Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Robert Graves

A poet’s education

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If you want to be a writer, sooner or later, you’re faced with the question of how much you need to read in your field before you can start to write in it. You’ve probably done a lot of reading already, but you still have the nagging feeling that you should be approaching it more systematically. In The White Goddess, Robert Graves observes that the standard training for an Irish oral poet included memorizing epic poems and tales, studying advanced metrical forms, and much more: “He knew the history and mythic value of every word he used…His education, which was a very general one, including history, music, law, science, and divination, encouraged him to versify in all these departments of knowledge.” Robert Anton Wilson outlines a similar course of study in Cosmic Trigger:

[Aleister] Crowley always insisted that nobody should try his more advanced techniques without (a) being in excellent health, (b) being competent in at least one athletic skill, (c) being able to conduct experiments accurately in at least one science, (d) having a general knowledge of several sciences, (e) being able to pass an examination in formal logic and (f) being able to pass an examination in the history of philosophy, including Idealism, Materialism, Rationalism, Spiritualism, Comparative Theology, etc. Without that kind of general knowledge and the self-confidence and independence of thought produced by such study, magick investigation will merely blow your mind. As Brad Steiger has said, the lunatic asylums are full of people who naively set out to study the occult before they had any real competence in dealing with the ordinary.

I love this last sentence, which is as true of writing as it is of mysticism, and I’m also of the school of thought that believes that you need to know the rules before you can break them. Yet I’m also aware that this attitude can turn into a kind of gatekeeping, which discourages beginners from doing what they love until they’ve mastered a body of canonical knowledge. And a true writer doesn’t wait. But there are good practical reasons for becoming familiar with the tradition in which you’re working, and despite what you may have been told, they have nothing to do with “avoiding” what other writers have done. In his fascinating book The Singer of Tales, the classicist Albert Lord lays out the pitfalls that confront the oral poet, whose situation is even more challenging:

There are two factors in oral composition that are not present in a written tradition. We must remember that the oral poet has no idea of a fixed model text to serve as his guide. He has models enough, but they are not fixed and he has no idea of memorizing them in a fixed form. Every time he hears a song sung, it is different. Secondly, there is a factor of time. The literate poet has leisure to compose at any rate he pleases. The oral poet must keep singing. His composition, by its very nature, must be rapid. Individual singers may and do vary in their rate of composition, of course, but it has limits because there is an audience waiting to hear the story. Some singers…begin very slowly with fairly long pauses between lines, working up gradually to very rapid rhythmic composition. Others insert many musical interludes of brief duration while they think of what is coming next. Still others have a formulaic phrase of general character addressed to the audience which they use to mark time…But these devices have to be used sparingly, because the audience will not tolerate too many of them.

Lord’s great insight—which he based on the work of his late mentor Milman Parry—is that the form of oral poetry and the poet’s education are designed to address these exact problems. He continues:

If the singer has no idea of the fixity of the form of a song, and yet has to pour his ideas into a more or less rigid rhythmic pattern in rapid composition, what does he do? To phrase the question a little differently, how does the oral poet meet the need of the requirements of rapid composition without the aid of writing and without memorizing a fixed form? His tradition comes to the rescue. Other singers have met the same need, and over many generations there have been developed many phrases which express in the several rhythmic patterns the ideas most common in the poetry. These are the formulas of which Parry wrote.

The italics are mine. An oral poet’s performance is only the most extreme case of the challenge that faces all writers, which is the problem of what to do next. The more models you’ve absorbed, the more easily you can draw on solutions that other writers have found, which is an honorable form of creativity in itself. Sometimes, of course, this kind of craft can be a trap. Graves notes that some of the most educated Welsh bards strayed from what was best about their art, “while the despised and unendowed minstrel…showed the greater poetic integrity, even though his verse was not so highly polished.” And Norman Mailer memorably wrote: “Craft is merely a series of way stations. I think of it as being like a Saint Bernard with that little bottle of brandy under his neck. Whenever you get into trouble, craft can keep you warm long enough to be rescued. Of course, this is exactly what keeps good novelists from becoming great novelists.”

He’s right. But it’s also necessary for survival. For an oral poet, craft is literally a way station—a place to pause and gather one’s thoughts—and it serves much the same role for writers who can’t rely solely on inspiration. At its best, it also provides material that an author would never be able to invent on his or her own, which leads in turn to greater freedom. As Lord writes: “We might say that the final period of training comes to an end when the singer’s repertory is large enough to furnish entertainment for several nights. Yet it is better to define the end of the period by the freedom with which he moves in his tradition, because that is the mark of the finished poet. When he has a sufficient command of the formula technique to sing any song that he hears, and enough thematic material at hand to lengthen or shorten a song according to his own desires and to create a new song if he sees fit, then he is an accomplished singer and worthy of his art.” And he concludes with a description that applies just as well to those who write as to those who sing:

The singer never stops in the process of accumulating, recombining, and remodeling formulas and themes, thus perfecting his singing and enriching his art. He proceeds in two directions: he moves toward refining what he already knows and toward learning new songs. The latter process has now become for him one of learning proper names and of knowing what themes make up the new song. The story is all that he needs; so in this stage he can hear a song once and repeat it immediately afterwards—not word for word, of course—but he can tell the same story again in his own words. Sometimes singers prefer to have a day or so to think the song over, to put it in order, and to practice it to themselves. Such singers are either less confident of their ability, or they may be greater perfectionists.

Achilles among the women

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“What song the Sirens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture,” Sir Thomas Browne writes in Urn Burial, which was first published in 1658. I’ve been intrigued by this sentence for as long as I can remember, but it took me a long time to understand why. Most readers are likely to encounter it as the epigraph to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the first modern detective story, which means that it can seen as a benediction, or a declaration of purpose, for the entire mystery genre. I initially saw it on the back cover of a paperback edition of The White Goddess by Robert Graves, which advertised that the book contained “practical solutions to many of the apparently insoluble riddles of antiquity.” Graves expands on this in the introduction:

The book does read very queerly: but then of course a historical grammar of the language of poetic myth has never previously been attempted, and to write it conscientiously I have had to face such “puzzling questions, though not beyond all conjecture,” as Sir Thomas Browne instances in his Hydriotaphia: “what songs the Sirens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he held himself among the women.” I found practical and unevasive answers to these and many other questions of the same sort.

And while Graves might not seem to have much in common with C. Auguste Dupin, Poe’s fictional detective, both men take what seem to be impossible puzzles and solve them through an exercise of pure reason, which is what Browne’s enigmatic questions—which he borrows from the historian Suetonius—have symbolized ever since.

Of course, it isn’t that straightforward. Poe’s mystery, like most of its successors, is obviously constructed to lead Dupin to the solution, and most modern readers would be unlikely to forgive its use of a murderous orangutan. (The best part of the story is the mysterious voice overheard by multiple witnesses, which I love so much that I mention it in “The Spires,” my upcoming story in Analog.) And Graves’s method of “proleptic reasoning,” although it yields ideas of great beauty and originality, exposes his arguments to serious doubts. Here’s how he solves the mystery of Achilles:

According to Suetonius the guesses made by various scholars whom the Emperor Tiberius consulted on this point were “Cercysera” on account of the distaff (kerkis) that Achilles wielded; “Issa,” on account of his swiftness (aisso, I dart); “Pyrrha,” on account of his red hair. Hyginus gives his vote for Pyrrha. My conjecture is that Achilles called himself Dacryoessa (“the tearful one”) or, better, Drosoessa, (“the dewy one”), drosos being a poetic synonym for tears. According to Apollonius his original name Liguron (“wailing”) was changed to Achilles by his tutor Cheiron. This is to suggest that the Achilles-cult came to Thessaly from Liguria. Homer punningly derives Achilles from achos (“distress”), but Apollodorus from a “not” and cheile “lips,” a derivation which Sir James Frazer calls absurd; though “Lipless” is quite a likely name for an oracular hero.

This is all very interesting, but far from conclusive, and the reader is left to choose between several equally plausible alternatives. (In the first chapter of my novel City of Exiles, I mention this question as part of a minor plot point, and I arbitrarily settle on Pyrrha.) But the most revealing discussion of the problem doesn’t appear in The White Goddess at all, but in The Greek Myths, which Graves published several years later. Here’s how he discusses it there:

Now, Thetis knew that her son would never return from Troy if he joined the expedition, since he was fated either to gain glory there and die early, or to live a long but inglorious life at home. She disguised him a a girl, and entrusted him to Lycomedes, king of Scyros, in whose palace he lived under the name of Cercysera, Aissa, or Pyrrha; and he had an intrigue with Lycomedes’s daughter Deidameia, by whom he became the father of Pyrrhus, later called Neoptolemus.

So what happened to Dacryoessa or Drosoessa? Graves evidently concluded that his suggestion, which was acceptable within the more speculative framework of The White Goddess, would be out of place in a more scholarly work—although the notes to The Greek Myths are filled with wild leaps of their own. He simply writes “Cercysera, Aissa, or Pyrrha,” which are guesses in themselves, and moves on. A casual reader might never know that it was a matter of dispute, or even that the problem of Achilles’s assumed name was of any interest at all.

