Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Salman Rushdie

The Eco Maker

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Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco died on Saturday. The news shattered me, all the more because Eco had been slowly drifting away from the central role in my life that he had played for so long. But I was thinking of him just a few days ago, daydreaming, as I often do, about living on the road with nothing but what I could carry in a backpack. Foucault’s Pendulum, I decided, would be the one novel I would bring for my own pleasure, consumed a page or two at a time in hotel lobbies or on train station platforms. I’ve noted here before that just about everything I’ve published at novel length, notably The Icon Thief, has been a kind of dialogue with Foucault’s Pendulum, which rocked my world when I first read it more than twenty years ago, so that countless thankfully unfinished manuscripts from my teens bore the mark of its influence. The paperback copy I bought in my hometown all those years ago has accompanied me on every move ever since, and it’s been read so often—certainly more than a dozen times—that it has taken on some of the qualities of my own face. On its spine, it bears two deep parallel creases, about half an inch apart, like the lifelines on the palm of a lovingly worn workman’s glove: a testament to a lifetime’s faithful service. And although I’ve retreated from and returned to it countless times over the last two decades, every cycle brings me closer to its vision again, so that by now I’ve accepted that it’s a part of me.

But it wasn’t until I heard the news of Eco’s death that I began to reflect on what this really meant. Eco was an incredibly prolific writer and scholar, but for most fans, I have a feeling that he’ll be remembered best for two books. The Name of the Rose remains, rightly, the more famous and beloved, and the first to be mentioned in any obituary: William of Baskerville is still the most fully realized character Eco ever created, even if I insist on picturing him as Sean Connery, and for a lot of readers, Brother William became the guide to a labyrinthine library that some of us never escaped. He pointed me toward Borges, as he did with so many others, which is legacy enough for anyone. If I’m honest with myself, he also turned me onto Latin, and to a lesser extent Greek, which I spent four years studying in college in part just so I could read that novel’s many untranslated passages. (I achieved that goal with mixed success: there was probably a period of six months or so where I could easily read those sections at sight—as if the meanings were appearing in the margin in invisible ink—but the words have long since faded again.) And Foucault’s Pendulum, his other lasting work, opened up a whole world of ideas, or, more accurately, the idea that seeking patterns in those ideas was the greatest game in the world. Eco warns us that it can also be a pathology, but he can only make his case by exposing us first to its delights, and I’ve spent most of my life walking the fine line that he traced.

Foucault's Pendulum

That remarkable ability to spin webs of ideas into a book that ordinary readers could love—a challenge that many writers have tackled since and none has done nearly as well—explains why Eco was such a problematic figure to so many other authors. There was Salman Rushdie, who appears to have glimpsed the similarity between Eco and himself, in a sort of uncanny valley, and famously trashed Foucault’s Pendulum as “entirely free of anything resembling a credible spoken word.” And I’ve often quoted Tom Wolfe, who said, accurately enough: “Eco is a very good example of a writer who leads dozens of young writers into a literary cul-de-sac.” (Although when I look at that statement now, I can’t help but echo Tobias on Arrested Development: “There are dozens of us. Dozens!”) Eco was a dangerous example for all the obvious reasons. He came to fiction in his fifties, after an entire career spent living in the world and thinking about ideas, which is very different from doing it in your twenties. His preternatural facility as a writer camouflaged the fact that his accomplishment in The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum was not only difficult, but all but irreproducible, even for him: I never managed to finish any of his later novels. These two books wouldn’t exist at all if they didn’t pull off the impossible feat of making us care about ideas as if they were people, but it’s such a freakish trick that you want to warn young writers to spend their time with authors who struggle honestly with creating real men and women.

I agree with all of this. And I’ve spent much of my life trying to free myself from Eco’s magic spell, even if it took me the better part of two novels to do so. But I’ve also come to realize that if Eco is a dead end, it’s one that’s still worth taking, if you’re one of the dozens of young writers for whose souls Wolfe was so concerned. To take an illustration that Eco, with his omnivorous embrace of popular culture, might have liked: if this is a cul-de-sac, it’s like the fake tunnel that Wile E. Coyote paints on the side of a wall, only to have the Road Runner race through it. There’s something tantalizingly real and moving about Eco’s artifice, and it strikes me now as just as valid as the ones created by all those painstaking noticers of human behavior. It’s a story of books, not of everyday worries, as he writes in The Name of the Rose, and it’s the story in which I’ve found myself, when I look honestly at my own life. It’s a dead end that feels more expansive, as time goes on, than any other alternative. Even if it isn’t for everyone, I’ve come to recognize that Eco was the point of origin from which I had to distance myself, only to find my steps curving back in its direction after I’d acquired some necessary experience that didn’t come from libraries. And I can only return to those words from Thomas à Kempis that Eco shared with us so long ago: In omnibus requiem quaesivi, et nusquam inveni nisi in angulo cum libro. I sought peace everywhere, and I found it only in a corner with a book. And its title was Foucault’s Pendulum.

