Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Paris diary post-mortem 1: DONE

So much to catch up on. The diary died, maybe you noticed. After a three-week resurrection of the computer, it re-died. This morning I finished my book ("finished" is an absurd exaggeration). Lots of other stuff! Let me confine this diary entry to whatever it is that I did to my novel by taking it to the local Office Depot for printing and binding twenty minutes ago.

First of all I should say that, while this is a speculative judgment - I haven't read the book, personally - I can confidently proclaim it the third draft of a masterpiece. The only question is whether it's the third of three drafts, which should see the book published in 2010, or of nineteen, in which case I'll just combine the book party and my 80th birthday celebration (it's coming up!). Only time and, my railings against critical feedback notwithstanding, the opinion of one or more literary agents, editors, and other cruel readers will tell.

The third draft was written by printing out the morbidly obese second draft, opening up a new Word document, and composing the new draft entirely from scratch. The idea was that if, as Virginia Woolf observed regarding Orlando's struggle to write, the cardinal labor of composition is excision, it would be much easier to spend my hours making positive choices (
include this) rather than negative ones (delete this piece of shit scene that I frankly can't believe you had the unfathomable mediocrity to write in the first place).

As far as excision goes, the experiment worked. The second draft weighed in at 340,000 words, about three times longer than a debut novel is permitted to be, and the third draft is just over half that, about 177,000 words. In the revision of the third draft I'll cut another 77,000 words and Random House will have no choice but to shell out a million-dollar advance.

And that will be publishing industry highway robbery! The other night I was out with American book professionals / enthusiasts and we were talking about how badly most books end. Take Anna Karenina - please! I said matter-of-factly that my novel had a fabulous ending - I was going to write it that week - and was taken aback when everyone laughed. I am not being funny.
If a Tolstoy ending is Jack Benny, mine is Jascha Heifetz.

Conservative predictions: the novel will win prizes. It will be sold in supermarket display racks, airports, Costco. I don't want to sound grandiose but I seriously think they might sell it at Wal Mart. The Pope will issue a fatwah against me; Oprah will offer to be my bodyguard. It's that good! Or will be on the 19th draft. It has everything! Love, death, survival, survival guilt,
sex, gender euphoria, spectacle, violence, marijuana, compost. Miracles, resurrections, immolations, DEA helicopters. Literally tons of ganja. Candy-flipping, Janacek, Celexa, twins, Dilaudid, Christianity, black acid, paganism, BuSpar, Macon GA, Xanax, Beverly Hills, Sudafed, Boonville, crystal meth, Radical Faeries. It has not one but two languages of its own making, not one but two prophets for post-capitalist America. It has readability, charm, irresistibility. It's never maudlin, but you will cry; it's often cheap, and you will laugh. Michelle Obama will read passages aloud to Barack, but only after they've put the girls to bed. The Church will never recover.

It's an important book. I get these anxiety attacks about finishing, like what if I don't live that long? The other day I was walking in front of the Gare du Nord when a gaggle of French soldiers came out dressed in machine guns and extra rounds. I scurried away from them down the Rue de Dunkerque, thinking
I must avoid guns until after the novel is finished.

Because as sincere as I am in all this love for and pride in the novel, I am haunted by a few things. One is a quote I hope someone will help me source, in the comments, something along the lines of, "To love what one has written is to love it a little too much." Another is the 2nd draft. When I finished it after 7 weeks at the MacDowell Colony, in December 2006, I don't believe I proclaimed it a masterpiece, but I felt pretty good about it. Now the shame that burns my skin when I read the second draft curdles milk in the refrigerator on the other side of this huge studio. I hope to incinerate that draft it in the fire pit in the courtyard as part of James's going-away party Saturday, and meanwhile I found a nice use for selected pages when I finally got so annoyed by the mysterious inch-and-a-half holes drilled through the beams in my studio that I did this:

I'm still waiting for that advance, my laptop is still dead, and your contributions are still tax-deductible.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Paris Days 40, 41, 42 - badness, feedback, Anna Karenina