And this offers an elegant example of a pitfall that affects scholarship of all kinds, particularly when directed toward a general audience. Writing a nonfiction book of my own has reminded me that history or biography is full of apparently objective facts that are really open to interpretation. A single date can be the result of a long process of investigation, speculation, and elimination, but the underlying judgments go more or less unseen. Very occasionally, the search itself becomes the point of the work, but it’s more common for scholars to present us with the end result and leave out all the intermediate steps. And if we knew how much guesswork goes into the books that we read, we might well view them with a justifiable skepticism. (Elsewhere, I’ve called this the Bob Hope rule, which is that scholars get to use intuition as long as they can prove that they don’t need it.) In The White Goddess, Graves, to his credit, goes into considerable detail about his methods, and he acknowledges that it undermines his own case:

The proleptic or analeptic method of thought, though necessary to poets, physicians, historians and the rest, is so easily confused with mere guessing, or deduction from insufficient data, that few of them own to using it. However securely I buttress the argument of this book with quotations, citations, and footnotes, the admission that I have made here of how it first came to me will debar it from consideration by orthodox scholars: though they cannot refute it, they dare not accept it.

But he isn’t alone here. Other scholars just take greater pains to disguise it—unless we can trick them, like Achilles, into revealing themselves.

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February 9, 2018 at 8:43 am

The poet in the city

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In “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” which was first published in 1903, the German sociologist Georg Simmel described the profound effects that living in a city has on the inner lives of its inhabitants. He was particularly struck by the precision with which urban existence has to reckon time, a phenomenon that he linked to “the universal diffusion of pocket watches.” Simmel wrote:

The relationships and affairs of the typical metropolitan usually are so varied and complex that without the strictest punctuality in promises and services the whole structure would break down into an inextricable chaos. Above all, this necessity is brought about by the aggregation of so many people with such differentiated interests, who must integrate their relations and activities into a highly complex organism. If all clocks and watches in Berlin would suddenly go wrong in different ways, even if only by one hour, all economic life and communication of the city would be disrupted for a long time. In addition, an apparently mere external factor, long distances, would make all waiting and broken appointments result in an ill-afforded waste of time. Thus, the technique of metropolitan life is unimaginable without the most punctual integration of all activities and mutual relations into a stable and impersonal time schedule.

These days, the universal diffusion of smartphones has led to much the same result, except that our clocks are now all perfectly synced, and we take such precision for granted, not just in the present, but in the near future. Thanks to Google Maps and Uber, we expect to know the exact number of minutes between ourselves and our destination, or precisely how long we have to wait before our driver arrives, and we plan our lives accordingly. Like Nicolas Cage in Next—which is a reference I never thought I’d make—we can all see about two minutes into the future, and the effects are similar to the ones that Simmel described over a century ago:

Punctuality, calculability, exactness are forced upon life by the complexity and extension of metropolitan existence and are not only most intimately connected with its money economy and intellectualist character. These traits must also color the contents of life and favor the exclusion of those irrational, instinctive, sovereign traits and impulses which aim at determining the mode of life from within, instead of receiving the general and precisely schematized form of life from without. Even though sovereign types of personality, characterized by irrational impulses, are by no means impossible in the city, they are nevertheless, opposed to typical city life. The passionate hatred of men like Ruskin and Nietzsche for the metropolis is understandable in these terms. Their natures discovered the value of life alone in the unschematized existence which cannot be defined with precision for all alike.

Thanks to the profusion of smartphones, these qualities have spread outward from the city to all walks of life, but they’re most evident in places like Manhattan. For all their apparent confusion, cities have a low tolerance for true irrationality, which is a social vice comparable to poverty, both of which offend the core values of capitalism. To put it another way, the city isn’t conducive to poetic thought, which is based to a certain extent on intuition, a nonlinear conception of time, and, usually, a lack of money. Poetry written in the city may even have a subtly different flavor than the kind produced in calmer surroundings. Two decades after Simmel, the poets Robert Graves and Laura Riding wrote:

A new type of poem has been evolved and popularized by the demands of the anthology-reading public. It is called “the perfect modern lyric.” Like the bestseller novel, it is usually achieved in the dark; but certain critical regulations can be made for it. It must be fairly regular in form and easily memorized, it must be a new combination of absolutely worn-out material, it must have a certain unhealthy vigor or languor, and it must start off engagingly with a simple sentimental statement. Somewhere a daring pseudo-poetical image must be included.

Graves and Riding don’t explicitly mention the city, but the incentives they describe are particularly evident there. Just as even literary novelists in New York feel pressured to produce a bestseller, simply as a matter of survival, poems written under such conditions tend to be mindful of their potential markets. Writers in the city are constantly fixated on the near future, because they’re surrounded by rivals who are outshining them in the present, and they end up living slightly ahead of themselves, as if they were tracking their careers on the Lyft app.

The punchline, of course, is that writers and poets flock to the city. They’re drawn to its cultural opportunities, to its promise of careers in media or publishing, and to the fact that a sufficient population density generates the necessary critical mass of outcasts and oddballs that a writer needs to feel like part of a community. It also provides exposure to the serendipity that Nassim Nicholas Taleb advises us to maximize in The Black Swan:

Collect as many free nonlottery tickets…as you can, and, once they start paying off, do not discard them. Work hard, not in grunt work, but in chasing such opportunities and maximizing exposure to them. This makes living in big cities invaluable because you increase the odds of serendipitous encounters—you gain exposure to the envelope of serendipity.

If you’re a poet, then, you have plenty of good reasons to go to the city—but also you have to guard your citadel of integrity against all the temptations that whisper to you to abandon it. And perhaps it’s only in the reaction against such forces that your true self comes into being, as Simmel himself recognized. Life in the city, he notes, is both full of stimulation and fundamentally impersonal, which means that the individual has to reach deeper inside to find his or her “genuine personal colorations and incomparabilities.” As Simmel concludes: “This results in the individual’s summoning the utmost in uniqueness and particularization, in order to preserve his most personal core. He has to exaggerate this personal element in order to remain audible even to himself.”

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April 11, 2017 at 8:53 am

The Bob Hope rule

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A bank is a place that will lend you money if you can prove that you don’t need it.

—Attributed to Bob Hope

These days, there seem to be two categories of professionals in whom we expect to see intuitive thinking at work. One is the poet, whom we like to imagine as a creature of inspiration, to the point where we might even be a little disappointed to discover how much the finished product depends on craft, logic, and revision. The other, surprisingly, is the physicist or mathematician, who used to be regarded as a figure of pure reason, but whom we’ve started to romanticize as someone whose flashes of insight are supported by hard work after the fact. John Maynard Keynes set the tone seventy years ago in a lecture on Isaac Newton:

It was his intuition which was preeminently extraordinary—”so happy in his conjectures,” said [Augustus] de Morgan, “as to seem to know more than he could possibly have any means of proving.” The proofs, for what they are worth, were, as I have said, dressed up afterwards—they were not the instrument of discovery.

And if we’re comfortable with attributing such methods to poets and physicists, it’s because they seem to occupy opposite ends of the spectrum. Poets get to use intuition because they can’t possibly do any harm with it, while scientists can talk about their intuitive leaps because we trust that they’ll back it up later. Science and mathematics are structured in such a way that practitioners have to present their results in a certain form if they want to be published, and as long as they show their work, it doesn’t matter in which order it came. Consequently, we aren’t likely to think twice when Carl Gauss says: “I have had my results for a long time: but I do not yet know how I am to arrive at them.”

Imagine a social scientist making the same statement, however, and it feels vastly more problematic. Between poetry and physics, there’s an uncharted region of psychology, sociology, economics, history, and biography in which the admitted use of intuition would raise troubling questions. The reasoning, it seems, is that these disciplines are already filled with uncertainties, and intuition only muddies the waters. It’s easier to twist the facts to suit the theory in the “soft” sciences than it is in physics or math, so even if researchers happen to derive valid results from a lucky hunch, they can’t very well admit to this if they want to be taken seriously. In The White Goddess, Robert Graves writes that he couldn’t have arrived at his conclusions—which, to be fair, are often pretty questionable—if he hadn’t known the answers beforehand “by poetic intuition,” and he adds perceptively:

The proleptic or analeptic method of thought, though necessary to poets, physicians, historians and the rest, is so easily confused with mere guessing, or deduction from insufficient data, that few of them own to using it. However securely I buttress the argument of this book with quotations, citations, and footnotes, the admission that I have made here of how it first came to me will debar it from consideration by orthodox scholars: though they cannot refute it, they dare not accept it.

That’s true of most academic fields. The dirty secret, of course, is that it’s impossible to work on any major project for an extended period without intuition coming into play, and before publication, the scholar has to diligently scrub the result of all traces of intuitive thinking, like a murderer wiping down the scene of a crime.

