Monday, December 22, 2014

New story publication

Great news yesterday that my story 'Looking for the Castle' is to be included in Unthology 7, due from Unthank Books in the summer. Editor Ashley Stokes had been deciding between two of my stories and this is the one he has finally plumped for, and I'm pleased, as it's by far the more complex of the two, another of the stories in which I've tried to do something more ambitious in the short story form than previously. ('Clarrie and You', which Unthank also published [Unthology 5] was another). One of the strange paradoxes of my writing life is that sometimes the things I've found easiest (and quickest) to write have been the easiest to publish or broadcast, and have received the most acclaim. Sometimes, I know, this is just because the thing happened to work right from the start, and the ease of conception comes out in the writing, but there's often the sneaking suspicion that the ease comes from, not exactly superficiality, but familiarity: a reliance on tried and tested codes. In these instances I feel that the reason the thing was so easily accepted was because I was writing into a borrowed reality - other people's, rather than my own. Then I feel I've cheated myself and my deeper aim in writing, which is precisely to question the ready-made realities.

The short story form is famously capable of exposing ambiguity and uncertainty, but there's also a danger of using its compactness to shut things down, to present a satisfying (but ultimately stifling) take on the world. In 'Clarrie and You' I wanted to show precisely how any 'take' on the world can be mistaken, and in order to do that I had to include a convoluted plot involving a secret, a real challenge for the short story form. 'Looking for the Castle' is similar, but this time it's not a secret creating a false view but the difficulties of memory and lack of understanding. It was one of the hardest
of my stories to write, and I'm hugely grateful to both Gerard Donovan, who judged the 2014 Short Fiction Prize and chose it as runner-up, and now to Ashley Stokes, for seeing what I was trying to do.

Crossposted to Fictionbitch.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Lovely new review of Too Many Magpies

It's a funny, once you start a new novel all your eggs are in the new basket, and you're striving to achieve things you feel you haven't achieved before, so the novels you wrote previously tend to fade in your own estimation. And then you come across a lovely review of one of the earlier ones, and it's like realising you've been taking a loved one for granted. Here's what Amazon reviewer Rachel Smart says about Too Many Magpies:
This rather slim book holds such depth and human truth that it's unnerving. I've read 'Too Many Magpies' numerous times since June because I'm bowled over by the sheer craft of the words and the quiet stalk of its narrative structure. The arrangement of language is beautiful - detailed yet spare and sets scientific fact up against the modern moralities and myths of an organic life style. There is breathtaking illumination of the innate maternal fears that mothers suffer, and the dark anxiety that gnaws at the main character makes every other book I've read recently wither into insignificance. The writer, Elizabeth Baines has a clear narrative reign on the most deep-rooted issues in a woman's psyche. It's quite simply a stunning read and this is one of the most accomplished pieces of work I've read in the last few years.

What? She's read it numerous times since June?! It's one of the most accomplished pieces of work she's read in the last few years? It makes every other book she's read recently wither into insignificance? Well, wow: I don't think you could get a better review than that, not in my view anyway. You know, it's just so wonderful to know when a book you've written touches someone that much, and I'm so grateful to her for telling others that it has.

And there's another Amazon review of Magpies I hadn't seen before: 'Silly01' calls the book
Unique, harrowing and highly original. This book deserves more publicity, it had a long-lasting impact on me, though it was not a quick read, you have to take your time to absorb the beautiful language and the emotions.

 They've both made my Christmas, basically.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Catch up

The family issues keep on distracting me from my blogs (and from writing - which is dreadful!), so some of the interesting events I've attended this autumn just haven't got reported here. One thing I should have blogged about (I did take notes, because I intended to) was a Manchester Literature Festival reading with Martin Amis and Nick Laird, which I did find very interesting. (It was one occasion when Amis proudly called himself a Philo-Semite, for which he's since been criticised on the grounds that it's racist to characterise a people as all good, as well as to characterise it as all bad). Amis is always very listenable to, and of course his prose is vivid and rhythmically flawless. I was very struck, too, by the sense of a lot of what Nick Laird said about literature and writing.

Another was the launch of Carys Davies's superb second collection of short stories from Salt, The Redemption of Galen Pike, a lovely evening held at Daunt Books in Holland Park. Many of the stories in this book have won or have been long- or shortlisted in major awards, such as the V S Pritchett and Society of Authors awards, the Manchester Writing Prize, the EFG Sunday Times award and others. Carys's writing is taut and vivid, with both a mythic quality and a touching insight into human frailty. I strongly recommend her book.

I thoroughly enjoyed two very recent events. Last week at Edge Hill University, C D Rose and Edge Hill Prize winning Kevin Barry gave truly stimulating readings. C D Rose's book, The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure (Melville House), is a brilliant compendium of talented but failed writers (and a rebuttal of the assertion that 'talent will out'). Fact or fiction? Well, it's not immediately clear, and that of course is the point: if, through external circumstances, you disappear from literary history or never make it in the first place, you may as well be fictional. Innovatively, before he read the first entry, C D Rose read the Index of the book, which sounded like a long poem and was both hilarious and moving. Kevin Barry read 'Fjord of Killary', a story from his Edge Hill Prize winning collection Dark Lies the Island (Cape). His reading was so animatedly brilliant that I wondered if the story would stand up to my scrutiny when I read it on the page, but it certainly did - as did all the others in his wonderful collection.

