Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Grey Hair

Yehudah ha-Levi

One day I observed a grey hair in my head;

I plucked it right out, when it thus to me said:

"You may smile, if you wish, at your treatment of me,

But a score of my friends soon will make of you a mockery."

Monday, November 29, 2010

Historiography without the data, For Want of a Nail Part II

I am two-thirds of the way through Robert Sobel's For Want of a Nail, his alternate history of North America if the rebels had lost the American Revolution.

Besides being simply an enjoyable read (yes, reading is pleasurable, especially the feeling of a book in one's hands) there is a fine lesson for the writer of history to be gleaned from this book. 

The writing of history involves the marshaling of facts, figures, the citation of sources, but also involves a large modicum of creativity in arranging these materials.  Without it, history becomes flat and uninspired. 

What Sobel has done in this book is lay bare that process.  This history is not a history, but a creative illusion.  Sobel takes the apparatus of historical research, the form and function of it, and creates a beautiful and false edifice.  The historical framework is there, and he presents it elegantly and masterfully.  We get the feeling, when reading For Want of a Nail, that a knowledgeable guide is taking us on a journey.  This is the hallmark of all great works of history.  That the content is false makes little difference.

The lesson: good writing carries the day, no matter what the genre, but especially in a popular history.  History is a story to be told.  Why not tell it well? 

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Posthumous Droppings

The Finca Vigia Edition of Hemingway's Short stories, deemed "Complete" contains all the undisputed canonical works from the First 49 short stories in Part one, short stories published in books and magazines after the first 49 in Part two, most about the Spanish Civil War. Readers will see familiar work here. One Trip Across is the beginning of the novel To Have and Have Not, and An African Story is David Bourne's story within a story in The Garden of Eden.

Part three, previously unpublished fiction, gets on more shaky ground. There is a piece that was pulled out of Islands in the Stream, called The Strange Country and called a short story by the editors. A Train Trip and The Porter where two chapters of a novel that Hemingway abandoned to pursue more promising work. Here they are considered self contained.

Noticeably absent from this "complete" collection are the Nick Adams pieces that were previously unpublished but published in The Nick Adams Stories (with the exception of The Last Good Country). Why the editors of this collection should consider one Hemingway abandoned novel a short story, while others are not, makes no apparent sense.

This is what happens when one monkeys about with an author's posthumous droppings. Categories get questioned and readers wonder what is going on.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Crack-Up and Confessional Poets

In 1936, Scott Fitzgerald, on his downward spiral of drink and disintegration, decided to write about not being able to write. 

These essays were published by Esquire, the most famous of which is The Crack-Up.   There, Fitzgerald chronicled his descent (although he was short on specific details, like his binge drinking, and Zelda's insanity).

At the time, his fellow writers were horrified by the essay, feeling he had exposed sentiments that were best left to the private sphere.  In Jeffrey Meyers biography of Fitzgerald, he views The Crack-Up essays as a vital turning point in American fiction. 

First, Fitzgerald unwittingly performed the first act of 'any publicity is good publicity' for a public figure falling out of the public eye.  Until those essays, many had thought Fitzgerald was dead.  The essays reminded the American public that the darling of 1920s American fiction was alive -- in a sense.  We can see this monstrous legacy all around us.

Finally, Myers see a direct influence over later American post-war "confessional" poets, like Lowell, Plath and Sexton.  While Fitzgerald wrote about his decline and mental distress and was scolded, these topics became the grist for the mill of the confessional poets.  The Crack-Up, in part, gave them the license to do so.

Luckily for us, Esquire has the essay on line for all to read.


Friday, November 19, 2010

The Short Story Market Killed F. Scott Fitzgerald

Since his death at 44 in 1940, people have speculated both why Scott Fitzgerald died so young, why he failed to live up to the massive talent he displayed in writing The Great Gatsby, and fundamentally, how it could have been different.

