THE LAST HUNT | Horst Stern

Joop vs. The Bear

Here, as in Marta Morazzoni’s INVENTION OF TRUTH (1993), is a small European novel that resonates with energy, truth and pathos more expansive than the design of the book jacket or the dimensions of the book suggest.

This novel is about nature and human nature and how the two seem to be fundamentally unsuited to co-exist, in opposition to each other at best.

Joop is the great German capitalist, a self-doubting banker, hunter and economic predator in civilized society. His prey, the bear, is the great creation of nature, a mighty power in the forest. Joop’s ego is nearly as potent as his complex instincts. The bear’s struggle for survival is simple, primal and direct, and compellingly rich with hints of meaning. Jack London’s unforgettable Buck occurred to me more than a couple of times as I read and identified with the lumbering innocent I feared was doomed by Joop before the two would ever meet.

It is noteworthy to me that both THE INVENTION OF TRUTH and THE LAST HUNT feature seemingly simple slice-of-life stories that leave the reader intrigued, inspired and thoughtful. So much writing published since THE HUNT ties up stories in resolutions neatly and leaves little room for imagination and reflection, not to mention application of the story’s distinctive strengths to the reader’s own life experience.

Recommended.

THE LAST HUNT, Horst Stern, Random House, New York, 1993.  First U.S. Edition. Originally published in German as Jagdnovelle by Kindler Verlag GmbH, Munchen.

 

Happy Book Lovers Day 2017!

CONFESSIONS OF MAX TIVOLI | Andrew Sean Greer

Poignantly Awry - Life Between Ordinary and Extraordinary

I recently re-read THE CONFESSIONS OF MAX TIVOLI and am glad that I did. It is a leader in a small class of novels that deal so entertainingly with immortalism and aging.

Upon picking up the book for the first time, any of us would naturally ask ourselves: Did Max Tivoli really emerge from the womb an old man? That has to be writerly bravado, a wild swing at capturing the reader’s attention. Or the beginning of a story that has never been told before. Either way, the author has moxie.

The Confessions of Max Tivoli is an enchanting and affecting novel about an old man born old in 1871 in San Francisco who is destined to grow young.

1st Picador Edition (2005) ISBN 978-0312-42381-0

1st Picador Edition (2005) ISBN 978-0312-42381-0

Andrew Sean Greer tells how this improbable mistake of biology, time and physics occurred in strikingly rich exposition. Max’s mother is from a wealthy Carolina family relocated to Comstock-crazed San Francisco. His father is one of the countless dreamers drawn to the Gold Rush. As Max tells it, “…the Comstock had made too many beggars into fat, rich men – so society became divided into two classes: the chivalry and the shovelry. My mother was of the first, my father of the wretched second.” Suitably, their union is a paradox of the mundane and the magical, which combine to create a moment of timeless possibility.

Max learns soon enough that while his condition is not unique, he is one of very, very few. So rare is his dilemma that only once – later in life as he grows younger – does he encounter another of his kind, and then it is only supposition.

Max meets his life’s great love early and their future seems doomed by the secret between them. Over time, he wins her through desperate deceptions for a glorious period in his middle years. Even then, she is unaware of his magical condition.

Greer's literary voice has been compared with Ford Madox Ford, which is high praise. Greer's narrator Max is direct whereas Ford's Good Soldier John Dowell is disengaged and distant. The ultimate unreliable narrator. " . . . I have generally found that my first impressions were correct enough. If my first idea of a man was that he was civil, obliging, and attentive, he generally seemed to go on being all those things."

Max is comfortable with seemingly straightforward declarative sentences, which are in fact occasionally complex expressions of deeper emotions woven like Celtic coils into his trustworthy narrative. He earns our confidence with candor and a voice that is consistently true to 21st century sensibilities despite its slant and attitudes of 1890's San Francisco. Max's out-of-time experiences and priorities complete the illusion of otherness. "While at twenty I had been far off the map of youth, now that I was nearly thirty I looked nearly right. Perhaps not quite in the bloom of youth, but approaching it in my ogreish way, and I began to get more than my usual share of glances from ladies who peered like fascinated children out of carriages, streetcars and shop windows."

Greer also consistently surprises and delights the close reader with his offhand use of opposites, subverting expectations and recharging our attention with the unexpectedly profound cast off phrase.  

