Monday, August 13, 2018

How a Novel Can be Like a Rube Goldberg Machine: "The Lost Mata Hari Ring" by Elyse Douglas

My fascination with Mata Hari makes me read all sorts of books dealing with her, not all of them being good. In particular, I still have to find a decent novel having Mata Hari as the protagonist. This recent novel by Elyse Douglas is an example. I would describe it as a "Rube Goldberg Novel." It moves onward, yes, but clumsily and without purpose. 

Let me start with the first page of this novel, nay, with the first paragraph. And there you read:

With a certain unease and reluctance, twenty-nine-year old Tracey Peyton Rutland entered Maynard Hopkins' private, sunny office on East 78th street. Dr. Hopkins closed the door softly behind her, clearing his throat. "Good morning. May I take your coat?" he offered.
Huh? Wait a moment, wait a moment, is it really the way this novel is written? Or is it just a trick to introduce it by showing how badly you can write the first paragraph? Do the authors, (Ms. Parmentier and Mr. Pennington, aka Elyse Douglas) want to compete for the Bulwer-Lytton prize? (you know the story, right? The novel starting with "It was a dark and stormy night."). But no, the novel is written all in this style, from the first paragraph to the last, for all its 368 pages. All the same: involved, clumsy, slow, heavily plodding sentences like the first one.

Huh, indeed. It makes you wonder if there actually exist such entities as writing schools where they teach you a rule called "show, don' tell." And if there ever existed novelists such as Ernest Hemingway.

Now, before continuing, a disclaimer: I am not a novelist, at best you could say that I am a (bad) blog writer. But, if I am a bad writer, I can at least claim to be a good reader. And when I read something, I can understand the effort of the author(s) in doing their best, but I also reserve the right to criticize them.

This said, I would also state that it is not impossible that a novel could be poorly written and still be a good novel. Kurt Vonnegut spoke of defects in novels making the comparison with a beautiful woman with two eyes of different color, a detail that could make her even more charming. But, as the world goes, an ugly woman is often ugly in every detail. And that's true also for fiction:  Some novels may be bad in every detail.

"The Lost Mata Hari Ring" is, indeed, a novel that I would compare to a Rube Goldberg machine. You know the concept: these are machines where things move in a chain, one step after the other. First, you have a ball going down a slope, it hits a lever, which lights a match, which punctures a water container, the water floods another container, which moves another lever, and so on. A Rube Goldberg machine can be some fun to watch in action, but it has no purpose. It leaves no impact on you.

Not that the Penningtons, Elyse and Douglas, haven't done their homework. They have. And that shows when the protagonist - Tracey - time-travels to 1916. The characters include historical figures and the setting looks reasonably believable, apart from some quirks such as referring to Vadim Maslov consistently as "Vadime" and for having the characters addressing Mata Hari in conversation with her stage name of "Mata Hari" - which makes no sense.

The problem with the novels is not the premise: there is nothing wrong with having the protagonist wearing a ring that belonged to Mata Hari and as, a consequence, being immediately whooshed to 1916. It is all part of the concept of "suspension of disbelief." After all, Dante Alighieri never told us how exactly he traveled to Hell.

The problem is that in any story characters must have a motivation - they have to be engaged in searching for something, learning something, finding someone. But the protagonist of this novel is described as if she were a Barbie doll and she moves through the novel with the same sense of purpose as a doll being shared among different children. Trace, the protagonist, travels to 1916, meets Mata Hari, falls in love with a British pilot, marries him, befriends Mata Hari's daughter, her husband dies, she is accused of espionage, she comes back to our times, she gets married, and she has a baby. Huh? The other characters are just as shallow, including Mata Hari herself.

Now, I know that a lot of work goes into writing a novel and that a novel is very much like a child for the author. Receiving criticism for one's writings - of any kind - is hard. As I said, writing a bad novel takes about as much work as writing a good one. But these are the rules of the game. And I can propose that NOT being criticized may be worse than being criticized. The Pennington couple wrote several novels - I counted 17 of them on the site. Considering that "The Lost Ring" seems to be one of the recent novels they published, I would be somewhat perplexed at the idea of tackling another one. Especially this one with a cover that makes it look like a chocolate candy.

