Action Please!

The ancients loved action in their stories, and above all violent conflict, which was the testing ground of heroes. Here’s Homer:

Then royal Aias in his turn launched his long-shadowed spear. The heavy weapon struck the round shield of Priam’s son. It pierced the gleaming shield, forced its way through the ornate cuirass, and pressing straight on, tore the tunic on Hector’s flank. But he had swerved, and so avoided death. And now the pair, when each had pulled his long spear out, fell on each other like flesh-eating lions, or like wild boars, whose strength is not to be despised…

I was never able to enjoy these long epic action scenes. I skip to the dying words. But then at school I was taught to admire the likes of Joyce and Woolf, who include so little violent action in their works. As Joyce’s friend Frank Budgen explained, the author of Ulysses believed that “How a man ties his shoelaces or how he eats his egg will give a better clue to his differentiation than how he goes forth to war … Cutting bread displays character better than cutting throats. Neither homicide nor suicide can be as characteristic as the sit of a hat.”
It’s hard not to sense here a distaste not only for violent action in fiction, but in life too, an understandable, intelligent distaste, especially, coming as it did, after the first world war. It is a distaste shared no doubt by the sedentary standard bearers of the lit-crit industry, who have generally tended to be suspicious of books with extended representations of violent action.
Yet however much you might prefer Ulysses to Braveheart book-of-the-film, or Homer’s epic fight scenes for that matter, you can’t help feeling that Joyce was wrong about character and action, that actually the way a man goes to war or becomes involved in violent action is of far more interest to us than the sit of his hat or his handling of an egg-spoon. Nor, if it’s consciousness we’re interested in, does anything set the mind in motion like a moment of real physical action, the tremendous reminder of our fragile physical existence in the world. Imagine Bloom shouldering a rifle.
A decade or so after Ulysses was published, Orwell, Laurie Lee et al did, of course, pick up their guns to fight the fascists in Spain. Representations of action and conflict returned to serious fiction on a wave of guilt as the intellectual hurried down from Parnassus to stand guard against the horrors of totalitarianism.
But it was important now that there be none of the celebration of conflict we find in pre-modern narrative. Violence now must be described but not, or not in serious books, enjoyed. And, as these writers always insisted, perhaps too earnestly, there was no heroism involved.
Here’s a moment from Cesare Pavese, contemporary of Orwell and Italian translator of Joyce. In his masterpiece The House on the Hill (1949) a schoolteacher in Turin is a committed anti-fascist, yet finds himself unable to join his partisan friends in the armed struggle. Obliged to flee to the country, he is overtaken by a truck full of fascists, which is then ambushed by partisans:

There was a real explosion, very near, at the head of the road. Machine-gun bursts and an explosion. Then howls, more firing. The motors had stopped. The air was singing with the sad whine of bullets.

When it is over the schoolteacher presses on and arrives at the scene of the slaughter:

One soldier – grey-green uniform – had fallen on his face with his feet still on the truck. Blood and brains spilled from beneath his cheek.

To reach his destination, Pavese’s “hero” would have to step over the corpse, but he can’t do it. He is fascinated by the body, by the violence, by the idea of being engaged in life, but at the same time he finds it ugly, horrifying. He turns and flees.
Unused as he is to physical conflict, yet condemned to watching it daily on his television, contemporary western man is constantly reminded that he is uninitiated into extreme experience. He’s simultaneously afraid of violent action and urgently attracted to it. He would like an opportunity for heroism, or just brutality, but he does not want to be anyone’s fool.
No doubt it’s because of this attraction that the serious moral approach of writers like Orwell rapidly degenerated into a story industry that manufactures villainous dictators exclusively for the vicarious pleasure of watching our hero kill any number of anonymous enemies.
But there are more positive approaches to action in literature. Distant as chalk and cheese stylistically, Lawrence and Hemingway were both attracted to violent action as a necessary form of initiation, if not heroism. Lawrence, a pacifist, looked for conflict everywhere but war. In Women in Love, it is only through a wrestling match (naked!) with his friend Gerald that Birkin can hope to reintegrate intellect, body and nature. For Hemingway, too, it is violent action in the natural landscape that returns man to a sense of his place in the world. And, years afterwards, or on the page, it is the memory of action that sets the mind racing. This is from The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1938):

