The Art of the Novel
Language, the very fabric of all literature, is strangely taken for granted by the vast majority of contemporary writers. It is not only a case of that deplorable "one-size-fits-all" (non)style to which we have willy-nilly become accustomed. Not only a "vehicle"--I dread the expression "vehicular language", but it exists, and happens to refer to the English language--to hackneyed story lines and best-selling stardom. It is a subtler, and deeper, problem, one of which many seem to be utterly unaware.
Long ago Dante wrote a treatise, De vulgari eloquentia, an apologia of the "vulgar", the language of the people, i.e., Italian. Yet, the very treatise he wrote in Latin! Quite a paradox, of course, but then, a fitting example of how the great masters did not take language for granted.
There used to be a time in which Wittgenstein had such a profound influence on me, I couldn't pick up any text, simply because nowhere did I detect the respect and awe language ought to have inspired in its author. I must confess some of that is still with me. Perhaps all aspiring writers ought to be fed Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations as compulsory readings before setting out on their word-searching quests. If nothing else, they would begin to apprehend the intricate, mysterious and ambiguous aspects of language, even everyday, ordinary parlance. Did they realize language could imply so much, and/or so little, at the same time? Should the complexity of philosophical linguistics not discourage them, but, as it is hoped, intrigue them and "blow their minds", after Wittgenstein they might wish to consider the following.
One day Jelaluddin Rumi, one of the most learned men of his time, was sitting in his personal library, with students gathered around him for a lecture. Suddenly, a raggedy old man, Shams Tabrizi, entered uninvited. He pointed to some books stacked in a corner, and asked Rumi, "What are these?"
Rumi, thinking him an illiterate peasant, answered, "You would not understand."
As soon as he finished speaking, flames started to rise from the books in the corner. Frightened, Rumi cried out, "What is it?"
Shams replied, calmly: "Nor would you understand this," and he left the room.
That episode sanctioned Rumi's conversion from a canonical erudite to a poet of genius and a mystic.
Dante's poetry, though fully conscious of the mysterious power of language, doesn't ring with the same truth of Rumi's. The directness of the latter entails and transcends all linguistic implications. But then, I might be saying this because I read Dante in the original, Rumi in translation, which is arguably and yet probably preferable. How could that be? Translation updates poetry. Rumi and Dante were born fifty-eight years apart. Dante's Italian is constantly updated in translation. Every generation or so, a talented interpreter takes it upon him(her)self to offer a new translation. Rumi wrote in rhyme, and so did Dante. Quatrains and terza rima, respectively. Too consonant, perhaps. Coupled rhymes in Italian are called rime baciate. Literally, kissed rhymes. Obviously, too much contact, too much consonance. The reader is distracted by sounds. The Rumi I read is rendered in blank verse. Latin poets never rhymed. There is nothing more arrestingly kitschy than rhymed Latin, an aberration of latter-day frivolous latinists. Metric, poetic meter, was the thing. And what supreme skills supported that otherwise unostensible art! In prose, that would be rhythm.
Most contemporary literate prose seems monotonous. Not necessarily boring, but, literally, mono-tone. Thorough though it may be, at best it reminds me of a well-tuned and deftly played harpsichord. But ever since Bartolomeo Cristofori invented the pianoforte, we know what has happened to the harpsichord. Technology tallied with what the greatest genius of harpsichord-playing was doing. Domenico Scarlatti (forget Bach, too Teutonic and rigorous), the uncontainable giant, was expanding and transcending the limits--dynamic and otherwise--of the harpsichord. His favorite instrument, true--for lack of a better one! Pianoforte, Italian from (clavicembalo con) piano (e) forte (harpsichord with) soft (and) loud. Dynamics entered the stage, and music has never been the same since.
In an organ and harpsichord alike, the only way to obtain a louder sound is to pull more stops. Volume is thus increased, but the timbre is altered. That isn't lifelike. Our "simple" vox extends over an amazing dynamic range, from a whisper to a scream, and everything in between, without changing timbre. It is still our voice.
Glossolalia predates language. It is not language deranged, or unsyntactical and unsemantic. I suppose one must learn it all, and then throw it all away, much like Rumi. Storytelling is validated only by a profound understanding of the near metaphysical importance of myth. If not, the whole art of the novel ought to be declared dead and buried. Anti-novels have intriguingly and successfully proved the point, with Joyce and Cortázar among their preeminent champions. But their works betrayed a profound dissatisfaction with the (non)values of the Twentieth Century. Yet, they were unable to offer alternatives, hence, the death of the novel, as deconstructionist critics would like us to believe.
