Sunday, 25 September 2011

Searching for the Story

One September several years back, my job took me to Thessaloniki, northern Greece, for a couple of weeks. As I flew out of Australia, Sydney launched its Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, and the irony of seeing several events taking place in my home country through the medium of Greek TV wasn't lost on me. I'd lounge in my hotel room at the end of the day, watching the 100 metres or the discus throwing, and find it bizarre that Mount Olympus was only a spit and a lick away. As was Alexander the Great, Aristotle and Socrates, and there were more Byzantine churches, Roman baths, temples and tombs around than you could poke a javelin at. It's a stunning country to visit, not least because its rich history and culture is apparent at almost every turn. So many stories.

However, this isn't a travelogue, and while there were many experiences (from both contemporary and ancient Greece) to enjoy on that trip, and which I've often savoured since, it was a fragment of domestic grief only briefly witnessed that created the most profound effect on me. Comedy and tragedy happens all around us - unreachable and unalterable, despite being uncannily close at times - and sometimes all we can do is join the Chorus as unwitting and helpless observers, hoping that the worst of the stories are never our own.

On my last morning in Thessaloniki, before flying to Athens, I was up and packed by 5am and standing at the open window of my room. It was still dark outside - still and dark - and warm with the promise of another hot day. My room was located on the fourth floor, at the rear of the hotel, looking across to the back of a couple of high-rise apartment blocks. They didn't seem too big a stretch away and it would have probably added to the ambiance of the place if someone had slung a washing line between, but I've always enjoyed the backyard and rooftop views of cities, seeking out the back streets and lanes in preference to postcard hotspots, and so it suited me fine.

It was good to breathe in the end of night, the start of day, and to catch a few moments of stillness before heading down to the lobby and catching the airport bus. And I was thinking this and mentally checking to make sure I hadn't forgot something - that I'd kept my passport and tickets handy, and that sort of thing - when, from an apartment almost opposite, a woman began crying.

It began as a sobbing. Deep sobs, one after the other. Until one sob became an intense wail: a drawn-out cry that reminded me of someone drowning. She was sobbing and crying as if the best of her life was over, and I couldn't tell whether it was from grief or pain or loss or betrayal or... There suddenly seemed so many reasons a woman might cry at 5 o'clock in the morning.

I peered out to try and identify which apartment and which room she might be in. Was she hurt? Had she witnessed the death of her child. Or a husband? What sort of loss was it? Was she sitting next to a telephone or a bloody mess? Was there a scribbled note in her hand? Was she in danger? Did she need help? I couldn't tell, but the solitary sound of this woman crying was amplified across the courtyard of tall buildings, along with its poignancy, and it found its way into me. It was one of the most plaintive, lonely sounds I'd ever heard.

It seemed that at any moment someone would have to join her, to soothe and comfort her, or to continue bullying and berating her; that the click or slam of a door would be equally clear on a morning like this, along with the ripple of soothing words or the throwing of pans, the smashing of crockery. But none of that happened. Just as she began her lament, so she ended it. As I stood and listened and wondered what - if anything - could be done, a current swept her from one end of grief to another, and her wailing once again became a series of sobs punctuated by silence. Except the silence now seemed louder than before. And I had to catch a bus to the airport.

So evocative was this scene for me that I've tried writing it numerous times across the years, although most often when I'm somewhere far from home. Usually as a poem, but occasionally as a short story. Except the words I really want and the view I really want to present have always eluded me. All I've created are scraps of paper with scribbled jottings and crossings-out to join the heap of other scraps of paper covered in scribbled jottings and crossings-out. (I have trees worth of these and sometimes, when we're short of winter firewood, I'll burn a box or two of them and we'll warm ourselves on the flames of old words.)

I could leave it well alone, of course, and allow the scene to simply hang in the gallery of my memories. Except I'm reluctant to. And so, I do what many writers do and begin to analyse why what I've tried won't work, while searching for a way of telling it in a way that might work instead. I look at the possibilities from different perspectives and learn that I can't see my way forward, perhaps, because my focus has been misdirected.

