Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John Fowles

Quote of the Day

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June 12, 2017 at 7:30 am

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On not knowing what you’re doing

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Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs

A few days ago, I stumbled across the little item that The Onion ran shortly after the death of Steve Jobs: “Last American Who Knew What The Fuck He Was Doing Dies.” It’s especially amusing to read it now, at a time when the cult of adulation that surrounded Jobs seems to be in partial retreat. These days, it’s impossible to find an article about, say, the upcoming biopic written by Aaron Sorkin without a commenter bringing up all the usual counterarguments: Jobs was fundamentally a repackager and popularizer of other people’s ideas, he was a bully and a bad boss, he hated to share credit, he benefited enormously from luck and good timing, and he pushed a vision of simplicity and elegance that only reduces the user’s freedom of choice. There’s a lot of truth to these points. Yet the fact remains that Jobs did know what he was doing, or at least that he carefully cultivated the illusion that he did, and he left a void in the public imagination that none of his successors have managed to fill. He was fundamentally right about a lot of things for a very long time, and the legacy he left continues to shape our lives, in ways both big and small, one minute after another.

And that Onion headline has been rattling around in my head for most of the week, because I often get the sense I don’t really know what I’m doing, as a writer, as a dad, or as a human being. I do my best to stick to the channel, as Stanislavski would say: I follow the rules I know, maintain good habits, make my lists, and seek out helpful advice wherever I can find it. I have what I think is a realistic sense of my own strengths and weaknesses; I’m a pretty good writer and a pretty good father. But there’s no denying that writing a novel and raising a child are tasks of irreducible complexity, particularly when you’re trying to do both at the same time. Writing, like parenting, imposes a state of constant creative uncertainty: just because you had one good idea or wrote a few decent pages yesterday is no guarantee that you’ll be able to do the same today. If I weren’t fundamentally okay with that, I wouldn’t be here. But there always comes a time when I find myself repeating that line from Calvin and Hobbes I never tire of quoting: “I don’t think I’d have been in such a hurry to reach adulthood if I’d known the whole thing was going to be ad-libbed.”

John Fowles

My only consolation is that I’m not alone. Recently, I’ve been rereading The Magus by John Fowles, a novel that made a huge impression on me when I first encountered it over twenty years ago. In places, it feels uncomfortably like the first work of a young man writing for other young men, but it still comes off as spectacularly assured, which is why it’s all the more striking to read what Fowles has to say about it in his preface:

My strongest memory is of constantly having to abandon drafts because of an inability to describe what I wanted…The Magus remains essentially where a tyro taught himself to write novels—beneath its narrative, a notebook of an exploration, often erring and misconceived, into an unknown land. Even in its final published form it was a far more haphazard and naïvely instinctive work than the more intellectual reader can easily imagine; the hardest blows I had to bear from critics were those that condemned the book as a coldly calculated exercise in fantasy, a cerebral game. But then one of the (incurable) faults of the book was the attempt to conceal the real state of endless flux in which it was written.

Fowles is being consciously self-deprecating, but he hits on a crucial point, which is that most novels are designed to make a story that emerged from countless wrong turns and shots in the dark seem inevitable. In fact, it’s a little like being a parent, or a politician, or the CEO of a major corporation: you need to project an air of authority even if you don’t have the slightest idea if you’re doing the right thing. (And just as you can’t fully appreciate your own parents until you’ve had a kid of your own, you can’t understand the network of uncertainties underlying even the most accomplished novel until you’ve written a few for yourself.) I’d like to believe that the uncertainties, doubts, and fears that persist throughout are a necessary corrective, a way of keeping us humble in the face of challenges that can’t be reduced to a few clear rules. The real danger isn’t being unsure about what comes next; it’s turning into a hedgehog in a world of foxes, convinced that we know the one inarguable truth that applies to every situation. In fiction, that kind of dogmatic certainty leads to formula or propaganda, and we’ve all seen its effects in business, politics, and parenting. It’s better, perhaps, to admit that we’re all faking it until we make it, and that we should be satisfied if we’re right ever so slightly more often than we’re wrong.

Written by nevalalee

October 20, 2014 at 8:59 am

“A big, friendly officer…”

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"A big, friendly officer..."

