Monday, 24 September 2012

Borges on Metaphor

Between the autumn of 1967 and the spring of 1968, Jorge Luis Borges gave a series of six lectures at Harvard, which have been collected into a small book with the title This Craft of Verse
         When I go to Borges I go to his stories for their boundary-bending philosophy, his essays to remind myself of all the writers I haven't read and the ideas I've never considered, and his sonnets for the inimitable deftness he conjures his ideas with in the space of fourteen lines. And so it is apt that these lectures regard poetry - like his poetry, and unlike most of his short stories and essays, they are extraordinarily digestible.
         The second of these lectures is titled simply 'The Metaphor', and I'm focusing on this not because it is more refreshing than the others, or even because metaphor is something I've been thinking about a lot recently. I have chosen this lecture simply because it contained the most thought-provoking image I've encountered for a while, and I thought it merited writing about.
         Borges defines metaphor very simply: it is something made 'by linking two different things together.' And with the number of objects, concepts and  nouns available, the number of possible metaphors should be near infinite. As he notes, even each individual word is secretly a metaphor, when you trace the etymology of that word. Even when using a simple word such as 'consider', he says, 'we have to forget ... there is a suggestion of astrology - "consider" originally meaning "being with the stars," "making a horoscope".' And yet he refers back to 'the Argentine poet Lugones', who 'wrote that he thought poets were always using the same metaphors.'
         He goes on to describe the metaphor 'patterns' in common use - the notion of stars as eyes ('The stars look down'), time as flowing 'as a river does', women as flowers, life as a dream, death as sleeping. These metaphors may be varied a thousand different ways - a million - but why these metaphors? My own theory is that some things are simply innate within us - the argument, for example, that many people are afraid of snakes because they have been, since the earliest days, associated with evil and sin. The idea of the snake as 'bad' is so ingrained within our culture that there is a preexisting idea within us (or an idea that develops so early on that it may as well be preexisting) of their scariness. Similarly, since the dawn of time people have been regarding the stars with wide open eyes and wondering which gods, or spirits, or human descendants, are watching back. There is something about these particular metaphors which resonates within us on a perhaps untraceable level. This ties in with Borges's view on why other metaphors don't have the same sticking power, no matter how impressive: 'Because, of course, you can find other affinities that are merely astonishing, and astonishment hardly lasts more than a moment.'
         But then we come to the individual, un-trope-like metaphor, which can't be traced back to one of perhaps a dozen patterns. The example Borges gives is the image I referred to earlier. It is 'from Farid al-Din Attar, or Omar Khayyám, or Hafiz, or another of the great Persian poets,' as he puts it. It is the idea of the moon as 'the mirror of time'.
         The more I think of this image the more 'astonished' I am that it hasn't become another 'pattern' metaphor. First there is the moon itself, pockmarked and crater-laden, one sided, like a mirror, the reverse unseen with its back hidden from us in perpetuity. If time were physical, how could it look anything other than like that cold wasteland, a dead sphere? In an essay, 'The Fearful Sphere of Pascal,' collected in Labyrinths, Borges writes of 'Xenophanes of Colophon' who 'offered the Greeks a single God, a God who was an eternal sphere.' If spherical is a perfect way to describe God, how about using it as a way to envisage time, 'for all points of its surface are equidistant from its centre,' a beginning and end of which are impossible to pick out? Then there is the idea of a mirror, which needs eyes to look into for a reflection to be made (or at least appreciated, to avoid becoming too philosophical). We, who have been on the Earth for all of a comparative five minutes, which has been in the galaxy for all of a comparative half hour, which has been in the universe for etc, etc, look at the moon and see time, not bouncing back as reflections are often described as doing, but stagnating ever further, a languorous spot in the sky. This is an image which will stick with me until the end of my time, and which I'm sure will make its way into my own writing more than once.
         So should we deplore the fact that our stock of metaphors has been needlessly reduced and search high and low for our own individual metaphors? Or should we experiment with what's readily available? With characteristic optimism, Borges encourages both, in a conclusion worth quoting in full: 
         '...if we like, we may try our hand at new variations of the major trends. The variations would be very beautiful, and only a few critics like myself would take the trouble to say, "Well, there you have eyes and stars and there you have time and the river over and over again." The metaphors will strike the imagination. But it may also be given to us - and why not hope for this as well? - it may also be given to us to invent metaphors that do not belong, or that do not yet belong, to accepted patterns.'

