Art in fiction: ‘high’ and ‘low’ art?

Extract from Jane Davis's series on art in fiction
Extract from Jane Davis’s series on art in fiction

Jane Davis today continues her inspiring series on Art in Fiction with contributions from three guests: Kate Rigby, Jenny Harper and me. I’m grateful to Jane for her invitation. I’ve long been fascinated by the uses and effects of art in creative writing – my research into them goes back years and continues, and my own fiction incorporates arts and artefacts – so it’s always a joy to be able to share that interest with others. Click here to read the article.

My contribution to Jane’s article focuses on the topic of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art: how helpful do I personally find that distinction? What purposes do art and artefacts serve in my fiction, especially in That Summer in Puglia?  Kate Rigby considers the related question of ‘art snobbery’, widening its scope from the visual arts to novels, and explaining why she doesn’t like strict genre classifications. Jenny Harper illustrates art’s redemptive power with an extract from People We Love.

For other articles in Jane Davis’s series, click here.

Happy reading!

 

Writing as a second career?

A Haig-Davies, G Keegan, V Vescina (1)
Panel on career change, Sloan Summit 2018

Following the publication of my debut novel, That Summer in Puglia, I’m regularly asked how I made the transition from a career in management to one in writing. The question may come from a reader at a book signing or in a message via social media; those asking it typically work in a business role and tell me they’ve always loved to write.

This post is not an attempt at an exhaustive answer, which would defeat me. Instead, I hope it will provide some helpful points to consider. My reflections have been sparked by a recent event, the Sloan Summit at London Business School to celebrate 50 years of the Sloan MSc Programme there. At the Summit, leadership and change expert Alison Haig-Davies interviewed Gillian Keegan MP and me about our paths to career transformation. All three of us are graduates of the Sloan MSc in Management at London Business School (the course is also available at MIT and Stanford), though from different years. While my fellow speaker’s activity is not in the arts, the points below about self-knowledge, humility, serendipity, resilience and gratitude were vital to both of us, so I hope they’ll be valuable to others.

A Haig-Davies, G Keegan, V Vescina (2)
Alison Haig-Davies, Gillian Keegan MP, Valeria Vescina
  • Career or vocation?

With writing, are we talking of a career at all? Most published writers do not earn enough from their books for that to be their only activity. Many hold other jobs: as teachers and critics, for example, but also in very different areas. I write literary fiction and for me that has the compelling nature of the vocation. I’m also a literary and opera reviewer, a creative-writing teacher and a board member of an arts festival.

  • Self-knowledge

Consider what the true constants in your life are: the ones which feel ‘deeply you’. For me these include a combination of artistic creativity and structured thinking, and a lifelong love of the arts. My roles in management involved mostly strategy and organisational behaviour work (both disciplines require more creative thinking than many realise, and lots of writing); and I grew up in a family steeped in the arts (my mother an art historian, my father an art dealer), so they always remained an active passion.

  • Humility

I’m one of countless people who have always read voraciously and ‘written well’. But I was conscious that there was much to learn, to be able to write novels: every profession takes years of study and practice. So I started out by attending a no-pressure creative writing course once a week for some months. The feedback was encouraging and I continued drafting short stories and taking part in a writing group. Eventually, I had a portfolio of fiction, on the strength of which I was admitted to the Goldsmiths MA in Creative & Life Writing. I felt that an MA was the most effective way for me to move up the learning curve. At that point I had no expectations about where it would lead – I embarked on it because I really loved writing stories and wanted to be able to communicate what I deeply care about to the best of my ability. I also trusted in the power of serendipity: you do your utmost to be good at what you’ve chosen and when opportunities present themselves you’ll be ready to embrace them.

  • Resilience

I accepted from the outset that it’s difficult to get traditionally published and that rejections of my manuscript were to be expected in the process of finding ‘a home’ for it – and that it was quite possible it wouldn’t. But even before then – in the course of writing the novel – I had to be open to others’ constructive criticism: being defensive about your work (whatever your field) doesn’t do much to improve it. I also assumed that writing the kind of literary novels I had in mind, and getting published, would take years – and it did.

