Cento: Reading as Rapture, as Vertigo

https://unsplash.com/photos/MN251xZ9mBk

Patchwork, colourful, a garment. I’ve carried the image since childhood. To me this internal multicoloured display is the symbol of being different, of suffering for this difference, though for ultimately righteous reasons.

It took me a while to trace the origin of this association to the Biblical story of Joseph in a comic book that I read as a child.

I do mean comic book: it had panels, gutters, speech bubbles, and lovely colourful drawings—the whole mesmerising caboodle—only the subject wasn’t Batman or Wonder Woman. Instead, I read and envisioned the Israelites’ God living in an elaborate golden box, the Arc of the Covenant, which His faithful servants carried through the desert under an unforgiving sun. The brightness of that sun was only rivalled by the brightness of the Arc itself. God spoke in a stern, sharp-angled bubble unlike everyone else’s.

The story of Joseph lends itself to a dramatic telling, panel for panel, as his fortune rises and falls time and again, to rise in the final instance. He is special, endowed with dream-visions he knows how to interpret. Joseph’s adventures, however, start with his father’s gift:

Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colours.

(KJV, Genesis 37:3)

Alternative versions call it a “coat with long sleeves”, but that is of little relevance to me now, retroactively.

(This isn’t where I was going with this post, but since the association is inevitable and particularly relevant in June: Happy Pride Month!)

My personal mythology has transformed the symbolic coat at every opportunity. Colourful goes hand in hand with unique with beautiful frankenstein with remarkable with dangerously balanced on a pinhead (like Kafka’s spinning tops that lose their lustre once they’re picked up), all of which circle back to dissimilar.

And if you’ve been reading this blog you’ll have noticed that self-dissimilar is ultimately what I strive for, e.g., Carson’s musk-ox Io, Cortazar’s vomited rabbits, Kafka’s silent sirens, Kesey’s cuckoo’s nest; or Hamsun’s Hunger, Zambra’s multiple choice test, Panizza’s porcinic deity

Continue reading

Imaginary Architecture: The Cathedral of Mist

https://www.wikiart.org/en/m-c-escher/other-world/

Other World by M. C. Escher (1947)

 

Looking at the diverse collection of M. C. Escher’s sketches, it’s hard to believe there exist impossible architectures he has failed to conjure.

Throw in everything else described on this site, Impossible World, with its historical and modern explorations of the subject, and you’re in a genuine tight spot to think of something new.

Visually speaking.

So take a sidestep and look at the problem linguistically. Instead of asking about the impossible, ask about the imaginary.

(Note the synaesthetic idioms we swallow daily: you can speak visually—apply the eye to an action of the mouth, and look linguistically—apply language to an action of the eye.)

The sidestep works. Words can paint pictures more bizarre than pencils can. What a warped, inconsistent visual geometry does for sight, a description of an imaginary, non-existent wonder does directly for the brain—many times over and uniquely so for every individual. This shouldn’t be surprising: on paper, a drawing is constrained by two-dimensions and utensil type, while a story is only loosely constrained by two hundred thousand words and some grammar rules (amongst which linearity is chief).

So if you’re not a naturally gifted draughtsman with an instinct for the optical paradox, literary expression is another potential outlet (assuming learning how to write comes more easily to you than learning how to draw well).

If all else fails—read! Inhabiting the worlds that rise from the rows of black squiggles is your prerogative. Continue reading

Words That Come into Leaf

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Is old hat old hat?

A valid question. Old hat is an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, which is used to indicate that something is old-fashioned, outdated, hackneyed. But has the entry itself become outdated and hackneyed?

You could ask similar questions of other words: has calling something boring become boring, or is talking about clichés now a clichéd activity for a writing blog?

Let me dwell on that last one because, like any writing blog embarking on the topic, I am enticed by the thought that I’ll be able to offer my readers an offbeat experience.

Clichés are the bane of the creative writing (cottage) industry. All aspiring authors realise fairly soon that the phrases first to mind are the phrases first to everyone’s mind. They’re uninteresting in their banality. And to be read, a writer needs to either say something different (in a world where most things have already been said), or say the same things differently (which requires extirpating clichés).

Reaching for unusual words—like extirpate—and combining them with usual words—like cliché—is a common method of seeking out original expression. The problem resurfaces, however, when it becomes apparent that thesauruses are not shortcuts to a rich vocabulary, and that a rich vocabulary in itself is not a shortcut to an ear for elegant phrases (and the discipline to apply said ear consistently). My example works as an eye-stabber, or a comedic hyperbola designed to make a point, but usually an author of fiction isn’t keen to draw attention to word combinations.

(The exceptions are modern meta-fiction or genres dependent on wordplay. For example, Joe Orton’s Loot is a black comedy, so it relies on witty cliché-breaking elements, like the one I marked in bold:

TRUSCOTT. Have you never hear of Truscott? The man who tracked down the limbless girl killer? Or was that sensation before your time?

HAL. Who would kill a limbless girl?

TRUSCOTT. She was the killer.

The darker the humour, the harder it’s weirdness strikes.) Continue reading

The Onion Man

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The slender blade of reason is no more than a probe against the tomahawk of insanity, which can crush a skull with a single blow.

—Louis Levy, Kzradock (translated by W. C. Bamberger)

Doubt.

Doubt about our surroundings, about our reality, about ourselves.

But where should doubt start, and when? What do we gain by being the detectives of our minds and souls?

These are the themes at the core of—take a deep breath—Kzradock the Onion Man and the Spring-Fresh Methuselah: From the Notes of Dr. Renard de Montpensier by Louis Levy (1910).

A moment to parse the title of this novella:

  • Dr Renard is the protagonist.
  • Kzradock the Onion Man is the title of Part I.
  • The Spring-Fresh Methuselah is the title of Part II.

A shorter moniker generally aids mental manipulation, so I chose Spring-Onion (no disrespect meant); you might chose something else. I note that the original Danish title at least avoids the English double-barrelled translations: Menneskeløget (Onion Man) and vaarfriske (Spring-Fresh).

Continue reading

Inspired by Myth: Modernising

https://www.wikiart.org/en/ivan-aivazovsky/sea-view-by-moonlight-1878/

Sea view by Moonlight by Ivan Aivazovsky (1878)

 

“The sea anemones need counting.”

“May I be assigned the Mediterranean section?”

“Same as every year. Here’s the conch. Put one white speck of sand for each healthy specimen, and one black speck for each diseased specimen. You have two days to bring back the conch to the records department.”

“Yes, sir.”

“No frolicking about with Triton.”

“Certainly not, sir.”

Poseidon watched the nymph swim off, giggling. Poseidon envied her—all he ever did was sit in his throne room, at the big rock slab of a desk tallying numbers and writing up reports. He sighed. Better get on with it.

“Give me some more ink, will you?” he said.

The squid perching on his shoulder filled his pen. Continue reading

Inspired by Myth: Alternative Ending

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Prometheus Brings Fire by Heinrich Friedrich Füger (1817)

 

Pity the mortals, for they are cold.

Of all the powerful beings populating Greek myth, Prometheus always seemed the most generous towards our kind. According to some sources he moulded the first men from clay. According to most sources he stole fire from the gods and gave it to men. Crafty, haughty, but indomitable in his creative pursuit, Prometheus is perhaps more of a human ideal than we wish to admit.

(Mary Shelly does admit it in the title of her book Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus.)

For his crimes, Prometheus, the titan, was strung up naked on a cliff in the Caucasus and sentenced to an eternity of having his (regenerating) liver torn daily by an eagle. Frostbite and cold, and continuous pain was the price he paid for our warmth and grace.

According to the legends. Continue reading

Inspired by Myth: Reinterpretation

Feathers are the soul of the wind.

To fly, you just need wings, gleaming, beautiful, lighter than the thickest ribbons of air so you can take off, heavier than the thinnest clouds so you don’t stumble upon the pathways of the gods.

So the man believed. Man, inventor, father.

The wings were almost ready, the primary feathers sown into place, the secondary feathers glued with wax.

“There.” The man tightened the strap on his son’s right arm, before adjusting his own. The boy quaked for fear of heights.

“What can be more exciting than this,” the man said, “father and son, taking to the clouds, escaping all those guards Minos has sent to secure the coast?”

The boy nodded, hardly reassured.

They launched themselves from the highest Cretan cliffs at noon, when no archer dared watch Helios drive his blazing chariot across the sky.

The man went first, confident, eager to feel the air carry him. He glanced back, and saw his son steadily gliding in his wake. Good.

They flew.

Shy, inexperienced, and wary of his large wings, the boy chose a steady course between heaven and sea, not looking up, not looking down, even when his father swerved and looped, showing off his flying skills. How he soars, my father! He’s so skilful and I’m so clumsy. One day, I’ll make him proud. The boy glided on.

Disaster crept upon them, stealthily, like a lion stalking a flock of sheep.

The boy noticed a small feather slip from his father’s wings. Then another. All that soaring and acrobatics was making the wax melt. He shouted a warning.

“It’s nothing,” his father said, though he too now chose to fly a cautious middle-course.

But the melting had started, the boy saw, and it could not be stopped. Unless…

Without a word, the boy flew up and up, until he was right above his father, flying at the same speed, providing a constant shade for the melting wax on his father’s wings. It hardened; no more feathers separated.

As they neared an island, the father rejoiced. They had made it. “Son! You see, my wings have not melted after all.” He turned.

Nothing, nobody.

Down below, his son’s body bobbed on the wine-dark surface of the Aegean Sea. Continue reading

Imaginary Creatures: Beautiful Frankensteins

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cubism

Portrait of Picasso by Juan Gris (1912)

 

A 1000-piece puzzle is not a project for Frankenstein. The pieces were cut from a unified starting picture; the problem was deliberately made and has a predictable, well-fitting solution. No, a worthy project requires the invention or the discovery of something previously inconceivable.

Like stitching together pieces of flesh and reanimating them (science).

Like connecting pieces of metal and animating them (engineering).

Like layering paint or notes or movements and binding them (art).

Like assembling concepts and words and creating a coherent story world, character, or creature (writing).

I mean it in all in a positive way.

Credibility and resonance is achieved by using what’s around us:

  • Story worlds recycle and recombine common tropes in new ways. (Few go ahead and do the Tolkienesque thing of inventing new languages as well.)
  • Interesting characters are made up of different already-observed personality traits: take a bit from Aunt Veronica, a bit from Ruth the next door neighbour, a bit from Mum, together with a generous dollop of yourself, then mix with convenient imaginary glue till the gallimaufry congeals into an appetising dessert.
  • New creatures are often forged through similar borrowings; though, unlike with shape-shifters and cross-breeds where the number of sourced parts or shifts is limited, the creatures I call beautiful frankensteins come from so many sources their existence is as unexpected as it is baffling.

Continue reading

Imaginary Creatures: Cross-Breeds

https://www.wikidata.org/wiki/Q17494958#/media/File:Joseph_blanc,_perseo,_1869.JPG

Perseus riding Pegasus by Joseph Blanc (1869) — Pegasus has a braid in his tail!

