Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Reading: Michele Roberts at Manchester University

A great evening on Monday - a reading at the University by Michele Roberts, which was of course guaranteed to bring people from as far away as Liverpool and Chester, and so I met some old friends I hadn't seen in a while. The reading itself and the Q & A afterwards were engrossing, and as people said afterwards, inspiring: Michele Roberts is wonderfully open and unassuming and engaging. Although known as a novelist, she was reading from her recent memoir in which she looks back on her time in seventies London as a struggling new writer.

Interesting to me, with my obsession with the subject, was the audience discussion with Michele about the differences between memoirs and novels. Asked why she had chosen this time to write a memoir, she laughed and said with typical openness that her publisher (presumably responding to the current appetite for memoirs) had suggested it. Then someone in the audience identified herself as a teacher of memoir and 'life writing' and said that she always told her students that (as I'm always saying) a memoir is as much of a construct as a novel, and asked Michele whether she had found that to be true. Michele said that she had, but that the linear shape of the memoir had made for easier construction. However, a further question prompted her to say that she had originally conceived of the book as structurally more complex, but that the commissioning publisher had wanted something more linear (and presumably more marketable). Asked if this had compromised her truth, she said that, actually, yes it had: she had wanted very much for the book to be about the difference between her two personae: that of the young woman she was in the seventies and the woman she is now, but that the linear form hadn't been as capable of carrying that idea as her original conception. But then she laughed again and said without regret that this was the situation in today's publishing market, which you just have to accept.

What was really interesting, however, is that, at least with Michele Roberts accompanying the book in person, you very much did get a sense of the differences between those two personae, and of the relationship she now has to her former self - which was actually pretty moving, to me and I know to others in the audience. Someone noted that while many writers like to distance themselves from their fiction writing (something which I tend to do as a protest against the cult of personality), Michele is very open about the relationship between her writing and her life and personality. Michele responded by saying that this stems from her sense (with Julia Kristeva) that writing comes from the body, is felt before it is articulated in language - something I can't argue with in the least.

Food for thought - and a really stimulating evening. (And some OK wine.)

Monday, November 26, 2007

Salt Autumn Party

An announcement today (on both my blogs): on Thursday evening Salt Publishing will be holding a party at Foyles Bookshop in Charing Cross Road to celebrate their poetry and short story lists and launch their autumn titles. Yours truly will be reading, along with a glittering array of brilliant, prize-winning, other Salt authors - or Salties, as some of us like to call ourselves.

Everyone is welcome. Come along and celebrate with this truly wonderful, and superhuman, publisher (I know I'm biased, but...!): The Gallery, Foyles Bookshop, 113-119 Charing Cross Road, 6.30-8.30, Thursday November 29th 2007. Readings kick off on the dot at 6.30 (and I'm reading at the start).

The pic shows the cover of Salt's autumn short story catalogue, and is taken from that of their brilliant collection by Charles Yu, the title story of which, Third Class Superhero, won the 2004 Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award. Charles has also been named one of the US National Book Foundation's '5 Under 35' writers of exciting fiction.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Whose right to write?

Oh, I am all churned up again.

Reading group last night (report when I finish decorating that ruddy room!), and it was my turn to make suggestions for next time. One of the two books I suggested, and the one plumped for by the others was Anne Michaels' Fugitive Pieces. Talking about the book to the others, and waving my signed copy, I remembered the Waterstone's Deansgate reading at which I got it signed, and the fact that someone in the audience asked Anne Michaels if she was Jewish. (The book deals with a Jewish theme.) Now I don't know if this guy was meaning to be aggressive, but he certainly came over as challenging, and Anne Michaels clearly felt wrong-footed if not threatened as she declined to reveal her cultural identity, saying that she didn't feel her own racial or cultural identity was relevant, that the book should stand up for itself. The guy persisted, saying he wanted to know because he was Jewish, and it was a pretty sticky moment before he finally gave up.

Me, I was hot and cold all over, just as I was again last night remembering it, because of course this issue - the idea which I'm sure the guy was pushing, that only certain people have the right to write about certain experiences - was the issue over which my own writing career stumbled.

