Saturday, November 13, 2010

Indeed. Who cares for the Angels?

I have recently visited my birthplace in Greece, Alexandroupolis, to participate as a panel member in the official launch (October 23rd, on a Saturday) of the third book of Lefteris Hapsiadis. I reported on that event extensively in previous blogs. However, the one single event that deeply impressed me during that visit was when I accidentally discovered that not only Lefteris but another handful of select students of our same high school class had also developed their creative talents during the long years that I have been absent.

It felt like a breath of fresh air to know that not all of my classmates picked plain vanilla careers in the globally known approach of middle-class members of the Greek establishment (bend the rules, take advantage of co-citizens, make a lot of dough, evade taxation, and show-off like da man!). Instead, those select few followed their dream and expressed themselves in various forms of artistic and creative endeavors in an attempt to enhance the cultural base and heritage of the fatherland. One of those few gifted persons, from my high school class, is Maria Toloudi (Μαρία Τολούδη). She used to be Mary Sidiropoulou (Μαίρη Σιδηροπούλου) those days, but due to the wonderfully old fashioned Greek laws that deprived women from the right to maintain their own family names after a holy matrimony, Sidiropoulou turned into Toloudi. Good for her. For one thing her acquired surname is two syllables and five letters shorter, therefore much easier to remember and pronounce by Greeks and barbarians (non-Greeks) alike.

Maria is a Civil Servant, currently responsible (προïσταμένη) for the department of Cultural Affairs, the Media, and the Press at the Evros Prefecture. In that position she has been involved in organizing numerous cultural happenings, nationwide congresses for writers and journalists, and various types of get-togethers about all sorts of cultural endeavor. However her own personal focus is upon Greek literature. She's probably read most of the known and unknown contemporary Greek writers, many of whom she's come to be acquainted with personally in the course of the years. Several among them often ask her for her professional opinion and judgement about their own works before they get published. She's often sat in panels as one of the experts in the presentation of new books locally, or in various other cities nationally and internationally. Maria attended classes for two years on the subject of History of Arts in the UK, right after high school. I hadn't met her ever since. The little detail about which I had no clue whatsoever, and I discovered all by accident, is that Maria is a gifted writer of short stories. For many years she's been publishing her stories in a Kavala quality magazine, called simply City Magazine (Περιωδικό της Πόλης). I reckon she must have published more than 50 stories in that magazine to the present day.

Simplistic as they may sound I suspect compelling short stories must be a rather tricky form of prose to create successfully. You are restricted by the available space, the total number of words so to say, but you nevertheless need to create and develop all the elements of a usually lengthy novel. A story, its plot, the characters, the setting, the style, the genre, the moral, the rhythm. All of the elements need to stay compatible with each other and mutually reinforcing. No words or punctuation to waste. I also have the feeling that skilled short story writers, forced by the available space constraints, tend to combine purposes. In other words, they are able to construct sentences with the right choice of words in such a way that they serve multiple prose components all at the same time. Each word, sentence, paragraph embeds more meaning than meets the eye. Everything in the story needs to fit within a coherent and compelling ensemble, like the pieces of a puzzle, to coexist harmoniously with each of their neighboring components. And this harmonious coexistence should eventually lead to expansion of the limits imposed by the story's initial length, making its effect much wider. This is quite common in poetry and especially in song lyrics. Having years long experience with canvas, paper and digital picture painting, I can't help thinking that the crafts of 'painting' and (short) 'storytelling' have much in common. Writers like Maria simply paint with words; language rich words are just like beautiful colors in paintbrush strokes. I didn't quite realize the above before, and have definitely never come to appreciate the effort and the writer talent necessary, until after I read Toloudi's work.

I read four of her stories among a total of more than 70 that she told me she wrote. I don't quite know when she first started doing this, but I reckon it must have been more than 10 years now... definitely sometime in the 90ies.

The stories I read were all written in a different genre. The first was a rather tragicomic 'love' story. The story builds up to a point of an imminent wedding ceremony. To attend to it the bride must cross Evros river on a σάλι -- a sort of primitive river boat -- together with other guests, but halfway she falls off and... drowns. I tragically couldn't hold my laughter thinking about the naivety of her co-passengers watching the incident deploy in front of their frozen eyes but incapable of rescuing her.

The second was almost a detective mystery story about a man who has been sketching in a mysterious notebook figures of the buildings and monuments of the yester-town, that have been slowly vanishing to make room for monstrous new building structures, turning the town into impersonal landscapes of concrete.

A third story is about a horny young wife (married to a much older lame husband) with many extramarital affairs, who suddenly feels terribly attracted to a macho bike rider. She follows him on a sexually arousing ride on his Africa Twin, where the two and the bike eventually become one. Soft, spicy language used, not rude, slowly building to a moment of tranche where the story then terminates almost in slow-mo. Running to stand still, sort of thing. A rather teasing biker story that she told me she wrote responding to the request of a bikers-club, celebrating some event of theirs.

The fourth story, the most masterful of all four IMHO, is a deeply touching human narrative about an immigrant woman. Incidentally, the 'angels' title of my blogpost is the title of that story. The story starts with a sadistically cold atmosphere in a Public Service Office landscape, where everything smells impersonal bureaucracy and daily dull routine. A sudden cry wakes up the living dead. The cry came from a young woman, an immigrant from Sofia, Bulgaria, who learns on the phone about the sudden death of her father. She left him alone back home to come to Greece, in search of a better fortune. Nonetheless, the human drama develops, in just a matter of a few sentences mind you, into the sweetest and most humane and personal scene, when one female colleague approaches the mourning woman and tries to ease her pain with empathy, caress and love. The sobbing mourner eventually finds the courage to recall better days with her father, when as a young girl imagined her butterfly toy would fly away and take her with in its heavenly voyage. The dead father was personated as the young girl's guardian angel. At a crucial and emotional moment the deeply affected mourner asks "Indeed. Who cares for the Angels?".

