the thrice-born story

When my father arrived, at age 14, with his mother in Halifax in 1948 as a refugee from Germany, it had been 4 years since he had last seen his father, Alexander. Alexander had waved goodbye to them from the dock in Riga, Latvia, as they fled by ship from the advancing Soviet army, which was threatening to recapture the city from the Germans. The expectation was that the Germans would soon push the Red Army back again, but it was not to be: my father and grandmother spent the rest of the war in refugee camps in Nazi Germany, and stayed on as displaced persons in Red Cross camps after the war. As for Alexander, he was later captured by the Soviets when trying to make his own escape by ship to Sweden, and spent the rest of the war at a work camp in Siberia, shoveling snow from railroads. When the Iron Curtain fell across Eastern Europe, he was marooned behind it, and was not heard of again—until about 1975, when my father was astonished to receive a letter from him in Canada.

They began a correspondence, but there was no practical way for them to meet, since it was not feasible for Alexander to leave Latvia (where he had resettled after the war), and my father ran the risk of being detained permanently in Soviet Latvia if he returned there. In 1981, at age 22, I set off on a journey of self-discovery and literary research to Europe, Israel, and northeast Africa. By February 1982 I was in Kenya, and, looking to return to Europe, I discovered that the cheapest way, by far, was to fly Aeroflot from Nairobi to Rome. But all Aeroflot flights shared a quirk: they were routed through Moscow. That’s right: the cheapest way for me to get from Nairobi to Rome was via Moscow, which is farther from Nairobi than Rome. And the idea came to me: if I have to go to Moscow anyway, why not take a side trip to Riga and visit my granddad?

So I booked the flights and went. In the cold and gray of Riga in March, I arrived by taxi at the drab concrete apartment block where he was supposed to be. I had taught myself the Cyrillic alphabet in order to recognize his—our—name in the phone book and other places, and in the lobby of the building the directory was indeed all in Cyrillic—except for the name of my grandfather. For whatever reason, possibly because he was the only ethnic Latvian in the building, it was the lone name in Roman letters: VITOLS, A. It jumped out at me and I felt a spark of excitement.

Nervously I headed up the stairs. There, at the end of the corridor, was the door. I took a breath and knocked. It was opened by a pleasant-looking woman of retirement age. I knew this to be Vallije, my grandfather’s second wife.

Not knowing either Latvian or Russian, I said, “Hello—is Alexander here?”

The woman, puzzled, nodded uncertainly and retreated back into the apartment. Soon she returned, following a tall, well-built man with thick white hair. He was frowning and looked rather suspicious.

“Hello—Alexander?” I said.

“Yes,” he said, doubtfully.

“I’m Paul. I’m your grandson.”

“Oh!” he said. Then, with a deeper level of shock: “Oh!” He reached to take my hand. “Come in! Come in!”

“I just have to tell the taxi driver to go,” I said.

A Tourist Visa - a short story by Paul VitolsSoon I had to leave Riga and make my way back home to Vancouver, and my proto-story was left unfinished. Three years later, CBC Radio held one of its occasional short-story contests, so I decided to dust off A Tourist Visa, as my story was now called, finish it, and submit it.

I dashed downstairs, then dashed back up, and was ushered into my grandfather’s cozy apartment, where they immediately started plying me with food and drink. Granddad insisted that I move from the hotel where I was registered to stay with them, and so began a visit of 10 days or so with the grandfather I had never met. To my great good fortune, Alexander had taken up the study of English as a retirement hobby, and spoke it well. During my stay he talked with me, took me on outings, and overfed me. He must have been well connected, for he had a stock of scotch whisky, which he poured unstintingly for me at lunch and dinner, and perhaps also for breakfast. I loved it!

I was nearing the end of a long, strange trip, and my impressions were stimulating my creativity. I had been writing letters and taking notes, but I wanted to write fiction again. Unable to wait, I dropped my pen and started to write about my experiences there in Riga. I didn’t really have a story idea, just a few vivid experiences, so I started writing about those. At some point I realized that I could build a story around my encounter with the local office of the Soviet Intourist Bureau, and a girl I met there.

I didn’t win the contest. There being few markets for short stories, and I having other writing projects on the go, I chalked it up to experience and filed away my carbon copy of the story. But now, with the advent of e-books and e-publishing, I realized that there is a market for short stories again. So I have again drawn A Tourist Visa from the darkness of a filing box back into the light of day—its second rebirth—and have published it for all the world to see.

The opening sentence? Here it is:

I returned to the mezzanine of the Latvia Hotel, carrying in my windbreaker pocket a little dagger to thrust in the malignant lard of the tourist officer.

How does that hit you? If you’d like to read more, visit Amazon or Smashwords—or the online retailer of your choice, and dig in. See what stirred the imagination of a young writer visiting his ancestral homeland behind the Iron Curtain.

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“I Have No Mouth . . .”

I was a breech birth. Since then, I’ve done everything in life bass ackwards.

A recent and relevant example of this is my education as a writer. Instead of first learning the craft of writing, and then studying up on the subjects I wanted to write about, I have spent most of my life studying the things I thought I might want to write about, and only recently have devoted serious attention to learning my craft. In my own opinion, this is not the best approach.

In my previous post (yes, from long ago), I suggested that the reason for this late arrival at the education of the writer was pride. I still think that has a lot to do with it, but another thought has since occurred to me: this detailed knowledge about the craft of writing, of storytelling, is quite a recent—and still ongoing—phenomenon. Many of these high-quality craft books have appeared only since the turn of the 21st century. And when they appear, it takes time for them to become known and appreciated. When I was a young writer, there were not the resources that there are now to strengthen one’s storytelling prowess.

As recently as the 17th century, the French dramatist Corneille could say

It is certain that there are laws of the drama, since it is an art; but it is not certain what those laws are.

Well, as far as I’m concerned, those laws are becoming known, and there is a growing library of works explaining them, with the aim of helping storytellers improve at their art. Looking at things from that point of view, I feel fortunate to be alive right now, and to have the benefit of this education at any age.

And another thought has occurred to me. The lives of writers are often notoriously tortured. I’ve been reading about the life of Malcolm Lowry, author of Under the Volcano, one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. He was an alcoholic and an “incompetent”—someone who, as an adult, was more than once put under the supervision of lawyers and other guardians—who killed himself with a mixture of gin and barbiturates at the age of 47. Many other writers have lived lives almost as tragic. What I’ve been wondering is, how much of that suffering has been due to lack of craft? For Lowry, Under the Volcano was far and away his best and most important work. He struggled for years to produce other things, but never came up with anything as good. Would this have happened to him if he had known more of the craft of storytelling—a craft that he himself said was important to him? Did he suffer and finally kill himself because, at some level, he didn’t know what he was doing?

I recognize that writers have had plenty of other reasons to self-medicate and kill themselves: poverty, failed relationships, social ostracism. But the basic writerly problem has lurked undiagnosed, hidden behind other names: writer’s block, abandonment by the Muse, angst. They—we—have lain awake at night, wondering, “Why am I no damn good?” The answer was and is: we don’t have the craft.

I think of the title of a short story by Harlan Ellison: “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” This is the condition of the writer without craft. So those teachers who are now providing that precious knowledge, people like Michael Hauge, Christopher Vogler, Amy Deardon, K. M. Weiland, Angela Ackerman, and Becca Puglisi, are not only making life easier and better for storytellers; they may in some cases be providing a life-saving service. And for that I thank them.

