Four critics and a dead artist

In this blog I will include excerpts from five independent critiques of the book. The first and third are from Writer’s Digest commentary reviews for two contests I did not win.

#1  Writer’s Digest commentary

“EVOCATIVE THEMES. In Jewels of Change…lushly written story…on many levels… interesting plot twists and delivers a powerful message about life, death, and rebirth…story concept is fresh. Nello’s use of language is skillful. His voice is unique and he uses words in slightly unusual, yet effective ways. …unobtrusive research brings the story to life.”

#2  The following is an editorial evaluation by iUniverse and was the first commentary on the book before the line editing and quality review.

“The first chapter fails to properly engage the reader because it is difficult to follow the action. Events are not properly described or transitioned…. The sentences are often short and choppy, creating a singsong effect… Creating more sophisticated sentences would be appropriate for an adult audience. …dialogue fails to maintain a realistic or conversational tone….”

#3  Writer’s Digest commentary (second of two)

“This is one of the most ambitious novels I have read, not just for this contest but ever. …the most serious of literary intentions. For an average reader, …a challenging book, and I can see the difficulty of convincing a commercial press to take a chance on it, but for a serious reader of literature, it’s a great find among the mountains of trite and shallow and formulaic novels. Arthur Nello writes beautiful prose…elegant narrative, vivid descriptions, and compelling dialogue.”

#4  This review is from Kirkus Discoveries and is the only review to my knowledge posted on the Internet.

“A strange fictional menagerie of intertwining domestic plots and dreamscapes. …ever shifting sands…might make for an engaging tale, were the overarching storyline easier to follow. …Unfortunately, the novel is parsed into three somewhat insular sections linked only by their relation of different phases of Joseph Prigione’s life. …subsequent narrative…a New Agy take on the ravages of a broken home. …Though the work’s major insight, that children represent the jewels of change, resonates nicely, one must endure too many convoluted episodes to arrive at the conclusion: a turgid tale of aimless adulthood.”

#5  This, the last critique, is an excerpt from a Quality Review by Stan Baldwin, who also did the line edit for iUniverse.

“…Your sometimes admirably obscure, sometimes deceptively simple writing style echoes the subject matter beautifully. The novel is an exercise in imaginative freedom, in which riddle and reality coincide, as compelling as a dream and as profound as a graveyard. I hope this book will receive the recognition and success it deserves. You will need some able readers because your novel is not beach literature. This is a genuine work of art, and you have ciphered into it a virtual lifetime of experience, scholarship, and insight.”

* * *

Opinions vary, yet by now much may be puzzling if you think of them as exercises in objectivity, which by its nature, should reveal all criticisms the same. And opinions should be the same if critics themselves are cut from the same mold. They—as well as Supreme Court judges—evaluate subjectively with what they assert is objectivity, revealing more about the critic than the object criticized. Perhaps we are left with the idea of how valuable we are, how confused the world of work is, or how much we need to improve. In any case, we are surely busy little bees in this great hive we call earth.

I will not comment on the individual criticisms, and I only offer Oscar Wilde’s “Artist’s Preface” to his Picture of Dorian Grey where he says, among other comments:

“Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.”

I’ll stick with Oscar with that one. He’s a good bet.

 

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Islands

There are themes touched upon in Part I, “Collage Dream Memories,” and expanded in Part III, “Islands.”

On page 8, two major themes are symbolically presented—death and forgiveness.

“His whispers spilled holy words on the stairs as his feet thumped grand periods after each.

Bro ther … mo ther,

Bro ther … mo ther,

Bro ther … mo ther,

in …

the …

night …”

How do you come to grips with sudden death (in this story, a brother) with dark secrets and forgiveness (a drunken mother)? Both themes are explored in Parts I and III. Death is first introduced in the opening dream and its brief meditation with all that the character “Joseph” sees at the end of the dream. What he sees are all the dissolving elements of matter, and he asks, “But was it nothing?…” It could be the next thought is nihilism, but instead he wakes up to reality. This reality in Buddhism is conventional reality, which may tend to be perceived as always present—eternalism, the extreme of nihilism. This is further explored in Part I in a series of questions concerning the death of Joseph’s brother, Emil. An actual “meditation on emptiness” is briefly described in section III, pages 201-203.