 

Moonlit blue-tinted night, billowy curtains flicking edges of open terrace doors, impending danger for two sky-gazing protagonists. In swoops a softly neighing white horse with wings so large they trail on the ground when folded.

My first memory of Pegasus.

Despite the grainy TV picture and the obviously unrealistic set of what must have been an ancient Hollywood film, I only remember the awe. The magic! A flying horse, whoever thought of that?

Afterwards, catching a glimpse of a flying lion in a show about Narnia somehow didn’t do it for me. Not to say that Aslan is comparable to Pegasus, but perhaps there is a little idea-bulb in every child’s mind belonging to winged animals, and it can only be turned on once: first-imagined best-imagined?

https://www.wikiart.org/en/gustave-moreau/the-sphinx-1864/

The Sphinx by Gustave Moreau (1864)

Fictional cross-breeds, or hybrids, are produced by mating or creatively putting together a few different species. They’ve populated humankind’s imagination as long as shape-shifters.

I won’t attempt a classification—Wikipedia is thorough. However, since I mentioned horses and lions, here’s a taster for their hybrids.

With lion bodies:

  • The Great Sphinx of Giza (built c. 2550 BCE) has a human head, but the mythological sphinx also has wings.
  • The manticore, a fantastic man-eater creature from Persian mythology, has a human head and a scorpion’s tail (recorded by Pliny the Elder c. 70 CE).
  • The lamassu, an Assyrian protective deity, has a human head and wings (first recorded in 3000 BCE).
  • The Lion of Venice has wings (erected in the 12th century).
  • The griffin has the head and wings of an eagle (traced back to before 3000 BCE).

Continue reading

Imaginary Creatures: Shape-Shifters

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ganymede_(mythology)

The Abduction of Ganymede (ca. 1650), by Eustache Le Sueur

Fantasy bears many children and loves them all, heads, tails, wings, jaws, beaks, two legs, four legs, five and an input console. Magic and technology marry to make aliens; words (e)merge to make new monikers. A complete classification of templates may be impossible, but spotting patterns can be fun as a reader and helpful as a writer.

I’ve picked three basic categories: shape-shifters, cross-breeds, and beautiful frankensteins. Three is a fairytale ideal number. Also, Kafka’s complete short stories provide three fun examples.

Today: the shape-shifters.

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Dracula and the vampiric model come to mind: man, cloud of bats, mist. The fictional traits of blood-suckers in fiction are tabulated extensively on Wikipedia.

The w-s yield werewolves, wizards, and witches.

Evil masquerading as good or the duality of the two is well-suited to flipping between forms like in Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

More recently there’s Pennywise the Clown form Stephen King’s It, Mystique from the X-Men Comics, Terminator from Hollywood, and all manner of decanting from body to body, like in Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon.

However, mythologies did it first.  Continue reading

Kafka’s Invisibles

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Invisibility is a superpower. 

Tolkien’s One Ring and Harry Potter’s Cloak of Invisibility render the wearer unseen by conventional methods. Much before that, the Ancient Greeks had gods who surrounded their favourite heroes in mists and clouds so that they could pass unchallenged.

Of course, all superpowers come with a price, and occasionally end in tragedy. H. G. Wells’s invisible man, the protagonist of his eponymous novel, struggles to control his ability, so much so it becomes more of a hindrance than a help.

But what of invisibility in daily life?

It’s actually quite prevalent, and it comes about in two flavours: as a result of being ignored, or as a result of ignorance. The former implies intention and a deliberate act, the latter an accident and blameless innocence—the middle ground is shaded by degrees of intentional ignorance.

(Unsurprisingly, both ignore and ignorance come from the negation of the same Latin stem gnō-, meaning to know, but perhaps surprisingly ignorance is the older word by a few centuries.)

Franz Kafka’s collection of short stories includes at least four very different explorations of invisibility, of which only Rejection was published during his lifetime. Here they are. Continue reading

Kafka’s Hunger Artist

Fasting would surely come into fashion again at some future date, yet that was no comfort to those living in the present. What, then, was the hunger artist to do?

—Franz Kafka, The Hunger Artist (1922); translated by Will and Edwin Muir.

Fasting has come into fashion. Today it’s called dieting.

In moderation, it’s vaunted as a healthful activity. Taken to an extreme, it’s a debilitating mental illness. Either way, dieting is usually triggered by peer pressure, and since our bodies are our visible, measurable exteriors, all those peers will have an opinion which will affects us.

To put it bluntly: losing weight quickly becomes a performance art.

Kafka’s Hunger Artist explores what this performance art means without going into the physical aspect. Sure, bodies existed in the early 20th century, but calorie-counting, bodybuilding, and pilates weren’t the fad. So instead, the premise is entirely absurdist à la Kafka, but the debilitation, the existential angst, and the struggle of the protagonist with the world (and with himself) are all recognisably modern. Continue reading

Kafka’s Harrow

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Kafka has fallen out of favour in the modern age. 

The German-speaking Bohemian author, Franz Kafka (1883–1924), I mean. 

In contrast, the software, Apache Kafka, is prominently favoured in nine out of the first ten Google results for the search string Kafka.

Perhaps rightly so. After all, software is designed to aid not to befuddle, and to disperse existential angst not to replicate it on paper. Although, it’s a toss-up which of computer-esque or Kafkaesque better describes the alienation of man from mankind.

Since computers are all the rage, I’ll favour the “underdog” Kafka on this blog.

Image of the man?

I expected the search engine to throw up pictures of a human-sized beetle with a rotting apple stuck in its carapace. Even after having read five hundred pages of Vintage Kafka that contains all of his shorter works, I still identify the author with his novella The Metamorphosis. Or rather, with the protagonist, travelling salesman Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a monstrous vermin-beetle-creature.

The beetle is nasty; his story is sad.

The revulsion, the absurdity, the helplessness of this ungeheueres Ungeziefer (the German original helps spur the imagination), the ostracism that follows, and the final sinking into irrelevancy—they’re the sequence of events anyone on social media dreads. What happens if one day you wake up “ugly”, “disabled”, “different”, and ultimately incapable of communicating with the rest of society?

So despite his poor performance in search results, Kafka is still germane today. Continue reading

Wittkop’s Necrophiliac

This post stands in the controversial shadow of its title.

You have been warned.

Quote: Sex is spoken of in all forms except one. Necrophilia isn’t tolerated by governments nor approved by questioning youth. Necrophiliac love: the only sort that is pure. Because even amor intellectualis — that great white rose —waits to be paid in return. No counterpart for the necrophiliac in love, the gift that he gives of himself awakens no enthusiasm.

—Gabrielle Wittkop, The Necrophiliac (1972); translated by Don Bapst.

Should every gap in the literary offering be plugged with a high-brow treatment?

I’d say no, because every is too broad a requirement. But some gaps do need the occasional thoughtful contribution. Necrophiliac was Wittkop’s, and she wasn’t shy about it.

Rewind a couple of centuries, and we find one of her literary forefathers: Marquis de Sade. He plugged a gap of his own, but in a savage, largely unpalatable, and tedious manner. For example, his 120 Days of Sodom runs close to four-hundred pages, and just the opening few contain enough brazen graphic violence to put off most people.

The Necrophiliac isn’t like that. It’s ninety pages, written in first person, from the point of view of a sensitive, poetically inclined protagonist. Readers always have to work harder to condemn the narrator in whose head they ride—Wittkop knew what she was doing. Continue reading

Siren, Man, Mandrake Stem

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Metaphors are charming, scenic shortcuts to multiple layers of meaning. But they’ve got a dark side that scares people or perhaps doesn’t scare them enough—depending on how you look at it.

For example:

Leave no stone unturned.

Once fresh, but now clichéd metaphors are best avoided in creative writing. (Dead metaphors in the sense of those whose meaning has shifted are something else and can, with care, be put to good use.) 

We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.

Malaphors blend two phrases or idioms. They’re humorous, but hardly appropriate in an original piece. (The label itself is a portmanteau, or a blend, of metaphor and malapropism.)

Her learning capacity towers over yours; I bet you she can bridge any knowledge gap in under a month.

Mixed metaphors are more general malaphors, but without the humour. They combine different metaphors in incompatible ways: how can a capacity tower, or then be used to bridge? Sure, we get the message, but the clash draws attention to itself.

Clichéd metaphors can be avoided by not writing down what first comes to mind and malaphors are more often spoken mistakes than deliberate constructions. Which leaves mixed metaphors. They may not be as obviously jarring as my example. In fact, the more complex or original or dense your metaphors, the more difficult it is to judge whether what you’ve written coheres. 

Getting the opinions of a few friends helps.

Studying examples packed with metaphors also helps. So let’s do that. Continue reading

Real-World References in Fiction

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Fiction mustn’t begrudge the setting.

Gripping plot and solid character-building are necessary, but interest is still often derived from the specific where, be it your street, Seattle, Middle Earth, or Mars.

However, occasionally the narrative is only loosely tethered to a place, if at all. Then the details come from the characters and their internal worlds, which have to be richly furnished with knowledge, sensibilities, traumas, psychoses, which in turn have to be labelled, easily recalled, and presented in a way that resonates with the reader.

Resonance comes through recognition, and is achieved by recalling common facts—scientific, geographic, historic, cultural, mythological, literary. We’ve all probably heard of Plato, World War II, and the Internet (my readers at least).

You see: lists, lists, and more lists of building blocks. They get boring. Quickly. Also, there are many choices to make, what to include, where. Different references to the real world ground the world of the story differently, and the audience self-selects for those who appreciate that particular grounding.

For example, Anne Carson’s verse-novel The Beauty of the Husband references Duchamp on the first page, to set the mood for a tale of a broken marriage.

So Duchamp
of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors

which broke in eight pieces in transit from the Brooklyn Museum

to Connecticut (1912)

Even if you were unaware of Duchamp’s mixed-media installation, the mention of artist, work, place, and time, flicks colour onto the background of Carson’s literary painting, so to speak. You know what to expect.

Such references—which are neither part of a traditional, physical setting, nor outright quotes of external sources (though there are some)—are difficult to integrate so the reader doesn’t perceive them as mini info-dumps. It’s a skill, and the first step to mastering it is learning from well-wrought examples.

Here is what I learned from Carson.

Continue reading

The Beauty of the Husband: Metaphors

ben-sweet https://unsplash.com/photos/2LowviVHZ-E

Wounds bring both pain and a promise of change.

A wound gives off its own light
surgeons say.
If all the lamps in the house were turned out
you could dress this wound
by what shines from it.

—Anne Carson, The Beauty of the Husband

Mesmerised by Carson’s Autobiography of Red and Red Doc>, I embarked on a more ambitious journey through her world of verse-novels. This blurb warned of complexity:

The Beauty Of The Husband is an essay on Keats’s idea that beauty is truth, and is also the story of a marriage. It is told in 29 tangos. A tango (like a marriage) is something you have to dance to the end.

