Monday, March 28, 2022

A Covid glitch and 'Tides' at WORDTheatre

I've been away from this blog for some time, at first because I was very involved in trying to get a new novel started - it's often for me the biggest part of writing a novel, finding the right structure and voice so the whole thing can take off: it takes up all my consciousness so that I can think of very little else, including getting the usual practical things of life done. Then I went down with Covid, and was pretty rough and have since been suffering exhaustion. During this time the novel pretty much slipped from my mental grasp, and I may be back to square one with it when I tackle it again.

Still, I'm getting some energy back now, which is just as well, as a couple of weeks ago I travelled to London to an exciting WORDTheatre event at the Crazy Coqs cabaret venue in London's Piccadilly, where my story 'Tides, Or How Stories Do or Don't Get Told' was read by the brilliant actor Nina Sosanya. 

WORDTheatre was founded by the amazingly energetic producer Cedering Fox. The mission is to promote short stories by having them read by renowned actors at live events which are filmed for later screenings, with readings recorded for free podcasts. The event I attended was devoted to Salt's yearly Best British Short Stories, edited by Nicholas Royle, who was there to talk about the series. Five stories had been chosen by Cedering from out of the ten anthologies published so far. Alongside my story, which appeared in BBSS 2014, there were stories by Hilary Mantel, David Constantine, Hanif Kureishi and Courttia Newland, read by Nina, David Morrisey, Gina Bellman, Indira Varma, Derek Riddel and Rhashan Stone.

It was a really lovely evening in the very stylish Art Deco setting of Crazy Coqs, with musical interludes on the piano and violin. Nina read my story brilliantly, bringing out all the multiple meanings I had intended, with all of the emphases I'd had in my head as I wrote it, and I felt very moved. 

Find out about WORDTheatre and membership here.

'Tides, Or How Stories Do or Don't Get Told' is included in Best British Short Stories 2014 and my own collection, Used to Be, both published by Salt.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Reading Group: Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

There seem to be two schools of thought about Wallace Stegner, who founded the creative writing school at Stanford University (1946) and taught many well-known American novelists. One is that he himself is somewhat minor as a novelist, and another is that he is in fact one of the greatest American writers and unjustly overlooked, partly or mainly because he is a novelist of the American west (rather than the fashionable east coast) with an environmentalist stress on landscape. 

Perhaps as a result of this schism no one in our group had heard of him, I think, apart from Mark who a few years ago had read this, Stegner's final novel, and remembered enjoying it. Acknowledged to be semi-autobiographical, it is the story of the lifelong friendship between two couples, narrator Larry Morgan and his wife Sally, and Sid and Charity Lang. The novel begins in 1972 near the end of this journey, with Larry and Sally waking in the Vermont compound where over many years they spent summers hosted by Charity and her family, and where Charity is now clearly dying. Then in flashback we follow the story from the beginning in 1938, as Larry and Sally arrive in Wisconsin for Larry to begin teaching in the English Department at the university, where Sid is already on the staff. It is Charity who immediately befriends the new couple, swiftly visiting Sally in their basement flat, the pregnancies of both women forming an instant bond between them. It is clear from the start that Charity is a woman of force. Although Larry and Sally are much poorer and lack the family connections the Langs enjoy, the Langs are very keen to take them under their wing and to form a close friendship with them, quickly inviting them to dinner and then constantly arriving on their doorstep to whisk them away to picnics etc., and the Morgans are clearly flattered. The Langs then spend many years helping the Morgans out both socially and financially.

Very soon there is no doubt that Charity is controlling. She is determined that she and Sid will have a prominent role in Wisconsin academia. Larry rapidly achieves success as a short story writer for prestigious magazines and soon also gets his first novel accepted for publication, but although eventually Charity will enthusiastically engineer a publishing job for Larry through a family connection, bent on an academic career for Sid, she discourages Sid from the writing he would like to do and thus ultimately destroys his prospects as a writer. An incident in which she is particularly controlling is one that will end in tragedy for Sally and Larry. On one of their stays in Vermont, the two couples take a walking trip with a packhorse (leaving their children behind with the hired carers). It begins with an embarrassing confrontation when, just as they are due to set off, Charity demeans Sid by publicly insisting that he unpack and repack to be sure that the matches he said he packed are really in there. Once they set out she insists that the four walk by the compass, leading them into bogs and other impediments. By the end of the trip, Sally has come down with polio, which will disable her for life, and, although it is not stated, there is a between-the-lines implication that Charity's behaviour is responsible. Now, in 1972, it will turn out, Charity has orchestrated a scenario for her own death in which she has commanded everyone to be present - although in fact Larry and Sally have not seen her for some years - and has even drawn up a list of women of her own choice as potential marriage partners for Sid after she is gone.  

