Writing Helplessness

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Bullets chase you, or an illness, or even just last month’s bills. If evasion and shielding fail, your soft flesh—whatever the pursuer’s weapon—will suffer. The inability to prevent cataclysmic injury leads to helplessness.

As there are many wars out there, daily, personal, and local, on top of the devastating regional ones, let’s consider the most extreme cases where life is endangered without any rational escape options.

In such situations, what your body does as a reflex or on mental command simply matters no longer—a realisation which goes against the fundamental survival instinct creating a paradox of the highest order. If the situation is somehow protracted, for example in the cases of people trapped inside confined spaces or of those tortured over longer periods, helplessness will have time to set in.

What happens then nobody wishes to find out voluntarily, in situ, but fiction does go exploring. At the very least, fiction allows a reader to explore an atrocious situation, broadening their empathic response, their insight, and their ability to prevent arriving at similar circumstances. Continue reading

Hiding Fear Behind Scientific Words

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Fear is a state of anticipated pain.

Broken bones, broken friendships, broken dreams—so many kinds of pain can be anticipated, that it’s possible to rephrase every decision, conscious and not, as a decision made out of fear. I’ll take the longer path because I fear falling on the black ice coating the shorter path; I’ll tell my boss I’m well-suited to take on an important client (even if I’m not sure) because I fear projecting incompetence.

Worse, it’s often a choice between lesser fears: I fear starting a new hobby, because it’ll be time-consuming and difficult; I fear not starting a new hobby, because all my friends have one and I’ll stand out as the only klutz.

As a primal instinct, fear pertains to basic, life-threatening harm or physical pain, but we’ve built up a society where what’s “in your head” is often equally prominent. Accordingly, fictional characters reflect the whole gamut: between rapaciousness due to want and retreating due to fear you can summarise the motivational background of any character.

The stronger the fear, the more dramatic its consequences and the better the story. So how to write fear, transmitting it, not telling about it? Continue reading

The Terror-Horror-Revulsion Sequence

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Macabre isn’t the word I’m looking for. Yet it presents itself, perhaps chiefly because of Stephen King’s book Dance Macabre.

The word, with a capital M, has its own entry in the OED as part of the phrase dance of Macabre, meaning the Dance of Death, which in turn represents the medieval allegory of Death leading the dance of souls to the grave.

Even if you refuse to read about pirouetting skeletons, you may have unwittingly enjoyed Camille Saint-Saëns’s Dance Macabre,symphonic poem  from 1874:

Returning to King’s book: even though I haven’t read it, I have seen it quoted and paraphrased for its delineation of three concepts in fiction: revulsion, horror, and terror. It’s a useful gradation, regardless of genre or topic, because it pinpoints the crease between the explicit and the implicit.

Here’s how King’s words have filtered down to me.

Revulsion or gross-out is when you’re told about the eye that burst out of its socket and splattered the doctor, or the parents who threw at each other the heart of their unborn child, or the woman who was walled in with the heads of her lovers, or the long-haired zingaro serenading a pile of severed body parts while admiring his reflection in a lake of blood (mostly images from Barbey and Lorrain). It’s all red and mushy, and anyone Halloween-minded can do it. The sufficiently exaggerated gross-out is grotesque.

Horror is the moment you take out a bunch of beautiful flowers from a precious historic vase and find a baby’s body providing compost feed (Barbey). Horror is the realisation before the gross-out.

Terror is the suspense before the horror that never quite happens: it’s the quiet laughter in the cellar that is empty when you turn on the light; it’s the attic that calls to you, but when you get there is only full of creaking boards and whistling wind; it’s the nightmare in which you’re chased with a chainsaw, but when you wake up, you see that you’re safe, except there’s a trail of blood across your living room carpet leading to the toolshed.

Terror is almost perpetual horror that prolongs the repulsive revelation, the way a romantic comedy prolongs the first kiss.

Continue reading

Becoming Your Body: Fearing Pain

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Uhtceare opened my eyes this morning.

It means dawn-care, or the act of lying awake, worrying, at dawn.

Judging by its internet presence, Mark Forsyth, author of The Horologicon, is responsible for reviving this word—an obscure one even in Old English.1 In a world of anxiety and hyperactivity, it’s a useful term.

