The Challenge Taker Speaks

A letter sent to me reads:

Mr Riecke,
Last week
[see here] you invited writers to take up the challenge of appropriating a title from Boris Yasmilye and an idea from Luigi Narsceni and writing a book of their own. Once I have swallowed this apple, I fully intend to take up that challenge. I will be taking from Yashmilye the title ‘The Gardener’s Dilemma’ and from Narsceni the idea of the man who fled to Africa to live with the giraffes. I fully expect the resulting book to be a masterpiece of our, and all, times.
My felicitations,

Constance Fleeting.

What can I say? Obviously, I await the book in question with a level of anticipation otherwise reserved for academic studies of infant suicide during the Regency period. I must admit a little concern, however, regarding the sanity of the correspondent. One really must be cautious when it comes to people who write letters with portions of apple lodged within their mouths. They so often turn out to be unhinged lunatics. Dear Constance, I do hope that I am mistaken…

Enter the Finisher

‘I cannot say which I prefer; which I would most like to see finished’. This I wrote in reference, below, to two of Luigi Narsceni’s incompleted tales. It was, perhaps, a thoughtless observation, for Narsceni’s stories delight despite their unfinished status. Like them we may: but do we dare ask for the fatal polish? Do we dare desire completion? Wouldn’t this ruin everything?

And yet did I not suggest, hint and/or politely consider the potent possibility of someone else taking Narsceni’s reins and running with his half-chewed ideas? That I most certainly did. Playing devil’s advocate, maybe, but it’s a thought I’d like to take a stroll with, all the same. To what extent might we license the arrival of such a ‘finisher’ – and would this be all they were – a mere framer of somebody else’s picture – or would they deserve more credit than this?

More importantly, would they ever exist? Who wants to pick up someone elses scraps and turn them into something more wholesome?

Look at it another way: writers have always been scavengers, constantly grazing on the plains of other people’s stories and ideas. Creativity is not about creation out of nothing, but a series of somethings: it is about the ability to assemble, stitch and edit – to steal what looks good, and toss away what doesn’t. The best writers (and, indeed, artists of any sort) are canny vultures with a taste for good meat and absolutely no manners when it comes to taking that meat.

So what’s to stop someone waltzing along and ‘borrowing’ some of Narsceni’s starting points? Absolutely nothing. Of course, no one will ever be blatant about it. Narsceni’s tales will be transposed, I’m sure; twisted to suit someone elses needs. But we can be sure that they will, in one form or another, be stolen. The world is stolen goods. Nothing is or will ever be sacred when an artist is involved. It will only look so.

Meanwhile I challenge someone to do their theft in the open; to commit their writerly crime in full view. Why not? Here’s an idea; why don’t you steal one of Boris Yashmilye’s unwanted titles and one of Luigi Narsceni’s unfinished stories and make a go of it? Don’t be bashful or embarrassed. Step forward and show your guilty face! Steal away to your heart’s content! Take these two toys and glue them together. See what you can make of what others half-made for themselves. Be honestly creative…

The Boy and his Toys (Part Three)

It was not, I confess, deliberate, that hasty ending to the last post. To leave my discussion of Luigi Narsceni’s collection of unfinished stories unfinished would be, I think, too smart for my own good. That in which I was involved was, in fact, nothing more than a long pause for breath. Now, said breath having been drawn in, swallowed and duly enjoyed, let us continue where we left off…

For instance: The Department, a project that Narsceni introduces on p.127, develops on p.128 and drops, for no good reason, on.p.129. The Department is the story of six teachers working in the English department of a college in Boston Spa, in the county of Yorkshire. They are all creatively minded but, like Narsceni, have a tendency towards the unfinished, along with a very English reluctance to admit that they write for pleasure. Thus each teacher works on his or her novel on the quiet, discussing them constantly, but never directly. It is a story of the clash, and relationship, between our inner and outer lives. I say ‘is’: I mean, of course, ‘could be’. The Department exists no more than the novels of the characters that appear within it.

On p.212 we have another of my favourites: Roberta Gravesen’s Greek Riffs, followed directly by The Diaries of Sir Henry Skerryman. I cannot say which I prefer; which I would most like to see finished. On reflection, I think the latter appeals most:  the diaries of a small man who gives away all his possessions, flees to Kenya and lives on stilts with a herd of giraffes. The former would, perhaps, come a little too close to the work of Dinos Teriotis (author of Perseus and the Pepper Grinder and The Golden Bomber Jacket).

Elsewhere, I am drawn into even less developed plots, some of which barely extend beyond titles. On p.301 we find the line ‘Alasdair Le Gaurekelle Stands Up For Himself At Last’. A string of words only, but they have a strange appeal nonetheless. Already I want to know more.

