At some point in the interminable warm bath that was art college some lecturer gave a talk on the ‘envelope’ of creative endeavour. You could, he said, map out the making of a project, a book, a painting, a play, like it was a mountain, with a gradual ascent—the ‘attack’; the flat top—the ‘sustain’; the angle of release—the cliff you fall over or the steady slope you stumble down; and decay—the slow walk home. Audio samplers use similar language to visualise sounds on computer screens. You will be familiar with these patterns, the singers marks on the screen like a distant hillscape reflected perfectly in a still lake. In the Envelope Process Theory (it wasn’t called that, I am just making up that name), there were guidelines for the different stages. When you are in ‘attack’ mode on the crumbling slopes leading to base camp in a new song, well that is a time for suspending judgement; for including lots of possibilities, for brainstorming and letting happy accidents in and being pretty openminded about the route. In sustain mode you limit that instinct a bit, and develop the theme(s), and honour its atmosphere and mood, like a scuptor honours a tree. No new characters. And when in the zone of ‘decay’ you are editing (or being edited), pruning, bringing your idea home.
I love the hilltop of books. the part where the book is at its most giving is before the denouement (which usually happens just before you start the descent). Just prior to the critical action, before the loose ends are tied up, the reader is a very active participant, imagining various possible outcomes, being inspired, thinking of ideas you will try after you put this damn book down. I am in that place now with a book called HHhH, (by Laurent Binet) about the attempted assasination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942.
It is not a perfect book, to my way of thinking, not does it attempt to be, but it has been so far an immensely enjoyable read. It is as edgy as a kamikaze slug riding the blade dividing fictive creation and factual documentary so determinedly that he fillets himself. Binet agonises over the colour of Heydrich’s car. The black, or green, car is about to turn a fateful corner. Binet is brilliant in the way he uses the work of other authors who have visited the topic to steer his own particular course, to clarify his style. HHhH is a book in which the goodies and the baddies are clearly defined (not very difficult considering the subject matter). In places its almost cartoonish; we inevitably meet ‘a fat pig’ among the Nazi top brass. The inspiration for me is how to be almost brutal in keeping things simple. Steering clear, by all means necessary, of being deadeningly academic. I like how Binet sometmes stops the action to tell you what would have happened in the story if he was writing a work of fiction. For instance, three characters in the story, inconveniently, have the same surname. You end up feeling you are out with him for a pint and he is cursing his bad luck. What are the chances? The reader gets let in on these problems and makes the effort to overcome them. When I do my megatome, soon, I will not hide my partisan associations. I will try to tell what happened, to steer a path between the icebergs of other peoples stylings. But I have a problem, very different to Binet’s problem. My story took past 200 generations ago. Before writing. No one remembers the names of the protagonists. No one remembers where the key action happened. Or what precisely happened. More soon.