Archive for November, 2007

Amuse Bouche: G.B. Edwards

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Voice rules.

Whether it’s the writer’s voice, or the writer’s characters’ voices, we can’t help but be drawn by the sound of another soul manifesting itself through voice. Sometimes characters figuratively grab us by the lapels and sometimes they quietly charm. However they choose to draw us into their worlds, their primary medium is voice.

I’m starting a feature I’m calling Amuse Bouche — a little sampler of compelling voices that tantalize and awaken the senses. I’ll serve a few of these up, from time to time.

See what you think of this, the first paragraph of a strange and wonderful book by G.B. Edwards called The Book of Ebenezer Le Page.

Guernsey, Guernesey, Garnsai, Sarnia: so they say. Well, I don’t know, I’m sure. The older I get and the more I learn, the more I know I don’t know nothing, me. I am the oldest on the island, I think. Liza Queripel from Pleinmont say she is older; but I reckon she is putting it on. When she was a young woman, she used to have a birthday once every two or three years; but for years now she have been having two or three a year. To tell you the truth, I don’t know how old I am. My mother put it down on the front page of the big Bible; but she put down the day and the month, and forgot to put down the year. I suppose I could find out if I went to the Greffe; but I am not going to bother about that now.

I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly looking forward to what the rest of that meal might hold. Conversational, slightly gossipy, and from someone who is above all from a different time and place — this voice promises to give us a story. Or two. The first-person allows for greater intimacy but compelling voice can be heard in all the POV’s. More examples to come…

Trying not to be savage about it

I think it was Richard Ford who once remarked that it’s a pretty difficult thing just to write an average novel, never mind a good one. That’s so true. We hold writers to higher standards. Actors, musicians and other artists can all turn in average performances and no one notices. But writers? We savage the average.

That’s why I’m always a bit torn when I come across something I dislike. At the very least I want to be able to say — “Yes, dear writer, I may not be the perfect reader for you and your story, but I’m sure plenty of others are. And regardless, I salute you for the effort and discipline and creativity it takes to get something like this to the page.”

secretatlas.jpgThat’s pretty much what I’m going ancientevenings.jpgto have to say about Michael Stackpole’s A Secret Atlas. I gave up after 70 pages, which is unusual for me. Once I start I generally slog forward, no matter how bitterly I resent it. Hell, I even finished Ancient Evenings by Norman Mailer (may he R.I.P.) Now there’s a book for masochists.

According to his web site, “Michael A. Stackpole is a New York Times Best Selling author, an award-winning novelist, an award-winning editor, an award-winning game designer, an award-winning computer game designer, an award-winning comics writer, an award-winning podcaster, and an award-winning screenwriter.”

He’s prolific; and he’s won awards.

And clearly he has an audience for his brand of fantasy. It’s a genre I dip into now and then, although perhaps I’m a little fussy in my tastes. I think I came to Tolkien too late in life — he just doesn’t do it for me. But I can recall getting lost in the first Stephen Donaldson books and hey — Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake and The Once and Future King by T.H. White both shine through with brilliance.

But A Secret Atlas will stay a secret, I’m afraid. The causes of my discontent are various. During the first 70 pages no fewer than 25 different characters are introduced. 25! I had to start my own little genealogical atlas.

And the back story really does go on and on. Perhaps these are conventions that video game players intuitively grasp, but they’re lost on me.

While the writing is generally serviceable, it sometimes is not. “…you always depreciate your own skill…” (strictly speaking probably correct but ‘deprecate’ sounds more correct to my ear) and “[he] snapped a bow at…” which is puzzling, because it turns out this isn’t a perfunctory bow at all, but deep and long. And maybe this is splitting hairs, but if I ever meet the Queen, I will bow to her, or before her, but not at her.

But these details are of no concern to Stackpole fans. And clearly you can’t earn a following like his without tapping into something. Alas, t’isn’t for me, but perhaps ’tis for you?

Three-ring character development

I recently finished Paradiseby Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy, which tells the sad story 21EWP1P03DL._AA_SL160_.jpgof Hannah Luckraft, a 40-year-old alcoholic whose drab life is on a 40-proof express train to rock bottom. According to the dust jacket, it’s “an emotional and visceral tour de force. A compelling examination of failure that is also a comic triumph….”

Well, perhaps the marketing winkies got a trifle carried away there, but it is indeed a very fine novel.

Textured, fully rounded characters populate literary fiction more than the genres. There’s a passage about two-thirds into Paradise where Hannah recalls a childhood memory of going to the circus with her father. Forgive the lengthy passage, but it’s worth the effort.

… I can call up the heavily, sweating air, sagged between the canvas and the cold, odd lights, the fascinating quantity of sawdust – more than I’d ever seen in a butcher’s shop – and here were live animals jolting through their stressed little party pieces before maybe the sawdust claimed them and they turned into meat. But that’s as much as I recall.

It was a long time ago and I was extremely young, but that isn’t why I have such trouble bringing it to mind. I’m unwilling to see the tired, dull, real circus, because it degrades the much lovelier one I have, perhaps always, kept inside my head.

Everyone goes through a circus phase, of course: the wonderful horror of watching adults behave insanely, the mysterious charge of their costumes, their skin, and all those compounded risks. You can run through the list of charms yourself: the terror of clowns, the unsettling allure of whips and glitter, your identification with those harried and overly willing creatures, the tang of unreasonable display.

