene

Excitement is simple: excitement is a situation, a single event. It mustn’t be wrapped up in thoughts, similes, metaphors. A simile is a form of reflection, but excitement is of the moment when there is no time to reflect. Action can only be expressed by a subject, a verb, and an object, perhaps a rhythm—little else. Even an adjective slows the pace or tranquilizes the nerve. I should have turned to Stevenson to learn my lesson: “It came all of a sudden when it did, with a rush of feet and a roar, and then a shout from Alan, and the sound of blows and someone crying as if hurt. I looked back over my shoulder, and saw Mr. Shuan in the doorway crossing blades with Alan.” No similes or metaphors there, not even an adjective. But I was too concerned with “the point of view” to be aware of simpler problems, to know that the sort of  novel I was trying to write, unlike a poem, was not made with words but with movement, action, character. Discrimination in one’s words is certainly required, but not love of one’s words—that is a form of self-love, a fatal love which leads a young writer to the excesses of Charles Morgan and Lawrence Durrell, and, looking back to this period of my life, I can see that I was in danger of taking their road. I was only saved by failure.

Graham Greene, A Sort of Life

Written by nevalalee

February 18, 2017 at 7:30 am

Looking for quarters

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Robert Anton Wilson

In his odd, unclassifiable book Prometheus Rising, the writer Robert Anton Wilson, who has long been one of my intellectual heroes, proposes the following experiment:

1. Visualize a quarter vividly, and imagine vividly that you are going to find the quarter on the street. Then, look for the quarter every time you take a walk, meanwhile continuing to visualize it. See how long it takes you to find the quarter.

2. Explain the above experiment by the hypothesis of “selective attention”—that is, believe there are lots of lost quarters everywhere and you were bound to find one by continually looking. Go looking for a second quarter.

3. Explain the experiment by the alternative “mystical” hypothesis that “mind controls everything.” Believe that you made the quarter manifest in this universe. Go looking for a second quarter.

Wilson closes, crucially, by asking the reader to compare how long it takes to find the second quarter using either of the two hypotheses. And while I suspect that most of us instinctively come down in favor of one or the other model of reality, the whole point of Wilson’s exercise is to cultivate a healthy skepticism even—or especially—about what seems the most obvious.

Because there’s another, very similar exercise that’s much harder to dismiss. It involves going out into the world and looking, not for quarters, but ideas—and in particular for the kind of ideas that a writer needs when working on a story, which I think we can agree are worth more than a quarter apiece. These can range from a premise for an entire novel to solutions to specific narrative problems to self-contained observations of the kind that novelists use to fill out the fictional dream. Most writers don’t leave the house each day in the state of active visualization that Wilson describes, but what actually happens isn’t all that different: when you’re working on a writing project, your attentiveness to everything is subtly heightened, and you find yourself stumbling across useful material more often than seems explicable by chance. (A writer’s life can be seen as an ongoing experiment in observation: you alternate between stretches of work and inactivity, and you quickly become aware of the difference this makes in how you see the world.) You’ll frequently come across a detail or combination of ideas, totally by accident, that fits the story you’re developing so perfectly that it seems as if the universe is conspiring in your favor. There isn’t a writer who hasn’t felt this. And when we ask ourselves the same question that Wilson poses about those quarters, we find that the answer is harder to pin down. Is this a case of selective attention, with the writer finding more ideas because he or she is continually looking? Or has the writer’s mind somehow made these concepts manifest in the world?

John Updike

I don’t think that the answer to this question is at all clear—which, I might add, is the secret moral behind Wilson’s exercise with the quarters. You could argue that whatever a writer puts into a story is something that already exists, if the result is meant to be an accurate reflection of human life, and that a writer’s ability lies in how fluently he or she can translate these common impressions into words. Graham Greene, whom I quoted here earlier this morning, was famously annoyed by reviewers who described his works as taking place in an imaginary “Greeneland,” and he countered: “They call it Greeneland, as though it bore no relation to the real world. And yet, one is simply trying to describe the real world as accurately as one sees it.” Which is true enough. But it also feels like a mistake to think of a novelist merely as a sedate repackager of sensory data. This applies to professional noticers like Nabokov or Updike, who seem to be willing quarters into existence that can be collected and spent as cold hard cash, but also to writers like Tolstoy, whose appeal rests on the illusion that he’s delivering reality to the reader with a minimum of authorial interference. There’s an element of active intervention even in fiction that defines itself as reportage, and it gets even stickier when you venture into nonfiction, which depends on the discovery, selection, and arrangement of details that no one else has collated before. It’s critical, even central, to nonfiction’s authority to imply that those quarters were there on the ground all along, but it often seems as if the writer has conjured them out of thin air. Which doesn’t mean that they aren’t legal tender.

