Loverboy

The ballet last night was exquisite.

I’ve seen ballets–or parts of them–on television or Youtube; and I remember, as a child, being taken to see The Nutcracker (isn’t everyone dragged to that as a child?), which I hated (interestingly enough, many things that most children love are things that I didn’t; The Nutcracker is one; The Wizard of Oz another). But as lovely and awe-inspiring as seeing ballets on Youtube or on television can be, there is nothing like being in an auditorium and watching one being performed live on the stage in front of you. I liken it to the difference between watching figure skating on television and then watching it in person; it’s very different, and you never watch it on television in quite the same way again. Romeo and Juliet is, of course, an ubiquitous story; everyone knows it, to the point that it has become almost trite and hackneyed; it’s been adapted for everything imaginable–opera, ballet, film, and of course West Side Story–but, at its heart, it is still a beautiful and sad story.

The opening sequence of the ballet reminded me so much of the opening of West Side Story that I couldn’t help wonder how much the ballet influenced the musical’s choreography, or vice versa.

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I read Romeo and Juliet when I was a sophomore in high school. I’d taken a class called Dramatic Literature; a class in which we read plays. Romeo and Juliet was paired with West Side Story (it’s also the class where I first read Tennessee Williams; A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, to be exact); we even watched the films (the version of Romeo and Juliet was the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli production, with Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey with the gorgeous score by Michel Legrand). Shakespeare’s language was, to me at fourteen, a mysterious puzzle I couldn’t unlock; archaic references I didn’t understand written in verse, yet somehow beautiful in how the words were put together. At the time, I didn’t understand how two families could feud so bitterly and violently in an Italian city during the Renaissance; of course, now that I’ve read so many Italian histories (I am still greatly enjoying The Black Prince of Florence), I am more than a little surprised that the feud between Capulet and Montague was so bloodless (see the Pazzi-Medici feud, circa fifteen century).

Yet, despite the overwhelming familiarity with the story, it was impossible not to be drawn into last night’s version of it; despite there being no dialogue, no words. The entire story was, as is typical with the ballet, acted out without words and through dance. The choreographer’s choices in telling the story were quite interesting; the stage setting was incredibly minimalist, with emotions and passions being evoked through the movement of the two curved walls that served as set pieces; the long rising ramp that served as not a way to exit the stage but as Juliet’s fabled balcony; and the use of costume and lighting.

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The friar was used as a connective device throughout each scene; he was, if anything, the true star of the show, and its emotional heart. The dancer who played the role was magnificent. The ballet was a thing of beauty; I couldn’t stop marveling at how fantastic the dancers were, the exceptional shapes and lines they could form with their bodies, the almost super-human stretches and leaps and twirls and spins, the intimacy of their lifts and how they could mold their bodies around one another’s.

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It was also my first time inside the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts since Katrina; ironically, it was also the first time the Ballet des Monte-Carlo performed there since 2005. Both the outgoing and incoming mayor were there; the Honorary Consul for Monaco, and the ambassador from Monaco were all introduced and thanked from the stage.

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And yet, as a crime writer, and someone with a vested interest in group dynamics and politics, who has viewed documentaries about ballet companies, with a knowledge of human nature and interaction,I couldn’t help wondering, as the company took its well-deserved bows to a long standing ovation last night,  what turmoils and temperaments boiled beneath the surface of the linked hands and bowing bodies; what slights and grudges boiled behind the smiling faces; which members of the company were friends and which were enemies; who were lovers and friends and who were enemies and rivals, who was gay and who was straight.

I definitely want to write a ballet noir.

And here are two short stories, for the continuation of the Short Story Project.

First up is “Split Second” by Daphne du Maurier,  from the New York Review of Books collection of Don’t Look Now and Other Stories:

Mrs. Ellis was methodical and tidy. Unanswered letters, unpaid bills, the litter and rummage of a slovenly writing-desk were things she abhorred. Today, more than usual, she was in what her late husband used to call her “clearing” mood. She had wakened to this mood; it remained with her throughout the morning. Besides, it was the first of the month, and as she ripped off the page of her daily calendar and saw the bright clean 1 staring at her, it seemed to symbolize a new start tom her day.

The hours ahead of her must somehow seem untarnished like the date; she must let nothing slide.

“Split Second” is an exceptional exercise in character. Du Maurier thoroughly examines and exposes Mrs. Ellis’ character from beginning to end, and while she doesn’t go into a great amount of detail, it isn’t hard to figure out exactly whom she is from what we are told as readers. She’s a widow and her entire world revolves around her daughter, who is off at school; she decides, after a thorough cleaning of her home to go for a walk and is almost run down by the laundry truck as she walks back home. But when she gets back to her house, things are different. It is her house, but it’s no longer the house she left behind; other people are living there, her neighbors are gone–the entire world has changed and shifted as she walked home. It’s a horrifying story, even as the reader begins to glean what has actually happened long before Mrs. Ellis does; not that she ever does, even by the end of the story, and that is part of what makes it so sad, so effective, so powerful; no one has ever quite captured that elegant, melancholy sadness the way du Maurier does.

