Fatherland: Reaction

I’ve not been sure whether to say anything about this or not – partly because I’ve nothing interesting to say and partly because I haven’t actually finished it. On the other hand, contra the latter I’ve read it before and know how it ends. Contra the former, I never have anything interesting to say anyway.

I’ve been rereading Fatherland, for constructive purposes – it’s the closest thing in the house to the novel I’m writing now, and I wouldn’t mind learning from it a little. I’ve been trying to look in depth at the craft of various passages to improve my own writing. In the process, I found myself unable to stop reading when I wanted, and I’ve now accidentally read almost all of it.

You all know what Fatherland is and what it’s about. It’s the sort of book its easy to disparage – the idea is only interesting to people who’ve never heard of genre fiction before, it’s mostly shallow and cliched, and it’s clearly intended more to be a bestseller than to be a great novel.

However, I think Fatherland is a good example of why it’s easy for the experienced to become jaded, lazy in their opinions. Just because a book is popular does not make it bad. Just because it set out to be popular doesn’t make it bad. In fact, while there may be the occasional inexplicable exception (usually related to the marketing of specific genres to people not normally aware of them: the DaVinci code received much popular praise because of its subject matter, which to many people was groundbreaking – even though, of course, it was only groundbreaking to sheltered readers; likewise, Twilight (which I haven’t read, but which I hear to be terrible) has marketed urban vampire fiction into a teenage mass market that hasn’t been familiar with the genre; Harry Potter broke out into a market that didn’t read fantasy, even though very similar works had been around for decades for people paying attention to that genre), being popular requires being at least partially good. Being readable is as much a skill as being deep or meaningful or beautiful. Given that I, a fairly jaded reader who had read the book before, began by looking at sentence structure and paragraph balence and ended up reading entire chapters at a time, I can hardly deny that there is a certain sort of magic in it.

There is not, however, as much magic as many people think. In particular, the setting is greatly lauded – but even while I haven’t read, for instance, The Man in the High Castle, I nonetheless did not find it either as original or as compelling as is usually said. In originality, there is of course the matter of predecessors in the “what if Germany won” vein, but more importantly the atmosphere does not seem substantially different from many conspiracy novels, or spy novels. What do we actually get from the Nazi setting? I think it contributes several tones:

– Fear: we know the Nazis were ruthless, so we know from the beginning that terrible things might happen in the novel

– A reason to care: the Nazis are evil; we hate the Nazis; the protagonist seems to be doing things the Nazis don’t like; ergo we want the protagonist to succede

– Relatedly, moral comfort: the enemy are the Nazis; ergo, anybody who isn’t the Nazis must be right; ergo, we don’t have to care about the protagonist’s own morality, we know he must be the good guy. For a novel where the hero is a fascist policeman, there’s remarkably little moral ambiguity

– An explanation for the convoluted and conspiracy-prone nature of the state

– A powerful pay-off.

To be honest, I think that this is… cheap. Again and again, the Nazis are a shortcut to creating an atmosphere. How do we know the Gestapo are the bad guys? How do we know the Gestapo are a real threat to the life of the hero? Why is this government so riddled with corruption and conspiracy and competing agencies? Because they’re the Nazis, stupid! In particular, the final pay-off seems to me to have a faint taste of sordid holocaust-exploitation: in our conspiracy thriller, we need a big horrific secret to uncover, and the holocaust is lying around with all our horror already secreted onto it, and it’s just so convenient to borrow all that horror to make our book work. As we read the chilling invitation to the Wannsee conference, for instance, much of our horror is not from what is written in the book but from what we already know. Much of it is directed not at the characters in the book (who are, after all, all rather removed from the events of WWII, twenty years before) but at the historical figures we know about. In a way, the book has the manner of hate speech, of well-worn propaganda – shrieking all the dog whistles of why we ought to hate the foul Nazis, and hey, these characters in the book are Nazis, so we should hate them too. Of course, in this particular case we probably should hate them (if we should hate anybody) – and the propaganda here happens to be true. That makes the book morally acceptable – but it doesn’t stop it feeling a little lazy.