If uhtceare keeps eyes open, so does the fear of uhtceare. Ironically, the fear of worry creates additional (meta) worry. The same mechanism accounts for restlessness on alarm-clock mornings: when there’s only three hours left, instead of making the most of those three hours, the sleeper turns insomniac. We’re cursed with the knowledge of the limit, not the limit itself. Continue reading

Becoming a Statue: Fearing Change

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Telepathy would be a wonder. Telekinesis an inestimable power.

Only after acquiring both we’d tackle teaching a stone slab to get up and move (maybe).

Or…

… we can immediately read Henri Michaux’s text The Statue and 1.

In my spare time, I’ve been teaching a statue to walk. Given its exaggeratedly prolonged immobility, it isn’t easy. Not for the statue. Not for me. Great distance separates us, I realize that.

The futility of teaching a statue to walk! The first line presents a paradox heralding a discussion, if not a resolution. The reader is drawn onwards.

The remainder of the paragraph claims the problem is real: this is no metaphorical statue (reserve judgment on that) and the narrator is aware of the difficulties.

A few lines later in the text, the moral of a perennial piece of advice is reversed; instead of reassurance that a journey begins with a single step, implying any first step, just get going, we read:

What matters is that [the statue’s] first step be a good one. Everything depends on that first step.

This is doubly unsettling. Continue reading

Becoming the Sea: Fearing Fate

Suppose an empty room contains a gigantic apple.

That’s a proposition even more disturbing than Rene Magritte’s Listening Room.

https://www.wikiart.org/en/rene-magritte/the-listening-room-1952

Henri Michaux’s collection of texts from 1949, Life in the Folds, is the oddest of gigantic apples. If unchecked, it inflates into a daunting monstrosity of ambiguous intent. Indeed, the exquisite mind-contortion chambers contained within it defy obvious origin or characterisation: I started to write a brief post about Michaux’s work, so I copied out all the interesting quotes, only to realise I’d copied out chunks from nearly every page of the book.

Life in the Folds consists of over fifty short texts (and a few longer ones); they are mostly prose, with titles such as The Man-Sling, On the Skewer, In Plaster, Never Imagine, The Danger in Associations of Thoughts, The Trepanned Patient, Recommended Instrument: Apartment Thunder.

Some could be considered mini-stories with hints of plot, but perhaps a good label is thought experiments, or—to move a step away from scientific connotations and Einstein—violent thoughts.  A longer descriptor would be: uncomfortably fascinating meditation on pain: psychological, physical, abstract, concrete, subtle, searing.

It’s easy to dismiss such material as fodder for psychiatrists, especially when we find out that Michaux’s biography includes both war and his wife’s sudden death, but violent thoughts occur in most fiction regardless, as necessary motivators well-woven into the fabric of plot.

It’s also easy to dismiss such material as extraneous or incendiary because violent thoughts already occur in most of life—surely that suffices?—but the subject is often taboo and so, if unaddressed, can lead to people’s lives collapsing insidiously.

With that in mind, there are at least two salubrious approaches to Michaux:

  • As a reader looking for a contained, concrete space to ruminate on negative feelings about others and the self. Perhaps as a springboard for a later discussion.
  • As a critic or meta-reader exploring writing techniques that conjure up the weird and the pain-fear-terror-inducing (but not grossly shocking) while observing your own reactions to those selfsame techniques.

Regarding the first approach: Safe exploration of on-page violence, no matter how imaginary or disassociated from heart-rending characterisations, requires mental mettle—if your environment or state of mind isn’t conducive to challenging reading, leave Life in the Folds for another day.

I will focus on the second approach, which inevitably desensitised everything it touches, but please be warned. (This also means I will spoil a fully immersive reading experience for you, both by quoting and by deconstructing the quotes.)

Continue reading

Alone (With Only Your Demons for Company)

Man is alone in life. He’s alone in his cradle as he’ll be alone on his deadbeat; he’s alone in love…

—Michel de Ghelderode, Stealing from Death (translated by George MacLennan)

Alone in a house, on a bus, in the middle of a field. Alone in a room.

Alone in your efforts, in your struggle, in your pain.

