Monday, January 28, 2013

Mason goes historical--again


As so many others did, I first became familiar with the work of Bobbie Ann Mason through her books Shiloh and Other Stories and In Country.  Back then she was counted, fairly or unfairly, as part of a new wave of North American writers, the so-called "Dirty Realist" school that included authors like Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Jayne Ann Phillips, and Larry Brown.  Both books were bestsellers and received critical praise.  I know they were also eagerly lapped up by budding young fiction writers of the time.  In Country was later made into a movie starring Bruce Willis, and the title story of Shiloh has become something of a contemporary American classic, anthologized repeatedly in a stream of fiction volumes.  But I lost track of Bobbie Ann Mason after that.  She seemed to fall out of favor--as did the minimalistic idiosyncracies of the Dirty Realist school.  (The death of Raymond Carver probably hastened along this inevitable development.)  Mason kept writing, however.  Among other things, she has pubished several more story collections, the memoir Clear Springs (nominated for a Pulitzer in 1999) and, in 2003, a biography of Elvis Presley for the Penguin Lives biography series.   She has also been a regular contributor to The New Yorker magazine.

In 2011, she published The Girl in the Blue Beret,  her second historical novel and one of her rare fictional forays outside of the state of  Kentucky.  Well, actually, Girl is one of those books that makes you question the definition historical fiction.  Technically, it's a contemporary novel, one that follows the actions of its protagonist--a retired airline pilot--as he travels through Belgium and France to retrace his experiences there during World War II.  (The "present" of the novel is 1980.)  While what happens in the present certainly matters to the protagonist, what makes up the meat of the novel is the terrible weight of World War II history, specifically the history of the French resistance and the risks the résistants took to save and hide--and later return to England--American aviators who had been shot down over Belgium and France.   It is this history--told through memory, dialogue, and the occasional flashback--that most engrosses the reader and, in the end, impacts the retired pilot in ways he could not have imagined before he began his journeys.  The book is so informed by history--so completely a creature of it--that I can't think of any other label to apply but that of historical.

It's a joy to rediscover Mason's fiction after many years, and an even bigger joy to see her engaged with material that would have been outside the range of her earlier self.  She hasn't just kept writing, but she has grown as an artist.  Her research is impeccable.  Inspired by the true life story of her father-in-law and his own crash landing in Belgium, Mason read widely--through both published and unpublished memoirs--into the experiences of Allied flyers who were shot down during the war and into the experiences of the members of the French resistance who quietly helped them.  She also interviewed a woman who had been held in the same Koenigsberg prison camp that comes to play such an important, if disturbing, part in the novel.  I did not know--as Mason's protagonist Marshall doesn't--that résistants, after being arrested, were sometimes tortured and sent to concentration camps.  Finding this out makes for a crucial, moving turn in Marshall's present life.  

By all means, anyone who has enjoyed Mason's work in the past should "catch up" with this novel.  Or anyone interested in historical fiction generally--or World War II fiction in particular.  It will not disappoint you.  My only real criticism is that in the second half of the book a great deal of crucial history is transmitted by means of conversation between Marshall and Annette, the now older "Girl in the Blue Beret."  Literally page after page and chapter after chapter is mostly conversation about the past.  If a student in my novel writing class had tried that I would have felt compelled to correct him or her.  It would be more dramatically satisfying, I would tell them, to show at least some of this history via scene, after first establishing that the frame of the conversation between Marshall and Annette.  I think this is a fair complaint, but on the other hand I hate to complain about a book that so effectively brings to light this under-realized aspect of World War II history; and I hate to complain too when I'm so glad to see Mason return to the art of the novel.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Novel writing class returns


After a break of two-and-a-half years, Novel Writing Workshop returns to my university this semester.  In the interim period, dozens of students have asked me about the class and scores of oral histories have been told; a few students lobbied my department's Chair hard for its return; and, not insignificantly, our first collection of graduate students matriculated.  In some ways, it's a very different pedagogical landscape now than when I taught the course a couple years ago.  Then, novel writing workshops were still relatively rare and excitingly new, certainly on the undergraduate level, and the idea that the students would not just start but finish a novel in one semester struck me as potentially hazardous: to GPAs; to other course work; to jobs; to relationships; most of all, to sleep schedules. Yet that's what I asked the students to do.  And nearly all of them succeeded.  Now, novel writing workshops are a considerably less unusual phenomenon.  Indeed, sometimes I think they are everywhere.   Still more typical on the graduate as opposed to the undergraduate level--although one of our graduate students, who was an undergrad a year ago, informs that he took a novel writing course in college--they are, in any case, far more characteristic of creative writing degree programs than in the past.  It can't be coincidental that at the AWP conference in Boston this year, a panel will be held on not just on promoting the idea of the novel writing workshop but on the fact of it; that is, the nuts and bolts of how different experienced instructors of the course have taught it.  I think it's even fair to say that novel writing workshops are becoming the cornerstone of progressive fiction writing programs.  And in part this is because in the last three years those who teach the course have been talking to each other about it--Cathy Day's blog The Big Thing has been especially instructive--pushing each other, motivating each other, spreading the gospel.

