Thursday, April 15, 2021

Talking About Astral Travel (3)

Here's the third of the videos in which I talk about novels that are connected in one way or another with my own, Astral Travel. This time, two Irish novels - Edna O'Brien's Girl With Green Eyes and John McGahern's Amongst Women - and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5.  The first two share with Astral Travel a figure common in Irish literature, the difficult and oppressive father. Vonnegut's book, which I first read a very long time ago, is a very different kind of novel from Astral Travel, but I guess it influenced a certain aspect of the structure of Astral Travel, and a particular motif. 

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Review: Cocky Watchman by Ailsa Cox

Cocky Watchman by Ailsa cox is the latest from Nicholas Royle's Nightjar imprint, limited-edition singe-story pamphlets, dedicated to the uncanny. 

This haunting story opens with intimations of unease as a writer and teacher of writing takes a ride home in a taxi through the dark eerie plain of west Lancashire, the trains having been cancelled for no explained reason. It's Mischief Night, the night before Halloween, when children cause mayhem, an ancient Liverpool tradition much older than Halloween. In the distance there are bursts of pre-bonfire-night explosions - at home her dog will be whimpering and cowering - and the Scouse cabbie is a potentially threatening man, 'big' and with a 'closed-shaved head'. But he wants to talk, in fact he came from the suburb in which she lives, and 'he liked to reminisce'. The writer, our narrator, is eager to draw him out. 'A writer's never off duty,' she thinks pragmatically, 'that's what I always told my students'. 
And he has indeed a tale to tell, a mysterious tale connected with Mischief Night, of a 'cocky watchman' (a Liverpool term for a sharp-eyed and alert watchman) who once guarded the small park near where she lives and told tales to the kids who gathered around his brazier. It is a tale of fire, of fascination with fire, and of the way that stories can leap like flames and take hold in the sometimes dangerous obsessions of others. Meanwhile, in a subtle authorial manoeuvre, the narrative voice takes over the story from that of the cabbie, as the tale catches in the narrator's mind and begins to flare.

Arrived home, the narrator thinks of the ghost story she could write if she made use of the tale. But the haunting is much deeper than any conventional ghostly apparition. For someone involved in what happened to the watchman, she muses, there would be 'always the smell of smoke coming from somewhere'. And it is the story itself, and its telling, that haunts the narrator, in a way that moves her on to a different future. 

To be haunted in turn by this cleverly calibrated story, you can buy it here.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Mainstream published

This week sees the publication of Mainstream, an anthology of stories from the edges to which I was invited to contribute. It's really exciting. Editors Justin David and Nathan Evans have done a wonderful job of publicity - I don't think I've been involved in a non-mainstream project that has been quite so buzzy. There's even a song ,'Permission', written and recorded by Andrew M Pisnu of Memory Flowers, and a video. The book was crowd-funded with the publisher Unbound, and thank you so much to those who pledged support. It includes several of the more well-known authors writing about experiences that tend to be overlooked in mainstream literary culture, but also 15 exciting newcomers. My own contribution, 'Alignment', set in a hospital, is a story about conceptions of class inferiority and the power plays and gaslighting that can result.

The book can be bought here.

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Talking About AstralTravel (2)

Here's another video in which I talk about novels with some connection with my own, Astral Travel, this time All My Puny sorrows by Miriam Toews and The Gathering by Anne Enright. I read both of these novels while I was already embarked on Astral Travel, and was struck by some of the similarities, particularly in theme. As I say in the video, sometimes when you're writing a novel, you keep coming across connections with what you're doing - in the news, in books, in things people say, etc - and it's a though you're tuning into something in the air, and it's a very exciting feeling!  

Friday, April 02, 2021

Talking about Astral Travel (1)


Here's a link to a video, the first of four in which I talk about some novels that in some way relate to Astral Travel.

