Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Reading group: A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel spark

This will be a short report, as there was a unanimously positive verdict from our group (no argument to report), and it's a fairly light read which however we all enjoyed immensely.

It's the first-person retrospective account, given in the 80s (when the book was published), of a time in the 50s when narrator Nancy Hawkins was a young publisher's assistant living in Kensington lodgings alongside an assortment of odd-ball and interesting tenants. Although only twenty-eight years old at the time she is referred to as 'Mrs Hawkins' by everyone, due to her status as a war widow, her comfortable physique, her comfortingly straightforward attitude and her tendency to give wise advice. Partly due to her straightforwardness, however, and partly due to her decision, in the course of the novel, to rebel against this profile and lose weight, her home and work life become entangled, in a plot which takes on something of the whodunnit.

We all agreed that the plot (which it would be egregious to give away here) was quite preposterous, but none of us minded in the least, as the delight of the novel was in the voice and personality of the narrator (and, indeed the advice she gives), the wonderful elegance and economy of Spark's prose style (it's a shortish novel, and people marvelled at what she had managed to pack into its pages), Spark's wit, and the evocative portrayal of a world which has gone, some characteristics of which however linger on in modern publishing. (At one point a publisher interviewing Mrs Hawkins tells her: " 'Yes, many of our staff here are in fact fairly interested in books.' " )

Although we deemed the book to be light, we did note that among all of this drollery and outrageous plottery, Spark does touch on some serious issues: beyond the central theme - which is literary pretension - bubble McCarthyism, the status of Polish immigrants in Britain after the war, illegitimate pregnancy, and poverty and the impact of the welfare state and free education.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Reading group: Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

Due to my second stinking cold of the winter, I was absent when this book was discussed by our group, which I was sorry to be, since I very much enjoyed the book - better, it seems, than most others in the group - and the discussion was clearly an interesting one. John has kindly written up the discussion, and I reproduce his report below, and I'll maybe add some comments of my own afterwards.

Perhaps first, though, I should say a bit about the book. Published in 1962, it opens as Berkeley University graduate student Cassandra sets out for home in the foot of the Sierra hills and the wedding of her identical twin, Judith. For Cassandra Judith is her alter ego, and it soon becomes clear that she is struggling psychologically with her sister's imminent marriage. The book is narrated chiefly by Cassandra, but a short yet not inconsequential section is narrated by Judith.