There is a generalized obsession with "a good story", though the mainstream's "good stories" are usually punctuated by explosions of different sorts, or rapes, subtlety not being their forte, presumably. Yet, for all this obsession with storytelling, I daresay the shamans from Native American nations are better storytellers than most currently published writers. Why? They do not tell stories. They tell myths. And perceive, with the due reverence, the Mysterium behind them. It is that subatomic substance, of which logos is made. Psychic matter, I would advance. The whole universe is made of it. The word that we are told was at the beginning, was not word, but logos. Logos is a flux of psychic matter. The universe, an immense soul, or, more aptly, the Anima mundi.
When I pick up a book I don't perceive the respect towards this mysterious and ineffable logos that breathes inside us all. Language, as a result, is barren, sometimes seemingly synthetic, or at any rate artificial.
Is that why many self-respecting people no longer read novels? Were you aware of that? Are you perhaps one of them? It is becoming increasingly difficult to find novels with something to say. Not enough ideas in them. No mental stimulation, no surprises, nothing new. Many readers now prefer non-fiction. And I can't blame them. But how could that be? How could non-fiction be more engaging, or outright exciting than fiction? What has gone wrong with novelists?
By erring so uncompromisingly on the side of modesty and uniformity, the prose in most contemporary trade fiction shocks me. I wonder: Are all these writers ill? Have they all become numb? Are they asleep or catatonic? Their metronomic and synthetic prose reminds me of that distinctly man-made contrivance: the lawn.
There is nothing like a lawn in nature. At the most, there are prairies, an entirely different notion. A lawn demands herbicides, pesticides, constant mowing, weeding, fertilizing, irrigation where rain is insufficient, sun, but not too much of it, some shade, better if dappled. It is an abstract aberration, definitely not lifelike. So is the prose I detest. It may aim at simplicity, but couldn't be more contrived. And insipid, standardized, inert, syntactically, semantically, and stylistically barren. It is an outgrowth of the inertia of modernism. The same ghastly, soulless linearity of modernistic architecture. But linearity is an abstraction, it is not lifelike. Poor disoriented twentieth century man: anthropocentric, god-eclipsing, then godless, and finally soulless! Life is eminently non-linear. If you went to a garden shop, you would see that there are more herbicides and pesticides in stock than fertilizers. What has happened to humankind? What is this macho obsession with killing and repressing? Let us fertilize and be fertilized! The fields of imagination are wide open, and for everyone to explore. Yet, the lifeless lawn. An antibiotic, literally--anti-life.
And yet, intuitively approached, the world appears vibrantly alive--every pebble, rock, or tree, feels and lives. Arguably, we are all cells of a giant organism, the Earth, which is in turn a cell of its galaxy, and so on. Again and again, I must draw attention to the obvious: this beautiful Planet, breathable, drinkable, edible, self-regulating and self-maintaining, is alive. The Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino used to maintain that the world is an animal. Yet the Western world explains away purported consciousness in beings other than human as "anthropomorphic". Judging from the language employed to do so, quite convincingly too. Prose has been sanitized, "functionalized", oversimplified. In figurative arts, think for a moment of Jackson Pollock, who based his life's work on trying to reproduce in paint the patterns made by his long-lost father urinating on stone. Such paintings, to which I used to refer, perhaps flatteringly, as "unappetizing spaghetti", are on display in many major museums the world over.
Poor modern reader--you are sober. I trust that you wouldn't mind being inebriated, from time to time. The same exhilaration of being in love. But you have been made to sober up. Modernism has left you no choice. And what about technocracy, financial intoxication, international Machiavellianism? And yet you, reader, are rediscovering the awe-inspiring complexities of the jungle. The Cartesian spirit that wants to do away with jungles is the same specter which plagues modern prose, and the modern mind by and large. Yet you, reader, delight in architectonic masterpieces of the past--temples, churches, cathedrals, castles, palaces, villas and what have you. Somehow, they all have soul, regardless of their style or period. And you, female reader, love jewelry--in its infinite, highly intricate manifestations--and flowers. Much like the prolixity of Mahler's late romantic symphonies was out of control, so is the barrenness of late modern prose. Its obsessive quest for economy has made it severely anal-retentive. Some of it is constipated. Constipated writers differ from the anal-retentive ones in that they would like to be more… productive, but cannot. The adjective prosaic aptly describes this prose (pardon the tautology).
