Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Philosophy of Composition

Putin and I

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About ten years ago, I wrote a conspiracy thriller set in the New York art world. The decision was largely a practical one—I had written but been unable to sell a long science fiction novel, and I switched to suspense mostly because I knew that it was in my wheelhouse. When I started, I didn’t have a plot in mind, and my initial approach was simply to read as widely as I could and assemble pieces that I thought might be useful. One was Marcel Duchamp’s installation Étant Donnés, which Jasper Johns once called “the strangest work of art in any museum.” Another was the unexplained double suicide of the artists Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake. And a third was a curious incident that took place two years earlier at Sotheby’s, in which an unknown bidder—with a Russian accent—paid a record amount for a portrait by Picasso, despite “the relentless and unsophisticated manner in which he waved his paddle.” That was how Russia entered the story, and while I wasn’t sure how I was going to use it, I had an ace up my sleeve. I knew that the Russia angle would let me get away with practically anything, because the truth was invariably stranger than fiction, and it was impossible to come up with any plot point that was more farfetched than actual events. As the backdrop for a conspiracy novel, it was perfect. In The Icon Thief, these elements were used mostly for atmosphere, but I did a deep dive into the intricacies of the secret services in the sequels, City of Exiles and Eternal Empire, complete with a rivalry between the civilian and military branches of Russian intelligence that in retrospect may have been one level of complexity too many. (My best source was The Sword and the Shield by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, which I recommend highly to anyone looking for a historical perspective on recent developments. I’ve just started watching the first season of The Americans with my wife, and it’s clear that the show’s writing staff was reading it closely, too.)

At the time, my decision to focus on Russia was a matter of narrative convenience, and not because of any contemporary relevance that I thought it might have. (As the creator of The Americans has said: “People ask us how we were so prescient. We weren’t prescient. We were the opposite of prescient.”) In 1846, Edgar Allan Poe published an essay titled “The Philosophy of Composition,” in which he claimed to outline the chain of reasoning behind his poem “The Raven.” Here’s how he allegedly arrived at the image of the dead Lenore:

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.”

Critics often read Poe’s essay as a sort of fiction in itself, but it’s reasonable to see it as a series of high-speed photographs of the artist’s mind, like a picture of a bullet being shot through an apple. It slows down and fixes an instinctive phenomenon that normally occurs within seconds. Poe is laboriously dissecting a process in which every poet engages—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 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 for something else.

In the case of my novels, “Russia” itself is a word that calls up an entire world of intrigue, but there’s an even better one. Over two years ago, in a discussion of Eternal Empire, I wrote: “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.” It seemed to me that Putin’s name was the most evocative word in the lexicon of the modern thriller, allowing me to do in a few sentences what might otherwise require five pages. In utilizing a real political figure in a novel, I was following the example of Frederick Forsyth, who built The Day of the Jackal around an assassination attempt on Charles de Gaulle and gave prominent speaking parts to Margaret Thatcher in several of his later books. Ideally, this sets up a sliding scale of verisimilitude, starting with obvious figures like Putin, working its way down through less familiar politicians or incidents, and finally entering the realm of pure fiction. Even if you’re reasonably conversant with current events, you can have trouble telling where history leaves off and invention begins, especially as the novel shows its age. (I have a feeling that most contemporary readers of The Day of the Jackal aren’t aware that the opening sequence is based on fact, which is an interesting case of a novel outliving the material that it used to enhance its own credibility.) In theory, the transition from someone like Putin to the fictional characters at the bottom of the pecking order should be totally seamless. We know that Putin is real and that most of the other characters aren’t, but in some cases, we aren’t sure, and the overwhelming fact of Putin himself serves to organize and enhance the rest of the story.

As a result of my hunch about the subject’s potential, I spent five years of my life thinking about Putin and Russia, which was more than I ever intended. By the end, I was feeling burned out, so I closed Eternal Empire on a note of unwarranted optimism. The events of the novel were timed to coincide with a series of protests that took place toward the end of 2011, of which Ellen Barry wrote in the New York Times:

Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets in Moscow on Saturday shouting “Putin is a thief” and “Russia without Putin,” forcing the Kremlin to confront a level of public discontent that has not been seen here since Vladimir V. Putin first became president twelve years ago…The demonstration marked what opposition leaders hope will be a watershed moment, ending years of quiet acceptance of the political consolidation Mr. Putin introduced…He is by far the country’s most popular political figure, but he no longer appears untouchable and will have to engage with his critics, something he has done only rarely and grudgingly.

