Thursday, June 25, 2009

What the New Novels by Aleksandar Hemon and A. Manette Ansay Have in Common--Besides Both Being Upcoming Boswell Events

I've just finished reading A. Manette Ansay's novel Good Things I Wish You. It's a contemporary story of Jeanette Hochmann, an Ansay-like character, newly single, and tentatively setting her foot in the dating world. She's researching the life of Clara Schumann, the noted pianist and composer who had a somewhat troubled marriage, but a very rewarding friendship (and perhaps more) with the young Johannes Brahms.

The story jumps back and forth between contemporary Florida and 19th century Austria. Each story is also told in a wandering manner, with Jeanette's meeting of the enigmatic Austrian inventory Hart told ostensibly linearly, but with missing pieces, and Clara's in more of a poetic fashion. Or possibly a musical competition, with themes returned to and words used almost like musical images, rather than telling a story.

Ansay reinforces this literary collage style with photos, artwork and letters amidst the story. Sometimes the pieces are literally also collages, whereas othertimes they are photos or artwork. It's a narrative technique of mixing modern styles with a classic story and I'm looking forward to Ansay tell us more about it on Saturday, July 18th, when she visits us at Boswell.

So I pick up my next book and it's Aleksandar Hemon's novel, now in paperback, The Lazarus Project. (We also have a few hardcovers). Hemon is visiting us the week previous, on July 10th, at 7 PM, and I'm leading a discussion of the book at our book club on Monday, July 6th, also at 7. Hemon will also be talking about his new hardcover collection of stories, Love and Obstacles.

Hemon's novel is about Vladimir Brik, a Bosnian emigre, who left Sarajevo for Chicago just before the war broke out, leaving him stranded. Hemon uses these details of his own life as a jumping off point for his fiction, and then sends the stories off in a hundred (someday, a thousand?) different directions.

In this case, Brik is married to a surgeon, has lost his job as a teacher, and is writing columns for a free weekly. What he wants to do is complete his novel on Lazarus Averbuch, a Jewish immigrant who was murdered during the Anarchist scare of the early 20th century. The story jumps back and forth from current times to 1980 (or perhaps a novel set there). It is filled with old (perhaps real, perhaps not) photographs, some retouched.

I'm not finished with The Lazarus Project, so I can't analyze it. But I'm fascinated by how two wonderful writers had such points of similarity in their telling of very different stories in very different styles. They are not alone and these devices are being used by many writers--I just happened to read two such books in a row and was ready to write a blog post.

1. Computerized typography has allowed us to mix art and fiction in ways that could not be done before. Fortunately it stays short of gimmicky. If I opened a page and a chip played Schmuann, or offered street noises of 1908 Chicago, would it be more or less of a reading experience? I think less. Art and photographs, more. Lots of books do this, but I'd say the breakthrough for me was Carol Shields' The Stone Diaries, a fictional biography of an everyperson filled with photographs. (It's currently on Elinor Lipman's rec shelf in our store, by the way--we're carrying the deluxe edition with better paper and French flaps, only a dollar more than the regular one). Here's Ansay's explanation of the images and how they wound up in the book as collages.

2. Writers want to ground their stories in history, finding inspiration from the past, yet interpret that past in a modern way, making it their own. Like a modernist building having a column that almost looks Greek, using a modern structure and present-day anchor to reflect on the past prevents the story from being too literalist. Historical novels are a grand tradition; there's no genre-knocking going on here. But with those guidelines, and knowing that writers are always thinking about the creative process (see the post on Jane Hamilton, for example), what you wind up often getting is the process of writing a historical novel, with that historical novel itself. Hence, the coincidence, which is not coincidence but trend.

You would never mistake one writer for the other. Just like there can many wonderful novels about family dysfunction (Joe Meno's The Great Perhaps and Zoe Heller's The Believers being my current favorites), there are lots of great novels of interpreting historical events through a modern lens, which then reflectws on the creative process. Everybody gets the toolkit; it's what you do with it that counts. I'm hoping some of you are interested in seeing the live demos.

July 10th, 7 PM--Aleksandar Hemon
July 18th, 2 PM--A. Manette Ansay

Oh, and if you can't come on the 18th and don't want to go our wonderful event with Nathan Rabin (blog post to come of course), Ansay's appearing at Next Chapter on Friday the 17th at 7 PM.

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