As I get older I find that I read less and less contemporary fiction and either go to older works I’d overlooked or had simply put off reading, or return to books I’d read years ago. Doing the latter is always enlightening, I think. The person we were when we first read the book is not the same person we are today. It engages us on another level, and our understanding of it is that much deeper. I think part of the reason is that what’s just been published, especially in the genre known as literary fiction (where, in fact, my books appear) suddenly seems so, I don’t know, familiar? Recycled…? I always feel as if I’d read it all before. Some authors return to the same territory, the same bank of characters, the same point of view time and again. It’s like the person you keep running into at one dinner party after another who tells the same jokes, relates the same anecdotes and yet keeps getting invited, simply because he’s become known as a “safe” guest: boring, yes, but predictable. He will not vomit in the ficus, grope the women or speak of Sarah Palin in glowing terms. But I digress, and I’ll probably do it again.
Writing screenplays is a study in recycling to some degree. Give me the same but different is the cri de coeur of development executives and the producers for whom they work. As a screenwriter I find nothing wrong in this. The gangster film has been made hundreds of times, and “The Godfather” is as much a classic as “The Roaring Twenties”, made thirty-three years earlier with James Cagney. Sure, we’ve seen it before, but not quite in the way we’re seeing it now. Film genres are redefined every generation, if not every decade. The same but different. “The Unforgiven” and “Red River.”
Screenwriters, especially early in their careers, are smart to brand themselves. I write thrillers, though my scripts bear almost no resemblance to what I do in my novels. My reading in the genre tends towards French works, books by René Belletto and (though he’s more noir than thriller) Jean-Patrick Manchette, among others. I’ve also enjoyed some of the Scandinavian works in the tradition. I read maybe one a year. But thrillers as a film genre are extremely popular with producers and studios and audiences, of course, because they travel well, certainly better than comedy, which has a distinct national flavor.
Early on I learned comedy via two viewings of “Beyond the Fringe” on Broadway, as well as repeated listening, as a young teen, to the cast recordings. So I had a good grounding in the subtleties of British humor (which stood me in great stead when years later I moved to England to write novels, teleplays and one feature script), but does me little good here. I lose patience with anything Will Ferrell is in (I refuse to pay ten bucks to have this man yell at me as if he were a nine-year-old bereft of candy), and comedy generally involving grown men behaving like boys completely eludes me. So, though my scripts always have some comedy in them, they tend to be dark and conspiratorial and, I hope, utterly credible. In many ways they are throwbacks to the great paranoid thrillers of the 70s—“The Parallax View,” “Three Days of the Condor,” “Klute,” “All the President’s Men,” et al. They don’t make them like that these days, and yet the climate is ripe for it, as more than one development executive has told me. Though they were all thrillers, they were also studies in character, which is probably why A-list actors were happy to star in them. And it’s working with that combination that makes me happy to be a screenwriter.
Speaking of which, I’ve finished the second draft of my script for Circle of Confusion, and am pleased with how much tighter it is. It’s interesting to see how a story mutates and develops as successive drafts are written (and a second draft means I rewrote it virtually daily for two weeks before sending it off, but I won’t call it the fourteenth draft, for fear of seeming daft), and how one comes to know the characters, the beats of the story and, most importantly, a sense of what the audience is thinking from one scene to the next. The goal of any screenwriter or filmmaker is to keep the audience glued to their seats by giving them a compelling story compellingly told, and as a writer you sense very quickly where the dead spots are as well as the places where people might just glance at their watches, decide they need to use the bathroom or feel a sudden desire for yet another bucket of buttered popcorn. The trick is to keep them there, in the theatre, and not release them until the credits start rolling. (I'm also in discussions with two other producers regarding projects, and a third has requested that I take a shot at an assignment.)