Reading Jeffrey Myers biography Scott Fitzgerald, it becomes apparent that it is impossible to separate all the strands that ruined Scott.  He drank, and was not the kind of drinker who could function.  His upbringing did little to prepare him for adulthood and its responsibilities.  His marriage to Zelda was disastrous to his health and creativity and further propelled his drinking (although he did drink too much before he met her.)  

But his profligate lifestyle would have been impossible without money, and he earned this not from his novels or short literary fiction, but from popular writing in magazines like the Saturday Evening Post.  A story in the Post, which in the 20s had a circulation of three million, could earn him three to four thousand dollars a story.  He made nearly forty-thousand dollars a year, four or five times the amount of an average American family.  He felt he needed this money, to keep Zelda in luxury, and to present a picture of himself to the world as the successful artist.  

But this dedication to hack writing at the expense of other work, made his art suffer and ultimately diminished him as a writer.  Without those massive fees in the 1920s the Fitzgerald juggernaut would have been more difficult to keep moving at its dangerous speed. It might have even saved him.

For current short story writers, this is an amazing and ironic situation.   There is no short story market, except for a few select writers.  Most short stories are taken by journals for little or no money.  A short story market, literary or popular, simply doesn’t exist anymore.  Bad short stories were replaced by bad radio, and later bad TV, as popular entertainment. 

Now short stories in any form can hurt no one.  Writers should have no fear of them.  Readers might even try to read them.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Still Small Voice

ח וַיָּקָם, וַיֹּאכַל וַיִּשְׁתֶּה; וַיֵּלֶךְ בְּכֹחַ הָאֲכִילָה הַהִיא, אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם וְאַרְבָּעִים לַיְלָה, עַד הַר הָאֱלֹהִים, חֹרֵב.

ט וַיָּבֹא-שָׁם אֶל-הַמְּעָרָה, וַיָּלֶן שָׁם; וְהִנֵּה דְבַר-יְהוָה, אֵלָיו, וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, מַה-לְּךָ פֹה אֵלִיָּהוּ.

י וַיֹּאמֶר קַנֹּא קִנֵּאתִי לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֵי צְבָאוֹת, כִּי-עָזְבוּ בְרִיתְךָ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל--אֶת-מִזְבְּחֹתֶיךָ הָרָסוּ, וְאֶת-נְבִיאֶיךָ הָרְגוּ בֶחָרֶב; וָאִוָּתֵר אֲנִי לְבַדִּי, וַיְבַקְשׁוּ אֶת-נַפְשִׁי לְקַחְתָּהּ.

יא וַיֹּאמֶר, צֵא וְעָמַדְתָּ בָהָר לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, וְהִנֵּה יְהוָה עֹבֵר וְרוּחַ גְּדוֹלָה וְחָזָק מְפָרֵק הָרִים וּמְשַׁבֵּר סְלָעִים לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, לֹא בָרוּחַ יְהוָה; וְאַחַר הָרוּחַ רַעַשׁ, לֹא בָרַעַשׁ יְהוָה.

יב וְאַחַר הָרַעַשׁ אֵשׁ, לֹא בָאֵשׁ יְהוָה; וְאַחַר הָאֵשׁ, קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה.

And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meal forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God. And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and He said unto him: 'What doest thou here, Elijah?' And he said: 'I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant, thrown down Thine altars, and slain Thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.' And He said: 'Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD.' And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.

This portion of Kings is cited in nearly every New Age-y, Jewish Renewal book, as an example of the current status of the Divine in modern life. In this story, the prophet Eliyahu flees the northern kingdom of Israel, after defeating the prophets of Baal. He goes to Mount Horeb (Mount Sinai) to complain to HaShem about his treatment. HaShem seems poised to give Eliyahu the gift that he gave to Moses, to in some sense see HaShem.

Instead, HaShem creates actions in the world, but is not in the world. HaShem creates a wind, but is not in the wind; and an earthquake, but is not in the earthquake, and then a fire, but is not in the fire. And after this, Eliyahu hears a still small voice.

