When you open a book to page one you usually do so with a blank mind, but an expectant one; waiting for the writer to paint you a picture which becomes – the quicker the better you hope – understanding: place, time, people, action. But right from the start of Max Porter’s Lanny this assumption is useless.
Don’t be put off, if by the end of page 9 you haven’t got a clue what’s going on. Let the snatches of village gossip and easy chatty phrases wash over you like breezes, like waves: exactly like they do on the page – yes exactly like waves, not in straight lines.
Watch and listen to Max Porter talk about the making and the essence of his book, Lanny.
In the first sentence you are introduced to Dead Papa Toothwort; at this moment, and for a few pages to come, a mystery. The more you read the more theories of his identity test themselves until you think that Dead Papa Toothwort is a presence, something like an invisible, all-knowing spirit that flits, swoops, and hovers in and over a village, through its stories, myths, and pliable imaginations, past and present. The strange beginning and pages of wavy lines are necessary: once you accept the existence of Dead Papa Toothwort, and you must, Porter prepares you to accept a whole lot more (no spoilers here).
But the village is real, as real as a novelistic village can be; a dormitory nameless village on the outskirts of London – and we finally meet characters in that village, and we are on safer ground. Understanding, place, time, characters, action emerge like a happy vista through a rising fog. Lanny’s Mum, Lanny’s Dad and Pete. They tell you their stories in the first person, and all of their stories revolve around Lanny. A boy. An exceptional boy. Everyone loves Lanny. He scares people sometimes, especially his parents. He sings when he walks. He collects stuff like a bower bird. He soothes anger with a well-chosen question or a song. And then Lanny disappears.
This book is not a conventional book. Porter has created something different, and what that something is I’m not sure, yet. What it has in common with a conventional book is that it is satisfying, a strange, but satisfying read. There are some conversations and dialogue but not in the familiar form – punctuation is minimal, but no quotation marks – yet it’s always clear what you’re reading, who is speaking, what is being said. You get to know these people very quickly. It’s a small book, I read it in two consecutive afternoons.
In the middle of the book when the town, the police, the media, turn on these three people the tension, the fear, and the unease is told through multiple voices; it isn’t important who says them; you can guess who says them.
Lanny is the centre of the story, but Lanny isn’t given his own voice. You learn to love Lanny via those around him. Porter gives you recognisable emotions, flawed parents, uncaring neighbours, who themselves sometimes are given a voice; familiar novelistic traits that are compensation for, it seems, for the unconventional beginning and format.
I have only one criticism: I would’ve liked to have witnessed more of Lanny’s exceptionalism; his soothing of anger with a song, for example, than just been told about it.
As Porter says, it is not a book that has much to do with today. There are no mobile phones, computers, or text-speak. It is a book about sound and our imagination and how we need to let a writer tickle that imagination into forms and acceptances that are a little out of our comfort zone.
I urge you to give him that chance.
Max Porter’s first novel, Grief is The Thing with Feathers (2015), won many awards and nominations and has been sold in twenty nine territories. A theatrical version was staged in Dublin in March 2018.
You can watch an interview with Porter about Lanny, it’s themes and genesis, here.
“It’s all among Workhouses, and Coffin Makers and Pickpockets,” said Lord Melbourne, the young Queen Victoria’s prime minister. “I don’t like those things; I wish to avoid them; I don’t like them in reality, and therefore I don’t wish them represented.”
I think it’s “excessively interesting,” said the young Queen.
Oliver Twist (1837) was a bit of a shock for Dickens’ fans who were introduced to the writer through that plump, accident-prone, well-off, and comic character, Mr Pickwick. And then along comes the serialised Oliver Twist, even before the serialised The Pickwick Papers, which garnered a circulation of 20,000, had finished; and in a new magazine, Bentley’s Miscellany, edited by Dickens. The underworld of London low life had, in the past, been treated lightheartedly, even comically, but Oliver Twist was something very different. Thieves, house-breakers, pickpockets all living squashed together in dingy slums and mud, taking pride in their work, but seemingly surviving in little groups that resembled something close to ‘a family’; and dealing not only with petty crime, but also, kidnapping, murder, treachery, and domestic violence.
If you think you know the story, you probably do.