The century turned, the seasons changed, but little changed for me until a lucky and terrible disaster.

Something of youth comes back with age.

This novel received extraordinary support with blurbs from John Updike, Michael Cunningham, Michael Chabon, the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, the L.A.Times, and the plaudits go on and on.

I enjoyed THE CONFESSIONS OF MAX TIVOLI and will look for his short story collection, HOW IT WAS FOR ME and the novels, THE PATH OF MINOR PLANETS, THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE, and THE IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF GRETA WELLS.

 
If you read THE CONFESSIONS OF MAX TIVOLI and have an issue with my description, please comment below. I will respond if appropriate and update this post to reflect new information.

 

Andrew Sean Greer

Born to two scientists, Greer studied writing at Brown University, where he was the commencement speaker at his own graduation. He worked for years as a chauffeur, theater tech, television extra and unsuccessful writer in New York City. He earned his Master of Fine Arts from The University of Montana in Missoula. Currently, he lives in San Francisco and is a fellow at the New York Public Library Cullman Center.

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Conflict - The Author's Secret Ingredient

Literature's Critical Element

Photo: Ducks Dueling by Mark Roger Bailey

Photo: Ducks Dueling by Mark Roger Bailey

Conflict, especially in literary writing, helps us decide whether to read on or not. Readers know this about their favorite books. Sometimes, writers may lose sight of it as they venture into the thickets of their stories and become temporarily distracted by character histories, setting details, and fascinating yet ultimately distracting arcana. 

The ancient Greeks understood conflict and created the foundation for all drama and comedy upon this essential 'x' factor. Aesop put it in fables. Shakespeare, Woolf, and Hemingway put it in every paragraph. Tabloid newspapers put it in lurid headlines. Aaron Sorkin puts it in every line of dialogue. 

Chief of Staff Leo McGarry and President Josiah 'Jeb' Bartlet confront each other over the killing of officials in the Middle East.  (Season 6 Episode 1)

Types of Human Conflict

Writing without conflict is bread without texture or flavor. Effective prose includes conflict: yin/yang, body/soul, Tracy/Hepburn, rock 'n roll, good/evil, want/need, sweet/sour, life/death, love/indifference, freedom/enslavement, east/west, hot/cold, liberal/conservative, sharp/blunt, light/dark . . . you get the idea.

There are lists of human conflict categories to aid writers, artists, actors, directors, producers, psychologists, researchers and others.  The basics are Man vs. Man (universal including Woman), Man vs. Nature; Man vs. Self. Here is my expanded list:

  • Man vs. Man The Da Vinci Code | Dan Brown

  • Man vs. Society The Catcher in the Rye | J.D. Salinger; Charlotte's Web | E.B. White

  • Man vs. Self Hamlet | William Shakespeare

  • Man vs. Nature The Old Man and The Sea | Ernest Hemingway

  • Man vs. Technology Frankenstein | Mary Shelley

  • Man vs. Alien Alien | Dan O'Bannon (screenplay)

  • Man vs. God It's A Wonderful Life (Film) | Based on "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern

There are other kinds of non-human conflict, of course, such as gravity vs. inertia, star vs. black hole, dog vs. cat, wolf vs. lamb, dry hi pressure weather system vs. wet low pressure system, and heat vs. cold. For our purposes in this discussion as writers and readers, I’ll stay focused on human conflicts.

Besides promising an exciting discovery in return for your time, suggesting that there is a choice to be made creates tension. Will our hero achieve his seemingly impossible goal?  Will society overcome violence to secure peace? Will our father find his kidnapped daughter? Will our heroine outsmart her stronger enemy? Will truth prevail? Will the injured find justice?

Examples of conflict in literary works

THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN | Mark Twain

Individual vs. Society -- Huck’s evolving conscience and experience place him in direct conflict with the law and accepted cultural codes (slavery) as he seeks to free Jim.  

THE ENGLISH PATIENT | Michael Ondaatje

Person vs. Society – Almásy, the title character, defies the state and its military apparatus to pursue his love affair with Katharine Clifton.  Kip, the Sikh sapper, embedded with British soldiers, besides being in mortal conflict with the German bombs he must defuse, is in conflict with the Brits, who ostracize him because of his Indian otherness.  Hana, the young nurse, is caught between childhood and adulthood, denial and coping, as she navigates the terrible romantic extremes of World War II.

