The Art of the Novel (edited by Nicholas Royle)

the-art-of-the-novel

I had a hard time deciding which should be my last post of the year. Finally, I chose to write about The Art of the Novel, a book I devoured and will return to very often. It may sound like The Art of the Novel is only for writers but that’s not the case. Readers, writers, and teachers of creative writing will find it equally inspiring and useful.

Editor Nicholas Royle has asked eighteen writers to write an essay about an aspect of the novel or a theme related to novels. Additionally they were to share one of their favourite writing exercises, a list of top tips, and a list of novels. Some of these book lists reflect the topic the authors have written about, but more often, they are just a list of the writer’s favourite novels.

Every one of these nineteen articles (Royle wrote one too) was interesting. Sometimes the authors used other writer’s novels to talk about a topic, sometimes they used a book they had written to show the reader how they achieved something. The topics are wide-ranging: Magical Realism, Narrative Perspective, Motivation, Historical Novels, so-called “Dos and Don’ts”, Place, Plot Twists . . . I can’t think of an aspect that hasn’t been covered. Unless you write/read exclusively in a specific genre, you’ll find something of interest in this book.

These are some of the authors who have contributed: Jenn Ashworth, Stella Duffy, Alison Moore, Nikesh Shukla, Kerry Hudson, Joe Stretch, Toby Litt, Alice Thompson and many more.

To give you an idea of what to expect, I’m picking one essay, Kerry Hudson’s “Details, Details”.

At first, Kerry Hudson asks the reader to imagine a man and a woman having dinner and arguing about something. Eventually, they come to a conclusion and smile at each other. Obviously, this isn’t much of a scene, so paragraph by paragraph, she fleshes it out and shows the reader what can be gained by adding details. She then goes one step further and asks the reader to describe the present moment. Where is he/she reading? What does the environment look, smell, sound like?

The essay is followed by a “proper” writing exercise. She asks the reader to leave the house and sit somewhere outside, taking notes of as many details as he/she possibly can. Afterwards, writers should then weave these descriptions into an existing draft and make connections.

As I mentioned before, every exercise is followed by top tips. In this case they are as follows:

  • Get your arse on the seat; writers write.
  • Write your shitty first draft solely for yourself. Edit and revise for your readers.
  • Be kind. Work hard. Don’t be an arsehole.

The last element of the article is her list of favourite/recommended novels.

Hudson’s essay is a bit different as it focuses heavily on exercises. Other’s like Livi Michael’s “Approaches to the Historical Novel” focus on other writer’s work and on showing different ways to write historical novels. Alison Moore’s “Living in a Real World” draws heavily from her prize-winning novel The Lighthouse.

What I enjoyed a great deal was how different all of these authors sounded. Their voices, tones, approaches are so varied that it never gets boring. Reading this, you have a feeling of listening to many, very different, people telling you something about books.

The exercises and top tips are as varied as the voices, which makes them very useful for all sorts of writers, whether they are beginners or more advanced, more interested in genre or drawn to literary fiction.

Since there are nineteen writers in this book, and they all recommend ten to fifteen books, you get a huge list of recommendations. Quite a few books and novelists are mentioned by several authors, but none as often as Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat.

Whether you are a writer or a reader, I highly recommend this book. It will give you food for thought, inspiring exercises, tips and many (themed) book recommendations.

 

On Elizabeth von Arnim’s “Elizabeth and her German Garden”

Elizabeth and her German Garden

I thought this would be my first book by Elizabeth von Arnim but I’d totally forgotten the wonderful The Enchanted April, which I’ve read a long time ago and enjoyed a great deal.

Published in 1898, Elizabeth and her German Garden was von Arnim’s first novel and was a huge success when it came out. It’s inspired by her own life and the time she spent in her garden in Nassenheide, Germany.

The book is written in form of a diary.

This is how it begins

May 7th—I love my garden. I am writing in it now in the late afternoon loveliness, much interrupted by the mosquitoes and the temptation to look at all the glories of the new green leaves washed half an hour ago in a cold shower. Two owls are perched near me, and are carrying on a long conversation that I enjoy as much as any warbling of nightingales.

Elizabeth is married to an oldfashioned, stern man, she calls The Man of Wrath. She’s in her early 30s and has given birth to three girls she calls the April, May, and June baby. Unlike most other women of the German high society, Elizabeth hates living in Berlin where she suffocates indoors and has to put up with many obligations. She feels she can only be truly herself in her garden. She’s actually pretty clueless when it comes to gardening but that doesn’t diminish her enjoyment. She loves spending her money on seeds and plants and tries to be outdoors as much as possible. She reads, writes, and eats in her garden. Sometimes, to her annoyance, she has visitors. With the exception of one friend, Irais, she despises all of them.