Yet, somehow alone does not mean swimming in a sea of silent nothingness. On the contrary, barring meditative states, it means alone with your thoughts. And the nonsense that swills around in there, between Willing the Future and Judging the Past, can be quite an imaginatively torturous pandemonium—a stampeding herd of dinosaurs makes less of a fuss.

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Urns as Hearts

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When it was known that the Queen had given birth to a frog there was consternation in the court; the ladies of the palace remained mute, and no one any longer ventured into the high vestibules except with sealed lips and heart-rending gazes that spoke volumes.

Jean Lorrain, The Soul-Drinker (translated by Brian Stableford)

Where can a story go after such a beginning?

Written in the Yellow nineties (1890s), the stories of The Soul-Drinker reflect the French literary trends of the time. They split into two groups: psychological probings of perverse loves (naturalism) and mock-folktales (symbolism). Both feature a heavily ornate style and themes of moral decadence.

The first group of stories has a similar thrust to Barbey’s Diaboliques, although Lorrain doesn’t attempt such a high level of historical realism. He does use framed narratives, but in a more traditional Holmes-Watson setting, where the Watson narrates what shocking discovery Holmes tells him he has made (although the degree of unreliability is substantial).

Lorrain’s women are dissolute—diabolical, even, like Barbey’s—but instead of them striking precisely, daggers-to-hearts, they seem to be striking with such variety they might as well be the embodiment of everyone on Agatha Christie’s Orient Express.

Lady Vianes are everywhere; blonde, brunette or red-haired, Lady Viane is woman, the woman, the true woman, the Eve of Genesis, Flaubert’s Ennoïa, the eternal enemy, the dancer who drinks the blood of prophets, Salome, Herodias, the impure beast, Bestia. When she kills us physically, she’s called Debauchery; when she kills us morally, she’s called Hatred, and sometimes Life.

The quote insists on its message to the point of hysteria where any genuine shock becomes grotesque, and then even the grotesque loses its original meaning.

If excessive euphemising is one way to neutralise the unpalatable, excessive exaggeration is the other. Pushed far enough, the mealy-mouthed and the loud-mouthed meet at the ineffective extreme with their backs to each other. The difference lies in their respective wakes: pasty grey versus glossy gold. Neither may be to to your liking, but the scenic diapason is worth reviewing. Continue reading

Diabolical Framings

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 Perhaps I am mistaken, but it seems to me that if you saw Hell through a small window, it would be far more horrific than if you were able to see the place in its entirety.

Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, Diaboliques (translated by Raymond N. MacKenzie)

Boundaries are meaningful when exceptions plant flags on faraway summits.

Conventions love to hate those who break them.

The don’t do that, begs for the what if I do do?

Such questioning of authoritative admonishment leads to the fall of Satan in Milton’s Paradise, to the Faustian deal with the devil, to murder mysteries, to class-breakers like Gatsby, principled men like Atticus Finch, alienated teenagers like Caulfield, contrarian patients like McMurphy, and in general any tension that falls under the I won’t take out the trash because you insist that I do so.

Space sagas defy scientific barriers; the absurdity of Kafka defies reason.

Even walls that protect from valid harm—no matter how noble their cause—inevitably invite curiosity: some want to peek over, some want to vault over. Imagination allows us to do so multiple times, in multiple ways, and still wake up in our own beds, warm. Imagination leads to written fiction, and fiction thrives on probing the transgression: either how it was done or why.

This is why there exist whole literary movements built on investigations of taboos. The merits of reading such fantasies are myriad, from gaining historical and cultural context, to understanding existential issues, to merely expanding your perception of the human condition. For those of us who care about the storytelling technique, such texts exhibit a number of methods for addressing tender topics, eliciting either disgust or empathy, and skirting the sensitivities associated with the “fallen”.

Also fiction can be read because: fun, exposure, and yes, curiosity.

Continue reading

Love: Writing Fresh Metaphors

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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

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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.)

Continue reading

Poles: Fourteen Hours at the Edge of the Sidewalk

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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

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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.

Continue reading

Idea: A Rugged Rope

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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

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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

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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.

Continue reading

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

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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

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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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Judging a Book by its Quirk Words

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As much as speed-reading is in vogue, speed-learning unfamiliar words is still a rather less flaunted ability. Perhaps because it is harder to define.