As if fiction is merely testimony! (Yet there have been literary movements where this notion has been seriously held.) Fiction operates via imagination and empathy, and this is what makes it more potentially socially dynamic than is nowadays acknowledged. You can't change society without empathy, after all.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


I never thought I'd say this, but sometimes, I've discovered, you just need some time away from words. I've been in Amsterdam without my laptop, I looked at a newspaper only twice, and although I took a book I read the first few pages and then never picked it up again. I've just been looking and dreaming. And here, look, I made my own Dutch interior, and it was a damn sight easier than knocking together those slippery words...

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Short break

I'm taking a break for the next few days - back next Tuesday or Wednesday.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Reading group: Disgrace by J Coetzee

A big crowd of us to discuss this Booker-winning novel about David Lurie, a Cape Town teacher of Romantic poetry whose affair with a student leads to his dismissal and who retreats to his daughter's smallholding where he and his daughter are subsequently raided and his daughter raped.

Hans, who had chosen the book, said he found the depiction of Lurie fascinating: it was hard to know whether to condemn him for his chauvinism or to admire him for his honesty and determination to stand up for his own insights against those who were intent, like the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, on making him apologize.

A long discussion followed - one of the longest we've ever had - in which we tackled this and tried to tease out the meanings of the novel. I said Lurie was a colonizer - as an academic (colonizing poetry, perpetuating the culture of an imperialist nation in South Africa), as a womanizer and as the seducer of his student (whom he feels he is raping when she passively submits to him). John agreed and said that everything in the novel was very highly patterned around this theme: as he 'rapes' his student, so his daughter is raped in turn (just as, as whites have 'raped' South Africa, they must be raped in turn). As at the very beginning there is an ambiguous contract between the apparent colonizer Lurie and the prostitute Soraya (each using the other), so by the end of the book there is an ambiguous contract between Lurie's daughter Lucy and the new landowner Petrus.

Jenny disagreed that this was the point about Lurie (but I've been so busy I can't remember now what she said the point was), and she said with a giggle that actually, having taught in universities in the seventies she didn't think Lurie was all that bad as a womanizer, which set us all off laughing pretty helplessly, and from that moment on the whole meeting kept swinging between hilarity and the seriousness to which the novel kept drawing us back.

John said he was interested in the passivity which kept being enacted in the novel - the sexual passivity of the student and Lucy's passivity as she gives in to the consequences of her rape and to the new landowning order. It's this passivity in Lucy which Lurie can't stand, but which makes her the realist, and, as someone suggested, his (colonizer's) inability to accept it makes him redundant and leaves him only the option of retreat from this society.

In fact, he returns to the smallholding, but the ending, turning on the dog theme running through the book, and thus the whole book, Doug and I found utterly bleak.

I said I thought the book was too patterned: I didn't find at all psychologically convincing the episode in which Lurie visits the parents of the girl he seduced (which Hans suggested was a development of the covert Truth and Reconciliation theme), and especially their response, and most people agreed.

Finally Clare said it was odd that Lucy's rape, which was the really vivid (and horrifying) part of the book, and the episode which finally pulled her into it, was the one thing we hadn't discussed. I said that I thought that was because it was the only incident in the book which was entirely unambiguous, everything thing else being morally complex and shaded.

Doug, Clare, Jenny and Trevor said they thought the book fantastic, but Ann said that while she had appreciated the themes and patterns she had never become fully engaged.

Goodness knows how, but from the book we then got onto the subject of boils, and the fact that people don't seem to have boils as they used to, which we thought was due to better diet, and then people compared boil experiences and remembered how painful boils could be and said how horrible it must have been to have a boil on the bum, and Jenny said she did.

So by the time Ann offered her choice of two books for next time we were far gone in hilarity and when she held up two whoppers, we shrieked, How on earth could we choose (since we tend to go for the shortest)?, and people compared the authors' photos and made rude comments and considered turning down the one who looked snooty and in the end we chose the book which went with Jenny's jumper, a kind of brick orange.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

Reading group: Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier

I've been so busy I've got behind with our book group write-ups, and I'm a bit hazy now about our September discussion. The things I remember most vividly are that there were very few of us and that when John and I arrived Clare and Doug were discussing their respective forthcoming surgical operations.

