News from the writing group

Some authors roam their keyboards alone, but many like the comfort of a writing group. I found mine when, after weeks critiquing each others’ work on a Writers & Artists course, four of us decided to continue.

When the world was normal we met in an art deco cocktail bar in Holborn. Sometimes we’d emailed extracts in advance, sometimes it was more ad hoc. Then in lockdown we read each others’ entire books and commented, raising our glasses on Zoom. It really has been invaluable.

One of us, Sofia Due, has just published an earlier novel. Ed and Lily is a cleverly constructed story of the dangers of “couple fatigue” – when you’ve developed a particular way of doing things and nothing’s really suiting either of you but you don’t realise the damage you’re sustaining along the mundane way. Lily, working in Cardiff, has ideals, Londoner Ed has ambition. Ed is organised, Lily is chaotic and spontaneous. On Christmas Eve Ed’s booked a romantic getaway to Iceland – but Lily’s working late and misses her train. The book unravels how they got to this point through flashbacks. The reader’s kept wondering if this is make or break to the very last page. All good fun but it deepens with Ed’s family background and Lily’s job for a frontline charity. Here’s what Sofia had to say about it:

As the privileged (I think) first blogger to interview you, I’ll ask the obvious. What inspired Ed and Lily?

I had this idea about a couple who meet quite young, and everything is perfect but it’s almost too much, too soon. They’re not yet ready to settle down, not where they want to be as individuals, but to achieve what they want, they might have to leave the other behind.  To make a relationship work, does one person always have to compromise and give up their dreams or can both succeed?

I started writing this in 2017 and about 20,000 words in, I saw ‘La La Land’ and thought, ‘Yes, exactly, that’s what I’m trying to say.’  There’s a wistfulness about the choices they made and what was right for them. Either way, to stay or go, would have been right – in different respects and with different outcomes.

Lots of us have had relationships like that, where to make the relationship work means changing direction, taking a chance, moving country and that will cause some difficulties. This is a story about whether you stick it out or go it alone.

It’s also about how we don’t talk about the important things in relationships, especially if things are going wrong. We’re scared and ignore the elephants in the room because once you start discussing things, you can’t be sure where it will lead. 

It’s a clever structure…

The structure was always like that, with alternate chapters from each point of view, to create a dialogue between Ed & Lily. The idea was the story started at the end, when the relationship was in trouble so it would be more detective story than romance, examining what went wrong, why, and whether it could be fixed.

Once I’d committed to this structure, it seemed like every book I picked up was doing the same. What I wanted was that with each chapter, the reader’s sympathies might change.

And how would you describe the genre?

I put this book through the new writers’ scheme at the romantic novelists’ association, twice. The second reader said it was more of a love story than romance as romance is supposed to do the ‘boy meets girl, something gets in the way, they get back together’ structure and this doesn’t. When I started, I was aiming for a simple love story but somehow, in my stories someone always ends up in a refugee camp!

Lily’s a vibrant, funny, realistically flawed character, based on anyone in particular?

I’m glad you think so, and no, not really. Aspects of her life and work are based on people I know but I’m surrounded by warm, competent, well-meaning women who over commit. She’s a bit scatty, but that’s what happens when you have too much on your mind, when you aren’t concentrating because you have a mental block about something else.

I found it harder to warm to Ed, although I cared so much about Lily it didn’t matter. Can you sell Ed to me?

Ed is kind and funny (I hope) but he lost his mother very young and is scared of more loss. The self-sufficiency and minimalist personal style is a defence; if he doesn’t have much, there isn’t much to lose! He’s liberal and open in his attitudes and appreciates that his rival for Lily isn’t someone else but her aspirations – which he supports. He’s shocked when he finds he might be wrong. He really loves Lily but he’s frightened of losing her by making demands and caging her. Without meaning to, that’s what he’s done. He needs to set himself free. As Lily says, ‘You were wearing a Hawaiian shirt when we met.’ He can change, although he doesn’t have to, just show he could.

That’s interesting. Other people have wondered how he puts up with Lily!

Lily works with refugees in war zones, a serious balance to the “boy meets girl” flavour of the main story. Is this based on your own experience?

To an extent. Refugees find their way into everything I do but although I worked with some children in the Calais jungle, most of my work is office-based. I’ve never done field work in a refugee camp. The camp in the book is fictional but based on places I’ve seen. The refugee stories like the woman walking for hours on a broken ankle or offering bracelets in exchange for help are real.

Why did you make Ed an architect?

Perhaps because when I started writing, we had building work and I was comparing the rubble with the computer drawings and thinking what I needed was a nice architect in my writing life to take my mind off the mess. It’s part of Ed’s conflict. He likes clean lines and open space but his loyalty to the people he loves means he’s surrounded by fusty antiques.

You started “Ed and Lily” written some years ago. What made you revisit it?

I finished it in 2017 and got a few requests for the full manuscript, but it wasn’t taken further. I worked with a mentor during 2019 to rework the timeline. Again there was interest, but it wasn’t taken up. Usually, I try and write something every day but during the first lockdown, I found it really difficult. I decided getting this book out would be my creative project for the year, to keep me looking forward. It’s been fun, I’ve had a lot of involvement in it. I also thought stylistically, it was now or never for this book. After the times we’ve been going through, who knows if realistic characters with ordinary problems will be what we want to read about!

Who would like this book for their birthday?

Perfect for people with birthdays in the next few months. They’ll get a chance to appreciate the timeline countdown to Christmas.

Buy links:

Ed & Lily eBook : Due, Sofia: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store

The Book Guild Ltd

Ed & Lily by Sofia Due | Waterstones

Ed & Lily by Sofia Due | WHSmith

Ed & Lily : Sofia Due : 9781913913298 (bookdepository.com)

Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/books/details/Sofia_Due_Ed_Lily?id=6Es_EAAAQBAJ

The ebook will soon be available through other retailers, such as Apple, Barnes & Noble US, Kobo and OverDrive.

©Jessica Norrie & Sofia Due 2021

No signal

In last night’s disturbing dream my phone was useless and I couldn’t communicate. Partner said: “Good premise for a crime novel.” I don’t want to write a crime novel, but as always a title came straight to mind. No signal covers 1) my blog hiatus 2) the rural disadvantage of partner’s house 3) physical and metaphorical aspects of lockdown, and 4) the event that stopped me blogging much and writing at all.

In January a dear relation, not elderly, had a stroke clinicians labelled catastrophic, overnight losing independence and professional, social and cultural involvement to massive brain damage, semi paralysis, and total speech loss. For weeks she had “no signal”. Now she smiles, shrugs, raises her eyebrows, taps one hand, and cries.

For two months we could barely signal back. Covid allowed only three hospital visits, justified to management as therapeutic. Discharge was to an understaffed, pack-em-in uncare home with photos of forty Covid victims prominent in the foyer. At my first “visit”, I balanced on a steep grass bank and gurned through a closed double-glazed window, probably terrifying a confused, pain-racked, depressed, non-verbal Charlotte. After two weeks, strictly timed fifteen-minute visits were allowed, when she cried and cried. I have told the regulating authorities…

Finding urgent, pleasanter, safer care with no previous knowledge of the sector, was difficult. It’s a buyer’s market, nursing homes having lost so many residents, but judging suitability when you can’t go inside to witness staff and residents interact is tricky. There’s the selling agent’s word for it, pre-Covid inspection reports and glossy brochures with more chintz than people. You can tell a lot from the smell, mutters a district nurse friend. In normal times.