They still often televised this perversity when I was a girl and then there was that film with Jimmy Stewart and Charlton Heston – lots of films, in fact, with jealous lovers and wicked ringmasters and anthropomorphic chimps – people knew about circuses – they were around. And children were supposed to like them and I was a child. But my circus, the one True Circus, I never disclosed: because it had nothing to do with all that.

In my circus, the band plays always: banjos and flat trumpets, out-of-kilter violins, twisted accordions, steam organs and bad unresonant drums: they grind out in limping waltz time and make the air giddy, gamy with sweat and topple me into the place where there are only circus people, sideshow people, my own people. They have parts that are missing, or parts that are extra in sly and unspeakable ways. They lack propriety, love to exhibit, often practise after-hours. They have marvelous, shocking skills which are not useful anywhere, not anywhere without an audience. Their pasts and their futures are sheened with misfortunes, with an enforced appetite for pain. Their damp and close and everlasting present stiffens with blood on demand. They can read strangers, curse them, work them into helplessness. They are freaks. They are monsters. They are my natural family.

A lesser writer might have Hannah express her self-perceived place with a cliched, “I feel like a sideshow freak.” But by extending the descriptive image as she does (which is beautifully rendered in its own right, wouldn’t you agree?) Kennedy opens up a window on Hannah’s state of mind. She is an exile, a misfit and, like the carnival barker, well-versed in the arts of manipulation.

Hannah could be a writer.

Such beautifully observed and articulated detail: “…the terror of clowns, the unsettling allure of whips and glitter, your identification with those harried and overly willing creatures, the tang of unreasonable display.” Just so. Give us an eye and a voice like that and we’ll follow anywhere. OK maybe not the tin ears on Amazon.com, but most of us will.

Kennedy’s web site, cited above, is well worth the visit for her FAQ.

It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country

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It’s called Prose Parsed, I realize, not Poetry Parsed. But then there are times when only poetry will do. Like today. Here is a famous one by Wilfred Owen about a First World War gas attack. The Latin bit at the end translates roughly to the title of this post.

 

 

Dulce Et Decorum Est

 

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

 

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

 

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

 

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

The Web and Churchill’s mutating wit

A curious footnote to my last post….You may be familiar with Churchill’s famous response to the grammatical rule on never ending a sentence with a preposition: “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.”Ha, ha and hear, hear. But not so fast. Professor Paul Brians, Washington State University, reports no fewer than 13 different versions of the above-mentioned quote now in circulation on the internet, ranging from: “‘This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put,'” to “‘This is insubordination, up with which I will not put!'”

In this era of copy-and-paste it’s truly unusual to find such rich variety. The narrative context varies too: sometimes the person rebuked by Churchill is a correspondent, a speech editor, a bureaucrat, or an audience member at a speech and sometimes it is a man, sometimes a woman, and sometimes even a young student. Sometimes Churchill writes a note, sometimes he scribbles the note on the corrected manuscript, and often he is said to have spoken the rebuke aloud. The text concerned was variously a book manuscript, a speech, an article, or a government document. 

And maybe, just maybe, he didn’t say it at all. You can read the full article here. Incidentally, Prof. Brians has also created a great grammar resource.  

Remembering a master of the language

 

As Remembrance Day approaches what better way to begin than with Winston Churchill: robust; magisterial; every sentence a torchlit procession.

 

On May 10, 1940, the King asked him to form the government; here’s what he wrote about it at the close of his first volume on the Second World War, The Gathering Storm.

 

Churchill

Thus, then, on the night of the tenth of May, at the outset of this mighty battle, I acquired the chief power in the State, which henceforth I wielded in ever-growing measure for five years and three months of world war, at the end of which time, all our enemies having surrendered unconditionally or being about to do so, I was immediately dismissed by the British electorate from all further conduct of their affairs.

 

One sentence, traveling the full distance of the war. It’s surprising how conditioned we’ve become to short sentences. One of the first edicts I encountered (and chafed at) as a young reporter was, “No ledes longer than 25 words.” And the web, invariably, is serving to further abbreviate (constrict?) the written expression of thought.

 

For the record, the Churchill sentence quoted above is 74 words. A comma-phobe he was not. And Churchill may be a rank amateur at the long sentence compared to Canadian writer Rudy Wiebe, but I digress. Granted, the long sentence in lesser hands can convolute (Quick! Someone tell me that isn’t a verb!) into tangles of meaning, but then clarity in writing is clarity in thinking.

 

I love the idea of Sir Winston sleeping soundly on the eve of cataclysm:

During these last crowded days of the political crisis, my pulse had not quickened at any moment. I took it all as it came. But I cannot conceal from the reader of this truthful account that as I went to bed at about 3 a.m., I was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial. Eleven years in the political wilderness had freed me from ordinary party antagonisms. My warnings over the last six years had been so numerous, so detailed, and were now so terribly vindicated, that no one could gainsay me. I could not be reproached either for making the war or for want of preparation for it. I thought I knew a good deal about it all, and I was sure I should not fail. Therefore, although impatient for the morning, I slept soundly and had no need for cheering dreams. Facts are better than dreams.

Wow. You’re free to think Churchill is just portentous bombast, but I love it. And fess up: when’s the last time you used ‘gainsay’ in a sentence? Granted, try speaking that way among your friends (if you can!) and you’ll be efficiently ostracized.

 

Alas, they don’t make world leaders like they used to. It makes you wonder what we might expect in the memoirs of someone else who has made an extraordinary contribution to the public discourse.

 

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Yes, that’s a bust of Churchill. And if you ask me, he looks a little pissed to be in the same room with George Bush.