Thursday, February 24, 2011

A CHANCE ENCOUNTER

A chance encounter on the Warsaw-Petersburg train. Sounds like something from an Alfred Hitchcock film. It is true that chance encounters do occur in life, though they can be darned tricky in literature. The author wants the reader to suspend real life and enter the parallel universe of fiction. To do this, anything from the real world that slips in can trigger the reader’s recognition that this fiction – this novel – is an artifice. But Dostoyevsky can and does get away with the chance meeting between Lev Nikolayevitch Myshkin and Parfyon Rogozhin. In fact that moment of chance becomes the fateful intersection of multiple destinies which become the basis of one of his great novels – ‘The Idiot’.

Dostoyevsky had an interesting chance encounter with fate himself when, as a young man of twenty-seven years he was arrested and convicted of being a member of a socialist group. He was condemned to death and actually faced a firing squad before his sentence was commuted and he was sent to a prison in Siberia instead. His own life was one filled with suffering and pain, so it is not surprising that such themes find their way into his work. ‘Notes from Underground’ (1864), ‘Crime and Punishment’, ‘The Idiot’, ‘The Possessed’, and ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ are his most notable works.

In Myshkin he created a character that not only reflects 19th-century Russia in all its aspects, but becomes the center of that time. The other characters move around this goodly prince like the arms of a spiral constellation. ‘The Idiot’ becomes not so much a tragedy as a huge slice of life that reveals the human condition.

“Had they known about one another and why they were both at that moment remarkable, they would certainly have marveled that chance had so strangely put them opposite each other in the third-class car…” (quotations take from the Henry and Olga Carlisle translation of 1969). That’s the key to everything in life – had we only known! It is what drives people into the newspaper horoscopes or to seek a glimpse of what is to come from fortune-tellers of every stripe. If we but knew, we could have done things differently. We would have done! But we don’t know. At least, not in specific terms.

What we do know as readers, as authors, and as those who must live our lives as best we can, is that character is everything. Who we are and what we stand for shapes our future, in spite of the events we have yet to face. For that reason character in fiction is more important than plot, style, dialogue, or any other element. By subjecting a character to the action the true person is revealed. The dialogue, the conflict, the style and everything else is intended to reveal the character, and so find themselves in a lesser position. Works that are written to sweep the reader along with a strong plot are destined to be forgotten. The plot of history eventually eclipses them.

Copyright ©2011, James D. Sanderson. All rights reserved.

A chance encounter between Daniel Allman and Sarah leads them on an adventure across Europe and into the shadow world that separates reality from insanity in ‘The Angelic Mysteries’ coming out in August.
Jim

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

NEW BLOG: THE ANGELIC MYSTERIES

Just a note to let you know that I have started a new blog around my soon to be published 'The Angelic Mysteries'. It is the story of a man who meets and falls in love with a woman who believes herself to be an angel. She is being pursued around Europe by a psychopath named Morton Toombs. She believes he is an anti-angel. (And you thought vampires were scary).

Anyway, I hope you'll join the discussion which will include stories from the main characters Daniel Allman; Sarah; and Morton Toombs. (Who better can tell us how close Dante was in his descriptions of hell?

Join the fun at www.theangelicmysteries.blogspot.com

Jim

Friday, February 18, 2011

AMERICAN STATE PAPERS AS LITERATURE

You may be interested at take a look at our American State Papers as literature. Their greatness as documents of change eclipses their contribution as great literature.

Benjamin Franklin was the only one to have been involved in all the State papers: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. The fight against tyranny, he knew, was and is a universal endeavor. Ideas, expressed in written words, have power when they appeal to universal truths and ideas. A declaration of independence would only take the country so far. The Americans knew that French assistance and support would be needed to actually win a revolutionary war. In the hope of obtaining their support, Franklin was sent to France. In his home near Paris he built a press to reproduce and distribute papers of interest. He took his case directly to the French people, who would very soon embark on their own struggle for independence.

The Articles of Confederation, also written in part by Franklin, granted Congress no power to levy taxes. In fact the messenger that delivered the articles to Congress could not be paid from the national treasury, so members of Congress had to dig deep in their own pockets for the money. The states had all the power under these articles, as there was still an inherent distrust of a central government. The weaknesses were built in. Article Two, for instance, stated, "Each State retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States in Congress assembled."

