In 2015 a creative writing tutor told me: “Publishers don’t want books about writing and writers; readers don’t want to read them.” In 2016, along came My Name is Lucy Barton, longlisted for the Man Booker prize.
Elizabeth Strout, a stylish and moving author, can elucidate in few words what others take lifetimes to understand. Lucy Barton themes include motherhood, memory, childhood, abuse, small town life and much else, but for this post I’ll concentrate on writing.
Lucy becomes a successful writer after escaping poverty and ostracism. She writes what she cannot say. “…books brought me things…they made me feel less alone…I thought, I will write and people will not feel so alone!” A major influence on Lucy is another fictional author, Sarah Payne, whose writing advice is a generous gift from Strout to writers everywhere. Self deprecating Sarah: ” ‘I’m just a writer…Oh you know, books, fiction, things like that, it doesn’t matter, really.’ ” When people are kind to her and she can be kind back, she relaxes. Otherwise, she’s nervous and tired (though beautifully groomed). Yet she lectures on the professional author treadmill, a mouthpiece for valuable guidance.
At one lecture, Sarah defines the job of a fiction writer. “To report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do.” She mentions readers who have threatened her for the views of characters she’s written, and she’s emphatic that her job “is not to make readers know what is a narrative voice andnot the private view of the author.” This strikes me as more an American problem than a UK one. Here, we tend to say: if you don’t like what a character or a world represents, just don’t read it, and anyway, it’s fiction. But I wonder whether the passage, ironically, comes from experiences Strout has had herself as a writer. The idea of attacking a writer for a character’s views clearly angers her: as Sarah says, “Never ever defend your work.”
Sarah aims for compassion: “There was something decent in the way the friend and Sarah treated this man who was in pain…” After a student aims a cruel comment at her, “Sarah talked a lot to the class about judging people, and about coming to the page without judgement…” “…you never know, and never would know, what it would be like to understand another person fully.”
“…we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: you’re not doing it right.” Sarah says:“If there is a weakness in your story, address it head-on, take it in your teeth and address it, before the reader really knows. This is where you will get your authority.” Lucy admires that: “I like writers who try to tell you something truthful”. It’s good counsel, but perhaps Sarah can’t – or won’t – always follow it herself. A male friend calls Sarah a good writer, but with ” ‘softness of compassion’ that ruins her work” and Lucy too feels “she was not telling exactly the truth, she was always staying away from something.” In fact it’s what Strout’s characters do again and again, circling the unnameable. Paradoxically, it’s a more evocative way of writing than a clear description would be. (When I blogged Behind the words, between the lineson writing silence, I had not yet read Strout, or there she would be.)
As a writer who struggles with plot, I was relieved by Sarah’s dictum: “You will have only one story. You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.” Even if she’s only a fictional voice, I so want to believe she’s right! Lucy also appears in Anything is Possible (2017) and I’d be happy to hearing more and more of her her one story, from various angles.
Finally, “Sarah Payne spoke to us about going to the page with a heart as open as the heart of God.” I do not know, and have decided not to try and find out, whether Elizabeth Strout is a believer. But I think Sarah’s is a loving God.
Other writing advice comes from Lucy’s high school teacher who told her not to use the word ” ‘cheap – it is not nice and it’s not accurate.’ ” (It’s good to read a book that values teachers’ contributions!) And Lucy’s friend Jeremy who tells her to be “ruthless”, which she decides means “grabbing on to myself … saying: ‘This is me, and I will not go where I can’t bear to go… and I will hurl onward through life, blind as a bat, but on I go!’ “
As a writer, I find fictional Sarah Payne’s instructions comforting, generous, challenging, and compassionate. As is the writing of Elizabeth Strout; I’ll return to her other themes soon.
I’m fairly sure Strout isn’t aware of the British namesake Sarah Payne, whose daughter Sara Payne was murdered after disappearing from a cornfield where she was playing. If only their tragic story had been one of Strout’s compassionate fictional chronicles of small town America instead of real life.
My giveaway of three mystery books – one I’ve reviewed, one I’ve liked and one I’ve written – is still open if you comment here on my short story before April 19th BST. Please do!
