Tuesday, December 01, 2009

How series change over time: Montalbano and performance

Conversation during and after yesterday's Sandra Ruttan-Jeff VanderMeer reading in Baltimore turned to the joys and frustrations of writing a crime-fiction series and the changes authors make from book to book. Ruttan's new novel, Lullaby for the Nameless, jumps back and forth between plot lines in the present and in the past. And VanderMeer makes changes in narrative form and even, to some extent, in genre from City of Saints and Madmen to Shriek: An Afterword to his new novel, Finch.

Talk of these radical formal and stylistic changes within a series struck me all the more because of the subtle changes within the series I'm currently reading, Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano novels. Early in the series, Camilleri exploited his theater background for metaphors and similes. This tendency is especially notable in Excursion to Tindari, the fifth book, published in 2000 and translated into English five years later.

That novel includes an admonition to "Calm down, you look like a character in a puppet theatre." A few pages later, "As if following a script, Montalbano first wrung his hands ... " and, my favorite of the bunch: "`The stakes are extremely high.' He felt disgusted by the words coming out of his mouth. ... He wondered how much longer he could keep up the charade."

Elsewhere, Montalbano impersonates Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot and, as if to underline the motifs of performance, toward the end of the novel Montalbano reflects on the town of Tindari, destination of the couple whose murder triggers the story: "What Montalbano remembered of Tindari was the small mysterious Greek theater." And that's not Camilleri's only invocation of Athenian drama. Several novels in the series feature family dynamics unmistakably redolent of Greek plays and epics.

That's why there's a decided edge of humorous introspection to an exchange in August Heat (Italian publication 2006/English translation 2009) between Montalbano and his junior colleague Fazio as the two speculate over the case of man whose stepson has been found dead"

Montalbano: "In short, you don't see Speciale as a
murderer?"

Fazio: "No way."

M: "But you know, in Greek tragedy—"

F: "We're in Vigàta, Chief, not Greece."

M: "Tell me the truth: Do you like the story or don't you?"

F: "It seems okay for TV."
(Click here for more on how series change over time.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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