Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Russian Dolls – A Novel Structure

Recently I read the US/Turkish author Elif Shafak  (Viking 2010)  for the first time. The Forty Rules of Love is a complicated, multilayered and deliciously flawed story set both now and in the thirteenth century, and across several countries. I would describe its structure as Russian Doll.

Thanks to past links with Russia, I’ve got several of these gaudily painted Babushkas that nestle one inside the other, and I watched my children play with them when very small – the thrill of breaking them apart and the comforting certainty that they would all fit together perfectly in the end. That may be that’s why I’m intrigued by their literary equivalent. Readers of fiction have perennially loved the ‘Russian Doll’ structure – the tale that fits within the tale that fits within the tale.
How many layers does a story need before it can qualify for my classic Russian Doll shape? It must have onion-like layers; after all, there are never just two Russian dolls. 
So I’m not talking specifically about Mise en abyme, the French term for a ‘frame’. This literary device, with one story narrated or imbedded around a further story, includes Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, where a party losing its sparkle turns into a ghost story told by a fire. And I'm excluding books that build a single story in a complex way, for instance by use of fractured perspective or flash-back. And – sorry, disagree if you might – I don't believe that stringing a set of shorter stories together count as ‘Russian Dolls’. 
Jennifer Egan's  A Visit from The Goon Squad  is very clever, as is the more recent Booker short-listed All that is Man Is by David Szalay, (Vintage 2016) a beautiful examination of the male mind and the seven+ ages of man. Both are worth a read, but their stories don't nestle, they move along, linking together in various ways. 
So what about Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveller, a gloriously surreal story about the hunt for a mysterious book? Mostly categorised under the post-modern definition of metafiction because the story plays with self-awareness and the writing conventions of authorship. Certainly, the story is complex and layered. It begins with a reader (the reader...), opening Italo Calvino's latest novel, If On A Winter's Night A Traveller, only to have the story cut short. Turns out it was a defective copy, with another book's pages inside. As the reader tries to find out what book the defective pages belong to, he meets Ludmilla, a fellow reader who also received a defective book. Calvino's novel broke ground and created a storm in fiction, but I don't think it qualifies for the Russian Doll structure – but then, it doesn't need to do anything it doesn't want to do – it's a marvellous read.

Cloud Atlas,(Sceptre, 2004) by David Mitchell, begins with a rollicking story of Victorian exploration and missionary zeal.  It consists of six interlocking, stylistically distinct novellas spanning 500 years and begins in 1850 with extracts fromThe Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing. The narrative breaks off suddenly on page 39 at the half-way point with no warning, and we’re in the1930s, where a new character arrives solely via his intimate letters to a certain Sixsmith, and onwards, into the future and the centre of the novel, a four further tales later, to find connections and learn outcomes. Mitchell has a delight in creating puzzles in his novels and Cloud Atlas  bends time, structure and genre. Mitchell trusts us to keep reading although each narrative is unfinished, using links such as birthmarks and documents, to complete each individual story and the novel itself. This builds up a satisfying narrative structure that shifts across genres and styles, and the distinct voices of many protagonists… I do recommend the book, but I haven’t seen the film, so I’m not entirely sure how these Russian dolls are slotted together for cinema. David Mitchell tells the tale of how he was skyping with Hollywood executives at his home in Ireland. "I kept a pretty straight face while I was skyping and then I ran downstairs and told my wife, 'Hanks has said yes! Can you believe it?' I did Maori victory dances around the house." Mitchell never imagined his book could be adapted for the screen, and neither can I, loving the narrative and the voice on the page too much.  Halfway through the book, the goatherd stumbles across the ruins of a defunct civilisation and reaches the novel's climax, after which each story is resolved one by one.

I snowed a hid cave by Mauka waterfall an’ to here it was I took us for what’d be Meronym’s final night on Big Isle if ev’rythin’ worked as planned. I’d hoped Wolt or Kobbery or ‘mother goatherd may o’ scaped an’ be hidin’ there but, nay, it was empty, just some blanket and what we goatherds stashed for sleepin’… pg 317

