Sunday, May 27, 2012

Avian distractions

I'm in Wales at the moment. I've been working on a short story and trying to write a review but I've been very distracted - not just by the beautiful weather but by this nest of baby crows right outside the house and above my writing window (you can see two in the pic, but there were four altogether). We first noticed them on Thursday, the morning after we got here, and it soon became clear that the parents were keeping away because of our sudden presence. As the day progressed, the babies became ever more noisy calling out for food, and when John and I sat outside in the hot sun to eat our lunch, three of them were leaning over in a row and calling to us! Worried that they'd starve, we decided to try and keep a low profile but by late afternoon there was still no sign of the parents, and the babies were getting frantic and beginning to climb up onto the sides of the nest. I was afraid both that they'd fall out and that the parents had abandoned them altogether, but after we went off out in the car for the evening the parents clearly returned. They kept away for much of the next day, Friday, but did sneak back now and then and the babies were calmer. At one point the cuckoo that's calling in the valley all day long descended into the tree with a clear eye on the nest, and a black shape appeared and made an arc around the area, and the cuckoo flew off: the parent crows were obviously keeping watch all the time.

In the late evening a huge wind came up and lasted all night, and it brought home what the nursery rhyme Rock-a-Bye Baby really refers to. The tree, an ash, was whipping and swaying, and the nest with it, bits of it falling away. When the wind woke me in the the early hours yesterday I could see that the mother bird was more or less sitting on top of the brood to stop them falling out. However, although the wind continued all day the babies were left alone again and we began to realise that the parents' absence may no longer be motivated by fear, and that the babies were ready to fly. No longer focused on the house doorway as they had been, the babies were calling towards a tree further up the field, where the parents were obviously stationed. They kept standing and flexing their wings and once again climbing up onto the edge of the nest, and now and then one would climb out on to the branch before dropping back in again. There came a point when we realised that there were fewer in the nest than there had been. As the day wore on the numbers dropped, and finally, half-way through the afternoon, there was only one left, calling and calling and not seeming to dare even to climb out. It took a long time, but in the end, at five o'clock, as I was sitting at my desk, a black rag-shape dropped down across my window, and the last fledgling landed on the slates in front of the house. It stood, wobbled, fell, righted itself and looked around with seeming huge interest. It set off wonkily up the grass in front of a low wall, found it was going nowhere, looked puzzled, then perkily set off in the opposite direction, stumbling and righting itself, and in a miraculously short space of time found the strength of its surprisingly long legs and was gone at speed up the side of the house in the direction of the tree from which the mother was calling.

So the nest is empty, and I find I'm missing them. Still, I've finished my review...

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Carys Bray reviews The Birth Machine

Having just discussed Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night with the reading group (yesterday's post) and considered the reasons that the revised edition has fallen out of favour, I was beginning to feel a little edgy about the revised edition of The Birth Machine, since, as blogger and writer Adrian Slatcher commented at the Manchester launch, by bringing Chapter 4 of the originally published version to the beginning, the new edition makes a very similar change to the one made to Fitzgerald's novel.

However, Carys Bray has now written an in-depth review of The Birth Machine showing how the current structure conveys the themes, and so I feel entirely vindicated. After all, it is how I wrote the book in the first place (see my Author's Note on the Salt website)...

Carys concurs with Lisa Glass's recent review in finding 'the masterful examination of "polite cowardice" compelling', and calls it 'a disturbing and thought-provoking meditation on power, control and the uncertain language of logic'.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Reading group: Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald

When John first suggested this book, the story of the disintegration of brilliant psychiatrist Dick Diver, married to wealthy psychiatric patient Nicole, he hadn't realised that there were two versions with radically differing beginnings - the first published in 1934, and a revised edition in 1948. On realising this, John quickly contacted everyone to suggest that we read the revised version. However, some people had already obtained and begun reading the original, which turned out to be more readily available, since - as it also turned out - the revised version has now fallen out of favour. The net result was that when the group convened, people had read different versions.

