The Stranger from Paradise, A Biography of William Blake


Portrait of William Blake by Thomas Philips (1807).

G. E. Bentley Jr’s biography of William Blake, The Stranger from Paradise, follows the creative life of a promising young artist, whose genius and unconventional mindset, both fueled his art and hindered his career. It recounts the growing rift between Blake and the art world, the emergence of his unique style and his unsuccessful attempt to reach the public directly. The last section (before notes and bibliography) is less extensive, as if the biographer was in a hurry to conclude the progressively unhappy story. It skirts around Blake’s poverty and declining health, focusing on the artist finding contentment and on the emerging interest both in Blake’s visions and in his paintings. When the book ended, I wanted to read more.

It is hard to imagine the times when Blake’s poetry and paintings were not famous. In BBC’s 2002 poll, he was placed at number 38 of the 100 Greatest Britons. And yet, “The Annual Biography and Obituary for the year 1828” summarizes his lifework quite prosaically:

“BLAKE, Mr. William, Aug. 13, aged 68. This excellent but eccentric artist was a pupil of the engraver Basire; and among his earliest productions were eight beautiful plates in the Novelist’s Magazine. In 1793 he published in 12mo. “The Gates of Paradise,” a very small book for children containing fifteen plates of emblems, and “published by W. B. 13, Hercules Buildings, Lambeth;” also about the same time, “Songs of Experience, with Plates ;” “America, a Prophecy,” folio, and “Europe, a Prophecy, 1794,” folio. These are now become very scarce. In 1797 he commenced, in large folio, an edition of Young’s Night Thoughts, of which every page was a design; but only one number was published. In 1805 were produced in 8vo. Numbers, containing five engravings by Blake, some Ballads by Mr. Hayley, but which also were abruptly discontinued. Few persons of taste are unacquainted with the designs by Blake, engraved by Schiavonetti, as illustrations to a 4to. edition of Blair’s Grave. They are twelve in number, and an excellent portrait of Blake, from a picture by T. Philips, R. A. is prefixed. It was borne forth into the world on the warmest praises of all our prominent artists, Hoppner, Phillips, Stothard, Flaxman, Opie, Tresham, Westmacott, Beechey, Lawrence, West, Nollekens, Shee, Owen, Rossi, Thomson, Cosway, and Soane….”

The obituary goes on, not only to detail Blake’s paintings, but to inform that “Blake has been allowed to exist in a penury which most artists – beings necessarily of a sensitive temperament – would deem intolerable.” Concise and unaware of how future generations would view the artist’s achievements, it doesn’t tell how Blake gained such a wide approval from the major painters and sculptors of his time, nor hints as to why the artist could not find employment that would pay for his daily needs. Bentley’s biography fills these gaps. Without casting blame or forwarding simplistic answers, it presents facts and perceptions, a chronological journey through Blake’s religious and artistic beliefs. The readers are assumed to have some knowledge about the American and French revolutions, for the biographer focuses on the artist’s response to the events. Alongside the effects of the world-shattering drama, he portrays Blake’s growing struggles to advance himself in a profession that relied on patronage and connections, setbacks caused by melancholy, and the scare of the artist’s trial for sedition. Without taking sides, the biographer shows Blake’s strained relations with former friends who succeeded where he stumbled, his nonconformity while attempting to adapt his designs and engravings to the commercial necessities which he abhorred.

Nevertheless, The Stranger from Paradise isn’t told by an impartial scholar. Blake is depicted as a visionary with unbelievable naivete and uncompromising integrity, a workaholic idealist whose incredible talent was unscrupulously exploited by publishers. The chapter titled “I’m Hid” opens with “In the nine years from 1810 to 1818, Blake was largely hidden from the world, so much that some wondered if he was still alive.” The biography shows how despite taking the brunt of merciless commercialism, Blake’s art survived, even thrived. Reaching the last chapter of Blake’s life, it skims over his deteriorating health and the dire effects of a lack of commissions, dwelling instead on contemporaries’ speculations about his visions and sanity. Despite the subject, this is one of the most gratifying parts of the book. It sheds light on how Blake’s work emerged from former obscurity during his last years. Blake did not sink lower and lower financially and mentally, but found contentment in his work, which proceeded due to generosity of people, most of whom were not rich.

