In praise of beautiful writing

Such an obvious thing and so easy to overlook: stories and books are composed of words so it’s the words that matter most. In these days of unreliable heroines, bodies eviscerated in infinitely revolting ways, and rush-to-the-finish plots, what a refreshing pleasure it is to be greeted by an author who won’t let you pass on by without stopping to admire her words. And having paused, you find yourself re-reading and reciting them to benefit fully from the careful cadences.

25064563This week I’ve been reading Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs. I haven’t finished it yet, I’m not even half way through. I’m on a walking tour through musical Irish prose and I’m in no hurry for it to end. The plot is important, she makes that quite clear, and so far it has included many different ideas as well as events, with first hints and then revelations of domestic betrayals and terrible, true war crimes. But I’ll consider the plot as a whole when I reach the end. For now I’m lingering in the language.

Note: I started writing this when I’d read about a hundred pages. I read some more this morning, and O’Brien has jolted me back into the plot with a twist more shocking than I’d anticipated. Interestingly, now I’m propelled by events, I’m not finding the language so engaging. Nonetheless for those hundred pages I was enraptured by words as mesmerising as waves breaking onto the shore. Since they’re what I set out to look at, they’re what I’ll continue with for now.

Some of her language is poetic; these lines occur within just four pages:

“Clouds chased each other across the heavens that bright afternoon, when she drove into the hotel car park. It was much further south and the air was balmy. Yes, clouds on a great maraud, up there staging a tournament.”

“…she heard the lilts and hollers of children.”

“From the slant of the hall light she saw the spray of rain on his hair…”

Some is indirect speech, rhythms and phrases caught in the present tense like pinned butterflies:

“Sister Bonaventure is lost for words and also worried about the palpitations. She can hardly believe it. A surprise party and she thinking she was going to the chapel to say the rosary.”

Some is fierce: “As for the bodies, that was a matter for the engineers, hence the zillions of secret graves that litter our land.”

“He is all alone (…) with the frozen lostness of the abandoned.”

Such care taken: active  “clouds on a great maraud” where most would settle for “marauding clouds”; an “also” added to Sister Bonaventure’s worries, mirroring her speech and also echoing the sounds of the word “lost” that preceded it; “zillions” – I thought, is zillions a real number? Is it childhood slang for a massive uncountable amount beyond thinking and reason? Juxtapose “zillions” with engineering projects to create “secret graves” and you see how naivete and carelessness, attractive attributes in childhood, can lead adults to genocide. I’m still only a couple of pages further on, and the pickings are rich. Yes, words on a great maraud, staging a festival between the covers.

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See “Country Girl” for O’Brien’s own account of her writing and her life.

I don’t have the patience to take such care crafting my own prose. I didn’t start writing, like Edna O’Brien, in my late teens and I haven’t nearly reached my late eighties, and even if I’d had her time, it’s unlikely I’d have developed her skill. I do try to write well. I try to construct clear sentences, of varying length for interest, with one appropriate word instead of a blitz of six. I try to make them lead on from the one before, without unnecessary length or repetition or cliché. Unlike O’Brien, I haven’t spent a lifetime listening, adapting, honing and polishing, consorting with Marianne Faithful and Marlon Brando and undergoing therapy with R D Laing, interviewing terrorists and piling up literary prizes in the bulging trophy cupboard. Nonetheless, I – we all – can learn from her.

In this matter of cadence, what makes a beautiful sentence? For O’Brien, her Irish heritage provides a sound (in all senses of the word) foundation. “Lilting Irish” is a cliché, but clichés only come into being because they are true. So much Irish prose, poetry  and song does lilt – but lilting implies lulling and Irish writers inevitably go on to pack in a shock. Think of Yeats’ first lines: “Although I’d lie lapped up in linen”; “I think it better that in times like these”; “On the grey sand beside the shallow stream” – then look up what comes after. Think of Beckett, Molly Keane, Toibin, Boyne, Anne Enright…no, I’ll think of them for another post, on Irish writing, another time.

The Irish are front runners but often the language of a title signposts a book from elsewhere whose language will stop you in your tracks: “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller” (Italo Calvino), (as beguiling in translation as in Italian); “After Leaving Mr MacKenzie” (Jean Rhys)“If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things” (John MacGregor); “By Grand Central Station I Sat  Down and Wept” (Elizabeth Smart). Note the first words of each of these…or the effect could be gained from something as small as a comma: “Cry, the Beloved Country” (Alan Paton). These elegiac titles precede lyrical prose, while economical, clean, precise writing may be heralded by a single powerful word: Persuasion (Jane Austen); Futility (William Gerhardie); Atonement (Ian McKewan).