And a link to a brilliant fiction podcast on the New Yorker, with a very harrowing Borges story called 'The Gospel According to Mark':

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Ray Bradbury's Sincerity

There are stories you remember because of a brilliant character, or an unusual setting, or the twist at the end. I remember Ray Bradbury's story 'The Next in Line' from The October Country because of a single, brilliantly placed word.
                  As it happens I'd probably remember 'The Next in Line' anyway - it has the unusual setting, the great characters, the twist at the end - but this was the story that showed me how language can transform great writing into magic.
                  Ray Bradbury died less than a month ago, and as ever when a great character dies there were plenty of obituaries, quotes, etc. Great people should be remembered after they're gone, but it feels slightly morbid writing about someone because they've died. It's almost like saying 'Look at me, I knew about him too, I read his stuff, I thought he was great.' Maybe it's the age of Facebook and Twitter, and maybe there's nothing wrong with it (I admit I found out that Ray Bradbury was dead on Twitter, and had 'remembered' him on my Facebook account less than an hour later). Either way, in this instance maybe morbidity is appropriate. 'The Next in Line' is a morbid story.
                  We start in a poor Mexican town in the 50s, with a young married couple, Joseph and Marie, on holiday from the States. Marie finds the town macabre, especially after witnessing its custom of displaying the bodies, mummified, in an underground catacomb if the relatives cannot afford to pay a 'graveyard tax'. She becomes so upset that she wants to leave the town immediately, but due to a broken down car the couple are forced to remain an extra night.
                  Aside from the magic word, the brilliance of this piece is in the pace. At the end of the story we learn that Marie is dead. At first this is jarring - there seemed no indication of imminent death on first read. But rereading, it becomes obvious. Bradbury tricks us with the pace, and the character of Marie.
Throughout the story there are many long sections, all of them intimately involving Marie, which have very few full stops, so that the sentences seem to go on forever in a most frantic manner. Amidst these sections, repetition enforces the pace. When Joseph and Marie are in the catacomb, with Joseph giving nicknames to the corpses, such as 'Mr. Grimace and Mr. Gape,' Marie is barely listening, counting the bodies in horror. Then, when she imagines the bodies are screaming, Bradbury writes, 'Click went the camera, and Joseph rolled the film. Click went the camera, and Joseph rolled the film.'
                  These hard, repeated sentences in amidst Marie’s turmoil really emphasise the ghoulish nature of the scene, and show how alienated Joseph is from his wife.
                  At several points throughout the story, Marie says out loud that she is ill, but because of her character, because she just wants to leave the town, we do not take this at face value. It is not until we reread that we can see, Marie’s actions are not the actions of a healthy person. The fast pace mirrors her body breaking down, and at several points she listens to her heart beating, noticing that it sounds louder than normal.
                  And then comes the language. This is a story subtly about a body falling apart, and clearly about a failing relationship. In the penultimate section, Joseph is in the hotel bathroom cleaning his teeth. Marie calls to him from bed, begging him that if she dies in the town, he won't let her be buried there. He refuses to make what he calls a 'ridiculous' promise. And then Bradbury does this (starting with dialogue from Joe):

'                  And besides, if you died, you'd look very pretty in the catacomb standing between Mr. Grimace and Mr. Gape with a sprig of morning-glory in your hair.' And he laughed sincerely.