Here are the two writers in the Q & A afterwards with convener Ailsa Cox (C D Rose on the left and Kevin Barry in the centre):

The next evening I was at Halle St Peter's in Manchester, the beautiful Ancoats church with its elegant airy interior converted as a rehearsal space for the Halle orchestra. The event I was attending was part of the project Different Spirit, a series of installations and events curated by Helen Wewiora and produced by Julie McCarthy, Creative Director of 42nd Street, a charity working with young people under stress. This was a musical event, titled Local Recall, and the culmination of work done by Open Music Archive artists Eileen Simpson and Ben White with the 42nd Street young people in the Ancoats area and Unity Radio. Simpson and White work to explore the potential of public domain material, and for this project they revisited the free art, music and lectures that were available to the Ancoats public from the late 1880s. Using piano player rolls, the young people had remixed, cut up, looped and re-assembled Victorian popular songs, and this was what we first heard when we arrived and milled about the church - very impressive. Then there were two live piano recitals: first, musician Serge Tebu took Victorian popular songs as starting points for jazz improvisation and then recent RNCM graduates Calum McLeod and Liam Waddle played new music they had composed using the remixes made by the 42nd Sreet young people - really quite stunning.

 Finally, after the break, we saw a breathtaking film made by Simpson and White using out-of-copyright footage and making haunting visual connections between the inner workings of a player piano, Edwardian mill scenes, and mid-twentieth-century Ancoats streets. The film was accompanied by a live sound track specially commissioned from Graham Massey, founding member of 808 State, composed and played by him on the night using exclusively 1990s technology. A really startling and moving evening, which the large audience greatly appreciated.

Artists Eileen Simpson and Ben White talk about the project.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Reading group: Turbulence by Chico Buarque

It's some time now since we discussed this book, Trevor's suggestion, and my main memory, now that the discussion has receded in time, is that although we all found it a very quick and even compulsive read, most of us said that in the end we weren't left particularly affected by it. I have to say though that, looking back, the events of the book, and its atmosphere, have stayed with me quite vividly.

In fact, those events are not easy to relate, since right from the outset there is doubt as to whether all of them really happen, or whether at least some of them are merely possibilities imagined by the first-person narrator, a disaffected young man from a moneyed family who spends the novel more or less in a state of flight through a city of corruption, violence and uncertainty that is clearly the author's home city of Rio de Janeiro. Told in a breathless and immediate present tense that takes the reader right into the action, and in a riffing prose that recalls the author's earlier career as a jazz musician, the novel opens as the unnamed narrator spies an unwanted visitor through the door of his flat. Immediately we are in the realm of uncertainty and paranoia. To begin with, the narrator doesn't know who the visitor can be; we just know that he has cause to worry. Finally, as the unanswered visitor turns away, the narrator recognises him: someone from his past he doesn't want to see. The reader doesn't find out the visitor's identity, however: what's at issue is the narrator's paranoia - justified or unjustified (we just don't know) - as he watches the visitor walk away in the street below. The fact that he doesn't look up tells the narrator that the visitor knows he's being watched, which in turn means he knows the narrator is there, which means the narrator needs to escape immediately. As he does so, dressing quickly and leaving, he imagines the visitor stopping his taxi and rushing back to catch him out, a scenario so lengthy and detailed that it has the ring of reality, and indeed likelihood. Thus is established the novel's unique and disorienting mode of slippage between actuality and possibility, and its theme of the thin line between the two - the loss of control and the reality of awful possibility when social order breaks down. We follow the narrator as (escaping his unwanted visitor) he travels to his rich sister for money, tries escape to the farm where he was happy as a child only to find it taken over by criminal squatters whom in turn he must escape, steals jewels from his sister and gets involved in a police heist back at the farm.

The trouble was, our group found unsatisfying the lack of certainty about the events created by both this slippage and the fast pace which made us feel that we were reading too quickly and missing things. I don't think it was clear to any of us what actually happened at the farm in the end - who was who, who was tricking who - but several of us said that in the end we didn't care, not because it didn't matter, but because we had basically lost any emotional investment in the narrator's plight. Clare said she thought that part of the problem was that the prose takes us so deeply inside the unthinking narrator's head: there's no sense of an author distanced from the narrator's psyche and judging it or setting it in context. We had to acknowledge however that immediately after its publication in Brazil the novel sold over 130,000 copies, and that our reaction was probably a Western cultural thing: we like the rational and the certain and a more logical sense of consequence. And, as Ann said, we want redemption, which the ending of this novel, terrible and madly random, certainly doesn't provide.

Even Trevor, who had suggested this book with great enthusiasm, had found it less than satisfying; nevertheless, he said he would now try other books by Buarque, although I'm afraid everyone else said they wouldn't.

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

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Best British Short Stories 2014 event at Edge Hill

Last night we had a most enjoyable event for Best British Short Stories 2014, organised at Edge Hill University by fellow contributor Ailsa Cox. Also reading were Claire Dean, Vicki Jarrett and Richard Knight (Richard arriving by the skin of his teeth after getting stuck in the rush hour on the M58!) It was very interesting to hear about the journey of the others' stories into this anthology, and great to hear them read aloud. I'm afraid the photos aren't so hot - I made John use my phone which he'd never used before and didn't get the hang of in time - but I thought I'd stick them in just to give some sense of it all.

