Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Samuel Beckett

Luca Brasi flubs his lines, or the joy of happy accidents

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Marlon Brando and Lenny Montana in The Godfather

During the troubled filming of The Godfather, Lenny Montana, the actor who played the enforcer Luca Brasi, kept blowing his lines. During his big speech with Don Corleone at the wedding—”And may their first child be a masculine child”—Montana, anxious about working with Brando for the first time, began to speak, hesitated, then started over again. It was a blown take, but Coppola liked the effect, which seemed to capture some of the character’s own nervousness. Instead of throwing the shot away, he kept it, and he simply inserted a new scene showing Brasi rehearsing his words just before the meeting. It was a happy accident of the sort that you’ll often find in the work of a director like Coppola, who is more open than most, almost to a fault, to the discoveries that can be made on the set. (A more dramatic example is the moment early in Apocalypse Now when Martin Sheen punches and breaks the mirror in his hotel room, which wasn’t scripted—Sheen cut up his hand pretty badly. And for more instances of how mischance can be incorporated into a film, please see this recent article by Mike D’Angelo of The A.V. Club, as well as the excellent comments, which inspired this post.)

You sometimes see these kinds of happy accidents in print as well, but they’re much less common. One example is this famous story of James Joyce, as told by Richard Ellimann:

Once or twice he dictated a bit of Finnegans Wake to [Samuel] Beckett, though dictation did not work very well for him; in the middle of one such session there was a knock at the door which Beckett didn’t hear. Joyce said, “Come in,” and Beckett wrote it down. Afterwards he read back what he had written and Joyce said, “What’s that ‘Come in?’” “Yes, you said that,” said Beckett. Joyce thought for a moment, then said, “Let it stand.”

Similarly, a chance misprint inspired W.H. Auden to change his line “The poets have names for the sea” to “The ports have names for the sea.” And it’s widely believed that one of the most famous lines in all of English poetry, “Brightness falls from the air,” was also the result of a typo: Nashe may have really written “Brightness falls from the hair,” which makes more sense in context, but is much less evocative.

Lenny Montana in The Godfather

Still, it isn’t hard to see why such accidents are more common in film than in print. A novelist or poet can always cross out a line or delete a mistyped word, but filmmaker is uniquely forced to live with every flubbed take or reading: once you’ve started shooting, there’s no going back, and particularly in the days before digital video, a permanent record exists of each mistake. As a result, you’re more inclined to think hard about whether or not you can use what you have, or if the error will require another costly camera setup. In some ways, all of film amounts to this kind of compromise. You never get quite the footage you want: no matter how carefully you’ve planned the shoot, when the time comes to edit, you’ll find that the actors are standing in the wrong place for one shot to cut cleanly to the next, or that you’re missing a crucial closeup that would clarify the meaning of the scene. It’s part of the craft of good directors—and editors—to cobble together something resembling their original intentions from material that always falls short. Every shot in a movie, in a sense, is a happy accident, and the examples I’ve mentioned above are only the most striking examples of a principle that governs the entire filmmaking process.

And it’s worth thinking about the ways in which artists in other media can learn to expose themselves to such forced serendipity. (I haven’t even mentioned the role it plays in such arts as painting, in which each decision starts to feel similarly irrevocable, at least once you’ve started to apply paint to canvas.) One approach, which I’ve tried in the planning stages of my own work, is to work in as permanent a form as possible: pen on paper, rather than pencil or computer, which means that every wrong turn or mistaken impulse lingers on after you’ve written it. A typewriter, I suspect, might play the same role, and I have a feeling that writers of a previous generation occasionally shaped their sentences to match a mistyped word, rather than going through the trouble of typing the page all over again. Writers are lucky: we have a set of tools of unmatched portability, flexibility, and privacy, and it means that we can deal with any errors at our leisure, at least until they see print. But with every gain, there’s also a loss: in particular, of the kind of intensity and focus that actors describe when real, expensive film is running through the camera. When so much is on the line, you’re more willing to find ways of working with what you’ve been given by chance. And that’s an attitude that every artist could use.

