Essert-Romand, Haute-Savoie, France.
Our fourth day here in the Haute-Savoie and the clouds have arrived. That sounds worse than it really is, in that it’s not some kind of cloud-covered gloomy day you get all-too-often in Frinton or Chapel St Leonards, simply that as we are more or less up in the mountains - thought they do get higher - the clouds have simply come lower and as I write are drifting past my bedroom window. But there is also plenty of autumnal sunshine, which make it all very pleasant. But I wouldn’t care if it were raining. I finished John le Carre’s The Russia House on Monday and have now started a biography of Stalin when he was just a young shaver playing practical jokes on local chaps in Tblisi involving Mausers, bombs, and general violence. It reads very well but, I’m glad to say, is not a potboiler.
The le Carre was a good read, too, although I was puzzled by its structure: it is sort of kind of kind of sort of (and in-joke that, which only I share) written in the first person, yet there are very detailed descriptions of situations where the ‘first person’ could not have been present. A solution to this conundrum is given in the final page where the ‘hero’ tells his story to the ‘first-person narrator’ or, rather, fills in details the narrator could not have know, but I have to say it is all rather unconvincing.
Another problem (well, a problem for me as I still have my literary pretensions and think about these matters) is that I feel any first-person narration should have a justification i.e. exactly why is this man or this woman telling his or her story? And his or her justification for doing so should be an intricate element of that story. I realise that many might feel I am not seeing the wood for the trees, but it does bother me. The example I always give is this: Consider a man who decides to go for a Chinese meal at his local Chinese restaurant. He arrives, sits at a table and orders, when suddenly a cook appears from the kitchen carrying one of those very large and sharp knives one finds in Chinese kitchens, attacks the front of staff and manages to decapitate one of the.
Now if our customer were to give a first-person account to a friend later that night, surely he would say: Bloody hell, you won’t believe what I’ve witnessed tonight. A cook in the chinkie I went to went berserk and chopped of the manager’s head, or something like that. What he wouldn’t do, at that first encounter, is begin: Well, it was a peaceful, barlmy night, and after I had looked in the fridge and discovered there was nothing in it which grabbed my fancy, I decided to visit my local Chinese restaurant. I didn’t use a coat because . . . Well, he wouldn’t would he? Yet that is what happens all-too-often in first-person narrations, and usually the narrator has no reason to write down (in novel form) what he is recounting.
Yes, I know I’m getting a little bit anal about it. But at least in my novel (more or less my first and only novel so far, if you ignore one or two earlier and not very good efforts - details of how to get a copy below) at least the first-person narrations (there are two) and the third-person narration are ‘built into’ the structure of the novel and I like to think they make logical sense. I mean that is the problem: I don’t find writing, as in getting words down on paper, at all difficult. But there’s obviously far more to ‘writing’ than simply getting the words down on paper: there is though, internal coherence and cohesion, ensuring that characters speak and behave in character. If a first-person narrator simply tells his story and there is no apparent reason just why he should tell his story, well, I find that rather unconvincing. Precious? Moi?
. . .
Here are details as to where you can get my novel, neatly bound and printed courtesy of Lulu.com. If you visit this address, you might see two novels on offer. Don’t be fooled: they are one and the same except that I changed the title and the blurb on the back to make it more attractive to anyone considering buying it, which, to date, seems to be exactly no one. But I boy can dream. I have also been through it once or twice and added or removed a comma here and there, and the most recent is Love: A fiction.
here to visit Lulu and buy a copy if you have a few spare shekels.
Now I’m off to read all about young Stalin.
. . .
Incidentally, I know I joke about commas, but they are important. The add to the clarity of a piece by indication where in a sentence we should pause. Often they can even change the meaning of a sentence entirely. For example: these two sentences are not the same and what happens varies in both.
1) The police rounded up the doctors who had been dealing drugs and jailed them.
2) The police rounded up the doctors, who had been dealing drugs, and jailed them.
In example number one, the police round up only those doctors who had been dealing drugs. In example number two, the police round up all doctors, because they had all been dealing drugs. So this talk of adding and removing commas is not at all precious (although I’ll stick with my joke). There an anecdote about Oscar Wilde once being asked what he had done all day. He replied that he had spent all the morning considering whether to add a comma to a certain sentence to make it read better. After lunch he had spent all afternoon considering whether to remove it again, and had finally decided to do so. And talking of Oscar Wilde, I once came across a quote from him which no one else seems to have heard. Many know his dictum (which I believe, in fact, he cribbed from someone else - naughty, Oscar): A cynic know the price of everything and the value of nothing. But he also said about cynics (and this explains one aspect of the Nazis): Sentimentality is a bank holiday from cynicism, which in my view hits the nail on the head.
Talking about Oscar cribbing dictums and saying, there is also the story of the American painter James Whistler who settled in England and made it his home. He had a rather sharp tongue and was very witty, but was annoyed that Oscar Wilde would often steal his witticisms and pass them off as his own. One day when Oscar was still up at Oxford, he was sitting at Whistler’s feet at some soiree or other and Whistler made a witty comment.
Oh, I wish I had said that, said Oscar.
You will, Oscar, you will, Whistler replied.
. . .
For years I had it in my head that the plural of comma was commata. It’s not, it’s commas. Well!