If tackling page one was an act of faith in myself, then moving from page one to page two was an act of faith in the author and in her ability to write an “enjoyable” book on marriage, starting with the words A wound. Petty grievances and family drama make for hard reading.

But reality TV this is not. In fact, Carson’s book is the smoothest ninety-minute read.

Of the 145 pages most are nearly blank—the usual sparsity of verse counterbalances the density of its internal images—so it’s easy to breeze through visually.

The consequences of the content are another matter (which is personal).

The writing lessons to be drawn, yet another (which I’ll share).

But first: what of tangos, what of Keats?

Continue reading

Leafing Through Shade and Shadow

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I love the shade and the shadow, and would be alone with my thoughts when I may.

—Dracula in Bram Stoker’s eponymous novel.

Shade and shadow. Different or same? Similar? How?

Fowler’s admits they have an almost identical meaning which branches out into a considerable diversity of idiom. Well put, if hardly illuminating. But his mnemonic “clue” to their difference does enlighten.

shade, shadow, nn. The details of this diversity are too many to be catalogued here, but it is a sort of clue to remember that shadow is a piece of shade, related to it as, e.g., pool to water.

So shade fills a shadow to the brim and no farther, and while shadow belongs to a concrete object, shade belongs to the world.

The pool-water analogy is not as trifling as it seems. It’s almost poetic.

Continue reading

The Nectars of Paradise

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How from that sapphire fount the crispèd brooks,
Rolling on orient pearl and sands of gold,
With mazy error under pendant shades
Ran nectar, visiting each plant, and fed
Flowers worthy of Paradise …

—John Milton, Paradise Lost (iv. 237–241).

So muses Satan on the nectar flowing through Eden. But how much thought does he give to the adjectives derived therefrom: is that flow nectarean or nectareal, or is it paradisean, or perhaps paradisiacal?

In 1968, Fowler’s opines:

nectar has kept the word-makers busy in search of its adjective; nectareal, nectarean, nectared, nectareous, nectarian, nectariferous, nectarine, nectareous, and nectarous, have all been given a chance. Milton, with nectared, nectarine, and nectarous, keeps clear of the four-syllabled forms in which the accent is drawn away from the significant part; and we might do worse than let him decide for us.

So which one won out?

Continue reading

Euphemism and Euphuism

https://www.wikiart.org/en/konstantin-somov/lady-and-harlequin-1

Konstantin Somov, Lady and Harlequin (1921)

 

“My husband has gone bear hunting,” she says.

***

She knows some very pleasant secrets.
After the secrets, we drink aquavit and I recite a poem …

—Paul Willems, Flight of the Archbishop (translated by Edward Gauvin)

Even within such meagre context, the nature of Countess Kausala’s secrets is evident, despite the euphemism. Fiction is a purveyor supreme of such delicate phrasings precisely because they hide the explicit on the page, so that they may reveal a particular (peculiar?) explicitness at the pleasure of the reader’s imagination. In an erotic context, they’re the equivalent of a veil that gets lifted not by the hand but by the mind, and they’re often the difference between seedy and sublime.

In my previous post, I discussed elegant variation—the laboured avoidance of repetition according to Fowler’s—which itself is a useful euphemism employed playfully, but with the more usual, real-world negative connotation.

Euphemising has been around for longer than Photoshop, so it’s also had longer to earn its infamy.

Indeed, as Fowler’s shows us in this entry from 1968, History has clapped along to a rich linguistic variety show: biological states are known to parade powdered, masked, bedecked in feathers, while societal scourges dress up as sophisticated harlequins.

Continue reading

Elegant Variation

https://www.wikiart.org/en/fyodor-vasilyev/poplars-lit-by-the-sun

Fyodor Vasilyev, Poplars Lit by the Sun

By the house grows a poplar. Each spring its branches shoot for the sky, eager to extend the tree’s rocket-shape.

Try writing a third sentence about the poplar.

Did your sentence use poplar or tree? Did you feel clumsy having to repeat a prominent word that was already used? Or perhaps you went for an unambiguous application of the pronoun (Its roots dig further down into the gravely earth …)? What would you do for a fourth or fifth sentence?

If you’re wondering why word-variation matters, consider the example without it:

By the house grows a tree. Each spring the tree’s branches shoot for the sky, eager to extend the tree’s bullet-shape.

Aside from losing the specificity, we’ve lost a solid, well-formed image to the inane hammering of a word.

You usually notice that you’ve referred to something in the same way across multiple consecutive sentences during a rereading of a draft. Then comes the question of substitutes. My example above is fairly prototypical for common nouns: there is at least one other word which can serve you immediately (poplar) and one pronoun you can seize on (it). If those are not enough, then the problem lies with uniform (and therefore uninteresting) sentence structure, and it’s a matter of reworking from the elements up.

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Does It Come off?

meg-amey https://unsplash.com/photos/BIsz8XPWOzY

Untidy personal appearance or professionally frayed jeans?

Stench or refined perfume made with whale faecal matter?

Kitsch or baroque extravaganza?

Obsolete or avant-garde?

One question underlies them all:

Does it come off?

If it does, critics manufacture reasons for praise. If it does not, the object under scrutiny is shaded with degrees of doom.

This applies to writing, too. In fact, it’s the reason why self-editing is so difficult: of course this essay-poem-post-book comes off beautifully—I conceived it! No one writing for public consumption believes they’re creating a priori substandard or flawed works.

This is also true on a micro level, when it comes to defining what a (good) sentence is. Must it have a subject and a predicate? Or must it just be a unit of coherent thought?

Fowler’s Dictionary offers ten definitions to illustrate the range of approaches. Number 1 takes the ‘popular approach’.

sentence. What is a sentence?

1. A word or set of words followed by a pause and revealing an intelligible purpose.

It almost sounds like the beginning of a modified Turing test. Note how context sneaks in: purposes are largely intelligible when set off against a particular background.

Number 8 takes the ‘grammarian approach’.

sentence. What is a sentence?

8. A number of words making a complete grammatical structure.

Here the onus is shifted to those willing to define such structures and then grapple with potential exceptions.

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It Is True That Words Are Cheap

calum-lewis https://unsplash.com/photos/vA1L1jRTM70

Synonyms are like spices: used in moderation, they enhance the taste; used without moderation, they obscure every flavour. Linguistic gustation differentiates between them under the titles synonymia and tautology. Though, of course, pleasurable variety for one reader is overabundance for another.

Let’s have a saucy example.

“She’s an Encyclopaedia, that woman.”

“Of all the vices, ancient and modern, and very interesting to riffle through.” He started stoking up the fire. “There’s everything in that woman, of the ghoul, the lamia, the Greek courtesan, the Barbarian queen, the low prostitute, the great lady of Rome, with something very partial, very gripping, very corruption of the fin-de-siècle, very Baudlerian, if I might put it like that: a slightly funereal seasoning of lust and quasi-Christian resignation; she’s as subject, a case-study. …”

“For the Salpêtrière, eh—let’s say the word. Another neurotic.”

—Jean Lorrain in The Unknown Woman (translation by Brian Stableford)

How’s that on the digestion?

Lorrain specialises in psychological studies of moral decadence—and there is a separate post on his prose—but for now it suffices to note that to some people the quote may appear overdone. And that’s despite me having spared you the accompanying references to Pasiphae and the bull, Messalina’s promiscuity, and Cleopatra in general.

(Writing tip: Observe that Lorrain prepares the reader for the word-train by having his characters be aware of the upcoming speech figure: they call the woman an encyclopaedia. Clever. It helps believability.)

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Every Chance of Going Wrong

leonard-cotte https://unsplash.com/photos/c1Jp-fo53U8

False scent: When the author claims this is lavender, and some readers claim it’s only a picture of lavender.

 

For Christmas I received from my grandfather-in-law a special present: his lovingly kept second edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (revised by Sir Ernest Gowers). Even though I’d heard of Fowler’s, seen it referenced, and perused extracts from its modern entries, I’d never actually held it my hands—until now!

Despite this copy’s notable sixty years of age, its pages are in impeccable condition. Fowler’s advice, his examples, and inherent relevance show some wear, but nothing that the author’s sense of humour doesn’t amply recompense. I speak of this 1968 edition. The few more flavourful entries that I was able to search for in a 1996 edition were either non-existent or effectively bowdlerised. What’s left nowadays is the bland and spartan, but most pragmatic, dictionary-speak.

I understand why—political correctness and modernisation march rightly on—though I think the earlier editions can still be enjoyed, if not as go-to guides, then as historical documents. Quirky and witty ones at that. Although, I warn you: quirk and wit have this charismatic presence that often wins out over straight-laced teachings.

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Prefer the Obvious to its Obvious Avoidance

kristina-m-m https://unsplash.com/photos/YzJblODa5mA

If you want to write about the flower, don’t write about the shadow just to be different.

Taut, hard, solid, versus slack, soft, amorphous—language.

On the one side is Strunk & White’s Omit needless words which omits needless words in itself (and therefore is a an autological phrase). On the other side would be a paraphrase of the same idea: When you can, cut words that do not contribute to your meaning.

Each density of style—to coin a name for this taut-slack property—may be obviously assessed on the page, but like a lot of stylistic properties it is hard to define objectively.

For me, density is the rate of surprise, word for word and idea for idea. The more easily I can predict what comes next, the looser the text. The more surprised I am by what comes next, the denser the text.

Examples help.

A dense style needn’t be terse or cryptic. E. B. White of the Omit needless words follows his own dictum assiduously, but does not shy away from sentences fifty words long. This is the beginning of Death of a Pig (found in Essays). Note that polysyndeton, the proliferation of and in the quote, may appear deceptively “loose”, but actually introduces a new idea four out of five times (those are in bold).

I spent several days and night in mid-September with an ailing pig and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last, and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting.

On the other hand, a dense style can be terse, cryptic, and punctuation heavy. Here’s Roland Barthes speaking about The Pleasure of the Text. (Translated from the French by Richard Miller.)

The text you write must prove to me that it desires me. This proof exists: it is writing.  Writing is: the science of the various blisses of language, its Kama Sutra (this science has but one treatise: writing itself).

Density isn’t just a property of non-fiction.

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Love: Writing Fresh Metaphors

everton-vila https://unsplash.com/photos/AsahNlC0VhQ

What is that which has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?

So the Sphinx asked many times, devouring those who gave false answers, until Oedipus came along and said: Man. 

The riddle relies on singling out a few properties (footedness) of its answer (man). The air of mystery is removed further, if you see the answer and riddle presented together in a more standard format:

Man, four-footed at sunrise, two-footed at noon, three-footed at sunset.

This sentence (fragment) is now a metaphorical description qualifying the familiar in less familiar terms.

(You can use this principle to make riddles of you own. Take a metaphorical description, remove the familiar thing being described and pose the rest as a question. For example, what first smells of breakfast, then later smells of hell?)

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Life: Writing Extended Metaphors

artem-sapegin https://unsplash.com/photos/GP3EdRRvu2Q

Consider life.

