Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Road (but not that one)

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Vasily Grossman is one of the world's great unrecognized writers. A Soviet writer during the time of Stalin, he had to write within a world of propaganda and censorship. Even within that small box, however, he was able to put forth some great fiction and journalism, though his two late masterpieces, Life and Fate and Everything Flows, were held from publication by the Powers That Be. Indeed, the Stalinists tried to expunge every copy of Life and Fate from the world; luckily, they failed, and copies were smuggled to the West, where the book was eventually published. It's often called "the Soviet War and Peace," and its portrayal of the horrors of the siege of Stalingrad led it to become the book most feared by Communist leadership (along with Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago.

The Road, however, is a collection of Grossman's stories and journalism, often written from inside that box, a box walled with propaganda, censorship, and fear. Within that cage, however, Grossman finds his way by seeing and recording the details - the telling details, the small and hidden things that cast a sudden and fierce light on the dark shadows of suffering. There are interesting tensions at work within his writing, with the clear-sighted realist wriggling against the restraints of the facade of Communist idealism.

Whether indicating the lot of a common soldier, from the viewpoint of a donkey hauling a piece of artillery in "The Road", or painting a brutal landscape of evil, in his reportage from The Hell of Treblinka, Grossman has an eye for human truth, for the felt experience of a diverse number of people, across a diverse range of situations. I think what I love most is his sense of empathy, his ability to put himself in the place of others. This comes, perhaps, from his own sufferings. His mother, a Jew living in the city of Berdichev, was marched out to an airfield by the Nazis, along with hundreds of other Jews from the city, and murdered. There is, in his writing, a need to be there, to be with his mother, perhaps, to see what she saw, and to be with all the others who suffered; to see and feel what they felt.

This is writing as an act of memory; as an act of imaginative remembrance; as an attempt to paint in the empty spaces that will be forgotten, or white-washed, by history, by those who see history as an act of political prognostication.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Why? Theme? Why theme?

I found the following video through my friend Susan the other day (not the first time I've found something awesome at her blog). It's one of the TED talks, which I love and find only mildly addictive (mildly, I tell you, mildly!). It's not really about writing, but I think it applies. It's about business and people and success - what leads to success, and why people will follow that success. The question is simple. Why are you doing what you do? People will respond to what you believe, and not just to what you have, however great that might be.

The video is worth a watch, if you have the time.

The way it applies to writing, however, is theme, or so I've been thinking. Why are you doing what you do? What do you believe? It's not that you can't find a powerful theme while writing a story (it's been done, and will be done again), but there's something powerful about knowing what you're doing. Knowing your theme. To me, the theme is the hot emotional core of the novel. What is the feeling it's trying to explore, and trying to evoke in the reader? And in what way?

Knowing the emotional center of your story means you know what drives the story. And answering that question (Why?) allows you to use that theme. This is an opportunity. If you know the why, you can shape the story itself around what you are trying to do, around what you are feeling (and what you hope your reader is going to feel). The conflicts will be designed to specifically set these feelings into motion.

This is definitely something I want to work on more. I think a lot of writers hit the keys, get the story out, and then realize what they're writing about. But they're not using that theme; it's a sideline. And it's not always easy to edit that theme into a complex and powerful vision. It can be done, but it's hard; we're talking about the structure of the story itself.

Theme = why?

A simple little equation.

What about you? How do you approach theme, Fellow Sophisticates?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Brain Implosion and Unforgiving Years

My daughter started grade one at a new school last week. And today my oldest son started junior kindergarten. My little guy's off to school. And I think my brain imploded a little. Possibly a lot. It's only me and the ferocious Vampire Infant here for the morning. Though he's in a time out (for biting, of course).

That's the weird, unforgiving nature of time. Sometimes the last few years have seemed like a lifetime, and at other times it feels as if it were the merest blink of an eye. I remember my older son being born, the little shock of copper hair. And today he was in a backpack, climbing up on the school bus with his sister.

Hopefully, the years won't be as unforgiving as those of the characters in this book:

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This is sort of a brutal and sad book, but quite wonderful. And quite strange, though not in an overt way. It's a subtle sort of strangeness, arising out of how the style meshes with the structure. In some ways, this is a rambling, interior novel about politics - or, perhaps more accurately, about how politics interacts with the individual in terms of political faith and belief, and how that faith affects personal action.

The book is largely set inside the character's heads, and yet there are sudden flashes of the world around, sudden and almost hallucinatory images of the world as it impinges on the thoughts of the characters. This creates a wonderful dream-like (or perhaps nightmare-like) quality, arising from the strange telescoping motion between the interior and exterior - the way the outside world swims suddenly into focus. The winter landscape of a besieged Leningrad, the ruins of a German city under Allied bombing, an isolated house deep in the Mexican interior...

A fascinating look at the psychology of political belief, and the most interesting book on Communism I've ever read.

Somehow, thinking about it, school buses don't seem so bad. At least for a while...

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Shared Worlds: History and the Imagined Fantastical

I love taking pictures of old buildings. And, as mentioned before, old and secret doors and windows in old buildings. Part of this is the simple beauty of these things. Part of it is the mystery. Part of it, though, is the sense of lived history in these places. These are connections to the lives of actual people. They are not simply monuments of the present, but actual pieces of lives in the past.

As a writer of fantasy, nothing seems more magical. The realness of these buildings is a departure point (an inspiration point) for me as a writer. It's not just that I can imagine a soldier looking over a battlement at an invading army, but that I can see him on an empty night, the cold wind blowing up over the stone. Thinking of a fire, of a girl he loves, of something to eat, even as the light fades in the west and the great eastern darkness boils up off the horizon. Does he notice? Or has he seen it so many times that he's blind to it, living by touch, living from shiver to shiver?

This is the magic of physical history on the mind of a writer.

So! I had a shot yesterday of a cannon in Belem Tower looking out over the water to the Vasco da Gama Bridge, outside Lisbon, Portugal. I loved this tower, and took a bunch of pictures of it. It's an important building, too, both for its beauty and its age. And the age is important, because it was one of the few great buildings in Lisbon to survive the horrendous 1755 earthquake that shattered the city.

Here are a few shots of the Belem Tower. It's worth seeing, if you ever get the chance.

We hope you've enjoyed the tour. Please exit to the left.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Book Splurge That Ate The World

The NYRB Splurge has grown. Please stop me! Okay, don't.

More titles for The Splurge:

Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman

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Hard Rain Falling, by Don Carpenter

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and The Judges of the Secret Court, by David Stacton, on account of the recommendations by Steve found here.

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