Indeed, for a pay-off like the holocaust, Fatherland gets remarkably little out of it. It is signposted so far in advance that its power is substantially weakened by the time we find out about it all – by that point we’re saying “yes, we know, now what’s going to happen to him?”. But we know what’s going to happen to him – we’ve known all along, and though the book must be commended for its courage in not deviating from the obvious conclusion, it can’t gain any awards for unexpected endings. There isn’t even much feeling of the net tightening, as there is nothing gradual about March’s eventual defeat. The only real power in the ending, I find, is in March’s gradual penetration through the layers of evil until he finds the entire state guilty – but though the author tries his best to throw us what appear at first to be ‘good Nazis’ (in particular, Nebe is brilliantly drawn), we still know all along that these are the Nazis. Of course we can’t trust them.

[Personally, on rereading I found that the real climax of the novel occurs relatively early, with the discovery of the Lady with Ermine. This (and the final scene) are what I remembered about the book, not the holocaust. The Leonardo simply contrasts so excellently with Nebe’s officially-approved monstrosities of art that it seems a more total rebuttal of fascism than the cold facts about the death toll. Then again, how much of that came from the fact that I knew and loved the painting already, and how much from his actual description of it? And I can’t shake the idea that that too was a little cheap, an inserted symbolism that had little reason for being there]

So the Nazis don’t supply the book with much that could not be created in any other conspiracy thriller – it’s just easier to do it with the Nazis. But perhaps the illustration of the Nazi society is its own reward? It could be – but it isn’t. There just isn’t enough seen of it. Much of what is seen is not all that convincing – at times the Gestapo seem omnipotent, and at others weak, and it is sometimes hard to see why. The two main protagonists are purposefully excluded from mainstream Nazi society, which not only makes them simplistic morally but also prevents us from seeing more of the world around them. I’d have preferred it if Max Jaeger had been the protagonist! Yes, let’s see what life is like living with the famous Hannelore. Let’s see him be obsequious and toadying and balancing his morals (he’s clearly not a bad man) with his safety. Instead, we have Xavier ‘no compromises’ March, who is so unimpeachably anti-fascist that it’s hard to see why he’s been so devoted to his job, and harder to see why the fascists have put up with him.

—-

Enough complaining. The setting is impressionistic; the characters are mostly bland and simplistic. I think Nebe is probably the only interesting character, in a cast that could have been extracted from a dozen other films and novels of the same kind – and Nebe gets little screentime. These things, however, don’t make it a bad novel. It’s gripping; it’s fun. It’s vivid.

My scoring:

Adrenaline: 4/5. As I’ve suggested, I don’t feel the climax is really pulled off, but it hurtles along at a good pace, with recognisable but well-drawn threats and obstacles to overcome, and a genuinely tense finale. It’s a thriller – if it failed in this department, it really would be a bad book. It doesn’t.

Emotion: 3/5. Not much character development, and by now I’m rather desensitised to the horrors of the holocaust – it takes more that brief recitations to make that really affective. Nonetheless, it’s impossible not to care about the holocaust to some degree – and the characters are at least sympathetic, so I cared when things happened to them.

Thought: 2/5. It hints at things, so it isn’t a 1, but it doesn’t really address many of the dilemmas of life in a totalitarian state. Much of the thought it inspired me to was “is that really realistic?”

Beauty: 3/5. Even without depth, it paints its scenes brightly. It tries to rope in symbolism where possible. There’s a certain brutal beauty to the ending. The prose is always solid, sometimes better, and sometimes has genuinely striking images.

Craft: 4/5. It’s hard to fault it too much – it’s a very efficient thriller. The prose, as I say, can’t really be objected to (by and large). Nonetheless, there are flaws. One is that, to reiterate, the pacing of the climax doesn’t feel quite right – there’s a string of peaks that don’t ever seem to reach a single summit. It doesn’t quite pay off. Furthermore, this is a textbook bestseller – and sometimes its a bit too obvious that it’s a textbook. It’s a little too obvious that Jaeger is the ‘just keep your head down’ colleague with a good heart but no courage who tries to keep March from confronting the authorities.  That said, the functions of everything may be clear, but they are not ex machina – there are good in-book reasons for everything, as well as formal ones.

