Suspending disbelief – in a Nutshell

Ian McEwan’s Nutshell was on my Christmas list in 2016. In 2017 one of my own nutshells noticed and as soon as there was a lull after New Year, I cracked it open and relished every morsel.

I wrote here about adopting the point of view (POV) of someone quite different to oneself and referred to Nutshell as an audacious attempt which would require a writer of McEwan’s calibre to bring off. I think he succeeds. The story is told from inside his mother by an 8½ month foetus. Our hero’s name doesn’t appear to have been discussed yet (although there’s a clue in Uncle Claude and mum Trudy) so I’ll call him U for Unborn. Some practicalities are deftly dealt with: U expresses the readers’ doubts for them by explaining that he has a good command of language and ideas because he overhears his insomniac mother listen to so many podcasts. Anyone who’s spent a day with the randomness of Radio 4 will attest to the vocabulary building properties of such a pastime. He’s also a budding oenophile who can distinguish with appreciation between “a good burgundy (her favourite) and a good Sancerre (also her favourite) decanted through a healthy placenta”.

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I can’t see how this foetus will ever be a toddler, so sophisticated is his knowledge already, but as far as I know no one other than authors for toddlers (whom I applaud) has ever tried to write in a toddler’s voice. I’m currently trying to write in the voice of a bright seven year old and even that poses huge limitations on vocab and conceptual understanding. U can discuss the Middle East, modern warfare, the advantages of Norwegian tax arrangements, and he’s an accomplished poetry critic. He can provide a convincingly visual picture of his father’s “Georgian pile on boastful Hamilton Square”, market value included, but he can’t yet envisage the colour green, although it crops up frequently in his imagery. This may be because the men in Trudy’s life adore her green eyes, and McEwan makes it achingly clear that U loves his mother even through her many faults.

It’s true that young babies, especially before they learn to make much noise other than crying, can often look wise and reflective, fixing their stares, their expressions ciphers. They lose this as soon as they become mobile or verbal, so McEwan hedged his bets correctly in opting for an unborn.

U is going to need all his brains because he has unfortunate parents and his parents have unfortunate lovers. “Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose.” (Surely this generation would talk in centimetres?) Obviously U has little physical strength, but he does find he can manipulate the action of both the penis and the novel with a well timed kick. He has plenty of chances to practise; there’s a lot of sex. In this nutshell of a novel, under 200 pages, McEwan fits the universals of birth, love and death into a tight plot and timescale – there’s no spoiler in noting it’s all got to happen within four weeks at the maximum, before U is born either still or kicking. I apologise for insensitivity but the way his adults behave he should clearly have been on the “at risk” register since conception. “Anxiously, I finger my cord. It serves for worry beads.”

Anne Corlett's scan
34 weeks gestation, with thanks to Anne Corlett. See below for links to Anne’s writing.

Of course, we have all been foetuses, and who’s to say we don’t remember the experience? McEwan is drawing on universals here, and as far as one can tell he succeeds – Nutshell is an exciting, funny, violent, shocking read although curiously unemotional, and the audacity of the author makes him self-conscious: “All the sources agree, the house is filthy. Only clichés serve it well: peeling, crumbling, dilapidated.”

Through U’s eyes – no, through U’s hearing, taste and touch which are so far his most active senses – McEwan describes the piqued poet father and the slimy brother. He’s poignant and perceptive on the pathos of a pleading man no longer loved, and has fun with U’s irritation with Claude, for example his ponderous reading of a menu. The supporting roles – young woman poet, detective – are well evoked from within the stomach wall and McEwan plays with stereotypes: “The sergeant thinks she’s a stickler. Bound for promotion out of his league.”

But McEwan hasn’t been a pregnant woman, and he’s least successful with mother Trudy. I was able to suspend (almost) all disbelief and root for U all the way but this POV of a first time heavily pregnant woman was unbelievable and not in the way tennis players use the word as high praise. Surely no woman at 38 weeks could sink so much drink, endure bags of rotting rubbish in her own hallway or appear so oblivious to the limits on action imposed by her near confinement.

Otherwise, a brilliant book. Now to try an even less comfortable POV, perhaps McEwan could venture out of the professional classes? (To be fair, he goes into this himself, in the Guardian, August 2016.)

Writing this, I’ve remembered another, lovelier, even sadder unborn POV, in “Prayer Before Birth” by Louis Mac Neice (1944). It’s read here by Mark Rylance Actor, director and writer at an Anti-War Mass Assembly in Trafalgar Square on 8 October 2011. (For light relief see the high vis jacketed soundman who arrives on stage just as Rylance is being introduced!)

The scan photo is the baby of Anne Corlett at 34 weeks. Anne, previously shortlisted for the Bristol and Bath short story awards, released her novel The Space Between the Stars in 2017. She offered the photo after I posted a request in Book Connectors, proving you can make some impressive literary connections through Facebook (I refer to the association with Ian McEwan and MacNeice rather than myself).