Vicki (above) told us that her story, 'Ladies' Day',  first appeared in an anthology from enterprising Scottish independent publisher Freight before being picked up for BBSS by series editor Nicholas Royle. It's an account of a group of housebound young mums attempting with a day at the races to escape the inevitable sense of being sidelined (and stereotyped) in their role - amusing yet also very touching.

It turned out that Claire's story, 'Glass, Bricks, Dust', had its first outing in an academic publication: she had been asked to write a modern fairy story (this is her specialty) along with an essay explaining her process and rationale. The story, concerning a young boy playing on a pile of demolition rubble and a mysterious lamppost on which a host of black birds perch, is indeed a fairytale, yet, as we discussed in the brief Q and A at the end, there's also something very concrete about it, and a strong sense of the reality of place - an affecting combination that characterises her work generally.

Ailsa's haunting 'Hope Fades for the Hostages' was originally commissioned for an anthology accompanying an exhibition at the Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool on the theme of night-time. It's an impressive orchestration of the viewpoints of three separate people awake at the same time in the night and caught with the thoughts that 3 am brings - very tense, and very moving.

Richard's story, 'The Incalculable Weight of Water' brings to vivid life a reservoir on Saddleworth Moor as the lone protagonist thinks of his wife in the cafe below waiting tensely for important news, and comes upon something unexpected in the water. It was first published online as a result of being shortlisted in the Manchester Writing Competition.

My story, 'Tides, or How Stories Do or Don't get Told', was first published online in The View From Here (now sadly discontinued). I'd been at Edge Hill last week for a reading by the brilliant Kevin Barry, winner of the 2013 Edge Hill Prize for the short story, and he said at one point during the Q & A that he isn't so keen on the well-rounded story with a satisfying ending, since life just isn't like that. As I said last night, I tend to agree, and the more I write the more strongly I hold that view. This particular story, which begins with the narrator struggling to tell a story based on a single memorised moment - a moment when she and her partner stand watching the tide come in - is actually about that idea.

There was a brief Q & A when we discussed the importance of place in stories. There was general acknowledgement that naming a setting can help readers imagine and identify, but Vicki and I both said that we tend not to if we can help it, because of the danger of, on the one hand, readers bringing ready-made connotations that are not necessarily useful to a story, and, on the other, of creating a sense of exclusion for readers who aren't familiar in life with a place. We were all agreed, however, that atmosphere was important, and a strong sense of place (named or unnamed) creates it.

Here are some of us milling in the interval:

Thanks so much to Ailsa, to our editor Nicholas Royle, and of course to our publishers Salt. And last, but not least, to the audience.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Reading group: Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

This was one of those rare occasions when those present were unanimous in praise of a book. A short novel, Voyage in the Dark deals with the story of Anna, brought to England from the West Indies at the age of eighteen by her stepmother after her father's death, and then abandoned in a strange cold country to make her own way, uneducated and deprived of the family money. Starting off as a chorus girl in a touring company, she soon falls into financial dependence on a man who is only amusing himself with her sexually, and drifts perforce from there into a kind of high-class prostitution, destitution and despair.

Although it was written in 1934, and set in 1914, we were hugely impressed by how very much ahead of its time it was both in the issues it addresses and in its prose style. As Mark, who had suggested the book, said, it exposes the hypocrisy of an upper-class Edwardian society in which sexual exploitation of women was the norm, and the contempt for women in general and their lowly status within families, and touches on postcolonial issues long before they were widely addressed - as Creole, Anna is both seen as exotic and despised. But all of this is conveyed in an entirely non-explicit way via Anna's first-person narration, which simply replicates her experience as the events unfold, relating only what people say and do and Anna's feelings as events overtake her. There's an apparent simplicity to the prose that echoes her innocence, and perhaps her lack of status and power, but in fact it's very sophisticated. It's economical rather than simple and, as the novel progresses, slips seamlessly into Anna's memories of the West Indies, her lost paradise (though of course the place where the seeds of her doom were set), often without punctuation, in a way that re-creates the fluid thought processes of memory. Therefore the novel is chiefly psychological - and thus very modern - creating layers of consciousness which the reader shares, and the effect is very powerful. In my view, too, to make a reader share the experience of oppression - as Toni Morrison also does - is in addition very political.

However, perhaps because of the lack of explication, John had wondered to me beforehand if Rhys had actually been aware of the significance of the issues raised by her story, which is famously autobiographical. Mark was in no doubt that she was, and spoke of Anna's bitter understanding of what was happening to her, and why. There was some demurring here: Jenny thought Anna was hugely innocent: she seems to have no idea of the shallow designs upon her of the man she first takes up with, Walter Jeffries, and can't see, as the present-day reader can, the signs that he's about to throw her over. But as Mark, said, Anna learns. However, because of that lack of explicitness, those lessons are only implicit, unvoiced, which I'd say creates a powerful sense of the trap that Anna, and women in her situation, are in - a social trap and a trap of silence.