Objectively for the reader therefore Charity is something of a monster. In her Introduction to the 2013 Penguin edition, Jane Smiley states that '...it is clear early in the novel that Charity rubs Larry the wrong way, and that probably the two of them would never be friends without Sid ... and Sally, who loves Charity.' However, most of us in the group felt that there was much more narrative ambivalence towards Charity than this implies. Larry is initially almost, if not quite, as bowled over by her as Sally: 'All right. I admitted it: a charming woman, a woman we couldn't help liking on sight. She raised the pulse and the spirits, she made Madison a different town, she brought life and anticipation and excitement into a year we had been expecting to endure stoically.' The 'all right' and the 'I admitted it' do indicate some prior doubts, but the rest of the statement serves to sweep them away. As the novel progresses, Charity is revealed as more and more controlling; meanwhile, there is more and more insistence on the fact that the Morgans loved Charity, and the dichotomy becomes stronger. Several admiring critics have seen this as a subtle portrayal of the paradoxical complications of friendship, but it did not strike most of us in our group like that: most of us found it simply inconsistent and were left with a strong sense of disingenuousness, and consequently the sense that  Larry was prepared to swallow any flaws for what Charity could offer him and Sally (the social and financial 'safety' of the title perhaps). Most strongly betraying disingenuousness and insincerity, perhaps, however, is the prose: two or three people in our group commented that there appears to be to be no authorial irony in the depiction of Larry - narrator and author seem very close - and for much of the narration there is a telling coyness and sentimentality. He describes the Vermont compound:

A happy, orderly, lively corner of Eden, as hushed as a hospital at quiet times, jumping with activity as soon as the social bell sounded ... Sid over the barbecue, Lyle and I over the firewood; Aunt Emily, Aunt Heather, and the hired girls over the smaller children...

a passage that goes on for several pages.

Some of us found it hard to understand why otherwise Larry and Sally would have anything more to do with the other pair after the first dinner party, when Charity uses a police whistle to marshal people into dances and songs, and when, much worse, there is antisemitism in the air as a clearly uneasy Jewish couple, who do not know the dances and songs, are made out to be ungracious, jealous and downright wet blankets.

But no, after the party the Morgans and Langs walk together wrapped in the burnooses provided by the Langs and 'fell into a four-ply laughing hug, we were so glad to know one another and so glad that the trillion chances in the universe had brought us to the same university at the same time', a sentiment later cemented in the fact that, once their daughter is born very soon after, Larry and Sally call her after the other two, Lang. And it is hard to see past one of the early, establishing sentences of the novel, describing Charity's compound:

There it was, there it is, the place where during the best time of our lives friendship had its home and happiness its headquarters.

But then it is Larry himself who seems most strongly to express the antisemitic attitude. 'And there sat the impossible Erlichs.' he says, 'smiling and smiling, with their useless book open on their laps and their mouths shut, hating what they envied.'  He describes the atmosphere after the pair, the Erlichs, have summarily left the party in angry disgrace:

Altogether a lovely scene. I felt guilty and triumphant. There we were, still in the warmth and light and grace of that room, while those who didn't belong, those who hated and envied, those who were offensive to Athena, went out into the chilly darkness. I knew how they felt, and I hated it for their sakes. But I also knew how I felt. I felt wonderful. [My bolds.]

'I hated it for their sakes,' he says, and 'I knew how they felt', but one would hope for a stronger self-condemnation, and the passage is in any case haloed by his earlier reaction to the Erlichs: Marvin Erlich, he says, is

'...one of the high-crotch, baggy-tweed contingent ... loading his pipe and scattering tobacco crumbs all over my desk... I had reacted to him as if he were ragweed, and I was not especially happy to see him now... His wife (I reconstruct this without charity, small c) gave us a smile that I thought curiously flat in so plump a face. It struck me then, and strikes me again now, how instantly mutual dislike can make itself evident. Or was I only reacting to their indifference? They did not appear to value me, so the hell with them.' 

Post 1972, narrator Larry does wonder more generously how the Erlichs, among others, fared in life, but in the light of this quite vividly portrayed distaste, the later sentiment and the above comment on his own lack of charity do seem disingenuous. And the last sentence of the last-quoted paragraph indeed strikes me as particularly self-centred. Now, as he recounts the party incident, he muses: 'Maybe we were all anti-Semitic in some sneaky residual way,' but then immediately lets himself off the hook: 'but I don't think so.'

For me there is a lot of disingenuousness and self-centredness surrounding the issue of the comparative literary fates of Larry and Sid. Narrator Larry portrays himself as sympathetic to Sid's difficulty and embarrassed about his own success in comparison with Sid's failure, but the narrative stress on his own success and on the admiration of others, including Charity and Sid, seems to me to belie this. One of Larry's short stories is accepted by the prestigious Atlantic. On a walk on the same day, Sid reveals that as an undergraduate he published poems in small (lesser) magazines, and Larry asks him to recite one:

But he won't... He would be overcome with embarrassment to expose them to a real writer, one with the Atlantic's letter in his pocket.

While we can take this as a replication of Sid's attitude - ie Larry assumes that Sid thinks of him as the real writer of the two, and indeed goes on to protest and tell Sid that he shouldn't let outside pressures stop him writing - for the whole of this book there is the sense for this reader that that's Larry's view too, so his sympathy with Sid's dashed promise came across to me as disingenuous and patronising, and his bashfulness about his own success as humblebrag.

John was shocked too by the self-centredness, finding it even in the first chapter, which others of us, including me, hadn't. Larry rises early, before Sally, and walks in the compound, relishing the surroundings: '...a road I have walked hundreds of times, a lovely lost tunnel through the trees, busy this morning with birds and little shy rustling things, my favourite road anywhere.' Looking back in the context of the whole novel, however, I can see what John's bullshit detector lit on:

We didn't come back to Battell Pond this time for pleasure... But I can't feel sombre now... Quite the reverse. I wonder if I have ever felt more alive, more competent in my mind and more at ease with myself and the world.

In other words, it's not really about nature, about the beautiful surroundings, or his disabled wife lying asleep back in the lodge, helpless should she wake, or the sombre reason for their visit, it's all about him.