Endearingness: 3/5. It’s very easy to read, and the characters are sympathetic. On the other hand, the subject matter is dark, the characters are too thin to really care about, and there’s not enough humour to make it a really fun read.

Originality: 2/5. Cliched bestseller. However, the tragic arc is bold, and while I’m not sure the holocaust-payoff really works it is at least distinctive (compared to the usual ‘shoot the bad guy’ climax). Also some kudos again to the prose – it’s not going to win the Nobel, but it’s above average, with some good images from time to time. Still: cliched bestseller.

Overall: 5/7. Good.

Verb Genders in Rawang Ata: A Summary

Rawàng Ata, unusually, divides its verbs into three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Semantically, these are usually verbs of action, condition and motion respectively, although there are many exceptions. Some verbs may be used as either masculine or feminine.

The species of a verb is significant in four ways: personal agreement, verb ‘controls’, gender agreement, and argument marking. Verbs all agree in person with at least one argument, called its ‘control’. Masculine and neuter verbs take the subject as their control, and agree through prefixes; feminines take the object as their control, and agree through suffixes.

For example:

datta rafaringa lònangam (masculine verb)

sailor 3h-kicks pot-ACC

“the sailor kicks the pot”

lònangya moyisara kòma (feminine verb)

pot-ERG distaste-3h

“the pot is distasteful to the girl”

kōba rakolùma

noble 3h-litter

“the nobleman travels by litter”

When a female has control of a masculine verb with a male object, an agreement particle must be added. Sometimes this also occurs when the object is strongly associated with a male (an inalienable possession, or a tool, for instance).

datta rafaringa kòman

“the sailor kicks the girl”

kòma kirafaringa dattam

“the girl kicks the sailor”

The marking of agreements for the different species is/will be described elsewhere in more detail, but this table may be of assistance as a summary:

Middle Intransitive Transitive Ditransitive
Subject Object Subject Object Subject Object Subject Direct Object Indirect Object
Masc. Active Ergative Acc. Direct Acc.
Passive Erg. Direct
Antipassive Direct Erg.
Applicative Direct Erg. Erg.
App.+Pass. Erg. Erg. Erg.
Fem. Active Acc. Direct Erg. Direct
Antipassive Direct Erg.
Neut. Active Direct Direct Acc. Erg.
Passive Erg. Acc. Erg.
Applicative Direct Erg.
App.+Pass. Erg. Erg.

Note: “Middle” indicates verbs that are not distinguished with respect to transitivity. Bolding marks the control of the verb.

The Usage of the Ergative and Accusative Cases in Rawang Ata

The Ergative Case

The ergative case is probably the most versatile case in Rawàng Ata – it can be used for subjects, objects (direct and indirect), and appositions. Its interpretation must therefore depend on the context, and in particular on the form and class of the verb.

Ergative Subjects

Most typically, the ergative marks the subject of a (univalent or bivalent) intransitive masculine verb, where transitivity requires agency, animacy, and success:

datta rafaringa lònangam

“the sailor kicks the pot” (transitive)

dattaya rafaringa lònangam

“the sailor is made to kick the pot” or “the sailor tries to kick the pot” (intransitive)

Contrariwise, the ergative marks the subject of ‘transitive’ feminine verbs, which means simply that they mark subjects that are more animate than the object, but not less animate ones (which are marked with the accusative):

dattaya moyisara kòma

“the girl considers the sailor distasteful”

lònangam moyisara kòma

“the girl considers the pot distasteful”

Exactly the same pattern occurs with masculine verbs with passive voice, in which attention is drawn to the object rather than the subject:

(dattaya) safaringawa lònang

“the pot is kicked (by the sailor)”

(jonìm) rakijdawa datta

“the sailor was bitten (by the rat)”

[This is not the unmarked word order for passives, but as the word order is irrelevant to case use, we retain the primary word order for clarity]

Ergative Objects

The ergative may also mark the object of a verb – if the verb is applicative, or antipassive, or if the object is an “ergative object”, or in the case of a small number of inherently ditransitive verbs.