This last story is Toloudi at her best. Each time I get impressed by a piece of prose, I typically dig with patience as deep as possible in the structure of the textual blocks the author created (words, sentences and paragraphs). I try to point my finger to the core substituent elements, to discover in other words what it is that special something(s) that does paint the pictures so visually, the setting so clearly, the characters so lively and human, the emotions so pure. In her AfroTwin story for instance she has been carefully mixing inside her sentences everyday spoken Greek ('flat' demotiki) with 'katharevousa' fine Greek (reminiscent of Ancient Greek). By doing this she actually illustrates how the story characters think and act. The reader trips inside the characters' heads and 'sees' their thoughts take shape. The entire experience is profoundly hilarious and very entertaining. It is true that people from the Greek street low society, often uneducated, typically aim to sound 'upper class', and therefore use most unexpectedly katharevousa phrases when they talk, but they often don't even understand the meaning of their own phrases... To die for!

Scan of part of the 'Angels' manuscript. The
peculiar (scrutinizing) notes are my own...

Having applied exhaustively and systematically my text-block analysis on all four pages of the 'Angels' manuscript, I must admit, I came out profoundly impressed, flabbergasted. For a cold technocrat like myself this was a moment of epiphany. I could never think possible that words had so much power in upsetting human brains and create so deep human emotions. Words put together in short -- often verbless -- sentences (Toloudi's one of best skills) can create such an emotional halo effect that grows beyond the local context and comes to haunt you for hours after you finished reading. An interesting experience I have often tried after reading a story, or any text for that matter, is to repeat in my own words what I had just read. I often find that I use words and describe events that were not there in the original text. What happened? My interpretation of the phenomenon, is that the writer's descriptive power has created much more than meets the eye. In this universe of implied emotions the reader creates almost an own story, the interpretation of the original. And sees objects, characters and emotions that never existed. This is a major amplifying effect that a writer's storytelling has upon a reader's phantasies and personal emotions. The short story becomes virtually much longer indeed. That effect I experienced in spades after reading Maria's stories. A large number of my mental pictures were simply untraceable in the original text.

The stories are purely fiction but they have been always triggered by real life events, she told me once. For instance, she imagined the entire bike story following a moment while she's been waiting at a red traffic light when suddenly an AfroTwin stopped by and she turned in amazement to look at bike and biker. For the story of the drowning bride, she's been crossing the river on one of these σάλι boats when she suddenly had that vision of someone falling overboard and drowning. The story of the sketcher vagabond, pushing his bicycle thru the city streets, is based on a real person, but I doubt he ever held a sketching pad in his hands. Finally, the story about the immigrant woman is based on a real person at the office as well, but the rest of the story about metal toy butterflies flying away is the creation of her mind. I believe it is often like this. Writers like painters pick up their inspiration from observing what is happening around them. And they all have a real knack for observation. They see details you and I wouldn't see even if they told us to pay attention to. That's part of their talent. The rest become a task for their phantasies and creative imagination.

I wonder how much of that craft is sheer talent (an unconscious gift of nature to the creative person) and how much it is the result of skillful and thought-thru design and hard work (Malcolm 'Outliers' Gladwell). I have personally never rejected the idea about the existence of creative talent, but I thoroughly believe that the biggest part of the process is hard work... The writer must come up with a new idea, envision the setting, the characters and active emotions, and then define the best strategy to put all these together efficiently into the short story. Thorough knowledge of the language in which texts are written is also a must, probably one of the most important. I suddenly can't help thinking about Cohen's Hallelujah story. His startup lyrics: "It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth, the minor chord, the major lift." Visualize young Leonard Cohen in his underwear at the Royalton Hotel in New York. Trying to complete the lyrics of Hallelujah. Banging his head against the floor, filling notebooks, starting all over again. In his own words, "To find that song, that urgent song, takes a lot of versions and a lot of work and a lot of sweat". Like we used to say in business about the composition of management work: 5% inspiration and 95 % perspiration.

Writers will never tell you how much design and hard work, and how much talent and inspiration goes into their lives. Some of it happens unconsciously but most is conscious, I think. However, by their nature creative people are instinctive and authentic, not terribly organized. Structure often kills creativity. Structure is good for non-fiction. Fiction should be based on gut-feel. And deep emotions. Writers and artists are imperfect like the rest of us. Key difference though, they know it... we don't! That's the whole beauty. There's a crack in everything, as Cohen claims in his Anthem. Toloudi is one of these hard working, hypersensitive, deeply emotional creative people.

Given that publishing enterprises in Greece are a tricky business as in the rest of the world, the thing we all need to hope, for the sake of her Greek audience, is her decision to eventually put her stories together in a number of dedicated bundles in book form (print and electronic formats like Kindle or iBook for my reading comfort, that is). Indeed, in the cases I described above, I had the rare privilege to read two of the four stories in her own manuscript version. Old fashioned? Maybe... From another long lost and forgotten epoch? By all means! But, at the same time, warm and charming, and incredibly personal...

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