Does learning a word mean acquainting yourself with its first meaning, with all its meanings, with its pronunciation, its origins, its examples and seeing its effect as you apply it in an appropriate setting? Learning has some degree of knowing as its goal. Can it be said that you know a word if, after having supposedly learned it, you have never again thought of it? (If your answer is yes, you haven’t ever attempted to learn a foreign language, and failed.)

Some words we get for free as we grow up; some we get for cheap by osmosis.

The setting often aids us: if I tell you of a milky-white small roundish object called X, and say it’s on a necklace, you might think it’s a type of pearl; if I say it’s on a plate, you might think it’s type of rice. But it could have been ivory in the first instance, and salt in the second. You can’t be sure, unless you’re sure of the word’s meaning.

Life is too short and language too multitudinous for us to know every word in every book we pick up. In fact, I am disappointed if I have failed to find a single interesting word in a text: unknown, referential, inventively used, made-up, altered—I am open to being surprised. Banal word-strings leave me with a sense of wasted time.

(In the strictest sense this can hardly occur, so I’ve set some minimum requirements for interesting words.)

In most cases, after having marked up my reading, I am left with numerous circled words which might merit investigation—and only a fraction of which will. That fraction is what I call the quirk words of a book.

Taken as a list, the quirk words can say a lot about a book: they cluster around the subject matter, they gravitate towards borrowings from the language in which the book was written (if not English), they’re dated to match the described era or the era in which the book was written.

This is not particularly surprising. A quirk list of a book varies from person to person, exhibiting the vocabulary deficiency of the reader with respect to that particular book. However, assuming we’re referring to fairly well-rounded readers, most of the words on each quirk list will be relatively rare in English overall (Frequency Bands 1–4 in the OED). These are the subject-related, the regional, the colloquial or the technical words—and each implies a specific application and context, narrowing down the kind of text it may be sensibly found in.

How about an example?

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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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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

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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

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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 Infinite 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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The Goofus Bird Flies Backwards

https://www.wikiart.org/en/maarten-de-vos/unicorn

Maarten de Vos, Unicorn, a familiar beast.

 

Of all the beasts in Jorge Luis Borge’s The Book of Imaginary Beings, I am most struck by those I do not understand. As understanding stems from familiarity—a fallacy and an illusion, but prevalent—I am left fascinated by those I cannot relate to. Or rather, by the ones that keep evading my grasp like Kafka’s godforsaken Odradek, a flat star-shaped spool for thread with a handle, mentioned last time in Playing Detective.

Borges’ book contains 120 entries detailing creatures born of mythology and literature. In his 1957 Preface, Borges chooses to mention the dragon.

Quote: We are ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that appeals to the human imagination, and so we find the dragon in quite distinct places and times. It is, so to speak, a necessary monster …

 

While reading his book, I noted that the most common feature seemed to be a relation to birds—about a fifth of the creatures has some capacity for feathered flight. Whether that makes them dragons or not, I’m not sure (I too am ignorant of the meaning of dragon), but if the chicken is the closest modern relative to the Tyrannosaurus rex, then perhaps we can assume birds and dragons hatch from similar eggs.

The two oddest imaginary birds are the Pinnacle Grouse and the Goofus bird found under the heading of Fauna of the United States. The Goofus bird builds its nest upside down and flies backward, not caring where it’s going, only where it’s been. I get queasy looking backwards when riding the bus, so I’d say that lifestyle takes a sturdy gizzard. Based on this scant information, I speculate that the Goofus bird would be a good pet for anyone in the sect Laudatores Temporis Acti, comprising those who worship the past—to them the past is absolute: it never had a present, nor can it be remembered or even guessed at. On second thought, according to them, the Goofus bird shouldn’t exist.

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Playing Detective: Hamlet and the n-dimensional Hyperplane

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Why?

That one question gives life meaning. How, who, where, when, all lend solidity to our world, but the intangible web of causality tickles our imagination like nothing else. Asking why means staring into a chasm of chaos and glimpsing sense—the intellectual equivalent of climbing into the jaws of a shark, looking around, and coming out with a souvenir. It’s exhilarating.

Why is also the reason everyone likes playing detective occasionally.

Me included.

