Saturday, April 28, 2012

Vulpes Libris review of The Birth Machine

Funny how sometimes you can't write straight away about books that have had a deep impression on you - you need time to get to grips with them in a less emotional way. That's the experience that novelist Lisa Glass says she has sometimes, but that those are the books that turn out to be her favourites. I'm thrilled that she counts The Birth Machine as one of those books, and that it now appears, with a simply lovely review, among her four Books of the Year (so far) on Vulpes Libris.

She refers to its 'gorgeous layers, its portrayal of wild childhood, and ... the bold questions that it dares to ask about the way that people allow themselves to be subsumed by received opinion' and says that 'just like Elizabeth Baines’s other recent novel Too Many Magpies, The Birth Machine leaves an indelible mark on its reader.'

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Reading group: The Book of Evidence by John Banville

Jo suggested this novel narrated by 38-year-old Freddie Montgomery, waiting to be tried for the murder of a maid who happened to appear in the doorway while he was bumblingly stealing a Dutch painting from the stately Irish home of long-term family associates. It's an apparent explanation of his actions in which however his motives remain unclear, and in which he paradoxically expresses views that repudiate concepts of motive and cause and effect.

Jo said that she had already read this book three or four times, and she will probably do it again, because although the narrator is so repellant - pompous, self-centred, utterly misanthropic (he refers to 'golliwog' hair and expresses his distaste for 'queers' and his view of women is pretty unreconstructed) and without moral sense (his view of pity is as the only permissible version of the urge to give weak things a good hard shake) - she found it so very beautifully written. We all agreed that the prose, for which Banville is famous, is indeed striking: beautifully modulated sentences and stunning visual descriptions making the whole extremely visually vivid, (including in this case repeated descriptions of the quality of sunlight that one critic has acutely pointed out aptly chimes with the Dutch masters' preoccupation with light), though peppered throughout with archaic vocabulary - he uses words like bespeaks, tarried and athwart - and others requiring reference to a dictionary. Elegant is the word I'd use for this prose, and this is Freddie's prose purportedly, since this is his confession: elegant, sensitive, educated; fastidious yet lush.

He's really revolting, though, Jo said of Freddie, and spent some moments exclaiming about him: the way, at the start of his story, having given up a career as an academic scientist to spend a life of selfish idleness on Mediterranean islands, he toys with a man who amuses him by blackmailing him to lend him money with no intention of paying it back, money that the man clearly hasn't got and must acquire from elsewhere,  and is unconcerned when the man then has his ear cut off by those he borrowed from in turn. Leaned on now however by gangsters for the money, Freddie legs it back to Ireland, leaving his wife and child in the gangsters' 'care'. The way, said Jo, he doesn't seem to care about his wife, or his child - the fact that we don't even find out until near the end that the child is disabled!! The way he abducts the maid without even really having a motive (she's just in his way, but it's not as if he's really panicking or even thinking about what he's doing, and he seems in the ensuing hours to have no conception of the danger from witnesses), the psychopathically clinical way he notes that when he hits her head with a hammer it feels like hitting clay or hard putty! His revolting drunkenness! His utter self-centredness in the way he tells the story!

Still, Jo said, she thought the book was a wonderful read because it was so well written, by which she meant that the prose was so beautiful, and Trevor agreed that the book was really great.

Doug said, though with a rather mischievous grin, that he didn't actually think the character was all that awful, and he found himself identifying with him, and even feeling that in certain circumstances he too could hit someone on the head with a hammer. I think by this he was implying that the prose was so good it drew you into Freddie's psychology, however horrible. Others, however, didn't feel that it did. John said that he was alienated by the self-consciously fine writing, the long passages without variety of tone, the sameness of the obsessive viewpoint without the relief of others. Jenny said she hadn't enjoyed reading it at all: it was made quite clear from the start that Freddie was a murderer and a horrible person, and there was no further development on that notion: all that the book was was an explication of that, and it wasn't an enjoyable experience.