Hence, the impelling necessity for a cosmological reappraisal. While we are living in the "Chaotic Age", and the Theory of Chaos shows us the fascinating side of intricacy and unpredictability (and no longer merely in mathematical microstructures), too many writers, caught in their watertight compartments (God forbid if a novelist should bother with things scientific), ignore the phenomenally complex reality around them, and stick, out of inertia, laziness, unawareness or plain simple-mindedness, to that old modernistic axiom, "less is more". Adventuresome people must endeavor to recognize and befriend the good side of chaos. Graphically put, it's as simple as this. Just a few decades ago, jungles were routinely razed and turned into grazing land for cattle. Within a few years, however, such pastures would become a desert. "Developers" would move on, and leave the desert behind. More jungles would be razed, and so on. The net result: no more jungles, no more pastures, no more cattle. Utter barrenness. Nowadays, jungles are being preserved (at least some of them) and even laypeople are beginning to appreciate the highly intricate, indeed chaotic order--though "harmony" seems more fitting--that governs such a complex ecosystem.
Unadventuresome writers show us in the greatest detail the shadow side of order. And that is, their own, squalid, orderly empty, modernistic non-souls. Ugliness has been conscientiously explored and reproduced for almost a century. It has shown us its devious charms, at best sensationalistic, never really charming, and quickly déjà vu. Existentialism became a pretext for whining, or for drug-addiction, or aimlessness. Everyone was to be blamed, or even accused--the parents, the society, the establishment… Never the individual. Not so long ago, Sartre wrote that "nature is mute". No, nature is not mute (it may never have been more vociferous, and it certainly has been sounding her alarm), but many, many humans in this machine-driven world have become deaf! Modernism/existentialism have now become just ugly, and tritely so. But let's face it: even the devil knows a bad bargain!
Gogol, later Chekov, and many, many more championed the idea of writing about nobodies. At the time, focusing on ordinary, insignificant characters must have been refreshing. But we have now had over a century and a half of nobodies in literature. We have seen their X-rays, and learned in the greatest detail about their vices and weaknesses. It has become worse than a cliché, rather like an obsession. Indeed, clinics should be opened offering rehabilitation for those who have suffered from an overdose of nobodies. What has the reaction been? From popular culture, super-heroes such as Superman or Rambo. Clearly not a valid alternative. From highbrowed culture, the historical novel.
The Orlando Furioso as well as The Faerie Queene were historical novels, if in verse, written centuries after the events they described. But they were genuine. In this sense, I have nothing against the historical novel. But historical novels written in the last two to three decades are too often a by-product of post-modernism. There is much deliberate repêchage, not a little manipulation, and often pastiche if not outright pasticcio. In one word, they are disingenuous. So, this is not a valid alternative either.
The average reader has, has had, and shall ever have an ambivalent attitude. On the one hand, he wants to read in novels and see on screen what he is familiar with, so as to identify with the characters. On the other hand, this same person, when he wakes in the morning and looks at himself in the mirror, is all too often nauseated. This is modern man. We are all equal, he is told, and all equally insignificant sheep, demanding ever less, never more, from ourselves.
Time to counter that. People cannot be indefinitely attracted to ignobility. I refuse to believe that.
The same applies to the mentioned lawn-like prose To think that, at its purest, language is logos, or psychic matter in flux…
Should one find the expression "psychic matter" too magniloquent, or "logos" a trifle too erudite, then let us speak of immortal wine. All writers dabble with it, but very few get drunk. It's as simple as that. Immortal wine should enter their blood vessels, imbue every cell, explode in their hearts, refine itself in their brains, and start circling again.
How to divulge it? How to make people partake of it? Distillation and dilution, my method, helps. Is it wine? First, distill it, make it become brandy. Then, dilute it, back to wine, no longer immortal, but good, robust, life-giving wine. Its taste, must linger in one's mouth. Its joie de vivre, in one's soul long after having drunk it. Its memory, for ever.