In the case of antipassives, attention is drawn from the object toward the subject (and, likewise, away from the question of transitivity). The subject becomes unmarked, and the object is marked with the ergative, if it is present at all. The antipassive is common with feminine verbs (for syntactic reasons), but rare with masculines, where it often denotes a more indefinite or hypothetical event, or is used to obscure success. In any case, the antipassive is the same for both verb classes:

datta moyisaràta (kòmaya)

“the sailor is found distasteful (by the girl)”

jonì sakijdàta (dattaya)

“it is the rat that bites (the sailor)(successfully or otherwise)”

The applicative voice, which is rare, and occurs typically only with certain verbs, promotes an oblique argument to an object in the ergative case, demoting the object (if any) to an indirect object, also in the ergative (the same demotion found in the antipassive). This can occur with neuter univalents promoted to bivalents, or with masculine bivalents promoted to trivalents. The applicative is mostly seen with neuters, and when occurring with masculines there is mostly a more specific meaning intended. Colloquially, the antipassive affix is often used to mark the applicative, but this is deprecated in formal registers.

jonì sawōralata (nahùnki)

“the rat scurries (along the beam)”

jonì sawōralatika nahungya

“the rat scurries along the beam”

datta rakokkùta samùn (kòmabin)

“the sailor knocks at the door (for the girl)”

datta rakokkùtika kòmaya samùnya

“the sailor knocks at the door for the girl” (i.e. the sailor calls by asking to see the girl)

Once the applicative has been applied, the passive may in turn be used, putting the subject too into the ergative:

jonìya nàwōralatikawa nahungya

“the beam is scurried along by the rat”

dattaya kirakokkùtikawa kòmaya samùnya

Certain verbs of transference and alteration are inherently ditransitive. With these, the indirect object is marked with the ergative

datta raboala lònangam kòmaya

“the sailor gives the pot to the girl”

And these may be subject to the passive:

dattaya raboalawa lònang kòmaya

Finally, some objects are ergative objects even with active masculine verbs. This typically occurs when there is a partitive or ablative implication:

kòma kiraroka wenuya

“the girl eats some of the fruit”

datta rakyela tuantiya

“the sailor drank from the bottle”

This particularly includes cases where the object is a mass noun, in which case the ergative is mandatory:

datta rakyela farāya

“the sailor drank some salt water”

There also exist a number of idiomatic expressions involving these ergative objects: whether this is an idiomatic use of the ergative, or whether some abstract mass noun is being thought of is a matter of definition:

kōba radania lònangam

“the nobleman held the pot”

kōba radania lònangya

“the nobleman defecated”

Apposition

The ergative is also used to mark appositives. Typically, these state an equivalence between the referents of two terms:

datta kōbaya…

“the sailor, a nobleman…”

However, more abstract connections can also be shown in this way:

lònang wettaìya

“the pot, made of clay”

wettaì lònangya

“the clay, being clay for a pot”

There is clearly considerable overlap between apposition and adjunction. The key distinctions are that adjunctions assume that the modifier is integral to the nature of the item, whereas apposition is more tangential: therefore, apposition can be used to supply additional information not originally known – although an adjunct may be introduced for clarification, it is implied that no new information is added:

lònang wettaìya

“the pot, which is made of clay, by the way”

wettaìu lònang

“the clay pot (you did realise it was clay, didn’t you?)”

Additionally, adjunctions frequently have a more idiomatic meaning, while appositions rarely do. So:

rìssari hotòmya

hotòmu rìssari

“sheep fabric (wool)”

But:

rìssari layiaya

“fabric to do with an island” (from an island, a tapestry of an island, etc)

layāu rìssari

“cheap, rough wool” (i.e. domestic, not imported)

Further, due to their flexibility, appositions can have anaphoric usage:

rìssari layiaya

“fabric to do with that island I mentioned”

Appositions are also frequently used, with anaphoric or cataphoric pronouns, to link to relative clauses:

datta mànya rakyela farāya, moyisara kòma

“the sailor who drank the salt water was the same sailor who displeased the girl”

As opposed to:

datta rakyela farāya, moyisara kòma

“the sailor drank some salt water, and displeased the girl”

