Bistro

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Bistro is a finalist, one of three, in the New Brunswick Book Award (2016) for Fiction. The photo is an older one, taken by the local newspaper in my basement in 2014, and reproduced in the paper today. Funnily enough, I am wearing the same clothes today as I was when the photo was taken three years ago. Luckily, Clare has washed them for me, on several occasions, in the interval between then and now. Thank you, Clare, for all the little things you do to keep me alive and happy. Without you, I don’t know what I’d do. This book, like all my creative work, is dedicated to you.

Bistro is available online.

My Favorite Book

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My Favorite Book

Last night, my writing group threw the table open for discussion on ‘my favorite book’. I listened as each member of the group came up with a title or two and then chose a book that was ‘the favorite’. When my turn came, I was last, they all turned to me, but I remained silent for a long time and then: “I can’t do it,” I said. “I bet it’s got windmills in,” one person remarked, thinking of my propensity of frequently quoting Cervantes’s Don Quixote as a model when literary discussions arise. Indeed, Don Quixote might be my favorite book, but is it?

Let us begin with the concept of book. Is a book something contained between two covers or could it be a series of books? For example, does one choose between The Chronicles of Narnia or must one select The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe over The Silver Chair? Is one free to choose The Lord of the Rings, or must one prefer The Two Towers, say, to The Return of the King? By extension, where exactly does The Hobbit stand, as a book, in book form, in relationship to the later and longer series? Or The Silmarion? Again, can we roll them all together, a series of books under the cover of one book, a favorite book?

The idea of favorite author versus favorite book then surfaced and we discussed Georgette Heyer, John LeCarré, equally loved and loathed, Jane Austen, the Bronte’s, J. K. Rowling, and William Shakespeare. The mention of Shakespeare led us into plays as reading material and plays as performance, and performance as on stage or on film. One of our members loved Shakespeare on film and TV, but didn’t like reading Shakespeare, because it was ‘difficult to read and needed the interpretation of the actor for the meaning to come across’. This same person did not like LeCarré’s books, but was very appreciative of his work on film. Where does George Smiley begin and Alec Guinness end, one asks? How can we separate the character from the actor? Applied to James Bond, who is James Bond? Is he Sean Connery (totally unique and my personal favorite), Roger Moore (better for me in the role of Simon Templar, The Saint), or one of the later and newer actors who have taken over the role? By extension, should James Bond be played by a black actor (why ever not I ask?), and could (oh horror of horrors!), a female actor take over that role (I’d love to see it … “I’m Bond. Jane Bond!”)?

This led us into the art of the narrative and the relationship between book as narrative and film as narrative. Clearly they are two different forms of media, but how do they influence each other? The book obviously comes first. We can talk of the seventeenth century novel, but it is difficult to talk of the seventeenth century film. So, the linear narrative of the book comes first and then that book is turned into a film. However, a film contains its own narratives structures and these include multiple points of view, split screens, flashbacks and time distortions, and a multiplicity of other devices among which the actual scenic impact is of the utmost importance. For most of us, the nineteenth century novel (no radio and no television for entertainment in those days) is long drawn out and very slow moving. We miss the instantaneous impact of screen and TV with the breaks for advertisements and the time to recharge our coffee cups and snacks. This leads us to our own attention spells as readers and our own demands for the instant gratification of a thrill a minute. “Hook them on page one and addict them by page three,” one person commented to many nods from around the table.

But the mention of Don Quixote also takes us into other areas. In this age of bi- and multi-lingualism, do we prefer to read our books in one language rather than in an another? Don Quixote in Spanish or French or English? And which translation? There are some twenty translations of Don Quixote into English. Is one preferable to another? Which is more accurate in the terms of a translation? Which reads more easily in terms of a re-creation in artistic form of the original? Should we prefer an English-English translation to an American-English translation? And where oh where is the Australian, Indian, Pakistani, South African, Canadian, Irish, or Welsh translator who will justify that famous text in his own country’s rendition of what used to be called the King or the Queen’s English?

Don Quixote, according to the great Spanish literary critics, is a book for the three ages of life. Readers should read it when they are young, when they are middle aged, and when they are approaching old age. Why? Because one’s reading and understanding of the book changes as one grows older. If this is true, then can we not expect to have books that we preferred at an earlier age in life, The House at Pooh Corner, for example, or The Wind in the Willows? And what about our early teens (adolescence), our early twenties (university years)? The idea of our being able to choose a ‘favorite book’ becomes less and less clear as we open up our minds to the broader horizon of tastes that change as we age and mature.