The forgiveness of the drunken mother is found emerging in the monastery stories of Part III through the loving nature of the monk Tenzin and the story of the gift of a coat. The concept that all sentient beings were once your mother is a powerful one in Buddhism. This theme is brought out in a humorous story involving the tiniest monk, the Abbot of a renowned monastery, and a fly. What Joseph rejects in Buddhist logic (pages 149-160), he finds in the humor, love, and compassion of the monks at S____ monastery.

On the road to forgiveness Joseph asks (page 150), “Could he call himself the prisoner of existence?” That may be a question for us all.

From the disillusion at the end of Part II is born the spiritual journey in Part III. A section in the last chapter, “The Jewel,” is alluded to in early fragments of the couple’s dream book on page 5. Brief stories in “The Jewel” retell the entire book of Jewels of Change as a Buddhist allegory within Victoria’s dream. Is Jewels of Change a well-disguised Buddhist allegory that the reader may only recognize at book’s end and all a dream hinted at in the beginning in the dream book? Parts II and III are born from personal experience, and perhaps at the end points of all our lives, looking back over the arc of its beginning, can be found a Buddhist allegory as I have, or set in some Greek or Roman myth, as might others.

The theme of beauty is never obvious, as little in this book is. For Joseph (page 199), “Buddha emerged as an artist whose art rose to the height of spiritual mastery…All of us, each one, owned some part of the Buddha of Beauty within. As it was for Joseph, so it was for everyone. For Joseph it was to set the Buddha free.” And as it is mentioned, Joseph has been writing some sort of Book of Life—it is his setting the Buddha free.

On page 201 there is a brief discussion of past lives, a hint of the title’s meaning, and its relation to beauty.

Emil’s death came between two events that remade his world. Less than a year after Emil died, Joseph went to past-life therapy sessions. He reasoned that if he, Joseph, lived before, so too would have Emil. He realized that the truth or falsity of past lives rested in no reality so firm as to be touched. He could feel and see those selves so strongly he knew them as well as all those lost selves in his present life. Whether Joseph was an ancient Tibetan warrior, a European bowman of the Dark Ages, an old Indian fisherman yogi, a French swordsman betrayed by a woman he could not see, or a dumb girl listening to opera, they told him a story as if it were so. For Joseph, the truth could only be, as if it were so.

There was one vision, a sense of what life was for him. It seemed when the French swordsman was killed, he saw the crumpling body drop. The self that rose was an old Indian yogi. Joseph then saw nothing. He felt bodiless, formless, and floated. He saw a design above him, as if on a ceiling. He scanned it, taking it in. The design was intricate, mathematical, possessed him, yet floated like a cloud in the sky. Joseph said to his guide, “I know it. I know it now! I can see it! It’s like an Escher. Do you know Escher?”

“No,” the guide answered.

Against a wall and down from the design there was a work of art in a frame, a ceramic, jewels tumbling, throwing out light in an infinite number of luminous rays, moving, from black holes of darkness to wonder of all things bright. He knew it at once as the essence of his world. It was moving, changing, always transforming itself. He could never recapture it, for whatever it was once, it would never be again. All the grand designs on the ceiling went there; all those miraculous and precise forms became lost in the appearance of change. The only thing Joseph could come away with was the impermanence of all and how beautiful it all was, and maybe it was beautiful just because it could never be again.

On pages 151-152 there is a narrative on the symbol of the swastika briefly discussed in a previous blog, “Why I wrote this book.”

In Buddhism was reality a matter of perception or one correct view interpreted by four schools of thought? A dark coiled object on a road formed the classic Buddhist question. Was it a snake or a rope? A new form of that question emerged from the ancient symbol of a swastika woven into a thangka hanging over the edge of the altar.

