Friday, April 28, 2006

The Art and Artifice of Literature

Robert Louis Stevenson to Henry James in an 1884 letter:

Seriously, from the dearth of information and thoughtful interest in the art of literature, those who try to practice it with any deliberate purpose run the risk of finding no fit audience. People suppose that it is 'the stuff' that interests them; they think for instance, that the prodigious fine thoughts and sentiments in Shakespeare impress by their own weight, not understanding that the unpolished diamond is but a stone. They think that striking situations, or good dialogue, are got by studying life; they will not rise to understand that they are prepared by deliberate artifice and set off by painful suppressions.

Quoted in Claire Harman, Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography (HarperCollins, 2005) at 280.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Unfinished Work

No one will be surprised to hear that I've bought more books. My latest acquisitions include The Other Landscape by Neil Gunn, George MacKay Brown: The Life by Maggie Fergusson, Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman, Scots: The Mither Tongue by Billy Kay, and The Story of Loch Ness by Katharine Stewart.

I've begun with the Robert Louis Stevenson biography as I wanted to read about his early years in Edinburgh while on site. I'm a third of the way in now and it's proving a most interesting read.

When I quoted RLS several posts ago on the trouble with writing a novel ("it's the length that kills"), I hadn't realized that he was known for having difficulty finishing what he started. Apparently he was given to finishing off stories with the words "to be continued" then putting them aside and never returning to them. This is a running theme in the biography, at least in relation to his early writing career:

Stevenson loved to run ahead and gloat over possible future achievements. The only problem was that having done the gloating, he often found that he had exhausted his enthusiasm for a project. His notebooks and letters are full of lists of chapters for books he never so much as planned out or wrote a line of. The lists, the naming, the brave idea of a title page, were often enough in themselves -- or enough to convince himself that further work would be wasted. In his Prose Writings of Robert Louis Stevenson, Roger Swearingen lists 393 items, only twenty-seven of which are published, principal works. Even granted that many of the pieces listed are essays and stories which were gathered up into collections later, there are still scores of unfinished essays, unstarted stories, grand schemes, false starts: enough to have furnished two or three doppelganger careers. With a little push this way or that, Stevenson might not have been known as the author of Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but as the playwright of The King's Rubies, or the biographer of Viscount Dundee.

Perhaps I'm responding defensively here (being myself in possession of several notebooks full of novel and story ideas that I have not yet seriously pursued), but isn't this just normal for a writer? I can see why it's worrying early in a career before one has published much of consequence to have so many starts and so few finishes. But if one is able to build up the quantity and quality of RLS's body of published work over one short lifetime (1850-1894), surely there's no need to assign undue significance to the quantity of unfinished work that remains? It seems to me that the long list of ideas and beginnings without endings simply signal either insufficient time to bring it all to fruition, or a series of sensible decisions about which of his many ideas were worth pursuing and which weren't. What strikes me as noteworthy about Swearingen's thorough inventory of RLS's finished and unfinshed works is that it indicates what an extraordinarily prolific imagination he had.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Hans Christian Andersen

"To travel is to live!"

Apparently the above is a famous quotation of Hans Christian Andersen. I learned this when I caught the last day of an exhibit entitled "The Greatest Fairy Tale: The Amazing Life and Story of Hans Christian Andersen" at Edinburgh's City Arts Centre on the weekend. It was put together to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth. It was beautifully done, particularly all of the interactive exhibits for children. I didn't have any children with me and so had to gamely attempt the various activities myself. A lot of space was devoted to the intricate paper cutouts that Andersen made as inspiration for or sometimes illustration of his tales. It was marvellous to see not just the cutouts themselves, but one of the little pairs of scissors that he used to make them. Somehow seeing the actual tools used by a writer or an artist always brings home to me the work that they did in a deep way. There were also a number of handwritten manuscripts on display, alongside pages from his diary and so on. I hadn't known how prolific he was -- that he had published novels, travel writing, poems, and an autobiography as well as his famous fairy tales. Is there anyone out there who has read any of his non-fairy tale work?

I left the exhibit determined to track down at least some of Andersen's travel writing if I can. I felt a definite kinship with him over his love of travel. There was another clever quotation that I wish I'd copied down alongside my new motto quoted above. Something to do with his tendency to suffer "abroadsickness" when at home rather than homesickness when away. No homesickness here as I continue to relish my travels!

