Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Reading group: Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

Well now, here's an illustration of the contingency of reading.

Ten years ago when Fugitive Pieces was published I read it greedily at a sitting and when I got to the end put it down and thought to myself, 'That is one of the most brilliant novels I have ever read.' Ever since, I have told people how brilliant, and important, it is: a novel which unfolds innovatively into two linked 'pieces'. The first is the story of Jewish Pole Jakob who as a child during the war escapes a Nazi raid in which his parents are killed and his sister lost, presumably seized and taken to the death camps. Having hidden by burying himself in the woods, he is finally rescued by Greek scientist and archaeologist Athos who happens to be working nearby on the lakeside site of a once-drowned city, and who smuggles him back to his island home of Zakynthos. Athos nurtures Jakob through his loss until his own death in Toronto to which he and the growing Jakob have moved - a city conversely built in the bowl of a dried-up prehistoric lake. The second part of the novel is the years-later story of a young academic, Toronto-born Ben, who has lived with a different kind of loss: the loss of innocence and security in having parents who experienced and survived the death camps, an insecurity which once caused them to refuse to leave their house with young Ben when it was flooded by the river, and all of them thus nearly to lose their lives. Now, at a party, Ben and his young wife meet Jakob, now a poet and translator, and both he and his wife develop a fascination with Jakob which deeply affects their lives.

The rich themes of loss, erasure and exhumation are vividly carried in the images of the child burying himself in the wood, the drowned city and the flooding river - and in the academic and not-so-academic obsessions of the characters: the snow-burial of Scott's doomed Antarctic expedition, Athos's interest in fossils and geology, Ben's study of weather and the practice of biography. This and the lyrical prose (Anne Michaels' previous reputation was as a poet) were what entranced me the first time round.

So how to explain the fact that when I read it again last week and ten years later I was dismayed to find I thought that, in spite of its merits - including the most beautifully honed and profoundest sentences - it seriously fails as a novel? For what strikes me now is that those ideas and images which once so bowled me over are not anchored on any novelistic scaffolding. The book does not take the structure of a novel but, as someone in the group said, rather that of an extended poem. There is no narrative tension, since in passing we are told the outcomes (first the death of Athos, and then that of Jakob) while the 'story' is still in progress, and also because the 'action' is constantly arrested by brief philosophical disquisitions or lengthy historical or scientific essays, the events seeming indeed merely triggers for the latter, in the manner which operates in poetry. Indeed, the only way to read this book, we all agreed, was to read it as a poem - ie, to stop at these points and ruminate consciously about such statements as 'Every moment is two moments', or the tale of Scott in the Antarctic, or a description of a weather pattern or geological process, and work out how they related to the recent action between the characters. The trouble is, I found that this time I was not prepared to do this, I wanted the events and relationships to transmit the ideas more dynamically, and at a deeper gut level, and sometimes found these gnomic pronouncements pretentious or even at times clumsy.

And little of the 'action' is dynamic: most of it is reported rather than dramatized, and therefore, in spite of the seemingly rich imagery, it lacks vividness. Nor is it convincing when it is dramatized, as the author makes the basic error of feeding information to the reader through unrealistic dialogue, and the characters all talk like each other and like self-conscious poets. And here's the crux: although the two separate parts are intended as separate first-person narrations (the first Jakob's, the second Ben's), it's very hard to tell them apart (and people said they kept getting mixed up between Jakob and Ben and forgetting that they were separate characters): ie there's no apparent distinction between narratorial and authorial voice.

I could hardly believe that I had had two such different reactions to the same book. All I could imagine was that my earlier reading was affected by the fact that I had at the time already conceived a novel of my own on similar themes of loss and suppression, and was simply gobbling up ideas and images which chimed with my own: ie, at the time all I was interested in were the ideas, so I didn't notice that the book didn't work as a novel.

However, although Hans and John agreed with my new assessment (Hans had failed to finish the book), the others felt I was being far too harsh. Doug said that although he could see there were faults with the book, he had been really impressed by its other aspects, and Ann agreed. Trevor and Jenny said they'd really liked it, and all four said that they hadn't at all minded having to read the book slowly and thoughtfully, putting it down to think about the meanings and the connections, and Jenny had been so impressed and touched by one sentence about the nature of grief that she had marked it and read it out. *

Then Hans and John had a seemingly inconsequential discussion about an incident in the book in which Nazi soldiers on Zakynthos amuse themselves by throwing down their olive stones for starving children to rescue and nibble clean. Hans said he was left wondering whether this was a historical truth. John said, Of course it was, people were really starving during the war. And then I realized that this illustrated an essential point about the book. Laden as it is with scientific and historical facts, this novel had left Hans uneasy about some of its 'facts'. But it's not factual but emotional truth which novels can best provide, and if a novel works properly on a fictive level, creates a universe which seduces and convinces, we just don't start questioning its 'facts'.

