A writer, a critic, an agent and a publisher – complicated relations

It is always pleasant for me, due to some book, to look into the respectable living rooms of the middle of the last century and listen to the clever conversations about book publishing, and there is so much of it in the novel “Two-Thirds of the Ghost” by Helen McCloy.

New York, New York … Offices in Manhattan and country houses in Connecticut, fifties, mentions of a very recent war, publishing business …
The narrative unfolds in such a way that in each new scene a kind of new dimension arises, and everything turns out to be not at all what it seems. The important becomes insignificant, and something completely different comes to the fore. And thus, with a sinking heart – and with pleasure – we are waiting, where will the carefully verified idea of ​​the author lead us?
If we understand by a detective the usual patterns of plotting such as Agatha Christie or the monotonous coordinated actions of the teams of brave cops in some TV series, then in this case the crime here is rather non-standard – it only adds a zest to the already tangled intrigue. Outwardly unremarkable conversations take on an ominous connotation if you are trying hard to guess who is the very villain who is hiding under the guise of decency, cold-bloodedly targeting the next victim.
It is hard to believe that the author is a woman, since the book is written in the traditional brisk, dryish American manner, when there is no excessive psychological and emotional depth, but at the same time there is a kind of cynical touch of knowledge of life and its economic component, and, I repeat, there are many interesting details of the literary life, which are familiar to the author “like the back of his hand.”

How to promote a book? (In the middle of the twentieth century, of course, it was only about print runs and about the classic three “writer – agent – publisher”). Can any book be promoted? What should a book have to become a bestseller? Does the text of the book reflect the personality and biography of the author?

The book returns to all these questions from different and, what is especially pleasant, paradoxical points of view.

Since there is no exact criterion, the publishing business smells of speculation. From the very beginning, the manuscript is judged subjectively depending on the tastes and whims of the publishers. The literary success can be predicted , but the commercial success can never be predicted at all . The highbrows at least have a literary fashion. The public doesn’t have that either.

The novel cannot be considered purely American, it reads well, as they say, “on both sides of the Atlantic” and contains references, for example, to the song about Roland, Lord Byron and to the writer’s fate of Proust and Stevenson.

By the way, one character in this novel is compared to Kaspar Hauser (the Nuremberg child). Indeed, in the middle of the twentieth century, mankind still remembered Kaspar Hauser, this was an important metaphor for him. Now there is such a surplus of information in the world that against this background the history and image of Kaspar Hauser have long lost their special expressiveness.

Ellen McCloy crowns her novel, like an icing on a cake,with a detective solution, hidden not somewhere, but … in a literary quote from an English classic, known not to uneducated young generation, but only to educated people of that time. And the motive for the crime arises due not to anything, but to the peculiarities of the literary process – oh, this is an extremely sophisticated literary plan of the author, in my opinion!

And although one of the characters is grumbling about writing detective stories:

“Anyone can write a detective story. It’s the same job as a locksmith or a carpenter. I’ve always believed that detective authors should be paid a salary, not a fee.”

nevertheless, I will note that “We do need such detectives” 🙂 (It’s paraphrase of Russian catch phrase arised from hockey commentator Nicolay Ozerov’s “We don’t need such kind of hockey!” in 1972.)

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Danny Fischer’s unfulfilled dreams

Just like the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk writes in his collection of essays “Other Colors”, I also feel a need of a “well-written book” almost daily.
“Nothing gives me so much happiness and nothing binds me so closely to life as reading a passage from some rich, deep novel about the world that I could believe in ” – Orkhan Pamuk writes.

A few days ago, the Russian friend mentioned to me the name of American writer Harold Robbins (author of “The Carpetbaggers”) as an example of fascinating storyteller – however, later it turned out that my friend had read this author 25 years ago, – and then I decided to try all these excellent epithets given to this master of the word.

So I have read the novel “A Stone for Danny Fischer” by Harold Robbins.

First of all, I want to dwell on the time and place of the novel action since each book is usually a journey through time and space, although sometimes the world of a book can be completely fictional, and the hero can move to a kind of future that did not yet exist in human history.

In general, there are 2 features regarding my perception of books from modern foreign reality.
Firstly, as a person who grew up behind the Iron Curtain and therefore for a long time was deprived of quite the usual joys of capitalism such as trendy music, lawn mowing in adolescence, visiting McDonald’s and so on – which can easily be seen from a careful reading of my book “I Am Becoming a Woman” https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08CXYPPW3/ – I, out of old habit, still draw attention to these minor details in the books about western life.
Secondly, it is always interesting for me to make sure that those elements of infrastructure that are described in the text of the book – cafes, concert halls, museums, and so on – really exist in real life.
In general, books often become a kind of guides to those real places where the action inventedl by the author took place – so Dan Brown’s Inferno is a guide to Florence, Pamuk’s Black Book is a guide to Istanbul, a series of Jo Nesbe’s detective novels about Harry Hole – Oslo guides and so on. Earlier, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch had become my virtual guide to several New York neighborhoods, and The Time Traveler’s Wife – to Chicago.

In this book, the protagonist Danny Fischer first lives in the newly built-up area of ​​Brooklyn, and then moves to Stanton Street on the East Side.

As for era, the novel A Stone for Danny Fischer describes a colorful stage in the history of the United States – 1925-1944. The reader meets many interesting everyday details from the life of people of that time – for example, prohibition and clandestine shipments of scarce cigarettes during the war.
An interesting detail: this book was published in the same year – 1952 – as the novel of Harry Gray that became the model for the iconoc film Once Upon a Time in America by Sergio Leone. And it was exactly this film that came to my mind while I was reading describing of the teenager life of Danny Fischer on Stanton Street in the East End, where all the inhabitants existence was subordinated to some representatives of a clandestine business like bookmakers and so on with their luxuriously furnished apartments against the background of universal destitution.
When it came to taking shelter from bandits on Coney Island Beach, I remembered Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel” (2017).
The powerful Italian mafioso is also mentioned, without which not a single issue was resolved in the City Hall of New York.