You will have noted that, with the exception of Shakespeare, we concentrated on the twin ideas of fiction and narrative, be it in word or on the screen. What about poetry? Five major critics met at the Modern Language Association of America’s meeting held one year in the University of Toronto and held a panel discussion in which they discussed why and how they had been attracted to the foreign language that they had studied. In four of the five cases, it was the poetry of the language, not the theatre or the narrative, that had pulled them in. Last night, we did not discuss poetry.

When we bring poetry to the table, we open a different discussion. We rarely read and appreciate ‘books of poetry’. With a few notable exceptions, it is individual poems and poets that attract our attention, rather than entire books or collections. And what is it about poetry that attracts us? Surely, it is the power, not of situation nor of action, but of language. It is the sheer power of language and the thrill of words that draws us to poetry. Perhaps that is why, in an age of impatience, we have less time for immersion in the magic spell of words and their undercurrents of subtle meanings. As a friend of mine said to me, the day before yesterday, “I started your poetry book, Obisdian’s Edge, but it was too deep for me, too difficult. I gave up on it. I needed something simpler to read.”

Comment: This article should be read in association with an earlier piece in this blog (15 July 2016) on My Top Ten Books.

Writing Groups: Thursday Thoughts

 

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Writing Groups
Thursday Thoughts
11 May 2017

We write in solitude.

We cannot group-write with a second person suggesting the second word and a third person, the third word. This leads only to the Third Word War or the Third Word Whore, as some would express it.

To write is to be alone. It is to sit alone before a blank page and watch it slowly fill with the black ants that we form into thoughts. With pen or pencil we trace the Morse Code SOS of our Mayday signals. We gather them into groups, press them between cardboard covers, and we send them out to sea in little bottles. Then we sit back and wait, hoping to contact intelligent and compatible life that will approve our efforts and perhaps offer to publish our writing.

We must not confuse the act of writing with the act of sharing.

In many cases, to share is to seek approval. But this is not always true. We sometimes share in the hopes that a listener will suggest improvements to our writing. I think of this as ‘sharing from weakness’. We are unsure of our sharing self and we seek confirmation and reinforcement. We also seek the reassurance that the second person or the third actually has a better vision than the writer and can improve that writer’s offering. How confident are we in our own writing when we constantly look for approval?

Sometimes, our sharing is in an act of defiance. We organize our black ant army. We form it into battalions. We launch them at the enemy and “Take that you bastards,!” we think as we read out our thoughts. Occasionally, our sharing is an act of self-praise. We know it’s good and we want others to realize just how good this piece is and how good we are. Auto-homenaje (Spanish): an act done in praise of oneself.

The act of sharing can be private and confidential. This is when we gather with a group of friends to share our thoughts and creations. This is most useful, in my opinion, at the beginning of a writer’s career. Writers have to become independent. They have to learn to shake off the shackles of doubts, second and third opinions, and the rewriting that comes from the mind of an outside reader. Writers have to learn to stand alone and to write alone. This is where the public reading comes in.

To read in public, as in an open reading given before an audience of unknown faces, is a different proposition. We are relatively confident when we share with our friends. We are not so confident when we read in public. We must be confident in ourselves and our words if we are to stand before strangers and expose ourselves, our strengths and our weaknesses, to those who may not love us and some who may actually hate us, looking for any defect, any chink in our written armor.

Beyond writing, yet enclosed within it, is the writer’s desire to be recognized and published. If we are writers, we want our works to be known and read. We want to be published. Even when we know we are not ready to be published or worthy to be seen in print, we like to imagine ourselves preparing that great tome or slender volume of verses that one day will project us into the realms of glory when it finally sees the light of day.

Yet we cannot publish alone. Or can we? Desk-top publishing on our own computer is easy to do. Format the work, print it out, take it to the photocopy machine, copy it multiple times, staple the resulting pages together and we have … a book. But are we satisfied with those morsels of paper that we hand out to our friends? Some people are, many are not.

Let us look at an alternate route: we hand the book over to a press that edits the writing, does all the copying work for us, chooses a cover, binds the book, gives us twenty free copies, and hands us an enormous bill … some are happy with that; again, others are not.

Let us examine another route: we find an online company that will do all (or most) of that for free. All we have to do is market our work … again, some are happy with that; others are not.

