I wrote this post on Tuesday, 30th January, admirably ahead of schedule for today.
Authors don’t have false starts, because all changes are part of the multiple drafting processes. But authors often have false ends – they think they’re done, and then a beta reader, editor, agent, or their own head says no you’re not, and back they go to the text, rectifying, snipping, embellishing, reshaping (it’s beginning to sound more like a haircut than a book).
Finally, in desperation, boredom, defiance or pride off goes the manuscript. Agent, here you are. I’m prepared to rewrite, but only for a commercial publisher. Failing a publisher, I’ll self publish! But either way, that book is done to a turn.
Author takes time off. Eats toffees, ambles round the park, sneaks to an exhibition. For some, it’s only a few days before they’re thinking: next book? I’m assuming this process gets faster as they notch up the novels. After my first, I ummed and ah’d for months before I had any tentative thoughts, let alone jottings. The second novel is traditionally tricky for all authors and often referred to kindly (or patronisingly) as a hurdle to vault en route for the sunlit uplands of the third, merrily mixing metaphors as you go. But with one remarkably debonair click of the mouse, off went Second Novel last week. I hope you’ll hear of it again in some form, but if not, never mind: already this week idea number three is tickling my brain.
This time, I’ve taken advice on what the market wants. Well, heard advice anyway. I can’t write gripping psychological thrillers but that’s ok, I’m told people want something more cheerful. I can’t write minutely researched historical fiction, because I’m too slapdash and anyway, they’re so last year. I won’t write violence and I don’t understand science fiction and I’m irritated by cosy crime. I’m too down to earth for fantasy and I can’t invent some new literary form so novel (pun intended) and mould-breaking there’s a new book prize established in my name. But I’ve spotted a chink in the genre armour, a tiny keyhole of opportunity and I’m going to try and tailor something to fit its requirements. Third Novel won’t take four years like First Novel, or two like Second. I’ll knock it off in time to present it to my agent by Christmas and save the expense of a more conventional gift.
Only yesterday I was shuffling around the house feeling pressured and heavy (is it a good sign that this wild mind can go from haircut imagery to submarines in four short paragraphs?) Today a couple of characters introduced themselves as I walked round the block – what a help a sunny day is. The setting’s in the bag – the longer you live the more places you’ve known: how useful. There’s a glimmering of plot, always the hardest part for me. I have a very corny working title and a fragile 3000 words in a New Folder. To think there are people, events, ideas and developments ahead just waiting to be pulled out of my head and fastened on the page! It’s exciting like going up in a balloon, like candy floss (revolting but I’m in such a good mood it sounds nice), like the letter with my place at university, or the moment the clouds lifted from Mount Fuji.
If my idea works and I keep writing, I’ll get to the drudgery stage quite soon. If it doesn’t – well, that’s one reason for publishing this blog post today. The edifice can’t come crashing down because so far it’s only sketchy foundations, but even if they sink without trace, even if the fleeting inspiration, er, fleets, I wanted to pin down the excitement of the almost blank page(screen), the promising project, the journey in prospect. Also, if I’ve announced it, maybe someone out there will hold me to it.
This is what I have to say this morning (Friday 2nd February):
The Magic Carpet (I may as well dignify Second Novel with its title) came back from agent yesterday with third round of comments (let no one say agents don’t earn their 15%). Most remarks justified, and he’s “still not sure about the beginning”. (This has been changed often. It’s surprising how moving different chapters to the front can herald a different genre each time – not necessarily one I want or that subsequent chapters remain faithful to.) I would now like to put it behind me, frankly. But if The Magic Carpet never flies, even on CreateSpace let alone commercially, how will Third Novel ever soar free of those Second Novel blues?
No time for Third Novel today after considering agent’s comments and writing Friday blog post. Perhaps the blog should go? Perhaps Magic Carpet should be fed to the moths? Perhaps it would only be Third Time Unlucky?
The End, as written on Tuesday, 30th January: Back next week if not too busy!
The End, as written on Friday, 2nd February: Back next week (possibly).
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’sTroilus 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 poemThe 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.
Henryson’s poems edited by Hugh McDiarmid
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.
Just one of Barthes’ impressive works – his theories are difficult but do repay close reading.
Eagleton has written much more since then, including hilarious criticism of the 2016 Conservative manifesto, but this is what we would have read at Sussex in the late 1970s
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 times. 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. Kelly 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 metals, 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
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 abolitionist 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 Emmaleast interesting of all the novels. Kelly lends 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 Persuasion. 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.
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.”
(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).
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.)
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.
I 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.
Sometimes episodes in a book echo the reader’s life. It’s reassuring, and can be cathartic. Certainly any book whose style or content makes me react: “That’s me/my thoughts/my situation you’re describing!” during the first few pages is one I’d continue reading. It works whether the moment is essential to the plot or a sideline. This week I read “Transit” by Rachel Cusk, and the number of echoes were uncanny.
