The Combined Beginning-Ending Moment

October 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

In Bach’s cello suites you see a lot of phrases like this:

bach prelude 4

…where the low note you land on (the one in the middle here) is the first note of the next measure, and the beginning of the next phrase. Here, that low note, the E-flat, is at once the end of the E-flat major chord preceding it and the beginning of the A-flat major chord following.

The impression formed is of a continual flow and progression from one chord into another, and it kind of feels like the musical analogue of watching colors change in a sky or a movie or a screen saver. Each internal punctuation isn’t really an ending — it’s the beginning of the next thing. His music is always moving.

The technique can be very powerful in storytelling, which, if you believe Aristotle, is supposed to be premised on a beginning, middle, and end. But really good writers can plunk their endings down where they please and use them as beginnings. They recognized, in the Chekhovian mode, even before Chekhov existed, that a character’s thoughts or actions never really end. One simply leads into the next.

Madame Bovary, for example, appears episodic — Emma and Charles move from one city to another every few years, and the story is, at a high level, segmented by two trysts. But the progression of the story is finely calibrated, moment by moment. A good example of the beginning-ending note in Bovary is the end of Part 1 in the afterglow of an aristocratic party Emma recently attended with Charles:

The memory of this ball, then, became an occupation for Emma.

Whenever the Wednesday came round she said to herself as she awoke, “Ah! I was there a week–a fortnight–three weeks ago.”

And little by little the faces grew confused in her remembrance.

She forgot the tune of the quadrilles; she no longer saw the liveries and appointments so distinctly; some details escaped her, but the regret remained with her.

The fading of this memory is, for Flaubert, a beginning for the materialistic sadness defining the story that follows. Emma and Charles move on to the next city shortly after this, on to Emma’s next desperate attempt to seize something rhapsodic out of her life. Throughout the rest of the book Emma’s self-inflicted oppression and unhappiness squeeze around her, decision by decision.

If you prefer plays, an equally excellent example of the “continuous ending”, so to speak, is in Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Acts 2 and 3 both end with the same refrain: Moscow, an of course unfulfilled dream that runs through the whole play.

Here’s Irina at the end of Act 2:

IRINA [left alone, in dejection]. Oh, to go to Moscow, to Moscow!

…and at the end of Act 3:

IRINA. My dear, my darling, I respect the baron, I think highly of him, he’s a fine man — I’ll marry him, I consent, only let’s go to Moscow! I implore you, please let’s go! There’s nothing in the world better than Moscow! Let’s go, Olya! Let’s go!

No one uses the ending of an act better than Chekhov. The closing refrain is there, the note of finality and the mournful sigh offered up. But the wistfulness of the lines is precisely the instrument of continuing the play’s action, of conveying these characters’ destinies to go on, and on, in their lives.

Something more fluid than Aristotle’s beginning-middle-end persists in real writing, especially in real prose, which is drawn irresistibly to the constant change and fixed flow of real life.

Tell, Don’t Show

July 15, 2012 § 1 Comment

Here are three passages of shameless telling (not showing) in great stories:

From Kafka’s The Metamorphosis:

But perhaps the enthusiastic sensibility of young women of her age also played a role. This feeling sought release at every opportunity, and with it Grete now felt tempted to want to make Gregor’s situation even more terrifying, so that then she would be able to do even more for him than she had up to now. For surely no one except Grete would ever trust themselves to enter a room in which Gregor ruled the empty walls all by himself.

This is telling, since it’s a direct explanation of Grete’s reasoning and feelings. Or maybe it’s showing, because it conveys (without spelling out) how self-concern moves the world and characters around Gregor.

From Chekhov’s The Lady With the Little Dog:

Not one of them had been happy with him. Time passed, he had made their acquaintance, got on with them, parted, but he had never once loved; it was anything you like, but not love. And only now when his head was grey he had fallen properly, really in love — for the first time in his life.

