Archive for August, 2010

Spirit of the Story

 ‘The Portrait of the Lady’ by Henry James has a beautiful opening sequence, written before the days of cinema, yet would make a cinematographer proud.  It is as if we are looking down from afar at an idyllic English scene where three people are partaking of their afternoon tea.  James manages to evoke a sense of peace and transcendence, even as he ‘zooms in’ on the three characters themselves.  There is also a suggestion of actual meditation, enhanced by any knowledge of the connections between tea and the practice (Boddhidarma supposedly cut off his eye-lashes to create tea-leaves in order to keep himself awake for meditation); so much so that one wonders if the English, whilst consciously invading the East, were unconsciously importing a new type of spirituality to their land. 

Novels have a very particular relationship with matters of the spirit, as expounded upon by the critic F.R. Leavis and the writer D. H. Lawrence early last century.  (See ‘The Grumpy Critic’, another WordPress blog, for more on Leavis.)  An important point made by both those men was that morality has a very different meaning to a novelist than to almost anyone else.  A poet, a scientist, a priest, anyone can afford to have a particular morality or rules of conduct, but a novelist has to be able to transcend their own bias.  For example, Tolstoy according to Lawrence, like all great storytellers had the ability to portray people of vastly differing outlooks on life and death; and he only really ‘lost it’ when his own personal Christian-social perspective took over.  As Lawrence puts it, one can trust the novel but the novelist is usually a dribbling liar.  And you just have to read some of Lawrence’s very personal diatribes or poorer novels to know that to be true!

What is demanded therefore of the novelist is the ability to stand back from oneself.  A good writer should be able to question themself to such a degree that they too can become a mere character in one of their stories.  One way to achieve this is to create a character that opposes your own beliefs, a devil’s advocate.  Writing stories like this becomes incredibly liberating, for you are now free from your self, and able to experience the universe as it is rather than how you wish it to be. 

Lawrence argued that the novel was the greatest of all art forms – and remember that he was also a poet,  painter and essayist – for only the novelist could get the whole of the person, other disciplines could only get aspects.  (If you are starting to get irritated by this paradigm, then maybe you’ll have some idea as to why both Lawrence and Leavis could incite so much antagonism from the art and literary worlds.  Even today they remain controversial.)

Going over the Leavis-Lawrence ‘guidelines’ there are certain recurring themes as to what actually constitutes great writing.  Morality we have just mentioned – albeit a different kind of morality from most.  Another important factor is that the writer must base what they write on experienced truth, more than imagination.  This may seem to get rid willy-nilly of all science fiction, but actually only most of it!  ‘1984’ for example was based on how George Orwell was experiencing 1948.  He saw what was going on around him and he used the future date as an analogy of real life.  Similarly, Ray Bradbury’s classic ‘The Pedestrian’ about a man arrested for walking in the city at night – simply walking – may seem prophetic but it was based on what actually happened to him over fifty years ago. 

 It doesn’t have to be your own experience necessarily though.  Joseph Conrad wrote ‘The Secret Agent’ and was so convincing in his portrayal of terrorists and government cover-ups that someone in power commented he must have had strong connections to that underworld.  Conrad, on hearing this, denied it, putting it down more – if I remember correctly – to his understanding of human nature and his studying of the news.  As a result, he wrote a book that is incredibly relevant to us today.  I myself, in more humble aspirations, draw on the experiences of past and present astronauts when I want to write about space travel, by reading their autobiographies, allowing their experience to inform my imagination.  This is to allow for the fact NASA have not allowed me yet on any of their missions.  (I must be the only person to have a restraining order in relation to a space agency.)

Another essential factor for the well-being of a story is life-affirmativeness.  Again, as with morality, the novelist is not required to follow the norm here.  Shakespeare for example can pile the stage with dead bodies at the end of one of his tragedies but one does not feel diminished from the experience; rather, one has grown from it.  Put me through an entire Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical though and I lose the will to live, though that is partially subjective.  Partially.  It is also to do with the contrast between real, profound, complex human emotions (Shakespeare) and simulated, over-simplified, exaggerated emotions (many musicals). 

Seeing ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘novel’ together, one asks just what is meant by a novel.  The term seems limited when it is clear we are talking about a ‘complex narrative structure’, but that’s a bit of a mouthful.  Also included though once we expand the idea of a novel, are movies and even TV shows.  Last night, watching a ‘Law and Order’ episode, I was once again taken by the realistic approach (that’s a plus for ‘experience’) but also, once again, depleted by the entire absence of joy or celebration.  I expect my storytellers to represent the whole tapestry of life, not just one or two colours.  Similarly, sitcoms tend to portray only the lighter side of life. 

There is also an emphasis on substance rather than style.  Lawrence  slated James Joyce for dressing old ideas up in a deceptively flashy style, and Leavis was controversial for recommending five English novelists above all others in his ‘The Great Tradition’ – namely Jane Austen, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, Henry James and D. H. Lawrence – though with additional praise for Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ and Dickens’s ‘Hard Times’.  Applying similar logic to contemporary ‘complex narrative structures’, I cannot claim to know all the great movie makers in the world, but I would quite happily get rid of several highly regarded ones such as Spielberg, Scorcese and Tarantino in favour of Kurosawa, Wong Kar Wai, David Lynch and Fellini.  I even argue sometimes when I’m feeling particularly contentious, that Fellini was the Shakespeare of the 20th century. 

So I think that’s enough contention for today.  But to finish on a simpler note, I still maintain that for all their complexity and depth, writers such as Henry James are great writers because they are great storytellers, and that remains at the heart of it.

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Update – August 2010

Well, I guess I can comfortably shirk any guilt-feelings about not writing anything for a looooonnnngggg time as nobody has visited for a loooooonnnnnngggg time!  Unless the stats are completely useless on WordPress, which I very much doubt.  But just in case any of you drop by soon, I thought I’d quickly put in an update.

The last I wrote I was hinting I might do a piece on the brilliant Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai, but inspiration suddenly deserted me and it ain’t come back yet.  At least as far as the blog is concerned.  Otherwise, the work is pouring out of me as I concentrate on a new film script which also involves a considerable amount of research including visits to the National Portrait Gallery, HMS Belfast and (two days ago) a ride on a steam train across Exmoor.  I hope you find all that intriguing, rather than infuriating that I am not telling you any more.

Comic-wise, Pramada has just been in touch – hurray! – and even though he is about to move house has managed to plough ahead with more of the intense and brilliant art work for Omni’s first issue.

Being in London right now, I’ve taken advantage of the numerous comic shops and found Alex Maleev’s artwork on ‘Spiderwoman’ to be absolutely stunning.  Also, ‘God Save the Queen’ by Mike Carey and John Bolton was an unexpected surprise, a very Sandman-like foray into Faerieland and drug culture in London.  One of those really classic graphic novels that seem to escape other people’s notice for some reason (probably fashion).

And that’s all he wrote, as I’m completely knackered.  All this travelling, writing and research.  Phew.  But I will be back, honest.  As Pramada commented, this has probably been just a passive yin phase preparing for the busy yang ahead.   (Maybe you’ll all come back too!)


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