To some extent it’s because Cusk deals with universals. Like a fortune teller (and the book opens with one) she discusses the great preoccupations of life: getting together; separating; maternal guilt; moving house; memory. We can all relate to these, and she explores them with subtlety and depth, going inside her character’s heads and saying the unsayable. “There! She’s said it for me!” the reader thinks with relief, as her nameless narrator admits to not fully responding to her distressed child, to not listening to the students she’s teaching, to absolutely loathing her neighbours. (I’m assuming this is a narrator, not Cusk herself.)
Narrator makes so many observations, some are bound to be true for each reader. Even so, what a lot of coincidences, right from page 1 (where the fortune teller’s junk email expresses her situation for her): “I sometimes struggled to find meaning in my present circumstances and to feel hope for what was to come.” (P.2) Sneering at this resonating description as just a “computer algorithm” reveals Narrator’s own vulnerability. Quickly she distances herself, describing a divorced friend who admits he’s affected by such mailshots too, then moving from him to an estate agent describing his clients: “...the same people who had stormed and wept like frustrated children because a property was being denied them, would be found days later sitting calmly in his office, expressing gratitude for the fact that they hadn’t got it…For most people, he said, finding and procuring a home was an intensely active state; and activity entails a certain blindness, the blindness of fixation. Only when their will has been exhausted do the majority of people realise the decree of fate.” Thus at a remove of four or more people (self, friend, agent, clients) Narrator/Cusk expresses how we all feel.
My goodness, that’s only on page 3 and already Narrator’s pinpointed me. I’m currently deciding whether to move to “the country” to a just affordable detached house. In “the country” the houses are all different, unlike London where you know what you’re going to see as soon as you ring the bell. Everything in London is white painted and laminate floored, but elsewhere houses are different shapes and sizes, in quirky states of repair and the decor and contents rumble with the lives of their present owners. (I can’t afford the nicer ones and others have fatal flaws that back in the agent’s office I realise would soon have had my blood pressure on the boil.)
After recounting her hairdresser’s views on life (I too have an articulate, empathetic hairdresser, who I pay as much for his company as for what he does to my hair), Narrator runs into an old boyfriend. How civil they can now be! How objectively she can analyse the way they treated each other! They swap stories of children and homes, and he wishes her well in her move back to London. Yes, I’ve known that…
She’s moving too, but in the opposite direction. Like me three years ago, she has to find something in an expensive city and has limited resources (it’s all relative: I do realise millions of people are far worse off than I am). Like me, she ends up with a dreadful property, all dodgy wiring, rotting floorboards and creatures you’d rather not think about inside and out. It’s a first floor flat, similar to one I once had. Like me then, she has elderly council tenant neighbours below – but where mine there and in my present house were welcoming and insisted my building projects were no trouble, hers are resentful, filthy and offensive. There’s no doubt the work has to be done, but they resist it every step of the way.
Again, the same story as mine, though from the opposite viewpoint. My charming neighbour here died and next door was sold. Cusk is now holding up a mirror to me of how obstreperous neighbours can seem: it ain’t pleasant. To find Narrator describing her dissenting neighbour as a monster troll is disturbing, knowing my emotions run every bit as strong as those expressed in the foul mouthed tirades she receives from the basement. “It’s these single skin buildings,” the builder said, shaking his head. “Every sound goes right through them.” (P 51. On cue, drilling has started through my party wall and revolting though they sound, I do sympathise with the neighbours. Not only the building is thin-skinned. I find the monster troll in me is very close to the surface.)
As I did, Narrator builds a relationship with her builder, (not a “relationship”, you understand, an affinity), and also with his sub contractors. She’s interested in their back stories, their health and their emotional well being, and they in turn try to protect her from the worst of living in a building site, sometimes by acting off their own initiative in ways that surprise and unsettle her. She seeks out friends having similar experiences: “…(Amanda) couldn’t remember what it was like to live somewhere normal,…where you didn’t have to … thoroughly remove the dust and dirt from your person in order to leave the house, rather than the other way around…she had gone to meetings with grout in her hair and plaster under her fingernails…” (p.169).
I’ve only achieved the title of my proposed novel about building, used for this review pending a text to go with it. But Cusk’s done the lot, and unlike me is able to throw in chapters on the sort of literary festival that would never ask me to speak and on having the sort of creative writing student who would never choose me. Like me, Narrator is still building a new life after divorce and it seems to involve as much mess, as many wrong turns, as much expenditure and clumsiness and mood swings and anecdotes as mine. She recounts them dispassionately, hence the catharsis.
“Transit” is also a novel about new people she meets, new chances Narrator builds or encounters; it’s a novel of glimmering possibilities and foul interactions she must either put behind her or put up with. And it’s about self and other: how others have the same thoughts she does; how the light they shine is only slightly different. She shows how expressing experiences and opinions through them (he said that/ she said she/ I asked her what…) permits just enough distance, enough observational objectivity, for writer and reader to step over the boundaries of what it’s conventionally acceptable to explore and confess. The language is simple and clear, almost clinical: it needs to be, because the thoughts she explores develop in sometimes complex and shocking ways. Yet we should not be shocked, because we have thought them too.
