Sunday, April 29, 2012

Arabian Nights - First Impressions

I own this very fine-looking, old edition of The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. Trouble is, it’s almost unreadable. It has gems like, “The sultan having revolved these matters in his mind, took leave of the unhappy king, when he found he was a little composed, without acquainting him with his intention, lest a disappointment should aggravate his affliction.”

The book was, in its day, “A New Edition” and “Illustrated.” Pity it wasn’t translated into English. It was published in 1887, and given as a gift in 1890 to somebody in Fanneytown, M.D. (I’m guessing: the dedication is almost unreadable.) I think we found it in a bookstore.

Not surprisingly, I’ve had trouble in the past reading it. But this time, for some peculiar reason, I’ve managed to get far enough in that I’m enjoying—yes, enjoying—the stories.

To be clear: I sometimes get lost, not only because of sentences like the one above, which being not uncommon cause one to lose threads of storylines which already, having been placed within one another like those Russian dolls within dolls, can on occasion lead the reader to forget the story within which he reads.

Let me try that again. I sometimes get lost, and not only because of this English translation. The stories in the Arabian Nights are, as everybody who’s read them knows, put inside other stories. You get to the point where the genii is about to decapitate somebody, and then the would-be victim talks the genii into listening to a story first. Meanwhile, this other story might be about another genii who’s tempted to turn somebody into a monkey. And so on. After a while, the stories all round out and then—it’s like the bends—you’re back on the surface, unsure how or why you got there.

This would probably be easier if I was reading it more often. Maybe. This must be some Arabian storytelling art. It’s not one we use that often nowadays. I’m out of practice. I never was in practice.

So, given all that, why am I enjoying it? (Parts of it, at least.)

Two things come to mind. There’s the sort of academic reason, that I find it fascinating that these stories, so like fairy tales, were circulating so long ago. According to this reputable-looking site by Rob Hafernik and Margaret Renault, “The core of original stories came out of Persia and India in the early eighth century.” That’s a long time indeed: twelve centuries. The enduring quality of fairy tales continues to amaze me.

The other is these tales are often about encounters with some kind of mysterious power, a magical or supernatural being or force. That’s what I’m accustomed to in fairy tales too: somebody going through a forest encounters a strange and wonderful thing. It might be that fairy tales as a rule have this element, not just as a sideline but as the main attraction. Why do we love them? Maybe because we’d like to meet geniis ourselves. Or talking fairies. Or giants you can outwit. I don’t think that’s the whole explanation, but I think it might be a part of it.

Whatever the reason, I foresee myself picking my way through many of these tales in the days ahead. As Hafernik and Renault put it, “The Nights have a distinctive style that seems to overcome even the poorest translation.” Too true.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Peter Pan & The Outsider

The Outsider - cover
Two most recent reads for me: Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie, and Albert Camus’ The Outsider. Let me explain.

There are books that I always meant to read and somehow never remembered to. One of those was Peter Pan. I think I thought, I’ve seen the movie. Heck, I’d seen two of them, if you count Hook. If you’ve ever thought that, then listen up: It’s not the same at all. It’s like school pizza vs. NYC pizzeria pizza. Okay, not that bad, but you get the idea.

Camus is, similarly, one of those authors I’d always heard of but never had the pleasure. The Outsider is a slender 120 pages, tops, and reads pretty fast. I figured, What do I have to lose? (My sanity?)

These two books share something else, besides being on a “should read” list: both deal with the expectations society puts on young men when they grow up. The novels do it very differently. In many ways, Peter Pan is much more imaginative. There’s a playfulness toward reality that couldn’t be more different from The Outsider. In Camus’ novel, everything is described in a matter-of-fact tone. The narrator feels almost nothing; he’s detached. In Peter Pan, the story is told in richer detail and imagery, and everybody’s emotions seem to be on the surface.

Except Wendy’s mother. She has this little corner of her smile that no one can get (except, much later, Peter).

But back to the point: While the very modernist, almost absurdly detached Outsider (Meursault is his name) seems not to be imaginative, the novel deals with the problem of social expectations, and how they burden (or maybe destroy) us. Peter Pan, in a very different way, gives us an equally cold picture of growing up as a normal boy. At least Wendy retains some of her childish memories, unlike the “lost boys,” who are more lost (it seems) when they come to England and grow up.