Mark chose this book, and mentioned its solipsism when he put it forward.
Spoilers are required. The title gives the game away a little, it’s no surprise that someone gets married, but if you want to come fresh to this book don’t read this, or the blurb, or the biographical notes on the author.
At the meeting Mark introduced the book almost with an apology. He admitted he had tried to read it some years earlier. He had quite liked it, but had not reached past 20 or 30 pages. His attitude was that the first section of the book seemed very subtle.
However, the author was well known at the time of publication, 1962. And probably most people reading at the time did know a thing or two about the author, and perhaps came to the book with very different expectations than our own. In terms of events, the book was judged by the group in general to be slow moving, and retrospectively, at least in the first half, too subtle. There is a sense, if you don’t recognize the context, and the when and the why of the events, that not much is happening. Later, speaking for myself, I realized how much subtle information was being introduced. It was generally agreed that, in terms of its prose however, the book was an easy read, too easy in that it was a quick read, making it too easy to miss important information, and did not seem deep.
One of blurbs called the book tragicomic. There was agreement that there are some good one-liners, but it certainly isn’t hilarious.
Ann said, bluntly, that she found the book very dated. I suppose I agreed in a sense. It was to me about a strange distant world. There’s a grandmother figure with traditional values, and as someone said, to general agreement, the others are rebelling against her – but it’s a pretty ‘middle-class’ rebellion. The father is retired, an ineffectual intellectual, but who also owns what they call a ranch. If it is a ranch it’s presumably run and managed by someone else – but perhaps they just mean a ranch house. A couple (from over the border) are living in a gatehouse and function as servants. The main family seemed more English than American. The wife is dead, and he seems to be drifting, and likes an occasional drink. None of them relate to the people in their town, and are like English gentry in this way. Doug said he found all the characters very strange. Someone said one of the main characters is ‘nuts’ – but others pointed out that all the other characters know this person is nuts.
Doug said the writing was brilliant, but he didn’t like it. One member of the group didn’t finish it, but said they had wanted to, just didn’t have the time. Everyone agreed that this meant missing the best bit.
The book is in three sections, divided between the voices of identical twins Cassandra and Judith. It was agreed that Judith, who comes in late, has ‘a real voice’, a different more factual voice, and gets on with the story. Whereas Cassandra is self-involved, living in her own head.
There are two outsiders, both doctors, and both, in their own ways, more part of the ‘real world’, the world outside the family.
Significant things happen, but early on I didn’t know they were happening. I don’t know much about weddings. I got it that the bride had a white wedding dress, but (spoiler alert) I didn‘t know that other female guests weren’t supposed to wear white, and couldn’t see what the fuss was about. Another important event seems to be that a glass gets broken – I still don’t know what all that’s about. Perhaps they had a set of two dozen and with one broken they’ll have to throw them all away.
I imagine this book was well known at the time, and it’s useful to know the context. Dorothy Baker was well known, and could be said to be part of the Hollywood elite. She was married to a well-known poet. In 1938 she published Young Man with a Horn (about Bix Beiderbecke, a (real-life) jazz trumpeter, and one of the first famous early white jazz musicians.)  This was made into a film starring Kirk Douglas. In 1942 she published a book Trio, that proved too scandalous for the times, and a play based on it, produced by her and her husband, was quickly shut down because of protests. It is in this light, perhaps, that the subtlety of the present book should be viewed. The author was clearly a modern woman, had lived, and knew about the modern world but wrote the book in the early sixties, before the 60s really got started, and perhaps did not want to (again) create too much of a fuss. She died fairly young in 1968.
There was some agreement that the book was interesting, but not all that enjoyable. I said I thought the women in the group might have got more out of it, understood the mores better, but they didn’t seem to feel strongly about this.
The group in general liked the book in the end. I must admit I read the first half or so with some enjoyment, it did feel modern (considering the author was born in 1907) and interesting, but I started to wonder if anything much was ever going to happen. Plenty does happen; I just wasn’t alert to the clues.
If you’ve read this account I don’t know whether you might, or might not want to read the book. It is about women’s lives. The two women are very different. These women could exist today, though, as someone said, the characters reactions, and their society in general, would have been very different.
One member, Jenny, said she thought it was clear from very early on what was going to happen – quite the opposite of my own reaction. This certainly isn’t a gentle book in the end. When the new husband comes in towards the end there are some very dramatic and peculiar goings on...

EB: I have to say that I do agree with the rest of the group that the book (perhaps, as John says, because of the author's previous troubles) may be too subtle for its own good. I too missed some of the clues early on in the novel as to what was propelling Cassandra, thus missing some of the subtext, so that conversations and events seemed more mundane than I could see in retrospect they were meant to be, and nothing much seemed to be happening. I missed a crucial clue on the second page when Cassandra says that the bridge she can see from her Berkeley window 'took on the appeal of a bright exit sign in an auditorium that is crowded and airless'. Since up to this point she has talked, in a zippy, witty tone, only about leaving early for her sister's wedding, I took this to mean she just wants to get out of Berkeley to the wedding as soon as possible, and even though in the next few lines she says 'my guide assures me I'm not a jumper; it's not my sort of thing', it didn't occur to me that she is suicidal. The realisation only came to me later, and when it did her behaviour seemed much more explicable, and she seemed a more sympathetic character. (I don't think this is plot-spoiling, as I'm sure the author intended us to realise this from the start.) In this context, the deliberate (and dangerous) smashing of the glass by Cassandra that John mentions is understandable, and the fallout of the incident indicative of the push-me-pull-you relationship between the sisters that is at the heart of the book. With reference to this last, I disagree with John that the book is about anything so anodyne as 'women's lives'. As I see it, it is rather about the more unusual symbiotic relationship between a particular pair of biologically identical yet psychologically different twins, and their difficulty in achieving individuation in adult life.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Story in The Lonely Crowd

I mentioned in my post of January 8th that I was about to write a story that, unlike others I've written recently, wouldn't touch on any overt political issues, but would be about the difficulties of communication in personal relationships (and its potentially devastating long-lasting consequences). That story has now been taken by The Lonely Crowd (and only two days after I sent it to the editor, John Lanvin!), a newish literary journal based in Wales that has quickly established a significant presence in British literature, publishing literary heavyweights such as Niall Griffiths and Toby Litt. Needless to say, I'm thrilled to bits to be published in its pages. It's made me ponder the way we sometimes judge our own stories. In fact, after I had finished the story I hesitated to send it somewhere so prestigious, thinking it lightweight in comparison to my recent others. It just goes to show...