 

Exposure (Helen Dunmore), which I reviewed here, also has a one-word title announcing gleaming prose. Dunmore is of course a poet as well as a novelist, her words as thoughtfully arranged, selected and refused as in her verse – test any page by reading a paragraph aloud. Another of my favourite writers, Julian Barnes, has written extensively of his debt to Gustave Flaubert. 10746542Nobody took more care with prose than Flaubert, who would spend weeks on a single sentence and coined the term “le mot juste” which ecompasses infinitely more meaning than the translation, “the right word”. In my review of The Noise of Time, I discuss how Barnes uses language to make the reader stop, and think.  Incidentally (but perhaps it’s not incidental) good prose can be more successfully re imagined in other media: the recent film of Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is concise, clear, meaningful, allowing the reader/viewer space for reflection, as are the successful film versions of McEwan’s novels.

This was a small reflection on words. I could go on, but I’d like to hear examples that you have found beautiful, and we can take a moment to share them. Perhaps as well as the words themselves, space, and silence – the spaces between words, the sounds between the notes – are what make these works so special. I think I’ll look at that next time.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

For Eggheads in search of answers…

Eggs 5

Oh dear! People said my Easter Eggheads Book Quiz was too hard! I didn’t mean to scramble anyone’s brains. Here are the answers, so you can pretend you knew them all along and pass on the pain to your friends:

  1. Who printed a story in which a “good wyf” from Southern England thought a merchant from the North was speaking French, because he asked for eggys which she knew as eyren?  The clue was in the verb, to print. The printer was William Caxton in 1490, and he tells the story to illustrate the (unchanged) difficulties of a proofreader and typesetter, in his prologue to the Eneydes (Virgil’s Aenid). This had already been translated from Latin to French and he was now printing an English version. Actually I found the reference on a post about Shrove Tuesday, here.
  2. 41kgazntxvl-_sx307_bo1204203200_Who shouted “What, you egg! […] Young fry of treachery!” and what is he doing to whom as he shouts it? […] is the moment in Act 4, scene 2 of Macbeth when the first murderer stabs Lady MacDuff’s son. The murderer calls the young boy “you egg” to show he represents the next generation.
  3. Which Shakespearean hero shares his name with a famous egg dish? This is Benedict (aka Benedick), from Much Ado About Nothing. Eggs Benedict is an American dish invented by a Wall Street broker, and has absolutely nothing ado with Shakespeare. 
  4. Who rode westward on Good Friday 1613? Good Friday, 1613. Riding westward is a poem by the metaphysical poet John Donne. It begins: Let mans Soule be a Spheare… I didn’t know this poem either until I found the reference in an excellent Guardian article about Easter in Literature.
  5. 406373Who met Mephistopheles during an Easter walk with his friend Wagner? Goethe’s hero Faust was out walking at Easter with his friend Wagner, when they met a poodle who followed them home and turned out to be the devil in disguise. Faust then made a famous pact with him. Faust was first published in 1808, so if you were thinking of a more famous Wagner, the composer Richard, I’m afraid that was a red herring – he wasn’t born until 1813. But the moral of the story is, take care around poodles.
  6. At the beginning of which children’s story from 1854 is the King of Paflagonia so absorbed in a letter from the King of Crim Tartary “that he allows his eggs to get cold, and leaves his august muffins untasted“? This is the delightful The Rose and the Ring: a Fireside pantomime, by W M Thackeray. Politically incorrect fun still, as old Countess Gruffanuff falls for young Prince Giglio. Thackeray’s illustrations are very funny too.  612b231allql-_sl500_sx319_bo1204203200_
  7. Which Victorian artist was described by his friend Charles Dickens as “sweet-tempered, humorous, conscientious, thoroughly good, and thoroughly beloved“? Who other than the pre-Raphaelite painter Augustus Leopold Egg, whose name I had wrongly remembered as a character in a Dickens novel.
  8. What was the name of Raffles’ sidekick? Bunny” Manders is Watson to Raffle’s Holmes in the series of novels by Victorian writer E W Hornung. No, I haven’t read them either.
  9. Who told Alice in Wonderland “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean“? Humpty Dumpty, when she met him sitting on a wall, in Alice through the Looking Glass. They argue about it and he cracks first.83346
  10. Which decadent hero lived in West Egg? Jay Gatsby, from Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. West (and East) Egg are fictional settlements of nouveaux riches and old money, based on similar places in Long Island. 
  11. Which seminal moment in Irish history forms the subject matter for Sean O’Casey’s play The Plough and the StarsThe Easter Uprising against the British took place in Dublin in April 1916. 15 Irish nationalists identified as leaders were afterwards executed at Kilmainham Jail. Whether they are described as traitors or heroes depends very much which historical or literary account you read.
  12. 18076Who “came down to breakfast one morning, lifted the first cover he saw, said ‘Eggs! Eggs! Eggs! Damn all eggs!’ in an overwrought sort of voice, and instantly legged it for France, never to return to the bosom of his family?” This was Lord Worplesdon, described in Jeeves Takes Charge by P G  Wodehouse. You could read it, or watch the BBC series where Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie acted Jeeves and Wooster just spiffingly.
  13. In which novel by Agatha Christie is there a character called Egg? Hermione Lytton Gore is nicknamed and always referred to as “Egg” in Three Act Tragedy, a Christie novel of 1934. There’s always another Christie novel you haven’t read…
  14. 4025Who liked “a speckled brown egg from a French Marans hen, boiled for exactly three and a third minutes” for breakfast? This is James Bond, described in From Russia with Love. My source was another Guardian article, on breakfasts in literature
  15. Which very sad black comedy originally starred Albert Finney and has been revived since with Clive Owen, Eddie Izzard and Miriam Margolyes among others in its cast? The original play was A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, by Peter Nichols in 1967, about the daily routines of parents with a very severely disabled daughter.
  16. When could you next hope to see the Oberammergau Passion Play? It’s only performed every ten years, and the next one will be in 2020.
  17. What colour were Sam-I-am’s eggs? Green! Read Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss to find out if Sam-I-Am ever does persuade the child to eat them.51n595qwkol-_sx360_bo1204203200_
  18. Who wrote the original story and script for “The Long Good Friday”? This 1980 gangster movie was scripted from his own screenplay by Barrie Keefe.
  19. What hatched at the beginning of a story from an egg lying on a moonlit leaf? Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar, going strong since 1969.  I couldn’t quote the first page exactly as it would be too high a percentage of the entire text to pass without copyright infringement, but most parents and teachers should have recognised this. The first bedtime story I ever read to my babies, I’ve also taught it at evening classes for adults in French and Spanish. They tell me it did wonders for their fruit shopping vocabulary.4948
  20. Who made the assorted sweets from which if you were very unlucky, you might pick out a rotten egg flavoured one? This was one of the less sought after flavours of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, which you could buy in  sweet shops frequented by Harry Potter and his fellow Hogwartians.