Some of these novels were actual influences on my writing in general and/or on Astral Travel in particular - usually ones I read a long time ago; others I read while I was writing Astral Travel and they resonated in ways that made me feel that what I was doing was an acceptable thing to be doing; and others just have certain aspects with similarities to some of those in Astral Travel.

In this first video, I talk about Austerlitz by WG Sebald, which I read when I was already embarked on Astral Travel, and which, though a very different kind of book, had some very strong resonances for me, and Enid Blyton's Enchanted Wood, an extract from which I read at the age of 6 and which, after I had finished writing Astral travel, I was stunned to realise might be behind something that happens near the beginning of my book.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Reading group: Where'd You Go, Bernadette?

Warning: plot spoil

We've been in lockdown for so long now I thought we needed cheering up, so I suggested this comic novel by Maria Semple, which I had read a while back when I was blogging the Women's Prize shortlist, and had enjoyed.

It consists of a series of emails, letters and notes from various characters, compiled by fourteen-year-old Bee and interwoven with her own narration, in an effort to make sense of the disappearance of her mother Bernadette - a somewhat kooky woman who had refused to take part in the activities of the school parent group and spurned the parochial snobbishness of the other mothers, for which she was much disliked.

As I told the group, I enjoyed the book even more this time around, as the first time I read it I had to do so in something of a hurry, and this time I was able to relish the things I really liked about it: the wit, the language - every character has their own voice, each one pitch perfect without an authorial foot put wrong - the clever structure, and the very clever way the plot is revealed. 

Most people in the group agreed, and appreciated the satirical fun the author pokes at the American middle-classes and various aspects of contemporary life. It's something of an outrageous plot, and as Ann said, the book tends towards farce. There is however a serious message, which, as Clare put it, is the difficult tension for women between their own careers and creativity and the creativity and commitment of motherhood. Only slowly does it become clear to the reader that Bernadette has been a prizewinning architect, partly because she is intially seen through the (somewhat vicious) eyes of the local mothers, and of course of Bee herself, simply as a mother, but also because her earlier role as an architect has been buried by circumstances that will gradually be revealed as the correspondence is accumulated and pieced together. One part of Bernadette's retreat is to do with the difficulties - and one devastating event - that she experienced as a woman in a male sphere, but more fundamentally it is to do with the tragedies she underwent as a mother: the loss of several babies in miscarriages for which she has suffered long-term grief, and the near-death and subsequent vulnerability of her one surviving baby, Bee, to whom she then felt she needed to devote all of her creative energy and attention. The letter describing this last is to me extremely moving, and in the middle of this very funny comedy I found myself crying. Once Bee and her father are finally armed with this truth, they set out to find Bernadette, and I'm very glad to say that the novel has the happy ending which, although people said was perhaps the Hollywood aspect of this novel, I was very much hoping for. As Clare said at the start of our meeting, Bernadette is an attractively kooky character, Bee a very likeable teenager, and their relationship touching, so I was invested in a happy ending for them. 

There was just one dissenter in our group over this novel. Mark said he found it too slight. He said he had read novels that were far more effectively biting about contemporary American society. I objected that, while the book does poke fun at several aspects of American life, that's not its only agenda, and the deeper message about creativity and motherhood is perhaps more fundamental. Everyone else agreed. Mark then complained that it wasn't clear at the end which Bernadette chose, motherhood or her own creativity, and I countered that the whole point of the book is that there shouldn't be that sort of binary choice, society should be arranged so that creative women can operate a balance between motherhood and their other creative pursuits. 

This led on to a long and intent conversation about the issue of parenthood and careers, and however slight Mark may have thought the novel, it certainly generated a lot of thought and discussion amongst us. 

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

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

On Writing 'The Words He Said"

In addition to my podcast extract of 'The Words He Said', there's now a short piece by me on the Lonely Crowd Press website on the composition of the story. As I said when I first placed the story, I felt it was a bit different from the other stories I was writing at the time, which to me were linked by contemporary issues, but, as I say in the piece, it very much echoes some of the overriding themes of my wider work.

