Friday, October 31, 2008

An interesting experiment

Here's a very interesting experiment in close reading which anyone can take part in and which I'd love to if I get the time.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Reading group: The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor

Group member Trevor suggested this novel which begins in 1921 when the head of an Anglo-Irish household shoots at and wounds a potential arsonist, after which he and his wife decide out of fear to leave their County Cork home with their child, eight-year-old Lucy. Desperate not to leave, and not understanding why they must, Lucy hatches a plot to prevent the departure, but inadvertently leads her parents to believe that she is dead and consequently leave without her, cutting all ties in order to deal with their loss. The story then follows the life of Lucy, brought up by the servants left behind and tied to the house and to her guilt, longing for the return of her parents and redemption.

Trevor said that when he began this novel he thought it was fantastic. So much happens right at the beginning: the foiled raid on the house, Lucy's running away and the terrible mistaken conclusion of the parents. But as he went on reading he began to feel less sure: obviously the point was that nothing happened after that, that Lucy's ironic fate, after she had tried to take control, was to end up passive and basically to miss out on life, but he had the growing feeling that as a result there wasn't really enough in this book to justify its length and that it would have made a better short story. But then he really didn't know what to think, as all the review quotes on the back cover said how marvellous it was.

Doug said that he thought it was a wonderful story, but he hadn't at all liked the style of the book (and he too thought it might have better suited novella length). John asked him what he meant by the 'style' and Doug said he meant the prose style. I said that I too hadn't liked the prose style: to my shock I had found it over-abstract and formal, distancing and failing thus to make the characters live.

Clare quickly said, but isn't that the point, the characters don't live: all of them, and most especially Lucy, are condemned to a half-life? I agreed that that was true, but I still didn't think that the language worked well to to convey this psychological state. It reminded me of the prose of the Nadine Gordimer we had read, The Pickup, and similarly featured a frequent and clumsy use of the defocussing word 'what' in place of a specific noun: ...the men who had once come in the night would have by now lost interest in what they intended... ... they went to the creamery together for the first time since what had happened... ...his experience was puny compared with what still continued for the girl he believed he loved. Clare said, But the whole point is that characters in the book don't talk about things, they don't refer to things directly: the book is after all about silences and the consequences of silence. Fair enough in theory, I said, but I still thought that the prose was clumsy and distanced the reader from the characters' experience of alienation: what about the frequent use of the passive tense, eg when school had been finished with rather than 'when Lucy finished/left school' and He spoke of that afternoon and was listened to politely rather than 'Lucy listened to him politely'. Clare said, But this underlines the passivity of the characters. I said that there was other clumsiness, though, which seemed less like authorial strategy and more like mistakes: tautologies and lack of verbal economy, eg, Her fingers today were slow in what was required of them and ...this was an outcome that might yet come about.

Doug, Anne and John nodded agreement, but Jenny said that nevertheless she liked the book because it was a great story, and Clare said firmly that whatever we said she had found the book extremely moving and it had meant a great deal to her. I had to agree that in spite of my reservations about the prose it was a great story. John said that we couldn't ignore this, that people had thought it was a great story, and we needed to think about why this was so. I said that if someone told me the story over a cup of coffee in a cafe I would have thought it as good, so it was a separate thing from the execution in the novel, but Clare felt that it was the novel she was responding to. John asked her why she so engaged with it, and she said that it recalled for her her feelings of abandonment when she was sent away to boarding school. John wondered if she was though therefore bringing things to the novel rather than taking things from it, and Clare said, Maybe.

Ann, who also went to boarding school, seemed far less impressed by the novel. John now said that he wasn't actually as moved by the story as others of us: indeed, he found it pretty unbelievable. He didn' t find it believable that the parents could so easily disappear, and Ann agreed. She has recently been researching her own grandfather, an archeologist, for her PhD, and has found that at the time of the novel upper-class people like the Gaults moved from country to country via recommendation (rather than passports) which would leave a trail, not to mention the paper trail which would have been left by their cashing in of their shares - a point which had occurred to both John and me. (As a textile conservator at the Whitworth Gallery Ann is an expert needleworker, and she also said that the authority of the novel was spoilt for her by the author's mistakes about embroidery). Personally, in the light of cases like that of Madeleine McCann, I found psychologically unbelievable the Gaults' ability to accept so quickly the death of their child without the evidence of a body, but most of the group seemed to have no problem with this, unlike me finding the fishermen's explanation adequate to convince the parents.