Friday, April 21, 2006

Childhood Memories

My brother is due to arrive today. Did I mention that I’m hanging out with my parents in Edinburgh and that my brother will be joining us? He and I have left our spouses at home for this trip, so it will be just the four of us together in Edinburgh for the first time since 1976.

I remember that year being a very important one in my relationship with my brother. Throughout our childhoods we mostly ignored one another. There was no overt hostility but he’s two years older and we had different friends and different interests. (The overt hostility came later in our teens and twenties when our politics, our musical tastes, and our fashion senses radically diverged.) But that year in Edinburgh, at least in the summer before we started school, all we had was each other. We were good friends—at least that’s how I remember it.

One of the bits of writing that I’m working on while I’m here is a story for children partly based on that year. I’m looking forward to having my brother here to check my recollections against his and to provoke new ones. Hopefully I'll end up with a welter of conflicting detail to draw from.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Holiday Book Buys

The Edinburgh holiday has begun in disorienting fashion. There’s a problem with the heating at the self-catering flat that we rented so we’ve been put up in a fancy hotel until it’s fixed. A hotel with butlers no less—the polar opposite of self-catering. You might think this unexpected bit of luxury would be a boon but I hate being waited on. I’ve taken to sneaking out to purchase cups of tea at the shop on the corner rather than calling my butler (yes, I’ve been assigned my own) to bring up a tea tray. I do appreciate the free internet access though; hence this bit of holiday blogging.

I arrived not much more than 24 hours ago, spent more than half of that time sleeping off the jetlag, and yet have somehow managed to buy four books already. I always do this when I travel. I agonize over which books to pack making sure to bring a sufficient variety to get me through the trip without weighing down my suitcase too much, then I promptly purchase a stack of new ones the minute I arrive. I should have learned by now that I only need to bring enough books to last the plane journey. My purchases so far:

1. Findings, a travel book by poet Kathleen Jamie, described thus on the back cover:

Whether she is following the call of a peregrine in the hills above her home in Fife, sailing into a dark winter solstice on the Orkney islands, or pacing around the carcass of a whale on a rain-swept Hebridean beach, she creates a subtle and modern narrative, peculiarly alive to her connections and surroundings.”

2. Why Don’t You Stop Talking, a collection of short fiction by Jackie Kay. Kay writes odd and powerful fictions. Tantalizing story titles from the table of contents of this collection include “Shark! Shark!,” “The woman with the fork and knife disorder,” and “The oldest woman in Scotland.” Here’s the opening paragraph of a story titled “A guid Scots death:”

Ken this: you’re born; you live; you die. It comes doon to this. The cost of ferrying you from hospital to parlour to crematorium. Forget the future. Forget it. You’re no making it to next year. Your skin is hinging off. All this talk aboot time all the time. I’ve had it up tae here.

3. The Stornoway Way, by Kevin MacNeil. It’s described on the front cover flap as a novel which “chronicles the misadventures of an idiosyncratic young Scotsman cartwheeling further and further into a Hebridean hell, railing against the constraints of his extraordinary but vanishing island culture as well as western civilization in general.” Here’s the first paragraph of the first chapter:

Fuck everyone from Holden Caulfield to Bridget Jones, fuck all the American and English phoney fictions that claim to speak for us; they don’t know the likes of us exist and they never did. We are who we are because we grew up the Stornoway Way. We do not live in the back of beyond, we live at the very heart of beyond.

4. Looking Back: An Autobiographical Journey through South Edinburgh and Beyond by Charles J. Smith. I have one of the volumes in Smith’s four-volume history of South Edinburgh and I’m looking forward to reading this slim book that promises a more personal take. His primary focus is on the neighbourhood in which I lived during my one year in Edinburgh. It’s also, as noted in a previous post, the neighbourhood in which Muriel Spark was born and grew up. Smith is round about the same age as Spark so his account will be contemporaneous with Spark’s autobiographical recollections in Curriculum Vitae.

Not a bad haul for day one!

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Experiencing Fiction

William Sloane on the experience of reading fiction:

I believe that fiction is as much of a reality as any other experience that the reader undertakes. Call it vicarious if you like, but the reader is not a spectator, he is a participant. A novel can make you laugh or cry or go looking for someone you crave. These things are so real they are physiological. Vicarious? Perhaps, but not disembodied.

