I don’t write a ton of stuff on literary craft here. (I haven’t blogged a whole lot period in the last couple of months, I know.) But the Twitter chat I had with Ann B. Gelder, who spends a lot more time blogging about craft than I do, should prove of some interest to those who make the enormous life mistake of choosing novel-writing as a career. (Seriously, read her blog. It’s full of good stuff.)
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I kept waiting for the irony to kick in.
As I read stories of one white, straight, male, European protagonist after another, I kept waiting for the joke that would make the book’s title pay off. I confess I may have missed it. By the sixth story, I was getting antsy. But if the ironic twist was in there somwhere, I never saw it. Which means I had to take the title and the book as sincere and proceed from the assumption that David Szalay thought he’d truly found something universal about the life of men on Earth, and that the best way he could think of to report his discovery through a fantastically narrow range of characters.
I don’t think he has. The book’s title writes a check that the stories, taken collectively, can’t cash. It fails even to capture All That European Men Are. Not all European men are white, for one thing. And, for another, not all European men treat women as nothing but sex objects. (Also, not all European women are as one dimensional as Szalay’s.) To be fair, the last story does have a gay, or bi, protagonist. His sexuality comes into play only insofar as its revelation cost him his marriage, but he’s still a relief after eight straight straight guys. If only there’d been more like him.
All That Man Is contains a great deal fine writing. The stories, on a line-by-line level, are well crafted, with considerable wit, humor, and pathos. It’s just that the overall project strikes me as so ill-conceived that I can’t recommend it.
A maximum of five, to be exact. I’ve got a version of Born Under A Bad Sign uploaded to a secret location on the interwebs, and I’d like the thoughts, impressions, and
very souls opinions of a few smart people. There’s no rush. I’m letting the book sit for a few months while I work on other projects, but getting a sense of what’s working and what isn’t will help me focus on the needs of the next draft. Use the form below to email me and I’ll tell you how to fetch the draft.
Oh, and if you know me on Facebook or Twitter, DM me there. That’ll work just as well.
I haven’t, mainly because I don’t think I ever have included friends, relatives, or acquaintances in any of my work. Any of you who’ve read my works and seen yourselves in them are wrong and should consider speaking to a therapist who specializes in narcissists. Don’t worry. I know a guy.
So I never have had to tell an outraged, or worse, insufferably preening social contact that they shouldn’t take it so seriously. “It’s just fiction, after all. Don’t make a big deal out of it.” Nor have I had some of them replay, “What do you mean ‘It’s just fiction’? That could be the image the world has of me until the sun goes dark, thanks to you, jerk!”
Saying “I (and you) should be so lucky” probably won’t mollify, so I was wondering what might in that situation. A better, or at least more accurate, response would be “Of course that’s not you, any more than the MacBeth of Shakespeare is the historical King MacBeth of Scotland.”
As Northrop Frye put it:
We can understand though how the poet got his reputation as a kind of licensed liar. The word poet itself means liar in some languages, and the words we use in literary criticism–fable, fiction, myth–have all come to mean something we can’t believe. Some parents in Victorian times wouldn’t let their children read novels because they weren’t “true”. But not many reasonable people today would deny that the poet is entitled to change whatever he likes when he uses a theme from history or real life. The reason why was explained long ago by Aristotle. The historian makes specific and particular statements, such as, “The battle of Hastings was fought in 1066.” Consequently he’s judged by the truth or falsehood of what he says–either there was such a battle or there wasn’t, and if there was he’s got the date either right or wrong. But the poet, Aristotle says, never makes any real statements at all, certainly no particular or specific ones. The poet’s job is not to tell you what happened, but what happens: not what did take place, but the kind of thing that always does take place. He gives you the typical, recurring, or what Aristotle calls universal event. You wouldn’t go to MacBeth to learn about the history of Scotland–you go to it to learn what a man feels like after he’s gained a kingdom and lost his soul. When you meet such a character as Micawber in Dickens, you don’t feel that there must have been a man Dickens knew who was exactly like this: you feel that there’s a bit of Micawber in almost everybody you know, including yourself.
