Thursday, June 14, 2012

A few thoughts on The Flame Is Green - from Kevin Cheek (our 2nd ever guest post!)

"In the paintings of Fragonard, there are trees that are unreal. Sometimes they seem to be a curious heaping up of elements of oak and elm and yew trees, but not according to any rational botanical system. Sometimes they seem to be massive studio montages made out of clustered purple grapes and bird feathers. Yet one traveller wrote there really were groves of these impossible trees in Dauphine and Piedmont in the eighteenth century. One grove of them had, in fact, survived into the nineteenth century: and Dana Coscuin and Malandrino Brume had just come through it afoot.

In the novels and plays of Marivaux, there are men who are not real. They seem to be a curious heaping up of elements in Old Roman and Old French, with inconsistent modish attitudes and the dated smell called 'Moment of Time.' Sometimes these men seem to be studied mélanges of shepherds and princes and rogues and pedants. Yet one student of the period has written that there really were such impossible men in the eighteenth century. At least one of these unlikely men had, in truth, survived into the nineteenth century. Dana Coscuin and big rough Brume had just come to visit this unlikely man who lived on the fringe of the too-blended, too-arty grove".

from The Flame is Green, p. 93, the opening of Chapter Six.

Only Lafferty could have written those two paragraphs. I almost wrote “and get away with it” but the truth is that only Lafferty could have written them and the fact is that he did get away with it every time he did something like that. The first sentence tells you that you are reading Lafferty. Firstly there is the mention of Fragonard, a name with a glorious sound to it--an eighteenth century painter, once the darling of the aristocracy, now almost entirely forgotten. Then there is the statement that the trees are unreal. Trees in a painting unreal? Of course they seem unreal or appear unreal, they are just paint on canvas. However Lafferty doesn’t say they appear unreal, he says they are unreal. There is just enough of a difference there to make you pause and wonder what you just read. This recalls the statement in “Narrow Valley,” talking about the trees in the Cross Timbers: “Many of those trees appear twice, and many do not appear at all.”

Never one to let narrative convention drive his craft, he bent his description of the two men’s work into deliberately parallel paragraphs, drawing a parallel between the trees and the characters and implying that they are artificial constructs. All of this is set up to introduce a character who in some ways can be considered an artificial construct, someone who through affectation attempted to appear more than he actually was. Ashley, the character about to be introduced, was an artificer and thought too highly of his creations--though they were merely the webs of his spiders, an aping of the spiderishness of the conspiracies of the day.

It would not have surprised me at all if Lafferty had make up the names Fragonard and Marivaux for the sake of the narrative. It would not have been out of character. After all, he used a description of Atrox Fabulinius and his narrative of Raphaellus to interrupt and redirect a chapter in The Fall of Rome. However, I did a little bit of reading on Wikipedia and learned that both Fragonard and Marivaux were not only real, but lived through and were affected by the events half a century before The Flame is Green takes place.

Fragonard was a Rococo painter known for romantic excess in his paintings. He lived in Paris in the 19th century and painted primarily for the aristocracy. He was forced out of Paris by the French Revolution and did not come back until the beginning of the 19th century.

Marivaux was a novelist, playwright, and journalist in Paris in the 18th century. He was very influential on the development of French literature, especially in his portrayal of his characters' thoughts. Wikipedia says, “Marivaux's characters not only tell each other and the reader everything they have thought, but everything that they would like to persuade themselves that they have thought.” This has a parallel with an important point within The Flame is Green, in that Dana Coscuin frequently deludes himself into following the wrong path while attempting to convince himself that it is the right one, or at least that he couldn’t have been expected to know better.

Reading up a little on Fragonard and Marivaux adds to a general background understanding of the novel. And this raises another point about Lafferty. The man was so astoundingly erudite, that when you do know the history behind his small mentions and asides, it enriches your enjoyment of the narrative. It is actually very rewarding to read a Lafferty novel, especially one of his historical novels with the internet near at hand to look up every small character and side reference. Some writers use historical settings as a backdrop for the story they want to tell, but the more you know about the period, the more irritating you find the writing. Lafferty is the exact opposite. I find that reading (or more often re-reading) one of his novels with Wikipedia open in front of me leaves me jubilant at everything I have just learned.

'It was all strong talk with the horns and hooves still on it.'
(R. A. Lafferty, The Devil is Dead)