Showing posts with label Joseph Conrad. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Joseph Conrad. Show all posts

26 October 2022

The Duellists


A young girl shepherds a group of geese down a tree-covered lane.  She’s brought up suddenly short by a tall man in a Hussar’s uniform, standing indifferently in her way.  A short distance beyond, two other men in shirtsleeves are en garde, at rapier point.  She’s stumbled onto a duel.  The two men are clearly mismatched; the first is awkward and inexpert, the second condescending and impatient.  The first makes a stumbling attack, the second parries him and circles to one side, exasperated.  The first lunges again and the second skewers him center body, as carelessly as brushing aside an insect.  “Là,” the better swordsman says,   and steps back, leaving the blade sticking through and through.  He lifts his empty hands in a dismissive gesture, this small business beneath his dignity, and turns away. 

This is the opening scene of Ridley Scott’s 1977 feature picture debut, The Duellists.  Conrad begins his 1908 novella with a brief paragraph to set up his backdrop, the Napoleonic wars, and drops you right into it.  Ridley, if anything, allows us to catch our breath for a single, brief moment, but then abruptly pulls the rug out from under. 

Here’s the hook.  Two of Napoleon’s officers, cavalrymen, fight a duel, the pretext a supposed insult, but the cause of their dispute itself misunderstood.  They go on for another dozen years or so, from Strasbourg to the invasion of Russia to the emperor’s exile, to fight each over and again, to no result, until finally, one forces a resolution on the other. 

Conrad is no stranger to obsession, or the collision of fate and accident, or the opposition of two people thrown into relief, their character mirrored.  “The Secret Sharer” comes to mind, or Lord Jim.  What drew Ridley Scott to it seems more problematic.  I don’t see a lot of ambiguity in his movies.  Subtleties, elusiveness, a thing seen on the periphery, yes, and shape-shifting.  But for the most part, you seem to skitter on material surfaces, often metallic, or reflective, armored, not porous and elastic, not inward. 

And yet.  A sense of something hidden, or withheld.

The cinematographer on The Duellists was Frank Tidy, his first feature, as well as Ridley’s, but the camera operator was Ridley himself.  This is telling.  The guy actually looking through the lens.  You have to wonder which of the two was composing the shot.  The movie’s beyond pictorial – every frame is breathtaking.  You can feel a sense of awe, not that they’re so good at what they do, but that they got a chance at the brass ring, and made the most of it. 

The gods also smiled on their casting.  Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine are the leads, Keitel as the hasty fireplug with a grievance, Carradine as the long, languid drink of water, both of them playing to type, but making it seem new, as if each of them were suddenly startled awake, in character, and blinking at the light.  Cameos to make you swoon: Albert Finney and Tom Conti, Edward Fox and John McEnery, Alun Armstrong, Diana Quick, Pete Postlethwaite.  They lucked into it, whatever it is, and stepped across the magical boundary into the sublime. 

Available to stream on Amazon Prime; also on DVD, both Standard and Blu-Ray. 

20 September 2019

When the Muse Takes a Powder

Although there are authors of unrivaled productivity, nearly every writer comes to periods when the Muse is unavailable. She’s pitched her hammock somewhere on the slopes of Mount Olympus, or if your favor a more modern goddess, she’s on a beach somewhere drinking pina coladas and checking her smart phone. But don’t try to contact her – she’s not taking your calls at the moment, whether you’re sacrificing at Delphi or chasing ideas on the web.
Muses by Eustace LeSueur

I’m not talking about writer’s block here, although that is another and probably more famous affliction. Joseph Conrad left two vivid descriptions of this malady. In a famous letter to Edward Garnett, he apologized for his slow correspondence. “I ought to have written to you before, but the fact is I have not written anything at all. … In the course of that working day of 8 hours I write 3 sentences which I erase before leaving the table in despair.”  In another letter he noted, surprisingly, that his imagination was extremely active during these bleak periods: “Everything is there: descriptions, dialogue, reflexion—everything—everything but the belief, the conviction, the only thing needed to make me put pen to paper.”

Joseph Conrad
Most of us would be happy to have descriptions and dialogue not to mention reflection in the hopper, but when the Muse takes a powder, it’s not will that’s lacking for most of us but ideas. Perhaps we can take some comfort in the fact that inspiration can desert even the great. I recently came across a quote from T. S. Eliot in a review of a new volume of his letters. Declaring “ it is a nuisance to be a poet”, he continues, “When it is a life work, you are sure to find from time to time that your inspiration is exhausted, and that you either repeat yourself, or stop writing. These are painful, but necessary periods.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The last sentence is the one I find most significant, especially his comment that these unpleasant dry periods are necessary. I think I agree. At the same time, I suspect that I am not the only writer that faces these fallow times with a touch of dread, fearing rationally or not, that this time the Muse and all her precious ideas are gone for good. It’s certainly possible and, at my age, increasingly likely.

On the other hand, she’s always come back before which gets us to the next question. If she cannot be summoned directly is there anything that helps? Well yes. Effort does sometimes work. Conrad, you will note, was seated at his desk for eight miserable hours a day struggling. Blocked as a poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote voluminously, turning out much admired essays and criticism, but while Conrad managed more novels, Coleridge’s poetry did not return.

On a much humbler level, I have found over the years that ideas come directly from work, particularly when the work is non-fiction or shorter prose fiction. One trains the subconscious to notice what will make, say, a good feature piece or a good short mystery story. In a slightly different way, work on a novel, which begins in a burst of inspiration, enthusiasm, and pleasure, dwindles about the second week to a slog not too different from Conrad’s misery at the writing desk.

Muse regarding a MS
with some skepticism
This is when persistence and craft have to take over until around week 3 or 4, one makes the happy discovery that more copy is waiting each morning. The Muse has been called back by hard work and conscious thought and now the subconscious can do its job.

But sometimes even dedicated persistence does not work. I started a novella a couple of years ago with the usual enthusiasm, wrote several nicely crafted sections, and came to a shuddering halt. Everything was set up nicely, prose was good, voice interesting, characters all right – but the story went nowhere.

It was only a few months ago, that, trying to clean out my file drawers, I read it over, thought it was pretty good, and after a couple weeks of struggle, got back on track and finished the thing. So, while I always encouraged students to try regular habitual writing, I must say that I also believe in the hydraulic theory of composition. The subconscious takes time to fill up. There is only so much energy, inspiration, enthusiasm and confidence available at any one time. Deplete them, and you have to let the Muse lounge in her hammock for a while.