A young orphan, innocent and alone, is put to work in a workhouse, fed on watery gruel, and where he has the audacity to ask for ‘more’; is mistreated, runs away, meets Jack Dawkins, the Artful Dodger, and Fagin and his gang of thieving street boys; is saved from the same occupation by the kindly Mr Brownlow; is kidnapped by Nancy, harassed by the villainous Bill Sikes and forced into a stint of house-breaking, only to be shot and taken in by the also kindly Mrs Maylie and her ward Rose – really his aunt; threatened by the mysterious and dangerous, Mr Monks – who is actually Oliver’s half-brother; but saved by the pitiable but kind Nancy, who is murdered by her lover, Sikes for her efforts; and ultimately reunited with the kindly Mr Brownlow, who adopts him for a predictable happy ending: the oft used, and abused, first rule of novel writing. Oscar Wild said it best and said it better by giving it to Miss Prism to say in his most famous play, The Importance of being Earnest (1895):
The good end happily; the bad end unhappily. That’s what fiction means.
However, what is equally as interesting is what Dickens can teach writers.
Oliver took the hint at once, for the fist had been so often impressed upon his body not to be deeply impressed upon his recollection.
Dickens sentences, usually long, are full of information and in a way that makes them seem packed with it; and sarcasm.
Oliver was frightened at the sight of so many gentlemen, which made him tremble; and the beadle gave him another tap behind, which made him cry; and these two causes made him answer in a very low and hesitating voice; whereupon a man in a white waistcoat said he was a fool, which was a capital way of raising his spirits, and putting him quite at his ease.
These two lines are early in the book, carrying some of the lightheartedness his readership would’ve expected having read The Pickwick Papers, but then surprising them later by his darker themes.
He also uses expression to mirror action. After Sike’s failed house-breaking attempt, during which Oliver is shot, the friends and neighbours of the assailed inhabitants, Mrs Maylie and her ward, Rose, decide to investigate the crime-scene.
Lights were then procured, and Messrs Blathers and Duff, attended by the native constable, Brittles, Giles, and everybody else in short, went into the little room at the end of the passage, and looked out at the window, and afterwards went round by way of the lawn, and looked in at the window, and after that had a candle handed out to inspect the shutter with, and after that a lantern to trace the footsteps with, and after that a pitchfork to poke the bushes with.
A lot of repetitive energy, and phrases, to produce not a scrap of evidence.
Dickens is a great character-builder with the use of dialogue.
Mr Bumble, the beadle, drops the first syllable of ‘apprentice’ (‘prentis), the ‘n’ off the article ‘an’ (‘a old lady’), any syllable that gets in his way (‘unfort’nate’), uses ‘porochial’ (instead of ‘parochial’), and ‘w’ instead of ‘v’. Mr Grimwig, a friend of Mr Brownlow’s, uses a unique expression not ‘… I’ll eat my hat” but ” … I’ll eat my head.” Barnaby, a street urchin, has an adenoidal problem over the letters ‘n’ and ‘m’: “Dobody but Biss Dadsy” (Nobody but Miss Nancy.) Bill Sikes regularly uses the word ‘damn’ but too risqué for British readers of 1838 so it was replaced simply by ‘D-‘; they understood what it meant but were not forced to actually ‘read’ such a shocking word. In a hierarchical society such as Dickensian London where one’s status is ruled by birth, income, education, and gender, such distinctive character differentiation may not be appropriate in a modern context but giving characters vocal habits is a useful device for character differentiation. Dickens has Fagin call everyone, regardless of gender, age, or status, ‘my dear’. Ascribing a character with a particular grammatical habit of, say, never using contractions helps to paint a rather serious and stern person. If characters are not first speakers of the readers’ first language grammatical mistakes ( no plural ‘s’, wrong prepositions, gerund misuse, etc) are really essential. I once heard a writer, a young male American, read, at a literary event, a section of his new novel that was set in Rome but had a Mexican character who sounded, when he spoke, nothing like a Mexican English-speaker living in Rome; he and each of the characters sounded like a young male American. A missed opportunity.
In contemporary fiction the narrator is, usually in the third person, a nameless, genderless, all-knowing, god-like voice with access not only to characters’ thoughts, desires, and plans, but also to their past and future lives. Not so with Dickens. He writes directly to the ‘reader’, calling them such, and refers to himself as the ‘biographer’, and ‘faithful historian … who knows his place’. He even chastises himself for keeping an esteemed character waiting while dealing with other plot necessities. The use of the narrator for plot-based effects is rare but was used effectively by Ian McEwan in his 2012 novel Sweet Tooth, where the first person narrator turns out not to be the writer; and, most intriguingly, the satisfying ending is only evident because you, the reader, have read the book: it’s because the book is available to read that you then know the ending. Curious? Check the link above. Dickens used his narrators in a far freer and more colourful way with direct input into not only the plot but the tone. Here, in a recent short story, Serendipity, is an example of the narrator not only intruding into the writing of the story, but also is a secondary narrator with his own story: a double narrative, if you like, one feeds on the other.
