Friday, 6 July 2012

William Goldman

First of all, a warning.  If you haven't read The Princess Bride or Marathon Man and haven't even seen the films, then be careful, as I might accidentally give stuff away.  Do however go and read the novels yourself.

I’ve just finished rereading The Princess Bride.

'Westley sighed.  “What I was trying to get through to you, beloved sweet; what I was, as a matter of accurate fact, shouting with everything I had left, was: ‘Whatever you do, stay up there!  Don’t come down here!  Please!’”
“You didn’t want to see me.”
“Of course I wanted to see you.  I just didn’t want to see you down here.”
“Why ever not?”
“Because now, my precious, we’re more or less kind of trapped.  I can’t climb out of here and bring you with me without it taking all day.  I can get out myself, most likely, without it taking all day, but with the addition of your lovely bulk, it’s not about to happen.”
“Nonsense; you climbed the Cliffs of Insanity, and this isn’t nearly that steep.”
“And it took a little out of me too, let me tell you.  And after that little effort, I tangled with a fella who knew a little something about fencing.  And after that, I spent a few happy moments grappling with a giant.  And after that, I had to outfake a Sicilian to death when any mistake meant it was a knife in the throat for you.  And after that I’ve run my lungs out a couple of hours.  And after that I was pushed two hundred feet down a rock ravine.  I’m tired, Buttercup; do you understand tired?  I’ve put in a night, is what I’m trying to get through to you.”'
~ The Princess Bride by William Goldman, 1973

The first time I read The Princess Bride was back in uni and
It was the greatest book I had ever read.  I didn’t read it again for six or so years because I was afraid I wouldn’t experience that same reverence and wonder from having touched true genius and it’d turn out I was exaggerating.

I was right to be afraid.  In hindsight, speaking with experience, I don’t know why it blew The Mind.  Perhaps it was the first time I ever read a book that played with reality the way it does.  The idea of an author writing themselves into a story, of writing a story and then pretending they weren’t writing the story, of doing a whole post-modern turn on narrative, these elements impressed me.  So much that it instantly became The Favourite Novel and I recommended it to everyone I met, often forcibly. 

Time has, as they say, cooled The Ardour, and I will never be able to feel that mind-blown sense of awe again.  And having lost that is a wound to the book through no fault of its own.  It’s excellent of course, but the disappoint of losing awe is heavy indeed.

Anyway, back in uni, The Housemate was one of the people I inflicted the novel on.

Things went fast and well for a bit after that.

Then something changed.

Until that moment I held no concept that Goldman was less than perfection, and to hear this even just as a possibility shattered my entire perception. 

And next time I watched Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid I noticed how it kinda drags in the middle.

And the love affair was over, the rose-tinted glasses were off, the perfect writer who could do no wrong was now just the same as all the rest.

So having gone from true love to indifferent betrayal, maybe I can be a bit more grounded with The Opinions now.

I’m not very good at summarising plots, as I have learnt from trying to write synopsises of my own work when sending to agents,

but I figure I probably should say what the book is about if I’m going to say what I thought of it.

When the author, a fictionalised Goldman, was ten, his dad read him a story, The Princess Bride by S. Morgenstern, a tale of

'Fencing.  Fighting.  Torture.  Poison.  True Love.  Hate.  Revenge.  Giants.  Hunters.  Bad men.  Good men.  Beautifulest ladies.  Snakes.  Spiders.  Beasts of all natures and descriptions.  Pain.  Death.  Brave men.  Coward men.  Strongest men.  Chases.  Escapes.  Lies.  Truths.  Passion.  Miracles.'

So when Goldman’s son turned ten, he bought him the book.  And discovered that it was a lofty tome of satiric history and that his father had edited out the boring stuff and just read the exciting bits.  So Goldman decides to abridge the book into a ‘good parts’ version.  What follows is that (very witty) tale of fencing, fighting, et al, with injections from Goldman explaining what was in the original version and discussing his favourite bits.

I’m not going to summarise the actual story of the milkmaid turned princess Buttercup, farmboy turned pirate Westley, the swordsman Inigo or the giant Fezzik, because you’ve probably seen the cult 80s film (if not, where the hell’ve you been?) adapted by Goldman himself, which if (slightly) less witty and (surprisingly) less exciting in places, is still pretty accurate to the plot, and so iconic that you’ve probably met someone at some point in your life who has

‘Hello.  My name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my father.  Prepare to die.’

 on a T-shirt.  Though rather typically of me, I suddenly realise all my favourite bits of the book are not in the film, because they were the only bits I could read fresh, without hearing the actors recite the lines for me.  In fact, I really like chapter one.  Like really really like. 