Maybe, instead of attempting to present a view of the woman's predicament and an interpretation of her situation, or even just capturing an evocative moment in life, the power of the scene might lie in the many questions that are raised but left begging. Or, in a Carveresque manner, it might lie in describing two characters who, for very different reasons, find themselves on the brink of change. There are so many possibilities.  Maybe it needs to be one of those stories whereby, instead of making sense of the world - or a slice of the world - we end up with even more questions than answers along with a weightier awareness of our smallness in the universe. Maybe I should turn to Euripedes, Homer, Sophocles, and ask how the Greek poets would have shaped the telling of this story. Perhaps I should question what universal truth might be revealed here. Maybe, perhaps, possibly... There are so many ways of telling a story, if only we, as writers, can find one that works.

Searching for the Story first appeared in The View from Here in February, 2009.

Friday, 23 September 2011

'On the Waterfront' and 'Fitzcarraldo'

It's been one busy week, what with trying to complete an article for a magazine, the demands of turning up to a salaried job (ho hum), and my painterly partner bailing on her fair share of domestic duties as she does a bit of globe-trotting.  However, it's had its highlights.

One recent aspect of the Day Job I've appreciated is that it's given me a heap of opportunities to get to know Elia Kazan's 1954 film On the Waterfront.  This is a new discovery for me, but I must admit I've enjoyed exploring it.  Marlon Brandon and Eva Marie Saint are wonderful, and the improvised scene, where Edie drops her glove and Terry tries it on, is magic.  The politics behind the movie, with Kazan justifying his request that he be called again in front of H.U.A.C., so that he might name names during the McCarthy witch-hunt, is fascinating too.  While the ending seems unsatisfactory, with the longshoremen trudging blindly into the maw of capitalism, and the dynamic Edie reduced to a simpering doll, there's enough strength in the film for it to work. 

Also, came across two websites that are worth shouting about and checking out. Talie Helene is a musician, writer and editor from Melbourne, Australia, and you can find out what's she been up to here.  Alan Baxter - another Australian, but this time from New South Wales - is the author of dark fantasy novels RealmShift and MageSign, and of late he's been blogging about How to Write Fight Scenes.

The other highlight of the week was watching Fitzcarraldo, directed by Werner Herzog.  I've always liked the sound of this word - 'Fitzcarraldo' - whenever I've heard talk of Herzog's work, but am amazed I never got round to watching the film until now.  More fool me.  What a film!  It's made one hell of an impression, and I can already sense that some aspects of it are going to influence the way I write, the way I think about writing. And as for Klaus Kinski - brilliant.  Look, I don't want to be objective and critical here.  While some of the potent images are still percolating through my head - Fitzgerald's passionate feverishness when he gatecrashes the opera, the way he clings to the church bell-tower and screams at the town, his interactions with the rubber barons and the indians, the winching of the 320-ton steamboat up one side of the mountain and down the other - I'm more than happy just to gush about it instead.

The trailer doesn't go anywhere near doing justice to this movie, but don't take my word for it: watch the movie.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

The Ride of the Googlebots

It used to be that my blog stats would show I'd been visited by one or two Googlebots a day, and I've always found comfort in this.  It's reassuring, I think, to know that these little spiders had found their way to my blog, had a bit of a browse and then scurried back to Mountain View, California, or wherever their nest is, to record the memory of that visit, in preparation for sharing it with the world.  Their visit is an affirmation of sorts.  It reminds me that I exist - or that my blog exists, at least.

However, of late, the things seem to be swarming, and I wonder if it's to do with the mild weather... or whether, like fembots, they're part of a plan to take over the world. Fairly regularly, I find there's been 16 or 17 of the blighters across the day, trawling through the archives, leaving little bits of web hanging off the drawers.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining.  The more affirmation the better.  And I don't have an aversion to spiders of any sort.  It's just that I wonder why.