Note: This post is the fiftieth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 49. You can read the earlier installments here

“It is a time-proven rule of the novelist’s craft,” John Fowles writes in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, “never to introduce but very minor new characters at the end of a book.” Fowles is being a little facetious here: the character whose first appearance these lines introduce is either God himself or a veiled surrogate for the author. But he makes a decent point. In what we think of as a properly constructed novel, the ending is a kind of recapitulation or culmination of all that came before, with a recurrence of characters, images, or themes that John Gardner has visualized in a famous image from The Art of Fiction. Introducing anything new at this point can feel like poor planning, and that’s especially true of the human players. Character, by definition, is revealed by action in time, and when you only have a handful of pages left to wind up the story, anyone who shows up at the last minute usually won’t have room to develop anything like a real personality. He or she feels like what the other characters might well be, but have had more of a chance to hide: a plot point, or a puppet.

Which only suggests that the rule against introducing new characters late in the story is just a particular case of a more general principle. A novel is a machine constructed to hold the reader’s attention, but the best novels keep their internal workings well out of sight. Among other things, this often involves concealing the real reason a character has been included in the story. Even in literary fiction, most characters are there for a specific purpose: to advance the plot, to illustrate a theme, to provide the protagonist with an important interaction or a moment of contrast. Sometimes a character will be introduced on page five for the sake of a scene two hundred pages later, and it’s the intervening space that makes it seem natural. When the gap between a character’s initial appearance and his or her reason for being there is reduced, we start to see the wheels turning, and that’s especially true near the climax of the novel, when the range of possibilities the story can cover is necessarily constrained. If a major character shows up fifty pages from the end, it often isn’t hard to figure out why.

"Taking the binoculars from Lindegren..."

What’s funny, of course, is that what seems like a departure from reality is actually a departure from a different kind of artifice. In real life, people don’t appear on schedule: enormous presences in our lives can be introduced at any time, and the sequence of events doesn’t fall into a neat pattern. We see this clearly in books or movies based on real incidents: a movie like Zero Dark Thirty struggles—very successfully, I might add—with the fact that the players in its climax are a bunch of guys we haven’t met before. It’s easier to accept this when the narrative presents itself as a true story, and a plot invented from scratch wouldn’t be likely to take the same approach. You might even say that a story that wanted to come off as factual could introduce new characters at any point, as they appear in life, but in practice, the result seems paradoxically less convincing. (This may be why when a major character is introduced late in the game, it’s often because he’s compelling enough to overcome any objection. My favorite example is Jean Reno in La Femme Nikita, who makes such an impression in the last thirty minutes that he ultimately got what amounted to a spinoff of his own.)

In Chapter 49 of City of Exiles—on page 342 of 396—I introduce a character named Timo Lindegren, a senior constable in the Helsinki police department. Shrewd readers, noticing how few pages remain in the novel and that a big chase sequence seems to be impending, might conclude that Lindegren has appeared on the scene just so he can be shot to death forty pages later, and in fact, they’d be right. I won’t pretend that Lindegren is anything other than a functional character, there to give Wolfe someone to talk to as she tracks her killer in the endgame and to die at the moment when the danger seems greatest. (He’s also there, and not trivially, to give Wolfe a handgun when she needs it.) And what strikes me now, reading these chapters over again, is that in a different version of the same novel, Lindegren might well have been introduced three hundred pages earlier, only for the sake of filling the exact same role he does here. If that had been the case, his function might not have been so obvious, but the late change of scene to Finland meant that he could only show up just in time to be knocked off. That’s essentially true of many other characters, but it feels particularly blatant here because we’re so close to the end. But he’ll stick around for a little while longer, at least before his abrupt exit…

Quote of the Day

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John Fowles

I remember years ago watching the commercial folktale-tellers in a Cairo bazaar….Getting the audience, I remarked, depended not at all on preaching and philosophizing but very much on baser tricks of the trade: in short, on pleasing, wooing, luring the listeners into the palm of one’s hand.

John Fowles

Written by nevalalee

February 6, 2013 at 8:02 am

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“You really want to keep going?”

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(Note: This post is the twenty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 24. You can read the earlier installments here.)

As Sandra Bullock notes in Speed, “Relationships that start under intense circumstances, they never last.” All the same, they can be a lot of fun to watch. It’s surprisingly hard for works of art in any medium to tell convincing love stories, but it helps when they take place in the context of an exciting story, and it isn’t hard to see why: the symptoms of excitement and emotional infatuation are roughly the same, and when a movie sets our hearts racing for other reasons, it’s easy to transfer those feelings to the characters themselves. Roger Ebert points out that the best movie romances take place against a backdrop of adventure and suspense, and his own favorites include films like Casablanca, Notorious, and Gone With the Wind. In recent years, this kind of love story has fallen out of fashion, which is a shame. Although Titanic provides one gigantic counterexample, the fact remains that most romantic movies are set in a world that has been drained of danger, emotional or otherwise, and without that sense of vicarious risk, it’s hard for us to relate to the feelings unfolding onscreen.