Reading Group: Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

Warning: plot spoil

Doug suggested this prize-winning Norwegian book, first published in 2003. Set around the millennium, it's the first-person narration of Trond, a widower in his late sixties, who decides to retire to an isolated part of Norway, the kind of place he has always longed to be 'even when everything was going well, as it so often did', where 'there was only silence' and time could be 'something I live inside and fill with physical things ... and does not vanish when I am not looking.'

Unfortunately, the hoped-for mental peace is immediately shattered when he meets his nearest neighbour, an event that unexpectedly takes him back to a momentous summer three years after the second world war when, at the age of fifteen, he stayed with his father in his father's cabin near the woods in another rural area, away from his mother and sister in the city, and momentous events in his life occurred. From this point the novel then becomes a series of vivid and extended flashbacks to that summer, alternating with the snowy present as Trond settles himself into his cabin for the winter and tries to comes to terms with that past.

Doug said he really loved the book, and all of us agreed that it was beautifully written (and presumably beautifully translated, by Anne Born), moving and hauntingly atmospheric. John noted that the beginning of the novel is composed in very short sentences - and Mark agreed, commenting that the novel was Hemingwayesque - but in fact as the past takes over for Trond, this careful, measured prose gives way to a more fluid style, at times becoming stream-of-consciousness. My only problem with that, I said, was that it made me read quickly (and voraciously), and I felt at times I was reading too quickly and missing things, in particular clues, and John said he had the same experience.

There is indeed an air of mystery over the whole novel, which is partly a result of Trond's only slowly awakening  realisations. In the present there are the difficulties of a past buried by psychological necessity and by time, and in that past Trond is an adolescent from whom important truths are being hidden. When the present-day Trond first meets his neighbour, who is out in the dark looking for his dog, Trond is strangely disturbed by him, in particular by his nervousness, especially when the neighbour says he may have to shoot the (disturbingly fearful-aggressive) dog and, seemingly compulsively, tells him about once having had to shoot another dog.

He had lost his confidence, it was clear ... I suddenly felt desperately sorry for him. The feeling welled up from I don't know where, from some place out in the dark, where something might have happened in a different time entirely, or from somewhere in my own life I had long since forgotten...

However, in spite of this vague feeling of recognition, and even though the neighbour has given his name, Lars Haug, Trond does not immediately realise that they are connected by that long-ago summer, and in fact, we will discover, much more. It is only as the first flashback unfolds that the reader can begin to make the connection.

That first flashback begins when, early one morning, the fifteen-year-old Trond is invited by a neighbouring lad, Jon, to go 'out stealing horses' - Jon's phrase - and is mystified by Jon's undergoing what seems to be a kind of nervous breakdown in which he becomes alien and potentially violent. Only the next day will Trond learn that the day before the 'horse-stealing' incident, Jon, who had been meant to be looking after his ten-year-old twin brothers, had left his gun unattended, and ten-year-old Lars had picked it up and accidentally shot dead his twin. And only slowly, over the course of that summer, will Trond realise what is going on between his father and Jon's mother, has in fact been going on for years, and how that phrase 'out stealing horses' connects the two. There are early indications in the novel that that summer of his fifteenth year was the last time Trond ever saw his father, but it will be fairly late in the novel that a major fact - a fact of which the present-day Trond would be acutely aware in the presence of Lars but clearly can't face broaching - will be confirmed for the reader: that Trond's father became stepfather to the ten-year-old Lars.

Jenny said that her one problem with the novel was that there were too many gaps - we never know about that life that Lars lived with Trond's father before Lars left, aged twenty, never to return (Jon, who had run away to sea immediately after the shooting, having returned to claim the farm that Lars had been working); we never know exactly what happened in the relationship between Trond's father and Lars's mother in the war years; we know little of Trond's past career and life with his wife and daughters. The rest of us felt on the contrary that it was these gaps that created the poignancy of the novel and were psychologically acceptable - both Trond and Lars are blanking painful pasts, and Trond's intervening life, which he makes clear was successful and happy, in psychological terms falls away in significance once the unresolved nature of the past comes to dominate.