‘That really surprised me.  Not that Chapter One stinks or anything, but there’s not that much that goes on compared with the incredible stuff later.’

Yeah, thanks Goldman.  But that part of the film is boring as hell yet it’s so awesome in the book. 


Okay, so on this all important second read, what did I think of The Princess Bride?

First off, is the title to The Princess Bride deliberately off-putting?  It’s like the ultimate anti-boy title.  Like how Disney called Rapunzel Tangled instead of Rapunzel, because they were afraid of turning away boys.  Even though it’s still about a girl called Rapunzel and based on the story Rapunzel.  Rapunzel Rapunzel Rapunzel.  But it’s hard convincing someone to read a book called The Princess Bride.  Those two words just seem to make their eyes glaze over, even when you’re standing there explaining it’s witty and subversive. 

I have the 25th anniversary edition, which has a lovely cover with stark black and white design and shiny silver font.  I like stark and I like shiny, so is good.  But here’s what I don’t like about the cover: 

A)    it references the film, and yes, I know the film is famous, and I’ve certainly seen the film a lot more than I’ve read the book, but as a snotty writer, that kind of thing still bugs me,
B)    there is no allusion to Morgenstern which kills the joke a bit,
C)    the drawing of the man in black has him wearing a puny little bandana thing around his eyes, when his whole head and hair is supposed to be obscured.  Although actually now I think about it, not everything he is wearing is black, so is it even meant to be the man in black?  Maybe it’s Inigo.  Although he’s not thin enough.  See, it’s a stupid drawing. 

Anyway, moving inside.  It starts like this:

‘This is my favourite book in all the world, though I have never read it.’

It’s a good opening.  It’s cute and it’s bewildering, and you have to read on for explanation.  It’s also neat for referencing in smarmy reviews, if only The Princess Bride still was my favourite book in all the world.  I know it was for a while, and I know these days I’m always going on about Jane Eyre, but secretly my favourite book is always going to be the Oxford English Dictionary.

The 25th anniversary edition comes with an introduction that goes on about the film and an epilogue pseudo sequel chapter.  This time I just wanted to read the novel as it was first published in the 70s, so I skipped those bits.  Because the first time round both those impaired The Reading, filling The Mind with stuff I didn’t want to know that in some cases spoilt the enjoyment (no way did Westley cheat on Buttercup).  But as consequence, the story seemed much shorter now and less all-absorbing/involving. 

But I like Goldman’s writing style.  It’s so blunt and fast and slick and clever and irreverent and witty and childish and facetious.  It’s magnificent.

I’ve picked two examples of bluntness that just excite me with their skill.  Skip them if you want to avoid spoilers.

‘Even the village girls would nod and smile now, and some of them would ask after Westley, which was a mistake unless you happened to have a lot of spare time, because when someone asked Buttercup how Westley was—well, she told them.  He was supreme as usual; he was spectacular; he was singularly fabulous.  Oh, she could go on for hours.  Sometimes it got a little tough for the listeners to maintain strict attention, but they did their best, since Buttercup loved him so completely.
Which was why Westley’s death hit her the way it did.’

‘Westley closed his eyes.  There was pain coming and he had to be ready for it.  He had to prepare his brain, he had to get his mind controlled and safe from their efforts, so that they could not break him.  He would not let them break him.  He would hold together against anything and all.  If only they gave him sufficient time to make ready, he knew he could defeat pain.  It turned out they gave him sufficient time (it was months before the Machine was ready).
But they broke him anyway.’

I cannot describe how those words work.  I just know that I want to shout with delight.

I had hoped, having recently come up with The Style Versus Content Theory, that Goldman could be an author who combined both equally beautifully, but it seems I much prefer his writing style to his storytelling (not to say he can’t tell a story, just that the stem of my enjoyment comes from how he tells it, not what he’s telling).  

When I got to the end of the story I really felt it was missing something.  It seemed to be all beginning and all ending and no middle. 