Occasionally, you’ll see scholars acknowledge the role of intuition, particularly when it comes to structuring an argument. In an interview with The Paris Review, Leon Edel says of his famous biography of Henry James:

In the first volume I’d intuitively planted all my themes in the first four chapters; like Chekhov, I placed my pistols in the first act, knowing the audience would expect me to produce them in the third. Having James’s last dictation about Napoleon, I planted the Napoleonic theme, then the “museum world” theme, the relationship with his brother, and so on, and my structure took its form from my themes. Expediency, you see, made me artful.

That last sentence is one of the best things ever written about craft. But what Edel doesn’t mention, or leaves implicit, is the fact that these intuitive decisions about structure inevitably influence matters of emphasis, presentation, and interpretation, and even the research that the writer conducts along the way. Many works of reputable scholarship secretly follow the process that the cartographer Arthur H. Robinson said of his most famous map: “I decided to go about it backwards. I started with a kind of artistic approach. I visualized the best-looking shapes and sizes. I worked with the variables until it got to the point where, if I changed one of them, it didn’t get any better. Then I figured out the mathematical formula to produce that effect.”

But it’s hard for social scientists, or biographers, to admit to this. In the end, Bob Hope’s quip about the bank is equally true of intuition in academia: you’re allowed to use it, as long as you can prove that you don’t need it. It’s an acceptable part of the oral tradition in disciplines in which it doesn’t seem necessary, while the ones that truly depend on it do their best to hush it up. To some extent, these are valid correctives: emphasizing intuition in the hard sciences rightly reminds us that science is something more than data collection, while deemphasizing it in the social sciences sounds a useful note of caution in fields that run the risk of falling back on untested assumptions. But it’s misleading to pretend that it doesn’t enter into the process at all, even if, ideally, you should be able to remove it and have the entire structure still stand. (As Alan Turing once put it: “The exercise of ingenuity in mathematics consists in aiding the intuition through suitable arrangements of propositions, and perhaps geometrical figures or drawings. It is intended that when these are really well arranged the validity of the intuitive steps which are required cannot seriously be doubted.” And you could say precisely the same thing of history and biography.) The educational psychologist Ference Marton refers to intuition in Nobel laureates as providing “a sense of direction,” and that may be its most indispensable role in all forms of scholarship. Choosing any avenue of exploration over another often comes down to a hunch, and it’s possible that this intuition occurs so early on that it becomes invisible—those who lack it are weeded out of the field altogether. Like any powerful tool, it has to be handled with caution. But we still need it, even if we sometimes have to act as if we don’t.

How is a writer like a surgeon?

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E.L. Doctorow

Note: I’m taking a short break this week, so I’ll be republishing a few posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on July 22, 2015. 

The late E.L. Doctorow belonged to a select group of writers, including Toni Morrison, who were editors before they were novelists. When asked how his former vocation had influenced his work, he said:

Editing taught me how to break books down and put them back together. You learn values—the value of tension, of keeping tension on the page and how that’s done, and you learn how to spot self-indulgence, how you don’t need it. You learn how to become very free and easy about moving things around, which a reader would never do. A reader sees a printed book and that’s it. But when you see a manuscript as an editor, you say, Well this is chapter twenty, but it should be chapter three. You’re at ease in the book the way a surgeon is at ease in a human chest, with all the blood and guts and everything. You’re familiar with the material and you can toss it around and say dirty things to the nurse.

Doctorow—who had the word “doctor” right there in his name—wasn’t the first author to draw a comparison between writing and medicine, and in particular to surgery, which has a lot of metaphorical affinities with the art of fiction. It’s half trade school and half priesthood, with a vast body of written and unwritten knowledge, and as Atul Gawande has pointed out, even the most experienced practitioners can benefit from the use of checklists. What draws most artists to the analogy, though, is the surgeon’s perceived detachment and lack of sentimentality, and the idea that it’s a quality that can be acquired with sufficient training and experience. The director Peter Greenaway put it well:

I always think that if you deal with extremely emotional, even melodramatic, subject matter, as I constantly do, the best way to handle those situations is at a sufficient remove. It’s like a doctor and a nurse and a casualty situation. You can’t help the patient and you can’t help yourself by emoting.

And the primary difference, aside from the stakes involved, is that the novelist is constantly asked, like the surgeon in the famous brainteaser, to operate on his or her own child.

Atul Gawande

Closely allied to the concept of surgical detachment is that of a particular intuition, the kind that comes after craft has been internalized to the point where it no longer needs to be consciously remembered. As Wilfred Trotter wrote: “The second thing to be striven for [by a doctor] is intuition. This sounds an impossibility, for who can control that small quiet monitor? But intuition is only inference from experience stored and not actively recalled.” Intuition is really a way of reaching a conclusion after skipping over the intermediate steps that rational thought requires—or what Robert Graves calls proleptic thinking—and it evolved as a survival response to situations where time is at a premium. Both surgeons and artists are called upon to exercise uncanny precision at moments of the highest tension, and the greater the stress, the greater the exactitude required. As John Ruskin puts it:

There is but one question ultimately to be asked respecting every line you draw: Is it right or wrong? If right, it most assuredly is not a “free” line, but an intensely continent, restrained and considered line; and the action of the hand in laying it is just as decisive, and just as “free” as the hand of a first-rate surgeon in a critical incision.

Surgeons, of course, are as human as anybody else. In an opinion piece published last year in the New York Times, the writer and cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar argued that the widespread use of surgical report cards has had a negative impact on patient care: skilled surgeons who are aggressive about treating risky cases are penalized, or even stripped of their operating privileges, while surgeons who play it safe by avoiding very sick patients maintain high ratings. It isn’t hard to draw a comparison to fiction, where a writer who consistently takes big risks can end up with less of a career than one who sticks to proven material. (As an unnamed surgeon quoted by Jahuar says: “The so-called best surgeons are only doing the most straightforward cases.”) And while it may seem like a stretch to compare a patient of flesh and blood to the fictional men and women on which a writer operates, the stakes are at least analogous. Every project represents a life, or a substantial part of one: it’s an investment of effort drawn from the finite, and nonrenewable, pool of time that we’ve all been granted. When a novelist is faced with saving a manuscript, it’s not just a stack of pages, but a year of one’s existence that might feel like a loss if the operation isn’t successful. Any story is a slice of mortality, distilled to a physical form that runs the risk of disappearing without a trace if we can’t preserve it. And our detachment here is precious, even essential, because the life we’ve been asked to save is our own.

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January 4, 2017 at 9:00 am

The midwinter masquerade

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Father Christmas in Punch

All the popular feasts in the Christian calendar are concerned either with the Son or the Mother, not with the Father, though prayers for rain, victory, and the King’s or President’s health are still half-heartedly addressed to him. It is only the pure allegiance of Jesus, recorded in the Gospels, that has kept the Father from going “the way of all flesh”…to end as chief cook and buffoon in the midwinter masquerade. That may yet be the Father’s end in Britain, if popular religious forces continue to work in their traditional fashion. An ominous sign is the conversion of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors and children whose feast properly falls on the sixth of December, into white-bearded Father Christmas, the buffoonish patron of the holiday. For in the early morning of Christmas Day, clad in an old red cotton dressing gown, Father Christmas fills the children’s stockings with nuts, raisins, sugar biscuits and oranges; and while the family are at church singing hymns in honor of the newborn king, presides in the kitchen over the turkey, roast beef, plum pudding, brandy butter and mince pies; and finally when the lighted candles of the Christmas tree have guttered down, goes out into the snow—or rain—with an empty sack and senile groans of farewell.

Robert Graves, The White Goddess

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December 24, 2016 at 7:30 am

The scholar and the ichthyologist

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Robert Graves

To know only one thing well is to have a barbaric mind: civilization implies the graceful relation of all varieties of experience to a central humane system of thought. The present age is peculiarly barbaric: introduce, say, a Hebrew scholar to an ichthyologist or an authority on Danish place names and the pair of them would have no single topic in common but the weather or the war…But that so many scholars are barbarians does not matter so long as a few of them are ready to help with their specialized knowledge the few independent thinkers, that is to say the poets, who try to keep civilization alive. The scholar is a quarryman, not a builder, and all that is required of him is that he should quarry cleanly. He is the poet’s insurance against factual error. It is easy enough for the poet in this hopelessly muddled and inaccurate modern world to be misled into false etymology, anachronism, and mathematical absurdity by trying to be what he is not. His function is truth, whereas the scholar’s is fact. Fact is not to be gainsaid; one may put it in this way, that fact is a Tribune of the People with no legislative right, but only the right of veto. Fact is not truth, but a poet who willfully defies fact cannot achieve truth.

