Tuesday, February 27, 2007


I have just finished reading Patrick Suskind's Perfume, and though I found the ending somewhat at odds with what I wanted to happen, and ever so finally abrupt, I loved the style and the narration. Someone said that my recent short story (just entered to Litopia's "It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time" competition) reminded them of Perfume simply for the fact that I use several references to smell (I slid in a couple of tastes too - though smell was the key). They asked had I read Perfume before writing my short, to which I replied that I hadn't, but promptly snapped it up and read it over the weekend. Magnificent.

I could never invest myself so much into the greater portents of potions and perfumes as Suskind does because I just don't (yet) have an understanding of base notes and midtones, whether a scent is musky, thick, bitter, encroaching, whatever. I have to be more judicious, and could never think of making smells another character in my book. I'd need to invest heavily in a search for scents!

Perfume is of note for two other reasons. 1) Strangely, and out of keeping with the rest of the book, page 50 has a two page script of dialogue in it between Baldini (Perfumer) and Chenier (his Journeyman), with no direction, just speech.
2) The style has little in the way of dialogue (making the two page script stand out even more) but it has such a flow as I could only dream at this point in time.

However, I see now, that point 2 encapsulates my next stage of learning. Writers, such as Suskind, and Jim Crace (as I have recently discovered) are giving the reader two important things that I have missed because I still concentrate on where people are and what they are doing... with things as mundane as their hands.

Don't get me wrong, millions of other writers succeed in this manner, and have constructed tales in the same way for years and years. I'm not such a dullard that I've not read widely enough... I just haven't made the comparison, realised, that this is so. My eyes are opening.

Here's an extract from the extract on Crace's website: http://www.jim-crace.com

Down in Ferrytown, not sleeping, either, were two passengers from ten days west, a beauty boy – no beard – not twenty yet, and his slightly older wife. They’d found a berth in the lofts of the dormitories, against the guest house rules which naturally put the women behind locked doors in different quarters to the men, but two-a-bed nevertheless. It was less comfy and colder than those ground-floor beds where his parents and his sisters were, but more private and consoling. This couple didn’t have to share their air with anyone, except the devil. In bed the devil always is the third. So it was three-a-bed for these two newly weds. No wonder they’d been making love, as usual. Moving on each day and spending every night in some new space was oddly stimulating, they’d found, as was having sex as quietly as they could in sleeping company, against the rules. But now that lovemaking was concluded, they were quarrelling in whispers despite the likelihood that everything they said could be heard by strangers. The consolations of love-making don’t last long when you are fearful, regardless of the massive hope beyond the fears. How many days would it be before they reached the ocean and the ships? The beauty boy thought one more month. He’d not pretend that things were better than they were. The far side of the river was an odd, perplexing place, he’d heard, haunted, wrecked and hard underfoot, with prairies of rubble where people had once lived in bastions and towers. The way ahead would be hard beyond imagining. His wife, though, did not believe such stories. She was uncompromisingly optimistic, hopeful beyond reason. The rain that night had been more salty than she’d expected. When the rain tastes like tears, then the sea is close. She’d seen a white bird, (“That’s a sign”) and she’d heard another passenger say they’d reach the shore – the mighty river with one bank – in just three more days. Then the future could begin. So much for rubble, bastions and towers. Her husband was too easily impressed. She drifted off to thoughts of boarding ship in three days time, and no more quarrelling . . .

Backstory! Each character, and pay attention here - these two in the extract are introduced here and are about to die in the next couple of pages and yet they've been fleshed out by Crace. Why? Because he's invested in his characters and he's showing the reader and greater sense of this wider world. Why are they going to board a ship?

Then, here's an extract from later on in Perfume that really stopped me (CAREFUL now, possible SPOILER):

He did not want to regard him as a human being, but only as a victim to be slaughtered. He did not want to see him until the execution, when he would be laid on the cross and the twelve blows crashed down upon him - then he would want to see him, want to see him from up close, and he had had a place reserved for himself in the front row. And when the crowd had wandered off after a few hours, he wanted to climb up on to the bloody scaffold and crouch next to him, keeping watch, by night, by day, for however long he had to, and look into the eyes of this man ... and drop by drop to trickle the disgust within him into those eyes, to pour out his disgust like burning acid over the man in his death agonies - until the beast perished ...

Real inner thoughts of a character. Motivation through their feelings.

I'm ultimately both backstory (because I don't know my characters and my world well enough) and inner feelings (because I don't know my characters and my world well enough... whoah! Deja vu!)

So, how do I do this? Do I create intricate histories that slow my writing down and make me bored with a project? If I succeeded and carried on beyond the histories, where would I decide to sprinkle these backstories? Or, do I get in there, write one draft and then go back and flesh it out?

The point here has to be what is important... and what is important in any fiven scene? Ideally, only I should know, and yet I feel powerless compared to Suskind and Crace.

So, what next? Next I will read John Banville's The Sea.

Why that and not the Satanic Versus, the Constant Gardener, the Shadow of the Wind (all of which sit at my bedside)? Banville's is much smaller. I should get it read in a week. I think I need to be reading wider and wider, and now that I'm not writing (I just can't commit until I understand backstory and inner feelings) three projects are bustling at the inside of ears (trying to escape my head) spraying ideas against the inside of my skull like frenetic life-art painters as a way of marketing themselves to be the next thing I do.

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