Sunday, March 11, 2018

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

"Golden Hill", the acclaimed novel by Francis Spufford (his debut fiction, but his fifth book) is a picaresque tale set in the small but established town that is the pre-revolutionary New York. Direct off the boat is Mr. Smith, who may be genuine or may be a conman, but comes with a thousand dollar bill - a fortune - that he wants to redeem. The first part of the novel concerns this stranger as he is introduced into American society. A puritan town, with the first wranglings of republican spirit, it also remains a town aware of its provincialism, and therefore able to be fooled or charmed by a newcomer from the old country. These tensions are brilliantly described at the same time as we have to take on faith that Mr. Smith is or isn't what he won't tell us that he is. There is a narrator - who is not our omniscient author, but a third party who interjects on occasion to despair a little at how well or not they are telling the tale - yet we are constantly shadowing Mr. Smith, so the withhelding of information about his true mission - even whether he is a fraud or not - is a frustrating trope at times.

Yet the New York he has landed in - still little more than a village - is as fascinating to us as it is to him. A mix of English and Dutch families, with also, far more noticeably than London, indentured black slaves, who are given a voice by Smith even when they would be mostly voiceless to their owners, the town is beginning its role as a centre of commerce. Sugar beet ships from the West Indies, and in return New York sends back corn and other food stuffs to feed the workforce there. It is still a very early form of economy. Mr. Smith soon finds that local merchants, inns and coffee houses are willing to extend credit (especially to one who is soon to be wealthy), and accept any kind of note or coinage. Though his bill appears a genuine one, the Lovells - who are to cash it - need corroboration for such a large amount, and a letter is sent back to London. In the mean time Mr. Smith dines out on his future wealth. The arcane complexities of 18th century commerce are touched on as lightly as possible, but so important are they to the plot, that it does feel a little too complex for its own good at times. Lovell lends Mr. Smith a sovereign which is almost immediately stolen from him - one of a number of somewhat clumsy deus ex machina that Spufford employs to move the tale on from one act to another. More of that in a bit. Lovell has two daughters, Flora and Tabitha. In the cloistered world of the American colonies, the lives of women, particularly those who are young and connected is a particularly circumscribed one. Tabitha, whom Mr. Smith falls for, is an enigma from the start. A highly intelligent young woman, she takes her pleasure where she can find it...first torturing her sister, and then Smtih, with her penchant for games, for playacting. This playfulness, which totters into cruelty at times, makes her an enigmatic heroine. With Mr. Smith such an unknown quantity, despite his charisma and good looks, her future is also kept on tenterhooks.

For Smith's secret is in two parts - the first part, about who he actually is, is shared half way through the novel, through a letter he writes back to London - but the second part, about what he is doing in America, has to wait until the very end. So its the reader as well as the other characters in the novel that are equally kept on tenterhooks as to who Mr. Smith is. Septimus Oakeshott, a flamboyant functionary working for the governor, takes a liking to Smith, believing himself a good judge of character - it turns out that he both is, and isn't - he is right to trust Smith, but Smith's own reticence means that the trust is betrayed in severe fashion. As the novel proceeds Spufford's method becomes clearer. This is not just an historical novel about the 18th century, it is - in some ways - a version of the 18th century novel. Not just the picaresque nature, or the series of grotesques he flings our way, but in the language he uses, the delight in arcane forms (e.g. the letter that Smith writes is written as it would have been, with painful syntax and florid descriptions and with many words capitalised.) The 18th century novel at its most baroque delighted in both teasing its reader, and performing a moral function. Few contemporary readers of Fielding's Tom Jones for instance, would avoid skipping the moralising, to go straight to the romp. Though Fielding and Richardson are richly evoked, its that naughtiest of 18th century writers, Sterne, who most comes to mind. Though Spufford is telling a story that has an end - the endless evasions and tricksiness of Tristam Shandy are models for much of Spufford's own tale.

I am not always and admirer of historical fiction. "Golden Hill" seems to fall in a tradition that I do admire - the sense of actually being there. We see it in Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall", but also I first encountered this kind of pastiche-playfulness in Rose Tremain's masterful "Restoration" - more recently novels like "Pure" or "The Sisters Brothers" have created a similar sense of time and place - with similar 18th century anti-heroes at their heart. Yet though I enjoyed the novel, and its been very well reviewed, I found it frustrating in parts. The withholding of information is something that tires after a while, and in some ways it strays too close to its 18th century forbears. Pages of description are interrupted by a particular flare up - a chase throughout the streets of New York on bonfire night; an unexpected boat trip with Tabitha. The bits that revel in pastiche become a little tiresome - in jail at some point, Smith keeps digressing in his letter home, to describe the annoyance of his foul smelling cellmate. Whether cribbing from Sterne or Fielding these different turns of pace are a bit disconcerting at times, and feel somewhat inert in parts. Like Adam Roberts' laboured 18th century steampunk novel "Swiftly", the action scenes feel like attempts to move things along, rather than being critical to the story. Here, the double complexity - of a narrator that is neither Smith or omniscient (leading to so much being of the telling being conjecture) - and of a character whose secrets (and therefore credibility) are constantly withheld - makes it one of those books that you feel determined to finish, to find out what's going on, but also a little tired at the effort involved in doing so.