The Accusative

By contrast with the ergative, the accusative is restricted in application. With masculine or neuter ditransitive verbs in the active, it marks the direct object:

datta rakyela sōban

“the sailor drinks some drinking-water”

datta raboala lònangam kòmaya

“the sailor gives the pot to the girl”

With feminines, and with masculines in the passive, it marks an inanimate subject:

rìssarim moyisara kòma

“the fabric is distasteful to the girl”

mobàkum nàdyowalawa lònang

“the pot was struck heavily by the hammer”

mobàkum tujtōnàna lònang

“the pot was broken into large pieces by the hammer”

A Canticle for Leibowitz: Reaction, part II

Well, here we are at last. The second part of https://vacuouswastrel.wordpress.com/2009/02/22/a-canticle-for-leibowitz-reaction-part-i/.

I’ve been meaning to write this for a while. I’ve been putting it off because the issues seem too active in my mind, and I’ve been waiting for them all to settle down into a writeable order. They haven’t; they’ve just faded in my perception of them. I considered leaving this altogether, but have decided to press on, not for the benefit of you, the readers, or even of me, the writer, but for my future self, when I get around to reading Leibowitz again – because I have no doubt that I will. I’m a young man; I suspect I’ll read it many times. And so perhaps, so as to avoid a restart every time, I should try to preserve some reactions from this first reading. Let my blog be my booklegger…

[BEWARE: SPOILERS]

Yes, there are indeed many, many spoilers; beyond here, I assume that you’ve already read the book.

While I’m at it, I’ll also reiterate my own standpoint: religiously, I was brought up Catholic, but I don’t believe in God. Nonetheless, I have sympathy for Catholicism, and identify in some ways with it culturally (or at least with liberal bourgeois Irish Catholicism in England). Philosophically, I was for a long time a consequentialist of a broadly utilitarian bent; I hold this position to be valid, but I now also recognise a second viewpoint. That viewpoint is broadly influenced by Nietzsche and Epicurus, though also Schopenhauer. Both viewpoints are predominately though not entirely hedonist, and thus directly in the line of fire of most of the characters in this novel. I find its views attractive, not because they appeal to me, but because they so thoroughly repudiate me, yet in a way that seems almost within the grasp of what I can reach, as though it’s my own views turned backward, or my own views with something added or taken away (I suppose the faithful would say the difference was that I have no God). I find the whole impossible to accept – yet I am attracted by many of the parts.

I hope that’s cleared up any confusion about my perspective going into this.

Continue reading

Hmm.

My novel: not going so well. I’ve been writing diligently, but I’ve hit a problem, and the biggest problem yet at that. I’m having to consider whether I should throw it all away and start again.

Broadly, my initial plan was for a novel between 90k and 120k, with the knowledge that it would end up nearer the higher total, and maybe nearer 150k. I think I’m now around 60k in, and to say that I’ve written a third of it would be optimistic. It may be closer to a quarter of it, if that. So instead of 90-120k, I’m looking in the 180-240k region – and being realistic let’s say 200-250k.

Why is this happening? Well, partly it’s bloated writing. I’m happy about that. I can go back and pare it back once I’ve a better idea of what has to be where. But partly it’s because my view of the novel is in flux.

The novel has a fairly simple structure, so my initial thought was: tight, brisk, get it all over with before too long. Go on to something else. [And remember, I’m probably going to rewrite most of it before I’m happy with it anyway]. In practice, however, I find myself going a lot more slowly. A few days ago, I wrote a chapter where, literally, nothing happened. Arapho sat on a bench and thought about things, and the narrator opined. This all takes space.

So, naturally, my instinct, on realising that this is what’s happening, is to pare it down, and probably even start again. Get rid of subplots, get rid of this idea of trying to flesh out side characters, get rid of a lot of introspection and reflection.