John was shocked too by the sexism. When Larry's first novel is accepted for publication he throws an impromptu party to celebrate. During the evening, Sally, heavily pregnant, indeed about to give birth, has to retire to the bedroom of their basement flat, while beyond the wall Larry relishes being kissed by two women: 'I am flooded with a Turkish feeling of being surrounded by desirable, affectionate women... More kisses. Smooch, mm.' (Though of course, true to form, he denies there is anything sexual in it: 'both delightful, charming sisters I wish I had'). Larry is quite happy to have Sally, whose face he says is the picture he wants to carry beyond the grave (or words to that effect - I can't find the quote), spend her whole time typing and editing his manuscripts before she is disabled. Narrator Larry says:

Nowadays, people might wonder how my marriage lasted. It lasted fine. It throve, partly because I was as industrious as an ant-eater in a termite mound and wouldn't have noticed anything short of a walkout, but more because Sally was completely supportive and never thought of herself as a neglected wife - 'thesis widows', we used to call them in graduate school.

There is acknowledgement here of course of the outdated patriarchy of the situation, but the tone is complacent and somewhat offhand ('It lasted fine'). (And there is of course complete ignorance of unraised consciousness, along with self-justification, in the excuse that 'Sally never thought of herself as a neglected wife'.) This is one of the very few comments on their marriage, and most in our group agreed that Sally is nothing more than a cipher in the novel.

People wondered why, in a semi-autobiographical novel, the author should have made the non-autobiographical choice to make the narrator's wife disabled, noting that it sent her to the sidelines of the action. We never get any sense of any involvement of Larry with her care (they employ a woman for that) even though at the end of the novel Larry is able to bask in Sid's congratulation for carrying the burden. In one scene, Larry holds her up to watch a procession she is excited by. 'Anything she was enchanted by she was entitled to', he says, but then there is laughable stress on the discomfort it's causing him: 

My feet were getting cold, and were punctured by the gravel embedded in the roof ... 'Sure you're not cold?' [he asks her] ...then her hand went up and down my back, pressing the cold cloth of my pajamas to my skin. 'But you are! You're freezing!'

Others remarked on the constant references to servants, including the girl employed full-time to look after their baby, as 'our girl' or 'the girl'. Clare pointed out in disgust that at one point one of the nanny helpers is compared to a cow. Someone noted that there is nothing in the novel of the Morgans' years with a growing child (we never ever get to know Lang, their only child). The attitude to children and childcare was to me laughably shocking. John picked out the fact that Larry, trying to hug Sally over her pregnant bump, refers to the baby as an 'intruder', and the attitude is carried over once the baby is born. Taking a sailing trip on the lake, the two couples are caught in squally weather and the boat overturns. Although their lives seem to be in danger, there is not one thought of the baby at home with the minder, and once Larry and Sally arrive home they refuse to take the baby screaming for its long overdue breast feed and demand that the minder girl holding her pour them a steaming bath:

Ellen came out of the bathroom with Lang purple-faced and unappeasable on her shoulder. We crowded past them into the steam and shut the door.

Once Sally does take Lang, there is a certain distaste in Larry's attitude to her:

Burly, fat-faced, obviously overnourished at Sally's expense, she did not get my sympathy.

One period in the later past life of Larry and Sally that is dwelt on in detail is the year they spend with the Langs in Florence on Guggenheim Fellowships, once their daughter has departed for university. While narrator Larry states that the four were excitedly and humbly aware of their luck and keen to learn, John, agreed with by others, couldn't help feeling that they were in fact horribly pleased with themselves for being there, the prose being particularly coy in this section, this paragraph perhaps encapsulating an underlying arrogance and patronisation:

While buying gas [at Gubbio], [we] heard a passionate crie de coeur from the girl who manned the pump. She said she was trapped in this medieval prison of a town. She turned her lips inside out when we protested that it was the most picturesque town we had ever seen... if we had wanted a maid, a driver, a cook, a sarta, a concubine, a faithful follower until the first better opportunity showed, we could have had that girl for a thousand lire a day ...We regretted afterwards that we hadn't asked her. It would have been interesting to see her expression when she found herself expected to stand respectfully before the Della Robbia lunettes in the Pazzi chapel, or asked to wait with the car outside Santa Maria Novella.

'We were once again four in Eden', he says, a reference back to an earlier and apparently unironically self-aggrandising comment about the four in Vermont:

Two Adams and two Eves, an improvement on God's plan, and one I recommend to Him next time He makes a world.

Mark, who in spite of enjoying the book in the past found he couldn't even read it this time around, defended it however from criticisms of sexism and snobbery by saying that it was of its time, and suggested that it was no more sexist than Updike or Roth. Most in the group didn't find that any excuse. The book was first published in 1987 when many writers were writing with very different attitudes. Ann commented rightly that these things often overlap in the development of artistic trends, and we agreed that it was in fact an old-fashioned book for its time in terms of both attitudes and prose style.

Clare was irritated by the constant lists of plants, which struck her not so much as appreciation of nature as showing off a knowledge of taxonomy. I noted that, although Stegner has been lauded as a writer of the American landscape, there has also been objection to the fact that he overlooks completely the role of Native Americans in its history. The only references to Native Americans in this book are the moment when the young Larry, arriving for the first time at the Vermont compound, comes upon Charity's mother reading Hiawatha to a group of children, and the couple of occasions when Larry makes a jokey stereotype parody of Native American speech which made me distinctly uncomfortable. Most people were also irritated (and bored) by the way the characters constantly quoted, sometimes at length, from poetry, and some thought it pretentious (on the part of both the characters and the author). 