Written by nevalalee

February 22, 2016 at 9:49 am

The middle ground

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The Mad Men episode "In Care Of"

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What series are you waiting to dive into until you can do it all at once?”

Yesterday, while leafing through a recent issue of The New Yorker, I came across the following lines in a book review by James Wood:

[Amit Chaudhuri] has struggled, as an Indian novelist writing in English, with the long shadow of Salman Rushdie’s Booker-winning novel Midnight’s Children…and with the notion, established in part by the success of that book, that fictional writing about Indian life should be noisy, magical, hybrid, multivocally “exotic”—as busy as India itself…He points out that in the Bengali tradition “the short story and novella have predominated at least as much as the novel,” and that there are plenty of Indian writers who have “hoped to suggest India by ellipsis rather than by all-inclusiveness.”

Wood, who is no fan of the “noisy, magical, hybrid” form that so many modern novels have assumed, draws an apt parallel to “the ceaseless quest for the mimetically overfed Great American Novel.” But an emphasis on short, elliptical fiction has been the rule, rather than the exception, in our writing programs for years. And a stark division between big and small seems to be true of most national literatures: think of Russia, for instance, in which Eugene Onegin stands as the only real rival as a secular scripture to the loose, baggy monsters of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

Yet most works of art, inevitably, end up somewhere in the middle. If we don’t tend to write essays or dissertations about boringly midsized novels, which pursue their plot and characters for the standard three hundred pages or so, it’s for much the same reason that we don’t hear much about political moderates: we may be in the majority, but it isn’t news. Our attention is naturally drawn to the extreme, which may be more interesting to contemplate, but which also holds the risk that we’ll miss the real story by focusing on the edges. When we think about film editing, for instance, we tend to focus on one of two trends: the increasingly rapid rate of cutting, on the one hand, and the fetishization of the long take, on the other. In fact, the average shot length has been declining at a more or less linear rate ever since the dawn of the sound era, and over the last quarter of a century, it’s gone from about five seconds to four—a change that is essentially imperceptible. The way a movie is put together has remained surprisingly stable for more than a generation, and whatever changes of pace we do find are actually less extreme than we might expect from the corresponding technical advances. Digital techniques have made it easier than ever to construct a film out of very long or very short shots, but most movies still fall squarely in the center of the bell curve. And in terms of overall length, they’ve gotten slightly longer, but not by much.

Emilia Clarke on Game of Thrones

That’s true of other media as well. Whenever I read think pieces about the future of journalism, I get the impression that we’ve been given a choice between the listicle and the longread: either we quickly skim a gallery of the top ten celebrity pets, or we devote an entire evening to scrolling through a lapbreaker like “Snow Fall.” Really, though, most good articles continue to fall in the middle ground; it’s just hard to quantify what makes the best ones stand out, and it’s impossible to reduce it to something as simple as length or format. Similarly, when it comes to what we used to call television, the two big stories of the last few years have been the dueling models of Vine and Netflix: it seems that either we can’t sit still for more than six seconds at a time, or we’re eager to binge on shows for hours and hours. There are obvious generational factors at play here—I’ve spent maybe six seconds total on Vine—but the division is less drastic than it might appear. In fact, I suspect that most of us still consume content in the way we always have, in chunks of half an hour to an hour. Mad Men was meant to be seen like this; so, in its own way, was Community, which bucked recent trends by releasing an episode per week. But it isn’t all that interesting to talk about how to make a great show that looks more or less like the ones that have come before, so we don’t hear much about it.

