To Be Read in Twenty Twenty

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

TBR 2020 2

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

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

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

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

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

TBR 2020 weeds

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

©Jessica Norrie 2020

 

Hay ho, Hay ho, it’s off to words we go…

Despite not being all that bloggered about posting at the moment, I couldn’t miss the chance for the puns Hay Festival makes possible. Friends nearby had often said: Hay, why don’t you come along? I only went for Tuesday, not the full ten days, and my introduction is more pictures than words, but I hope you catch my Hay fever. This year I was checking out how it all worked, and could only get tickets for one of the three writers I’d have liked to see. Rose Tremain obliged, but Philip Pullman and Margaret Atwood were sold out long before I got my act together. So we only went to one formal activity, but there was much else to entertain us.

Hay-on-Wye itself, permanent population only 1500, has over two dozen bookshops, down from its Hayday but still impressive. Some are now antique shops, and I also diverted into several stylish new and secondhand clothes shops, a  café for Hereford apple cake and an outdoor food market for falafel salad washed down by (strong!) local cider. All accompanied by the classiest of classical guitar buskers…

A town with a bookshop for every 62.5 people is my kind of town. We especially enjoyed  Rose’s Books, where we pounced with delight on affectionately remembered – and long forgotten – gems from our childhoods and giggled over what our grandparents used to read. Remember the Chalet School Girls? Rose has them, along with every Ladybird book you could think of, Rupert and Tin-Tin, William and Jennings, Victorian morality tales, sixties psychedelic picture books and Puffins flying everywhere. Murder and Mayhem, a branch of Addyman‘s, offers a sleuth’s day out, and Richard Booth‘s famous shop includes a cinema.

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After browsing, tasting and trying we walked the half mile to the Festival site. There’s a shuttle bus, but then you’d miss the haphazard, inventive enterprise of people who live along the route. Almost every front garden had been turned into a miniature car boot sale, a home-made food stall, a face painter, portrait artist, vintage clothing pop up rail or a purveyor of free range eggs complete with clucking hens to prove the provenance. It was (or seemed) anarchic and I can’t imagine the authorities allowing it in London, but good for these citizens. I hope they made Hay.

The festival site, guarded by two jovial armed police (in honour of Chelsea Clinton perhaps? Surely not still for Salman Rushdie?)  was crowded with all ages but fewer races than I’d have liked to see. First things first: the portaloos, with real wooden doors, were the best I’ve seen at an outdoor festival. The bookshop and signing centre, in a vast tent, was humid and uncomfortable with criss-crossing queues, so I left and found more clothes shops selling natural fabrics and one-off designs. There’s also jewellery, cider, wine, cheese…it’s fair to say this is not exclusively a book festival. The best tent was a gallery of book illustrators’ prints, with Jackie Morris painting away to demonstrate her technique while discussing her work, including her collaboration with Robert Macfarlane on The Lost Words. I didn’t explore the scribblers’ tent, the Oxfam tent or the many activities for children – I’m sure I missed a lot.

Hay illustrators exhib
The book illustrators’ gallery

But one can only digest so much and we had come for Rose Tremain. She was talking in the vast, impersonal Tata area about her memoir of damaged childhood, Scenes from a Vanished Life. Goodness, this was brave. Obviously, she’s a professional, clearly she knew what she’d written and the questions she would be asked. Nonetheless, this must have been like having therapy in front of thousands of people. She was clear, succinct, careful to say exactly what she meant, and the cold calmness of her delivery made the content all the more moving. As she said, her book started as a personal memoir for family and friends only. But when she perceived how emotionally they reacted, she realised she’d stepped into a novelist’s dream. “It’s every writer’s ambition to move people, and I’d moved them so much I had to widen the book out.” I’d been regretting not also booking to see Maggie O’Farrell earlier that day, talking about the seventeen ways she’s escaped death, but I’m not sure I could have coped with the intensity of both. A little goes a long Hay…

Anyway, here are the holiday snaps. I suspect Hay is a very personal experience which affects everyone a different way. I’ll certainly go back for more next year – and perhaps also when the festival is not on, just to enjoy the town and and the beautiful country around it. Because even the car park was scenic and I could harvest the most multicoloured silk scarf in the world, from the shop opposite the alleyway from the castle…

Hay fairtrde shop - Copy

©Jessica Norrie 2018

Behind the words, between the lines.

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.)

fermata
fermata (a musical pause, over a note or a silence).

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.)

fermata 2
notation for musical rests

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:

cummings
e.e.cummings, 73 Poems, Faber 1961

it’s

spring
and
         the
                  goat-footed
balloonMan          whistles

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.
finger

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.

ValerieAs 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.

143513“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?”

“No.”

 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.

41qfuzbgl-l-_sx325_bo1204203200_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.

 ©Jessica Norrie 2017