Joseph saw it under electric candles that now seemed dimmer. He looked down at the projections of his fingers, the world mountain and islands, then up again at the swastika, its strong, angular lines as if in motion. Just what did this symbol mean?

Recently, that became a question when a Kalmuck man, removing his shoes, entered the temple to explain the form’s significance to the barefoot reporter and photographer who were doing a story on community and temple.

The ancient Indian symbol meant well-being, a benediction. A holy sign the Kalmuck related and said the Nazis had twisted the arms from its original right-angled position.

No, the reporter retorted, voice adamant. Surely it means perverted madness. It must be removed for a photo. Voices grew louder. Discussion rose to argument. Finally, the reporter tapped the camera carrier on the shoulder, and in a flash they were gone.

Joseph steadied the mandala formed by his interlocked fingers, the great center mountain and the four islands of the four directions. He looked up at the altar and pondered the sharp right-angled arms of the swastika.

The woven cloth thangka held what the Kalmuck did not reveal and the reporter did not know, that an artist, one of the first, created the earliest swastika and revealed it to the world as the wild gander in its awesome and mysterious migration. In the appearance of motionless form this early artist captured an instant of the wild bird in flight. Yet, the form, at rest, vibrated a paradox, in a sweep—the constant of change.

The world mandala in Joseph’s hands remained at rest while he stared at the swastika. Suddenly, Joseph imagined features growing the holy horror.

Then he blinked. The swastika remained still, movement captured in an instant at rest.

At the end of “The Jewel,” the book’s last chapter, page 218, “Four geese lighted upon the lake, having flown from long ago through a dark night.” So ends their flight. And the book. A different take on age-old themes.

 

Passion’ Fairy Tale

The word novel may mean not known or experienced before—new. Jewels of Change moves rapidly. The first part, “Collage Dream Memories,” is sparse, tragic and taut, with a surreal ending, almost like a Greek tragedy. The second part, implied by its title, is a fairy tale, yet comes at reality from a different perspective, both tongue-in-cheek, paradoxical, with a sense of “the lie to the truth,” as Picasso said of art. The third part, while a skeptic’s spiritual journey, is also a path to a new understanding where compassion and love triumphs over the skeptic’s logic.

The structure of the novel lays down the form for the entire work, of which the reader may not be aware. In the beginning, the quote of five lines from the Vajracchedika (Diamond Cutter), a Buddhist text which is quoted on page 16 here, is the essence of the book. In fact, each of the elements mentioned—i.e., lamp, dew, etc.—are scattered in the text. The three parts’ titles and chapter names foretell events that follow in the chapter or part. For example, “Collage Dream Memories” set time in non-linear sequences for effect, such as presentments, flashbacks, and incidents where readers know what characters do not. If I were a painter and only had three colors to describe this book, it would be black, red, and yellow—the progression through each part from death, to life’s passions, to spirit.

Part II, “Passion’s Fairy Tale,” recalls the past as a disappearance of Joseph’s wife and retrieval of time lost. In Part I the flashback is first encountered as the character Joseph enters a pool and is pulled by his aunt from bath water some half century before and enters a birth into another world. As a fairy tale enchants, so too does Part II attempt to create a spell which draws the reader into the fairy tale that is passion. At the same time disappearance becomes the trigger of retrieval, an erotic flashback beginning the stream of time which is the past. The dreams which begin Parts I and II are of death and disappearance, respectively. Is there a connection? An old friend, whom I know for half a century, at a recent dinner party brought home the connection. At one point in the conversation we were talking about friends and family who had died. Over a half century there were many deaths for us both. He suddenly turned to me as if startled by a revelation and said in astonishment, “But where do they go?” His eyes were wide in disbelief. In a certain sense, only understood perhaps with age and much experience (he is 76, a year older than I), we will all disappear from the eyes of all who remain.

