17 March 2019

A scientist of words



I know nothing of the McCann case beyond what I have seen in the media and can express no opinion about it; this video fascinates me not so much in relation to the subject as to the insight it gives into our unconscious use of language, a theme I have harped upon several times before. Well worth the two hours fifteen minutes it takes to view.

2 February 2019

The universal language


Sibelius: The Swan of Tuonela
 NHK Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tadaaki Otaka
English horn: Shoko Ikeda

26 January 2019

Free rain


The proponents of phonetic spelling are usually dismissed as sandal-wearing cranks, but if their ideas were put into practice the average blood pressure of pedants (I prefer the term 'purists') such as myself might be a bit lower.

My current bugbear is the almost universal confusion between the words 'reign' and 'rein'. A reign is the period during which a monarch rules; a rein is part of the system of straps with which a horse is controlled. The words are usually confused in two specific figures of speech, or clichés, if you prefer, viz: 'rein in' and 'free rein'.

The use of 'reign' in the first is indefensible and a marker of illiteracy. In the second, however, there is a tiny bit of wriggle-room: it is conceivable, just, that there is some higher earthly power than a monarch who is in a position to grant said monarch freedom to reign. Conceivable, but most unlikely, since a monarch is defined as sovereign.

Thanks for reading. I feel better now.

18 January 2019

Windoooooows 95

I remember Windows 95 as a bit of a nightmare. This is probably the best thing about it: and a token of the artistic sensibility and endless ingenuity of mankind.

The full URL is here.

28 November 2018

Two Russian films

The first is Razzhalovannyi (known in English-speaking countries as Degraded Officer or just Degraded), made for TV and released in 2009. The production company, Phoenix Cinema, has posted it on YouTube here (hit the CC button for subtitles).

This is a mesmerising blend of ultra-realism and nightmare. It is set on the Russian Front in World War Two and explores, among other things, the nature of authority and where the line lies between conscience and the need for a soldier to follow orders. The narrative occupies a day in winter – an implausibly long day, which adds to the sense of unreality. Aleksandr Mikhaylov, in an outstanding performance, portrays the enigmatic central character, who, in the final frames, may or may not be taken to be Charon, the Stygian ferryman.

Another extraordinary film set on the Russian Front is Belyy Tigr (White Tiger, 2012). This also has been posted on YouTube by its makers. It is astounding, one of my top five movies of all time. Let me say nothing more about it, except that you should watch to the very end.

6 October 2018

Writer’s block



Fiction is linear when read, and often written that way as well, though a writer don’t necessarily begin at the beginning. At every stage, however, whether that be chapter, scene, paragraph, sentence or even word, he must choose what to write next. The sum of all his choices is the finished work.

A schema of his project will look something like a fern frond. The finished work is the midrib, or rachis, to use the botanical term. From it, fractal-like, diverge smaller ribs, or rachillae, and these in turn can have further branches, and so on. Each of these ribs diverging from the rachis is an avenue he hasn’t followed.

When the story starts to have a life of its own the author develops a sense of the path he needs to follow. He is happy if this feels to him like a rachis; all the elements of the story are in harmony. If he branches off it he may not at first be aware of the fact. The further he gets along the rachilla the worse and more uncertain he feels. He might turn along another branch in the hope of regaining his original direction, and even another, but it’s hopeless: every route from here ends in vacant space. It’s akin to getting physically lost and coming to the end of a cul-de-sac. He realises at last that he has gone wrong but doesn’t understand how. The story grinds to a halt.

For writers who begin at the beginning, this fern analogy holds up in another way. The rachillae are larger at the start and look tempting. These are the unfinished stories in his desk drawer or, nowadays, lurking year after year on his hard disk. Along the rachis the rachillae become progressively smaller, so that by the time the end gets near there is less and less chance of going wrong.

This ‘going wrong’ is the cause of writer’s block. The symptoms build slowly. First there is a nagging feeling that something isn’t right. This is followed by a general depression about the piece as a whole. Next it all seems misconceived. Finally the writer questions the very idea of authorship. He examines the meagre returns on his labours and wishes he’d taken up another line of work. Depending on his vanity and the emotional investment he has made in presenting himself to the world as a Writer, this can even lead to permanent depression.

His solution, of course, besides learning plumbing, is to retrace his steps and find out where he left the rachis. It’s often difficult to do and involves throwing away everything on the wrongly taken rachilla. In the worst case, this can amount to many thousands of words, but there’s nothing else for it if he wants to finish what he set out to do. It may be that he cannot regain the rachis at all because he was never on it: everything he has written so far is a rachilla, in which case he should recognise the fact and consign it to his real or virtual desk drawer.

The feeling of going wrong has to be learned, which is what prentice pieces are for. So too the acceptance that a rachilla must be sacrificed, even though the odd phrase or paragraph from it might be put to use in the proper place.

A frequent cause of going wrong is a character being made to do something he wouldn’t do if he existed in real life. The writer errs for various reasons: inexperience, ineptitude, a desire to take a short-cut or force the story in a certain direction. The light-bulb moment on that particular sort of rachilla comes when the writer says to himself, ‘X wouldn’t do that!’

That is one of the reasons it’s easier to follow the rachis nearer its end – by then the writer knows his characters better.

One nostrum for overcoming writer’s block is to sit down and scribble whatever comes into your head. That is, you delegate the writing to your subconscious. Although I agree that the subconscious plays a central part in writing fiction, this is not the answer. It does not develop your craft, because you do not understand how you became blocked and you have missed an opportunity to analyse your mistake, and these are functions of the conscious mind.