Friday, February 24, 2006
Chances are, somebody has already done it. And better.
Let me show you my opener for my um, magnum opus, The Hat People:
The year was rife with signs, entire series of strange occurrences and unlucky portents, events so ominous that the superstitious in Toronto's great European community took immediate alarm and even the less skittish native Protestants began to entertain secret misgivings.
On the westward commute, on the QEW to Hamilton, a new object had appeared in the heavens, an L-shaped chunk of what appeared to be a Corinthian column, larger than the moon and out of all proportion to earthly size. Hardly anyone noticed, in the lengthening days of February that an eclipse had occurred at about the same time, appearing to have the sun setting at five-thirty p.m. instead of a quarter to six. Only on the eleven o'clock news did our commuters learn that the fiery column, replete with its lower chunk of plinth, was an unexplained phenomenon by the local observatory and someone must have been sleeping at the switch, since the accompanying eclipse hadn't been predicted either. A satellite did pick up the torus, and all agreed, that from some angles, it did look like a hat. Torontonians shrugged and waited for other events.
Something was happening to the money. The paper banknote seemed to change colour every day, while at the Royal Canadian Mint, die makers were already tooling up to turn old American-style quarters and dimes into huge coins resembling Mexican pesos.
Three Conservative political campaigns fell as they rose, giving Bay Street a shudder, and in one Ukrainian Catholic Church, the very pillar of a conservative people, a priest went mad. In the midst of high mass, when the great onion-topped cathedral was crowded to its very doors, the Reverend Moisei Papryka, leaped to the altar, and shouting blasphemies, proceeded to lay violent hands on the Sacred Host, understood by all to be the body and blood of Christ.
Now here is how Dostoevsky handled something like my poor attempt:
Somehow it happened--no one knows quite how, or why--that the incidence of robbery and violence has doubled. Arsonists' fires have ravaged towns and villages, and in some places there is even disease: plague, and the threat of a cholera epidemic. The manager of a factory in the town of Shpigulin has shamelessly cheated the workers, and working conditions are very poor; subversive leaflets have appeared, urging the overthrow of the existing order; the idle, prankish company that routinely gathers in the Governor's mansion is becoming involved in adventures of and increasingly reckless kind. (They are called the Jeerers or the Tormentors.) The historic Church of the Nativity of Our Lady is plundered and a live mouse left behind the broken glass of the icon. Fedka, the escaped convict, a former serf who was sold into the army, many ears before, in order to pay his master's gambling debt, roams the countryside committing crimes--not just robbery but arson and murder as well. The police seem unable to find him. "Strange characters appear--a human flotsam that comes out of nowhere to plague society. Madmen erupt. Women become obsessed with feminism. Generals transform themselves into peasant costumes...
A nineteen-year-old boy has committed suicide and a party of pleasure seekers crowds into the room to examine him: one of the ladies says, "I'm so bored with everything that I can't afford to be too fussy about entertainment--anything will do as long as it's amusing". It seems that a number of people have taken to hanging and shooting themselves. Is the ground suddenly starting to slip from beneath our feet? Is the great country of Russia as a whole approaching a crisis? Demons begin to appear, licking like flames about the foundations of order: a Trickster-demon springs out of nowhere, and, very much like the gloating Dionysus of Europides, The Bacchae, want only to sow disruption, madness and death. "We shall proclaim destruction," Peter Verkhovensy tells his idol Stavrogin, "because, --because...the idea is so attractive for some reason! And anyway, we need some exercise.”
The Possessed, Dostoevsky's most confused and violent novel, and his most satisfactorily "tragic" work began to appear in serial form in l871, and strangely, did my own work in 1972. I took it to my old professor of English, himself a published novelist. I hardly expected his response. "You are Dickens”, said the overly kind teacher, "You are Balzac." I should have known he was damning with loud praise because he did go on to say that my The Hat People didn't have much of a plot, huge holes in the story and that I'd better pick a plot, like Bernard Malamud did in The Fixer, and write to it. The sentiment was echoed some time later, when I met Susan Sonntag in Copenhagen, who remarked, after I laid out my book to her, "What, you wrote without plotting? No wonder your book was rejected. You can't just write and write and not structure."
But I just kept writing and writing. I found plotting boring. I thought the novel would come to me almost whole out of my subconscious, like Shakespeare's writing process, first draft, complete, hardly any corrections. And every time.
Needless to say, I was not Shakespeare or even Harold Robbins--not even close. Come on.