I must now read the first novel in this trilogy, “Outline” from 2015, and also “Aftermath” (2009), which was criticised by some as revenge for the rawness of separation and for involving others beside herself. Other reviewers found it pure and cathartic.“Why can’t we just be normal? Why does everything have to be so weird?” asks the older son in a desperate phone to his mother, when he’s lost his keys to his dad’s house. “I said I was sorry but I had to go.” (p.133) Sometimes, you can’t provide an answer, although you can keep asking the questions, and you do just have to go. At least reading Cusk you know you are not alone.
I’d be interested to know if any readers have had the same experience of identifying with a book, fiction or not, and the effect it had on them.
I’ve put together these titles and questions for my imaginary cross-party MPs’ book group, meeting at the House of Commons once a month. Since participation will help all MPs do their job in an empathetic, efficient, positive way, I’ll let them claim the books on expenses (also there are so few local libraries left they’d be lucky to get them there). I’ve allowed 48 books, one per month for four years, sorted into themes, plus a year to digest. So there can’t be another election until they’ve read them all, ok?
On poverty and deprivation, and the effect they have on the lives of potentially healthy human beings:
MPs’ book group questions:Imagine you are a character in one of these books. What would be your main hopes and fears, and how realistic are they? Can you get what you need without harming other people and how vulnerable do you feel yourself?
MPs’ book group questions:What is the worst scenario of all the ones described in these books? Do you think the world is a safer place now than at the time of the wars these books discuss? How could you end existing conflicts and prevent new ones?
MPs’ book group questions:All these books raise questions about how and what we teach children. In what ways do you think our treatment of children and the curriculum we deliver have improved since these books were published?
MPs’ book group question: This is a picture book aimed at children but the message is serious. Can you identify ways in which adults receive the same message, and how the problems it highlights are being dealt with?
MPs’ book group question: This is also a picture book aimed at children but the message is serious. Can you identify any novels for adults which deliver the same message? How are the problems it highlights being addressed internationally?
MPs’ book group questions: This book describes surgical expertise developed within the NHS. How precarious do you think this expertise and practice is, going forward? Will it still be possible to write a book about a contemporary NHS in five years time?
MPs’ book group questions:Would you say the lives of women in the first novel and the second book of are reflected anywhere in the world in contemporary society? How much do you know about FGM and forced marriage? What measures can be taken to protect women from all kinds of exploitation and abuse?
On LGBT rights:
Maurice by EM Forster (written 1914, published 1971)
MPs’ book group questions: What is the earliest date at which these books could have been published without significant personal risk to their authors, and why? How can you continue to protect LGBT interests?
MPs’ book group question: What measures would you personally take to ensure that none of your constituents were ever subjected to any aspect of any of the kinds of oppression described in these books?
Good luck, new and returning MPs! I’m sure most of you are truly good people who genuinely have the interests of your constituents and of the people and places of the world at heart. I hope you will enjoy and learn from these books and make wise decisions based on what you have read.
If any fellow bloggers or those who follow this blog would like to make their own suggestions below, please do so! I wanted to include books on addressing the threat of terrorism, but got a bit stuck. And on childhood, but had too many – that will be for another post. And on Remain/Leave/Soft/Hard/No-deal Brexit… Over to you!
So you thought the three tenors were Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti? Not so – they’re sausages, a frankfurter, some other darker variety and a veal sausage and they’re available in the Café of the Vienna Staatsoper. In this pretty room you may if such is your pleasure order “Three Tenors” or a “Rigoletto” (which is a sausage salad). My photo of this disconcerting dish is very small, for minimal offence to my vegetarian readers. (I chose the spinach strudel, with lettuce.)
Since in Vienna the three tenors can be anything, I’ve chosen a third variation: books, During a recent trip I read or reread three novels set in Vienna (with thanks as ever to the wonderful TripFiction site which you can consult for reading matter to match any destination you can think of). They give five stars to the first I chose, but I’m afraid I’d remove at least two of those. A Woman of Note by Carol M. Cram (2015) starts in 1827 with an excellent idea for a heroine, Isabette, a fictitious young woman pianist and composer whose ability rivals Fanny Mendelssohn or Clara Schumann. But it sinks into cliché with too many descriptions of a singer friend’s pretty gloves and blue ribbons. The author neglects what could have been evocative descriptions of this most visual of cities. Instead she gives us endless expository dialogue to help shift the one dimensional characters around in the style of a Woman’s Own short story from the 1970s, and provides a (mercifully) brief sex scene worthy of the Bad Sex awards: “He moved his hand up her thigh, his breath becoming ragged and out of rhythm. Andante to allegretto. …he pushed his body and hers to allegro.” Hmmm. I wonder what variations Mozart’s fingertips might have conjured for that.