All I know is that you find more ideas in certain states of mind than in others, which is a good argument for having a project brewing at all times. In fact, when writers are told that they should write every day, it’s less about the number of words produced or the habit of working—which are undeniably important in themselves—than about cultivating an intensity of awareness that persists even when you aren’t at your desk. (Note that it’s unclear which way the causal arrow runs: you could argue that an inhumanly fertile writer like Updike produced so many stories because he was noticing things all the time, but you could also say, with equal plausibility, that he was noticing things all the time because he was always writing a story.) It might even be worthwhile to conduct an experiment of the kind that Wilson proposes, and to see which approach is more effective: the writer as a transparent eyeball, or as an active inventor of meaning. In practice, you often find yourself alternating between one mindset and the other, as if you were switching between views of a Necker cube, which is ultimately a strategy for keeping your sanity intact. One is about receptivity, the other about imposition, and you can run into trouble if you neglect either one. But it’s also worth remembering that ideas exist to be used. All too many aspiring writers end up with the equivalent of a big jar of coins that never gets taken to the bank, or with something like fairy gold, which leaves the owner with nothing but a handful of withered blossoms at dawn. It’s important to find all the quarters you can. But it’s also important to spend them.

Written by nevalalee

April 4, 2016 at 9:58 am

Quote of the Day

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Graham Greene

All that we can easily recognize as our experience in a novel is mere reporting: it has a place, but an unimportant one. It provides an anecdote, it fills in gaps in the narrative. It may legitimately provide a background, and sometimes we have to fall back on it when the imagination falters. Perhaps a novelist has a greater ability to forget than other men—he has to forget or become sterile. What he forgets is the compost of the imagination.

Graham Greene, A Sort of Life

Written by nevalalee

April 4, 2016 at 7:30 am

My ten great movies #8: The Third Man

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Even for passionate movie lovers, two things tend to date the classic films of the thirties and forties: their sets, with the inescapable smell of the studio, and their orchestral scores, which to modern ears tend to sound depressingly alike. It’s quite possible, then, that we have both the city of Vienna and Anton Karas to thank for the fact that The Third Man still seems so fresh. The zither score, combined with the extraordinary locations, result in a film that seems both utterly of its time and completely modern—and one that requires less of a mental adjustment to enjoy than any other movie of its era I know. Combine this with Graham Greene’s great script, with its uncredited contributions from Orson Welles and others, and we have what is both the breeziest and darkest of noirs, a film I love so much that I steal from it directly both in my novelette “Kawataro” and the conclusion of my novel City of Exiles.

Everyone knows how completely Welles dominates the movie with only a reel or so of screen time—which, while delicious, seems much more of its period than the rest of the film—to the point where our memory of Harry Lime tends to overshadow the rest of the cast: Joseph Cotten, the very moving Alida Valli, and especially Trevor Howard as Major Calloway, who contributes perhaps the film’s most stylish performance. The big moments—Harry’s entrance, the ferris wheel scene, the great closing shot—are deservedly famous, but I also like the small touches: the wizened little boy with the ball; the moment when Sgt. Paine (the wonderful Bernard Lee) loads the picture of a rhinoceros into the slide projector by mistake; or the glimpses we get into the work of hack writer Holly Martens though the eyes of his admiring readers: “I never knew there were snake charmers in Texas.” But as Carol Reed’s great film reminds us, there are certainly snakes in Vienna. And they’re very charming.

Tomorrow: The triumph of the studio system.