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slow learners

I’m back.

Why the long absence since my last post? It’s not easy to explain. I suppose I could say that I’ve been going through a period of slow-burning crisis.

What sort of crisis, you ask? It’s a crisis with respect to my vocation as a writer. The word crisis comes from the Greek word for “decision,” so my crisis, I suppose, is over what kind of a writer I am to be. But no, that’s not exactly it, for I know what kind of a writer I want to be. I want to be a literary writer in the sense that I understand the term, which is not the way in which the term is commonly understood. I believe that the common understanding is that “literary” writing is intended primarily for an academic audience. Now my writing might indeed appeal primarily to that audience—I don’t know—but that is not my aim as a writer. My aim is to make my writing the best it can be, in my own estimation. Whom it might appeal to, if anyone, I will leave to fate, chance, the gods, or whoever else might be responsible. I think it was Thomas Mann, I forget in which work, who said that all true artists have one desire: to be allowed to do their very best. And that is my desire.

But that doesn’t sound controversial, not to me, anyway. Of course artists want to do their best—don’t they?

I’m sure that’s what we would all say. But what is one’s best? And how does one know when one is doing it?

Orson Scott Card, in his instructional book for fiction writers, Characters & Viewpoint, makes the point that

if your purpose in writing is to be admired, to impress people with your cleverness or skill, then the story itself is only a secondary concern to you, and your writing will be designed to dazzle your readers more than to enlighten them.

These words struck me, and then haunted me. I agreed with Card, and had put a lot of work into my story; but it was dawning on me that it may not have been work of the right sort.

I thought about another book, Slow Learner, Thomas Pynchon’s collection of short stories, published in 1984. In his rueful introduction, Pynchon discusses the various mistaken ideas and defective methods that he used as a young man in writing the 5 stories in the book. He regrets that he had not made use of more material from his own life, which might have made his stories more “luminous” and “authentic.” He says

I hate to think that I didn’t, however defectively, understand this. Maybe the rent was just too high. In any case, stupid kid, I preferred fancy footwork instead.

Fancy footwork. To be admired, to impress people with your cleverness or skill. These are motives that I understand well. And over the past year I have been reflecting on how much my efforts at writing continue to be affected—or shall I say infected—by these motives.

It all started last year, 2015, when I started to acquire some books on the art of writing—on storytelling. It might have started when I read The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker (and which I reviewed in this blog), as part of my ongoing research into the question of story genres. Later I picked up a book on character creation, The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes & Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever, and Sue Viders (also reviewed in this blog), which was offered to me on Goodreads as an automated recommendation based on my other reading. For me this was an exciting eye-opener, for I had long wanted to find a way to use archetypes as a tool for character creation, and these authors had provided an excellent handbook for doing just that. Cool! How come I hadn’t heard about it before?

Perhaps inspired by the quality of this guide, I started to look for other guidebooks, and soon came across (probably again via the Goodreads recommendation engine) two volumes by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi: The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws and The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes. I dove into these, and was impressed with the authors’ presentation of how to express character psychology in terms of traits, as well as their authoritative treatment of how emotional wounds drive character motivation and behavior. One of my dominant thoughts was, “Wow, this is great! How come I don’t know this stuff already?”

Thirsty for more such knowledge, I hunted down more books, starting with some from these authors’ bibliography. I wound up buying about 9 more books, plus a set of CDs, and I got reading. Again, it was all as though I had never been a writer before: how to structure a story, how to develop characters, how to incorporate settings and symbols. How was it that I was encountering all this knowledge at such a relatively late date in my life and career? Why had I labored so long in the dark?

At some point an answer to these questions obtruded uncomfortably into my mind. That answer was “pride.” I hadn’t sought out the knowledge because I thought I already knew it. I was complacent and arrogant. Those character flaws (to use Ackerman and Puglisi’s term) had cost me big.

Pride—thinking of oneself as better than others—is the first deadly sin. I recall seeing in a text on Buddhist psychology that pride is a component of every moment of consciousness for everyone until we attain final enlightenment. I take this to mean that pride underlies our self-cherishing behavior; it is the reason that we regard ourselves as more important than others, in the sense that we always try to take care of our own interests first, if necessary at others’ expense, and sometimes even if not necessary. It underlies the “me first!” behavior that we engage in, perhaps most nakedly while driving, and more subtly at other times. But, pervasive though it may be as a character flaw, pride is undeniably more pronounced in some of us than in others.

People who are talented are probably at special risk of falling victim to this flaw. For to be talented means exactly to be, in some sense, impressive, does it not? And if you can impress people, you can gain their esteem and other advantages. It can become a coping mechanism to help you get through life. And if you’re better than other people at certain things, you may lull yourself into thinking that you have nothing to learn from them. In the words of chess champion Bobby Fischer, you need to be reminded that “your opponents can make good moves too.”

Among writers, probably few indeed have anything like the native talent of Thomas Pynchon, and this will be why he was able to surge ahead early in his career on the basis of that talent. It’s evident in his writing from the get-go. But that talent was also the very thing that made him, in his own eyes, a slow learner—one whose eyes were opened only belatedly to aspects of the craft that other, lesser talents were introduced to sooner, simply because they knew that they needed training. Those people knew they needed help at a time when Pynchon’s problem was more about how to deal with his crazed, obsessed fans.

I don’t claim to have the talent of a Thomas Pynchon, but I was born with conspicuous writing talent, and, from the time I learned my letters, have always found it easy to write well. And this talent, I now believe, has also made me a slow learner.

Well, this slow learner has finally, at age 57, taken delivery of his textbooks, and, now that the classroom is emptied of other students, all long since graduated and living productive lives, has started, highlighter in hand, to read them.

Maybe I’ll let you know how he gets on.

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Justine by the Marquis de Sade: birth of the philosopher-pornographer

JustineJustine by Marquis de Sade
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The struggle between virtue and vice is portrayed in the starkest possible way.

I was reminded of this book when I read The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker. In his account of what he regards as the decline of storytelling since the time of the Romantics, he mentions Justine as a case in point. From ancient times, the character of the innocent young woman has symbolized the highest goal for which a story’s hero strives, which, deep down, means his own maturation and wholeness. In this form she embodied the archetype that Carl Jung called the anima, and since all storytelling was finally about communicating the wisdom of how to live life fully and well, the task of the hero was always to rescue and protect this precious person. In the course of a story the anima-figure might suffer at the hands of villains, who in their turn represented the archetype of the shadow, or those aspects of ourselves that are negative and that we need to master, but she would always be rescued, and those villains would face defeat, punishment, and often death. Harming or violating a virtuous young woman was always the worst kind of injustice, and must be punished, if justice were to be seen as active in the world.

According to Booker, Justine, published in 1791 when its author was 51, turns all these values on their head. The heroine, young, beautiful, virtuous, and defenseless, is repeatedly abducted, violated, and abused in the most atrocious ways, while the rapists who slake their perverted lust on her body not only escape detection and punishment, they also enjoy great prestige and wealth in society. While Justine is convicted of crimes she hasn’t committed, the actual perpetrators garner awards and promotions and acclaim. Justine’s is a world in which no good deed goes unpunished, and that punishment is always both savage and sexual. In Booker’s view, this is, in psychological terms, the triumph of ego—the purely selfish part of ourselves that needs to be tamed and matured—over the Self, which was the name that Jung gave to the greatest and deepest archetype of them all, the ultimate goal to which we are all trying to move, whether we know it or not, and which he termed “the God-image in man.” Booker’s thesis is that true, proper, traditional storytelling has always been about helping us in our journey to realization of the Self, and that the subversion of that aim in the storytelling of the last 300 years has been a sign that writers have rebelled against this ancient program, preferring instead to depict stories of the desecration of the Self and its values and show the ego triumphant. In the world of literature and drama, the inmates have taken over the asylum.