Robert Graves, The White Goddess

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October 23, 2016 at 7:30 am

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The alphabet method

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Your Key to Creative Thinking

It might seem like quite a leap to get from The Gulag Archipelago to The Complete Scarsdale Medial Diet, but creativity makes for strange bedfellows. I got to thinking yesterday about Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s rosary, which he used to compose and memorize poetry in prison, after picking up a book by Samm Sinclair Baker, who cowrote the aforementioned diet manual with the unfortunate Dr. Herman Tarnower. Baker, of whom I hadn’t heard until recently, was an intriguing figure in his own right. He was a former gag cartoonist who became an advertising copywriter and executive at two agencies during the Mad Men era, and then quit to write a series of self-help books on subjects ranging from gardening to skin problems to sex. Among them was a slim volume called Your Key to Creative Thinking, which I picked up at a yard sale last weekend for less than a dollar. It’s a breezy read, full of useful advice, much of which I’ve covered on this blog before. Baker advises the reader to seek out as many facts as possible; to adapt ideas from different fields or categories; to use words or pictures as a source of random associations; to invert your criteria or assumptions; to take good notes; and to let the ideas simmer by relaxing or going for a walk. They’re all valuable tips, of the kind that nearly every creative professional figures out eventually, and Baker presents them in a fluffy but engaging way. Used copies of his book currently sell for a penny on Amazon, and it’s worth checking out if, like me, you’re addicted to this sort of thing.

But what really caught my eye—and for reasons that may not have occurred to the author himself—was a section titled “Alphabet Creative-Spur System.” Baker writes:

Here’s a little creative-spur system that I’ve always kept as a helpful, small “secret method” for myself. It’s a quick aid in sparking creative thinking and rapid results.

This system is simply a matter of running down the alphabet with the key word of your problem and developing ideas in rhyming variations of the word…On quick, simple problems run the key word through your mind, varying it letter by letter, from A to Z, in rhyming fashion.

In respect to more complicated, weightier problems, work with pencil and paper, or typewriter, setting down letter by letter and filling out accordingly.

As an example, Baker uses the word “detergent.” He runs through the alphabet, looking for rhymes and near-rhymes like “emergent” (“You can see how greater cleanliness ‘emerges’ from using this detergent”), “he-detergent” (“Consider featuring this one as the ‘he-man’ detergent that has extra muscle”), and “pre-tergent” (“This suggests a preparatory phase built into the product, so that it produces double cleaning action”).

Casablanca

At first glance, the method seems cute but not particularly revelatory. What struck me when I tried it, though, is how conveniently it can be done in your head, and how easy it is to remember the results. That’s a more powerful combination than it sounds. I’ve developed a lot of creative hacks over the years, from mind maps to the use of random quotations to spark a train of thought, but most require a fair amount of preparation, or at least that I sit down for half an hour or so with pen and paper. This isn’t always possible, and one of the key problems in any creative artist’s life is how to fill in those precious scraps of time—on the bus, in line at the grocery store, in the shower—that seem like prime real estate for thinking. The nifty thing about the alphabet method is its simplicity, its instantaneous accessibility, and its ease of retention. It doesn’t require any tools at all. The underlying mechanism is automatic, almost mindless. You can do it for thirty seconds or five minutes while keeping half of your attention somewhere else. And best of all, the ideas that it generates can be called back without any effort, assuming that the connection between the rhyming key word and the associated concept is solid enough. That’s a nice benefit in itself. Writers are advised to keep a notebook on hand at all times, but that isn’t always possible. With the alphabet method, you don’t need to worry about writing down what it generates, because you can always recreate your train of thought with a minimum of trouble.

And I have a hunch that it could provide the basis for other creative strategies. The idea of using the alphabet as a mnemonic device isn’t a new one, and there are even theories that the alphabet itself arose as a way to memorize information encoded in the order and names of the letters. (Robert Graves, in The White Goddess, offers up a particularly ingenious interpretation along these lines.) But it isn’t hard to envision a system in which the beats of a story, say, could be retained in the head by associating each section with an alphabetic keyword. Here, for instance, is how I’d memorize the first few story points of Casablanca:

A) “African music,” followed by the Marseillaise, plays over the opening credits. As Umberto Eco notes: “Two different genres are evoked: adventure movie and patriotic movie.”
B) “But not everyone could get to Lisbon directly.” The narrator describes the refugee trail from Paris.
C) “Casablanca to Lisbon to America.” Refugees wait for visas to make the trip to the promised land.
D) “Deutschland über Alles.” The arrival of Major Strasser. His conversation with Captain Renault.
E) “Everybody comes to Rick’s…”

And so on. The human brain isn’t particularly good at keeping track of more than a few pieces of information at a time, but the great thing about the alphabet method is that you aren’t really memorizing anything: you’re just preserving the initial seed of a process that can be used to generate the same idea when necessary. I may not remember exactly what Baker had in mind with the word “pre-tergent,” but I can reconstruct it easily, and that’s doubly true when it comes to my own ideas. All it requires is that you know the alphabet, that you can run through it letter by letter, and that you’re more or less the same person you were when you came up with the idea in the first place. You don’t need a rosary. All you need is the alphabet, and yourself.

“That doesn’t sound like the Putin I know…”

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"That doesn't sound like the Putin I know..."

Note: This post is the forty-second installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 41. You can read the previous installments here.

In 1846, Edgar Allan Poe published an essay titled “The Philosophy of Composition,” in which he described what he claimed to have been the creative process behind his poem “The Raven.” He portrayed each element as the result of a long chain of logical reasoning, as in his account of how he arrived at the image of the dead Lenore:

Now, never losing sight of the object supremeness, or perfection, at all points, I asked myself—“Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death—was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length, the answer, here also, is obvious—“When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world—and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”

Ever since, critics have been inclined to read Poe’s essay as a sort of fiction in itself, or even a sly parody, since few poets seem to have ever approached their work in such a calculating way. But I think it’s reasonable to see it as a series of high-speed photographs of the artist’s mind, like one of those pictures showing a bullet being shot through an apple: it slows down and fixes an instinctive phenomenon that really occurred within seconds.

In other words, Poe is laboriously dissecting a process in which every poet engages, consciously or otherwise: the search for symbols that can do double or triple duty within the poem. Poetry is the art of compression, and the hunt for fruitful images or metaphors is ultimately a way of saving space—you pack each line with maximum meaning by looking for combinations of words that can stand both for themselves and something else. “A violet by a mossy stone” says more in six words than most writers could do in sixty, and we see much the same impulse in Robert Graves’s list of poetical images from The White Goddess:

Sometimes, in reading a poem, the hairs will bristle at an apparently unpeopled and eventless scene described in it, if the elements bespeak [the goddess’s] unseen presence clearly enough: for example, when owls hoot, the moon rides like a ship through scudding cloud, trees sway slowly together above a rushing waterfall, and a distant barking of dogs is heard; or when a peal of bells in frosty weather suddenly announces the birth of the New Year.

What these images all have in common—along with what Graves calls their evocation of the muse—is that they stand at the center of an aura of associations: each one trails a hidden story behind it, and it allows the poem to convey the same amount of meaning with fewer components.

"But they can't do it alone..."

This may seem like a mechanical way of describing the craft of poetry, but I suspect that authors of all kinds, if they look how their writing evolves, would point to the moments in which they did more with less as the places where their work was most effective. This is particularly true of forms that are constantly managing their own complexity. A conspiracy theory, for instance, which I’ve elsewhere called a sort of surrogate for the act of writing itself, is more powerful when assembled out of elements that carry their own cognitive charge. The early seasons of The X-Files evoked a world of intrigue using a few well-chosen symbols—smallpox vaccination scars, for instance—and it grew less compelling and more confusing as the names of the players multiplied. Even conspiracy theories that depend on the accumulation of detail rely on a few vivid images to keep the rest of the pieces in line. I’ve watched Oliver Stone’s JFK maybe a dozen times over the last twenty years, and although I’d have trouble remembering exactly what argument he’s making, I can’t forget the magic bullet, whether or not I believe in it. A conspiracy theory might seem to have little in common with a poem, but both depend on a certain economy of means. There’s a good reason why the Freemasons or the Illuminati reappear so often in such theories: just as a poet like Robert Graves returns repeatedly to images of the moon, conspiracy theorists fall back on metaphors that have proven their memorable qualities over time.

You see a similar progression toward simplicity in my own novels, each of which is basically a conspiracy thriller with different kinds of window dressing. The Icon Thief spends an exorbitant amount of time laying out a complicated theory involving Marcel Duchamp, the Rosicrucians, and the Black Dahlia murder, both because the story was about complexity and because it was what I felt comfortable writing at the time, and it occupies fifty or more pages of the finished book. City of Exiles has a conspiracy centering on the Dyatlov Pass incident, which had to be described at length, but it devotes half as much space as its predecessor to laying out the details, in part because I wanted to cut down on this sort of thing, but also because the elements were inherently evocative. Eternal Empire cuts it even further: the historical conspiracy that drives the plot, such as it is, is described in a couple of dialogue scenes, most notably in Chapter 41. And when I look back, I think that I was able to condense this material so much because I hit on the right cluster of symbols. If the death of a beautiful woman, as Poe says, is the most poetical subject in the world, there are a few words that perform much the same function in conspiracy fiction, and the best of them all—at least for now—is Putin. Vladimir Putin is the Lenore of Eternal Empire, and his name and all it embodies is enough to spark the reader’s imagination when paired with a few intriguing details. Putin’s aura allowed me to do in five pages what The Icon Thief did in fifty. And I couldn’t have written this book without him…

My great books #4: The White Goddess

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The White Goddess

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.