  • Gratitude

The process I’ve described requires being sustained by others at different junctures and in a variety of ways. I’m sure that writers convinced of their own genius must exist somewhere – lucky them…! Most of us might instead give up along the way, were it not for the belief in us by those whose judgement we trust: in my case, a couple of friends well versed in literature and philosophy, tutors on the MA, fellow MA students… My writing group, composed of other Goldsmiths graduates, has been and is invaluable: we workshop our pieces in an atmosphere of mutual trust, and have become close friends. And what to say of the generosity of the writers and film director who endorsed the novel? And how about the friends and family whose support takes many forms? And the publisher who made the book ‘happen’? And the authors and journalists who compèred the debut events? This might give you a sense of how many people an author is grateful to and for…! At the same time, when you think about it, that holds true for most lives.

I hope the sharing of these thoughts will be helpful to you and to others you may know who are considering a new career – whether in writing or in other realms. To you all, my warmest wishes.

Valeria Vescina, Sloan Summit 2018
Valeria Vescina, Sloan Summit 2018, London Business School

Image credits:

Images courtesy of Sloan Summit 2018 and Mike Pearce of Mike Pearce Photography. Reproduced with kind permission.

What does ‘portrait’ mean?

#RivetingReview on Antoine Laurain

 

It was such a pleasure to write an article on Antoine Laurain’s The Portrait (Gallic Books, 2017) for the September issue of the European Literature Network‘s #RivetingReviews. You can find my review here.

The length and writing style of this novella might, at first, suggest a quick read, but take your time and you’ll be rewarded.  Laurain has reflected on the many profound meanings of the words ‘portrait’ and ‘collecting’, and distilled those thoughts into a literary creation of exquisite grace. Witty, whimsical, poignant, thought-provoking… Highly recommended.

 

What can writers learn from a composer?

There’s a lot to be said for taking on assignments out of your comfort zone.  The task of reviewing Janáček’s Jenůfa was one such for me, as I’m more familiar with the Italian and German repertoires than with the Czech one.  I had seen other Janáček operas, but not this one.  So off I trotted to the Royal College of Music Library.  What I discovered there about Jenůfa and Janáček’s subsequent operas was so riveting that I ended up spending days reading through the books available – far from enough, for sure, to make a Janáček expert, but plenty to spur me to share those exciting discoveries with fellow-writers.

Leos Janacek ca. 1890

Leos Janáček, ca. 1890

I had come across Milan Kundera’s admiration of this composer years ago in his The Art of the Novel and Encounter essays, but understood it better only after my RCM Library research – as there are helpful parallels between Janáček’s compositional process and aspects of literary fiction.  So what might Janáček (b. 1854 – d. 1928) teach us as writers?  Here are a few thoughts.  If you have more, please feel welcome to add them in the comments section below or here.

  1. Let go of ‘automatisms’

Experiment freely, especially in the early stages of your project: seek the form which will do justice to your vision of that particular novel or short story.  Trusting our intuition about key writing decisions (e.g. structure, point of view, voice) may not come easily, but over-reliance on the “dos and don’ts” of technique can work against a story’s emotional power.  For example, deciding which word is or isn’t earning its place in a sentence will depend on a narrator/character’s personality, back story, state of mind…  Janáček had mastered traditional composition but realized some of its rules would have detracted from the emotional truth of the drama.  Similarly, he had studied local folk music for decades, but the Moravian dances in the opera are his own invention, the fruit of his ‘absorption’ of the raw material.

  1. A well-chosen motif enriches the reading experience

From the opening bars of Jenůfa, the xylophone provides the recurring motif of the mill’s waterwheel: does it signify time ticking by? Or the inexorability of events? Or the flowing of each character’s actions into one tragedy?  Maybe any or all of these.  It’s a reminder that motifs ideally have two qualities: yes, they offer some insights into the story; but their plurality of meaning reflects the ambiguities of existence lived in the present without the benefit of hindsight.  By inviting questions more than providing answers, they engage readers, creating private space for their own perspectives and interpretations.

