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Writing diary

23 November 2010 Leave a comment

The manuscript that I began at the start of the month as part of National Novel Writing Month has pretty much ground to a halt at a touch under 17,000 words. My first week back from China saw me writing every day and producing around 2,000 words a day. But on Friday I reached a bit of a crisis, as I could no longer see where the writing was going. Since then I’ve been going back to the (now legendary) drawing board to lay the foundations that should have been laid earlier. Today I mostly completed a kind of potted history of the world up until the point at which my story starts. In the next few days, I plan to brainstorm more of the details that will go into the story’s background – and which I will then sweep away with the first words of actual story.

What I wrote up until Friday had definite merit. In particular, I created four characters with diverse personalities and personal problems. Unfortunately, the whole work just wasn’t quite what I’d intended to write. It happens sometimes that your imagination takes you on tangents that may or may not work out. Also, I think the first character I made – and therefore the first viewpoint character – was a little too YA for my taste.

I now have a firmer basis to continue writing – or, more properly to start writing again, this time on version 2. I have plenty of ideas about the plot, but they’re all either vague or disconnected at the moment. Setting down a real plot, a series of causes and effects slowly building in intensity to the story’s climax will be another important task I have to undertake soon. It’s vital, because I need to know what I’m writing towards in order to write. It’s also incredibly difficult.

I think that conceiving a short story is like trying to visualise a small group of objects, like five apples, or a moment from a film. Trying to conceive a novel, or, worse, a series of novels, is like trying to visualise a million apples or every moment in a film simultaneously. Caveat scriptor, indeed.

Review of Immortality by Milan Kundera

I’d read one Kundera novel before I tackled this one – The Unbearable Lightness of Being and enjoyed it quite a bit. It was different from my usual fantasy fare – intimate, understated, delicate, intelligent (not that fantasy novels can’t be any of those things, especially the latter) – and that was probably a large part of why I liked it.

I also liked Immortality – for the same qualities. Where The Unbearable Lightness of Being is set in Prague, the author’s native home, this novel is set in Paris, the author’s adoptive home. It deals primarily with relationships – the relationships of the somewhat unhappy Agnes, and also of her husband and sister; and also those of Goethe and his supposed love, Bettina. It also deals with the author himself, who is a character in his own novel – although it might be more accurate to say that the characters are people in his own life. And it deals with a gesture.

The book begins with the author noticing a gesture – a carefree, backward-looking wave of a young woman performed by an old woman. This leads him to muse on the relative uniqueness and longevity of gestures and people. People, he thinks, are the vessels of gestures. This carefree wave comes to be on a par with the characters in the novel – transmitted from one to another, and living on because of this.

The characters find their genesis in the early morning drowsy thoughts of the author. In one chapter, the author imagines a woman, lying in bed like himself, savouring the absence of her husband; he tries to think what motivates her. In the next chapter, she has become, without further elucidation, the novel’s protagonist. Although the author never comes face to face with Agnes, he meets her husband and sister; he spends time with his friend, Professor Avenarius, who is also a friend of theirs. He asks the professor about them, hoping to understand what they have done and why.

At one point, Avenarius asks what he is planning to call the novel he is working on (the novel you’re reading); the author says he wants to call it The Unbearable Lightness of Being, to which the professor replies, I think someone already wrote that! and the author responds that it was him.

The novel describes and discusses Goethe and his relationship with a young devotee, Bettina. Goethe – according to what is written here – didn’t care for her much and saw her as a danger to his reputation and legacy. She seems to have been obsessed with Goethe and wrote him letters about love, planning to publish them after his death – along with various self-serving emendations. Goethe is also shown having conversations with Hemingway in the afterlife.

The whole novel is a gentle but mesmerising musing on the nature of the desire for immortality, the desire to control one’s reputation, and how the dead are remembered. I feel that the book doesn’t offer any particular thesis, but just tries to offer a subtly fantastical, psychologically realistic, multi-faceted picture of various intimately or tenuously interconnected lives. Despite the fact that it jumps between the present day narrative and its pseudo-biography of Goethe and even jumps back and forth within the foreground story, despite the fact that it doesn’t so much blur as consider irrelevant the boundaries between fact and fiction, it is beautifully readable from start to finish.