Nor could we access the typically £82000 pa fees of a good home because Charlotte hadn’t appointed Lasting Power of Attorney (have YOU done this? It costs £80/£160 online and takes just a few weeks to come through). She couldn’t agree to LPA because she’d lost mental capacity so our only avenue was the Court of Protection. Even with an excellent solicitor this takes seven months and £4000+. So whatever your age please apply for LPA today, for your loved ones’ sakes! Without it, we can’t deal with Charlotte’s bank, maintain her house, access her phone or computer… or shut the bailiffs up. But hooray for the social worker who organised interim payment of home fees!

Identifying, informing, updating friends, navigating legal, financial and medical protocols takes hours. Though still without CoP status, a contradiction requires me to advocate for Charlotte as her Deprivation of Liberty Safeguard representative. Therein lies a moral minefield.

Amid the pandemic, all NHS staff dealt professionally and kindly with Charlotte, as far as we know. Yet it’s compartmentalised and random. Some individuals communicate with next-of-kin; others won’t until CoP is formalised. Doctors spent two days saving Charlotte’s life. Then she became the therapists’ responsibility. The excellent hospital team discharged her to the community team who visit rarely and tell me nothing. Emergency hospital admissions for IV treatment open communication black holes. True to form, our Etonian government guidelines for care homes are delayed, illogical and impractical. So Charlotte, who can currently be visited immediately during her frequent hospital stays, suffers ten lonely days of self-isolation whenever she returns “home” (which is a good and caring place, but, obviously, not the lovely house she can no longer access). Each time, the private speech therapy I’ve sourced is postponed and even on her birthday she couldn’t leave her room.

This prolonged whinge is my entirely selfish point of view. Writing from Charlotte’s would mean exploring the wrenching experience of a loved one more deeply than I can bear – it’s an imagined state of mind to be visited only in the small hours or small, safe stabs of trying-to-understand. So I divert my thoughts to all that must be done. To write her POV would also mean experimental language even more demanding than McGregor’s (below). There’d be pages of wailing pain, of being bypassed and misunderstood, occasional enjoyment of tastes (dysphagia permitting), embarrassment, exhaustion, depression – very common post stroke, frustration, boredom and loneliness and where’s the happy ending? Disabled readers might cancel it and they’d probably be right.

But this is a books and writing blog! Poignantly, my last chat with Charlotte was about a book review here. Stroke is common in life, less so in literature. The only one more physically serious than hers that I’ve read of is in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, also filmed. Dominique Bauby, in his forties, was riding a professional wave as editor-in-chief of Elle magazine when a stroke paralysed him almost completely. He could only dictate this memoir, letter by letter, by flicking his left eyelid. I could quote the whole thing… For obvious reasons it isn’t long, but it’s beautifully written/translated and extraordinary.

Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight is inspiring – see her TED talks on YouTube. This American brain scientist had a major stroke aged 37 and viewed her eight-year recovery as a unique research opportunity. She explains the medical jargon and her own psychology and cognition with clarity, humour and joie de vivre. A helpful checklist of carers’ dos and don’ts highlights the devastating damage stroke can cause. “Recovery was a decision I had to make a million times a day. Was I willing to put forth the effort to try?” If this exceptionally positive and informed young woman found it so exhausting, what hope is there for others? But at least our NHS, beleaguered though it may be, means a stroke victim needn’t try to remember which hospital her health insurance covers, mid-stroke.

In the UK the Stroke Association have cheap communications aids for recovering stroke victims, though little for Charlotte’s more severe condition. Bolte Taylor happily relearned from children’s books; others may feel patronised which is where the SA booklets come in.

I’ve reviewed Jon McGregor’s precise and moving writing before. In a happy coincidence for me, his latest novel, Lean Fall Stand provides the reassurance of finding my experience reflected in good fiction. I won’t name the stricken character as he’s introduced in a different role, the stroke a deus ex machina for the reader as well. Quoting McGregor’s language play would need more context than my space permits, but, never obscure, he has surprising fun with a victims’ conversation group, light relief (not parody) after the grimmer initial weeks. There’s sympathy for his carer’s reaction too, the weary, questioning love/unlove of a mostly absentee partner when sudden responsibility strikes hard at her own life.

Which is more or less where I started this post. As I write, the stroke related emails drift in… I hope that explains the recent absence of signals from me. Take care all.  

©Jessica Norrie 2021

Un livre nouveau est arrivé ! A new book has arrived!

Please note: This blogpost interview with my translator is in French and English so you don’t have to read more than half of it! If you blog about books in the francophone world please see the full French text below and feel free to republish it (by all means share too if you blog in English). Also please do contact me for a free Mobi file if you would be interested in reviewing Infinitude.  

Je publie cet entretien avec ma traductrice en français et en anglais, donc il ne faut lire que la moitié ! Le texte français est proposé à la suite de l’anglais et j’invite les blogueurs du monde francophone à le diffuser sans modération ! De plus, si vous êtes blogeur/se et que vous aimeriez écrire en donnant votre avis sur Infinitude, je vous prie de me contacter pour obtenir une version électronique gratuite de mon roman.

As this is my English language blog, I’m providing the English version first.

Faced with the horrors of Brexit, it’s a pleasure to have collaborated on Infinitude, the just published French translation of my first novel. As soon as I published The Infinity Pool in 2015, a translation was suggested. The German version appeared in 2018, and the French edition two months ago. You’ll find the paperback and the Kindle edition by searching any Amazon worldwide, or at: http://getbook.at/Infinitude

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I owe huge thanks to Isabelle Rouault-Röhlich, who’s patiently translated my first novel. She deserves great success with this project. This interview introduces her and explains the process of translating someone else’s book.

Hi Isabelle ! Where do you live and work ? Which languages do you use in daily life?

Bonjour Jessica ! I live in Valencia, Spain. I work here, and also in Paris or London when I’m lucky enough to be asked by clients. My mother tongue is French, but I spoke English from when I was about six years old, so we speak English at home too. Of course in Valencia I also speak Spanish (Castilian). My husband works a lot with German, so our house sometimes sounds like a real Tower of Babel!

How did you come across this translation project?

The project for this book was posted by a colleague on a translators’ forum. I already had wide experience of editorial translation and of translating non fiction. But up until then, I hadn’t had the opportunity to translate a novel, so I didn’t hesitate a second before buying the book and diving straight in. The story hooked me straight away, that’s what decided me!

Tell us about the process of translating a whole book. How do you start? What are the pleasures – and the pitfalls?

There’s no shortage of pitfalls. But I was prepared for them. The main difficulty is thinking you can translate something every day. It isn’t always possible to fit it in with the demands of other customers, and you have be be very disciplined. The other traps are more to do with language and the science of translation: you must remain aware that the translator’s role is adaptive, and not get discouraged when the French and English don’t match. For example, if you can’t find an equivalent concept or term in the other language, then you must return to the story and take a step back from interpreting the words literally. And when the English sentences seem a bit long and putting them into good French seems impossible, you mustn’t give up but keep formulating and reformulating…

Can you give us an elevator pitch for Infinitude/The Infinity Pool?