In my opinion, Booker’s argument has a lot going for it, and the Marquis de Sade would seem to make a good example of that last point (which is mine, not Booker’s), for, according to Wikipedia, he spent 32 years of his life incarcerated, many of those in mental asylums. Most of his works, including Justine, were written there. Reading that book, one finds it easy to believe that its author was a madman, specifically what we today would call a psychopath. For it seems clear, upon reading his bio on Wikipedia, that de Sade had much firsthand experience with the cruelties he describes—as their perpetrator. Prostitutes and servants alike charged him with sexual cruelty, and much of the time when he was not incarcerated he was on the run or in hiding. He liked to bind, beat, cut, choke, and sodomize his victims, among many other kinds of violence, which, if his life really did reflect his fiction, may well not have stopped short of murdering them. He was a real piece of work.

But all of this I pretty much expected on my way in to Justine. I knew that the book and its author were infamous, and why. What I didn’t expect was to find a debate on moral philosophy distributed through the story. For many of Justine’s abusers, when she challenges them about the cruelty and impiety of their actions, take the trouble to explain themselves to her. Their brutality and lust is supported, in most cases, by a worked-out philosophy for why what they’re doing is perfectly right and natural; and they are at pains to convince Justine that it is she, and not they, who is mistaken in her view of life.

Their arguments, while worked out at some length, are centered on a few key points. When challenged that what they are doing is against God’s laws, they respond that there is no God. If Justine expects God’s help then she should call on him and see how much help she gets. Religion is a superstition for credulous children, nothing more.

When challenged that what they are engaged in are criminal acts that they themselves take great care to conceal, they respond that the laws and proprieties of society are a veneer over what is actually corrupt from top to bottom. Vice, not virtue, is the rulebook that everyone actually plays by. The hallmark of so-called civilized society is hypocrisy, and only a fool respects the blandishments of hypocrites, which includes the legal code. This argument appears all the stronger since many of Justine’s abusers are themselves people of position and influence, and know whereof they speak.

But what of simple justice, of refraining from doing to others what one would hate to have done to oneself? Justice too is the watchword of the weak and credulous. The lamb cries out for justice when the wolf falls on it, but in nature there is no such thing as justice, and we are all fundamentally natural beings. Just as Nature placed these passions and desires in Justine’s abusers, Nature also gave them the power to act on them, just like the wolf. How can there be any such thing as a crime against Nature, who fashions all just as she pleases, and creates the wolf, as he is, just as surely as she creates the lamb that is his food? Does Nature shed tears over the lamb’s death-agonies?

Justine, who narrates most of her own story, consistently dismisses the arguments of her attackers as “sophistries”—what we would today call rationalizations. And, just as consistently, she refers to her tormenters not as men (or, in some cases, women), but as monsters, criminals, barbarians, and ogres. Occasionally she complies with the perverted wishes of her captors, but only to shorten a session of torture or to mitigate the suffering of one of her fellow victims. But throughout she remains resolute in her belief in the preciousness of virtue, and that God will ultimately reward it. She holds fast to this belief when put under the greatest possible duress to give it up, and always gives it a spirited defence when it is attacked. In Justine de Sade has created a thoroughly virtuous character, and it is thus painful indeed to witness the endless brutalities and injustices she is subjected to.

“The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” Thus Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest. A hundred years earlier, the Marquis de Sade created a work of fiction that reversed the polarity of that proposition. In the opening chapter of his book, which is a dedication to a woman named Constance, he argues, with seeming passion, that to reward virtue is to degrade it. He appears to be agreeing with a position taken by Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations:

Art thou not content that thou hast done something conformable to thy nature, and dost thou seek to be paid for it? Just as if the eye demanded recompense for seeing, or the feet for walking. For as these members are formed for a particular purpose, so also is man formed by nature to acts of benevolence.

Or, in the pithy words of the ancient proverb: Virtue is its own reward.

In his dedication, de Sade says that his story sets out

to employ the boldest scenes, the most extraordinary situations, the most dreadful maxims, the most energetic brush strokes, with the sole object of obtaining from all this one of the sublimest parables ever penned for human edification.

I think we can say that Justine is not the sublimest parable ever penned. The author takes far too strong an interest in the minutiae of how exquisite sexual suffering can be inflicted on a captive victim, an interest that can only be called macabre. This reader is inclined to think that de Sade was good, as all psychopaths are good, at telling people what they want to hear. That if his story depicts a naked woman being set on by dogs or having boiling water injected in her vagina, it’s all in a good cause.

But while I don’t exactly accept de Sade’s fervent encomium of virtue, I did feel that Justine’s defence and practice of virtue was much more than perfunctory. My sense is that Justine is the document of a man at war with himself. I believe that his head and maybe even his heart affirm that virtue is the highest and best way to behave, but some other, darker part of him craves pleasures—sexual pleasures—that can be experienced only by harming others. As far as he knows, those desires are part of his nature—and if they’re not, then what are they and whence do they come? And if they are part of his nature, then they are part of Nature in general, the same Nature that gives the wolf its appetite for the flesh of the lamb.

It is this confrontation between virtue and vice, between desire and duty, that gives Justine whatever interest it has a work of literature. If you are aroused by scenes of violent nonconsensual sex, then the “sex” scenes may be titillating, but otherwise we have a simple, implausible, and episodic story of a young woman falling from the clutches of one monster into the clutches of another monster, again and again. It’s a work of pornography. Its only saving grace is that it is also a work of philosophy.

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Watership Down by Richard Adams: the rabbit Aeneid

Watership DownWatership Down by Richard Adams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Two square miles of English countryside become a zone of adventure, combat, and statecraft for a band of refugee rabbits.

My path to this book was via The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, where the author points to it as an example of the basic plot he calls The Quest (and Richard Adams is one of the people quoted in praise of Booker’s work on the back of his book). I was aware of Watership Down in the 1970s, when I enjoyed keeping tabs on the New York Times bestseller list, but since it was a story about rabbits I figured it must be a kids’ book, and I never became interested in reading it. Now, with Adams’s book mentioned not only as an example of The Quest plot, but as an especially good example, I happily borrowed a copy from the library and got reading.

I was immediately drawn in. My concerns about Beatrix Potter-style kiddie prose were dispelled right away, first of all by the author’s selection of four lines of Agamemnon by Aeschylus as his epigraph for chapter 1 (Cassandra’s warning that the house reeks of death), and then by the author’s unhurried and mature setting of the scene in the country. He sees it through appreciative and aesthetic adult eyes, and if he is narrating to children (Adams says that the story began as an oral tale for his young daughters on a long car trip), he is not talking down to them. The first sentence contained a term I was not familiar with: dog’s mercury, a kind of spurge (I read in Wikipedia) that is common in Europe. I would read the names of many other woodland herbs before I was done—not least because the rabbits of the story are mostly named after them—among other signs of the author’s knowledge and love of the natural world.