I do like a book that shatters the rule bound splodge of too much current creative writing advice. I especially like it when it’s by a Professor of Creative Writing (at Nottingham University, where the course doesn’t sound splodgy at all).
The Goodreads reviewer who wrote: “Lovely descriptions of nature are insufficient compensation for an uneventful plot and a slew of forgettable characters” missed the point. There’s a whole village worth of plots, the stories of many families and their members. A creative writing mantra broken: multiple characters, no clear main protagonist. But what’s to stop the reader following and embroidering those that interest her most? Or you could tease out each plot strand horizontally.
I may have been especially drawn in because I once lived on the edge of the Peak District, so nostalgia was an added factor. In descriptive prose like painted brushstrokes, at least sixty familiar seeming individuals move to the foreground, retreat, are glimpsed in the distance, pass by as we’re engaged with someone else, disappear… Nature is a character too, or several: the badgers who thrive as the book progresses, the vulnerable foxes, the endangered butterflies. Man-made structures take on personality: the locked butcher shop still with chopping boards and knives used by generations of the same family; the footbridge that may collapse or hold in times of flood; the school boiler room where distasteful things occur (or do they?), and even the boiler itself. It’s all enmeshed. (Les Thompson) nodded when people spoke to him, and his handshakes were heavy and warm. The snowdrops were up and the crows flew overhead and the wind moved through the trees. Jane had to keep herself from smiling.
The hook goes behind the clouds, so the reader must find their own motivation. After two chapters, I asked my partner: Does it continue like this right through? Yes, he said, it does, and once I knew that, it was comfortable to ride with it rather than await something different. The book starts with a disturbing incident. A teenage girl has disappeared in the countryside around the Peak District village and reservoirs where her parents have a holiday let. Cue the blurb of every other book on Waterstone’s front table. I yawned. Abducted child, missing girl, sinister holiday… If I’d submitted this – in my dreams! – the editors would have said, “I already have something similar on my list”.
The villagers turn out to search and we hear snippets of their interweaving stories, garnished with the local flora and fauna and changing with the seasons. In the conifers above Reservoir no 5, a buzzard sat warmly on her eggs while the wind pulled through the trees. The narrator goes inside the villagers’ heads and informs us of their back stories, up to a point. Then we’re free to fill in from our own imaginations, should we wish to. The occasional dialogue is embedded, unsignalled by speech marks, within long paragraphs echoing previous paragraphs. POVs swing back and forth. Goodness knows how many rules that breaks. The Show-not-tellers must have hit the tequila by now.
Martin, she said. This has to stop now. I’m not here to be won back. He was shaking his head. I’m telling you, he said, I didn’t send that. There was a softening in his expression. He felt as if he had the upper hand for once. She looked at him and she didn’t know what to believe.
The tequila drinkers had better buy another bottle because so many passages like those above contain words from the list often banned to creative writers. There were/there was/he felt/it seemed/they looked/she understood/he said/they went… Too much distance between the reader and characters, swig, glug. But to me, stretched on my sofa in the muffled quiet of last week’s snow, the banned words provided space to consider setting and characters. Such writing gives time to digest. There was something of the prison yard about him. Paradoxically, understatement goes a long way; space and silence provide proportion. There was weather, and branches from the allotment sycamores flew onto the roof of the Tucker house. I nearly overstated my case by putting the simplest opening clause ever in bold print.
The ragged robin was still in flower, but this isn’t some idyllic dreamtime: farmers can’t sustain a livelihood; arson, theft and alcohol are problems. There’s domestic violence and mental illness among the wheatsheaves and elderflower cordial. The place had been empty now for seven years. There was a dispute to be settled before it could be sold, but no-one seemed to know what it was or who might be involved. Jones went up a ladder and took the branches down.
I was lost in details of lambing and growing courgettes and barely aware of the Show-and-tellers slumped by the empty tequila crate. Already assaulted by banned words, they’d now been subjected to a deluge of passive voice. At the school the lights were seen on early…. The decision was made to pack up…At the heronry the nests were rebuilt.