From The Craft of Writing (W.W. Norton & Company, 1979) at 40.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark is one of the writers that I most admire and I was sad today to hear the news of her death. The first Spark book that I read was her first novel, The Comforters, in the summer of 1985. I was so taken with it that I continued on from there to read every other novel that she’d written to up that point. When her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, came out in 1992, I got a little thrill from this sentence on the first page: “I was born in Edinburgh, at 160 Bruntsfield Place, the Morningside District, in 1918.” You see, I too once lived on Bruntsfield Place, albeit only for one year when I was ten years old. A minor coincidence I know, but it's hard to resist the temptation to accord some significance to even the most tenuous connection to a favourite author. It was one of my reading resolutions for 2006 to revisit the novels of Muriel Spark and now, on the eve of a trip to her birthplace, this seems like a good time to start. At the very least, I will bring a copy of her quintessential Edinburgh novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, along with me.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Robert Louis Stevenson on Edinburgh

I’m gearing up for my trip to Edinburgh next week by rereading Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes, my favourite Robert Louis Stevenson book. Here are a few snippets from the first couple of chapters.

On Edinburgh’s climate:

The weather is raw and boisterous in winter, shifty and ungenial in summer, and a downright meteorological purgatory in the spring.

On its contrasts:

Few places, if any, offer a more barbaric display of contrasts to the eye. In the very midst stands one of the most satisfactory crags in nature—a Bass Rock upon dry land, rooted in a garden, shaken by passing trains, carrying a crown of battlements and turrets, and describing its war-like shadow over the liveliest and brightest thoroughfare of the new town. From their smoky beehives, ten stories high, the unwashed look down upon the open squares and gardens of the wealthy; and gay people sunning themselves along Princes Street, with its mile of commercial palaces all beflagged upon some great occasion, see, across a gardened valley set with statutes, where the washings of the old town flutter in the breeze at its high windows.

On the fall of the land in the High Street:

The building had grown rotten to the core; the entry underneath had suddenly closed up so that the scavenger’s barrow could not pass; cracks and reverberations sounded through the house at night; the inhabitants of the huge old human bee-hive discussed their peril when they encountered on the stair: some had even left their dwellings in a panic of fear, and returned to them again in a fit of economy or self-respect; when, in the black hours of a Sunday morning, the whole structure ran together with a hideous uproar and tumbled storey upon storey to the ground. The physical shock was felt far and near; and the moral shock travelled with the morning milkmaid into all the suburbs. The church-bells never sounded more dismally over Edinburgh than that grey forenoon. Death had made a brave harvest; and, like Samson, by pulling down one roof destroyed many a home. None who saw it can have forgotten the aspect of the gable: here it was plastered, there papered, according to the rooms; here the kettle still stood on the hob, high overhead; and there a cheap picture of the Queen was pasted over the chimney. So, by this disaster, you had a glimpse into the life of thirty families, all suddenly cut off from the revolving years. The land had fallen; and with the land how much! Far in the country, people saw a gap in the city ranks, and the sun looked through between the chimneys in an unwonted place. And all over the world, in London, in Canada, in New Zealand, fancy what a multitude of people could exclaim with truth: ‘The house that I was born in fell last night!’

Much has changed since Stevenson‘s book was first published in 1879, but Edinburgh still has the vile climate, the dramatic contrasts, and the spooky charm born of a dark history.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Not Buying Not Buying It

This evening in the bookstore I dithered for a while over Judith Levine’s Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping. I really want to read it, but in the end I couldn’t bring myself to shell out $35 for a book about eschewing consumerism. Eventually I made my way to the library and put my name on the list for it there instead. I had a similar response a few months back to Liz Perle’s Money, a Memoir: Women, Emotions, and Cash. I eyed it up covetously several times in the bookstore, but didn’t buy it. Is it just me, or do the sales of such books suffer more broadly on account of the financial anxiety that they provoke in potential buyers? The fact that I’m 178th in the library hold queue for Levine’s book makes me think that the latter might be true.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Story and Interview Online

My short story Cool and Stuart Ross’s interview of me are now available in the online edition of This Magazine. I’ve made occasional references on this blog to my endeavours to capture a first person teenage voice. Cool is one of those teenage stories, part of a series that will appear in my next short story collection which is due out in the spring of 2007. To read the story click here, and the interview, here.