The biography reproduces samples of Blake’s paintings and engravings and quotes from his poems, without entering into discussions about his art. Thankfully, professor Bentley focused on unfolding Blake’s fascinating story, and did not distract his readers with discourses, analysis, criticism, symbolism and such. He concludes with:

And if we are wise, we may learn from his life, as from his poetry, to understand the ‘Auguries of Innocence’:

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour”


The Ancient of Days by William Blake

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Sophomore novel: to publish or not to publish

“Whether I’ll publish the story depends on whether others like it.”
Myself, January 2019.

I ended my last post prophesying that the decision about publishing the nearly complete manuscript would be based on my readers’ reaction to the story. This was not what happened. Instead, I collated more information about the current state of self-publishing, and then reevaluated my options. Here is what I’ve learned.

One of the oft-cited advantages of self-publishing is that it’s a low risk venture. Theoretically, it doesn’t cost money to a publish an e-book, and if no one sees or reads it (which is what usually happens if it doesn’t get any promotion), then there is no harm done putting it out there. Moreover, there is a chance that lightning will strike, and someone will discover and like a story by an unknown writer. The odds are negligible, but even if nobody will read it, the author has the satisfaction of knowing that they achieved their goal of writing a novel. And holding the printed book in one’s hands — well, it justifies some euphoria.

A deeper look into the realities of self-publishing reveals that the notion of “free” or even “cheap” is deceptive. Professional editing costs money, and so does the cover, and these are only the tip of the iceberg. The invisible part, which could stretch on and on and become a huge cost sink, is marketing. “Marketing is not an arcane art; it is a learnable skill based upon well-established and tested principles,” says Nickolas Erik in his “The Ultimate Guide to Book Marketing” (the entire guide can be found here). It also says that “Marketing is relatively simple if you regularly produce books that your target audience enjoys.” But what if the author cannot define a large pool of potential readers? Or if they write slowly and don’t have a backlist of novels to offer? Then, marketing is remarkably difficult.

As it sank in that launching a standalone novel would be a time-consuming and costly endeavor, I had three options how to proceed:

  1. Publish and see what happens.
  2. Give the novel to anyone who shows the slightest interest and find out whether there is an audience for the story.
  3. Put it aside and write something else.

The first two options are more or less what I did with my debut novel, which I published in early 2015. Back then, new releases had much better visibility than nowadays, and upon receiving a warm response from beta readers, I was eager to see my book published. Without much expectations to recoup what was invested in editing and the cover (and without paid promotions), I didn’t mind to offer free copies through Goodreads and LibraryThing. Lightning did not strike, and the general lack of interest stung a little. On the plus side, I received several reviews and some compliments from people who knew me in real life. Although the book never recouped the expenses, in terms of personal satisfaction it was a rewarding experience.

I completed my second novel in February 2019, and sent it to beta readers. They liked the story. The next step was to contact an editor, but having learned something from trying to find a genre for my debut, I gave some thought as to whom I should offer the newest story.
Formerly, Kboards’ Writers’ Cafe had been a trove of useful information. Regrettably, it had changed owners in 2018, and a consequent exodus of experienced authors left the forum with little activity and not much updated information. I received some answers about genres, beta readers and targeting audience, at the new forum, Writer Sanctum.

Another place to look for distilled information are recent e-books about self-publishing. David Gaughran‘s Strangers To Superfans: A Marketing Guide to the Reader Journey (published in 2018) taught me that launching a book without a marketing plan amounted to letting in sink into the internet abyss. A newer version (third edition) of Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should (published in January 2018) confirmed that the publishing world had transformed while I was struggling to write the story. After reading several blogs and newsletters, it became evident that what had started as a low-risk opportunity to find readers has become a pay-to-play business. There are too many entrepreneurs and companies making money off selling services to indie writers, and too many writers investing in marketing yet hardly selling any books. In this climate, hiring an editor before having a clear idea about my target audience seemed quite pointless.

So, my sophomore novel is still waiting, but not impatiently, for my characters know that I wrote their adventure to a happy ending, and that I started to write another story in their universe. The first novel took me almost a decade. The second took half of the time. By induction, I’m cautiously optimistic about completing this one in a couple of years.

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January is this time of the year…

It has been four years since I (self-)published my novel, Initial Conditions, in January 2015. I began writing a second, unrelated story, in the spring of that year. It progressed very little until NaNoWriMo in November. In January 2016, I read my 75K-words manuscript and could not understand what it was about. Several half-hearted attempts to salvage it resulted in six chapters, which I sent in January 2018 to a beta reader. The reader liked the premise, but gently made it clear that the execution did not deliver; the story was not engaging. A year later, I have nineteen chapters – an almost completed novel, except the last act. I don’t know yet if the story works for anyone beside myself, but, looking back, I can see the roadblocks that I wish I was warned about.