A question some of you may have found easier: Which Bennet sister visited Rosings on “Easter-day” and was told by Lady Catherine de Burgh that she would never play the piano really well?

A question I completely forgot to ask, which would have brought my quiz more up to date: Which depressed egg is a Japanese cartoon Superhero?

Do let me know if you can think of any more. The deadline’s a week before Easter 2018, whenever that is.

Eggheads 4
Here’s another egg quote, from the Arden Dictionary of Shakespeare Quotations, compiled by jane Armstrong

©Jessica Norrie 2017

Easter Eggheads – a literary quiz

Eggs 7It’s Easter Bank Holiday so what better time for a quiz – questions are in rough chronological order of publication. I hope you’ll recognise our sacrifice here at Blogger Towers, where although our waistlines had decided against Easter eggs and Simnel cake we’ve now bought them purely for illustration purposes. I’ll post the answers next week, if anyone cares:

  1. Who printed a story in which a “good wyf” from Southern England thought a merchant from the North was speaking French, because he asked for eggys which she knew as eyren?
  2. Who shouts: “What, you egg! […] Young fry of treachery!” and what is he doing to whom as he shouts it?
  3. Which Shakespearean hero shares his name with a famous egg dish?
  4. Who rode westward on Good Friday 1613?
  5. Who met Mephistopheles when on an Easter walk with Wagner?
  6. At the beginning of which children’s story from 1854 is the King of Paflagonia so absorbed in a letter from the King of Crim Tartary “that he allows his eggs to get cold, and leaves his august muffins untasted“?Eggs 4
  7. Which Victorian artist was described by his friend Charles Dickens as “sweet-tempered, humorous, conscientious, thoroughly good, and thoroughly beloved“?
  8. What was the name of Raffles’ sidekick?
  9. Who told Alice in Wonderland “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean“?
  10. Which decadent hero lived in West Egg?
  11. Which seminal moment in Irish history forms the subject matter for Sean O’Casey’s play “The Plough and the Stars”?
  12. Who “came down to breakfast one morning, lifted the first cover he saw, said ‘Eggs! Eggs! Eggs! Damn all eggs!’ in an overwrought sort of voice, and instantly legged it for France, never to return to the bosom of his family?”
  13. In which novel by Agatha Christie is there a character called Egg?
  14. Who liked “a speckled brown egg from a French Marans hen, boiled for exactly three and a third minutes” for breakfast?
  15. Which very sad black comedy originally starred Albert Finney and has been revived since with Clive Owen, Eddie Izzard and Miriam Margoyles among others in its cast?
  16. When could you next hope to see the Oberammergau Passion Play?
  17. What colour were Sam-I-am’s eggs?
  18. Who wrote the original story and script for “The Long Good Friday”?
  19. What hatched at the beginning of a story from an egg lying on a moonlit leaf?
  20. Who made the assorted sweets from which if you were very unlucky, you might pick out a rotten egg flavoured one?