In the center of Part II and the book itself is the chapter “Chiaroscuro,” from the Italian “bright-dark.” The chapter is visual, atmospheric, and, as conceived, divides the book between these two forces. After the darkness of death and into the battleground of passion, there was hope, a triumph of light. Joseph and Victoria’s vignettes personify this battle, the first part with Joseph’s disappointments and irony and Victoria’s frivolous interludes which nevertheless move toward light as the very last word in that chapter suggests—”Victoria,” a signal that she has once again returned to herself after playing the role of Aphrodite in playful, provocative ways suggesting a movement toward harmony and light.

Yet, this tale of passion forms attachment and is due for a fall; disillusion overtakes the couple in Part II’s last chapter, “Across the River Styx.” In the previous chapter, “Harmony’s Conflict,” there is a section where Joseph beckons Victoria and playfully suggest that she, the devil’s mistress, enter his world, a Dante’s Inferno set with playful enticement. Neither knew how Dante’s famous line—Abandon every hope, you who enter here

…and how often is it we enter a portal, a door, or path that brings us to the unexpected and the unknown?

Excerpt from “Passion’s Fairy Tale, “ “Harmony’s Conflict”:

She walked on the dirt road past rows of tall hedges out to the street. When she arrived in front of the house, she stopped at the rose trellis where rushed an outpouring of sweet odors.

Trillia’s apartment was dark. A light glowed from the third floor window brighter on this north side.

She saw Carlos, who lived on the first floor, staring at her, his cigarette burning a red glow in the dark. She knew he loved her. He told her one night when she came down the stairs alone. That night she smiled gently, his kiss a brother’s.

“Hello,” he said as she walked toward the door. “Reminds me of nights in Cuba. Beautiful. It really is. Like you.” He reached out, and their hands touched. She stopped briefly.

“I’ll see you, Carlos,” she said and went through the open door. Trillia’s light shined at the top of the stairs, and Victoria walked to the second landing past Trillia’s closed door. The apartment door to the third floor opened to the entranceway. She stopped.

“Who dares enter here?” A voice shot down the stairs.

“Who do you want?”

“The devil’s mistress.”

Victoria smiled. Above the door she saw a large piece of oaktag, a lintel, and, along both sides, two long pieces, beams. The oaktag formed a portal through which she must walk to ascend the stairs.

In a bold print, words appeared obscured in dim light:

Once every thousand years, cloven footed,

horns of able thrust, Satan

returns to desert earth, having

left his palaces of fire beneath

Jerusalem and the River Styx.

He beckons with curled finger his

waiting mistress and speaks his only words,

Abandon every hope, you who enter here.

Through the portal, the devil’s mistress saw the source of an immense glow, an endless shower of soft yellow light. At the top of the stairs stood a tall, white wax candle. Long lines of white in rolling beads and streams dripped and flowed from its hot, burning tip.

“Oh!” the mistress said aloud, “your candle looks so hot.”

She could hear the devil’s laugh, “Because it is.”

She closed the door behind her and latched it.

She walked up the stairs. To the side of the candle, the devil lowered a large bowled glass filled with rose.

“From Ironbound,” the devil said, “birthplace of the devil’s desire.”

She took the glass lightly from his hands, looked through the bottom of it, and saw the surface silver-red and burning. “Be careful, devil,” she gently chided. “You’re making the wine burn.”

“It’s hell’s firewater,” he said.

“What will it do?”

“Part the waters in the Sea of Galilee.”

An improbable conversation

Jewels of Change

Stars, darkness, a lamp,

a phantom, dew, a bubble;

and a cloud:

Thus should we look upon

the world.

                                                                                    —Vajracchedika, 31 and 32


 

An improbable conversation between Joseph Prigione, a character in an obscure modern novel, Jewels of Change, and Lord Byron, Romantic hero-poet of his time, dead for 200 years.