I would like to let this badness / feedback thread die, not least because it has inspired some of the worst writing in this whole diary, but it will not die. The subject is apparently evergreen. I just finished
Anna Karenina and popped a bottle of bubbly to mark the occasion - I'm drinking it out of my Eiffel Tower flutes. Anyone who hasn't read the novel or who hasn't read it recently will think I'm a mean guy, celebrating with cheap champagne in kitschy glasses after the poor woman throws herself under the train. But in fact that happened days ago. To follow this up Tolstoy gives us a coda, 50 pages long, most of which depicts his striving, stressed out, ultra-sincere, good-hearted, hitherto nonbeliever Kostya Levin in the throes of spiritual ecstasy as he casts off all his "sheer intellectual fraud" (by which I think we are meant to understand his study of science and philosophy) and embraces Jesus Christ as his personal savior. Tolstoy pulls a similar maneuver to close out War & Peace, getting you all jacked up on battle and history and romance and then beating the life out of you in the second epilogue with an interminable disquisition on historiography. Spare me your beliefs, bitch!

I have written that I would not like any feedback on finished work, and that I
should not want any feedback on work in progress. At the same time, I would like to offer some to Tolstoy. I would like to go back in time and beg him, plead with him, pay him off to get him to leave out this numbing awful ending about Levin's spiritual awakening / delusioning, and to make Levin's wife, around whom so very much of this novel revolves, less of a neuraesthenic drama queen princess (although technically that's pretty much what she is) and to repair any number of other glaring faults that mar this book that Nabokov and a number of other reasonably smart people have deemed the greatest novel ever written. Allan writes in the comments to the second feedback diary:
I'm totally in agreement that feedback is not of much use as a critical tool. What feedback would you give Messiaen on an unfinished work? What would you say that could make the piece better for him?
A few things, actually. After Christopher Taylor performed the Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jesus in Davis a couple of months ago, he did a Q&A and I asked him if, after all these years of performing the 2-hour suite, of learning it and living with it, there were any things about the music that he had come to think of as its faults. He gave a very elegant and I think honest answer, that if you're going to play the piece convincingly you must allow yourself to be convinced by it. But as swept away as I was and remain by the Vingt Regards, and specifically by Taylor's interpretation, I remember thinking during one of the big movements toward the end, as Messiaen was working up all the power of Yaweh, Jesus and the angels combined into some gigantic geometric construction pushing its way up and down and in and out and bigger and bigger - not again. I remember thinking, this was effective when you did it 45 minutes ago in the 6th piece, but you can't make me go up the same spatial-cyclical-musical staircase twice in the space of an hour. It's like Albert Fuller said in an Apparition clip that I had to cut: "Honey the shock wears off!" At the very least it's an argument against playing all 20 pieces in the same program, but I experienced it as one of my first understandings of Messiaen's limitation, the first time I saw that he had a bag of tricks and it was not infinite, that even he, the most daring and original and resourceful composer in the whole friggin conservatory, was capable of running out of ideas.

This segue doubles back upside down, because the real relevance of Messiaen to this depressing experience of Tolstoy's badness is not that they are both flawed, but the way in which Messiaen, as a Christian artist, is so much better. Or perhaps that's too easy and the difference is more in the capacity of music to transcend the theological divide while words tumble into it - the point I want to make is that the sheer alienation and actual revulsion I felt at the last 50 pages of
Anna Karenina, in which Tolstoy seemed to throw his fiction to the rails in the service of his religious faith, was such a stark ugly contrast to the way I experience my composer Jesus freaks, in which I forgive them every dogma, every intolerance, every delusion, to the point that I am seriously considering having tattooed on my body the concluding measures of the 6th of the Vingt Regards, a piece of whose title Par Lui Tout A Été Fait I believe not a single syllable. I suppose this is why I went off the deep end when I discovered Messiaen, because it was the first time I'd found a way to experience the power of religious feeling through art without having all my aesthetic receptors cauterized by cliché-ridden drivel like the following passage from AK:
But he had only to forget the artificial train of reasoning, and to turn from real life to what had satisfied him so long as he kept to the given chain of argument, for the whole artificial edifice to tumble down like a house of cards, and it became evident that the edifice had been constructed of those same words transposed and regardless of something in life more important than reason.
(Apologies to Tolstoy and everyone reading this if the badness of the representative passage is due solely to Rosemary Edmonds' translation.) So yes, I have some feedback on finished work for the Greatest Novelist Ever who wrote the Greatest Novel Ever Written: I just hated it. And not just the last 50 pages - the last three or four hundred, a whole novel's worth. I hope I read it again when I'm an old man and regret writing these words. Maybe by then I'll be a Jesus freak too.

