Sunday, November 09, 2008

A new book shows there's life in an old literary form

Garbhan Downey is a kind of literary archaeologist in addition to being a pretty funny writer. Last month I wrote about his 2005 story collection Off Broadway, in which, among other things, he dusted off and revitalized Damon Runyon. Earlier, I'd written about the strong moral slant of the comedy in his novel Running Mates, a moral interest that smacks more than a little of classical and Shakespearean comedy.

Downey's book Yours Confidentially, published earlier this year, is not only cast in another old literary form, that of the novel written in letters, but it also captures something of the moralizing spirit of 18th-century classics of the form. I'm no scholar of the epistolary novel, but I do know that such classics as Samuel Richardson's Clarissa and Pamela and such burlesques as Henry Fielding's Shamela are characterized by introspection, moralizing and, in the burlesques, satire.

Here, Downey's subject is, as always, the hilarious world of post-Troubles Northern Irish politics, and the mood is, as always, high comedy. Once I've got a bit of sleep, I may return with some samples. But what most impresses me so far is the earnestness and introspection some of the letters. Take this, from the randy Catholic politician Shay Gallagher to the randy Protestant politician Sue McEwan, who is also his fiancée, after opponents begin leaking stories and rumors about Shay's pre-engagement romantic life:

"I am terribly, terribly sorry about all this and the embarrassment it causes you and Danielle – and even your mother. By way of excuse, all I can say is that up until Uncle Shay died six years ago, I never imagined that I'd spend my life as anything but a private citizen. And I behaves as such."
Quite apart from the high jinks and shenanigans revealed slowly in the other letters, I find that sentiment touchingly open and worthy of an eighteenth-century rake with a good heart. I was tempted to guess that Downey concentrated on literature in university, but he has captured the spirit of several types of story too well to have actually studied them. There is nothing of the deadening hand of the A-grade English major here.

Here's your question: Garbhan Downey has captured the forms and moods of Shakespearean comedy and 18th-century English epistolary novels. Elsewhere, I find echoes of the Odyssey and of Dante in Adrian McKinty 's Michael Forsythe novels. What other contemporary crime writers have recast or found inspiration in old literary forms?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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28 Comments:

Blogger Philip said...

Arnaldur Indridason and the Old Norse Eddas, in both style and theme. Indridason has spoken of this in interviews, but it would not come as a surprise to me if this were also true of some other Scandinavian crime writers. I'm thinking particularly of Jo Nesbo's The Redbreast, not so much stylistically, but certainly thematically.

November 09, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Arnaldur has also cited the Icelandic sagas, "Njal's Saga" in particular, as a stylistic influence. I don't know enough about the Eddas to judge their influence on "The Redbreast," but I shall investigate. Thanks.

November 09, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Everyone always says that the epistolatory novel is dead. I hope they're right this time.

November 09, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dear Mr. McKinty:

OK, let it die after this one. In that case, it makes an honorable departure.

The novel's first sentence, by the way, is "For almost twenty years I've been telling him: if you want to get ahead in life, public or private, never put anything down on paper."

November 09, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I didn't know everybody said it was dead; I'd have thought they just assumed it was and therefore felt no need to say so. But I'll say it again: Yours Confidentially makes good use of the form.

November 09, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

St Kilda,

Monday, 4:00 p.m.


Sir,

Did you ever read "Clarissa" in college or elsewhere? I think not otherwise you couldn't possibly be so cavalier. Some of us will never really recover from that experience.

Your obedient servant

Adrian McKinty

November 10, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Needham-by-the-Highway

Monday, 12:20 a.m.

Good heavens, no. Clarissa's primary distinction is that it is quite probably the largest paperback ever published by Penguin Classics. I implied strongly that I was no scholar of Pamela or Clarissa. Need I add that I haven't read them?

November 10, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip: As an occasional reader of Nordic crime novels and an enthusiastic reader of Njal's Saga, I'd be interested in more of your thoughts on Scandinavian crime writers and what they may have drawn from the sagas and the Eddas.

November 10, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Monday, 5.00 pm

The house next door to Burnt Njal's Cottage.

Sir,

I forgot about The Moonstone and The Woman in White, two novels I have extravagantly praised in Another Place. They are excepted from my wrath.

Sincerely

Adrian...

November 10, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Monday, 1:10 a.m.

Leafy Piles, Needham, Norfolk


And then there are the philosophes, who did their own highly readable thing with letters: Voltaire's Philosophical (English) Letters and Montesquieu's Persian Letters. Montesquieu's were even something like a novel and, best of all, both works are amusing and short, at least one of which characteristics cannot be attributed to Richardson.

I have never read Sir Charles Grandison, but the title alone makes my eyelids grow heavy.

