News from the Writing Front – Capote vs. James

formal-writingI met a nice woman from Germany  just before Christmas, a colleague, who teaches writing in English. She is a bit nervous, possibly shy (I don’t know). I don’t think we click, but… When we first met the subject of my having written a novel set in Switzerland (Martin of Gfenn) came up. She emailed me later and said she’d be interested in translating it. I told her it would be on speculation since I have no money and the book doesn’t make any money because the people who might want to read it are not in this country and I teach so much I don’t do all I should to market it. She asked for a chapter so I could see what she did. I figured if it happened, I’d split my take 50/50.

She did great — I enjoyed reading her translation. It’s a simple novel. I wrote it in a very (she calls it) “minimalist” style. I did this intentionally so people for whom English isn’t their first language could read it without relying too much on a dictionary and because I think the style fit the story. I am sure there is also an element of personal taste in there.

Once upon a time I liked the intricate lavish prose of Dickens and James, but not any more. A journey that began with Thomas Hardy, traveling to Theodore Dreiser and then to Ernest Hemingway and ultimately Capote cured me. At a certain point I lost interest completely in reading fiction (except Philip K. Dick). I came to like the clean language and action focus of non-fiction in novels; the journalistic touch that Hemingway brought to fiction and the fiction touch that Capote brought to journalism had equal appeal. That is nothing but personal taste. I also knew what I wanted my writing to DO.

When Martin of Gfenn was longer I sat with a chapter at a coffeehouse one afternoon. I read through it and it seemed that every breath and every step of Martin’s existence was accounted for in my story. It seemed to me to go on and on and on. I couldn’t tell at that point if my feeling was because I was sick of it, I’d worked on it too much, or if really it was over written. Later I decided it was over written and I went at it with a hatchet.

Capote said he believed in the scissors more than the pen when it came to writing well. I definitely adopted that philosophy.

So, today I met with “my” translator again. I gave her a copy of the novel. It was a very strange experience because she was hyper-critical of things I feel are not her business, for example saying she was “disturbed” by a situation in which she was confused (the characters are outside making plaster then inside putting it on the walls — I didn’t have them “walk inside” and she was disoriented by where they were). Since the moment for that kind of criticism has long past (the book is published) I thought, “So?” which I didn’t say. I just said, “Read the whole book. It may work better for you as a whole rather than just a few pages did.”

“It’s your style, I think,” she said. “I prefer Henry James.”

I understood everything then. “I love James, but I’m pretty much his opposite,” I acknowledged, regretting having bought this woman a book. She won’t like it, and she doesn’t “get” me.

“What about the Schwyzerdütsch?” she asked, “I can’t write that.”

“I don’t think it existed in the 13th century,” I said. “I’ve read several bits of medieval German poetry — minnesangs — written by men in ‘Switzerland’ (a non-existent place in those times) and men in Austria and the Rhineland. I didn’t see any difference.”

“That might be so. I didn’t think of that.”

“Well, you know, read the book if you want to and if you decide you like it, then we’ll see, OK?”

I segued from that to the classes we teach and then the interview was over.  I am amazed again and again at the incredible complexity of people and that the whole time, talking to me, she appeared nervous. From this convoluted interview I understand that she doesn’t like my writing and felt hesitant to say so. It is so true; one man’s noise is another man’s symphony.

I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods. For instance, there is a brownstone in the East Seventies where, during the early years of the war, I had my first New York apartment. It was one room crowded with attic furniture, a sofa and fat chairs upholstered in that itchy, particular red velvet that one associates with hot days on a tram. The walls were stucco, and a color rather like tobacco-spit. Everywhere, in the bathroom too, there were prints of Roman ruins freckled brown with age. The single window looked out on a fire escape. Even so, my spirits heightened whenever I felt in my pocket the key to this apartment; with all its gloom, it still was a place of my own, the first, and my books were there, and jars of pencils to sharpen, everything I needed...


At the little town of Vevey, in Switzerland, there is a particularly comfortable hotel. There are, indeed, many hotels, for the entertainment of tourists is the business of the place, which, as many travelers will remember, is seated upon the edge of a remarkably blue lake—a lake that it behooves every tourist to visit. The shore of the lake presents an unbroken array of establishments of this order, of every category, from the "grand hotel" of the newest fashion, with a chalk-white front, a hundred balconies, and a dozen flags flying from its roof, to the little Swiss pension of an elder day, with its name inscribed in German-looking lettering upon a pink or yellow wall and an awkward summerhouse in the angle of the garden. One of the hotels at Vevey, however, is famous, even classical, being distinguished from many of its upstart neighbors by an air both of luxury and of maturity. In this region, in the month of June, American travelers are extremely numerous; it may be said, indeed, that Vevey assumes at this period some of the characteristics of an American watering place. There are sights and sounds which evoke a vision, an echo, of Newport and Saratoga. There is a flitting hither and thither of "stylish" young girls, a rustling of muslin flounces, a rattle of dance music in the morning hours, a sound of high-pitched voices at all times. You receive an impression of these things at the excellent inn of the "Trois Couronnes" and are transported in fancy to the Ocean House or to Congress Hall. But at the "Trois Couronnes," it must be added, there are other features that are much at variance with these suggestions: neat German waiters, who look like secretaries of legation; Russian princesses sitting in the garden; little Polish boys walking about held by the hand, with their governors; a view of the sunny crest of the Dent du Midi and the picturesque towers of the Castle of Chillon.