It is unclear where or what this voice is; in JR literature, the voice is within Eliyahu, and by proxy, within us.  This is a pleasant vision of what happened on Sinai.

But there is sad element to this revelation.  Sinai's moment is over. No more thunderous voice of HaShem. Now there is a still small voice. We have even less than Eliyahu. He may have had an “outer” still small voice. We must excavate our own inner “still small voice” which is so often smothered by louder voices.  And every day, it seems those voices grow even louder.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Nick Adams Dead End

Hemingway used Nick Adams as a character for much of his early writing life, and then left him behind. 

In the Nick Adams Stories, a collection of Nick stories and pieces, some not published elsewhere, Hemingway gives some indication why he left Nick behind.

There is the beginning of the WWI novel called "Night Before Landing" where Nick is in transit on a troop ship to Europe.  Nick proved an inadequate character for his WWI novel, and was tossed aside (of course, Frederick Henry would take the torch in A Farewell to Arms).  The novel was a dead end.

The key to Hemingway's abandonment of Nick may lie in a piece called "On Writing," which is weak and disjointed, but provides clues to Hemingway's ultimate estrangement with Nick Adams.  In this story, Nick is a writer, and he muses on writing.  He says in one part:

"The only writing that was any good was what you made up, what you imagined.  That made everything come true.  Like when he wrote "My Old Man" he'd never seen a jockey killed and the next week Georges Parfement was killed at that very jump and that was the way it looked.  None if it had happened...  That was what the family could not understand.  They thought it was experience."

Here, Hemingway cleverly gives Nick Adams an experience that Hemingway had, where Nick has written the story "My Old Man" where a jockey is killed from fall from a horse.  The fall didn't happen, but later, Nick saw a real fall and a real jockey's death at the same track and it was exactly like his writing, which he imagined.  Nick's family cannot distinguish that he makes things up... they think that he is writing strictly from experience, and that hurts them since Nick Adams is embedded so much in family life.

Of course, it was Hemingway who saw the jockey really fall after writing "My Old Man."  Here he gives Nick the experience while claiming that writer's never (or should never) write about experience.  You work out the logic .  There is a fascinating circularity here, maybe even a joke, and a clue.  Nick was too close to Hemingway, both for himself and for others.  He needed to leave that character behind to get at the imagined world of pure writing.  

All the late Nick Adams pieces in The Nick Adams stories contain this deflated quality.  Hemingway had already written Nick out.  He just hadn't fully realize it until he was certain he was dead and gone and had written too many stories with him.

Friday, November 12, 2010

For Want of a Nail

I have "For Want of a Nail" on my desk again.  I think I am finally ready to read it.

This alternate history textbook written by Professor Robert Sobel in 1971 posits that America lost the American Revolution.  Sobel outlines the history of North America from 1763 to 1971.  The book is a work of fiction, but is presented as an undergraduate history textbook, complete with over 800 footnotes to non-existent books and articles.  Detailed and well-written, this book has become a type of shrine for alternate history fans.

I took classes with Sobel at New College, Hofstra, in 1988 and 1990.  He wore a suit and tie everyday, and liked to stand at the window and comment on the tulips and green grass before a lecture.  In a small liberal arts college known for its liberalism, both in dress and politics, he was conservative, and considered a 'hard' professor.  Hard meant you must do the work, and hand it in on time, a rule not widely enforced in the rest of the college.  He was primarily a business historian, but his last book was a biography of Calvin Coolidge.  I remember him looking out the window in 1990 and saying that being older was great; one could plan for the future without impediments. He died shortly after he retired, in 1999.  Shortly after that, New College was all but eliminated by Hofstra, after key faculty that kept it going retired, and due to low enrollment.

