My newest novel makes slow progress as other matters overwhelm my schedule, but each of them shares its own delights, so I’ll content myself with slow progress for the moment.
The new novel’s working title is Fear no Fall, a quote from a passage in Bunyan – He that is down need fear no fall / He that is low, no pride. It’s a slightly awkward title but it helps me to keep my theme in mind. I am interested in characters who create themselves after the old order dies and the new one arises. In this case, I mean particularly the collapse of the old order after WWI that followed the destruction of ancient empires and the subsequent growth of many, problematic small states.
In our own time, we saw leaders such as Vaclav Havel, Vytautas Landsbergis, and Lech Walesa step put of the theatre, out of the academy, and out of the factory to become, even for relatively short times, leaders of their people. This type of process happens again and again in history, and not just to the leaders of nations.
I have set this new novel in Kaunas, from 1921 – 1923 and based it loosely on the life of Jonas Budrys, who ran Lithuanian counter intelligence at a time when the new country had no money, no resources, and no friends. I am particularly interested in his spirited defense of the small nation, and his subsequent seizure of Klaipeda (Memel) in 1923. Does a patriot become an imperialist in the blink of an eye? Do political imperatives ever really change? How does one create new morality when the old order has fallen? Is it even possible to be moral, and what does morality mean in both the personal and political arena? Budrys is a rich source, and I’ve blogged about him before.
This time, I am returning to the humour of my earlier writings, because although I want to engage in big themes, I also want to have some lightness for a change. After years writing of the brutal partisan resistance, (and returning to it soon for another project I’ll post about in the future) I need something of a break form the horror of that episode in history.
A useful source for my new novel is a book I reviewed on Shelagh Rogers’s CBC radio show, The Next Chapter. It is Modris Eksteins’s Solar Dance, Genius, Forgery, and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age.
Eksteins is a brilliant and popular historian who writes about the spasm of modernity that typifies the era after WW1. In this particular book, he traces the story of Vincent Van Gogh and his rise to adulation in the Weimar period in Germany after the war. Eksteins’s thesis is that after the war, the age of enlightenment gave way further to the age of romanticism, leading to zeitgeist that values eccentricity, madness, emotion, novelty and emancipation over reason and moderation. He also believes that we are living in Weimar-type zeitgeist at present, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Having lost the last utopian project, we are left with nothing but the market, which has made us rich, but left us hungry for transcendence and subject to novelty and emotionalism.
Eksteins helps to set the tone for the decade I am writing about in the new novel, but he is well worth reading in and of himself. He earlier book, The Rites of Spring, deals with similar themes and was important to me for background when I wrote Woman in Bronze, about artists in Paris in the twenties.
I am also devouring Tony Judt’s posthumous book, a conversation with historian Timothy Snyder called Thinking the Twentieth Century. I can barely put that book down, and will report on it more fully once I am done.
What looms over me this spring is preparing for the big Creative Writing conference in Toronto, being held at my institution, Humber College, and co-hosted with York University and most other writing schools in Toronto. This conference unites the creative writing teachers and students from across the country and will have, I believe, close to two hundred participants. The logistics concerns alone are enormous, so this event is eating up much of my workday and the vast majority my spare time.
Writers complain that they never have enough time to write, and this is certainly true of me too, but the mix of conferences, reading, and writing and a few other developments I’ll talk about later make for a rich life. I’m not complaining.