However, although we so thoroughly demolished this book, Ann, John and I had to say that we were fascinated by it, Ann because the situation with Charity's family echoed some of her own American family history, John because the attitudes of the two couples reminded him of the parental distance and snobbery of his own childhood, and he and I because we simply couldn't believe it and kept looking for the savage irony we expected but didn't find.

Jenny had been quiet all this time and she now spoke up, saying that she had enjoyed the book and that she found our criticisms totally unnecessary and indeed 'sour'. She thought it completely wrong that we brought the author into our discussions, and didn't just attend to the story, which she thought was a really good one - the story of how two couples ended up being friends for so many years. Mark replied that it was potentially a really good story, and an unusual one, but that we hadn't liked the treatment. Jenny however would not be moved. She strongly disagreed that there was no irony in the narration, and, apparently disgusted with us, said we would just have to agree to disagree on that. 

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

Monday, January 24, 2022

Reading group: Candide by Voltaire

We haven't read many real classics for this reading group, and our usual lit-crit mode of discussion seemed hardly appropriate for a book (suggested by John) that is considered a staple of the Western canon, and indeed one of the most influential books of all time. Published in 1759 and the most famous of Voltaire's works, it is the picaresque tale of an ingenue, Candide, who has been schooled by his tutor Pangloss in the Leibnitzian philosophy of Optimism - the idea that, since God made this world He must have sufficient reason for its shortcomings, and that therefore it is 'the best of all possible worlds'. Ejected from the comfort of his royal home after being found paying sexual attention to the princess of the castle, Guneconde, Candide embarks on a series of travels and adventures that open his eyes to the horrors of the world and turn him against such a philosophy. An attack thus on Optimism, the book is a satirical takedown of all the established institutions and belief systems of society, most notably organised religion, but many others, including rank, the army, money systems and slavery.

Some of us had already read it, others hadn't; Doug had read it in the original French for A-level. John was pleased to experience again its biting and sometimes laugh-out-loud comedy; Jenny, who hadn't read it before said she was very glad that she now had, although she wouldn't have appreciated it properly had her edition not had an explanatory Introduction that also delineated the real-life historical events to which the novel was referring. Everyone said, however, how pertinent the satire nevertheless is to the present day, and everyone had enjoyed it. We relished reading the phrases coined in this novel that have become common currency, such as pour encourager des autres (the satirical reference here is to the 1757 court-martial and execution of Admiral Byng for failing to prevent the French from capturing a British stronghold on Minorca) and 'cultivating one's garden' (which Candide and his companions decide is the only sensible alternative to trying to make sense of a cruel, mad world). We did find that it took a bit of reading, that although it is a short work it seemed longer, which I thought was partly due to the picaresque form, which strings events out in a linear fashion (and, I find, makes it easy to forget them). Ann commented that since the book had actually been banned after its (secret) publication, one wonders how many people actually got to read it at the time, which makes it all the more impressive that it has had such an impact (which goes to show, perhaps, not just its wit and profundity, but also the unintended consequences of banning books, or maybe the power of reading elites, or both).

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

Sunday, January 02, 2022

Reading group: Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

Another universally praised book, suggested by Jenny, (by the author of Brooklyn, which we discussed here), but which I'm afraid didn't get universal acclaim from our group. Another novel set in the author's home town of Enniscorthy , it is the story of a widow's struggle in the late sixties-early seventies to carry on as a mother in the aftermath of the untimely death of her schoolteacher husband. Jenny, who had been attracted to the book by the scenario of a grieving widow, was its champion, identifying strongly with Nora's situation, and it seemed that those most favourable to the book in our group were bringing personal experience to its reading, although John, whose father died when he was fifteen, was one of those who were least favourable.

One complaint was that for much of this pretty lengthy novel nothing actually seems to happen. Things do in fact happen: necessity forces Nora to sell the family holiday home and to be railroaded by her own relatives into returning to work in the office from which she was freed by her marriage. Here she must suffer the vengeful management of a woman whom the young Nora and her friend once despised and laughed at. She visits and is visited by relatives and friends who pressure her with their expectations. Eventually, taken under another woman's wing, and through the intercessions of a nun, she begins to find new ways of relating to the world: she helps out at a distant pub quiz night, she joins the local music society and is taught to sing, she decides to redecorate the house. She goes abroad on holiday with an aunt, and finds the courage to get herself a separate room when the aunt's snores keep her awake. She manages to make a stand when her younger son is unfairly moved to a lower class in school, and to get the decision reversed. Towards the end of the novel, Nora's university-student daughter becomes involved in Bloody Sunday, and finally Nora experiences being visited by her dead husband Maurice. While much of this might seem inconsequentially minor and domestic, there is potential for plot here, but Toibin is famed for eschewing plot, and also for his restrained prose, and his way of representing this series of events is indeed undramatic. On several occasions a situation promised a drama or crisis but ended without either. When Nora and her new friend run the quiz night, there is a strange rising confrontational hostility on the part of some male locals, but no confrontation ever happens. The potential for drama when Nora's daughter goes missing after Bloody Sunday is quickly dissipated when in no time at all - as far as the space and attention the novel gives to it goes - she is discovered to be fine, and the whole subject is summarily dropped from both the novel, and, it seems, from Nora's preoccupation. Textually, the episode is given not much more weight than her decision to redecorate the house. This lack of plotting or shaping resulted for us readers in a sense of a lack of forward motion, and almost all of us said that we were shocked to suddenly realise towards the end of the novel that three years had passed. 