                  The dialogue tells us plenty about this relationship, but it is the final sentence, and in particular that final word, which grip the reader and tell us everything we need to know about how far apart these people are, and how blind Joseph is to his wife's plight.
In the final scene, Joseph is driving away from the town, finally. He glances beside him and from his eyes the reader sees the black band around his wrist, and the empty passenger seat. Marie has died, and she is not leaving Mexico.
                  One of Ray Bradbury's greatest qualities as a human being, and as a teacher (figuratively speaking - he didn't agree with Creative Writing courses!) is his sincerity. He knew he was very, very good, and didn't feel the need to pretend otherwise. He couldn't read War and Peace or Proust or James Joyce, and again he didn't feel the need to pretend otherwise. He spoke truthfully, unashamedly, and this turned what could have been arrogance into humour. He was hilarious. He was a teller of haunting and beautiful anecdotes, and it's no wonder he wrote the way he did. Here's his interview in the Paris Review - you'll see what I mean:
Paris Review Interview: Ray Bradbury

Monday, 11 June 2012

The Ambiguous Orphanage

Ambiguity in fiction, or art in general, is a difficult thing to master. Take it too far and the audience is left confused, in a bad way. Is he a ghost or not? Was the guy at the beginning her father or her great-great-great-great-eighty-second-cousin-two-thousand-times-removed who's time traveled from the past to warn her about genetically modified wombats? If the audience is asking these questions there's a good chance they're dissatisfied, left without an answer. However, if the writer/filmmaker provides enough evidence for each explanation - he is both a ghost and not a ghost, both a father and a time-traveling great-great-great-great-eighty-second-cousin-two-thousand-times-removed - it can be a source of great pleasure for the reader/viewer.
                  The trick is in the intent. I wrote a story a while ago in which I wanted three possible readings.

  1. The narrator is a ghost.
  2. The narrator comes from the imagination of another character.
  3. The narrator is real.
                  If I hadn't intended these three readings, a reader's response would likely be '...I don't get it... Is he real or not?' As it is, I don't think I've fully achieved my intended result yet - no one has read it and wondered about all three possibilities. But neither has anyone been confused. People generally say something like 'I like it... he could be dead, or imaginary.' Not, 'is he dead, or is he imaginary?' Because the ambiguity is not a result of careless or clumsy writing - is, in fact, purposeful - it works.
                  The finest example I've seen of this recently is in the horror movie, The Orphanage, directed by J. A. Bayona. (Spoilers ahead!) 
                  The basic plot of The Orphanage is: Woman moves into a now closed-down orphanage she lived in briefly as a girl, along with her husband and their adopted son. They plan to open it up for children with special needs. The adopted son, who is HIV-positive, has a vivid imagination - he sees and befriends invisible children in the house. The son goes missing and his mother spends the rest of the film trying to find him, when everyone else has given up, growing more and more desperate. I won't reveal the ending.
                  The horror of this movie - and it is terrifying on a first viewing - is not due to gore (there is only a small amount). Neither is it really to do with the threat of violence. It comes through in the way the suspense is built, so slowly it becomes unbearable. It comes in the conflict between being unable to tear your eyes away from the screen because you know something will happen at any moment, and wanting with every stretching second to turn on the lights and play some happy music. And then you come to the end of the film and the horror becomes about emotion - the emotion of a mother who's lost her child and will go to any lengths to find him, the emotion of a husband trying to bring his wife to a better place but being pushed away for not believing in ghosts or mediums.
                  And then the ambiguity comes in. Is the mother right, or is the father? You build an argument for superstition, and then before you finish it a rational explanation presents itself in your mind. Even the most difficult events to question have reasonable answers. In one scene a medium is invited to the house. She goes into a trance and has a terrifying encounter with some dead children. Microphones are placed throughout the house, with corresponding monitors to show feedback. And there is feedback, lots of it. According to the medium, this is the children screaming. But if you know anything about this equipment you know that random feedback is a frequent occurrence, and the noise it produces can sound an awful lot like a distorted human voice. There is an explanation for everything. But the viewer doesn't say 'is it supposed to be real or not?' The viewer sits and discusses it for days with anyone else who's seen it, saying 'that was amazing... it was all real... but none of it was real.' The ambiguity makes it the film you remember.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Storytelling Narrator v. Free Indirect Style in Fantasy

