A prescription for blocked writers

I’d written my Work In Progress into a dark, locked cellar. It was time for something to stimulate and inspire. My budget precludes a long writing course, and I don’t like online learning. But since 2014 I’d had positive experiences at a Guardian Masterclass with William Ryan, a summer workshop with Marina Warner, and a Spread the Word mentoring session. So I booked “Building Stories” with London Lit Lab. The course aimed to “use the experience of our public and private spaces to inspire evocative fiction.” At the very least I’d have the privilege of working in two of London’s most impressive buildings. At best I’d start writing my way back upstairs.

Attendees included published and unpublished writers, academics, artists and therapists hoping to write fiction or poetry, and our tutors were Zoe Gilbert (Folk) and Lily Dunn.

Riba hall
RIBA, 1st floor landing, with busy participants

Our Saturday setting was the Royal Institute of British Architects, designed by George Grey Wornum, with interiors by his wife Miriam. Light from huge windows and etched glass doors floods the gleaming floors and emphatic angled spaces. Why architects would need a ballroom isn’t obvious, but they have one here to suit the most demanding Cinderella, with a grand staircase for her glass slipper to trip down and curved sofas inviting assignations. The library was modelled on a cruise liner and the soundproofed council chamber had a throne. In our conference room, originally white leather walls had turned uncleanably yellow from the smoke of a thousand meetings. We creaked across sprung floors and hauled ourselves up from the public space to narrower private staircases. Then we jotted our sensory impressions in short unpolished phrases, some of which we shared, anonymously.

An architect helped us study plans from the RIBA archives, including homes, schools, a debtor’s prison, a pheasantry, and an exhibition space. Our new understanding transformed them from codified diagrams to pictures in the mind’s eye. Stories unfolded.

Next, we were to imagine a building used other than for its original purpose. Writing an activity that didn’t fit the space would subvert it, creating tension. A derelict house, bereft of domesticity, is sinister. A church converted to flats must be deconsecrated. When a psychiatric hospital becomes a gated estate of private homes is it more or less of a refuge for the residents? Tube stations in the Blitz with people sleeping on the platforms, stables for cars instead of warm, living horses, ice hotels, the ruined swimming pool where Djokovic practised tennis as a boy. Map the mismatch, said Zoe and Lily. We scribbled away under the nicotine walls. I found myself immersed in a semi-serious idea from years ago, clamouring to be used. It had come to the fore because repurposing a building activates parts of the brain we don’t often use.

After lunch we discussed the psychology of spaces. How conversations run depends whether we’re sitting in a cafe or on a roller coaster. The rooms we’ve lived in are repositories for dreams, thoughts, conversations we’ve had in them (think of Proust). I was reminded how unsettled my father’s house seemed, when he was in hospital and I was popping in to pick things up. Something intangible had left with him, as though the house already knew he would never return… In the deadly quiet of the soundproofed council chamber we read of a Kate Chopin heroine in her hallway and her bedroom, her emotions and expectations adapting to each. The more private space meant she could explore her own secrets, have her epiphany and the story could move on.

We imagined someone with a secret, in a place where they feel safe. What happens? Zoe had postcard portraits, for anyone without such a character in mind already. Hooray! One was Protagonist J, in my stalled WIP. Now I know what he looks like! I described his safe space, nothing like the cold flat air of the council chamber but encouraged into existence there. Then I threatened it.

For a final Point of View, we were given a secret character – mine was a woman with a migraine – and had to write her POV on entering RIBA that morning. Could the others guess her traits from our narrative? It was an elegant way to end the day by referring to how far we’d come since we met.

BL seen on a staircase
British Library foyer, showing “The Tapestry”, from a Kitaj painting with the same name.

The British Library was a contrast on Sunday, our home turf a colourless basement “learning room” with an enormous expanse of white table, and no natural light (but better than my cellar). In groups we tried Erasure poetry, extracting evocative words and phrases from existing work(s), erasing or juxtaposing them to “write” something new. I was tired so on this occasion it didn’t do much for me, but others were immersed and stimulated, creating new poems together on huge sheets of paper. (My Erasure on that sentence might be: It did       for me,      creating    on     huge sheets. ) I thought of Rachel Whiteread’s blank windowed buildings, and of my favourite sentence from Reservoir 13: “There was weather”. So often, silent spaces are as important as what’s there.