So I'm glad it's back at my school, and I know the students are too.  But I admit to being a bit nervous.  In the intervening years since last I taught the course, a mythology has developed around it, a retrospective awe.  Students have told me that for years, ever since they selected our major, they have been eagerly anticipating the chance to experience this one course.  Can this semester possibly meet their high expectations?  Yes, it can.  But, here's the scary part: It's all up to them.  More than any other course I teach, in my novel writing class, the students teach themselves and teach each other.  I offer them a platform through which they can learn about novel writing, but they have to take advantage of it, and they have to encourage each other to take advantage of it.  While I do separate the class into small peer review groups, there will be no full class workshopping.  As I emphasized at our first meeting the other night, the course is about production more than anything else.   The last time I taught the course, again to all undergraduates, the room was fully with unusually mature and unusually talented people.  What the course offered was exactly what most of them were looking for: space, opportunity, deadlines.  Almost entirely seniors, they'd workshopped plenty in their college career.  What they wanted from Novel Writing was something else,  and they were eager to take control of it.  There were certainly bumps along the way that semester, but for the most part--with a notable exception or two--a genuine esprit de corps ruled.

I can only hope my current group has the same experience.  It's a fresh batch, with different backgrounds.  For the first time, graduate students are participating along with undergraduates.  That's a new dynamic for me, and for both of those student populations.  And there's another professor sitting in!  Not even from my own department!  Like last time, we will read Chris Baty's No Plot No Problem (for practical motivation) and a couple of short novels (as models for storytelling over a reasonably short space), and we will periodically break off into peer groups.  But mostly we will be writing.  I'll be writing along with them, which actually is going to be more of a challenge for me this time than last.  Mainly because right now I am in the latter stages of a novel I started early last semester.  I had intended on exploring this novel idea through the Novel Workshop, but when the class was delayed from fall until spring I didn't feel like waiting.  Now I will need to hurry to finish my draft, then immediately start another novel--the subject of which I haven't even clarified for myself yet.   Hard to know what the next few months will bring, but I'm sure it will be an adventure.  There will be exhileration and despair.  There will be careful planning and last second inspiration and a great deal of fatigue.  Some will give up; most, I hope and expect, will soldier on.  Some will get pissed at me and at their peer reviewers.  Some will get pissed at the novels we read.  But if they each individually can hold it together, when the finish line comes they will have learned more than from perhaps any other writing course.  And they will have learned it the best possible way: by doing it themselves.

Publication announcement: I'm happy to report that another chapter from my Van Gogh novel will soon appear in print.  The journal Versal, an international literary magazine based in Amsterdam, is publishing a chapter from the section of the book that details Van Gogh's Paris years.  The point of view character is Suzanne Valadon, a post-Impressionist painter who circulated widely among the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists and even modeled for a few of them.  During my research for the novel, I read an account she'd written of seeing Van Gogh at a Paris party.  I used some details from that account to construct the chapter.  The issue of Versal will appear in May, accompanied by a launch party in Amsterdam.  Really sorry to have to miss that one.  While I will be in London in June for the Great Writing Conference, there's simply no way for me to make it to Amsterdam in May.  Ah, well.

Monday, January 14, 2013

One Sunday Morning


A couple years ago this blog put me in contact with Anne Whitehouse, a poet and novelist who had written a poem called "Van Gogh in Arles" detailing Van Gogh's heroic struggles to keep painting outdoors in the face of the infamous mistral of Provence.  Anyone who has ever visited that part of the world knows how real and ferocious a force a mistral can be.  (I keenly remember going running one morning in the middle of a mistral and finding myself barely able to move forward.  Thank heaven it was a sunny late spring day and not the middle of winter.)  I admired Anne's poem then and provided a link to it.  I'm happy to tell you now that the poem is included in Anne's  poetry collection, One Sunday Morning, available from Finishing Line Press.