For Want of a Nail was his only excursion into fiction.  It appears in keeping with the zeitgeist.  Ada was published in 1969.  Vonnegut was reaching his zenith.  And science fiction and various fantasy type genres were reaching wider audience.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Jewish Neshama (Soul)

From the NEW YORK TIMES 11-11-10

Rapper Finds Order in Orthodox Judaism in Israel


JERUSALEM — The tall man in the velvet fedora and knee-length black jacket with ritual fringes peeking out takes long, swift strides toward the Western Wall. It’s late in the day, and he does not want to miss afternoon prayers at Judaism’s holiest site.

“We have to get there before the sun goes down,” he says, his stare fixed behind a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses, the first clue that this is no ordinary Jerusalem man of God. It’s the rapper Shyne, the Sean Combs protégé who served almost nine years in New York prisons for opening fire in a nightclub in 1999 during an evening out with Mr. Combs and his girlfriend at the time, Jennifer Lopez.

“My entire life screams that I have a Jewish neshama,” he said, using the Hebrew word for soul.

Living as Moses Levi, an Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem (he legally changed his name from Jamaal Barrow), he shuttles between sessions of Talmud study with some of the most religiously stringent rabbis in the city and preparations for a musical comeback.
His transition from troubled adolescent in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, shot at the age of 15, to celebrity gangster rapper turned prisoner turned frequenter of yeshivas, is the latest chapter in a bizarre journey that began with his birth in Belize 32 years ago. He is the son of a lawyer who is now that country’s prime minister and a mother who brought him to the United States and cleaned houses for a living.

“The science of Judaism” as Mr. Levi refers to it, has become his system for living, a lifeline that connects him to God and becoming a better human being. He sees no conflict fusing the hip-hop world with the life of a Torah-observant Jew.

Mr. Levi speaks in the style of the urban streets but combines his slang with Yiddish-accented Hebrew words and references to the “Chumash” (the bound version of the Torah, pronounced khoo-MASH) and “Halacha” (Jewish law, pronounced ha-la-KHAH).
As in: “There’s nothing in the Chumash that says I can’t drive a Lamborghini,” and “nothing in the Halacha about driving the cars I like, about the lifestyle I live.” As a teenager he started reading the Bible, relating to the stories of King David and Moses that he had first heard from his grandmother. At 13 (bar mitzvah age, he notes) he began to identify himself as “an Israelite,” a sensibility reinforced after finding out his great-grandmother was Ethiopian; he likes to wonder aloud whether she might have been Jewish.

He was already praying daily and engaged in his own study of Judaism at the time of his arrest but only became a practicing Jew, celebrating the holidays, keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath under the tutelage of prison rabbis. In Israel, he said, he had undergone a type of pro forma conversion known as “giyur lechumra” (pronounced ghee-YUR le-kchoom-RAH).

On the December night in 1999 that Mr. Levi walked into a Times Square nightclub, he was a 19-year-old enjoying the fruits of his first record deal and the hip-hop high life. The details of what happened inside remain muddled, but after an argument broke out between Mr. Combs, then known as Puff Daddy, and a group in the club, shots were fired, and three people were hurt.

Mr. Combs was charged with gun possession but later cleared in a highly publicized trial. Mr. Levi was sentenced to 10 years in prison for assault, gun possession and reckless endangerment. The police said he fired into the crowd. He maintains he shot in the air to break up the dispute. He would not say whether he took a fall for his former mentor.

“That’s the past, I got so much going on,” he said. “We move on.”

What Mr. Levi has moved on to since being released from prison last year is a life in which he is often up at daybreak, wrapping his arms with the leather straps of tefillin, the ritual boxes containing Torah verses worn by observant Jews for morning prayers. Throughout the day he studies with various strictly Orthodox rabbis.

“What are the laws?” he said, explaining his decision to adhere to the Orthodox level of observance. “I want to know the laws. I don’t want to know the leniencies. I never look for the leniencies because of all of the terrible things I’ve done in my life, all of the mistakes I’ve made.”