Much like the piano might have made of Domenico Scarlatti a Mozart or a Beethoven, the computer can be of help to those who know how to use it, and not be used by it.
I no longer write sequentially--it is unwieldy. Often one forces oneself to write parts for which he has no feeling. Writing becomes drudgery then, a dispatch of chores. I thought mine might be a revolutionary approach, due in part to the technical possibilities accorded by computers. I recently discovered, however, that Virgil first drafted an outline of the Aeneid in prose, but then versified it unsequentially, according to inspiration.
Doing away even with a preliminary outline, I employ an unsequential method of writing. That is, an impressionistic compositional method. Fragments are inserted unsequentially, irrespective of internal chronology or outlines, but according to inspiration. Eventually, the gaps between the myriad fragments grow closer, and then it is time "to fill in the blanks". Even as I do that, I still heed the impressionistic method, and insert more fragments in later chapters, as inspiration impels me.
Though I do not know if my method is universally applicable, it seems to take advantage to the fullest of the eminently moldable characteristics offered by the computer. I can't imagine the aggregate of random scraps of paper, their numbering and endless renumbering, cutting, pasting, erasing, an author would have been forced to resort to before the computer days. Incidentally, I have written books employing all writing instruments. A pencil, then a fountain pen, and a cahier; a manual typewriter; then electric; then electronic; a word processor; finally, different computers, increasingly more powerful. This latest approach promotes the most immediateness and freshness of writing still within the bounds of a "traditionally" structured novel.
My latest novels grow by osmosis. Nothing is written yielding to preestablished schedules and/or outlines. When the fragments become too many and too crowded, I start, at last, from the beginning, and then steam through it all, much like a locomotive. I cannot imagine the drudgery of writing a novel with any other method. I did write, over ten years ago, a massive novel, 126,000 words in its first draft, within three months on a typewriter. The effort required was colossal, not one necessarily promoting liveliness. A typewriter being the natural enemy of editing, everything had to be pre-set, almost coerced into place. A process reminiscent of squelching the fields of imagination with a track roller.
Consequently, there is no manuscript, or better, palimpsest. I open a new document one day, and type in the first few words. These are neither the beginning, nor the end. To write following a chronological order seems somewhat asinine when technology allows one to leap anywhere he pleases according to inspiration. The main drawback of this daring compositional method reflects on the author's life while writing that endless "document". Because the novel is always alive and pulsating in one's mind, and fragments belonging to any chapter, or corrections, amendments, elaborations, may always bubble up, one must know the whole novel by heart, even before it exists. Such a Platonic transcription from the world of ideas takes quite a toll. The mind being thus absorbed, the petulancies of ordinary living tend to be overlooked, at times completely. Thank God for my wife. It goes without saying that without her, I'd have ended up like Alfred Jarry or other unfortunate chaps who made the mistake of living only of, and on, immortal wine.
For some time I was subscribed to the journal of science "Nature", the British stronghold of Cartesian-Newtonian orthodox science (maladapted to this century, but still popular). Ever keen on language and its infinite manifestations, I would read the "Correspondence", covering with my hand the writer's name and address. Almost invariably, I would guess correctly as to his/her nationality. Letters written by British scientists were unmistakably British; those written by their American peers stood out as inadvertent examples of American English. Irish scientists were more difficult to pinpoint by their prose, more ambiguously athwart both English and American English, with other less identifiable influxes. Then there were those who wrote in English but were not native English speakers. Not too tricky to detect, though, as these tend to conform to linguistic conventions even more readily than native English speakers. One consideration overall: who is doing the thinking? Their passport?
Ornette Coleman, the revolutionary alto saxophonist and composer, took the world by surprise when he burst onto the scene in the early Sixties. His peculiar brand of "free jazz" was so unique, it became a genre in its own right. Some, with Leonard Bernstein among them, welcomed him like the new musical Messiah; most couldn't but detest his music, viscerally and intellectually alike, and immediately. Outwardly oblivious to either extreme reaction, Coleman withdrew, away from the stage. His purpose? He wanted to teach himself two new instruments, the violin and the trumpet. Why? His exceptional familiarity with the alto saxophone was increasingly becoming an impediment between the pure and abstract music he heard in his mind, and what his fingers made of it on the instrument. Two entirely different instruments could unleash his creativity, the obstruction there being, initially, only unfamiliarity. Arguably, easier to defeat than overfamiliarity.
