Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Missing Masterpieces

As I've mentioned already, I've been in an archival mood recently. I've been organising my physical archive of publications and manuscripts (an activity I enjoy to an implausible degree). It's stored in three metal file boxes. I'm grateful for everything I kept. I've also been organising my digital archive, which has been scattered all over the place until now.

The first pieces of writing I had published were poems in my father's community magazine, The Ballymun News. This used to be a weekly (or maybe monthly) magazine, back in the seventies, but it had been scaled back to an annual publication by the time I was a teenager. It ceased publication in the late nineties. By the time it was an annual publication, it was less of a community magazine (despite the title) than an outlet for my father's views and ideas, which he would post to various "movers and shakers" (as he put it) in a hope of influencing public policy.  He claims to have had some success with this, and I believe him.

(He's often claimed that the "Christmas pudding" radio sketch, which the legendary Irish broadcaster Gay Byrne broadcasts most Christmases, was-- ahem!-- influenced by a very similar piece in The Ballymun News.)

After this, I published poems in college publications. For a while, my verses appeared every month in The DIT Examiner. I would hand-deliver my poems to the editor's office and we would have a very pleasant, leisurely chat. I get the impression he struggled to fill his pages. Nobody ever read my poems, except once, when a lecturer (who was a devotee of Padre Pio) complimented me on a poem which is the closest I've ever come to writing anything anti-Catholic or anti-clerical. (It was a denunciation of old women who gossip together after Mass in an un-Christian way. Lord knows what I based it on, since I didn't go to Mass.)

Perhaps the strangest items in my archive are some copies of The Irish Brews Paper, a publication that some of my classmates put out, which was all about microbreweries. Despite being a teetotaller at this time (and until my twenty-seventh year), I wrote a few comical poems for it. Here is the first verse of one of them:

Oh, I'm a loony lefty 

With a wobbling double chin
But my frame did not grow hefty
Through a-tippling on gin.
I didn't turn into a Gordon Brown
Through knocking champagne and martinis down
But when me and the lads have a night on the town
It's sandwiches and beer.

I was a socialist at this time (rather predictably). Even now, I have something of a fondness for the "beer and sandwiches" tradition of British trade unionism and socialism.

Anyway, if I didn't have my old copies of The Irish Brews Paper, I'm sure they'd be utterly unobtainable now.

I had my first "proper" publication in 1998, when I was twenty-one. It was a poem about second-hand bookshops, published in Books Ireland. It wasn't bad. The first verse ran:

What bookstore chain can match the thrill
Of cast-off volume, stack on stack
Sold second hand? Come test your skill
Wade through the work of every hack
To find, if they don't break your will
Some hidden gem in paperback.

A few years later, I had a short poem about a diary published in the same journal. Aside from a poem about the Wedding at Cana published a few years ago in Spirituality magazine, those are the only poems I've had published in literary publications, despite years of submissions.

There are various oddities in my archive. I wrote the editorial for a magazine that my French class put together in the millennium year. It was a retrospective of the previous century-- and if you think that's monumentally arrogant, my defence is that my lecturer asked me to write it. I suppose I was the class intellectual, or would-be intellectual. It was entitled "The Century of Nihilim", and the lesson it drew from the twentieth century was that every effort to change human nature had been a disaster. I'm quite pleased with that central thesis. Some of the other statements are ones I'd rather forget, but there's nothing too egregious.

I also had article published in the Irish language newspaper Foinse, based on my interview with the Irish novelist J.P. Donleavy. The only reason I published it in an Irish language newspaper was because it was rejected by The Irish Times. It was, of course, heavily edited, since my written Irish was (and is) atrocious.

I had a dreadful piece of light verse called "The New Dog" published in a very short-lived family magazine called X2. (I have no idea why it was called that.) The editor not only published it, but added a short commentary, in which he said that "the political undertones run very true". Terrible as the poem is, I'm glad I kept this magazine, too. Where on earth would I find it today?

I have various certificates and presentation booklets from local literary competitions in which I won prizes. I have the print-out of the announcement, on the ITV website, that I'd won the "Millennium Poem" prize on the last day of 1999, as judged by Liverpudlian poet Roger McGough. This was hosted on Teletext, which is a system of text pages on television which you can navigate using your remote control. (I understand it never caught on in America.) I remember thinking I had begun the Millennium in the most auspicious manner possible.