Riba writing in council chamber
Council chamber, RIBA
BL room
Our learning room at the BL

We wandered the British Library, making notes for a story about some aspect of the building, or an object housed there. Touch, memories, smells: not only visuals. We drew mind maps of our journey, and of imaginary places in the invisible, non public parts of buildings. This time the huge sheets did work for me, my notes proving fertile fodder later.

BL underground
Who knows what’s in the invisible spaces of our public buildings?

In the afternoon with much shushing and confiscation of pens, we wrote in the Reading Room, normally closed on Sundays. (Pencils only, for fear of marking valuable books.) This room exuded concentration, and we all wrote for forty minutes in palpable silence like brocade drapes muffling us from distraction. (Bit overwrought – Ed.)

BL lightswitch
We stood back for the bigger picture and homed in in the details

Lastly, we discussed editing, considering two versions of a Raymond Carver story. A useful, practical discussion, ending with wine and some shared readings of our stories, before I dived even further underground for the tube home.

Thank you to Zoe, Lily and colleagues for a constructive and enjoyable weekend. For me, the tendency to focus on more literary fiction was especially welcome. These courses don’t end with the final well earned glass of wine, but give participants ideas to draw on for years to come. I enjoyed taking the writing medecine so much, I’ve treated myself to a day at Chawton too. I’m on my way back upstairs!

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©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

Patience rewarded in “Reservoir 13”

I do like a book that shatters the rule bound splodge of too much current creative writing advice. I especially like it when it’s by a Professor of Creative Writing (at Nottingham University, where the course doesn’t sound splodgy at all).

The professor is Jon McGregor, whose If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (2002) I admired in my post on beautiful writing. You must devote time and space to his books, so I waited until nearly a year after publication to read Reservoir 1333283659

The Goodreads reviewer who wrote: “Lovely descriptions of nature are insufficient compensation for an uneventful plot and a slew of forgettable characters” missed the point. There’s a whole village worth of plots, the stories of many families and their members. A creative writing mantra broken: multiple characters, no clear main protagonist. But what’s to stop the reader following and embroidering those that interest her most? Or you could tease out each plot strand horizontally.

Jessica in peak district 1984
Hills above Sheffield, 1982

I may have been especially drawn in because I once lived on the edge of the Peak District, so nostalgia was an added factor. In descriptive prose like painted brushstrokes, at least sixty familiar seeming  individuals move to the foreground, retreat, are glimpsed in the distance, pass by as we’re engaged with someone else, disappear… Nature is a character too, or several: the badgers who thrive as the book progresses, the vulnerable foxes, the endangered butterflies. Man-made structures take on personality: the locked butcher shop still with chopping boards and knives used by generations of the same family; the footbridge that may collapse or hold in times of flood; the school boiler room where distasteful things occur (or do they?), and even the boiler itself. It’s all enmeshed. (Les Thompson) nodded when people spoke to him, and his handshakes were heavy and warm. The snowdrops were up and the crows flew overhead and the wind moved through the trees. Jane had to keep herself from smiling.

The hook goes behind the clouds, so the reader must find their own motivation. After two chapters, I asked my partner: Does it continue like this right through? Yes, he said, it does, and once I knew that, it was comfortable to ride with it rather than await something different. The book starts with a disturbing incident. A teenage girl has disappeared in the countryside around the Peak District village and reservoirs where her parents have a holiday let. Cue the blurb of every other book on Waterstone’s front table. I yawned. Abducted child, missing girl, sinister holiday… If I’d submitted this – in my dreams! – the editors would have said, “I already have something similar on my list”.

Peak District 1982 by Steve
Cooper explained there had once been villages down there, that all the reservoirs had been made by flooding the valleys. They looked at him, waiting to see if he was joking. The world didn’t always sound right when it was first explained.” Ladybower reservoir, near Sheffield, 1983

The villagers turn out to search and we hear snippets of their interweaving stories, garnished with the local flora and fauna and changing with the seasons. In the conifers above Reservoir no 5, a buzzard sat warmly on her eggs while the wind pulled through the trees. The narrator goes inside the villagers’ heads and informs us of their back stories, up to a point. Then we’re free to fill in from our own imaginations, should we wish to. The occasional dialogue is embedded, unsignalled by speech marks, within long paragraphs echoing previous paragraphs. POVs swing back and forth. Goodness knows how many rules that breaks. The Show-not-tellers must have hit the tequila by now.