On the sprawling stone plaza of the Western Wall, crowded with tourists and worshipers, he clutches a worn prayer book whose leather cover was torn off by prison officials for security reasons.
Here he encounters a group of young Ethiopians singing in Hebrew and Amharic about Jerusalem. For a moment he links arms with them, and together they spin, dancing in concentric circles at dizzying speed.

With him is his local sidekick, a burly and bearded 30-year-old named Eli Goldsmith who used to run nightclubs in London (his uncle is a prominent music promoter) before he too became religious.

Later, with Mr. Goldsmith in the rental car he uses to get around, Mr. Levi sampled tracks from two new albums, “Messiah” and “Gangland,” that are to be released in a joint venture with Def Jam Records. The deal suggests the clout he holds despite not having released an album since 2004. He put the volume on high as he drove through the traffic-clogged roads of an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood.

In songs like “Am I a Sinner?” he casts his spiritual quest as an escape from prison life and pain, with lyrics like, “Look in your soul and you will find vision that you can’t see through the eye.”

Three more albums are scheduled to follow. Touring in the United States remains uncertain; he was deported after his prison release as a felon who does not have citizenship, a ruling he is appealing.

Arriving at a small hummus restaurant, he recited the blessing for bread over a piece of warm pita. With him were two rabbis. Jeffrey Seidel, one of the rabbis, said he been moved by the depth of Mr. Levi’s intellectual curiosity and dedication to Judaism.

Their current focus of study together: Sabbath laws. For Mr. Levi they help explain his attraction to Judaism.

“What I do get is boundaries,” he said. “Definition and form. And that is what Shabbat is. You can’t just do whatever you want to do. You have to set limits for yourself.

“All these rules, rules, rules,” he said with his hand on an open page of the Talmud. “But you know what you have if you don’t have rules? You end up with a bunch of pills in your stomach. When you don’t know when to say when and no one tells you no, you go off the deep.”

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Oval soul-animals

Sylvia Plath

Since Christmas they have lived with us,
Guileless and clear,
Oval soul-animals,
Taking up half the space,
Moving and rubbing on the silk

Invisible air drifts,
Giving a shriek and pop
When attacked, then scooting to rest, barely trembling.
Yellow cathead, blue fish---
Such queer moons we live with

Instead of dead furniture!
Straw mats, white walls
And these traveling
Globes of thin air, red, green,

The heart like wishes or free
Peacocks blessing
Old ground with a feather
Beaten in starry metals.
Your small

Brother is making
His balloon squeak like a cat.
Seeming to see
A funny pink world he might eat on the other side of it,
He bites,

Then sits
Back, fat jug
Contemplating a world clear as water.
A red
Shred in his little fist.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mussar for the Masses

Alan Morinis, in his Climbing Jacob's Ladder, does us a service by presenting the little known movement within Judaism known as Mussar, which concentrats on ethical conduct and what we would now call “self-help.”

In a rabbinical Judaism dominated by study, ritual, and communal duties, Mussar often goes off the tracks, stressing internal development, meditation, withdrawing from public life, and actions that help the individual lessen negative traits.

Mussar is firmly connected to the world of Orthodox Judaism, and Morinis needed to travel to Far Rockaway to learn Mussar first hand from Rabbi Yechiel Yitzchok Perr, scion of a long line of Mussar rabbis. Morinis paints Rabbi Perr in very appealing shades, showing how Mussar is just as much, if not more, a movement of example rather than book learning (another way that it veers from traditional Jewish preoccupations).

Morinis does a good job showing what Mussar is, as well as providing practical examples of how to inject Mussar into the reader’s life.  He tries to show how one can use Mussar without being orthodox; it seems that Morinis wants Mussar to join Jewish Renewal and Neo-Hasidism: using elements of the original form of  religious or ethical movement, and fashioning it for a non-practicing (or semi-practicing) audience. 

This is born out by Morinis' founding of The Mussar Institute, which has the stated goal of teaching Mussar to the masses. 