Ann expressed amazement that the book had never been popular - before the years-later publication of Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea (which we discussed here), it had fallen out of print, and has never since achieved the same popularity. Ann thought that this was because people simply don't want to confront the issues it raises, and the feelings of discomfort and loss and depression that it so accurately (and beautifully) recreates. I said that I didn't think I'd ever read another book showing so accurately - or even at all - the feelings one has when one is despised simply for being a woman, and everyone agreed. Jenny and I said we could remember the deflation we felt, at a much later date in history, when we were young and men treated us, as they do Anna, with sneering amusement, but none of us could think of other novels that acknowledged that, not even self-consciously feminist ones that tend rather to depict women's anger or attempt redress by portraying women as powerful.

Doug now said that the one negative thing he would say was that he found the book depressing, and Ann and I agreed that we had too, but for none of us did this detract from our huge appreciation of it, and even Trevor, who had expected not to like it since he'd hated Wide Sargasso Sea, said he'd found it wonderful.

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

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Anniversary prize draw results

Congratulations to the winners of my anniversary draw, to each of whom a copy of one of my Salt books will be winging its way:

Balancing on the Edge of the World: Pratibha Veronica Castle and Fran Slater

Too Many Magpies: Char March and Sarah Schofield

The Birth Machine: mrcc and Frances

Winners: please email me via my profile with your address, so that I can get your book in the post asap.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Wish Dog arrives

A lovely parcel at the door this week: my author copies of The Wish Dog, ghost stories from Honno Press, which includes my story, 'A Matter of Light' - arriving just as the weather turns cold and wet and you need the electric light on halfway through the afternoon: just the weather for tucking up by the fire with a good book of spooky stories! Here they are, just unpacked, on my desk. The book's available here.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

The Short Review looks at Unthology 5 and 'Clarrie and You'

Horrible rainy day - first real day of autumn, but I'm cheered no end by a lovely new review of Unthology 5 on The Short Review, which says some lovely things about my story, 'Clarrie and You', and the anthology as a whole. Sarah Schofield calls the book 'a glittering collection' and offers 
A huge credit to editors Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones that selection seems to be based on whether a story sings, not on who wrote it. Following a highly acclaimed backlist of Unthank anthologies, I believe Unthology 5 is the strongest to date.

Of 'Clarrie and You' she says:

My favourite story is Elizabeth Baines’ Clarrie and You. Rich with multifaceted believable characters, it explores deep held secrets and misunderstandings. The protagonist, Olive, reflects back on the complex relationship she has with her sister, Clarrie. Baines’ deft touch and acutely observed detail of family relationships make it a story with layers waiting to be undone;
"There are things you don’t want to remember, because doing so makes you guilty, after all these years and at your time of life, of ridiculous sibling rivalry."
The second person narration works brilliantly in both intensifying the reader’s involvement in the story and yet simultaneously feeling somewhat accusatory. We empathise with the slights Olive perceives but there are moments when we’re not entirely certain whose side to fall on. The story offers new subtleties with every read.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Anniversary giveaway

How can it be this warm on the 1st October? And in August in Wales I needed a scarf and gloves! It feels right, though, as 1st October will always be a special date for me - the date that my story collection, Balancing on the Edge of the World, and my novel Too Many Magpies were published, as well as the date of publication of the first edition of my novel The Birth Machine.

To celebrate, once again I'm giving away two copies of each of the three books published by Salt. If you want a chance to win one (or more), please leave a message below, email me through this website, or message me on Facebook or Twitter before the end of next Wednesday (8th) when the names will be drawn from a hat. Please say which book(s) you'd like to be entered for - but remember, even if you've read them, those lovely Salt physical books make great Christmas presents!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Wish Dog let loose and a ride on a flying banquette

Today is publication day for The Wish Dog, a book of ghost stories by Welsh women which I'm delighted to say includes my story, 'A Matter of Light'. Very exciting, and in plenty of time for Halloween! Mine's a kind of strange reverse ghost story, and I wrote about my inspiration for it here. If, as I do, you like a spooky thrill, the book's available here.

If you don't know about Sharon Zink,  you really ought to, though maybe you have an excuse because she hasn't been writing all that long. She's the author of the sparky Welcome to Sharonville (Unthank Books), recently nominated as a Readers' Choice for the Guardian First Book award, and picked out by judge Richard Lea for special mention. Sharon's as sparky as her writing -  I met her at the Unthank event in June when Unthology 5 and Welcome to Sharonville were launched, and we both read. She runs a very witty series of interviews with writers, called The Book Diner, and she invited me then to be interviewed for it. I was delighted to accept. Her interview questions are, as I might have expected, both witty (they involve a flying Diner Banquette), and usefully to the point - Sharon has an entertaining habit of interspersing one's answers with her own thoughts. You can read my interview here.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Writing and Life

Sometimes life just gets in the way of writing. This summer, mainly due to family matters, I've done no writing whatsoever, and, having already neglected both of my blogs last winter through writing furiously, I have failed too to get back to them properly. Now summer is over, and I discover my head has been rearranged by all that has happened. Although at Easter I thought the manuscript I was working on was almost completed - I had sent it out to my first readers - it now seems all wrong. This so often happens, I find: if you don't properly complete a project before you have to leave it, it can seem to crumble away: either you come back to it wondering what the heck it was all about, or you find, as I'm doing at the moment, that though you're still obsessed with it, you want to rework it radically. Things have happened in the meantime to adjust your insights entirely. Life, eh? But then how could we have it any other way: what would we write about if we didn't write about life?