Maybe it's because I'm reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest at the same time that I'm trying to plan a fantasy(esque) novel, but it suddenly seems that very little fantasy truly embraces free indirect style.
                  Infinite Jest is a master class on the device of getting into the head and speech and thought-patterns of a character you're writing about in the third person (not to mention a master class in getting into the head and speech and thought-patterns of a character you're writing about in first person). It could also, arguably, taking place in the 'not-so-distant future', be classed in the science fiction category. In fact, Wikipedia classifies it as 'Hysterical realism, Satire, Tragicomedy, Postmodern, Science Fiction'. But Infinite Jest is a million things, whereas traditional fantasy tends to follow a much more limited path.
                  I have tried writing fantasy before, and always a worry starts to niggle and grow until I have to stop. If I'm writing something set in a different world, why would the characters, even if humanoid, interact like we do, eat like we do, walk/talk/fight like we do. Why would they speak English? There's nothing more jarring, for me, when reading a fantasy novel, to see a character (or even an omniscient narrator) say something like 'silent as the grave.' Would characters from another world really use phrases that we ourselves use? In my mind it's like Wittgenstein's notion that, should a lion suddenly discover the entire vocabulary of the human language, we still wouldn't understand it, so alien is its nature and social situation compared to ours.
                  All this is not to diminish Fantasy which tells a story using human words and expressions - it's still one of my favourite genres. It's just that when I try to do it, it grates on me until I give up.
                  Taking this up a level, the 'fantasy' I'm planning at the moment is set on a world entirely alien to our own - the native creatures are not humanoid, they have no concept of spoken language, they could not imagine what it would be to be human. The 'world' has no oceans or deserts or plains or trees or rivers or even minerals. And yet I need language to write about it - even more I need the English language to write about it. So how do I get around this? Do I embrace the omniscient, storytelling narrator, who can describe the world to the reader in language they can immediately grasp, or do I limit the narration to as true a form of free indirect style as is possible - create a new dialect, new idioms, limit my vocabulary to a certain number of words, as Niall Griffiths  limited his vocabulary to around 700 different words whilst writing Runt. Aside from this, is it even possible to create a race completely devoid of human connotations which a human reader could nevertheless empathise with.
                  The contradiction of using language to describe a language-less 'species' would have its advantages - language is a brilliant thing, and to give it free range to describe something completely novel would be liberating. It would just feel inauthentic. Could a blend of the two work - a jump between omniscience and free indirect? Any ideas, anyone? Maybe I can write this as 'experimentally' as possible, and write a more traditional fantasy story alongside it as a sort of catharsis. Or maybe I should just stop planning and start writing?

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Sinbad and the Book as Mirror

I came to Steven Millhauser after realising that he told the kinds of stories I most want to tell - stories which explore the uncanny alongside the canny, which deal in realism yet with a dark strain of fantasy always lurking in the background. The ambiguity you can create, and hopefully control, when balancing these two poles is something I'll come back to soon, but I've been momentarily sidetracked by a story that reneges on his usual parties of illusionists and unexplained mystery, and deals with an issue close to any storyteller - how stories themselves are told, and interpreted in any multitude of ways, how they evolve differently in different minds.