So there are no cliffhangers, no five or three act structure, no thwarted will or protagonist struggling desperately through an apparently unsurvivable crisis! Yet several stories are told. Each chapter covers a year. The first sentence mentions New Year fireworks; then there’s Shrove Tuesday and the May well dressing (now I understand this local craft, thank you, Professor McGregor). The chapter ends with carol singing and life goes on: births, marriages, divorces, deaths. The narrative weaves through time at the same tempo. Time, calendar events, weather are the stationary, longitudinal warp threads; the characters are the weft, drawn through and inserted over-and-under them, to be kept even or the fabric wouldn’t hold together. I rooted for some, disliked the randy farmer, hoped the wild twins would calm down and longed to lift the spliffs from teenage lips. (You can forget deep POV: the narrator tells us exactly what their parents don’t know they’re doing in that car, in a sympathetic depiction of teenage friendships, uncertainties and mistakes).And what of the missing girl, and the thirteenth reservoir? You’d have to read the book to find out, but you may become more interested in those left behind. For more books set in villages, see the Guardian article by Xan Brooks here.
Anyway, hurray for the rule breaker. This is a wonderful book. When he finished, I hope McGregor broke the mould: the last thing we need is a slew of formulaic imitations.
Sometimes a high quality experience crops up unexpectedly to enhance my life. One afternoon last week, when I was wasting time or so I thought on Facebook, up popped an advert. Julian Barnes would be in conversation with Hermione Lee, starting in four hours.
(Lucky me, to live in London and be free at short notice, with £11.50 to spare for a ticket plus the fare into Piccadilly. This is the sort of event many writers and would be writers are not able to attend. See Kit de Waal on the subject, here.)
I’ve always admired Julian Barnes’ writing. It was inspiring to see him in the flesh. Tall, spare, sardonic, dignified. He can do a lot with one raised eyebrow or a glance along his nose (not down his nose, I think). The hour began with Barnes reading from The Only Story, published on 1st February. (A similar reading is available here.) I’d read the first pages before the talk, and if I’m honest been underwhelmed by comparison with the opening to his last book, The Noise of Time. Now here were the necessary cadences to bring the prose alive, a helpful oral guide to approaching the text.
I’ve not been to many such events. I once saw Fay Weldon taking questions after a play at the Rosemary Branch in Islington. She was rumbustious, hearty and undeterred by whatever was thrown at her but I remember little of what she said.Then, not long before she died, I saw Doris Lessing take sole command of the wide National Theatre stage, unexpectedly elegiac and mild, reflecting with conviction and humour on a life interestingly lived. The Barnes event was more elegant, in the pretty little lecture theatre of the Royal Institution. It seemed more scripted, fittingly for Barnes who famously considers his choice of words so carefully and takes Flaubert as a model. There were no questions. Professor Hermione Lee has worked extensively with Barnes before. Even so, some of the observations she made took bravery, as this patrician man makes it clear when he doesn’t agree. His joke about a young man who for some reason had to walk out mid talk caused laughter that must have rung loud in the embarrassed departing ears.
The Only Story is about love going right and love going wrong. The epigraph is Dr Johnson’s definition in his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. “A novel: a small tale, normally of love.” The beginning poses the question: “Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more, or love the less and suffer the less?” As Barnes said “The first love becomes a template for all subsequent loves – either as what not to do, or as an ideal.”
Barnes spoke of memory, age, time, and autobiography in his fiction. Memory becomes less reliable as you age, more dependent on the imagination. He can’t use his own memories in his writing for at least five or six years after the event; they have to undergo some sort of internal process first, which he likened to composting. Some memories beg to be used in fiction, but the writer must shoehorn them in carefully or they’ll jar. He asks academics who study his books to alert him if he’s used an anecdote before.
He thought (though didn’t specifically advise) younger writers need to write chronologically at first, within a short time frame, or much of their narrative can only be guesswork. The writer over seventy has the privileged capacity to handle extended time periods. But, although Barnes often sets his fiction in the “neutral” suburbia of his youth, and prefers to write about inner emotions, the reader shouldn’t assume everything is autobiographical. A reader of The Only Story had cast him as the hero, and written: “I didn’t know you had two hip replacements!” His reply, eyebrow raised, sardonic smile: “One can make things up, you know. This is fiction.”
