Mooc week one

by Michael

I am doing a Mooc (massive open online course) called the Future of Storytelling. Each week some ideas and concepts discussed in videos made by the course tutors, additional reading, and a creative task. Not quite sure what form the tasks will take but the chances are I will put my responses up here – the first one is to retell a memorable story and explain why it has stayed with me.

Programme image for my production of Invitation to a Beheading (2002)

Programme image for my production of Invitation to a Beheading (2002)

One of my favourite books is Invitation to a Beheading, by Vladimir Nabokov, which I liked so much I decided to use it as the inspiration for a theatre piece in 2002. I don’t think I have read it since (my copy has disappeared from my bookshelf – if you have it, please return it!), so what of the story remains in my memory? It is about a man called Cincinnatus C., who has been condemned for the crime of being opaque, not fitting in. He is in prison, overseen by a gaoler and the director of the prison, neither of whom has much competence. There is a lawyer, also not blessed with competence. Cincinnatus receives visits from his wife and the rest of his family, who come not to sympathise or campaign for his release but perhaps to witness and display their tacit (or not) approval of his imprisonment and impending execution. The prison director’s young daughter lives in the prison too, and Cincinnatus sees her toy ball rolling past his cell door. Cincinnatus also has a pencil, with which he measures his remaining time on the earth.

At some point, he discovers a fellow prisoner, M’sieur Pierre, but M’sieur Pierre turns out actually to be his executioner who has introduced himself as a fellow prisoner only to put Cincinnatus at ease and prevent him forming a bad initial opinion of his executioner. He coaches Cincinnatus through the protocol for execution. But as the deadline date approaches, the prison disintegrates – the director and gaoler become harder to tell apart, characters degrade, events become ever more surreal. Cincinnatus is taken to the execution place as crowds of townsfolk cheer but as he looks at their faces, they become just painted hoardings that themselves fall away.

I can’t remember if that is how it ends.

I have done a quick cross-check with Wikipedia to see how poor my memory is but I seem to have done ok on the salient points. They were reinforced, no doubt, by the process of adapting the story for a theatre production, albeit 10+ years ago. But here’s a thing: I love ephemeral things. The things that strike me are small, insubstantial details, minutiae, things that would not easily cope with the strain of being pointed out, privileged, remembered. So too with stories – I remember being entertained, or inspired, or disturbed more fondly than the detail of the story. It is the capacity of a writer to move me in the moment of reading/watching/listening that remains, and so I am more inclined to seek out more of their work. So the idea of a memorable story is slightly anathematic.

Only slightly, though, and I remembered more of the story than I might have expected. So what was it about Invitation to a Beheading that makes me turn to it when asked for the story that has most impressed me? It is not the convoluted plot, or the car chases. It is not really the OH MY GOD I FORGOT THE SPIDER! (There is a spider in Cincinnatus’s cell – alluding to Robert the Bruce, perhaps.) Er, where was I?

The story of this book stays with me because it takes a particular attitude to life that has some resonance for me (especially as a writer, perhaps) – that a person’s lifetime is an unknown period of time to be endured, that we can each fill it with something that makes it meaningful, and that the inevitable end is nevertheless unexpected, familiar but surreal, apocalyptic and mundane. The story is a means to express this idea. There are certainly elements of plot within it – Cincinnatus wants to know when he is to be executed, for example, but does not find out in advance. Not so much MEET, LOSE, GET (the classic 3-act structure of Hollywood) as WANT, FAIL. It is also a tragedy in the Greek mode – the sequence of events in the story is inevitable thanks to acts and choices Cincinnatus made before the story started. All that is left is to live out the chain of events knowing that any attempt to thwart fate will only hasten it.

Approaches to stories

A few years before making our version of Invitation to a Beheading, I did a theatre course during which we were taught the basics of dramatic plotting – the tautologous Inciting Incident, for example, and the notion of narrative tension and subsequent resolution at the end of the ‘arc’. We were shown the film Field of Dreams (“If you build it, they will come”), in which a narrative tension is resolved every 2 minutes – you can set your watch by it. It put me off formulaic story structures for life. I see the skill in creating them, but am alert to them and react in a negative way (unless I am watching truly escapist drama, when I can switch off that part of my brain and enjoy the mindless but highly skilful exercising of the Hollywood-style recipe).

When dealing with exciting ideas, however, I want a structure that takes account of the content, not twisting it to fit a pre-ordained form, but letting form and content inform each other to the extent that they then support each other and heighten the reader/viewer’s experience. Nabokov’s writing does that, as does the writing of my other writer heroes, notably Italo Calvino.

It is not the executing of a pattern or template that I want to applaud, but the adapting of form and content to create a commentary on the ideas that are the reason for writing that particular story in the first place.