What is it to you: a flower, a dusty road, a never-ending night? Or would anything short of an essay be too simplistic an answer? To forge captivating, brief similes is often trouble enough, but depending on what is being described and in how much detail, extended metaphors may be called for.

In general, metaphors need not be explicit, like in the last line of Fizgerald’s Great Gatsby:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Here life (or time) is a rivera common enough trope that it can be toyed with implicitly.

On the other hand, metaphors can be explicit, like in the following quote from (and title of) Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s play Life is a Dream (1635):

What is life? A madness. What is life? An illusion, a shadow, a story. And the greatest good is little enough: for all life is a dream, and dreams themselves are only dreams.

(Act II, line 1195, translated from the Spanish by Edward and Elizabeth Huberman)

Penning the poetic finale of a Great American Novel or dramatising a metaphor into a full-blown allegorical play isn’t teachable by example. Exploiting an extended metaphor is.

In particular, any good example offers a template which can be reused, like Adán’s Quote of about life that I’ll work through today. (Translation by Katherine Silver.)

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Poles: Fourteen Hours at the Edge of the Sidewalk

giovanni-arechavaleta https://unsplash.com/photos/hOBIBC-fg0g

Shoes, mules, what’s next? Metal, wooden, tall and thin, ever-present, holding out lights, signs that warn us, ropes that connect us: poles.

Full-blown personification of non-human entities is usually the province of children and the insane, but it shouldn’t be. It’s an essential imaginative method for enriching any environment, even if you do not intend to write a story about it.

Beyond providing private, in-brain entertainment, it develops perspective-switching, awareness of surroundings, discernment of cause-and-effect, and ultimately, I believe, it enhances empathy.

(What does the world look like from the point of view of that paving stone I just stepped on? What’s it like to be trodden on physically? Metaphorically? Now that you’ve thought about it would you do it to a fellow person?)

Of course, separating reality and fiction is crucial when you act, but otherwise, in your head, the knots in a wooden table are free to unknot overnight and straighten out their poor backs, and nightingale floors can be made of flattened vampire birds that attack assassins bent on taking the emperor’s life. Or maybe they’re zombie birds? You decide.

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Mule: All Things Emanate From Her

simon-wilkes https://unsplash.com/photos/APX-IrnG8yw

When a jack donkey meets a mare you might get a mule. In real life the mule is usually sterile. In fiction the mule can be the creator of worlds. For why not?

Hold that thought.

Nonhuman characters throng mythologies and religions in symbolic roles. Lions, eagles, horses, snakes, dragons and their kin. The powerful, the swift. What about the stolid or the fickle?

Perhaps the most easily forgotten are those who carry the world on their shoulders, unseen. (Not Atlas, though, he’s had his fair amount of press coverage, even siring a common noun.)

I remember the weird plausibility of Terry Pratchett’s idea when I first read it: four elephants carrying his Discworld, while standing on a turtle that swims through space. The notion may or may not derive from anecdotes in Hindu mythology.

Telescoping world-holding responsibility appears elsewhere too. For example, going back a few centuries, there are Kujata and Bahamut, a bull and a fish, whom I discovered through Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings. Here’s how he introduces them:

In Moslem cosmology, Kujata is a huge bull endowed with four thousand eyes, ears, nostrils, mouths, and feet. To get from one ear to another or from one eye to another, no more than five hundred years are required. Kujata stands on the back of the fish Bahamut; on the bull’s back is a great rock of ruby, on the rock an angel, and on the angel rests our earth. Under the fifth is a mighty sea, under the sea vast abyss of air, under the air fire, and under the fire a serpent so great that were it not for fear of Allah, this creature might swallow up all creation.

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Shoes: One Soul in Two Bodies

https://www.wikiart.org/en/vincent-van-gogh/a-pair-of-shoes-1886

Vincent van Gogh, A Pair of Shoes (1886) — Not immaculately polished

 

Shoes are light, tight, and immaculately polished, they are replaceable and irreplaceable, they come with identical siblings, with willy cousins, with colour variations, straps, studs, belts, laces, eyelets, soles for souls, a unique body odour, a sense of humour, and a rapacious hunger for stripy socks they swallow but never digest.

They live in the cupboard, on the stairs, under the bed, behind the coat stand, and on top of other shoes. They’re found in Van Gogh’s paintings, in ultracrepidarian, in someone else’s walked mile.

They are what makes you yearn to sit down after a long night out and what makes you want to keep going on a long slog home.

They bite the dust, even when you don’t, they take one for the toes, they retaliate with the heel, they kick, dribble, squelch and chork. They dance, they lounge, they sneak away when you need them most, and they give you ten inches of height when you’re young at the price of giving you bunions when you’re old. They are loved and hated, lauded and sexualised, they are bought at a discount only to be returned, they are dragged through the gutter, draggled through the mucky lawn, they are torn, tattered, discarded then rediscovered, they are thrown in protest, they are thrown at vermin, they are forced upon horses, pets, and children. They can kill and they can liberate.

Trainers, boots, high heels; slippers, sandals, flip-flops. Just think: the pressure of their workplace, the ignominy of their position, the assault of odours, the taste of dog fluids, the scraping, the freezing, the frying, the up-close imagery of the lowest places that collect the worst gunk. They take it all in silence; occasionally they squeak.

Shoes.

They protect and serve, almost as much as a police force; they provide security, hope, and companionship almost as much as a family member. They may trip you up, but more often they will break your fall. Even when your tie is crooked and your blouse has wrinkles, they make you decent.

Without shoes in a city you are homeless; without shoes in the wild you are dead.

Shoes are heroes.

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Idea: A Rugged Rope

wynand-van-poortvliet https://unsplash.com/photos/kx7KMnSIA2Y

Enough with the sun and the sky. Today, I tackle a scene.

Gasp!

A whole scene description from Martín Adán’s Cardboard House.

If you care to read it before I dissect it, here it is. (If you can’t imagine why I’d care to dissect it, see below the Quote.)

Quote: The day cackles. A hen cackles like the day — secretive, implacable, manifest, discontinuous, vast. A frond rubs against a house as the chaste swallows protest. Above, the cirrus sky. Below is the street, extensively, energetically stained with light and shadow as if with soot and chalk. The gentleman’s jacket belches, swells, and belches again. With their brooms, sharp and straight like paintbrushes, the street sweepers make drawings along the tree-lined streets. The street sweepers have the hair of aesthetes, the eyes of drug addicts, the silence of literary men. There are no penumbras. Yes, there is one penumbra: a burst of light in vain spreads through the street that grows longer and longer in order to cancel it out. Here a shadow is not the negation of the light. Here a shadow is ink: it covers things with an imperceptible dimension of thickness; it dyes. The light is a white floury dust that the wind disperses and carries far away. A shabby young girl inserts a cord into bare spools of thread. I insert wooden adjectives into the thick, rugged rope of an idea. At the end of the street, blocking it, a blue wall grows pale until it turns into the sky itself.

(Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver)

I like seeing literary innards—the bones, the flesh, the tendons and the sticky thingamajig that congeals quickly (blood, humour, ichor). The text dies on the table, as it should, but how else am I to learn the anatomy of good writing? Also, there’s something satisfying about realising that all those ancient rhetorical devices—the so-called figures of speechstill form the essence of an evocative description. That said, rhetoric is as far away from oratory in Adán’s writing as you could possibly imagine.

Aren’t you curious how that’s possible?

If you’re a writer, don’t you want to know the secrets?

All of them?

The literary scalpel comes out.

The day cackles. A hen cackles like the day — secretive, implacable, manifest, discontinuous, vast.

A chiasmus inverts the order of words (day, cackles), and is a staple of paradoxes and nifty quotes. It sounds clever, even if it isn’t. It gives meaning, even where there may not be much otherwise. It’s wordplay that compels the mind to juxtapose meaning in unusual ways.

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Sky: The Dirty Cup Filled with Sugar

rowan-heuvel https://unsplash.com/photos/BAs1ZenPPHE

Look up.

Last time I looked up on this blog, I saw Adán’s sun; today, I see his sky.

Sky from Old Norse for cloud.

Welkin from the German for cloud.

The empyrean from the Greek for fire.

Firmament from the Latin for firm.

Cerulean, from the Latin for dark blue, dark green, as applied to sky—that would have been another appropriate synonym, but it’s not. It’s a colour smeared over our heads on clear evenings.

Beyond the synonyms, the obvious adjectives, and the troves of clichés, writers are left to portray the variations of sky as best they can. Like with descriptions of the ubiquitous sun, the task is formidable.

Once again, Martín Adán, in his lyrical fragments from The Cardboard House, shows us where to look for inspiration. Unlike with sun, which carries the essence of unique, compact shininess, the sky, has a vaster, more flexible (and nightly) presence.

Q1–8 are Adán’s descriptions related to sky (translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver). Each exhibits a different tactic that could be used to describe any target object:

  1. Convert other objects to descriptors of the target.
  2. Use interactions of objects with the target as descriptors.
  3. Choose kooky words to bring interest into the description.
  4. Pick an original metaphor for the target then extend it to surrounding objects.
  5. State a metaphor explicitly, develop it over a couple of sentences, elevate the ending by combining unpoetic and poetic words.
  6. Sneak in a most original metaphor as a parenthetical aside.
  7. List the target alongside other objects, thereby creating a complex blend.
  8. Negate the target.

I’ve underlined the points of interest: sometimes they are whole constructions, sometimes they are quoins—the quirky, unexpected words that transform the ordinary into the interesting.

Q1: The vulgar epic poem of the summer, the red sky, the sun sky, and night as a shout.

Analysis: This is an enallage, or deliberate grammatical mistake, using a noun as an adjective.

Writing tip: Use nouns as adjectives. E.g. Paper on the breeze, flying paper, butterfly paper.

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Sun: Turning Dogs into Gold Ingots

kent-pilcher https://unsplash.com/photos/87MIF4vqHWg

How would you describe the sun?

Most immediate answers are trite. And that’s because the sun is an ancient presence in our lives, which means most people in the history of language have reported about it, exhausting whole swathes of linguistic options.

In writing, the weather is a bit like that sex scene: it needs to be mentioned, but unless you have something fresh to contribute, you’re better off not dwelling on the subject—everyone knows what it looks like and is quite satisfied if you state the temperature and the likelihood of rain.

Taking that into account, I am appreciative of writers who offer even a single neat and novel way to say it’s sunny. And when I find a writer who does it page after page, like Martín Adán, seemingly only writing about the sun without repeating himself, I rush to learn how.

Martín Adán (1908 – 1985) was a Peruvian poet who published his only novel, The Cardboard House, when he was twenty years old. The book meanders through page-long vignettes of life in Lima surrounded by sky, sea, and city. Adán’s work in general is described as hermetic, metaphysical, deep, full of symbolic metaphors. That may be so, but from a superficial literary standpoint—were there such a thing—in Cardboard House, he excels at lyrical descriptions of the commonplace seaside scenes.

(I once wrote a brief post quoting him.)

Although the credit for the content goes to Adán, the credit for the beautiful English rendition goes to Katherine Silver.

