Saturday, November 14, 2009

Beginnings of How

In the very first post I wrote for this blog (just click on "About" to see it), I explained how I received the idea to write a novel about Van Gogh in the first place. But that's just one aspect of the origins of this project, the "What." Equally pressing, and this is of course true anytime you write anything, was: "How?" That is, how did I want to approach my subject after I realized that Van Gogh must be my subject? How should I structure the novel? What motifs would I press? I guess you could broadly call these issues of style rather than subject. One very important stylistic decision I made stemmed from having reading Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy not long before the idea for the novel came to me. If you haven't read Hansen's delicious little book, you must. With exquisite delicacy and much quiet poetry, he details the life of a cloistered nun in upstate New York in the early 20th century. I know, that doesn't sound especially thrilling but, Hansen's book is a wonder and rightly earned considerable acclaim when it appeared in 1991. When I got around to reading it, what I marveled at most was how beautifully contained are each of the chapters. Every chapter, even if it details only single minute in his protagonist's life, is a universe unto itself. Hansen's narrative develops in moment-by moment-by-moment thrusts; there are virtually no bridging sections. This seemed a fascinating and atypical way to structure a novel, but it also felt just "right" for the subject. Since at the time I was exploring the world of monasteries in order to write a novel of my own, I knew how the lives of cloistered nuns and monks are purposefully kept the same--at the surface level--from day to day. They attend services on a fixed schedule, keep to regular work details, and engage in regularly scheduled meals, private prayers, and bible reading. On the surface, it's none too exciting and doesn't seem to ever vary. But that's the point and the purpose. Where the action is--where it's supposed to be--is on the level of the soul: those moments of profound confrontation with yourself or with God, wrapped by external quiet. The structure of Hansen's novel cannily emphasized this philosophy of living.

When I conceived of my Van Gogh novel, I immediately thought of Mariette and wanted to adopt Hansen's structure as my own. For some reason I felt it would be "right" for my subject too. My book would be a small book, composed of a series of wildly divergent but significant moments in the painter's life. Even more so than in a conventional novel, my book would proceed scene by scene, rather than chapter by chapter or year by year. Like Hansen, I would create very few bridges. Well, I've actually stuck to that plan during the four years I've worked on the book. Except the novel, in its present incarnation, is not in the least short. Scenes, after all, require pages to effectively be dramatized, and if you write enough scenes you end up with a heck of a lot of pages. And since, unlike Hansen, I am more or less covering the entire life of my protagonist, brevity is virtually impossible. That said, it's important to recognize that this commitment to scene over summary can sometimes be the most efficient way to cover a broad span of years. I think of some of Jo Ann Beard's essays in her brilliant The Boys of My Youth. She'll present a scene from one year in her life, then jump to another year, and then another, allowing that one scene to represent all the fundamental tensions of the speaker during that period. In this way, she can suggest her whole life in 30 or 40 pages, whereas as a more overtly inclusive narrative would have taken many more pages and perhaps not achieved any greater payoff. As I said: efficient. I guess with my novel so far I've not been courgeous enough to let a single scene represent Vincent in each of his various life "periods." (He had several such periods.) Some of these periods--notably Paris and Arles--I've rendered in several scenes. At this point, I've written so many scenes I have a hefty--too hefty?--novel, even after doing quite a lot of cutting. But the thing is, I can honestly say that each of the scenes contributes something important and unique to my picture of Van Gogh. I'm glad I developed the novel in this manner and can't really imagine doing it any other way. I only hope my book can do justice to the influence of Hansen's beautiful and exotic Mariette.


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