Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Strangeness: Erpenbeck's VISITATION; Barrie's stage directions

First things first: I received today, from Asimov's, the galleys for "Unearthed." Good to see. I've got a week to return them.

Visitation, Jenny Erpenbeck (trans. from the German by Bernofsky)
I picked this up from the library due to (I think) a recommendation in the Guardian. It has some stunning moments, but the whole is less than the sum of the parts. The novel, in short chapters alternating between tales of individual (typically unnamed) characters and a mysterious "gardener" who tends a lakeside German property, centers around a house and grounds; while the sections on the gardener don't advance a larger narrative, are sometimes bluntly repetitive, and become increasingly fanciful, the chapters on the people who live on the property are mostly tragic or just deeply sad, the sadness heightened by the arms-length narrative, the relative absence of dialogue, the lack of names, and the blurry, run-on writing style which, at moments, is evocative and elevating but which often sets up a kind of droning noise, producing a sameness of tone. I enjoyed some sections, appreciated the idea behind the novel's structure, and was impressed by the audacity of approach, but the overall effect left me disappointed and weary.

Mary Rose, J.M. Barrie 
I looked into this play while on a trope-finding mission: I'm investigating stories in which people vanish. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, tells a circular story about a young woman who, twice, mysteriously disappears while on a small island in the Hebrides. Unhelpfully (for my purposes), the story gives no explanation, though clearly some supernatural forces are at work in all this (and a ghost appears in order to emphasize this element). Much of the play is taken up with pleasant dialogue between characters who have little of consequence to say, and the drama lacks both tension and satisfying resolution. Oddest are the stage directions, which provide most of the narrative content regarding the character's interior lives (the dialogue doing little work in this regard); I can't imagine how this play looked when it was staged.

Some sample stage directions/commentary:

The room is in a tremble of desire to gt started upon that nightly travail which can never be completed till this man is here to provide the end

Followed immediately by:

The figure of Harry becomes indistinct and fades from sight. 

This is good:

These sounds increase rapidly until the mere loudness of them is horrible. They are not without an opponent. Struggling through them, and also calling her name, is to be heard music of an unearthly sweetness that is seeking perhaps to beat them back and put a girdle of safety round her.

How did anyone direct this play? 'Tis a puzzlement. There's also the expectation that an actor will demonstrate some accomplished knife-throwing at one point. Good luck with that.


Michael O'Brien said...

If you're interested in stories about people that vanish, I should mention my NaNoWriMo novel from a few years back "Barney Thompson's Unicorn is Missing". I may be biased but I think it has a new slant on mysterious disappearances.
If you want to glance at it sometime, it's available here:

William Preston said...

Thanks, Michael.

And thanks for stopping by.

sanda aronson said...

I just finished "Unearthed" in Asimov's Sept. 2012 issue. Had to find you online to say how much I liked it. My only reservation (I just can't find a better word for it-) is that it reflects its author is a man writing as a woman, which I forgive.
(I usually find authors don't switch genders well as narrators in a different gender.) The super male, in the beginning, who in some ways is the hero, is a male fantasy: big, very big, strong, smart. The woman, narrator, sort of becomes the hero at the climax of the story. It's such a good tale that I can overlook the modern violence imposed into the story. I usually stop reading stories with violence (by women or men).
Good story. Thanks.

William Preston said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
William Preston said...


Thanks so much for seeking me out to send me a note. I'm glad that, despite your . . . qualms (perhaps that's a better word?), you enjoyed the story.

I thought I managed to make Qwerty a believably female narrator, though I certainly have my own doubts; I do wonder if you would have perceived any problems had you not known the author was male. As for Little Boss--if you read my other Old Man stories, you'll see that he's intended as an iconic pulpish figure (whose qualities I somewhat deconstruct in the course of "Unearthed" and the other stories) based in part on Doc Savage, so he is who he is. I do wonder what you mean by "modern violence"; wedged between two world wars as the story is, and involving people who've inherited centuries of enormous cultural violence, its violence is merely an aspect of the world these characters inhabit. What does one do when faced with violence? How do we contribute unknowingly? When is violence necessary? I hope the story raised those questions.

Thanks again for reading my work and for contacting me.

sanda aronson said...

You keep up-to-date on your blog comments:bravo. Thanks for your reply.

I was confused at the start of "Unearthed" if the narrator was a man, then realized it was a woman and then went back and checked the name of the author, a name new to me (not your fault), is a man. It didn't sound like something written by a woman.