 

Lord Byron: So, sir, never heard of you. You say you have a question. The only thing more obscure than you is your book. But go ahead, in your century I am as obscure as you, and I have an eternity to reply. Take your time.

Joseph Prigione: I’m honored. You see. I’m in need of a door.

Lord Byron: Are you such a fool? You need a carpenter. I have never touched a nail, except the ones on my fingers.

Joseph Prigione: Well. I’m talking about a portal then.

Lord Byron: Ah. Why didn’t you say so? And to what?

Joseph Prigione: To Part I of my obscure novel, as you put it. I need an entranceway, a kind of introduction so that readers might know what better to expect.

Lord Byron: And what is it you want me to introduce?

Joseph Prigione: Something that neither I nor anyone who reads this truly know. But you have much experience in it. At least 200 years.

Lord Byron: So darkness will be my portal for your readers.

Of death I know well,

Darkness its best door.

I

Collage Dream

Memories

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.

The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars

Did wander darkling in eternal space.

                                                                                    —Lord Byron, “Darkness”


 

An Excerpt from Part I, “Collage Dream Memories,” Chapter 2, “Book of Terrors”

It was the morning of the funeral.

At 5:30, not yet dawn, the phone rang. Joseph struggled to get out of bed. He made his way past the open bedroom door where a light slightly illuminated the way.

In a few short steps, he was at the foot of the bed. With his right hand he groped behind the door and reached for the phone on the small oak table. By the time he picked it up, it had rung several times.

“Joseph. It’s Julia.”

“How are you?” Joseph asked, trying to sound alert, forcing false joy into a tired voice.

“Joseph,” Julia said, her voice cracking. “Something terrible has happened.”

Joseph froze. Not a sound.

Then he felt something odd, off kilter. He heard as much in the sounds of her voice when he first answered, but sleep disguised its form.

It leaped out at him, dark, savage. He did not know what. But something was there, something behind a wall. The whole thing was rising, immense, powerful. It was in Julia’s voice.

“What?” Joseph asked. His every muscle, every sense poised. All of him focused on her voice. Then he pushed the words out of his mouth, and he could hear the spaces between the sounds of syllables. “Tell … me … Julia.” He heard a great movement coming toward him. “Tell me what’s happened.”

He could not hold it back. It came out. His words called it.

His father’s face faded. Could that be? No. This was different. He could feel it.

The wall cracked. Something powerful was coming through that no one on earth could stop. This thing was formless, timeless, eyeless, toothless, without nail or claw, voiceless, without odor. Silently it moved, faceless.

Julia carried it from far away. He heard as if she stood next to him. Then he heard words in tears never spoken before.

“Emil! Emil’s dead!”

Her tears flooded his. He gripped the phone, strangled, then bashed the plastic form.

It was not too late. It was not too late. He would stop it. He could force the wall together. He would remake the rubble of stone. He would kill it. Leave it behind the wall. Where was his power? Who was he to hear this?

“What!” Not his voice. Another’s.

Victoria shot up. She sat on the bed. Now not a sound. She looked. Could not see for the dark.

“What! What are you telling me!” The voice cracked. The wall opened.

“Emil’s dead. He’s dead. Killed by a drunken driver!”

“By what! What! A drunk driver! A drunk! A drunk!”

It was before him.

“What happened!” Victoria screamed.

“Light!” Joseph shouted.

There was a struggle. Someone found the switch.

“What happened!”

“Emil! Emil’s dead. Killed last night. A drunk driver. He’s dead! He’s dead! My brother is dead!”

Words leaped from his mouth. The words were red, flowing. Something was covered with blood, but could not be seen.

Two frightened bodies, huddled in dawn, screamed Joseph’s brother onto the highway. Hurtling metal. Twisting light. Steel’s screams. The car over and over. Husband. Son. Father. Friend. Lover. Brother. One man … a body of blood.