Just as in her previous volume, Blessings and Cursings, Whitehouse is able to capture the dualistic nature of so many common experiences; the two-sided identity of what might seem to be singularly positive or negative developments; or, viewed through a different lens, the deeply unified nature of what appears on the surface to be a divided, battle-torn life.   With a voice of gorgeous understatement and placid wisdom, she pushes at several tiny but beautiful ironies, ironies that are subtle until she exposes them,  and then they seem perfectly obvious.  An example of this phenomenon is the poem "Meditations in June," a poem of lessons learned in a life honestly spent, a poem that admits--like almost all of Whitehouse's work--to being "ever more certain / Of my uncertainty."  In the poem's final stanza, Whitehouse invokes a visit to a hospital to see a terribly ill friend, and her summary of that experience could stand as the ethos of the entire collection:

                               The world is a terrible place.
                               There's no getting out alive,
                               Said my friend from his hospital bed,
                               Elation disguising his dread--
                               Or the other way around.

Is this life the locus of more elation or more dread, the book seems to ask; and, more to the point, is it possible that there's no difference?  Certainly, scattered through its pages are examples of both and either.  Several of the poems seem almost to be gathered out of variant pieces that when brought together resonate with a new, surer power.  They seem less like conscious riffs on a theme than an after-the-fact discovery of connections and oppositions where previously none were suspected.  For example, there is the poem "Consolations," the three parts of which describe, respectively, the poet lusting after fruit she spies at the highest reaches of a tree ("orange-yellow suns glowing / in green shade"), a WWII veterans attempt to escape lingering nightmares from that war through fierce, scientific concentration on nature, and the poet--her voice returned to the poem--describing a dive into the sea.  Each segment details a consolation but also suggest the ways in which the consolation is inescapably bound with an original torment.  The oppositional language of the last stanza brings this home: "the coolness seeped in my skin / and spread all through me / and I relaxed, and I was warm."  There may be no better example of the unity of torment and consolation than the title poem, which describes a wounded stag, "blood stream[ing] from the hole in its rump" after its tail has been ripped off by coyote, who stands nearby, eyeing the poet and worrying the tail "To and fro like a fish in its mouth."  As barbaric as the image is, it is underscored by the stag's unavoidable beauty: "Its antlers . . . fuzz-tipped and green, / Its large eyes liquid and brown." Also by the poet's rising sense of awe at the spectacle of nature at work.  The nature of nature, if you will.  When the stag limps away, "its left foreleg . . . lame / . . . its life helplessly slipping away," the image is of course a sad one, but not necessarily tragic.

While Whitehouse includes no haiku in the volume, every poem demonstrates the directness and elegantly austere language characteristic of that form, not surprising in a poet who, like so many eastern masters, attempts to show through nature what is behind nature and through the individual life what is behind that life, constructing it and maintaining it in a beautiful, tenuous balance of opposites.

Followup to last week: In response to my post last week about a photograph (unearthed only in the 1990s) that some believe to be a photograph of the thirty-something Van Gogh--and thus the only photograph that shows his adult face--reader Shannon sent me a link to a really interesting experiment.  A photographer tries to imitate a famous Van Gogh self-portait to the closest detail possible; as a way, I suppose, of showing us what the man who painted the self-portait "really" looked like while he was painting it.  Of course, self-portaits can be doctored just like any portaits and any paintings can be, but even so it sounded like a fun project.  Follow this link to view the results.  You'll see the familiar self-portait give way, bit by bit, to the photographer's copying rendition.  Cool stuff!  And I must say that the photograph this experiment creates does, in my mind, look much more like Vincent than the supposedly "real" photograph I discussed in last week's post.

Monday, January 7, 2013

A picture of Vincent?