The book is filled with beautiful, lyrical descriptions of her garden, the nature, and landscape of Pomerania. Elizabeth is an oddity in this society. A woman who prefers solitude and the outdoors.  She wishes, she were freer through, allowed to pick up a spade, do her own digging.

In spite of the many beautiful passages and witty comments on the people around her, I liked this far less than I thought I would. Elizabeth might rebel against her situation and the way women are treated, she’s aware of injustice when she’s its victim, but, unfortunately, when it comes to others she is far more condescending than kind. She hardly ever sympathisez with anyone, not with the workers on her husband’s farms, nor with the gardeners, the visitors, the horses she abuses to travel during icy periods, knowing very well it’s hard on them. Yes, she’s witty but she’s also quite cruel. She questions the treatment of women but isn’t bothered all that much how the workers are treated. She makes fun of them, even goes as far as calling them dumb. Maybe this is due to personal frustrations, still, I found her to be very unkind and, in the end, it tainted my reading experience. I was surprised to discover this side of the book as I’ve never seen it mentioned anywhere. I only ever saw it praised for the lovely descriptions and sentiments on solitude and nature. Keen to see whether there were other reviewers feeling similar, I discovered an article in the Financial Times called The hidden dark side of “Elizabeth and her German Garden”. The writer wrote about a BBC radio 4 programme that left out all those negative passages that I mentioned before. He too, was baffled.

I would understand this kind of whitewashing if the passages were minor but they aren’t. The last third, for example, is dedicated to the visit of Elizabeth’s friend Irais and a young English woman called Menora. Menora is enthusiastic and very naïve, which Irais and Elizabeth find hilarious. They constantly make fun of her, make sure, she commits silly errors, let her believe that Elizabeth is German, although she’s English. There’s even some cruelty. All this shows that both Elizabeth and Irais feel superior.

Before ending this post, I d’ like to mention one aspect that I found funny and often touching – the way she wrote about her babies. Those passages showed great love and concern and underlined her fears for the future of the girls, knowing so well, how little freedom women had in this society.

I’m still glad I read this because the beautiful passages on nature are truly remarkable. Who knows, perhaps my memory will do its own whitewashing and I’ll only remember the positive aspects of the novel in a few years. That said, I’ll read more of Elizabeth von Arnim. Maybe I’m not being just and read this too much like an autobiography but it seemed so close to her life.

The Art of Time in Fiction by Joan Silber

The Art of Time in Fiction

It’s rare that I read a nonfiction book with as much enthusiasm as Joan Silber’s The Art of Time in Fiction.  Given the topic it’s not surprising though. I’ve long suspected that one of the key elements dividing literary fiction and genre fiction might be the use of time. I’m thinking of the artless use of the split-narrative that we find in almost every crime novel these days. Or the time-split in historical genre novels. Silber’s title is well-chosen, because using time masterfully is really an art.

She divided her book into different chapters, each dedicated to another use of time, another technique. I noticed, when compiling the list that when it’s done really well, we hardly notice what approach an author chose. I really appreciated the many examples she gave and from which she quotes extensively. Of course, this makes it a dangerous book for book addicts because it makes you want to add to your piles.

I will go through the categories, describing them briefly and adding the examples Joan Silber chose.

Classic Time

The first category was “classic time”. In this approach the author describes the story chronologically, chosing only a brief time span. There isn’t a lot of back story, nor flashbacks. I’d say it is the category that shows the most, tells the least.

The best example for classic time is:

  • Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby

 

Long Time

When an author tells a character’s whole life and the story spans over many years and decades, then we have an example of long time. I think it’s the category I’m the least fond of, but stories like Flaubert’s A Simple Heart, that capture a whole life, condensing long stretches, and only needs some forty pages, are not to be dismissed.

The examples quoted are:

  • Anton Chekhov – The Darling
  • Gustave Flaubert – A Simple Life/Un Coeur Simple
  • Jhumpa Lahiri – The Namesake
  • Carol Shields – The Stone Diaries
  • Arnold Bennett – The Old Wives’ Tale
  • Guy de Maupassant – Une Vie
  • Yu Hua – To Live
  • Evan Connell – Mrs Bridge
  • Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse

Switchback Time

The use of flashbacks, dreamlike sequences, non-linear storytelling, might be what appeals to me the most.