In hindsight, the ability to self-publish and the plethora of available resources for how to do it were a mixed blessing. It’s unlikely that I would have attempted to write the new story if self-publishing was not an option. On the other hand, bearing in mind imaginary “readers” and their expectations was a source of continuous frustration. I tried to shoehorn the story into genres – romance and science-fiction. It resisted the attempts, and pushed back, making the writing hard and so very slow.

Another problem was that of perception. Self-publishing has supposedly opened the floodgates, and the resulting deluge of books made the discovery of novels penned by unknown indie writers increasingly difficult. In theory, that should have little effect on my writing. The problem was that it changed the atmosphere. In 2014, when I first heard about self-publishing, the prevalent advice to beginners was to write what you want and then offer several people to read it. If they liked the story, you paid for professional editing, bought a genre-appropriate cover, uploaded the ebook and let it find its audience on Amazon. This is not the advice I see in the last couple of years. Nowadays aspiring authors are advised to start with identifying their goals. “Do you want to become a full-time writer? Be ready to hone your craft, set daily writing goals, and learn marketing techniques.” Add to that talent, motivation and perseverance, and the indie community might welcome you.

Hobbyists, on the other hand, are mostly dismissed as those who lack the qualities to become professional, and consequently their books, or at least their sales, suck. This prevailing attitude, whether it is true or not, rubs in. As far as I could tell, what distinguishes a professional writer and a hobbyist is a consistent production of books that find a paying audience. Listening to advice intended for professionals, I pushed myself to adhere to writing goals. I analyzed my story according to various recommended craft books. But my characters stared at me bewildered and uncooperative. I kept rewriting, adding to the word count without making the story better.

My last obstacle is also rooted in perception, this time perception that stems from the reactions of nearest and dearest. In my mind, these are the readers I want to draw into my story. When they are indifferent or bored, I tend to look differently at my characters. I try to make them more appealing, stronger, more sympathetic, until I lose the thread of the story.

Since January is a month of optimistic beginnings, I want to end my overview of what hindered my writing with a note about why it started progressing at a much faster pace. Eventually, it dawned on me that the changes in self-publishing are so fast that chasing fashions makes no sense for a hobbyist. I’m not a professional who writes stories on demand. I like the characters. We have been together through many ups and downs, and I want to see them reach the happy ending. When I write, I’m my own audience. Whether I’ll publish the story depends on whether others like it.

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Farewell to 2018

Visiting New York on one of last days of the year seemed like a good idea. An extravaganza of lights, food we like but don’t have anywhere near home, the hustle and bustle of a city known for its showmanship and endless variety. From a distance, Manhattan shone with promise – an amalgam of Greek Revivals and skyscrapers, an epicenter of creativity and magic – just being there was bound to cheer one up, to elevate the gloomy mood that clouded most of the year.

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I recalled these expectations several hours later, after half a day spent in the city. So far, New York did not disappoint. Everyone in our family found something they liked to eat at the Chelsea Market; my sons enjoyed browsing dead-tree books in a brick-and-mortar bookstore; I window-shopped, eyeing the lush, festive displays that one day would probably appear in an unfinished draft of my novel.

It felt good to imagine that we landed in a modern fairy-tale, but then, vacant spaces between the fanciest stores on 5th Avenue shouted that retail reality was not as glamorous as the dressed mannequins, and the prices of the gelato and the French-sounding pastries brought to mind how many home-cooked meals (or school lunches) each bite-size serving could buy.

My personal bubble burst while jostling for a space on a sidewalk on our way to see THE Christmas Tree (at the Rockefeller Center). I don’t know if there were hundreds or thousands of people there, but I felt that they all came to New York for the same purpose, to catch a piece of magic, a glimpse of something bright and shinny, and yet untarnished by revelations and scandals. And so we inched forward, crowded but determined to pass by the famous tree. There were too many people to come close and see the details, but it sparkled from afar, a symbol of continuity, of stability, and maybe a glimmer of hope for a better year.

Happy 2019 !

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mèþru’s Sokolataboureko, or chocolate wraps

Summertime is not the best time for baking, but mèþru’s chocolate wraps are quick to make and delicious to eat.