Effective, innovative descriptions are hard to craft. They take practice (practice, practice, practice) and an ear developed through reading: that’s the general advice, and I’m yet to come across a book that teaches you how it’s done. But the learning process can be sped up—like when coining new meld-compounds—by analysing, and then mimicking, the tactics employed by successful examples.

The elementary descriptive figures of speech are simile, metaphor, and personification. Tips for identifying them:

  • Like, as if, the way that signal a simile.
  • A to be that identifies things which aren’t the same signals a metaphor; likewise verbs that wouldn’t normally be associated with the subject.
  • Verbs that usually apply to humans or animals signal personification.

Sometimes good writing relies on quoins—the quirky, unexpected words that elevate the ordinary to the interesting.

Here are the quotes; the underlining is mine and indicates what I considered imaginative.

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Writing Metafiction: When You See the Back of Your Head

If you look in the mirror and see your reflection, you are seeing reality.

If you look in the mirror and see the back of your head, you are seeing a self-referential impossibility. You are seeing a fiction which is questioning your existence—an existence you are suddenly aware of.

Now, what if you are a fiction seeing a fiction which is questioning your existence?

Magritte Not to be reproduced https://www.wikiart.org/en/rene-magritte/not-to-be-reproduced-1937

René Magritte’s Not to be Reproduced (1937)

 

Metafiction is fiction about fiction.

The proliferation of metafiction is part of humanity’s cultural progression. In the past fifty years, it’s ridden the rising wave of societal self-awareness. More recently, the language of recursive programming routines has been filtering into daily life.

Although, nothing about metafiction is new: it is an embodiment of self-consciousness in literature.

I am (aware of) me. 

As far as I am concerned that sentence illustrates four tropes, one or all of which occur in any metafiction: symmetry, circularity, branching, and (questioning of) being.

Without delving into ontology or going all Chomsky on you, to make sense of I am me you need two entities that are:

  • distinct (if only for a moment, so that you can hold them apart in your head before identifying them),
  • connected (via an identification),
  • essential to your being (are the essence of you).

The ephemeral distinctness is the branching. The connectedness of you with you is a circular argument. The essence of you is at the heart of being.

Symmetry—in the sense of not-necessarily perfect mirroring, reflection, duality, self-splitting, identification—is both the most fundamental trope of metafiction, and it is contained in the other three:

  • the basic, choice-free branching is a symmetrical one,
  • the basic circular function is a reflection there and back,
  • the basic test of existence (of a degree of self-consciousness) is the mirror.

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Narrator-Slant and Pronoun Games

john-noonan https://unsplash.com/photos/otdBpgxHm2E

It’s all about the point of view (and the viewpoint).

 

It’ll never be known how this has to be told, in the first person or in the second, using the third person plural or continually inventing modes that will serve for nothing. If one might say: I will see the moon rose, or: we hurt me at the back of my eyes, and especially: you the blond woman was the clouds that race before my your his our yours their faces. What the hell.

—Julio Cortázar, Blow-up (translated from the Spanish by Paul Blackburn in Bestiary)

As introductory paragraphs go, explicit indecision about point of view comes high on my list of attention-grabbing gimmicks. Especially when stated so honestly. The last thing a narrator wants to do from the onset is state their own ineptitude.

Unless.

Unless the clumsiness, the cluelessness, the fracturing of character is a game of deception relevant to the message. And boy do I want to hear that message! It’s likely to be bold, deep, and disruptive—otherwise it wouldn’t survive the bruising journey through opaque linguistic waters.

It screams metafiction.

But before you get all outraged about this ludicrous pronoun game, consider the dilemma all writers face occasionally.

But before we get all outraged about this ludicrous pronoun game, let us consider the dilemma all writers face occasionally.

But before one gets all outraged about this ludicrous pronoun game, one should consider the dilemma all writers face occasionally.

The pronoun game is real even for the puny blogger.

Each version slants the statement differently: you addresses you, dear reader; we puts me, the author, and you, the reader, on the same side; one tries for neutral and formal.

If blogs have the freedom of choice, other specialised areas have accepted norms. For example, scientific texts mostly eschew I, as too personal and biasing, and often resort to we, which can mean we, the author(s) of the text, or we, as in me, the author, and you, the reader.

Of course, an ocean or two separate Cortázar’s we hurt me at the back of my eyes and the convenient swapping of you-we-one-I every few paragraphs, but it’s worth remembering that even prosaic texts have to resolve this issue (and often do so unsatisfactorily).

Before moving on, I’d like to sort out a possible confusion in terminology: point of view, shortened to POV, and viewpoint (character) are not the same thing to a writer.

(Sloppiness, or editing for elegance and word count, often equates the terms. I’m as guilty as the next person.)

It’s easiest to demonstrate the difference.

Situation: a mother is buying her young son a treat at an ice cream stall.

anton-darius-thesollers https://unsplash.com/photos/jjCWRxTlATc

You can write in first person (a point of view) from at least four different viewpoints:

  • Mother: I think he’s been a good boy, he deserves an ice cream.
  • Son: I’ve been a good boy, I deserve an ice cream.
  • Vendor: I’m glad the strawberry ice cream is selling so well, the new recipe is definitely an improvement.
  • Ice cream: Why was I so lovingly made, only to be torn to scoops repeatedly? Oh, Food Gods spare me!

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Cortázar in First-Person Plural

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Metzinger#/media/File:Jean_Metzinger,_1910-11,_Deux_Nus_(Two_Nudes,_Two_Women),_oil_on_canvas,_92_x_66_cm,_Gothenburg_Museum_of_Art,_Sweden.jpg

Jean Metzinger, Two Nudes (1910-11)—she, she, we? The soul-splitting of a narrator in first-person plural.

Stories are usually written in first-person singular (I vomited a rabbit) or in third-person singular (He vomited a rabbit), where I and he are the protagonists.

Occasionally, the disconcerting second-person singular makes a showing, like in Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, or more popularly, in confessions where the reader is requisitioned as judge or jury, like in Albert Camus’s The Fall (here there’s an overarching narrator I, and a second, quasi point of view: you).

If you haven’t thought about how a story in second person would sound, try writing You vomited a rabbit and spinning a narrative therefrom. Then try getting someone to read it; it’s an intrusive, and often grindingly repulsive, experience.

(If you’re wondering why anyone would think of cuddly rabbits in such emetic terms, see Cortázar: Where Bunnies Come From.)

What remains? There’s the first-person plural (we), the second-person plural (you), and the third-person plural (they).

Remarkably, Cortázar’s Bestiary runs the gauntlet of viewpoints (and points of view) and their tangled variations, but his story The Faces of the Medal is consistent: it is written in first-person plural.

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Where Bunnies Come From

gary-bendig https://unsplash.com/photos/e7A-8mxRXJg

I wouldn’t confess my secret either.

I have never described this to you before, not so much, I don’t think, from the lack of truthfulness as that, just naturally, one is not going to explain to people at large that from time to time one vomits up a small rabbit.

—Julio Cortázar, Letter of a Young Lady in Paris (translated from the Spanish by Paul Blackburn)

If Jorge Luis Borges is the literary scientist who excels at exhibiting impossible geometries in miniature, Julio Cortázar is the long-winded, mussy-haired standup act with something direly unsettling about each of his stories, something you really want to pin down, but—no matter how closely you listen—you never will.

When I feel that I’m going to bring up a rabbit, I put two fingers in my mouth like an open pincer, and I wait to feel the lukewarm fluff rise in my throat …

noah-silliman https://unsplash.com/photos/BzHNKFUGHh0

For those unfamiliar with Borges, perhaps I should be playing on a comparison with another short-piece writer closer to the Western ear who was also Cortázar’s contemporary: E. B. White.

Surprised?

Julio Cortázar (1914–1984) was an Argentine writer, and part of the flourishing Latin American literary scene of the 50s and 60s.

E. B. White (1899–1985) was na American writer, known for his contributions to the The New Yorker all of which are firmly grounded in reality. (Although, of course, there’s his fiction for children, such as Charlotte’s Web.) My literary-minded readers will know him for the Strunk & White writing manual that contains such classical advice as Omit needless words, Be clear, and Place yourself in the background.

Now for the comparison.

Within the bastion of brilliant writing, Cortázar is the polar opposite of White.

Let me spell that out:

  1. Cortázar does not omit needless words,
  2. Cortázar is not clear,
  3. Cortázar does not place himself (or, rather, the narrator) in the background.

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Morality and the Multiple Choice Test

lacie-slezak https://unsplash.com/photos/yHG6llFLjS0

On the continuum containing dictionaries with tiny margin-side illustrations and full-blown comics, where would you put a novel in the form of an exam?

An exam with pictures?

No, no pictures. But at least it’s multiple choice.

Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice published in 2014, is a novel-exam hybrid which I’ll refer to as a novexam. It is divided in five sections according to the types of questions he asks of the reader. Section I contains the following instructions (translation from the Spanish by Megan McDowell):

In exercises 1 through 24, mark the answer that corresponds to the word whose meaning has no relation to either the heading or the other words listed.

1. MULTIPLE

  1. manifold
  2. numerous
  3. untold
  4. five
  5. two

How would you answer?

Manifold is almost a synonym for multiple, as is numerous, as is the first meaning of untold. But what of five and two? They’re related to each other (as numbers), and they’re both multiples, even if two is smaller than five. The dilemma may appear trivial, or subtle, or indeed unsettling depending on how you see it.

To my US readers: who just had a flashback to an SAT nightmare?

To everyone: if I were giving out instructions on how to read this, and any other, novexam I’d say: before and after reading each “question” remember—remember!that this is voluntary and no one will grade your answers. Otherwise you may not progress past the first few questions, or you may find your blood pressure needs medical attention.

A unique reading experience is undeniably Zambra’s intention, so you shouldn’t completely anaesthetise yourself from the emotional impact, but if you’re unused to challenging books, beware.

— Mini spoiler alert: I will not reveal the plot of the stories, and there are plots and stories in the book; however, I may reveal the moral of Section I, and therefore possibly part of the overall message Zambra wishes to impart—

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World-building: The Dog’s Name is Surfle

rob-mulally https://unsplash.com/photos/oacHEtIlXsA

Daydreaming of other worlds

To write, you need words.

To write well, you need a vocabulary—preferably, a large one. And this isn’t so you can show off and write about sitting in a puddle of your own mucilage while bound in a brodequin and tortured in a tenebrous tower.

Readers have it easy: they’re given context for each word and it’s usually sufficient to intuit a meaning. Writers have to pluck a precise word and understand most of its denotations and connotations and create a fitting context (all of which happens simultaneously); therefore, writers need access to a wide roaming ground, plentiful in detail and depth, and an effective search method.

The roaming ground metaphor offers little when it comes to nonfiction writing (expand your vocabulary in the relevant direction; if you write about fish, go explore the lake), or when it comes to fiction writing set in the real world (expand your vocabulary in the relevant direction; if you write murder mysteries set in a Bedouin camp, go explore the desert).