Toibin is also routinely praised for his empathic portraits of women, but a more major problem for some of us was that, as with the character of Eilish in Brooklyn - in fact even more so - we found it very hard to get to grips with the character of Nora. The whole novel purports to be located in Nora's viewpoint, but is written in an objective third person that allows for withdrawal from direct - or even indirect - portrayal of Nora's emotions or even thoughts, and once again we found that too much is consequently left unsaid, unillustrated or unaddressed, or is even glossed over, so that it was difficult to assess Nora's precise emotions and motivations at too many given moments. For instance: Donal, the elder of the two children she still has at home (two boys) has a stammer that he developed during an extended stay at an aunt's while his mother attended to his dying father. Wondering what must have happened to occasion it, she visits the aunt only to be roundly told that the stammer was the effect of Nora never having visited or contacted the boys the whole time they were there. Nora's emotional reaction to this is neither spelled out nor illustrated with indications of her demeanour, nor implied symbolically (eg via her perceptions of her surroundings). (Did she feel it was unfair? Did she feel guilty?) Several reviewers, seeing the novel as a woman's struggle for autonomy in a repressive society, have chosen to interpret this as an example of the unfair pressures on Nora, but the fact is that it is very hard with a close reading to know her precise emotional reaction, and the possibility arises that she was simply unaffected, and that therefore her lack of attention to the boys at the time of their stay had indeed amounted to inexcusable neglect. For much of the novel it seemed to me that it was indeed intended as a sympathetic portrayal of a woman struggling heroically against societal pressure, but there were moments when I felt that this couldn't be the case. In particular, there is a moment, late in the novel, when it strikes Nora that she has not so far considered the happiness or unhappiness of the boys in the aftermath of their father's death. I have read reviews that have called this moment 'moving' and an example of the complexity of Toibin's character portrayal, and Doug, who didn't attend the meeting, wrote too that he found it moving, an illustration of the difficulty of dealing with enormous grief, Toibin's portrayal of which he found 'very real'. Jenny also defended this moment of Nora's revelation as realistic, saying that the grief of a widow can be so overwhelming that there is just no room emotionally for others, even children. However, because by then I was still feeling outside of Nora's whole emotional experience, I was simply alienated. I had a similar reaction to her response once her politically involved daughter Aine is discovered to be safe: having bothered to travel to Dublin with her elder daughter Fiona and Fiona's boyfriend to look for Aine, on hearing from another party that Aine is safe, Nora simply announces that she will now go back home and promptly does so without even seeing or speaking to Aine. There is no indication of her feelings or motivations in the moment she makes this decision, (and from this point on we hear no more of the matter), and so for me my own feelings about such a situation came to the fore (I wouldn't have just rushed back home so coolly and promptly!) and I was once again alienated from Nora. There are other hints from other characters that Nora is recognised in her family as a difficult, prickly or perhaps cold character, and my experience of all this in the reading (and that of others in the group) was of cognitive dissonance rather than character complexity. (It was interesting, we thought, that this novel more or less begins with an appearance by the mother of Eilish, the protagonist of Brooklyn, in which, seemingly out of the blue, she explains to Nora her motives in the episode at the end of that earlier novel, motives about which our group was unsure and divided, and which we couldn't solve by reference to the text of Brooklyn.) 

It is well recognised that Toibin is an autobiographical writer and that this novel in particular relates to his own childhood experience. His own schoolteacher father died when he was twelve and like the boys in this novel he was sent elsewhere to be cared for while his father was dying. Like Donal he emerged with a stammer. Crucially, his mother was distant, and his writings are consequently full of cold and neglectful mothers. This novel is clearly intended to redress the balance and present the mother's point of view. Looking at it from a writer's perspective, it seems to me that the project, though admirable, is not entirely successful, not simply because we are kept at such a distance from Nora's emotions, but also because  in those moments that I experience as dissonant the author's feelings of hurt come to the fore, disrupting the empathic intention.

The novel has been seen as a magnificent portrait of grief, and Doug wrote that 'the pain and dignity of loss, and the need to persevere, but not really succeeding, are really well conveyed in the early section of the book.' However, both Ann and I found it hard to share Nora's grief, since, as Ann pointed out, there was no real sense of what had been lost. Grief surely is characterised by a preoccupation with what has been lost, and since we are taking Nora's viewpoint we could expect some more vivid sense of Maurice as a person and Nora's relationship with him than is provided. We are told that Nora had always agreed with him politically, and it is implied that this was simply a result of her being subsumed by him.  People in our group had come away with different impressions of him as a person, some feeling, because of this, that he was somewhat stiffly patriarchal, others noting that at one point Nora thinks to herself how amusing and charming he was, while Nora is constantly presented by the members of the community with eulogies about his worth and kindness as a teacher. Although we are constantly with Nora throughout the book, we are not party to her surely inevitable dramatised memories of Maurice to corroborate any of this. It is stated that a deep pain for her is having to move from the status 'we' to that of 'I', and Doug found this 'brilliantly portrayed', but Ann and I would have liked a more visceral sense of this than the brief moment when Nora wonders if she is going to have to say more now in political discussions. It seemed to us too that the potential implication that what Nora was really grieving was the status that marriage had given her made her rather shallow, but Jenny robustly defended this as a real matter of concern and unhappiness for many widows.

