Dear reader – if you are heartily sick of my unending witterings about the ins and outs of something I have not actually been doing, I really do not blame you, even a little bit. These thoughts of mine have been interesting to me, and truly, they have helped me clarify what I am doing, right and wrong, and in the recent past, where I have been going wrong. At least I think this is true. The touchstones of my sensibility have got quite a decent rubdown in the process. For me, as a writer, all this is good. For you, as a reader, it may be really dubious.
Anyway recently I put e-pen to e-paper on the third version of Kaos. It is not a “draft”. It is a new book. The previous two versions sit quietly on my desktop, glowering. They know when they’ve been mistreated, and they are there, ready to rub salt into any wound they can detect, and there are plenty of those.
This process has been interesting to me partly because the “storyline” of this book is quite clear to me, and was before I started the first version. The characters were there; the events were there; the “moral” or premise was there…and it was a stultifyingly boring endeavour as it worked out. Version one ran out of puff about 45,000 words as I recall, and what puff there had been in the last little while was artificial and “stort in a porm” as Spooner might have it. The second go didn’t get very far; I was wandering in a fog, stumbling over obstacles whose nature was unclear to me, so I stopped where I was at some point and waited for the air to clear.
This time, I think, is different – maybe. It’s more than 10,000 words, and some of those are sadly very ill-chosen. I got off the track too and had to go back a few thou to hook back into it. But it has the right feel so far, if I am able to keep the different aspects of what I am trying to do in my head.
The big deal about all of this to me is structural. I want to cast a new light on what happens, so that the reader is left with a particular set of impressions that enable her or him to – to – to – BE CONFUSED. No, that’s not quite right…to make up her or his own mind about the meaning, not to have me force feeding it to them: for me, that’s the ultimate aim of readers being engaged, that they will make my book their book, own it properly.
When I first started writing, I was in thrall to Ted Hughes, the then poet laureate of Britain, and widower of another (American) poet,Sylvia Plath who’d killed herself*, but most importantly author of Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. I admire this book a great deal many years later, and something Hughes argued about Shakespeare I have tried, in my own fashion, to work into my novels.
What he said was that the Bard had a dual or multi-level approach in his “great period” that allowed the groundlings – the common herd – to enjoy his plays on one level, while there were clues to a deeper meaning meant to be picked up by the inner circle of the cults he was involved with. The England of the time was apparently awash with these wee beasties; there were “circles” exploring and/or espousing all manner of interesting theories about life, the universe, and yes, everything!
Among the movers and shakers of this demi-monde was one Giordano Bruno, an Italian monk whose memory systems were his calling card, a sort of parlour trick. Bruno could reel off vast slabs of text – twenty or thirty pages at a time – from his system, which early in his career opened doors for him in Italy, including an audience with the Pope. But he went on, and on, and in his urge to heal the rifts in Christianity through a sort of new religion based on the works of a certain Hermes Trismegistus, who was meant to have lived even before Moses, he ultimately found himself on top of a burning stack of wood in a square in Rome. Four hundred years later half a million people went to that square and demanded that the Pope pardon Bruno for his alleged transgressions, a demand that was spurned. Anyway Bruno was flitting around London in the early 1590s and was spreading his enlightened views through these various groups. It is said Shakespeare satirised him as Berowne in Love’s Labour Lost.
Bruno was far from alone. “Magi” peopled London, and Europe throughout the renaissance, and they had a curious relationship both with religion and with science. Shakespeare’s Tempest, often cited as his crowning achievement, shows the magus in full flower. Frazer’s Golden Bough, a twelve volume examination of the rise of religion through magic, could just as easily have been written on the rise of science through magic: Bruno was after all a monk, and his ideas about the universe (largely cribbed from the classical Lucretius’ On the nature of things) were in aid of something grander and larger even than controlling nature: it was all about knowing God, coming face to face with our Creator.
The renaissance took this hidden knowledge seriously, aped the Greeks in their mystical cults, and people like Shakespeare developed literary techniques to slake the thirst.
Well, my idea from the first of my books has been to employ a dual-level, or multi-level approach: there must always be more, and the “more” has to have some distinguishing characteristics. The story must be a good one, a “page turner” as some people say, without any particular moral or philosophical dimension, even when (as with my novel The Russian Idea) philosophy is a part of the plot. That book to me is a bit of a failure because there is too much of this, and it gets in the way of the rattling good yarn that is the basis of my approach to writing.
But that can never be all there is; it has to be in aid of something, and I want it not just to be there for readers, but to be opaque…clear but not clear. My views on race, and religion, and tolerance, and politics and so on are my own, and of course I would like readers to share them – but I am not insisting, and not beating anyone over the head with them. Instead I am saying, or trying to say, “These things matter. What do you think about them?” in ways that are intended to provoke a response, a wrestling of the imagination, by my er possibly far from adoring public.
It is not clear just now if I actually have a public, so it is more than faintly presumptuous of me to think I have a purchase on this writing arena. But I would like to, and a great deal of the trouble I have had with Kaos relates to this: to create a “rattling good yarn” that is morally and philosophically compelling in a secondary way – pick it up if you like, or pay absolutely no attention to it if you don’t and you can still enjoy the read – is in this case proving to be a mighty big ask.
But I’m asking it of me, and this time maybe I’m getting somewhere. We’ll see…thanks for reading…It’s Christmas just now so have a good one.
*His next wife also committed suicide. There is a great deal that is troubling about this, and must have been to him.