I figure that the Penningtons love what they are doing and they would profit from some criticism in order to improve. The problem is that it is impossible to find some real criticism of their books. The reviews on Amazon or on Goodreads are all glowingly positive. Which is a general problem of all ratings on the Web, but an especially important one for the disappearing art of novel writing. Sure, there may be a market for a certain kind of "romance novels", but they don't have to be all bad. And if bad novels are not criticized, how can the good ones be recognized?

So, are novels a dead art form? Maybe. And then, maybe not. Some forms of storytelling are clearly obsolete, but that doesn't mean there won't be new ones. The future will tell and, in any case, there remain powerful mythopoietic symbols in our world, one of whom is Mata Hari. And you cannot stop symbols from expressing themselves in some way. Which is, in the end, what "The Lost Ring of Mata Hari" shows.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Ursula K. Le Guin: 1929-2018. The Magic and the Beauty.

Living, as I live, in a remote province of the Empire, I had missed the news of the death of Ursula Le Guin that took place last January. She was my most beloved author and possibly my deepest and most felt source of inspiration.

You can read a summary of Le Guin's work in this excellent article on "The Guardian." You can find several comments of mine on her "Earthsea Cycle" in the Chimeras blog. (for instance here, here, and here.)

Ursula Le Guin is now in the underworld that she described in the "Earthsea" series, "into the desert lands and lightless cities of the dead where the dead are " freed from anger and desire." Be in peace, Ursula, freed from anger and desire.

You gave us so much in this world: you gave us magic, you gave us beauty, you gave us poetry, and you gave us much love. You told us that in the underworld, "those who loved each other in life do not know each other now." But I can't believe that the beauty of your words will disappear, and perhaps your poetry will resonate in the lightless city of a desert land, where you are now.

By the white straits of Soléa
and the bowed red branches
that bent their blossoms over
her bowed head, heavy
with sorrow for the lost lover.
by the red branch and the white branch
and the sorrow unceasing
do I swear, Serriadh,
son of my mother and of Morred
to remember the wrong done
                      forever, forever

Ursula K. Le Guin, "The Wizard of Earthsea"

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Snake, the Death, and the Naked Flesh. Mythopoiesis of Mata Hari

The prima ballerina Anna Tsygankova as Margaretha Zelle MacLeod, a.k.a. Mata Hari, in the Dutch National Ballet’s production of 2016. Here, Mata Hari is portrayed as dancing with a snake, a popular story about her but, most likely, just a legend. It is the same for the legend that says she stripped naked in front of the firing squad at her execution, in 1917. The origin of both legends is hard to track down, but a turning point in their diffusion may have been the novel by E. Temple Thurston "Portrait of a Spy" published in 1929.

Mata Hari has turned out to be a myth-generating machine of incredible power. Myths which are pervasive, persistent, unstoppable, and - most often - completely false. Two of these myths are especially unlikely. One is that Mata Hari would sometimes perform her dances with a snake, the other that she bared her breasts in front of the firing squad that was going to kill her.

About the snake, it is not totally farfetched. We have pictures of dancers of the time of Mata Hari and sometimes they appear with snakes, as you can see here. This woman is often said to be Mata Hari, but she is not her, clearly. Yet, the legend of Mata Hari dancing with snakes is persistent. In addition to the image at the beginning of this post, it is described in Michelle Moran's recent novel "Mata Hari's Last Dance".

About the other legend, standing naked in front of the firing squad, it is not a common myth. We have no pictures of the execution, but most of the fantasy images created afterward show Mata Hari fully dressed and in a rather solemn attitude - or, sometimes, with a frightened expression.

Still, the legend exists. It is reported, among others, by Julie Wheelwright in her book "The Fatal Lover" (1992) (p. 3) in terms of a contemporary of Mata Hari, Natalie Barney, speaking of the "tawdry imagined sable coat over nude flesh invented by someone who wrote for the most scurrilous kind of literary weekly" It is mentioned also at this link.