The first edition begins with the arrival of movie starlet Rosemary on the Riviera where Dick and Nicole Diver preside from their expensive villa over a seasonable fashionable community of expatriate pleasure-seeking Americans. The overall viewpoint is that of Rosemary who becomes infatuated with the Divers, falling immediately in love with Dick - and, encouraged by her mother, setting out to seduce him - and fascinated by Nicole's beauty and a mystery that surrounds her. At a party held by the Divers, another guest, Mrs McKiscoe, sees Nicole in some unspecified compromising situation, compromising enough for Mrs McKiscoe's lack of discretion to occasion a duel. Later, when Rosemary accompanies the Divers to Paris - her affair with Dick gathering apace - the mystery of what Mrs McKiscoe saw is uncovered for her. After this, Rosemary drops from the story and the narrative explains the background to the mystery by flashing back to Dick's early years in Zurich as a brilliant young up-and-coming psychiatrist and his first meeting with psychiatric patient Nicole. The events in their lives up to their present-day reign on the Riviera are then filled in, and having brought their story back up to date, the novel follows Dick's subsequent slow disintegration.

It seems that Fitzgerald worked on the book for many years, beginning at the height of the roaring twenties and initially intending a kind of post-war Vanity Fair type social-observation novel in which the American Dream turns to nightmare, conveyed via the downfall of the main protagonist. By the time the book was published, in 1934, the Depression had set in, and the book, seeming to be a depiction of a selfish moneyed class and a bygone era, was less well received than Fitzgerald's previous novels. Having already worked many versions of it - up to seventeen - he recorded in his journal suggestions for revisions to a future edition, and after his death his friend Malcolm Cowley carried these out in the revised edition of 1948. In this edition the section dealing with the early years in Zurich is moved to the beginning and the novel follows a strict chronological sequence. In his Introduction to that edition, Cowley outlines the improvements this makes. The first edition, as had been generally noted, lacked focus and fell into two disparate parts, the first seeming to be striving to be the social-realist novel that Fitzgerald originally intended, and the second, after the disappearance of Rosemary from the story, the more modernist psychological study of the disintegration of one man. In addition, as has often been pointed out, Rosemary is both too complicit with the values of the Riviera society and too excluded from the mystery at its heart to be its successful observer. The editorial change unifies the novel by structurally making Dick the focus from the beginning, and the novel becomes more properly psychological. As Henry Claridge points out, too, beginning the novel with Dick's early brilliance and professional success highlights more powerfully the irony of his downfall.

However, in his Introduction to the 1995 Worsdworth Classics reprint of the first edition, Claridge, while careful not to dismiss the arguments for Cowley's version, sets out arguments for the earlier version. Once we know the truth about Nicole and Dick, as we do from the start in the revised version, there is not the same mystery for the reader, and the narrative tension of the first part of the first edition is lost. When Rosemary appears well into the revised version, her mystified perspective is not shared by the more knowledgeable reader and can seem, with the attention given to it, like 'an intrusion and an irrelevance'. In addition, Claridge says, 'Nicole's mental illness is the more touching when refracted [as it is in the first edition] through Rosemary's perspective on the indulgent lifestyle of the American expatriate community'.

I was very interested to see if the two different versions had created correspondingly different opinions of the book among the group. Doug, who sent a message to say that he wasn't going to be able to make the meeting after all, must have been reading the early edition, as he said in the message that he didn't think the time-shift structure quite worked. He also felt that 'the whole thing feels like you're viewing it through the bottom of a glass - making some of the points I think Fitzgerald is trying to make on class, Americans / the Old World, war etc. just a bit fuzzy and imprecise', but in spite of that he was finding it 'hugely captivating and there's something pretty magical in the writing.'

I'm afraid, however, that although we had read different versions, not one of us present found it captivating or agreed with him about the magical quality of the writing, although we all agreed with his vivid description of seeming to view it all through the bottom of a glass. Every one of us found the prose contorted and imprecise, a shock to us after The Great Gatsby which we had loved and admired, and a reflection, presumably, of the contortions and changes of direction Fitzgerald had gone through in the writing.

