Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Catching up with George.

By Charlie Kondek

Yesterday, by chance, I found myself headed to the bus stop with nothing to read, so I printed out some essays by George Orwell I had been meaning to get to. You can find them here.

Orwell was a great writer. 1984 was a book I have read and re-read. He had a way with essays that is remarkable; his writing is clear and penetrating. Yesterday I read "A Hanging," "Shooting an Elephant" and "Raffles and Miss Blandish," all marvelous, engaging pieces. While "Hanging" and "Elephant" were about Orwell's feelings on colonialism and imperialism, in "Blandish" Orwell described what he saw as a worrying trend in popular fiction, that of power-worship. Orwell here is covering ground dear to me - crime and detective fiction or as he calls it "crook" fiction. His concern is not so much with right and wrong or the development of a body of writers contributing value to the field, but with the crook story as an expression of the western people's feelings on politics.

The average man is not directly interested in politics, and when he reads, he wants the current struggles of the world to be translated into a simple story about individuals. He can take an interest in Slim and Fenner as he could not in the G.P.U. and the Gestapo. People worship power in the form in which they are able to understand it. A twelve-year-old boy worships Jack Dempsey. An adolescent in a Glasgow slum worships Al Capone. An aspiring pupil at a business college worships Lord Nuffield. A New Statesman reader worships Stalin. There is a difference in intellectual maturity, but none in moral outlook. Thirty years ago the heroes of popular fiction had nothing in common with Mr. Chase’s gangsters and detectives, and the idols of the English liberal intelligentsia were also comparatively sympathetic figures. Between Holmes and Fenner on the one hand, and between Abraham Lincoln and Stalin on the other, there is a similar gulf.

Something to take interest in, right there, and brings into question our long-standing interest, since the Second World War, in the anti-hero rather than the hero, something that interests me in my own writing. Another idea of Orwell's that interested me:

When I first read D. H. Lawrence’s novels, at the age of about twenty, I was puzzled by the fact that there did not seem to be any classification of the characters into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Lawrence seemed to sympathize with all of them about equally, and this was so unusual as to give me the feeling of having lost my bearings.

I'm not much interested in Lawrence, but I am interested in an author's and reader's sympathies with characters. The idea that they are all of genuine interest in this environment - "good guys" and "bad guys" alike, for I am still very much interested in good guys and bad guys - appeals to me. Another thing to strive for in my own writing.

Incidentally, Orwell was very much influenced by Maugham

Thursday, July 24, 2008

When you know.

By Charlie Kondek

Often, as I encounter writers whose work is new to me, there's a moment when I know, based on the prose, that this is a writer I want to spend more time with. Sometimes I'm fooled by a novel's opening paragraphs into investing more of my attention into something that, ultimately, does not please me. But more often, as I have sometimes noted in this very blog, there are little "Aha!" moments of prose where I feel I realize, significantly, "This is the beginning of a relationship, a relationship between me and your words."

Such as been the case, for me, with Guy de Maupassant, whom I am discovering through a tattered Bantam Classic paperback of selected stories, Pierre and Jean (and others). I folded the corner on one passage that arrested my attention with the express intention of writing it down in this blog. This is from the delightful short story "Mouche."

Then one Saturday evening N'a-qu'un-Oeil brought us a thin, lively, vivacious little creature. She was always joking, and she had the comical nature that takes the place of wit in those who grow up in the streets of Paris. She was sweet, not pretty, a sketch of a woman in which there was a little of everything, one of those silhouettes that an artist draws on the tablecloth after dinner, between a glass of brandy and a cigarette. Nature sometimes makes them like that.

That last part, that "nature sometimes makes them like that" is, for me, like the little extra howl that Marvin Gaye puts into a lyric, that something that just sinks it. Another, from "Marroca."

Her mind was as simple as two and two make four, and her loud laugh took the place of thought.

Instinctively proud of her beauty, she had a strong aversion to covering her body with even the thinnest veil; she walked, ran and frolicked in my house with bold, unconscious immodesty. When she was finally sated with love, exhausted from frenzied cries and movement, she would sleep placidly in my arms while the overpowering heat covered her sun-darkened skin with little beads of sweat and brought forth, from under her upraised arms and from all her secret recesses, that musky smell which pleases the male.

"That musky smell which pleases the male," that's a detail, a something special, a something specific, that weights an already finely-balanced sword of a sentence with a penetrating point. It's written with inside knowledge but also authority, and it's pretty, and truthful.

If I have any complaints about de Maupassant at all, at this point, it's that the stories I've encountered so far are mostly fixated on the frenzied sex lives of the 19th-century French sophistes which, in repetition, comes to sound like a literary excuse for telling a dirty joke, a dressed up version of "did you hear the one about the traveling salesman who spent the night in the farmer's barn?" But that's a minor quibble, and the point is, I know. I know I'll be spending more time with Guy de Maupassant and his vivacious creations.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Maugham on Stories

By Charlie Kondek

My love affair with Somerset Maugham's writing continues. I recently scored a copy of Ashenden, a collected work of spy stories set during the First World War and based on Maugham's own experiences in the British secret service. If I ever had any doubts that Ian Fleming owes Maugham a debt for content and style, I can erase them. But besides that, the stories, some of which I have read in other collections, are just a treat. In fact, if you're meeting Maugham for the first time, this'd be a good place to start.

Would also like to draw your attention to some comments Maugham makes in the introduction to this work, which is copyright dated 1951 but which I suspect is much later due to the cover art and references to Fleming's larger body of work. Anyway, Maugham says in the preface:

"Fact is a poor storyteller. It starts a story at haphazard, generally long before the beginning, rambles on inconsequently and tails off, leaving loose ends hanging about, without a conclusion."

Why then, Maugham wonders, do some schools of thought insist that fiction resemble fact? That's okay sometimes, Maugham says, but Ashenden's purpose is "only to offer entertainment, which I still think, impenitently, is the main object of a work of fiction."

A man after my own heart and a pretty good articulation of my feelings about writing and literature. Keep in mind, these Ashenden stories aren't thrill rides - they are wonderfully composed stories about the people one meets in this line of work, and they ain't all Mata Haris and cavalry officers. Far from it.

Incidently, in that same preface Maugham points to de Maupassant as a master of this kind of storytelling, so I ran out and picked up a selected works.

The Shaft Novels by Ernest Tidyman Are Surprisingly Delightful

By Charlie Kondek

I've for many years been a fan of the Shaft movies and the blaxploitation/exploitation genre in general, but I recently picked up and read a couple of the Shaft novels by Ernest Tidyman and was surprised to find how delightful they are. They are slick, violent, sexy and profane, and move with a grace not unlike the main character, who "uncoils like an animal coming out of a cave." I'm surprised at how deep Tidyman, a white writer from Cleveland, gets into this character, a black enforcer from Harlem. Shaft is strong, amoral, unpredictable and resourceful, though not without a vague code that includes pride and a respect of decency and humanity, and some of the situations he finds himself in are ludicrous (he kills with almost complete impunity). These novels probably won't ever be short-listed for a Great Works of the 20th Century anthology, not even on a list of the world's great crime novels, but they are, nonetheless, treasures, in my view. Consider:

Caroli's world was crowded with psychopaths. The possibility that Shaft was one of them penetrated his arrogance. His smile slid off the side of his face like a rejected panhandler shuffling across cold concrete.

So far I've read Shaft and Shaft Has a Ball and would like to read them all. More on this topic can be found here (where I copped the image).