At which Ann said she wondered if this novel were based on something close to the author but which she had been told, which would perhaps explain its flavour of an account rather than a properly dramatized (and thus objectified) story, and the general consensus was that this was probably the case. Not that any of its four supporters really minded this effect.

See how dependent a book is on the reader?

* Edited in: I remembered wrongly: the quote Jenny read out was about the soul:
If one needs proof of the soul it's easily found. The spirit is most evident at the point of extreme humiliation.

And I have to say that this is one of those lines which seemed so profound to me the first time round, but when I really examine it now (and try to tie it in with the story) I'm not at all sure what it means.

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

Head over heels out of love with shoes

Here's why I didn't get around to wishing you all Merry Christmas, and here's why I may be giving up my stupid, unreconstructed love of high heels:

Saturday evening, I am at novelist Nicholas Royle's Christmas party in my best and highest, the ones I wore to the blog awards and which have always made me go all woozy when I think of them: burgundy Mary-Janes in the softest leather, DKNY, and the best thing about them - my biggest fetish of all - they only cost a fiver from Oxfam, hardly worn and sporting the teeniest little stain.

Anyway, there I am swanking out of the kitchen in them, glass of red wine in hand, with no notion that there's a tiny step down from the kitchen to the hall, and my heel cocks over, and before I know it I'm hurtling forward, and trying to stop myself falling, stampeding like a rhinoceros towards some startled faces at the end of the hall, but I can't save myself and I fall slam on the wooden floor and all I am aware of as I hit it is the sound of the glass smashing in my hand.

So there I was on Christmas Day: slivers of glass still stuck in my hand (so I couldn't wield the saucepans), bruised knee (so I can't easily go up and down stairs), a huge shiner on my shoulder and a bump on my head where it glanced against the doorpost.

Any closer to the doorpost and I think I could have killed myself.

And I wasn't drunk, honestly...

I keep looking at those shoes now and I get a different kind of wooziness.

But, hey, you know what my eighty-year-old mother said: 'Oh don't get rid of all your high heels! I went Christmas dancing in mine!'

Oh, and one of my Christmas guests is really ill with a fluey cold....

Happy New Year, though!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Tim Love's Review of Balancing on the Edge of the World

The tireless Tim Love has written a detailed review of my story collection Balancing on the Edge of the World.

He says he likes it - which tickles me pink!!

Honestly, though, such an eye-opener, the way others see you! He says that 'middle-class people dominate ' in my stories!! Moi? Middle class! Well, of course I am, but I never thought of my stories that way, since I always think of them as most informed by my pre-middle-class sensibility - the way of seeing the world which my 'working-class' parents gave me. It's true, of course that the stories are concerned with class, along with the other forms of division and prejudice I'm concerned with in my writing (and life), and indeed with the power of middle-class people, and, let's face it, the real problem with those with the greater power is that they do dominate. The funniest aspect of this is that one of the stories, 'Star Things', which is about a sensitive and fairly 'posh' small girl going to the woods with some 'rough' kids (and learning a shocking lesson), was once reviewed as being about a 'rollicking deprived childhood' - ie, all of the children, including the protagonist, were seen as 'rough': an interesting illustration of how the perspective of the reader affects the reading.

And here's another thing which took me aback: although the story never specifies, Tim assumes that the group of people on a night out in the first story, 'Condensed Metaphysics', are all women, but in my head they were mixed - mainly because in the real-life incident which gave me the idea for this story, they were mixed! So here I am now wondering if such an assumption affects the whole tenor of the story, the relationships and conversations, creating whole new implications!

Tim likes best three of the more experimental stories in the collection, 'Leaf Memory', 'A Glossary of Bread,' and 'Going Back', though he says he also likes the much more conventional 'The Shooting Script' which he says has 'strong comic characterization'.

And he comments that I use the pathetic fallacy in 'Power'! I who hold up the sign of the cross whenever a pathetic fallacy hovers!!! I don't think I do use it here, actually, though I guess there's a subtle difference in what I do do: while I would always avoid outright personification of the weather etc, one thing that interests me deeply is the way we (and therefore characters) do indeed impose our emotions on our surroundings and see them as reflected back at us, and that's what I'm intending the protagonist to be doing here.