Anyway, given that it's happening, I thought I 'd leave a trail of flies for them to follow: 01000100111000110011... all the way to a couple of websites I like to visit.  I've been getting to know a few more Australian writers recently, amongst whom is Cam Rogers, author of The Music of Razors, and Michael Pryor, author of The Chronicles of Krangor, The Laws of Magic, and many other novels and short stories.  Cam is overhauling his site at the moment, but that makes visiting the current site all the more worthwhile - catch it before it changes.  Catch them both.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Little Red Riding Hood

Little Red Riding Hood has always been one of my favourite tales.  That it’s one of those frequently reinterpreted stories we carry with us from childhood into adulthood adds to its richness, as far as I’m concerned.  Even though each variation may draw on common elements, I’m always delighted to hear how different storytellers respond to it – what they bring to it, what they choose to leave out.  From the sexy and the sinister to the sermonising and the comical.  From the Brothers Grimm to Roald Dahl.

My favourite retelling of all is, without a doubt, Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves.  This is a stunningly evocative story from an anthology (The Bloody Chamber) that I've found almost addictive at times, and which includes variations of Bluebeard, Puss-in-Boots, The Erl-King, and Beauty and the Beast, amongst others.

I don’t mind admitting that it was my great admiration of her writing that inspired me to include my own ‘folk tales’ as interludes in The Grease Monkey’s Tale, and to retell Little Red Riding Hood one more time (although my version was also shaped by witnessing the horrendous abuse of a young child by her drunk grandmother once).

With this in mind, I looked forward to watching Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood recently, but was disappointed.  While I particularly liked the palette of colours Hardwicke employed – all that red and white, blood and snow – it felt as if the screenplay had attempted to cobble together as many stories connected with wolves as possible, and ended up doing justice to none of them.  (Conversely, Angela Carter references the story of Little Red in The Company of Wolves to a number of other lycanthropic stories too, but achieves a tremendous unity for doing this.)  I quite liked the medieval setting (reminiscent of the one episode of Game of Thrones I’ve managed to watch), but thought the CGI wolf was laughably bad – so bad I couldn’t stop laughing.  All very corny and disappointing.  To shake it off, I revisited The Bloody Chamber and Carter's wonderful description of the seduction of a wolf.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

From Thomas Mann to Tim Winton - a marriage of music and words

Having come across some great discussions about e-books recently (Louise Cusack's Enhanced Features for e-Books, help or hindrance? and Jason Nahrung's Putting the eeeeee! into e-books are essential reading), I have resuscitated an article I wrote for The View From Here just over a year ago.  Its relevance might not be immediately apparent, but it meanders there eventually.

FROM THOMAS MANN TO TIM WINTON - A Marriage of Music and Words

I’m not sure whether I’d have ever read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice if it hadn’t been for a trip to the cinema in 1973, but Visconti’s film adaptation had just been released and I needed an excuse to hang out with a girlfriend.  I doubt whether I gave the film my full attention (for obvious reasons), but I recall brooding, impressionistic images and a soundtrack that drew heavily on Mahler.  Not long after, and perhaps in honour of the girl and our evening together, I shelled out 35p for a paperback copy of the book.

I vastly preferred reading Death in Venice to watching it (the little I'd seen) and, although the girl soon disappeared from view, this slim novella has remained on my bookshelf ever since.  However, Visconti had a more profound influence than I realised at the time, because as soon as I opened the book I couldn’t help but hear those haunting phrases from Mahler’s Third and Fifth symphonies underscoring every sentence, and they too have stayed with me.

Adolescent relationships may be fleeting, but the love affair between film, music and literature is an enduring (and polyamorous) one, it seems.  This is especially evident in films that aren’t so much moving pictures as moving paintings, and where music is cast in a leading role rather than as an optional extra loafing about in the background.  Maybe Walt Disney kindled the flame to this romance with the magical (if not trippy) Fantasia in 1940.  Here we have Mickey Mouse’s animated orchestration of Goethe’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice dancing to Dukas’ symphonic poem of the same name.  It’s a marriage with added significance when we remember it was Goethe himself who said: “Music begins where words end.”

The intimacy of the relationship became obvious in Elvira Madigan (1967).  Drawing on Johan Lindström Saxon’s nineteenth century ballad, which chronicled the murder-suicide of a married cavalry officer and his young tightrope-dancing mistress, film director Bo Widerberg created an inseparable bond when he matched this story with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21.  It’s proved such a long-standing affair – no murder-suicide to mirror the original – that the Elvira Madigan tag is still promoted on new recordings forty-three years later.