So if someone approaches you, the writer, saying “How dare you include me in your book”, read them this passage and say, “It’s not really you. I just included the part of you that’s also a part of everybody, the universal you.” If the person remains upset and cries, “But that image of me will outlive me!”, reply that their real complaint is not with you, but rather with death and time.
That should cool them off.
Join my new little discussion group over at Goodreads to dig into the connections between philosophy and fiction.
Scott Southard, keeper of a blog of literary musings, wrote a humorous post on literary genres, and the factionalism they encourage, that got me thinking about how I choose to answer the question “So what do you write?”
I generally say “literary fiction.”
I can’t not say that. Almost all of my published short stories, and certainly my first novel, fall easily into that category. Most of them are contemporary, realistic, and concerned with the inner life of a plausible human being. Also, I don’t mind saying it. It puts me in company with artists who get nominated for major prizes, and one of the terrible secrets of me is that I am, in fact, a major league snob.
Still, note: I said most.
The first short story I ever got into print, and the only one I’ve been paid for so far, was a science fiction yarn about a man whose nanotech implants force him to commit heinous crimes against his will. My new novel is a historical thriller about a cop investigating a well connected serial killer in Nazi Germany. Though my concerns about the inner lives of plausible characters remain, these stories retain their generic trappings.
When I think of what genre means to me, I think that the ones we’re conventionally told are important (the one’s dividing the sections of a Barnes and Noble) are the ones least relevant to the work that I do. I trained as an actor, and to me, those genres are nothing more than a series of props and costumes that I try on. They shape things in their way, but they don’t dictate. There’s still something essential underneath, a set of concerns, interests, and fetishes, that are mine. How do we classify what’s underneath the trappings?
Northrop Frye to the rescue:
“There are two halves to literary experience, then. Imagination gives us both a better and a worse world than the one we usually live with, and demands that we keep looking steadily at them both.” (The Educated Imagination, 97-98)
Frye later names the two dreams the wish-fulfillment dream and the anxiety dream. Wish-Fulfillment dreams may have high stakes, but the action seldom veers seriously into unpleasantness. The goodies win. The baddies lose. And usually someone gets married, or at least laid, by the end. Paperback romances are wish fulfillment stories, but so are Twlight, James Bond books, Tom Clancy novels, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and many other stories both reviled and beloved. Anxiety dreams are satires and tragedies, mostly. The dreamer might root for the main character, but certainly wouldn’t want to be the main character. The action has similarly high stakes, but often heads toward grim, painful territory. If good people win, they do so at a cost that makes it look more like a loss. And bad people often as not go on, never facing justice. If anything, they may come out slightly ahead. Or sometimes, the antagonist isn’t bad. It’s often just someone, or a system of someones, or some arrangement of life’s circumstances that don’t give a damn about the protagonist. Such dreams include Catch-22, 1984, Crime and Punishment, Lolita, King Lear, Babbitt, and other tales both beloved and reviled.
Taken all in all, I’ve always responded more deeply to anxiety dreams than to wish fulfillment. I like a good adventure story as much as the next guy, but I don’t feel an impulse to write them. (Even if I start out writing wish-fulfillment, I usually not satisfied unless the protagonist suffers hugely, questions his belief system, and wins only an ambiguous victory at great personal cost.) If I could respond to the question “What do you write?” with “I write anxiety dreams” without having to recite a blog-post length explanation, I’d do it.
Actually, I guess I just did!
I’ve been doing a lot of straight history on the blog over the last month or so, but when it came to Hitler, I saw little advantage in rehashing his history within a blog post. For those looking for a biography, I recommend starting with Ian Kershaw’s two-volume set, Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris and Hitler: 1936-1945 Nemesis. I can’t improve upon that, so I won’t try.
Instead, I prefer to discuss how I created the Hitler who appears in Summer of Long Knives.
