Monday, 24 June 2013

Vargas Llosa and HHhH

Read HHhH by Laurence Binet in a mostly good translation from French by Sam Taylor (2013, Vintage).
Binet's novel is his first and it won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman in 2010. It woke me up at 3:00 am with an urgent need to rethink the way I've written my own (unfinished) book. It enabled me to think of different ways of doing things, my head's in a spin, don't know where to start, where will it end?

HHhH is divided into numbered sections - 257 in total - there are no pages numbers, and indeed no need for them because the sections are relatively short; this was the format of another book I read recently, which had 131 numbered sections to it.

Why 131? Why 257? As far as I can see, they are both primary numbers. It is a mystery. I feel sure that there is a reason for each number, and that there is also clue in the book somewhere and I may find it when I re-read the book. It  is hard to put down. P. read it in one day, possessed.

Also helpful in a different way  is Mario Vargas Llosa's Letters to a Young Novelist (1997, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, NY, translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer). Read it very quickly last night - easy and enjoyable, the language just a little florid, which is normal for a translation from a Latin language - it's a small book of just over 130 pages, and interesting for all kinds of reasons.

About why people write:
"The answer, I think, is rebellion. I'm convinced that those who... [write] ...demonstrate indirectly their rejection and criticism of life as it is, of the real world and manifest their desire to substitute for it the creations of their imagination and dreams. Why would anyone who is deeply satisfied with reality, with real life as it is lived, dedicate himself to something as insubstantial and fanciful as the creation of fictional realities?" (p. 7)
But I don't know anyone who is 'deeply satisfied with reality...'.

Most people would agree with the Buddhist statement that 'Life is suffering...'  Some people also believe that if only they did this or that, owned a car of a certain type, slimmed down sufficiently, enjoyed good health - all would be well and they would know pure bliss. So - of all people who suffer, writers belong to a particular subset, who hopefully have the ability to express themselves and the imagination to create different worlds.

 About not telling the reader everything:
"Let's say that the full story of a novel (including all selected and omitted facts) is a cube and that, once the superfluous pieces of information and the bits omitted deliberately in order to obtain a specific effect are carved away, each particular novel takes on a certain form, [...] an expression of the artist's originality....[..] there is no doubt that the hidden fact (if you can't come up with a more appealing name for the device) is one of the most valuable and widely used instruments for cuttaway material until the desired beautiful and persuasive form emerges." (p. 119)

About Chinese boxes
He also calls this the matryoshka technique. "The story is constructed like those traditional puzzles with successively smaller and smaller identical parts nestled inside each other" (p. 101). The example is Scheherazade telling the Sultan stories during 1001 nights.

But is his definition a helpful one? the Scheherazade example is the simplest way of bringing another story into the original one: one person tells another a story. But that story may not necessarily be 'smaller' than the original one - the original one, which Vargas Llosa calls the 'mother' story - may be like a peel around an orange, with the orange (with all its sections, am beginning to like this metaphor - a fruitful metaphor - Hah!) being the longer, more important  story that needs to be told.

Take Binet's novel HHhH (mentioned above): the author or someone like the author is writing about historical fact and agonising about what is true and what is not and what he can make up and what might in fact be wrong. You encounter this person as you read the book, and his meta-view of the story is welcome, because that story is gruelling. The story is not smaller and smaller: it keeps getting bigger in our minds.

Another way of introducing a story is by a person being reminded of the past, and remembering it and the reader living in their head while they think about it.Mostly called 'flash-back', it is not a technique that Vargas Llosa mentions.

About the concept of 'communicating vessels'
Vargas Llosa uses this term to describe a novel where two stories are told side by side and influence each other. He mostly gives extensive examples rather than an abstract description of what he means and I am not sure how well I've understood. Those books I have not read yet, so I have no opinion at this point, except that the idea of two intertwined stories differing substantially in time and place and exerting a strong pull on each other is very interesting. (p. 121) Is it what Binet does with such success in his book HHhH? The story of the author researching and the story of what he finds out and what he chooses to write in the end, different time and place for each part, each having an influence on the other. Or maybe those stories are intermingled anyway?

Friday, 14 June 2013

Apes and monkeys

I read Rose Tremain's The way I found her (Vintage 1998) because I wanted something to clear my mind after the upset of reading Appelfeld (see previous post). She seems to me an author who writes well and wouldn't involve my emotions too much.