I had a rip-roaring conclusion connecting all of the above to recent bad sex, but it's one in the morning so that will have to wait.

Moses said man cannot live on bread alone, but he didn't know about the bakery up the street from the monastery. Buy me a couple of baguettes.

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Friday, January 30, 2009

Paris Days 22 and 23 - my life in captions

After my first day of actual writing, too tired to string two sentences together, I glue them together with pictures.

Day before yesterday I got my busted bike back from 18 Vélo Vintage, 58 Rue du Ruisseau in Montmartre.

Paris to Sarko: Up yours! Yesterday (Thursday) the entire Bastille and every thoroughfare leading in and out was jammed. You couldn't move, the smell of cooking meat was everywhere - it was like Folsom St. Fair but in winter and with no sex. I lasted 15 minutes.

I get a little shiver of frisson when I decipher a French pun. Everywhere people sported signs that read "REVE GENERAL," playing on the rhyme between "reve" (dream) and "grève" (strike).

After the strike demo I met inauguration buddy Irène for dinner at Jours de Fête, 72 Quai de Jemmapes, right across the canal from me. Her buddies run the joint - a couple, she English, he French; conversation was in French about a quarter of the night and I limped along admirably. Food was first-rate - Irène and I both cleaned our confit duck to the bone.

The view northeast back on my side of the canal.

Twink & Tinkerbell in the Marais.

Expectations? What expectations? The other day, I bought five avocados for three euros - that's better than Trader Joe's - from a vendor in the 17th, near where I met the judge for a conversation date. When the grocer learned I was from the US, and that we shared opinions of the current and former president, he slipped a handful of clementines into my bag.

Really fun errand at Messiaen's church today - I have more fun in church than any atheist I've ever met except Albert Fuller and that's a special case. The 3PM light through the stained glass did this to the stone.

Walking through the Beaubourg I picked up this earworm and for once got Messiaen out of my head:

"If you try to knock me you'll get mocked
I'll stir fry you in my wok
Your knees'll start shaking and your fingers pop
Like a pinch on the neck of Mr. Spock"

I come from San Francisco, I live in a Franciscan monastery, and here I am hanging out with St. Francis at the sacristy of La Trinité - for 60 years the musical and spiritual home of St. François d'Assise composer-librettist Messiaen.

Now that I'm all warmed up from writing captions I feel like I could add something more substantial before my forehead hits the keyboard. I found a super extra darling cafe by the Beaubourg, certainly famous as it's that cute and right in the middle of things and has been there, according to what's painted on the mirror, since 1892 - Le Petit Marcel. I paid an outrageous sum for a cafe au lait and then got my money's worth out of it with my first 90 minutes' work using the newly printed (merci EL!) outline, notes and 2nd draft. I began and finished a scene the outline told me I was supposed to write, using notes that told me what was supposed to go in it; I took the results home and spent another 90 minutes entering it into the third draft on the computer. When I was scribbling the scene down at the cafe it seemed stillborn, but entering it into the 3rd draft it showed signs of life. Re-reading it now I'm not entirely convinced but I'm encouraged nonetheless and really happy to have gotten the lats three weeks of admin and planning and printing and the now, today, the first writing out of the way. Tomorrow's post-gay agenda: brunch, three parties, a tattered 19th century Russian novel, and a letter to my mom.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Paris Day 13 - regime change

Barack Hussein Obama is president of the United State of America. George and Laura Bush were removed from the nation’s capital via military helicopter. I have had a few drinks. This is a potentially hazardous set of circumstances in which to blog, but it’s what I have to work with.

Let me start with a confession. While it’s true that I have wandered the maze of Montmartre accompanied by Messiaen’s unfathomable modes, and negotiated Parisian traffic to the tune of Poulenc’s crazed
Promenades (On the Train (!), In the Car (!!!), On the Bus (!!!!!!)), the plain fact is that I came to Paris tripping my brains out on Russian art. I allowed that I attended opening night of the squalid and sublime Lady Macbeth de Mzensk, but have kept to myself my obsessive immersion in the 4th and 6th Prokofiev piano sonatas – Yefim Bronfman’s coruscating take on them – not to mention the unforgivable excesses of the 2nd concerto Andantino – and only casually referred to my ongoing reading of Anna Karenina. Today was my second day off in Paris and much of it, after having my pants charmed off me by the area between the canal and Belleville, and an hour writing letters at the Café du Chat Noir on the Rue Saint Maur, was devoted to poring over a passage right in the middle of the novel that made a great impression on me.