The British scientist writes to "Nature" in "plain English", yet, without realizing it, he is being British enough for me to divine, correctly, his nationality. The passport is doing the thinking. The saxophonist wants to get away from his favorite instrument from excess of familiarity with it. With outstanding mental acuity he has realized that sometimes it is the familiar fingering patterns, not his mind, to do the playing. Likewise, Miles Davis eventually gave up playing "ballads" on his trumpet altogether. When asked why, he replied, "because I like to play ballads so much!"
True, a scientist's priority is not his/her prose, but the things conveyed through it. However, even novelists are not immune from the same linguistic recognizability. In their case it is often, and even more blatantly, the passport to do the thinking, and, unlike the above mentioned enlightened jazzmen, they are not aware of it. It is a problem common to all monolinguistic speakers--their language conforms too much to itself, in whatever local apperception. That cannot but result in a conventional turn of the phrase, choice of words, idiomatic expressions, etc. Not at all a mind-expanding proposition; rather, mind-contracting. How often are novels published by a writer who knows only one language and confines his/her thematic excursions to what he/she knows firsthand?
Ornette Coleman wanted to broaden the range of his musical thought drastically, by learning new instruments. Miles Davis by leaving behind what he could do better than any trumpeter to explore other genres. Conversely, most novelists are content to dwell within their modest, confined backyard. And how smug can they be! Their language, first of all, betrays it. Then, their choice of autobiographical subject matters; or, their adherence to formula-writing.
Now, the world is agog with Internet fever. Of course, the Internet runs the risk of becoming Triviality on a world scale. But, it does manage to show laypeople that an amazing amount of information, a, exists; b, is at their fingertips. To the semiliterate layperson, the one who rarely reads/buys books, it is "mind-boggling", or, "intellectually overwhelming", to eschew informal parlance. For how much longer will "modest", "uninformed" novelists succeed in selling their novels? Can't they see, this universe of information is threatening them and saying, Do your homework, or shut up!
Shakespeare wrote in Twelfth Night: "If this were play'd upon a stage now, I / could condemn it as an improbable fiction." A self-ironic warning against what nowadays is called "bad scripting". In this century, the antidote to such structural malpractice has become the "based on a true story" guarantee. Western readers and filmgoers have become so biased against unlikely incidences, coincidences, and resulting unanticipated plot twists, they seem to be able to accept them only if authenticated by the mentioned label. On me, however, such a label has a counterproductive effect--it puts me off. Often, narratives "based on a true story" seem only slightly more engaging than the phone book. The same applies to the autobiographical strain. Imagination, being made of the same stuff of dreams, and therefore originating from the same uncharted regions, is far more bewitching than anybody's life.
One thing is certain: a novelist must know more than his average reader. The reader must sense that a blend of scholarly--but lively--learning and personal exploring is informing the novel. Many writing schools teach the novice to "write about what you know". Since in most cases the would-be writer knows very little, he/she is only too desirous to indulge the teacher's diktat. Some of these (un)knowers manage to collate a novel by adhering to that dogma, and to all the subsequent dogmas they are so assiduously taught. Sometimes, they even break into print. Another novel on the market, another brilliant literary career inaugurated.
I recently attended a "book-reading" soirée, featuring the latest winner of England's Booker Prize, the nation's most prestigious literary award. My wife asked a few great questions, which mildly but clearly put off the author. First, she wished for a description of his study.
"A study? I don't call it a study. It's just a room, at the back of the house."
Then she asked him how and where he researches material for a novel.
"People have this funny notion that you can do research, then put all the results in a blender, mix it, and out comes the novel," he replied, frowningly.
So, he does not research. In fact, sometimes he writes entire chapters without realizing that something he had taken for granted was wrong. His preliminary research is nil; if anything, he engages in fact-checking after having written the novel.
Well, I operate in the opposite way. My preliminary research is so obsessively thorough (and not at all just bookish) that fact-checking after completion would be redundant. And, however small, my study is a study. Indeed, I like to think of it as mysanctum. To make it a sanctum sanctorum I had it soundproofed, and then added a second door, it too soundproofed. Ideally, I'd like to own a tower surrounded by a large garden--the former partly délabré, the latter vastly overgrown--in which to conduct my thinking/writing undisturbed.