Yet I had a young writer's arrogance. So I finished the book, all 50,000 words of it, sent it out, same response.
"You wrote too much and didn't structure enough. Go to the masters, go to Dostoevsky. It's probably what you're bumping up against
Aping Dostoevsky. And I didn't even know it. And maybe Dickens too, though A Tale of Two cities is a different kind of book And who was I to believe my teacher, who had said, fingers crossed, that I may be a Dickens.
How ambitious we are at thirty and a bit beyond.
"Do not write much before thirty, the canny and successful John Braine used to warn. And he was so right.
How the demon had possessed me. How he had taught me to be selfish about the writing. How he facilitated the wrecking of my marriage, the near-abandonment of my children.
And now the proof is in the puddin'
The book she is writ.
Sometimes I think I should have left writing to writers, gone the way of the bureaucrat and made a pile of money.
But the bureaucrat must be an organized controlled person, have good work habits and possess fine handwriting. I was not particularly organized. I had really crummy handwriting. But then I read another author, a distant countryman, one Nicholas Gogol (Yes.). And in Diary of a Madman, a bureaucrat too, is not inured against compulsive behaviour and even madness stemming from his pigeon-grey craft in his pigeon-gray office.
I had made my choice. Yet the book was found wanting. I had invested years, laboured mightily, and had produced a mouse that roared in the face of Dostoevsky. This was doubly corroborated as the rejection letters came in.
But finally, an encouraging one. "An interesting story, the tragicomedy of a culturally displaced person trying to hold it together in Toronto. You do set up scenes well. I would say work it over and try us again with it, though I'm not sure it's Anansi's kind of book to begin with."
I worked it over. He said "Do no more work on this."
I applied to the Ontario Arts Council, hoping to get a grant for the book. It worked I got the grant.
Different attitude from the editor once he found out.
"This is where it starts." He had uttered the magic words. I was in. But only because of the promise of money, the money to print the book, the publicity, all the government emoluments. So that's how it works, I told myself. It's the money.
But it wasn't enough money, apparently and soon I was back in the street, manuscript in hand, the editor's comforting words still in my ears. "I have to admit I liked the book, the paranoia, the social paranoia. And you had set up your scenes so well."
"Have to be honest with you. It's finding the money to print the book. There just wasn't enough.”
Whatever. I put the book out at my own expense. The Uxbridge library soon found some money and issued the book. It was a kind of victory.
And yet and yet? Was I really aping Dostoevksy, who knew so much about social dislocation, nihilism and the dark spirit of an age? Maybe I'd had too good an English course and later, too good a Russian course.
Oh well, imitation is flattery, yet it wasn't conscious imitation.
Probably because Dostoevsky was part-Ukrainian, a culturally displaced person because of the great diaspora and I had felt something going by.
Saturday, February 18, 2006
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
Thus begins Allen Ginsberg's HOWL, and how eerily prescient he was to us fifty years later.
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat
up smoking in the supernatural darkness of
cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities
Toronto, 2006 and hardly anybody gives a damn.
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and
saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,
There is great poetry being written out of the Project ghetto. Some of it is reaching TVO here in Ontario, but many of the poets unsung.
Well, I'll try to sing for them, but my song is getting weaker all the time.
How is it that a man, a man fouled, almost disgusted by his own homosexuality can write something so prescient, so ahead of its time that we can only look at the poetry and shake our heads. Allen Ginsberg is talking about NOW.
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unob
tainable dollars! Children screaming under the
stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men
weeping in the parks!
Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the
loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy
judger of men!
Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the
crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of
sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment!
Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stun-
Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose
blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers
are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a canni-
bal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking
Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows!
Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long
streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose fac-
tories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose
smokestacks and antennae crown the cities!
Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch
whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch
whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch
whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen!
Moloch whose name is the Mind!
Moloch in whom I sit lonely! Moloch in whom I dream
Angels! Crazy in Moloch! Cocksucker in
Moloch! Lacklove and manless in Moloch!
Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom
I am a consciousness without a body! Moloch
who frightened me out of my natural ecstasy!
Moloch whom I abandon! Wake up in Moloch!
Light streaming out of the sky!
Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! invisible suburbs!
skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic
industries! spectral nations! invincible mad
houses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs!
They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven! Pave-
ments, trees, radios, tons! lifting the city to
Heaven which exists and is everywhere about
Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies!
gone down the American river!
Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole
boatload of sensitive bullshit!