Mal de todos, consuelo de tontos. This is a delightful Spanish phrase. It means that when everyone is travelling in the same ship of sorrows, only fools are consoled by the fact that we all share the same fate. Perhaps that’s why writers gather together in groups and perch, like autumn swallows preparing to migrate, on chairs in a drawing room at somebody’s house or gather together in a disreputable, but cheap, coffee house to read, discuss, share, and endlessly talk about the works that never get published.

“You just got rejected? What a pity. I just did too. Let’s compare rejection letters. Paper your walls with them, my friend.”

The carrot that we all seek is the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end that contains the winning lottery ticket: a letter from a publisher offering to publish the book we have written. An Old Welsh Recipe for rabbit pie begins with these wise words: “First catch your rabbit.” The same wisdom must be applied to writers: “First, write your book.”

When the book is written, to the satisfaction of the writer, then, only then, let the networking begin. Then we can reach out to the community. Then we can read in public. Then we can seek out that elusive publisher and follow our own thirty-nine steps to success.

Bu, in the meantime, remember, never forget, we write in solitude.

Picaresque Novels

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The Picaresque Novel
Wednesday Workshop
3 May 2017

The Picaresque Novel

             Think of a pendulum: at one end of the swing, we have the pastoral novel and the novel of chivalry. The knights errant meet shepherds and shepherdesses on their travels, and all are cultured and can read and write. The main characters, heroes and heroines, if you wish, express high ideals and maintain a cultured standard of thought and living. The knights, in particular, follow the path of chivalry and defend the poor and maidens in distress. The ladies, especially the shepherdesses, are all ‘as pure as driven snow’ and they go to their graves, in the immortal words of Miguel de Cervantes, ‘as virgin as the mothers who bore them’.

            At the other end of the pendulum swing and positioned there partly in contrast to the ‘perfect society’ of knights, shepherds, and shepherdesses, we find the picaresque novel. Most pícaros are men, though female pícaras do exist (la pícara Justina, for example), and the pícaro is an anti-hero. He writes in the first person singular and tells the story of his survival in the lower ranks of a corrupt and impoverished society.

            Wikipedia phrases it this way: “The picaresque novel (Spanish “picaresca,” from “pícaro,” for “rogue” or “rascal”) is a genre of prose fiction that depicts the adventures of a roguish hero or heroine of low social class who lives by his or her wits in a corrupt society. Picaresque novels typically adopt a realistic style, with elements of comedy and satire. This style of novel originated in 16th-century Spain and flourished throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. It continues to influence modern literature.”

            Lazarillo de Tormes, considered by many to be the first picaresque novel, was written in Spain and three editions appeared in 1554. Lazarillo is given by his mother to a blind man who agrees to look after the young boy in return for the boy’s services as a guide. Even today, a person who guides a blind man is still called a lazarillo in some places. The book describes the life of Lazarillo as he moves from master to master until he eventually establishes himself ‘at the peak of all happiness and the height of his career’ as the local town-crier, married to a cast-off woman with whom the celibate village priest has created three children.

             Lazarillo de Tormes, a book that never uses the term pícaro, establishes the basic rules for the genre. (1) It is an autobiography, or pseudo-autobiography, of the main character. (2) That character leads a peripatetic life, wandering from master to master, usually at the bottom end of society, but sometimes working in the kitchen or lower service of the great. (3) The picaresque novel also contains elements of humor and satire and in some cases, Guzmán de Alfarache, for example, has a moralizing purpose that is used to justify the immorality of the book.

            The church did not receive the picaresque novel well, especially when the satire and humor were aimed at the church. In the Lazarillo, for example, Lazarillo works for a seller of Papal Bulls who sets up an elaborate and deceitful charade in order to increase his sales. This charade involves a friend who poses as a doubter, is then cursed and goes into a fit, but recovers almost immediately with the blessing of the Papal Bull. Lazarillo de Tormes was censored by the Inquisition and appeared in an even shorter version that was called El Lazarillo Castigado, Lazarillo Punished, with all unwholesome references to the church removed.

            Perhaps the most famous picaresque novel, after Lazarillo, was El Buscón / The Swindler. It was written by Francisco de Quevedo in 1601 and circulated in manuscript form until it was published, illegally I should add, in 1627. The novel was so scandalous that it was denounced to the Inquisition and Quevedo often denied writing it. His intricate and heavily conceited style is inimitable, however, and the book contains several references to his own life. It is difficult imagining any other person as author.