Writers no longer lead contemplative lives, and their books suffer because of that. The ephemeral is harmful to a writer. It is too contingent. Contemplating is the fist step. To contemplate derives form the Latin com-, with; templum, space for observing auguries. Precisely what I need to be in--a temple of a special sort, one in which to receive revelations. Much like a shaman who retires into a cave and won't come out of it until he's received his revelations. An inborn aptitude--a daimon within--and years of training are necessary to become a shaman. Or a writer. Paleoanthropologists and archeologists have argued, in my view convincingly, that during the Paleolithic Age the shaman and the storyteller were the same person.
Opponents will say that I am a mythomaniac. I do not concede it, but see no harm in that. We all need myths to live by. No, my opponents are simply afraid of people who take themselves seriously. They are "pretentious". I take myself seriously, and then I don't. In fact, I cultivate the (foreign) art of self-irony (think for a moment of the inherent self-aggrandizing pretentiousness of the English language, in which the pronoun "I" is as a matter of course capitalized!). They will also say that too much knowledge renders the writing ponderous and pedantic. True, the consummate writer must know how to dilute knowledge, and, above all, how to avoid the pits of learning. Lastly, while in-spiring, one must give himself up, body and soul, to the Muses, no matter the cost. After all, why should they speak to people who don't care to listen? Or who don't know how to listen? Undereducated autobiographical monolinguistic small-minded formula-writers? The Muses shall have nothing to do with them. Of course, the latter will say they don't need them. "Muses? Inspiration? A study, a tower, a sanctum (what the hell does that mean?) in which to… contemplate? Nonsense! Has he heard himself, that pretentious impostor? What could be wrong with our modest pursuits? They are so genuinely modest. And down-to-earth too. We just write about what we know. That's the best writing, the most genuine. And so satisfying for the reader too, it seems. Never really hoped they'd find us so interesting. But keeping modest and down-to-earth is definitely the best policy."
And yet, Rilke wrote: "If I don't manage to fly, someone else will. / The spirit wants only that there be flying. / As for who happens to do it, / in that he has only a passing interest." And: "Maybe birds will feel the air thinning as they fly deeper into themselves." The "modest" writers ought to read the following carefully, and meditate (again by Rilke): "All wants to float. But we trudge around like weights. / Ecstatic with gravity, we lay ourselves on everything. / Oh what tiresome teachers we are for things, / while they prosper in their ever childlike state."
Keith Jarrett is the best pianist alive. Once "merely" a jazz player, in the Seventies he pioneered concerts for piano solo, something no jazzman had ever dared attempt. Most of his music was then utterly improvised, a tricky proposition on command. Then he explored many genres, never quite losing his style, or touch. For years he led two quartets, one in the US, the other in Europe, respectively with American and European musicians, as well as a trio, with which he began recording standards, as well as original music. He has also recorded the music of classical composers, from Bach to Shostakovich, and gone on to write different compositions, which he has then performed and conducted. Was he becoming academic? Being forbidden from improvising, he stated in an interview, was like being forbidden to pray. To counter that, he recorded, at home, his vision of ethno-music, playing all the instruments, and then resumed concerts of improvisational piano solo. He has toured the world for well over a decade with a bassist and a drummer playing jazz standards--and how! Lately afflicted by chronic fatigue syndrome, he has nevertheless succeeded in releasing an album of ballads and traditional tunes for piano solo. In it, the performance is spare; it relies on melody. Elegant, balanced and introspective, the grandly romantic gestures of his musical personality are absent. His playing rarely moves beyond a whisper. The pieces are marvels, small chords and melodies quietly wandering to their logical destination. God is partecipable in an intricate passage as much as in a single note.
Contemporary prose in fiction ought to be equivalently holistic, and catholic. Dynamic, like a pianoforte. Polyrhythmic and cross-rhythmic, like Elvin Jones's inspired drumming in John Coltrane's quartet. Polyphonic, for there are so many voices worth listening to, why limit it all to a single voice? Cross-fertilizing, because Voltaire's little garden has become a global jungle, and we all should intertwine and expand, rather than alienate and shrink. And above all, organic, uncontrived, with Love as its point of departure and arrival.