Today, I’m investigating The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges (co-written with Margarita Guerrero), an encyclopedic account of a most eccentric menagerie. It contains familiar names such as Centaur and Cerberus, Norns and Nymphs, Salamander and Satyrs, amongst a whole plethora of unfamiliar ones. The starting point of my investigation is the opening of the Preface to the 1967 Edition.

Quote:
The title of this book would justify the inclusion of Prince Hamlet, of the point, of the line, of the surface, of n-dimensional hyperplanes and hyper volumes, of all generic terms, and perhaps of each one of us and of the godhead. In brief, the sum of all things—the universe.
(Translation by Norman Thomas di Giovanni in collaboration with Borges)

My question: Why did Borges chose to include in his book Harpies, but not Hamlet, Fauna of Mirrors but not the symmetries of surface friezes, Animals in the Form of Spheres but not the n-sphere …? I suppose that including all generic terms, each of us, and the godhead, would require an infinite book like the The Book of Sand, Borges invented in his eponymous story published in 1975—over a decade after the Quote. In fact, given the Quote, The Book of Sand could be said to begin with an almost familiar sentence:

Lines consist of an infinite number of points; planes an infinite number of lines; volumes an infinite number of planes, hypervolumes an infinite number of volumes…

A gander at Borges’s original work reveals he had other ways of addressing mathematical issues, so perhaps we can assume he simply left that for “later”.

Which leaves the question of why not Hamlet.

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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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One Word Is Not Enough

billy-onjea https://unsplash.com/search/olympus?photo=_qGq1Z2Bk6c

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

lee-key https://unsplash.com/search/the-sun?photo=fZv8eSA7gkc

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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Charged With Eternity: Quirks and Perks

fabian-struwe https://unsplash.com/photos/4cloovdyuvw

Quote: The car came to a halt by the side of the road. I opened the door and got out. It wasn’t yet completely dark, but it was no longer day. The land all around us and the hills into which the highway went winding were a deep, intense shade of yellow that I have never seen anywhere else. As if the light (though it seemed to me not so much light as pure colour) were charged with something, I didn’t know what, but it could well have been eternity.

— Roberto Bolaño, Last Evenings on Earth (translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews)

Such colloquial equivocating in that final sentence of the Quote, such seemingly disinterested prose until the final word, where—of all things that could have charged the light—Bolaño sees eternity. It is as natural in Bolaño’s prose, as it would be in another writer’s poetry.

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Mephisto and Words: Quirks and Perks

angel-jimenez https://unsplash.com/photos/JZY4OdcUda8

Faust or Faustus of German legend started his literary life in a late sixteenth century chapbook by an unknown author. He was brought to the English audience by Christopher Marlowe in his play Doctor Faustus, and then flourished in Goethe’s Faust more than two hundred years later (and has become a literary trope since then).

Faust is God’s favourite scholar, bent on learning all there is but dissatisfied with what he has thus far achieved. Mephistopheles is a demon who bets with God that Faust can be corrupted, and proceeds to pit his wits against Faust. In Goethe’s dramatisation, Mephistopheles is a whimsical, down-to-earth character—he is the cynic to Faust’s romantic—and he has some of the best, if not wisest, lines in the play.

Since Quiver Quotes is devoted to fine writing, and in that sense too, the art of rhetoric and the power of the word, let us hear what Mephistopheles, or Mephisto as is his hypocoristic, has to say about words, paradoxes, and human nature. (Taken from the Wordsworth Classics edition; translation by John R. Williams.)

MEPHISTO.    I’ve always found that you can fox
                           A wise man or a fool with paradox.
                           It’s an old trick, but it works all the same,
2560                 And every age has tried time and again
                           To spread not truth, but error and obscurity,
                           By making three of one and one of three.
                           And so the fools can preach and teach quite undisturbed —
                           Who wants to argue with them? Let them wander on;
2555                  Most men believe that when they hear a simple word,
                           There must be some great meaning there to ponder.
                                                                                               (2557–2566)

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To Live or to Recount: Quirks and Perks

arms spread wide, sky

Photo by Joshua Earle

Quote:  This is what I have been thinking: for the most commonplace event to become an adventure, you must — and this is all that is necessary — start recounting it. This is what fools people: a man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it.

But you have to choose: to live or to recount.

— Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (translator: Robert Baldick)

A lesser mind might have put that last statement as: you cannot be both present in the moment and looking back at the past. Or: you cannot be both within, experiencing life, and without, observing it. But Sartre framed his words in terms of storytelling. On the other hand, the first sentence of the Quote is a recipe for any author (supposedly) bereft of ideas or inspiration: you are a story, your life is a story, all you have to do is recount it.

Skip now from Sartre, the existentialist, to Camus, the absurdist, speaking in his novel The Stranger (which I discussed in The Sunny Absurd).

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The Sunny Absurd

 

Albert Camus’ Stranger (1942) has one protagonist, the first person narrator called Meursault, and one antagonist: the sun. The book is originally in French; I quote from a translation by Stuart Gilbert. I have italicised all the words related to the sun.

Quote: There was the same red glare as far as the eye could reach, and small waves were lapping the hot sand in little, flurried gasps. As I slowly walked toward the boulders at the end of the beach I could feel my temples swelling under the impact of the light. It pressed itself on me, trying to check my progress. And each time I felt a hot blast strike my forehead, I gritted my teeth, I clenched my fists in my trouser pockets and keyed up every nerve to fend off the sun and the dark befuddlement it was pouring into me. Whenever a blade of vivid light shot upward from a bit of shell or broken glass lying on the sand, my jaws set hard. I wasn’t going to be beaten, and I walked steadily on.

Any book blurb gives away that this is a story of how Meursault got drawn into a murder on an Algerian beach. There’s also mention of the story being Camus’ exploration of the nakedness of man faced with the absurd. The Quote describes Meursault walking along the fateful beach, and his physical fight with the absurdity of his situation.

The Quote is not a spoiler. The book is short, around 100 pages, and within the first quarter the following words play prominent roles in conveying the oppressive mood of absurdity: sun, light, heat, lamps. The remaining three quarters intensify the heat — summer and the plot set in.

Oh, and the opening words are: Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. That surely adds to the heavy mood, and yet, the only image that had stayed with me since I last read this book, half a life ago, was the dazzle of yellow and white that can wreck havoc on the mind.

 

What makes the Quote quiver?

Sun-glare.

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Reading: Quirks and Perks

The book of gold, and other poems, Trowbridge, J. T. (John Townsend), 1827-1916 Charles E. Feinberg Collection of Walt Whitman (Library of Congress) DLC

The hurt that words can cause

Reading is the freeing of words, and some bonds are explosive.

Nenad Novak Stefanović, Svetlarnik (in QQ translation)

The original quote is in Serbian:

Čitanje je oslobađanje reči, a neki spojevi su eksplozivni.

I am unaware of an English translation, so I attempted a translation myself. (Any professional translators out there with a better version, please let me know!)

Note on translation: a curiosity.

Serbian has a tiny coordinating conjunction word a, which often translates to either the English (cumulative) conjunction and, or the English (adversative) conjunction but, depending on the context. Here’s an example:

Dan je, a mračno je napolju.   means  It’s day but it’s dark outside.
Dan je, a to znači da ne može napolju biti mračno. means It’s day and that means it can’t be dark outside.

Serbian also has the equivalent of the plain, old and, which is given by another single letter: i.

Mortal Metaphors

Have you always wanted to read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but never found a way to get started? No? Am I helping when I say it’s 600 pages of narrative poetry in Latin written in 8 AD and that it covers the myth and history of the world from the beginning to Julius Caesar? Oh and it influenced Dante, Chaucer, and Shakespeare. There, if that didn’t convince you that the following quote — which is not from Metamorphoses — is relevant, I don’t know what will.

Quote: The gods are invoked or they initiate. They are the intermittent forces, applied at the end of the lever, with a mortal at the fulcrum on whom a myth turns.

This is a line from A. S. Kline‘s A Honeycomb for Aphrodite, Reflections on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It’s a reasonable, easy-to-understand, 120-page book. It doesn’t claim to be an introduction to the subject matter, but it can give you an idea of what to expect. Also, the author has published his own translation of Ovid’s poem into prose (in the same book). Instead of struggling through meter and stanza you can read in full sentences a sweet little summary of its contents.

However, if you wish to indulge in a beautiful translation, after much internet traipsing, I’ve concluded (possibly incorrectly?) that this translation by Allen Mandelbaum is poetically the most satisfactory.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Simplification.

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