I think it shouldn't take much effort to debunk both legends: there is no evidence anywhere - nothing at all - that Mata Hari ever danced with a snake. On the contrary, a descendant of her family, Ton Zelle, told me that "she hated snakes" - a rather likely attitude for a Dutch girl, born and raised in a place where snakes are not common - to say the least! About stripping naked in front of the firing squad, well, it doesn't even deserve to be debunked.

But these myths must have an origin: someone, somewhere, must have expressed them first. I haven't been able to find the "scurrilous literary weekly" described by Natalie Barnes, but I think it is possible to pinpoint the origin of both with the novel by E. Temple Thurston "Portrait of a Spy" appeared in 1929.

Today, Temple Thurston is nearly completely forgotten as a writer and perhaps for good reasons, at least judging from this novel. Not that it is poorly written, actually it shows the hand of a professional, the style reminds Faulkner, at times. But, as a novel, it just doesn't stand on its own. The protagonist, the British painter George Le Mesurier, doesn't ever gain life. Better, but still not satisfactory, is the female character inspired by Mata Hari. She goes under the name of Liane Sonrel (fictional alter ego of Margaretha Zelle) and Mada Garass (the fictional equivalent of Mata Hari). She is a character with some life, especially at the beginning. Apart from the different names, she goes through the same parable as Mata Hari, starting as a low-level stripper in Paris and in the end being shot. We read that, at the last moment,

. . . she flung open the folds of that sable coat and her body was gleaming naked to receive their bulled in her flesh.

As I said, not a good novel but, at least, Thurston created a myth that still lives today. It has been said in our time that propaganda "creates reality" and that was true also at the time of Mata Hari. Propaganda created the story of her being a dangerous spy and, in the process, people saw non-existing things, such as her dancing with snakes or appearing naked at her execution. In the end, all the madness, all the suffering, all the hate, love, folly, pain, joy, and misery are our creation. And I might cite Lafcadio Hearn in his "Out of the East"
We may have to learn that the infinite whirl of death and birth, out of which we cannot escape, is of our own creation, of our own seeking;—that the forces integrating worlds are the errors of the Past;—that the eternal sorrow is but the eternal hunger of insatiable desire;—and that the burnt-out suns are rekindled only by the inextinguishable passions of vanished lives.
Vanished lives who still project on us their inextinguishable passion. Margaretha, you are still with us.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Legacy of Mata Hari

Here are four books on Mata Hari which arrived to me this week - new additions to my collection. The newest (Femme Fatale) was published in 2007, the oldest (the one in black and white, by Baumgarten) was published in 1934. 

It is amazing that this woman left to us so little and her memory still reverberates so much. Of her, we have some pictures, a few articles on newspapers, scattered letters to different people, and unsubstantiated stories and rumors. And yet, books about her have been written starting shortly after her death, in 1917, and continue being written.

Mata Hari's memory seems to be growing instead of shrinking. It is the power of mythopoiesis which makes ideas and memories invade the vast space that Aboriginal Australians call Dreamtime and grow bigger over the years.

There is at least another case of a person who is still very well known two thousand years after his death and who left us very little except stories and legends, and some words written in the sand that no man ever read.  The immense power of mythopoiesis.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Mata Hari Obsession

The Last Days of Mata Hari - a Novel by Giuseppe Scaraffia (2015, in Italian)

One of the characteristics of Mata Hari is that, a hundred years after her death, she can become an obsession. More than one writer fell under her spell and one of them is Giuseppe Scaraffia, author of this "The Last Days of Mata Hari" - published in Italy in 2015.

For a writer, being obsessed with the subject one writes about means the obsessive (indeed) search for all the details about it. When it is a historical subject, you do that combing all the possible sources and putting together all the details. There is a risk in this attitude - it is what Voltaire said, "the art of boredom consists in telling everything"

This is clearly a risk that Scaraffia faced with this book: an incredibly detailed report on what the famous people of a century ago were doing while Mata Hari was marching toward the firing squad. I have to confess that, at the beginning, I felt I was reading something akin to a phone book. A long list of names, Marinetti, Hemingway, Lawrence, Colette, and so on. Every name a few pages. How can you even dream of putting together a novel in this way?