The epigraph from Aeschylus was well chosen, for not only does it emerge that the rabbit-warren whose setting is so lovingly described has a Cassandra of its own—a runty little fellow named Fiver—but also that the warren itself, despite that same remote and idyllic setting, is, like Troy, on the brink of destruction. In this case there will be no siege, for the destroyers are not of the same species as the rabbits; rather, they belong to the fearsome and destructive race known as men, who do not behave as other animals do, but instead put burning sticks in their mouths and operate great rumbling machines. Fiver has a premonition of terrible destruction, and tries to persuade his fellow rabbits that they must abandon their warren immediately and move away.

He is mostly unsuccessful. But a few rabbits do believe him, and decide that the risk of staying is greater than the risk of leaving. So a few bucks, under the tentative leadership of Hazel, a friend of Fiver, set out. The adventure begins. The rabbits need to find a new warren, a new home, but before they can get there, they must cross much unfamiliar country, with all its dangers.

According to Christopher Booker’s scheme, Watership Down is a Quest because it depicts a character—in this case, Hazel—seeking a prize of great value to him. And, as in the typical Quest plot, Hazel is joined by a team of supporting characters who exemplify different traits, thus making the group a symbol of potential psychic wholeness: Fiver is an intuitive visionary, Bigwig is a strongman, Blackberry is smarter than the average rabbit, Dandelion is a storyteller, and Bluebell is the poet-court jester. Hazel, for his part, as a leader, is humble, sensible, considerate, and inclusive. Indeed, it is only by a kind of default that he comes to realize that he is the leader. In the course of the adventure his mettle will be tested in many ways.

And it occurs to me that Watership Down is not only a Quest plot; it is an epic. For what is an epic? According to that excellent book, The Epic Cosmos, edited by Larry Allums, an epic is a story about the birth or transformation of a society. And that is what we have here. For a rabbit-warren is not simply a household of rabbits; it is a kind of state, at least as it is portrayed in this book. Their quest will take them into military-style campaigns and will raise keen political questions. From becoming the almost accidental leader of a ragtag bunch of lapine refugees, Hazel is forced to take on the qualities of a wily tactician like Odysseus and a wise statesman like Nestor. And yet he always stays true to himself: practical, considerate, and unassuming.

The author strikes a masterly balance in portraying his rabbits: for while they conduct their exchanges in a human-style language (Lapine), and seem to think and plan much like humans, they also remain true to their rabbitness in their sensitivity to the smells, sounds, and sights around them, and in their emotional responses and intellectual limitations. They have no idea what a paved road is or what it’s for; they just have to take it as it comes and cautiously make the best of it. Some of them cope with it better than others.

This is no Beatrix Potter outing. There is hunting, there is fighting, there is killing. This is nature. It’s beautiful and it’s pitiless. Indeed, this is what makes the stakes so high.

Altogether this book is exciting, imaginative, poetic, and significant. It is a wonderful and original work of art, one that I look forward to reading again, and spending some time and effort studying. That’s about as high praise as I can give.

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The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker: the templates for personal growth

The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell StoriesThe Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This massive, in-depth work presents a unified theory of the art of storytelling based on Jungian psychology.

As I recall, this was another work that came to my attention via the Goodreads recommendation engine. When I checked out its contents on Amazon, I knew I had to get it. Here was a large, serious work on the basic plots of storytelling—a subject that I have been trying to come to grips with myself over the years. When the book arrived, I plunged in with great interest.

And in the main, the book, all 700-odd dense pages of it, sustained that interest, even as it became apparent that its scope ranged far beyond the 7 basic plots identified by the author. He mostly finishes discussing those by page 214; from then on he looks in more depth at what role storytelling plays in the human psychic economy, and finishes with a detailed look at how storytelling has, in the West anyway, undergone a convulsive change in the last 200 years, and speculates as to the causes of this convulsion. I loved the aim of this book, its seriousness, its ambition, and its depth. I loved too that the author thinks outside the box and doesn’t pull his punches in taking a dissident stand with respect to many classic and popular works of storytelling. In some of his assessments I found myself agreeing with him (Gone with the Wind); in other cases not (The Wizard of Oz, Ulysses). But throughout he is principled and consistent in his judgments, and backs them up with his comprehensive theory.

Other things I was less pleased with. For one thing, the book is chock full of spoilers. The author, in the course of his exposition, outlines many plots, old and new, in full, and if you were hoping to read or view the stories in question, they will be spoiled. Maybe that’s inevitable in a book of this type, but I think that the author could and should have made some gesture toward preventing the worst of it, perhaps by discussing a reading strategy in his introduction, or providing simple spoiler alerts in the text. For my part, when I saw that the author was about to discuss a work that I had not yet read but knew I wanted to, I would do my best to skip that summary and move on to the next. The author, Christopher Booker, has read a heckuva lot of books (in his “personal note” at the end of the book he expresses special gratitude to the Penguin Classics for providing such a large, accessible library of the world’s stories). Like many readers, I have read only a subset of that number, and I would have appreciated a sympathetic effort on the author’s part to get me through his text with minimal spoilage of the world’s literature.

Another issue for me was the author’s prose style, which, although it was competent and got the job done, I thought had some defects and lacked discipline. In a book of this great length, a serious effort should be made to tighten the text by every means possible. This wasn’t done here, and the text remains larded with adjectives, adverbs, and whole sentences that aren’t pulling their weight. A further issue was the author’s reliance on figurative language, specifically the many references to “dark” and “light” characters, using these words in just this way, in quotation marks. Aristotle warns against using metaphors in an argument, for there is the danger that the underlying literal sense will not be communicated or understood. Ordinarily, I would take dark to mean either “evil” or “vicious”, or perhaps both (if they are not the same thing), and that is in effect what the author means here, but a major part of his argument is that evil or vicious behavior arises specifically from egocentrism or selfishness, in contrast to good or virtuous behavior, which is selfless. The connection between evil, vice, and selfishness on the one hand, and between good, virtue, and selflessness on the other, is interesting and important, but it’s also controversial, and I think it was the author’s duty to sort this out for the purpose of his argument and to define his terms, that is, to say plainly and literally what he meant, and not leave it to me, the reader, to grapple with the question. Throughout the book the words “dark,” “light,” “heart,” “soul,” and “seeing whole” are used thus, in quotation marks, and are never formally defined, and this reader regarded that fact as a weakness.

But the theory that the author expounds, the actual argument of his book, is exciting and thought-provoking. In a project that began in 1969, he examined stories of the Western world to discover what their basic plots are. This project, interestingly, has seldom been undertaken seriously before. In the author’s survey of the existing literature, the earliest reference to the notion that “similar stories and situations may be found throughout literature appears in the late eighteenth-century, in James Boswell’s biography of Dr Samuel Johnson.” But Johnson left no list or even hint of what these might be. A writer named Gozzi found that there were 36 “dramatic situations,” but as the 19th century arrived, the interest in storytelling shifted to the realm of folk tales. But the finding and cataloguing of these, while it exercised scholarly minds, never amounted to a classification system into distinct story types. As far as Christopher Booker was concerned, a serious scholarly effort in this direction still needed to be done.

So he watched plays, movies, and operas, and read books—lots of them. And eventually he discerned seven basic plots or story types. And it’s no spoiler to say what they are, since they’re listed right on the cover of the book:

Overcoming the Monster
Rags to Riches
The Quest
Voyage and Return
Comedy
Tragedy
Rebirth

In the first 228 pages the author sketches the outlines of these plots, giving examples from vastly different times and literary genres. Along the way there are a number of striking revelations. I was astonished when the author described a list of typical events in an Overcoming the Monster plot, and showed how the list applied equally well to the ancient Sumerian story of Gilgamesh’s journey to combat the monster Humbaba and to Ian Fleming’s 1958 James Bond novel, Dr. No. This by itself was a convincer for me that he was on to something.