A more serene evaluation of Western Civilization artistic efforts might read as follows. In the Nineteenth Century novels (not just English ones) and music (certainly not English!) were the initiatory media, just like art in the early and poetry in the later Renaissance. And, of course, architecture and the Christian liturgy in the Middle Ages. But in the Twentieth Century none of these arts have this function anymore. Ideas do not count in a world that has done away with ideology. Tolerance has bred relativism; relativism, indifference. Anything-goesness is the rule. Arguably, the only untouchable taboo is the concept of democracy itself.
So, in our blob-like societies, with no contrasts, fewer challenges and objective difficulties than ever, novels do not thrive, as they delight in strong tones. That is why a Third World setting is preferable. I particularly like to cast First World characters against the background of a Third World setting. In the latter, one does not need bungee jumping or adventure-travel packages to lead a vibrant life. (More on the degeneration of peak-experiences-seeking modern man in my essay WESTERN CULTURE, 2000 AD)
In contemporary novels and films, we are fed an endless sampling of the fetishizing of human relationships. The much trumpeted sexual revolution has contributed to this, and now it seems that the “energy” is only to be found in the relationships among humans. This is fetishism. We are not that important. And yet, worthy subjects abound for novelistic treatment. Two examples that I did not seek, but rather came to me of their own accord.
In Santiago de Compostela, for centuries the destination of the celebrated pilgrimage, we met Luigi inside the Cathedral. He had walked from Rome to Lourdes; on to Fatima, in Portugal; and finally to Santiago. Previously, he had walked from Rome to Jerusalem, crossing Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon before reaching Israel. As is often the case with people very close to unmanifested reality (those who see the invisible lines migratory birds see when they migrate, even fledglings that are left behind in flight), his cerebral syntax was loose, and his Italian interspersed with Castilian.
An orphan, he had been raised in a convent, where he had eventually witnessed (I hope not experienced, I didn’t ask) the homosexual urges of some priests. As a young man, he spent three years in the Foreign Legion; back in Rome, he mingled with some students who later transpired to be the historical founders of the Red Brigades. A photo with Renato Curcio--the father of all brigadiers--incriminated him in the eyes of the police, and he spent six years in prison, though he had no interest in politics. Acquitted, he worked as a truck driver for the next ten years, and found a woman whom he loved and who “had money”. Returning from a trip, he discovered that she had died in a car accident. This was five years ago. Since then, he has been a pilgrim.
The other example. Our handyman, Pedro. A student of medicine in Cuba, he was forced to go to Angola as a soldier. There, he was the personal chauffeur of General Ochoa (who years later was sentenced to death and executed in Cuba after a Kafkaesque trial some of you might remember). The atrocities Pedro witnessed in Africa are not dissimilar from those witnessed and experienced by US soldiers in Vietnam. Unlike these, however, he could not whine, for, once he was repatriated, there was no sympathetic public ready to listen to a veteran’s whining. "Post-traumatic stress disorder? Is that a new Buick?" Instead, he left Cuba on a rowboat. Some of the men who were on board died before reaching Florida. Sharks swam along the boat. In Miami, penniless and not speaking a word of English, he became a handyman, and proved a fast learner. Despite the tests he was subjected to, this man has never lost his dignity. Self-reliance has been the overriding theme in his life. However, in modern and post-modern civilizations, everything conspires so as to suffocate the heroic sense in life. Everything mechanized, spiritually bankrupt, and reduced to a prudent association of beings who have lost their self-reliance.
We have been explicitly and abundantly taught to dislike, no, abhor such warriorlike concepts. A warrior is not only an anachronism, but also a dangerous entity that must be, has been disposed of in the name of progress. Yet sometimes I think that a botanical analogy might be fitting. Occasionally, a tree planted in the wrong place, with little sunlight, little irrigation, no fertilizers, poor soil, etc., will outdo in growth and general health more fortunate trees. Some of us humans need the same challenges in order to grow. But the entire edifice of modern-day democracies tries to eliminate such difficulties. It is good for weaklings; not so for those of us who have heroic propensities. These are not only stifled, but belittled by the modern and post-modern intelligentsia. As a result, degradation is promoted, not transcendence.