  1. The individuality of each character’s speech is all-important

We’ve all heard about paying heed to the individuality of each character’s speech, both direct and indirect, but Janáček went to extraordinary lengths to achieve that effect in Jenůfa and subsequent operas.  He was one of the first composers to use a libretto in prose (his own, derived from a play by Gabriela Preissová) and not in verse.  In the text and music, he strived to capture reality: by creating the impression (by mimicking, not replicating – see the section on “speech melody” in the review of Grange Park Opera’s recent Jenůfa) of the impact of characters’ emotional states on their utterances, moment by moment; by prioritising dramatic truth over melodic beauty.  He was unafraid of the resulting contrasts and contradictions within and between characters.  The outcome is an intensely believable evolution of his protagonists and their relationships.  The process and its effects illustrate every writer’s balancing act between the attractions of euphony and the ‘truth’ of characters who at times might demand ‘ugliness’ of expression.

Seen And Heard International

  1. Local can mean universal

Jenůfa demonstrates the enduring validity of the mantra that the more locally rooted a story is, the more universal it feels.  That’s because of the specificity of the ‘framework’ within which the characters move: it enables authors to dramatize situations arising out of the tension between the community (e.g. conditions and belief system) and individuals’ inner worlds.

  1. Let themes emerge by themselves

Jenůfa is ‘about’ many things.  Different productions may highlight one of them but don’t cancel out the others.  By and large, any opera, play, novel, short story… which engages with one universal theme is inevitably engaging with other themes too, due to their interconnectedness and complexity.  Trust them to emerge of their own accord.  The reasons for this are set out nowhere better than in Orhan Pamuk’s The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist and David Lodge’s The Practice of Writing: they both explain why ‘you discover what it is you have to say in the process of saying it’ – and why, in any event, it will be ‘read by different readers in a bewildering variety of ways’ (Lodge, ‘The Novel as Communication’, in The Practice of Writing).

  1. The order in which characters appear isn’t a given

Time and again, authors say the suggestion from a writing colleague, agent or editor to alter the order of scenes or chapters made a vital difference to the final manuscript.  That opportunity is most obviously open when the story is not recounted in strict chronological sequence.  It’s not as easy to remember that the order in which characters make their entrance is flexible even in stories told in that sequence – and how greatly it matters.  Jenůfa exemplifies it: in the original play, the mayor and his family appear early on; Janáček’s decision not to show them until the opera’s final act – even though he has mentioned them earlier on – heightens the contrast between the central couple’s hard-earned depth of understanding and the shallowness of the community’s moral conventions, personified by the mayor’s wife and daughter.  In other words, the tension between the external ‘framework’ and the internal worlds not only is sustained, but rises to a high pitch until shortly before the curtain’s close.

If this post has piqued your curiosity about Janáček and Jenůfa, DVDs of several productions are available online.  In the UK, Jenůfa is currently being performed at Grange Park Opera (until 8 July 2017).

Image credits:

Leos Janáček ca. 1890, author unknown. Reproduced under Public Domain License.

Image of review of Janáček’s Jenůfa from Seen and Heard International website.

Why a dramatic monologue for ‘That Summer in Puglia’?

I’ve long been intrigued by authors’ creative choices, so I’m always grateful for glimpses of the process involved in the birth of a novel.   Examples of such glimpses might include: how Marilynne Robinson constructed the character of John Ames in her wise and lyrical Gilead – of which she speaks in a Paris Review interview; where the roots of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard are to be found – which transpire from his Places Of My Infancy; or how Vladimir Nabokov arrived at the voice of the eponymous protagonist of Pnin – as revealed in the autobiographical Speak, Memory.  Of course the books hold their own as narratives – I don’t need more, in order to enjoy and appreciate them – but insights into the inspirations, challenges and decisions behind them never fail to enrich the experience for me with the unique perspective they offer.

So I thought readers might be interested to know how I had reached one of the key decisions for any novel: that of narrative form, which impacts how we respond to a text.  That Summer in Puglia is in dramatic monologue form, which is rarely used in novels, unlike in poetry and drama.  So why, you might ask, did I opt for it?

First, it may be helpful to clarify a couple of common sources of confusion.  A dramatic monologue is a variant of first-person narrative.  It’s distinct from interior monologue, as it involves the narrator speaking to an interlocutor, or ‘narratee’.  Interior monologue tends to give readers access to the narrator’s uncensored thoughts, including those unlikely to be divulged to anyone.  By contrast, narrators in dramatic monologues may or may not state facts and opinions – purposely or unwittingly.