Below are my own nutshells in December 1993:

nutshell 1993

From next week I’ll be blogging monthly on books and literature for Sally Cronin’s Smorgasbord. My posts there will appear on Saturdays, repeated here afterwards, but most weeks I’ll still be here on Fridays. Comments are always welcome wherever you read the posts!

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

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Prologues – with hindsight

Browsing my favourite fiction authors, what do Helen Dunmore, Elena Ferrante, Zadie Smith, Margaret Forster and Kazuo Ishiguro (sometimes) do, that Margaret Atwood, Ian McKewan, Rose Tremain and Kazuo Ishiguro (sometimes) don’t?

1411219Clue: It was good enough for Chaucer and (sometimes) Shakespeare, but has a reputation as a turn-off in submissions to agents and publishers. At the Guardian Masterclass I attended, the invited agent said: “Never send me a submission with a prologue!” And here are two more, quoted on the Writer’s Digest:

“I’m not a fan of prologues, preferring to find myself in the midst of a moving plot on page one rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it.”

“Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!”

In the Facebook group Book Connectors the thread “Do you read the prologue?” has given me a blog theme for the second week running. (Thanks!) It’s turned into something of a straw poll. It seems most people do read prologues, regarding them as part of the story. I’m in that camp – in a well-written story, every word and section is there for a reason. If you skip something, you’re receiving incomplete information. But one BC, Melvyn Fickling, responded he’d skip the lot rather than read a prologue:  If I’m checking the Look Inside feature on Amazon and see a prologue, it’s not just the prologue I don’t read… 

In the BC discussion there are also references to prefaces and introductions. Let’s clear up the difference. Here’s an easy definition, from American Dorrance Publishing:

ExposureThe primary reason to include a prologue is if there’s an important element of the story that took place prior to your book’s main plotline. A rule of thumb is that the prologue will explain important information that doesn’t necessarily follow the timeline of the rest of your book. (It follows that an epilogue covers events that take place after the main timeline. But I might alter “prior” to “outside” – I’ve found a number of prologues whose events occur midway or late in the stories they introduce. For example, in the prologue to Helen Dunmore’s Exposure – reviewed here – a protagonist is going home towards the end of the story.

An introduction might be by someone else, and discusses the background, style, genesis and authorship of the story, but isn’t part of the story itself. It gives insight, and may contain spoilers, which is why I usually read it at the end. Introductions overlap with prefaces: there’s a useful discussion here, too long to quote, of what a preface should contain – the main thing is, it’s also not part of the story and it may or may not be by the author. Fortunately the thread hasn’t mentioned forewords – yet. Don’t get me started on those!

There’s general agreement that prologues should be relatively short, and contain business that occurs outside the main story that the reader needs to know in order to follow it. There’s a fine line between relevance to the approaching story and an information dump, though! I found a sober pro prologue summary by Carol Benedict and  elsewhere Kristen Lamb identifies seven deadly prologue sins in colourful detail.

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A lazy plotting style?

Lamb’s sinful prologues can be summarised as superfluous, irrelevant, tautologous or too long. The information they give could either be left out, or easily  communicated at some other point in the story, for example in a flashback, through a character remembering or recounting events, or as some form of story-within-the-story. Fickling was vehement: Too many times it presages a lazy writing and/or plotting style. 

Let’s imagine a heroine, Lazy Author. (No relation to me personally, oh no.) Lazy Author gets to the end of her first draft, realises she’s making unreasonable assumptions of reader knowledge – how could her readers know all the details inside her excited authorial head? So she sticks the missing facts in a prologue before the story opens. Just so we all know where we are.

I can’t believe the Dunmores and Ishiguros bumble along like that. What’s their approach?

28921The Remains of the Day opens with 17 pages of prologue, set in 1956. Chapter 1 then harks back to 1922. I make that two of some people’s rules broken, but Ishiguro is such a master, it’s fine. Memory tells me the film version used the same structure, so director James Ivory must have agreed.

Exposure: only 2 pages, their chronology within the story unclear until the very end of the book. One rule broken, but a tale told with such élan is above rules.

My Brilliant Friend – 4 pages of prologue, with chapter 1 onwards a flashback. Not fancying a scrap with Elena Ferrante, I’ll turn a blind eye to this and her many other broken rules (repetition, internal monologue, ranting…) Her prose screams along the page and seems to demand fierce interruptions the better to rebuff them, insert a blank page, and return to the fray.

The Twelfth Department, by William Ryan – who just before publication of it was running the very Masterclass on which his agent colleague banned prologues – has a 5 page prologue which establishes a setting and some characters, provides backstory for those who may not know his detective Korolev from previous books, and contains a violent, though not fatal, hook. Could that have been done in Chapter 1 instead? I was reading so fast I didn’t care.

The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith has 40 pages (40 pages!!!) of prologue before what she calls not chapter but Book 1. It introduces the main character and the unusual theme. I read it a long time ago and the enormous prologue obviously didn’t stick in my mind as a fault.