One of the odd but recurrent patterns of intellectual history is that a false hypothesis proposed by a genius is often more rewarding—or at least generates more useful material, almost by accident—than a correct one offered up by an ordinary mortal. James Frazer’s theory about the priestly succession at Nemi has been rejected by most anthropologists, but without it, we wouldn’t have The Golden Bough, which is still the greatest repository of information and insight ever published on magic, ritual, and religion. You could say much the same about the theories of Freud. And while I no longer believe in the details, or even the general outline, of the historical argument that Robert Graves makes in The White Goddess, I wouldn’t give up the resulting book for the world. It reads today like the kind of conspiracy theory we find in a Dan Brown novel, although infinitely more ingenious, and even Graves knew that orthodox scholars were unlikely to embrace his work: “Though they cannot refute it, they dare not accept it.” For the general reader, fortunately, it doesn’t really matter, because The White Goddess is unsurpassed as a lucky bag of lore, ideas, and clues for other writers to take up and pursue. I’ve found myself browsing through it whenever I start a new writing project, if only on the off chance that one of Graves’s asides or digressions will spark a train of thought that never would have occurred to me otherwise.

Read with an appropriately skeptical mind, The White Goddess is still the best entry point for the intelligent reader on a dizzying range of subjects: Celtic mythology, poetic logic, the interpretation or decoding of mythic and religious iconography, the relationship between the poet and the muse, and the role of intuition in the creative process. The difficulty of his hypothesis forced Graves to range further and delve more deeply than a scholar making a more conventional case, and the material that he tosses up casually along the way has stuck with me longer than his primary argument. (I was first attracted to the book by its back cover’s promise to provide practical answers to countless unsolved riddles of the ancient world, including Thomas Browne’s “What song the sirens sang” or “What name Achilles assumed when he hid among women”—not to mention how to untie the Gordian knot, which Graves handles in a single footnote. And his “solution” to the vision of Ezekiel lies at the heart of my novel City of Exiles.) In the end, it stands as an illustration both of intuition’s possibilities and of its limits, although it also makes mere reason seem cramped by comparison. In his poem in praise of the goddess herself, Graves speaks of “tourbillions in Time made / By the strong pulling of her bladed mind / Through that ever-reluctant element.” “Bladed mind” is really a description of Graves himself, and the tourbillions, or whirlwinds, that he created in his intractable material continue to revolve in my imagination, long after more reasonable books have faded away.

Written by nevalalee

November 5, 2015 at 9:00 am

How is a writer like a surgeon?

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E.L. Doctorow

The late E.L. Doctorow belonged to a select group of writers, including Toni Morrison, who were editors before they were novelists. When asked how his former vocation had influenced his work, he said:

Editing taught me how to break books down and put them back together. You learn values—the value of tension, of keeping tension on the page and how that’s done, and you learn how to spot self-indulgence, how you don’t need it. You learn how to become very free and easy about moving things around, which a reader would never do. A reader sees a printed book and that’s it. But when you see a manuscript as an editor, you say, Well this is chapter twenty, but it should be chapter three. You’re at ease in the book the way a surgeon is at ease in a human chest, with all the blood and guts and everything. You’re familiar with the material and you can toss it around and say dirty things to the nurse.

Doctorow—who had the word “doctor” right there in his name—wasn’t the first author to draw a comparison between writing and medicine, and in particular to surgery, which has a lot of metaphorical affinities with the art of fiction. It’s half trade school and half priesthood, with a vast body of written and unwritten knowledge, and as Atul Gawande has pointed out, even the most experienced practitioners can benefit from the use of checklists. What draws most artists to the analogy, though, is the surgeon’s perceived detachment and lack of sentimentality, and the idea that it’s a quality that can be acquired with sufficient training and experience. The director Peter Greenaway put it well:

I always think that if you deal with extremely emotional, even melodramatic, subject matter, as I constantly do, the best way to handle those situations is at a sufficient remove. It’s like a doctor and a nurse and a casualty situation. You can’t help the patient and you can’t help yourself by emoting.

And the primary difference, aside from the stakes involved, is that the novelist is constantly asked, like the surgeon in the famous brainteaser, to operate on his or her own child.

Atul Gawande

Closely allied to the concept of surgical detachment is that of a particular intuition, the kind that comes after craft has been internalized to the point where it no longer needs to be consciously remembered. As Wilfred Trotter wrote: “The second thing to be striven for [by a doctor] is intuition. This sounds an impossibility, for who can control that small quiet monitor? But intuition is only inference from experience stored and not actively recalled.” Intuition is really a way of reaching a conclusion after skipping over the intermediate steps that rational thought requires—or what Robert Graves calls proleptic thinking—and it evolved as a survival response to situations where time is at a premium. Both surgeons and artists are called upon to exercise uncanny precision at moments of the highest tension, and the greater the stress, the greater the exactitude required. As John Ruskin puts it:

There is but one question ultimately to be asked respecting every line you draw: Is it right or wrong? If right, it most assuredly is not a “free” line, but an intensely continent, restrained and considered line; and the action of the hand in laying it is just as decisive, and just as “free” as the hand of a first-rate surgeon in a critical incision.

Surgeons, of course, are as human as anybody else. In an opinion piece in today’s New York Times, the writer and cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar argues that the widespread use of surgical report cards has had a negative impact on patient care: skilled surgeons who are aggressive about treating risky cases are penalized, or even stripped of their operating privileges, while surgeons who play it safe by avoiding very sick patients maintain high ratings. It isn’t hard to draw a comparison to fiction, where a writer who consistently takes big risks can end up with less of a career than one who sticks to proven material. (As an unnamed surgeon quoted by Jahuar says: “The so-called best surgeons are only doing the most straightforward cases.”) And while it may seem like a stretch to compare a patient of flesh and blood to the fictional men and women on which a writer operates, the stakes are at least analogous. Every project represents a life, or a substantial part of one: it’s an investment of effort drawn from the finite, and nonrenewable, pool of time that we’ve all been granted. When a novelist is faced with saving a manuscript, it’s not just a stack of pages, but a year of one’s existence that might feel like a loss if the operation isn’t successful. A story is a slice of mortality, distilled to a physical form that runs the risk of disappearing without a trace if we can’t preserve it. And our detachment here is precious, even essential, because the life we’ve been asked to save is our own.

Written by nevalalee

July 22, 2015 at 9:01 am

Two ways of looking at the goddess

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Ted Hughes

Over the last few days, I’ve been rereading Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being by the poet Ted Hughes, which is one of the strangest books ever published by a major author. Hughes believed that he had uncovered the formula—which he calls the Tragic Equation—that underlies all of Shakespeare’s mature plays, and he introduces his argument in terms that would make any writer sit up and pay attention:

The immediate practical function of this equation is simply to produce, with unfailing success, an inexhaustibly interesting dramatic action…[Shakespeare] was, after all, part theater owner, part manager, part worker, part supplier of raw materials, and full-time entrepreneur in a precarious yet fiercely demanding industry. Whether it was an old play rejigged or a new piece, it had to work. Maybe, under those pressures, it was inevitable that he should do as other hack professionals have always done, and develop one or two basic reliable kits of the dynamics that make a story move on the stage.

Hughes goes on to describe the formula as “the perfect archetypal plot, one that would guarantee basic drive.” And if you regard Shakespeare as our supreme maker of plots—an aspect of his work that has often been neglected—it’s hard not to feel excited by the prospect of a poet like Hughes reducing his method to a tool that can be grasped or reproduced.

Unfortunately, or inevitably, the core argument turns out to be insanely convoluted. According to Hughes, Shakespeare’s archetypal plot arose from the fusion of two of his early poetic works, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. The plot, as far as I understand it, is that the hero is courted by the goddess, either in the form of Aphrodite, the ideal bride, or Persephone, the queen of hell; he rejects her advances; she kills him in the guise of a wild boar; he descends to the underworld; and finally he “pupates” into a form that rises again to slay the goddess in turn, motivated by a horror of her sexuality. (Hughes also relates this myth to the struggle between Catholicism and Puritanism in Shakespeare’s time, to the myth of Osiris, to Rosicrucianism, and to the cabala, all of which only muddy the issue further.) The trouble, at least when it comes to applying this reading to all of Shakespeare’s plays, is that Hughes reassigns and shuffles the elements of the equation so freely that they lose all meaning or specificity. Sometimes the boar is the dark side of the hero himself, or an usurping brother, or even an entire city; in Macbeth, the goddess is Scotland, as well as the witches and Lady Macbeth; in Othello, it’s Desdemona’s handkerchief. And in attempting to make everything fit, Hughes ends up explaining almost nothing.

Robert Graves

Yet it’s still a book that I regard with a lot of respect and affection. Isolated insights and metaphors flash forth like lightning on the page, and even if the argument tells us more about Hughes than about Shakespeare, every paragraph pulsates with life. As the title implies, his book is greatly indebted to The White Goddess by Robert Graves, which Hughes elsewhere cited as a major influence on his thinking, and both books offer the fascinating prospect of a learned and intuitive mind—the kind that appears once in a generation—taking on an impossible argument. And if Graves is still read and discussed, while Hughes’s book remains a curiosity, part of it has to do with their subject matter. Graves centers his argument on a medieval Welsh poem, “The Battle of the Trees,” which few nonspecialist readers are likely to have encountered, while Hughes tackles the most famous writer in the English language, of whose works most readers have already formed an opinion. When Graves takes apart his sources and puts them back together like an enormous crossword puzzle, we’re likely to accept it at face value; when Hughes does the same to Hamlet or King Lear, we resist it, or suspect that he’s imposing a reading, albeit with enormous ingenuity, on a play that can sustain any number of interpretations. In the end, neither book can be accepted uncritically, but they still have the power to light up the imagination.

