Monday, September 21, 2009

The Fun Of The Shudder

This appeared in The Hindustan Times on Saturday


M.R. James, doyen of the English ghost story, once summed up his art by saying that the most valuable ingredients were the atmosphere and the well-managed crescendo. He continued, “Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.”

That, more or less, is the manner in which Sarah Waters progresses her fifth novel, The Little Stranger, with a little help along the way from another James – the one who wrote The Turn of the Screw.

This, then, is an enjoyably eerie and well-constructed novel designed to bring about the sensation that Edith Wharton called “the fun of the shudder”. It is, however, more than just a device to send an ice-cube down the spine: it also examines shifting class distinctions in England during the period immediately after World War Two.

The tale begins in 1949 when Dr Faraday, a physician in rural Warwickshire, is summoned to the aid of a young maid working in Hundreds Hall, a Georgian mansion owned by the Ayres family for generations. Dr Faraday’s own mother used to work there as a maid, and the doctor was once vouchsafed a glimpse of its gorgeous interiors when, as a boy, he was smuggled inside after a fete on the grounds.

Now, however, the establishment has gone to seed and the surviving members of the Ayres family – Mrs. Ayres, her son Roderick and daughter Caroline – struggle to keep it, and themselves, afloat. The doctor becomes a regular visitor to Hundreds Hall, at first to treat Roderick for his war injuries and then because of a growing closeness to Caroline.

Waters carefully delineates the ruined interiors of the once-exquisite mansion; fittingly so, as it’s a protagonist in its own right. Soon, the gloomy corridors, decrepit rooms and dilapidated fittings play host to inexplicable scorch marks, bell-ringing, scribbling on walls, fires and things that go bump on foggy winter nights. Brideshead Revisited, this is not.

Dr Faraday, being a man of science, tries to assure the Ayres family that there are rational explanations for these occurrences, but it’s when they become more frequent – and much more malign – that they test the weaknesses of each one of the hall’s inhabitants.

As with Waters’ earlier work, The Little Stranger is painstakingly plotted and paced; yet, the twists and turns never feel contrived and straitjacketed. In large part, this is due to the first-person narration of Dr Faraday and the growing realisation that this conservative, repressed country doctor’s account isn’t quite reliable.

The novel is rendered more satisfying by Waters’ depiction of the people and surroundings during the historical period in which the novel is based, including her treatment of class in a changing Britain. At one point, Dr Faraday unburdens himself to a colleague: “It's as if -- well, as if something's slowly sucking the life out of the whole family”. The fellow doctor replies: “It's called a Labour government.”

All too often, the denouement of a ghost story suffers by overplaying its hand. Here, however, Waters’ touch remains as assured as ever, with the result that even after the last page is read, the miasmic goings-on at The Hundreds remain a palpable presence. Pick it up, and you’ll leave the lights on.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Footnotes: The Future Of Fiction

Pity the poor writer of fiction. Every published sentence is now zealously scrutinised for the possibility of insult, injury or offence.

Happily, there is a solution, and it's not spelt B-A-N.

It's time to use the device beloved of David Foster Wallace as a means of mollifying those who feel that the author's only purpose is to hurt their tender feelings.

As an example of how this would work in practice, here are the opening paragraphs of three books that were themselves proscribed not all that long ago.

Lolita, Curtailed

Lolita, light[1] of my life, fire of my loins. My sin[2], my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock[3]. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child[4]. In a princedom[5] by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style[6].

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns[7].

[1] The word “light” is not meant to denigrate the efforts of electricity companies who cannot provide continuous power.
[2] This is not an appeal to readers to commit an offence.
[3] The author recommends that both socks be kept on; should anyone slip, he is not liable for resultant injuries.
[4] Children, be they girls or boys, deserve education.
[5] This word is not to be found in the dictionary. No aspersions are to be cast on the capabilities of those who have compiled one.
[6] The innocent are also known for exemplary prose styles.
[7] No flower is without one of these; hence caution is advised.

Ulysses, Halted

Stately, plump[1] Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a razor[2] and a mirror lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:

- Introibo ad altare Dei[3].

Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs[4] and called up coarsely:

- Come up, Kinch. Come up you fearful jesuit[5].

[1] The author recognises that there are different body types and each one is worthy of respect.
[2] Rash use of this item has been known to result in grievous injury.
[3] A part of the Latin Mass, and used for representational purposes only. There is no intention to forcibly or otherwise convert those of a different religious persuasion.
[4] These should be taken one at a time, and slowly.
[5] Not all Jesuits are fearful. Some are excellent chaps

Lady Chatterley's Lover, Reprimanded

Ours is essentially a tragic age[1], so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future[2]: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen[3].

