Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad

I recently came across a little known book written by Leo Tolstoy, Hadji Murad. The book’s a short one, apparently derived from Tolstoy’s Russian army experiences fighting Chechens. The scenario sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Goes to show that ethnic and religious divisions are persistent to whatever bitter end.
Hadji Murad is a Chechen tribesman who decides to offer his services to the Russians in order to wreak vengeance on a Chechen higher-up. The ploy doesn’t work, and Hadji Murad becomes trapped in a no-man’s land between Russia and Chechnya.
It’s interesting that Tolstoy chose to orchestrate the story toward such a conclusion. In creating such a protagonist, mistrusted by all about him, Tolstoy has brought to live one of the most poignant historic/literary devices imaginable. Such a plot and character makes plain that the author saw no resolution to this ethnic conflict, certainly no easy one. All those claiming to have an easy answer to the West-Christian/Middle East-Islam divide would do well to heed Tolstoy’s sensibilities inherent in this story. Maybe the answer isn’t really in the realm of politics, but in economics, possibly in the arts, but that’s a thought for another day
The version I was able to buy was published by Cosimo Classis of New York in 2006, the original story written in the 1850s. While I liked the story’s premise and structure, it seemed to suffer from poor translation – the sentences were clunky, the syntax awkward at times. And a forest of typographical errors kept me constantly distracted. I’d love to recommend this book to literature professors, but not this version. We’ll have to wait for a better translation, and a much cleaner manuscript.


Spring and Manuscript Marketing

Here in the mountains, spring came in April, then summer. Once everything blossomed, winter came again. T.S. Eliot was right – April is the cruelest month.
It’s also time to again begin peddling what I’ve written. I had lunch with writing sidekick Nancy, and she was spitting nails. She had approached a company that – supposedly – researches markets for your short stories and novels – and writes query letters for you, along with printing mailing labels. Nancy had been with this firm once before, and was entertaining the notion of returning, only to find they require a $275 re-initiation fee. Former clients remain in their computer, and all they have to do is call up your old files, creating a new one from them. Sorry, Writer’s Relief, but neither of us is going back to that well. There are just too many other, better resources.
Writers should be aware (WR isn’t) that most litmags and many agents prefer e-mail submittals now, and many of those actually require it. One can easily spend a thousand bucks a year just on printing and mailing manuscripts, not to mention time lost in transit. Even when you submit by mail, almost all who are interested will e-mail rather than send a note back in the old SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope, but then you knew that).
My submittals of late have been a pair of novellas to small publishing houses. While I get encouraging comments back about my writing, it’s clear that you have to write very specifically for their markets, and those are very sharply drawn. If you’re writing genre novels, these houses aren’t for you. Writers, research these small houses – they may be right up your alley. And readers would do well to Google those, too. Many small houses publish excellent novels, and they’re not widely publicized. Wouldn’t you love to awe your friends with a choice novel from such an exotic source before summer?