Plot digressions into lesbianism and sexual abuse are worthy rather than interesting, although I am sure music teachers and promoters did abuse their protegées and played their parts in keeping women’s career prospects unequal. An erudite bibliography suggests a lot of authorial research (sometimes plonked unharmoniously into the narrative) and genuine pleasure in the music of Schubert, Beethoven and Chopin. This was a missed opportunity to create a convincing story and explore a fascinating period of women’s and musical history in a unique setting. Looking at TripFiction’s list again it seems others have dealt with the same theme, so it does get exposure elsewhere.
I had better luck with Mortal Mischief (2004) by Frank Tallis. It’s a 19th century detective romp. To judge by the selections listed on TripFiction, Vienna’s baroque and 20th century architecture and dense cultural history encourage writers to indulge in a wild cocktail of music, classical and modern art, sculpture, historical events, psychoanalysis, medicine, education, imperialism, nationalism and the whole gamut of politics, cafes and brothels, coffee and cakes, clairvoyance and fairgrounds, bombastic urban settings and the wonderful Prater park. Tallis just about brings it off – I was a bit bogged down by the heavy velvet brocade of his opening storm scenes: “Liebermann looked up at the livid millstone sky. Ragged tatters of cloud blew above the pediment of The Imperial like the petticoats of a ravished angel. The air smelled strange – an odd, metallic smell.” But as he got into his stride the descriptions became more digestible and it was a pleasure to revisit the Belvedere Palace grounds, the Secession Building, the University and the Prater as his story hurtled through the city like a Viennese tram, picking up colourful characters at every chapter – a surgical instrument maker, Sigmund Freud, a locksmith, prostitutes, actresses and mediums, English governesses, police chiefs, magicians and kitchen maids. If some of them are more caricature than real, well, that reflects Viennese grandeur, exaggeration and cuisine. The musical accompaniment tinkled comfortably alongside the narrative whenever detective Rheinhardt and his doctor friend Max Liebermann took a breather with a relaxing session of Schubert duets. I was pleased to find these new (to me) discoveries feature in other adventures, particularly as Leibermann and the governess left a romantic thread unfastened at the end.
Mortal Mischief features the Reisenrad Ferris Wheel, and so of course does my third choice, Graham Greene’s The Third Man, the novel treatment of the screenplay Greene wrote for Carol Reed’s famous 1949 film noir. The Vienna of The Third Man is not the confident 1900s cultural capital of Tallis, and lacked the exuberant fairground where we spent our last morning. Instead it’s a bombed out city divided into four zones where petty and serious crime thrive in an atmosphere of curfew and desperation. “The Prater lay smashed and desolate and full of weeds, only the Great Wheel revolving slowly over the foundations of merry-go-rounds like abandoned millstones, the rusting iron of smashed tanks which nobody had cleared away.”
Actually there’s surprisingly little verbal description of Vienna as a setting in the book of The Third Man, which Greene himself said in his Preface “was never written to be read, but only to be seen.“ It was dedicated to Reed, “in admiration and affection and in memory of so many early morning Vienna hours at Maxim’s, the Casanova, the Oriental.” Myforceful imageofruined buildings and unlit streets through which Harry Lime dodges his pursuers must come from the film. But in both, the labyrinthine sewers, scrubby landscapes, muddled policing and befuddled hero serve as a metaphor for fallen glory, profiteering and corruption. We saw very little of that in the bustling, affluent, well behaved city we visited, so Vienna has created a successful veneer since those days. Or maybe business dealings there now really are cleaner than in London. It wouldn’t be difficult.
Greene and Reed found more than one kind of suspense in Harry Lime’s confrontation with Rollo Martin (Hollie Martin in the film) in the topmost gondola – an idea to which Tallis pays homage when Liebermann also takes the ride with the man he suspects of murder. In Mortal Mischief the innocent characters also return to its thrills whenever they can – as Freud explains, it replicates the experience of flying. It’s a sad reflection on over stimulated 21st century travellers that we became rather bored when dangling at the top of the Ferris Wheel. Health and safety means there’s no danger of a villainous shove through an open door or of smashing the glazing, and the views are stunning. But the ponderous wheel turns slowly and waits a long time in each position – unlike the pacy plots of all three books above, though not dissimilar to the way my companion reported the Three Tenor Sausages sitting in his stomach. No Sachertorte for him that afternoon!
“Very slowly on one side of them the city sank; very slowly on the other the great cross-girders of the Wheel rose into sight.” The Third Man, p. 87 Vintage edition
(Information for coffee drinking, cake eating bookworms: The cafes we visited were the Prückel, the Tirolerhof, the Mozart and the Oper, all equally memorable. The Tirolerhof in particular is a quiet reader’s dream, all customers engrossed in books or the newspapers supplied by the establishment, no music, and voices that rarely rise above a whisper. You could write a novel here before the waiter bothered you with the bill.)