Mark and John were the strongest in their criticisms. John found the prose - which others have found careful and judicious - bland (rendering the whole situation bland) (although he did admit that there was something about the prose that to his surprise kept him reading). Both he and Mark criticised the lack of a story arc and the dogged linearity, with unconnected events appearing one after the other. They found especially tedious the many longeurs describing, for instance, the totting up exercise Nora has to undertake on the first day of her employment, or the nights she has to suffer the aunt's snoring on holiday. Ann commented that this last - the holiday - seemed somehow extraneous, and said that she had very much got the impression that Toibin had been compelled to write down everything that his own mother had experienced, at the expense of a story arc (always a potential danger in autobiographical writing).

Doug too, in spite of his praise, had some criticisms: he also found the office episodes unsatisfactory, lacking in tension and, although drawn out, seemingly there merely as a device to illustrate Nora's return to the world. On the whole he was less enamoured with the second half of the book - 'Lots of minor characters flitting in and out without much purpose. The moment on the beach with the nun just seemed corny' - and he found the later stages of Nora's recovery 'a bit saccharine and contrived.' Jenny had an opposite reaction: she liked the second half better, as that was when the book started to 'gallop'Clare, arriving late, said she had enjoyed the book, but she did see what we meant about not being able to get to grips with Nora's character. Mark ended the evening by saying that if it hadn't been for two of us women expressing the same opinion he wouldn't have dared to say what he felt, which was that this novel doesn't really display a deep understanding of women.

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

Monday, November 15, 2021

Giveaway for Astral Travel's first birthday.


It's a year today that Astral Travel was published, and I'm celebrating by running a giveaway. If you'd like the chance to win a copy for yourself, or for a friend for Christmas, then you can enter here by commenting below, or on one of my Facebook, Twitter or Instagram (@elizabeth_baines_writer) accounts. There will be two winners on each platform. (Please enter on only one platform).

UK only. Ends 22.11.2021. Winners selected at random.

If you're wondering if it would make a good Christmas present, I'm pleased to say that many of the review comments have implied that it would. Ailsa Cox called it a 'great page turner' on Litro Magazine, Shiny New Books said it was 'a book to lose yourself in'. The Mole on Our book Reviews said he 'couldn't stop reading', and the Bookmunch reviewer 'greedily consumed every paragraph, and yearned for more free time when I had to put the book down to do something inconsequential like work or sleep.' Indeed, an Amazon reviewer said it had 'solved her Christmas present problems.'

So leave a comment if you'd like to enter here. It can be bought from all good bookshops or direct from Salt Publishing

Friday, November 05, 2021

Reading group: Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

Warning: plot spoil.

This prizewinning novel, published in 2020, centres on the life led in Stratford-upon-Avon by Shakespeare's wife, the woman known as Anne - or Agnes - Hathaway, while Shakespeare was living his life as a playwright in London, during which time their eleven-year-old son Hamnet died. The novel has received almost blanket rave reviews in the mainstream literary pages, claimed by some as O'Farrell's 'finest novel yet.' 

It seemed to me an idea full of exciting thematic possibilities, and promising perhaps some interesting insights about a playwright whose work makes up such a huge part of our literary consciousness and literary tradition. In addition, I had read another novel by O'Farrell, Instructions for a Heatwave, which I had found immersive (though that was perhaps partly because its subject matter links to that in my own novel Astral Travel, which I was writing at the time), so I was keen to read Hamnet and suggested it for the group. I am sorry to say that in the event I was surprised to be extremely disappointed in this book, and almost everyone present felt the same, as did Mark, who was unable to attend but sent a pretty dismissive note about the book. Ann said that she had almost given up on it, and John had done so. Only Jenny, who had read it twice, liked it, and said she liked it even more the second time around. 

The book opens with eleven-year-old Hamnet coming downstairs to look for help because his twin sister upstairs has been taken ill, finding no one else at home and having to seek elsewhere. Straight away for me the novel revealed one of its main faults. The situation depicted here is clearly one of urgency - and some reviewers have indeed praised it for its urgency - but I found that the writing militated against any sense of urgency whatever. It is leisurely, ponderous even, with far too much time and space - pages, in fact - spent describing the surroundings, basically setting the Elizabethan scene, as the boy runs looking for help. We get a long contemplative description of the house, of the boy's grandfather's glove-making workshop, of the streets as he runs through them. We are told by the narrator that the boy in fact isn't noticing these things  - and then we are treated to a page-long portrayal of the boy's personality: 'He has a tendency to slip the bounds of the real, tangible world around him' - but the point is we are being made to notice, indeed relish the scene around him - as a matter of historical curiosity - as well as the filled-in character study, and so the boy's present worries and the plight of his sister become defocussed and distanced.

This is a problem that continues for the whole of the book, which moves between the events around Hamnet's death and the earlier courtship and marriage of Anne/Agnes and Shakespeare. It felt to me - and to the others in the group - that the whole novel consisted mainly of scene-setting. Since the novel is set mainly within an absence - Shakespeare's absence from the family home - for much of the book not much happens (in spite of the title, Hamnet is in fact out of focus for much of the book). Instead, much is given over to describing the household setups and processes and the herbal ministrations of Agnes who is depicted here as a kind of fay/wild creature of the woods cum earth mother/healer-witch with supernatural senses. Reviewers have said that the book wears its research lightly, but we felt that on the contrary the research smothers and weighs it down entirely. As for the prose itself, the rhythm is soporific, with frequent overblown lists of nouns or adjectives divided by commas, usually in sets of three, creating a downward fall at the ends of sentences: Agnes's bees cling 'to their comb, their prize, their work'; 'Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre.' The distancing of the characters and situation is further created by occasional authorial pullings back from the scenes, as, for instance, we see them interacting through the eyes of a group of unknowing children watching from afar, or from the viewpoint of a flying owl, or simply a detached authorial viewpoint. As John pointed out, the viewpoint is all over the place, moving from character to character and out towards the narrator without any apparent reason or scheme, with a resulting loss of forward narrative drive. As Ann in our group said, the whole thing would have pulled together better if it had all been done from Agnes's viewpoint.

