Sunday, February 28, 2010

Swings, roundabouts

It is with a great sense of loss that I close the covers of the last of Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles.

It has been more than a month since I read the first of the House of Niccolò books; I have been living in the world of these novels, I do not want to come back to real life!

(Jo Walton happened to post something earlier today about the joy of reading an unfinished series.)

In less emotionally equivocal literary news, I started writing the little book on style this past Monday, in the grip of a feverishly strong delusion that it could be done in three weeks. Now that I've taken the weekend off, and now that I think about the fact that the week of May 14-21 is designated for private life rather than for work, I have scaled up the likely production time to six weeks, but it still seems to me genuinely possible that I might have a whole draft of the thing by the end of March!

(Can it be?!? It might indeed not be - but it is at least possible that the outcome of a lifetime of obsessive reading and writing has led me to a place where an entire book - a little book! - can be written in six weeks. It's based on the lectures I gave this fall, so really it's a question of making something out of things that are already there...)

The little book on style still doesn't have a real name, but in a productive sleepless couple of hours a few nights ago I had some (to me) thrilling insights into the bread-and-butter-of-the-novel book. It has a new title and a clear organizational scheme, both of which I find so secretly delightful that I think I must cherish the details to myself in private for a little while longer before announcing them to the world via Light Reading - but I won't start working on this until I have sent the little book on style to my agent (and there is an essay on Austen and Flaubert and aphorisms, with which the book begins, that I will send out separately).

Bonus link: the song I couldn't get out of my head while reading the last installment of Lymond; we used to sing it in my high school choir.

These books have also reminded me of how much I loved the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries between the ages of 10 and 14 or so - it was a feature of the school I went to that younger children especially were asked to enter into historical periods with an intellect infused with imagination, and I vividly remember the account of the death of Savonarola from the point of view of a young Italian nobleman I wrote the year I was in fifth grade.

A favorite book at the time was Elizabeth Marie Pope's The Perilous Gard, which I still think is pretty much a perfect novel for children, but I was also already at that stage beginning to read T.S. Eliot and Dorothy L. Sayers and Nicholas Blake and through them to discover the beauties of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. In sixth grade I wrote a half-hour adaptation of Twelfth Night for our class to perform; I was steeped in the language and mythos of Shakespeare...

I said to Brent the other day, regretfully, that much as I still somewhat aspire to write airport thrillers in the vein of Dick Francis, my gifts as a writer are not really in the direction of that minimalist leave-everything-out-but-the-essentials intelligent storytelling that you see in the best of Francis or of Lee Child. I do not know, either, that I could possibly write a series of the scope of Dunnett's or of those of Susan Howatch, which I also love, partly because I am keeping a lot of my imagination in reserve for intellectual writing, but I would think that a very fully imagined historical series would be a better fit with my actual strengths and preferences than a series of stripped-down thrillers about men and women of action...

I have had several conversations recently (it has partly been prompted by walking the ramps at the Guggenheim) about a very happy insight that has struck me in the last year or so, and that seems to me in great part a function of being age 38.

Options close down - the infinite range of possibilities that seemed open to me at age twenty (at least if I was in an argumentative mood) is now significantly narrower - but unlike what I would have thought if you had been able to persuade me of it at that age (which you would not), this is a good thing.

We are constrained by our individual temperaments in ways that are very difficult to understand when we are eighteen or twenty or indeed thirty - it comes upon us gradually, though, at least if we are lucky, that we were right not to go in the direction of being (implausibly) fighter pilots or investment bankers or (more plausibly) epidemiologists or chemists - that our lives have to be governed by what will suit us best as well as by what we think we should be able to do...


  1. Ahhhh! I "knew" you'd lose yourself in Dunnettworld, but I'm still so pleased you found the trip rewarding. You don't, however, have to mourn that the voyage is over. I assure you that both series, but especially the Lymond Chronicles, get even better and more impressive on re-reading. There are layers and layers of thematic material, imagery, characterization, structural patterns, narrative games, historical details, and gorgeous language woven across and through all the novels that you only start to fully appreciate on the third or fourth time through. :)

    And speaking of Jo Walton, who has been doing a great series of posts on books she re-reads -- IIRC she's said that Lymond is one of those favorite re-reads that she doesn't blog about because once she starts...

    I appreciate your point about the "advantage" of age narrowing where you choose to focus your energies. Though as Dunnett (and Dumas) demonstrate, fully-imgained historical series don't require you to give up mystery, suspense or white-knuckle action. If you want your creative juices stimulated without the intimidation of a 3000+ page series, you might try Dunnett's King Hereafter. It's a (long) one-volume retelling of Macbeth, based on her quite serious archival research. I think most Dunnett fans agree that it's the most tightly structured and most poetic of her works, though it's also the most challenging. It doesn't have the fan base that the two big series do. Still, it's got fascinating Scottish history, plenty of (bloody) action, and her tragic hero is simply glorious. (Ugly, but glorious.)

    Thanks for the YouTube -- it certainly conjures the intro of Lymond at Douai with Piero Strozzi and the cock fight, or the slapstick feasts at the Hotel de Ville and Mary Queen of Scots' wedding. My mental soundtrack for the final novel is more melancholy, however. For me, it's John Dowland -- "Tant que je vive" should be set to Dowland -- and the Wyatt sonnet sung at the engagement party. "The pillar peris'd" knocks me out every time.

    Just as a matter of curiosity -- are you a Trollope fan? I like the Susan Howatch Anglican series, but I find it somewhat repetitive, and I definitely prefer what I always think of as the Trollope "original".

  2. I'm quite liking A Little Book on Style as a title.

  3. Yes, it might have to be A Little Book on Style...

    Huge Trollope fan!

    I made a strong resolution, as I finished the Lymond books, to dig out my copy of Wyatt when I got home and reread! Took a very good class in grad school on Petrarch, Sceve, Labe, etc. - good stuff.

    The mournful songs I know best are not quite right, period-wise - "Fain would I change that note..."

  4. Oh, I so hear you on the finite range of possibilities that strikes us all at at certain age (in my case three years older than you). For the longest time it seems we all happily spend time thinking about everything that can be ours but then at a certain point realize that really - if one wants to accomplish much at all we must get to what we can truly do.

    Or at least something like that. I do like "Little Book of Style" as well!

  5. I know it may be just an example that you used to flesh out the final line, but I'm curious: did you ever want to be a fighter pilot?

    If so... well, not to sound too childish, but I think that's awesome.

  6. I'm happy to hear one of my favourite bloggers loved one of my favourite series! I have to say my attitude towards 'Pawn in Frankincense' oscillates wildly - the orientalism underwhelms me on some readings, while on others I'm able to take it in my stride - but what an adventure novel it is.

    I have to confess that Francis is possibly my least-loved character in the series, though. My heart, in a thoroughly sublunar way, belongs to Jerott Blyth [and Kate, who I hope takes over the rearing of the grandchildren].