A photo historian named Joseph Buberger recently emailed me a copy of the photograph that you see on the left.  As reported by USA Today, the photograph was discovered several years ago by artist Tom Stanford in an album of cabinet card photographs that he found in an antiques shop in Massachusetts.  It has since been featured in an exhibit titled Discovering Vincent Van Gogh: A Forensic Study of Identification--at the Seton Gallery at the University of New Haven in 2004--and has been widely circulated through the internet.  As soon as he saw the photograph, Stanford felt certain it was Vincent, and Joseph, who assisted with the aforementioned exhibit, agrees.  Joseph also has forwarded to me an email from Pascal Bonafoux, French art historian and curator, who seems to accept that the man in the picture could likely be Van Gogh himself.   Not all experts concur, however, at least not those at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.  The reason why this became a hot topic of conversation is that until the photograph in question surfaced, it was assumed that no adult photographs of Van Gogh existed.  Or rather, no photographs in which his face is visible.  There is one standard photograph of him sitting at a table beside the Siene with Emile Bernard, but in that picture Van Gogh's back is to the camera.   The only photographs that represent his face are from earlier in life, when his identity was still very much in formation: one when he is boy and another late in his teens, after he had worked for a couple years as an art dealer in The Hague.  (See that one below.)  Thus everyone who looks at this "recent" photograph wants to  know: Is this what the famous post-Impressionist actually looked like?

To be honest, I have my doubts.  While the man in the photograph does bear a resemblance to some of Van Gogh's painted self-portraits, he seems less akin to others.  (For instance, the self-portrait on the left, painted during his Paris years, bears a stronger resemblance--in my opinion--to the teenager photograph than this new one.)  Besides, portait paintings are by no means a scientifically accurate reflection of what a person looks like.   It would seem to make sense to compare the photograph first to the known photographs of Vincent, especially the one from his late teens.  When I do that, I have a hard time saying that the men in the two pictures are the same person.  The photograph Stanford discovered dates from 1886.  As you can see from the name and address imprinted on the picture, the photographer who took it worked in Paris.  Indeed, in late February of that year Vincent moved to Paris from Antwerp and stayed in the city for two years.  So if the picture does show Vincent, it is Vincent as he was when he shared an apartment with his brother Theo, circulated among the post-Impressionists, and learned a lot about brightening his palette.  However, in 1886 he was only thirty-three years old.  Less than fifteen years had passed from the time when the other photograph was taken.  Is that enough time for a person to change as drastically as Vincent would have had to?  One could easily argue that those were a very hard fifteen years for Van Gogh.  He gave up art dealing and tried to become a minister and then later decided to be painter. He suffered through a series of dispiriting romantic upheavals--I've written about those before--lived for long stretches in dire poverty and on little food, endured bouts of poor health, and worked himself ragged.  At thirty-three, he'd already lived a couple lifetimes.  Too, while his life was never truly stable, it was in some crucial ways more stable when he lived in Paris with Theo than at any other period in his adult life.  He was no longer starving; he started to look after his health, especially his teeth; and he tried to dress more like a professional man than a laborer.  If there was ever a time he would get such a photograph made, it would be during those years.

But even so, I'm still not convinced.  Van Gogh never had--not at any time in his adult life--much money to burn. In fact, what money he had came in the form of handouts from Theo.  That money typically went to paint and other supplies, books, and--at least while in Paris--visits to cafes.   There would not have been much leftover to pay a photographer.  (Of course, maybe Theo wanted the photograph made and paid the fee.)  Nor is there any mention in his letters of him sitting for a photograph.  (Then again, he wrote far fewer letters when he lived in Paris than before or after.)  And I have to ask why, if this is a legitimate photograph of Van Gogh, it only surfaced now and not much earlier?  Would not Theo have held on to it after Vincent left Paris for Arles?  (Theo religiously saved all the letters Vincent wrote him; why not a photograph too?)  Wouldn't some other family member have taken possession of it after Theo died in 1891?  If it is Vincent, why was the photograph included in an album of photographs featuring mostly clergymen?  And, most important, does it really look that much like the man?   It could be Vincent, or it could simply be an anonymous 19th century Parisian who bears a passing resemblance to him.   If it is Vincent, than we can surely say that the man changed a great deal between his late teens and early thirties.  (It's not just that he's older--that's to be expected--but the very structure of his face, and even his nose, looks different to me.) Just as a comparison, look at these two photographs of Paul Gauguin.  The one on the left dates from 1880, when the artist was 32; the one on the right dates from 1891, when Gauguin was 43.  That's an eleven year time span, and yet there's no mistaking either image for anyone but Paul Gauguin.  The man on the left is quite obviously the same man as on the right.  I know it's not fair to compare how one person ages to how another does, but it gets to the heart of the question for me.  Would an even older-than-his-years Vincent looked like the man in the recently discovered photograph, or would he have looked more like his own photograph from fourteen or so years earlier?

Postscript:  Happy New Year!  I hope everyone is enjoying a pleasant start to 2013.