Friday, July 25, 2014

The Novel Démeublé

"The boat was pulling out, and I was straining my eyes to catch, through the fine, reluctant snow, my first glimpse of the city we were approaching. We passed the Wilhelm der Grosse coming up the river under tug, her sides covered with ice after a stormy crossing, a flock of seagulls in her wake. The snow blurred everything a little, and the buildings on the Battery all ran together -- looked like an enormous fortress with a thousand windows. From the mass, the dull gold dome of the World building emerged like a ruddy autumn moon at twilight."


"The Henshawes’ apartment was the second floor of an old brownstone house on the north side of the Square. I loved it from the moment I entered it; such solidly built, high-ceiled rooms, with snug fire-places and wide doors and deep windows. The long, heavy velvet curtains and the velvet chairs were a wonderful plum-colour, like ripe purple fruit. The curtains were lined with that rich cream-colour that lies under the blue skin of ripe figs."

Later still:

"The snow fell lightly all the afternoon, and friendly old men with brooms kept sweeping the paths -- very ready to talk to a girl from the country, and to brush off a bench so that she could sit down. The trees and shrubbery seemed well-groomed and sociable, like pleasant people. The snow lay in clinging folds on the bushes, and outlined every twig of every tree -- a line of white upon a line of black. Madison Square Garden, new and spacious then, looked to me so light and fanciful, and Saint Gaudens’ Diana, of which Mrs. Henshawe had told me, stepped out freely and fearlessly into the grey air. I lingered long by the intermittent fountain. Its rhythmical splash was like the voice of the place. It rose and fell like something taking deep, happy breaths; and the sound was musical, seemed to come from the throat of spring. Not far away, on the corner, was an old man selling English violets, each bunch wrapped in oiled paper to protect them from the snow. Here, I felt, winter brought no desolation; it was tamed, like a polar bear led on a leash by a beautiful lady.

"About the Square the pale blue shadows grew denser and drew closer. The street lamps flashed out all along the Avenue, and soft lights began to twinkle in the tall buildings while it was yet day -- violet buildings, just a little denser in substance and colour than the violet sky."

-- Willa Cather, My Mortal Enemy. 1926.

"How wonderful it would be if we could throw all the furniture out of the window; and along with it, all the meaningless reiterations concerning physical sensations, all the tiresome old patterns, and leave the room as bare as the stage of a Greek theatre, or as that house into which the glory of Pentecost descended; leave the scene bare for the play of emotions, great and little—for the nursery tale, no less than the tragedy, is killed by tasteless amplitude. The elder Dumas enunciated a great principle when he said that to make a drama, a man needed one passion, and four walls." 

-- "The Novel Démeublé."

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Silvere felt himself swooning. "Ah, my God!"

"The next day Silvere waited at the street corner. A vendor was selling chestnuts. Two gamins were fighting in an alley. A woman was scrubbing some steps. This great Paris throbbed with life.

"Heloise came. She did not perceive Silvere. She passed with a happy smile on her face. She looked fresh, fair, innocent. Silvere felt himself swooning. 'Ah, my God!'

"She crossed the street. The young man received a shock that sent the warm blood to his brain. It had been raining. There was mud. With one slender hand Heloise lifted her skirts. Silvere leaning forward, saw her--"

A young man in a wet mackintosh came into the little gent's furnishing store.

"Ah, beg pardon," said he to the clerk, "but do you have an agency for a steam laundry here? I have been patronising a Chinaman down th' avenue for some time, but he-- what? No? You have none here? Well, why don't you start one, anyhow? It'd be a good thing in this neighbourhood. I live just round the corner, and it'd be a great thing for me. I know lots of people who would-- what? Oh, you don't? Oh!"

As the young man in the wet mackintosh retreated, the clerk with a blonde moustache made a hungry grab at the novel. He continued to read: "Handkerchief fall in a puddle. Silvere sprang forward. He picked up the handkerchief. Their eyes met. As he returned the handkerchief, their hands touched. The young girl smiled. Silvere was in ecstacies. 'Ah, my God!'

"A baker opposite was quarrelling over two sous with an old woman.

"A grey-haired veteran with a medal upon his breast and a butcher's boy were watching a dogfight. The smell of dead animals came from adjacent slaughter-houses. The letters on the sign over the tinsmith's shop on the corner shone redly like great clots of blood. It was hell on roller skates."

