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October Song

My new novel, Song of the Mockingbird, is now available as an ebook at Soon it will also be available for Nook and at Smashwords for all other platforms. It will be out in paperback via my publisher Savvy Press early next year.

You can read the first three chapters here.

From the “dust jacket”:

“SONG OF THE MOCKINGBIRD is the story of a mature woman’s self-discovery. Five years widowed but still bound to the man to whom she was married for thirty years, Doris gradually comes to discover her life not only is not over but is just beginning in a way she had never imagined possible. In the process, she also discovers a good deal about her marriage that contradicts the ideal image of it she has nurtured all her adult life.

Meanwhile, her daughter’s own marriage is breaking up. After her father’s death Evelyn willingly took over his role as her mother’s guardian. Strong-willed by nature, she is nevertheless at a loss when she is no longer able to control her husband’s will. Alone with a small child, she comes to discover that the mother she has treated almost as a second child is a source of strength where she had least expected one.

Doris’s odyssey includes close friendships with two women who despise each other, a love affair which awakens her to a sense of her own sexuality she had never thought possible, and a new relationship with the daughter she has previously seen as merely a female clone of her late husband.”

This is one of my longer (78,000 words) novels. Usually I write that many words and then cut about 20,000. This time, even after the edit,  the book is still hefty by my standards. That’s partly because I follow two story lines instead of one–the mother’s as well as the daughter’s–intimately connected, as you can see from the synopsis, but each treated fully as its own narrative. I typically don’t concentrate on more than one main character, but this time the material and my state of mind (on which I’ll elaborate shortly) were such that I felt like taking a shot at a more traditional novel form. It doesn’t quite match the four or five plot lines of a Dickens or Trollope, but following two characters in detail rather than one meant for me keeping a couple more balls up in the air than I typically do.

Now, to my state of mind while writing this book…

I think of this book as my “second symphony,” not because it was the second novel I wrote–I had written several before it–but because I wrote it in the kind of mood that I hear in Brahms’s second symphony and Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto.

Brahms labored long and hard on his first symphony, always hearing Beethoven’s 9th thundering behind him. When that first symphony, a great masterpiece in its own right, was finally out of the way, he seemed to revel in the sheer joy of creative freedom evident in his second. It seems to sing for the pure pleasure of singing. It’s as if it was written while the composer was on a well-deserved vacation, which he may well have been.

I hear a similar delight in Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto, the one so rarely performed, though his first is a war-horse of every symphonic orchestra, or used to be. In this case it’s not so much a question of Tchaikovsky’s getting out from under the deep shadow of the greatness that preceded him as his finally finding full confidence in his own massive talent and allowing himself to enjoy it.

I remember writing some chapters of Song of the Mockingbird in Prospect Park seated at one of the deserted picnic benches near the children’s playground. It was autumn, this time of year, chilly but sunny and pleasant to be out of doors. I too was in a relaxed, happy frame of mind, as sure of my story-telling abilities as I am ever likely to be and delighting in the pure pleasure of recording each new line of narrative or dialogue in longhand on yellow legal-size paper. Something must have happened to give me that wonderful mental freedom and creative confidence–it may have been the period when I had an agent enthusiastically shopping around the novel I had completed before this one. I don’t really recall. What I do remember is the sense of working at the very top of my abilities and enjoying every minute of it.

Which is not to say this book is the best thing I have written, or to make any judgment of what I did or did not achieve with it. I can’t make that call, and  in any case authors always think their last book, in my case My Bess (which also has a middle-aged woman as the main character, come to think of it), though my readers seem to prefer Look at Me Now, if sales are any indication. After a book is done, the author is just another reader, after all. What’s special to me about Song of the Mockingbird, though (all an author’s works are special to her/him in some sense, just as, to restate the cliche, each child is special to a parent), is that sense I had for the first time of being up to the challenge of writing a “real,” i.e. old-fashioned, multi-plot narrative like the Big Boys and Girls did back when the novel was the world’s greatest and most popular art form. That and the way the writing flowed as easily as the pencil did across the lined yellow paper as autumn leaves fluttered to the ground around me.