I then moved on to “The Picture of the Lonely Diner” by Lee Child,  from the Mystery Writers of America anthology, Manhattan Mayhem:

Jack Reacher got out of the R train at Twenty-Third Street and found the nearest stairwell blocked off with plastic police tape. It was striped blue and white, tied between one handrail and the other, and it was moving in the subway wind. It said: POLICE DO NOT ENTER. Which, technically, Reacher didn’t want to do anyway. He wanted to exit. Although to exit, he would need to enter the stairwell. Which was a linguistic complexity. In which context, he sympathized with the cops. They didn’t have different kinds of tape for different situations. POLICE DO NOT ENTER IN ORDER TO EXIT was not in their inventory.

Lee Child is one of the most successful writers in our genre today; everything he publishes is a New York Times best seller, and his character, Jack Reacher, is one of those ubiquitous characters that will go down in the history of the genre, like Poirot, James Bond, and Kinsey Millhone. I am years behind on Lee’s novels; but if you’ve not read Lee Child, you simply must read The Killing Floor, the first Reacher novel. It is quite superb. This story isn’t Child at his best, but Reacher the character is at his best at novel-length, with the labyrinthian plots Child somehow concocts and manages to keep track of (one of my favorite fanboy moments was having lunch with him and Alafair Burke at the Green Goddess here in New Orleans several years ago; while I just sat there wide-eyed and listened to the two of them talk about writing and publishing, praying that I didn’t have sauce running down my chin), but this story does evoke the melancholy that Child evokes in his novels; the inevitability of fate and the powerlessness of humans to counteract it once the gears are moving. I do recommend the story; there is some amazing imagery in it as well.

And on that note, I am back to the spice mines. There are bed linens to launder, and short stories to edit, and a chapter to write; it is rainy and gloomy outside my windows this morning but I am well-rested and ready to work.

Or maybe it’s just the caffeine kicking in. Who knows?

You Belong to the City

Saturday morning and I have sooooo much to do it’s terrifying. Tonight we have tickets to the ballet; Les Ballet de Monte-Carlo, to be precise. They are performing Romeo and Juliette. I have, as I have said before countless times, never seen ballet performed live. I am very excited, obviously. I have an idea for a ballet noir–I have so many ideas, really–and I love that I merely mentioned this one night while watching the superb ballet documentary Bolshoi Babylon, and that he remembered, with the end result we have the tickets for tonight.

He really is quite a dear.

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I am writing so many things right now, and working on so much, that it can overwhelm me a bit when I stop to think about it; therefore it’s best not to think about it. The Scotty novel is going to be the most complex plot I’ve written since Mardi Gras Mambo, which means I have to really be careful and pay attention in order to prevent enormous mistakes and errors as I go along. The short stories I am writing…it’s interesting, but in some cases it’s so much easier to just have an idea and then write to figure it out; sometimes when I finish the first draft and get to the end I know what has to be fixed, added, and changed; in other cases, I literally have no idea. My writing process is so bizarre and different than anyone else’s, and I cannot say I honestly recommend the way I do things to any beginning writer.

Take, for example, a story I wrote and submitted to the MWA Anthology Ice Cold numerous years ago. The anthology was for stories set during the Cold War, and I decided to risk writing a story with a gay theme, even if that theme was buried deep inside the story until about the middle. I also started with an image; a man in the depths of winter, standing on a stone bridge over Rock Creek in Rock Creek Park in Washington DC, dropping a gun into the cold, gray water. Stubbornly,  I held onto that image as the opening of the story through numerous revisions and rewrites. The story was rejected; and I’ve tried revising it again and again. It was recently rejected by another market, with a lovely note: You’re too good of a writer to get a standard rejection letter. This story moved too slow, but do send us more of your work. (And it is a sad indication of this ego-destroying business that said email made my day: they like me! They like my work!) And yet the best part of that rejection email was this minor, five word piece of feedback: this story moved too slow. As soon as I read that I realized that the structure of the story was its ultimate failing: the dropping of the gun into the creek wasn’t where the story began, so I am going to revise the story another time, reordering the events of the story. Maybe it doesn’t even begin where I’m thinking it does now; but I won’t know until I start working on it again.