            Wikipedia translates pícaro as ‘rogue’ or ‘rascal’ and this illustrates the pleasant and humorous scallywag style that the character often has. However, the darker, more murderous side of the pícaro emerges more clearly when ‘swindler’ (Penguin Translation) or a stronger term is used. In this fashion, the pícaro (rascal or rogue) can be associated with Tom Jones or Oliver Twist, while his darker, more reprehensible side may be associated with by Bill Sykes or Fagin himself.

            More important, perhaps, is the long life that the picaresque has had in Western Literature as the traveler, the journeyer, the observer, the young man who is ‘down and out’,  works his way across the land, surviving, adventuring and commentating.

Algorithms

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Algorithms
Wednesday Workshop
26 April 2017

I want to begin by confessing that I don’t know what they are. Algorithm: it sounds like a word pulled out of a lexicographer’s top hat or a question from a Grade 9 Spelling Bee.

“May I have the definition?”

“Certainly: it’s ‘a step-by-step procedure for solving a problem or accomplishing some end especially by a computer’ …” (Merriam-Webster).

Before we go any further, please watch this brief, very explicit (self-explaining, sorry) video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oP3c1h8v2ZQ

So, if I understand the video correctly, an algorithm, applied to literature, is a program that (a) analyses the structure of texts and (b) establishes whether or not a specific text follows the necessary steps or procedures for that text to become (b.1) a best seller or (b.2) an acceptable potential book in which an investor (aka publisher) could or should invest his / her money.

Where does this leave us as writers? We have spoken before about the Guardians at the Gates and the Judges who determine our fate when we enter literary competitions (see below)

https://rogermoorepoet.com/2016/05/31/winning-not-whining/

Suddenly, these Guardians are no longer fallible flesh and blood but infallible wires, nuts, and bolts joined by electronic circuits.

So, we have a story. Right? Right length. Right theme. We think it is good. We submit it to an editorial house. What happens next? Well, it depends. A major house won’t touch it unless put forward by an agent. No agent? It molders to a prolonged, slow, very slow death on someone’s desk. Electronic submission? Wait a minute. Some secretary may read the first five pages and find them good. Then, your submission may be sent to Death by Algorithm.

How is that algorithm prepared? Thousands of best-sellers and classics are fed into the computer program, analyzed, sorted into lines and curves, highs and lows … then your manuscript is fed in. If its computerized profile matches their computerized profile (the algorithm) then BINGO … you may have a foothold on the first rung of the lowest ladder that leads to winning the literary lottery!

Or not.

What can we, as writers, do about this? Absolutely nothing. We must believe in ourselves. We must believe in our writing. We must keep on writing. We must publish where and when we can … and, above all, along with Albert Camus and Sisyphus and his rock, il faut imaginer l’écrivain heureux / we must pretend that, as writers, we are happy.

And that, ladies and gentlemen and others, is a pretty sorry state of affairs and a pretty lousy (but very interesting) piece of translation.

Three Unities

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The Three Unities
Wednesday Workshop
19 April 2017

The Three Unities

The Three Classical Unities are those of Time, Place, and Action. They are usually associated with classical theatre. It is worth remembering that, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when poetry and theatre ruled the artistic world of the west, the novel was relatively undeveloped and narrative form was concentrated in epic poetry. In fact, one of Cervantes’s greatest innovations was to draw a parallel between the modern narrative, as he developed it, and epic poetry. “También la épica puede escribirse en prosa,” he wrote in Don Quixote, I, 47. ‘Epic poetry may also be written in prose.’ Lyric and epic poetry had a different construct to the theatre, so it is really the classic theatre that we are discussing here, rather than poetry and prose, though all forms of creativity benefit from a knowledge and understanding of the three unities. Let us look at these unities one by one.

Unity of Time: The play should take place within a time frame of a day, twenty-four hours. This concentrates the action at the moment of maximum impact, or crisis, when the major decisions are being taken. In order to fill in the background details of what happened before, a confidant is often used, especially in French theatre, and this confidential person, or adviser, assists the main characters in coming to their decisions by providing missing background information.

Unity of Place: The play should take place in the same house, as a minimum, and preferably in the same room of the house. This limits travel, and the wanderings of Odysseus, for example, would be impossible in the classical theatre. This is a restriction that was blown away by epic poetry. The narrative forms also rejected this type of unity as they developed, and contemporary film, with its total mobility really reduces Unity of Place to the realms of history and the Absurd.