The Bad Taste (and other faults) of Genius

“The modern novel has reached such a pitch of competence and shapeliness that we are shocked at the disorderliness of the masterpieces. In the modern novel we are looking at a neatly barbered suburban garden; in the standard works how often do we have the impression of bowling through the magnificent gateway of a demesne only to find the house and gardens are unfinished or are patched up anyhow, as if the owner had tired of his money in the first few weeks and after that had passed his life in a daydream of projects for ever put off. We feel the force of a great power which is never entirely spent, but which cannot be bothered to fulfill itself. In short, we are up against the carelessness, the lethargy, the enormous bad taste of genius, its liability to accident, it’s slovenly and majestic conceit that anything will do. Don Quixote falls in half, the Chartreuse and Le Rouge et le Noir go shockingly to pieces, Tolstoy stuffs a history book into War and Peace, Fielding and Dickens pad and Dostoevsky wanders into ideological journalism.…”

That’s a quote from V.S. Pritchett’s essay on Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls. It corresponds exactly, or almost exactly, with impressions I have gathered over a lifetime of reading. How often have I come across passages in Balzac where he seems to lose interest or even be falling asleep (he wrote at night, using pots of coffee to keep him going). How often have I fumed at those places in Dickens’s novels where he seems to decide he has to throw in some romantic melodrama, and the quality of the writing falls off a cliff.

But, well-wrought as they may be, modern novels are not exempt from this type of inferiority. They achieve it despite the artistry Pritchett has correctly attributed to them. But their own shortfalls are not the result of sloppiness or lethargy or any of the other vices Pritchett attributes to Tolstoy & Co. Simply put, few if any of them are Tolstoys or Balzacs. This process of passing off artistry for art and literary tidiness for genius has been accelerated by the intrusion of the university into the writing process. Now we have not only well-wrought prose, no matter how boring the content; we have it mass-produced and regularized not just according to form but by content as well.

This is a bug I’ve had in my bonnet for some time, and the quote from Pritchett which I came across recently only gave me the impetus to write about it. My friends have been hearing me hold forth on the subject for longer than they would care to remember. What I had on my mind more recently, though, was something similar with regard to poetry. I made the mistake of buying the Oxford Book of English Verse a few years back. It has in it some of the world’s best poetry, of course, but it also has a great deal, perhaps most of it, that is decidedly second-rate. But that was not the thing that struck me when reading through the contents more or less at random. My revelation was not that there was a great deal of mediocre poetry produced and passed off as first first-rate over the centuries, but that the very best poems themselves contain mediocre, and sometimes worse, lines which no English teacher I ever had pointed out as such.

The sum total of my impression from these readings is that even a great poem is usually the result of a handful or even just a few great lines. True, those other bits may be workmanlike enough, but if, like myself, you look for greatness from the first line to the last you will be hard put to find very many, if any poems that meet that standard.

Pritchett’s statement that the great prose of the 19th century is deeply flawed, the result of laziness and even low artistic standards, along with my impression that the achievements of the great poets are due to a few lucky hits, seemed to be related. (I happen to think, by the way, that there are a few perfect, or near-perfect poems, my own choice being Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child,” among them.) But the sum total of these observations actually seems to me to be heartening. If the great were as slovenly and careless as he says, that may not excuse them or us for similar failings but it does place the premium where it belongs–on what they did achieve–and seems to reinforce the opinion that no amount of formal training can give someone the ability to create a character like Anna Karenina or Cousin Pons or Uncle Nickelby or Jane Eyre or Heathwood or…pick-your-favorite. It may, indeed, have just the opposite effect.

Perfection, in other words, it is not a prerequisite or even a characteristic of great art. The onus of perfectibility may be more of an impediment to achieving something substantial that it is a goad to that end. Walter Kaufmann, best known as Friedrich Nietzsche’s translator, pointed out that all the great philosophers have been amateurs. Kaufmann wrote that in the 1950s, but in the last sixty-some years I don’t think the world has produced anyone to rival Immanuel Kant, Plato or Nietzsche himself. This may not be an accident. I think it may point to a correspondence between amateurism and greatness. This is hard for us to accept, we who believe that achieving anything worthwhile is always the result of hard work.

Which puts me in mind of a short story by Anton Chekhov called “The Artist.” It’s about a chronic drunk who every Easter time rouses himself to create an elaborate structure (I forget the exact name for it) on the frozen river of his village. He goes at it for days on end, hardly stopping to sleep or eat. The rest of the year he spends in idleness and intoxication. I don’t think Chekhov was being entirely ironic by the title he gave the story. He probably knew all too well how, despite his own industriousness, art is dependent on something we moderns would call “play” or irresistible urges and how little on the kind of industry Chekhov came to pride himself on.