I’m troubled by an earworm, an old folk tune with the lyrics run amok:
‘Twas a sunny May morning, the last of my youth,
As I plot wandered happy and free,
When Squire Pattern Creep in his herringbone tweeds,
With his wiles was the ruin of me.”
You what? I’ll explain. The expression “pattern creep” came from my mosaics teacher. What it really means is, you’ve got so involved in sticking on your little bits of tile that you haven’t noticed they’re not cut regularly, or they’re not stuck evenly, or they’re sliding around in pools of too much glue. Beware! Stand back! Your intended image has “crept”.
This especially affected me last month when I went on a weekend course at the wonderful Phoenix Studios. I embarked on an ambitious mosaic panel – a herringbone design to echo my parquet floor. But I hadn’t allowed for my mediocre measuring skills and trembly tessellations, for my hand cut tiles being so much smaller and more numerous than real parquet pieces, with more potential for departure from my plotted line. Ever heard of curly herringbone? The sagging lines couldn’t be resolved. There was nothing for it back home but to chisel bits off here and there, then whole rows, and then the whole bloody thing and start again in the centre, with more meticulous selection, cutting, and sticking and no ragged border to lead me astray from the wings.
For a writer, the syndrome is familiar. Mosaic Pattern Creep is not some Jilly Cooper seducer in a paisley dressing gown, it’s a tendency also known as Plot Wander, and I can’t be the only novelist/ story writer/ blogger to have been ambushed by it.
I started a novel about the power of fairy tales for children, all poetic language and lyrical images. My turns of phrase were romantic and swirly, elegant and mysterious, and my characters were filled with wonder. For about twenty five pages. Then my characters stopped soliloquizing and began pontificating. The story turned to gritty social realism, about the education system and racism and modern poverty and grime.
I started a novel about a vulnerable, misguided artist who tried to sell her work door to door, unaware that her images could be misconstrued and she was pulling herself into danger. It was sinister and disturbing and I wanted the reader to shout “Watch out!”, and run after her to stop her before something terrible happened. The tension lasted a good, oh, thirty pages. Then somehow it became into a description of the road I lived in and the households within it. Nobody was ever going to escape their everyday cares reading that.
I published a novel about a beautiful island full of characters with wonderful illusions and high minded ideals, coming into conflict with morally upright, hard working, underprivileged locals. It was menacing and threatening and tense – for about forty pages. Then the themes got lost inside the characters’ introspection and reviewers accused the plot of disappearing. (To be fair to myself, although the book wandered away from the crime genre, it’s held its head up as contemporary fiction, I had a nice new review only yesterday.)
I tried a sequel, my previous heroine with a new relationship plucked from a new set of characters. After about thirty pages the warning signs appeared: paragraphs about shoddy building practices, a runaway housing market, and casual refugee labourers. I had ideas of an updated The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, and was tumbling headlong into the same traps Robert Tressell did, of long winded, well meaning worthiness. (That’s not to say I don’t have great affection even for the boring parts of the original and still play around with the idea sometimes.)
I’ve written (counts back) about seventy blog posts that have begun with one premise and, often enough, wandered off down the side alleys of another. Does it matter so much, in a blog post? You can always return to it and edit it. You can always just add a few more tags. The links will probably only ever be read as part of Facebook posts or Tweets where patterns don’t just creep, they ricochet. But a story, a novel, should really be complete and unified at the point of pressing “publish”.
That’s Plot Wander. It infects greater names than mine. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch comes to mind. The Lord of the Rings, too, and later Bill Bryson when he gets lazy and just repeats himself (I’m going to make some enemies here.) A minor case of Plot Wander may only involve an unnecessary character, or an unresolved question that didn’t matter much anyway. Severe Plot Wander has more dramatic symptoms: a character inexplicably changes name, age, or gender; the voice of a narrator doesn’t match their personality; a rural setting suffers from urban blight; a total change of genre occurs from one chapter to the next.
Does Plot Wander occur because the author is sabotaged by things that matter more – you could argue racism, housing, education and deprivation are far more important than any silly little love story or unsolved crime I could invent (it’s just that plenty of other people already commentate them far better than I could). Is Plot Wander some kind of automatic safety device, stopping an author from embarking on trite stories with unoriginal characters? (In that case, why does it work the other way too, halting a perfectly decent story and turning it into mush?) Is it that all an author can write is innate and pre-programmed (in my case gritty social realism) and s/he has no more chance of escaping it than of changing DNA?
You set out an idea. You tweak it, consider it, arrange it,choose the colours, and you think it has the potential to be great. You put it together, concentrating hard (you think) dedicating days, weeks, months to the composition. You stand back. It’s a loose, illogical, low impact shambles. (Was that Plot Wander or a new enemy, The Confused Identifier? One minute I’m referring to the author as he/she, the next they have become you.)
You (?) get out the chisel and you start again.