Giving many and diverse examples, the author shows how almost every story can be reduced to one or more of these 7 plots—for many stories combine them. The author asserts, for example, that The Lord of the Rings combines all 7 of them. Some of the identifications are surprising and thought provoking. For example, he finds that War and Peace, in terms of the 7 plots, is essentially a Comedy! That is, its main plot conforms with the characteristics of Comedy as he defines it: a story about young couples overcoming the obstacles to realizing that they are meant to be together.

Why 7 basic plots? Where did they come from? Here we come to the heart of the author’s theory about storytelling. Stories exist in order to help us all mature and live fulfilling lives. They do this by giving symbolic representation to factors at work in our unconscious minds and showing how they must be worked with if we are to become complete, adult human beings. In particular, the author avails himself of the concepts of Jungian psychology to say that storytelling provides us all with a kind of map for how to grow from a condition of narrow egocentrism to one of wise, balanced wholeness. The hero or heroine of any story represents the ego, the archetype of our conscious self, as it confronts the difficult challenges to becoming more adequate to life. The villain of a story represents the ego’s shadow, the archetype of the wicked personality that carries the negative traits of egohood, which boil down to selfishness. Often a story will have a love interest for the hero; this character represents what Jung called the anima (or animus in the case of a heroine), the personification of his own unconscious, who fascinates and excites him, and whom he must win if he is to achieve fulfillment and wholeness.

The deepest and most powerful archetype of them all is called the Self, which is identical with the total person and not to be confused with the ego, which stands only for the center of conscious experience. Jung referred to the Self as the “god-image in man”; in its most positive aspect it represents the end of all aspiration and all striving, the complete actualization of a human being, beyond the petty and selfish aims of the ego. Like all the archetypes, though, the Self is unconscious and cannot be made conscious; its existence can only be inferred from the images and symbols that arise and point to it as their source. In storytelling, the Self manifests as the state of the hero when he has overcome all opposition and won through to a happy ending. The true and complete happy ending, according to this author, is one in which the hero has vanquished the villain, married the “princess”—the woman he loves—and has succeeded, with her, to a “kingdom” of some kind, which they will rule together. This fairy-tale ending remains the most emotionally satisfying for an audience, because it most accurately represents, in symbolic form, the psychological aims of human life. The fairy-tale ending shows the ego fully realized, in harmonious, complete relationship with the Self. That is exactly what makes the ending a happy one, giving a sense of fulfillment with nothing further to be done.

The great task of human life is to realize this relationship with the Self. It is primarily an inner work, which requires courage and determination—the qualities of a hero. The great danger is that we will be seduced by false gods along the way, that we will not be able to look past our ego and will consume our lives in inflating it and gratifying it. When we do this we become vicious—we become villains. And if we take villainy to its furthest extreme, we become monsters. And Overcoming the Monster, the first of the 7 basic plots, is exactly, according to the author, about the challenge of overcoming an ego that has metastasized to its ugliest state. For the monsters of stories are not the same as the “monsters” of nature—the crocodiles and sharks. The monsters of stories add the qualities of malice and cunning: human qualities, which show them to be not natural creatures, but hideously deformed humans. That is what makes them so frightening.

And it turns out that the order of plots in the list is not random, but rather presents a rough progression of story types, each showing the educational journey of the ego-hero in a different light. Along the way are many fascinating insights. I found especially interesting the discussion of the evolution of Comedy, the only one of the plot types that has actually changed over time. The author shows how Comedy began as the Old Comedy of ancient Athens, most famously exemplified in the plays of Aristophanes. These were social comedies that pitted the individual against society or group against group. Old Comedy gave way to the New Comedy of Menander and the Roman comedians, which was now romantic comedy, in which a young pair of lovers are blocked from fulfilling their desire for marriage by the powers that be—usually their parents. Later, Comedy morphed again, so that by the time of Shakespeare it is no longer external authorities who are keeping the lovers apart, but now, sometimes, qualities within the characters themselves, such as in All’s Well That Ends Well or The Taming of the Shrew. The author thinks that Comedy is continuing to evolve, so that in some contemporary comedies the obstacle to the union of the lovers is no longer any particular vice in them, but simply in the whirl of circumstance in which they find themselves, as in Four Weddings and a Funeral.

The author goes on to discuss the causes and symptoms of what he regards as the degeneration of storytelling in the last 250 years. According to him, writers moved away from stories that celebrated the virtues representing the Self (strength, intelligence, compassion, wisdom), and wrote stories instead that glorified the ego, stories in which vice triumphs over virtue. A work such as Justine by the Marquis de Sade, in which a virtuous young woman is tortured by a cruel sexual deviant, a monster, who goes unpunished, would have been unthinkable to ancient writers. The trend continued on into the 20th century, with the appearance of stories that merely presented enigmatic, unresolved situations, such as Waiting for Godot. All this represents the triumph of ego regarding itself as the supreme principle in the world. The author believes that such stories are based on fantasy, as opposed to imagination. And while he discusses this distinction a little, I would have liked him to go into much more detail, for it is a fascinating idea.

There are many fascinating ideas in this book, and many striking and original insights. I loved his discussions of Hamlet and of the Oedipus plays by Sophocles. I found his analyses of the psychologies of individual authors absorbing, even as I have hesitations about interpreting writers’ works based on facts of their biographies, never mind their presumed character flaws. I loved his ability to draw parallels, surprisingly close ones, between such disparate works as the Book of Job and Nineteen Eighty-Four. All this was great.

I suppose I would sum up by saying that The Seven Basic Plots is a great idea for a book, and well and thoroughly thought out. The author presents his ideas, many of which dissent from scholarly and critical consensus, confidently, which I like. The actual prose I found to be a bit flabby and uninspired, and the material could well have been put into three separate books. The problem of spoilers is a serious practical issue for the reader who is still looking forward to enjoying many of the works he discusses.

But if you’re interested in stories and their structure, I think you’ve got to read this.

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De Profundis and Other Writings by Oscar Wilde: personality disorders of the rich and literary

De Profundis and Other WritingsDe Profundis and Other Writings by Oscar Wilde
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This small book of selected works shows the depths of both Wilde’s thought and his suffering, all expressed in effortlessly fluent language.

I came to this book by way of the Wikipedia entry on Wilde, which I consulted after reading his The Picture of Dorian Gray. I was most intrigued to learn that he had written a long, searching letter while in prison, and was eager to read it. What were the thoughts and feelings of this perceptive man, who had undergone such a severe reversal of fortune?

I was to learn those things, but, being the kind of reader I am, I started this collection of works at the beginning, with Wilde’s 1891 essay, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” Knowing nothing much about Oscar Wilde, I didn’t know that he had written about socialism, and was most surprised to discover that he looked forward to the arrival of socialist society as bringing a great advance in individual liberty and personal fulfillment. He regarded the mundane tasks of economic life as dehumanizing, and therefore they were appropriately to be taken on by the state, that its citizens might enjoy more leisure, which is a prerequisite for civilized life.