128px-giotto_di_bondone_003
Giotto, ‘The Seven Virtues – Lady Justice’, 1306, fresco, Cappella degli Scrovegni, Padua. Photo by The Yorck Project. Clemency famously weighs slightly more than Punishment on this Iusticia’s scales.

This means that as readers we find ourselves in the interlocutor’s seat: it’s for us to shift between one moment judging the narrator’s actions, intentions and reliability, and the next empathising with him or her, as if we were listening to a human being sitting right across the table.  That quality can give rise to a drawback: the tension between judging and empathising means that stretches of absorption in the protagonist’s narration will alternate with moments of distance from it as we seek to read ‘between the lines’ of what is being asserted and omitted.  The author has to fine-tune this alternation of intensity and detachment – which often coincides with that of past events and of the present-tense ‘frame’ – in order to avoid the flow being interrupted too often for the reader.

The narrator’s voice involves many considerations too, such as: how can his tone and register convey his character and background?  (I’ll use the pronoun ‘he’ on this blog post, as my protagonist is a man.)  How should it change to reflect his evolution from the first to the final page?  And that of his relationship with the interlocutor?  And to signal when he is in control and when instead the intensity of re-living past events makes him barely aware of the other’s presence?  I’m not sure I’d have had the confidence to attempt a novel in dramatic monologue form, and to persevere, without the encouragement and feedback of great writers on my MA at Goldsmiths – I mean ‘great’ in every sense: admirably able, for sure; but also insightful, generous, enthusiastic…  Writing may be solitary, but few communities involve the closeness and trust which comes with mutually exposing your work for constructive criticism.

So why did I go for the dramatic monologue form for That Summer in Puglia?  Recklessness?  Too much time on my hands?  (I wish!)  The challenge?  None of these.  After experimenting at length with third-person narration, I opted for dramatic monologue because of its coherent linking of several aspects of the work.

I wanted Tommaso’s narration to expose not only his own fragility, but also that of the young private investigator, Will, as the latter’s tale eventually emerges.  I was both encouraged and intimidated by the fact that also the narrator in The Fall senses that the narratee has a secret, and yet that Camus leaves it undisclosed.  However, I soon realised that his interlocutor has to be faceless because the eponymous fall is that of humankind – the canvas couldn’t be larger.  In my novel, Will has to be an individual for at least two reasons: his story accounts for why only he has succeeded in tracking down a man long presumed dead; and he and Tommaso offer each other real possibilities of positive transformation – at real cost, and demanding real choice.  By contrast, the name of Camus’ protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, hints at clemency and salvation but he entraps his prey without mercy.

Ephebe from Pompeii
Photo (May 1925) of The Ephebe (20-10 BC) found at Pompeii by the archaeologist Amedeo Maiuri

I thought a dramatic monologue would be ideal for a narrator who, despite his knowledge of the ancient world, is only now engaging in an overdue ‘excavation’ of his past: his unreliability would heighten the tension between sympathy and judgment.  Readers could identify with the empathetic listener, who catalyses and facilitates Tommaso’s growing awareness of the actual course of past events.  Ostensibly, Tommaso longs for Will to let him go, but his unconscious yearning runs deeper: at stake is his chance to come to terms with his past and to move on.  The dramatic monologue form had two further merits: it conveys a sense of isolation; and it plays on the irony that it is a dialogue of which readers ‘hear’ only one side, while Tommaso unwittingly caused a tragedy by denying others the opportunity for dialogue.

In an excellent article about his writing of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid points to the dramatic monologue’s power to engage readers as ‘co-creators’ because it prompts us to develop our own versions of the characters and events: they reflect our personal perspective when we fill in the gaps, make connections or interpret the action.