Hitler is a tricky figure to do. Superficially, anyway, we all know him well. He’s the fellow with the Charlie Chaplin mustache, the raspy voice, and the quasi-military uniform who usually shouts and seldom smiles. Or he’s the guy in silent movie footage, staring into the far distance from the balcony of the Berghof. Or he’s the old man, pinning medals on doomed Hitler Youth with a trembling hand. But while we have plenty of film footage of Hitler, we have very little to tell us what it would be like if we could travel back in time and put ourselves in a room with him.
Lucky us, we do have some things to go on.
First hand accounts of Hitler the person come to us via Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich, Martin Bormann’s Hitler’s Table Talk and Traudl Junge’s Hitler’s Last Secretary (the primary source for the 2004 film Der Untergang, which launched a million viral videos), and these track well with August Kubizek’s The Young Hitler I Knew. Hitler’s personality, it seems, changed very little over the course of his lifetime. Ordinary dialog with Hitler was rare. In its place, Hitler would tease his colleagues for indulging some behavior he disapproved of, or he’d deliver enormously long, convoluted lectures on whatever happened to be on his mind. He’d quickly shut down any attempt to interrupt or contradict him, but if he wasn’t talking he took little interest in the social whirl of the room around him and would sometimes fall asleep.
Still, Hitler was capable of social grace, charm, and even self-deprecation. This scene, from Der Untergang, captures it well. Start it at about 2:40:
In Summer of Long Knives, Hitler appears in a scene where Kommissar Rolf Wundt, the protagonist, has to convince him to rein in the Gestapo and allow him to arrest the serial killer terrorizing Munich. In order to indicate Hitler’s character and habits, I start out the scene in the Great Room of the Berghof with Rolf, Helmut (his boss), Epp (a witness), and Goering waiting for a suitable pause in a monologue Hitler’s delivering to Albert Speer.
“The point I’m trying to make, Speer, is this. We’re trying to realize these models of yours, which are the most brilliant that I’ve ever seen. We shall do in ten years what it took the Caesars two hundred years to accomplish. You and me, Speer, will do this. But before it can be done, we must make Germany worthy. There is no point in building avenues for victory before there is victory, and it would be vainglory indeed to build a triumphal arch before the triumph is in our hands. And it starts with what I’ve been saying about cleanliness and hygiene. The parliamentarians left us so wide open to disease. Syphilis has ravaged us. It’s been rampant, and it could mean our destruction, Speer. It could jeopardize all the great things we want to do. That is why, particularly in Berlin, we must squeeze the Jews out. It was thanks to their influence that Berlin became so infested with homosexuals and pimps and whores. It’s why our movement had to start in Munich, which is far purer and more fully German. Berlin has for so long needed deep cleansing. The cleansing of the blood comes first, and it is this which, as much as concrete and brick and stone, will form the foundations of all we hope to build when we create Germania. Yours will be the dream that shows the world that all that we’ve done has been worthy.”
“Thank you, Mein Führer,” Speer said. “I think there are some people here to see you.”
Hitler stood and turned around. He was dressed in a well fitting gray suit and dark blue tie. Were it not for the gold Nazi eagle emblem emblazoned on his arm, he’d look like a banker.
Göring raised his arm in salute, with Rolf, Helmut, and Epp following him. Hitler threaded his way out from the circle of chairs and, returning their salute, moved forward to shake Göring’s hand. All let their arms fall. Hitler said, “Emmy joined us for tea yesterday. It was very pleasant.”
Göring said, “Miss Braun told me, Mein Führer. Thanks for being so generous with your time.”
“Oh, you know me, Hermann,” Hitler said, “I arrange it so I have plenty of time up here. Plenty of time. Who have you brought with you?”
Hitler’s diatribe here I adapted from a passage in Mein Kampf, which is a dreadful read, not just because of its racism but also because Hitler is possibly the greatest bore in the history of prose. However, since the book wasn’t so much written as dictated to Rudolf Hess, the passage I adapted was something that another human being had to sit in a room and listen to. (That he still bought in afterwards is best explored elsewhere.) I also wanted to present Speer as someone anxious to get out of here after having spent all night listening to Hitler, and to show Hitler making a little inside joke to Goering about his lazy work habits.