Eggs 3

Happy Easter! Thank you to all those who commented on last week’s giveaways post. I’ve replied to the comments of the four who won a book or a critique. Please check your name there to see if you have won anything and how to claim it.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

Happy Blogiversary to me!

Blogiversay cake 2.3I didn’t know the word “blogiversary” existed last year, and now I’m having one myself! Strictly speaking my first post went up on April 9th 2016, but since then I’ve established a pattern of book and writing related blogging every Friday. This is the closest Friday, so I hope you’ll join my celebration by entering my draw for one of four giveaways:

510glyvrrdlGiveaways 1 & 2!

Two paperback copies of “The Infinity Pool” for the winners of those who comment below (UK only, for postage reasons, sorry).

 

Giveaway 3! This costs me nothing but time and I’m sure I’ll find it interesting. I’m offering a critique of a piece of writing up to 2000 words (open to writers worldwide but note my usage is UK.)

You could submit the opening  of a novel, a short story, an academic essay, a book review, a blog post, a presentation text, a persuasive letter, a memoir – whatever you like. I’ll comment on coherence, structure, readability, style and content (unless it’s academic or technical). I’ll check grammar, usage, punctuation, and spelling. I’ll do this using the tracking programme in Word. It doesn’t have to be something you’ve written already, any time in the next 12 months will do. (I aim to get these critiques done by email within a month of receiving your writing, and I reserve the right not to enter into further discussion afterwards unless we both want to.)

Giveaway 4! I’m offering a similar critique of a piece of writing up to 1000 words.

Blogiversary cake 1.1

What are my credentials? Well, I studied European Literature at Sussex University. As a teacher I marked work  – all ages, right across the curriculum – for 33 years! I wrote articles back in the day for DC Thompson magazines, and I’m a qualified translator. I’ve written successful academic essays and dissertations, and many papers, reports and policies for my teacher training work. I’ve published a novel and a textbook for primary schools. I write this blog, if you want to explore my own writing style further, and I’m working on a second novel.

For Giveaways 1,2,3 and 4 please comment below to win. Please state in your comment whether you’d like the book (UK only) or one of the writing critiques (anywhere). Please comment before midday (UK!) on Friday 14th 2017.

Also – a near Giveaway!The Infinity Pool ebook is on a countdown deal on Amazon UK and US, from Saturday (midnight UK) for 7 days to midnight (UK) on Friday 14th. Your chance to read (and review please?) for only 99p or whatever they decide is the equivalent across the pond.

anniversary-2x

So – the blog’s a year old, I’ve written nearly 60 weekly/occasional posts or around 60,000 words, and three weeks ago I was nominated for a Blogger Recognition Award! I’ve saved it for today’s celebration. The lovely blogger who nominated me is Marlena at Fabulous Fusions, who I found when I was researching Punjabi customs for the novel I’m writing at present. She’s in a mixed race marriage with a multilingual child and after my career teaching such families I want to celebrate them as much as she does. I found useful information on her site but also much more – diversity, connectivity, tolerance, open mindedness, the future – everything the UK so badly needs right now. It’s typical of her generosity that she nominated me for my first award. Do visit her blog for yourselves.

Below is the award in the form she gave me (top left), and some of the other forms I’ve found on Google. If someone holds the copyright, let me know! I have tried to find out…

It was appropriate Marlena’s award turned up so close to me completing my first year, as the questions you have to answer (if you decide to take part – nothing’s compulsory) lead you to reflect on why, what, how, who, when, etc. Here goes:

How and why did I start the blog? Kicking and screaming! I’d published The Infinity Pool in July 15 and it had sold quite well, but 10 months in interest was tailing off and I was finding social media time consuming, stressful and random. You have to blog to maintain interest and build an audience, said Amazon. You have to blog, said Goodreads. You have to blog, said Writers and Artists, and the Alliance of Independent Authors, and Books Go Social. Blogging is great, said Book Connectors. More social media, I thought. But maybe I could control the way I used it better if I held some of the cards.