Serendipity, a holiday settlement on a Mediterranean shore, promises personal growth for body and soul. But this year, Adrian, the charismatic “guru” director, hasn’t turned up. His loyal disciples must fight their personal and 21st century battles alone. Infinitude is a novel about the importance of others.

Who do you think would particularly like this book? Is there a special place, or a particular time of life when it would resonate most?

I think it’s a novel for people aged 25-45. But there are no real age limits!

I know you’ve already translated one book from English to French. Can you describe it please (and provide link)?

Yes, thank you for the plug! I’ve finished translating Les audacieuses”, an adaptation of “Rouge” which is a novel by Richard Kirshenbaum. It was inspired by the lives of Elsa Rubinstein and Estée Lauder and the troubled relationship of the two great women who invented modern cosmetics.

The novel won’t come out until 7 January 2021, delayed by the pandemic. I’ve also another project with a publisher who wants to introduce French readers to an American author who disappeared too young. It’s still under wraps…

Infinitude is partly about the effects of tourism on a traditional community. I think you too are campaigning against environmental damage?

Yes indeed. I’m very active in the struggle against plastic pollution and single use plastics, taking part in beach clean-ups. I’ve produced multilingual publicity for town halls and institutions to educate their citizens, and also poster resources for public use everywhere. I’m seeking financial backing for this campaign, and you can find details on my website: www.wordistas.net

What sort of translation do you do to bring home the bacon? How can we ask you to quote for a project?

I do mostly “adaptive translation”. I also specialise in “trans-creation”, which is creative marketing and publicity translation. And I have a special interest in environmental translation work. Please see my website (above) for more details.

Thank you so much, Isabelle, and especially for your hard work over the past few years. Let’s hope Infinitude is an infinite success for both of us!

Thank you too, Jessica, very much. Our mutual trust has helped us get this project finished. Now like you I wish Infinitude all possible good fortune and infinite success!

©Jessica Norrie/Isabelle-Rouault-Röhlich 2020

English readers stop here unless you wish to practice your French (but feel free to comment below).

Putting this image here to celebrate it and show how much I hope we can rejoin you all soon!

A vous, lecteurs francophones !

En total contraste avec les horreurs du Brexit, cette belle collaboration avec le traducteur de mon premier roman a été pour moi un grand plaisir. Au moment de publier The Infinity Pool en 2015, l’idée de proposer une traduction a été lancée. La version allemande a été publiée en 2018, et la version française – Infinitude – vient de sortir !

Vous pouvez consulter et acheter le livre en version papier ou pour Kindle chez Amazon dans le pays de votre choix, ou ici : http://getbook.at/Infinitude.

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Je souhaite tout particulièrement remercier Isabelle Rouault-Röhlich, qui a patiemment traduit ce premier roman, et je lui souhaite ainsi qu’à ce projet la plus belle des réussites.

À suivre, cet entretien présente la traductrice et explique un peu le processus consistant à traduire un livre rédigé par quelqu’un autre.

Bonjour Isabelle ! Où habites-tu et où travailles-tu ? Quelles sont les langues que tu parles au quotidien ?

Bonjour Jessica ! Je vis à Valence, ou Valencia, en Espagne. Je travaille ici, mais aussi à Paris ou à Londres si j’ai la chance d’être appelée pour un projet par un client ! Ma langue maternelle est le français, mais j’ai commencé à parler anglais très tôt, vers l’âge de 6 ans, alors nous parlons aussi anglais à la maison. Et à Valence, je parle espagnol (castellan), bien sûr. Mon mari travaille lui beaucoup avec l’allemand, ce qui fait de notre maison une vraie tour de Babel parfois !

Comment as-tu entendu parler de ce projet de traduction ?

Ce livre m’a été proposé par une de mes collègues grâce à un forum de traducteurs. J’avais déjà une grande expérience de la traduction éditoriale et de la traduction d’ouvrages de non-fiction. Mais jusque-là, je n’avais pas eu l’opportunité de traduire des romans, c’est pourquoi je n’ai pas hésité une seconde et ai acheté le livre pour m’y plonger immédiatement. J’ai tout de suite accroché à l’histoire, c’est ce qui m’a décidée !

Raconte-nous un peu le processus de traduction d’un livre entier. Comment l’aborde-t-on ? Quels sont les plaisirs – et les pièges ?

Les pièges ne manquent pas. Mais je m’y attendais ! La difficulté principale, c’est de penser qu’on peut traduire un peu chaque jour. Ce n’est pas toujours possible quand on a d’autres clients, et il faut une grande discipline. Enfin, les autres pièges relèvent plutôt de la langue et de la traductologie : il faut être conscient du véritable rôle d’adaptation du traducteur et ne pas se décourager quand l’anglais et le français ne sont pas d’accord, par exemple si on n’arrive pas à trouver un concept équivalent ou un terme dans l’autre langue, auquel cas il faut se plonger dans l’histoire et prendre du recul par rapport aux mots en tant que tels. Et si les phrases anglaises sont un peu longues et que l’exercice en français semble impossible, il ne faut pas se décourager, formuler et… reformuler.

Est-ce que tu peux nous présenter Infinitude en 25 mots ? Un résumé en quelques secondes ?

Au bord de la Méditerranée, un lieu de vacances propose à un public un peu « bobo » de se ressourcer, corps et âme. Mais cette année, Adrian, le charismatique « gourou » de Serendipity, n’est pas arrivé. Ses fidèles « suiveurs » vont se retrouver face à leurs contradictions et à celles du XXIe siècle. Infinitude est aussi un roman sur l’importance de l’autre.

A ton avis, quels lecteurs aimeront ce livre ? Est-ce qu’il y un endroit parfait pour le lire, ou un moment de la vie qui correspond particulièrement pour le lire ?

Je pense que ce roman s’adresse aux 25-45 ans. Mais il n’y a jamais de limites d’âge !

Je crois que tu as déjà traduit un autre roman anglais en français… 

Oui, merci de le mentionner ! J’ai terminé la traduction de “Les audacieuses”, une adaptation à partir de “Rouge” un roman de Richard Kirshenbaum inspiré de la vie d’Elsa Rubinstein et d’Estée Lauder et des relations houleuses entre les deux grandes dames qui ont inventé la cosmétique moderne. Visiter: https://michel-lafon.ca/livres/les-audacieuses/

Ce roman ne sortira que le 7 janvier 2021 à cause de la pandémie. Enfin, j’ai un autre projet en cours avec un éditeur qui veut proposer au public français de relire une auteure américaine qui a disparu trop tôt. C’est encore confidentiel…

Infinitude fait allusion aux effets du tourisme dans une communauté traditionnelle. Je crois que toi aussi tu luttes contre les dommages à l’environnement ?

Exactement. Je suis très active dans la lutte contre la pollution par le plastique et les plastiques à usage unique et je participe à des nettoyages de plages. Je réalise des écrits multilingues de sensibilisation citoyenne pour les mairies et les institutionnels, mais aussi pour diffuser auprès de tous les publics, et je suis à la recherche de financements. Ce que je propose est présenté sur mon site web www.wordistas.net

Et quel genre de traduction fais-tu pour gagner ton pain quotidien ? Où peut-on te joindre pour en savoir plus sur ce que tu proposes ?