Martin, she said. This has to stop now. I’m not here to be won back. He was shaking his head. I’m telling you, he said, I didn’t send that. There was a softening in his expression. He felt as if he had the upper hand for once. She looked at him and she didn’t know what to believe.

The tequila drinkers had better buy another bottle because so many passages like those above contain words from the list often banned to creative writers. There were/there was/he felt/it seemed/they looked/she understood/he said/they went… Too much distance between the reader and characters, swig, glug. But to me, stretched on my sofa in the muffled quiet of last week’s snow, the banned words provided space to consider setting and characters. Such writing gives time to digest. There was something of the prison yard about him. Paradoxically, understatement goes a long way; space and silence provide proportion. There was weather, and branches from the allotment sycamores flew onto the roof of the Tucker house. I nearly overstated my case by putting the simplest opening clause ever in bold print. Peak disrict

The ragged robin was still in flower, but this isn’t some idyllic dreamtime: farmers can’t sustain a livelihood; arson, theft and alcohol are problems. There’s domestic violence and mental illness among the wheatsheaves and elderflower cordial. The place had been empty now for seven years. There was a dispute to be settled before it could be sold, but no-one seemed to know what it was or who might be involved. Jones went up a ladder and took the branches down.

I was lost in details of lambing and growing courgettes and barely aware of the Show-and-tellers slumped by the empty tequila crate. Already assaulted by banned words, they’d now been subjected to a deluge of passive voice. At the school the lights were seen on early…. The decision was made to pack up…At the heronry the nests were rebuilt.

So there are no cliffhangers, no five or three act structure, no thwarted will or protagonist struggling desperately through an apparently unsurvivable crisis! Yet several stories are told. Each chapter covers a year. The first sentence mentions New Year fireworks; then there’s Shrove Tuesday and the May well dressing (now I understand this local craft, thank you, Professor McGregor). The chapter ends with carol singing and life goes on: births, marriages, divorces, deaths. The narrative weaves through time at the same tempo. Time, calendar events, weather are the stationary, longitudinal warp threads; the characters are the weft, drawn through and inserted over-and-under them, to be kept even or the fabric wouldn’t hold together. I rooted for some, disliked the randy farmer, hoped the wild twins would calm down and longed to lift the spliffs from teenage lips. (You can forget deep POV: the narrator tells us exactly what their parents don’t know they’re doing in that car, in a sympathetic depiction of teenage friendships, uncertainties and mistakes).5172rqnad5l-_sx347_bo1204203200_And what of the missing girl, and the thirteenth reservoir? You’d have to read the book to find out, but you may become more interested in those left behind. For more books set in villages, see the Guardian article by Xan Brooks here.

Anyway, hurray for the rule breaker. This is a wonderful book. When he finished, I hope McGregor broke the mould: the last thing we need is a slew of formulaic imitations.

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

Lisbon: City of Books

I always thought the title “City of Books” belonged to Paris or Dublin, but now I’ve visited Lisbon. In four days I only scanned the first page but I sense volumes more beneath. Let me set the scene:

Lisbon scape 2

This is a city where the first time tourist needs a 3D map. Maybe our sense of direction is poor, or our orienteering skills have faded with satnavs and Google maps. Whatever the reason, we were pretty useless for the first two days, until we realised the roads we saw on the map as a simple left turn or clear right angle were just as likely to be a flight of steps, an alleyway, even an outdoor lift or funicular, possibly right above our heads or below our feet as they slithered on the shiny cobbles. “I’m sure we’ve already walked along here,” we heard a plaintive English voice say, and chuckled knowingly until our target eluded us yet again and we ceased to see the joke.

We climbed and we slipped, we clung by our fingernails to the back windowsills of trams with our belongings squeezed against our tummies to deter pickpockets, we gasped at stunning views, admired skilled graffiti and deplored senseless scrawls. We stepped over endless building sites and began to take Roman stones for granted. We encountered skilful fado buskers on anarchic exhibition sites.