Margaret Forster’s non-fiction Precious Lives has a 14 page prologue, setting out her reasons for writing her memoir, but in anecdotal, quite emotional style, which distinguishes it (in my mind anyway) from a non-fiction introduction.

These are all authors whose sales and reputations survive their prologues unscathed. On my shelves I did come across one rather pointless prologue, that simply repeated later themes, in a recent highly praised debut by a creative writing graduate. Despite its evocative setting, impressive cultural knowledge, some lovely writing and a poignant subject, it was so badly edited that a redundant prologue was (in retrospect!) not so unexpected. There were no acknowledgements in the edition I had, so we don’t know who was responsible, and at least it was only half a page. And the one page prologue in Emma Healey’s touching, otherwise brilliant Elizabeth is Missing seems at first glance disconnected with the first chapter. Readers are frustrated if the prologue sets something up and then there’s no hint of it in the following chapter – maybe that’s why some claim to skip them.

18635113(I should add that for this post some of the books I’m glancing through were read long ago. It’s not always quick to rediscover where the prologue fits in! A sharper mind would have anticipated that difficulty, but hindsight’s a wonderful thing.)

Another Book Connector dissenter said: I hate prologues. I even hated my own prologue the one time I wrote one. I just think I should be able to more eloquently tell the story than use a big, fat label like Prologue. I think if I feel I need a prologue maybe it is because I’m not starting my story correctly.

Fair point. But does it presuppose a linear narrative through a logical chronology (tautology? Ed.) Can a prologue save the situation when time, viewpoints and tenses are less traditional, or be something to refer back to during a complicated plot? I’m reminded of rewinding episodes of Inspector Morse and descendants to review the bit before the titles start.

In my first version of The Infinity Pool, I tried to increase the suspense gradually until (a thing) happened. A friend who teaches creative writing said: “You’ll lose your readers before they get there. Put the thing at the beginning, as a hook”. To all intents and purposes, it then became a prologue, but I didn’t call it that. (Did I just confess to the lazy writing/plotting style lambasted above?)

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I’m still learning my craft. My current WIP is done but for a decision on three possible beginnings. Should I introduce all the characters at once or one by one…nail down the theme or leave it to be discovered…frame the whole thing with a corresponding epilogue? Clever Dunmore, in Birdcage Walk, calls her first 13 pages Prelude – even though they take place “now” and (in the book) precede a story set between 1789-1793. I must be hoping to bring off a similar trick as I’ve headed one of my possible first sections simply: Before.

Prologues, duh! This blog post is just the start of my problems…

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author seeks genre, hook an advantage

NY resolution? I’ve resolved my second novel will be doing the rounds of the publishers by next month. First to tell them what I write. I think it’s literary fiction. Every now and then I look up some definitions to make sure:

Wikipedia: Literary fiction is fiction that is regarded as having literary merit, as distinguished from most commercial or “genre” fiction. The term and distinction has been criticised by authors, critics and scholars, especially because a number of major literary figures have also written genre fiction, including Doris Lessing, John Banville, Iain Banks, and Margaret Atwood…

Oops! I don’t want to offend anyone. My work isn’t necessarily better than the work of the genre writer next door. And Doris Lessing is (was) amazing. Serve me right for relying on Wikipedia.

Goodreads: Literary fiction is a term … principally used to distinguish “serious fiction” which is a work that claims to hold literary merit, in comparison from genre fiction and popular fiction. 

Crashing in with the size 9s again…Then again, that “claims” to hold literary merit suggests anyone can join in. I expect Trump along any day with something he wrote between tweets.

In 2014 Huff Post’s Stepen Petit thought he knew what it isn’t:

…To put it simply, Literary Fiction is anything that does not fit into a genre.

…Literary Fiction separates itself from Genre because it is not about escaping from reality, instead, it provides a means to better understand the world and delivers real emotional responses.

I hope my writing does that. But where does his definition leave, say, Kazuo Ishiguro, Philip Pullman or the wonderful YA author of dystopian philosophy, Philip Reeve? And Lessing and Atwood are causing trouble again.

The recent Arts Council report on the plight of literary fiction authors also found it heard to define its subject:

Literary fiction…is not an absolute category. As with other art, it is what people believe it to be; hence we leave its boundaries undefined. What it definitely is not, for our purposes, is poetry or plays. We are looking at fiction.

Arts Council report

NowNovel (quoted for no better reason that that it’s flying high on the Google radar) says literary fiction…

  1. Is valued highly for its quality of form and creative use of language
  2. …explores subtleties and complexities of language, theme and symbolism and tends to be character-driven rather than plot driven. …Often, literary fiction makes more demands on its readers than genre fiction…

Hmm. Star Wars in any form makes incomprehensible demands on me but I’m quite happy with Jane Austen – surely it depends on the reader?