And how would the state be able to keep its citizens on a living dole? That is, who would be doing all that dehumanizing work? His answer was simple and prescient: machines. The right person to do dehumanizing work is a nonhuman. In this, Wilde was anticipating such thinkers as Adler and Kelso, who also, in their 1958 book The Capitalist Manifesto, advocate a society whose citizens have been emancipated from toil. However, they see capitalism, not socialism, as the pathway to that emancipation, but then they enjoy the advantage of having witnessed the 20th century’s various attempts to create a socialist utopia. Wilde gives the impression that he regards the details of wealth-creation as too tedious to occupy the minds of anyone but bureaucrats, while Adler and Kelso perceive the danger of concentrating economic as well as political power in the hands of just a few men. The key point is that Wilde saw the importance of these issues for society, although he was writing almost 70 years before those later thinkers.

Wilde’s central concern is that people should lead lives of dignity and fulfillment. They should be themselves. I have no doubt he would have agreed thoroughly with another thinker whose ideas he anticipates: Abraham Maslow, who stressed the importance of self-actualization, the final and highest of human needs. For Wilde, the type of the self-actualized person is the artist, whose calling is exactly to express who he is. Wilde was the originator of the artistic mini-movement known as Aestheticism, concerned with turning one’s own life into a work of art. He thought that a socialist society, more than any other type of society, could be one in which people would have the greatest opportunity to live in this (to his mind) fulfilling way.

I was impressed with the range and depth of Wilde’s thought as I read this essay. He addressed the Great Ideas: he had original and perceptive contributions to make to what the compilers of the Great Books call the Great Conversation of Western civilization. He writes with a kind of effortless, detached passion. He is famous for his epigrams, especially the witty ones (“the good ended happily and the bad ended unhappily—that is what fiction means”; “if this is the way Queen Victoria treats her prisoners, she doesn’t deserve to have any”), and one sees how his style of thought and writing lead naturally, so to speak, to their formation. They arise where perceptiveness, brevity, and irony join in the mind of one who has a command of language. His prose, indeed, reads almost like a series of epigrams, and sometimes I found myself wishing for more of the train of thought that had led to these sharp summary statements. But there is no denying his power and vigor as both a thinker and a writer.

Skipping the dialogue called “The Decay of Lying,” I moved on to the main course, “De Profundis,” a title bestowed by Wilde’s ex-lover Robert Ross on the long letter composed by Wilde to another ex-lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, from Reading Gaol where Wilde was immured. It is a letter of complaint about how his relationship with Douglas had led to Wilde’s ruin. Written, under prison rules, a single page at a time, it is a testament to Wilde’s powers of organization and retention, as well as to his fluency, for apparently corrections to the manuscript were few.

But the contents do not reflect well on either man. For while Wilde succeeds in portraying Douglas as the worst kind of parasite, narcissist, and ingrate, he also inadvertently reveals himself to be a patsy and a fool. Based on Wilde’s description of Douglas’s behavior (and his own), I had little doubt that today the young lord would be diagnosed with the narcissistic personality disorder or something like it, while Wilde himself would probably be diagnosed with the codependent personality disorder. Wilde’s letter is a long and, one realizes, futile effort to awaken some sense of contrition in Douglas for the many wrongs he did to his lover. Like Charlie Brown, who never learns that Lucy is going to yank the football away yet again before he can kick it, Wilde never learns that he must expect only humiliation, not gratitude or reciprocation, from his young friend. What is sad is that even by the end of his letter he has not learned this; disgrace, bankruptcy, and incarceration have been insufficient stimuli to drive home the message.

At the end of the book is a collection of 11 short poems and the longer “Ballad of Reading Gaol,” a somber and knowing account of prisoners’ reactions when one of their number goes to the gallows. Although I’m not a connoisseur of verse, I enjoyed this very much.

In all, this book is a collection of provocative and well-written pieces by a complex and brilliant man. Oscar Wilde was a true artist by his own definition of that term: “a man who believes absolutely in himself, because he is absolutely himself.”

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The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes & Heroines by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever, & Sue Viders: “people power” for writers

The Complete Writer's Guide to Heroes and Heroines: Sixteen Master ArchetypesThe Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes and Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes by Tami D. Cowden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This apparently self-published handbook of character archetypes adds a powerful tool to the writer’s kit.

As I recall, this book popped up on the Gooodreads recommendation engine, and, as I have been trying to develop my own method of using the concept of archetypes to help me built dramatic characters, I was immediately drawn to it and knew I had to read it. I bought myself a copy and plunged in.

I was immediately impressed with the authors’ command of their material and the level of thought that they had put into their book. According to them, the main characters—the heroes and heroines—of every story are based upon one (or more) of exactly 16 different archetypes: eight male, eight female. Furthermore, each of these archetypes manifests as one of two types; so the storyteller, in creating a principal character, has a palette of 32 different basic types to choose from. These different types are distinct, recognizable, and strongly motivated to behave in consistent, characteristic ways, and it is exactly these features, the authors assert, that make characters fascinating and enjoyable for readers and viewers.

This contention I did not find hard to accept; I had arrived at much the same conclusion in my own researches and thinking on character creation. What surprised me was the exact identity of these archetypes, for it does not correspond to other lists of archetypes that I had come across, notably those of Carl Jung, who I think was the first to adapt the word archetype to the psychological context, and those of Caroline Myss, who proposes a much longer list of archetypes in her book Sacred Contracts: Awakening Your Divine Potential. A still different list of potential character archetypes can be drawn from Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. And I have derived pleasure and profit from using Animal Attraction: Discover Your Animal Personality Type and Unlock the Secrets to Your Friendships, Sex Life, and Love Life by zoologist Roy Feinson, a cheeky look at how humans fall into types that resemble certain animals. The “sixteen master archetypes” put forward by Cowden, LaFever, and Viders in their book are different from any of these, but the authors do not explain how they arrived at their list; it is simply presented as a fully worked-out system.

This is probably because Heroes & Heroines is not a book of theory; it is intended as a practical handbook, giving the writer only as much information as he needs to launch on the difficult task of character creation. And this it does very well. After a brief introduction, the authors get down to presenting the character archetypes in the form of a briefing for each one, arranged under a set of fixed headings: qualities, virtues, flaws, background, styles, and occupation. The consistency of the format makes it easy to compare the different archetypes; it also makes the book pleasurable in itself to read, maybe something to do with the scientific systematizing of the willfulness and messiness of human behavior.

The authors start with the eight male archetypes. Curious about what they are? I don’t think it’s a spoiler to give the list, since it shows up right in the table of contents:

  • the Chief
  • the Bad Boy
  • the Best Friend
  • the Charmer
  • the Lost Soul
  • the Professor
  • the Swashbuckler
  • the Warrior

(I was interested to note that the list is alphabetical except for the Chief. My guess is that the authors felt that the only place for the Chief was at the top of the list!)

The authors are liberal and specific with their examples, to help make the archetype clear and vivid for the reader. They characterize the Chief as “a dynamic leader [who] has time for nothing but work,” and give as examples Captain Kirk of Star Trek and Henry Higgins of My Fair Lady. These are telling examples, for superficially it might appear that Captain Kirk and Henry Higgins have little in common. One is the intrepid commander of a large spaceship, the other an eccentric upper-class Victorian social theorist. What they share, according to these authors, are the core traits of the Chief: they are active, strong-willed, focused on their task, and they exact obedience from those around them. They are undeterred by obstacles and make formidable opponents. These traits form the core of the archetype; a menu of other, less central traits comes into play beyond this, helping to distinguish one Chief from another. For example, while Captain Kirk exemplifies more strongly the 3 “virtues” of the Chief, namely that he is goal-oriented, decisive, and responsible, Henry Higgins probably shows more of the Chief’s 3 “flaws,” those of being stubborn, unsympathetic, and dominating.