Likewise, another story I am in the midst of writing right now opens with the sentence The ID’s were fake but no one seemed to care. It’s a great opening line, and it was the first thing to come to mind when I started writing the story, and it just evolved from that opening line; I wasn’t really sure what the story was, but I wanted to use that as an opening line, and so I started writing there. Am I tied to that as the opening line? I tend to be a bit stubborn about these things…which is definitely a fault of my own. I was so determined, for example, that the WIP must begin at a certain place that I was trying to make it work–but soon realized that its Chapter One was really Chapter Three, and a lot of the things I was doing were trite and cliche; so I moved the timing of the story back a few weeks. Sometimes, being stubborn is not a plus for a writer.

I am also going to, in today’s edition of the Short Story Project, talk about two Daphne du Maurier short stories that I read for the first time this week, from the New York Review of Books collection Don’t Look Now and Other Stories. As I have said before, I’ve not read all of du Maurier’s work; I hold back because I don’t ever want to run out of things of hers to read. I have several of her short story collections on hand (my favorite, of course, being Echoes from the Macabre, which I read first when I was a teenager, shortly after I read Rebecca for the first time–which also reminds me, I am terribly overdue for a reread of Rebecca), but unfortunately the problem with du Maurier collections is they often overlap; stories tend to appear in more than one collection: “Don’t Look Now,” for example, not only is in Echoes from the Macabre but headlines this particular volume; “The Birds”, which I talked about the other day, also appears in both.

Today’s stories, though, are of a type: “Indiscretion” and “Ls Sainte-Vierge” are both relatively short, and, like several of her other stories, wait until the very end to twist and shove the knife into your throat. This is not easy to do, and I’ve tried it with stories with little to no success; I think my best successes with these style have been “Keeper of the Flame” and “Annunciation Shotgun.”

“La Sainte-Vierge” doesn’t even seem all that dark, through most of it:

It was hot and sultry, that oppressive kind of heat where there is no air, no life. The trees were motionless and dull, their drooping leaves colorless with summer dust. The ditches smelt of dead ferns and long-dried mud, and the grasses of the fields were blistered and brown. The village seemed asleep. No one stirred among the few scattered cottages on the hill-side; strange, uneven cottages, huddled together for fear of loneliness, with white walls and no windows, and small gardens massed with orange flowers.

A greater silence still filled the fields, where the pale corn lay heaped in awkward stacks, left behind by some neglectful laborer. Not even a breeze stirred the heather on the hills, lonely treeless hills, whose only dwellers were a host of bees and a few lizards. Below them the wide sea stretched like a sheet of ice into eternity, a chart of silver crinkled by the sun.

It’s set in a small fishing village on the coast of Brittany; the point-of-view character is Marie, a fisherman’s wife who is very young and desperately in love with her husband. He is about to go out on another fishing voyage, and she has these terrible premonitions that something terrible is going to happen. He brushes aside her concerns repeatedly, telling her she’s completely foolish and superstitious (never a good sign in any story, let alone a duMaurier), so after he leaves in the evening to get the boat ready, she creeps out of the house to a local church to pray to a statue of the Virgin. Du Maurier’s description of the poor village’s cheap and tattered statue and the church is which it resides is morbid, sad and a bit tragic; yet as Marie prays the moonlight comes into the church and transforms the statue before her believing eyes, and she is shown a vision in her religious ecstasy. Happy and content, she returns to her home…but that something terrible the story has foreshadowed all along does occur, just not what she, or the reader, could have possibly seen coming.

The other story, “Indiscretion,” is equally marvelous in the same way but different; this story, in structure and ending, reminded me a lot of de Maupassant’s “The Necklace.”

I wonder how many people’s lives are ruined by a momentary indiscretion? The wrong word at the wrong time–and then finish to all their dreams. They have to go on living with their tongues bitten a second too late. No use calling back the spoken word. What’s said is said.

I know of three people who have been made to suffer because of a chance sentence flung into the air. One of them was myself; I lost my job through it. The other fellow lost his illusions. And the woman…well, I guess she did not have much left to lose, anyway. Maybe she lost her one chance of security. I have not seen either of them since. The curt, typewritten letter came from him a week later. I packed up then and came away from London, leaving the shreds of my career in the waste-paper basket. In less than three months I read in a weekly rag he was claiming a divorce. The whole thing was so needless, too. A word from me–a word from her. And all through the sordid little street that runs between Shaftesbury Avenue and Leicester Square.

This story basically is about fate and coincidence conspiring to wreck the lives of three people who, again, never saw it coming; and how happiness can be destroyed in just a matter of seconds. It’s bitter and sad and melancholy, like most of du Maurier’s work; but it also works beautifully, and her gorgeous writing style contributes to its terrible beauty.

And now, back to the spice mines.