Je fais le maximum de traduction-adaptation. Je suis aussi spécialiste de la « transcréation », c’est-à-dire la traduction créative pour la publicité et le marketing. Enfin, la traduction environnementale m’intéresse beaucoup. Mon site web est www.wordistas.net.

Merci beaucoup Isabelle, et merci encore pour ton grand travail de ces dernières années. Espérons une réussite infinie pour « Infinitude » !

Merci beaucoup à toi, Jessica. La confiance nous a permis de mener à bien ce projet. J’espère comme toi qu’il aura un succès infini. Alors bon vent à ce livre !

©Jessica Norrie/Isabelle-Rouault-Röhlich 2020

Good reads to give and receive

Books as presents 2

Last December I posted what I’d enjoyed reading in 2018 and kind people have asked for an update. I have three categories for books nowadays – those still to be read, those destined for the charity shop, and those I liked so much they earn a place on my shelves. It’s been a pleasure for this post to look along the rows and find them for you. Most are not recent – if you want to read about flavour of the month books there are always the newspapers and all the wonderful #bookbloggers. But these are what stuck in this reader’s mind.

43611453._sy475_Storming in at number one for the second year running is Shirley Jackson. I’ve been rationing her so I don’t run out of gems. This year’s favourite is Life Among the Savages. These columns about motherhood, although her children must now be older than I am, still ring true. Here’s part of her second paragraph “I look around sometimes at the paraphernalia of our living – sandwich bags, typewriters, little wheels off things – and marvel at the complexities of civilization with which we surround ourselves (….) I begin throwing things away, and it turns out although we can live agreeably without the little wheels of things, new little wheels turn up almost immediately. This is, I suspect, progress. They can make new little wheels, if not faster than they can fall off things, at least faster than I can throw them away.”

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…little wheels that have fallen off things

As I was reading this, imagine my uncanny delight when I discovered in the pocket of the old cardigan I was wearing – an unidentifiable little wheel off something! Anyone who’s ever attempted to amuse sick children, schlepped them round a department store or directed household tasks from the labour suite will identify straight away with Jackson. “So unlike the home life of our own dear Queen,” as my mother would say, raising her head from her book for a moment to consider the pile of undarned socks. (At least women don’t darn husbands’ socks anymore.)

Julie Otsuka published The Buddha in the Attic in 2011. It’s the story – completely new to me – of the Japanese “picture brides”, young (and not so young) women chosen and brought to the US by Japanese men between the wars. No groom looked quite as their photo had shown them. This is a story of hardship, disillusionment, making do, humour, 10464963cultural displacement, hostility and integration, as poetic as The Grapes of Wrath from a female Japanese point of view. It’s difficult to quote from, for it’s written as though in several voices, themed by arrival, accommodation, agricultural and domestic labour, childbirth, children, the war and so on. My husband is not the man in the photograph. My husband is the man in the photograph but aged by many years. My husband’s handsome best friend is the man in the photograph. My husband is a drunkard. My husband is the manager of the Yamamoto Club and his entire torso is covered with tattoos. My husband is shorter than he claimed to be in his letters, but then again, so am I…We gave birth under oak trees, in summer, in 113 degree heat. We gave birth beside wood stoves in one-room shacks on the coldest nights of the year. We gave birth on windy islands in the Delta, six months after we arrived, and the babies were tiny, and translucent, and after three days they died. We gave birth nine months after we arrived to perfect babies with full heads of black hair. 

13330466Also from America, also from 2011, comes Winter Journal by Paul Auster. In the beautifully considered phrases you’d expect from him, he chronicles his life via the buildings and countries he’s lived in, the relationships with parents and women, the illnesses or accidents his body has undergone as well as the joys and sensations, the food he’s eaten, the cars he’s driven, his love for his daughter, the people he’s sat shiva for…. He’s sixty-four at the outset of this journal, and it’s intended as a sort of audit, far less self obsessed and more universal than I’m making it sound. A quote would be another massive paragraph, but whoever you are, if you read it for yourself you’ll find echoes.

36670917One of my favourite British authors is Jon McGregor, and his 2006 So Many Ways to Begin rivals the two above in the quality of the prose and the universality of his description of a long, more or less successful marriage over several decades. There have been problems – mental illness, redundancy, family schisms. There have been successes – homes created, a much loved daughter, love held and exchanged. Life could have been different; it may have been better; the narrator husband is on the whole thankful it wasn’t worse. Why have I left this book in the country? I’d like to be able to quote you every line. (For anyone who couldn’t quite concentrate on the wonderful but dense Reservoir 13, this is a more straightforward narrative, with more plot. But the strength as always is McGregor’s enticing poetic language.)

40130093A running theme here is poetic prose. It’s combined with a riveting turn-the-page plot in Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield. (And at last a book from 2019!) In late 19th century Oxfordshire, a small child is pulled from the river Thames and brought to an inn on its banks. She was dressed in the simplest of shifts that left her arms and ankles bare and the fabric, still damp, lay in ripples around her. The child seems to have drowned. Yet she is not dead. She is healthy, but she doesn’t speak. Who was, or is the child? Who will claim her, who will heal her, and how will the story affect the characters around her, the innkeeper and his family, the farmers and watermen, the pioneer photographer, the self taught nurse and the delinquent son? The only thing I didn’t like in this book, although it accurately reflects attitudes at the time (and today) was the depiction of the river gypsies: it was hard not to read it as racist and it wasn’t justified by the plot. That aside, it’s a great homage to the tradition and language of the best fairy tales (which of course don’t usually give gypsies a good press.) One to save for next time you have a mild cold and need something to nurse it with on the sofa.

37573276My last recommendation is non-fiction, although it is about teasing out the stories we tell ourselves and reframing them for a better ending. In Therapy is transcriptions of conversations, originally on radio, between psychotherapist Susie Orbach and her clients. As she says: Each individual who comes for help craves acceptance, though they may be diffident or even tetchy…I find the particulars of learning how an individual’s internal world works fascinating. This is not so different from creating characters as a writer, only Orbach’s are real. The threads are as compelling as any plot, as some people work towards understanding themselves better and she tries to help others avoid getting even more bogged down than they were when she first met them. It’s not the end of the road, she is able to advise one man, it’s the beginning of something new and possible. Highly readable, whether you agree with her methods or not.

I don’t deserve to live in this company, but in my novels I do try to make my prose as poetic as theirs and sometimes I succeed. If you’re still stuck for Christmas presents, try The Magic Carpet! I can hardly review it myself, but there’s a lovely one here.

Magic carpet wrapped for Xmas

©Jessica Norrie 2019

 

 

A Post about Persephone

Readers of this blog, gentle and otherwise, may remember that I do appreciate distinctive editions that champion forgotten or out of favour books. I went to Persephone books last Tuesday, for a talk about Richmal Crompton. Crompton created William Brown, although she labelled him “a loathsome child” when she realised his fame eclipsed her forty one (yes, 41) novels for adults. Persephone publish one of them, Family Roundabout, and it was this that Dr Sara Lodge from St Andrews University was going to talk about, focussing on women wielding what influence they could in restricted circumstances; on neglected children and on bad writers. I’m glad women are less restricted now even if life still ain’t perfect, and of course I care about neglected children. But what really made my heart leap was the prospect of discussing bad writers. Who hasn’t had fun with the Bad Sex Awards and men writing women? Who can forget the lady novelists who come to live near William and express an anthropological interest in the doings of the Outlaws, or the pompous, detached male and female authors who claim personal hotlines to the souls of their unrealistic child heroes?