Nor have Australian films been shy in this respect.  After all, Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) went all the way with Joan Lindsay’s novel.  No brief flirtation here.  Consequently, it’s become a challenge to pick up this book, let alone read it in the shadow of Hanging Rock, without drifting into soft focus and expecting the earth to move to the tedious ripple of panpipes.

The upshot of this was that, as an Arts student in the 70s, it was difficult not to believe that a half-decent understanding of literature must be accompanied by a sound grounding in music.  How else could these directors have recognised the essential Mahler behind Mann, the Mozart in Madigan?  If I couldn’t discover something similar in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Chekhov’s Three Sisters or Sartre’s Nausea, I sensed they’d remain incomplete texts, half-read and half-understood at best.

This belief led me to Tchaikovsky, Chopin and Satie, amongst others, until I recognised the risks of overdosing on classical music: sombre days and even more sombre nights.  Literature needed to lighten up and start dancing with a younger partner.

So it was a relief to encounter bands like The Cream releasing Tales of Brave Ulysses and Camel dedicating an entire album to Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose, and even to hear Kate Bush warbling her way through Wuthering Heights.  Being a committed student, there wasn’t much I wouldn’t kick back and listen to.  The more diversions the better.  I thought of it as research and much preferred it as a study technique to browsing a library for notes on Chaucer, Conrad or Coleridge.  Except when it came to Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch’s Legend of Xanadu.  How could anyone take a band with a name like that seriously?

What I would’ve liked, though, was to actually hear the music that underscored the words for myself.  Instinctively, as I believed Visconti had.  But it didn’t happen.  There may have been an occasion once, when I thought a few bars from a pianoforte leaked out of Mansfield Park, but that could equally have been because I was cramming my reading of Jane Austen at 3:00 am while twitched up on caffeine.

There was little for it but to make the most of literature that allowed for such tune deafness.  Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King became a favourite the moment Eugene Henderson sang a couple of lines from Handel’s Messiah: “I am despised and rejected, a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief”.

In marriage, partners redefine one another and – for better or for worse – while Henderson’s story has resounded to the Messiah ever since for me, so too has it been impossible to hear the oratorio without having flashbacks of a middle-aged American multi-millionaire blundering through the African jungle in search of salvation.

Something similar happens with Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange.  This novel embraces Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony so passionately (even as it flirts with Mozart and Bach on the side) that I no longer hear it without picturing Alex and his droogs bashing and raping, thieving and destroying.  It’s a deliberately disturbing relationship that reverberates all the more for Alex’s belief that music is “gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh.”

Of course, not all literature is evocative of music; some texts are destined to go quietly through life – unaccompanied.  But reading is particularly enjoyable when it engages at this level.  It’s the reason I got excited when, with the advent of CDs, Laura Esquivel released The Law of Love with its own soundtrack slipped beneath the front cover – a track for each chapter – because it heralded a fresh dynamism in the relationship.  However, although Tim Winton’s aptly-named Dirt Music was released with an optional double album of bluegrass and classical tracks (an invitation to re-read the novel every time it’s played), relatively few authors have travelled any distance on this bandwagon.

But the writing’s on the wall... or, if not the wall, it’s certainly appearing on digital readers.  Putting aside my preference for the feel and smell of paper rather than screens and warm batteries, I’ve been considering buying a Kindle or Sony Reader lately.  The software isn’t quite there yet, but I don’t think it’ll be long before e-readers are gauging what music should accompany which e-book, matching the compatibility of rhythm and mood in each, while allowing, perhaps, for the user’s reading pace.

Maybe then it’ll only be a matter of time before every piece of literature is accompanied by its own soundtrack, and Mahler’s symphonies will literally resound through Death in Venice.  Unless it’s done badly and resembles those awful Christmas cards that play the same tinny tune over and over again the moment they’re opened... or if the moment Picnic at Hanging Rock is opened we’re forced to listen to those bloody panpipes yet again.  In which case, I imagine the relationship between literature and music might end in a murder-suicide after all – the messiest of divorces – and we’ll be clammering for old-fashioned, silent books once more.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Down at the Factory of the Imagination - August report

Okay, I'm a bit late reporting August's figures, but maybe I'm still working on the Julian Calendar... or cooking the books.  Anyway, August wasn't too bad word-wise and there's 61,000 of the little critters perched more or less in place.  The 60,000 mark feels like a critical psychological barrier, so overtaking it is accompanied by a sigh of relief, because now I feel as if I'm accelerating towards the end - that is, if 20,000 words will get me there.