Unity of Action: All action within the play should be subordinated to the main plot and the main characters. There should be only one plot, but a minor plot is permitted provided it echoes, mirrors, and reflects upon the main plot. Unity of action is interesting in that, to a certain extent, it has remained with us. Television shows, especially police and crime shows, may have multiple actions, but they all link together to form a pattern of events that are linked within a series of unified patterns. It is these patterns of unified action that so often reveal the criminal.

Unity of Theme: Spanish classical theatre, under the watchful eye of Lope de Vega, broke all the unities as established above, but created a new unity: unity of theme. This, too, has demonstrated its longevity and is still with us. Thematic unity is common to all forms of literature and is a binding thread in poetry and prose, theatre, film, and novel. Unity of theme suggests that beneath the surface movement of the art work, there is a thematic unity, a set of deeper ideas, if you like, that provides links to all the action and thought.

Closely linked to these four unities is what I call Unity of Language. Unity of Language is consistent within characters, the way they speak, the way they use language. It is also consistent within a poem or a book. Sometimes it is based on the concept of Associative Fields according to which each word is surrounded by a series of associations (the Associative Field) that links words to each other at one level and to a central theme at another level. The use of Associative Fields is greatest in poetry and those forms of writing that base themselves on poetical repetition. In fact, the Associative Field may be looked upon as a form of repetition that provides emphasis by repeating a theme while avoiding the repetition of the same word within that theme.

I look on the development of art and culture as akin to the movement of a pendulum on a grandfather clock. On one side, let’s call it the right, the pendulum demands rules, immutable rules, and writers that stick to those rules. On the other side, let’s call it the left, there are no rules and chaos reigns in a creative land where the broken rule is the law of the day.

Classicism, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, was followed by Neo-Classicism, in the Eighteenth Century, and this was an even more stultified form than classicism itself. The Romantic Movement, on the other hand, broke the rules of Classicism and brought energy and freedom to all forms of art. As Victor Hugo said: “J’ai mis un bonnet rouge sur le vieux dictionnaire.” ‘I have place a red [French revolutionary] bonnet on the old dictionary.”  Romanticism is Revolution. In art, we need regular revolutions. The next major revolution is always just around the corner. Or, as the pendulum theory suggests, maybe the next revolution, waiting just around the corner, is a swing of the pendulum back from freedom (Romanticism) to restraint  (Classicism).

Certainly we modern authors may exercise our choices in a way that older authors could not. We can and should be aware of all that has gone before us. Knowing the traditions from which we write allows us to write better and to choose better, taking or rejecting that which we want and that which suits us best in our own artistic endeavours.

Bakhtin’s Chronotopos

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Bakhtin’s Chronotopos
Thursday Thoughts
13 April 2017

This note is an adjunct to Dr. Margaret Sorick’s piece, The Novelist’s Pen, that I re-blogged yesterday. The author, Dr. Sorick, raises some important issues, upon which I would like to elaborate further. Dr. Sorick begins her article with a quote from the Marquis de Sade in which de Sade states that “The novel … is the ‘picture of the manners of every age.’” Dr. Sorick then adds her own comment to this: “What a weighty responsibility lies on the shoulders of the novelist then. To capture the truth of an age, to illuminate that which history’s light does not reach.”

Bakhtin’s Chronotopos may be summarized as “man’s dialog with his time (chronos) and place (topos).” Clearly, man, in this instance, stands for human being / writer / author, and it should be understood in this fashion. By extension, an author’s time and place is clearly the time and place in which an author lives. For me, my time is the early 21st Century and my place is Island View, New Brunswick. Dr. Sorick presents the reader with the question, rephrased in my own words, ‘are we doomed to write from our own time and place or can we insert ourselves into another time and place to write, for example, a historical novel of, let us say, the First World War’? Clearly, we can study ‘another time, another place’ and when we do so our dialog extends from our time and place into another’s time and place, and this second time and place will become one that we will in some way make our own. The exact historical resonance of that time and place and its substantial links with our own, will depend upon the skill and ability of the artist.

However, if I read the New Criticism correctly, we read and understand only from our own time and place. We must eliminate the author, eliminate the historical time, and read only the text that we have before us. There is no time and place other than our own time and place. I could be wrong about this, but it is my understanding that, for the New Critics of the Chicago School, we must not look beyond the text for the text is everything. In creating a text, we create a world, and that world is the only world. There is nothing beyond it.

I was educated in a rather different fashion. While in Graduate School, at the University of Toronto, there were in the department where I was studying, two opposing sets of ideas. One followed the New Criticism and concentrated on the text, the text, and nothing but the text. The other followed the more traditional idea of the text in context. According to this school of thought, it was necessary to understand the time and place from which the original author was writing. Without that knowledge, the reader or critic was in grave danger of misinterpreting the text by approaching it from a single point of view: that of the modern reader.

