Saturday, September 22, 2007
THE TWO LAWS OF SCHELMUFFSKY
If you want to know just how conformist, submissive, rule-servile, uninventive and downright boring we have become, read the following two books at the same time: "Absurdistan" and "Schelmuffsky."
Absurdistan is a current bestselling comic novel about a fat (they're always fat) Jewish Russian and his misadventures in Russia and the US. It has "creative writing course" stamped all over it. It's in the sentences: author Gary Shteyngart positively strains to turn out well-formed sentences, like Michael Chabon and like most American writers writing today. They are grammatically correct, touched with a tinge of irreverence of the kind that might send an appealing tingle of shock through the fragile spines of upper middle class women at reading groups. Then he goes on and on about it. Scenes don't end. Over-ambitious similes take over.
"Rain fell like pin-pricks on his cheek." Do we need a sentence like that in a comic novel? Do we need a simile at all? Strained similes like this remind me of John Gardner, that stuck-up pseudo-elitist writing teacher who recommended "original, unusual" similes and metaphors in his classic book On Writing Fiction. Whenever I read a simile like that that the book can do without, I think of Gardner and I wonder if the author like Shteyngart isn't more interested in impressing his creative writing instructor than in writing a scene, much less a funny scene. Jesus Christ, just say it's raining and get it over with. Is the big thing the raindrops, or is the big thing the story… whatever that may be? "Pinprick raindrops" might in some cases establish a dramatic atmosphere, but here it is unnecessary and strained and that goes for about 75% of all his sentences. And In the above paragraphs you can replace the name Shteyngart with almost any name out there today.
At the same time I read "Schelmuffsky", a thin comic/picaresque novel from the 17th century that best translates from the German as "Rascalsky", which is the name of the main character. It's not a classic and it's not really a good book. The main attribute was that the author Christian Reuter seemed to start off in comic directions but stopped before going all the way. The absurdist elements were punchlines, not springboards to further absurdity.
But even then, Schelmuffsky was ten times better and far more absurder than Absurdistan. The way Reuter did it, without doing anything special, really, shows up our modern literature for just how unadventurous it really is:
1. Reuter doesn’t give a damn about grammar. This is typical for his pre-dictionary time (and for other classics, including Grimmelshausen and English writers of the day) and it gives his sentences a crazy, veering, careening life of their own. It starts with the (sub)title: "The curious and dangerous Travelogue." How can a travelogue be dangerous? It can't. It doesn't matter. It just sounds better, and funnier, than "The dangerous travels" or "Description of a dangerous journey." And come to think of it, who cares that it's "wrong"? Nowadays we over-schooled writers are so afraid of making a grammatical mistake that our prose becomes stiff and lifeless, every sentence cowering before the assumed scrutiny of our high school English teachers. All this right-and-wrong grammar stuff is nothing but modern-day literary Prussianism.
2. Reuter is not afraid of extreme absurdity. I know of no novel today that dares to be so ridiculous. While Tristram Shandy opened and closed from the womb, Schelmuffksy also starts in the womb than describes how a giant rat ran under the dress of his sister and into a "hole", causing his mother to faint and remain unconscious for a few days, causing him, after a few days of no food, to crawl out of his mother's womb with mature faculties, meaning he can speak and think as an infant – and immediately he gets into a confrontation with and triumphs over the village priest before waking his mother. It goes on and on like that. The only absurd thing about the hero of Absurdistan is that he is obese. Okay, fine, who cares? Why are there no adventuresome authors out there today? Reuter cold have gone another step or to beyond what he did, but he went a huge step beyond what we do today.
These, then, are the Two Comic Laws of Schelmuffsky: 1) Forget the pretty sentences already, and 2) go one step beyond.