Notes on Alias Peter Marchall by A. F. Lorenz

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Szerző: Howard Phillips Lovecraft • Év: 1929?

This story shews an encouraging fluency and assurance in the handling of narra-1 tion and dialogue; its chief needs being a greater adherence to life and probability, and a greater freedom from artificiality and conventionality in plot, incidents, and motivation. In other words, the prime effort of the author in revision should be to avoid the reflection of phraseology, situations, character-types, and plot-developments found in the field of popular reading, and to arrive at a more direct and first-hand contact with life and events themselves. Let the source of ideas be not the stories one has read, but the happenings one has noticed in real life; either through direct observation and report, or through the authentic presentation of life in the press, and in scientific books or articles on history, biography, sociology, psychology, and so on. What a good story ought to reflect is not what people are popularly supposed to think, feel, say, want, and do, but what people really think, feel, say, want, and do. The habit of dealing with life on these authentic terms can be gained from a faithful reading of the truly solid as opposed to the frothy authors. Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Edith Wharton, John Galsworthy, Joseph Conrad, De Maupassant, Thomas Mann, Dostoievsky, Turgeniev—these are only a few of the writers whose influence is in the right direction.

In this particular story, the chief trouble is with what we call motivation—that is, the art of having things happen from adequate and probable causes, just as they would have to happen in real life. When a writer sets down a certain thing as happening or existing, he must arrange the other events and conditions of his tale in such a way as to make the given thing not only reasonably likely but almost inevitable. When he does not do this, the result is to leave the reader impressed with the unreality and artificiality of the whole story. The most extreme violations of this principle occur in the form of coincidences—stretched, in the work of many literary beginners, to such a vast distance beyond all human probability or possibility that they become matters of unconscious humour.

The present story has many strained coincidences which need elimination—indeed, its central incident involves such a thing. We may outline this offending coincidence by asking certain questions:

 

(a) why did Evelyn happen to choose the same town for residence which Peter had chosen, unknown to her?

(b) why did her motor accident happen to bring her to the door of a friend of Peter’s?

 

The fact that such coincidences do occur once in an age in real life, does not make them sufficiently typical of life to warrant their use in fiction. In removing this coincidence from the story, the way to start would be to give Peter and Evelyn some special interest in common; some interest especially connected with the city in which the final reunion occurs. In that case, it would be the same tie which had originally drawn them together, that would bring about the reunion. It might be some historical enthusiasm in which the given city had a prominent place, some art or science especially cultivated in that city, or some form of social study or work in which this city offered a particularly specialised field. But the point is that there must be some reason for both characters’ choice—unknown to each other—of the same town to live in. The matter of the accident ought to be smoothed out on similar principles—or removed altogether, with the substitution of some other vivid and dramatic form of confrontation.

In the matter of the priest’s recognition of his visitor as the fiancée of his friend, more clearness ought to be observed. It must be made plain, if this incident is retained, that the priest identifies Evelyn by her name, and not by any vague, troubled look which draws forth a tale. In real life it would be absurd to suppose that a “troubled look” would be obvious—or that it would lead a sensible and non-meddlesome clergyman into asking a guest for the latter’s life-story. Indeed—the accident itself would account for any troubled look that might be present! The name is the only possible link—for Peter might have told his friend that. Then the priest could elicit the story for verification purposes.