I knew I didn’t want to concentrate on book reviews, because I like to choose what I read and read it at my own pace and I don’t always want to comment on it. I do like to write, but was disheartened: I’d started a few second novels and chucked them at around 10,000 words. I thought a blog might unblock me. Regular, shorter, less intense assignments, snacks rather than a three course dinner. Also, I have opinions and it struck me this was a way of recording them. So I stopped kicking and screaming, and began composing (and deleting).

tennis player 2How’s it going now? I was still teaching until July, and my highest viewings were around May and June for arguments against SATs (won that one this week, it seems!) and discussion of how children learn to read and write. A couple of posts on Shakespeare boosted my ratings, and my posts on a trip to Japan are still being shared 6 months later. I’ve written about narrative, via tennis, mosaics, and packing a suitcase; I’ve written about diversity in teaching, society, literature and my own writing; I’ve begged the UK not to leave Europe (lost that one!) I’ve discussed children’s books and feminist writing, writing in translation and songwriting and I’ve wrestled with the Three Edded Monster.

I take my hat off to those who blog every day. Once a week is more than enough for me. I love the writing part, and sourcing illustrations is really creative. Sometimes I draw them myself, which has revived a pastime I hadn’t tried for decades. Sometimes they involve bizarre montages. I can always think of something to write, even if occasionally an idea only occurs as my Friday deadline hits the letter d. I’ve built a modest audience, I’d like to see it increase but who’d have thought a year ago I’d have one at all?

In particular I’ve made online contact with some incredibly kind and generous people, who regularly comment, sometimes repost, and are always encouraging and interested. I know I don’t return this enough and can only plead lack of time, as the blog has done what I wanted it to do and unblocked the second novel, now well under way.

child writing edited

Advice to new bloggers

Take time to choose a theme, font size and colours that are clear to read. The biggest turn off for me is something I have to peer at to decipher.

Keep posts reasonably short and edit, edit, edit. Break up text with images.

Check copyright on images and words very carefully indeed before you use them. If you keep it original you’ll know you’re safe.

Respond to other bloggers who show an interest. They are the key to increasing your audience! And most of them have very interesting blogs too.

My nominations

I’m nominating these fellow bloggers for the Blogger Recognition Award. Most of the blog titles are self explanatory. I ‘ve tried for a selection of smaller and larger, individual and group blogs. I hope those I have included will be pleased, but if not, just ignore it! If anyone feels unjustly left out, please comment and I’ll link to you in a future post.

blogger-recognition-award1The Daily Annagram – occasionally offensive, always very funny. Anna takes no prisoners!

Crafting Your Novel  …as it says on the tin

blogger-recognition-awardThe Writers Newsletter…this tin says it all too

Pamreader  A book reviewer with more challenges than many

Bookalicious – books and travel from a travelling bookworm

Tanya Cliff: “The Quill That Shatters Glass”

thelearnify-3Books from Dusk till Dawn – see the tin!

Morgan Hazelwood:Writer in progress – as she says

Julie Proudfoot a helpful and stylish Australian writer

 

bloggerrecognitionawardBooksandbeyondreviews.com I especially enjoy his Friday Face Off series comparing different book covers

Cathyreadsbooks Has a number of different angles on working in the book trade, writing, and reading

Olga  Núñez Translator and writer

blogger_recognition_award_1025x853D.G.Kaye US author, traveller and blogger

Annabelle Franklin children’s author

Jude Lennon children’s author and one time classroom colleague of mine!

blogger-recognition-award-badge1Tina Frisco the most positive voice in the blogosphere

Brit Fic Posts by contemporary British authors

Oh dear, that’s 17. Never mind – do check out their blogs. All of them are different, yet all of them very interesting.

If you accept this nomination (you don’t have to):

  • Thank the blogger who nominated you and provide links to their blog.
  • Write a post to show you have the award and attach the logo to your post.
  • Write a brief story of how your blog started.
  • Give a piece of advice to new bloggers.
  • Select 15 other blogs you want to give the award to (I notice some people do fewer than 15, if that seems too many. I thought it was at first but look what happened!)
  • Comment on each blog and let them know you have nominated them. Please don’t be offended if they decide not to mention it on their blog or make any awards of their own as it is entirely up to them what they put on on their blogs and when, and your award may not fit with their plans.

Thank you Marlena one more time for my own nomination – I was very touched.

Congratulations to all new nominees!

Jessica

©Jessica Norrie 2017