In fact, though, it's very hard to get to grips with the nature of Freddie's psychology. There's huge ambiguity running through the whole thing. As noted, although this is purportedly a confession, Freddie's motives always remain unclear. Initially it seems that he has returned to Ireland to raise the money to pay back the debt and free his wife and child, but both the debt and his family seem quickly to drop from his consciousness, and when he discovers that his mother has sold off the paintings he considered his inheritance, and has spent the money, his main preoccupation seems be the injustice of his disinheritance and the personal slight to himself. When he drives to the house of the dealer and old associate to whom she sold them (and who, it turns out, has sold them on at a profit), and spies the Dutch master, he seems driven not by revenge or financial need so much as a simple falling in love with the painting itself and a desire to possess it - and yet he very soon dumps it along with the body of the maid, and with a consequent farcical and self-important sense of triumph: I would never again need to pretend to myself to be what I was not.

Indeed, Freddie comments on his own lack of definition and the lack of clarity of motive. He has always, he says, had a sense of myself as something without weight, without moorings, a floating phantom. He was always different from others who
did not realise that everything is divisible. They talked of cause and effect, as if they believed it possible to isolate an event and hold it up to scrutiny in a pure, timeless space, outside the mad swirl of things ... to speak even of an individual with any show of certainty seemed to me foolhardy. [My bolds]
Is this honesty or obfuscation? This is the greatest ambiguity at the heart of the book. Freddie's 'honesty' seems often an affectation, a way of justifying his selfishness and misanthropy while yet indulging in it, and a self-centred revelling in his own awfulness, in particular in the descriptions of his actions and physical state after the murder, and his subsequent bouts of drunkenness. This, to me, makes the elegance of his prose an elegance of decadence - an ornate covering for ugliness - and so I couldn't relish it, as Jo could, for its own sake, and for this reason, although I found the novel immensely clever, I didn't actually enjoy reading it. On the other hand, there are shards of what seem to me like real honesty, moments of self-irony, in particular in Freddie's treatment of his attitude to his mother. In the group discussion Ann said that the problem in discussing Freddie's motives was that you couldn't be sure that any of the events he related actually happened: for one thing, he'd been drunk most of the time. Yes, I said, and for another there are quite pointed and perhaps paradoxically honest moments indicating that Freddie is making the whole story up. Right at the start he makes this statement: Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Don't make me laugh. On more than one occasion he wonders what to decide to call a character and at one point exclaims, For God's sake, how many of these grotesques am I expected to invent? In other words, Freddie is specifically playing with the concepts of reliable and unreliable narrators, and, as I said to the group, it seems to me that the subject of the whole novel is the fakeness of (conventional) narration, with its assumptions about 'character' and cause and effect. (Although at this, John told me later, Trevor, who was sitting next to me, gave me a very amused and dubious look.) Viewed in this light, the decadence I see in Freddie's prose usefully highlights the point: the way that 'fine writing' can be a blind for flimsiness or superficiality or even lack of moral rectitude. In this light, too, Freddie's abandonment of science seems not so much louche laziness as the result of a metaphysical crisis:
I took up the study of science in order to find certainty. No ... to make the lack of certainty more manageable.
Towards the end of the novel and his confession Freddie concludes that the reason he had been able to murder the maid was that he had failed to see her as a real person, had failed to imagine her properly:
This is the worst, the essential sin, I think, the one for which there will be no forgiveness: that I never imagined her vividly enough, that I never made her be there sufficiently, that I did not make her live ... I could kill her because for me she was not alive.
People had commented how one of the most horrific things about Freddie was the contrast between this failure and the way that he was able to imagine the life of the woman in the Dutch painting he stole, a reproduction of which he now has on his cell wall. This reconstruction of the girl's days in front of Rembrandt's easel and her relationship with her widowed father is very moving, an act of real and surprising empathy on Freddie's part that brought tears to at least this reader's eyes. I said I thought that this signalled a moral development on Freddie's part, but others didn't agree: after all, they said, he was taken by the woman in the painting in the very moments that he saw the maid merely as an object in his way, and John said to me later, isn't it horrific that he can show empathy to an imaginary woman but finds real women a threat? However, it seems to me that a message of this novel is that we should not make that distinction between real life and the imagination - we have to inject the latter into the former, and while story-telling can be fake, it is the power of the imagination that makes us empathic moral beings. And at the end of the novel, when Freddie's wife visits him in prison, he comes to realise that he had never really known or understood her - in other words, never truly imagined her. As for the maid, he sets himself the task of truly imagining her and her life, and at the very end begins to do so:
Today, in the workshop, I caught her smell, faint, sharp, metallic, unmistakable. It is the smell of metal-polish - she must have been doing the silver that day. I was so happy when I identified it! Anything seemed possible. It even seemed that someday I might wake up and see, coming forward from the darkened room into the frame of that doorway which is always in my mind now, a child, a girl, one whom I will recognise at once, without the shadow of a doubt.
However, when I read that quote to John just now, he snorted, and I must say that in view of Freddie's earlier comments about certainty, that without the shadow of a doubt possibly has an ironic ring.

