Sunday, April 27, 2008

What to do on a writing retreat

Writing retreats. Joel Rickett reports for the Guardian that they've gone so exotic that you can now go on 'literary adventure holidays' to places like Thailand with recitals and elephant trekking laid on.

Writing retreats? You've got to be kidding me. I've been on two fairly conventional British writing weekends, but the last thing I could do was write I was so busy watching the writing tutors preen and compete with each other, the students getting off with each other and the retreat managers getting cross either because someone had used the spare room for an assignation or because no one would bring the wood in for the fire!!

Friday, April 25, 2008

A proper book tag

I don't normally like tags of course, but this time I'm really happy to be tagged by Norm with this good one:

1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.

My nearest book was happily one I love, a volume of short stories, The Loudest Sound and Nothing by Clare Wigfall. I was (and am) sitting on the landing at the top of the stairs: it's where I banish my computer when I'm working hard on a first draft, which I always do in longhand, or trying to get back to writing after a disruption, which I am now, after John's recent illness. The Loudest Sound and Nothing was sitting on the top step ready to go downstairs to the shared bookshelves: tidying my study is another way back into writing for me, so that's what I'd been doing.

Page 123 was unfortunately blank, so I turned to the next printed page, 125, where the story 'Night after Night' begins, and here's what I ended up with, just one example of the multifarious voices in the book:
I couldn't for the life of me think why they'd be ringing on us. Took off me apron and fluffed up me hair in case the two bobbies at the door was going to want to come in, but then Stan come back with his coat and hat on and tells me he's gotta go down to the station to answer a couple of questions.

'Couple of questions?' I said. 'What do they want with you?'

I'm tagging Debi Alper, Ms Baroque, Tania Hershman, Vanessa Gebbie and Charles Lambert, who can ignore it of course if they wish.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Reading group: The Hours by Michael Cunningham

Three parallel narratives, featuring respectively Virginia Woolf struggling with her demons, a young woman, Laura Brown, trapped in suburban motherhood in the nineteen-forties and longing to escape and read Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs Dalloway, and a middle-aged woman Clarissa arranging a party in the nineteen-nineties for an old lover who is dying of Aids and who once nicknamed her Mrs Dalloway after that fictional Clarissa.

Ann, who had suggested this novel, said that in the event she wasn't sure what she thought of it, as she didn't feel that the perspectives of the three women were sufficiently differentiated and in particular she couldn't get to grips with the Laura Brown character: she understood the trap Laura was in but couldn't see how such a strong-willed character could have got into such a trap in the first place.

This caused some surprise: others felt on the contrary that the characters were very well differentiated, and those who had grown up in sixties suburbia in Britain had found Laura Brown and her position entirely recognizable. Indeed, everyone else thought this book was wonderful - even Jenny. Initially Jenny had resisted the idea of this book as she didn't like parallel narratives, but even though the connections between the different strands had seemed superficial she had found it absorbing, and in any case at the end it is revealed that they are not separate stories at all.

We had quite some discussion about this last. Trevor said that when he suddenly realized the connections so near the end he wondered if he had been really thick in not guessing them before. I said I didn't think so: I thought it had been deliberate structural strategy on Cunningham's part to spring a surprise. I thought that there was nothing so moving as to discover that an old woman you were despising along with one character was in fact the same person as a young woman you'd been identifying with, and Hans strongly agreed.

On the other hand, I couldn't help questioning this strategy, since had we known the connections as we were reading there would have been resonances which inevitably we missed - though as Jenny said, the thing about great literaure is that it makes you want to read it again, and on a second reading we would experience them.

I think we were in no doubt that this was great literature. John had been seriously ill while I had been reading it, and the book's overriding theme of death had at times made it quite difficult for me to read, yet I had always gone back to it: it had seeped into my consciousness the way great literature does. The only other quibble was Doug's: he wondered about the occasional breaches of the novel's convention when we are given the viewpoint of minor characters; yet Doug was perhaps one of the greatest admirers of this book.

It wasn't overall a long discussion. It was the kind of occasion, I think, where a book hits you in the gut, and intellectual discussion seems not quite the point.

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