Issue 11 of The Lonely Crowd is due out on 25th March. (My story won't appear until Issue 12 later this year.)  You can preorder Issue 11 here.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

'Bitter, Horned' in Litro Online

My story 'Bitter, Horned' can now be read on Litro Online. The picture (credit Sandrine Rouja) shows Creeping Wood Sorrel, the Latin name for which, Oxalis Corniculata, means precisely that: bitter and horned (it's edible but tastes very bitter, and it has funny little seed capsules like horns). This plant, an invasive weed, plays a pivotal part in the story which concerns a newly appointed young gardener with a dodgy past he's trying to overcome and an old lady with a problem with her lawn, but it's also very much a symbol of both of their fears, real and existential, involving issues of homelessness and domestic violence, and indeed their fear of each other. Litro have provided a link so that you can read about the plant, and although I did research it in order to make sure I didn't make any mistakes, I made a point of extracting the information that would best fit the story, and for me it operates chiefly as a symbol serving those themes.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Reading group: Amongst Women by John McGahern

John suggested this 1990 novel which opens as 'once-powerful' ex-IRA commander Moran is declining towards death, and his three adult daughters try to rally him by returning to the farmhouse for 'Monaghan Day', the day of the year when his former IRA lieutenant would once visit after attending the nearby yearly cattle fair, and the two would recount their former republican army glory. The novel then retrospectively charts the years from those times, when the motherless daughters of the house would attend the table, through Moran's courtship of and marriage to a second wife Rose and Rose's saving absorption into the family, the growing and moving away of the daughters, and a serious rift with his youngest child, Michael, who runs away to Dublin and then England to escape a severe beating, a repetition of what had happened with an older son, Luke, before the events being retrospectively related.

Introducing the book, John said he felt it was about the violence of traditional rural Irish lives under the oppression of religion and English colonisation, and the need of young people to escape it (either to Dublin or London). It was also, he said, a study of male attitudes under these conditions. Moran is a broody man with a temper. When Rose joins the household, she notices his children are stilled when he enters a room, watching him for his mood 'like the weather', and if the girls break a piece of crockery they are seriously afraid of his wrath and hide the pieces so he will not know. Rose herself quickly learns that he must be appeased, and takes on the role of pourer of oil on troubled waters, keeping determinedly cheerful for the sake of the children as well as her own. For these reasons, John said he felt that the book was ultimately about war and its dehumanising effects on men.

Ann said she thought it was rather about families, or a specific family. I didn't think there was a real discrepancy here: surely what the book is showing is the chain effect of those outward political circumstances on the families of those men, their invasion into the privacy of the home and the lives of children. This is brilliantly codified by the opening of the novel, in which Moran's daughters, who love him in spite of everything, are actively trying to revive for him his former IRA glory. Moran does indeed bring his mode of military command into the home along with the oppressive aspect of the Catholic Church: although not a church-goer, he will interrupt any household activity by commanding the whole family to drop to its knees and say the rosary.

I commented that there isn't really much of a dramatic story arc in this novel - it really simply traces a now mundane life from middle-aged virility to death - yet somehow it was extremely engrossing. Everyone else agreed - they had all really loved the book, and thought it beautifully written. John noted that the style is in fact very traditional, with a lot of telling rather than showing, which he thought was perhaps why, although he and I had read the book years ago, we hadn't really remembered it - there was perhaps a lack of vividness. This time around I did note a brilliant moment right at the beginning where the narrator bothers to call the yew tree in the garden 'poisonous' - a vivid hint of the poison in Moran's relationship with his family - but I didn't note any other such symbolic moments as I read. John said he felt there was actually a (subsidiary) story arc concerning the progress of Michael, which slightly skews the more generally democratic focus of the novel, and he found Michael more vivid than the rest of the characters. He wondered therefore if the novel were autobiographical and Michael a veiled portrait of the author. He also noted that there is a huge gap in the novel: the narration gives no sense of the dead wife and mother, whereas we all felt that there ought naturally to be, since the novel deals with the feelings and attitudes of all the characters - the elder girls who have taken on her role in the household would surely have a constant memory of her. The much younger Michael is likely to have less memory of her - she must have disappeared from his life at a much earlier age - (and he is the one child who takes to Rose as a mother figure, the older girls treating her more as a sister), and this perhaps reflects the fact that McGahern's own mother died when he was very young, reinforcing the notion that Michael is to some extent a self-portrait.

One point that was made was that this was a world that no longer exists, that with the weakening of the power of the church and membership of the European Union, Ireland is now very different (though John wasn't sure of this). Nevertheless, we all still found the novel politically and emotionally resonant, indeed impressive, and we had all been very moved.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Confingo magazine, and online versus print publication.