Clare had chosen the book, a French classic and one of her favourites which had had a great impact on her when she first read it as a teenager. It was published only a year before its author, Alain-Fournier, was killed in World War I at the age of 28. The Grand Meaulnes of the title is the young lad who enters the life of the (initially) schoolboy narrator when he becomes a boarding pupil in the village school of which the narrator's father is the headmaster. Meaulnes is his surname, and because of his impact on the other boys - he's older, bigger and with a somehow enigmatic presence - he becomes known as Le Grand Meaulnes. The defining moment in the book comes when he 'disappears' or runs away and stumbles upon a seemingly entranced world- a grand but crumbling estate in which a party is being held - and encounters a beautiful woman with whom he falls in love. After his return, he and the narrator are constantly longing for and planning to re-find this lost world.

Clare said that what she loved this book for was its atmosphere, its descriptions of the seasons and the French countryside and its depiction of a mood of longing which conjures beautifully the adolescent condition which the book is about.

We all agreed about the atmosphere, but didn't find that it overcame our other doubts, mainly the fact that the book wasn't simply a depiction of adolescence, but was adolescent in itself. As Adam Gopnik says in the introduction to the current Penguin Classics edition, there's a lot of 'mooning about', and John had taken to calling this book (which has apparently had many different titles in translation) The Big Moan. Clare pointed out that after all the romantic yearnings, the ending of the book leads to a kind of disenchantment, but she then agreed with the rest of us that this disenchantment, rather than a growing-up, amounts to a failure to accept the realities of maturity. As such, I found it rather depressing. As Gopnik says, it's not so much a rites of passage novel as a Peter-Pan type tale of rejection of maturity. Clare also said that she was surprised when she re-read the book to remember that the 'adventure' occurs fairly near the start of the book, and that the rest of the book deals with repercussions continuing for years - which underlines the notion that the force of the book, and the true colour of the author's attitude, lie in those romantic adolescent longings.

Trevor said he thought that maybe the book's classic status owed more to the 'romantic' early death of its author than anything. Someone else suggested something subtler: that the book's theme of a lost world chimed with the sense of irrevocable change which the first world war brought. Everyone agreed that the rural French world in which the story takes place, and which is contemporary with Fournier's own life, is singularly archaic, thus adding to the impression of an old world only recently lost.

Before we met, Clare had met John in the street, and had said she wondered if she shouldn't have suggested a book she was so fond of, and she did indeed seem a little disappointed by the fact that we weren't swayed by the lyrical prose. And then she noticed that she was the only one with the earlier Penguin translation. She borrowed a copy with the new one and took it away and reported back that, as we had discovered with Camus' The Outsider, the newer Penguin translation was far less lyrical and thus less persuasive.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

Didsbury Oxfam bookshop readings: Cath Staincliffe

Last night it was Cath Staincliffe's turn to sit in the chair in Didsbury Oxfam bookshop and give us a reading - she read from her latest crime novel, Missing. She had arrived with a huge bag of all her books but when we said goodbye in the swirling evening her bag was empty: she sold the lot, in spite of the fact that the spellbound audience could never be huge in such a small space!

For details of the rest of the week's events see post below.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Readings in Didsbury Oxfam Shop: Adele Geras

Last week I had my launch in my favourite restaurant, and last night I went to a reading in the place where I buy my clothes - Didsbury Oxfam shop.

All this week the newly refurbished Oxfam shop is holding a series of readings by local authors in its books section, and last night, the first night, was Adele Geras. Outside there were leaves swirling - Manchester is so fluffy with leaves this autumn (not so much rain)! - and inside there was a lovely homey atmosphere, with wine and nibbles, and Adele sat in an armchair beside a big vase of flowers to read to us. I think that - at six on Bonfire Night - only adults were expected, but children turned up to have her sign all the books of hers they owned and their autograph books too.

Adele obliged by reading from her one of her spellbinding Historical House teenage novels before moving on to her luscious adult novel Made in Heaven and finally she entertained us all with her writing, publishing and reading tales and gave us a good laugh.

A really lovely evening.

Tonight, crime writer Cath Staincliffe reads, tomorrow it's novelist and story writer Conrad Williams, Thursday is a double bill with novelist Nick Royle and poet Linda Chase, and on Friday the shop presents poet Carol Ann Duffy - all at 6 pm. On Saturday poets Jane Weir and Mike Garry read at 2pm and 3pm respectively.