But when it comes to writing anything set in a world of your making, where you are God, where you give names—what happens to your roaming ground?

You can keep expanding it by learning concepts, but eventually you’re going to have to invent names for that new plant, that new race, that new arcology. You’ll even have to invent verbs and adjectives (somehow new adverbs seem to be the rarest). Two questions present themselves:

  • How does one invent?
  • How does one invent, coherently? (Because it’s likely you’ll need more than one word.)

The words you invent are the writer’s quirk words (as opposed to the reader’s quirk words)—they enrich the boundaries of language in general, not just the boundaries of a reader’s vocabulary.

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Chain of Reasoning

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This week has been about intention: first, where it starts and are we in control; then, once established, how it can employ paltering to achieve its goals. Today, I bring up the fundamental intention most of us have when we communicate: we want to make sense.

In particular, there is one figure of speech, anadiplosis, that can lend our arguments the forcefulness and validity of truth even when applied to unconnected elements.

Start from the beginning.

Making sense amounts to cogently conveying our arguments to another person. What it means to do so cogently and what is defined as an argument will depend on the situation: explaining why we’re late, discussing whether to purchase a car, or simply telling a story. Whichever the circumstances, our aim is rarely to garble and perplex.

On sentence level, our reasoning is often a long chain of phrases bound together by conjunctions, which, like the accordions of articulated buses, bend and groan under the strain of each turning—but hold. On paragraph level, we rely on unity of subject matter (traditionally a new subject requires a new paragraph), conventions of reasoning (specific to general statements, general statement and examples, logical argument etc), or all of the above formatted in an idiosyncratic, but fairly apparent “flow of thought”, such as bullet points in agendas, dialogue blocks in a book, action sequences, stanzas. Anything.

Occasionally, what we’re saying doesn’t contain any immediate or established sense, but we would like it to appear otherwise (for whatever reason, poetic or pernicious). This is when we can apply anadiplosis, a figure of speech where we begin a sentence with the final word, or any other significant word, from the preceding sentence.

Let’s see it do the job.

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The Edge of Intent

dev-dodia https://unsplash.com/photos/xVj4deSf_Xc

I resolve to exercise more

Intent is the birthday present you will buy, the New Year’s resolution you will make, the vacation you will take in the summer of 2018. Intent is the brilliant child of the future, yet whenever something goes wrong—and it does so frequently—we point at the negation of our intent as the devil and the dark excuse of the far past: I hadn’t intended to hurt you, I hadn’t intended to be a bad person. No one intends to be a “bad person”.

In terms of type:

There’s grand intent—that requires thought, preparation, effort, time, and that is usually well-justified within our internal system of values.

There’s habitual intent—that requires only repeating circumstances and that once well-justified is rarely reexamined.

Then, there’s muddling through.

Habit is the mainstay of life, whilst grand intentions are rare (those well-thought out and actionable, even rarer). Which leaves muddling: these are the chance encounters, the unplanned stops, the out-of-stock labels on your favourite items; this is when you forgot a change of clothes or your wedding ring. Whenever Murphy’s law strikes, we muddle. Depending on what comes of it, we ruminate on what was intended—few people will admit to have been guided purely by circumstances, chance, or biology (unless they’re determinism diehards), but will instead claim step-by-step determination.

Unless it’s a crime.

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Books as Libraries

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Quote: No page is the first page; no page is the last.

— Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Sand

Traditionally libraries contained books; later they expanded to hold film and music; later still, computer files and programs. Metaphorically, they are repositories of vast knowledge.

How vast does vast have to be before we call a collection of items a library?

Any public or private institution that has densely populated bookstacks is unmistakably a library. A child’s shelf containing twenty-thirty books is that child’s library—small, but present. What of a physical handful that fits thumb-to-little-finger and the weight of which you can hold up in your palm? I suspect most people would say: no, that’s hardly a library. Surely, the answer should be: it depends.

Consider three moderately-sized books you could just about fit in your hand: a dictionary, an encyclopaedia, an atlas. Right there you’d have more facts than you could possibly learn, and more thought-seeds than you could possibly nurture in a lifetime. What if you added a single Joyce, a single Tolstoy, and a single Plato?

Library is a sliding term that involves defining a minimum of some quantity (word count, page count, size, weight, space, influence) that inevitably leaves out a certain immeasurable aspect of knowledge, because no matter how cunning your index of choice, what knowledge means is in itself a personal matter. A bit like intelligence, or wisdom, or savvy. Any test you set is couched in terms of perceived excellence versus failure—often societally defined, but privately disputed.

The finiteness of a personal library is both its greatest weakness (it biases its owner) and its greatest strength (that bias supports the uniqueness of its owner). Indeed, a writer’s creativity springs from the kinds of books they have around them, like flowers or trees from a particular patch of soil. One may wonder: what of the roots?

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The Dinosaur: Quirks and Perks

andrea-reiman https://unsplash.com/photos/AEVAMhago-s

To hold a dinosaur descendant in the palm of your hand

 

In the 1950s, Hondouran writer Augusto Monterroso (1921–2003) produced an itsy-bitsy story called The Dinosaur. He could hardly have been the first to attempt radical brevity for the sake of memorable storytelling, but his seven words seem to have captured the world’s imagination. In the era of twitterature, his story might be fun to recall and—perhaps, possibly, at a stretch, in the fullness of time—to memorise.

The Dinosaur

When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.

The Dinosaur is relatively well-known. However, there are two other (marginally longer) stories in Monterroso’s Complete Works and Other Stories, that aren’t cited as much, but that struck me as having deeper content per word printed.

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The Writer Who Never Writes

max-conrad https://unsplash.com/photos/H1rvxkzq8A0

If you want to write, you should write. Otherwise you might become one of those people who are brimming with ideas, while perennially on the verge of penning a story.

Oh, but the writer’s block!

Oh, but I’m not ready!

Oh, but …

I fear the verge more than I fear the blank page. However, I do acknowledge there is an inherent resistance present at the beginning of any project. The mind, like the body, prefers stasis. That is why getting started with an activity is often a challenge, but also why once on a roll it becomes easier to stay on a roll. 

When you’re writing a piece in a single sitting, getting yourself into that chair is harder than staying there. When you’re writing a larger body of work that requires many sittings, getting into that chair is hardest the first time, but still an achievement every other time.

The question is: what if you’ve been planning to write, planning and plotting and note-taking for days and weeks and even years, but it’s come to nothing because you haven’t thrown down that first word?

Augusto Monterroso wrote a short story exploring that situation. His thirty-four-year-old protagonist, Leopoldo, has been devoted to literature for half of his life, but seems unable to surmount that crucial first hurdle. In the Quote, Leopoldo is considering writing a story about the pecking order in corporate society.

Quote: He made a note that he needed to take notes, and he wrote in his notebook: “THE PECKING STORY. Visit two or three large department stores. Make observations, take notes. If possible, talk with a manager. Get into his psychology and compare it to a chicken’s.”

—from Leopoldo (His Labors), translation from the Spanish by Edith Grossman.

What makes the Quote quiver?

The psychology of a chicken. (Specificity.)

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Describing the Ineffable

Ancient temple by Piranesi … nothing to fear here.

 

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778) was an Italian artist known for his etchings of Rome and a series of plates titled Carceri d’invenzione, or Imaginary Prisons. His Prisons are filled with high vaults, beams, machinery, and even a piece of impossible architecture à la M. C. Escher. (Bruno Ernst identifies it here; the link also provides a fun introduction into impossible geometry.)

 

Find the point of impossibility

 

 

With these pictures in mind, read the following Quote.

Quote: That night I couldn’t sleep. Toward sunrise I dreamed of an engraving in the style of Piranesi, one I’d never seen before or perhaps seen and forgotten—an engraving of a kind of labyrinth. It was a stone amphitheater with a border of cypresses but its walls stood taller than the tops of the trees. There were no doors or windows, but it was pierced by an infinite series of narrow vertical slits. I was using a magnifying glass to try to find the Minotaur. It was the monster of a monster; it looked less like a bull than like a buffalo, and its human body was lying on the ground. It seemed to be asleep, and dreaming—but dreaming of what, or of whom?

—Jorge Luis Borges, There are more things (Translation by Andrew Hurley)

A nightmare emerges. Where else to lock a Minotaur then in a Piranesi prison, to lend it an additional grotesque aspect?

 

Can you spot all the people walking up the stairs in the background? (click on the picture to enlarge)

 

In Symbols as Quotes, I discuss the various other references to people and places that  Borges weaves into his story. I saved Piranesi for last because of the strong visual effect his etchings could have on any interpretation of Borges’s story.

However, the magic of a story emerges not only from the elements that have been included, but also from how they have been linked. In There are more things, Borges’s goal is to create an atmosphere of ineffability: he is guiding us to imagine the unimaginable—a paradox. To achieve this he uses two strategies:

  1. figures of speech,
  2. extreme skewing of Freytag’s pyramid (or dramatic arc).

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Symbols as Quotes

 

Borges is a master forger of the complex connection. But it is only complex because the elements he brings together are sufficiently disparate that few people understand them immediately. As he himself says: In order truly to see a thing, one must first understand it.

Therefore, to truly see the complexity of his stories, you first must understand its elements, which often come in the form of proper nouns. With one word he quotes a whole body of work.

This is the most distilled form of testimony and of context creation. Borges is known for brevity.

Today’s post is symbol and sign-guide to Borges’s eight-page story There are more things from the collection The Book of Sand (1975). Think of it as a treasure hunt, where there’s no point claiming that you’ve followed the trail until you know what most of the the names mean. Some critics label this particular story’s climax as truly spine-chilling, only to accuse Borges of wasting words beforehand. But a climax makes no sense if there is no build-up, and a build-up only makes sense if you understand its symbols. And the symbols are truly

Well, judge for yourself.

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The World in the Mirror: Quirks and Perks

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissus_(mythology)

Narcissus by Caravaggio (1599)

 

Mirrors enlarge spaces, they double and reflect, and at night they reveal eerie shadows standing behind you. Mirrors achieve what paintings have been struggling to achieve since the discovery of perspective: their images are a planar phenomenon that revels in realistic depth.

There ought to be something more to the silvery surfaces than physics; they ought to be a gateway to another world.

Our imagination obliges.

Narcissus dies in love with his image, unable to reach it, unable to hold it—the cost of hubris.

Snow White imbues Mirror, Mirror with the power of taking an instantaneous beauty census and reporting it, but no cross-over occurs.

Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871), however, goes all the way and sends Alice into the Looking-glass House. Moments before she steps through, she stands on the mantlepiece in front of the huge wall-mirror gazing inside:

You can just see a little peep of the passage in Looking-glass House, if you leave the door of our drawing-room wide open: and it’s very like our passage as far as you can see, only you know it may be quite different on beyond.

A question indeed: is the World of the Mirror the same beyond the bits you can see? Which has a similar paradoxical feeling to it like, Does a falling tree make a sound if there’s no one around to hear it, or, What is the sound of one hand clapping? 