The talk was accessible and interesting, but I must admit my attention wandered once I knew the bad writers would feature at the end. My excuse is that the distractions at Persephone are hard to ignore. It’s the prettiest of shops, with framed posters and light wood bookshelves stacked with elegant books in trademark pale grey or with fine art covers (introduction and bookmarks part of the package). There are vases of flowers dotted among the vintage fabrics or in corners warmed by reading lamps. “You’ve just entered the 1940s,” said my friend when I arrived.

The shop was closed for the talk (I think), and crammed in nearly thirty of us on this cold day. “I knew the coats would be good!” someone remarked, examining the audience’s well chosen colours, natural fabrics and print dresses. The embarrassed lady who arrived late was found a place so graciously that I almost wanted to be in her sensible shoes. On the shelves at my elbow, leaving just room for our glasses  of wine or fruit juice, were stacks of books by Elizabeth von Armin (my mother’s favourite), Dorothy Whipple, Frances Hodgson Burnett. I discovered Amy Levy, “the Jewish Jane Austen”, recommended by Oscar Wilde. To my great joy there was Noel Streatfield, and having loved A Vicarage Family I was delighted to find a work for adults I hadn’t read. I rediscovered Marghanita Laski  – if you have never read Little Boy Lost you have a powerfully poignant treat in store. I remember Laski as a customer when I worked at my father’s bookshop and am so pleased Persephone have brought this and other books of hers back to life.

Half listening and half inspecting the room, it was no time before headmistressy* hands were clapped and we were asked to form a line for lunch (no need to ask this audience to make it an orderly line). And what a lunch! Delicious healthy mixed salads, fresh baguette and good cheese, chocolate pudding, more wine or fruit juice, and tea served in bone china cups with, of course, saucers. I almost wish I sweetened my tea, as I’m sure there must have been sugar tongs.

*A much loved headmistress, I think.Persephone 5

Once we were suitably replete and had digested, Dr Lodge’s talk continued. The pathos of the neglected children who recur in Crompton’s work was explored, the little girls dressed up as accessories to their mothers but not loved, the children whose parents forget their birthdays, the children whose needs and wishes are ignored and who are, occasionally, slapped. Oliver Twist it isn’t, but Crompton does criticise upper middle, middle class and nouveau riche ideas for bringing up children, or indeed leaving it to the servants and forgetting to check. The satire is gentle, but satire there is. Marriages are respectably unhappy, with cruel chinks in the polished face they present to the outside world, which mainly consists of suburbia. Crompton, a spinster, lived in Chislehurst, Kent and there were hints that in a later generation she might have chosen a female partner.

Then came the bad writers – Arnold Palmer from Family Roundabout apparently writes “tripe with a revolting veneer of literary virtuosity”. I can’t wait to learn more of him when I read my new copy properly instead of skimming it for quotes to give this blog post a veneer of authenticity. And finally questions, thanks to Sara (“So interesting! And not too academic!”) and a chance to browse and chat.

Persephone are interested in suggestions for forgotten authors they might republish (not only fiction). I see they already do one Ruth Adam but would love to see I’m Not Complaining reissued, and a book much loved by my mother and my 1970s self, glimmers to me from the past. This was Life with Lisa (1958) and a companion Leave it to Lisa, by Sybil Burr. I wish I still had them. They were Young Adult when teenagers had barely been invented.

What a discovery! If you’re in London, do visit, and if not they have an online catalogue of lovely ideas  – they will post you a gift wrapped book a month, for example. I’d like to thank friends Gill and Sheila for inviting me along, Persephone books for their hospitality, their imagination, and giving me the chance to use the word “spinster”. And advance thanks too: as a poor selling but well reviewed lady author I’m hoping that in seventy years Persephone books of the future will rescue my own Magic Carpet and Infinity Pool, dress them in a grey jacket and make me a vintage star.

©Jessica Norrie 2019

 

A story and prizes for my second blogiversary!

The blog is two! Looking back I see I haven’t included as many short stories as I originally promised, so there’s one below. If you tell me what you think of it (good or bad), I’ll put you in the draw for a book prize – could be one I’ve reviewed, one I’ve liked or one I’ve written. UK only, sorry, readers elsewhere, but I’m a struggling writer….

Anyway, you’re all winners, because this story is for you. It came from my writing course at the British Library, when we had to identify an object in the Library to write about. No photos are allowed in the exhibition I chose, so you will have to make do with the brochure, but do visit; it’s free and very inspiring.

bl treasures
About the “Treasures of the BL” , from the current brochure

TEMPORARILY REMOVED

The exhibition’s sparkling name seduced me: “Treasures!” Entranced, I pored over illuminated manuscripts, hand scribed scriptures, painted vellum and pages of early print. I followed a sign that said: To the Magna Carta. But there was only a glass display case, containing a perspex-or-similar stand, and a printed sign with the  message: “Temporarily Removed”.

I racked my memory. What was the Magna Carta, anyway? And remembered: among other clauses, it declared that everybody, including the king, was subject to the rule of law and had the right to a fair trial. It was, in effect, one of the first declarations of human rights.

And now it had gone. Who took it?

Was it taken by a curator, for legitimate purposes? Perhaps it needed a polish, or was dog eared? Or letters had faded and blurred, and the curator had gone in search of ink and whatever medieval scribes used for Tippex – something made of flax, possibly. When she found nothing suitable for a running repair, she took the whole thing away for safekeeping. Temporarily, of course.

It was unlikely to have been stolen. The area bristled with alarms, the Magna Carta would have screamed “Traitors!” as it was lifted, and the thief immediately been apprehended by the elegant Egyptian security man and his Roman nosed Ukrainian colleague, with their ramrod backs and their epaulettes to die for.

I shared my disappointment with a fellow passenger on the trolleybus home. He confided a rumour, and a few days later it was confirmed by a brave investigative  radio reporter. The Home Secretary herself had had the Magna Carta since last Michaelmas quarter day. Picture the scene:

“Basil! I’ve forgotten the law of the land! Fetch me the Magna Carta!”

The under Home Secretary bowed. “You’ll have to fetch it yourself, I’m afraid, Cynthia,” he simpered. “Only you, the PM – and the King I suppose – have the right to remove the Magna Carta from the Treasures Collection.”

So the Home Secretary sent the British Library a pneumatogram and arrangements were made for her collect the Magna Carta at sherry time, to temporarily remove it to Queen Anne’s Gate or wherever it is the Home Secretary resides nowadays. You’d think it would be safe there, but…

… at tea time on All Hallows Eve, she was sitting by a roaring fire, her Persian cat Nero purring in his basket and Basil buttering steaming crumpets for the three of them. She was studying the Magna Carta, her eyes glowing in the firelight.

“This Magna Carta is too long.”

Basil knew that tone of finality. He put the butter knife down and wiped his hands on his pinny. Only that morning, during the regular watch he kept on the Fortnum’s community noticeboard, his careful fingers had stripped the address of a radical organisation from a recipe for gunpowder soufflé. Cynthia’s deft gesture was identical, pinching a section of the Magna Carta between her coral painted thumb and fingernails, and ripping it decisively away.