This was more or less Constance Chatterley’s position. The war had brought the roof down over her head[4]. And she had realized that one must live and learn.

She married Clifford Chatterley in 1917[5], when he was home for a month on leave. They had a month’s honeymoon. Then he went back to Flanders: to be shipped over to England again six months later, more or less in bits[6]. Constance, his wife, was then twenty-three years old, and he was twenty-nine.

[1] Not all ages are tragic. It depends upon the historian.
[2] This expression is not meant to censure the excellent work of municipal corporations who do so much to keep our thoroughfares tidy.
[3] The author has never personally experienced a falling sky. The expression is used metaphorically.
[4] See footnote 3, above.
[5] The author is in sympathy with those who enter into same-sex marriages and this observation is not meant to look down upon such alliances.
[6] Although this is not to be construed as an anti-war sentiment, the author wishes in his personal capacity that we all would give peace a chance.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Too Long For A Short Story, Too Short For A Novel

This appeared in The Times of India sometime in 2005. I can't locate it online, and can't even locate the hard copy that must be, even as you read this, causing indigestion in resentful silverfish. I thought I'd post it now since things seem to be getting a bit slow around here. Normal service will resume soon.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s latest volume of fiction isn’t a novel. Nor is it a collection of short stories. Instead, in Memories of My Melancholy Whores, the 77-year-old Nobel laureate turns again to the novella: the literary hybrid that, as publishers say, is too long to be a short story, yet too short to be a novel. Marquez’s latest is, unfortunately, not the best example of the novella’s powers. Though characteristically lyrical and detailed, it’s slighter than his earlier work, including his former novellas, Leaf Storm, Chronicle of a Death Foretold and No-one Writes to the Colonel.

When fashioned correctly, the novella is a perfectly-cut little jewel, emitting a radiance and sparkle far beyond its size. Haunting tales, sorrowful love stories and insightful first-person sagas: they’ve all been captured with its confines. Testimony to which are Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, to name just a few.

The form itself has a long history, being especially beloved of the Germans. Some trace its origins to Giovanni Boccaccio’s capacious The Decameron, written in the 14th century and comprising 100 novellas narrated by ten garrulous folk fleeing from Florence to escape an outbreak of the plague.

Brevity is the soul of the novella. Though word-length is an unreliable yardstick for defining such a protean mode, there’s broad agreement that a novella weighs in at between 20,000 to 50,000 words – with the novel being anything in excess of that amount. Stephen King, who’s written many a novella himself, has called it “an ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic”. The normally courteous Mr King was, of course, referring to the difficulties of selling a novella in the commercial publishing world, as it doesn’t fit the typical length requirements of either magazine or book editors. Even Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus, for example, was clubbed with four other short stories when published, to make it worth the while of the paying public.

However, at least one publisher, the US-based Melville House, has turned this atypical length into a virtue. They recently issued the attractively-designed and well-received ‘The Art of the Novella’ series, a list that includes such impressive examples as Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener and Gustave Flaubert’s A Simple Heart, among others.

Writers of genre fiction have always found the novella’s span perfect for their needs. Consider the detective novel, from Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles to Michael Chabon’s recent Holmes tribute, The Final Solution. Or take the sci-fi and fantasy realm, from H.G. Well’s The War of the Worlds to any Hugo or Nebula nominee. The manageable length also makes it ideal for fledgling writers looking to step out of the domain of sketches and short stories, as Steve Martin did with 2001’s bittersweet Shopgirl. It’s attractive, too, for writers taking a break between writing the “loose baggy monsters” that so many conventional novels often degenerate into. Don deLillo, for instance, followed up 1997’s gargantuan Underworld with his 2001 novella, The Body Artist. Which may not have been easier to read, but at least it was lighter to hold.

These advantages notwithstanding, it’s undeniable that most authors, agents and publishers seem enamoured of the mammoth-advance generating novel, rather than a shorter work. What, then, of the novella’s future? Interestingly, today’s authors seem to be using it in the same way as Boccaccio did centuries ago: by fashioning interlinked narratives that are thematically connected. What are Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days, or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, after all, but a series of novellas? Going back just a few decades, one finds Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters and V.S. Naipaul’s A Flag on the Island employing the same technique.

This, then, seems to be one of the “new” forms that novelists are gravitating towards. Novellas enable them to capture diverse geographies and points of view in a single work, in order to make sense of a world that, more than ever, is unified and fragmented at the same time.

So much for writers. For today’s readers with limited reserves of time and patience, there’s one unbeatable advantage the stand-alone novella offers. Happily, you can devour it whole in one sitting itself.