Chiefs are further distinguished by one of 2 styles in which they manifest: the born leader or the conqueror. The former is a Chief born to a life of power and authority, while the latter is a Chief who had to fight his way to the top. I’m not very familiar with the backgrounds of these two characters, but I sense that Higgins is more of a born leader, while Kirk is probably a conqueror.

Archetypes are distinguished still further by their backgrounds (the circumstances of their early lives) and their occupation. By tinkering with all of these features, a writer can construct a nuanced and striking character. And there are still further options. For the features of two different archetypes can be combined to create a single layered archetype. The authors point to the example of John Rambo in First Blood, who combines traits of the Warrior (a principled, fearless fighter) and the Lost Soul (a man carrying an inner wound that won’t heal).

A further avenue for writers to explore is that of the evolving archetype, a character that changes, in the course of a story, from one archetype into another. Here the authors point to the character Edward Lewis in Pretty Woman, who evolves from a Chief into a Best Friend.

Female archetypes get equal time. They are:

  • the Boss
  • the Seductress
  • the Spunky Kid
  • the Free Spirit
  • the Waif
  • the Librarian
  • the Crusader
  • the Nurturer

These are all covered in the same way, with examples. And while the authors do not go into this, it’s possible to draw parallels between the male and female lists. For the Boss is the female counterpart of the Chief, the Seductress the female counterpart of the Charmer, and so on. I would say the parallels are pretty close for 6 of the archetypes on each list, with 2 remaining unique to its list in each case.

The book goes on to give brief descriptions of how the archetypes interact with each other; in particular, it shows how every male archetype interacts with every female archetype, discussing in each case how they clash, how they mesh, and how they change. The authors achieve a lot in a short space, and I was impressed with amount and quality of work they put into these interactions. Here too they give examples, mostly from movies, of these archetype interactions. A movie in which a Swashbuckler meets up with a Seductress? Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. How about a Best Friend encountering a Free Spirit? Clueless.

I liked all of this very much. But my response to the book went even deeper than that. For I found that when I read certain material in it, I actually teared up; I recognized aspects of myself in these archetypes. When I read the authors’ description of the Lost Soul, I recognized myself, which led me to wonder how I got to be that way. But perhaps more than that I embody the archetype of the Professor—the intellectual who has a closer relationship with his books than he does with people. Gadzooks—I’m a layered archetype!

The book does have some faults. Although my copy appears to be a new 2013 edition of the work originally published in 2000, it seems a homemade thing with copyediting problems. Some of the text and paragraph formatting has gone awry, and the names of the archetypes are always given in full caps (CHIEF, SPUNKY KID, and so on). All these things give the book an amateur feeling that it does not deserve. And, as I say, this reader would have appreciated some note on how the authors discovered or developed these archetypes. And why are there exactly 8 of them, broken neatly into male and female? And why are there exactly 2 subspecies of each? These kinds of questions gnaw at the Professor.

But, altogether, I think this book is a valuable tool for anyone who wants to engage in dramatic writing. I’ve struggled to develop characters in my own writing career, and I am conscious of the amount of thought and analysis that has gone into working out these archetypes and their interconnections. Each of the male-female archetype interactions that the authors provide would form the heart of a good story. There are 64 of these; a writer could just scoop one up and be off to a running start. I wish to heck I’d had this book when I was doing my TV series.

Anyway, I’m using it now. I don’t know whether it contains the ultimate truth about characters and archetypes. But I do know that if you structure your characters and their behavior based on these archetypes, you will come a lot closer to having a story that throbs with the pulse of life.

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the short story: small fry of the literary world?

I love literature. I love reading. I especially love reading good fiction (even as I especially dislike reading bad fiction). Why then, in my life, have I been ambivalent about the short story as a literary genre?

As a child I loved to write stories, and all these were necessarily “short” stories. But as I grew up I came to read works that were longer and longer. It was a mark of achievement and maturity in reading to be able to read “chapter books,” and then, eventually, fully grown-up up books that were read by adults. I remember in grade 4, that is, at age 10, trying to read Gulliver’s Travels, a paperback copy of which resided in the bookcase in our living room, and reluctantly having to bail on it a short way in. It was just too hard. But within a year I was starting to gulp down the James Bond books that were in my father’s bookshelves with full comprehension, as well as enjoyment of their “adult” content (if James Bond’s exploits can be classed as adult). Could it be that short stories, even those written for adults, now struck me, subliminally, as a more “kiddie” form, just because they were less substantial and required less commitment to read?

Certainly, the novel form allowed a writer to explore scenes, characters, and ideas in more depth, and the plot of a novel had to be more complex to sustain its greater length. Then there was the enjoyment factor: you could immerse yourself in a novel in a way that you could not with a short story. If I was enjoying a novel, I didn’t want it to end; the sheer size of The Lord of the Rings trilogy was one of its positive attributes, in my teenage eyes. By contrast, if you were enjoying a short story, that enjoyment would soon be over. All in all, short stories were the small fry of the literary world, while novels were the big game. And by temperament I liked to think big.

As I recall, it was reading Dubliners by James Joyce that started turning my thinking around. Electrified at age 18 by reading his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I turned to the next thing by him that I could get my hands on. This was an old paperback copy of Dubliners that was, again, sitting in the living-room bookcase. I plunged in, and was rewarded with the same superb prose and penetrating vision that I had enjoyed in the novel, and even some moments that were almost as arresting as the climax of Portrait. When I read “Araby,” about a boy who discovers that he is in love with a friend’s sister, and who ventures to a local fair to try to get a gift for her, it was as though my own soul had become a cathedral, or had been revealed as one, with the words and feelings of the story echoing in its dark, hidden, and unreachable places. I was left in no doubt that the short story, as a literary form, was a powerful means of expression in the hands of an artist.

And from the writer’s standpoint, this was a boon, for short stories, compared with novels, are doable. Or so I thought. Certainly, writing a work of 3,000 words must be easier than writing one of, say, 80,000 words. And it was in the glow of this newly kindled enthusiasm that I started trying to come up with an idea for a short story of my own. I felt tremendous creative energy within me, and wanted to announce my arrival, my birth as a literary artist. I don’t remember how long I racked my brain for an idea, but before too long I did become inspired by an idea, tremendously inspired, and the result was “The Hermit,” which is even now available right here on my website. Although I worried and fussed over its composition, spending weeks in sessions at my drawing-board under my bedroom window, I wrote it in a state of passion and creative exaltation. I felt that I was finally answering my own literary vocation.

In all, writing it was a wonderful experience. Finally, Paul Vitols, the literary artist, was born!

Now what?

That was my problem. How was I, as a newly born short-story writer, going to follow up “The Hermit”? While the outer details of “The Hermit” were not autobiographical, except insofar as they were about a university student, its inner life—its heart—was autobiographical. My character, Alex, was crossing a watershed in his inner life, just as I felt I was crossing a watershed in mine. But how many watersheds are there in the life of a young man, or of anyone? What else could I write as a short story?

I tried to keep the feeling going. I was a real writer now; I needed to write. So I jumped in and wrote another story. It was also semi-autobiographical, based on events in my trip to Mexico with a friend the year before. As a way of trying to progress, and not simply trying to repeat what I had done with “The Hermit,” I made the story experimental, playing with the time-sequence of events in it. But the result was underwhelming. In fact, I can’t exactly remember what happened in the story, or even what its title was. I don’t even know if I’ve still got a copy of it.