My favourite and final definition came from Sandy Day on a recent Book Connectors thread that started as a discussion of the Arts Council Report:  …literary is a style not a genre. Every literary book fits into a genre, love story, mystery, thriller, social drama, etc. It’s the style of writing, the subtlety, the metaphors and originality of language, that make it literary. (Do investigate Book Connectors: there are some refreshing discussions there with readers, authors, bloggers, reviewers…)

I work hard on subtlety, metaphors, originality etc but if they fail to ignite, maybe my book could sneak in as contemporary fiction. Waterstones, I notice, put both E L James and Kate Atkinson in this category and add “modern” to the label. It should be broad enough for me, then. If Zadie Smith doesn’t quibble at sharing a genre with Jeffrey Archer, why should I, veteran of the Great Amazon Dinner Party that I am?

Or do I write commercial fiction? Well, no, since I couldn’t possibly make a living, or even pay for another holiday, from what I earn as a writer. However, if my work did start selling by the shelf load, would it then become “commercial”? Having been to the Oxfam shop with duplicate Christmas presents yesterday, I could suggest one defining characteristic of commercial fiction is anything you can find multiple copies of there. But this definition from the grandeur of Curtis Brown Creative is probably better:

Lots of our students … don’t want to be told what they’re writing is “commercial fiction” – but really what we mean by this is that a novel’s strongly story-led and with potentially broad appeal. Commercial fiction is less about style, voice and innovative use of language/form than literary fiction but there’s also an area where the two meet and blur – that’s often called ‘sweet spot fiction’ and it’s top of many publishers’ wish-lists.’’

Sweet-spot fiction! That’s what I write (in my sugar coated dreams).

Hook 11
Ian McKewan hit the sweet spot for me in 2016, but Lionel Shriver (2013) didn’t.

How can I get from where I am now, to the sweet spot?

Harvey Chapman quotes literary agent Nathan Bransford:…Sooooooooo much literary fiction I get in the old query inbox is plotless. It’s just a character musing about the vagaries and eccentricities of everyday existence. The prose is lush, the character detailed, but one problem – absolutely nothing is happening and thus it’s (forgive me) extremely boring. Good literary fiction has a plot.

Ah. I do have a plot. I’m just not sure where it is. It’s not heavy enough to have sunk below the surface (good), so perhaps its subtlety has floated it free altogether, flotsam on a sea of interior monologue (bad). We dipped a toe in the water with two submissions in 2017. One editor replied: I think Jessica is a very accomplished writer, and it’s great to see how much she achieved with THE INFINITY POOL, but I’m not sure this is for me – I felt it just didn’t have a hook that was quite commercial enough for (name of publisher).

Adrift in an over populated ocean, I need a net to gather in my shoal, or even just one hook. As the second editor pointed out:

While there was a great cast of characters I just felt that there were perhaps too many so it was difficult to really connect with all the characters and there were too many changing viewpoints so the narrative didn’t quite have that flow. (Her words certainly flow,  unsubmerged by punctuation, but she makes several very valid points so I mustn’t carp. There’s a plaice for what she says – sorry, I’m away with the fishes.)

Stand by for a rail disaster or perhaps a bomb in the shopping centre. That should dispose of a few changing viewpoints, and at least I’ll be back on dry land. I never liked (him/her/them) anyway. Then for my hook!Hook 12From the same rejection email quoted above: I really liked the device of… (my secret device, patented to me: when it hits the sweet spot you’ll know what it is)… to bring out the stories, I thought that was a really nice touch and something quite different.

The hook’s there, it just needs sharpening. Happy New Year and watch this space!

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

The 12 days of EsseXmas (a secular celebration)

Here’s my 2017 swansong, inspired by a dash to the shops this morning.

On the 1st day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

A massive wide screen TV (no photo. Think I’m stupid, burglars?)

On the 2nd day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

Cusk 7

2 white vans and a massive wide screen TV!

On the 3rd day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

bling inflatables3 blurry Santas, 2 white vans and a massive wide screen TV!

On the 4th day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

Bling napkins 4

4 festive pants, 3 blurry Santas, 2 white vans and a massive wide screen TV!

On the 5th day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

 

FIVE TRAFFIC JAMS! 4 festive pants, 3 Santas, 2 white vans and a massive wide screen TV!

On the 6th day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

6 bits of bling, FIVE TRAFFIC JAMS! 4 festive pants, 3 Santas, 2 white vans and a massive wide screen TV!

On the 7th day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

bling snowflakes 7

7 saddo snowflakes, 6 bits of bling, FIVE TRAFFIC JAMS! 4 festive pants, 3 Santas, 2 white vans and a massive wide screen TV!

On the 8th day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

8 beauty salons, 7 saddo snowflakes, 6 bits of bling, FIVE TRAFFIC JAMS! 4 festive pants, 3 Santas, 2 white vans and a massive wide screen TV!

