Writer’s Commentary – The Watch Thief Prologue / Chapter 1

Research and illness took their toll on schedules for The Watch Thief – the novelization of the remarkable life of Trebitsch Lincoln: adventurer, crook, spy, journalist, rector and the events and cities he lived in. You can read it here at https://andy-luke.com/watch-thief/

For a change I’m delivering two commentaries previously only available to Patreon $2-a-month subscribers.  Refresh yourself with the Prologue and Chapter One or dive straight in!

Hello, patrons. Thanks for reading the first shots in a story that’s sustained my interest for years, and my first regular wage in as long. The prologue begins with Ignacz’s father scrubbing up for church. I wanted to begin with physical contact. It’s a far way from the shaving scene beginning Joyce’s Ulysees (with that amazing image of crossed razors on top a mirror), but I think it works. Nathan and his family are Jewish Orthodox, I wanted to make that a special point, name the clothing exactly, so I found info on attire at UnitedWithIsrael.org and Mazorguide.com.

The Comedy Theatre of Budapest, aka The Vigszinhaz, was the big draw in expanding Budapest, but unfortunately it wasn’t built until 1897, the time of Chapter 1. So Ignacz was on his way to the Municipal Theatre. I wasn’t able to get an exact location but I was sure Paks, were Nathan’s family lived, was a journey that meant he’d cross one of the bridges over the Danube. The Municipal was old already, and small, though it was moneyed and elegant.

Austria-Hungary’s merger and dual monarchy was created in 1867. Budapest, rapidly expanding in the 1890s, was a finance and import capital. Magyar is the name Hungarians give themselves and the 1890s saw the nobility move there and bring more finance into the developments.

The prologue takes place on March 16th, according to Jens Malte Fischer, who recounts events at the performance of Lohengrin, in his book Gustav Mahler, by Yale University Press. I’m not sure if I got away with the Count Zichy reference, and to cast some exposition… Géza Zichy was the city commissioner with some suction in Arts and Culture but he was also part of the right-wing anti-foreigner attitude in government at the time. Mahler had been teaching, and serving as the principal conductor under a ten year contract since 1888, six years. He’d already been in line of sight from Budapest’s cultural conflict in the press a few times. When Zichy’s new role as Intendant was announced, Mahler understood many of his rights were curtailed and powers transferred. The cards were on the table. Mahler signed a new contract with the Hamburg Opera on the q.t. and knowing Zichy wanted him out, he approached him and a severance was offered. Mahler announced his resignation, but to the public it might have looked like Zichy shoved him, which would have happened eventually. I’ve no evidence to suggest Ignacz was there on the night of the Lohengrin riot, or attended Mahler’s classes, but he did try to fake his Drama School papers and sneaking into a theatre seems in his character.

Chapter 1

Nathan moved his family closer to the city. This occurs shortly after the prologue. He moved from “a solid barge transportation business to…high finance” (Wasserstein), and essentially playing the stock market, and lost it all. This is where we pick up, with Ignacz at Drama School, and all is not well.

Budapest Metro Line 1, still running, is the third oldest underground railway in the world, built 1894-1896. The other two were Tunel in Istanbul and City & South in London. Ignacz’s route along Andrassy Avenue has him in the direction of Hősök tere (Heroes’ Square), where there’s a monument to the men of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. His brothers, Lajos and Sandor, share their names with the two front-men, still well thought of, so it seemed safe to assume they were named in their honour.

When writing the graphic novel script for this, it took six years to settle on a good idea for the opening page. It began with a first panel family row, and six panels devoted to Ignacz’s starry-eyed hallucination during the mugging. There’s no record to Ignacz suffering hallucinations here or any eye condition. It just fit with the new metro lights, and the star vision I had in mind. I’ve hallucinated or seen silver ball floaters attributed to Ignacz, since, oh, my teenage years. Often after I’m beset by a coughing or sneezing fit, but at times with no corresponding origin point. My earliest memory that fits how they look is from a Primary School teacher who had a box of Mercury in her room and delighted us moving about the shimmering globules. Mercury is highly dangerous and toxic. Rather than live in dread of seeing my floaters I’ve long ascribed a good luck status to these, despite being not generally superstitious.

It was important I get right the culture of theatre and opera surrounding Ignacz at that time and I selected five operas performed in 1890s Budapest and read the liberetto scripts. These were Siegfried and (as noted) Das Rheingold, Eugene Onegin; Don Giovanni, Lohengrin and Tannhauser. I used a cut-up style with about ten lines from each then paired that down to a manageable size. The arrangement was more conscious than random. Das Rheingold’s tale of greed, lust and narcissism is a good thematic fit. Lohengrin is a classic heroes tale about nobility. I should mention Ignacz’s mother, Julie, was from nobility, though it didn’t seem to do her favours when business went bad. The story of Tannhauser fit with Ignacz’s art ambitions and want to travel. Don Giovanni mixes “comedy, tragedy and drama with the supernatural”, which covers all my basis and Giovanni and Ignacz have many similarities. It was uppermost in my mind.

Lohengrin is a heroes tale of political conflict, a story closer here to Mahler than Ignacz, though maybe not in Ignacz’s mind. I was offered the chance to watch Lohengrin with a rowdy group a few weeks ago, but sadly slept in. (We have a monthly Opera Club where we watch streaming content on a large screen, mainly from the excellent Opera Platform ) Eugene Onegin, the only opera from these I’ve seen performed, has little in relevance in story to Ignacz’s tale. It’s also the least interesting tale. Stick with Don Giovanni, or Das Rheingold. I have a list of which lines came from which operas but do you really want to know?

Oh, and we also get quotes from Clerks 2 and Forrest Gump, and I was aiming to place Quantum Leap’s ‘Oh Boy!”

A Note On Wasserstein

My research for Ignacz comes from many sources. Easily the most invaluable of these is Bernard Wasserstein’s The Secret Lives of Trebitsch Lincoln, from Penguin. Wasserstein’s version is a notably excellent piece of historical autobiography, drawing on solid research and it’s a riveting read. With this, which will rightfully be called an adaptation by some, I’ll be leaving out notable details, inventing others…Wasserstein delivers context but I aim to push this further, colour it in, include unsubstantiated reports Wasserstein firmly refutes.

I’ve amassed a large image archive and I’ll be reproducing some, though it looks like Patreon requires me to make separate posts.

Over on Patreon, Chapter 24 is nearly ready: the half-way point! You can read every chapter and commentary for The Watch Thief for just $2 U.S. for 30 days through Paypal, bank account, debit or credit card.

That’ll also get you e-comics, ‘We Shall Not Be Stapled’ by myself and ‘A Hand of Fingers’ by John Robbins. If there’s a rush on, or you sign up for $5 I’ll also unlock the artblog, the photo grids, process videos, poetry and short stories.

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