Written by nevalalee

October 8, 2013 at 8:12 am

Squashing the semicolon

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Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.

Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

I don’t like semicolons. I’ve always been conscious of avoiding them in my published fiction, but I’m not sure I realized the truly comical extent of my aversion until I did a few quick searches in Word. Here, then, are the results of—wait for it—my semicolonoscopy: The Icon Thief, a novel of over 100,000 words and half a million characters, contains a grand total of six semicolons, while its sequel, City of Exiles, which is about the same length, has exactly six as well, which implies that I’m holding disturbingly close to some invisible quota. And of the three novelettes I’ve published in Analog over the past few years, along with two more stories slated to appear in the next six months, there’s exactly one semicolon. (If you’re curious, it’s in “The Boneless One,” on page 88 of the November 2011 issue. A few choice revisions, and I could have called it “The Semicolonless One.”)

The really surprising discovery is that this seems to be a relatively recent development. “Inversus,” my first professionally published story, is something of an outlier: it came out in January/February 2004, more than four years before I began making sales on a regular basis, and it contains ten semicolons, or nearly the same number that I’ve since employed in two full novels. Over the last five years, then, as my overall productivity has increased, my use of semicolons has gone down drastically. In itself, the timing isn’t hard to understand: it wasn’t until I began writing for a living, and particularly after I wrote my first novel, that I began to develop a style of my own. And whoever this writer is, he seems to hate semicolons, at least when it comes to fiction. (For what it’s worth, I use semicolons slightly more often in my personal correspondence, as well as on this blog, but I still don’t especially care for them.)

And I’m not entirely sure why. If pressed, I’d say that my dislike of semicolons, and most other forms of punctuation aside from the comma and period, comes from my classical education, in which I spent years reading Latin authors who managed to convey meaning and rhythm through sentence structure alone. These days, writers have a world of possible punctuation at their disposal, but this isn’t necessarily a good thing. One of the best things a writer can do, to build muscle, is to consciously deprive himself of a common tool, while developing other strategies to take its place. The semicolon is essentially a crutch for combining two sentences into one, for the sake of meaning or variety. By eschewing semicolons, I’ve forced myself to achieve these goals in other ways, revising sentences to have rhythm and clarity on the most fundamental level: in the arrangement of the words themselves.

But really, if I’m honest, I have to admit that it isn’t rational at all. Many writers have irrational dislikes of certain kinds of punctuation: George Bernard Shaw thought of apostrophes as “uncouth bacilli,” and James Joyce, as well as many of his pretentious imitators, disliked inverted commas, using a French- or Italian-style quotation dash to indicate dialogue. Other authors, such as Wodehouse and Beckett, have as much of an aversion to semicolons as I do. Such choices can be justified on stylistic grounds, but in my experience, such obsessive decisions are more often personal and idiosyncratic, the result of a writer’s customary isolation. After you’ve spent years of your life staring at the same stack of pages, it takes on an almost physical presence, like a view of your backyard, until such otherwise innocent features as ragged line breaks and ellipses, invisible to casual readers, start to drive you crazy. So if you like semicolons, please keep using them; I only wish that I could do the same.

Quote of the Day

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I realised that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realised that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.

Samuel Beckett

Written by nevalalee

July 25, 2011 at 7:22 am

Quote of the Day

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Once or twice [James Joyce] dictated a bit of Finnegans Wake to [Samuel] Beckett, though dictation did not work very well for him; in the middle of one such session there was a knock at the door which Beckett didn’t hear. Joyce said, “Come in,” and Beckett wrote it down. Afterwards he read back what he had written and Joyce said, “What’s that ‘Come in?'” “Yes, you said that,” said Beckett. Joyce thought for a moment, then said, “Let it stand.” He was quite willing to accept coincidence as his collaborator.

—Richard Ellmann, James Joyce

Written by nevalalee

January 22, 2011 at 8:45 am

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