On the 9th day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

bling games 9

9 board games, 8 beauty salons, 7 saddo snowflakes, 6 bits of bling, FIVE TRAFFIC JAMS! 4 festive pants, 3 Santas, 2 white vans and a massive wide screen TV!

On the 10th day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

Bling prosecco

10 Prosecco glasses, 9 board games, 8 beauty salons, 7 saddo snowflakes, 6 bits of bling, FIVE TRAFFIC JAMS! 4 festive pants, 3 Santas, 2 white vans and a massive wide screen TV!

On the 11th day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

Bling balls

11 golden balls, 10 Prosecco glasses, 9 board games, 8 beauty salons, 7 saddo snowflakes, 6 bits of bling, FIVE TRAFFIC JAMS! 4 festive pants, 3 Santas, 2 white vans and a massive wide screen TV!

On the 12th day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

a 12 days of Kindle deal so you can buy my book “The Infinity Pool” here for only 99p until sometime in early January (had 10 Proseccos, can’t work out exactly when…)

…11 golden balls, 10 Prosecco glasses, 9 board games, 8 beauty salons, 7 saddo snowflakes, 6 bits of bling, FIVE TRAFFIC JAMS! 4 festive pants, 3 Santas, 2 white vans and a GINORMOUS wide screen TV!

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Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year everyone!

(If you try singing this do send me a video.)

©Jessica Norrie 2017

A bookshop discovery

If Bah Humbug was a person they’d look like me, and yet even I was attracted by the signs of Christmas in this bookshop. I do like to highlight good independent bookshops, dead and alive. How can a small town like Great Malvern (population under 35,000) support a decent independent bookshop, in these days of discounts and globalization? This town has found one way to do it. Malvern books 3

Their bookshop is a cooperative, owned and run by its shareholders. The website tells me shares cost £50 each, and you can buy one, or two. It also tells me they pay their staff a living wage, whereas I’d been under the impression it was staffed on a voluntary basis by the shareholders. But so much the better (and more reliable probably) if it’s providing employment.

There are two rooms, one with a mezzanine, on this extremely steep hill – if after fortifying yourself in the bookshop cafe, you continue straight on and can walk perpendicularly up “Happy Valley” (I always wanted the chance to write that) you will find yourself on  top of the Malvern Hills. But it may be wise to stop and peruse the books, guides, maps and local author in the room on the right first. You may find a (slightly) less steep route.

Malvern books 1

The room on the left is the main bookshop area, with a good shelved and tabletop collection of contemporary fiction and non fiction, a colourful childrens’ section, the counter where the helpful assistant lets you browse in peace but is on hand if needed, and a jolly looking café with a good selection of high quality cards in support of various charities.  Somebody’s had fun dressing the window for Christmas and there was about to be a talk by journalist Matthew Engel when I was there. Another successful talk the previous night had depleted the stock – which is exactly what we want to hear happens when an independent bookshop puts on an event.

(Presumably they know they have a doppelganger in Texas? I found it when looking for their Twitter handle.)

Malvern is one of my favourite places. It’s a spa town half way up the extraordinary Malvern Hills, home of Elgar, with a theatre, an Abbey, a lovely park with a bandstand, excellent music events, and other places to buy books too – the Amnesty International bookshop, and the St Richard’s Hospice bookshop in Malvern Link which was the cleanest, best organised and most professionally run charity bookshop I have ever visited.

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Photo from the Hasting Pier website, July 2016

I was gladdened by the Malvern Book Cooperative because in the same week I was saddened by what’s happening to another community run project, one in which I do hold £100 of shares. My grandparents both lived in Hastings when I was little, and I have happy memories of visits to the pier. So I was grieved when the already unsafe structure  burnt down in 2010 and only too pleased when local people got together to rebuild and run it again. They made such a success of it – a new, solid, fireproof, elegant pier, with catering and entertainments, helping to regenerate the town, and sharing all it learned with other local projects such as Bottle Alley and St Leonards sea front. Alas, their application for a grant of £800,000 to cover becoming independent over the next three years has been refused, and the pier taken into receivership. The letter to shareholders was upbeat – jobs will be protected, the receivers are specialists in administering heritage projects and there are interested parties already. All is by no means lost. But it seems so sad, for the notional value of a three bed semi in London, that so much goodwill, good design, and regeneration could be again at risk. I’m using these photos from the Pier site, which are not my copyright, and hope they will not mind as it’s part of my response to the request to continue to support and promote the pier.

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Photo from the Hastings Pier website, June 2016

As the website says: “The pier will remain open to the public whilst the administration takes place, and the pier will be fully operational and staffed for 2018….Hastings Pier Charity encourages you to keep visiting and supporting the pier, and look forward to the next stage of the development of Hastings Pier.”

Please visit and use it!

There was more cheerful news from the Herne Bay pier when we visited last month: the local knitting coop had decorated the railings with these eccentric crafts for Halloween and Armistice Day while the beautiful bronze statue of Amy Johnson looked out over the sea nearby. Local people and businesses raised the funds for and commissioned this statue, installed in 2016, which is also significant for being “one of only about 17% of statues listed in the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association (PMSA) of a woman as a lone standing statue”.