“Too many rights, too much to police, administer, and communicate. We can never assure them all. The country can easily do without this one.” Rip, tear.

“And this…”

With gusto the gleaming nails scored, tore and flicked.

Much of the Magna Carta lay in shreds on the Home Secretary’s monogrammed carpet. Basil scurried for the bronze dustpan and brush. Efficient percussion filled the room: stiff swipes of the bristles keeping time with Cynthia’s knuckles cracking.

“Decluttering, Basil. Taking back control. A compact Magna Carta will be neater than all that swollen old waffle.”

She rubbed her hands in satisfaction but her hooded eyes remained restless. “Then again, if a job’s worth doing…” She swooped on the shrunken pages.

“I’ve started so I’ll finish.”

That evening the British Library received pneumatogrammed instructions. The investigative reporter was too late to intercept them and could only report post factum. Visitors to the British Library now will find a new sign:

MAGNA CARTA. PERMANENTLY REMOVED

©Jessica Norrie 2018

Please leave a comment below before midnight BST on April 19th 2018 – improvements, continuations, deletions – to enter the draw. And please stay with me for a third year of words and fictions – it’s a fiction, by the way, that the Magna Carta is anywhere other than safely inside the British library, for now. It was something else – I didn’t check what – that had been temporarily removed.

prize 4

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”.

30008702

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

 

 

Jane Austen recast

When I studied European Literature (Sussex, 1981), our only sources of criticism and commentary were lectures and the library. If you were studying an obscure text, there wasn’t much to go on. For example, for one assessment I compared versions of Troilus and Cressida. I found plenty about the Shakespeare play and lots on Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, a few books about their source which was probably Boccacio‘s Il Filostrato, and one short chapter on a Scottish poet called Henryson. His narrative poem The Testament of Cresseid featured Cressida punished for her love affair by contracting leprosy. I took as gospel everything the critic said about Henryson, because who else was there to consult? And Henryson took a starring role in my essay, to gain me marks for originality.

Undergraduates often depend too much on second hand opinions partly because they respect more senior researchers (good) and partly because they lack confidence in their own views (bad). Thus, at feedback for my essay on Crime and Punishment, the eminent Professor Thorlby greeted me: “I didn’t know you were a lapsed Catholic.” I’d had no idea, dependent as I was on discussing the words of the only Russian critic I could find translated into comprehensible English, that was the impression I’d given. I  thought my essay was contrasting individualism with social responsibility. (I did know enough to know I liked criticism to be rooted in a social and economic context as well as discussing language and style. So with one confused eye on the semiotics and structuralism then still shunned at Cambridge but a big deal at trendy Sussex, the critics I favoured tended to be Marxist, which also made them easier to read.)

As an exchange postgraduate in France, I had to teach Hamlet to students older and more qualified than myself. I fled back to England, to the Sussex library and in horror found over a dozen shelves in the “stacks”, of Hamlet criticism alone. How to sort out the brilliance from the dead wood? And how much worse this dilemma must be now. I just Googled “Hamlet – critical articles” and found 21,600,000 results.

Since that eye opening Sussex foundation, with more decades of reading and some writing of my own, I’m less blinded by academic credentials and more able to judge whether a critical study is telling me something new. One such is Jane Austen: The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly. Now Austen is an author I thought I knew well. But – “Forget the Jane Austen you think you know. Forget the biographies, forget the pretty adaptations. Ignore the banknote. Read Jane’s novels,” says Kelly (p.311). Well, I’ve done that, several times32441705. I studied Persuasion for A level (Don’t knock A levels. A good teacher leading on a great book, covering the solid old style A level syllabus, can provide a key to thinking about literature that’s equal to anything on Google or mouldering in the library stacks.) My Economic History A level covered the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions in the UK, and I studied the French Revolution at university, as well as Mary Wollstonecraft, Marx, and Freud. So I was prepared for much of Kelly’s thinking, and I’d never dismissed Austen’s novels as pretty drawing room dramas. I agree with Kelly that if you “…understand what serious subject marriage was then…all of a sudden courtship plots start to seem like a more suitable vehicle for discussing other serious things.” (p.31) Even so – take a deep breath.

Northanger Abbey, is not as I thought about a young girl carried away into silly fantasies by reading Gothic novels. 50398Kelly points out, in this novel about reading, how little reading actually gets done. But there does seem to be female masturbation, thinly veiled as unlocking a door: “Jane’s society viewed it as common knowledge that girls, as well as boys, indulged in the ‘secret and destructive vice’.” (p.66) There are a number of footnotes and a short bibliography, but this particular assertion is not backed up though Freud must be drooling in his grave. I found the claims that death through sex and childbirth was a major theme, both overt and coded, more convincingly argued through the sad statistics of social history.

Sense and Sensibility is, to Kelly, about “brass” (money). She points out the imagery of 14935metals, money and jewellery, and how this novel, like Pride and Prejudice, highlights unfair inheritance laws and primogeniture. The money references are given so precisely in Sense and Sensibility, the 21st century reader can calculate the exact incomes of various grades of clergy, army personnel, landowners and their dependents, and understand how patronage makes or ruins them. But here’s Freud again: Kelly highlights sexual symbolism, hinting at abuse, and her delving into the moral character of even apparently worthy suitors raise few hopes for the marriages contracted. If Kelly’s reading is correct, Austen is cynically pessimistic about the future for the Dashwood brides.

Most of us are most familiar with Pride and Prejudice. But here’s a less chintzy angle. Kelly is into her stride now, and highlights 1885
how “the presence of the militia in the novel …introduces layer upon layer of anxiety…Invasions..naval mutinies…food riots…They’re in the background, but they’re there.” (p 128). She situates the novel amid precise historical events through indicators like the style of Elizabeth’s petticoat – not a petticoat at all but a fashion that was definitely old fashioned by the mid 1790s. She also explains the extra resonance in the word “prejudice” for contemporary readers – a strength of Kelly’s book is her ability to decode references that would have been much more obvious to Austen’s immediate audience than they are to us. One thing we’d have to be blind to miss is the criticism of the clergy, represented by the absurd Mr Collins, but Kelly is none too impressed by Mr Darcy’s aristocrat either, even after the proud and prejudiced scales have fallen from his eyes. Whoops – here’s another marriage auguring well but, Kelly implies, too much of a fairy tale to ring true.

It’s always gratifying when an expert echoes one’s own thoughts. For Kelly as for me, Mansfield Park was Austen’s most radical and daring novel, and she is moving on Austen’s disappointment at the lack of reviews. Perhaps, says Kelly – the word perhaps appears often in JA:The Secret Radical: not all Kelly’s ideas are fully substantiated – this isn’t surprising. Mansfield Park is a barely coded attack on slavery. Although the 45032abolitionist cause had much public support by Austen’s time, much wealth was still enmeshed with slavery, from her own family to great landowners and the Church of England. It reflected well on the enlightened British to support abolishing slavery in the Caribbean, but at home nobody wanted to see their standard of living fall, or run short of sugar. Kelly finds child abuse and sadism in the novel, as well as fortunes built on slavery and ecclesiastical hypocrisy. “(Mansfield Park) is filled with infidelities, not-so-genteel-poverty, with bullying and threats of violence.” (p. 168). She points out how the names Mansfield, Norris, Madeira (as in wine) and Moor Park (the type of apricot tree planted at Mansfield Parsonage) would have resonated with contemporary readers, who’d recognise the names of players in the slavery debate; she counts many instances of the words “plantation, slave, chains”. She shows how daring it was for a clergyman’s daughter to write a novel so critical of the Church. No wonder it wasn’t reviewed.