It moved. Ears burst. A world ended … but why with no nail or claw, why was there so much blood?

and Joseph smelled the terror

and Joseph saw the terror

and Joseph ate the terror

it was the face of God

______________________________________________________________________________

Why I wrote this book

Why I wrote this book

In the summer of 1988 my father, a physician, was incapacitated with a stroke and placed in intensive care in the Newark, New Jersey hospital with which he was associated. His recovery appeared doubtful due to the severity of the stroke, his age, and previous strokes. My two brothers and myself constantly discussed what to do if our father were to die, particularly about our mother, who was an alcoholic, diagnosed with schizophrenia, and was aged and feeble.

Several days after my father’s hospitalization, a close cousin died of a sudden heart attack. My brothers and I then planned to tell our father of this sudden event. My middle brother, to whom I was very close, was on his way to a shore home to be with his wife and daughter the night before the funeral. It might have been midnight when his car was struck from the rear by a drunk driver. He was killed instantly. A few days after his burial I discovered that he had many dark secrets, among them alcoholism. At the time I was attending Rutgers University on a sabbatical for a second master’s degree. I left the program—Jewels of Change was born.

My wife had a dream in the early 80’s that had a Buddhist theme and rebirth story. Fascinated with it, I wrote it down and a decade later it became the dominant theme, a dream in the guise of reality, in Part III of the book, in the chapter “The Jewel.” This dream is alluded to in Part I, Chapter I, page 4. I knew Jewels of Change had to end with this dream and an allegory, a Buddhist lens through which to see the former sections of the book with a different understanding. The problem for me was how to go from page 4 to the end of the book and expand that dream from the first mention. There was one way and has to do with the geese on the cover, for the wild gander became a transformative agent and my guide throughout the book.

The geese begin their journey on the cover, and move through the entire book. On page 4, paragraph 8, they enter Part I in the following manner: “Far above, he heard their sounds—just her breaths, his, and the sounds of the geese. All flowed in another rhythm. He saw the geese move across the moon.” And again, the whole of paragraph 10, which I’ll quote in part: “…he felt the world not only as it is, but as if it were something else, weaving its ocean of story.” And so the events being told on one level move along on yet another plane, one that a wild gander takes on in its migration and will take the reader to the book’s end, where the “as if it were something else” appears in the weaving of the allegory—that is, all the events in the book summed up in a simple story told to innocent children of an orphanage in an Italian village outside of Rome.

The geese also appear on pages 59, 61, and perhaps hinted in the surreal ending on pages 63-65 of Part I. In “Passion’s Fairy Tale” the geese, transformed, as in the first instance, a duck symbolic of Joseph’s aloneness, a story-telling canary, and crows in a tree mocking the Prigione brothers arguing under an oak. In “Islands” (Part III) the wild gander is exposed and explained in terms of a swastika, a Sanskrit symbol meaning well-being, and in an early artist’s form of a stylized view of this wandering bird.

The next blog: An improbable conversation… Only if crocuses don’t peep out of earth thinking a bit of warm air means Spring along the ocean coast of New Jersey where Sandy left her deadly fingerprints.

Jewels of Change

JewelsIn this paradoxical three-part novel built on dreams, illusions, and reality, Joseph Prigione—whose name means prison in Italian—journeys to free himself from an existence of endless cells. A disruptive family and a brother’s death create the nighttime journey of part one.

But the disappearance of his wife, Victoria, and a dream of a beautiful woman in white lure Joseph to seek the origins of his relationship with Victoria before they were married. What ensues is an erotic fairy tale of passion and humor beginning in the Ironbound section of Newark and ending in a seaside New Jersey town where sex and power amount to disillusion. The couple is swept away to India and to a Tibetan monastery where special monks teach humorous lessons and shed light on Joseph’s unresolved past while giving Victoria a new path. Is there an island of peace where the face of love kisses the face of terror?

Victoria’s dream sweeps them into the truth of a once-fabled land where light and humor take them, not to the end, but to a pause—a book of death, life, and spirit. Jewels of Change tells the story of all of us who are prisoners of existence.