I’ve never read
Anna Karenina, and hesitate to write about a novel I’m halfway through. Watch me do it anyway. Karenin has decided once and for all to divorce his wife and take their son from her, and Anna’s brother Oblonsky has finagled his way into his distinguished brother-in-law’s office to badger him into coming to dinner, where he hopes his wife (fellow adultery survivor at the hands of the Oblonsky siblings) will dissuade Karenin from pursuing the divorce and his sister’s ruin. From the opening pages I’ve visualized and more importantly heard Oblonsky as Brian Blessed as Augustus in I, Claudius – large, in charge, happy, almost autistic in his refusal to entertain the prospect of dissent, disloyalty, negativity or personal rejection, someone around whose disbelief in his own irresistibility a Golden Age could hardly restrain itself from flowering, if said autistic happy fool happened to be emperor. This is Bill Clinton without the neediness. Oblonsky and Augustus mold the world into a vision of their own positivity by the brute force of their magisterial bonheur, and when Tolstoy pits this way in the world against the dour sterility of Karenin, it’s the first time in 400 pages that I’m really hooked. It’s a dogfight – hypomanic, oblivious, Panglossian bon vivant lover / compulsive adulterer (French in spirit) vs. sour, joyless, correct, analytical authoritative bastard (Vladimir Putin) - and with it the pages begin turning themselves. More than I cared about whether Vronsky would wind up balling Anna and whether she dies in the end as a result – foregone conclusions – or whether Kitty and Levin will wind up joined in marital bliss (another, unless Tolstoy is preparing an overwrought bait and switch), I want to know whether Oblonsky will succeed in extracting the stick from his brother-in-law’s cuckolded ass and get him to come to dinner. That success is one of the most substantial satisfactions in fiction. Even then Tolstoy raises the stakes by making Oblonsky late to the dinner, blowing in the door to find his mismatched guests staring at their cocktails, not knowing what to say to one another. Twenty minutes later, he’s made introductions and kindled conversations, and after a perfectly prepared and presented dinner worthy of a head of state, the men rise from the table midsentence, transferring essential debates to the parlor, and even Karenin has forgotten himself in the Dionysian throes of postprandial bonhomie. Stick successfully removed – score one for the positive people.

My evening started back at the Chat Noir, which seems like the French café that spawned a dozen imitations in the Mission District between 1962 and 1981 – long worn oak bar, primary colors on the walls and exposed pipes, wrought-iron table pedestals. I was there to meet a friend of a friend and begin with her a five hour trek through Paris, initially in search of a place to watch the inauguration on TV, that brought us to the American Cathedral, the American Church, and a little bar in the French Quarter where I learned that one does not order a “verre” de champagne but a “coupe,” even though both words result in one’s being served much the same beverage. My companion,
Irène, objected to hearing the inaugural address simultaneously translated into French but I kind of liked it – it meant something to hear the inaugural address of our first transnational president in a group of non-Americans in a language other than English. From there we walked along the Seine, up into the Marais where the Hotel de Ville was sparkling above an ice hockey match like anthracite champagne, and to dinner at a seemingly respectable restaurant where hot gay couples were making out at table.

Irène and I parted so that I could hit some Marais bars on my own, but apart from becoming transfixed by the 50 Cent video for “Candy Shop,” which I now see 27,758,450 people, or half the population of France, have watched on YouTube, I was bored. I walked home to the Récollets Center meditating on why that scene with Oblonsky made such a powerful impression on me.