The same point applies to novels as well. Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto is an effective love story largely because the stakes, outside the immediate circle of characters, are so high. Few books have affected me as deeply as The Magus by John Fowles, which embeds two extraordinarily complicated love stories within a web of mythology, intrigue, and betrayal—the novelistic equivalent of Hitchock’s achievement in Vertigo. And the stakes don’t need to arise from the story alone: they can be artistic and creative as well. My favorite movie romance, Chungking Express, is irresistible precisely because of the incredible artistic balancing act that Wong Kar-Wai performs before our eyes, and it’s impossible to separate the romantic longing of its two central stories from the director’s own intoxicating love of cinema. And it’s no accident that our most compelling depiction of sexual jealousy and obsession can be found in the pages of Marcel Proust, the most original and accomplished novelist of the last hundred years.

At first glance, this may not have much to do with The Icon Thief, which is a love story only in passing. Yet I don’t think I could have written convincingly about Maddy and Ethan’s relationship—which, as I’ve mentioned before, I’d been thinking about for years—without the structure of the thriller around it. Even before I had the rest of the plot, I wanted to tell a story about two very different people who enter into a relationship and are destroyed by the qualities of sympathy and imagination that drew them together in the first place, and the result works better in a thriller, at least in my hands, than it would in a more ordinary setting. Maddy and Ethan, like the tragic couple in real life who partially inspired their story, end up in a folie à deux, enabling one another in their delusions precisely because they’re so intelligent and so much on the same wavelength, until it tears them apart at the worst possible moment. And although I wouldn’t stress this point too much, it’s possible that their story lightly externalizes the kinds of ordinary, less dramatic heartbreaks that most of us feel at one time or another—which is why it can be so effective to see them enacted within the context of a thriller.

But that’s all in the future. Right now, in Chapter 24, we only see them drawing closer together, and it’s no accident that the initial flicker of romance occurs as they both enter into physical danger for the first time. I was careful to structure the action of this chapter—in which they illicitly explore Archvadze’s mansion and stumble across a heist in progress—to parallel the heightening of their more private feelings. They’re challenging and testing one another every step of the way, and as Maddy notes, if they were to stop the escalation, “the evening would conclude in some other way”—which I still think is the sexiest line I’ve ever written. And I don’t think I could have written this love story at all without the support of the surrounding thriller. Romance in my novels tends to be left implicit and offstage, partially because I think it’s more interesting that way, but also because I don’t always trust myself to write it the way it deserves. What I can do is write an exciting scene about two characters who begin to suspect that their feelings for one another may go deeper than mere friendship. And if I do it right, that’s all we need…

John Fowles on first drafts

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I find it very difficult to write if I don’t know I shall have several days absolutely clear. All visits, all intrusions, all daily duties become irksome. This is during the first draft. I wrote the first draft of The Collector in under a month; sometimes ten thousand words a day. Of course a lot of it was poorly written and had to be endlessly amended and revised. First-draft and revision writing are so different they hardly seem to belong to the same activity. I never do any “research” until the first draft is finished; all that matters to begin with is the flow, the story, the narrating. Research material then is like swimming in a strait-jacket.

John Fowles, “Notes on an Unfinished Novel

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April 23, 2011 at 12:07 am

The glorious cul-de-sac of Umberto Eco

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[Umberto] Eco is a very good example of a writer who leads dozens of young writers into a literary cul-de-sac.

Tom Wolfe

Perhaps because I just saw Sneakers again, I’ve been playing a lot with anagrams, especially for the titles of my own novels. Kamera, may it rest in peace, never had much of an anagram to its credit (A Maker is the best I could do), but one of the nice things about The Icon Thief is that its title provides a secret clue to the debt I owe one of my favorite writers. Hint: Eco thief.

Foucault’s Pendulum, by the Italian semiotician Umberto Eco, is probably the novel, for better or worse, that has influenced me more than any other. I say “for better or worse” because it’s far from clear that its influence has been a good thing. I first read Foucault’s Pendulum, along with The Name of the Rose, when I was thirteen years old, which was just the right age for me to be completely blown away by Eco’s intelligence, ingenuity, erudition, and above all his way of engaging a world of ideas through the mystery and conspiracy genres. When I was a teenager—and this hasn’t changed much—I wanted to know something about everything, and Eco, more than any other author I had read up to that point, had seemingly managed to weave the entire world into a single book. (It’s only as I’m writing this now that it strikes me as appropriate that his translator is named William Weaver.)