(By the way, the sculptures – celebrations and discards both – are from the Phoenix Studio gardens where we take our lunch breaks. Do have a look at their courses. Chipping away at stone, life drawing, fine art and crafts are a wonderful complement /antidote to hacking away at words.)
‘Twas a freezing May morning, in my senior years,
And I’d scribed the bright words from my head,
When I saw on the page my ideas gone astray
Plot Wander had grabbed them, and fled.
Pattern Creep warning (or is it Abrupt Ending Syndrome?) I’ve blogged weekly since April 2016, and all without pay. When I was in paid employment I had holidays. My Union (me) thinks I may be due a short break. It depends where the plot takes me. I’m flying away – see you when I see you!
In my post last week on beautiful writing, I said I’d go on to talk about the spaces between words. Now I’m wondering if that was pretentious! However, spaces are the glue that holds words together and deserve attention. We wouldn’t know what cold felt like had we never been warm; we wouldn’t experience joy if we didn’t know sadness: for the contrast between words and spaces it’s likewise. I apologise if this post seems muddled – silence is hard to grasp. But here are some points to consider. (A pause for thought.)
The English language is full of references to the spaces in language, and to the silence they offer among the usual blather. Think of expressions like: “between the lines” “behind the words”, “words left unspoken”, “the subtext”, “hidden meanings”, “understatement”, “less is more”, “silence is golden” and “the calm before the storm”.
Is there a parallel with music? In quiet, reflective music such as a Chopin Noctune, or a Satie Gymopédie, each single note is precious. If it was part of a chord, or backed by an orchestra, it would have a different effect on the listener. (If you’re not familiar with these you can look them up on YouTube, where you’ll probably find you do recognize them from meaningful moments in the cinema.) Or from different musical genres, think of syncopation, or tango. Without that tiny pause before the upbeat, the message would be entirely different. Personally, I don’t like rap music or poetry much, although they’re very clever. I think it’s because there aren’t enough spaces in which my brain can process what I’ve heard, so I feel rather battered. (I could just be too old.)
Think how, in music of any genre, the pauses (over notes or silences) and silent beats are written in. It’s no coincidence they’re called “rests”. They have concrete form so musicians can locate and acknowledge them, and the symbols themselves are beautiful calligraphy.
Somewhere between music and prose lies poetry. Here are some lines, as printed, from “[in Just-]” by e. e. cummings:
I rest my case.
But now, prose. I remember from my teaching days how infant children just learning to write usually don’t leave spaces between their words. (They don’t pause between words when they’re first learning to read, either.) One method of teaching them is to have them put their finger at the end of the word they’ve just written and start the next word on the other side of it – a physical “finger space”. Some pick it up quickly and the fingers are no longer needed. Others take a couple of years.
Unless they have a specific learning difficulty or have been abused or neglected, children learn to use separate words orally in a phenomenal number of different combinations according to need, by the time they start school. Yet they don’t naturally “hear” the spaces on the page without being taught. They understand individual words have meaning (we know this because they ask, “What does that word mean?”) but not, it seems, that groups of words without spaces have none. If you ask a child to read back their unspaced writing, they can’t, and if you allow them to continue reading a printed story without stopping for spaces and punctuation (as apparently fluent young readers do naturally), they can’t tell you what happened in it.
As we grow up, we grasp all this. However, there are still many adults who don’t paragraph, which is related. And I’m shocked at the moment, as I wade through Fay Weldon’s “Death of A She-Devil“, to find the dialogue neither indented nor spaced horizontally. Presumably this was an editorial – or the author’s – decision, but, as an aging visually challenged she devil myself, it makes it very hard to tell who’s saying what or to want to continue reading much longer (other factors may be at work there too). Goodness knows how it appears on Kindle. Speaking of which, there is now evidence that readers (adult and child) retain less of what they read on screens than in print and paper books, and it’s thought that may be partly to do with left/right eye movements across the page (or the opposite in certain scripts), and with physical positioning and layout on the page. Anyone who has tried scrolling back through an ebook for something they could easily have located in the print version will support that theory.
My post seems to have turned into one about punctuation or formatting, rather than the airier theme I started with. But I think they are related. As an author, I read aloud what I’ve written to see how it sounds, and I care deeply about how it presents on the page, because that’s part of the composition. There’s a certain kind of florid, vocabulary strewn writing that done well can be wonderful (think Dickens, Balzac) but those of us with a lesser grasp of our craft are rightly advised to aim for economy, clean, clear prose, no wasted words, tautology or irrelevance, plain punctuation and sentence structure. Stage writing, which has to get its point across immediately, without a second chance, each speech leading on from the one before and clearing the way for what will follow, is often a good model, and you can see the spaces more clearly: they’re when a character turns round, paces up and down, pours a drink, or makes a face.
Chekhov was a master. When I was about 10 I asked my parents what they’d seen at the theatre while we had the indignity of a “babysitter”, and I remember our dialogue, perhaps because it was so spare.
“We saw a play about three sisters who live in the country,” my mother said.
