Thursday, October 09, 2008
France, fantasy and fiction
See, it's this fantasy, innit? You're an artist - a writer-artist - fancy-free and cosmopolitan, you can see yourself on European railway stations, en route to meetings with other artists in eccentric locations with literary-intellectual histories. And blimey, there I was on my way to the inaugural Faber Academy course at the Left Bank bookshop Shakespeare and Company, having lunch with Ben at St Pancras and deciding we MUST, to suit the occasion, get a glass at the champagne bar. But then, see, our respective northern and Welsh roots get the better of the fantasy: we look at the menu and clock that the very cheapest is the same price as TWO glasses of wine in the restaurant so we go to the restaurant instead. But then I'm on the Eurostar and before I know it I'm in Paris and tucked up in my suitably and quite romantically eccentric and old-fashioned hotel. Next morning it's a ten-minute walk along the Seine and I'm there, among the famous teetering shelves.
The course is being held in the tiny library upstairs, past book-filled alcoves (and the odd bed: presumably for resting browsers!). There are fifteen of us and we fill the room, seated around its edges, those of us in the corners with our knees touching. It's intimate, and immediately our tutor, poet and novelist Tobias Hill got us interacting with his relaxed yet thorough and thought-provoking approach. Description, character and story: these are the three things which make up a novel, he said, and the exercises he had devised around this theme were ingenious and raised issues which led to lively discussions, and I must say that at this point some pretty impressive talent emerged. We discussed past versus present tense and first versus third person. Tobias is a champion of third person and thought most great novels were written in the third; not everyone agreed. By the end of the afternoon we were pretty exhausted but fired up (and some of us a little drunk by the time we'd been for the very nice drinks and canapes laid on by Faber and six of us students had gone off afterwards for dinner).
That was yesterday. Today was very different: that's another thing about Tobias, he knows how to shake you up with surprise. No sooner had we sat down comfortably, ready for a repetition of yesterday's proceedings, than he told us to get up again and go off individually into Paris for the whole morning on a note-taking exercise - a very nice one which entailed sitting in cafes like Matisse if you wished, a suggestion some of us had no bother taking up. Oh f***, though, I can't do this. I've so often wondered if I could, when I've taught writing courses myself: ditch my own agenda and concentrate on flexing the particular writing muscle in question. I try, I really do, but my own bloody agenda keeps surfacing: I've found some amazingly interesting-looking characters to describe, but once I start thinking about what their outward appearance signifies about their inner life, the other idea which obsesses and excites me as awriter kicks in: that outward appearance more often or not belies the inner person. So I'm hopeless in the afternoon too, when we spend the main part of it writing up our notes, while Tobias conducts one-to-one ten-minute tutorials about the work he kindly allowed us to shower on him on arrival, and I'm struggling with the thought that I'm not a very good student, after all. Then at four o'clock Jeanette Winterson arrived and roused everybody with an inspiring hour-long talk on the importance of voice in fiction, and a spirited defence of the first person over third, which gave us all, including Tobias, a good laugh. Then off to the cafe next door for a drink (of course!) before a great reading by Tobias of his poems and an extract from his forthcoming novel The Hidden. And then guess where six of us went again...