I figured that presenting any kind of argument to Hitler would be a tough job, since Hitler was easily bored, quick to leap to conclusions, and oversensitive to contradiction, so I wrote the scene almost as if Wundt were trying to gain the cooperation of a difficult child. (A name is removed to avoid spoilers.)
Their presentation to Hitler went much more slowly than it had with Göring, mainly because of Hitler’s penchant for interruption. Rolf did most of the talking, and much of that talking was devoted to keeping Hitler focused on the point at hand. He seemed to have little patience for following lines of reasoning and was always quick to leap to conclusions. Sometimes he was right, but mostly he was wrong, and the time spent pulling him back from his leaps in logic pushed the explanation of YouDon’tGetToKnowYet’s role in the murders into the evening hours. The worst part of it was the need to maintain a patient attitude in spite of Hitler’s outbursts. Rolf knew better than to say anything that sounded like a direct contradiction of one of Hitler’s points, so much of their discussion hinged on saying things like “I agree, my Führer, but the most important consideration here is…” or “Of course, my Führer, but as you can plainly see the pattern clearly indicates…” Rolf didn’t know about Epp or Helmut, but he had a tremendous headache and a sore throat by the end.
Only at the end do we see the public Hitler:
When Rolf and Epp closed the cover on the last of their files, Hitler rose, walked over to the large window, and pressed a button that lowered the glass down into the basement. “What you’ve told me,” Hitler said, “makes me sick at heart. Not so much the killing of the Jewish girls, of course. It shows the YouDon’tGetToKnowYet’s moral weakness, but such losses don’t move me. But to kill German girls, young girls, the future mothers of our Reich… what kind of fiend is this man? Kommissar, I want you to find this man immediately. I want you to hunt him down and I want you to blast him from the face of the Earth. The poison of this man must be purged from the body of the Volk. He is every bit as much of a rat as any kike bloodsucker!”
“What about the SS, my Führer?” Göring said.
Hitler stood in the pink sunset light as if it were a spotlight, and gestured as if he were speaking to the 10,000 he harangued in the Köningsplatz. “They won’t get in the way. If they do, they will have to deal with me, and for this they are surely not prepared. Himmler and Heydrich know that what I did to Röhm I can do to them. Röhm sheltered perversity and sampled it for himself. If Himmler does the same, I will see him and Heydrich — and everyone else with high rank and a black uniform — hang on hooks! No one will deter me from my mission to preserve and protect the German volk, and you, Kommissar, are now my instrument.” Hitler pointed at Rolf, his eyes blazing now. “When you seize this man, make sure he knows that he has betrayed me, and in that, he has betrayed the whole German Race!”
It was strange, Rolf thought, that he suddenly felt imbued. The Führer was truly gifted at this. It was so easy for him to transmit to Rolf urgency, drive, and purpose, and Rolf felt, for a terrifying interval, that Hitler’s will was really inside his own, his energy powering all the circuits of Rolf’s nervous system.
Essentially, I tried to show as much range as I could within the few pages where Hitler is a character. It was a different challenge than that of my other story with a dictator, “Koba’s Bad Cut”. In that story, Stalin is a cipher, and the character has to try to dig under the bland surface to guess his motives. Hitler, garrulous figure that he was, is by contrast almost too easy to read. He’s an immature layabout with a veneer of charm and amiability who can only be roused to action when the seething hatred under the surface is tapped.
That’s the Hitler I created.
Is it the real man? No. I think the real Hitler had a lot of this in him. But there’s no way to put the “real” Hitler into a novel. The very act of placing him in the novel makes him a fantasy. He’s no longer the Hitler, any more than the Achilles in The Illiad is the Achilles. Homer built his Achilles, making him his.
This Hitler is my Hitler.
P.S. Some things I didn’t bother researching about Hitler for Summer of Long Knives: I didn’t check to see whether he gave a speech in the Koenigsplatz on the day specified in the book. Neither did I confirm that he was at the Berghof during the month of June, 1936. The real Hitler may or may not have been in those places at those times, but mine was.