I may be a fool, but, despite life's disconcerting ambivalence, I want to celebrate its beauty, its multiplicity, its refreshing ambiguity. I must. Let us infect readers with joie de vivre! With wine, dancing, wit, giddiness--and employ anything that might be appropriate to do so. The feeling of falling in love, or falling in love again, knocking on Heaven's doors, and being admitted for a few glimpses. Me, in Heaven? You've been here before. Have I? Try to remember, but not with the mind. And then, linger here, dilute your declaration of love, reiterate it, elaborate it. Live all suspended, don't breathe--in-breathe, inspire. See the divine where it hasn't been too subtly disguised, and… activate it, in you and in those who read you.
The psychologically minded--though not from the Jungian camp--may recognize this as a convincing description of messianic ego inflation. Nothing could be more inappropriate and appropriate at the same time. We are all made of the same divine matter. Some of us are just drunken with it, that's all.
Furthermore, multiplicity, universal inclusiveness in scope and range, and the inherent unbounded versatility of the mind must not be confused with the Baroque. Or, at worst, with an exercise in overindulging tiresomeness. Balance--structural, stylistic and otherwise--must come into play, and non-linearity can thrive on leanness of touch. Maximalism and minimalism, when felicitously employed, are equivalently powerful. Alternately employed, they lend variety, with all the hues and nuances between the extremes. Lastly, the briskness and directness of some episodes in rock music convincingly indicate that a lean and yet highly effective approach is attainable. But, make no mistake: I am not advocating the cause of unreadable novels, far from it.
Indeed, away from lettres classiques and belles lettres, into communicability. But communicability must arise spontaneously as the ultimate result of a "totalizing" approach. Absolutely nothing in the realm of the knowable is alien to us humans.
Many writers in this century have opted for a terse, powerfully (?) simple prose. It has become a cliché, though judges of literary prizes do not realize it. I am partially against that. Concision and simplicity should be arrived at when one is possessed of all the skills in the book, and more. Metrics, rhetoric, Latin, at least one Romance language… And, above all, a thorough understanding of grammar--how many writers, today, can parse a sentence? (An analogy with musicians who cannot read music presents itself. It can be done, it is done, but playing by ear drastically reduces the possibilities and scope of any musician.) Then, if the point of arrival is terseness, I accept and even applaud. But many contemporary writers are in a state of ignorance, do not know the classics, not even in translation, and are only too happy to settle for laconism (no, not yet classified as a disease, but it's a matter of time). What else is there, they may wonder, if only their books were not so well received by equally sclerotic critics? Economy of writing has been misunderstood for barrenness, and homogenized, sixth-grade, newspaper-like prose is the result.
My seemingly heroic propensity to override convention is in fact quite accidental. I never set out to be a revolutionary, and in many ways I am not. If anything, I am neoarchaic, and that is, keener on the old masters than on anything contemporary, Latin American authors excepted. But even there, best-seller fever has infected them, and now many produce faux-naïf novelettes cunningly aimed at export and lucrative translations. Authors such as Asturias, Cortázar, Lezama Lima, Rulfo to name but a few wouldn't stand a chance of being published in translation given the current literary climate in the US. Certainly not by trade publishers anyway, and possibly not even by university presses. And, to tell the truth, I am not an ardent admirer of all Latin American literate novels either. Why? Most of them lack any sense of humor, and unfailingly distinguish themselves for the bleakness and hopelessness of their endings. Customarily, the lead must die, preferably of a gruesome death. Albeit subconsciously, that must be, I suspect, corrida-derived. Either the bull, or occasionally the bull-fighter, must die, and in a blood bath. Happy endings seem to be beyond the cultural grasp of such authors, and no doubt the notoriously grievous history of each Latin American Country must inform this tendency.
To all writers who write without any urgency, exclusively so as to make money; to all who indulge in formulaic hackwork, I say: if you want to make money, do not write, but play the stock exchange, gamble, bet on horses! Your clutter is just that--clutter. Nobody really needs it.
The truth is, as long as readers are given (also) entertainment value, as long as the novel grips them and they can't put it down, anything goes. Rules and conventions on how to write a novel are the fungal excrescencies of self-complacent small minds. The subliterature these minds champion, publish, market and promote cannot fail to be an… Ode to Mediocrity.
If jackasses never come in contact with a horse, in the long run they believe they are the fastest runners, and the most elegant too. That distinct brand of blindness is called "self-confidence". Funny how the establishment has de facto banished self-expression, but nurtures self-confidence. There must be an alluring side to being a jackass, one that I am yet unable to espy. Somehow, I still prefer thoroughbreds. Don't you?
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