Maybe it’s a stretch to say I’m part Russian – I’m a quarter White Russian Jew (some shtetl outside of Minsk) and a quarter Ukranian Jew (some shtetl outside of Kiev) – but I am certainly some part Karenin / Putin, determined that I will forge my place in the world by force of will, strategy, manipulation, correctness, intimidation and brilliance. My other half is Italian, but for sake of argument we could say it was French; better yet we could say it was Oblonsky, and walking home from the Marais tonight I wanted with something approaching ferocity for Oblonsky to win – to emerge victorious from my life, stick in hand. I threw a going-away party for myself a few days before leaving San Francisco, and watching Oblonsky work over his guests with his beautiful gregariousness, I flattered myself, in part through what my friends said about the party and in part from my own observations, to think that I had succeeded in manifesting some of that same contagious and connective happiness. Oblonsky is, like his sister, a compulsive lover, an adulterer, brimming over with affection, sex, society, promiscuity of all kinds. I thought of how well the novel is coming along, how promising I think La Creation du Monde is, how hugely either of these two works could succeed, what that success could mean for me personally, and from there I followed a bright but fatally narrowing passageway, well trod by the likes of Karenin-Putin, in which I imagined the impact of such a success on a couple of men whom I love but who have rejected my friendship, how I wanted success and notoriety to elevate me to a degree that I could approach them from some unimaginable altitude, purified by the thin air of glory. Oh yes I remember you. This is probably the worst available motivation for artistic success and the one responsible for 98 percent of careers in the arts, whether the original irritant behind the pearl was drunk dad, bipolar mom or some other formative tale of woe. I thought, of course you want to be Oblonsky, the irrepressible lover whose skin is thick with joy – but it is only because you are Karinin that you have summoned the will to endure the solitary psychic punishments of writing, etc., to become the artist that you are today, an achievement that brought you to the think about all this on the banks of the neon-illuminated Canal St. Martin in the first place. So suck it up.

Then I saw how Tolstoy’s vision totally contravened this last thought and the whole notion that art springs necessarily from the emotional ruins of the artist. If there’s an artist figure in the first half of the novel, it has to be Oblonsky: he makes a mess of his home life (that exemplar of “unhappy families” with which the novel so famously begins), but he doesn’t give himself a terribly hard time about it and forges ahead with his agenda of engendering beauty and happiness everywhere he goes. His entrance into that dinner party, where everyone is staring into their cocktails mutely hating themselves, each other and society in general, is the perfect metaphor for the novelist sitting down to a day’s work. How do you make these people move? How do you make them talk to each other, be funny, antagonistic, pompous, sympathetic, human – how do you make them live? Oblonsky accomplishes this necromancy in 20 minutes, drink in hand. It’s a feat Tolstoy obviously admires because it’s the same blessed gift on display at the beginning of War and Peace, with Anna Pavlovna circulating like a cocktail fairy, sprinkling conversational pixie dust on all her guests. So Tolstoy’s host, artist and probably his God has to be a person of gregarious positive charm, not grim force of negative will, and I don’t think it’s by accident that he has Oblonsky address Karenin in French. My novel is finally coming out, in a cataract, because I am in Paris, and because I am happy.

This room, its views, these people, the richness of these eggs, this milk and bread, this language fitfully becoming my own, these neighborhoods, a cancer of brutality and banality removed from my nation’s capital in a helicopter – how could I not be happy? But I haven’t acknowledged recurring dark moments of my two weeks in Paris. I’m having nightmares, almost every night. They happen just twenty minutes or an hour after I’ve gone to bed. I wake up terrified and sweating, heart in throat, sure my life is in danger. I think, it’s the hugeness of this space, something numinous looming beneath its 20-foot ceiling; I’ll get used to it, the terrors will go away. It occurred to me yesterday after translating that historical marker that I am sleeping in a space where thousands of men and women, mangled by war or illness, came to die. I don’t believe in ghosts, but it appears that part of me that surfaces between bedtime and REM sleep might be picking up a lingering resonance of suffering and fear. Or is it just the part that won’t allow me to be Oblonsky? How much do we get to choose such a fate? Again I look to Tolstoy, who twins his irrepressible lovers for the sake of poignant contrast: Oblonsky, who spreads his love godlike, sure of its goodness, and his sister Anna, whose love poisons every life it touches. I wrote to my friend Bobbie about how I am scared sometimes that, having had such a miraculous year, I’m going to hear a little bell any moment bringing it all to a close. The time in Paris so far has been a beautiful extension, and these little night terrors bear the menace of a distant pealing.

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