Many in the audience nodded vigorously at the points he made, but they were mostly much younger. Some took frantic notes and others were recording Barnes on their phones – was I mistaken or was he not wholly pleased? If they were creative writing students looking for specific recipes for planning novels, his answers were slippery but amusing. I think I’ve deciphered these quotes correctly from my jottings on the Evening Standard in the tube – I was less well equipped than the creative writing students and wanted simply to listen.
Lee: Why are your books so short?
Barnes: (purses lips, picks up book and leafs through): 213 pages? Then he quoted a favourite of his, the French writer Jules Renard who in a journal of some 1000 pages said: “All novels are too long”.
Lee: Well, I mean, “compressed”, then.
Barnes: Well, you say what you have to say, and it takes as long as it takes.
(Although I wondered if some of his writing is “compressed” because he’s been honing his craft for so long he now needs fewer words to express what he means.)
He sidestepped a question about planning with an anecdote about his friend Michèle Roberts and how she develops a novel. For his part, he strolls about until ideas come (“mooching and mulching”.) But he did discuss taking care with “balance”. For example, in Arthur and George, Arthur (Conan Doyle) could have become weighted down with research material whereas George ( a young man he championed in a court case) had only an ephemeral presence in the archives. It was a challenge not to reflect this contrast in how the text showed the characters.
Lee asked how he felt about the use of his name as an adjective “Barnesian”. He said he didn’t know what it meant, partly because he doesn’t read reviews. He doesn’t object to “Dickensian” or “Larkinesque” but wouldn’t want to explore such an interpretation of his own work because it might make his writing “self conscious and limited”. Then she approached writing in the first, second or third person, but again Barnes signposted books other than his own. All I can tell you is Julian Barnes recommends Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney as the best example of second person narration he knows. Here’s The Only Story‘s narrator (possibly a mouthpiece for JB, more probably not) on settings: “The time, the place, the social milieu. I’m not sure how important they are, in stories about love…and one other thing: don’t ask me about the weather.”
If I am making Barnes sound ungenerous or exclusive, I don’t mean to. He must enjoy talking about his work because there are several interviews available online for anyone not lucky enough to be able to attend such events. But his presentation finds a subtle, precise middle ground between publicity and dignity – much like his writing style – not giving too much away, tickling the audience’s interest, retaining his own privacy. Diffidence, form, subtlety are underrated in our screeching age, and this compressed event was perfect in its understatement.
There’s been much recent discussion of diversity in publishing. Here was a white, middle class, able bodied (the hips, anyway) European male in amusing conversation, before a mainly white audience of (presumably) Londoners. No barricades will be stormed by audiences attending events like this. Yet the decorous dialogue between two establishment figures reflected the style, wit, poignancy and insight into the human condition of Barnes’ writing, with lessons for all. I enjoyed it immensely.
Jessica Norrie joins us for her monthly literary column and explores Loneliness in fiction and also in recently published articles on the subject in leading business and science journals. When you have read the article, Jessica would love to have your views on the subject.
O is for Loneliness by Jessica Norrie
I thought I knew why my daughter gave me A Man called Ove for my birthday. I recognised this grumpy middle aged man who drives the computer shop assistant mad with his poor understanding, and grumbles about neighbourhood litter and other people’s driving.
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”.
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.”
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:
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!
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.
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.
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.)
Reading 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.
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, ideas, 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 Lisbonwhich I wrote about before, this 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?
“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.
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.
The second Saramago book I read was The History of the Siege of Lisbon (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”.
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.
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.
I always thought the title “City of Books” belonged to Paris or Dublin, but now I’ve visited Lisbon. In four days I only scanned the first page but I sense volumes more beneath. Let me set the scene:
This is a city where the first time tourist needs a 3D map. Maybe our sense of direction is poor, or our orienteering skills have faded with satnavs and Google maps. Whatever the reason, we were pretty useless for the first two days, until we realised the roads we saw on the map as a simple left turn or clear right angle were just as likely to be a flight of steps, an alleyway, even an outdoor lift or funicular, possibly right above our heads or below our feet as they slithered on the shiny cobbles. “I’m sure we’ve already walked along here,” we heard a plaintive English voice say, and chuckled knowingly until our target eluded us yet again and we ceased to see the joke.