Anyway, I'm jumping back in the saddle now, and just as well, since things are kicking off again. Next Saturday I'll be reading at The Worda one-day festival for writers which will take place at The Continental, Preston (above). I'll be taking part in one of the day's events, an Unthank session  at which publisher Robin Jones will talk, and Sarah Dobbs, author of the Unthank novel Killing Daniel, will also read. Unthank are an amazingly generous publisher - publishing new and established authors with little regard to anything but literary excellence (for their Unthology short-story series there are no fake and limiting restrictions on theme, word-count or style) - and I think any writer should jump at the chance of listening to Robin. (I'm very grateful that Unthank have published two of my stories, in Red Room and Unthology 5, and delighted to say that another will be in Unthology 7, to be published next summer.) The whole day looks very stimulating. Tickets (for the day, including lunch and refreshments), are £20 and you can buy them here. There'll be a book stall and authors attending the festival are invited to bring copies of their latest publication to sell.

Thursday (18th) is the day that The Wish Dog becomes available, a new anthology of ghost stories from Honno press, which includes my story, 'A Matter of Light' - the first proper ghost story I've ever written, I think! I do like a good ghost story (who doesn't?) and I'm very much looking forward to reading the other stories in the book.

And now to get back to that manuscript (and the critical work I've got lined up)...

Saturday, August 30, 2014

New review of Unthology 5

There's a very nice new review of Unthology 5 from Thea Hawlin of The Siren.

She says, 'The editor’s introduction to this fifth edition of Unthology asks a simple question "Can I write?" The resounding answer is yes, you can write on anything and everything, the only rule is that you have to write it well, and the writers collected in this anthology exemplify this with verve. The range of voices and scenarios is impressive. If you’re looking for a simulating, unexpected and ultimately inspiring collection of short stories that will jolt you into seeing the world and the art of storytelling in a different way; read this collection and you won’t be disappointed.'

Of my story, 'Clarrie and You', she says that its use of the second person 'impresses with striking immediacy'.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Reading group: The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

This 1950 novel, Doris Lessing's first, opens with a newspaper article entitled 'Murder Mystery' starkly reporting the murder of Rhodesian farmer's wife Mary Turner by her houseboy who has confessed to the crime. The first chapter then goes on to filter through the puzzled viewpoint of a putative outsider the hush-hush reaction of the local community to the event, before moving back to the hours in which the death was discovered and dealt with by the local Sergeant and, more directly, by the somewhat bullying neighbouring farmer, Charlie Slatter. Here the narration takes a more clearly - or apparently - omniscient stance, entering the mind of the Turners' young managerial farming assistant, Tony Marston, only recently employed and arrived from England, but, while authorially knowing in tone, continues to withhold from the reader the precise workings of the minds of the other two men. Thus we share Marston's puzzlement at the reaction of the other two men to Mary's corpse. He clearly knows that the murder has resulted from some unusual relation between Mary and her houseboy Moses (though the narrative also withholds precisely what he knows), but feels silenced about it and frustrated that they appear to insist on a more mundane explanation. Most of all he is shocked that they clearly regard Mary with hatred and distaste - '[an] almost hysterical look of hate and fear' - all their sympathies being for her husband, Dick. Finally, however, as the first chapter comes to a close, the narration spells out what we are told Marsden will come to understand after some time in Rhodesia, before he succumbs to the denial necessary for surviving as an accepted member of white South African society:
Mary Turner ... had let the side down. But even she, since she was dead, was no longer a problem. The one fact that remained still to be dealt with was the necessity for preserving appearances ... it was 'white civilization' fighting to defend itself that had been implicit in the attitude of Charlie Slatter and the Sergeant, 'white civilization' which will never, never admit that a white person, and most particularly, a white woman, can have a human relationship, whether for good or evil, with a black person. For once it admits that, it crashes, and nothing can save it. So, above all, it cannot afford failures, such as the Turners' failure.
Even before the murder, the Turners are failing the 'white civilization'. This is spelled out early on in the chapter as the Turners are introduced to us. We will learn later that Dick is a failing farmer, and we are told at the outset that the Turners, in their crumbling shanty-like house, are too much like 'poor whites' for comfort:
'Why, some natives (though not many, thank heavens) had houses as good; and it would give them a bad impression to see white people living in such a way ... [The Turners] apparently did not recognise the need for esprit de corps; that, really, was why they were hated.'
The first chapter ends with an account of Marston's subsequent career, a low-key descent to the office work he left England to escape, its ending having the form and minor key of a completed sad story. The sadness is associated with Marston, and it appears at this point that the murder has been displaced and wiped away narratorially in just the way that the white Rhodesian community has done. Earlier, however, as Marston struggles with the manner and approach of the Sergeant and Slatter, he thinks: '...the important thing, the thing that really mattered ... was to understand the background, the circumstances, the characters of Dick and Mary, the pattern of their lives', and the second chapter begins what constitutes the bulk of the book: a retracing of Mary's trajectory from infanthood to her murder.