Theory is one thing; practice is another. While both points of view stand up in theory, what happens when we see them working in practice? I will, with apologies, take a single example, that of the Adventure with The Galley Slaves, that occurs in Don Quixote, Part One (1605).

If we read this from the point of view of a 21st Century reader, then we see a gentleman adventurer, dressed in out-of-date, old-fashioned armour, meeting a chain gang of criminals walking towards imprisonment in the infamous galleys of the Spanish navy, where they will row for a number of years as part of their prison sentences. Don Quixote stops and politely requests each galley slave to explain why he is going to the galleys. He receives a series of answers that allow him to observe that the slaves are being forced against their will and, in an act of charity, he helps free them. From a 21st century point of view, this episode had been read as an act of social justice, the freeing of the innocent. This act of social justice resonates across the centuries and is a call for more understanding and a better sense of social justice and freedom in our own times.

When we immerse ourselves in Cervantes and the Golden Age of Spain, a very different picture emerges. Cervantes, the author, was always interested in the Spanish picaresque novel and he imitated it on several occasions. One of his artistic experiments in the Don Quixote, was an attempt at writing a picaresque adventure. Cervantes’s chronos is the junction between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. His topos is the countryside of Spain where the chain gangs were a relatively common sight. In this instance, the language of the galley slaves is the double talk of thieves’ slang. They are all, in their own minds, innocent and the double meaning of their language shows that this is so. Don Quixote accepts their innocence, as proven by his interpretation of their double-speak, and contributes to freeing them. His act is not, in the mind of the times, an act of social justice, but a crime against the laws of the land. He is pursued by the Santa Hermandad, the equivalent of the country’s police, for a crime against the state. Only his own state of total madness saves him from arrest.

Can we hold both pictures, that of the twenty-first century reader and that of the seventeenth century reader in our minds at one and the same time? I think we can. BUT, and it is a big BUT, hence the capitals, I also think that we must be aware of these two radically different points of view: (1) what we read and understand and (2) what ‘they’ would have read and probably understood. That said, throughout the seventeenth century, with a few notable exceptions, the great playwright Calderón de la Barca being one of them, the Quixote was seen as a work of humor in which a madman created comedy while doing crazy things and breaking all the laws of the land.

Let us return now to Dr. Sorick’s original statement: “What a weighty responsibility lies on the shoulders of the novelist then. To capture the truth of an age, to illuminate that which history’s light does not reach.” To seek to find comfort and understanding in another age, on the terms of that age, is a very great and difficult undertaking. That said, an event that is re-created in such a way that the event stands out and on its own is an artistic achievement. We are then entitled, as readers, to interpret that event in whatever way we please, social justice or criminal act, in the case of the Galley Slaves. However, we must also be aware of the biases and distortions that accompany us as we travel back in time and look at their lives through our own eyes. The world has changed, will change, and we will continue to evolve. We must always be aware of that.

In conclusion, I agree with Dr. Meg Sorick, as both readers and artists we bear a great and heavy responsibility indeed. As artists and critics, we must do our research. As readers, we must understand the limitations imposed upon us by our own time and place.

In Medias Res

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In Medias Res
Wednesday Workshop
12 April 2017

In medias res is Latin for in the middle of things or in the middle of the story. It is a device from classical literature, going back to Homer, that allows the narrator to start the tale half way through, to return to the beginning to show what has happened leading up to the current situation, then to end the tale in suitable fashion with all the necessary details now in place.

In some ways it’s a bit like the arrival of a pizza from a new pizza home delivery service. You are hungry, you make the phone call, you order the pizza, and then you sit and you wait. The doorbell rings and the dog comes rushing out of nowhere and barks at the delivery man who stands there with his delivery bag in which the pizza nestles comforting and warm. You tell the dog to sit, you hand over the money, with a tip, of course, and the delivery man takes the pizza from the bag and pops it into your hands.

You close the door, walk back into the kitchen, and everyone is there, salivating waiting to see what you’ve bought. You know what kind of pizza it is, because you ordered it. But this is the secret of in medias res: the pizza is there but it’s still a mystery. You don’t really know what the pizza’s like. It may smell nice, it may look great when you open the box, but what’s in it, or rather on it; and how does it taste? These things are as yet unknowable. They are the mysteries that give in medias res its bite.