I joined the UCD Literary Society in 2004, and contributed a poem to its rather glossy annual magazine. I'm glad I still have that, too, since it's not even kept in UCD library! It's the only year I took part in the Society.

(I know I've mentioned a lot of this before, when writing about my years trying to be a poet. Apologies for the repetition, both here and further on.)

In my mid-twenties, I pretty much gave up on poetry and decided to write fiction instead. My imagination was kindled by reading about literary workhorses such as Isaac Asimov, who famously said "I think through my fingers", and "If I was told I only had six months to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster". (This is sometimes rendered, rather stupidly, as "six minutes to live". The misquotation used to irk Asimov. The quotation itself is a paraphrase of an answer to an interview question.)

So I wrote, and wrote, and wrote, and wrote, for a few years, at every available moment.

My first novel was entitled The Black Feather. My main ambition with this novel was simply to finish it, since I'd made many abandoned efforts at writing novels from my childhood onwards. The story itself is set in a fantasy world, one in which a republic loosely based on the Roman Republic is at war with an empire loosely based on the Persian Empire. At this point, I was more reactionary than ever before or since. The novel might almost have been written by Benito Mussolini. It's a passionate defence of monarchy, hierarchy, mystery, tradition, and such things. I was still an agnostic at this point, and the story ends with my protagonist looking at a statue of God (in the form of a spider) and wondering if he really exists. My protagonist was a scion of the Republic who eventually becomes a defender of the Empire.

It's a terrible novel. Words cannot describe its badness. it's also a lost masterpiece, because I don't have the text anymore. I had it stored up until recently on two different laptops that both died within a short time of each other. I put the final chapter up on this blog a few years ago, and that's all that remains of it at this date. Bad as it is, I regret this.

My second attempt at fiction was a young adult's fantasy novel called The Bard's Apprentice. This dusted off an idea I'd had for many years, about an order of bards who wander through various fantasy worlds, pursuing quests. It's the closest I've ever come to writing a passable novel. The story was set on a fantasy world and followed a tribe similar to the Pilgrim Fathers, who left a decadent civilization to live in the wilderness. One of their number, a young boy, finds himself at one point transported to a city called Luria, the home of the order of the bards, and becomes an apprentice bard. Just as he has started his training, however, he has to return to his tribe to save them from an attack by bandits. I'd intended this novel as the first of a series. The plot is fairly good, and the novel explores the conflict between tradition and individual freedom in a way that I think is quite fair-minded.

A publisher did ask me for the entire manuscript of this novel after I'd sent them a few sample chapters. Several months later I got a rejection letter accompanied by a reader's report so savage I've only been able to read it once-- though I've kept it in my archives. A friend who read the novel, and who is himself a writer, thought it showed narrative ability and said I shouldn't give up on fiction. I still have the entire text, now safely stored on Google Drive. (Well, I presume it's safe!)

Then I turned to writing horror. I wrote a horror novel set in modern-day Dublin, under the title The Snowman. This featured an extraterrestrial being who terrorises a Dublin suburb, taking the form of a snowman. It was definitely a step backwards from The Bard's Apprentice, especially in its meandering and directionless plot. I have most of this, but some of the chapters towards the end are missing. It had some good scenes. I wanted to write a novel where it snowed non-stop. I love snow.

Next I wrote a series of horror stories called A Hundred Nightmares. My idea for this collection was to avoid cliché and repetition as much as possible; I wanted a hundred stories which were truly original, each one different from the rest. As a lifelong horror fan who knows most of the clichés, I think I achieved that fairly well. Some of the ideas are pretty good. However, my big mistake was for each story to be only two pages long. I wanted them to be short sharp shocks, but I overlooked the fact that a story has to be more than just an idea. Part of the pleasure in any story is the development of the idea, the drawing out of the idea. The collection also included a framing narrative-- I love framing narratives.

A Hundred Nightmares is the spikiest thing I've ever written. I was drifting towards a spiritual crisis at this time, finding it increasingly difficult to live as an agnostic. I took some of the pain and emptiness I was feeling out on my characters. Savage and ironic twists abound in A Hundred Nightmares. Some readers of the stories told me they found them just too dark to enjoy.

A Hundred Nightmares is also a "missing masterpiece". I've lost the text. I'd put some of them up on this blog over the years, and some readers said some kind things about them. But I think most of them are missing now.