Determined to draw up a constitution, the Constitutional Convention gathered together in secrecy. Franklin was 81 by this time. He was in favor of a supreme national government, but not everyone was with him on that. His concluding remarks at the end of the convention, September 17, 1787, begins "I confess that I do not entirely approve of this Constitution at present..."

"... there is no Form of Government but what my be a Blessing to the People if well administered; and I believe further that this is likely to be well administered for a Course of Years, and can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government..."

He ended with, "It is therefore that, the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment and pay more respect to the judgment of others..."

"Most men, indeed as well as most sects in religion, think themselves in possession of all truth..."

"It therefore astonishes me, sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does..."

"Thus I consent, sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best."

It was almost certain that many would oppose the new constitution, and indeed the powerful governor of New York, George Clinton, came out against it, writing an article for the New York newspapers. Alexander Hamilton began a series of essays also published in the New York City newspapers under the pseudonym 'Publius'. He was joined with contributions made by James Madison and John Jay. Together these essays became 'The Federalist Papers' which remain today a classic of political philosophy.

Franklin continued to lead the country toward reason and equality right to the end of his life. He came out against slavery - something none of the other founding fathers, Washington and Jefferson among them - were able to embrace. Late in his life he became president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and one of his last writings, near the end of his unfinished 'Autobiography' deals with the issue of slavery in an ironic way. He mentions 'the Idea of Sancho Panza' which in Cervantes' 'Don Quixote' (Part 1, Chapter 29) is this: Sancho Panza laments the fact that he will be required to oversee slaves. This until he comes to understand that he can, in fact, sell them for a profit. This was the dilemma facing many Americans of that day. The specter of slavery would cast its own stain and long shadow over the nation for many years to come.

Hope you enjoyed my American History lesson. It is a part of the second chapter of my 'American Masters' and so is copyright 2011 by James D. Sanderson, all rights reserved.

COMING: I will boldly proclaim that on my birthday, August 18th of this year, my novel 'The Angelic Mysteries' will be available as an ebook. You can download it to your Kindle or other device. It is the story of Daniel Allman who, while traveling in Europe, meets a woman who believes herself to be an angel. They are set upon by a psychopath they believe is an angel from hell.

I do a lot of talking about Literary Greatness. Well, now it's time for me to put up or shut up, and it will be up to you to decide. 'The Angelic Mysteries' is a thriller; a love story; and a grand adventure. I do hope you will like it.

Anyway, I'll give you more details as time goes along.

Jim

PS: A recent article stated that ebook publishing amounted to only about 9% of the industry right now. However, within three years it was predicted that fully one of every two books published will be an ebook. Just as Benjamin Franklin took his argument directly to the people, so too we writers are able to appeal directly to our readership without all the publishing industry gatekeepers in the way. We live in interesting times.

Friday, February 11, 2011

A SINGULAR WORK

Like so many others I have been laid up with the flu this week. I did a lot of reading. Mostly what I have been reading is 'Anna Karenina' by Count Leo Tolstoy, perhaps the greatest novelist who ever lived. It is not the first time I have read it, of course, and I really did not intend to write anything about it. What more, after all, could one possibly write? In the back of this volume alone there are over 150 pages of critical essays and author biography. There are extracts from letters, diaries, and newspapers. There is an essay by Fyodor M. Dostoevsky (perhaps the second greatest novelist ever - I say perhaps because when you set yourself up as a target someone will usually take a shot at you). There is an essay about 'Levin and Social Chaos' and another about Tolstoy's 'Physical Descriptions'. All very interesting and all very daunting for the writer of novels.

I say 'daunting' because once we have read such a work of singular greatness, how are we supposed to sit down and write anything at all from our own limited talents and means? I am amazed, again, at the texturing of each chapter as characters are revealed along with their motives, their 'nature' and their flaws and foibles. How Levin and his philosophy of simple living counterweights Anna and the others who are caught up in complex moral situations.