Breakthroughs! over the river! flips and crucifixions!
gone down the flood! Highs! Epiphanies! De-
spairs! Ten years' animal screams and suicides!
Minds! New loves! Mad generation! down on
the rocks of Time!
Real holy laughter in the river! They saw it all! the
wild eyes! the holy yells! They bade farewell!
They jumped off the roof! to solitude! waving!
carrying flowers! Down to the river! into the
Carl Solomon! I'm with you in Rockland
where you're madder than I am
I'm with you in Rockland
where you must feel very strange
I'm with you in Rockland
where you imitate the shade of my mother
I'm with you in Rockland
where you've murdered your twelve secretaries
I'm with you in Rockland
where you laugh at this invisible humor
The after-effects of slavery go well past any civil war. There was the real civil war and all the unofficial civil wars after it, the struggle for that mule and those forty acres. The emoluments never came.
And yet there is a deeper kind of oppression, the oppression of blue-eyed minorities, the homosexuals Ginsberg talks about, yet in the end, in another poem he says he loves America and wants to "put my queer shoulder to the wheel."
Putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.
My own shoulder isn't especially queer, but I know for sure what Ginsberg and the American black are talking about. I love the blues, I love Ginsberg' poetry. These are antidotes for cultural oppression, and for a long time,
I as an ethnic, had been oppressed. But I was saved. Saved by the good graces of a good profession, saved by an education that had heretofore been denied me. Saved in fact, by the Jews, who gave me all and I offered nothing in return.
Yes, yes, they were breaking their back carrying Moloch, but there was lots left for me and mine.
And so now I'll have to stop being the novelist manqué, put my "queer" shoulder to the wheel and become a mensch, a mensch who looks after his family, unfortunates outside his family and tries to be as good as gold.
That is it. That is the secret. That is the entire secret, your damn communism, capitalism, "empowerment" and bullshit be damned.
If I am not a good writer, at least I can cite someone who is good, who is very good.
And if we listen to his message we can avoid the fire next time.
Have I become Jewish?
Not necessarily. But I can sing the songs, read the incredibly prophetic poetry. And forge "in the smithy of my soul" the uncreated consciousness of all the races.
Listen to the prophets of the garbage cans and the flowers.
Out of filth grows the flower.
They say in the Holy Grail legend that Christ emerges as a naked man.
Friday, February 10, 2006
The Great Bitch, La Belle Dame sans merci, that unattainable Helen of Troy that gets you just about there, but not all the way, and leaves you howling at the moon, sometimes for years. You go to pursue. You scheme. You plan. To no avail. You will never be with her.
Now Mailer is an experienced enough artist to tell the novice writer that it's not getting laid that is the point, it's producing the book. At least that's what I got ouf of "An American Dream," for all its gaucheries and crudities Not to say, ever, that Mailer is gauche or crude, it's just that the embittered PI in the piece seemed gauche and crude.
And violent. Treated women like the Russian whoremasters of all the 'Stans today.
Cut to 2006. James Blunt, in his rather arresting falsetto:
I saw your face in a crowded place, and I don't know what to do.
You're beautiful! You're beautiful to me.
But it's time to face the truth.
I will never be with you.
Old Ivan, straddling three generations, and yet, still, somehow in love. With the Great Bitch, the Great Unattainable. Again and again.
The quest started in the late Sixties, A comic book collaboration between geniuses Michael O'Donoghue and Robert Springer, The Adventures of Phoebe-Zeitgeist, a gorgeous drop-dead Moonbeam McSwine, out of All Capp, perhaps, but nothing McSwinish about Phoebe- Zeitgeist. She is a Serbian debutante, an aristocrat, really--I don't want to mention Mila Mulroney in the same breath, but as gorgeous as Mila Mulroney anyway, but younger, and very, very sexy, in no matter what scene, what level of chains and degradation.
Phoebe-Zeitgeist, the belle of any ambassadorial ball, is suddenly kidnapped and captured by a series of bizarre characters, such as former Eskimos, Nazis, Communist Russians, Chinese foot fetishists and lesbian assassins. She does have a hard time of all this. She is variously rescued, recaptured and rescued again How I would have loved to have rescued Phoebe from the clutches of those evil Red Chinese and assorted rejects of Katmandu.
I was fresh out of liberal arts school, still high on old Eagle's notions on the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, that old German shepherd seeming more abreast of the times even today, than he was during Bismarck's reign, where a united Germany seemed to have it all. And Hegel had all the brains. Of course, right now America seems to have it all. But brains?
