A literary anecdote (not mine)

A while ago I bought The Writer’s Voice by Al Alvarez, hoping for some hints and tips, but really all Alvarez had to say was that, at some vague point, writers find their “voice”, but he has nothing practical to say about (a) how it’s found or (b) what it is, which was a bit disappointing.

The one good thing about the book, which had me chuckling to myself for a while, was this anecdote. It’s not laugh-out-loud, perhaps, but it still gets me. It’s not by Alvarez, but by Edith Wharton, from her book A Backward Glance, and starts with herself and fellow author Henry James in Wharton’s chauffeur-driven car:

James and I chanced to arrive at Windsor long after dark. We must have been driven by a strange chauffeur — perhaps Cook was on a holiday; at any rate, having fallen into the lazy habit of trusting him to know the way, I found myself at a loss to direct his substitute to the King’s Road. While I was hesitating, and peering out into the darkness, James spied an ancient doddering man who had stopped in the rain to gaze at us. “Wait a moment, my dear — I’ll ask where we are”; and leaning out he signalled to the spectator.

“My good man, if you’ll be good enough to come here, please; a little nearer — so,” and as the old man came up: “My friend, to put it to you in two words, this lady and I have just arrived here from Slough; that is to say, to be more strictly accurate, we have recently passed through Slough on our way here, having actually motored to Windsor from Rye, which was our point of departure; and the darkness having overtaken us, we should be much obliged if you would tell us where we now are in relation, say, to the High Street, which, as you of course know, leads to the Castle, after leaving on the left the turn down to the railway station.”

I was not surprised to have this extraordinary appeal met by silence, and a dazed expression on the old wrinkled face at the window; nor to have James go on: “In short” (his invariable prelude to a fresh series of explanatory ramifications), “in short, my good man, what I want to put to you in a word is this: supposing we have already (as I have reason to think we have) driven past the turn down to the railway station (which, in that case, by the way, would probably not have been on our left hand, but on our right), where are we now in relation to…”

“Oh, please,” I interrupted, feeling myself utterly unable to sit through another parenthesis, “do ask him where the King’s Road is.”

“Ah-? The King’s Road? Just so! Quite right! Can you, as a matter of fact, my good man, tell us where, in relation to our present position, the King’s Road exactly is?”

“Ye’re in it,” said the aged face at the window.

Murakami noodling

murakamiI remember feeling rather cheated the first time I realised the writer of the book I was reading was making the plot up as he went along. It may have been Jack of Shadows (which I read because of the excellent Hawkwind song of the same name), but it was definitely Roger Zelazny. Zelazny, for me, has always been a bit of a variable writer, a little too pleased with his own facility to really knuckle down and tell a story properly, though he does occasionally tell a good one. (“Tower of Ice” from Divlish, The Damned, for instance.)

I’ve nothing against writers making their stories up as they go along, it’s when it’s obvious, when they’re just noodling on the page because they don’t know where to take the plot next. The trouble is, in fantasy, it’s all too easy to get away with this by simply throwing a few monsters at the heroes, or, in the case of horror, just providing a scary moment which doesn’t really move the plot along.

But there’s one writer who really can pull off a good bit of noodling, and that’s Haruki Murakami. Murakami seems to write by just starting with an intriguing beginning and following it along till it goes somewhere. If it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, he doesn’t throw exciting but empty events at the reader in the hope it’ll keep them occupied till he thinks of something. Instead, he sticks with it, paying minute attention to his characters carrying out some quiet but concentrated task, such as preparing spaghetti or building a fire out of driftwood. His is the pressure-cooker approach to writing: he’s content to sit back and write till he, and his reader, are fully adjusted to the tone and pace of his imagination. And then, when that connection is made, something happens. Dance, Dance, Dance is the book where this is most evident — a book he says is his least satisfactory but was the most fun to write, and which I quite enjoyed simply because of that very adjustment to a slower, quieter pace. Murakami’s tales are often about a tense, quirky build-up to a sudden, sometimes violent, event — or sometimes just the suggestion of an event, as in “UFO in Kushiro” (from After the Quake) where, after a rather rambling conversation between a man and a woman, we get, right near the end, and out of pretty much nowhere: “For one split second, Komura realised that he was on the verge of committing an act of overwhelming violence.” And then it’s over, the moment’s past, and after all that tension, there’s a feeling of something frightening and mysterious having been averted, or having happened entirely hidden away in his character’s psyche, just as you get in the best moments with David Lynch.

I think with any sort of creative activity (and that includes reading as well as writing), there’s a transition you have to make from your everyday mode of thinking to that slower, quieter mindset in which things start to flow. Sometimes part of the transition is made actually on the page, but even still there are writers who can carry it off, and writers who can’t.

Fantastic Planet

I distinctly remember seeing this film in the old East Grinstead cinema, probably as the B-movie to some more major film. The trouble is, it was released in 1973, which would have made me about 2 years old at the time, so perhaps it was a re-release I saw, or it just took a while to reach these shores from France, where it was originally released as La Planète sauvage.

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The reason it stuck in my memory was that I wasn’t feeling too well at the time, having something of a stomach upset, and I had to leave the cinema when there was scene of two alien Draags sucking little particles of food from a big yellow cloud, which made me feel queasy! Since then, every so often I’ve wondered just what was that film with that scene in? (Also what was the B-movie which had no dialogue, just a long battle between two medieval knights, one all in black?) And then along came the answer, released on DVD.

Fantastic Planet is a French animation created by director René Laloux and French/Polish artist/writer Roland Topor (whose novel, The Tenant, has just been re-released with an intro by a favourite author of mine, Thomas Ligotti — funny how these things connect). It’s fantasy/SF with an obvious sixties psychedelic feel, not to mention an unintentional hint of Monty Python, as, at the start, we see a woman running in fear through a sparse forest before being toyed with and captured by an enormous blue hand. The blue hand proves to be that of a Draag, the native giant race of this planet, who imported human beings (called Oms — hommes in French, geddit?) as pets, only to find them escaping into the wild and breeding like rabbits. As a result, every three years there has to be a de-omming by a series of nightmare devices, like the sticky spheres in the pic below.

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The first half of the film follows a young Om as he grows up pet to a female Graak child, being dressed up in ridiculous clothes and subjected to various unintentional cruelties, till he escapes, taking with him one of the Draags’ automatic learning devices. He is found by a group of wild humans who use the learning device in their battle for freedom, culminating in a rocket journey to the “Savage Planet” which orbits the Draags’ home planet, and which the Draags visit regularly via meditation.

Along the way, there’s some pretty trippy visuals, including a scene of four Draags entering a meditative state where first their clothes change colours, then their bodies transmute into abstract shapes. The Draags’ planet is full of animate vegetation and creatures that prey on the Oms, lapping them up with sticky tongues like the ants they are, giving the setting a real Bosch-like feeling. The soundtrack (playable in isolation on the DVD) is rather typical of the era, aiming to transport you to another planet with its ethereal, oohy vocals and heavily chorused organs, but regularly dumping you firmly in the sixties when it brings in a funky wah-wah guitar or (worst of all) a rather clichéd sax solo for the moment when one of the Om females does a strip-tease as part of the wild humans’ religious rites.

Interesting to see it again after all this time, though.