John said that the thing he really disliked about the book was its colonialist tone. He thought that this was created by the aspects of the prose style I'd pointed out, and drew our attention to the omniscient opening:
Captain Everard Gault wounded the boy in the right shoulder on the night of June the twenty-first, nineteen twenty-one. Aiming above the trespassers' heads in the darkness, he fired the single shot from an upstairs window and then watched the three figures scuttling off, the wounded one assisted by his companions.
In fact, John said, this passage begs questions which we are clearly not expected to ask: Was Everard really aiming above the trespassers' heads? (The novel appears to expect us to accept this.) As an ex-army captain could he really have been that bad a shot? And, Trevor added, isn't it harder to misfire downwards if you're aiming upwards?

I said that, as for viewpoint, the whole novel takes the colonialist one. Jenny said she wasn't sure about this: what about the servants, Henry and Bridget, they were Catholics, and they were very sympathetic characters, and what about the fact that the boy who is wounded ends up being looked after in the mental asylum by Lucy? I said that last was quite right wing, the fact that narratorially he was dismissed into madness. Jenny said, How on earth is that right wing? and Ann said, Well, the boy's story could have been presented as a foil to that of the Gaults' but instead he was simply a pawn in the Gaults' story, which was the primary story, and indeed narratorially he is just in service to Lucy's own (do-gooding) redemption. And then people remembered how much better the Republican and Protestant viewpoints had been counterpointed in Jennifer Johnston's How Many Miles to Babylon? and how brilliant we had thought that book.

Everybody now agreed that none of the characters in this book ever really came to life, and that even as far as Lucy was concerned there were serious gaps where you might have expected emotional development - which, though it may have been the intention of the author, was unsatisfying for the reader. Several moments which were theoretically key to the story were glossed over emotionally, dismissed in a sentence or two, and Lucy's immediate reaction to her father's reappearance just about omitted altogether.

I said in mitigation that one thing that did really strike a chord with me was the fact that the story of Lucy Gault has to be simplified and indeed altered, its nuances lost, in order to achieve the legendary, folklore status it does amongst the local people. This is in fact an obsession of mine as a writer - the contingency of narrative - and it didn't seem to strike much of a chord with the rest of the group, who looked at me rather blankly. Someone, I think Jenny, said to much agreement that she had really liked the depiction of the way the neighbours, the O'Reillys, slowly encroached on the Gaults, taking back into Catholic ownership the colonized land, and someone else pointed out the similarity between this and the situation in Coetzee's Disgrace which we have also discussed. John said that it also echoed Chekov's Three Sisters, a production of which some of us had recently seen, in that the land had been gambled away at card games.

After which, the conversation about the book ended somewhat abruptly, and next thing we were planning our group Christmas dinner.

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

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A nice mention for Balancing

I'm chuffed to get a really nice mention for Balancing on the Edge of the World from one of my favourite bloggers, novelist Nasim Marie Jafry. She's just started reading it, and here's what she says:
I have been looking forward to reading Elizabeth's stories for ages, this is a lovely slim volume, easy to carry, and it doesn't surprise me that Elizabeth can turn waiting in a queue for pizza into moments of exuberant intelligence.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Carys Davies and Mike Barlow at Manchester Literature Festival

Had a great evening yesterday: John and I went to a superb MLF reading by Mike Barlow and Carys Davies and afterwards the four of us and a friend of Carys's went out to dinner and chewed the writing fat. Carys and I agreed that the longer you go on writing, the harder it is somehow: we both have several stories in stock which simply aren't ready yet, we're just not satisfied with them. Both of us remembered it being so much easier when we first started writing: we wrote stories quickly and got them dispatched for publication swiftly. But the longer you go on, the more complicated are the things you want to do, and the less easy to achieve...

Carys, Mike and I will be reading together at the Huddersfield Literature Festival on March 15th.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Reading out and reading in

Hm, I'm not sure that the Manchester Festival Hub at the Northern pub had quite taken off by yesterday evening. Maybe the problem is that the festival venues are spread out so far across the city, and it's only when a festival is concentrated on a small area that a drop-in/hang-out centre works. And I wonder how many people are aware of it? It's included only in the back of the brochure, as if as an afterthought.

It's a great shame, because there should have been far more people to hear Belinda Webb read from her punchy, linguistically inventive novel of a Moss-Side teenage rebel, A Clockwork Apple. And there were no copies of the books for sale: someone had failed to get them to Belinda in time.