That might just be a matter of taste, however, as one can't deny the overall colour and texture of this book - which though something of a bestseller - is not afraid to be as complex as is necessary in order to tell its tale. Saying any more would involve letting several cats out of the bag, and the novel depends on that sense of stories withheld. The ending, I'm pleased to say, does make it worth the wait, though there's quite a lot of freight along the way - the novel is more serious than it sometimes pretends to be - but like its 18th century precedents, is not afraid to be as fun as it needs to be on the way to its unravelling.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Film and Influence

In the week of the Oscars its worth thinking on reversing the usual formula - that much film takes its inspiration from literary sources - and thinking of the other way round: how film has and can influence literature. When I occasionally get asked what influences my own fiction, I inevitably mention certain writers, or certain tropes, but cinema is also a key part of my artistic back story; both in terms of the cultural reference points that accumulate for a person of my age and background, but also in terms of narrative style.

This year's two most acclaimed films "The Shape of Water" and "Three Billboards" are both very literary in construction, yet don't come off from a particular literary source. It seems that though there are preponderance of book into film adaptions every year, the taking of a "bestseller" and making a film of it makes more commercial than artitstic sense. There are obvious exceptions -  "Gone with the Wind" and "The Godfather" for instance - but increasingly audiences for bestselling books expect a certain amount of fidelity in the film version. It wasn't always the case of course - books were, like anything else, useful source material. In non-fiction in particular, its rare for a filmic life to have not taken one or more particular biographies of a famous figure in order to bring its story to life. Sometimes these feel like parallel versions. Often the best film adaptions come from books that have not been quite so successful. I didn't hear of the novel behind this year's breakout success, "Call me by your name", until the film came out, for instance; "Brokeback Mountain" and "45 years" are both adaptions of short stories; as are - loosely - "Blade Runner" and "A.I." films that go for punchier titles than their original texts ("Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" and "Supertoys last all summer long"). Reading "The Godfather" a couple of years ago I was struck by how closely the first Godfather movie followed the text. Of course, Coppola was a jobbing director at that point, brought in to helm a project that was all ready greenlighted. It is in the sequel - where he collaborated with the writer Puzo - that the "auteur" comes in. Interestingly, those two auteurs, Coppola and Kubrik both found working with a pre-existing book central to their art - and Coppola would even go so far as to launch and fund a short story magazine, Zoetrope All-Story. Most auteurs orginate their own stories however: especially prolific film makers such as Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers (though the latter have had more success recently with adaptions.) I'm often surprised to discover that films that are so obviously visual - such as "Planet of the Apes" and "Bullitt" are themselves from found texts. Writer-directors or writer-director teams often do originate work in the medium; but also use literary texts as more of a baseline to their idea. So, Martin McDonagh, who both writes and directs "Three Billboards", was previously an acclaimed playwright; Del Toro steeps his fantasies in fairy stories and myths (most obviously in "Pan's Labyrinth"), whilst even Tarantino, whose resources come from old pulp films, sometimes seems to be a particularly literary writer ("Reservoir Dogs", "Kill Bill Vol.2", "Pulp Fiction") even if the source text isn't obvious.

The other way round though: how does film influence text? There seem to be three different ways. As film is a much more commercially successful medium, its inevitable perhaps that writers have, over the years, tried to mimic its immediacy. The use of first person narrative is one good example. It does sometimes seem that some contemporary novels are written as prose treatments ready-made for filming. (An obvious example would be Robert Harris's "The Ghost" for instance, filmed as "The Ghost Writer.") A lot of factional novels seem to have this aspect as part of their make-up. A fictional account of someone's life can then be more easily "adapted" into a movie - e.g. "The Danish Girl" - in a way that a biography maybe couldn't have been. By being an adaption of a book, even one which is about real people, the conversion of the story into a fiction has already taken place, as in David Peace's "The Damned United".

The second way that writing is influenced by film will be in a cultural sense. There's a two way street between certain genre writings and their filmic equivalents. Few contemporary SF novels are immune to the influence  of film and TV adaptions. The recurring trend for dystopias clearly owes a lot to film portrayals of the end of the world. Whereas in the 1950s, books like "The Day of the Triffids" or "Lord of the Flies" could be imaginative creations that would filter into film, one can't help but think that many of our modern dystopias avoid doing the heavy-lifting of world-building, because TV and film have done so much of it for us. In "Station Eleven" by Emily St.John Mandel, for instance, the world building is actually a meta-fiction - the "comic" "Station Eleven" that is in itself a description of a filmic view of another world; whilst in "The Road", Cormac McCarthy doesn't even need to give us a reason for the apocalypse his characters are walking through as we have seen it so many times - what he does instead is he doubles up on that devastation so that the book feels more horrific and claustrophobic than any film version can be. Even China Mieville's masterpiece "The City and The City" with its ingenious creation of dual worlds, which the BBC adaption later this year will need to be highly creative to make work, relies so much on cinematic tropes - particularly around film noir, detective fiction and the idea of an "underworld" into which a hero disappears - not so dissimilar to "Chinatown" when it comes down to it. 