November 10, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

The Raffles Hotel
Monday 7:54 pm


Peter,

Garv is a bit of a literary hero of mine actually so I'll bet his book transcends the genre and reinvents it at the same time. Anything Garv touches usually turns to gold so I can well believe its both funny and insightful.

I think I'm more worried about the e-mail novel or the text message novel (which has been written (I own a copy)) or god save us the emoticon novel. At least with your actual letter letters there is an attempt at disciplining the prose as it gets put on paper.

And I think you've hinted strongly that Garv's book gives us just the right amount of stuff before the welcome is worn.

sincerely

agm

November 10, 2008  
Blogger Philip said...

I have no more on this than what went through my mind at the time of reading, Peter, and what did occur to me might well be attributable to other factors, although, given the greatness of this Old Norse literature and its standing in Scandinavia, I don't think it's a great stretch. What first brought it to mind was the relative terseness of language and economy of form, particularly apparent in Indridason, but present too in others. Perhaps I noticed that early in reading him, Fossum, Nesbo, Mankell, Alvtegen, et al., because crime fiction elsewhere has being heading in quite the opposite direction, and I've not been happy about that. There is verbosity, and British crime fiction in particular is in grave danger of establishing a new set of potentially risible conventions -- longeurs while we have the musicological analysis of someone's CD rack, the romantic interludes, a travelogue if someone ventures even so far as the corner store, instructions on food preparation everyone someone has a meal, etc. And then, and here I think at the moment particularly of Nesbos's The Redbreast and Larrson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as also Indridason's The Draining Lake you have conflicts involving people who have been afforded for some reason a sort of god-like status or power, though often to be brought down. And in those two again, as also in all of Indridason's works, tales of murder in times past, among family or people akin to family in their relationships, often of revenge, and of the consequences for later generations. There are exceptions to all this in Scandinavia, of course, but I have not yet come across many, which is why I think it may have some bearing. And by the same token there is crime fiction in Britain (and elsewhere, of course) notable for concision and economy, and pursuing these same themes at times -- Ruth Rendell comes to mind -- but not at all so many, particularly in the matter of style and economy of form.

November 10, 2008  
Blogger Lauren said...

Somewhere in Scotland

To whom it may concern,

As a long time reader of epistolary literary works, I would like to offer my support to this clearly beleagured medium. Over the years I have much enjoyed reading the philosphs, Wilkie Collins and indeed Clarissa, though Grandison has always proved a bridge too far.

Yours without any expectation of confidentially,

A Reader

PS: I must add Downey to my reading list! And the best example of economy of style and form I've read recently is Domingo Villar's Water-blue eyes (translated from Spanish), which I found wonderful despite my usual preference for more verbose tomes. (As a very fast reader, I rather like a hefty ratio of page numbers to price of book!)

November 10, 2008  
Blogger Philip said...

Lauren, I should not say that there is any necessary relation between verbosity in style and length of book. The question to be asked when one encounters prolixity is whether all the words are necessary for the purpose, and they may well be, or whether they come from self-indulgence, writers in love with their own pens, or simply poor command of language. Similarly with economy of form -- what I described as seeming like a new set of conventions are becoming cliches and they are often padding, the product of laziness or the unfortunate notion that a bulkier book means weightier writing. Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games comes in at exactly 900 pages, and I wouldn't have it be a word less. The only problem I have with books such as Reg Hill's On Beulah Height and Nesbo's The Redbreast, to name two masterworks exceeding the 500-page mark, is that they ended. The problem with Tana French's The Likeness, on the other hand, and I am just picking on one of many similar here, is that I thought it never would.

November 10, 2008  
Blogger Logan Lamech said...

Epistolatory can never really die, as long as it's out there to be read, someone will dig it up and use it to write.

Logan Lamech
www.eloquentbooks.com/LingeringPoets.html

November 10, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Sniffles Hotel, Needham, Norfolk

Monday, 9:29 a.m.

It's appropriate that Garbhan Downey be called a "literary" hero. I've now read three books of his: a conventionally structured political comedy, a book of stories that dust off the most nostalgia-encrusted of writers, and this novel in letters. How many authors range that widely in form? If nothing else, this might reassure you that he'll move on from letters and choose a different form for his next book -- unless he decides to write the Irish Clarissa after all. (Yours Confidentially is a short book, about 120 pages.) And yes, the books are funny. And they're insightful on matters of Irish politics, at least to this outsider.

God save us from the hypothetical novels you mention. It's probably safe to assume Downey won't write them. An early passage in Yours Confidentially decries "this age of semi-literate email and fully illiterate txt messages," which makes the book, among other things, an affectionate salute to the good, old-fashioned, literate, well-thought-out letter.