But no, the book is a little steep at the beginning but, eventually, it works as a consistent narrative. And it works very well. It gives you a vision of the world as it was at the time of Mata Hari's death, a difficult, dark, and under many respect hopeless world. A world which, unfortunately, still lives in our age, although in a somewhat different form.

Then, the best thing in the book is how a consistent portrait of Mata Hari comes up. She is believable, strong, sensual, determined - exactly the way we can imagine she was. Unique, as someone said "we couldn't get another one like her, not even if we could clone her." And that's the way she is described in this book.

All writing is, eventually, an act of love toward what one writes about. And this book is one more act of love toward Mata Hari, whom we keep remembering still today.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Tales from Novel-Space: the Sumerian Waitresses of Planet Pluto

My exploration of novel-space is leading me to an endless series of discoveries. Novels may be a way to probe the human mind, or simply a way to peer into new and different universes. And, I must say, highly chaotic universes. Yet, as Terence said, "nothing human is alien to me", then there has to be a logic even in the weirdest novels I can put my hands on. Recently, I found myself reading in parallel two novels which couldn't be more different. One was "Diligent Waitress" by Yewande Erinle (2010), the other "Into Plutonian Depths" by Stanton Coblentz (1933).

Beware: reading these two novels together may short-circuit your mind and generate the "Necronomicon Effect" - you surely know about the metabook imagined by Howard Lovecraft which drives mad whoever reads it. I think I survived the effect, but let me go on.

Let me start with the "Diligent Waitress." This is a book that I wouldn't believe could exist if I didn't have it in my hands. To explain what I mean, let me report an excerpt from the introduction:
The Lord is looking for men and women who will wait on Him, just like a waiter would on you. He wants us to wait on Him always with our trays filled with praise and worship for him. As you approach him with your tray, he begins to take in the sweet aroma of what's on ite and He comes down for a better view of what you have chosen to serve Him with. He delights in what's on your tray and more importantly He loves it when you wait for Him to finish ejoying His meal. He wants to hear you ask Him for His needs and He wants you to keep Him company, too. God has desires too. 
I don't know if you find this as amazing as I do. This is pure Sumerian: it is the concept that humans are the "stewards of the Gods" - an idea invented some 5 thousand years ago. In the myth of Enki, we read that the Gods decided to create humans in order to serve them. And there is more in Ms. Erinle's book: the protagonist, Hadassah, speaks with God all the time, she hears Him giving her good advice and that's the normal thing in her world: everybody she knows (that is, the good people) hear the voice of God. This is a phenomenon described by Julian Jaynes in his book, "The Origin of Consciousness" (1976). An attitude that was typical of ancient civilizations, long ago people spoke with their Gods and they spoke to them. Today, most of us would find it strange to hear the voice of God ringing in our head but, at the same time, we think it is normal to keep speaking to Him, although he doesn't answer.

I don't know if Ms. Erinle is an expert in Sumerian culture. But we don't need to be Sumerians to chat with God. Read the book by Tanya Luhrmann, "When God Talks Back" (2012) and you see how this idea is common with American Evangelicals. Why such an attitude is re-emerging today in our Western civilization is hard to say, but it does. In any case, as a literary piece, "Diligent Waitress" moves on slowly, but with a certain inner logic. It is the story of Hadassah, nice, Christian girl who learns how to speak with God, becomes a diligent waitress, marries her boyfriend, and in the end becomes the owner of three restaurants. Not exactly the "epic" genre, but it has a certain charm that makes it much more readable than ancient Sumerian Hymns.

Then, let's go to the other book: Into Plutonian Depths. I think I can say that this is one of the worst novels I ever read. The problem is not so much because it is poorly written - it is, but it is not so bad. Nor because it is a boring book: it is not. It is a book full of inventions and the plot moves onward at a fast pace. And you have to recognize to Mr. Coblentz a remarkable originality. In 1933, the idea of extraterrestrial civilizations was an novelty, barely explored by H.G. Wells' story "The First Men on the Moon," clearly a source of inspiration for Coblentz, but revisited in many different ways.