Sometimes you can't help getting weary of the whole book-tour, festival scene: so much physical effort and expense for so little effect sometimes. I've been doing a fair bit of reading lately (I mean private reading of other people's books), and this, along with the fact that my writing is taking off at the moment, is such a richly personal experience that public readings by authors seem not just beside the point but to deflect from the real point. Among my most recent reading has been the utterly wonderful The Other Hand by Chris Cleave, two clever novels by Tobias Hill, including the proof of his forthcoming The Hidden which I was privileged to receive, William Trevor's The Story of Lucy Gault (for my reading group, and the prose of which I'm shocked to discover is over-abstract and woolly), and a whole host of short story collections, including two impressive collections from Salt, The White Road by Tania Hershman and The Scent of Cinnamon by Charles Lambert.

Indeed, the last two are about to take part in virtual book tours, the latest addition by web-savvy Salt to their publishing model - a brilliant way to bypass the drawbacks of real-life, expensive and ephemeral book tours. This will be one of the blogs hosting Charles Lambert with The Scent of Cinnamon (dates TBA), and I am very much looking forward to my/our conversation with the author.

Even so, I urge any of you who are able to come along to the Northern on Tib Street at 5.30 this afternoon, to hear two more quite brilliant Salt authors, short-story writer Carys Davies and poet Mike Barlow.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Manchester Lit Fest: The Hub

What with Paris and coming back to a lot of stuff to catch up on, I haven't yet got around to the Manchester Literature Festival. However, I'm planning to go to a couple of events at the new 'Festival Hub' tonight and tomorrow. I've thought that the one thing the festival lacked in its first two years was a central meeting and relaxing point, and this year, the festival's third, they've set one up in the Northern pub in Tib Street, where free early-evening events will also take place. Tonight it's blogger Belinda Webb reading from her debut novel, A Clockwork Apple, and tomorrow it will be my fellow Salt authors, short-story writer Carys Davies and poet Mike Barlow who was shortlisted for the prestigious new Manchester Poetry Prize.

So I'd better get on with some of my reading before I need to leave the house...

No need to book, apparently.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Good as a tonic

Here's a great photo of most of us on the Faber Academy weekend in Paris, taken by one of our members, Antonia Hayes:

Back, l-r: Ronald Grover, David Lee, Sam Thorp, Kate Brown, yours truly, Antonia Honeywell, our great tutor Tobias Hill, Bill Colegrave, Catherine Douglas, Liz Wilkinson, Laura Elkin, Fionnuala McManamon, Cynthia Barlow Marrs.
Front: Jeanette Winterson and Colette, the Shakespeare and Company dog.
On the table: the second of the tonics Jeanette gave us (the first being her rousing talks).

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Jane Holland discusses Horizon Review on Start the Week

An email today from Jane Holland, editor of Horizon Review (in the first and current issue of which there's a story by yours truly): she'll be discussing Horizon Review and the current state of literary criticism on Radio 4's "Start the Week" this coming Monday, 20th October, at 9am.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Fizzing verbs

'What is this celebration?' asked a fascinated (and jealous-looking) woman outside Shakespeare and Company late yesterday afternoon.

We do know, folks, that we're privileged. It was the end of a really great day on the Faber Academy course. That morning the first thing we'd done with Tobias was talk about our experiences of the exercise the day before (and I confessed my inadequacy – only to have it pointed out that in the telling I had already begun writing the story I thought was out of my reach). Next, we moved onto dialogue and Tobias came up with some great exercises, one of which involved us in drama-school type antics and considerable hilarity.

In the afternoon Jeanette came and blew us away all over again. Writing is a physical activity , she told us; good writing is founded on the muscularity of verbs, a point which she rightly said is far too little acknowledged or discussed. We looked at the use of verbs in the startlingly muscular beginning of her novel Lighthousekeeping and an RS Thomas poem, both of which she had by heart. (Learn stuff by heart, she told us, keep it inside you, physically, because we live in a precarious age, books can disappear but no one can take away the texts written in your heart and which can spark your own writing.) Be true to yourself and your writing but work hard to find the words to release it. Most important writing, she felt, comes from our deepest wounds. And then she stopped and gave us a telling-off for an attitude she’d sensed in the group: never apologize for your writing.

Jeanette famously doesn’t believe in teaching creative writing. In that single hour she taught us loads.

And then she whipped out champagne. And since today had turned out to be the birthday of one of our group - blogger Laura Elkin - Faber's Patrick had bought a cake, and we went outside into the summery afternoon and had the party which made our passer-by so curious.

And it wasn't the end of it. When the champagne was done, we walked up to Montparnasse for a group meal, and I'm telling you, people were a little slow-moving to start with this morning...

But then we did something which has turned out to be some people's favourite thing on the course: we went down to the fiction shelves and picked out good and bad first lines and then spent time discussing them (and sometimes killing ourselves laughing). Now everyone is working on an exercise based on a poem or preparing for the readings with which the course will end this afternoon.