My second thought, however, is: then what’s the point of it? The structure is… unusual… but not so unusual it’s meritorious on its own. The plot, given that structure, is straightfoward. It looks as though its set in a genre, and not even a genre I know about. [For those who haven’t been following: it starts out looking like a detective novel or conspiracy story (which I don’t know much about), but the whodunnit is resolved halfway through, making it more a whattodoaboutit]. The three virtues it could potentially have are its character studies, its setting, and its themes. Paring it back would mean cutting a lot of the character study, which might well make the plot stop making sense. It makes it harder to show setting, and makes the themes less clear. So I shouldn’t cut.

But then I thing: you can’t write well, so you think that you can say something meaningful simply by throwing words at it. That doesn’t make it more meaningful, it just makes it turgid. And backing up that thought I think: I know you SAY you’ve no intention of even trying to publish, but how much is that just a tool to let you get through this without worrying to much about editing, and how much is actually real? Because a 250k character study in a weird setting, disguised as a whodunnit that has little mystery and that doesn’t even observe the traditions of whodunnits, will never get sold to anyone, even if you magically turn into the reincanations of Wilde, Tolkien, Borges and Conrad all rolled into one.
And I also think: if I had stuck to making this 90k, I would be 2/3rds through it by now. If I go ahead as it is, it will take me years at this rate… and I do, you know, have to get a proper job very soon and things.

Soooo…. I don’t know. I’ve taken today away from it, and tomorrow I’m going to look over it and try to see how much I could fit into a shorter book and what would have to be dropped, and whether it would be worth it.

EDIT: well, for some reason I can’t quite fathom today has been the busiest day ever for my blog. I say I can’t fathom it because although I know I’ve recently started posting at a board I’ve been lurking at for ages, that didn’t get me a big visitor-count yesterday, only today… and relatively few of my visitors have actually come from the link in my sig there anyway, apparently. Mostly it’s people reading about deixis – and that’s been there since Saturday.
Ah well. Thanks for reading, all you silent secret people. The mysterious of blog stats are truly inscrutable.

Housekeeping post

As you can see, I’ve now finished that series on deixis, and I’ve constructed the first (of hopefully many) index post on this blog. For convenience later on, the index for the entire set can be reached via the stationary index page.

In other news: been busy with things. Progressing well on my book, at least in terms of wordcount – slightly worried about ballooning words-per-chapter ratio, as either this will continue (making the book gigantic), or it will reverse (possibly making this section of the book too heavy for its position). But we’ll see. As I’ve said, first aim is to actually finish writing it.

Oh, and I’ve been on-and-off writing that second post about the Canticles of Leibowitz that I should have written months ago. Will be up shortly. The next book to be reviewed will probably be “Little, Big”. First impression: yay, proper English! I grew up with Tolkien and Wilde as my role models in English prose (The Lord of the Rings was the first book I ever read, and I read it several times a year until I became a teenager, so it had quite an influence); it’s wonderful to read modern prose that isn’t afraid to meander if it knows that it can be attractive doing it. I hope to one day write like that myself (although at present I mostly prevent myself from attempting it, knowing that without discipline I’ll soon be straying into page-long sentences festooned with recondite vocabulary and endless, bizarre metaphors).

Second impressions: hmm. Not actually creating any grippingness so far. Very little compulsion to read on. That said, I’m not far in, so we’ll have to wait and see.

Systems of Deixis in Rawang Ata

There are numerous systems of deixis in the language, detailed in the following posts:

Positional Deixis:
https://vacuouswastrel.wordpress.com/2009/01/08/positional-deixis-in-rawang-ata/

Proferative and Contrastive Deixis:
https://vacuouswastrel.wordpress.com/2009/01/16/proferative-and-contrastive-deixis-in-rawang-ata/

Relation Deixis:
https://vacuouswastrel.wordpress.com/2009/02/18/systems-of-deixis-in-rawang-ata-relation-deixis

Ostension Deixis:
https://vacuouswastrel.wordpress.com/2009/02/18/65/

Personal Deixis:
https://vacuouswastrel.wordpress.com/2009/02/26/personal-deixis-is-rawang-ata/

Version:
https://vacuouswastrel.wordpress.com/2009/02/28/systems-of-deixis-in-rawang-ata-version/

Ition:
https://vacuouswastrel.wordpress.com/2009/04/03/deixis-in-rawang-ata-ition/