Answering your critics, eh? Think I'll start a new trend...

But many thanks, Tim, and I'm really glad you liked the book!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Playwrights at Christmas

The playwrights' get-together last night. First of all, we went for a drink in the Abercromby where we used to go after Theatre Writers Union meetings, though most of the guys are Emmerdale writers now, or have been at some time. Manchester was buzzing - and drunken! As I approached the Abercromby there were three guys in pinstripes standing outside and shouting and gesticulating in the strangest manner. They followed me in, and it wasn't long before one of them was swooning into another's arms. And the music! They never had music like that there in the old days - geared of course to get you to neck more booze because you can't talk. (They turned it off, though, in the end, we complained so many times.)

And the lights in the streets! Everything sparkling and twinkling and gleaming as if there's no tomorrow, or should I say ensuring there's no tomorrow - why do the council do it? Oh, that's right, commerce of course...

Afterwards the greediest of us went off for a meal at Cafe Rouge in the Printworks, the only place in central town I could book, and they sat us in an annexe around a corner overlooking that lit-up palace of commerce, Arndale and Next.

OK, I'm sounding scroogish. I did enjoy myself really: actually, enormously; while I sneered at the wastage of the gold and silver Christmas crackers on our table I couldn't help liking their glitter, and I met new people, including Peter Kerry, an Emmerdale writer who has interestingly published his first novel, The Scribe, through AuthorsOnline, a comic fantasy set in Arthurian times. And OK, so they forgot about us around that corner and our meal didn't come for ages, but we didn't care, it was just so good to be meeting up, and anyway they made up for it by offering us coffees and liqueurs on the house.

And driving back through Manc I couldn't get over the intensity of the blue street lights - I really couldn't take my eyes off them - and John said it's because they're kind of digital now, and I didn't know whether to believe him and let the council off the hook or decide he really needed a drink, what with having to lay off because he was driving.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Christmas dinners

Christmas, oh Christmas, and the writer's getting fat...

Last night we had our book group Christmas dinner. And did we, during the three hours we sat eating mezzes and other Greek goodies, once talk about books? Did we heck!!

Tonight it's the playwrights' do. Talk about productions (and money) guaranteed.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Time for dreaming

See this publicity and promotion stuff? It really gets in the way of writing...

As I have been moaning, I haven't written much for ages. I do actually enjoy the book publicity and the drama production work - it's so much easier in many ways, and you get to meet people and, as I've said before, use some of your other skills besides that one of being able to sit still at a desk for four hours at a stretch. Oh, and wear some of your clothes beside your jamas! And I do love acting, which I've done some of this summer. But oh, that not-writing state: there's that big hole inside you, and a kind of flatness inside your head, which you don't notice while you're busy, but as soon as you stop...

I stopped a week or so ago and found NOTHING INSIDE MY HEAD. Not a single idea, not even that sense of relish in the world around you, which soon gives rise to images and connections which turn into stories...

Would I ever write again, I wondered. (And I won't tell you quite how depressed and bad-tempered I was!)

But then of course, my empty head started working, and guess what? I remembered this: in June I went away for a weekend and something happened which made me desperately want to write a story. I got off the plane, I rushed home in the taxi, able to think of nothing else - which is how it needs to be for me to write - and all ready to begin work on it next day. But waiting on my computer were several emails about my play production, and consequently publicity jobs to get on with, and the next day there was a rehearsal, and hey presto, I was overwhelmed and there was no time to write.

And the story went right out of my head, until now...

See? Of course you need stimulation to write. But you also need the time and space to keep dreaming...

Monday, December 10, 2007

Does she know me better than I know myself?

My good friend Adele Geras has kindly written about my story collection on her website newsletter. I like that she says the stories are 'marked by wit' but 'tenderness' too? Tender? Moi? I'll be losing my street cred any minute! She also says this: 'Baines is very shrewd about the condition of being a writer and there’s one story about a script in production which ought to be required reading on every single creative writing course in the country.' Hah!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Publicity - blessing or curse?

Those who know me well know that Elizabeth Baines is a pen-name - though it isn't really, either, it's more like my other name, as I answer to it now, don't even notice when people use it, and forget to tell new acquaintances that it isn't my real name (it kind of is now). It's lost that function it once had, which was to separate off my writing head from my 'real-life' head, allowing me to write free of any expectations people might have had of me, and allowing the writing to exist for itself, and people to read it free of the preconceptions that my person might give them.