It's a tale of a childhood of hardship - a drunken railway-official father, the loss to dysentery of siblings, an embittered and grieving mother - replaced and indeed wiped away by the enjoyable and freeing experience of boarding school and then life as a working single woman in a small town. But although Mary with her ordered life and wide social circle now thinks of herself as happy, she is clearly damaged: she can't make close relationships, is repelled by sex and shows other signs of immaturity. By the age of thirty she is still wearing 'little-girl' style clothes and prolonging the experience of boarding school by living in the Girl's Club. In other words, she is a misfit, which (in the name of esprit de corps) she cannot be allowed to be, and indeed is afraid of being. Succumbing therefore to the inevitable pressures of her social circle, she hastily and unwisely marries Dick Turner, who takes her back to the rural isolation and hardship she once escaped. We then follow - for the greater bulk of the book - her descent into depression as her relationship with Dick proves arid and the farm fails and the couple sink further and further into poverty.

Ann, who had suggested the book, said that the main word that summed up her impression of it was 'relentless', and everyone murmured agreement. Mary's hardship on the farm, and her emotional deprivation and alienation, are of course relentless, and her sense of the relentlessness of the climate, the hot sun beating down on the uninsulated roof of the house, is vividly created. However, there was a sense too that everyone in the group had found the book itself - and the experience of reading it - relentless. People had also been left uncomfortable about its politics: although it is clearly meant as a criticism of apartheid, people felt that there were blind spots, perhaps inevitable since, as Ann said, Lessing was after all a product of the regime she was trying to critique. Jenny said she had wondered if the fact that Moses ends up murdering Mary was, in spite of the author's intentions to critique, a capitulation to the stereotype of the native espoused by the South African white community (ie natives just murder, rape and steal), and others had uncomfortably wondered this too.

John commented on the narrative mode of the book, which is very much 'tell not show'. He felt it was more of an essay than a novel: Mary's situation and psychology are explained to us, with little dramatisation, ie without dialogue and action. (He pointed to one rare moment of dramatisation in the impersonal and objective account of Mary's progress and downfall, when Mary has vented her fury against Dick for his farming failure and has ended up weeping, and Dick 'looked at her for a long time as she sat there, sobbing; and then said sardonically, "OK boss." ' The author goes on to comment: 'Mary did not like it at all; for his sarcastic remark said more about their marriage than she had ever allowed herself to think', and John suggested that that final comment - that the remark said more - could be almost a half-conscious realisation on the part of Lessing of the need for dramatisation that in general the novel failed to achieve.) The psychologies of Dick, Charlie Slatter and Tony Marston are also made plain via explicit narrative statement, and the attitudes of all of them are authorially commented on in relation to their social and political significance. Yet although the narrative in this respect has an air of omniscience, it does not enter the mind of Moses: he remains as alien and 'other' to the reader as he does to Mary - more so, since Mary becomes emotionally entangled with Moses in a way that is left unclear to the reader. Certainly our group were unclear about it. Mary's first encounter with Moses occurs when she takes charge of the farm while Dick is suffering a bout of malaria (a consequence, in Charlie's eyes, of his bad farming). Moses, at that time one of the farm workers, is challenging towards Mary, and, imbued with conventional hatred towards the natives, her response is fury and vengeance: she whips him across the face with a sjambok, leaving a permanent scar. Later he becomes the houseboy, and finding her broken down and weeping, he brings her a drink of water. However, we didn't agree with the blurb on the back of Jenny's paperback edition that 'lonely and frightened, Mary turns to Moses, the black cook, for kindness and understanding'. Moses' apparent kindness here is fraught with irony: the initial incident that had resulted in her whipping him had concerned his request for a drink of water which Mary had refused, and although we can infer that Mary is now touched by his attention, there is something of pressure in the way he makes her drink, and of a conscious demonstration of a shifting of power, which leaves her fearful and resentful. Mary's attitude to Moses continues to be ambivalent, and Moses' towards her seems contradictory, both solicitous and resentful. Finally, the day before the murder, Tony Marston discovers them in a situation of physical intimacy - Moses is dressing Mary and Mary's gestures are those of a woman either flattered or sexually satisfied (even this remains unclear; we see it only through Marston's shocked and wondering perspective) - and Mary, trying in the corrective presence of the white man 'to get back the command she had lost', uses Marston to expel Moses (now standing with a 'malevolent stare') from the house. It is presumably this betrayal that prompts Moses to murder Mary in the early hours of the next day, in revenge. However, Ann said that she still didn't grasp, on a psychological level, why (apart from racist stereotyping) Moses should actually murder her, or why, in the following hours, Mary knows he will come back to do so, and waits, frightened but eventually passively resigned, for her fate. Everyone in the group felt the same. I said that although the murder might not seem to work on a psychological level - and might appear to our present-day eyes to reinforce racial stereotypes - it was intended as symbolic: both Mary and Moses disrupt and threaten the status quo by their misfit status and their behaviour - as John pointed out, Moses, as a missionary boy, educated and prepared to challenge, steps outside the bounds allowed him - and, according to the dictates of that status quo, both must be destroyed for its preservation. They are both symbolic, too, of the fact that the status quo is in fact destructive to both sides. Everyone felt that this was right. We felt it an irony, however, that, in spite of the fundamental explanatory mode of the novel, we were left with a sense of not knowing the precise nature of the relationship between the two.