  1. Late afternoon, the slant sun bright and the sky blue fire, Sinbad the merchant sits in the warm shade of an orange tree, in the northeast corner of his courtyard garden.
  2. The first European translation of The Arabian Nights was made by the French orientalist Antoine Galland, in twelve volumes published between 1704 and 1717.                                                                     
  3. I abode awhile in Baghdad-city savoring my prosperity and happiness and forgetting all I had endured of perils and hardships and sufferings, till I was again seized with a longing to travel and see strange sights, whereupon I bought costly merchandise meet for trade, and binding it into bales, repaired to Bassorah.
These are the first sentences of the first, second and third paragraphs of The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad, originally from Millhauser's collection The Barnum Museum, but also found in We Others: New and Selected Stories. Three narrative strains are established, which repeat in the same cyclical pattern, a paragraph at a time, till the end of the story, 23 pages later. A paragraph examining an old Sinbad in the third person as he sits in his garden, remembering and misremembering past adventures, followed by an authoritative paragraph detailing the history of The Arabian Nights and in particular the story of Sinbad, and finally a paragraph in the first person, in the voice of a still young Sinbad who has decided to undertake an eighth voyage. 
                  The effect is a carefully crafted work of metafiction - the middle sections point out to the reader that what he is reading is fiction; the first sections give Sinbad's consideration of the way he has altered his voyages by describing them, so that there could be 'three septads: the seven voyages, the memory of the seven voyages, and the telling of the seven voyages.' In a similar vein it is pointed out that there are three narrators of Sinbad's story - Sinbad himself, Scheherazade who is describing Sinbad telling his own story to the King of Persia, and an omniscient narrator who is telling the reader of A Thousand and One Nights the story of Scheherazade, telling the story of Sinbad, etc. The third section seems to be an original story, although there is one curious moment. The young Sinbad is transported to a Baghdad where no one can see or hear him, and discovers his old self, sitting in his courtyard. He becomes a viewer of the old Sinbad, as we readers are viewers of the old Sinbad. He exists in his own story as something outside his own story, highlighting the theme of multiple interpretation. 
                  Another exploration of this theme occurs when the old Sinbad remembers not individual voyages, but bits and pieces from each voyage, 'so it comes about that within the seven voyages new voyages arise, which gradually replace the earlier voyages as the face of an old man replaces the face of a child.' Scheherazade herself may distort the stories - she is telling them to King Shahriyar of Persia to save her own life - might she not put words in Sinbad's mouth, exaggerate to prolong her story or to make it more fascinating?
                  Then there is the question of time. As Millhauser writes: 'Sinbad recites each of his voyages from start to finish in an unbroken monologue during a single day ... [the story] therefore takes seven full days ... Scheherazade begins the story at the very end of Night 536 and completes it towards the end of Night 566' - it takes her thirty nights, evening to dawn, even though Sinbad manages to tell it in only 7 days. Finally, 'The reader may complete the entire story of Sinbad at a sitting, or he may divide his reading into smaller units, which will not necessarily coincide with the narratives of Sinbad or Scheherazade, and which will change from one reading to another.'
                  And the role of the imagination? What if, as the old Sinbad wonders, 'he imagined the voyages in his youth, and now remembers them as if they had actually taken place, or whether he imagined them in his old age and placed them far back, in a youth barely remembered. Does it matter?'
                  Whether it matters or not, it gradually becomes clear that there are 'as many voyages as there are readers, as many voyages as there are readings.'
                  So what does this tell us about the art of storytelling? An obvious truth, but one which can be hard to remember. Everybody sees the world in a different way. What we believe is established is not necessarily so to another individual. To Western ears, music in a major key is associated with happiness and joy, but in certain parts of China, for example, when people first heard Western music in a major key they described it as being melancholy and sad. 
                  If, as a writer, you can maintain this notion, another layer may start to develop in your work . If you remember that the book or story or poem, as well as being something hopefully read by many individuals, is read, still, by individuals, and so acts as a mirror - the individual reader will have their own interpretation, in effect giving this meaning to the text through the act of reading it - if you think of your audience as an audience of individuals, rather than a collectivist mass, could this one-to-one connection be exploited? How far can you go in this direction? How many voyages can you create?

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The First Post

This blog is for myself. My main aim is to write - to get myself writing, to reflect on my writing, and to reflect on what I'm reading, while my thoughts are still fresh. Some posts will take the form of personal reviews, focusing on short stories, novels, poetry, movies, etc, but with personal being the operative word. For example, if I were to review Steven Millhauser's short story, The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad (which I will do soon) it won't be a general review, but a look at what interests me enough to make me write about it - i.e. the way the three narratives parallel and work with each other, mixing fiction and 'meta'fiction to create a story about storytelling. Other posts will be about things I want to explore in my writing, writers I admire, problems with my writing I'm trying to resolve, etc, etc, etc. Hopefully this will be interesting to other people too, maybe even interesting enough to read on a regular basis. So if you're interested in writing and reading, and reading about how people write and read, read what I write and write back.