Here are a couple of examples for this type of storytelling:

  • Alice Munro – A Real Life, The Progress of Love, Carried Away, The Albanian Virgin
  • James Baldwin – Sonny’s Blues

 

Slowed Time

Proust’s In Search of Lost Time might be the most prominent of this category. In a movie there would be the use of slow motion. It’s an arresting technique that captures sensory and sensuous details like no other.

A few examples:

  • Nawal al-Sadaadawi – The Thirst
  • Don DeLillo – Videotape
  • Marcel Proust – In Search of Lost Time

 

Fabulous Time

This is the realm of magical realism and folk and fairy tales. It’s characterized by uncertainty and a reversal of natural time and disregarding the laws of time.

The examples used to illustrate this are:

  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez – One Hundred Years of Solitude, Chronicle of a Death Foretold
  • Italo Calvino – Italian Folktales
  • Arundhati Roy – The God of Small Things

 

Time as Subject

One of the most interesting uses of time in fiction is when it’s made the subject of the story. I’ve never read Fitzgerald’s Winter Dreams, which seems to be similar to The Great Gatsby, but uses time differently. Since I’m planning on re-reading The Great Gatsby, I’m looking forward to comparing it to Winter Dreams.

Here are the examples given in the book:

  • F.Scott Fitzgerald – Winter Dreams
  • Katherine Anne Porter – Old Mortality
  • Henry James – The Beast in the Jungle
  • Leo Tolstoy – The Death of Ivan Ilych
  • Alan Lightman – Einstein’s Dream
  • Chinua Achebe – Things Fall Apart
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Love in the Time of Cholera
  • Denis Johnson – Out on Bail
  • Martin Amis – Time’s Arrow
  • Charles Baxter – First Light
  • Jorge Luis Borges – The Secret Miracle
  • Ambrose Bierce – An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
  • Italo Calvino – Invisible Cities

I can’t say there’s one of these approaches I don’t like, but I guess books in which the time is a subject and what Silber calls “switchback time” might be those I like the most.

This is a wonderful little book that will appeal to readers and writers alike. It’s part of “The Art Of” series books published by Graywolf Press.

What about you? Do you prefer any of these categories? Or do you enjoy the use of split timelines/narratives more?

 

Peter Mendelsund: What We See When We Read (2014)

What We See When We Read

How does your Anna Karenina look? Is she tall and dark-haired? Homely or elegant? Can you picture her nose? And what color is Ishmael’s hair? What does he wear? These are but a few of the questions Peter Mendelsund explores in his exciting book What We See When We Read.

Mendelsund is the associate art director of Alfred A. Knopf and art director of Pantheon books. In his book, which is subtitled A Phenomenology with Illustrations, he explores what it means to read and what types of pictures are created in books and in our heads.

As readers we are often not conscious that the images we see before our inner eyes correspond only to some extent to what we find on the page. Our own imagination embellishes, we write along. That’s why we so often find fault with the way characters and settings look in movies. “No,” we say. ”This isn’t what I’ve imagined.” Returning to the book, we might discover that what we imagined isn’t any closer to what the author wrote than the choices the film director made.

Ciphers

“Characters,” Mendelsund writes, “are ciphers. And narratives are made richer by omission.” I agree with him. Most readers would. Isn’t there anything more tiresome than a description that is so detailed that you feel your imagination crumble under the exhaustion of picturing exactly what you should see?

Mendelsund also questions whether we are still able to imagine like people in the era before movies, TV, and the Internet. And what about children? Do we teach them how to imagine through picture books? Are they born with their imaginations? And has everyone the same imagination?

While I nodded in agreement most of the time, and stopped reading frequently because I found an observation so interesting, there were a few moments when I disagreed. Mendelsund states, for example, that we all fill in gaps with things we are familiar with. If a book is set in a foreign country, we will still see our own backyard. He mentions that while reading a documentary on Stalingrad, he pictured the streets of Manhattan. I certainly don’t do that and I’m sure I’m not the only one who doesn’t.

Anna Karenina

The best thing about the book however is that it’s like a picture book for grown ups. It has illustrations on almost every page, makes elaborate use of different fonts, font sizes, and placement of text and, in doing so, enhances the experience, adds to the questions, and illustrates the points.