But cut to the chase: I was just out of the liberal Arts school, a former army guy, like James Blunt, guitar once strapped to the side of a radar console to look for Russians, a real Norman Mailer hero, and, inspired by the best art of my time, like all the Beat works, Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac and, especially Michael O'Donoghue.
I was in love and On the Road to write a beautiful novel about Toronto, and if not that, at least meet my personal Phoebe-Zeitgeist. A naked woman in chains, political correctness be damned, is a huge turn- on for a young horny fool who wanted to write.
Three novels later, I found myself in the unenviable position of an old balding guy in love with a woman out of a porn movie, the very caricature of a dweeb out of Michael O'Donoghue's perfervid imagination, a Diogenes not with a candle in his hand, but with a guttering candle on the top of his head, the picture of his chained porn queen firmly embedded in his brain, and he "had to get!"
I had somehow stumbled, after my three novels upon an untenured professorship in English and the porn queen had been one of my students in a night class.
Professor and the Blue Angel. I was not aware, in those days that women who went to night school risked the House of the Rising sun, if not serious marital difficulties.
But my Phoebe was more a graduate student, graduate habitué of the House of the Rising Sun. Lately, all the whores are taking Creative Writing. And why not?
She told me she was an actress--and what an actress, I later found out as I checked out her VCR's. I was in love with the blow job queen of Holland Landing.
Ah the professor and the Blue Angel. Boris and Phoebe-Zeitgeist. There was a dungeon in her basement. We would visit it on her off days, when the pimp was away dealing drugs in Edmonton out of little red Toyota trucks.
She dumped me for a new pimp. I hardly had the resources. She stopped, of course, having what passed for sex between us. I still had her in the hippocampus of my groin. I had her smell. Better easy conquests, said old Herodotus. Better that, or your body will drive you mad as you seek the unattainable.
Yet there I was, in late middle age, the candle on top my head, a character, suddenly out of Michael O'Donoghue(himself dying of cancer, quitting his Saturday Night Live position). Why him? He was, after all, the genius of my quest, the explainer, the interpreter of our time. I was just a follower. With the candle on my head.
Yeah, yeah, it's fun to be a genius, of course, but keep that old candle before the cart.
Where'd they go
Twenty years, I don't know.
I sit there wonder some times
Where they'd gone.
I beat up the pimp and have disbanded the foot-fetishists and lesbian assassins. The PI side of me. Had to break it up. Hero in my own novel. But to me she would still not come. Still the candle on my head.
I sit here on a rock, along with my old Bob Seeger and Julian Lennon tapes, my old walkman
In the park
Doing the Ivan-man.
Today, sent by Scott Murray (whose poetic sensitivity I admire) is really instigated by Dazzling Dino, kind of a right-wing blogger with a mischeivous intent.
I am finding of late, in my diminished circumstances, that people are telling my to f-off and calling me a prick, just on general circumstances. Hope you’re having better luck Daz, but all the "lesbian assassins" (see my blog above) seem to be on your case. Hope you don't end up like the comic heroine I admire, Phoebe-Zeitgeist (above again).
Dino in Chains?
Here comes the Rooster!
Four places I have lived: Ukraine. Germany. Canada. Mexico. I am a crashing bore in four languages.
Four vehicles I have owned: l981 Dodge Omni; l985 Dodge Omni; l987 Dodge Omni. 1989 K-car.
Why the meme-like cast of my car ownership? I am a cheap bastard and can't afford the emission tests, so I just use the same license plate over and over again, which registers a 1981 Dodge Omni, which was more or less roadworthy. I am an antique. My cars have all been antiques...But they went like the wind, sometimes all the way to Mexico and back.
Four jobs I have had:
Maintenance mechanic (fired professor)
Taxi driver (fired maintenance mechanic)
Blow job. (No fare money).
Four vacations that I've had:
Denmark (did not draw cartoons)
Mexico (in my Dodge Omni)
Brownsville, Texas....Don't believe all that stuff about redneck Texans. Southern hospitality. They are fine people, especially if you were a former member of the armed forces (which I was once).
Friday, February 03, 2006
Favourite device of the journeyman novelist.
Potted biographies. You have your list of characters. They all have histories. You place their histories in little pots you can uncork when you need to refer to why a character actually does something and how he/she does it.
W. Somerset Maughan says, however, that the writer actually ends up painting his own face, potted biographies or no.
I have seen your face, Billy-boy.