Lisbon street art
busker in Alfama

We stood in queues for elevators where turning a simple corner would have brought us to the same spot, and we abandoned the laws of physics for we couldn’t understand how that could be.

Strange priests greeted us silently from behind closed grilles, next to ordinary homes selling cherry liqueur (ginjinha) for one euro a glass. A fierce and friendly lady gave us an impromptu but demanding Portuguese lesson for the full half hour of the tram out to see the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos at Belém (which means Bethlehem – it’s in Lisbon too) and when we arrived who was there but the archangel Gabriel himself/ herself/ theirself/ itself.

On the way back from meeting the archangel we failed to visit the main Art Gallery because although we succeeded in identifying the nameless bus stop from inside a bus with no route maps, the doors were broken and no passengers could disembark until the terminus.

I knew nothing of Portuguese literature so as always I turned to trusty TripFiction to help me, with their list of “Books set in Lisbon”. More confusion! The first two books to catch my eye had the same title: Night Train to Lisbon, and neither is by a Portuguese author. The one that intrigued me was by Swiss author Pascal Mercier.

Goodness, it’s a clever book. I thought it might be a bit pretentious, but translations, however well done, often have a slightly pompous tone, and European literary fiction always pins its intellectual colours to the mast more confidently than the diffident English. The book has many compensating qualities. The hero, Gregorius to the author, is a dry Swiss teacher, nicknamed Mundus by his pupils. He has an encyclopedic command of classical Greek, Latin and Hebrew, German mother tongue, and can quickly learn other languages. Suddenly throwing away the prudent habits of a lifetime when he’s entranced by the sibilant murmurings of a Portuguese lady he has possibly saved from jumping off a bridge, he sets off for Lisbon from Bern after coming across a strange book of musings and memories privately and posthumously published by a Portuguese doctor thirty years before. In a second hand bookshop. You know, as you do.

The attraction was that the unknown Portuguese woman’s vowels “came together in a melody that sounded much longer than it really was, and that he could have listened to all day long“. I’m a Spanish speaker, but I certainly preferred the sound of Portuguese. Gregorius/Mundus sets about learning it: “Before, it had possessed the magic of a jewel from a distant, inaccessible land, and now it was like one of a thousand gems in a palace whose door he had just pushed open.” He’s a natural linguist but even he has setbacks, days when the language won’t work for him and he can’t communicate. That, of course, has implications beyond the simple physical fact of hearing and forming the correct words.

Lisbon arch
Igreja do Carmo

In Lisbon Gregorius, “about to take his life into his own hands for the first time” (and always wondering what would have happened had he taken other paths earlier) sets about hunting down the surviving siblings of the author, Amadeu de Prado, and his friends, his colleagues, his patients… Amadeu was a popular doctor, “a dreamer and a poet…but at the the same time, someone who could resolutely direct a weapon or a scalpel.” But he made one mistake, which wasn’t a mistake. He followed the Hippocratic Oath and treated a hated servant of the dictator Salazar, thereby saving his life and enabling him to continue torturing hundreds of others. For this his local patients hounded and loathed him, so he tried to make up for it by working for the resistance.

When Amadeu reads, “the books seemed to disappear inside him, leaving empty husks on the shelf afterwards” and when he writes, his book is a series of philosophical ramblings, justifications, enquiries and self doubt. It resonates with Gregorius as he traipses or takes trains and trams about the city hunting down clues to Amadeu’s real state of mind. In the process Gregorius breaks his glasses, leading to much clear/blurred new/old vision related imagery, plays a lot of chess, stares at the outside of old houses and gently breaks into Amadeo’s old, now abandoned school to set up a temporary HQ.

Lisbon graffitti
street in Alfama

Gregorius’ many train trips, like those of the man he seeks, enable comparisons between stations and the stages of life, views rushing past, unscheduled halts, fellow passengers and so on. He tracks down Amadeu’s contemporaries – and how lovely to read a book with so many elderly characters who are not defined simply by being old, but have individual traits, personalities and plot functions. On his journey Gregorius/Mundus learns to make friends, attempts to square the circle of Amadeu’s judge father who administered the law he hated under the dictatorship, and liberates Amadeu’s sisters from their memories – or does he?