I did say to the group that I thought that Freddie's realisation of his own failure seemed to me to come about rather suddenly, without any prior development, and the others nodded, Doug in particular agreeing that it was clunky. I said too that I had some fundamental problems with the arcane diction: not only did it seem out of character - why would a mathematician use such language? His justification, that he uses a dictionary, doesn't seem adequate - also it is too similar to the diction of the narrator of Banville's The Sea which we read previously, and one begins to suspect that it's Banville's diction rather than Freddie's. As a result, although in many ways I found the novel clever,  I didn't sense enough separation between narrator and author to make me feel comfortably secure in an author's controlling hands, and, although Trevor had said how much he enjoyed the book, he strongly agreed.

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

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A trip, a reading, a new magazine and some story chapbooks

Some bits and bobs - which is about all I can manage at the moment: I've had a lousy cold for over a week and am feeling pretty washed out. I spent Easter in Berlin, and the very first afternoon began to feel low and chilled; I thought maybe it was just the weather, which was very cold and drizzly-damp, but no, by next day I had a fully-fledged cold and a chest infection so bad that from then on I had to sleep partly propped up. But I had never been to Berlin before, and I wasn't about to miss out on anything, so I kept on going through the cold - the day we visited the horrendous former Stasi prison, it was blowing snow and hail - but once we got back to the UK I completely succumbed and have been good for nothing since. (Just hope I didn't give it to too many people on the plane).

As for Berlin, apart from the overwhelming history, there were some striking literary resonances for me: Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin is a book that left a great impression on me when we read it for the reading group, and it turned out that Jablonskistrasse, in which the protagonist lives, was only two streets away from the friend's flat in which we were staying. I felt spaced out the whole time not only by a virus but also by the stunning intersection of past and present and fiction and reality.

I hope also that I didn't give anyone the cold on Thursday evening, as I wasn't going to let it stop me going to a significant event at Blackwell's Manchester University Bookshop: Salt publisher Chris Emery launching his striking new poetry collection, The Departure, and reading with Ian Duhig and Michael Symmons Roberts. Superb readings compered by Fat Roland in inimitable style, and a great meet-up with some familiar figures - writers Adrian Slatcher, David Gaffney, Sarah-Jane Conlon, Edmund Prestwich, Eleanor Rees, Steve Waling and Ian Pople - and introductions to poet Lindsey Holland and novelist Tim Shearer. A convivial drink in the Salutation afterwards, when I learnt from Adrian of his exciting new venture, a new literary magazine for innovative fiction - called 'New Magazine' - for which he is seeking material. And then, before anyone else, I left and stumbled back home to bed.