There, however, it ends. One wants to know what one will never know. Narsceni’s Toys is all about stimulating, not satisfying, the imaginations of its readers. It frustrates and excites you in equal measure: you want to hurl it across the room, but there it is, still, nestled like a baby lamb in your lap. Narsceni charms and irritates: he pushes you to the edge of detestation, but something stops you from falling into the dark hole of hate. What is it? Is it the possibility that, however small his chances of ever seeing an idea through are, one has to admit that his ideas are better than most of those you’ve ever come up with? With some hesistation, I am inclined to go with this. The only question that remains is: why can’t someone else finish that which Narsceni has started?

The Boy and his Toys (Part Two)

As restless sparrows chatter in busy British hedgerows, so do readers rant relentlessly: barely stopping for precious breath. The subject of their rants? Most recently, it has been Luigi Narsceni’s work, Toys: A Memoir of Me and My Many Works in Progress. Now is the time for me to plunge my hand into the hedge and spring a couple of ‘w’s: what is it about Narsceni’s book that has got us all het up? And, perhaps most importantly, why has it got so many defenders?

First up, I should point out that it was self-published. Oh vanity, self-publishing is thy name! But times are changing, are they not? Or perhaps they aren’t. In any case, self-publishing has always offered the opportunity for the truly maligned, or merely well-off, to get their work into the world without the hassle of the sinister go-between (damn that go-between!) And good for it. Would a publisher have accepted Toys? I like to think that Upside-Down-Then-Backwards, in sunnier times, might have done so. Others? I doubt it. So: does this mean that Narsceni is unfairly maligned or merely well-off? Has he a ‘difficult talent’, or is he just a self-indulgent idler?

It’s hard to say, for his financial situation is part and parcel to his talent. He has never completed anything, perhaps, because he lacks the will financially speaking. And yet he has the talent, certainly. He can write. Just not all the way to the end.

All of this, however, takes for granted the fact that Count Narsceni is telling us the truth; that this really is a collection of stories to which he sought to, but simply could not complete, rather than a collection of deliberately designed unfinished tales. What is the difference? Again, it’s hard to say. What I can say, yet, is that Toys presents the incomplete narrative in a manner previously unseen. It argues, unconsciously, for a reconsideration of the unfinished work as an important genre in itself: as a source not just of curtailed, abandoned fiction, but of work that is, in itself, great. Throughout Toys, Narsceni toys (excuse me) constantly with the idea that he is a failed novelist; in fact, he is a successful unfinished short-story writer. Toys is not a series of tragic un-happenings, but a treasure-trove of possibilities; of joyous beginnings, gloriously unhampered by tedious middles and leaden endings. It is, thus, tantalising, inspiring: endlessly stimulating. Better, in parts, than a thousand finished books.

For instance…

The Boy and his Toys (Part One)

Luigi Narsceni (quoted here) is that most hateful of creatures: a rich artist. Count Narsceni, I believe, is his full title; although, bless him, he seems quite happy to be called Luigi. How very kind.

Now why waste words on this foreign fancy-trousered money-pockets? Why indeed? Sadly, you can’t go anywhere these days without stumbling into a conversation about dear old Luigi. To say that his first novel, book, volume, collection of sentences – whatever you want to call it –  is ‘all the rage’ would be somewhat of an understatement. The rage blows harder than a typhoon. Angry bulls look on in envy. The more raucous gods have a definite rival.

What is it about this work that has excited such enthusiasm? Is it the idle charm of the writer that thrills us so; the pathetic humanity of his multiple flaws? Boil off the moisture, strip things to their core, tear the clothes off the model  – and what do we have? A memoir, essentially, about a man’s inability to ever finish anything. Or, more pertinently: an unfinished memoir about a man’s inability to ever finish anything. A boy and his collection of badly-shaped, half-constructed, battered and bruised toys.

Narsceni is nothing if not honest. Toys (for that is the name of the book) opens with a suitably frank, suitably clumsy confession of all the writer’s faults. ‘I have been writing for ten, fifteen, maybe even thirty years,’ writes our forgetful friend: ‘a period typified by one real quality: a complete lack of finish.’ ‘I have,’ he goes on, ‘started at least two hundred projects during this time. Not one of them has got far beyond the planning stage. Chapter Four was reached once. That is the zenith of my achievements. Four mouldy chapters’. What to do? It seemed obvious. ‘I decided I would collect my scraps, gather together my strange toys and present them thus, unfinished, to the public, with the invitation to judge them as you will’.

And judge them we have. But not, as one might have suspected, as badly as we might have. In fact, some might say we have been altogether too kind to Mr Luigi’s Toys. We might have laughed in the face of his thwarted projects and jeered his foolhardy attempt at redemption; instead, we have smiled, nodded and held forth, at length, on the many merits of his most ignoble tome. Why?