You know how sometimes one thing leads to another and you unintentionally end up making some kind of wonderful new discovery? Well, here’s how reading about the making of a 1987 swashbuckling satire of medieval Europe led me to read a truly amazing contemporary collection of short stories by Deborah Eisenberg.
My daughter is nuts about the movie The Princess Bride, even though the film is twice as old as she is (I think the young Cary Elwes might have something to do with it). So, I bought her a copy of Elwes’ book As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride, which is exactly what it sounds like: a blow-by-blow account of how this by now mythical movie was created, against all the odds. My daughter took the book along on our recent family holiday and promptly finished reading it.
I had brought along plenty of reading material of my own, including Ted Chiang’s thought-provoking short story collection Exhalation and The Diamond Setter: A Novel a wondrous tale of Middle-Eastern transgenerational secrets and forbidden love by Moshe Sakal – both excellent reads in their own very different ways and highly recommended. But, it being holiday time, I read a lot and fast, so pretty soon I had nothing left to read. My daughter, noticing my restlessness, proffered her by now well-thumbed paperback with an encouraging “It’s got pictures!”
Now, I’ve read lots of books about screenwriting and filmmaking. I’ve listened to countless interviews and podcasts about on-set shenanigans and horror stories about screenplay development. I’m well aware that “no one knows anything” in the film business and that the late, great William Goldman, author of that famous aphorism, was also the author of the book and the screenplay of The Princess Bride. So let’s just say I wasn’t chomping at the bit to read yet another version of ‘OMG, filmmaking is such crazy, magical mayhem’. But hey, I reasoned it would give me something to chat about with my daughter and frankly, I was feeling lazy and the book was there on the table. So I started reading. And continued reading. And before long I realised I was halfway through the book and loving every page.
That’s not what I wanted to tell you, though. What I want to tell you is how this little chain of events led to me secretly looking up Wally Shawn’s Wikipedia page. He plays Vizzini in the film and my daughter had asked me something about him that I didn't know. Which is how I came to read that his lifelong partner is the writer Deborah Eisenberg. This name rung a bell, although I’d never read anything of hers (I now shamefacedly confess), but I knew the name from somewhere. So I went to my wish list on Amazon – yes I keep one of those, not for anyone else’s eyes, but just as a place to jot down books I’ve seen recommended somewhere. And there she was: Deborah Eisenberg, with a book of short stories called Your Duck Is My Duck. So I figured the universe was telling me something and I downloaded the book onto my Kindle right then and there. I was not disappointed. In fact, I have seldom been more moved and impressed by a writer’s use of language.
Ms Eisenberg’s stories are a world away from the bodice-ripping dramedy that is The Princess Bride. They are more like vignettes of modern life, warts and all. Intricate and profoundly relatable case studies of human foibles in all their colourful variety. The stories don’t really ‘end’ in any traditional sense, as if tying up any narrative knots would contradict the impression she gives of human relationships being almost intangible, ephemeral – even infuriatingly so sometimes. But the precision with which Ms Eisenberg uses words to capture a look or a gesture or an action that a reader can immediately recognise as real and truthful, is quite astounding. The six stories in Your Duck Is My Duck transport the reader to very different places in the world, but the narrative always focuses on one or other problematic, unrequited relationship. What I find so engaging about her writing are the details that magnify the characters’ impossibilities and make them entirely real.
As a translator and editor (especially of screenplays - shameless plug) I’m struck by how often screenwriters miss opportunities to be precise about what their characters are feeling, what their intentions are. The main problem with this, is that someone else will then decide for them (the director, the actors) and that can lead to unfortunate misrepresentations of the screenwriter's original vision.
To be able to express in writing exactly what you ‘see’ in your mind’s eye is surprisingly difficult, especially when you’re trying to portray a character’s emotions with any degree of granularity. It requires endless practice and attention to detail. But sometimes, a brief description, an apt simile or an astute reference is all it takes. Here are some examples from Deborah Eisenberg:
(Here, in the eponymous story Your Duck Is My Duck, the narrator is describing the horrible, noisy parties she kept going to, despite herself):
No one met people in person any longer—you couldn’t hear what they were saying. Except for the younger women, who had piercing, high voices and sounded like Donald Duck, from whom they had evidently learned to talk.
(Here, in Merge, the young man Keith has finally persuaded the sceptical old lady Cordis to let him teach her how to use a computer):
Predictably, she just stood there, an unsturdy tower, hands clasped tensely and eyebrows slightly raised, as if waiting for a child to conclude a tantrum, while he’d demonstrated, grinning and waving his arms like a used-car salesman.
(Here, in Recalculating, the main character recalls his mother telling him almost nothing about his mysterious uncle who left their rural American surroundings and ‘went to Europe’):
She rotated the piecrust a severe quarter turn and bore down on it with the rolling pin.
I just love these descriptions. They put you right there in the room with these characters. There’s never any doubt about who you’re dealing with or what’s going on and why. Not that there’s no intrigue or tension, though. Ms Eisenberg seems to particularly delight in disorienting her readers at the beginning of a story, as if you’ve been led somewhere blindfolded and then the blindfold is removed and you have no idea where you are or who the people around you are. She then proceeds to illuminate what’s going on and you gradually get your bearings. She also likes to take little excursions into a kind of almost distracting magical realism. Despite these – wonderfully effective – reminders that other people’s reality isn’t always what it seems, you ultimately always understand what the characters are up to and why. Even when, as is often the case, they behave utterly foolishly or pathetically.
So, from a 1987 swashbuckling satire set in medieval Europe to a microscopic examination of contemporary American relationships , I went on quite a journey this summer and became a fan of Deborah Eisenberg’s writing in the process.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering? I finished reading As You Wish and loved every page of it. Despite its humble beginnings, The Princess Bride has become something of a classic movie, and judging by the anecdotes Cary Elwes lovingly relates, it was and remains a very special experience for everyone involved in its creation. And it’s available on Netflix, in case you haven’t seen it yet…