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Here’s a last minute addition to this post: the wonderful Dalston Eastern Curve Garden where we sang carols last night, drank mulled wine and enjoyed the light show. Thank you to the Boilerhouse Singers for keeping us warm with some lovely music.

Dalston Curve
The Boilerhouse Singers at Dalston Eastern Curve Garden

If you have a brilliant local community project, bookshop, building or activity, do support it. These are the things that give our towns character, conscience and individuality. I’d be fascinated to hear about any that you’re involved in – and who knows, maybe it would spur me to plan a trip and support it.

© Jessica Norrie 2017

 

More from literary Lisbon

Back to Lisbon this week, to continue wandering round the city’s literature. The interruption for illness (including hallucinatory dreams) was apposite, as the books I’ve read meander around in time, in location, in the heads of their authors and their characters. In homage, this post may take detours too.

Lisbon fondacion jose Saramago
Jose Saramago Foundation

The entrance and ground floor of the Saramago Foundation, confusingly, did not feature Jose Saramago, Portuguese winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, despite the name and Saramago characters silhouetted in the windows. Instead the enthusiastic young attendant talked about the surface of the building and the archaeology beneath it. Only when we went back out did we realise this surface was not flat, hence its name: “Casa dos Bicos”. In the strong sunlight, we’d assumed the shapes on the walls were shadows or flat tiles. But it was another example of how, in Lisbon, things are not what they seem. As the wonky Google translation of the Saramago Foundation page puts it: Where some would want to see diamonds, (people) saw no more than stone beaks, and, as the use makes law, of so much calling it House of the Beaks, of the Beaks stayed and with that name entered History. 

Lisbon fonacion Jose Saramago detail
Detail, Casa dos Bicos

The archaeology fan referred me to his colleague when I asked where to start with Saramago. He gave us a quizzical look and recommended Small Memories. The archaeologist, who probably thought us really thick, nodded. “Yes, that’s the easiest.” (It was less patronising than it sounds.)

Anyway, Small Memories was straightforward: a memoir comparing his childhood and adolescence in the countryside and within Lisbon. He’s difficult to quote because his sentences are so long, and he enjoys playing with the reader and pokes sardonic fun at his own work: “Sometimes I wonder if certain memories are really mine or if they’re just someone else’s memories of episodes in which I was merely an unwitting actor and which I found out about later when they were told to me by others who had been there, unless, of course, they, too, had only heard the story from someone else.” It’s an affectionate, comical memoir: “photos of the family were gathered together on the table like a galaxy of faces…placed there like saints on an altar, like the disparate parts of a collective reliquary, fixed and immutable.” (To see a macabre local inspiration for this metaphor, visit the Sao Roque collection of relics.)

Lisbon Sao Roque 2
Sao Roque chapel

51-holzr82lReading about Saramago’s childhood in lyrical, nostalgic but unsentimental prose was reminiscent of earlier memoirs of country childhoods: Laurie Lee, of Flora Thompson or Pagnol. In the city they were still poor but differently, and closer to the time of Alan Johnson in London. Like them, learning to read transformed his life: “Being able to identify a word I knew was like finding a signpost on the road telling me I was on the right path, heading in the right direction.” Like them, he describes the relish of special food or simple treats and details wildlife with  perception I hope children are not losing now they spend so much time in virtual reality. The boy Saramago fought real street battles. “As shields we had saucepan lids that we found among the rubbish.” The man searches the city records for the true date of his infant brother’s death, and finds the child was almost airbrushed from history by bureaucratic mistakes; in contrast, his grandfather looms solid in his memory: “His small, sharp eyes shine sometimes as if something he had long been pondering had finally been understood. He is a man like many others on this earth, perhaps an Einstein crushed beneath a mountain of impossibilities,a philosopher, a great illiterate writer.”

It was good to read this book on a visit to Lisbon. It brought the streets alive.

Lisbon elevador da Bica 2

Then I had a go at another Lisbon writer, who to my shame I’d never heard of before. He too has a museum in his name, the Casa Fernando Pessoa, which my photographs don’t show because we didn’t visit it. They show some other building that pays him homage, along with many statues, tile murals, and posters. Pessoa wrote in the voice of numerous heteronyms, narrators he used to express his thoughts at a distance from himself, “characters” as the introduction to my edition says, “Pessoa invented to spare himself the trouble of living real life.” The Book of Disquiet (Livro do Desassossego, 1930s)  is a collection of thoughts, 45974ideas, recollections, epigrams, memories and opinions voiced by the characters he invented. Editors and later translators put it into order for publication but nobody knows if that order is correct. The sections are not long, and you can dip in and out as you like. Said Pessoa himself: “It’s all fragments, fragments, fragments!” Pessoa worked on it all his life, getting further from finishing it with every page he wrote. At the beginning (if it is the beginning) it’s firmly located in the Rua dos Douradores, where we queued unsuccessfully at an over popular restaurant. Soares the heteronym works in an office there; he breaks for lunch, he walks home; he looks out of the window… So far so concrete, and much of the streetscape hasn’t changed since the 1930s when Pessoa described it. The beginning in particular (if it is the beginning) is full of lovely descriptions of Lisbon’s everyday life and scenery.