As far as Harold Robbins’ writing style goes, I can’t say I as a reader really like this literary manner, but it’s probably a pretty good option for this kind of events he describes.
Momentary feelings are described interspersed with how the hero looked somewhere, what he saw, where he put his hands, and so on.

The main hero Danny Fischer sometimes appears to be damn noble and has a touching affection for his childhood home in Brooklyn.
He doesn’t want to remain just a part of a faceless pover crowd. Constant need in money forces the guy to become exactly what life makes him become, although sometimes something good in him resists this.

In general, it seems that modern literature much more fits the tastes of sophisticated сontemprorary reader than literature of 50s.

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How to read “The Goldfinch” and get pleasure

Yesterday, while posting some of my book reviews on the Goodreads, I noticed in the corner of my eye that some readers note they do not enjoy reading “The Goldfinch”, they consider the novel  written “uneven” and is perplexed about the common thrill concerning this book, especially since the protagonist  behavior does not always serve as, so to speak, a role model.

I like the novel, and I’d even say there is something irrational in its influence on me.
But, of course, each of us has our own story of acquaintance with the book, on which our subsequent impressions depend – oh, this is somewhat reminiscent of meeting a new person.
I came across this book in the list of art detectives (detectives about the theft of art works). For the first time I met this title,  in above mentioned art detectives review “The Goldfinch” was called no more and no less a masterpiece, and in this moment an ironic critic awoke in me for a instant.
Then I began listening to this novel as to audiobook … Do not forget that, in addition to the author of the novel, two more persons – the wonderful Russian translator and the voice actor of audiobook – contributed to the book product my ears were enjoying.
In fact, the voice actor reading the book always becomes something like your personal friend, because he seems to be reading the text for you personally in your little cozy world and, undoubtedly, he shares in all your emotions together with you.
“The Goldfinch” audiobook brought me some wonderful night hours in Berlin in January 2019, when, falling asleep, I listened to the cherished reading from my tablet on the bedside table in the hotel room.

First time we meet the main character Theo, when in Amsterdam he sees in a mirror the reflection of his beloved mother in the otherworldly metaphysical reality “where time did not exist… or where it existed in all directions at once” – I think this reminds the atmosphere in the paintings of de Chirico… And then this moment is lasting a very long time, while we move retrospectively back many years.

… I was overwhelmed immediately by a huge amount of feelings and associations while listening to the text. It happened, for example, due to such themes “flirting” with the reader like describing of the teenager being afraid his petty pranks will be revealed or his obsessive interest to random passers-by.

From the very beginning, I was fascinated by this text, iridescent in shades, details and with ever-changing points of view – the narrator either runs ahead, showing awareness of future events, then retrospectively tells about the affairs of bygone days, then returns to the current point of the plot. I like to look at such kind of text and read it.
I like the literature style of “The Goldfinch” so much that sometimes I simply can’t resist quoting some parts to have pleasure to re-read these words again.
As for the details – well, in general, frankly Donna Tarrt often characterizes her heroes by listing what brands he dresses in, what eau de toilette he uses, what dishes he used to order in a restaurant etc.

I could not remain indifferent when Theo, as if from the sidelines in despair, watched the games that his mind played independently of him. In general, I would call the main character’s stream of consciousness extra powerful. By the way, the main part of the thoughts and assumptions that flashed through his head usually turn out to be dead-end and do not receive further development.

The author often writes about possible forks of events. After returning to New York, Theo walks along one of the paths in Central Park and thinks:
“And if you turn, if you walk along such a lighted path, will it take me to another year, maybe even to another future, where a little disheveled mother, just returning from work, will be waiting for me on a bench (on our bench) by the Pond …”
Then there is a lot of speculation about some alternative picture of events, which secretly lives its own life in Theo’s head (in which his mother is alive, and so on), while he studies in his courses and works with Hobby in the workshop.
“Quite quickly, in the interval between studying and working in the studio, I plunged into some kind of unhindered doping, into a curved version of my past life in which I walked through familiar streets but lived in unfamiliar surroundings among unfamiliar faces.”
The ambiguity of possible future options is evident in the chapter about Theo’s meeting with Boris many years later:
“I used to google Boris a lot … He could be anywhere and do anything: mop the floors in the hospital, wade through some jungle with a gun in his hands, pick up cigarette butts on the streets.”

In addition to the hero’s feelings about current events, I came across several more or less non-trivial thoughts about all the futility of human life and universal fatigue.
From a large paragraph listing what useless things people usually do so persistently throughout their lives, I will quote just a few words:
“When it’s nauseous, it makes you sweat sick from the whole human race, from all human deeds from the very creation of time … and all this is just to forget where we are, who we are … It would be better never to be born – never anything desire, never hope for anything. “
I saw in this powerful passage a mention of the existential fear of death, which a person usually tries not to think about, and the eternal question about the meaning of life 🙂
So the author made a rather elegant statement on the always fashionable topic of the futility and frailty of life and at the same time – an elegant kick towards the modern consumer society.

And, indeed, at the very end of the book, Theo honestly admits to himself that despite the numerous slogans “Be yourself, follow your dreams” he does not feel in the depth of his soul any desire to achieve something and become someone better than he is now. And, frankly, I don’t see anything particularly bad in this contradiction with the ideas of social growth. 🙂

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