Referring to this ridiculously overblown and illogical metaphor: 'Dick got up to Zurich on fewer Achilles' heels than would be required to equip a centipede, but with plenty', John kicked off his introduction by saying that he had as many good things to say about the prose style as a centipede has Achilles tendons, ie none. Ann immediately said, laughing, that she had noticed that metaphor too. It occurs in the first few pages of the early-years Zurich section, a section which is particularly clogged with overconscious, imprecise or laughably over-concrete metaphors, such as in this description of the face of a professor: 'beautiful under straight whiskers, like a vine-overgrown veranda of some old house.' Elsewhere there are other hilarious examples, such as the women in a car 'small and buoyed up by the power of a hundred superfluous horses', Nicole's 'brown back hanging from her pearls' and the travellers 'tracing down the hot sinister shin of the Italian boot.' Dick arrives among a group of women and 'brought with him a fine glowing surface on which the three women sprang like monkeys with cries of relief, perching on his shoulders, on the beautiful crown of his hat or the gold head of his cane.' The novel is scattered with other imprecisions: Nicole's sister crossing and recrossing her knees 'frequently in the manner of tall restless virgins' is not only hard to get your head around but doesn't in fact bear too much thinking about, especially as her sexuality or virginity is not exactly at issue in the context; there are the 'white mirrors of teeth', and people's nerves 'crackle suddenly like wicker chairs.' There is laugh-aloud clumsiness such as when Dick dives 'literally' into bed (at a moment intended as tense), and when, in another moment meant to be serious, Nicole kisses Dick several times, 'her face getting big every time she came close.' There are ugly adverbial locutions: 'conciliatingly' (at least twice), 'exteriorly' and 'muscularly' (this last within dialogue!). Worst of all, though, are the overblown, abstract and convoluted sentences which seem hardly to make sense, and which John in his introduction said he thought were an attempt to imitate D H Lawrence at his worst - and Lawrence is indeed name-checked in the book. Everyone said they'd had problems with them; most said they had frequently had to go back and re-read them, though Trevor said he often ended up skipping and reading on. In the first edition there are even malapropisms (corrected in the revised edition but replicated in subsequent reprintings of the first edition): palpable for palatable and cervical for cortex (of the brain), slippages which reinforce the notion that, as Ann pointed out, Fitzgerald was befuddled and distracted at the time of writing by alcoholism and his wife Zelda's madness. The worst section in these ways is the early-years Zurich section, which gives the revised version an impenetrable beginning. This was the version which John, Chris, Ann and I had read (Trevor and Jo had read the first published version), and both Chris and I had had several times to go back and start reading the book again before we had got very far. Ann and I thought it highly likely that this was one reason that the revised edition had fallen out of favour. Ann said that if it hadn't been for her admiration of The Great Gatsby she wouldn't have gone on reading this, and several people agreed.

John noted that the point of view was very dodgy. This is particularly noticeable in the Rosemary section, I'd say, since it doesn't consistently take Rosemary's perspective but shifts in seemingly random ways between characters (and sometimes within the same paragraph), creating the lack of focus that has been generally noted. (It also seems to me that moving from Rosemary's mystification about Nicole to Dick's perspective, and at least once to Nicole's, without revealing the mystery must make the whole seem somewhat tricksy in the first edition, and reduce the dramatic power in that edition for which Claridge argues.) There is also a lot of telling and not showing with regard to characters' personalities and feelings, without any indication of why they are as they are and feel as they do, leading to the sensation for the reader that Doug described of being at a distance from everything. We are several times told that characters are wearing strange expressions without those expressions being described. John said it was a great irony that in a book about a psychiatrist there is so little psychological insight, in particular on the part of the psychiatrist Dick, whom in fact one can view as a paedophile: he has affairs with two seventeen-year-old girls (Nicole then Rosemary) and is later involved in a sexual situation with a fifteen-year-old patient, and, in keeping with a typical paedophile's attitude, he is chased by them, it's never his fault - and there appears to be no authorial irony about this.

In fact, John said, the whole idea of Dick being a psychiatrist is risible. He arrives in Zurich with a scintillating reputation as a practitioner and having already written a widely admired and adopted textbook, but more or less newly qualified and without any of the necessary training and experience (and also having served time in the army during the war as an administrator rather a practising doctor). In reality, to have reached that stage he'd have had to have followed a general medical degree with further study of neurology, further study of psychiatry, about five years of personal analysis (as did Freud's pupils) and many years of clinical practice. And as Jo and Trevor said, how has he got time to go on writing his books, as, according to the narrative, he is doing, when he spends most of his days bumming about on the beach and partying with the fast set. It's clear that, due to the obvious autobiographical nature of the novel - like Dick, Fitzgerald achieved sudden fame and then married a much younger and wealthy woman with psychiatric problems - Fitzgerald was really painting a portrait of himself. This would also account for the fact that, although there are moments of sharp irony, not enough of it appears to be directed towards Dick's fatal complicity with the wealthy and decadent society his marriage introduces him to.