Elevador da Bica
Elevador da Gloria
We climbed and we slipped, we clung by our fingernails to the back windowsills of trams with our belongings squeezed against our tummies to deter pickpockets, we gasped at stunning views, admired skilled graffiti and deplored senseless scrawls. We stepped over endless building sites and began to take Roman stones for granted. We encountered skilful fado buskers on anarchic exhibition sites.
We stood in queues for elevators where turning a simple corner would have brought us to the same spot, and we abandoned the laws of physics for we couldn’t understand how that could be.
Elevador do Santa Justa
Strange priests greeted us silently from behind closed grilles, next to ordinary homes selling cherry liqueur (ginjinha) for one euro a glass. A fierce and friendly lady gave us an impromptu but demanding Portuguese lesson for the full half hour of the tram out to see the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos at Belém (which means Bethlehem – it’s in Lisbon too) and when we arrived who was there but the archangel Gabriel himself/ herself/ theirself/ itself.
On the way back from meeting the archangel we failed to visit the main Art Gallery because although we succeeded in identifying the nameless bus stop from inside a bus with no route maps, the doors were broken and no passengers could disembark until the terminus.
I knew nothing of Portuguese literature so as always I turned to trusty TripFiction to help me, with their list of “Books set in Lisbon”. More confusion! The first two books to catch my eye had the same title: Night Train to Lisbon, and neither is by a Portuguese author. The one that intrigued me was by Swiss author Pascal Mercier.
Goodness, it’s a clever book. I thought it might be a bit pretentious, but translations, however well done, often have a slightly pompous tone, and European literary fiction always pins its intellectual colours to the mast more confidently than the diffident English. The book has many compensating qualities. The hero, Gregorius to the author, is a dry Swiss teacher, nicknamed Mundus by his pupils. He has an encyclopedic command of classical Greek, Latin and Hebrew, German mother tongue, and can quickly learn other languages. Suddenly throwing away the prudent habits of a lifetime when he’s entranced by the sibilant murmurings of a Portuguese lady he has possibly saved from jumping off a bridge, he sets off for Lisbon from Bern after coming across a strange book of musings and memories privately and posthumously published by a Portuguese doctor thirty years before. In a second hand bookshop. You know, as you do.
The attraction was that the unknown Portuguese woman’s vowels “came together in a melody that sounded much longer than it really was, and that he could have listened to all day long“. I’m a Spanish speaker, but I certainly preferred the sound of Portuguese. Gregorius/Mundus sets about learning it: “Before, it had possessed the magic of a jewel from a distant, inaccessible land, and now it was like one of a thousand gems in a palace whose door he had just pushed open.” He’s a natural linguist but even he has setbacks, days when the language won’t work for him and he can’t communicate. That, of course, has implications beyond the simple physical fact of hearing and forming the correct words.
In Lisbon Gregorius, “about to take his life into his own hands for the first time” (and always wondering what would have happened had he taken other paths earlier) sets about hunting down the surviving siblings of the author, Amadeu de Prado, and his friends, his colleagues, his patients… Amadeu was a popular doctor, “a dreamer and a poet…but at the the same time, someone who could resolutely direct a weapon or a scalpel.” But he made one mistake, which wasn’t a mistake. He followed the Hippocratic Oath and treated a hated servant of the dictator Salazar, thereby saving his life and enabling him to continue torturing hundreds of others. For this his local patients hounded and loathed him, so he tried to make up for it by working for the resistance.
When Amadeu reads, “the books seemed to disappear inside him, leaving empty husks on the shelf afterwards” and when he writes, his book is a series of philosophical ramblings, justifications, enquiries and self doubt. It resonates with Gregorius as he traipses or takes trains and trams about the city hunting down clues to Amadeu’s real state of mind. In the process Gregorius breaks his glasses, leading to much clear/blurred new/old vision related imagery, plays a lot of chess, stares at the outside of old houses and gently breaks into Amadeo’s old, now abandoned school to set up a temporary HQ.