On the very day that I finished writing A Hundred Nightmares, my spiritual crisis hit me with full force. I remember it vividily. It was a very hot summer's day. I spent the next few months desperately searching for God-- and finding Him, eventually, deo gratias.

Some years later,  I wrote another young adult's fantasy novel entitled The Man Who Could Make Worlds. This was another poor effort. The basic idea was good, I think; it featured a teenager who visits his hero, a writer of "choose your own adventure" books. It turns out that the writer, a crotchety and reactionary old man, can create not only imaginary worlds but apparently real worlds. as well. (How he got this power is left deliberately vague. I was influenced in this by Groundhog Day, which never bothers to account of its supernatural element, and is all the better for it.) He traps the boy inside a fantasy world drawn from the boy's imagination; if he manages to extricate himself, the old man (who is dying) will make him his heir by granting him the ability to make worlds. I love stories about different levels of reality. Sadly, though the idea was good, the execution was dire. it's not quite as bad as The Black Feather, but it's not far off.

I thought this was another "lost masterpiece", but I found it on my personal drive at work, hiding under the filename "Moo" (for God knows what reason).

More recently, I started writing a religious novel entitled The Cross. A friend of mine read this as I wrote it and was very enthusiastic about it. So was I, at the time. But I abandoned it after a few chapters, and I've decided it's not worth further effort. Aside from anything else, what publisher is going to be interested in a religious novel? I can't see myself writing any further fiction for a good while.

I guess the moral is this. Keep your files safe! Have them in multiple locations!

At the same time, while I made an honest effort to find them, I'm not too cut up that I couldn't. I've pondered quite a bit on the strange dialectic betweeen memory and forgetting, conservation and loss. If nothing was forgotten, nothing would ever need to be remembered. The scene from Proust that everybody has heard about, in which the taste of a particular cake dipped in tea unlocks a flood of childhood memories, wouldn't be possible if we all remembered everything that ever happened to us.

"The mists of history" is a deliciously evocative phrase. I'm glad we don't live in a world where there would be no occasion to use it.

I've mentioned on several occasions that I'm a big fan of the website TV Tropes. This particular page, Missing Episodes, is a fascinating list of movies, broadcasts, books, and other things which are considered lost. Did you know, for instance, that the Iliad and the Odyssey were part of a larger epic of Troy, which is now mostly lost? Or that NASA's original high-definition footage of the Moon landings have gone missing? (The pictures we are familiar with are recordings of recordings.)

There's something quite romantic in the idea of a missing work of art. Something potentially spooky, too. Ancient Evil by Ramsey Campbell is a good novel on this theme, in which a film historian is trying to track down a "lost" horror film. The scene where he finally watches it, in an empty cinema, is deliciously creepy. I'm reminded of the lines from T.S. Eliot:

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

Indeed, sometimes studios take advantage of this by marketing never-before-seen episodes or scenes as "lost", when they were not lost but simply stuck on a shelf somewhere.

All in all, while I'm fundamentally on the side of preservation, conservation, and tradition, I rather like it when entropy is given a sporting chance. G.K. Chesterton's reflections on the novel Robinson Crusoe may help explain what I mean: "Crusoe is a man on a small rock with a few comforts just snatched from the sea: the best thing in the book is simply the list of things saved from the wreck. The greatest of poems is an inventory. Every kitchen tool becomes ideal because Crusoe might have dropped it in the sea. It is a good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day, to look at anything, the coal-scuttle or the book-case, and think how happy one could be to have brought it out of the sinking ship on to the solitary island. But it is a better exercise still to remember how all things have had this hair-breadth escape: everything has been saved from a wreck"."

If technology ever advances to the level where no record is ever lost, what will possess this romantic sense of having been saved from a wreck-- except for works that pre-dated the new era? I am reminded of Isaac Asimov's "The Dead Past", a story that made a powerful impression on me in my teens.

Well, I've veered into pretty deep waters, given the general subject of this blog post. And I'm glad to my younger self for keeping the things I've kept. (I've also kept a private diary for the last three years on the website Penzu. I haven't missed a day and it's almost a million words long now. Every month, I import a PDF copy of it which I keep in several different places.)

A final thought: a reader kindly asked me whether I keep back-ups of my blog posts. I don't. For whatever quirk of my own psychology, it seems important to me not to worry about the preservation of this blog. The National Library of Ireland have perserved my posts from 2012, in their digital archive (something I realized by complete accident). That's enough for me.

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