Even then, I knew that this was less of a turning point than it seemed, but I wanted my novel—which centers on the figure of a Russian dissident modeled on Mikhail Khodorkovsky—to arrive at some kind of closure. But I never imagined how timid these novels would seem one day, even if they were superficially prescient in other ways. (An important subplot in The Icon Thief describes the poisoning of a political enemy overseas using a nerve agent, which back then was safely in the realm of fiction.) Years ago, I wrote on this blog: “Nothing that a writer can invent about Russia can possibly compare to the reality.” It turns out that I was right. I’m proud of these three novels, but I haven’t gone back to read them in a long time. And I frankly don’t know if I ever can again.

“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…

The Passion of St. Edgar

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It will be found, in fact, that the ingenious are always fanciful, and the truly imaginative never otherwise than analytic.

—Edgar Allan Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”

Today is the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe, the patron saint of all those who write for a living. More than two centuries after his birth, Poe remains a fascinating figure, largely because few authors have presented us with so stark a contrast between the rational and irrational sides of a writer’s personality. When we think of Poe, we tend to think of the obsessive, alcoholic, manic-depressive eccentric, but he was also deeply learned, an ingenious plotmaker, and a talented cryptologist who challenged readers to submit ciphers for him to solve. Poe was arguably the first professional American writer of lasting interest, at a time when he had few, if any, models for such a career. As such, he could hardly have been anything less than prodigiously hardworking and talented. He remains the epitome of the popular writer, and the model for all those who followed: clever, opportunistic, but with more than a touch of madness to be writing for a living at all.

Every critic knows that Poe was a prolific inventor of genres, above all that of the detective story, but not everyone understands why. Genre, as I’ve said before, is the result of a sort of dialogue between an author and his audience, a process of trial and error as writers figure out what elements get the best response. Because Poe was among the first writers whose survival depended entirely on a popular readership, he embodied that process singlehandedly: while he was undoubtedly driven by his own obsessions, he was also willing to try anything once. Browsing in Poe’s collected stories is like watching natural selection at work, with successful innovations alternating with wild shots in the dark. It’s no accident that of the three short stories featuring the detective Dupin, the first and last, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter,” have become classics, while the second, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” survives, if at all, as a weird, basically unreadable experiment. Here as elsewhere, Poe tried something new, checked to see if it worked, and if it didn’t, he moved on. And that’s how genres are made.

Earlier this week, I mentioned Poe’s essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” which nicely sums up the two halves of his, or any writer’s, creative personality. In it, he makes a show of breaking down “The Raven” into its constituent parts, claiming that every choice he made was the result of a rational process—that he chose to write about the death of a beautiful woman, for instance, because it is unquestionably “the most poetical topic in the world,” and selected the refrain “Nevermore” because of “the long o as the most sonorous vowel, in connection with r as the most producible consonant.” Critics tend to believe that the essay is a parody of close literary analysis, and indeed, Poe often seems to be winking slyly at the reader. Yet I have the feeling that what Poe describes is not entirely removed from his real creative process. It seems quite likely that Poe initially conceived of a poem with the refrain “Nevermore,” then worked it out forward and backward, proceeding with the intuition of the craftsman, not the mystic. And the result is a poem that produces its uncanny effects in unexpectedly rational ways.

Poe’s influence is incalculable—”He is never wrong,” as Paul Valéry said—but these days, it’s easier to admire him for his plots and originality than for the actual experience of reading his fiction. The core of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is an astonishingly modern detective story, at least in terms of its red herrings and high-concept solution, but it takes a long time to get there, opening with an interminable two-page essay on the nature of analysis before introducing the characters themselves. A few decades later, Arthur Conan Doyle would refine and perfect this model to the point where we can still read his stories with undiminished delight, but even he acknowledged that he wouldn’t be anywhere without Poe. Nor would any of us. In mystery, in horror, in science fiction, in suspense: in the end, we’re all working from the example left for us by Poe, the great original, who knew what it meant to write like your life depended on it.

Written by nevalalee

January 19, 2012 at 10:12 am

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