Monday, November 8, 2010

Yoram Kaniuk's Bito, His Daughter

Yoram Kaniuk is not as well-known an Israel writer as Amos Oz or Y.B. Yehoshua, despite most of his novels being published in English by major US publishing houses.  He belongs to the same generation as Oz and Yehoshua, born in pre-Palestine Israel, but unlike them old enough to take part in the War of Independence.  He was shot in the legs by an Englishman in a kaffiyeh and sent to New York City to recuperate.  There he stayed for sometime, painting, writing, and absorbing the Greenwich Village post-war artistic culture. 

His early novels were straight up narratives with difficult subject matter, like Himmo, King of Jerusalem, about a solider wounded in the War of Independence, his legs and arms blown off and blinded, yet somehow still alive.  Himmo becomes involved with a young nurse named Hamutal, and their "relationship," tortured and bizarre, becomes a type of metaphor for the evolving sense of Zionist identity in the new state of Israel.

Later, Kaniuk's novels would take less traditional forms.  At this point, a wider audience outside of Israel (and even within) seemed to allude him, despite the fact that some of A.B. Yehoshua's most beloved novels have non-traditional forms, like The Lover, A Late Divorce. But by and large, Yehoshua does not try to carry that complexity to the level of sentence structure and syntax.  A.B.'s forms are complex, but his language is more traditional. 

This is not the case with Kaniuk, who produces complexity on nearly every level.  Take his novel His Daughter, a novel with elements of traditional storytelling, fantasy, mystery and crime genres rolled into one package. This makes for a layered and difficult novel (although not as difficult as some of his other recent works), with dense sections of dialogue and quickly shifting moods, styles, and levels of narrative intensity.  Kaniuk takes a plastic form like the novel and uses it with great dexterity.

So, only a careful, patient reader should try this novel. But if such a reader does, the rewards are plentiful. This work is a deep investigation of the nature of Israeli society, the Zionist vision, the changing nature of a culture and a society under rapid transformation. Only a complex narrative can mirror such a complicated society. Kaniuk leaves no easy answers to the  questions his work raises. We get mystery and density, and the feeling, even after having read 293 pages, that the last work has not been said.

Friday, November 5, 2010

אל מלא רחמים God Full of Mercy - Yehuda Amichai

אל מלא רחמים,

אלמלא האל מלא רחמים

היו הרחמים בעולם ולא רק בו.

אני, שקטפתי פרחים בהר

והסתכלתי אל כל העמקים,

אני, שהבאתי גוויות מן הגבעות,

יודע לספר שהעולם ריק מרחמים.

אני שהייתי מלך המלח ליד הים,

שעמדתי בלי החלטה מול חלוני,

שספרתי צעדי מלאכים,

שלבי הרים משקלות כאב

בתחרויות הנוראות.

אני שמשתמש רק בחלק קטן

מן המילים במלון.

אני, שמוכרח לפתור חידות בעל כורחי,

יודע כי אלמלא האל מלא רחמים

היו הרחמים בעולם

ולא רק בו.

God-Full-of-Mercy, the prayer for the dead.

If God was not full of mercy,
Mercy would have been in the world,

Not just in Him.

I, who plucked flowers in the hills

And looked down into all the valleys,

I, who brought corpses down from the hills,

Can tell you that the world is empty of mercy.

I, who was King of Salt at the seashore,

Who stood without a decision at my window,

Who counted the steps of angels,

Whose heart lifted weights of anguish

In the horrible contests.

I, who use only a small part

Of the words in the dictionary.

I, who must decipher riddles

I don't want to decipher,

Know that if not for the God-full-of-mercy

There would be mercy in the world,

Not just in Him.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Old Fashioned Man of Letters

The Other Zions got an excellent review (along with Kevin Brook's Jews of Khazaria) in OUTLOOK: Canada's Progressive Jewish Magazine:


Here is a particularly flattering passage:

"Maroney is in fact not an academic historian at all, but an old-fashioned man of letters, the holder of an MA in Philosophy and the author of a book on religious syncretism as well as one of fiction. Nevertheless  (or “therefore”) he writes well, lays out evidence and arguments clearly, and appears to be a reliable guide through the thicket of anecdote, rumour and legend which enshrouds the history of many of these far-off times and places."