Be prepared – if you read this book, you’ll want to discuss it. Mendelsund may not always be right, but he’s always stimulating and thought provoking. I certainly enjoyed this book a lot.

Stanley Meisler: Shocking Paris (2015)

Shocking Paris

It’s rare that I accept review copies these days, but a book about the so-called School of Paris wasn’t something to pass up. I don’t regret accepting Shocking Paris as I’ve read it in a couple of days, something I rarely do with nonfiction. I really liked it a great deal. It was as fascinating as it was informative.

Stanley Meisler is a distant relative of Chaim Soutine, which may explain his interest in a painter who isn’t as well-known in the US as in Europe. Soutine isn’t the only writer Meisler writes about. His topic is the School of Paris – a group of influential, mostly Eastern Jewish painters, who were living and working in Paris from the years just before WWI until WWII. Most of them lived and worked in Montparnasse in the famous La Ruche residence. Back then Montmartre had already lost its importance for painters and was slowly turning into the tourist trap it still is.

While Chaim Soutine is his main topic, we read about many other painters, notably Amedeo Modigliani, an Italian Jew, and Marc Chagall, still one of the most famous painters.

The early chapters were particularly interesting because they describe how revolutionary it was that young Jewish men and women became artists and the struggle they faced because painting was against their religion. That certainly explains why so many left for Paris where important artists like Picasso resided. It also explains, as Meisler states, why there are no important Jewish painters prior to the 20th century.

Soutine

Soutine

Above—two paintings by Chaim Soutine

I’ve never been a fan of Soutine’s paintings, but it’s obvious that he was influential. You can see his influence in the works of painters like Francis Bacon and even Jackson Pollock.

The landscapes he painted were always distorted, the people made ugly. And he had a special fondness for depicting bloody meat. Another typical trait was how thick the paint is on his paintings. Many appear three-dimensional thanks to those thick layers of paint.

Modigliani

Above—painting by Amedeo Modigliani

Modigliani, who was his close friend until he died too early in 1920, was a much more colourful person. Soutine was not only notoriously shy but awkward. He didn’t know how to make friends. According to Meisler, he rarely washed or changed his clothes and must have been rather revolting at times. He was also peculiar in so far as he destroyed many of his paintings. Either because someone said something he didn’t like about them or because he wasn’t satisfied anymore.

Chagall 2

Chagall1

Above—two paintings by Marc Chagall

Shocking Paris was a fascinating book for many reasons. It was interesting to read about the School of Paris and the anti-Semitism they were facing, long before WWII. Chaim Soutine is one of only a few Jewish painters who didn’t change his name. It was equally interesting to read about the war and how Soutine managed to escape deportation. There’s a long chapter about Varian Fry, a young American, who helped many writers and painters to escape to the US. I’ve come across his name several times before. Some of the most famous people he helped were—Heinrich Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger, Franz Werfel, Max Ernst, André Breton, Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler and many more.

Soutine spent parts of the war, hidden in Paris. Later he fled to the country with his lover Marie Berthe Aurenche, the ex-wife of max Ernst. His health had been bad for many years. He suffered from stomach ulcers and finally died in 1943 because he couldn’t be treated in time. He’s buried on the cemetery of Montparnasse in Paris.

Early in the book Meisler writes that he avoided conjecture. Soutine was a complicated man and many of the things people say about him are contradicting. He wasn’t someone who spoke or wrote about his art or himself, like Chagall did. Nor was he good-looking and larger than life like Modigliani. Nonetheless, it’s always tempting to try to spice up a biographical account by adding anecdotes and using conjecture. Meisler doesn’t do that. The account is interesting but sober that’s why I wished the book had another title. I find it lurid. And misleading. At the time people were shocked that so many foreigners, especially Jews, occupied such an important place in the Parisian art scene, but there’s nothing truly shocking between these pages. I’m afraid the wrong reader might pick up this book. That’s too bad because it’s engaging and well-researched and focusses on painters and a movement which isn’t well-known outside of France.

I highly recommend this book, not only to art fans and people interested in Soutine and Chagall, but also to those interested in WWII, Paris and the history of France (there’s a lot – highly critical parts – about Vichy France).

Thanks to Palgrave Macmillan for the review copy.

Literary Lost – Viewing Television Through the Lens of Literature

Literary Lost

Years ago I caught two episodes of Lost on TV and thought it might be a series I’d enjoy. Only it was aired too late for me, so I gave up. A while ago I discovered Sarah Clarke Stuart’s book Literary Lost, which analyses the use of works of fiction in the series. Those familiar with Lost probably know that far over 70 books are used, mentioned, discussed, and alluded to in the series.

