06 December 2007

Elegiacal

John Klima is having everyone who contributed to his anthology Logorrhea write up a little something about why they chose the Spelling Bee word they did, and then post the section of Jeff VanderMeer's all-encompassing "Appogiatura" story that corresponds with the word. Also, there is a podcast of each section of "Appogiatura". And John is going to chronicle it all via this blog post.

First, about my own word and story...

Elegiacal Origins of "The Last Elegy"

It was the only possible word for me. What stories have I written that couldn't, in some way or another, be described as elegiacal? Sorrow for the past -- that is, it seems, one of the few things my imagination is willing to fixate on for fictional ideas. Often, too, the novels and stories that most appeal to me as a reader are ones with at least a hint of the elegiacal in them, partly because memory and time fascinate me with their twinned ability to haunt us with the ghosts of all we have lost.

Also, two books had captured my mind: Man Into Woman, which is the story of Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery; and Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys, a novel where spare and very straightforward prose rises to a form of lyricism that I have seldom encountered elsewhere, and where a wandering, often mysterious narrative became, for me, far more enthralling than most novels with strong plots. I knew I wanted to write a story to work through some ideas the books had brought to me, but I didn't know what sort of story I wanted to write.

And then I saw the word "elegiacal", and I knew that would provide the solution. Immediately, a character sprang into mind: a professional elegist, someone who gained great fame from writing elegies, a popular poet in the mold of Edgar Guest. I imagined that at first the fame and money would be pleasing, but then a trap, as he was known only for one thing, and the public only wanted that one thing from him.

How, though, would this story fit in with the other that I wanted to write -- something related to Lili Elbe that also gave me an opportunity to try out some of the rhythms and style of Jean Rhys? What if the elegist fled his fame, and then had to face one last request for a poem, a request he could neither honor nor ignore...

I decided to stay as true to the story and words of Lili Elbe as possible, and I wanted to evoke pre-war Germany less through specific details and more through style (hence, the place is never named; I'm perfectly happy if readers imagine different places for it). It should, I thought, feel like a story of the time -- a bit stilted, a bit melodramatic. I included some of Lili Elbe's own words and phrases, as well as some from Jean Rhys (since Good Morning, Midnight was published in 1939, only six years after the first edition of Man Into Woman came out in Germany). I didn't steal very much, and never without some tweaking, but just enough, I hoped, for flavor and a certain sort of truth. My favorite theft was a cause of death I pillaged from Man Into Woman: "paralysis of the heart", a phrase I hoped would leave itself open to many interpretations. I tried, too, to replicate the ostensibly plain prose of Jean Rhys, knowing that I lacked her skill, but hoping the exercise would, at least, prove fruitful -- what I love about Rhys is not the plainness of the style, but the way it lures the reader in, then presents gaps and ambiguities, creating beauty through absence. She gets compared to Hemingway now and then, but I think she's closer to Pinter. (Looking back on "The Last Elegy" now, in fact, I think I didn't leave enough out.)

Finally, because elegies are about not just memory, but time, I played around with the tense of the story, creating a structure and then breaking it, hoping such gymnastics might provide some subtle clues to readers, knowing full well the feat might simply be distracting.

And now, you'll see, Mr. VanderMeer was rather differently inspired by the word:

ELEGIACAL
by Jeff VanderMeer


Brown dust across a grey sky, with mountains in the distance. A metallic smell and taste. A burning.

Abdul Ahad and his sister Parveen were searching for a coin she'd lost. They stood by a wall of what was otherwise a rubble of stone and wood. A frayed length of red carpet wound its way through the debris.

"It has to be here somewhere," Parveen said. It had been a present from her uncle, a merchant who was the only one in their family to travel outside the country.

Her uncle had pressed it into her hand when she was eight and said, "This is an old coin from Smaragdine. There, everything is green."

The coin was heavy. On the front was a man in a helmet and on the back letters in a strange language, like something from another world. For weeks, she had held it, smooth and cool, in her right hand-to school, during lunch, back at their house, during dinner. She loved the color of it; there was no green like that here. Everything was brown or grey or yellow or black, except for the rugs, which were red. But this green-she didn't even need a photograph. She could see Smaragdine in her mind just from the texture and color of the coin.

"I don't see it," Abdul Ahad said, his voice flat and strange.

"We should keep looking."

"I think we should stop." Abdul Ahad had a sharp gash across his forehead. Parveen's clothes had ash on them. Her elbows and the back of her arms were lacerated from where she had tried to protect herself from the bomb blasts.

"We should keep looking," Parveen said. She had to keep swallowing; her throat hurt badly. She heard her brother's words through a sighing roar.

Now the muddled sound of sirens.

A harsh wind roiled down the brown street, carrying sand and specks of dirt.

Abdul Ahad sat down heavily on the broken rock.

Now Parveen could hear the screams and wails of people farther down the block. Flickers of flame three houses down, red-orange through the shadows of stones.

Their father had been dead for a year. Now their mother lay under the rubble. They'd seen a leg, bloodied and twisted. Had pulled away rocks, revealing an unseeing gaze, a face coated with dust.

Her brother had checked her pulse.

Now they were searching for the coin. Or Parveen was. She knew why her brother didn't want to. Because he thought it wouldn't make a difference. But Parveen felt that, somehow, if she found it, if she held it again, everything would be normal again. She had only survived the air strikebecause she was holding the coin at the time, she was sure of it, and Abdul Ahad had only survived because he had been standing next to her.

"You don't have to look, Ahad," she said, giving him a hug. "You should sit there for awhile, and I'll find it."

He nodded, gaze lost on the mountains in the distance.

Parveen walked away from him, kneeled in the dirt. She stuck her arm into a gap between jagged blocks of stone, grasping through dust and gravel, looking for something smooth and cool and far away. In a moment, she knew she'd have it.

1 comment:

  1. I'm presently reading LOGORRHEA, so this commentary project is well-timed.

    BTW, I've just begun to delve into your archived posts re: Disch, Delany, et al.-- what a wealth of material!

    ReplyDelete