It was snow too that fell all Christmas week that year up in the Gauertal … and they slept on mattresses filled with beech leaves, the time the deserter came with his feet bloody in the snow. He said the police were right behind him and they gave him woollen socks and held the gendarmes talking until the tracks had drifted over.
In Schrunz on Christmas day, the snow was so bright it hurt your eyes when you looked out from the Weinstube and saw everyone coming home from church. That was where they walked up the sleigh-smoothed urine-yellowed road along the river with the steep pine hills, skis heavy on the shoulder, and where they ran that great run down the glacier above the Madlener-haus, the snow as smooth to see as cake frosting and as light as powder and he remembered the noiseless rush the speed made as you dropped down like a bird.

What’s intriguing here is the shift – in a single passage – from involvement in political action (the deserter) to whole-hearted pleasure in an essentially meaningless, non-political, but equally “epic” action: the ski-run. Hemingway points the way to a different and peculiarly modern form of heroism, far removed from the ugliness of battle. Mountaineering, hang-gliding, parachuting, canyoning – these challenges return the modern middle classes to the realm of risk and heroic action but in a way strangely and perhaps perversely uncoupled from either private or public commitment. Here the opportunity to exhibit courage is to be found in abundance, but always with the slight frustration that despite the adrenaline and the self-esteem that comes with mastering fear, something is missing; we are not searching for WMDs or returning a country to democracy or even exploring the extremities of the globe. There is not even any pretence of exploration or discovery.
Product of a domesticated and disillusioned world, extreme-sports man yearns for the moment when his adventures will push him to the brink, when it will all become real. One need only read (or watch) Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void, about a mountaineering expedition that became a terrifying ordeal, to appreciate all the ambiguities here. Having survived, Simpson is clearly not unhappy that things went so badly wrong; he learned so much about himself. At the same time, the expedition remains completely cut off from any larger concerns, in a way meaningless, and hence a curious sadness hangs over it.
About seven or eight years ago, more or less by accident, I found myself getting involved in canoeing and then white-water kayaking. Apart from a quite unexpected fascination for the water, the rapids, I was struck by the different ways other people related to the adventure and used it in the economy of their ordinary lives, to impress a parent, compensate for an inadequacy, put off a crucial decision. Above all, among the most adventurous, there is that characteristic frustration that in other circumstances their courage might have gone into more useful adventures. A little nervously, I decided to make my own small contribution to the novel of action and heroism with a story about a kayak trip in the Tyrolese Alps, a man who yearns that his expertise on the water might be matched by some decisive contribution to world politics, and a girlfriend who pays the price for that.
Of course, no sooner have you begun to write action than the larger reflections fall away and you’re faced with the technical problem: how can I evoke this experience in a way that will keep the reader glued to the page? Maybe the key rule is to be … mindful. That is, it is the character’s mental response to the action, not the action itself, that generates the tension. Whether I’ve succeeded or not remains to be seen. In any event, here, from the first page, is how a rapid presents itself to our hero’s girlfriend, the young and beautiful Michela:

Suddenly alone, the river’s horizon comes to meet you. There’s a certain glassiness to it and as the roar swells the water grows more compact, it pulls more earnestly. The mountains around and above are quite still. Already you are past the point of no return. You must choose your spot. Michela knows the right place, slightly left of centre. But just before the plunge, she sees it has changed in their week away. The river is constantly changing. A rock is gone under. A heavy log has caught in the larger boil of the stopper. At the last second she tries to change her line. It’s a mistake. The surface is already curving down. The pull is fierce […] Not quite in line with the current, the kayak is sucked abruptly back into the stopper, sideways to the flood. For a second the young woman allows the elements to take over. A moment’s inattention is more than enough. The water pounds on the spraydeck, forcing her head down into the rush. Her helmet bangs on the log. The red kayak spins. Her face is under now, in the foam. Again the helmet grates. But Michela is calm and lucid. She is always calm when it actually happens, when she’s gone below and the world is blurred and swirling dark.

Another possible technique with action sequences is to interrupt them at a critical moment …