For all Amadeu’s intellect, “there was only one thing he couldn’t do: celebrate, play, let himself go”. The key may be held by a woman he admired, perhaps loved, who is not intellectual but calm and reassuring: ‘ “Not everything can be important, and not always,” (Maria João) said. “That would be awful.” ‘ You’d have to read the book to find out whether Amadeu, and thus Gregorius, sort out the meaning of life to their satisfaction or achieve “the calm of someone who always seemed to know who he was and where he belonged“. But if you’re on a trip to Lisbon it will be a good companion, with each location carefully namechecked and described. Maybe the Tourist Office provides Night Train to Lisbon walks. (Just make sure you get on the right one!)

Lisbon nativity scene detail
Details from a nativity scene in Sao Roque

Gregorius finds the Portuguese people he meets warmly receptive to his needs and requirements. They go the extra mile to make him comfortable and guide him in their confusing, stimulating city. We found this too. Perhaps the Portuguese have a natural inclination (like their city) to ramblings and questions, to wondering why things and others are what they seem, and whether they can be trusted or, in another light, reveal themselves as something else entirely? What is a human being – or more exactly, who is a human being? What they think themselves to be, or what others think of them? And what of change, in different lights, at different times, from one age to another, in different states of health and solitary or befriended? What of age (Gregorius is fifty-seven): how does that enable or confuse self knowledge and how does our awareness of death affect us as we grow older? Gregorius dreads death but in Lisbon takes up smoking for the first time. It is not always the young or uneducated who act most foolishly.

Here’s a piece of good advice from Gregorius’ one close friend (a Greek optician) back home in Switzerland: ‘ “Talk to the doctors in your mother tongue. Fear and foreign languages don’t go well together.” ‘ He’s caught the Portuguese aphorisms bug: they turned up in restaurant menus, on walls and café toilets. And they seem to be something of a literary tradition.

Night Train to Lisbon – if you’re still on board, we’re approaching the final stop – is not all philosophy: it has a plot, dialogue and love interest too. It’s a book for book lovers, for linguists, teachers, doctors and patients, puzzle solvers and chess players, travellers, poets, those with a conscience, who have lost or retained religious faith or who have something to celebrate or regret. The fictitious book (Amadeu’s) that this fictitious hero (Gregorius/Mundus) is almost literally tracking down mirrors (and quotes) another, real book, O Livro do Desassossego (listen to those sibilants) by Fernando Pessoa (although Pessoa’s conceit was to claim other characters had written it, in typical multi layered Portuguese fashion). In English The Book of Disquiet, it’s a source of great pride to Lisboetas and Mercier quotes it in his prologue: “Each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves. So the self who disdains his surroundings is not the same as the self who suffers or takes joy in them. In the vast colony of our being there are many species of people who think and feel in different ways.”

Lisbon praca do comercio
Praca do Comercio

I’ll write about The Book of Disquiet next week, as I’m still lost somewhere in the first 100 pages, and I hope to write about Saramago, Portuguese Nobel Literature Prize winner. There’s no need for a health warning: from what I’ve read so far the heavyweights are not too impenetrable – they check themselves from time to time with self deprecation and humour. I’d rather Pessoa than Henry James. But that’s for another journey.

Inexcusably, the only book I bought in Lisbon’s oldest bookshop (it’s a city of old fashioned bookshops, music shops, haberdashers and hat shops: use them while you can) was for my translator daughter who likes to teach herself new languages by reading  Harry Potter. But back home it turned out she already had it and would have preferred a different volume, in German.

Meanwhile I wonder which city others would call the City of Books?

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

Music, mushrooms and mulberries – Dartington 2017

The blog has been silent for three weeks, but my life has not. Between ongoing neighbour noise and travel, there was a week of beautiful sounds at Dartington International Summer School and Festival. I blogged about Dartington last year when Monteverdi and Marina Warner were the main dishes on my menu and we were surrounded by weird medieval and renaissance instruments: sackbutts, theorbos, dulcimers and cornets. This year we chose strings week. Participating as singers ourselves, we could only listen, watch and admire those who are able to play.

cello footrests

Never have I seen so many cellos. As a cello case blocked me from the scrambled eggs, Adrian Brendel murmured, “So sorry – perhaps I shouldn’t have brought it into breakfast.” Cellos tuned, cellos bowed, cellos plucked, occasionally cellos rapped percussively. Cellos walking around apparently of their own momentum, when the player isn’t tall; cellos grouped in amiable conversation; cellos as footrests; sad cellos abandoned.  Baroque cellos, modern cellos, imaginary cellos. There must have been violins too – the Heath Quartet were in residence and opened the week with a stunning concert – there were certainly  violas, and the eagle eared might discern the distant rumble of a rare double bass.