Recently, mostly out of curiosity, I saw “Paranormal Activity,” a film made for just over $10,000 and which has so far grossed over $100 million. It’s a very simple film, shot in the director’s home, using two unknown actors. Is it a good movie? Not in the conventional sense, no. Is it a good piece of filmmaking? Absolutely. By alternating the mundane—the bickering and kvetching of the two principals—with the anticipation of what might come that night, the director draws the audience into a pattern of relaxation followed by high tension. Like Spielberg with the John Williams cellos-and-bass ostinatos that alerted us to the arrival of the shark in “Jaws,” director Oren Pell signals the eerie with a low audible hum; an effect that works beautifully. Like “The Blair Witch Project,” it bears all the hallmarks of “reality” while all along reveling in its fictional world. But it works best as an example of what makes movies so compelling: the fact that we can be emotionally manipulated for ninety minutes or so, only afterwards to realize what a great ride it was.
But back to what I read these days. Though I tend to steer clear of much contemporary fiction, I make an exception for Roberto Bolaño’s stories and novels, as these truly do seem new to me, in voice as well as in vision. I also like the works of Javier Marías, a Madrileño who has spent a good deal of time teaching and writing both in the US and in Britain. In French I’ve followed the careers of Patrick Modiano, René Belletto, Jean-Philippe Toussaint and Jean Echenoz. But as I wrote earlier, I’ve been returning to works I’d read years ago. Last summer, among other titles, I reread Balzac’s Lost Illusions and Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust (which I used to read almost yearly). Now I’m reading Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes.
I think the writer who means most to me, though, is Marcel Proust. When I was living in England I spent a year reading A la Recherche du temps perdu—In Search of Lost Time—in the Scott-Moncrieff translation, and when I was done the world seemed somehow different to me, as Proust well knew it would. Somewhere in the novel he writes of an artist being like a kind of optician. The artist—the great artist—places a pair of glasses on you and suddenly the world you’ve taken for granted all this time becomes more vivid, more detailed, and suddenly you’re seeing things you hadn’t been able to perceive before. Just as once Renoir’s works became known people began seeing “Renoir women” everywhere. “She’s a real Renoir,” they’d say, and so the artist had added a new definition to their world; he had pulled back the curtain to show them something that until then had passed unnoticed.
A majority who try Proust read Swann’s Way and then give up, which is unfortunate. Originally conceived as a three-volume novel, the First War got in the way, and because publishing in France had more or less come to a halt, Proust began to expand the work until it eventually, and only posthumously, stretched out to seven volumes, each with its own title. So that Swann’s Way is in many ways the most rewritten and polished of the seven, and hence bears a certain density not evident in the later volumes. As he moved deeper into the work he sensed that he was racing against his own mortality—which was true—and so the writing becomes less thicket-like, for the most part, and reveals its comedy in more obvious ways. Those who have read beyond the first volume (which certainly has its share of comic moments) know Proust as one of the great comic writers of the last century; also as one of the most frankly sexual authors of his time. Especially in the final volume, Le Temps retrouvé—Time Regained—in a prolonged scene in a brothel during a German air attack on Paris there is writing that is as raw and daring as one might later see in a work by William Burroughs.
Proust is the great bridge between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His work took in everything from the first motorcars, aircraft and telephones, to mention of Picasso and Stravinsky when a majority of people outside of certain circles in Paris knew nothing of them. He dealt with perception and psychology in a way that anticipates Freud, and the way he depicts character, and especially how we perceive people, is very much akin to Cubism. Just as Picasso revealed a whole new way of seeing, Proust showed us a whole new way of understanding not just fiction but of the world as we might potentially apprehend it.
Once I’d read Proust in English I wanted to read him in the original. So I spent a fairly long time relearning my high-school French, reading simpler texts over a period of a few years, and then finally reading Proust in his own language. I’m due to read him once again in the next year or so. As with Tolstoy’s War and Peace, another book I’ve read several times and treasure as a personal touchstone, I will see Proust with new eyes this time, as I had twice before. Older eyes, certainly, but ready to see the world once again anew.
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