So for us the book lacked narrative drive and psychological pulse, and it never seemed to me fully imagined. The characters - including Agnes - never came fully to life, which belies the blurb's claims for it as 'the tender reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten' and 'the story of a glovemaker's son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves.'

These are outright misrepresentations, as is the claim that it's 'the story of a kestrel and its mistress'. (One viewpoint that is never included is that of the kestrel Agnes owns when Shakespeare first meets her; it quickly disappears from the book after she gives it up to move into the Shakespeare family home, and little use is made of it thematically.) Hamnet, as I say, is forgotten for much of the book, and it is a clear authorial choice to make the book very much not Shakesepeare's story, but Agnes's. He is absent from this story in more ways than one. He is never actually named - he is the 'tutor', 'the glovemaker's son', 'the playwright'. When he does appear - near the start, as tutor to Agnes's stepbrothers and as her suitor, and later when he visits the family home from London, he is still something of an absence, with a strangely wimpish personality for the writer of those lusty plays. There is an implication that in the early days his real nature was being suppressed - there are hidden depths that Agnes divines at their first meeting via her clairvoyant method of pressing the skin between first finger and thumb, a hidden 'landscape' - and, as far as I remember, there is even a statement that he reverts to his earlier personality when he returns, ie that he has a different personality in London from the one he has at home, but we have to take the author's word for it. We never see any real evidence of that psychological 'landscape' beyond our extratextual knowledge of those plays. The only hint of any spirit in him is his memory of an incident when, for once, he stood up to his bullying father, but his subsequent behaviour with his father belies the promise of this (and in fact comes over as inconsistency). We all thought it a great mistake to make Shakespeare such a nothingness, since it gave us no clue as to Agnes's attraction to him, or the emotional import for her of his absence from their home. Someone, I think Doug, said, to the agreement of others, that it was in any case very hard, due to the overall distancing, to get a grip on Agnes's psychology, and on her development from a wild child of the woods to the earth mother/witch of the subsequent chapters.

Something else bogging the narrative down is irrelevant detail, often holding up the action at potentially dynamic moments and dissipating the possibility of tension. For instance, as we are leading up to the climax of the book, Agnes finally goes to London to seek out her husband, and arrives at the house where he is lodging. She is greeted by a girl who is described in such vivid detail that I and others in the group thought she was going to be significant, but she turns out not to be significant in any way. Even Jenny wondered why, in a section describing the progress of a plague-carrying flea from Alexandria to Stratford, much is made of the fact that the sailor boy involved was from the Isle of Wight, with ultimately no apparent significance.

As for the 'climax', it seemed anticlimactic, and certainly artificial. Agnes (who can't read) travels to London because she has been told that the title of Shakespeare's current play is the name of their dead son. (An epigraph explains that 'Hamnet' and 'Hamlet' were interchangeable for Elizabethans.) This has deeply upset her. When it comes to Hamnet, her clairvoyance has failed her: used to 'seeing' people's futures, she did not foresee Hamnet's death, and, used to sensing the presence of the departed, she has been unable to sense any presence of the dead Hamnet. Now, with this news, she feels that Shakespeare has stolen him from her. None of this rang psychologically true for us (why wouldn't she see it as Shakespeare's tribute to Hamnet?), and in any case we didn't find it convincing as a reason for her journey to London. Arriving at a performance of the play, she discovers Shakespeare playing the ghost of Hamlet's father, and in the role of Hamlet a boy whom Shakespeare has chosen for his likeness to Hamnet, and has schooled in Hamnet's demeanour and gestures. At this she understands: Shakespeare has brought his dead son back and taken his place as a ghost. At least I think that was it: it was hard to make head or tail of the psychology of it, and by this time I hardly cared. And it seemed an extremely artificial way of linking Shakespeare's son and the play, which seem otherwise to have no connection beyond the name.

There has been a long-standing discussion in our group about whether or not you come to novels for facts. I am very strongly of the view that facts are not what you come to novels for, but, since Shakespeare is such a huge part of my own literary background, I did approach this novel with an interest in the historical setting. However, all of the above led me not to trust this portrayal, and I have to admit that if I come across an obviously wrong fact in a novel, then my whole trust in the novel crumbles. There were some glaring errors here. It's not unusual to come across errors in novels, missed by copyeditors (and I put my own hand up - I know that at least one of my novels has at least one blooper), but as Ann said, it's hard to forgive factual errors that are central to a novel, as happens here. The biggest error for me came with the treatment of the fraternal twins, Hamnet and Judith: throughout they are treated by the author as identical twins (not possible if the twins are of different sex). Much is made of their identical nature, presumably in an attempt to establish the biographical basis of the themes of twinning and mirroring in Shakespeare's plays. Furthermore, there's an inconsistency in the treatment of their identicality: while we are told that they would sometimes dress up in each other's clothes in a way that fooled the whole family, it later turns out that Judith is a weakling, and obviously smaller than her brother. Ann said that the point at which she almost gave up on the novel was when the ship with the plague-carrying flea docked at (landlocked) Aleppo.