I said in my previous post on Jane Austen that I found the story and character of Emma least interesting of all the novels. Kelly len6969ds more meaning to the story, explaining how the plot reflects the enclosures movement. “Enclosing” covered any kind of fencing, walling, hedging or barring access to common and waste ground. It was at its height when Emma was written. It challenged the poor, who had previously been able to supplement their meagre incomes grazing livestock, growing vegetables, gathering firewood and foraging on such land. Without access, the numbers of destitute people swelled, and there was high population growth too. Kelly shows the landscape of Emma emphasising enclosures, “respectable” people reduced to begging for parish relief, gypsies forced off their traditional sites, and the better off feeling vulnerable too. Mr Knightly is not the kind, urbane gentleman he appears, with his enclosure projects; Mr Woodhouse is perhaps justified in being querulous; the gypsies are not threatening but threatened, in Kelly’s reading. Birth advantages can be taken away; illegitimate children cosseted or cast off at whim; the domestic world of Emma is as threatening as the warring background to Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion.

Kelly is least sure of herself talking about 2156Persuasion. She is interesting, but perhaps not original (I don’t know enough about Austen scholarship to say) on the theme of fossils and old certainties giving way to Darwinism, conjecturing Austen may have come across the child Mary Anning on the beach at Lyme Regis. She’s amusing about the idea of marrying to regain an ancestral home and on snobbery – but Austen does that all so well herself with her portrait of Sir Walter Elliot, it barely needs repeating. I felt her writing about Persuasion was like history in the novel: “… disrupted, random, chaotic…You can’t escape the tide of history; you can’t stay firm against that kind of pressure; you have to give way and let yourself be carried, if you want any hope of surviving.” (p 289).

I may give the impression, wrongly, that Kelly discusses only the six principal novels. But she does so in the context of Jane Austen’s letters, of imagined scenes from her life, historical events, her comic verse and fragments of writing, memoirs by the Austen family, contemporary novels and polemic, and the scholarship of others. There are snippets of social history; daring, forthright opinions, and there’s quite a lot of “perhaps” along with a few “undoubtedly”s. It’ s a long time since I’ve been fascinated enough to review a secondary source. I may even go and study literature again.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

Books for older readers

A few days ago I added my own novel to a new Facebook page, Books for Older Readers. It says it’s “for readers over 50 and writers who write books which appeal to this age group. Please join if you write, read, blog or recommend books for the over 50s.”

pennyjenkins-300x225
Singing for the Over 50s
with Penny Jenkins
… fun course is for all singers, any ability, no upper age limit! Rediscover the joy singing brings …make music for many years to come. Benefits to health, happiness, general well-being. 

(Digression #1 – we oldies are allowed to ramble –  coincidentally I had an email today from Jackdaws with a singing course for the over 50s. I went on an all ages course there once and it thoroughly rejuvenated my voice! Recommended.)

I’m broadly in agreement with the aims of Clare Baldry, the retired headteacher and author who set the page up. Of course it raises all sorts of questions, not least: what is “older”? I’m still in my 50s, and never took much trouble to keep very fit, but I’m disconcerted (and worse) to find several university peers already dead, and myself and others beset by serious eyesight problems, cancers, arthritis and so on. The recent death at 51 of  comedian Sean Hughes banged another nail in our collective coffin. And yet…many of us have started new careers and hobbies and the if UK Old Age Pension isn’t now going to start for me until I’m 66 or 67, how can I be “old” before that? Baldry’s 50+ is a wide age group in a country where average life expectancy is now  79 for men and 83 for women. But my local community centre stubbornly continues to offer services for older people from age 55, and many sheltered housing complexes offer flats to anyone over the same age (a complex is what I’d have if I bought one now).older people 4

However, we probably do read different books, or at least in a different way. Everyone’s experienced returning to a book they adored as a young adult to find it either still wonderful, or a bit quaint, or boring, or completely discordant. Fashions in writing style and content change. It seems to me the books I read when younger were wordier, quieter, more thoughtful. Sentences were longer; interior monologues and third person narration and omniscient narrators and multiple points of view and extended scenes and assumptions of background knowledge and intense concentration on the reader’s part were taken for granted. The short sentences, staccato scenes and gasping plots of today’s girls on trains and the extreme violence of some contemporary crime novels are just too shallow and voyeuristic for me, while “cosy crime” is too silly. But a good well written thriller is always fun to read.

(Digression #2: Specific annoyances for a mid 50s woman standing up on a rush hour tube. i) Everyone sitting down is much younger than I am. ii) If they stand up for me it must be because they think I look really old. iii) None of them stands up for me.)

Older people 1
Book “department” – local Waitrose

Of course, most over 50s once had access to good bookshops and/or libraries. We are more familiar with leisurely browsing through hardbacks and paperbacks, not the spurious “look inside” you get on Amazon or the tiny selection of middle and low brow bestsellers and celebrity publications in the local supermarket. We either still do, or once had, better concentration.

Digression #3. It would bore you, and me, if I  researched any evidence for that last statement. (Or would it?)

As an ex teacher, I dislike sweeping generalisations about literacy levels (which are influenced by so many complexities it should be illegal to make them), but many of us were educated (or at least went to school) at a time when vocabulary and style were seen as just as important as phonics and genre, when we wrote “compositions” ourselves and when adverbs were not seen as a disease to be stamped out. My vintage is no doubt betrayed by the length of my sentences and my use of the passive voice. What we read influenced how we wrote as children; how we wrote as children influences how we write now. The editors to whom agents submit are in their late 20s and early 30s now: “whom” just makes them say “what?” and they chuck the (virtual) manuscript straight onto the (virtual) slush pile with a brief “Sorry, I just didn’t love it enough” to the agent,or worse, an out of office reply they’re on maternity leave..

After a while, however perceptive your browsing, you do find you’ve read the same thing rather too often. No more inner thoughts at dinner parties for me! I’m also done with the first  and second world wars (with an exception for A God in Ruins), the Holocaust, the Dustbowl and Depression, most dystopias (I stopped at Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and John Wyndham), university novels, early mid life crises (“…at nearly 40, X worries her life is running away with her…”). The Child in Time by Ian McEwan did child abduction in exemplary fashion years ago and needs no revisit. I don’t think I want to read about the miseries of old age either. As a student I admired and was moved by Simone de Beauvoir’s “A Very Easy Death“. But as a student, I hadn’t yet experienced the death of my own parents, and my back didn’t hurt, I didn’t have to laugh off “senior moments” (how that grates!) and hadn’t started to dislike snow and wet leaves on the pavement.

 

Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves was brilliantly written but grimmer than grim, especially describing dementia that started in middle age. Unadulterated old age is tedious: I began to read Margaret Drabble as a teenager and followed her heroines through youth and middle age as we all matured, but she’s twenty years ahead of me. Last year’s The Dark Flood Rises has too much banal details of food spilling, not being able to run for buses, and too much reflected loss of confidence. Her writing, like our skins, is less fresh, less taut. It disappointed me. (I feel guilty, writing that. A book entirely full of old people: how dare they be so visible? They are not so in the street, in public, on the tube. How inconsiderate of them and their elderly author. And my own confidence takes a further tumble. If Drabble, with her stellar career, is past it, perhaps I should stop submitting to publishers much sooner.)