Ann said little about this book, but did say that she found it oddly ambivalent, with which I agreed. It's a book about a man's relationship with his father, a father he had looked up to and who had schooled him in a tough physical masculinity but then abandoned him, and as such it seems to me strongly to examine and question the issue of masculinity. Trond's father encourages him in the toughest processes of haymaking, he instructs him in the felling of trees, he takes him on a rite-of-passage horseback trek; he tells him that 'you decide for yourself when it will hurt'. But his father's own masculinity fails: he chooses the wrong time of year to fell his trees and send logs down the river (in order, it will turn out, to earn money to send to the family he is planning to abandon), and there will turn out to be an ulterior (and real) motive for the horseback trek: to check on the progress of the logs, of which they will find too many stranded in the drying river, never to make it to Sweden where they would have been sold. There is too a suggestion that the cowardly way in which he abandoned his family is an ultimate failure of masculinity. Trond's retirement retreat to the 'outback' is perhaps a way of returning to that unresolved masculinity and there are poignant moments when he finds he knows how to do certain tasks because his father taught him, and others when he doesn't, because his father didn't. On skimming through the book to write this report, I came upon a moment when he watches Lars expertly cutting wood, which, having read the whole book I found particularly poignant, as Lars would of course have been taught by Trond's father. I have to say however that on my first reading that poignancy was lost on me, as it's not entirely clear at that stage in the book how things ended up between Trond's father and Lars's mother. In fact, I feel that the initial encounters between Lars and Trond would be more strongly charged if the reader had the information that is withheld.

I did find it all very moving, but couldn't help reflecting on finishing the book that there was nevertheless a certain fundamental ambivalence about masculinity on the parts of both narrator Trond and possibly the author. It struck me that the women in the novel get short shrift: they are either dead (Trond's wife and sister) or forgotten (Trond has difficulty at one moment in remembering his wife's face; he has gone away without even telling his daughters where he is, and makes no mention of them until one of them turns up looking for him; he refers to his other daughter as 'the other one' and we never learn her name), or they are sex objects (the milkmaid and Jon and Lars's mother). Trond remembers that when his father returned to Oslo after the war, his sister and mother ran down the road to greet and embrace him, but Trond's father looked over them at Trond with 'a secret smile', and Trond 'realised that from now on it was all about the two of us, we had a pact.' Trond says that he was fond of his sister, but she remains in the very background of this story. All of this may well be authorial comment on Trond's former training in masculinity, but for me the fact that there is no sense for the reader in the narration of the experience or inner life of these women makes the present-day Trond, and the book, ambivalent.

Doug agreed that the treatment of the women was the one weakness in the book, but Mark rigorously defended it from this criticism, finding its focus, as a book about a father-son bond, acceptable. He pointed also to the character of Jon's mother who is physically strong, working with the men at the haymaking and tree-felling and also heroically brave as a resistance activist during the war - although I would still contend that Trond views her, however inevitably, from the outside. Mark also, rightly, picked out the fact that when Trond's visiting daughter suggests that perhaps he wants her never to come back again, he realises that he doesn't want that at all, and that he should, as she suggests, get himself a phone - in other words, not completely bury himself away in his macho outback. Mark did conclude by saying that he accepted that it was a male book written for men. I didn't get a chance to say so at the time, but I profoundly disagree with this: speaking for myself, as a woman relating to men and with sons, I find masculinity, and the kind of questioning of its macho version that we encounter here, of huge interest and importance. 

The ending, as we commented, is curious: the book concludes with an episode in which the fifteen-year-old Trond accompanies his abandoned mother to Karlstad to collect the money from the timber. It turns out to be a paltry amount, and can't be taken out of Sweden back to Norway. Trond's feelings towards his mother on this trip are indeed ambivalent. He looks at her sleeping on the train as they travel there, and is clearly repulsed:

Her eyes were closed, and the heavy lids rested on the round cheeks as if everything save sleeping was unnatural to this face, and I thought: for Christ's sake, he just disappeared and left me with her.