Every so often an envelope comes through my door containing the latest publications from Nick Royle's Nightjar Press - chapbooks, each containing a single uncanny story - and another came not long before I went away, this time two stories by Claire Massey. The uncanny needs sophisticated handling, not least to avoid that less-than-uncanny descent into the over-literal and the sensationalist presentation of macabre event either insufficiently or over-explicitly yoked to psychology, and in a whole imprint dedicated to the uncanny the results are therefore inevitably variable. But the idea of lovingly publishing short stories in a way that concentrates the attention on each one individually - the way they should be read, in my view - is a good one, and the chapbooks are indeed fine objects.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The life of books on the web

A great thing about the web is the way books can go on getting reviews long after publication. To my delight yesterday, four and a half years after Balancing on the Edge of the World came out, Bookersatz published a review by Claire Marriott.  She calls it 'an intense collection of stories' and finds the 'characterisations ... particularly vivid, ranging from comic to tragic but always retaining their believability'. I'm always immensely interested to find which are people's favourite stories in the collection - it's amazing how much that differs! - and this is what Claire says:
'My favourite pieces are Daniel Smith Disappears Off the Face of the Earth which contrasts one life-altering moment in the life of a teenage boy with “all the times and places in the history of the world” and Power, the haunting story of a young girl listening to her parent’s relationship fall apart.'

And of course people go on discussing books on the web on a more casual level. I was thrilled when a couple of days ago poet Steve Waling urged his Facebook friends to read The Birth Machine and called it 'really rather brilliant, deep dark and moving.' And once again it struck me how a book that was first published only for a women's market is now, on its republication by Salt, finding such favour with male readers.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A visit from Vanessa Gebbie with The Coward's Tale

Today I’m delighted to host Vanessa Gebbie who’s on a blog tour to celebrate the paperback publication of her novel, The Coward’s Tale, first published by Bloomsbury last November.

The Coward's Tale is the first novel from Vanessa, who is also the author of two vivid collections of short stories from Salt, Words from a Glass Bubble, and Storm Warning, as well the contributing editor of Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story (Salt).

The Coward’s Tale is a striking novel: set in a mid-century Welsh-Valleys mining town, it’s a mosaic of vivid stories concerning the inhabitants, told by the old beggar Ianto Jenkins to anyone who’ll listen. But there’s one story he hasn’t told, his own – until, that is, he’s finally prompted by his friendship with young Laddy Merridew, an unhappy little boy who has come to stay with his granny in the town. It’s a story which strikes at the heart of the town, concerning a disaster in the past, the collapse of the ironically named Kindly Light pit, and which, when he finally tells it, brings together all of the stories. It’s very clever, the way Vanessa brings together so many threads, and the novel is striking too for the distinctive voice in which it’s told – both demotic and lyrical, a voice that’s been compared to that of Dylan Thomas – and the sheer inventiveness of the tales, which, while concretely vivid, have something about them of magic or miracle.

This is a novel about the redemptive power of storytelling, and, inspired by its striking images and motifs, I asked Vanessa about her own considerable storytelling powers:


EB: Ianto Jenkins tells his stories to the cinema queue, but only if they’ll give him a toffee or two. ‘Stories need fuel, they do,’ he says. What is your fuel for telling stories, Vanessa, and what do you consider your reward?

VG: Hmm, interesting question. I think my main fuel for telling stories is firstly that I love stories - and maybe I am telling them to myself? But secondly the possibility that someone will listen to it, or read it. While I am writing, I rarely plot - so in a way the story is telling itself to me as I type alongside - and that can feel really exciting even though it doesn’t happen nearly often enough!  I want to share that sense of discovery with others. There is, for this writer, no point in writing for a filing cabinet, or a hard drive. Even if I was only given the opportunity to have work ‘out there’ years after I’d gone, I think I would still write - actually, it would be blissfully liberating. (Although someone would have to work out the payment issue while I was still around, please!)
My reward is feedback from readers. It doesn’t come often, in the form of written feedback, but I’ve been lucky enough to have a couple of letters from complete strangers who’ve read The Coward’s Tale -   and the fact that they have been moved to write and tell me how much they’ve loved it, is wonderful fuel.