I really did have some romantic notion of being separate from my work, launching it off into the world to exist in its own right, while I went about gleefully thinking to myself, 'Little do they guess, those people who know me.' A notion of the power of words in themselves which of course I still hold to and go on championing on my other blog. Little chance, of course, of effecting such a situation in this age of publicity, and the fact that I'm writing this blog shows how far I've capitulated.

It's obligatory now for an author to work on publicity, and recently a press release for my short story collection prompted the local newspaper syndicate to pose me a quiz, my answers to which then appeared alongside my publicity photo. Yesterday I was in the charity shop (one of my habitual haunts, as you will know if you read this blog often,) and the manager, who usually greets me with a jolly hello, seemed shyer than usual, and then asked, after hesitating a moment: 'Do you mind if I ask you? Are you a writer? Didn't I see you in the local paper recently?'

See? It changes everything. And I have complicated feelings about it. I'm pleased that word about my book is getting out there. But is it word about the book? The woman couldn't actually remember what it was I had written, it was me she remembered, my picture which she'd immediately recognized as that woman who comes in from time to time... And I'm not in this context anonymous any longer, which any writer with their ear to the ground for a story most desires to be.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Reading group: The Maze by Panos Karnezis

Something is happening to our reading group, or maybe it's just this nasty cold thing, but there were only five of us to discuss Ann's choice, The Maze by Panos Karnezis. Perhaps it's just that life is more important than books. Or maybe, I am sorry to say, it was the way people reacted to this book.

Having spent much of her childhood in Armenia, Ann was understandably attracted to this novel which centres on the retreat of a Greek army brigade at the end of the brief occupation of Armenia after World War 1. However, even Ann - or maybe especially Ann with her inside knowledge - was left somewhat puzzled by this novel, which we thus felt was, ironically, aptly titled. Ann's main problem with the book was that it did not square with her conception of the history: the mass upheavals which the real-life events created - Greeks having to return en masse from Turkey, the evidence of which can be seen in the Turkish street-names of so many suburbs of Athens - did not seem in any way represented by this story, which centres on the effectively claustrophobic situation of a single brigade lost in the desert until it happens upon a small isolated town where the soldiers come to be haunted by an act of vengeance they committed. She then wondered if she should be reading the book differently, perhaps as symbolic or mythic (especially as there is much reference to Greek mythology in the book) but once again she found it unrepresentative, as the desert, such a huge force in the novel, is not representative of Armenia's landscape.

Or were we meant to read it as a psychological novel about particular individuals rather than a period in history? But it was hard to do so, people agreed: most thought the characters were cyphers, representatives of certain states or positions, and they failed to come to life on a psychological level. Was this intended? The author had a particular technique of introducing his characters. Initially we would observe a character objectively in a setting, performing certain actions, and sometimes he/she wouldn't even be identified to us straight away - a technique which hints at a kind of Everyman universality. Then the author would provide us with a potted history of the character (another somewhat distancing technique) but which, however, would include accounts of the character's feelings and psychological processes. Was there some kind of special point to this? (After all, this book had been shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award, so we had to take it seriously.) Or was this simply a case of Telling Not Showing? At any rate, we never felt engaged by the characters on any deep level.

Ann said that she was also distanced and puzzled by the language, which seemed stilted and archaic. She had considered that this was deliberate - as had Doug who, once he had taken it as so, got on better with the novel - but a Greek friend had told her that actually the prose reads like someone translating from Greek into English as they write. (Karnezis is Greek, but wrote the book in English.)

People just didn't know what to think. Was this book flawed or were we just not getting it? Was it naive or very clever?

I said, Well, look at how viewpoint is handled. At one point the priest is sitting alone thinking through his dilemmas - an unequivocally psychological moment - and suddenly we read this: 'Science,' he said unexpectedly. Unexpectedly to whom? Not to any other character, since the priest is alone; not to the author, since he's writing the damn thing; and not to the priest since it's he who's having the train of thought. In other words, the author has lost control of viewpoint here, a pretty good pointer to overall naivity.

It would seem that the treatment of the pivotal issue of the novel is intended as psychological, that what the author is interested in here is psychological repression: it is only once they are installed in the town that their terrible previous act forces itself back into the conscious thoughts of the soldiers. Yet the overall lack of psychological narrative treatment meant that the force of this repression was not conveyed, and the fact that the incident was left unmentioned for so long seemed to group members simply like a narrative mistake.

