Writing non-fiction’s a bitch – a truth not universally acknowledged.
You’ll hear fiction writers, especially novelists (I’ve written five, published three), going on about their own heroism. How wrenching it is, day after day, to dredge up eternal truths from the dank depths of their souls. One man (it would be a man) even told me writing a novel is “like going to war.” I like to picture him deep in a muddy trench, rats nibbling at his toes, his laptop powered by only the heat from his cojones. Yet another writer maintained it’s the moral rigour of the long fictional haul that drives novelists to drugs and drink. That’s a man with, in addition to possible substance abuse issues, a bad case of post hoc ergo propter hoc. (Actually, it was drugs that drove me to write novels, but that’s another story.)
When Montreal journalist and Concordia Communications professor Matt Hays and Concordia cinema prof Tom Waugh proposed I write a brief (150-page) book about legendary Italian director Luchino Visconti (1906-1976) for Arsenal Pulp Press’s Queer Film Classics series, I thought, Why the hell not? How hard can it be compared to, say, a 500-page novel? How long can it take – a month or two?
I said yes on the spot, adding I’d like to concentrate on Visconti’s 1954 “Senso,” which isn’t ostensibly queer, being about a torrid hetero affair, but rather an historical costume drama replete with ballgowns big as battleships, extravagant arias from “Il Trovatore” and shameless passion – in my book, very queer indeed. Also, Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles collaborated on the dialogue for the English language version, and many of its most memorable scenes star Hollywood gay (although he didn’t come out until he was 82) heartthrob Farley Granger’s wondrously formed buttocks encased in white military breeches. What’s not to like?
Tom wanted to up the ante. He wanted hardcore queer content rather than limp musings about queer sensibility manifesting itself in a straight film. He suggested I write about “Death in Venice” as well, Visconti’s 1971 adaptation of Thomas Mann’s early (1912) novella about an ostensibly heterosexual man in late middle age stalking a pubescent Polish boy through the venereal city.
I was appalled at Tom’s suggestion. My 23-year-old self had hated the movie when it came out – found it too slow, too pretty, too boring (the eternal complaint of uncomprehending youth), and the “Adagietto” movement from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony that played incessantly throughout was, after its third or fourth iteration, intolerable.
“Maybe you should watch it again,” Tom said. So I did. And immediately suffered one of the great conversions of my moviegoing career. “Death in Venice” was stunning – provocative, pellucid and, at the risk of alliterative overkill, profound.
Now all I had to do was write about it. And “Senso.”
I trotted off to the library, did my database due diligence, read all the Visconti biographies, endless articles by academic critics, magazine and newspaper critics, trolled the Net for improbable gems. Who knew, for instance, that the real-life boy who was the model for Tadzio in the book – the ten-year-old Mann became obsessed with when he visited Venice at the age of 36 – would turn out to be a dead ringer for Mann’s stalwart wife Katia?
I filled notebook after notebook, dismayed at how dreary much of the writing about this most stylistically flamboyant of filmmakers was – po-faced Visconti experts flogging their dreary little theories like so many dead horses. In much of the critical writing the sense of scale was all wrong: his life (aristocrat, anti-Fascist hero, communist, lover) and his work were full of sweep, grandeur and glamour, yet what was said about him and it felt so pinched and narrow.
After a summer and fall of research I sat down to write. And fell immediately into despair. My tears dissolved my ergonomic writing chair. As a novelist I do my research and promptly forget it, feeling that what’s crucial will ooze into my writing via unconscious osmosis.
I also have a novelist’s contempt for facts – if they’re inconvenient, make something up. That’s why they call it fiction.
Because so few people under 50 seemed to have even heard of Visconti or “Death in Venice,” I decided to devote the first third of the book to a potted biography of the irascible man. Abruptly I found myself a slave to facts. No insouciant flights of fantasy, no trilling of invention’s flute. Every fucking word I wrote had to be nailed down with a fact. Plodding doesn’t begin to describe the slough of lassitude I sank into.
When I’m working on a novel, a slow day is four or five pages, a good day 10 and an ecstatic one 20. With fiction, more often than not, it’s Larkin’s “going down the long slide to happiness.” The real work comes with the re-writing – the slashing and burning, the brutal interrogation of every word, the pruning, clipping and sculpting, unconscionable mixed metaphors hacked off with an ax (a process which, if this were fiction, would wipe out everything in this sentence after the dash).
All through the white spectral days of January, February and March I managed a page a day. A Page A Day! I spent more time trying to read my indecipherable notes than actually typing. I was deeply depressed. After finishing my continent output I often crept, weeping, to my bed where I watched downbeat indie movies from Latvia on Netflix. I had bad sex. I sank so low I ate soy ice cream.
Then, one day, there on the page, Visconti died. I had reached the end of his biography. I packed it off to my usual reader: She liked it. I was released.
The rest of the writing was Larkin all the way. Criticism I know how to do, having worked as a film and arts critics since I was in diapers – criticism’s only half fact, the rest being personal opinion. With just the analyses of “Senso” and “Death in Venice” to go, I decided to write about the latter first, but in the writing, “Death in Venice” took over – I was overwhelmed by its beauty, intelligence and the subtlety of Visconti’s adaptation, which was an ingenious re-writing and re-envisioning of Mann’s novella. He had written an ironic tragedy – an aging man who gives all to forbidden love and dies for his efforts. The film has been viewed in much the same way ever since its release, as an object lesson for pedophiles. An extremely reductive response to a film as richly layered with ambiguity as “Death in Venice.” Visconti’s movie is about redemption, a clenched fist of a man transfigured by beauty and desire.
“Senso” will have to wait – maybe I can spin it off as an essay. In looking back I see that it was fear of failure, of not being able to do it, that motivated, depressed and distracted my throughout the writing of Death in Venice: A Queer Film Classic. And that’s good, because for me without fear there’s no creation.
In addition to Death In Venice: A Queer Film Classic, Will Aitken has published three novels: Realia, A Visit Home and Terre Haute. He’s also a travel journalist and teaches in the CinVidCom department at Dawson College.
The launch for Will Aitken’s Death In Venice: A Queer Film Classic is on Thursday, 26 January 6pm to 9pm at the Royal Phoenix Bar, 5788 St Laurent, Métro Rosemont.