This last is clearly what gave rise to objections to the book on its first publication, objections which our group couldn't help sharing, Jo especially. We were unanimously alienated by the casual cruel snobberies and selfish and high-handed behaviour of the characters, which often went seemingly unremarked by the narrative: the constant reference to 'types', both 'higher' and 'lower', that the characters would or would not want to associate with, the fact that servants are worthy of notice only when they are 'shiftless' or found drinking the wine, the casual witty dinner conversation about what would be inside a waiter if you dissected him ('Old menus ... pieces of broken china and tips and pencils stubs'), the easy and taken-for-granted way that on two occasions Dick pays off the police to protect reputations.  And as for Nicole: as John pointed out, it seems that her 'madness' consists merely of being upset when she realises that her husband is involved with another woman and in being the only person to get upset when a man, who happens to be black, is found dead on Rosemary's hotel bed! (Dick, as someone in the group pointed out, seems to find Nicole's reaction to this last far more remarkable and a far greater matter for concern than the discovery of the body, which he characterises as 'only some nigger scrap'.) After Nicole receives a letter informing her that Dick has seduced a fifteen-year-old patient and confronts Dick with it, his behaviour seems astonishingly reprehensible. The narrative informs us, without any irony that we could pick up, that Dick was not at all to blame, the girl had tried to seduce him, and all he had done was kiss her! In front of their children, Dick orders Nicole to pull herself together and initiates an immediate family outing. Nicole's distraught behaviour during the outing, which from our perspective seemed natural reaction, is then proof to Dick that she must be institutionalised once more in a psychiatric hospital. In this episode the narrative seems to share Dick's view of himself as hard-done-to and of Nicole as his unfair burden. Nicole's final recovery at the end of the novel involves her rejection of Dick (marriage to whom had originally been seen as her cure) and this is seen, quite straightforwardly it seemed to us, as his tragedy.

John did say, however, that awful as he thought the book was, he found it fascinating, and several of us agreed. Ann said she found it extremely interesting as a depiction of the way those moneyed classes behaved as they travelled around Europe in that era, and I strongly concurred. Finally Trevor said that although he shared all the criticisms, he nevertheless enjoyed reading the book.

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

Monday, May 07, 2012

Bookshops I love: Bath Waterstone's

 And here is The Birth Machine on its Fiction shelves. (See why I love it?):

I nipped over to Bath from Bristol on Friday. I'd never been there before, but ever since reading Persuasion and Mansfield Park in my teens, I've had a strong image of it in my head. And, inevitably, I suppose, it turned out to be different from my  image, the architecture much grander and more imposing. Was I influenced by the neatness and economy of Austen's prose, and her intimate human perspective, I wonder? See what happens when you view life through books?

Tomorrow I'm off to a school in north Manchester to talk to three classes about my story 'Compass and Torch' which is on the syllabus of the GCSE English exam they're about to sit. (You can find the story online or in my collection, Balancing on the Edge of the World). I'm finding it a bit strange, quite frankly, thinking about my own work in the necessary analytic terms, the whole process of writing being far more intuitive than people often guess. And, as Mark from the reading group said when I met him in the supermarket last night, I'd have a devil of a job to come anywhere near the brilliant teaching podcast about the story made by teachers Andrew Bruff and Ollie Hayne.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

The launch of Tania Hershman's new collection

 Just back from a weekend in Bristol where John and I went for the fabulous launch of a new book by my very good writing friend Tania Hershman: My Mother Was an Upright Piano: Fictions, a wonderful collection of 56 flash stories, published by Tangent Books. Loads of us crowded the lovely Arnolfini bookshop to snap up the piles of this beautiful book and hear Tania read a few of the stories.

Tania's writing has a winning surreality, great wit and lyrical rhythm, and combines the vividly particular with the profoundly universal. Plus, she's a pretty brilliant reader. So we were hugely entertained (and moved):

It was great, too, to meet Calum Kerr, National Flash Fiction Day Supremo, and Joe Melia who runs the Bristol Short Story Prize.

We were generously wined and canaped by Tania's publisher, Richard Jones, who in his appreciative introduction spoke of the need to support our independent bookshops. A smashing evening with a great buzz, and I'm really looking forward to reading the book!

Lots more pics on Tania's own blog here.