Gregorius’ many train trips, like those of the man he seeks, enable comparisons between stations and the stages of life, views rushing past, unscheduled halts, fellow passengers and so on. He tracks down Amadeu’s contemporaries – and how lovely to read a book with so many elderly characters who are not defined simply by being old, but have individual traits, personalities and plot functions. On his journey Gregorius/Mundus learns to make friends, attempts to square the circle of Amadeu’s judge father who administered the law he hated under the dictatorship, and liberates Amadeu’s sisters from their memories – or does he?
For all Amadeu’s intellect, “there was only one thing he couldn’t do: celebrate, play, let himself go”. The key may be held by a woman he admired, perhaps loved, who is not intellectual but calm and reassuring: ‘ “Not everything can be important, and not always,” (Maria João) said. “That would be awful.” ‘ You’d have to read the book to find out whether Amadeu, and thus Gregorius, sort out the meaning of life to their satisfaction or achieve “the calm of someone who always seemed to know who he was and where he belonged“. But if you’re on a trip to Lisbon it will be a good companion, with each location carefully namechecked and described. Maybe the Tourist Office provides Night Train to Lisbon walks. (Just make sure you get on the right one!)
Gregorius finds the Portuguese people he meets warmly receptive to his needs and requirements. They go the extra mile to make him comfortable and guide him in their confusing, stimulating city. We found this too. Perhaps the Portuguese have a natural inclination (like their city) to ramblings and questions, to wondering why things and others are what they seem, and whether they can be trusted or, in another light, reveal themselves as something else entirely? What is a human being – or more exactly, who is a human being? What they think themselves to be, or what others think of them? And what of change, in different lights, at different times, from one age to another, in different states of health and solitary or befriended? What of age (Gregorius is fifty-seven): how does that enable or confuse self knowledge and how does our awareness of death affect us as we grow older? Gregorius dreads death but in Lisbon takes up smoking for the first time. It is not always the young or uneducated who act most foolishly.
Here’s a piece of good advice from Gregorius’ one close friend (a Greek optician) back home in Switzerland: ‘ “Talk to the doctors in your mother tongue. Fear and foreign languages don’t go well together.” ‘ He’s caught the Portuguese aphorisms bug: they turned up in restaurant menus, on walls and café toilets. And they seem to be something of a literary tradition.
Night Train to Lisbon – if you’re still on board, we’re approaching the final stop – is not all philosophy: it has a plot, dialogue and love interest too. It’s a book for book lovers, for linguists, teachers, doctors and patients, puzzle solvers and chess players, travellers, poets, those with a conscience, who have lost or retained religious faith or who have something to celebrate or regret. The fictitious book (Amadeu’s) that this fictitious hero (Gregorius/Mundus) is almost literally tracking down mirrors (and quotes) another, real book, O Livro do Desassossego (listen to those sibilants) by Fernando Pessoa (although Pessoa’s conceit was to claim other characters had written it, in typical multi layered Portuguese fashion). In English The Book of Disquiet, it’s a source of great pride to Lisboetas and Mercier quotes it in his prologue: “Each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves. So the self who disdains his surroundings is not the same as the self who suffers or takes joy in them. In the vast colony of our being there are many species of people who think and feel in different ways.”
I’ll write about The Book of Disquietnext week, as I’m still lost somewhere in the first 100 pages, and I hope to write about Saramago, Portuguese Nobel Literature Prize winner. There’s no need for a health warning: from what I’ve read so far the heavyweights are not too impenetrable – they check themselves from time to time with self deprecation and humour. I’d rather Pessoa than Henry James. But that’s for another journey.
Inexcusably, the only book I bought in Lisbon’s oldest bookshop (it’s a city of old fashioned bookshops, music shops, haberdashers and hat shops: use them while you can) was for my translator daughter who likes to teach herself new languages by reading Harry Potter. But back home it turned out she already had it and would have preferred a different volume, in German.
Meanwhile I wonder which city others would call the City of Books?