And in their shared aims, they’re agonizingly important, both to poets and to general readers. Reading them both together, I’m reminded of what Janet Malcolm says about a very different subject in Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession:

Soon after the Big Bang of Freud’s major discoveries…the historian of psychoanalysis notes a fork in the road. One path leads outward into the general culture, widening to become the grand boulevard of psychoanalytic influence—the multilane superhighway of psychoanalytic thought’s incursions into psychiatry, social philosophy, anthropology, law, literature, education, and child-rearing. The other is the narrow, inward-turning path of psychoanalytic therapy: a hidden, almost secret byway travelled by few (the analysts and their patients), edged by decrepit mansions with drawn shades (the training institutes and the analytic societies), marked with inscrutable road signs (the scientific papers)…As for Freud himself, he travelled both routes, extending the psychoanalytic view to literature, art, biography, anthropology, and social philosophy…as well as sticking to the theoretical and clinical core of psychoanalysis.

Substitute “poetry” for “psychoanalysis”—or one impossible profession for another—and this is a perfect summary of what both Graves and Hughes are attempting to do: taking the intense, private, inexpressible confrontation of the poet with the muse and extending it into a form that can be applied to how we think about art, history, and our own inner lives. I’m not sure either of them succeeded, any more than Freud did. But the effort still fills me with awe.

The two kinds of prophecy

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The poet Robert Graves

The ancient Hebrew distinction between legitimate and illegitimate prophecy—”prophecy” meaning inspired poetry, in which future events are not necessarily, but usually, foretold—has much to recommend it. If a prophet went into a trance and was afterwards unconscious of what he had been babbling, that was illegitimate; but if he remained in possession of his critical faculties throughout the trace and afterwards, that was legitimate. His powers were heightened by the “spirit of prophecy,” so that his words crystallized immense experience into a single poetic jewel; but he was, by the grace of God, the sturdy author and regulator of this achievement.

Robert Graves, The White Goddess

Written by nevalalee

March 22, 2015 at 8:00 am

Tying the knot

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Bowline

McKenzie Funk’s recent piece in The New York Times Magazine on the wreck of the Kulluk, the doomed oil rig sent by Shell to drill an exploratory well in the Arctic Sea, is one of the most riveting stories I’ve read in a long time. The whole thing is full of twists and turns—I devoured it in a single sitting—but my favorite moment involves a simple knot. Faced with a rig with a broken emergency line, Craig Matthews, the chief engineer of the tugboat Alert, came up with a plan: they’d get close enough to grab the line with a grappling hook, reel it in, and tie it to their own tow cable with a bowline. After two tries, they managed to snag the line, “thicker than a man’s arm, a soggy dead weight.” Funk describes what happened next:

Now Matthews tried to orient himself. A knot he could normally tie with one hand without looking would have to be tackled by two people, chunk by chunk. The chief mate helped him lift the line again, and together they hurriedly bent it and forced the rabbit through the hole…Matthews had planned to do a second bend, just in case, but he was exhausted. “Is that it?” Matthews recalls the chief mate asking. His answer was to let the towline slide over the edge.

And although plenty of other things would go wrong later on, the knot held throughout all that followed.

The story caught my eye because it reminded me, as almost everything does these days, of the creative process. When you’re a writer, you generally hone your craft on smaller projects, short stories or essays that you can practically hold in one hand. Early on, it’s like learning to tie a bowline for the first time—as Brody does in Jaws—and it can be hard to even keep the ends straight, but sooner or later, you internalize the steps to the point where you can take them for granted. As soon as you tackle a larger project, though, you find that you suddenly need to stop and remember everything you thought you knew by heart. Most of us don’t think twice about how to tie our shoelaces, but if we were told to make the same knot in a rope the thickness of a fire hose, we’d have to think hard. A change in scale forces us to relearn the most basic tricks, and at first, we feel almost comically clumsy. That’s all the more true of a collaborative effort, like making a movie or staging a play, which can often feel like two people tying a knot together while being buffeted by wind and waves. (Technically, a novel or play is more like one big knot made up of many other knots, but maybe this analogy is strained enough as it is.)

Alexander Cutting the Gordian Knot by Fedele Fischetti

Knots have long fascinated novelists, like Annie Proulx, perhaps because they’re the purest example of an abstract design intended to perform a functional task. As Buckminster Fuller points out in Synergetics, you can tie a loose knot in a rope spliced together successively from distinct kinds of fiber, like manila and cotton, and slip it from one end to the other: the materials change, but the knot stays the same. Fuller concludes, in his marvelously explicit and tangled prose: “The knot is not the rope; it is a weightless, mathematical, geometrical, metaphysically conceptual, pattern integrity tied momentarily into the rope by the knot-conceiving, weightless mind of the human conceiver—knot-former.” That’s true of a novel, too. You can, and sometimes do, revise every sentence of a story into a different form while leaving the overall pattern the same. Knots themselves can be used to transmit information, as in the Incan quipu, which record numbers and even syllables in the form of knotted cords. And Robert Graves has suggested that the Gordian knot encoded the name of a Phrygian god, which could only be untied by reading the message one letter at a time. Alexander the Great simply cut it with his sword—a solution that has occurred to more than one novelist frustrated by the mess he’s created.

You could write an entire essay on the metaphors inherent in knots, the language of which itself is rich with analogies: the phrase “the bitter end,” for instance, originates in ropeworking, referring to the end of the rope that is tied off. Most memorable is Fuller’s own suggestion that the ropeworker himself is a kind of thinking knot:

The metabolic flow that passes through a man is not the man. He is an abstract pattern integrity that is sustained through all his physical changes and processing, a knot through which pass the swift strands of concurrent ecological cycles—recycling transformations of solar energy.

And if we’re all simply knots passing through time, the prospect of untying and redoing that pattern is far more daunting than doing the same for even the most complicated novel. We’re all a little like Matthews on the deck of the Alert: we’d like to do a second bend to be safe, but sometimes we have no choice but to let the line slip over the side. That’s true of the small things, like sending out a story when we might prefer to noodle over it forever, and the large, like choosing a shape for your life that you hope will get the job done. And all we can really do is tie the knot we know best, let it go, and hang on to the bitter end.

Written by nevalalee

January 6, 2015 at 9:58 am

What is intuition?

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Robert Graves

One can have memory of the future as well as of the past. Memory of the future is usually called instinct in animals, intuition in human beings.

Robert Graves

Pure analysis puts at our disposal a multitude of procedures whose infallibility it guarantees; it opens to us a thousand different ways on which we can embark in all confidence; we are assured of meeting there no obstacles; but of all these ways, which will lead us most promptly to our goal? Who shall tell us which to choose? We need a faculty which makes us see the end from afar, and intuition is this faculty. It is necessary to the explorer for choosing his route; it is not less so to the one following his trail who wants to know why he chose it…Logic, which alone can give certainty, is the instrument of demonstration; intuition is the instrument of invention.

Henri Poincaré

Intuition is a mode of gathering.

John Sallis

Kurt Gödel

Mathematical intuition need not be conceived of as a facility giving an immediate knowledge of the objects concerned. Rather it seems that, as in the case of physical experience, we form our ideas also of those objects on the basis of something else which is immediately given.

Kurt Gödel

[Intuition] grasps a succession which is not juxtaposition, a growth from within, the uninterrupted prolongation of the past into a present which is already blending into the future. It is the direct vision of the mind by the mind.

Henri Bergson

Intuition is the ability not to construct solutions to problems in a rational manner, but rather to produce them spontaneously (holistically) according to situational demands…Intuition is, we could perhaps say, a fire that lights itself.

Wolfram Wilss

Albert Einstein

My intuition made me work…Intuition makes us look at unrelated facts and then think about them until they can all be brought under one law.

Albert Einstein

By intuition I do not mean the fluctuating testimony of the senses or the deceptive judgment of the imagination as it botches things together, but the conception of a clear and attentive mind, which is so easy and distinct that there can be no room for doubt about what we are understanding…Intuition is the indubitable conception of a clear and attentive mind which proceeds solely from the light of reason.

René Descartes

Intuition [in Nobel laureates] is closely associated with a sense of direction; it is more often about finding a path than arriving at an answer or reaching a goal. The ascent of intuition is rooted in extended, varied experience of the object of research: although it may feel as if it comes out of the blue, it does not come out of the blue.