Some of the books are important because different characters read them. Others have influenced story lines. Others have the same themes and motives. The books are mostly literary fiction.

Some of the most important books which are used repeatedly are the following: Heart of Darkness, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Robinson Crusoe, Watership Down, Moby Dick, Lord of the Flies, Our Mutual Friend, Of Mice and Men, A Wrinkle in Time, Ulysses, The Odyssey, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Stand.

Some books that are equally important but not mentioned as often are: The Brothers Karamazov, Slaughterhouse Five, The Third Policeman, The Invention of Morel, Everything That Rises Must Converge.

The Crying of Lot 49 is never mentioned but it’s narrative plays an important role for those trying to understand the end of Lost.

After I started reading the book, I finally also started to watch the series. I must say, looking at it from a literary perspective makes for really exciting watching. With the exception of Adolfo Bioy Casares The Invention of Morel, I think I own almost all the books that are important in the show and have read many. Just last week I finished The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Sarah Clarke Stuart writes in Literary Lost that the series’ use of books was so influential that it has turned non-readers into readers, rekindled the interest of some who stopped reading, and has even led to higher sales for some books like Flann O’ Brien’s The Third Policeman.

Lost has also led to special book clubs in which people don’t only discuss the series but the books that are featured. It’s not surprising that there were challenges to read all of the titles.

Sarah Clarke Stuart’s book does more than just add another layer to the viewing experience. It shows that some TV series can offer more than pure escapism and are exciting narratives in their own right. She shows that Lost is a great example of a neo-baroque series:

In the case of Lost’s hyperconscious literary references, “nostalgic reverence” is usually the motive. The on-screen appearance of a book suggests certain themes, while paying homage to that particular work. Furthering the postmodern understanding of Lost, more than one academic observer has identified the “neo-baroque” qualities of the show, using the model that Angela Ndalianis provides in her book Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment. Intertextuality is a central prong of her neo-baroque construct; she explains that a text’s allusions create “folds” and “labyrinthine” impression. Neo-baroque narratives draw the audience into potentially infinite or at least multiple directions that rhythmycally recall what Focillon labels the “system of the labyrinth”.

Of course there are similar books on other TV series. I’ve got one dedicated to Six Feet Under (Reading Six Feet Under – TV to Die For) and at least half a dozen who study Buffy the Vampire Slayer and one or the other focussing on Veronica Mars.

I know this is a bit of a disjointed post, but I just wanted to share my enthusiasm for the series and the book. I was hoping that someone might be tempted to watch/re-watch Lost and that we might be able to discuss some of the topics and books. Or that those who love the series but were not aware of Literary Lost might pick it up.

I was wondering if anyone has read Bioy Casares The Invention of Morel. It’s the book mentioned in the series I’m most tempted to read at the moment.

Have you watched the series? Did it make you pick up some books?

Literature and War Readalong August 29 2014: Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden

Undertones of War

Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War is one of the most famous WWI memoirs. Blunden was a poet who enlisted at the age of twenty and took part in the battles at the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele. My edition, which is The University of Chicago Press edition, contains a number of his poems. It will be interesting to compare the accounts of the trenches with the poems inspired by the landscape.

Here are the first sentences

I was not anxious to go. An uncertain but unceasing disquiet had been upon me, and when, returning to the officers’ mess a Shoreham Camp one Sunday evening, I read the notice that I was under orders for France, I did not hide my feelings. Berry, a subaltern of my set, who was also named for the draft, might pipe to me “Hi, Blunden, we’re going out: have a drink.”; I could not dance. There was something about France in those days which looked to me, despite all journalistic enchanters, to be dangerous.

And  some details and the blurb for those who want to join

Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden (UK 1928) WWI, Memoir, 288 pages

In what is one of the finest autobiographies to come out of the First World War, the distinguished poet Edmund Blunden records his experiences as an infantry subaltern in France and Flanders. Blunden took part in the disastrous battles of the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele, describing the latter as ‘murder, not only to the troops, but to their singing faiths and hopes’. In his compassionate yet unsentimental prose, he tells of the heroism and despair found among the officers. Blunden’s poems show how he found hope in the natural landscape; the only thing that survives the terrible betrayal enacted in the Flanders fields.

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The discussion starts on Friday, 29 August 2014.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.