I'm not sure what this next month will be like, in terms of capturing words, and suspect I'm getting to the point where I have to print the entire thing out if I'm to successfully find my way towards that ending.  Like The Snowing and Greening, this is a non-lineal beast, so when the characters deviate from where I thought they were taking me, which they're doing a lot at the moment, I have to go back and change a number of details relevant to how they got there in the first place.

Okay, forget that hotch-potch of metaphors I've just stumbled through - the factory, the hunting, the road journey - maybe I should settle for time-travelling instead, because that's what non-lineal writing feels like at times. If only I could meet a friendly Tralfamadorian.  Then I could let myself know yesterday how the rest of this month is about to go.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Two books I didn't enjoy

Many years ago, in a bid to overcome my obsessive need to finish reading every book I started, however abysmal they were, I created a 40 page and 80 page rule.  If I found myself disliking a book by page 40, and could find no redeeming features, or if I found a book wasn't compulsive reading by page 80, then I allowed myself to dump it.

But I've be breaking this rule recently.

Of the last two books I read, one shouldn't have made it past page 40, while the page 80 rule should've applied to the other.  The first one I stuck with, skimming across fifty pages or so before dipping into the story again, all the way through to the end, while the second didn't get the final flick until page 136.

I won't bother naming names here - there's nothing to be gained from that, except to prove yet again that what engages one reader won't necessarily engage another - but I do find this business of reading such books useful to a certain extent, inasmuch as it reminds me what makes a story work and what kills it.

Briefly, with the first novel, I thought it had an interesting storyline and the author had created a compelling narrative voice.  However, the main characters, who I was expected to be sympathetic towards, if not empathetic with, were tedious bores.  I didn't give a toss whether they lived or died, whether their lives were wracked with guilt or whether they ever found true love.  If I was on a bus having to listen to them, I'd have got off at the first stop and waited for the next one.  I'd rather stand in a blizzard than put up with their prattling.

The second novel was touted as a 'classy ghost story', although it seemed to be working a tad too hard at conveying literary classiness at the expense of pace and... well, substance.  One slow meandering after another that seemed to be getting nowhere.  Left me cold.

Why stick with them?  Well, what's usually a tower of books at the side of my bed, waiting to be read, is at an all-time low.  Having been let down by Amazon with a couple of titles, I've also been waiting several weeks for Fishpond to deliver the  debut novel of my friend, Mike French, but The Ascent of Isaac Steward is proving elusive.  I'll have to write to them on Monday if it hasn't appeared in the post by then.  Because of this, I've been making do with reading a few books that have been lying around, but now it's time to start building that tower again. 

Thursday, 1 September 2011

What's Hot & What's Not

What's Hot:
  • Being a slow learner in most things grammatical (put it down to sloppy trends in institutionalised education when I were a nipper), I've surprised myself of late to find I actually enjoy refining my skills in this area.  That's partly why Strunk and White's excellent The Elements of Style made such an impact on me not so long ago (see post).  However, I've just come across this fine post ....... from .... Patrick O'Duffy (hater of the sloppy ellipsis) ........ called .... Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?  
  • Also, came across the website of Australian novelist and short story writer Kirstyn McDermott, whose thriller Madigan Mine was released by Picador last year.  Check it out here.

What's Not:
  • Tony Abbott, Bleater of the Opposition, claiming he's Australia's official critic-in-chief.  Too easy!  But then, when politicians say nothing loud enough and often enough they really seem to believe they must be saying something.  Our current cast of parliamentarians are, I suspect, puppets who've escaped from the 1980's British satirical comedy Spitting Image, preparing to act out a Ronald Reagan sketch or two - particularly The President's Brain is Missing.  Can't find that episode, but this'll do instead.