BEYOND THESE WOODS | Mark Roger Bailey

Man vs. Nature – what appears at first to be a convincing case of Nature responding to humankind's abuse of forests evolves as epidemiologist Lotte Keene sets out to discover the cause of mysterious deaths occurring in the High Sierra Sequoia groves of 1,000-year-old trees.  

Society vs. Nature – As Keene unravels the puzzle, she discovers that government has adapted biology for a dark purpose and lost control to even darker operators. Eventually, the government fights to defeat the killer with overwhelming force.

Woman vs. Society – Ultimately Keene embarks on her own one-person crusade against government and corporate overreach.

These conflicts are powerful, larger than life examples in literature.  What about the average everyday conflicts that so many people experience in real life? 

No one wants conflict in his or her life, of course. We all recognize it is present, however, and that its disruption of our peace of mind is inevitable. We know that our relationship with conflict influences how we navigate the hundreds if not thousands of small and large decisions we make throughout the average day.

  • Should we wait for the light and turn left past oncoming traffic because it is the more direct route, or should we turn right, go with traffic and circle the block?

  • Should we have that difficult conversation with a friend whose behavior is becoming toxic?

  • Should we tell our neighbor that their television is too loud?

  • Should we let a loudmouth ruin our movie-going experience that we paid too much to see?

  • Do we speak up when a bully harasses an innocent person or do we keep moving?

  • Do we speak up when we witness a theft?

  • Do we keep to our writing schedule or make exceptions to watch certain television shows (as research, of course!)?

  • Do we confront governmental overreach into our private lives to defend democracy, or do we avoid a fight and adapt as well as we can to avoid endangering our family's safety and well-being?

Any of these has enough conflict to fuel a novel.

What is it about conflict that makes it such a potent ingredient in our writing?

Literature succeeds when it explores the conflict that threatens the protagonist's ability to achieve his or her goal. Why is it that when we see someone achieve a goal, we lose interest? Whereas when we see someone persist toward their goal against all odds arrayed against them, we are fascinated? 

One reason is because we are compelled by conflict as an extreme of human behavior. It brings out the best in heroes and the worst in villains. We all have aspects of both extremes in our personality. Reading a story about how another person responded when pushed to their extreme helps us gauge how we might measure up in similar circumstances.

The Anatomy of Empathy

Another important reason is that we are hard-wired for empathy*.  We are compelled by how others deal with conflict.  This compulsion is due in part to the functional anatomy of empathy in our nervous system. Certain underlying neural responses are mirrored in us whether we engage in conflict or observe it in others. We experience the same intensity of agitation, discomfort and momentousness whether we fight or observe another engage in combat. This compelling intellectual, physical, emotional, moral identification is one of the compelling appeals of literature. As a reader, we experience the emotional and physiological effects of a high-stakes conflict situation without injury or loss of blood.  And we identify with characters as they must decide: will they or won't they? Will Abraham sacrifice his son? Will Emma Bovary swallow the arsenic? Will Jason Bourne eliminate his tormentor, or is there enough of a connection to his former humanity within him to give his enemy the benefit of the doubt that he, too, is human and at the mercy of his handlers? 

Primal, decision-making processes in our brain cannot discern the difference between engaging conflict in reality and vicariously experiencing it as we read. Matters of discernment, distinguishing reality from the imagined, or recognizing the difference between dreaming and doing are assessed by a combination of other neural processes. These processes of assessing danger, risk and reward; moral drift; ethical dissonance and its ramifications, truth vs. falsity, good vs. bad are complex functions of consciousness. This insight gives the author an opportunity to help the reader suspend his/her disbelief and invest themselves in the protagonist's story, conflict, choices, risks, and rewards. 

In a very real sense, we authors hold the reader’s vicarious life and death in our hands. Should we do everything we can to craft the most extreme scenario we can imagine to thrill the reader? Or should we exercise intellectual and artistic integrity to engage and support our reader’s literary experience of values and ideas in conflict?  

I’m conflicted.

 

* (ref. Preston S., de Waal F. (2002). "Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases". Behavioral and Brain Sciences 25 (1): 1–72.)

 

Intuition

Trust your intution . . . it doesn't lie. A sense of otherness can guide us across the frontier of human story possibilities.

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