OUTLOOK has an interesting mandate; they are a magazine well worth reading:

"Outlook Magazine is an independent, secular Jewish publication with a socialist-humanist perspective. Outlook was founded in 1962. It is published six times per year. The magazine has collectives in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver."

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Joy of Writing: Musical Characters

I write because for me it is a form of play.

That does not mean I don’t take it seriously, or that I don’t try to convey weighty and adult themes in my writing. All it means is that the actual act of writing for me is by and large fun.

I’m not especially interested in deep autobiographical soul searching, nor do I have an overt or consistent political or social agenda to my fiction (non-fiction is perhaps another story) what guides me is the sense that the story is ‘right’ and that creating it lends a sense of satisfaction and completion seldom found in other activities.

Again, it is an activity roughly akin to play. Play brings with it the satisfaction of creating a world that we can control. For me, writing is an analogous activity. The hidden source of its satisfaction lay in our childhood dream worlds.
 Take one of my characters, the Hebrew poet Yasha Schulevitz. A few years ago I created and embedded him in a novel that took place in Europe between the wars. This Yasha was a Hebrew poet and Yiddish journalist. He inhabited this world, and was a fixture of it. He fit in, and when he did not, the novel ended.

I enjoyed creating him so much that I wrote short stories about him. Two were taken and published. The Yasha of the short stories is similar to the Yasha of the novel, but also different. Their biographies rhyme, but the form and demands of short story writing made me render Yasha differently, and happily so.

Finally, I took Yasha, a Diaspora Jew, and placed him in an ‘alternate, history in the State of Greater Israel in my novel People of the Land. Here, he is a solider and poet. Here, the demands of this new history thrust him into different roles than the two other Yashas.  Even after two shots at him, there was more of the character to create and explore.

How else to explain these mutations of character than the inherent sense of play in writing? Writing is about the exploration of whatever the writer finds interesting, but without the joy in the act of writing, I think fiction often comes across as sententious and runs the great risk of being boring.

Of course this is an ideal that is often hard to follow. But when accomplished, the results are always pleasant to read. The joy of writing becomes the joy of reading

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Like Shining From Shook Foil

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89)

God’s Grandeur

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

 And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings

Monday, November 1, 2010

It Tolls for Thee

My fiction is in written English, but most of the characters speak another language (Hebrew, Yiddish, and Italian, in that order). The narratives too, are supposed to be in another language. There really are two tracks you can take in this kind of narrative sleight of hand. Either you act as if the characters expressing themselves in this language they would never speak is perfectly normal (as in many Hebrew novels and stories before Hebrew was a widely spoken language), or you in some way express that other language in English through a type of re-rendering.

I have been reading Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, and he takes that latter course. The novel is in English, but everyone speaks Spanish. So Hemingway tries to create Spanish sounding English by stretching the syntax of English nearly to its breaking point, by rendering Spanish-ism into odd English phrases, like “what passes with thee?” for que pasa, a common Spanish greeting.

He also uses archaic English usages to present forms that exist in Spanish, but are gone from English, like thee and thou for the second person pronoun. It makes for strange but captivating reading. Here is a writer rendering English into Spanish forms. The results are startling and not always enjoyable; but it always gives you the impression that you have entered another world.

If the novel was written in more fluid English, the result would not have been so unusual. The very clumsiness of the language reminds the reader that this is a novel that is taking place in another, somewhat more formal language. And the English bears that imprint.

When we read For Whom the Bell Tolls we can see English both reaching into its past to create diction of current usage, as well as using an odd and foreign syntax to give the illusion of another language.  Often, this effect was criticized.  But an open reading of this novel shows what an effective technique this is and how well it does the heavy lifting of expressing another culture's values on the level of language from one tongue to another.