And secretly, gnawingly, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take from the story.  Am I meant to care about Westley and Buttercup, or is that just window dressing for Billy and his father, or is that just a witty take on narrative, the meaning of literature and publishing?  In the novel, Goldman cuts the satire of Morgenstern to get to the story, to the horror of scholars.  But now that’s me.  I’m sitting here, not getting the smart stuff, because I want to get involved in the characters instead.  So does that make me dumb and the story is designed to mock people who do that?  Or is that exactly what I’m supposed to do and that’s the point of the exercise, saying that narrative is more important than literature and that a story is there to be enjoyed not analysed?  Or is it all more good-natured than that and enjoy it however you like?  Oh, The Mind just blew again but in a much less pleasant manner.

Besides, perhaps it’s not missing anything.  Perhaps I’m just impossible to please.  What I’m really complaining about is that I don’t want it to end.  And that’s actually a compliment, isn’t it?

In related news…

I read Marathon Man the other day. 

‘‘Scylla is late!  He’s trying to goad me!’

‘Scylla is never late,’ came from behind them.

They whirled.

Scylla’s voice came from the dark shadows.  ‘I’ve been watching your stomachs churn ever since you got here.  And, may I add, enjoying it thoroughly.’

‘Come out here!’ the bull-shouldered one said.  It was an order.

Not obeyed.  ‘Before the passwords?’  Scylla’s voice contained astonishment.  ‘Such a breach of etiquette—where is our respect for tradition?’

Angrily, the bull-shouldered man said, ‘Once they could swim there.’  He was pointing to the Hudson  ‘Now, if they try it, they die.’

There was the sound of a fingersnap.  ‘Would you believe it,’ Scylla said, ‘I’ve clean forgotten what I’m supposed to answer.’

‘“There are many ways of dying”—say it—“there are many ways of dying”—all right, we’re done with that, now come down here.’

‘All right,’ Scylla said.  ‘But if I’m a fraud, it’s your fault.’’

~ Marathon Man by William Goldman, 1974

Having reached M in The Watching All The Films In Reverse Alphabetical Order, The Housemate suggested I read the novel of Marathon Man before watching the film.  I couldn’t be bothered to do this for aaaaaaaages, but then The Housemate went away for a while and as he left, flung the book at me and ordered it be read by the time he returned.  I promptly didn’t do this.  But eventually I felt mean, so flipped open the book to have a look at least.

So… uh…  what’s it about…

Babe is a history student whose father’s life was destroyed by the communist witch trials and wants to prove his innocence.  Scylla is a hit man/spy who is losing faith in his work.  Also there are Nazis.

Well I don’t know how to explain any of it without spoiling it.

It’s very good.  Although the title is utterly meaningless to me now.  It’s too famous.  I didn’t even realise what the words were until I read the first scene of Babe running. 

It starts like this:

‘Every time he drove through Yorkville, Rosenbaum got angry, just on general principles.’

It’s a fine opening line.  It’s kinda funny.  But it doesn’t really grab me.  Besides, it’s a prologue and prologues bug me. 

I’m all for stuff playing out later and linking back to earlier stuff, that’s the joy of a novel, but prologues are always ambiguous or obscure or about non-main characters and it always hurts slightly when it finally clicks into place, like my brain is forced to brake and grindingly reverse when it was quite happy zooming along its track.  It’s like those stupid quotes people stick at the start of their novels, always from the Bible or Nietzsche or some archaic literature, like that ever adds any meaning to the following text.  It’s just pretentious.  Quit it.

Although, as prologues go, if they must at all, this is actually a pretty good one.

I read Marathon Man non-stop for a whole day.  I couldn’t put it down.  But I had to go out in the evening due to a pressing social engagement

and was forced to stop a few chapters before the end.  I blame this for the ending being a bit of a disappointment when I got back later and finished it off. 

I’ll never know if I would have liked the ending if I’d been able to read undisturbed, but because the ending didn’t really do it for me, that kind of tainted a lot of the rest too.  As I’ve said before, endings are the most important part of the story for me.  At least, what I mean is they’re the only bit that must not be weak.  All other weakness can be overcome with length, but an ending has nothing after it.  It is finite.  And the ending was, and perhaps I’m being impossible again, exactly what it said it would be and I don’t really get that.  Babe said he’d do a thing and he did it, somehow.  There wasn’t anything else to it.  It was anticlimactic.  Deliberately, which might sound odd considering it ends with murder, but it left me on a deflated ‘oh’. Tw

Maybe because Babe wasn’t my favourite thing about the book. 

There were moments which really struck me; his interactions with Biesenthal really burned out of the page and I would have liked more, his obsession with his father was so humanly believable, and considering he’s a history geek and obsessed with running, he’s surprisingly compelling. 