I commented that I had read an article suggesting that there was another racist stereotyping in the way that Moses appears to be identified, indeed conflated, with the bush and with nature red in tooth and claw. The narrative places him as a threatening presence in the bush while he waits in the night to kill Mary (and sends him back there afterwards), a bush which to Mary is unknown, unknowable and frightening, and with which the darkness merges him. As he strikes her with his knife, 'the bush avenged itself: that was her last thought. The trees advanced in a rush, like beasts, and the thunder was the noise of their coming.' I had also read a critique of the book that found racism in the narrative comment perjoratively opposing Charlie Slatter's slash-and-burn farming methods to Dick's nature-respecting (though unsuccessful) mode, since in passing it equates Slatter's method with that of the natives (which, as the group commented, is small-scale and therefore not destructive in the way Slatter's factory-type farming is). Finally, Doug and I both said we had been deeply unsettled by the final narrative comment on Moses as he walks off into the bush to wait for his capture, which is also part of the closing narrative comment of the book:
...what thoughts of regret, or pity, or perhaps even wounded human affection were compounded with the satisfaction of his completed revenge, it is impossible to say.
It is as if the narration, and the author, are colluding with the white settlers' view of a native's mind as impenetrable, and indeed, of no significance or interest. Yet it is quite clear that the book is intended as a condemnation of the attitudes and structures of apartheid, and our general conclusion on the evening of the discussion was a reiteration of the notion that the book was of its time.

However, looking back at it now in order to write this, I feel that Lessing was far more conscious in her method than appeared to us (and some other commentators). Having looked again at the first chapter with its very explicit and ironically critical comments on the white settlers' attitudes, I now find it impossible not to see this final statement as also deeply ironical. In addition, while on the evening of the discussion we considered Lessing's explanatory and largely non-dramatic mode to be simply old-fashioned story-telling with drawbacks of non-engagement for the reader, it seems to me now that Lessing is consciously manipulating omniscience, and subjectivity and objectivity, to make a political statement. As I outlined at the outset, the narrative of the first chapter moves from the total impersonality of a brief newspaper report through the puzzling perspective of an outsider, in towards the perspective of the locals, and finally (partially) into the mind of Tony Marston, all underpinned by an ironically knowing authorial tone that signals deliberate authorial manipulation. This constitutes a formal (ironical) enactment and then subversion of the callous objectification by the white settlers of the natives. While the novel in general adopts the 'tell not show' mode, as it moves towards the crisis and Mary waits to be killed, it closely adopts her tortured interiority, and in fact the conflation of Moses with the bush is Mary's, not the author's. ('...the bush avenged itself; that was her last thought [my italics]). And, as we had observed, in spite of the overall instructive authorial tone, the narration is not in fact omniscient. It seems to me now that the fact that both Moses' interiority and the precise nature of the ultimate relationship between Mary and Moses remain unexplored is a political authorial choice. What threatens the status quo of apartheid, and of any repressive system, is blurring of the lines, any subversion and uncertainty. The precise nature of the relationship is kept deliberately blurred and uncertain by the author as a formal playing out of that subversion: it subverts the otherwise knowing narrative mode.

However, I have to say that none of this was clear to any of us on a first reading of the novel, and I think perhaps that the impersonal, explanatory nature of the bulk of it did make for the lack of engagement that John discussed - a lack of emotional engagement leading to a lack of engagement of our attention - as well as perhaps contributing to our sense of the novel as 'relentless.'

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

Monday, August 25, 2014

Bookshops I love: another striking window display at Palas Print, Caernarfon

Look at this amazing effect. It's just about impossible to photograph this window display without getting the reflection of the opposite side of the street where seagulls perch on the castle battlements and fly around. But these beautifully-made seagulls are inside the window, and the resultant effect is a magical and dynamic blurring between the display of sea- and seaside-connected books and the seaside world of the town....

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Bare Fiction Magazine Review of Best British Short Stories 2014

There's a new review of Best British Short Stories 2014 in Bare Fiction Magazine. Lucy Jeynes notes that 'when an anthology limits itself to a particular vintage, you hope it’s a good year', and, having read the book, she comes to the conclusion that 2014 must have been a strong one, and that 'this collection forms the ideal starting point for a wider range of reading.' Taking the subtitle of my included story - 'How Stories Do or Don't Get Told' - as the title for her review,  Jeynes ponders the essence of the short story as well as the varieties of ways in which it can be tackled, and the way in which this anthology illustrates both, and she quotes at fair length from several of the stories. 

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Reading time

After weeks of short-story events that have taken me to London, Norwich and Vienna I'm finally having time to relax and do some proper reading. I can't believe that it was actually May when Faber sent me All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. I have only just got around to reading it and posting my thoughts (here on Fictionbitch). I absolutely loved it, and it's an object lesson in how to write about the most painful things (in this case the suicides of a father and sister), with warmth and generosity as well as biting humour. Go to the link and find out how I thought it was done, and why it's currently one of my best novels of all time.
I've also been reading the other stories in Best British Short Stories 2014 (Salt) (which includes my story 'Tides'), and I thoroughly recommend it. Grab it here. I've even managed to read the reading-group book well in time for our next meeting, rather than up against the wire as usual. (It's Doris Lessing's first novel The Grass is Singing.) (My report of our last discussion, Ironweed by William Kennedy, which I also finally got around to writing, is here).