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The Unnatural Act

Reading is an unnatural act. Unlike the appreciation of aural and visual arts, reading requires conscious effort even before deep interpretations are sought. Children see, smell, touch, hear, and learn to speak, before they master the written word. It’s the hardest form of basic communication. Harder still if it courts the edge of the expected by riding upside down on the underbelly of unnatural beings while holding onto its senses by the seams of its straightjacket. Hardest of all, possibly, if it’s …

… surrealism.

Dali flashes before the mind. But, that’s not what I mean: the visual mind sees, then interprets or doesn’t. Reading surrealist literature, however, is an act of spike-studded iron will (and no little amount of curiosity for the quaint that you hope no one else ever finds out about).

Forget drinking from a firehose—firehoses gush at you, and it’s just water. Think instead: a fountain spouting body parts, balloons, beetles, bronze tables and acid blue jackets floating between the blessings and the bronchitis, and you roll up your trousers, step over the rim into this bizarre potpourri, get dragged down by something slithering in the water, but continue sitting in there with water up to your chin, collecting random floating objects and putting them together like legos—creating your very own Frankenstein. Occasionally you pluck up a memory or a scar. Occasionally you cut yourself.

Who said that exploring the unexplored within the safety of a book was good practice?

I’m not trying to be off-putting.

Actually, I am: if you’re not the kind to throw yourself into the aforementioned fountain out of curiosity (or spite, or kink, or whichever particular personal quirk), I would recommend fishing out only choice morsels and grappling with them on dry land.

You might discover you’re developing some odd tastes.

Today’s rather tame Quote comes from The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington. She died in 2011 at the age of 94, and was one of the last surviving participants in the Surrealist movement of the 1930s. This is how she opens her short story called The Royal Summons. 

Quote: 

I had received a royal summons to pay a call on the sovereigns of my country.
The invitation was made of lace, framing embossed letters of gold. There were also roses and swallows.
I went to fetch my car, but my chauffeur, who has no practical sense at all, had just buried it.
“I did it to grow mushrooms,” he told me. “There’s no better way of growing mushrooms.”
“Brady,” I said to him, “You’re a complete idiot. You have ruined my car.”
So, since my car was indeed completely out of action, I was obliged to hire a horse and a cart.

(Translated from the French by Kathrine Talbot with Marina Warner)

According to the information you have, where is the car? Take a guess.

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The Softness of the Pillows: Quirks and Perks

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Imaginary beings live on the thin strip of fancy between sobriety and nonsense—the one we all walk at least twice a day on most days, just before and just after sleep (the hypnagogic and hypnopompic states). To complete the previous two posts on imaginary beings, Hamlet and the n-dimensional Hyperplane and The Goofus Bird Flies Backwards, today I offer two quotes, from two very different authors, describing this creative threshold of consciousness.

The first is from Bruno Schulz’s short story Mr Charles, included in his collection The Street of Crocodiles (translated by Celina Wieniewska). He’s the only European I’ve come across who writes magical realism with a panache to match South American authors (I touch on this in Between Infinity and a Sneeze and Charged With Eternity). Note the richness of metaphor and simile.

Groping blindly in the darkness, he sank between the white mounds of cool feathers and slept as he fell, across the bed or with his head downward, pushing deep into the softness of the pillows, as if in sleep he wanted to drill through, to explore completely, that powerful massif of feather bedding rising out of the night. He fought in his sleep against the bed like a bather swimming against the current, he kneaded it and molded it with his body like an enormous bowl of dough, and woke up at dawn panting, covered in sweat, thrown up on the shores of that pile of bedding which he could not master in the nightly struggle. Half-landed from the depths of unconsciousness, he still hung on to the verge of night, grasping for breath, while the bedding grew around him, swelled and fermented—and again engulfed him in a mountain of heavy, whitish dough.

He slept thus until late morning, while the pillows arranged themselves into a larger flat plain on which his now quieter sleep would wander. On these white roads, he slowly returned to his senses, to daylight, to reality—and at last he opened his eyes as does a sleeping passenger when the train stops at a station.

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Three Words: Quirks and Perks

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Quote: Perfection is round.
—Anne Carson, Red Doc>

Perfection is simplicity: As of 3rd September, the Quote throws up six results on Google, all of which are Carson’s citations. In today’s age that translates to: she said it first.

Three words, two ordinary nouns and the most frequent verb of the English language in its most frequent form. And it’s not nonsense.

Let’s start with the verb.

Even though “to be” is often used to equate and identify, simple sentences centring around it are not obviously semantically symmetric: round is perfection, means something else. Think: the circle, the sphere, the sun—often taken as symbols of the ideal, the perfect, the godly. In both the Quote and in round is perfection, the subject complement states a property of the subject. Indeed, perfection and round are—as Carson says of two utterly different things—parts of each other / although not parts of a / whole.

Therefore, is is a simple verb that can denote mutual inclusion without denoting equivalence.

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The Not-So-Mild Hallucinations of a Musk-Ox

Juno, Jupiter and Io by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1672).

 

Io is a golden-eyed, white-haired, much-beloved musk-ox of Anne Carson’s protagonist, G, in her 2013 verse-novel Red Doc>.

How to unpack such a sentence? Try.

If you had a slightly vertiginous, confusing, yet ultimately not unsatisfactory experience figuring out three compound adjectives and two compound nouns, as well as, that Anne Carson is a poet, G is the name of (presumably) a person, Io is the name of a musk-ox, and that an angle bracket at the end of a book title is not an impossible concept … Excellent! You now have an inkling what it’s like to read Carson’s verse in general.

Of course, she does it better, and for longer, and without resorting to hyphens at every turn to compactify her images.

Quote: 
Blood still
buzzing with gorse she
does not hesitate to
believe that a masterpiece
like herself can fly.
Should fly. Does fly.

She in the Quote is Io the musk-ox.

I already wrote about Carson’s Autobiography of Red (1998), which is also a verse-novel, albeit of different appearance and feel. It follows the childhood and early years of Geryon, a boy with red wings; it is written in free verse, alternating visually between long and short lines on the page, and it reads like a dense, lyrical, unconventional novel—like a novelisation of poetry.

Red Doc>, published fifteen years later, returns to follow a middle-aged Geryon, now referred to as G. It’s a connected sequence of free verse poems contained within two-inch columns, justified on both sides, and it unfurls down the middle of the page like the chatters marks of a glacier or like the clusters of aa lava.

Speaking of which: glaciers and lava, flying red-winged monsters and oxen, love and army, hospitals and Ancient Greece—expect to find them all within the pages of Red Doc>. Bizarre can be beautiful, and meaningful. Carson ensures it.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Intoxicated flying oxen.

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Inspired by the Ordinary: Quirks and Perks

 

Everyone likes a good myth. The Metamorphoses by Ovid comprises a couple hundred. Being a narrative poem from around 8 AD, it’s not exactly all the rage nowadays, but its influences have trickled down through much of Western literature.

In particular, I grew up on a children’s version of Gustav Schwab’s Gods and Heroes of Ancient Greece, and I still fondly recall wondering what one would do with a golden fleece or how the cattle in the Augean stables could live in such filth. Recently, I decided to investigate some of the older sources like Homer, Sophocles, and Ovid.

The Greek and Roman mythologies are closely related, but translating between them requires a basic dictionary of terms. For example, Jove (or Jupiter) is Zeus, Juno is Hera, Mars is Ares, Minerva is Athena, and so on. It’s interesting how the names conflate in your mind, and yet they never quite do.

Today’s Quote is from the beginning of the The Metamorphoses describing the formation of the world (taken from Mandelbaum’s translation).

Quote:    
He ordered fog and clouds to gather there—
in air—and thunder, which would terrify
the human mind; there, too, the god assigned
the winds that, from colliding clouds, breed lightning.
(Lines 54–57)

Nothing special about it? Perhaps, not, but even ordinary quotes can inspire fiction. Here’s a short story I wrote to illustrate the point (1250 words).

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White and Black

 

Let’s talk about chess.

Sixty-four squares, half white, half black; thirty-two pieces, half white, half black; two players, half playing as white, half playing as black.

Of course, Stefan Zweig put it better in his novella Chess (translation from the German by Anthea Bell), often also titled The Royal Game in English.

Quote: Is [chess] not also a science and an art, hovering between those categories as Muhammad’s coffin hovered between heaven and earth, a unique link between pairs of opposites: ancient yet eternally new; mechanical in structure, yet made effective only by the imagination; limited to a geometrically fixed space, yet with unlimited combinations; constantly developing, yet sterile; thought that leads nowhere; mathematics calculating nothing; art without works of art; architecture without substance – but nonetheless shown to be more durable in its entity and existence than all books and works of art; the only game that belongs to all nations and all eras, although no one knows what god brought it down to earth to vanquish boredom, sharpen the senses and stretch the mind.

That’s a single sweeping sentence, so richly deep, that you could dive into it repeatedly and come up each time with a new pearl.

What makes the Quote (and the whole novella) quiver?

Dichotomy and duality.

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Between Infinity and a Sneeze

nibras-al-riyami https://unsplash.com/photos/nwzBOsmrhy4

The stars we see when we sneeze

Infatuation has been described so many times, you’d think triteness was its middle name. And yet Uruguayan writer Felisberto Hernández digs fresh channels down which to guide the imagination. The Quote is from the short story The New House, from his book Lands of Memory.

Quote: … she even allowed herself to lower her eyelids. I told my poet friend that when she had her eyes like that her stance was somewhere between infinity and a sneeze.

Felisberto Hernández (1902–1964) was a self-taught pianist who earned his living playing in cafés and cinemas and wealthy private homes, until he finally dedicated himself to writing full-time in his later years. His blend of dream, reality, memory, and magic was a potent influence on many of the Latin American greats, including Márquez and Cortázar.

To my mind, Hernández’s stories have a distinct, viscous consistency—imagine if air were like water, hard to walk through, easy to float in—lacking in the Latin American magical realism that came after him. Maybe lacking is the wrong word: distilled is better.

But, like other Latin American authors, Hernández’s writing radiates heat. Not Californian heat, not African or Asian heat, not even Mediterranean heat. It’s specific and maybe, in some convoluted way, connected to his vision of how magic permeates the ordinary.

yannik-wenk https://unsplash.com/photos/Zw2-HhnCV2U

The magic beyond the ordinary

The closest to Hernández in the blending of the worldly with the otherworldly comes his contemporary, Bruno Schulz (1892–1942), a Polish-Jewish writer. The viscosity is there, as is a dank European chill.

But let’s leave my literary proprio- and thermoreceptors aside; they bear only limited scrutiny before starting to take false readings.

To get this post back on track, here is another quote from the same short story, about the same woman.

She talked continually and this was fine with me since it concealed the fact that I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. I was trying to detach her from her words, like someone extracting a sweet from infinite layers of cardboard, paper, string, frills and other nuisances.

What makes the (first) Quote quiver?

The scale that contains both a sneeze and infinity.