My partner and I sing with a respectable community choir (Hackney Singers). We can “read” music though with less speed and processing power than we read words, have reasonably good pitch and the vocal muscle to manhandle a whole Beethoven Mass between breakfast and coffee. Our friends attend our London concerts if we buy them enough drinks. But at Dartington we are privileged to mix with world class musicians: we listen, awed and moved, to up to three concerts a night played only a few feet away by household names. Then on Friday night they pay us the compliment of coming to hear us! What we’d give at Hackney to have international stars in the audience, the likes of Emma Kirkby, Joanna MacGregor the pianist and director, or the stars of tomorrow like Stephanie Wake-Edwards who sang the alto solos in our mass or Isata Kanneh-Mason on piano. Over the weeks there’s a wide mix of genres represented, so Martin Carthy comes for folk workshops, Andy Sheppard for jazz, and Adriano Adewale brings Brazilian rhythms.

Great hall
Most concerts take place in the Great Hall

We rehearsed our mass en masse with George Vass, who was also conducting the Piano Concerto Competition and also conducting the production of Sweeney Todd while imparting the wit and wisdom of a lifetime in music. We triumphed (eventually, thanks to Gavin Roberts’ patience) over the German of Brahms and Schubert in the smaller Chamber Choir. When not rehearsing, we could wander into a masterclass: I chose Adrian Brendel’s but Pascal Roget was there too, and a piano duet class, and a vocal class. So I now know something about cello technique (keep the shoulder loose and play with the whole arm, not unlike the tennis commentator’s advice during the New York Open last night). I’ve seen the cello played so many ways by the same and different people: sitting back upright, calm and spiritual for the meditative mathematics of Bach, or embracing it with legs and arms curving forward to pluck deep bass notes, lips almost touching the neck like a singer with a microphone. It’s quite erotic.

(But music ain’t all spiritual or sexy : ever noticed how much saliva gets emptied onto the floor by a French horn and how a conductor sweats?)

Particular highlights this year? Alfred Brendel talking about Schubert, and his own musical career, moving when discussing his own choices of what and how to play, wise about young musicians today (“don’t practise so much”), quick with a witty putdown if an audience/interviewer question didn’t suit him.

Brendel jpg
Alfred Brendel after his discussion with Joanna MacGregor

Second highlight: Joanna MacGregor’s piano concerto masterclasses. The student soloist on one Steinway, she on the other, throwing herself about with huge energy to play all the orchestral parts on the other. There’s a surprisingly practical element to  her teaching: apparently concerto soloists rarely get the chance to practise with the orchestra before the performance (not so unlike the life of the amateur choir then) and she was full of hints. “If you peer under the piano lid at this point, you should be able to see the lower strings to help you keep in touch” / “this bit’s tricky for the conductor so just give him/her a hint, perhaps a quick G flat just to show what your intention is” / “try coming down onto the note from higher up, it will make more sound and be less tiring for you” / “just go with the flow for a rest, this is the woodwind lead, not yours”. Fascinating. I shall never hear Gershwin or Rachmaninov the same way again, having heard them on two Steinways as she conducted, advised, played, joked, demonstrated and most importantly, encouraged.

pianos jpg

Third highlight – Brazilian rhythms in the bar on the last night, top singers and musicians taking impro spots as we all clapped, sang and percussed along. Is to percuss a verb? It is now. If a mainly (but not all) classical music summer school sounds precious or exclusive, think again. This one rocked!

Last highlights? Delicious breakfast mushrooms and grazing on mulberries from the tree in the famous Dartington gardens. We’ll be back next year, for the St Matthew Passion – unless we go for Early Music Week … or The Creation… or the Verdi Requiem and Kiss Me Kate… choices, choices.

fullsizeoutput_52d

©Jessica Norrie 2017

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

In praise of beautiful writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

©Jessica Norrie 2017