The Lying Tongue

When I began this blog I promised myself I wouldn’t be a grouch when it came to my opinion on books. I reasoned that striking a curmudgeonly pose would be seen as jealousy on my part – someone has just had such-and-such published, while I haven’t in a few years. Well, I’m reneging on that self-made vow. After reading The Lying Tongue by Andrew Wilson, I feel that some books need to be spoken of with a critical tongue.
Wilson’s book is his first published novel; his previous publishing credit is an award winning biography of novelist Patricia Highsmith. The Lying Tongue, as first novels go, isn’t poorly written, per se, but neither is it a stellar piece. The dialogue is often rather trite, and his characters are the stuff of daytime soaps. On the other hand, his plot is well done by modern standards, i.e., there are the obligatory twists at every turn, and Wilson attempts, per modern plotting templates, to amaze and confound the reader as the story closes. Having read my share of mysteries, however, I found his plotting less imaginative than I had hoped, and his “surprises” predictable.
The story divides its time between England and exotic Venice. I, like most potential readers, hoped to have gained a sense of place with regard to Venice, but the city seemed a blur about the first person point of view of so-called protagonist, Adam Woods. The only Venice location that seemed to resonate was the palazzo of Gordon Crace, an aging writer for whom Woods works. Early on Crace implied that Venice has a dark and brutal history, but Wilson does nothing with this idea – an idea that might help add depth to both Crace and Woods. To compensate, Wilson name-drops in the form of every imaginable Italian artist since Renaissance times. England is little better. I know a bit about London, so I was able to follow Woods’ trail through that great city and into surrounding rural areas from my own experience.
The gist of my problem with the book revolves about Wilson’s choice to portray Woods in the first person. Clearly attempting to make this book a psychological thriller a la Dennis Lehane, he fails to allow Woods to stop and sniff Venice’s aromas. As a result, Woods comes off as a narcissist of the first order. And that portrayal is at the root of my problems with Wilson’s writing.
Woods has had to leave England because of a furor raised over his rape of his girlfriend. In Venice he hopes to bide time writing a novel. Instead he is offered work tending to aging novelist Crace. There are early homoerotic undertones that quickly become validated as Woods decides to forego his novel for a biography of the mysterious Crace, who has written a best-selling novel based on his seduction of schoolboys in England. Discovering he has competition in his pursuit of Crace’s biographical information, Woods turns killer. The book ends in something of a showdown between Woods and Crace, and I’m not spoiling it for potential readers by revealing that Woods kills Crace.
It’s not a fault in the literary sense to create an antihero protagonist. The sin in The Lying Tongue is in denying Woods an internal conflict over his write-and-publish-at-all-costs desires, even to the point of making it happen through serial murders. There is no lesson learned here, no moral complications — nothing to help the reader blaze a path through the mire of modern life. Instead, there are overwrought egos going about the business of getting what they want by the most base means possible – without any price having been paid. Wilson is simply appealing to the voyeur in his potential audience, the deconstructive urge that seems to prevail at the present time. That personal perversion trumps a different form of perversion at book’s end doesn’t make this one literature, nor does it derive a new moral/social pose. Instead, Wilson has accomplished publication at the cost of pandering to the worst in novel readership and modern society. Both he and the folks at Simon & Schuster should be ashamed of themselves.

Workshopping Manuscripts

I had another e-mail exchange with The Knife regarding his choice of writers’ conferences this summer. He hasn’t decided yet, telling me he wasn’t wild about workshopping a manuscript, particularly with writers he didn’t know. The Knife likes to hold his cards pretty close to the vest when it comes to writing and critiques and, as always, his comments sent my brain cells – memory and otherwise – into gear. Is workshopping worth it to the writer? I wondered. Is there enough benefit versus the cost in aggravation, ego loss, even money for the conference?
What I’ve come up with – and what I told him – is a provisional yes. Workshopping can quickly descend into a competition of petty ego issues having nothing at all to do with writing or understanding readers’ viewpoints. Given that you and the other participants can hold such stuff in check for the duration of a workshop, it can still be aggravating.
Let’s say you have a commendable manuscript. The critique group members will WANT to find things wrong with it – things are being found wrong with theirs, aren’t they? But you may be the willing recipient of such views, ready to accommodate. Then you return home and, after much deliberation, you discover the way you had things is better than what had been suggested.
These are all things that go through your mind in the heat of a critique environment. But you’re there because you’re either unsure of your work, or you sense things wrong with it but don’t know quite what they are. This is the meat of critique groups, either the long-term ones, or those lasting a couple of days at a conference. You may not discover – or be willing to see – things that can be made better in yours, but you’ll no doubt hear different perspectives – perhaps regarding someone else’s manuscript – that will make you more aware of what’s going on in yours.
It often comes down to choices the writer makes and the writer’s awareness of what those choices are and should be that make for a successful manuscript.