But I also love toffees... and liquorish...just like Ianto.

EB: Me too re liquorish. I must say it all took me back to my own childhood in Wales when we were all the time dipping into bags of sweets (terrible for our teeth - and how did we ever manage to eat our meals?!). There was a real sense of authenticity about the book in terms of those details. My Welsh Mum read it too - I bought her a copy of the hardback for Christmas. And the detail that amazed her was the smell of the lead blacking when an oven heats up. She said she'd forgotten all about it and you brought it right back, and it was just so right in conjuring up the atmosphere of that time!


EB: Icarus Evans the Woodwork Teacher has striven all his life to do the seemingly impossible, to carve feathers out of wood so light they will float. (And, magically, in the story it turns out to be not so impossible.) The novel too has a magical quality, but I read that you worked hard, like Icarus, to perfect and polish the prose. How long did you work on this editing stage, and how much store do you set by that kind of editing graft when you write?

VG: Ah there is nothing magical about the answer to Icarus’s question, really.  The answers are under our noses, most of the time, we just don’t see them!
I finished the first complete draft in January 2010.  I’d reached my own limit, and needed help to polish and strengthen the structure, so it wouldn’t be just a ‘novel in stories’ much as I enjoy those, but a different beast. With an Arts Council Grant for the Arts, I was able to pay for a period of mentoring with the wonderful novelist Maggie Gee, whose own work is so beautifully structured and lucid, I knew I had a lot to learn from her.  She was (and is!) incredibly generous. We’d meet and she’d give painstakingly detailed feedback on the manuscript and I’d go off and work on it - I was very disciplined!  She might comment on the prose, and I’d always marched up and down  reading it out loud - so more of that got done.
In the end, every paragraph, every sentence, every space, got reassessed during that time, either by us both, or by me, in the course of the general revision.
When my agent sent the novel out, he said ‘they are either going to go for it as it is, or not at all...’ and he was right.  Because I’d worked so hard on edits over some nine months in the end, give or take (my Dad died in the middle, so there were some months were nothing much got done at all, I hope understandably...) there were not many tweaks to make when it came to preparing the manuscript  for publication with Bloomsbury.

I work hard at my writing, as I know you do. There was a time when I thought my early drafts were terrific, with a bounce and a buzz that was easy to kill with too much tinkering. But now, I’ve learned to approach editing in a more subtle manner, and hopefully, I don’t edit the life out as I go.


EB: Matty Harris, the Deputy Bank Manager, fishes obsessively in the river for the elusive big fish, while Half Harris, the ‘half-wit’ brother he won’t acknowledge, fishes for random objects. But it is Half Harris who catches the fish. How often does it happen for you that a story you’re writing is different from what you planned? Did that happen at all with this novel?

VG: Oh golly, constantly. I don’t plot and plan. I follow a vague shape, and see what happens to make the clay as it were, and I shape it later. As I said above, I see writing as telling myself a story. If I know what’s going to happen, why bother writing it?
I remember being told once, ‘if the writer isn’t surprised by the story, the reader sure as hell isn’t going to be...’ or words to that effect. That is so true!  But back to the editing question - I suppose the skill is to keep the surprise, whilst smoothing...


EB: There are some mysterious goings-on in the town, as well as some seemingly weird behaviour. James Little, the old Gas-Meter Emptier, digs his allotment by moonlight, and every year Judah Jones the Window Cleaner collects the silver leaves that fall from the trees in the park and disappears with them off into the church. While this makes them seem odd, even weird characters, both turn out to have very good reasons. How do you feel about your characters as you write?