On violence: I am a survivor of stranger violence, so I tend to avoid violence in fiction. It makes me uncomfortable. Your questions about violence are good ones. Your level of violence was not high, nor especially graphic, for which I thank you. I was attempting to say that fiction (films and stories) in recent decades are much more explicit and more often violent than in earlier decades of my reading and film viewing. I am 72. There has been a trend toward ever more explicit violence in the last few decades and more violence. Oddly, and you must have noticed it as a father of daughters when considering film content for them when they are/were young (Asimov's intro mentioned married with 3 daughters), that there is R rating for sex in films but not violence. Even Disney has violence in films (although "Bambi" was violent when the mother died in the fire)- and I saw it as a child.

Dare I admit I was hoping that Little Boss and the narrator would continue in friendship. "Unearthed" has the kind of plot and ideas, as well as "visuals" that stay with me.

William Preston said...

Hi, Sanda. I'm not sure why we ended up on this post for the comments on "Unearthed," but so be it! And thanks for saying more about your response.

One thing I wanted was for the narration, though by a female character, to not sound expressly "female" in some cliché way; I didn't want to provide the standard "cues" that writers use as way of signifying "female" or even "Native American." Those are elements of the character's identity, important elements, but not elements that in any way narrowed her perspective or a reader's expectations. Still, if I didn't manage to conceal my authorial self . . . ah, well.

I agree about violence in film and fiction, though I find it more problematic in film (because it's more literal than in writing, and thus more likely to be beyond your control when you're exposed to it). And, yes, I see more shocking violence in fiction these days--or rather, violence that's meant to shock, to do violence to the reader. In film (and I teach a class in film), it's worth noting that foreign films (European ones, anyway) have a more laissez-faire attitude toward sex than violence, the reversal of the standard in American-made movies.

My story does raise the question of why violence and terrible things mark us in ways good things don't, which is just the problem you point to.

I can assure you that Qwerty remained a part of the life of Little Boss, a fact detailed (though not shown) in the next Old Man story (and hinted at in "Unearthed"). I'm glad to hear the story stayed with you. That's what I aim for.



sanda aronson said...

My google search sent me here. Surviving an attack by a stranger gave me courage to give up teaching for the art dream since age 10 and I left teaching at age 25. I was going to grad school in American Civilization.

It is interesting that you are teaching a class in film. (I'm not surprised since so many people with talent in one area, have other areas,too.)

My husband, a lecturer in anatomy and physiology, whose hobby was photography*, has the same addiction to movies as I do. We were the legendary Brooklyn kids who spent Saturdays in our respective neighborhood movie theaters. Now, I watch films on DVD due to illness (ME/CFS, much like Laura Hillenbrand, author).

I did a bit of research to make this followup comment. French films do sex really well. (I am laughing as I recall that "French films" was an old euphemism for porn.) Your point is on point about European films vs American. I looked up the titles (memory problems) of recent films I liked: "The Names of Love" (changed from "Les nom des gens" = The Names of People", much more accurate. This was a 2010 French film by a couple, she of an Algerian family and he of Jewish Holocaust survivors, covering two difficult topics, yet was funny, really funny.

I like the martial arts choreography films of Yuen Woo-Ping. I ff violence in Jet Li films. I like most of the films of Luc Besson, although he gets really overindulged in violence (which I ff). It was difficult to watch a few bloody scenes in "The Lady" but spouse told me when I could open my eyes again. U started with "Leon the Professional" - lots of violence, but I ff. Luc Besson has a respect for women (yes, wikipedia indicates the many times he's married) and a flair for comedy. I like the variety. Finally, Audrey Tautou's films are good - I started with "The DaVinci Code" and had a lot of eyes closed in expectation of horrific violence, but I've seen it six times. "The Long Engagement" had violence - also ff. The dvds have great documentary extras on many (plus subtitles for hearing assiss).
I saw "Delicacy" (I really had trouble with the name in English, expecting it to be food...)

I have only written, over the decades, to a handful of authors after reading their work. (That's not counting Roberta Gellis, my husband's first cousin.)

I suspect that I am like many readers who find an author and read through all, beginning with the Bobsey Twins when I was 5 and up through Maeve Binchy. Same with films:directors, actors...

Is there a place where you'd have preferred I put all this? (A bit late to ask...)

Thanks for the mental fun, Sanda

sanda aronson said...

PS On Disney and violence: My husband and I saw "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" last weekend. It was the first time I'd seen the 1954 movie (DVD). The color was beautiful, but I was surprised by the violence and racism. So, I have to change my earlier comment that Disney films became violent in recent years. My husband pointed out that the violence in this film didn't have the "blood and guts" (meaning gore)that many films have now (not speaking of Disney, but current era films by so many directors).

William Preston said...

That wouldn't strike me as "violent," especially (the movie was often shown to children), but the racism in Disney films (of former days) is rampant and notorious, the worst perhaps being how Native Americans are portrayed in Peter Pan (animated). Stunningly awful, even for its time.