John said, 'Anyway, look at this sentence: The moon rose silently' and someone else pointed out that it was a bit weird that soldiers kept going in circles when they had a compass (even if the brigadier in charge of it was off his head on morphine), and when you could go by the sun anyway and everyone knows that if you go west in Armenia you inevitably get to the sea. Also, I said, Would they have operated on wounded soldiers on the move? and everyone shook their heads which put paid to the narrative sense of the medic planning to operate first thing in the morning when the brigade was due to up camp again. Plus, several people said, the brigade was described as an endless line as it entered the tiny town, but thereafter there was hardly any sense of any soldiers around.

But then Trevor, true to form, decided to stick up for the book because, he said, he had liked it anyway, and Doug agreed.

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

Monday, December 03, 2007

Sucks to the cult of youth

It's enough to make me want to start the Togs Blog again - but two blogs already are more than enough - too much - for a writer with writing time to be eaten into, so I'll say it here.

Seems Sarah Mower has decreed in the Telegraph that women over a certain age shouldn't wear leather jackets!!!!! Linda Grant has disputed this on her new blog (devoted to literature and style), and has had plenty of furious comments in support. Well, as a dedicated leather-jacket wearer for more years than Sarah Mower would allow me, I want to join in. It's not for nothing that I am wearing my leather jacket in my publicity photo, or that I was wearing it on Saturday (see below) when I went to the Tate Modern to meet the eternally-stylish author and counsellor Julia Segal (dressed fabulously in a white skirt-suit and leather boots) and ponder the stunning work of a (shock-horror, pretty old) woman artist (Louise Bourgeois). I LOVE MY LEATHER JACKET. It's VERY OLD, and I don't care - it wasn't even new when I bought it in a charity shop, there are teeth missing on the zip now, the lining has gone in the pockets and I keep losing my money and my phone round the back, and the stuffing keeps popping out. But I LOVE IT, I LOVE IT, and when I'm wearing it I am the REAL ME. As if the way you dress is only about how you look to other people (and people with the most superficial values!) , and not about how you feel, or what you WANT!

Really, honestly, as Vanessa Gebbie and I were only saying on Thursday in relation to the world of literature, when will people get a grip and stop being hung up on this infantile cult of youth???
Everyone seems to be - even those who purport not to be: not so long ago, as I recall, Zadie Smith castigated those who went on about her beauty by pointing out that she would soon be old and 'therefore no longer beautiful' - inadvertently buying in to the cult by accepting that AGE CANNOT EQUATE WITH BEAUTY!!!

Even Linda Grant's article today is undercut by this notion: while she praises the flair and bravery of a seventy-or eighty-year-old woman she saw wearing combat pants and huge earrings, she quotes without criticism Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman's style tips for older women which are all aimed at HIDING YOUR AGE, and appear as a sidebar guide (though there is the question mark at the end of the title). Too much flesh is wrong apparently: 'It's not as firm or luscious as it once was and showing it can make you look a bit desperate.' WHAT???? So f****ing what if it's not as firm as it once was? My mother is in her eighties and I LOVE it when she has bare arms. Granted the muscles are really well toned - she's a golfer and a tireless gardener and decorator and house cleaner - but their skin is, naturally, parchmenty now - but I LOVE THAT! It's all there in the skin for everyone to see - all those years she's had of adventure and living, I look at at those arms now and see them in all their incarnations as I've known them down the years, right from those of my first memories of her - I don't see her just as OLD. Well, hell, I don't see her as old at all...

No, Alex, you've got it wrong: showing flesh can make you seem as if you couldn't give a flying f*** about such stupid, wrong-headed notions as yours. *

* Linda Grant points out that this was actually said by Louise Chunn, the other editor she consulted. Apologies to all three!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Salt Autumn Party at Foyle's

What a great event this was - and lucky I made it.

Thursday afternoon John and I slammed the door, jumped into the
car and raced to the station (we discovered at the last minute
that we'd got the time of the train quite wrong!) and within two
hours we were in London. (We caught the train by the skin of our teeth, thank god.) Our gifted publishers Jen and Chris (and their
three children) were there to host a great do with
lots of wonderful readings -
as you can see in the slide show below. And fabulous to meet for
the first time so many of my fellow Salt authors - some of whom,
like Vanessa Gebbie and Tania Hershman (both due to be published
in 2008) I felt I already knew from our blog correspondence.
Afterwards, some of us repaired to the packed pub and Vanessa
and I gabbed ten to the dozen in a very squashed corner, and just
as I had expected (from her wonderful writing and her great
tough-talking blog) I really did feel as if I've always known her.

The whole event was a wonderful display of both publishing
and writing talent, and I can only say how thrilled I am to
be associated with this very exciting publishing house.