 VG: I think people are endlessly interesting. Even the most seemingly ordinary people have oddities and quirks if you look closely enough.  As I write, I am very close to the characters. I care hugely about their predicaments - even though the predicaments are something I must have put them into.  I hang around until they’ve extricated themselves, like walking to the shops behind your four-year-old, hidden behind trees, just to make sure he’s OK. There are always reasons why people do things - reasons why we are as we are - one layer of The Coward’s Tale is peeling away that first layer, to show that, hopefully. It’s so easy to make a snap judgement about someone -  and usually, that leads to the wrong conclusion, don’t you think?

 EB: Most definitely. And the book definitely does that: pulls away those layers to show the sometimes surprising truth about people in moving ways.


EB: Bloomsbury made you a lovely musical map of the town, which can be seen and heard here - and which also appears in the paperback edition. How concrete a map of the town did you have in your head as you wrote? There’s also a theme of maps in the novel: can you comment on the significance of the fact that Tutt Bevan the Undertaker is looking for a straight line through the town, a true line that maps, with their complicated boundaries, can’t tell?

VG: Bless the lovely Alice Shortland at Bloomsbury, who came up with the idea, and put my husband and I through our paces over a whole weekend, while I tried to draw the street pattern I remembered from my childhood stays in Merthyr, and he played the artist! Basically, no - I had no map. I just wandered in my memory down real streets, into real kitchens, front rooms,  back gardens and parks. But  the memories of childhood places are shifted by time, aren’t they, and by competing memories. So in the end I put a note in the back to that effect. “I have moved mountains, I have shifted your streets,” basically - in case anyone got upset at what I’d done to their town.

It’s hard to comment and explain what Tutt is doing - in a way, explanation deadens it, possibly? All I know is, his grandfather dealt with a death by going on a journey - and Tutt is perhaps dealing with his own coming twilight (literally, too, as his sight is weak...) by trying to do the same?
But also - specifically talking about Tutt’s journey, don’t we try to iron out all the twists and turns of life, to make things simpler for ourselves? Like Icarus, he sets himself an impossible task. At the end of that tale - there is an answer, again, although maybe not what he was expecting!

Following a map stops us taking unexpected detours and discovering new places... that’s so true. Look at Sat Nav - half the time I have no idea where I’ve just driven. I’ve just gone where I have been told.


EB:  The old railway tunnel is the scene of another disaster, the death of a child, but also in the end the scene of closure for the bereaved mother. The novel doesn’t shrink from darkness, yet is full of humour and in the end redemption. Can you talk a bit about this, and the role of story-telling in overcoming grief?

VG: Life is a glorious mix of light and dark, isn’t it? I have great faith in the strength of the human spirit to make the best of things - but sometimes, don’t we need a bit of help to do that, in the form of a mirror, metaphorically, so we can see ourselves and our situation reflected back at us?  Stories are that mirror. In stories,  as we learn about characters, don’t we also learn about ourselves?

I have read in many learned places how stories are important as they teach us to empathise with others. Without them, we become centred on self, perhaps - I like to think the airing of the stories in The Coward’s Tale is one way in which the community begins to understand itself, and takes a step towards healing itself.

Howzat for philosophy?

Elizabeth, its been great - thank you so much for hosting a stop on the tour, and thanks for such searching questions. 

EB: And thank you so much, Vanessa, for stopping by and giving us such great insights into the process behind your very distinctive and moving novel.

Readers: do give yourselves a treat and read The Coward's Tale if you haven't already. And Bloomsbury are offering a free copy for one lucky winner: just say in the comments below if you'd like to be put in the draw.
If you don't win, or can't wait, it can be ordered from here.

The previous stop on Vanessa's tour was over on Jen Campbell's blog, and tomorrow she will be with Charles Lambert discussing the novel's story of a same-sex love and its theme of the elusive question of human happiness. Details of the complete tour can be found here).