Friday, August 01, 2014

Reading group: Ironweed by William Kennedy

Doug suggested this book, written in the late seventies but set in thirties Albany (one of a trilogy, 'the Albany cycle'). It features down-and-out Francis Phelan, who, many years ago, ran away from his wife and family after dropping and killing his baby son while probably drunk, and the various characters from his past, many dead, some by his own violent hand, whom he hallucinates and converses with as he tries to come to terms with his life and seek redemption.

At the time of reading the book I thought it was brilliant, but now I come to write about it I find it hard to recall, and at this point my recollection of our discussion is hazy, too. I think this may not be simply because I have been very busy, but also something to do with the novel itself and a chief conclusion about it that I do remember we came to.

I think everyone agreed with Doug that the depiction of the underside of Albany life under the Great Depression was wonderful - searing and vivid - and that the narrative voice, lyrical but sharp - 'gray clouds that looked like two flying piles of dirty socks' - was superb. We spent, I remember, a fair bit of time talking about this, and about Francis's character and motives at various points in the action - his violence and his kindness, his innate wit, his guilt and his need for atonement and redemption. But then I posed the question, What was the novel supposed to be about? I wasn't sure of the answer, and I had noticed that in none of the contemporary reviews I'd read had the question been answered either, with one or two reviewers giving what I thought undue significance to minor incidents, as if they were at sea with the meaning of the book. Doug had to think for a moment, but then said, Well, that, redemption, that was what it was about. It's true that this is a big preoccupation of the book, but it didn't seem entirely satisfactory as a summing up of its theme. At one moment in the action, after all these years Francis returns to his wife and family for an evening, and this indeed is Francis's chief way of finding redemption. A thought that occurs to me now, however, is that since he doesn't stay, and since the final section in which he returns and stays for good is, we decided, only a dream, any redemption is in fact somewhat shaky. Later in the discussion Ann would say that in fact she didn't find Francis's brief return to his family very believable, and now that everyone thought about this, they didn't either. I said that one strong idea in the book was that it's so easy to fall through the cracks in society - Francis was once the head of a respectable household and Helen, his companion, was once an upper-middle-class girl with a sparkling future as a musician ahead of her - though again this didn't seem to serve as a unifying theme. (I and others said we were moved to tears by the final, tragic scene concerning Helen, as well as other moments, but Jenny said she hadn't been moved to tears at all.) Someone said that they thought the point of the book was to depict the Irish-American society of Albany, which also seemed true.

By now we felt a bit lost, and the discussion was tailing off, Ann saying somewhat conclusively that she felt the book was somehow better in the sum of the parts than in the whole. John, not wanting however to abandon the novel, commented that the narrative voice - and Francis's hallucinations - made it very psychological: the interest is in Francis's state of mind, and in the state of mind of Helen whose point of view we take at one point - and that that's what makes it so dynamic as a social commentary: we share the emotional experience of those at the brunt of the Depression. John said that he thought this was a great feat for an author, Kennedy, who had trained as a journalist: unlike Hemingway, for instance, he was able to shift from objective social commentary to that deeply psychological dimension. The point John was leading up to then occurred to others of us simultaneously: that, in spite of this very psychological dimension, the book was nevertheless an essentially journalistic project - Kennedy is indeed on record as having said he wanted to map in his novels the stratum of Albany society hitherto ignored - and that this is why for us it lacked the unifying thrust and lasting emotional effect of a novel.

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

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Short Story Conference in Vienna.

I've now written on Fictionbitch about my impression of the 13th International Conference on the Short Story which has just taken place in Vienna, and about some of the panels and readings I attended. Also there's an anthology of stories by writers participating in the conference, edited by conference director Maurice A Lee, and which includes a new story of mine, 'Where the Starlings Fly', available here.

It was was my first-ever time in Vienna, and although there wasn't a lot of time left over, I did do a little bit of sightseeing, and here are some pics of moments snatched away from the conference.

Wide roads and imperial buildings:

Baroque doorways:

Freud's house in Berggasse:

Rachel Whiteread's Holocaust memorial in the Judenplatz:

Cafe Central, where Freud, Trotsky and other famous figures once played chess:

And a group of us having lunch there. Ailsa Cox, Stef Pixner, Zoe Gilbert, me, Vanessa Gebbie, Tania Hershman, Alison Lock and Catherine McNamara:

Lunch in a historic beer garden, once the garden of a monastery. With Felicity Skelton (left), Ailsa Cox (centre) and Allan Weiss:

Farewell dinner at the Heurigen. First, Moy McCrory, Ailsa Cox, Jim Grady, Nuala Ni Chonchuir and Kath Mckay:

And Adnan Mahmutovic, Vanessa Gebbie and Tania Hershman:

And drinks afterwards:

Egon Schiele in the Leopold Museum on the final morning before my plane:

The Secession building containing Klimt's Beethoven Frieze (which you're not allowed to photograph):