You get a flavour of the rest of the book from Text 12: “In these random impressions, and with no desire to be other than random, I indifferently narrate my factless autobiography, my lifeless history. these are my Confessions, and if in them I say nothing, it’s because I have nothing to say.”

That doesn’t sound promising, and yet Pessoa struck some chords for me. He can certainly express the futility and depression of being alive in a world without God or clear meaning, with a self protecting layer of sardonic humour: “And when I leaned out of my high window looking at the street I couldn’t see, I felt like one of those damp rags used for housecleaning that are taken to the window to dry but are forgotten, balled up, on the sill where they slowly leave a stain.

Like Night Train to Lisbon which I wrote about beforethis is book about identity – does the author/heteronym have one? If so, what does it mean and what happens when, inevitably, it changes in one of many potential ways?Lisbon Pessoa in tile museum

“At the heart of my thought I wasn’t I. I’m dazed by a sarcastic terror of life…” “By thinking so much, I became echo and abyss, by delving within, I made myself into many.”

Pessoa (or his heteronym/s/narrator/s) was a modernist who made me think of Joyce and Proust. He tried in vain – and often consciously without too much effort – to make sense by writing of his dreams and fears and small joys, clung to his familiar apartment and mundane work, didn’t dare explore the rest of the world and yet felt trapped and often said he longed for death, seeing people as “like eels in a wooden tub, they slither under and over each other, without ever leaving the tub.

“I’m the ruins of buildings that were never more than ruins, whose builder, halfway through, got tired of thinking about what he was building.” It’s not all miserable. He claims an absence of feelings: “What mysteries have taken place? None. There’s just the sound of the first tram, like a match to light up the soul’s darkness, and the loud steps of my first pedestrian.” That “my first pedestrian” shows Pessoa playing with Lisbon like a child with a train set, moving figures about, getting bored and abandoning it for dreams and cloudy ennui.

Lisbon Pessoa shop
In our usual confusion, we thought this was a Pessoa museum but it may have been a bookshop, in the Bairro Alta

Pessoa asks: What is a human being – or more exactly, who is a human being? What s/he thinks themselves, or what others think of them? And what of change, in different lights, at different times, from one age to another, in different dates of health and solitary or befriended?

I got about halfway through. I may go back to it sometime. If I don’t, at least I know the author wouldn’t care, or says he wouldn’t care, one way or another. Maybe I’ve already read the end – who knows? But if you want a route map, you almost certainly CAN go on a Pessoa walk run by the Pessoa museum, and online there are umpteen collections of epigrammatic quotes from Pessoa. (What would this rambling, connected, discursive, bewildered man have made of the internet?) Also, the superb Night Train to Lisbon refers to The Book of Disquiet in many circular ways, and had I read them in reverse order I would have gleaned even more resonances from this book.

It was though, a relief to get back to Saramago.

Lisbon Jeronimo tiles shabby chicced
Things in Lisbon are never what they seem-  antique tiles in the refectory at Jeronimo, “distressed” when they were made in an early foretaste of shabby chic.

The second Saramago book I read was The History of the Siege of Lisbon29567 (1989). Saramago is a conscious wordsmith and his hero here is a proofreader, called Raimundo (ah! Mundus in Night Train to Lisbon is also a meticulous reader). A conscientious man, he has only ever made one mistake when correcting proofs, and it’s deliberate but, being in a history book, it changes the whole course of reported history. Saramago, like Pessoa, is fascinated by accounts of history, by how different they would be if they’d been made by another person, in a different year, a different place or a different mood, with more or less, true or false information and propaganda. As he says: “Words cannot be transported lightly here and there, back and forth, so watch out, otherwise someone will come along and say: I don’t understand.”

The Siege of Lisbon soon segues into stories in layers that interact – the proofreader learning to write his own prose rather than correct that of others, the proofreader falling in love, the history of the siege itself and a parallel love affair between a soldier and a concubine; the history of warfare (getting very technical at times), the views of royalty, politicians, Muslim and Christian clerics, peasants and soldiers. It’s about words, writing (referencing Pessoa) and publishing, love, and mistakes, and loneliness and forgiveness and the development of humanity. It’s much more positive than Pessoa, partly because “Raimundo Silva has mastered the art of floating vague ideas, like clouds that stay apart, and he even knows how to blow away any idea that gets too close”.

 

Lisbon castle
Lisbon castle, with the street where Raimundo lives somewhere below.