Dickens’ reference to himself, the narrator, as ‘historian’ leads now to another novelistic ‘trick’: creating
Yes, we know that we are reading fiction, that most of the whole thing – sometimes not all – is made-up but the writer wants us to believe that the story is true. Writer’s rely on our imagination to create for ourselves our own reality, and so allowing our emotions to do their work. However, writer’s don’t want to ‘lose’ their readers by letting the text slip too far from possibility. A text in the first person has a better chance of doing that, more so than a text in the third.
However, Dickens ‘tricks’ us several times implying that what he is saying is true: 1) he (the narrator) admits to omitting a word in the dialogue of a character because it is too impolite for your, the reader’s, ears. By refusing to tell us what the word is he is implying that he actually heard it, but decided it was not suitable; 2) a character observes a conversation between two people in the same room but can’t hear the exact words and so infers what is said. This is a plot point but it also implies that the conversation actually happened – no, the narrator is not making this up because if he was he would’ve placed the character closer to the talkers; and 3) forgetting a name. We, real people, do this all the time, so by the narrator confessing he has forgotten someone’s name, or the name of some place, reinforces the truth of the scene because actually the person or the place is made-up – this is fiction, remember – and being made-up the writer (narrator) could’ve provided a name. But he didn’t, so the implication is that the action must’ve happened.
It is true to say that contemporary fiction is the mainstay of a modern reader’s literary diet. However, a dip into the classics now and again, is a palatable way to hone critical thinking, get a grip on literary history, and understand where our literary tastes may be heading, and where our cultural references came from.
Most of the classic literary texts from Australia, Britain, Europe, and America are out of copyright and are, therefore, available online for free. The University of Adelaide has established a website where you can find a myriad of classic texts. It contains all of Dickens’ novels as well as a large collection of his short fiction and you can download ebook versions in various formats and for various devices. Happy exploring.
Dickensian sentence p 10
“He took the hint at once, for the fist had been so often impressed upon his body not to be deeply impressed upon his recollection”
P12 “… made him answer in a very low and hesitating voice… at his ease.”
“… the poor people liked it …”
Narrator as biographer p46
D is a great teacher of dialogue for character building:
Mr Bumble, the beadle, drops the first syllable of ‘apprentice’ (‘prentis), the ‘n’ off the article ‘an’ (‘a old lady’), and any syllable that gets in his way (‘unfort’nate’ p 296).
Mr Grimwig ‘… I’ll eat my head” p110
And Barnaby p119 with his adenoid problem
P155 Bill Sikes who regularly uses the word ‘damn’ but too risqué for British readers of 1838 so it is replaced by ‘D-‘. Mr Bumble, the beadle, uses ‘porochial’ (instead of ‘parochial’) and ‘w’ instead of ‘v’.
The relationship between narrator and reader: strong in OT but rare in modern lit. P135
The narrator calling himself “author” and “faithful historian …. who knows his place” p216 and insinuating what kind of an author would he be to keep a beadle waiting …
Unpleasant description of Fagin: “loathsome reptile” p153. P154, by telling the reader that he, the narrator, will not mention something adds veracity to the tale.
Also, like forgetting a name, not hearing a conversation because the whispers were too quiet. P213;
Describing 1 or 2 minutes when nothing is said p 218
Possible theme: what Dickens can teach us about writing. Use of narrator. A N can be a biographer, a person, not just a dissociated god-like voice. But take it further, if s biographer, then why not a person; and one with opinions, attitudes, even a history, even a present history! Narrators nowadays are usually ‘apart’ from the narrative; what if the narrator was a part if the narrative, or framed a parallel story, see Serendipity. Link to Tablo.
Character: Nancy’s ‘acting’ p165 OT nor the reader is ever quite sure what Nancy is playing at.
Dickens on description p234-5 “0f the two ladies …” He describes not so much what they wear but the impression the whole picture gives.
“Lights were then procured, and …with” p246
The bad are bad but show a little bit of good, ie Fagin. The good are good but not bad (Rose).
This is not a story, and readers may find it difficult and not worth continuing with, but it takes a little gear change to alter your expectations. However, for readers interested in the life of the novel To the Lighthouse is an interesting read; but before sitting down with it a little research into the times and the literary landscape into which it was written is a good idea. It is considered a pioneering work of literary modernism.