The trouble, of course, is that the vision of the world expressed in Foucault’s Pendulum isn’t nearly as complete as I had once believed. There are no truly persuasive characters in the novel—merely vehicles for astonishing conversations, which, as Salman Rushdie points out, are “entirely free of anything resembling a credible spoken word.” For Eco, it’s idea, idea, idea, which is great when you’re thirteen and craving intellectual structures, even satirical ones, but not so much when you’re thirty and trying to write real novels. It wasn’t until a year or two later, when I first began to read John Fowles, that I began to see how massive erudition could be conjoined with genuine plots, characters, prose, and formal invention. But the damage had already been done. For the rest of my life, I’d be more comfortable writing about ideas than human beings, and it’s only recently that I’ve begun to move gingerly in the other direction.

And yet even that isn’t the whole truth. The fact remains that Foucault’s Pendulum has given me more pleasure than just about any other novel. My original copy, which still sits on my bookshelf, is flaking and falling apart, but if there were a fire in my apartment right now, it’s one of the first ten things I would save from the flames. Eco turned me on to Borges (his master), the cabalists, and The Golden Bough. The Icon Thief, with its elaborate verbal conspiracies, would be unthinkable without his influence. And Eco himself remains the perfect intellectual. In some ways, I still wish I’d discovered him after Fowles—my entire inner life, not to mention my writing, would have been immeasurably different as a result. But it’s also possible that Eco simply encouraged an artistic tendency that was already there, and showed me its greatest possible realization, as well as its limitations. I don’t think I’ll ever move beyond him. But perhaps, very gradually, I can become something else.

The trouble with endings

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Warning: This discussion, for obvious reasons, contains unavoidable spoilers.

What makes a great ending? There are as many different kinds of endings as there are works of art, of course, but as I look at my own favorites, I find that the best endings often don’t feel like endings at all. The most extreme version, the unresolved ending, has been used in books as dissimilar as Rabbit, Run and Smilla’s Sense of Snow, but the best example I know is from The Magus by John Fowles, a novel that I first read when I was fourteen (which, honestly, is about the right age). My feelings about the book itself have evolved over time, but the power of that final paragraph has never entirely departed:

She is silent, she will never speak, never forgive, never reach a hand, never leave this frozen present tense. All waits, suspended. Suspend the autumn trees, the autumn sky, anonymous people. A blackbird, poor fool, sings out of season from the willows by the lake. A flight of pigeons over the houses; fragments of freedom, hazard, an anagram made flesh. And somewhere the stinging smell of burning leaves.

Such a note of ambiguity can be tough to pull off, however, especially in mainstream fiction. Fowles, a master of the form even in his earliest novels, gets away with it; most novelists, including myself, probably can’t, at least not without annoying the reader. Yet the appeal of the unresolved ending raises an important point. Unless the writer is deliberately trying to emphasize the story’s artificiality, the best endings, like the best curtain lines, seem to promise something more: ideally, it should seem that the author has chosen the most appropriate moment to end the story, but that the story could also go on and on, like life itself.

It’s important, then, for the author to resist the temptation to tie a neat bow on the narrative. While writing a novel, most authors know that they aren’t supposed to editorialize or address the reader directly, that the meaning of the novel should be conveyed through action, and that the story’s themes, if any, should remain implicit in the narrative itself—and yet, very often, all these good habits go out the window on the final page, as if the pressure to explain exactly what the story means has become too great for the writer to resist. Deep down, every writer wants to end a novel like The Great Gatsby, as the themes of the story ascend to the universal:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

But Fitzgerald, like Fowles, was a master, and like many of the great masters, his example can be dangerous. For most writers, the rules for good writing are the same from first page to last: understatement, brevity, and objectivity are almost always preferable to their opposites. Indeed, the simpler ending is usually better, especially for a complex story. In film, there’s no better example than Chinatown, where Roman Polanski replaced Robert Towne’s original, more complex conclusion with, in Towne’s words, “a simple severing of the knot.”

For a thriller, in particular, the story needs to end as soon after the climax as possible. The denouement of The Day of the Jackal, the most perfectly constructed of all suspense novels, lasts for less than a page. In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by contrast, the action falls for something like 170 pages—which is another reason why I’m not a huge fan of that book. Compare this to the conclusion of The Turn of the Screw, which resolves the action in the story’s final word, while also raising as many questions as it answers:

I caught him, yes, I held him—it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.

I can only end, as I often do, by quoting Mamet: “Turn the thing around in the last two minutes, and you can live quite nicely. Turn it around again in the last ten seconds and you can buy a house in Bel Air.” Or, if you’re a novelist, at least a nice place in Chinatown.

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