Tolstoy himself was attempting to live his life more and more simply, even attempting to give away his work and any rights to his work. (Strenuously opposed by his family). And at last giving everything up and deciding to become a wandering ascetic; and being at the Astoapovo train station on his way out when he contracted the pneumonia that would kill him. (His journey took him farther than expected, I guess). Simplicity is what led him away from the Orthodox Church and to write 'The Kingdom of God is Within You'. When he was excommunicated a band of followers sprang up around his 'beliefs', which irritated him no end. The banning together of followers was not the point! What one should look for in life, in belief, and in writing, is one's own life, belief, and talent. That is something singular; not something that calls for gathering together.

By the end of last year I had finished up all the short stories I had been working on; the nonfiction book 'American Masters'; the novel 'The Struggle' and a couple of screen plays. I wanted to finish those things so that I could begin this year to work on a singular work. One that only I can write. One that only I can struggle with and sweat over and agonize with as I try to top even the great Tolstoy. So, that's where I'm at - two months in.

I hope your work is going well also,

Jim

Friday, February 4, 2011

SO DEEP A STAIN

I had the opportunity to read some of my Chapter One of 'American Masters' at our local writer's group this past week and thought I would share it with you today. 'American Masters' is a sweeping narrative history of United States literature, told in a way that may help make literature popular again. Anyway, let me know what you think:

Of his Puritan ancestor's "persecuting spirit" and involvement in the martyrdom of witches, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, "...their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him. So deep a stain, indeed, that his old dry bones, in the Charter Street burial-ground, must still retain it, if they have not crumbled utterly to dust!" (Found in 'The Scarlet Letter' 1850, referring to John Hathorne (1641-1717), one of the judges of the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692. A man can do no more than live his own life and try to expiate the sins of his forefathers.

Two hundred and sixty years passed before playwright Arthur Miller was able to gain the proper perspective on the trials of witches in this country's colonial period, (thereby attempting to expiate the country's sins). In 1952 Miller's friend, and director of his play 'Death of A Salesman', Elia Kazan was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and threatened with blacklisting from Hollywood. Rather than face the loss of his livelihood, Kazan named eight black men as fellow members of the Communist Party. Because the activities of that committee were likened to a 'witch hunt', Miller traveled to Salem, Massachusetts to research a play 'The Crucible', which came out the following year.

In the play a local preacher's daughter has taken ill. It is discovered that she along with other local girls were dancing around a bonfire in the night forest with the slave woman Tituba. The Reverend John Hale is called in to investigate the possibility of witchcraft. John Proctor, a farmer, is revealed to have had an affair with seventeen year old Abigail Williams, who accuses John's wife of witchcraft. The presiding judge, Judge Hathorne, refuses to listen to evidence that the girls might be lying. More accusations are made and more people arrested. John Proctor himself is accused by Mary Warren of being in league with the Devil and he, seeing the horror of what is happening, says that if such things can happen, God is dead. Proctor admits to being a wizard but then tears up his signed confession when he sees how it will be used to ruin him and other of his neighbors in Salem. In the end he is led away to be hanged.

To see these dramatic events acted out by talented actors is memorable indeed. To hear the fear and vengeance dripping from their lips - to hear their wails and screams - one may well lose sleep over the monstrous state of the world, then and now.

Nathaniel Hawthorne struggled to make sense of his own heritage. The beginning of his 'Scarlet Letter' finds bearded men "in sad-colored garments" assembled at the door of the jail with the narrator's observation that the building of jails and graveyards had been the first order of business in the establishment of this utopia. Mistress Prynne, emerging with her baby, has ignored the "dismal severity of the Puritan's code of law" and has become known as a "hussy" and a "malefactress" by the other "Goodwives" of the colony. She should have been branded on the forehead, the good women think; not only given a mark to wear on the bodice of her gown. "On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A."

Why the A? Why the baby? Whose baby is it? Such are the questions that form in the first passages of 'The Scarlet Letter'.

Brought out in shame! The narrator comments of the "Severity of the Puritan character. Meagre, indeed, and cold, was the sympathy that a transgressor might look for, from such bystanders at the scaffold."

In an odd twist of history, however, it was Cotton Mather's book (Cotton Mather also took part in the witchcraft trials) concerning the Christian's obligation to take action in the world: 'Bonifacius: Essays to Do Good', published years later, in 1710, that was to influence a boy who would one day become a founder of the American nation. This boy's name was Benjamin Franklin.

Adapted from Chapter One of 'American Masters'. Copyright 2011 by James D. Sanderson. All rights reserved.