Sunday, February 2, 2003


I've spent much of the last day totally immersed in a world that I have always loved but only seen through books and films: a world of elegant upper-class England Between the Wars, a world that swings between Oxford, the western parts of London, and various Country Seats, a world in which people pay attention to exquisite but meaningless details, a world in which people hold golden pencils and enamel cigarette-holders and pocketbooks and cigarette-cases, a world where ladies serve tea from Georgian silver pots strained through Georgian silver strainers into delicate saucered cups in overfurnished rooms, a world where gentlemen cared passionately about their shoes and the careful disposition of neckties and hats and gloves and walking-sticks and handkerchiefs.

I sometimes wonder if that world ever really existed. I almost hope it did not, so that it can remain an impossible Eden in my mind rather than a Golden Age that is lost. I prefer to think of that world as a nonexistent Atlantis rather than a destroyed Dresden.

But anyway, I was watching my new boxed set of videos, the four-tape 1987 BBC series of Dorothy L. Sayers Mysteries starring Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane. I remember seeing parts of Have His Carcase (the second of the three filmed novels) on PBS's Mystery some years ago and being quite enamored of Lord Peter with his monocle and elegance, though I remember wishing at the time that he were younger. That was of course before I'd discovered and fell in love with Sayers' novels, so now I am rather more impressed by the perfect casting of Wimsey and Vane, how very like their written counterparts they appeared. I was a little disappointed, though, in the teleplay of my favorite Sayers novel (and perhaps my favorite novel of all time), Gaudy Night. They had to lift off several layers of narrative and characters in order to fit the whole thing into a three-episode teleplay, and I was saddened that some of my favorite parts and characters were gutted.

Still, I was deeply satisfied with the details of the teleplays, the set decoration and costumes and all those lovely useless props. It also awoke in me an unbearable craving for tea. I'm not much of a tea-drinker, in fact I have over the years become extremely impatient with beverages that require any fussy ritual, like putting cream and sugar in things or straining them or warming pots or whatever. I want to just pour the coffee in the cup and then drink it. But watching all these English folk fussing about with their tea-things is like watching Bette Davis smoke cigarettes... you want to do it yourself, despite the fact that it's not really your thing. There's just something so terribly attractive to me about things to do with idle hands, anything that requires one to keep track of a bunch of difficult or delicate accessories.

I also find myself thinking with an Oxbridge accent after ten hours or so of hearing Petherbridge and Walter speaking it so beautifully. When I wasn't watching the videos, I tried reading my new collection of Dorothy Parker short stories (I seem to be on a Dorothy theme), and all of that New Yorker narrative traveled through my brain-pan with the tones of Belgravia all over it. This often happens to me when I've been immersed in good English speaking for a long time, I pick up the accent in my mind (though I don't think it bleeds through into my speech, at least not the way the Texas accent does when I'm around my Grandmother's family for any period of time).

Well, whatever it is, the whole thing has inspired me to write. I started my projected (but as yet untitled) mystery novel this afternoon, and I've got five whole paragraphs down! It's not much, but it's a beginning, and the Beginning is always the hardest part of any task for me to undertake (Sticking To It is the second-hardest... and Finding Excuses to Avoid It is the easiest). And after all my wrestling with third- or first-person narrative, I feel fairly comfortable going at it from the third-person. For some reason, it lends a certain amount of authority to the tone; for another, if means that I can gain a little more distance on my main character, my style does not have to be informed by the things that he would know or do, and I don't have to wonder how something feels in order to make him feel it. It's a little uncomfortable and formal, it lacks the personable sponteneity and the diarist's story-telling feel that I have always worked with, but I think this remove will serve the story better.

I'm thinking that I want this story to be something of a coming-of-age story, a story about a young man learning an important Truth about life while finding love, friendship, and a better understanding of himself. The murder-mystery is almost incidental, a frame on which to hang this narrative. The mystery will take a lot of effort, though. I don't know why it is that I feel compelled to write a murder-mystery, aside from that it's my favorite form of fiction to read. In this case, I know who will be murdered and I have a fair idea of who will have done it and how to properly implicate my innocent main character; but I lack a great deal of knowledge about police and legal procedure, and can't think yet of a way to actually solve the murder itself. Perhaps it will come to me as I go along, as the solutions to other people's mysteries tend to occur to me while I'm reading them.

You know, it occurred to me at one point that it would be an interesting challenge to set this story in another time and place, such as England Between the Wars. I long to write an historical novel, something all full of gorgeous details of place and design and society and such. But then I'd have to make new characters, because one of the most irritating things about character is that certain types of people cannot exist outside of their own time. Danny Vandervere (the main character of my current project) couldn't possibly exist at any other time, though I could conceivably set the story in the Eighties or Early Nineties... though he worships anachronism, his love of the past would have to be informed by the social freedoms of the present.

I once started a romance novel set in pre-Revolutionary France, and though it was terribly silly I think I might still like to finish it. The doing of research for the story was amazingly fun, and I thought the characters were an interesting twist on the usual women's Romance genre (I basically just changed the usual ingenue into a boy, then added a couple of things). But I was a little stymied by the fact that sexual attitudes, particularly as regards men and boys together, were much different than they are today... to such an extent that I'm not sure I understand them. I would have to do a great deal of study on the topic, I think. Of course, 1920s and 30s England has a larger tradition of homosexuality in its literature, but a few pages of EM Forster don't really give you very much to work with as far as research.

Am I babbling? I feel like I am. Aside from my enjoyment of videos and the mental satisfaction of Thought, I feel like utter crap today. I thought at first it must be the cortisone that was bothering me, but I'm beggining to think I must be coming down with something... when I get out of bed I feel so sleepy that I can barely hold my head up, but then when I lie down I feel so restless and uneasy that I can't get comfortable enough to sleep or even read. So I keep alternating between the two and watching videos and what-have-you. My stomach hurts, and my head hurts a little, and I feel shaky and queasy as if I had a fever, but I don't have a fever. Hopefully all this tea I'm drinking (decaffeinated Earl Grey, and earlier Ginger Lemon herbal) will flush whatever it is out of my system. I'm tired of feeling ucky.

Well, I think I will go back to bed now and read Gaudy Night for the fourth or fifth time. Or maybe I'll just turn on the VCR and watch English people being elegant in Gosford Park or Gods and Monsters or Love and Death on Long Island (another recent purchase). Or maybe sleep, one wishes and hopes. Either way, I can't sit here any longer. Nighty-night!

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