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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, May 10, 2007

bold ideas

Back to my regular morning notes today, after a detour yesterday into some administrative things and preparing some notes for a possible copywriting assignment. Today back to the oppressive stack of texts bearing down on me.

This morning I started keying notes from the two-volume abridged version of Arnold J. Toynbee's A Study of History that I received last week. Apparently an American historian, D. C. Somervell, passionate about Toynbee's monumental work, took it upon himself, for his own interest and amusement, to create a compressed version of it (a man after my own heart!). He wrote to Toynbee telling him about his work, and it turned into a publication project in its own right, coming out in 1947. I have the two-volume mass-market paperback edition, used, which came in its original slip-case. My copies were printed in 1971, and so I have the extra pleasure of reading a book from that period, that looks and feels like the paperbacks I handled when I first started reading seriously for myself.

I'm drawn to large, comprehensive systems of thought, so Toynbee is just the ticket with his theory of how civilizations come and go. I've only just started reading volume 1, but already I'm enjoying Toynbee's bold way of comparing the unfolding of history in different civilizations around the world (and am of course impressed with the erudition that allows him to make these comparisons--he seems to know all aspects of world history from antiquity on). There is something exciting about reading new, bold ideas, well thought out. Most books do not contain these. Most writers are not in a position to think of them, or to support them properly if they do think of them. Most nonfiction books present more or less "modest proposals" in a reasonable, conservative way. They're fine and valuable--but they're not the stuff of real intellectual excitement.

I admire a writer and thinker who takes the bull by the horns. A tough, thorny, intractable problem? That's okay--they jump in and go for it.

On a smaller scale I similarly enjoyed Morphology of the Folktale by the Russian scholar Vladimir Propp, which I recently finished reading. Writing in 1928, Propp was confronting the, to him, unsatisfactory state of knowledge of the fairy tale (for his work was really about fairy tales, not folktales). Fairy tales and folktales had been intensively collected and studied for close to 100 years when he took up the task, but there was as yet no generally agreed system of classifying them or analyzing their features. So he took the bull by the horns and came up with a structural analysis of the Russian fairy tale.

He made some amazing discoveries. One was that when a fairy tale is broken down into a series of what he called functions, or character actions, there is a fundamental unity of structure to all Russian fairy tales (and therefore, possibly, to all other kinds of fairy tale and stories in general). Despite a great seeming variety, the fairy tales present the same functions in the same order. In 1928 Propp had discovered a regularity to story structure that foreshadowed the idea of the "monomyth" presented by Joseph Campbell 20 years later in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It behooves storytellers to be aware of these things.

Propp did what amounts to a genre analysis of the fairy tale--of the type recommended by Robert McKee for screenwriters (and storytellers generally). A genre is a structurally stable form that has been proven to work. Presumably it works because of some deep affinity with human experience and the human mind--some conformity with the way reality is. Propp says that a fairy tale commences with one of two possible situations: lack or villainy. Either someone does something hurtful or unjust to someone, or the hero becomes aware of a deficiency in his life, and sets out to rectify it.

So yes: bold ideas, bold thinking--keep 'em coming.

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