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From the Witch’s Point of View

janko-ferlic https://unsplash.com/search/photos/candle?photo=QD-SF37AC_E

A candle is a rectangle when seen from the side, a circle when seen from above (or below), and a pinprick of light when seen in the dark.

Stories, like candles, depend on our point of view. Let me sketch a comparatively tame example. Setting: student A taking oral exam in history with Professor B.

Point of view A: Did I hear him right? I’m shaking, shambling through the narrative, yup, aaaand said that name wrong, I’ve got sweat patches on my white shirt, I should have worn dark. The professor, he keeps piercing me with that look telling me I’m going to fail, and now he’s writing something down, probably the year I just got wrong, and the battle I just misplaced, he’s counting my mistakes, disaster, disaster, disaster.

Point of view B: Aha, correct, fine, right, God this is boring, why does she keep playing with that earring, she’s already got droopy ears, now she’s tapping her foot, chewing gum between questions, and she just checked the time on her phone, again. I’m as bored as her, I gave her maximal marks the moment she opened her mouth because we both know she’s learned the book by heart, but there’s the protocol, I have to ask another question after this, tralala, let me doodle a Snoopy for a while to pass the time.

Who’s right?

A first person narrative is an intimate experience, the closest to living someone else’s life, but it suffers from the same limitations as living your own life: it’s a blinkered perspective, prone to bias. There is no right or wrong.

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Different view, different perspective. Different perspective, different view.

 

The inability to see beyond ourselves to the “objective reality” can lead to a severe disparity of viewpoints. This is the so-called Rashomon effect, named after Rashomon, a film by Kurosawa from the 1950-s, where murder witnesses give contradictory statements.

Unsurprisingly, conflicts are rooted in the Rashomon effect—as are most good novels.

In mainstream fiction, truth and thoughts are fickle, highly sought-after commodities that are usually hidden by the conniving author. Indeed, most misunderstandings have to be inferred by the reader or by the characters, and only occasionally is the book’s “objective reality” made explicit in a Watson-Holmes type of interaction.

But wait, objective reality is boring; don’t you wonder what it’s like to be someone else?

Whilst in real life you can’t actually walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, or see the world through their eyes, in a book, however, you can. Remember Grimm’s Snow White? Young beautiful girl put by evil stepmother into comatose state after swallowing poisonous apple until rescued by prince? The stepmother (I’ll call her Queen) is so evil she orders a huntsman to murder the stepdaughter (I’ll call her Princess) and bring back her heart or lungs or liver, depending on which version you read, to be eaten by the Queen.

That was so 19th century.

Steps in Neil Gaiman with Snow, Glass, Apples in 1994. His short story is a retelling of Snow White—it keeps all the well-known elements of the fairy tale —but it’s written in the ultimately biased viewpoint: in first person, from the Queen’s perspective. (Far from the omniscient narrator of fairy tales.)

Quote: And some say (but it is her lie, not mine) that I was given the heart, and that I ate it. Lies and half-truths fall like snow, covering the things that I remember, the things I saw. A landscape, unrecognisable after a snowfall; that is what she has made of my life.

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Tolkien’s Fox

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Humans are anthropocentric. By extension, so are our creative efforts, like writing.

I use anthropocentric to mean caring about what happens to man or man-like presence, fictive or real, more than caring about anything else. It’s the reason why personification in writing—a figure by which an animal or inanimate object or idea is given human characteristics—is such a powerful imagination catalyst. Take the following three sentence:

  • The car was enclosed in fog.
  • Two rosebuds were bent towards each other on the terrace.
  • An armchair was tilted backwards.

Boring? Now take the way three authors decided to “bring them to life” using various degrees of personification (from weakest to strongest):

Carson gives fog a fist, White turns rosebuds into courtiers, Banville imbues the armchair with nuanced human feelings. The next step up would be a full-blown image, for example, Death as a scythe-wielding skeleton. But each of these is a mere eidolon, a spectre of personification, a teaser that enlivens the writing but stays safely in the realm of the non-human. To elevate an eidolon you need to give it the one thing that defines us: you need to make it speak like a human.

Just think:

  • “Ha, ha, ha I’ve got the car in my fist,” said the fog.
  • “My Lord,” said the rosebud, bowing. “My Lady,” said the other, bowing back.
  • “Wow,” thought the armchair, “humans, long time no see. I shouldn’t have passed wind just now. Whoops.”

The difference is vast.

Uttering or thinking what we perceive as human speech means passing the literary Turing test of personification. The thing that is being made to speak isn’t necessarily human, not even fictionally so, but it’s so darn close you’d take it with you to a deserted island and consider it company.

Which brings us to Tolkien’s fox.

Here is J. R. R. Tolkien, in The Fellowship of the Ring (the first book of the Lord of Rings trilogy), using his power as a third-person omniscient narrator to saunter into the head of a fox. For those unfamiliar with his world: short, human-like beings called hobbits live in a woody, hilly green-grasses-of-England type of place called the Shire; Frodo and his friends are hobbits.

Quote: They set no watch; even Frodo feared no danger yet, for they were still in the heart of the Shire. A few creatures came and looked at them when the fire had died away. A fox passing through the wood on business of his own stopped several minutes and sniffed.

‘Hobbits!’ He thought. ‘Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There’s something mighty queer behind this.’ He was quite right, but he never found out any more about it. 

And that’s it: no more mention of the fox. So why bother?

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One Word Is Not Enough

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Where the Gods live

 

Latibule, Pierian spring, ideate, kalon, afflatus.

Let me try to explain what these words have in common.

So far on this blog I’ve discussed quotes from two books about fictional murderers awaiting justice, Albert Camus’s Meursault in The Stranger (1942) and John Banville’s Montgomery in The Book of Evidence (1989). Today’s Quote is from a third: Ernesto Sábato’s The Tunnel (1948, translation from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden). His protagonist is Juan Pablo Castel, a successful painter. A woman visits Castel’s exhibition and is drawn to one of his paintings; he, in turn, becomes obsessed with her. Disaster ensues.

Quote: I returned home with a feeling of absolute loneliness.
Usually that feeling of being alone in the world is accompanied by a condescending sense of superiority. I scorn all humankind; people around me seem vile, sordid, stupid, greedy, gross, niggardly. I do not fear solitude; it is almost Olympian.

What makes the Quote quiver?

A single word, backed by a list of synonyms.

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Synonyms to Spare

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When you’re feeling ill, are you indisposed or infirm? What about lousy, queasy, or woozy? Or are you just a hypochondriac who prefers the word valetudinarian (because it sounds a lot like valedictorian and valerian)?

It matters.

A thesaurus may serve up a whole heap of “synonyms”, words that may be interchangeable in some contexts, but even in off-the-cuff speech you can rarely apply one at random—and if you do, you’re risking rosy cheeks, unintended humour, and hasty corrections.

Luckily, our minds do not work with machine-like precision: only a few more-or-less apt words will present themselves in any given situation. To recall the rest, we have to make a conscious effort, as the writers amongst us do.

But there’s more to synonyms than word-for-word considerations; what about phrase-for-phrase, description-for-description?

The Sun is the golden disk in the sky, the centre of a heliocentric worldview, the star closest to Earth, the giver of light and life, it is the Greek Helios, the Egyptian Ra, it is Romeo’s Juliet,  …  A fun exercise, you might say, but in the end you always need to chose le mot juste.1

Actually, no. Sometimes you can just pile on the synonyms. Here’s Thomas Mann writing about his protagonist Aschenbach in Death in Venice (translation by Michael Henry Heim). How many synonymous descriptions can you count?

Quote:  There he sat, the master, the eminently dignified artist, the author of “A Wretched Figure,” who had rejected bohemian excess and the murky depths in a form of exemplary purity, who had renounced all sympathy for the abyss and reprehended the reprehensible, climbed the heights, and, having transcended his erudition and outgrown all irony, accepted the obligations that come with mass approbation, a man whose fame was official, whose name had been made noble, and whose style schoolboys were exhorted to emulate—there he sat, his eyes closed, with only an occasional, rapidly disappearing sidelong glance, scornful and sheepish, slipping out from under them and a few isolated words issuing from his slack, cosmetically embellished lips, the result of the curious dream logic of his half-slumbering brain.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Gravity of description.

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I Shied Away From the Lyrical: Quirks and Perks

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Quote: A bright star quivered in the sky; another star trembled closer by. The sky was night blue, with strands of day, with threads of day, feminine, seamstressy. The scissors of wind sounded as in a barbershop, and it was difficult to know if one’s own hair or the Chinese silk of the sky was being cut.

— Martín Adán, The Cardboard House (translation by Katherine Silver).

Growing up I shied away from the lyrical. I feared I would not “understand it”, or that “understanding it” was a matter of special education, verbal intelligence, and practiced sensibility. I took long enough to convince myself otherwise. So now I hope to convince others who share even a fraction of this misguided opinion to abandon it forthwith.

Ironically, my conviction stemmed from my own inclination to turn every school assignment into a string of poetic allusions; most of my classmates said they enjoyed my writing, but didn’t understand it. The teachers assigned me top marks for effort and “aether-ic effect” (am I misremembering, was it esoteric?), and asked that next time I write about a concrete event. But my essays were already about concrete events, only those that happened within me!

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Life Without Parenthesis …

… would be impossible.

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Dome of flawless blue

 

Day-to-day dialogue would be unhelpful and dull without parenthetical asides, mid-sentence descriptions, reminders, questions, interjections. Written language would lose commas, dashes, and round brackets. Indeed, the news, already written to be as straightforward and stylistically unadorned as possible, would convey only half of the information, and only to the already informed reader. For example, as I am composing this post, the front page sports article of the BBC is about Venus Williams competing at Wimbledon, and the first time a comma appears in the article it signals a parenthetical insertion (italics are mine).

The American, 37, will overtake sister Serena’s record – set when she was 35 at the Australian Open in January – by winning her sixth SW19 title.

Imagine that those two italicised fragments were missing. The first, telling us Venus’s age, is crucial to the article’s lead sentence: Venus Williams could become the oldest woman to win a Grand Slam singles title in the Open era; the second, answers a natural question that arises while reading about Serena’s record, namely, what is the record? (Added Saturday afternoon: Sorry, Venus!)

The language of literature, though, would suffer even further without parentheses. Today’s Quote is from John Banville’s novel The Book of Evidence (introduced in my previous post, The Woman and the Painter). The Irish protagonist reflects on life in America; the we refers to him and two of his Irish girlfriends.

Quote: Perhaps contempt was for us a form of nostalgia, of homesickness, even? Living there, amid those gentle, paintbox colours, under that dome of flawless blue, was like living in another world, a place out of a story-book. (I used to dream of rain — real, daylong, Irish rain — as if it were something I had been told about but had never seen.) Or perhaps laughing at America was a means of defence? It’s true, at times it crossed our minds, or it crossed my mind, at least, that we might be just the teeniest bit laughable ourselves.

That is 99 words, of which 54 are parenthetical.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Rich prose: lyrical, colloquial, intimate.

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