Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Belshaw's World - this short story thing not as easy as it looks

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 29 June 2011. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.

I was disappointed when I first saw Venice.

We had come down on the night train from Paris. I hadn’t slept well despite the sleeper, lying awake in the early morning watching the snow covered fields through the window. This made me a tired and a bit crabby.

We caught a launch from the hotel to the landing stage near the Piazza San Marco.

It was bright but cool as we travelled down the Grand Canal. I had expected so much, yet the buildings facing the canal seemed run down and somewhat tawdry. We were planning to stay for a week, and I wondered if that was in fact a mistake.

A week later we were all in love with Venice. She may be old and a little tawdry, a grand dame at the end of her life living of memories of glories’ past, but no-one could deny her charm.

Two years later travelling through the Greek Islands, I saw the other side of Venice’s past glory.

From Crete to Mykonos, I saw the Venetian remains, the forts, ports and houses that marked the scope of Venice’s imperial power. This had been no small empire.

Australia as a country is a bit more than one hundred years old. The Venetians ruled Crete for over four hundred years. It kind of puts our history into perspective!

I wonder how many of you have read Donna Leon’s crime novels?

Set in Venice, they feature Commissario Brunetti who faces a never-ending flow of crime. I started reading them because of my interest in their locale. I kept reading them because of Donna Leon’s ability to capture the texture of Venetian daily life.

Brunetti is world-weary, cynical of the politics and corruption in the world in which he lives. Yet he retains his love for his city and a continuing sense of goodness built around his family.

Leon is a remarkably elegant writer. She uses small details to paint a canvass without submerging her reader.

I had thought that Donna Leon was Italian. In fact, she is an American who has lived in Venice for the last twenty-five or so years and who writes in English.

Interestingly, she apparently will not allow her books to be translated into Italian. This struck me as a bit odd, then suddenly it made sense.

With exceptions such as Maslyn Williams’ memoir My Mother’s Country, a lot of the books written about or set in Northern NSW do not really give a feel for the detailed texture of life.

Death of an Old Goat, the crime novel set in Armidale that helped launch the career of crime writer Robert Barnard, may be very funny in spots, but is an absolute parody of Armidale life. There is no local or regional equivalent of Donna Leon.

As I would-be writer, I experiment with different writing styles. As part of this, I have been experimenting with short stories as a way of bringing the past alive.

Writing as an historian, I can use different writing techniques to get my story across. However, in the end I am bound by the rules of evidence. Something similar applies to autobiographical pieces. I need to check my facts, especially where my often imperfect memory is involved.

Short stories are not bound by the same rules. They don’t have to be right, just interesting.

I decide that it might be fun to write some Donna Leon style pieces set in Armidale, not crime, just a series of vignettes that might actually bring the past and present city alive. I also thought that I might trial one in this column.

I started well. I got out my notebook and jotted down some story ideas. Then I struck a problem that suddenly made realise why Donna Leon might be resistant to having her stories translated into Italian.

I know Armidale quite well. Further, living outside Armidale has provided me with a degree of objectivity. Like Leon, I suppose that I am an insider-outsider.

That first piece began in the mall. Coming out of a store on a visit, I ran into a friend that I hadn’t seen for a while.

Part autobiographical, the story mixed together present and past elements of Armidale life. The friend was loosely based on an actual person, the elements linked to reality but fictionalised. It was very Leon in style.

Then I stopped. Hang on a minute, I thought. I am going to have half my readers playing spot the person and events!

I decided I wasn’t quite brave enough at this point, at least until I had worked out how best to do it as fiction. Maybe later!


Michael O'Rourke said...

Quick background on Crete and Venice - In 1204 the perfidious Venetians arranged for West European Crusaders to sack Constantinople. The Doge (duke of Venice) got a big cut of the dismembered Byzantine Empire, and began to style himself 'Lord of a quarter and half-a-quarter of the whole Roman [Byzantine] empire'. In Latin: "Quartae Partis et Dimidiae Totius Imperii Romaniae Dominator". It was this, and not the takeover of Rome by the Goths in the 400s, that began the decline of the Roman Empire . . .

Jim Belshaw said...

I love your snippets, Michael. Lord of quarter and half a quarter!