“Seek and you will find.” But what are you looking for?

You recognize the onions,; then there’s a meatball; ooh, look, some slices of salami and bacon; then there’s red peppers and green peppers; no anchovies (are you old enough to remember that song? RIP J Geils: I remember and still like your music); it’s a high rise pastry and there’s a cream cheese filling in the crust: delicious; oh yes, that subtle sweetness will come from the pieces of pineapple that decorate the pizza. Cheese: there’s plenty of that, three different types by the look of it and the tomato sauce is spicy and delicious.

When you take that first bite, the whole blend explodes in your mouth and the full delights of pizza burst upon you.

And that’s how I think of in medias res: no planning, washing and cutting the ingredients, no cooking, no placing in the oven, no wait as the house fills up with the smell of cooking pizza.

There’s just the pizza itself and the journey backwards to discover how it was made and what conjures up the magic of that first bite.

Beneath the surface of many people’s writing, lie lots mysterious ingredients. Sometimes, you can draw a few of them out and examine them as they flourish in the daylight. Often, they remain as mysteries, unconscious moments that float like lilies upon the surface of the story.

As I write, the sun is shining and the storm that visited us last week has all cleared away. There are deer prints by the bird feeder where the deer came last night and nuzzled for bird food.

The red spark of a squirrel sits by the feeders and four mourning doves crowd together on the balcony. I do not know where they came from and, like the deer, I do not know where they are going, although the deer tracks point to a probable destination.

In medias res: we all live there; we understand it, even if we don’t call t by its classy Latin name; we are intrigued by it; and it often lies at the center of our fascinating world.

Truth & Lies

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Truth and Lies or Verisimilitude
Wednesday Workshop
05 April 2017

Miguel de Cervantes comes at truth and lies from a slightly different angle than most of us. In Don Quixote, he writes of verisimilitude (verosimilitud in Spanish) and defines it  in this way: “Tanto la mentira es mejor cuanto más parece verdadera” — The lie is so much better when it appears to be true.

Cervantes extends verisimilitude into perspectivism when an object, for example, the shaving bowl that turns into Mambrino’s helmet, is seen from different angles to represent different things.

Thus Sancho sees a barber’s bowl while Don Quixote sees a warrior’s helmet, specifically that of Mambrino. As Cervantes demonstrates, when both aspects can be held to be true, we are no longer dealing with a direct opposition, truth (barber’s bowl) versus fiction (Mambrino’s helmet). In fact we are dealing with a new reality, that of the basin which doubles as a helmet and the helmet that doubles as a basin. The compromise, in Cervantes’s Spanish, is to invent a new word, a new world, that of the baciyelmo, the first half of which is the basin (baci-) and the second half of which is the helmet (-yelmo). This blends two appearances together to form a new fictional reality upon which the protagonists can agree.

I like to think that this is what we are all doing when we write, forming a new fictional reality to create a new world. We do this when we combine our memories and our imaginations to create new truths. Perhaps it is the fuzziness around the edges, rather than true clarity,  that allows us to penetrate the mist of meaning and come up with the new words and worlds.

For example, some men like facial hair and some men don’t.

I was invited to play an acting role in the local film co-op and the art director asked me to grow a specific type of mustache, something I had never ever done previously. I didn’t want to do it and was faced by a dictat “do it or you don’t get the role”. The AD was a good friend, so I did it. I grew a mustache.

It was the worst mustache you have (n)ever seen and trust me you can be glad you didn’t see it (but you can see it on the film, except I’m not telling you the name of the film). Anyway, when the final words “It’s a wrap” were called, late one Sunday night, my beloved was waiting on the doorstep with a razor and a shaving brush. “Off with it,” she said. And I’ve never grown another whisker since.

Is this a true memory or a coloring of the facts? You’ll never know. What is true is that the art director was amazed at the refusal of many males to grow facial hair.

Spanish proverb: “Both man and bear: each more beautiful with more hair / ¡El hombre y el oso: más peludo, más hermoso!

The film in which I played the role of a domineering theater director was a New Brunswick short (15 minutes). It’s called Misdirection (and is available from the NB Film Co-op). It’s a totally amateur production and was enormous fun to make.

In retrospect, the mustache actually didn’t look too bad … but there’s a very evil glint in my eyes in a couple of scenes. The DoP was using a shoulder held camera and did some great close-ups. I was trying to avoid looking at the camera, but he was so close that I was staring down the lens a couple of times.