It is a strange book, a bit lopsided in its structure, but it does keep you turning the pages and it does pack a bit of a wallop towards the end, with a stunning description of two people being kept hostage - a situation she could not possibly have experienced herself. Altogether, the book is a tour de force, as the protagonist is male and an adolescent male to boot. One of the many intertwining elements of the rich story is his sexual awakening. She manages to describe frantic adolescent lust without being off-putting or deriding the boy. Most of the characters' sexuality is a part of the story, as in real life. Not everything is clearly spelled out, and one is required to think things through a bit, something I always enjoy. The boy reads Le Grand Meaulne, and Crime and Punishment, and comments on parallels between the novels and his own life. He worries about plagiarism, there being a novel in the process of being written, in the novel.

I lay in bed last night and reviewed the book in my mind, considering how the play of different elements. I did have the impression that she had toured Paris pen in hand and transferred everything she saw and experienced to the book. Very detailed, sometimes unnecessarily so.

She mentions orang utangs in the beginning, by which the writer in the story means readers without discernment, and later the symbol comes back, with kidnappers wearing monkey masks. (I know, orang utangs are not monkeys, but the apes and monkeys are pretty close in most people's minds.) Some symmetries seemed contrived when I thought more about them, but that only bothered me a little.

The boy's thoughts are fresh and funny: he takes a beautiful dog for walks every day. It's 'like being Arthur Miller out with Marilyn Monroe' - everyone recognises the dog. Yes, I do think that is an older person's comment rather than a young boy's. This happens more than once, for instance when he notices a woman's 'expensive perfume' - the 'expensive' is not the thought of a 13-year old. He is more realistic in his surprise when he finds out that lipstick colours have individual names.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Too much grief

Someone told me that one of my Nuremberg stories contains too much grief, it is sadness piled upon sadness. I can see what they mean: who wants to read stuff that is about grief and that's it?

The novel is like that too: the beginning is the most powerful, about the injustice and pain, the betrayals and losses. My mentor suggests that I turn it round - the past as flashbacks, seen from a place of safety. The reader is told that the people will escape. Whenever I think about it, it seems unbelievable that they did. I wonder what was special about them. Maybe it was just luck. Four members of one family each navigating across murderous currents by whatever means of salvation available. I can't do anything much today. I shall write and write and see what arises.

I have read Aharon Appelfeld's The Story of a Life (Schocken Books, NY, 2004) translated from the Hebrew by Aloma Halter. She does an excellent job of it. The novel told me something I didn't know, or only knew confusedly: the effect of the period immediately preceding the Six Day War on those who had been victims of the Second World War.

After the war broke out, my parents drove all the way from the North to the South of Israel to visit me, because 'Your mother needed to see you', said my father. I was a young soldier guarding a settlement near Gaza, my focus was on adapting to the new Israeli culture, learning Hebrew, learning about the army, everything at once, my head and my heart in a whirl. I missed childhood friends left behind in Europe. I was still a child myself. But around me, everyone was amazed that they had made the trip.

Appelfeld belonged to a club of survivors from Galicia and Eastern Europe.
 "I was called up for reserve duty., and club members vied with one another excitedly to show their support. People pushed banknotes into my pockets, and one of the less popular members (in part because of his miserliness) actually took off his gold watch, gave it to me, and said, "In my name and in the name of my family". Later I learned that this watch had belonged to his brother, who perished in Auschwitz."
 "Be Shmi U Be Shmi Mishpachti." A blessing - implying May your arm be strong and mighty against those who wish to destroy us. It must have seemed unbelievable that we might survive. I don't recall giving it a thought.

I have just realised that I was reading this book yesterday, on June 6th.It portrays the effect of war-time experiences on children with power and accuracy. No amplification. I found it very moving.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Over the hill

I read this poem last night and it took up residence in my mind. I almost know it by heart without trying much, its rhythms natural, the words simple and familiar.

As you come over the hill

You'll see cows grazing in a field
And perhaps a chicken or a turtle
Crossing the road in their sweet time,
And a small lake where a boy once
Threw a girl in who couldn't swim,

And many large maples and oak trees
Offering ample shade to lie in,
Their branches to hang yourself from,
Should you so desire,
Some lazy afternoon or evening

When something tells the birds to hush,

And the one streetlight  in the village
To keep a few moths company
And the large old house put up for sale
With some of its windows broken.

                                  Charles Simic

Perhaps it spoke to me because I'm travelling over the hill myself, brooding on my life. A single sentence punctuated by commas. Youth, maturity and old age, one stanza each.