Editing as Rehab

Now The Woman in the Window has entered copy-editing, which is a little like entering rehab. She knows deep down that there’s something wrong with her, a set of outward behaviors that need to be changed for her to get back on track, and she’s hoping to work with someone, a professional, who can help her get better. Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt after all, as Stuart Smalley used to put it.

But we’re all also hoping this isn’t too serious. You know, just some outward behaviors that need adjustment. Maybe an attitude or two. It would just be too tragic if there were something deep down, especially something that implicated the rest of us. We all hope she will be able to live her own life in the end, make friends, be productive.

There are a variety of schools of thought, ranging from gentle suggestion to boot camp. She is fortunate to have a gentle school editor to work with her, which is a real relief to me. Still, I’m a little sad. I suspect when this is all done she won’t be calling me so much anymore.

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A book from far away

I’ve had the treat of just returning to Yuri Rytkheu’s novel A Dream in Polar Fog (trans. Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse; Archipelago Books, 2005) to teach it in my class this semester. If it were just an adventure story, one would not expect the book to have been published by a press with Archipelago’s literary credentials. And indeed, while plot is what drives the book forward, local color gives it depth. Add a dose of historical fiction, and the novel lopes briskly along on three legs without the need of a fourth, be it character depth or stylistic complexity. Searching for these will lead you down a side path in approaching this book, where you’ll likely lose sight of the emotional truth and compassionate understanding that lie at its core.

The story unfolds in the far north-eastern corner of northern Asia, in the village of Enmyn, where a young Canadian explorer, John MacLennan, has been injured after an attempt to blast free his ice-bound ship. The ship’s captain appeals to the local Chukchi tribesman (a people closely related to the Eskimos), who agree to transport MacLennan by dogsled across the tundra to a Russian hospital in exchange for three Winchesters, a box of cartridges, and a two-handed saw. It is the Fall of 1910.

There is a good deal of mistrust and chauvinism on both sides, but the helplessness of the Canadian — he has been wounded in the hands — creates natural points of contact: he cannot eat or drink on his own, or unfasten his own trousers in order to urinate. When the travelers are stranded by a blizzard, he becomes so ill with fever and infection that they must call on a local shaman woman to amputate portions of his damaged hands. The ensuing scene is both brutal and riveting as four men hold down the screaming invalid while the old woman washes his wounds in puppy’s blood and applies her knife. With this striking opening, MacLennan’s misfortune, and, in truth, his transformation, has only begun. On returning from their aborted journey, the travelers find that the recent storm has cleared the ice that prevented the ship’s departure. MacLennan’s shipmates have sailed for home, leaving him behind. By seventy pages in, the setting has been prepared for MacLennan’s — and largely through him, our own — intimate journey with the Chukchi people.

The Chukchi for their part adopt MacLennan, caring for him initially as they would a helpless infant. He moves in with Toko, Toko’s wife Pyl’mau, and their small son, and begins slowly to learn and appreciate Chukchi ways — their language, their beliefs, their methods of survival in the often unforgiving environment they call home. The author announces his ethnographic intent from the very start by footnoting a variety of Chukchi terms, for parts of the home (chottagin, polog), foods (kymgyt), clothing (kamleika, kerker), and animals or tools made from them (yarar, kamuss). Likewise, he explains aspects of Chukchi cosmology, for instance that the “Invisible Land” means Wrangel Island, or that “fast ice” forms in shallow water along the coastline. Such direct commentaries become less obtrusive (fortunately) within the first thirty pages or so, giving way to the characters’ own observations. Mostly these are MacLennan’s views of the Chukchi, but Rytkheu doesn’t shy away from shifting perspective — sometimes abruptly — in order to allow the Chukchi a reciprocal look at the foreigner in their midst once in a while.

As MacLennan heals and learns to live with his disability, he comes not only to appreciate his hosts but to respect and love them. With a growing sense of responsibility, he assumes the role of a provider, learns to hunt, takes part in their trade with the outside, their internal rituals, their domestic affairs. He marries and has children. In the ensuing eight years of his life among them, he comes to see the Chukchi more and more as his people, and takes a jealous, hostile view of the influence of outsiders.