“What happens to them?”
“Not very much. They want to go to Moscow.”
“Do they get there?”
I understood why this non situation made The Three Sisters (first published 1900) great drama on seeing it when I was older. Through spare statements and laconic answers, a simple drawing room staging and quiet costumes and gestures, Chekhov transmits social history, universal emotions of love and grief and boredom and disappointment, the position of women and that of the impoverished landed gentry in a Russia that was about to explode. His plays still command full houses around the world.
A comment last week suggested Dorothy Parker as a source of beautiful prose. Her satire is clipped, funny, and not a word longer than necessary, but it’s a more serious short story that I’m unable to forget. In “Soldiers of the Republic”, she’s in a Spanish cafe with a group of friends when they get talking with some soldiers who are fighting in the Civil War. They discuss hardship, poverty, violence, tragedy, and how the men miss their families. When they get up to leave after a long session in the cafe, they signal the waiter for the bill. “He came, but he only shook his head and his hand, and moved away.” The last line, stark in its own paragraph, reads simply: “The soldiers had paid for our drinks.”
The 1965 novel “Stoner” was rediscovered in 2006 and fêted for its spare prose. It simply tells a story, a simple story of a man to whom very little happens beyond the ordinary setbacks and irritations of everyday middle class, middle income life. (Greetings, Chekhov). I couldn’t put it down. Some reviewers see quietness as a lack of intensity and think at first they can take it or leave it, until the subtleties intrigue them and they’re hooked: see this recent blog post on the work of Olivia Manning. I must return to her…and I must also return to a metaphorical exploration in a more exciting story: the Rose Tremain novel of 2001,”Music and Silence“. Yet how laden with verbosity this brilliant novel is, compared to her masterpiece of last year, The Gustav Sonata.
“Erich would like to teach history – to get to the truth of things.” Tremain tells us nothing more about how, why, when Erich would like to teach history. She just tells us he thinks it will lead to the truth of things. She knows, and we know, in post-truth 2017, it will only at best lead to the subjective truth of whoever has chosen or been coerced into recording and interpreting history, and because we know that, we also know that it’s a misguided wish made by a person who won’t have the knowledge or the means to achieve it. All that can be read into the spaces between and the silence behind the simple, clear words.
So as well as the words themselves, space, and silence – the spaces between words, the silence between the notes – are what make these works so special. The principle applies whatever the medium: The Crown (Netflix) was such a success not in spite of but because of its slowness, the unfashionably long duration of its scenes, allowing the watcher to appreciate the quality of the acting and digest and react to what was happening (providing time for wonder too: it’s got to be good acting if I can sympathise with Prince Philip and want the series to continue so I can “see what happens next” even though, of course, I know). Recently I re-watched the 1960s BBC Forsyte Saga on DVD: as a colleague commented, “It was so slow you could hear Irene’s dress rustling when she turned around.” And that gave you time to reflect on what had brought Irene to the scene and to anticipate what might follow. Nowadays all the thinking work is done for you, by the directors, the stylists, the camera crew. The 2002 version with Gina McKee and Damian Lewis wasn’t bad. If they remake it this decade it will probably be interactive. But will the dress rustle as Irene keeps her counsel?
I was fortunate last month to see Madame Butterfly at Covent Garden, with Ermenela Jaho. Forget Callas, she was too feisty. Jaho sings Butterfly so quietly, with such care. Even the highest notes are discreet, as though she’s already left us, but perfect. The rapt audience drinks in every resigned gesture accompanying the pure sound. The recording included in the link above doesn’t do Jaho justice: you needed to be in a huge, fully booked theatre craning forward in communal silence to witness her subdued desperation. It takes years of technique to make so little noise so perfectly, and I would say the same of O’Brien’s writing and that of Ishiguro, Kate Atkinson, Hilary Mantel and the other writers I’ve cited above. Turn off social media, close the curtains, and immerse yourself. When you have fully rested, please let me know what you chose.
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.
This 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.
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. Nobody 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.
Oh dear! People said my Easter Eggheads Book Quiz was too hard! I didn’t mean to scramble anyone’s brains. Here are the answers, so you can pretend you knew them all along and pass on the pain to your friends:
Who printed a story in which a “good wyf” from Southern England thought a merchant from the North was speaking French, because he asked for eggys which she knew as eyren? The clue was in the verb, to print. The printer was William Caxton in 1490, and he tells the story to illustrate the (unchanged) difficulties of a proofreader and typesetter, in his prologue to the Eneydes (Virgil’s Aenid). This had already been translated from Latin to French and he was now printing an English version. Actually I found the reference on a post about Shrove Tuesday, here.
Who shouted “What, you egg! […] Young fry of treachery!” and what is he doing to whom as he shouts it? […] is the moment in Act 4, scene 2 of Macbeth when the first murderer stabs Lady MacDuff’s son. The murderer calls the young boy “you egg” to show he represents the next generation.