I'm delighted to say that another of my stories has been accepted by the excellent Confingo Magazine. It's yet another of the stories I've been writing recently that touch on particularly contemporary issues - though, as I say, the real heart of these stories for me is the particular personal dilemmas for their protagonists. Publication won't be until October, as the forthcoming Spring issue is now more or less decided. In the days before online magazines this was the norm with story submissions - a good wait between acceptance and publication, but recently I've been experiencing the more quick-fire publishing schedules of online magazines. My story 'Kiss' was published in MIR Online in December within two or three weeks of acceptance and, 'Bitter, Horned', accepted only last week, will appear on Litro on 10th February. It would be easy, in view of this, to get impatient with the slow process of print publication, but there are pros and cons. For one thing, there's really nothing like having a print copy of something you've written, and online magazines can disappear and along with them their stories. Salt's Online Magazine, Horizon Review, on which I had had three stories published, 'The Choice Chamber', 'What Do You Do If' and 'Possibility', was deleted from their site. Luckily they had been captured by the WayBack Machine web archive, so I was able to provide links to that, but when I discovered recently that the defunct online magazine The View From Here had disappeared altogether I was quite unable to retrieve the story of mine they'd published, 'Tides: How Stories Do or Don't Get Told': not a single one of the snapshots the WayBack Machine had taken of the magazine included its page. It's just fortunate that that story (along with the three others) is included in my Salt collection, Used to Be (and, before that, in Best British Short Stories 2014). Print publications, after all, last forever, and Confingo is indeed a classy publication (with beautiful artwork) that you'd want to keep.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

The waywardness of stories

The New Year is going well: yesterday I was delighted to hear that a new story, 'Bitter, Horned', will be published on Litro Online next month. It's one of several stories I've written recently that deal with some pressing current issues I've been getting exercised about.  While 'Kiss' (MIR Online) concerns terrorism, this story concerns the triple issues of housing and the threat of homelessness, environmental pollution and domestic violence. However, the real trigger for writing about anything for me is always deeply personal: some human situation I've experienced or observed and which has deeply moved me, and it just so happens that the human dilemmas in these particular stories are embedded in these social and political issues. I was beginning to feel that this was my new schtick in storywriting, but then of course a story pops up that doesn't fit the pattern - I have now been moved to write a story divorced from any current political issue but based in one of my abiding themes, the difficulty of communication in personal relationships - as indeed was my recently V S Pritchett longlisted story. Stories - in some ways you just can't control them, and I guess that's the exciting thing.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Dramatic and quiet stories. 'Kiss' chosen for Best British Short Stories 2019

Happy New Year!

I have started the new year on a bit of a high, as my story 'Kiss' which early last year was longlisted in the Short Fiction Journal prize and was recently published on MIR online, has been chosen by editor Nicholas Royle for inclusion in Best British Short Stories 2019, to be published by Salt later this year. This is the second time I've had a story in this great series - in 2014 my story 'Tides, Or How Stories Do or Don't Get Told', made it (interestingly, that had also been previously published online) - and it's a huge thrill to have a published story receive this further - and prestigious - acknowledgement. ('Kiss' is the story I wrote about in my post on research for fiction.)

I've had three strikes with this story, basically, and pretty quickly (it did get two blanks, with two other competitions), but as far as I can remember 'Tides' suffered a few rejections before being accepted for publication and finally receiving critical praise in reviews of Best British Short Stories. It's made me ponder the mystery of why some stories make it easily and quickly, and others take some time to get acceptance even though they may do well in the end. Perhaps to some extent it's subject matter: as a story concerning terrorism, 'Kiss' involves an urgent current topic and a dramatic situation. There's also the question of the form of a story: the urgency of the situation in 'Kiss' is reflected in a deliberately rushed, breathless prose. 'Tides', on the other hand, is consciously contemplative both in subject matter and style - I guess you could say it was a 'quiet' story. And 'Kiss' involves sexuality, including a new and youthful relationship, whereas 'Tides' concentrates on the quieter poignancy of a long-term relationship. Yet to me these two stories are equally dynamic in terms of their themes and the issues they raise. (I'm afraid 'Tides' is no longer online, but it can be read in my latest story collection, Used to Be [Salt].)

It makes me wonder: are 'quieter' stories less likely to catch the eye of competition judges and magazine editors overwhelmed with material and inevitably to some extent scanning on first sight? Is there such a thing as a 'competition story', as I have long suspected? It would be a great pity if quieter, more contemplative, but no less accomplished and thematically important stories were to be squeezed from our culture...