Shelf Life Magazine is now defunct. When I look back at my early student writing, this is the kind of thing I was doing – I believe described by Michael Mac Nicholas as “nauseatingly trite and contrived.” Fifteen years later, I was somewhat at peace with that. The method of composition is as described at the bottom of the piece. Ultimately, I find this kind of thing, like surrealist writing games, is fun once and then becomes tediously rather rapidly. However, this specific method can throw up some interesting juxtapositions, and as it is based on a particular shelf in a particular place, a specific sensibility can be evident.
Somewhere near Venice, Guy began talking with a heavy, elderly man, a refugee from Germany on his way to Trieste. The gentleman in the carriage was not handsome, but neither was he particularly bad-looking; he was neither too fat, nor too thin; he could not be said to be old, but he was not too young, either. The land itself was beautiful, with hills that ran down to the sea, and there were cold green waves that broke on the rocks that marked the edge of the land. No sound can be heard from the fields. But I don’t understand the least thing about my illness, and I don’t know for certain what part of me is affected.
The supine figure could almost have been sleeping were it not for the eyes. When the Simibirsk, of the Russian Volunteer Fleet, had at last completely vanished, carrying away the three sisters to Shanghai, I came back to my room at the hotel. She sighed, and sipped, and then to my dismay trotted them out. Of blood that laughs when the tenets mutter ‘Weep’. Then Roscommon stumbled out and tore down our badminton net. From the open windows of her sickroom, a warm draught stirs the loose white hair at her neck, bringing scents of coal smoke, jasmine, opium.
You was in India, and that’s not the East any more than this is. Liebermann edged forward. Janet must have opened the window before she left. Was he born in Paris? “Drink – Rum”.
A dazzling ray of light slanted in through the trees. I was eating chocolate cake and drinking fragolino, a sweet swarthy wine distilled from the strawberry grape, in my bath. A woman in a black dress with a lace collar had led them to the table.
Note on the composition of “Somewhere Near Venice”
Take a bookshelf (perhaps you can do this with a Kindle or the like as well, but an old fashioned shelf of old fashioned books has a certain physical reality to it). Take the first book on the left. Copy the first sentence. Then, copy the second sentence from the second book. Then, the third sentence from the third book. Then, the fourth sentence from the fourth book. I’m sure you are getting the picture. You can either confine yourself to fiction (I did) or not. On our shelves, as well as the volumes already there, there are infinitely many other possible narratives waiting to be combined. I imagine a perfect library in which this method can be used to compose an entirely fresh and coherent new story.
The Great Fortune – Olivia Manning
Dead Souls – Nikolai Gogol
Dream Angus – Alexander McCall Smith
Sorochintsy Fair – Nikolai Gogol (from “Village Evenings Near Dikanka”)
Notes from underground – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Witchdoctor of Chisale – Stephen McWilliams
Futility – William Gerhardie
Flashman and the mountain of light – George macdonald Fraser
Gormenghast – Mervyn Peake
Zodiac – the Eco thriller – Neal Stephenson
The Difference Engine – William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
Time For A Tiger – Anthony Burgess
Vienna Blood – Frank Tallis
The Fit – Philip Hensher
What a strange creature is man – Johann Peter Hebel (from The Treasure Chest)
“The Balance” – Evelyn Waugh (from Collected Short Stories)
He who fears the wolf – Karin Fossum
Quentins – Maeve Binchy