Which Shakespearean hero shares his name with a famous egg dish? This is Benedict (aka Benedick), from Much Ado About Nothing. Eggs Benedict is an American dish invented by a Wall Street broker, and has absolutely nothing ado with Shakespeare.
Who rode westward on Good Friday 1613? Good Friday, 1613. Riding westward is a poem by the metaphysical poet John Donne. It begins: Let mans Soule be a Spheare… I didn’t know this poem either untilI found the reference in an excellent Guardian article about Easter in Literature.
Who met Mephistopheles during an Easter walk with his friend Wagner? Goethe’s hero Faust was out walking at Easter with his friend Wagner, when they met a poodle who followed them home and turned out to be the devil in disguise. Faust then made a famous pact with him. Faust was first published in 1808, so if you were thinking of a more famous Wagner, the composer Richard, I’m afraid that was a red herring – he wasn’t born until 1813. But the moral of the story is, take care around poodles.
At the beginning of which children’s story from 1854 is the King of Paflagonia so absorbed in a letter from the King of Crim Tartary “that he allows his eggs to get cold, and leaves his august muffins untasted“? This is the delightful The Rose and the Ring: a Fireside pantomime, by W M Thackeray. Politically incorrect fun still, as old Countess Gruffanuff falls for young Prince Giglio. Thackeray’s illustrations are very funny too.
Which Victorian artist was described by his friend Charles Dickens as “sweet-tempered, humorous, conscientious, thoroughly good, and thoroughly beloved“?Who other than the pre-Raphaelite painter Augustus Leopold Egg, whose name I had wrongly remembered as a character in a Dickens novel.
What was the name of Raffles’ sidekick? “Bunny” Manders is Watson to Raffle’s Holmes in the series of novels by Victorian writer E W Hornung. No, I haven’t read them either.
Who told Alice in Wonderland “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean“? Humpty Dumpty, when she met him sitting on a wall, in Alice through the Looking Glass. They argue about it and he cracks first.
Which decadent hero lived in West Egg? Jay Gatsby, from Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. West (and East) Egg are fictional settlements of nouveaux riches and old money, based on similar places in Long Island.
Which seminal moment in Irish history forms the subject matter for Sean O’Casey’s play The Plough and the Stars? The Easter Uprising against the British took place in Dublin in April 1916. 15 Irish nationalists identified as leaders were afterwards executed at Kilmainham Jail. Whether they are described as traitors or heroes depends very much which historical or literary account you read.
Who “came down to breakfast one morning, lifted the first cover he saw, said ‘Eggs! Eggs! Eggs! Damn all eggs!’ in an overwrought sort of voice, and instantly legged it for France, never to return to the bosom of his family?” This was Lord Worplesdon, described in Jeeves Takes Charge by P G Wodehouse. You could read it, or watch the BBC series where Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie acted Jeeves and Wooster just spiffingly.
In which novel by Agatha Christie is there a character called Egg? Hermione Lytton Gore is nicknamed and always referred to as “Egg” in Three Act Tragedy, a Christie novel of 1934. There’s always another Christie novel you haven’t read…
Who liked “a speckled brown egg from a French Marans hen, boiled for exactly three and a third minutes” for breakfast? This is James Bond, described in From Russia with Love. My source was another Guardian article, on breakfasts in literature.
Which very sad black comedy originally starred Albert Finney and has been revived since with Clive Owen, Eddie Izzard and Miriam Margolyes among others in its cast? The original play wasA Day in the Death of Joe Egg, by Peter Nichols in 1967, about the daily routines of parents with a very severely disabled daughter.
When could you next hope to see the Oberammergau Passion Play? It’s only performed every ten years, and the next one will be in 2020.
What colour were Sam-I-am’s eggs? Green! Read Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss to find out if Sam-I-Am ever does persuade the child to eat them.
Who wrote the original story and script for “The Long Good Friday”? This 1980 gangster movie was scripted from his own screenplay by Barrie Keefe.
What hatched at the beginning of a story from an egg lying on a moonlit leaf? Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar, going strong since 1969. I couldn’t quote the first page exactly as it would be too high a percentage of the entire text to pass without copyright infringement, but most parents and teachers should have recognised this. The first bedtime story I ever read to my babies, I’ve also taught it at evening classes for adults in French and Spanish. They tell me it did wonders for their fruit shopping vocabulary.
Who made the assorted sweets from which if you were very unlucky, you might pick out a rotten egg flavoured one? This was one of the less sought after flavours of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, which you could buy in sweet shops frequented by Harry Potter and his fellow Hogwartians.
A question some of you may have found easier: Which Bennet sister visited Rosings on “Easter-day” and was told by Lady Catherine de Burgh that she would never play the piano really well?
A question I completely forgot to ask, which would have brought my quiz more up to date: Which depressed egg is a Japanese cartoon Superhero?
Do let me know if you can think of any more. The deadline’s a week before Easter 2018, whenever that is.