Oh, I did love my mother, I'm not saying that I didn't, but what future I could read in the face before me was not what I had imagined. Merely to look at that face for longer than three minutes made the world push at my shoulders from both sides. It made me short of breath.

Here he is replicating the presumed attitude of his father, and as they wander the streets of Karlstad looking for the bank he becomes unreasonably aggressive to a stranger who is unable to tell them the way, on the point of hitting him, and it is clear that he sees this as connected with the training he has received from his father that summer: 

I was as tall as he was and in good shape after that summer, for I had used my body for all kinds of things. I had bent it and stretched it in all directions and lifted and pushed just about everything and hauled and tugged at stone and wood and rowed the boat both up and down the river... Now I felt strong and invincible, and this man did not exactly look like an athlete ... [I] felt one hand clenching automatically. It felt warm and good and tight in all its joints...

But then:

...It dawned on me that from that small patch of cobbles I stood on there were lines going out in several directions ... the different roads I could take, and having chosen one of them, the portcullis would come crashing down, and someone would hoist the drawbridge up...

He chooses not to take that destructive macho step.

He remains 'sullen and ungiving' towards his mother, but when she comes out of the bank with the news about the money, there is a shift. 'She laughed out loud ... all of a sudden she was wide awake.' She  decides to spend what little there is on a new suit for  him:

It was a perfect fit. I stood there looking at myself in the mirror ... I did not look like a boy at all ... I could swear my mother blushed when she saw me... my mother put her arm in mine, and we went on like that, arm in arm like a real couple... It was like dancing, I thought.

This is extremely moving, and the implication I take from it is that this time with his mother has turned Trond into a different kind of man from the one his time with his father could have turned him into. The ambivalence does return:

We were never to walk like that again. When we came home to Oslo, she fell back into her own weight and remained that way for the rest of her life.

Even so, the novel ends by returning to the memory of that moment of lightness, and, reporting that his hand had felt 'swollen and sore where the nails had pierced the skin when I clenched it so hard', the adult Trond makes the final comment, 'we do decide for ourselves when it will hurt' with, I take it, a new meaning for the phrase, referring to the choices to be made between different kinds of masculinity.

This is perhaps linked to the twinning theme of the novel that Mark pointed out: not only are there twins in the Haug household, one of whom dies and the other of whom lives, Trond's mother had twin brothers, one of whom was shot by the Gestapo, another of whom survived. In both cases the surviving twin's life is shadowed by the loss, as Trond is perhaps shadowed by the alternatives for how to live as a man.

There were a few other, more random comments. Near the start of the meeting John had said that he hadn't much liked the long passages describing haymaking and woodcutting. He called them 'long-winded' and said they were boring and obvious if you'd actually done those things yourself, but I think he also meant that their length and detail were a rather macho aspect of the novel itself. (Personally, however, I was fascinated by the description of the now-disappeared traditional Norwegian method of haymaking, having experienced our very different British and now also discontinued traditional method.)

Some people said that they found it too much of a stretch that Trond's present-day neighbour turns out to be Lars - as Ann said, Norway is a huge country. Trond does in fact comment on the fact that this is the kind of coincidence you'd find hard to accept in modern-day fiction: 'if this had been something in a novel it would have been irritating'. I really liked that - the truism that some things that do happen in life would seem just too strange for fiction, but others found it simply an excuse that they didn't buy.

I said that one thing I found utterly admirable was Petterson's ability to describe emotions and the shifts in the adolescent Trond's alignment with the world, as in the section above describing his reaction to his mother, and in the following passage in which Trond finds himself sexually attracted to Jon's mother:

Jon's mother ... smelled of sun and resin as I no doubt did myself, but also of something more that made me dizzy and on the verge of tears, and I did not want her to be the mother of anyone, living or dead.

And that ability is surely anything but macho.

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