More on body hair: I was coaching at the Canada Games one year (once upon a time, a long time ago, in another life) and was moved to investigate the howls of merriment that were emerging late at night from one of the bathrooms in the residence we were all sharing.

I did so to discover, after hammering at the door and demanding entry, that five or so girls were devoting their attention and their razor blades to removing all the body hair of one of our male swimmers so that he could slip through the water with less friction.

It wasn’t exactly a Brazilian Wax, but it was a gazillion laughs: death by a thousand cuts. I am sure the scars slowed the swimmer down. This was a long time ago, incidentally, when the world was young.

Truth or Fiction? Verisimilitude? The closer the lie is to the truth, the more convincing it is. Ask Cervantes: he should know.

Intertextuality: Wednesday Workshop

Intertextuality

Intertextuality is the dialog that takes place between texts or as Merriam-Webster explains it: “the complex interrelationship between a text and other texts taken as a basic to the creation or interpretation of the text.”

Often we write from an intertextual perspective when we respond to other writers and their thoughts and imagery. This is why, in the creative process, reading can be as important as writing. Reading expands our vocabulary. It reinforces some of our own opinions and challenges others. Without reading, we are lonely rocks in sunless seas.

To be creative, we need to be aware of what others are writing and how they view the world we inhabit. When we read creatively we read with an eye to improving our creativity and our structures. We look for new ideas, new images, new words, new ways of expressing our thoughts.

Often we think we are being original when in fact we are re-processing, just as I am now, the ideas of other people. Given the nature of modern media, we are not always aware of all the multiple sources of our material: telephone, twitter, blogs, radio, television, newspapers (less and less), books, chapbooks, magazines, e-sources, lectures, chat groups, Facebook, and general conversations with other people who are also unaware of their sources. Thus ideas abound, float in the air, circulate and recirculate, submerge and resurface, shift their shapes and colors.

As writers we dip into that enormous moving mass of current and past culture and creativity and we choose our narrative lines, our characters, our structures, our images, our metaphors. As Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Molière, once wrote, “Mes idées? Je les prends où je les trouve.” My ideas? I take them from wherever I find them.

Imitation is the best form of flattery. Indeed it is. We cannot, however, borrow wholesale and just copy. Miguel de Cervantes borrowed the first five chapters of Don Quixote (the first sortie) from an earlier entremés entitled El Entremés de los romances. For a very long time, critics thought that Cervantes was the author of both pieces: they are very similar. However, even a quick analysis also shows that they are very different. The language of the entremés is much older while the conversion of theatre into narrative distinguishes them at a very basic level. Cervantes borrowed: but in borrowing, he adapted, he changed, he took the old form and converted it into something new and completely original. Nevertheless, we are still aware of the origins of the great novel that has many other borrowings woven into its fabric.

So, we indulge in intertextuality when we engage in a dialog with other texts and ‘borrow’ from other authors. To be original, we have to take that borrowing and turn it into something entirely different, something that becomes a part of ourselves and no longer exists as a part of that other text. Intertextuality is not copying. If we take a text in its entirety, if we ‘copy’, then we must acknowledge the source. However, when we indulge in a dialog with a text, when we transform a text, when we are ourselves transformed by a text, then that is a totally different situation. Think of the links between Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film, The Seven Samurai, and its offspring, the 1960 western entitled The Magnificent Seven. They are very similar in so many ways … and yet they are so very different.

While intertextuality refers more to the larger elements of character and narrative structure, it also exists at the level of metaphor and image. Sometimes, without thinking, we use metaphors that we have heard before. Often we like the sound of a group of words, shuffle them around, and come up with a new meaning for them, a new metaphoric reality. This too is intertextuality.

At its best it is a very valuable addition to our creative tool kit.

While on the topic of creativity, let us spare a thought for our needs for creative time and space. We cannot create when we lack the blessings of time and space. Creativity is greatly hindered when we go hungry and need to complete back-breaking work just to sustain our lives and feed our families. Our relative wealth and leisure is a blessing: without them, we would be floundering in the pre-industrial world of subsistence farming, working at manual labor from dawn to dusk.

Let us spare a thought too for those oral societies that existed when people could not write. Or those early societies in which only the few, the happy few, were educated to the level at which they could actually read and write.

Intertextuality is a blessing, not a curse. Use it wisely, use it well.

Comment: I would like to thank Meg Sorick who suggested that I expand an earlier conversation that we had on the topic of Intertextuality. If you have other literary topics that you would like me to investigate, please suggest them to me and I’ll see what I can do.