Reblogged: from Sokolataboureko, or chocolate wraps — mèþru’s word stuff

After making baklava a while back, I had some leftover frozen phyllo dough. Because it was a difficult recipe, I decided that it was a one time thing. I needed something else to do with the dough. I tried filling it with honey, but it burned. (I liked the taste, but burnt honey is not…

Ingredients:

  • 1 stick (100 g) unsalted butter
  • 200 g bittersweet chocolate bar
  • 8 sheets of a 9 x 14 inch phyllo dough roll

Steps:

  1. Melt the chocolate over boiling water
  2. Cut the butter into small cubes; add it to the chocolate
  3. Mix well and remove from heat
  4. Use a tablespoon to spread the sauce in a line about half an inch wide on top of two sheets of dough
  5. Gently fold the dough around the sauce. Be careful, as phyllo very easily breaks or tears with the slightest touch.
  6. Repeat 4-5 on the same sheet next to the rolled part. Repeat this step until the entirety of the two sheets are covered.
  7. Repeat 4-6 to create three more pieces. Cut the four pieces a necessary to fit them on the baking pan.
  8. Put all the pieces on a pan with parchment paper. Bake for 6-7 minutes 400 F/ 200 C.
  9. Give it a short time to cool and enjoy!

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Lighthearted takes on fiction and physics

Two comics by John Atkinson, thirst-editions and simplified-physics.

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Richard Feynman’s 100th birthday

Richard Feynman

“There are two types of genius. Ordinary geniuses do great things, but they leave you room to believe that you could do the same if only you worked hard enough. Then there are magicians, and you can have no idea how they do it. Feynman was a magician.”
Hands Bethe, Theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate.

Richard P. Feynman (May 11, 1918 – February 15, 1988) was an American theoretical physicist, a laureate of the Nobel Prize in Physics (1965) and inventor of Feynman diagrams, introduced in 1948 and still widely used today in studies of collisions and scattering of elementary particles.

Five particular achievements of Feynman were crucial to the development of modern physics (according to Encyclopedia Britannica):

First, and most important, is his work in correcting the inaccuracies of earlier formulations of quantum electrodynamics, the theory that explains the interactions between electromagnetic radiation (photons) and charged subatomic particles such as electrons and positrons (antielectrons).

Second, he introduced simple diagrams, now called Feynman diagrams, that are easily visualized graphic analogues of the complicated mathematical expressions needed to describe the behavior of systems of interacting particles. This work greatly simplified some of the calculations used to observe and predict such interactions.

Feynman diagram of electron-positron annihilation

Feynman provided a quantum-mechanical explanation for Lev D. Landau’s theory of superfluidity — i.e., the strange, frictionless behavior of liquid helium at temperatures near absolute zero.

Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann devised a theory that accounted for most of the phenomena associated with the weak force, which is the force at work in radioactive decay. Their theory, which turns on the asymmetrical “handedness” of particle spin, proved particularly fruitful in modern particle physics.

And finally, while working with experimenters at the Stanford Linear Accelerator on the scattering of high-energy electrons by protons, Feynman invented a theory of “partons,” or hypothetical hard particles inside the nucleus of the atom, that helped lead to the modern understanding of quarks.

Murray Gell-Mann was reported to grumble that Feynman “spent a great deal of time and energy generating anecdotes about himself.” One of my favorite Feynman anecdotes is titled “It Sounds Greek to Me!”, from the book Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman:

One time, in 1957, I went to a gravity conference at the University of North Carolina. I was supposed to be an expert in a different field who looks at gravity.
I landed at the airport a day late for the conference (I couldn’t make it the first day), and I went out to where the taxis were. I said to the dispatcher, “I’d like to go to the University of North Carolina.”
“Which one do you mean,” he said, “the State University of North Carolina at Raleigh, or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill?”
Needless to say, I hadn’t the slightest idea. “Where are they?” I asked, figuring that one must be near the other.
“One north of here, and the other is south of here, about the same distance.”
I had nothing with me that showed which one it was, and there was nobody else going to the conference a day late like I was.
That gave me an idea. “Listen,” I said to the dispatcher. “The main meeting began yesterday, so there were a whole lot of guys going to the meeting who must have come through here yesterday. Let me describe them to you: They would have their heads kind of in the air, and they would be talking to each other ,not paying attention to where they were going, saying things to each other, like ‘G-mu-nu. G-mu-nu.’”
His face lit up. “Ah, yes,” he said. “You mean Chapel Hill!”
He called the next taxi waiting in line. “Take this man to the university at Chapel Hill.”
“Thank you,” I said, and I went to the conference.

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