Modernism is hard to define since it’s such a broad term and encompasses other ‘isms’ like expressionism and surrealism to name just two; and modernists did not actively adhere to any philosophy or movement like the visual impressionists did. However, it is generally considered to show a strong feeling for experimentation, and anything that was new, as well as a strong anti-Victorian bent. It is also difficult to pin down a starting date but generally it is agreed that literary modernism began at or near the turn of the 20th Century. While Robert M Kirschen of the English Department at the University of Nevada, opts for the end of Modernism in 1939 (some say 1945) with the publication of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake: “the ultimate work of Modernism. It is truly the pinnacle of this experimentation and novelty. After the Wake, it is no longer possible for a writer to attempt to supersede his or her predecessors in the way Modernists often strove to do. As such, the Modernist movement had reached its natural teleological* conclusion, and anything which came after must be part of a different part of literary history” i.e. Postmodernism. However, these labels are arbitrary and are the result of literary theorists looking back into the immediate past and recognising similar themes, memes, and ideas across the broad spectrum of literary endeavour. James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Proud and Virginia Woolf are all considered pioneers and pillars of modernism.
In To the Lighthouse the drama, like many modernist texts, is not in the action, there is very little. Action did not interest Woolf. The book begins with the announcement of a desire, for the boy’s sake, for James, to go to the lighthouse, and ends, 10 years later, with them actually setting out. The drama is internal, the weave and weft of emotional attachments, of familial love and hate, the gamut between, and even dissertations on life matters. There is also an argument, external to the book, but installed in it’s very creation, about doubt of the creative force; about two guests, two of many, at the house: Charles Tansley, a sycophant, who pronounces that women do not have a creative force, and Lilly Briscoe, a woman who desperately yearns, and attempts, to be an artist, a successful painter, but fails. She is a metaphor for Woolf herself and her own legendary self-doubt (thinks Margaret Atwood); but ironically Woolf not only completes this work, and publishes it, but knows its success.
The man, Mr Ramsey, stands over his wife, while she knits a pair of stockings for the underprivileged boy of the lighthouse keeper, which she hopes to take and give to him, if they ever get there, and he demands sympathy, since he declares himself a failure as a man. While knitting, as the boy, James – loving his mother, hating his father – stands between her knees clutching a book, she assures her husband, “beyond a shadow of a doubt, by her laugh, her poise, her competence” that he is wrong about himself. Look at the undying admiration of Charles Tansley, and his very own fecundity, his own house “full of life” – he has eight children – and in response to his wife’s success in turning his self-doubt into self-admiration- not via the sympathy he sought – but “as a nurse carrying a light across a dark room assures a fractious child” he goes for a walk to watch the children playing cricket. But once he is gone she is exhausted and can hardly lift her needles; can hardly read the fairy tale James so wants to hear, with the demands on her to mend her husband as well as wonder where the fifty pounds will come from to mend the greenhouse roof; and all this laden with the half knowledge that her husband is right about himself, adding lies to the accumulated burden she has to bear.
It is this internal drama, thoughts, treacheries, responsibilities, and admissions that interest Woolf. Then here, while knitting and thinking about why children must grow up; why can’t they stay happy forever, she thinks, “We are in the hands of the Lord?”
What brought her to say that: “We are in the hands of the Lord?” she wondered. The insincerity slipping in among the truths roused her, annoyed her. She returned to her knitting again. How could any Lord have made this world? she asked. With her mind she had always seized the fact that there is no reason, order, justice: but suffering, death, the poor. There was no treachery too base for the world to commit; she knew that. No happiness lasted; she knew that. She knitted with firm composure, slightly pursing her lips and, without being aware of it, so stiffened and composed the lines of her face in a habit of sternness that when her husband passed, though he was chuckling at the thought that Hume, the philosopher, grown enormously fat, had stuck in a bog, he could not help noting, as he passed, the sternness at the heart of her beauty. It saddened him, and her remoteness pained him, and he felt, as he passed, that he could not protect her, and, when he reached the hedge, he was sad. He could do nothing to help her. He must stand by and watch her. Indeed, the infernal truth was, he made things worse for her. He was irritable — he was touchy. He had lost his temper over the Lighthouse. He looked into the hedge, into its intricacy, its darkness.
It is this combination, this ‘conversation’ between the narrator, Mrs Ramsey, and Mr, but all in the narrator’s ‘words’, that, among others, mark this text as a work of ‘modernism’; and, indeed, one of the first.
If you think of the third person narrator as an omnipotent genie commenting and assessing each character, every moment, past, present and future, and sitting on the shoulder of the protagonist listening in to their thoughts and desires and explaining, prophesizing, and assessing them for the reader, here it is like that genie is not just rooted to the shoulder of the main character but, flitting to and fro onto the shoulders of many characters. And in the final short sentence of chapter 11 Woolf has all three voices ‘speaking’: the narrator, wife and husband,
For he wished, she knew, to protect her.
