Talking About Literature And Writing

If I asked the average individual or even the average English Literature teacher who was Emeric Pressburger very few of whom I asked would know and most wouldn’t care.  Now I bet at least half of you reading this post will immediately go to Wikipedia and look up that name.  Emeric Pressburger was a Hungarian born British screenwriter.  He is best known for the many films made with Michael Powell, the British film director.  As an introduction to Pressburger, he had mathematics and engineering at the universities of Prague and Stuttgart before having to withdraw due to the death of his father.  Pressburger also was seriously interested in music and literature as a young man.  During the time he and Powell collaborated, he not only wrote the screen plays but also did a great deal of the producing of their films, was involved with the editing of the films, and chose the musical scores for those films.  He was a sort of renaissance man in the film industry.  By 1961 he took some time out from the film production to write his first novel.  I doubt you will find any copies in any high school library and damn few university libraries.  Well, why should we care?

Killing A Mouse On Sunday does sound like a very unlikely title for a great novel.  The setting is twenty years after the Spanish Civil War in northern Spain near the French border.  Each chapter is in the voice, for the most part, of one of the four main characters.  A young boy, an old anti fascist soldier, the Captain of the local police, and a priest.  There are other characters and they sometimes speak for themselves, complete with their own expositions, but those are minor excursions into the telling of the story.  Pressburger does a very good job with each of their personalities and the way they speak for themselves.  As we read we can feel that each individual is telling their part in a very competent and coherent way.  The chapters tell us of the human conditions as they relate to the lives of the characters.  But Pressburger also explores the personalities and exposes their flaws, their desires, and their needs.  We can see a bit of philosophy being discussed by ordinary people in ordinary ways.  And since he was a screenwriter we can expect the dialogue to be crisp and succinct.  He doesn’t waste words, he doesn’t misuse them.  He makes a professor of literature who teaches creative writing look like crap.  One of the tasks of any serious writer is the read and read widely, for he or she must read the best, and sometimes the worst, since such idiots can be instructive.

A novel should be the opportunity for the writer to explore some area of philosophical discussion or argument.  Writing of action and adventure stories simply to collect a paycheck is to miss the point of writing.  When we tell stories we do more than relate information.  Even gossip has a point.  It serves to expose free riders and others who would take advantage of us.  When we talk about what happened at work today we relate some point of interest that is important to us.  You know my boss at work, he is forever trying to catch me doing something wrong.  I really got him this time, really embarrassed him.  Do you know what I did?  Well, wouldn’t you like to know?  Often we are the heros of our own tales, the champions of right, the great lovers, the wise fathers, and so forth.  Rarely do we paint ourselves as villains, as doers of evil.  Did you ever read a novel told by an evil man, a true villain?  Perhaps only if you know that he gets his in the end.  But life is more than what did you do at the office, Daddy?  We are surrounded by life and events and we should try to make sense of them, if only to ourselves.  True, so many fools out there are hooked on watching the latest reality crap or the popular junk because they cannot stand to turn off the noise and read quietly in that wonderful silence that promotes thinking.  When I was a kid, I loved to watch television.  And I saw some great television.  I actually would avoid Our Miss Brooks for Playhouse 90.  I remember watching Art Carney in that live play, The Man In A Dog Suit.  Yeah, Ed Norton did a great job before a live audience without Ralph to bother him.  But when television moved to LA, that was the end of any intelligent life on the networks.  That brightness knob on your TV set no longer worked.

People, television is so passive a medium.  And in its way, so is film now that special effects have taken over to eliminate any use of imagination by the audience.  But a book, now that is anything but passive.  You take it in your hands and hold it, feel its weight and turn the pages.  Your eyes must scan the pages and read the lines, your imagination must take those words and construct the physicalness of the characters and the settings.  You, the writer give each reader’s mind the clues that help them accomplish this feat.  Time to introduce another novelist.

Harry Brown, dropped out of Harvard in his sophomore year to pursue writing poetry,  He worked at Time Magazine and became a sub editor At The New Yorker.  He wrote The Poem Of Bunker Hill, a widely acclaimed work.  He joined the Army Corps of Engineers in 1941, and served on the staff of Yank Magazine.  He wrote the novel based on the experiences of a company of men in Italy called A Walk In The Sun.  The manner in which he wrote that story allowed almost a direct translation to the screen play.  The action only covers one day in the war and he tells that story through a number of individuals.  One has the feeling of hiking with that company, standing by the sides of different men from one time to the next.  The number of voices (I did not bother to count) must be at least a dozen.  Even James Jones didn’t do thin with his great works (From Here To Eternity, The Thin Red Line, and Some Came Running, all of which made great films), he did maybe half a dozen at best, and it took him 500 hundred pages or so.  This is the point of reading for yourself.

We can trace this technique back to the likes of John O’Hara.  Butterfield 8 is the perfect example.  The difficultly with O’Hara is keeping straight who is speaking now.  And certainly exposition, that inner dialogue the speaker has within himself is lost when one keeps to the hard and fast rule of never tell, always show.  I have read a few pages of people attempting to write novels and what I see in this showing method is a bunch of He statements.  He walked into the room and sat down. He looked around for the contact he was not sure would show.  He lit a cigarette and then blew a ring of smoke about candle in front of him.  He got up and walked over to the bar where he ordered a scotch on the rocks.  He downed it in one gulp.  He, He, He, He, He, what the hell are these professors of creative writing teaching?  Is this the best one can expect from a graduate student in literature to teach to those willing to learn formulas?  Life has consequences and we need to think about those actions we take and the consequences of those actions.  This is what the novel is about.  What are the consequences of walking in a stream barefoot?  Your feet get wet, mud gets between your toes, the water gets hazy with the mud you have stirred up into silt that is now carried further downstream.  And so the actions and causes and reactions continue.  The novel gives us a chance to examine all these things.  You, the writer, have license to explore the endless possibilities of live events.  What does it mean to live in another country where the language is not your native language?  What are the differences in custom?  So maybe you live in the same town where you were born.  What has changed?  Who has left and who are your new neighbors?  A writer must examine his world, his few acres of life.  Why do we do the things we do and why does it matter?  A good writer questions life, he questions the assertions everyone takes for granted as true.  Yet if we look close enough, those very same assertions aren’t really true.  Those assertions everyone believes are truth are really lies, accepted because no one wants to bother with discerning right from wrong.  Authority must not be challenged.  That is why we write, to challenge what we know is not quite right or perhaps greatly wrong, but always to challenge the accepted because it must be challenged.


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