Here the clerk skipped some seventeen chapters descriptive of a number of intricate money transactions, the moles on the neck of a Parisian dressmaker, the process of making brandy, the milk-leg of Silvere's aunt, life in the coal-pits, and scenes in the Chamber of Deputies. In these chapters the reputation of the architect of Charlemagne's palace was vindicated, and it was explained why Heloise's grandmother didn't keep her stockings pulled up.

-- From
"Why Did The Young Clerk Swear? Or, The Unsatisfactory French."

Last Words, by Stephen Crane.
Digby, Long & Co, London. 1902.

Photo: Kean Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


The younger man was paralyzed by time
And all of its potential for despair.
The older man is faded and aware
Of every creaking moment in this rhyme;
He scans the pit for purchases to climb,
Yet sees no tools at hand but words threadbare
And rotten, relics of a dull fanfare
That died to join its dusty paradigm.

The younger man was foolish and afraid;
The older man is foolish and alone.
He sees too well that methods of the past
Have slipped from every wall and now unbraid
Like tapestries forgotten in a zone
Where tombs are undiscovered and sealed fast.

-- Tuesday night, July 15, 2014.

One Person: One Shadow. Elegant.

The story of a good person hunted on false charges, forced to dig up unforseen layers of courage and cunning to survive until the next paragraph, is one that never gets old; and in Levels: The Host, Peter R. Emshwiller has come up with a fun and fresh variation on this theme.

One key to this variation is the use of an innocent, surprisingly naive person who must learn to survive in a cruel environment without becoming cruel himself. That person, Watly Caiper, is a young man with a compelling dream: to be a mother. To that end, he will do anything -- but as he discovers, "anything" means one thing to a good man, but something else entirely to a man who has no concern for people, for ethics, or for life itself.

It can be hard to write about naive heros without having them seem stupid or credulous to the point of pain, but Peter Emshwiller walks the tight-rope well.

He can also bring other skills to the page. He can dream up a vivid place and time. He can plot in devious ways that play fair with details already provided. He can end chapters on a note that makes you hurry to the next. He can surprise you with appropriate moments of humour or dismay. Best of all, he can make you care about his hero: a man both naive and courageous, both desperate and fundamentally good, who can carry the weight of the story right to the final page.

With all of this in mind, I have to admit that I nearly bailed out of the opening chapters, and only because of the prose.

At his best, Peter Emshwiller can write with an individual voice that is unpretentious, clear, and engaging. He makes a few grammatical mistakes ("like" and "as" have to play by different rules), and every now and then he might choose the wrong word ("nauseous" does not mean "nauseated"), but on the whole, he can describe an action, a setting, or a state of mind with conviction.

Yet in the opening chapters, this individual voice is undermined by needless repetition:

It struck Watly suddenly -- almost physically -- that the most wondrous thing about Second Level compared to First was a very simple thing. A basic thing: People had only one shadow here. Just one. Like Brooklyn. The solitary sun cast only one elegant shadow for each object. On First Level there was never only one shadow. Down below, as one walked from beneath one daylite to another, a fan of shadows danced about, fused and separated, faded and grew -- always in motion and never alone. Here it was different. Here a person could have a sense of solidity. One person: one shadow. Elegant.

In the early chapters, this verbal padding is often relentless, and it buries passages of lively description and fun, quirky insight beneath a pile of words. All too often, a statement is repeated. All too often. Almost constantly. Almost every time. Repeated. Statement after statement. After a while -- after just a few moments -- after just a few paragraphs -- I began to notice the repetition more than I noticed the story.

Very much to my relief, this repetition soon fades away to the point where the story can stand up and be enjoyed. The flaw has less to do with writing than with a lack of careful revision. From this debut novel, I would say that Peter Emshwiller can write well; if he can learn to revise well, then his obvious abilities will shine out all the more.

But for now, I recommend this book: for its roller-coaster plot, for its keen sense of place, for its emotional warmth and humanity, and for the glimpses of the writer's personality that gleam from the pages.

The Host is an individual book with an individual voice. In our current publishing environment, this matters more than I could say.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

You've Been a Long Way Away.

Brief Encounter.

It was not an ending I expected, and I'll confess, it shook me up. That entire final sequence was presented so starkly and so eloquently in purely visual terms, that all of the dialogue could have been removed -- yes, even the final words -- and every viewer would have understood.

Cathartic? Oh, yeah!

But above all, it showed me why David Lean is famous.