I fear that you may have been blown ashore.
Now is that any way to treat a mildly mediocre dead writer? Ecce Homo?
I am given to understand that Maugham disowned his daughter. His vast millions? The inheritance? I don't know.
He was certainly one successful Mofo of a playwright and novelist. And his poor, ignored wife.
As if we ourselves were not guilty, oh how guilty, along with St. Augustine. Some of the things we have done in this dark age, would blanch a saint. Fry him. Her?
Really the auras of past lovers, some auras powerful, almost incandescent, the nearly-unrequited lovers strangely with the most nascent power.
It is in the shower that we sort out parallel universes, actually the universes of our past lovers.
Yes, yes, the hip savant would say, "You forgot to masturbate", but I think it's deeper than that.
Just like Augustine, we suffer (enjoy?) the auras of our past lovers.
I am a hell of a lot older than the revered Bishop of Hippo at his death, so my auras are all but overwhelming.
Somebody's face is nuzzling against my thigh. It is Celia, the most powerful of the auras, and I hardly had all that much to do with her sexually. Why the strong, almost magnetic pull? Because like tends to attract like, and though a writer's worst enemy may be another writer, this was a female writer and they are best in the relationship game known as fiction, and she could really get it on. Unpublished, though, but really banging against the wall of my lifeboat as I floated away from my marriage. She was, in fact, fond of U-boat captain outfits, a gorgeous young Faye Dunaway in uniform; we were a little like Bonnie and Clyde. She wanted to fellate me one day, but I was struck by her beauty and went another way.
You had no compunctions with all your cycle sluts and even the one who loved you most.
Yet, for some strange reason, missionary position or nothing.
And even there, the haunting presence of another halo, King Mark, and I was the Tristan in the piece.
Would King Mark have slain me if he'd seen us in the act vulgarly known as sixty-nine?
Would he have just said, Hello then, let's have a cup of tea, shall we?
Or would he have wanted to join in?
My own potted biography. The older I get, the more I think of the past, but it is a pastiche of parallel universes.
I am in Denmark. I am in Spain. I am in my ancestral home in checkered Ukraine. Rarely I am in Canada, that Chernobyl of the spirit, where there has been a meltdown and hardly anyone was noticing. With the death of McLuhan, everything died spiritually. "Leave the poor man alone," said McLuhan's wife to the jealous academics. "You are killing him."
They did. And with that, cutting-edge Toronto had to give it all up for Calgary, Alberta. We were all doing it, killing McLuhan. I went to school with Mary McLuhan, Marshall's daughter, and we all ragged on her too. Jealousy.
I look at the fine prose of a web-mate like R. J. Baker and know for sure that a lot of people might be jealous, unpublished author or no. Yeah, yeah, it needs editing, but it is still fine. My rug-cleaner can write better than I can.
One of the paradoxes.
Forget plot. Use character. Character is everything. Character is plot.
You write your first draft on the fly, just let one word follow another, forget the sophistication you want to convey, just do it, do it to that last page 300 where you finally write THE END. It is shit, yes, but out of shit grows the flower. Then you go into the second draft, another five hundred pages, two hundred of which you will have to throw away. Still want to be a novelist?
It is a technique (some Satanists would say a Technology ) ninety-nine percent talent, ninety-nine percent hard work and ninety-nine percent imagination. And potted biograhies. Especially your potted biography.
"I was born..."
John Fowles: "I was born the son of middleclass parents, themselves under the shadow of that monstrous dwarf, Victoria...It soon became apparent that I was not equipped by heredity to be the person I wanted to be..."
Now don't that turn your brown eyes blue?
How did he arrive at his book? He has no idea and says so. "I just wrote and wrote, hardly knowing what I was doing."
Potted biographies. His own potted biography?
The potted biographies really go into your second draft; that's where you flesh out the characters, that is where things click into place. That is where they do what they do because they have no choice. That is where you do what you do because you had no choice. Your biography, your destiny.
I am still in the shower.
Use your vices, your alcoholism, your lechery, your addiction to tobacco--as rewards. Do not just surrender to your vices, your piggishness. Use your vices as a reward when you finally succumb.
I will not masturbate this morning, surrounded by the aurase of my past lovers..
Jacques Barzun: More people fuck than philosophize.
But then, Jerzy Kosinski: If you must masturbate, do so, but you could try writing about it as a Gongorist trick.
And Philip Roth took the advice, hook, line and stinker.
Produced a book called Whacking Off.
How uncomplicated the male writer.