Written by nevalalee

May 13, 2015 at 9:00 am

How do you know when you’re done?

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The Unfinished Span by Otto August Kuhler

If the scariest image in the world, as Stephen King likes to point out, is a closed door, a blank page can’t be far behind. I’ve had to face one nearly every day for the last decade or so of my life, and although I no longer regard it with the dread I once did, some residual fear still remains, especially for the few few minutes before I start work every morning. The fact that I’ve managed to fill that page so many times before somehow doesn’t carry much weight when it comes time to do it again: I usually feel a little nervous when I type the opening sentence of a new story or chapter, as if this, of all days, will be the one where the magic finally fails. The fact that it generally doesn’t, and I’m always able to get at least a rough version down on paper after the usual length of time, has nothing to do with talent or inspiration. It’s more a result of the handful of tricks I’ve learned that actually work when it comes to filling that empty expanse. And although it might seem that a writer’s primary problem is figuring out how to get started, I’ve found instead that the real challenge—and the key to unlocking what limited reserves of productivity I have—is knowing in advance when I’ll be done.

This means having a general idea of how the project will look when I’m finished, in full awareness that the final version will probably take a form that I can’t anticipate. The most obvious variable here is length, and I’ve found it useful to set down a target—whether in words, paragraphs, or pages—for the first draft, basing the estimate mostly on pieces I’ve done before. For a blog post, I aim to generate about four paragraphs of text; for essays or articles, ten to twelve paragraphs; for novelettes, ten to twelve thousand words; for a novel, fifty to sixty chapters of somewhat less than two thousand words each. This kind of writing by numbers may seem mechanical, but that’s part of the point. The final length of any piece of writing is always determined at the revision stage: I tend to cut more than I add, but individual sections often end up being longer or more involved than they were the first time around. Yet setting an arbitrary length for the first draft of a project gives me a kind of template, a certain square footage of canvas on which I can start sketching. 

Nicolas Cage in Adaptation

That’s also the real reason I love outlines so much. An outline isn’t really about laying down a fixed plan: everything I’ve ever written has deviated, in large ways or small, from its initial conception. It’s more like a list of benchmarks, or points in the narrative where I can pause, knowing that I’ve done my work for the day. If I place so much emphasis on the idea of a plot as a series of clear objectives, it’s as much of a courtesy for the writer as the reader. Structuring the plot as a sequence of problems gives the reader a thread to follow, but it also provides the writer with a crucial map and compass. Its great advantage is that it gives you unambiguous information about what remains to be done. If the problem is solved, the story, or the scene, is over; if it isn’t, it probably isn’t. Obviously, there are all kinds of exceptions—not every story or scene needs to end with the protagonist getting what he or she wants—but having those markers along the way makes the road easier to travel. And just three or four pieces of information can make the difference between a formless string of events and a story whose ultimate shape, while still open to change, can be dimly glimpsed from the start.

After you’ve done it a few times, it gets progressively easier to intuit how the final product should look. I tend to turn to my old work for a sense of how long something new will be—I figure that if I’ve written one decent 10,000-word story, I should be able to do another—and I’ve come to understand my own rhythms as an author, which include the lengths in which I’m most comfortable working. I don’t have a lot of experience, for instance, with very short fiction; I like having the additional breathing room for development and payoff that a novelette provides. When I’m uncertain about other parts of the process, which is most of the time, I’ll stick to the forms that I’ve come to know best. Over the longer run, of course, it’s necessary to break out of the routines you’ve established, which may involve starting a project when you don’t know what the final form will be. (And there’s no shame in taking works by other writers as a model, much as the author Harry Crews broke down Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair scene by scene.) But when it comes to filling that blank page, the best approach is still putting one foot in front of the other, moving toward a goal you’ve laid out clearly on the map, even if it turns out to be in a different country entirely.

Written by nevalalee

November 14, 2013 at 8:45 am

Posted in Writing

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Quote of the Day

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Graham Greene

My two fingers on a typewriter have never connected with my brain. My hand on a pen does. A fountain pen, of course. Ballpoint pens are only good for filling out forms on a plane.

Graham Greene

Written by nevalalee

October 16, 2013 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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