This is telling because it spells out not just the protagonist’s feelings, but the central emotional development of the whole story — that he is truly in love for the first time. Or maybe it’s showing, because it demonstrates how significant developments can happen internally, as mere matter-of-fact thoughts. And plain unadorned shifts of mood and matter are the implicit substance of Chekhov’s storytelling.

From Flaubert’s Madame Bovary:

Exaggerated speeches hiding mediocre affections must be discounted; as if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest metaphors, since no one can ever give the exact measure of his needs, nor of his conceptions, nor of his sorrows; and since human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars.

This is telling, since it’s a direct emotional explanation. Even worse, it’s Flaubert chiming in with his own sentiment instead of letting his characters speak for themselves. Or perhaps it’s showing, because this line of thought buttresses the central theme of the book: the disparity between feeling and real-life expression of it.

So “Show Don’t Tell” doesn’t pan out in real life. Rather, it doesn’t pan out in real writing.

Actually, “Show Don’t Tell” itself isn’t my point. My point is that every creative rule falls to tatters in the face of a real, truly great piece of writing. “Show Don’t Tell” and the like may be useful for amateurs looking to winnow down the form’s open-endedness. But they’re irrelevant to real reading or writing, whose rules are no more or less than the dictates and implications of the writer’s particular style and sensibility.

What does “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” mean?

March 4, 2012 § 1 Comment

Apparently, Gustave Flaubert said at some point (I haven’t been able to find the source in a web search), “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” — “Madame Bovary, that’s me.” Thus a million essays were born.

There’s no way that Flaubert was literally identifying with Emma Bovary’s swooning, fanciful, impressionable mind. A mind like Emma’s couldn’t have executed so ruthlessly and dispassionately a plot like that of her novel.

So what would Gustave see of himself in Emma? A creditable subset of her traits: imagination, passion, sensuality, intelligence, even a kind of ambition. In Emma these traits lead (in such a beautifully unfolding fall) to cruelty, frivolity, and futility.

Flaubert was also a romantic, a dreamer, a lover of old and grandiose fables. His favorite of his works, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, was inspired by a painting of that old moral tale (and how like Emma that Flaubert found his inspiration in a painting).

The difference between Gustave and Emma is what Flaubert did with his imagination, eventually. He recognized that imagination is imagination, fiction is fiction, and he set his to the task of composing a completely ordered universe after his vision. (People with fancies as rich and pure as Flaubert’s can never be happy realizing their visions with the crude material of their lives.) To look at it another way, he did dispassionate work with passion.

This leads me to think that for those with the purest imaginations, the difference between productive and unproductive fantasy is a mental act of separation: one’s life from one’s art.

(You notice how easy it is for people to separate their “lives” from their “work”? They can point to their jobs and say, “That’s not me. That’s just what I do.” I’d bet this is especially true for the great ones.)

Emma directed the energy of her imagination toward her life — that’s a delusional undertaking. Flaubert directed his toward what he recognized as an utter fantasy — a book, ink on a page, the most useless and impractical of things.

One last thing (for you essay writers): So, is Madame Bovary really about Flaubert? Is it an alternate universe where he contemplates a less disciplined version of himself?

I like to think about a larger set of questions instead: is great writing ‘personal’? Is it in some sense about its author? Is it a more or less metaphorical depiction of the author’s life and time and state of mind?

Yes, kinda, and no.

Madame Bovary is Flaubert’s book — it’s a distillation of his genius, and in that sense, it’s utterly personal. There’s no use pretending the book is a free-standing stone now that its author is dead. Someone produced that work, and as a matter of respect for the human mind, we shouldn’t forget that.

It can’t be stressed enough: A person writes a book. A person has a great idea. A person invented the wheel. (See how ridiculous you sound when you substitute one of these for ‘person’: era, ethos, movement, culture, nation, organization, paradigm, school of thought…)

But the question of how much we know Flaubert’s mind once we’ve read his book, or what in the story corresponds to what episode of his biography, or person in his life, or corner of his psyche, is completely incidental.

Look at it this way: when you listen to a director’s commentary on a DVD, at least one of you has their tongue in cheek.

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