It is not known what Hamnet died of, but this novel proposes that he died of the bubonic plague brought by this flea. Ann, who is an expert in social history, pointed out that people would have kept well away from a house of pestilence, which does not happen here. She also felt that travel between Stratford and London would have been easier in the Elizabethan era than is portrayed and indeed made much of in Agnes's journey to London. Ann also noted something that had occurred to me: that, in spite of the stress in this novel on the household doings - Agnes's gardening and bee-keeping and medicine-making, the breadmaking and soap-making - there is no sense of the sheer back-breaking work that all this would have been, or its time-consuming nature. It would not in fact have been possible to do all of the things that Agnes seems to do, with apparent miraculous ease, in one day, or indeed as discreetly as she seems to in her early days living with Shakespeare's family. In spite of the supposed emotional hardship for Agnes of her husband's absence, which should have been unsettling, and her grief after her son's death, the whole thing came over as an unrealistic idyll. Ann said that what it reminded her of more than anything was the tales of Little Grey Rabbit (who lives in a house and bakes and grows carrots). By sheer coincidence, the day before our meeting I had been looking at a book of Beatrix Potter nursery rhymes, and an illustration of a rabbit tipping cowslips from her pinafore into an old-fashioned steen to make cowslip wine had immediately brought this book to mind for me. Ann suggested that the reason it has been so praised in spite of all its faults, is precisely that feelgood fairytale air, just right for a readership locked down in a pandemic and requiring comfort and escape from harsh realities. This seemed completely right to the rest of us, and Jenny said with a grin that that was probably why she enjoyed it.

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

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Reading group: There There by Tommy Orange

Doug suggested this powerful multi-viewpoint novel that follows several characters struggling with their confused and sometimes uncertain Native American identity, all about to converge on a powwow in Oakland, California. The title, There There  is a quote taken from a statement by Gertrude Stein, who, returning to Oakland, her childhood home, found it so changed, so different from the 'there' of her memory,  that 'there is no there there.' All of the characters, some of whom are connected in ways they don't even know about, share the weight of an obliterated past, which is propelling them towards the centripetal point, the powwow that symbolises the lost 'there' of Native American homelands and identity.  All are what a Prologue describes as 'urban Indians':

Getting us to cities was supposed to be the final, necessary step in our  assimilation, absorption, erasure, the completion of a five-hundred-year-old genocidal campaign. But the city made us new, and we made it ours [...] We were not urban Indians then. This was part of the Indian Relocation Act [...] Make them look and act like us. Become us. And so disappear. But it wasn't just like that. Some of us came by choice, to start over.  [...] Plenty of us are urban now. [...] They used to call us sidewalk Indians. Called us citified, superficial, inauthentic, cultureless refugees. [...] But what we are is what our ancestors did. How they survived. We are  the memories we don't remember, which live in us, which we feel [...] feelings from memories that flare and bloom unexpectedly in our lives like blood through a blanket from a wound made by a bullet fired by a man shooting us in the back for our hair, for our heads, for a bounty, or just to get rid of us...

...Urban Indians were the generation born in the city [...] We came to know the downtown Oakland skyline better than any sacred mountain range ... the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers [...] the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete and burned rubber better than we do the smell of cedar or sage or even fry bread - which isn't traditional, like reservations aren't traditional

As the dynamic and witty prose flits from one character's consciousness to another, the painful past of each character is revealed - poverty, broken marriages, alcoholism - and each personal history is shown in turn to be the bruised consequence of white suppression and that collective lost memory. In one of the book's very many brilliant flashes, twenty-one-year-old Tony Loneman, who suffers the effects of foetal alcohol syndrome - 'There's too much space between each of the parts of my face' - thinks as he contemplates his appearance: 'it's the way history lands on a face'.

Doug wasn't able to attend the meeting, so John introduced the book instead.  He said that beforehand he had expected the book to be more difficult than he found it, as he'd read that it included 'essays'. However, when it came to it he found that this consisted simply of the contextualising Prologue and a short 'Interlude' halfway through, both presenting the history of the 'conquest' of Native Americans from the Native American point of view - and so vividly, poetically and punchily written, blending so seamlessly into the narrative, having indeed a narrative shape and character of their own, that 'essay' is an inappropriate term.

Everyone agreed, and everyone thought the book brilliantly written. One problem everyone shared, however, was that we found it hard to remember who some of the characters were (there are twelve of them); we kept getting them mixed up, especially the young men. It was hard therefore to work out the part each was  playing as they moved toward the climax. We thought that this was because unlike some reviewers we found the voices of the characters not to be distinct enough from each other and from that overall narrative voice (which we loved).

Someone commented that one brilliance of the book is the way that while undercutting stereotypes of Native Americans, it doesn't shy away from their reality, but shows how Native American lives, and even psyches, their expectations of themselves, have been forced into stereotypes by white oppression.

The book has a devastating ending. It is also leaves us up in the air as to the fates of most of the characters. We were all clear that this was aesthetically inevitable, symbolic of the cultural devastation and confusion that has been visited on Native Americans, but after being emotionally engaged with the characters and invested in their fates, we found it hard to take. We could however see that this - the effect on us as readers - was itself an aspect of the political project of the novel, and its stunning political dynamism.

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