This kind of structure is reminiscent of A Thousand and One Nights, where  Scheherazad tells a story, then breaks off and begins again at a later time…to save her own life, of course…but the structure of Cloud Atlas is more complex, perhaps best described as ‘reflecting mirrors’. It well suited not only Mitchell’s characters and plots, but one of his reoccurring premises, the circular and rippling nature of history.This was, for a novelist  in his mid-30s, an astoundingly accomplished performance. But I don't think it's a Russian Doll, although you can disagree with me if you like. So if I’m not talking about any of these different, and equally complicated stories, what am I on about? Do I even know myself?
I’m searching for ways in which multiple narratives might nest within each other. The intent, or story, is then peeled away by layers. Short stories can employ in this format, and certain kinds of memoir are perfect for this slow revealing of their core.
Also described as Chinese Box, this structure is found in the 1984 film version of the story by Angela Carter, The Company of Wolves, screenplay by Carter and the director, Neil Jordan. You can watch the film here online; and the original short story can be found in Carter’s 1979 collection of magical realism, The Bloody Chamber (Gollanz). 
There is a Russian Doll plot in the almost impossible House of Leaves by Mark Z Daneilewski, and you can try gently pulling the next Babushka out of the bigger one right to the end of  Philip K Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle, where every character interacts with a book that seems to tell an alternative story parallel to their own. 
Margaret Atwood's novel The Blind Assassin is a novel-within-a-novel within a novel. Iris, now an old woman, recounts how she and her sister Laura grew up motherless in Ontario. Within this story we encounter excerpts from a novel attributed to Laura but published by Iris. Embedded in this novel is a science fiction story, Blind Assassin.  As Atwood unfolds The Blind Assassin we learn pivotal events of Iris and Laura's lives in the ‘40s, and understand that the novel-within-a-novel is inspired by real events. Before the end, Iris dies, leaving her granddaughter to discover the twists of truth in an unpublished autobiography. Another novel that use this shape became a great cult hit across the world in the noughties. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (translated into English by Lucia Graves and first published in English in 2001 by Penguin Books) begins with a young boy being asked to choose any book from the Library of Secrets. The novel he takes away haunts his childhood, and as he grows into adult he begins his search for the author. The investigation leads to the telling of many tales, including his own and that of his small, Spanish town. Finally, he confronts the truth, which turns out to be more dramatic than the original childhood book.
Published in 2006, Diane Setterfield’s first novel The Thirteenth Tale handles the Russian Doll structure masterfully. The themes of the book; truth, secrets and the making of myths, weave their way through the stories like a golden thread. Margaret Lea is a biographer, who works in her father’s rather arcane bookshop. She is summoned to write the life story of Vida Winter, an author who is infamous for weaving a fiction out of her own past every time she is interviewed about a new novel. She tells Margaret that, now she is dying, she really does want to tell her true life story, a darkly gothic tale that echoes unsettlingly in Margaret’s own past.

Which brings me back to Elif Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love, where two parallel narratives, contemporary fiction and an account of a real thirteenth century Dervish mystic, dive further and further into an original understanding and philosophy. This is a Russian Doll novel with many layers. The story starts with Ella, an unhappily married 40-something, whose first assignment with a literary agency is to read Sweet Blasphemy, a novel written Aziz Zahara. Like Ella, I became mesmerized by the tale of a whirling dervish known as Shams of Tabriz and his relationship with a Persian poet called Rumi, Ella is also taken with Shams’ rules, which offer insight into an ancient philosophy based on the unity of all people and religions, creating a further layer. What I didn’t realize, until I Googled them, is that both Shams and Rumi were real people, living in Persia 800 years ago. Ella feels driven to contact the writer of the book she's appraising, and discovers that he strangely mirrors Shams in looks and philosophy. He tells her his story, she tells him hers, that the connection sets her free.
I’ve described the classic Russian Doll tale as both deliciously flawed and nesting imperfectly. This, for me is a crucial part of the structure, and the major reason such books often take on cult status, and become loved across the globe. We recognise in them our own, complex, horribly layered lives, of which we are trying, but mostly failing, to make sense. Sometimes, it’s reassuring to read fiction that is tightly plotted – in which every strand is tied by the end. But it can be equally illuminating and heartening to know that other people’s lives are disparate, random and full of stories that don’t quite end or make perfect sense. 

I’d be interested to hear what other readers and writers think about this; do leave a comment about your favourite Russian Doll novel or tell me if you disagree with either my interpretations above or my theory of the Russian Doll structure. And if you’re in the middle of writing a Russian Doll story, do tell us about it; if you have the strength!