To help readers settle into the role of ‘co-creators’, I needed to put them in the position of inferring what Will is saying and doing at specific points.  I therefore studied rhetorical devices used in dramatic monologues (e.g. Browning’s My Last Duchess, in addition to The Fall and The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and other relevant forms (e.g. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Julian Barnes’ Talking it Over, Rousseau’s Confessions).  In none of the former did the authors develop the narratee’s own story arc (Camus and Hamid hint at his background/occupation).  However, there was no doubt in my mind that my novel’s coherence demanded it.  In the event, some of it flowed intuitively as I got to know my characters, while feedback from tutors and colleagues was invaluable in identifying and addressing sections where the information to be conveyed about Will presented a tougher challenge.  I think Camus or Hamid would have chosen to do the same, had the stories they were telling required it – but theirs called for different sets of creative decisions and solutions.

I considered but eventually sacrificed metafictional opportunities, in order to keep readers immersed in the realism of Tommaso’s narration.  I aimed for ‘solidity of specification’ and for psychological truthfulness.  The multi-sensorial rendering of the settings, for example, is based on my own experience and research.  I consulted books, maps and videos, and took photographs and notes.  I walked in-situ like a ‘Method actor’, striving to take in the landscape through the filter of the protagonist’s perception.   Psychological truthfulness came largely intuitively, but some aspects of it were enhanced by reading and by others’ feedback.

Tommaso’s language is characterised by the formality of his Italian linguistic roots, and by the faintly archaic tone of foreigners who learnt much of their English from literature.  As part of my research, I attended a one-day translation masterclass held by Tim Parks, in order to become aware of linguistic idiosyncrasies which would impact Tommaso’s tone and register – unlike him, I did not learn English as an adult, but have been bilingual since my early teens.  I also fine-tuned Tommaso’s use of emotionally charged key words.  For example, he says ‘my father’ when he begins talking about him, but then repeatedly slips into ‘Dad’ and ‘Daddy’.   For the handling of his lapses into Italian, I referred to Simonetta Wenkerts’ The Sunlit Stage and Marina Warner’s The Lost Father.

These are just a few glimpses into an aspect of writing and into the creative process behind That Summer in Puglia.  I hope you’ll have found them interesting, whether you’re a fellow author or reader.

Photo credits:

Giotto’s The Seven Virtues – Lady Justice, by The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei.  Reproduced under GNU Free Documentation License.

The Ephebe, made available by Carlo Raso under CC License.

Connection and Compassion

In one of my favourite books of literary criticism, The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist, Orhan Pamuk says that ‘Often the centre emerges as the novel is written’.  This was my experience with That Summer in Puglia.  I started drafting a story, and trusted that I’d gradually discover what I cared most deeply to communicate.  The themes and the connections between them surfaced as the plot and character sketches became a narrative. The entire process was thus partly intuitive, partly analytical – what Pamuk calls being ‘the naïve and the sentimental novelist’.

256px-antefissa_circolare_a_testa_di_gorgone2c_510-500_ac_ca-2c_da_taranto_28man_taranto29
Head of a Gorgon, 510-500 BC, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Taranto (ancient Taras, colony of Sparta) photo by Sailko

The main theme of That Summer in Puglia is the timeless value of compassion – not ‘pity’, but the ‘feeling with’ suggested by its Latin root – towards others and oneself. Other themes feature prominently: the perils of unresolved grief; the power of love in its many forms; the importance of dialogue and mildness. However, compassion is notable for playing a vital role in them all.

It’s one of the strands running through every form of love: from a stranger’s kindness, to the affection of parents and children; from profound friendship, to romantic love, and all the way to the concept of agápē. I hope that as you read That Summer in Puglia you’ll find yourself moving from judging Tommaso to really caring for him, and that his tale will remind you of something truly marvellous: that not just in fiction, but everywhere around us, acts of love great and small can transform lives.

In the story, unpredictable combinations of factors impact the characters’ internal worlds, relationships and actions. In the process, a theme closely related to compassion is explored: the need to test the goodness of any action by asking whether love for fellow human beings would enjoin us to take it. As philosophers have cautioned since ancient times, certainty of one’s own virtue can too easily slide into self-righteousness.

This is where the theme of the importance of mildness and dialogue comes in. We live in times where the need for them at societal level is more evident than ever.

 

Photo credit: Head of a Gorgon by Sailko. Reproduced under CC Commons License.