The third way, is more about structure and expectation. If once it was the case that the modernist-derived novel - with its interior monologues and concentration on the ambiguity of an unreliable narrator or similar - could be often referred to as "unfilmable", the best films are surely "un-writable." Yet film is a non-ambiguous medium - it is, after all, a simulacrum - everything you see there had to be made flesh. We are no longer in the days of the Saturday morning serial, where next weeks episode of "Flash Gordon" would alter last weeks ending in order to get the hero out of a particular predicament, relying on our poor memories - nowadays everything can be rewound. When a difficult novel like "High Wire" is adapted, film is brilliant at recreating the visual aspects of Ballard's vision, but struggles a little with the writer's somewhat careless approach to plot. Reduced to action, the film's second half becomes a series of scenes, where the descent into chaos has to be shown rather than described. Some novels are all "feel". Yet film has been a brilliant influencer for anyone who is interested in the intersections of story and plot. We all know that the film industry courses give us "seven types of plot" or that the most famous book on scriptwriting is called simply "story": yet do we really analyse what makes story work in films which are famously collaborative? 

In "Star Wars" for instance, the first twenty minutes is virtually a silent movie: it introduces mostly minor characters - whilst waiting for the "lead", Luke Skywalker, to show himself. A novel would surely be terrified at this lead in time (which might be a first 50 pages), and would certainly need to "telegraph" the idea that the hero is coming. Yet Luke - and the Force - is always there - we just haven't been shown him yet. Film having more props at its disposal than just words, when Luke does appear, in a frankly terribly mundane scene which probably was never intended to be his entry point, the Stars Wars main theme by John Williams is carefully extracted and interpolated over the top of the scene. Subliminally we know this is important. That opening twenty minutes of course is perfectly operatic - and being a space saga gives us a spaceship, a villain, a princess, and some comedy droids. Even Shakespeare knew the value of having some alluring minor characters. 

So perhaps thats an influence that is hard to write down - but film structure does provide us with lots of good examples of how we can write our novels differently. Film is particularly good at giving us worlds that are cut off from the mainstream, and in which anything can happen. When Dustin Hoffman and Julie Christie move to rural Cornwall in "Straw Dogs" they are hoping for a rural idyll. Loosely adapted from a forgotten novel, "Straw Dogs" plays with that familiar trope of a "strange comes to town" and turns it on its head. Here, Christie is returning, and it is the town that is the stranger. In a novel there is a tendency to think about "how" your character gets there. In a modern novel as well, how can someone be so isolated? I wonder if Wyl Menmuir's "The Many" had "Straw Dogs" in mind? Or whether it closes a loop with Rebecca du Maurier's "Jamaica Inn"? I remember seeing "Straw Dogs" - not that long ago - and was struck by its upending of various narrative conventions; the unsettling events see the character's change as their situations change. Any writer knows that the hardest task is making one of your characters change during the course of a novel - but film can make this believable. In "The Godfather" for instance, Michael Corleone returns as a war hero, and says to his new wife Kay, that he's not like his family. By the end of the film he's the one doing the killing. Pacino's acting chops provides the brilliance that enables us to believe in this trajectory, but its also in Coppola's narrative decisions that emphasise the parts of Puzo's novel that makes us believe in it. In the novel, its a story about bad people, almost from the get-go, but in the film we can believe in Michael as having a chance of redemption. 

I've also found inspiration in the way a film like the sublime "Chinatown" tells its story. There's little redemption here: the hero is, like the hero in Hitchcock's "Vertigo", chosen almost for his incapabilities. In "The Wicker Man", the policeman who comes from the mainland is incorruptible, and this is what gives him vulnerability. In "Breaking the Waves" Lars Von Trier creates a psycho-sexual drama that is made believable by the vulnerability of its young actress, Emily Watson and  its bleak 1970s setting (and soundtrack). Yes, novels can also do this - I'm reflecting on first reading "The Collector" or "The Wasp Factory" for instance - but it does seem that filmic examples are as equally vital into what makes a story work for me. It's always a two-way street. 

A final point - and I'm sure if I had longer I could make this into a longer essay, with more examples from both sides of the divide - but film is particularly powerful in terms of point of view. The camera rather than the writer becomes the omniscient narrator. For good or for bad, the main influence my own writing has taken from film is that camera eye's view. I've frequently used the localised third person to give me the same tension and claustrophobia of a movie; staying with one character, but unlike in the first person, being able to step outside and do a panning shot, when the need arises. 

Film, and in particular how film plays with narrative, remains one of the primary sources for my writing - it also makes me less forgiving of bad films, or ones that are predictable in the way they show their story; how many superhero origin stories can I cope with? But that's the same with bad novels as well. The relationship between book and film is not just of the first being a cheap first draft of the second; but it is fascinating which stories appeal to film makers - often obscure stories or novels that have in them something that the film maker can use - similarly as a writer, its very easily to be jealous of the resources - sound, vision, acting, soundtrack - at the film maker's (expensive) command, whilst then remembering that our budget doesn't change whether its four men in a room (like "Reservoir Dogs") or the end of the world that we're portraying.