To Be Read in Twenty Twenty

Sometimes I feel I don’t plan my writing career seriously enough. Although Novel 3 has gone to the agent, Novel 4 doesn’t exist yet, even as an idea, a germ of an idea or anything less tangible than that. An email from a list I should have unsubscribed from popped up today with details of a free short story competition and I thought I’d try a quick story based on an amusing episode over Christmas. There’s a 2000 word limit but who says you have to make it that long? I wrote the amusing episode down and filled it out a bit. I was only on 200 words and the amusing episode had been milked for all it was worth, plus I was having qualms about making hay from people who’d shown me nothing but goodwill. Short stories are hard to get right and one reason is wrongly viewing them as something you can dash off in answer to random competitions in an inbox. So sod the short stories (again). I was given several books for Christmas and my just-before-it birthday and if I read enough of other people’s writing craft perhaps I’ll be guided towards the place where Novel 4 lies in wait.

TBR 2020 2

Of these nine books, I’d asked for five. I’ve already finished one, although I read it as slowly and with as much care as I could. Elizabeth Strout is one of my favourite authors. There’s a slow cooking and slow eating movement, and there are mindfulness and internet-free days and reading Elizabeth Strout comes into a similar category, ideal for the limbo time between Christmas and New Year, probably less suited to commuting. She observes ordinary people in an ordinary place doing pretty ordinary things and she makes them extraordinary and universal. Olive, Again is an older Olive Kitteridge, which I’m now rereading to remind myself of her back story and those of other residents of Crosby, Maine. Olive is now on and beyond a second 43820277._sy475_marriage. She has mellowed but her go-to judgement is still “phooey to you”. She’s kept her marbles (which she dreads losing) and she’s keeping her temper better than she was. The endearing, human thing about Olive and those around her is that they’re all still learning how to live and they know it. They’re by no means perfect and neither are their partners and at times they’re deeply intolerant of each other. Olive’s son, Christopher, is horrid to her and this may or may not be because she was a bad mother. Fortunately moments of humour and love redeem all this and Olive has a wonderful capacity for compassion and understanding when you’d least expect it. But even the meanest Strout character has the capacity to recognise their mistakes and try co-existing more helpfully. “It came to him then that it should never be taken lightly, the essential loneliness of people, that the choices they made to keep themselves from that gaping darkness were choices that required respect.”

I also asked for A Single Thread, by Tracy Chevalier. If this is half as good as Girl with a Pearl Earring or The Lady and the Unicorn I’m in for a treat. I shall save it for after my next eye operation in mid February because in the lovely hardback edition the font is a generous size. I’m not sure whether to read Joanna Cannon‘s Breaking and Mending account of life as an NHS junior doctor before or after that – the care I’ve had from the overworked but always patient, expert, and caring staff at Moorfields Hospital has been excellent and although I asked for Cannon’s book it may not give me the sweetest of dreams as I trust myself to their care again. Another request was Edna O’Brien’s Girl, a fictionalised account of the experiences of the Nigerian girls abducted by Boko Haram. I found her last book, The Little Red Chairs, almost impossible to read because what it described was so awful. But I can’t fail to respect an author who at nearly 90 years of age is still confronting injustice and violence against women with such uncompromising bravery, and who still crafts every word with such angry care. On a lighter note, I wanted The Binding by Bridget Collins because I’m a sucker for that sort of cover – I call them Paisley covers and there have been a spate of them recently. (It doesn’t look as though the contents are very light-hearted though, and reader opinion appears divided.) My partner coupled it with Jessie Burton’s newest novel The Confession, which I’m hoping will be as good as her first and better than her second. Another lovely cover anyway!

My ex husband and I still give each other books every Christmas and birthday. He’s a Harper Lee fan, and rightly guessed I wouldn’t yet have got around to Go Set a Watchman. (When my first novel came out it briefly whizzed past this in the Australian bestseller lists, a moment of author glory you must forgive me for harpering on about as there haven’t been many more.) He also gave me The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer, which has a plug on the back from Rose Tremain. Well, if it’s good enough for her…

And finally who wouldn’t want a David Nicholls Sweet Sorrow to look forward to? Bittersweet, poignant, coming of age… it sounds as though it will be much like the others but they’re all so well written and delivered. It will, I hope, be a comfort akin to watching afternoon TV when I was kept home from school as a child with a cold.

Finally, I’ve been an increasingly laid back gardener since reading Richard Mabey’s Weeds last spring. Knowing this, my partner found Wonderful Weeds by Madeline Harley. Next year we’ll (mabey) eat nettle soup and make nettle linctus for the compost, nurture the last remaining bees on dandelion nectar and feast on foraged forest fruits.

TBR 2020 weeds

So what with operations and all the reading and stewing nettles, Novel 4 may not be along for a while. Phooey to that, as Olive Kitteridge would say.

©Jessica Norrie 2020

 

In praise of beautiful writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

©Jessica Norrie 2017