Didn't Nicholson Baker write a phone-message novel a few years ago?

November 10, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, you'll be happy to know that Arnaldur cited economy of style when I pressed him for details about how the sagas had influenced his writing. He also had a rather practical explanation for the sagas' stylistic concision: Velum was expensive, and the scribes who set the tales down could not afford to be wordy. Your insight is good, I think. Hakan Nesser is another whose style is terse.

I like your suggestion, too, about murder with roots in the past. Such is a salient feature of Njal's Saga/The Saga of Burnt Njal -- alongside its occasional laconic humor, of course.

November 10, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Epistolatory can never really die, as long as it's out there to be read, someone will dig it up and use it to write."

Yes, but then there are the problems hinted at in a comment above of whether some forms of writing lend themselves to reproduction in a novel -- and whether one would want to read such a novel: e-mail, text messages, and so on.

A righteous ex-colleague and blogger friend of mine recently railed against some fool who hailed the rise of Twitter and the like, but still used his blog for "long-form writing" -- long-form in his mind presumably being anything up to three paragraphs.

November 10, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

To my most esteemed Lauren, a pearl of discernment, a paragon of intellect: Your correspondent most humbly dedicates this unworthy epistle on the high and sovereign supremacy of brevity among all other values for the entertainment and edification of impatient readers.

I admire your persistence in not just tackling Clarissa but indeed in wrestling the virtuous girl to the ground. In theory, such novels should be wonderful reading, with their potential for introspection, accurate and misguided, and all the comedy that allows. In practice, it has not worked for me.

I might add that Downey succeeds in building a plot of great momentum in his fictional letters. I neglected to mention that the novel includes an introduction and occasional commentary letters from the protagonist's constituency manager. Further detail might verge on spoilers, so I shall say no more.

I read L.A. Confidential in one sitting and also every word of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. That one took several sittings.

November 10, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, trying to come up with short wordy books and long concise ones could be a useful and educational exercise. Adrian McKinty may have been right to suggest that this short novel gives us just enough of the good stuff. Downey's Running Mates, which I also enjoyed, does not use the epistolary form and is somewhat longer than Yours Confidentially's 122 pages.

November 10, 2008  
Anonymous marco said...

There is nothing of the deadening hand of the A-grade English major here

Thanks.
I had to read Pamela, Clarissa and Shamela.And Humphry Clinker.

My favourite epistolary novel is Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower .

Dorothy Porter wrote a crime novel in verse, The Monkey's Mask ;I didn't read it,but saw the film.

Ciao,
Marco

November 10, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Tuesday, eight bells
HMS Surprise, At Sea

Sir,

Shamela's not bad, is only 50 pages long and is free on the web. That one I approve of too.

agm

November 10, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Tuesday, 9:15

The Basement, North-of-Fenway, Norfolk

I like the idea embodied in Shamela's title. Fielding probably thought as much of long, moralizing epistolary novels as today's readers do.

November 10, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Marco, a movie version of a crime novel written in verse must be a high-concept viewing experience.

Perhaps your comment heralds a revival of interest in the English epistolary novel.

November 10, 2008  
Blogger Lauren said...

I've also seen the Porter film - a good effort though I thought it took itself a little too seriously. Too 'high concept', perhaps?

A search for concise long novels and verbose short tales does indeed sound intriguing. I know I've read the odd bit of noir (not really a fan) which was pared down to the extent of leaving gaping holes, and I agree that the Tanna French was way too long.

November 12, 2008  
Blogger Lauren said...

Still Somewhere in Scotland,

Peter,

This humble reader blushes profusely at the compliment, and recommends the 800-odd pages of Dumas' misplaced and recently republished 'The Last Cavalier' as an example of a work both exciting and clearly the product of an author being paid by the word.

In terms of old literary forms, I rather miss the old habit of serialisations - of course a through-composed book is a wonderful read, but I like the self-contained chapters to be found in Dumas or Dickens. One of Alexander McCall Smith's non-crime series (44 Scotland St) began and continues as a serial, which I find fun both as a concept and due to the fact that it is set in my current location.

A Reader

November 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"This humble reader blushes profusely at the compliment ... "''

Perhaps "blushes prettily" would be more appropriate for the literature under discussion, though that locution may be more nineteenth-century than eighteenth. I'm no student of serial novels any more than I am of epistolary ones, but my favorite Dickens novel is The Pickwick Papers, which we probably only call a novel by force of habit.

November 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lauren, someone other than I will have to undertake that search for verbose short novels and concise long ones. I generally lack the patience to finish novels for which I, er, lack patience. That's one reason I rarely have harsh words for a book here. If I don't like the book, I usually won't finish it.

November 12, 2008  

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