Ference Marton

A meditation on the tarot

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The Tarot of Marseilles

A few weeks ago, I picked up a pack of tarot cards. As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve long been interested in using forms of randomness to inform the writing process, largely because I’m such a left-brained writer in other ways. Raids on the random of various kinds have served as a creative tool for millennia, of course, although they were seen less as randomness than as divination. And regardless of your thoughts on their validity, accuracy, or philosophical basis, there’s little question, at least to my mind, that they offer a set of valuable approaches to modes of thinking that often go unactivated in everyday life. Jung, for instance, used tarot and the I Ching with patients undergoing psychotherapy, noting—and this is a crucial point—that the results thus derived were worth close attention when they seemed to converge on a single interpretation. Tarot and the like aren’t ends in themselves, but a medium in which intuitive thought can take place, and as such, I think they deserve to be sampled by creative professionals whose livelihoods depend on accessing that kind of thinking on a regular basis.

That said, I resisted the tarot for a long time, mostly because it carries so much symbolic and cultural baggage: it’s easier for an otherwise rational writer to justify drawing one of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategy cards, say, than to lay out a celtic cross spread. Still, tarot has received serious attention from writers as otherwise dissimilar as Robert Graves, Thomas Pynchon, and Robert Anton Wilson, and when you strip away its distracting connotations, you’re left with a set of flexible, versatile symbols that have been subjected to a long process of historical refinement. Tarot, like most useful forms of creative thought, is primarily about combination and juxtaposition, both with the problem at hand and between the cards themselves. It’s really a portable machine for generating patterns, and while you could theoretically do this with any assortment of random words or ideas, like the protagonists of Foucault’s Pendulum, it probably helps—both pragmatically and psychologically—to begin with a coherent collection of images that other creative thinkers have used in the past.

The Tarot of Marseilles

With this in mind, I bought an inexpensive pack of cards depicting the Tarot of Marseilles, which Jung, among others, regarded as the most stimulating of the many possible designs. (It’s also the pack at the heart of Meditations on the Tarot, one of the oddest, densest books in my home library, although it’s less a work on the tarot itself than one that uses the cards as a gateway into a more discursive look at esoteric theology.) I’ve been laying out cards now and then as I outline a new writing project, and the results have been promising enough that I expect to continue. Occasionally, the readings I get seem to have an uncanny relevance to the problem at hand, and while it’s easy to chalk this up to the mind’s ability to see connections when given a set of ambiguous symbols, this doesn’t make it any less useful. Any practice that encourages ten minutes of loosely structured thought about a creative dilemma is likely to come up with something valuable, and even if it’s the ten minutes that really count, it’s easier when the process is guided by a series of established steps.

And what makes the tarot potentially more useful than other alternatives is its visual nature, as well as the way in which it results in a temporary structure—in the form of the cards spread across the table—that can be scrutinized from various angles. At its best, it’s an externalization or extension of your own thoughts: instead of confronting the problem entirely in your own head, you’re putting a version of it down where you can see it, examine it, or even walk away from it. It’s a variation of what we do when we write notes to ourselves, which are really dispatches from a past version of ourself to the future, even if it’s only a few seconds or minutes away. The nice thing about tarot is that it concretizes the problem in a form that’s out of our control, forcing us to take the extra step of mapping the issues we’re mulling over onto the array of symbols that the deck has generated. If we’re patient, inventive, or imaginative enough, we can map it so closely that the result seems foreordained, a form of notetaking that obliges us to collaborate with something larger. This can only lead to surprising insights, and even if it ultimately leads us to where we were already going, it allows us to pick up a little more along the way.

Written by nevalalee

July 9, 2014 at 9:55 am

The Outsider

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Colin Wilson

When you achieve your greatest success at an early age, a long life can be a liability as well as a blessing. The headline for Peter O’Toole’s obituary was always going be “Star of Lawrence of Arabia,” despite the fifty years of performances that came afterward, and while there are far worse fates for an actor—it’s the most striking debut as a leading actor in the history of movies—it also reminds us of how shapeless a lengthy career can seem after its early peak. O’Toole belonged to an honorable tradition of great British or Irish actors, ranging from Olivier to Ben Kingsley, who were always happy to show up for a role and a paycheck, cheerfully willing to skate through a few weeks of filming on little more than a sonorous voice and superb bag of tricks. They’re great players, schooled in a theater tradition that emphasizes artifice and the cultivation of clever devices that can deployed at a moment’s notice. (Kevin Spacey may be the closest American equivalent, which goes a long way toward explaining why he seems most comfortable at the Old Vic.) And the results are a joy to watch, to the point where I sympathize with Olivier’s famous question to Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man: “Why not try acting?”

Still, the result is often a strange, uneven career, marked by long periods of slumming, and it grows all the less comprehensible as you move away from those definitive early roles. The same fate often awaits authors of a certain eccentric mindset, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, ever since the death of the British writer Colin Wilson. His life coincided almost perfectly with O’Toole’s: he was born almost exactly a year before and died a few days earlier, and although his passing has gone almost unnoticed, their lives have some striking parallels. Both were born into working-class families, had their first big hit at an early age, and spent the rest of their careers trying to live up to that initial breakthrough. In Wilson’s case, it was The Outsider, which is the kind of book that so many ambitious authors in their early twenties have yearned to write: a study of Camus, Sartre, Dostoyevsky, and others, fueled by months in the reading room of the British Museum, with its central figure as, yes, T.E. Lawrence. I can’t say for sure that a copy ever crossed the desk of Lawrence screenwriter Robert Bolt—although both he and Wilson were close to the theatrical director Stephen Joseph—but its hard not to hear an echo here: “His most characteristic trait is his inability to stop thinking. Thought imprisons him; it is an unending misery, because he knows the meaning of freedom…”

Peter O'Toole

After The Outsider was published, Wilson was pigeonholed as one of Britain’s angry young men, alongside the likes of John Osborne and Kingsley Amis, but his work took him into weirder and more interesting directions. Wilson was fascinated with the occult and the psychology of murder, and his later career superficially resembles that of a pulp novelist and hack popularizer of the paranormal, although flavored with unexpected influences, like that of his mentor Robert Graves. He displayed an unfashionable tendency to follow his nose wherever it led him, resulting in works on Jack the Ripper, Aleister Crowley, and Wilhelm Reich, and such novels as The Space Vampires, later adapted into the movie Lifeforce, which Wilson famously hated. And although I can’t claim to be deeply familiar with Wilson’s work—I own copies of The Outsider and The Occult, his two most famous books, but I’ve done little more than browse through them—he’s still a figure I’ve long found intriguing, particularly in his prickly mixture of skepticism and credulity. (In many ways, he reminds me of Robert Anton Wilson, another literary genius who was most at home in disreputable subjects and genres.)

Wilson was also the author of one of my single favorite essays on the craft of writing, “Fantasy and Faculty X,” which I first encountered in the anthology How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction. Wilson defined Faculty X as a union of the conscious and unconscious minds, or of the left and right sides of the brain, that allowed writers, mystics, and other creative types to move beyond the present into another world, and although his terminology may be dated, the underlying principle remains sound. Intuition, and the ability to draw on it at will, is the most powerful tool that any artist can possess, and Wilson did as credible a job as any writer I know of describing its essential workings. The trouble, of course, is that intuition can lead you into strange places; it doesn’t lend itself to neat, easily classifiable careers, and it can result in the writers of obituaries straining to find a connective thread. Wilson may not, as he openly hoped, go down as “probably the greatest writer of the twentieth century,” but like O’Toole, he was an odd bird of a kind that may never come again, and the world is a little poorer for his absence.

“The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker…”

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"The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker..."

Note: This post is the second installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 1. You can read the earlier installments here.)

No matter how broad a writer’s range of interests might be, he or she naturally tends to return to the same handful of themes and metaphors. In my case, one of the threads that recurs frequently in my work is a fascination with photography and its connection to violence. Years ago, I thought about writing a screenplay with a lead character based loosely on the young Diane Arbus, and elements of her personality were eventually incorporated—with much transformation—into Maddy Blume in The Icon Thief. I also became fascinated with the work of Cindy Sherman and the argument that Susan Sontag makes, sometimes a bit too insistently, in On Photography:

There is something predatory in the act of taking a picture…Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder—a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.

As a result, The Icon Thief was originally titled Camera, and later Kamera, both in homage to the R.E.M. song and as a reference to the poison laboratory of the Russian secret services. And although these elements were less obvious in the final version, it’s no accident that I returned to the same inspirations when it came to plotting the sequel.

In particular, one of the turning points in cracking the story was the decision that Lasse Karvonen, my Finnish killer, would work as a photographer. I’d originally conceived City of Exiles as a sort of duel of assassins, with Ilya and a new villain facing off in a game of cat and mouse across Europe, and although the initial conception changed a lot along the way, I still needed a suitably sinister antagonist. In making Karvonen a photographer, I was partially inspired by the observation in The Sword and the Shield, Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin’s definitive history of intelligence in the Soviet era, that illegal agents in foreign countries would often pose as members of artistic communities, since it was easier to establish a false identity there than in a more conventionally structured profession. The photography angle would also allow me to preserve the art world element from the first novel, and, perhaps best of all, it offered me an excuse to dig into a lot of fascinating material. In the finished draft, it only takes up a few chapters, but it was fun to write, and it helps set the stage for a story that will be deeply concerned with issues of deception, subterfuge, and the enigma of a few mysterious photographs.