I kinda loved and didn’t like the bath scene at the same time.  It was a perfect capture of how the mind works on the one hand, but on the other, considering what just happened, Babe comes across as a dolt.  It’s like he’s thinking Even though I know my life is in danger, I’ll just take all my clothes off and leave my gun in another room because I don’t want to appear paranoid.  …Yeah, wouldn’t want to seem paranoid, coz that’s the worst thing that could happen tonight.  Oh wait, YOU’RE HAVING A BATH BECAUSE YOU’RE COVERED IN BLOOD.

Considering the fame of ‘Is it safe?’ I was kinda disappointed by what that actually meant, but I guess that’s not the book’s fault. 

I totally didn’t see two of the twists/revelations coming, which makes me a dunderhead because I’m usually pretty sharp on that kind of thing, but it gave me a deep respect for Goldman

I ruined the other major twist of the story because I idiotically flicked ahead because I was worried a character would get killed

and I turned to the exact page that does a major REVEAL.  The very line in fact.  So I don’t know if I’d have got that one on my own.  But I’ll give myself that much benefit/credit.

I’m not sure about Elsa.  Since we know right from the off who she is, I don’t get why we have to be put through it, and Babe’s attraction—he likes her because she’s hot—is extremely off-putting.  In hindsight maybe that works, but while I was reading I found the scenes between them made The Skin crawl.  Although I did enjoy the first scene when he sees her. 

‘What kind of a human person has a favorite eraser?’

That’s something Goldman does so well.  Describing normal, weird, paranoid thoughts that distract people, things that are utterly ridiculous to the situation yet seem obsessively important to them in that moment.  It’s perfectly balanced with Buttercup’s slow realisation that she’s in love with Westley in The Princess Bride, and with Babe trying to work out if there’s someone in the other room when he’s in the bath in Marathon Man.  It makes these characters so much more alive to the reader.

Goldman does it best with Scylla.  Scylla is brilliant.  I usually detest repentant hit men types.  But Scylla is a masterpiece of emotion, humour and excitement.

The trouble with great writing is that you can’t take a sentence and show that it’s great because it’s the context that really makes great writing into perfection.  But I’ve gotta quote something.  An early moment that really made me gleefully joyous to be reading a Goldman again was this:

‘Scylla left the men’s room hurriedly, angry with himself for the thought.  What’s happening to you?  Five minutes ago you were near to a double closeout, and now you call them good men.  He reached the Pan Am area, took his place in the check-in line.  I want to die with someone who loves me.

‘Pardon?’ the aged lady in front of him said.

Omigod, I’m thinking out loud!

That bit is brilliant in context and it worked on me completely.  This book made me laugh out loud, it made me curl up gripping it tight with tension and it made me weep so I could barely see the words any more.  It’s not as smart as The Princess Bride, but it’s more human.  The first half anyway, I absolutely loved.

So The Housemate returned and we were able to watch the film of Marathon Man.  Here’s a lesson: Don’t watch film adaptations within days of reading the novel.  I spent the first few minutes of Marathon Man in mantra, just repeating over and over ‘that’s not how it happens in the book’, then I started getting upset because I just said I loved the first half of the novel and I loved Scylla and the film ain’t kind to either.  I really think Dustin Hoffman and Roy Scheider are hopelessly miscast.  I got 40 minutes in and there wasn’t a shred of humour.  The film isn’t funny.  But the book is hilarious.  That’s what worked.

And that’s it.  Books can focus all they like on thoughts.  Thoughts are funny and they bring out all this character stuff.  Films can’t do that.  Films have to go from a completely different angle.  And they should too.  They’re a totally different medium.  But when you love a book on its thoughts, like I do with Marathon Man, and Jane Eyre, (and Freaky Friday by Mary Rodgers just to randomly throw that in there) it’ll never translate and you’ll never like the film.  Not if you go in wanting what you loved from the book. 

I’ve learnt The Lesson.  Never watch an adaptation when the original is fresh in the memory.  It’s going to be a painful experience for you, an unfair experience for the film, and a nauseating experience for anyone trapped in the room with you. 

So what’s The Conclusion? 

William Goldman is a fantastic writer.  He can write a western, a fantasy or a thriller with equal skill, with a sharp humour that gets me every time.  Maybe The Princess Bride can never relive my initial adoration and maybe I’d rather read a novel about Scylla than Babe and maybe I prefer books to films, but none of that can detract from Goldman’s trenchant style.  It’s genius.  And I adore it.