MacLennan sometimes expresses Rousseau-like attitudes towards the Chukchi, suggesting, for instance, that their existence requires no literacy or books, that theirs is the most sensible way of living, that they are closer to nature and freer and untainted as a result. While he never chooses the outside world over his adopted one — even after a surprising visit from a close family member near the end of the book — these noble savage ideas are toned down as his experience with the Chukchi deepens. And one can’t help but see irony in the author’s presentation of MacLennan’s simplistically rosy views at times, as when MacLennan writes in his journal that the people are uncomplicated but immediately thereafter is reprimanded by the village elder for not following proper etiquette after his daughter’s birth. What MacLennan comes to prize is not the Chukchi people as some more or less abstract, idealized good, but the uncomplicated fullness of his own place among them, despite his occasional mistakes and unfulfilled longings.

I suspect that American readers might be inclined to see the sudden announcement that the Bolsheviks have seized power, in the work’s next to last chapter, as an ominous note for MacLennan and his adopted people. This would be a mistake. Even if Rytkheu had such thoughts (which is unlikely, given the considerable Soviet support for Chukchi culture), he certainly would not have been able to express them in such a direct manner in a book published in 1981 in the USSR. And indeed, the news is delivered by a two-faced American capitalist named Carpenter, who is trying to trick MacLennan into leaving Chukotka. He wants free reign to trade (cheat) and gobble up the gold discovered in the streams on Chukchi land. MacLennan keeps Carpenter honest in his business dealings, and the Chukchi have no need for the gold. His ultimate response to the businessman in effect likens socialist doctrines to the absence of personal property among the Chukchi. He has no fear of the Bolsheviks’ arrival. This is a perfectly orthodox Soviet message.

But MacLennan does voice concerns for the future. The Chukchi’s fragile, living balance with their environment is under constant threat, and the march of civilization — through trade, exploration, politics — is having an ever greater effect upon them. MacLennan’s personal journey, his experience of loss and renewal, his gratitude, sense of belonging, love, and respect, have fostered in him a keen sense of responsibility for the Chukchi’s continued well being in the difficult times to come. By the story’s end, this is a sense that we cannot help sharing.

I hope my students appreciate it as much as I do. I plan to supplement it with a few of the literary myths presented in Rytkheu’s Chukchi Bible (same translator, same press, 2011).

Demise of glory

I remember now being inspired earlier in my writing of The Woman in the Window by the idea of glory’s demise. It was a fixation of Europeans following the Napoleonic Wars, and when I discovered it, I suddenly understood a lot of what was going then in literary circles, too. Then I think I forgot this basic insight for a while, and the details of my analysis with all its bits of cleverness eclipsed what was the first, truest insight. Slowly it has been coming back to me lately, as I’ve thought about what a suicide bomber might be most attracted by (glory) and most repelled by (looking ridiculous), and how men — this is a male thing mostly — might find the encroachment of commerce, that oh so calculating prudence-oriented petty-looking activity (from the standpoint of someone inspired by glory) rather a threat.

And today, as I complained to my friend David about the two-faced bean-counting of a certain administrator I am glad to have left behind in a previous chapter of my life, he reminded me of the words of Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the French Revolution:

“It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France. … I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in—glittering like the morning-star, full of life, and splendour, and joy. … Little did I dream when she added titles of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom [a dagger]; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honour, and of cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever.”

I am so predictable! This is the woman in the window! I had forgotten, and this makes me both elated and very sad. Such a sexist, anachronistic person I must seem. Even to myself. To have written such a book with such a title. I suppose I need to follow David Hume’s advice upon meeting an insoluble problem in one’s thinking — take a friend to dinner. Where are you, friends?! Ah, yes, that’s why I’m writing blog posts…

Those 200 words

My publisher says they want 200 words to describe the book. This is what we’ll use to promote it, they say, so no pressure. Just make sure the words tell the story, and please don’t refer us to your preface or introduction because we might not have access to that (really?), and while you surely know a lot about your topic, refrain from getting too much into it — think of the general reader if you can and try not to use jargon.