But my rules are made to be broken! The Oxfam shop supplied me with The Lie this morning. It’s about the First World War, but it has the quality mark of Helen Dunmore who sadly, has not lived to be old. I romped through Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, perhaps because the humour and the detective element leaven the awfulness of the heroine’s confusion. Doris Lessing’s readable, poignant, funny, informative memoir Alfred and Emily was published when she was 89, five years before she died. At nearly 100, Diana Athill published an elegant, witty memoir from her retirement home, Alive, Alive Oh!

Good or bad, we can’t only read about old, and much older age. Well written books whose characters and concerns span several generations work well for older readers too, and may be more cheerful, with their cyclical sense of renewal. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet novels, Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, Maggie O’Farrells This Must Be The Place are in the same tradition, and we love them because we have experience of all the age groups.

Whoops, another rule broken: as a child I devoured the Jalna books. Mazo de la Roche’s now forgotten series based on a family in the Southern States of the USA fascinated me, and I loved the hero Renny Whiteoak, even though he was already twice my age when I read the beginning of his story in my grandmother’s spare bedroom and and 60 years older when I finished it.

402252I just noticed most of the books I’ve praised here for older readers are by women. Coincidence or is it that I find them warmer? I’m straying on to dangerous ground here (or another blog post) and will redress the balance. If you haven’t read (or rather, viewed) the memoir by Raymond Briggs of his parents Ethel and Ernest, you have a treat in store.

Perhaps older readers just want high quality writing with beauty and style, originality, subjects that will interest and intrigue them, escape… The same as younger readers maybe. In some ways it’s easier to achieve because older readers do I think have a more established reading habit, and in some ways harder because, inevitably, they have less sense of wonder at the world. I’ll be curious to see what Books for Older Readers recommends and wish it many happy anniversaries to come.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

Dirty books and dusty friends

I have lots of dirty books. They gather dust, on their “foxed”  woolly edged yellow pages and their warped covers with water marks where somebody may have read them in the bath. And they smell. Many of them are not pleasant. Yet I seem to have done nothing but chuck out books since just before moving three years ago. Of course, that’s three more years of aging, for the ones that survived the cull.

Now I may move again. Every time I move, bookseller’s daughter that I am, I take care to pack my books alphabetically and by classification, with directions on the box for their destination. (Years ago, a removal man burst out laughing: “French Drama in the Back Bedroom eh? Can I come round when you’ve unpacked?”)

books - ductionary uses
New uses for a dictionary

Yesterday, on a whim, I organised and shelved them properly. You could call it fiddling while Rome burns, as I should have been tidying up for the estate agent to take his photos (despite that old Anthony Powell novel, Books Do Furnish a Room). In this house, there had been so much decorating to do, the books had travelled economy class straight into the loft and been unearthed haphazardly as I felt the need of them. It suddenly seemed important they should take their proper place at this address, albeit briefly. So I had the usual experience of meeting and greeting old friends, despairing how they’d aged, reacquainting myself with loved ones I thought I’d lost, regretting the dear departed, and wondering what I’d ever seen in others.  

Here too were books inherited from my parents: a lovely set of Virginia Woolf, my father’s Proust. Why keep that? I was supposed to read it in French at university (I managed volumes 1,2, and 9), and anyway the Scott Moncrieff translation has been superseded by a new one. But he did persevere with it, because my mother was taking her French degree at the same time and if he couldn’t beat her he’d join her (he never beat her in any sense of the word.) Here’s his “Catch 22” with some original publicity postcards inside it, and my mother’s childhood “Just So Stories” with Kipling’s mesmerising illustrations. 

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Shelving alphabetically gives happy accidents. There’s an MA thesis waiting to be written on what besides the first two letters links MArquez and MAugham, or JM COetzee and Wilkie COllins. (Taking out the Collins, I see it cost 6s 6d and the front is inscribed: “EVERYMAN, I will go with thee, and be thy guide, In thy most need to go by thy side.” That’s timely.) Meanwhile the juxtapositions remind me of my own attendance at the Great Amazon Dinner Party.  Oh NO, here’s my book, sitting to the right of my father’s.

Here’s a full set of “King Penguins”. I think I’ll save them for a blog post of their own. Here are all the Virago Modern Classics. Books King Penguins 2Here are my travel guides and phrasebooks. My dictionaries are redundant, arguably, since the Internet, but they have other uses and it would be sad to offload them after so many distractions in their alphabetical juxtapositions. Here are some old children’s books, also agog for their own blog post, and my father’s novels which I don’t imagine anyone will ever read now. Here are novels that have come with me from London to Brighton, to Paris, back to Brighton, to Dijon, to Sheffield, and then through three moves within London. I can almost hear their fragile pages sighing, “…not again! Don’t move us! Only the dust and grease is still holding us together.” From some: “Why not re-read us, while you’re at it?” And from one or two, despondent, quietly, almost not daring to utter: “Why didn’t you ever open me?”

Books Castro
A book I’ll never read…

Here’s Kafka, sneering in a corner: the move won’t work, first you have to negotiate chains and gazumping and bureaucracy and surveys and searches and gazundering...Here’s Dickens: The house you like squats on a seeping marsh, held up only by the will of the long dead builder, mouldering and grimy and repository of of voluminous secrets and scandals… Here’s Jane Austen: The elegant bow window in which the company took up position with a view to examining the panorama, was thinly glazed and afforded  considerable draughts... Here’s C S Lewis: In one empty room there was nothing but a huge wardrobe, perhaps left behind by previous owners for whom it had been too large to move….Bill Bryson chortles as Dorothy Parker raises a glass sardonically. 

Books in the bedroom…the “children’s” rooms (the ones they left behind), art books in the living room, their reproductions poor by modern standards, their colours dated, their outlines blurred, and yet…this is how many people only ever saw great art, when we travelled less. Even books in the kitchen – the estate agent shakes his head. But surely he won’t mind books in the study?books and art 3

Like the ghosts of old retainers or clinging family my books accompany me from house to house, and I only manage to exorcise a few each time. Those “grown up books” first read and misunderstood as a teenager, those university textbooks, those introductions to teaching theory and translation theory, the light relief novels, the silent books that haunt you, the beautiful writing that’s as satisfying as a picture in an art gallery that pulls you in to look.  The new editions of the few books I loved so much I replaced their worn out predecessors. The relative newcomers (Dunmore, Tremain, Zadie Smith) ask  the old hands: “Is this the start of a lifetime climbing in and out of boxes?” 

Books replaced
Books I replaced with newer copies

The estate agent arrives to take pictures. He’s a chatty man, and his words donate me a new character for a novel I may write : “I have to watch politefully, you know, when my wife’s on the muscle shows.” He prowls, an animal poised for hunting. He crouches in peculiar positions, his camera at odd angles. I must have a querying expression. “Just trying to keep the books out of shot,” he says. So, dear readers, if you don’t like what you see on Rightmove, please find below this blog post an alternative brochure of house particulars, and contact me if you’d like to arrange a viewing.

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©Jessica Norrie 2017