And, of course, it’s about Lisbon, street by street, steps by stairs, castle by harbour. I wish I had read it in hard copy rather than Kindle as I needed to keep turning back in time – as does Saramago, as does the proofreader – and checking my facts and my impressions. Again, there are echoes of this book in Night Train to Lisbon; again, I’d read them in the wrong order. Friends just returned from Lisbon expressed surprise at how lost we’d got: my approach must have been wrong in so many ways and yet I’m pleased, because I inadvertently mirrored the style of several great writers and some intriguing, sympathetic, lonely literary characters.

Lisbon Se layers of Lisbon 2
Layers of Lisbon, at the excavations in the cloister of the Se cathedral

Some long books, and a city with a long and convoluted history have lead to a long and winding post. Thank you for staying with me.

© Jessica Norrie 2017

A goody bag from the funeral director

I wasn’t well last week, so this post replaces the advertised programme. I said I’d continue blogging about Lisbon writers. But Fernando Pessoa and Joe Saramago demand full attention. When your head and eyes ache, you burn with temperature, and you’re not feeling fit for human consumption, their wonderful words do little more than swim around like the ubiquitous Lisbon sardine.

By Saturday I could venture out, and a local shopping street again gave me a lesson in fundamentals. Once the lesson was about multicultural London; last time it was about birth. This lesson, as if to remind me there’s always someone iller than oneself (my cold had reached the self pitying stage), there was a beautiful pair of black horses, kept still by two top hatted gentlemen in morning coats with an elegant engraved glass carriage behind. All you need for a traditional East End funeral. Funeral 2a better

I prepared to walk past in a discreet and respectful way while getting a good look at the horses. But  – where was the coffin? There was only a cheerful lady dressed in black, standing in the doorway of the funeral directors, saying “Would you like a goody bag?”

My instinct, frankly, was to say no. It’s very kind of you but I’ve already felt like death warmed up this week and I am not in the mood for conversation with any representatives of the Grim Reaper, thank you all the same. (Although I did read a lovely blog post this week about the memoirs of an eco-mortician.)

But then all the way round Sainsbury’s I wondered, why would a funeral director be giving out goody bags? And what on earth would be in them? I renewed my supplies of tissues, honey and paracetamol with unseemly haste. What if the lady was no longer feeling so generous when I walked back past?

Funeral 1

 

I’ve only been into a funeral director’s twice (it wasn’t this one). I accompanied my father after my mother died, and a few years later I went back with my sister to arrange his funeral. I remember the employees as respectful, pleasant, rather inefficient on that second occasion (Me: You have been looking after my mother’s ashes so that they could be scattered with my father’s when the time came. Employee: Have we? Are you sure you don’t have them at home? But they did, as I knew, having been there when the arrangement was made, and they were tracked down in a warehouse – the actual scattering is another story.)

But why would you go into a funeral directors if you didn’t have a funeral to arrange or a body to view? Or possibly a crime to investigate or a novel to research?

If intrigued by a goody bag, you might.

The low sun shone on the still quiet horses. It was hard to get a good photo, and felt intrusive, even though there was no funeral, no coffin, no body. The goody bags were stacked by the open door of the shop (would you call it a shop?) but nobody was there now. How sad. Presents had been offered, but people were walking past. I peeped in, and picked up a bag: “May I take one of these?” I called, but softly, in case they were dealing with a proper customer.

Out came the lady in black, and another top hatted gentleman. “Please do. It’s our 200th anniversary. Please, help yourself.” In such uncharted conversational territory, my small talk dried up, I smiled, and left.

Tomorrow I shall go back, and if they’re not busy (but how would I know – outside is well screened and you have to press a doorbell) I shall call in again. When my father’s shop notched up any kind of anniversary, they had big boozy parties, celebratory offers and competitions. But a funeral directors can’t really be seen doing that, and yet, it’s quite a thing to celebrate. 200 years of funeral care! The social history they must have at their fingertips! It would be fascinating to hear more.

Also, it’s the best goody bag I’ve ever had. I benefitted from their need to keep things tasteful. Of course there was a balloon – there has to be a balloon in a goody bag – but it’s as understated as a balloon possibly could be. Some people with a baby are coming to view my house tomorrow, perhaps the baby would like the balloon, or would it send them the wrong message? Hmmm… There were two useful little tins of mints, and two packets of seeds which in a lovely coincidence were forget-me-nots (my mother’s favourite flower) and sunflowers (my father’s). There was a pen, and best of all – they must know I’m a writer – a very good quality notebook with lines ruled, a ribbon bookmark, elastic closure and a matching pen with holder!

funeral goody bag 2 better

Of course, funeralcare is a business like any other and if they don’t make a profit they won’t survive. They do have a captive market, and it was a celebration, but this was nonetheless effective advertising if passers by weren’t too inhibited to engage with it. So I said to B., “If I’m still living round here when the time comes, this firm, W. English & Sons, is the firm I’d like to  use.”

“The problem is, you won’t still be living,” he said.

©Jessica Norrie 2017