I had a vague feeling that even if I had in some way, by writing “The Hermit,” “arrived” as a serious writer, that fact did not in itself guarantee that whatever I wrote would be any good. Arrived or not, it was my responsibility to come up with good ideas for stories, of whatever size, and then execute them well. Or, as they say (or used to say) in the music biz, you’re only as good as your last record.

I started to see that, even though a short story is much smaller and simpler than a novel, it still needs to be a good idea and written well. It needs a sufficient reason to exist, beyond the writer’s desire to be a writer. And if some short stories are able to have a profound effect on a reader, as “Araby” had had on me, that fact may point to their being more difficult to write than a novel, at least from a certain point of view. “Araby” is roughly 2,200 words long, just slightly more than double the length of this blog post so far. Joyce achieved his effects with maximum economy of means. This succinctness is itself the mark of an accomplished artist.

Another feature of short stories is that they emphasize the story aspect of writing. Novels are often full of things other than the story: descriptive passages, internal monologues of characters, even editorializing by the narrator. A lot of flesh and, yes, fat can hang on the skeleton of the story. Short stories don’t have that luxury. The armature of the story is always close to the surface and takes up much of the space; it needs to be well crafted if the story is to have its effect. With the beauty of a short story depending on the beauty of its skeleton, its writer has nowhere to hide from the demanding and difficult task of storytelling. And the story guru, Robert McKee, asserts that while literary talent is relatively common, storytelling talent is rare. The writer of a short story is, therefore, compared with the novelist, putting himself forward to be judged by a more exacting standard.

As a student of storytelling, I now enjoy reading short stories more than I ever have before, partly because they give me the chance to swallow a whole story in a single sitting, even though I’m a slow reader. Lately I’ve pulled out collections of stories from my own bookcase, works by Mavis Gallant and John Cheever, looking to see what I can learn about story structure and genre.

As for my own short-story writing career, I have written only a few in my life thus far. I intend to polish them and publish them, as I have “The Hermit.” I still like to think big—it’s a character trait—and so large projects are still the ones that fire my imagination. But there’s something pure about writing a short story, and if I can come up with a good idea, I will happily write another. And I will do it longhand, on lined paper, which is still the surest path to the best prose.

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The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde: the battlefield within

The Picture of Dorian GrayThe Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One hundred twenty-four years after its original publication, this poetic tragedy still effervesces with cynical epigrams and thought-provoking ideas.

I remember being curious about this book while I was growing up, looking time and again at the cover of the paperback edition in the living-room bookshelf, which showed what appeared to be a painting of the grimacing face of an angry old man. I was reminded of it recently while reading The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker, who lists it among the examples of the basic plot of Tragedy. Here, I thought, was an opportunity to finally satisfy my youthful curiosity.

I’m glad I did, for Wilde’s story is a simple, imaginative, and well-written work of fantasy. In it, a beautiful young man, Dorian Gray, is having his portrait painted by a noted artist, Basil Hallward. Under the influence of their mutual friend, the irreverent aesthete Lord Henry Wotton, who urges the young man to live life to the fullest before his looks inevitably fade, Dorian passionately wishes that the portrait might bear the signs of aging and vice, while his own body might retain the unchanging perfection of the painting. To his great shock, his wish comes true.

He discovers it when, under the influence of his new friend Lord Henry, he coldly casts aside a young woman he has thought himself in love with, an actress named Sibyl Vane, breaking her heart. After doing this, he notices a change in the portrait, a slight, cruel turning of the lip, and realizes what it means. He struggles inwardly over what to do, but finally decides to take advantage of the incredible opportunity that has been presented to him: to lead a life of indulgence and self-seeking while keeping the unmarred beauty of his youth. Lord Henry, for his part, while he knows nothing about the portrait’s supernatural power, is delighted with his protege’s change of course from middle-class virtue to sophisticated vice, and becomes his inseparable companion and world-weary cheerleader.

Hallward’s picture, by absorbing the results of its subject’s sins, provides the ultimate in what economists call moral hazard for Dorian Gray: it separates him from the consequences of his actions and thus gives him licence to act selfishly. The young man makes full use of this licence, turning to a life of sensuality and pleasure.

I knew little about Oscar Wilde when I started this book, but in reading his Wikipedia article I saw that he himself was a dandy as a young man, and a founder of the movement called Aestheticism, which was the drive to turn one’s own life into an art form, to make one’s lifestyle itself a thing of beauty. Wilde himself was obsessed with youth and beauty, and died, bankrupt and disgraced, when he was barely 46 years old. The Picture of Dorian Gray is written with the passion of one who feels its issues deeply, even as Wilde’s prose is urbane and aesthetic. My impression is that the three main characters, Dorian, Lord Henry, and Basil Hallward, represent three different personalities present within their author. Hallward is a talented artist, but is also mature, humble, and reasonable. Lord Henry is a witty, cynical bon vivant and a star of fashionable London society. The soul of young Dorian, beautiful and impressionable, is the battlefield where the forces of virtue and vice clash. His life and his story are the outcome of that battle.

Along the way, the narrator injects some opinions of his own that make him seem closer to Lord Henry in his outlook than to the other characters. For instance, in describing Dorian’s obsessive fastidiousness over his dress and comportment, he offers an interesting definition of dandyism:

And, certainly, to him Life was the first, the greatest, of the arts, and for it all the other arts seemed to be but a preparation. Fashion, by which what is really fantastic becomes for a moment universal, and Dandyism, which, in its own way, is an attempt to assert the absolute modernity of beauty, had, of course, their fascination for him. His mode of dressing, and the particular styles that from time to time he affected, had thir marked influence on the young exquisites of the Mayfair balls and Pall Mall club windows, who copied him in everything that he did, and tried to reproduce the accidental charm of his graceful, though to him only half-serious, fopperies.

Here the narrator is looking on his subject with the admiring eye of Lord Henry Wotton.

It was interesting for me coming to this book only shortly after having read Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, another fantasy, published just five years earlier. It too explores the moral effect of a split in personality in which the light portion is represented by one half and the dark by another, separate, and secret half (for Dorian Gray locks his painting in an attic room). But where Stevenson’s novella to me reads more like notes toward a finished work, Wilde’s novel is fully fleshed out and well crafted. It would seem that the two artists were sensitive to a spirit of the time that placed heavy emphasis on one’s outward appearance, and where the evil that lurks in men’s souls had to remain shut up and unacknowledged. Both are concerned specifically with the pleasure of wrongdoing, and indeed that is exactly its lure. In a way they are echoes of the fable in Plato’s Republic about the ring of Gyges: a ring that confers invisibility on its wearer, so that he may do whatever he pleases with impunity. Socrates’ specific task is to show that the lure of such a ring is not irresistible, that the just man would not be tempted by its power. In Wilde’s book Dorian Gray is in a sense invisible, in that his beauty dazzles people, making them blind to who he really is.

I must admit that The Picture of Dorian Gray is a more substantial book than I was expecting, both artistically and thematically. I was prejudiced by its author’s reputation for urbanity and foppishness. And, in truth, the book is rather theatrical and flowery here and there. But it is also the product of a sharp and brilliant mind engaging with difficult conflicts in human experience, conflicts that were to define and even destroy his own life. The battlefield of Dorian Gray’s soul, I have no doubt, was the battlefield of Oscar Wilde’s soul, and in this work, his only novel, he has sent us a sobering report of the life-and-death struggle there.

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