Here is the birthday girl Lauren:

And here is Sylvia Whitman, daughter of George who in 1951 took up the Shakespeare and Company baton from originator Sylvia Beach. Sylvia now runs the bookshop and has worked hard to make our residency there so very enjoyable:

Thursday, October 09, 2008

France, fantasy and fiction

See, it's this fantasy, innit? You're an artist - a writer-artist - fancy-free and cosmopolitan, you can see yourself on European railway stations, en route to meetings with other artists in eccentric locations with literary-intellectual histories. And blimey, there I was on my way to the inaugural Faber Academy course at the Left Bank bookshop Shakespeare and Company, having lunch with Ben at St Pancras and deciding we MUST, to suit the occasion, get a glass at the champagne bar. But then, see, our respective northern and Welsh roots get the better of the fantasy: we look at the menu and clock that the very cheapest is the same price as TWO glasses of wine in the restaurant so we go to the restaurant instead. But then I'm on the Eurostar and before I know it I'm in Paris and tucked up in my suitably and quite romantically eccentric and old-fashioned hotel. Next morning it's a ten-minute walk along the Seine and I'm there, among the famous teetering shelves.

The course is being held in the tiny library upstairs, past book-filled alcoves (and the odd bed: presumably for resting browsers!). There are fifteen of us and we fill the room, seated around its edges, those of us in the corners with our knees touching. It's intimate, and immediately our tutor, poet and novelist Tobias Hill got us interacting with his relaxed yet thorough and thought-provoking approach. Description, character and story: these are the three things which make up a novel, he said, and the exercises he had devised around this theme were ingenious and raised issues which led to lively discussions, and I must say that at this point some pretty impressive talent emerged. We discussed past versus present tense and first versus third person. Tobias is a champion of third person and thought most great novels were written in the third; not everyone agreed. By the end of the afternoon we were pretty exhausted but fired up (and some of us a little drunk by the time we'd been for the very nice drinks and canapes laid on by Faber and six of us students had gone off afterwards for dinner).

That was yesterday. Today was very different: that's another thing about Tobias, he knows how to shake you up with surprise. No sooner had we sat down comfortably, ready for a repetition of yesterday's proceedings, than he told us to get up again and go off individually into Paris for the whole morning on a note-taking exercise - a very nice one which entailed sitting in cafes like Matisse if you wished, a suggestion some of us had no bother taking up. Oh f***, though, I can't do this. I've so often wondered if I could, when I've taught writing courses myself: ditch my own agenda and concentrate on flexing the particular writing muscle in question. I try, I really do, but my own bloody agenda keeps surfacing: I've found some amazingly interesting-looking characters to describe, but once I start thinking about what their outward appearance signifies about their inner life, the other idea which obsesses and excites me as awriter kicks in: that outward appearance more often or not belies the inner person. So I'm hopeless in the afternoon too, when we spend the main part of it writing up our notes, while Tobias conducts one-to-one ten-minute tutorials about the work he kindly allowed us to shower on him on arrival, and I'm struggling with the thought that I'm not a very good student, after all. Then at four o'clock Jeanette Winterson arrived and roused everybody with an inspiring hour-long talk on the importance of voice in fiction, and a spirited defence of the first person over third, which gave us all, including Tobias, a good laugh. Then off to the cafe next door for a drink (of course!) before a great reading by Tobias of his poems and an extract from his forthcoming novel The Hidden. And then guess where six of us went again...

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Off to Paris

I can hardly believe this, but tomorrow I am lucky enough to be off for four days at the inaugural Faber Academy course to be held at the famous Paris Left Bank Shakespeare and Company bookshop associated with writers such as Henry Miller, Anäis Nin, Lawrence Durrell and Alan Ginsberg. Imagine: four days as a student - I love being a student! - in Paris! - in the company of tutors Tobias Hill and Jeanette Winterson. It's a fabulous present from John and I can't wait. If I can get internet while I'm there I'll blog, otherwise I'll report when I get back...

Friday, October 03, 2008

Stopped in my tracks

You know how they always say that if you want to be a writer you must read, read read? Well, sometimes reading puts you right off your stroke: after I finished Chris Cleave's The Other Hand yesterday, the satirical novel I had in mind just seemed so, well, trivial...

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Consumed by stories

Finished a new short story yesterday. Amazing the way it takes me away from blogging. There's still time in the day, but there's that difference in the way you think, the different verbal reality in your head...

Well, that's how it is for me at any rate. God knows what'll happen when I start the novel I'm itching to write - but then, in a way short stories are worse, each one sweeping you up with a new all-consuming reality...