Symbolically Stalin

Human language is, of course, symbolic in nature. A word is a symbol. Nobody confuses a written or spoken word with the thing it is meant to represent. The multitude of languages in the world is concrete evidence that the word (symbol) is not bound to the thing. Those instruments at the end of your arms you call hands, if you’re an English speaker. That’s not what a person born and raised in Beijing or Finland or Somalia calls them. Different symbols representing the same things.

So at the most basic level of communication, symbolism or, to look at this more practically, metaphor,  is all you’ve got. And it doesn’t stop there. Metaphor (building on the understanding of one thing to understand another)  is so intrinsic to language and communication and the workings of the human mind that it’s a major area of study that spans disciplines from psychology and neuroscience to art history to linguistics and, (this was where we were headed the whole time) literature and storytelling of all kinds.

Once in a while an author will want to tell one story, but can’t for personal or political reasons. Or, they realize the story they want to tell just won’t capture the imagination of the audience. If you are interested in Stalinism and how it came to be, what it evolved into, its evils, you might go study history and Russian culture and politics and then take twenty years to write the definitive historical treatise on that very large subject. A well written history will not have much symbolism in it, although there may be an attempt to analyze metaphors that were relevant to Stalin and his time. So then, you can’t get away from it, even in a history.

So okay, we’re going to write a novel now. We want to tell the story of Stalinism, we want to draw people in and make them really understand totalitarianism, to feel it in the gut. How many hundreds and thousands of ways could this be approached? We sit down and discuss those possibilities at length and decide that nope, none of that will do. Not clear enough for our purposes. We need some construct that will bypass people’s preconceived notions and show them the truth before they realize what’s coming.

Hey. What if we forget about Soviet Russia completely and set the story…. in a farmyard?!?

Continue reading…

interior monologue & metaphor

When it’s done well, interior monologue is one of the most elegant ways of establishing and developing character. You, as the writer, climb  right into Sally’s or Esteban’s or (on occasion) the dog’s head. You take notes and these you transcribe for the person who will read the story you’re writing.[1. Often literary scholars talk about James Joyce and Ulysses (1922) when they talk about interior monologue, but you may remember that Ulysses is on my list of literary sacred cows, so I won’t talk about it here except to say: Joyce doesn’t deserve any special credit for developing interior monologue as a device. Tolstoy used it very effectively fifty years earlier in Anna Karenina (1877).]

There are many examples out there of really badly done interior monologue, but I have been reading Cathleen Schine’s The Love Letter (1995), and I keep running into good ones.  The novel is about Helen and a mysterious, utterly charming and anonymous love letter that shows up out of the blue addressed to no one in particular. Helen is a very complex character, one I can’t quite like but can’t dismiss, either, which says to me that Schine has managed to get this Helen of hers under my skin. She is frivolous in many ways and she’s unapologetically selfish; she gets her kicks by arranging her people around herself like so many adoring dolls. Once in a while she remembers that they aren’t really dolls and improves her behavior, but it doesn’t last. She gets away with this because she’s pretty and pleasant; not many people see through her, and those who do seem to accept her for what she is. A lot of this is established through bits of interior monologue like this one (pay attention to the central metaphor especially):

“Helen […] went back to thinking of the letter, for the anonymous, wayward love letter was, whatever she might tell herself, on her mind. It had become a nuisance overnight, a houseguest that would not leave, would never leave; but wouldn’t come downstairs for breakfast either. The letter was a useless hanger-on. But it did hang on, disturbing her privacy. Go away, she thought. Get a job. Take a course at the New School.”

Helen has a talent for simply turning away from people who become too much work, but she can’t get this anonymous letter and its mysterious author out of her head, and she resents it. The metaphor of an unwanted houseguest provides particular insights into Helen’s view of the world. Not only does she want the houseguest to go away, she has particular goals for this person (a job, a degree). This is funny, but it’s also very telling.

Helen might have compared the love letter to an overdue bill, or a pile of ironing, or the pinging sound coming from the refrigerator,  but her mind produces a human being, and more than that: a human being who isn’t easily manipulated. The novel is about Helen recognizing some unpleasant things in herself, and deciding whether or not she wants to change them.

Metaphor is such an intrinsic part of the way we tell stories that generally they happen below the level of consciousness. As a writer struggling with a character who won’t come into  focus, you might be able to make some progress by eliciting metaphors.  For example, other people in this novel come across the letter and imagine, for a short time, that it is meant for them. We don’t hear their interior monologues, but as the supreme being in this universe you’re creating, you can  listen for one. Maybe the shy teenager sees the letter as a gift that will unwrap itself in time to reveal her heart’s desire.  A jealous husband might jump to the conclusion that someone wrote the letter to his own wife, and for him that sheet of paper is as thin and transparent as last year’s snakeskin.

We talk about close reading, which is where metaphors come to the surface and make demands of the reader, but close reading is also something the writer needs to do. Writing is both mask and unveiling, according to E.B. White[2. Mr. White is another writer on my love/hate relationship list, along with James Joyce, Wallace Stegner, and D.H. Lawrence.] and metaphor — especially within interior monologue — is one place where that sleight of hand happens.