Okay, I got it. Just have to have to say in 200 words what my book says in 60,000. Plus end notes. Easy enough. And also keep in mind the general reader. Hmmm. General reader in mind. I am now wondering who general reader might be. Is it, like, a Canadian? Is general reader gendered? Does it wear glasses? I am remembering something someone at the Australia NonfictioNow conference said in response to a project pitched for general reader. “The general readers for this book,” he said, “could be counted on the fingers of a leper’s hand.” I hope general reader isn’t a leper. Not that I have anything against, um, well, leprosy. My book just isn’t about that. Nobody needs bad reviews after all.

Crossing Seven Silences (in two parts): 2

“The silences” suggests a limitation where there isn’t any, a purity somewhat like the absence of mixture I am loathe to credit. And so there are taboo silences, like when your sister marries a black man, and these are closely allied with the silences of prejudice and bigotry, as when your uncle comes out from the pizzeria’s kitchen in back where you used to play with your cousins throwing pizza dough balls up onto the ceiling to see if you could get them to stick, dozens upon dozens of dough balls,  and he says hello to all his relatives at the table, one by one, and asks how you’ve been, each in turn, lingering, his eyes kind, and then he skips, in silence, across his four-year-old great-nephew, the little dark-skinned boy who hears you pronouncing uncle so many times as if there is some natural connection here that does not quite connect, and so he asks, when his uncle has disappeared back into the kitchen, “Is he my uncle, too?”

This and other moments of this have made me want to be good, to try at least, and make me wonder now why I did not start writing a book with virtue, or rather the virtues at its heart, as that, I think, is where it should all begin. The medieval moralists, following Aristotle, emphasized their practice over their contemplation in the hope that the cultivation of habit would encourage the values themselves, not just the behaviors that made one look as if courageous, temperate, prudent, just, faithful, hopeful, and loving. Father Zosima says something like this in The Brothers Karamazov, when his visitor, beside herself with grief, admits that she has lost her faith. He tries many tacks but, when nothing works, says, act as if you have it, practice, behave as if, and it will come back to you. Your acting, he seems to suggest, will become the thing, and this must be what Plato was afraid might happen to his imaginary guardians in his imaginary state, if they acted the parts of scoundrels or weaklings or liars in a play, rather than only ever acting the one role he had assigned them—that of guardians.

The seven ideals thus resemble silences, voids that cannot be grasped, only traversed again and again, in the hope that the practice will bring one closer to them, the hope that, through behaving as if, long enough, as if will become, in the end, simply as. And the crossing, the melding of them all, together in one person—or rather one persona (for we all are just acting here)—becomes the ideal of an integrated, unified virtuous whole, an ethical purity made up of mixture.

There noTiconderoga-Number-2w, everything’s in its place.

Take pencil.

Crossing Seven Silences (in two parts): 1

I am tempted by phrases such as the silence of ignorance, and the silence of hatred, but ignorance is so very rarely silent, and hatred even less so.

I am also tempted—let’s get these all out at the start—by the definite article, that “the” that would suggest these silences are the silences, the only ones or almost. A little thing, but a grand temptation, I admire its nuance and power, as when you hold open your palm with two pencils and say, take the pencil. Not the only, not quite, because obviously there are two. Just the.

I admit to an impish curiosity at what a Russian or a Japanese translator might make of this distinction, those languagess-ja-pond-a_edited-1 having no articles at all, let alone any definite ones. Take pencil. Take pencils. Take one pencil. Take one pencil we’ve been talking about. Take one I want you to take. One I’m looking at more intently. One I have in my mind. One we both know is right to take. Take either pencil. Take any pencil.

I am reminded of the sound of water at the end of Matsuo Basho’s famous poem about the frog leaping into an old pond, which is just water in Japanese, mizu, but this is obviously the mizu here, not just mizu, because mizu does not make a sound unless it moves—the silence of land and the silence of water are land and water—and this particular mizu moves because a frog just jumped in. (I also thought the country of my birth was mostly brown until, at the age of twenty-eight, I drove from Los Angeles to Virginia one June, and discovered it mostly green, and far noisier than I had thought, what with all the buzzing and humming.)