Apart from this matter of incident-motivation, the story needs attention from the standpoint of sound psychological probability. That is, we must ask whether the characters really do what living people do under similar conditions, or whether they behave like artificial puppets according to hackneyed, false patterns devised by former popular writers. Here it must greatly be doubted whether the principals of the tale feel and act in a life-like way. The ancient and trite fictional device of the “proud lover” may have some basis of fact under certain conditions, but it is more often found to be a sheer trick of romantic invention. In the present story it is quite conceivable that Peter would have offered his fiancée a release upon losing his money, but it is altogether inconceivable that he would have gone to the grotesque length of changing his name and going into hiding. What an average man with the average amount of delicacy would clearly have done, is to offer release—and upon the fiancée’s refusal of that, to consider the marriage as simply postponed until he might get on his feet again. He would not flee like a melodrama hero, or expect such a frantic pursuit as to necessitate his taking an alias! As a matter of fact, the very element of ‘undying devotion’ on both sides in this tale is a rather dubious piece of psychology. People are not so naturally monogamous as to ponder forever over one “lost love”, except in cases of definite emotional unbalance or extreme intellectual naiveté. When the stir of one affair blows over, they follow the line of least resistance and seek new alignments if the obstacles in the way of the old are too great. Altogether, the only rational way to motivate the separation of Peter and Evelyn, and to account for the avoidance of the latter by the former, is to introduce a normal and ordinary quarrel in place of the hackneyed “proud lover” device. Such a thing could be so arranged as to make the evasion, pursuit, final reconciliation, etc., seem at least measurably plausible. But the assumed-name matter is going rather far, and ought to be removed. Rather, let the hero live obscurely as a result of his reduced fortunes, and let the city of meeting be so large that the previous inquiries of Evelyn failed merely through the ordinary needle-in-a-haystack principle. Also—don’t have those inquiries quite so assiduous. With time, the poignancy of Evelyn’s emotion will inevitably have worn off somewhat. The matter will have receded into a half-dreamlike sentimentalised borderland—which will, however, make the final reunion all the more glamorous; partaking of the nature of a reincarnation, or the recapture of a lost reality from the domain of myth and dream.

Other touches of artificiality and stereotyped convention in place of reality are found in numerous incidents and characterisations—as well as in occasional excesses of phraseology. Close analysis will reveal any of the following pictures as distinctly artificial—bits of ready-made colour lifted bodily from the common stock-room of popular fiction, instead of things actually derived from life or proceeding from the individual imagination of the author:

 

Typical “society” scene and atmosphere—p. 1

Typical accident pathos—“small dark bundle”, etc.—p. 3

Typical benevolent priest—pp. 4 et seq.

Typical adolescent romance and characters—Pittsburgh steel heiress and generalised Harvard youth—p. 6

Typical treatment of authorship as glib mechanical acquirement—p. 7

Typical stage reunion—“Peter! Evelyn!”—p. 9

Typical use of identifying scar—p. 10 et ante

Typical reconciler role as enacted by priest—p. 10

 

Some of these cases of literary insincerity or “emotional short cuts” are not extreme ones, while others approach the point of what is known as “hokum”. The way to get rid of them all is to cast aside the idea of drawing material from one’s light fictional reading, and to subject every incident in the tale to the acid test of what ordinarily happens in actual life. No author can be ignorant of the prosaic daily life around him. What do people normally do and say from day to day—how so they react to this and that situation? It is from this kind of knowledge, and not from one’s recollections of novels and magazine tales, that the material for sound fiction must be drawn. In drawing a character or a scene, don’t try to do it as some other author has done, but use original judgment and observation—set down simply your own idea of what such a character or scene is really like. A real account of a literary lecture, for example, would have different stresses and selections of incidents and descriptions from those in a purely conventional and imitative account. So would a real account of an accident, or a priest, or a romance, or a reunion, and so on. Write as you would in a diary or a personal letter—not as you would in preparing a dime novel!

However—don’t let it be assumed that this estimate of the story is an unrelievedly unfavourable one. As stated at the outset, there is no question of the tale’s assurance and fluency; or of the author’s power to handle the essentials of language, narration, and dialogue, once his attention to adequate motivation and correct psychology becomes closer. These assets are very considerable ones—assets which many have to study years to gain and which some never gain perfectly—so that the author need not feel that his imperfect care in plot-elements involves any reduction to the foot of his class. What is needed is merely a little more penetrating vision, realistic analysis, and discrimination in narrative selection—a slight raising of the standard of life-like convincingness all along the line. Such an improvement is not difficult to effect, nor does it imply any long course of training or study. Merely a readjustment of perspective—and the trick is accomplished. The very next tale of the same author is perfectly likely to be free from most of the flaws noted in this one.

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