The books solve the problem very differently. Where Peter Pan might be advocating an enduring child-like wonder, an openness to imagination and newness, The Outsider seems to be advocating a full embrace of sober reality. Open your eyes and taste the tang of the salt air. For Camus, in this novel, emotion mostly serves the falsifying and blinding functions of social expectations. Meursault has his eyes open: he knows the sentence of death is upon him. Peter Pan chooses not to grow up. Wendy can’t help feeling some nostalgia for such an idea. Her aging is sweetened by a backward glance.

So what’s the answer, eh? Do you resist the expectations of other people—your parents, your boss, your “reader”—by facing the hard-edged realities of life and death? Or do you do it by nurturing a little childlike wonder, keeping your imaginary life alive?

For me, the two visions are connected to two modes of writing I enjoy. I wouldn’t want to pick between them. I want my fantasy and I want my realism. I don’t know if you can have them both at once. But I refuse to read (or write) only in one.

What about you?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

My First Journey to Mars

For several weeks, I’ve been trying to remember how it happened that my first-ever novella was firmly in the science fiction genre. The year would have been 1984 or 1985. Let me describe the story for you:

An astronaut, haunted by dreams of his own death, agrees to go through with a scheduled mission to Mars. Once there, he somehow wanders from the space craft and is lost. Instead of dying, however, he finds himself among a colony of Martians, who live underground. (In my memory, the place is sort of hellish, but I could be misremembering this.) After spending some time among the Martians, our astronaut somehow makes his way out of the Mars camp, or at least makes contact with earth. His time among the Martians somewhat mirrors first contact between Europeans and Native Americans, though without the exploitation. (At least that was how I envisioned it, though I never finished that part.)

You’ll see that it’s pretty standard fare for sci-fi. The strange part, though, is that I hadn’t read any “standard fare” sci-fi. I’d never read H. G. Wells, or Jules Verne, or Ray Bradbury, or (as far as I can remember) any science fiction at all. (I know I did read Orwell’s 1984 that year for school.) I must have watched enough television, although this was very limited in my household. Even so, I’m sure by then I’d seen sci-fi movies. For instance, I saw The Last Starfighter in 1984. I saw Star Wars (only the first one) a couple of years earlier (on VHS). No doubt I’d seen “Star Trek” reruns (not yet the movies, I think), and possibly some others I can’t track down.

I gave up the story unfinished, because I either got distracted or couldn’t get the middle to work out. I had several competing drafts, and had started in the middle. I don’t think it was even the only story I was working on at the time. Some things never change …

I don’t remember this, but I’ve rediscovered that NASA had sent two space probes to Mars (the “Viking” probes) when I was about five years old, with the hope of (and equipment for) discovering life on Mars. Maybe I’d learned about it in science class, connected that to my American history, threw in a little T.V. or movies and—voila! My own first unfinished novel.

I wrote it in study hall.

This has me thinking about the old adage that you have to read a lot in a particular genre to write something worthwhile in that genre, and the somewhat competing adage to be careful not to imitate what’s selling, or it will be soulless. (I might have made that second one up.) My story falls between those two adages. It wasn’t good, but then again I wrote it when I was thirteen or fourteen. The reason it wasn’t good, was that I didn’t know how to write. Everything I did was pretty much straight imitation. That, and the idea wasn’t one I’d pursue now. But I can imagine this idea or one like it being done well, if the writer knew what he/she was doing. In fact, this story (it seems to me) shares elements of Event Horizon, a 1997 film, the novel Dream Thief by Stephen Lawhead (written in 1983, but not read by me until a decade later), and The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells (which I read about five years ago).

So, the plot itself isn’t a terrible one, nor is it so overdone that it couldn’t catch someone’s interest—in 1985, I mean. One of the reasons for that, I suspect, is that I was probably as much influenced by Robinson Crusoe, which I read in sixth grade, as I was by the sci-fi “genre” itself. Which makes me think that reading “in genre” isn’t as important as reading classic literature. Or at least not more important than. I’m open to other opinions.

Sadly (ahem), the manuscript is lost, I do firmly believe.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...