Which isn’t to say that the way we consume and think about media hasn’t changed. A few years ago, the idea of waiting to watch a television show until its entire run was complete might have seemed ridiculous; now, it’s an option that many of us seriously consider. (The only series I’ve ever been tempted to wait out like this was Lost, and it backfired: once I got around to starting it, the consensus was so strong that it went nowhere that I couldn’t bring myself to get past the second season.) But as I’ve said before, it can be a mistake for a television show—or any work of art—to proceed solely with that long game in mind, without the pressure of engaging with an audience from week to week. We’re already starting to see some of the consequences in Game of Thrones, which thinks entirely in terms of seasons, but often forgets to make individual scenes worth watching on a level beyond, “Oh, let’s see what this guy is doing.” But a show that focuses entirely on the level of the scene or moment can sputter out after a few seasons, or less: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt had trouble sustaining interest in its own premise for even thirteen episodes. The answer, as boring as it may be, lies in the middle, or in the narratives that think hard about telling stories in the forms that have existed before, and will continue to exist. The extremes may attract us. But it’s in the boring middle ground that the future of an art form is made.

Salman Rushdie on the ways of speaking

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If you didn’t have a sense of how people spoke, you didn’t know them well enough, and so you couldn’t—you shouldn’t—tell their story. The way people spoke, in short, clipped phrases or long, flowing rambles, revealed so much about them: their place of origin, their social class, their temperament, whether calm or angry, warm-hearted or cold-blooded, foulmouthed or polite; and, beneath their temperament, their true nature, intellectual or earthy, plainspoken or devious, and, yes, good or bad.

Salman Rushdie, in The New Yorker

Written by nevalalee

September 15, 2012 at 9:50 am

A few words on dialogue

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While every novelist should strive to be a perfect writing machine, equally at home in all aspects of the craft, there’s no doubt that every writer has particular weaknesses. For me, at least to my own ears, it’s dialogue. Dialogue in my novels and short stories tends to be purely functional, and while I do my best to make it natural, clear, and concise, I doubt I’ll ever be able to write dialogue like James M. Cain. Yet I find myself writing dialogue all the time: it’s still the most economical way of advancing a story, and since it’s so central to the suspense genre, I’m constantly striving to make my own efforts more readable and appealing. And while the best way to write good dialogue is to study the novelists or dramatists whose work you admire (my own favorites include Cain, Updike, and, in small doses, Mamet), I can still suggest a few general guidelines.

The first point to remember is that dialogue is like any other aspect of fiction: it’s only meaningful as a part of the whole. If a clever line draws attention to itself at the expense of the fictional dream, it probably needs to be cut. Samuel Johnson’s famous advice—”Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out”—applies doubly so to dialogue, where an awkward or precious exchange can pull the reader out of the story immediately. This is true of even very good novels, like The Time Traveler’s Wife, where the dialogue, especially between male characters, occasionally strays into preciousness, and it can particularly be a problem in genre fiction, where writers sometimes feel the need to fill the entire page with banter. A page of nondescript but serviceable dialogue is always better than a page of clanging repartee.

Another point is that dialogue doesn’t need to be realistic in order to read well, or to serve its purpose within the story. On the most basic level, nearly all fictional conversations need to be more direct and concise than the way we talk in real life: characters in a novel tend to be very good at getting directly to the point. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a book like Foucault’s Pendulum is full of conversations and dialogue that, with their density of allusion and information, could never occur in real life, which strikes me as perfectly fine (though Salman Rushdie would disagree). Still, this is a slippery slope: I find the endless expository passages in Dan Brown’s novels unbearable, for instance, and since thrillers are especially prone to this sort of thing, I’m constantly working to make sure that my own fiction doesn’t suffer from the same problem.

In the end, every writer finds rhythms of dialogue that work within the context of the story, which is the only context that matters. And a writer shouldn’t hesitate to violate conventions of accuracy or realism in the pursuit of greater clarity. Writing dialogue for characters speaking in a foreign language, for instance, often requires navigating the requirements of clarity and plausibility at the cost of technical accuracy. I’ve always loved Eco’s description of how he approached this problem in The Name of the Rose, much of which is in Latin:

I have eliminated excesses, but I have retained a certain amount. And I fear that I have imitated those bad novelists who, introducing a French character, make him exclaim “Parbleu!” and “La femme, ah! la femme!”

All the same, a certain amount of artificiality is sometimes necessary. Critics have pointed out that much of the dialogue in For Whom The Bell Tolls, which purports to render Spanish conversations in English, actually results in nonsense when translated back into Spanish: Hemingway wasn’t going for literal fidelity, but a formal, archaic tone appropriate to the mood he’s trying to create. The needs of the story, in other words, trump everything else. Which is exactly how it should be.

Written by nevalalee

July 6, 2011 at 10:10 am

The glorious cul-de-sac of Umberto Eco

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

Tom Wolfe

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

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

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

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

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