"What name did Achilles use when he hid among the women?"

The bulk of this material makes its first appearance in Chapter 1, which introduces Karvonen and his neurotic employer, the photographer Renata Russell. It’s no secret that the character of Renata is somewhat inspired by Annie Leibovitz, at least on a superficial level, although in most respects the two women have little in common. The documentary Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens was a valuable resource here, with its detailed portrait of the artist at work, and I also found inspiration—and ideas for dialogue and bits of business—in the films The September Issue and Picture Me: A Model’s Diary. The other major influence in these scenes is Blow Up, if only because it’s impossible to tell a story about a London fashion photographer without including a nod to Antonioni. In fact, a careful reader might recognize that Renata’s studio in Holland Park is the very same building where David Hemmings works in the movie, which I briefly visited as part of my research on location, and Renata, like Hemmings, lives on Pottery Lane. (The pub where Karvonen meets his contact in the intelligence services is also real, and it’s located only a short walk from the cemetery in Highgate where Karl Marx is buried.)

Otherwise, this chapter is devoted both to setting the plot in motion—as Karvonen obtains a gun, a phone, and a list of targets from his handler—and to establishing motifs that will pay off later. The song playing during Renata’s photo shoot is “Rave On, John Donne” by Van Morrison, which hints at the role in the story of Donne and his poetry. The chalk mark that notifies Karvonen of his appointment is in the form of a crosshairs, but it’s also meant to evoke a wheel with four spokes. The exchange between Karvonen and his handler when they meet (“What name did Achilles use when he hid among the women?”) is one of the poetic questions, first proposed by Sir Thomas Browne, that Robert Graves attempts to answer in The White Goddess, which is another important element in the novel’s web of references. And although we won’t see Karvonen’s handler again, we should give him a good, long look. In the first draft, I didn’t describe him in much detail, but I had a feeling that he’d play an important role later on, so I decided to give him a small identifying tag—something memorable, but vague enough that I could put it to whatever use I needed. In the end, I only noted that part of the first two fingers on his right hand were missing. And it’s not until the third book that we—or I—learn what happened to those fingers…

Written by nevalalee

September 13, 2013 at 9:16 am

The road to a classical education

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D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths

Last week, I read Daniel Mendelsohn’s touching account in The New Yorker of his youthful correspondence with Mary Renault, the author of The King Must Die and other novels set in ancient Greece. Mendelsohn’s tribute to her generosity is very moving, and it’s a story that I think every writer should read, if only to be reminded of how important even small acts of kindness to a fan can be, and the impact they can have on a young person’s life. Most readers will probably take the greatest interest in Mendelsohn’s discussion of how Renault’s novels, with their frank treatment of homosexuality, helped him come to terms with being gay, but I was even more struck by the fact that her books also inspired him to become a classicist. “The writers we absorb when we’re young bind us to them, sometimes lightly, sometimes with iron,” Mendelsohn writes. “In time, the bonds fall away, but if you look very closely you can sometimes make out the pale white groove of a faded scar, or the telltale chalky red of old rust.”

In a sense, the choice of an undergraduate major is one of the few reasonably pure decisions most of us ever make. The process of choosing a career, especially your first job, is usually constrained by many factors out of your control, but in theory, college presents a limitless—and dizzyingly accessible—range of possibilities. I still remember the heady thrill I felt while browsing through the course catalog as a freshman, and the realization that I really could become, say, an astrophysicist, if only I was willing to put in the necessary work. Obviously, going to a good college is a privilege that not everyone can afford, and our choices are probably more limited than they seem: I probably wouldn’t have made much of an astrophysicist, or psychologist, or any of the other professions that briefly seemed so enticing. Yet it’s one of the few times in our lives when we’re at least given the illusion of being able to influence our own fates, even if we’re often too young at the time to really know what we’re doing.

Mary Renault

Like Mendelsohn, my decision to become a classicist was informed by the books I read growing up. First among them is the D’Aulaires’ Greek Myths, a volume I all but memorized in grade school, and which I still think is one of the ten best children’s books ever written. Like all great books for kids, it draws you in at first with its surface pleasures, especially its gorgeous illustrations, only to reveal surprising depths. It’s a wise, intelligent retelling of Greek mythology without a trace of condescension, and it taught me things that came in handy years later in my college classes: I’ll never forget my pride as the only student in my section who recognized an obscure reference to the story of Tithonus, who was transformed into a cicada when his lover, the goddess Eos, asked that he be granted eternal life, but forgot to ask for eternal youth as well. When one of my classmates asked how I knew this, I replied simply: “From D’Aulaires.” And I wasn’t alone: I know for a fact that many of my fellow concentrators could trace their love of classical literature to the same book.

And it was only the first in a long chain of books that led me further down the same path. I have a hunch that my urge to learn Latin and Greek was subconsciously influenced by the Indiana Jones trilogy, in which a knowledge of dead languages was clearly a prerequisite, as well as by my love of such authors as Robert Graves and Umberto Eco, for whom such proficiency was a given. Later, I was haunted by John Gardner’s admonition, in The Art of Fiction, that “the really serious-minded way” for a writer to build his vocabulary was to study classical and modern languages. As a result, when I got to college, I was primed to at least take a few courses in Classics, and would probably have ended up majoring in it anyway even if I hadn’t been given an extra quixotic push by the book Who Killed Homer? But the seeds had been planted long before. My life, like Mendelsohn’s, would have been completely different if you’d taken away only five or six books that I read almost by accident. And I wear their faded scars with pride.

Written by nevalalee

January 15, 2013 at 9:50 am

A vision of the chariot

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Technically, you aren’t supposed to study the work of the chariot until the age of forty, but I first encountered it as a teenager, in the pages of The White Goddess by Robert Graves. At the time, I thought that this was one of the greatest books ever written, and although it’s still among my favorites, I’ve since come to regard it with a degree of ambivalence. In fact, it’s an incredibly evolved version of the sort of obsessive overinterpretation that we see among the characters in Foucault’s Pendulum, or even the novels of Dan Brown, only executed at a immeasurably higher level of sophistication. If anything, this makes me love the book all the more: it’s unsustainable as a religious or historical argument, but as an example of an unparalleled intuitive intellect exercising his talents on the whole range of poetic and mystical literature, it’s a delight, and there’s never been anything quite like it. I still think it’s a book that everyone should read, but with full awareness that it’s more like an ingenious magic trick, infinitely repeated, than a tenable work of religious history.

Not surprisingly, the parts of the book that have stuck with me most strongly are the ones that seem, at first, like sidelines to the main argument. Graves tells us, in an aside, how to untie the Gordian knot, and gives us practical solutions to the “unanswerable” questions from Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial: what song the sirens sang, and what name Achilles assumed when he hid among the women. And he also deals, unforgettably, with the vision in the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, in a handful of pages that have haunted me for most of my life. Ezekiel is in exile, standing by the river Chebar, when the heavens open and he has visions of God. From out of a whirlwind, he sees four winged cherubim emerge, each with the head of a man, a lion, an eagle, and an ox, as well as the feet of a calf, and the wheels of a vast chariot—each “a wheel within a wheel”—that turn of their own accord. Above the chariot is the figure of a man, made of fire from the waist down. Ezekiel falls into a swoon, and out of the sky, a voice begins to speak.

The first point that needs to be made about this vision is that it was literally dangerous to its readers: the rabbinical tradition tells of students who studied the vision before they were adequately prepared, and were struck by lightning or consumed by heavenly fire. It was forbidden to be read aloud in the synagogue. Yet the very act of setting up warning signs around a text like this amounts to an invitation for certain readers to study it more closely, resulting in a vast tradition of merkabah, or chariot, mysticism designed to allow the initiate to experience a similar vision, even at the risk of madness or death. Graves, for his part, believed that the vision amounted to a religious revolution, initiated by Ezekiel, in which the cult of the mother goddess and her two consorts was replaced by that of a masculine creator set against the goddess and the devil. At least, that’s what I seem to remember—the argument here is even more convoluted than usual, although frequently spellbinding on the page.

And the story continues to fascinate me. Part of it, I suppose, is the idea of a text that can cause the death or madness of an unprepared reader, which might be taken as an extreme example of the power of secrets and the risks of incautious interpretation. As I result, I spent years trying to get it into a novel, starting with an unfinished manuscript I began in high school, and intermittently in the years since. When it came time to write City of Exiles, which also centered on questions of interpretation—and the dangers that come with its misuse—I finally had an excuse to delve into it more deeply, in the person of my character Ilya Severin, who I knew would take an interest in such things. And it wasn’t until recently, when I discovered the extraordinary book The Faces of the Chariot by David J. Halperin, that I began to glimpse a solution that made literary and dramatic sense. Halperin’s book is very hard to find, and I wound up devouring it in one sitting, taking copious notes, in the reading room of the British Library. Tomorrow, I’ll explain how I ended up there, and why I decided to set my second novel in London.

Written by nevalalee

November 28, 2012 at 9:43 am

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