James Joyce’s Ulysses was published in English in 1922 and Woolf’s reaction to it was initially uncomplimentary, “puzzled, bored, irritated & disillusioned as by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples,” but she later came around to admitting his genius even if she may have not finished reading it. However, it is clear that she was influenced by him, and, no doubt, by the first English translation of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, translated into English as In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past, which also came out in English – it was originally published in France – in 1922. What a year!**.
However, it is important to keep in mind that just as fads flutter through most of our civilised efforts, food, fashion, and politics, so too do fads pepper our literary history; and ‘obscurity’ was a particular literary fad of the early 20th century. Writers thought that every story that could be written had been written so they sought ‘the new’ within the structure of the novel itself, the use of the language, and in the relationship between writer, narrator, and reader.
Woolf did not deliberately seek to be obscure, no writer does, but in order to describe, set down, what interested her she had to find new ways of convincing her readers that they would be interested in it too.
The pleasure of the works of Virginia Woolf is immediate; it is in the reading, not the remembering.
You can find the ebook, in various formats, for free here, as well as other works by Virginia Woolf including all her novels and a large number of short stories. If you are interested in discovering Woolf try her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915); a good place to start.
* Teleology is the philosophical attempt to describe things in terms of their apparent purpose, directive principle, or goal
** THE WORLD BROKE IN TWO: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and the Year That Changed Literature, by Bill Goldstein, comes out in November this year.
My 2017 to-read pile is becoming increasingly Eiffel-like.
Currently I’m reading Louise Doughty’s Black Water: it’s the first book I’ve read that is set in the place where I live but also spanning several decades and continents. Doughty, a British writer has made several visits to this place and the Ubud Reader’s and Writer’s Festival.
You’re be hearing about Black Water very soon. You can find a copy here. Read it with me.
I’m a little bit paranoid about grammar, typos, and spelling mistakes. I proof read my writing (all writing even my sms and emails) many times and often stretch friendships by asking friends to help (I wish I could afford to pay them); but no matter how hard I try some slip through. Nothing undermines a writer’s authority more than these pesky little do-dahs. If you see any in my posts Please Tell Me!
We all have to be vigilant. I usually use British English and spelling; these aside, please email me or comment on my post if you notice anything amiss.
I indulge in Google alerts. I have one email alert for Cólm Tóibín. Every time his name is mentioned, anywhere, I receive an email and a link to the article. In this way I have read every English language review of his latest book, Nora Webster. I had one for Virginia Woolf but all I got were picky reviews of Albee’s play so I deleted it; and I have a Google news alert for ‘literature’ (as well as Books and Writing).
Because of this I received recently in my ‘personalised Australian Edition of Google News’ an item called “What makes the Russian Literature of the 19th Century So Distinctive?” It came from a New York Times column called Bookends where two writers ‘take on questions about the world of books’. It was in this article that I encountered for the first time, Francine Prose. I had never heard of her. I hadn’t heard of the other writer either, Benjamin Moser, but it was the name ‘Francine Prose’ that caught my attention. It sounded pretentious. Is there a poet called ‘Phoebe Poetry’? I could google it and find out but instead I googled Francine Prose. That is how I came to know the book “Reading Like a Writer” which, since my blog is ‘writing about reading and writing’ I thought I should have so I downloaded it as an ebook; it took less than a minute and I didn’t have to leave my desk. The fact that it was billed as a ‘New York Times Bestseller’ may have also had something to do with it. When on a wet and warm Ubudian Friday afternoon I delved into it I came upon a chapter on Chekov and in particular her line “as my bus pulled out of New Rochelle, I began Chekhov’s “The Two Volodyas.” I immediately went to ebooks.adelaide.edu.au (click the link and you can go there too) where everything out of copyright – i.e., all the classics – is available for free, and read “The Two Volodyas” and so I was prepared for whatever she was going to relate about the writing of Chekhov and in particular this story. Ms Prose is, or was, also a creative writing teacher and the point of this chapter in her book was to explain that Chekhov undermines every creative writing rule she had confidently confided to her students. “Don’t listen to me,” she shouted, “read Chekhov”.
From a Google alert on my screen in Ubud, Bali, I travelled to a sleazy bus station in New Rochelle, New York, to a scatty young 19th century Russian bride in love with two men, but never at the same time, and back to you, my friends, with a message – although one of Chekhov’s lessons is that you don’t need one – that modern technology has never been so supportive of our creative and entertaining lives.
If you take nothing from this little rant take this: set up Google alerts for whatever tickles your fancy; armchair travelling has never been so easy, so informative, and so entertaining.
If you would like to know more about Google alerts you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or ask Google.