It is a bad novel, rather, because it is about such nasty characters. The protagonists are two Americans named Andy and Dan (Coblentz was not so original in naming his characters). They travel a billion miles to Pluto to find a sophisticated and gentle civilization existing in the depths of the planet. But the Earthlings don't seem to be especially impressed and they do their best to behave horribly in various ways. Just to give you an idea, the Plutonians are said to be vegetarians and the two Earthlings don't like the food they are served. So, they feel entitled to kill, roast, and eat an animal they happen to stumble upon - something that their hosts correctly find gross and disgusting. But the worse deed they perform is seducing a poor Plutonian girl only to leave her alone to her destiny while they manage to get back to their ship and go back to Earth.  

Really, these two guys went all the way to Pluto to behave like hooligans in a trip to follow their football team. You could say that this novel is "entertaining" but it is the kind of entertainment that you could get from kicking people's butts. And if you think of it as a metaphor of how Westerners tend to behave with non-Western people, well, it is nasty but correct in many respects. If Mr. Coblentz had written a sequel to this novel (fortunately, he didn't) he might have described how the Earth forces invaded Pluto and exterminated the natives.

So, why did I put together these two novels, Plutonian Depths and Diligent Waitress? One reason is that, as I said, novel-space is an incredible place, full of the strangest things. It is amazing that the authors are creatures belonging to the same species (homo sapiens) - you would rather think that one of the authors is Plutonian, the other an Earthling. So, both novels are completely absurd if compared to the real universe: do you find stranger that Pluto is inhabited by human-like creatures or that an all-powerful, invisible being cares about what you serve Him at his table? But that's the miracle of literature - the impossible is possible in novel-space.

Perhaps the point I find most interesting is that there is an unexpected link between these two novels. You know what is metafiction, I guess. It is the contamination of plot elements and of characters from a novel to another - the equivalent of DNA mixing in biology. And there is a metafiction element that links the Pluto novel to the waitress novel. In a sense, the Christian protagonists of Enrile's novel look like the Plutonians of Coblentz's novel. They are gentle, nice, good, law abiding, and a little boring. Plutonians are not said to have a religion, but they have a sort of lamp on their head that makes them look in part as fireflies, but also like the Christian saints as they are depicted in paintings, with supernatural "auras" around their heads. Metafiction at the extreme level! Plutonians and Evangelical Christians, what can you ask more?

In the end, Ms. Erinle's novel may be a little boring, but it is immensely superior to the entertaining but nasty novel by Coblentz. Never forget that the meek will inherit the Earth (and perhaps also Pluto)

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Mata Hari Meme

Sarah Lewison hit onto something with her idea of the "Mata Hari syndrome", in which she compared Mata Hari to a virus inoculated into the European society of her time. It was, clearly, a highly infectious virus and its effects are still felt, nowadays. In more recent terms, we could say that Mata Hari was a powerful meme. She expressed trends which were taking shape during her time: exotism, oriental religions, female power and much more.

Here is an excerpt of the text by Lewison that you can find on "carbonfarm"

The attractions of Mata Hari consist of unaligned components, each a symptom of the time. Narcissism meets a rudimentary familiarity with exotic religion, flows into a fascination for difference, courses through the salon of a retired opera singer, and washes up in numerous bedchambers. She takes advantage of opportunities the way a parasite infests a host, feeding her enormous appetite for popular trends, and she becomes very big, big, enough that she can host her own soirees. A courtesan is also a hostesse

But we are not finished with the metaphor of river or wash. An underground tributary forms from love juices and coins and trinkets which tumble down, down, through beds covered with the flags of hostile nations. Deep underground, they form a nourishing microbial soup, which sustains her, soup that is also a trap, a quicksand waiting for the wash-up of her career. The microbial soup, a syndrome in itself, becomes infested as a current ofparanoia, preferences and dire circumstances run together. Like an organism, she has generated a process, which must fulfill its own life cycle.