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Dumb and Dumber...a Moving Experience

We first saw the cottage we bought in West Wales in a snowstorm, and fell in love with it instantly A solitary sheep grazed in a small field. We could see miles of white countryside and the house was built of local pink and yellow stone with black slate. There was room enough to keep hens and grow food. We made an offer and started packing our things. 
Even so, everyone we knew was very dubious. "Won't it be lonely," they asked. "So far from your friends?" 
And, even more worrying, "The Welsh don't like the English. They won't talk to you, unless they're ripping you off."
This concerned us, and, just to get going, we made sure we used an English furninture removal firm to get our belongings from English A to Welsh B. Two skinny boys successfully loaded the contents of our last house into their van and taken it into storage. They seemed okay, but it turned out they were two of the biggest nincompoops known in the trade.
We went ahead to repaint the interior, and lay some flooring, and once we were ready for our furniture to arrive. We rang up and the boys…let’s call them Dumb and Dumber, because I wouldn’t like to reveal their true names…and asked for delivery. ‘Is seven am is okay to arrive,” they asked. “Because once we’ve finished the job, we’ve finished for the day; the earlier the better.”
Our new home
We said that was fine, but did they realise it was a three-hour drive from the depot to our new house? “You’ll have to leave before the sun is up,” I told them. 
“No problem,” came the cheerful reply.
Rather over-optimistically, we set the alarm for half six but after waiting an hour, we were taking bets on when they’d arrive. At ten to nine they rang to say they were just driving out of the depot; they’d had a few jars the night was a bank holiday, after all... 
Our hens
Our next call was at midday. They were in the small town just fifteen minutes drive away, where their van was more or less stuck in the side roads.”Don't use the weak bridge!" I yelled down the line. "Why aren't you on the bypass? Why did your satnav send you into the town?”
Sheepishly, they explained their satnav was on their mobile and, (probably because of the few jars the night before) they’d forgotten to charge it up. I gave them the simple directions; thirty minutes later we had a call from two (rather beautiful, it transpired)  young Welsh girls out in their car. Hopelessly lost, Dumb and Dumber had stopped them to ask directions. The girls knew the area well and steered them in. Thus, our whacking removal lorry finally arrived behind a small, red mini. The lads jumped out and instantly asked where they could buy fish and chips; after a night on the tiles and a long drive, they were famished. We offered to get food for them if they would finally start work.
The first thing that had to be unloaded was the garden equipment, and we suggested they backed towards the field gate and took everything for the garden into the field. This, they managed without incident, but they had chosen to drive into the field and when they attempted to reverse out again...they discovered the van had gouged itself into the dry soil. They were stuck. Soon, they couldn't move forward, either. We put grit, then blankets and finally, in desperation, large planks of wood under the wheels. A smell of burning erupted from the rear tyres but the lorry didn’t budge. Dumb and Dumber were well and truly stuck. 
“Call the AA,” I said. But they blanched at the suggestion. The removal firm might find out just what they’d done!
Finally, I walked the 300 yards down the road to introduce myself to Denise and Dave, our nearest neighbours, and ask if anyone local had a tractor. 
 “Gino,” they suggested. “He’ll come out.”

The Italian Chapel, Henllan Ceredigion
I’d already heard of  Gino. He was the owner of a local restaurant, and of Italian descent. His father had been an Italian prisoner in Wales in the second world war, in a POW camp that was only 3 miles from our cottage. I've since been there, for it has the only Italian Chapel in the UK in which services are still performed, and it is beautiful. 
While they were happily sojourning in the Welsh countryside, quite a lot of the Italian soldiers fell for local girls and never went home, and Gino’s father was one of them. Like his dad before him, Gino farmed a dairy herd from which he made the most wonderful Italian ice cream (especially the pistachio). Jim drove off towards the restaurant which was half a mile from our home (half a mile that is a great walk when you’ve had a bottle of chianti) and in seconds, it seemed, was back with a short, heavily built man of around retirement age on a massive tractor. When I offered him a cuppa, he said, "Just a quick one, if you don’t mind, I’m about to start my dinner." Only a true (new) friend would come out as his dinner (cooked by Mama, as well!) was put on the table. I wanted him to talk on and on; I was fascinated by his accent which was English with a blend of Italian and Welsh. 

Gino hooked the lorry to his tractor and had it out in seconds. From then on, the move went smoothly. Our happy pair - Dumb and even Dumber - downed their fish and chips and went away with rather red faces (I hope), leaving us to fully understand just what a great place we’d shipped up in.  Our clothes were already on their hangers, the takeaway had been delicious, the Welsh sun was shining over the valley and the view from the garden was outstanding. Most important; we had already learnt that the neighbours were wonderfully friendly. Thanks to our Dumb and Dumber removal guys, the auspices for life in West Wales were perfect.
Our view