Friday, February 20, 2015

Getting things covered

We're in the process of deciding on a cover for my new collection of short stories which takes the title of the first story, 'Used to Be'. My great publisher, Chris Hamilton-Emery, is designing the cover himself, and last night he revealed the draft below for discussion. It's not at all the final cover, and can easily be changed. I know I'm really lucky to be consulted like this, and its also great to have the chance to garner the opinions of others, so I'd be very grateful for any comments on it you may wish to leave here.

Personally, I think it's really striking and intriguing, but I do have a doubt. I love the Magritte echo, which beautifully underlines the stories' theme of hidden things/truths and things turning out to be not what they seem and alternative realities/lives. My doubt about it is that the hairdo/coiffure perhaps suggests something of a fifties-ish Mad Men or Stepford Wives vibe, and indicates that the stories are about the role of women, which they're not. Any comments would be enthusiastically received!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A break from writing

Recently I got to the end of a big writing project, a rewrite. Because it was a rewrite, and therefore, I predicted, time-manageable, and because I have so many other projects pending, I had set myself a deadline to finish it by mid-February. It was nevertheless harder work than I'd anticipated - I seemed to be going at a snail's pace for the first part of it, and towards the end I was doing ten-hour days at my desk to catch up, and ended up suffering the most dreadful backache and getting badly unfit. I did finish in time, but felt so mentally exhausted and physically sluggish that there was no way I could turn immediately to the next project, and, since John and I had been invited to the party of an old friend in London and neither of us had any other commitments for the next few days, and since we had the chance to stay in someone's flat there while they were away, John persuaded me to take a few days' break with him. I was reluctant at first - I really felt I couldn't afford the time - but I'm glad I did.

My little holiday kicked off here in Manchester with a visit to the newly reopened Whitworth Gallery. I was at the Friends and Family preview (a week before the official opening) which was tremendously crowded, so it was quite hard to look at things, but the new building looks quite amazing, and I did take some photos of the major exhibition by Cornelia Parker with which the gallery reopens. Above is her War Room, made out of the fabric left behind after memorial poppies have been stamped from it, and here is the hanging in closeup:

here her famous exploded shed, Cold Dark Matter:

and here her flattened silver objects suspended from the ceiling:

In London I did some more gallery visiting. First, to the Photographer's Gallery and the exhibition Human Rights and Human Wrongs, which once again was extremely crowded, too crowded to see anything properly, but I have to say that in any case I simply couldn't take it: after one photo of black slaves chained together, another of a German child (presumably an officer's child) jauntily sauntering past dead bodies lined up at the side of the road in Belsen, another of a Japanese soldier standing grinning beside a Chinese prisoner in the process of being hanged, and another of a dead body lying outside a Jewish ghetto while unconcerned people pass by, I was having difficulty breathing from my attempt not to cry audibly, and I had to force my companions to leave with me. I feel it was a failure, and that I should have been stronger, though I also can't help feeling that I too would have had to become somehow inured to have been able to look at more all in one go. In view of this, I was interested in the attitudes of others in the gallery: although it was so very crowded the place was very, very silent; there was a sense that everyone was overwhelmed, and I did feel compelled to take a photo of this before I left:

It was strange, after this, to go down to the basement and 'We Could Be Heroes', an exhibition of photographs of teenagers and youth culture, including those by Picture Post photographers. You'd think this show would have seemed trivial and superficial by comparison - 'teenagehood' being after all a luxury of civilisation - but as always I found many of these photos moving portraits of humanity, and this picture by Bert Hardy of kids in a Gorbals cemetery - I once taught kids newly rehoused from the Gorbals - had me deeply moved.

This was a small exhibition and all the better for me: I find it impossible to do justice to any exhibition in one visit. The next day I spent the whole afternoon in the V&A regretfully ignoring all the other treasures while I looked at Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks, a beautiful medieval tapestry depicting the fall of Troy (it was really interesting to see where the moths or carpet beetles had got to it!) and an amazing Renaissance glass panel depicting Tobias and Sarah of the Apocrypha refraining from sex for the first three days of their marriage in order to drive out the demon of lust that had killed her several previous husbands! (And they have Grampa Simpson slippers under their bed!)

Next day the National Portrait Gallery, and I was driven from another overcrowded (and expensive) exhibition - John Singer Sergeant - by hardly being able to see a thing and, frankly, the overpowering stink of perfume and fart, and retreated to Who Are You?, the free Grayson Perry show scattered throughout the permanent exhibition and questioning the very concepts of portraiture and of captured identity. Fantastic! Here's his huge 'bank-note' tapestry depicting the multiplicity of so-called 'British identity':

Finally, on our last day, Samuel Johnson's late-seventeenth/early-eighteenth century townhouse off Fetter Lane.

I'd never been before and I loved it: the winding lanes leading up to it, the quiet square it looks onto (though I wonder how quiet it would have been in his day?), and the long attic for which he took the house specifically to accommodate the long table on which the dictionary was compiled and which seated his sixteen assistants, and where you can now read a facsimile of the original edition:

And then it was time to walk to Euston for our train - though we did break the walk with a stop-off at Ciao Bella - and for me to discover that in spite of all the walking we had done over the past five days, I was still not yet fully fit. Writers beware: too much time at the desk is Not a Good Thing.

Monday, February 09, 2015

The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies

I'm so very happy to be on Salt's short story list: the company is amazing, and not least among them is Carys Davies, whose collection The Redemption of Galen Pike was published in the autumn. So many of the stories in this book have won prizes or have been short- or long-listed in prestigious competitions, it's quite dazzling: the V S Pritchett Prize, the Olive Cook Award, the EFG Sunday Times Award, and so on.

But to get to the stories, which I had to stop myself reading all in one sitting, so vivid and curious are the worlds they create, and so concise and witty the prose. But they are stories to savour. Each one creates a whole different and strange yet somehow familiar world where human emotions are stripped to their essentials - a jail in Colorado where a Quaker spinster visits a condemned man, the snowy waste of Siberia where a strange and threatening-seeming man turns up at an inn, a cabin in the woods of Eastern Europe where a woman lives in hiding, the Australian outback where a woman harbours a dark secret. These worlds are timeless and mythic: it's hard know in precisely which past century of Quaker Colorado the title story takes place, but it doesn't matter, and it's better that we don't; it's hard to remember, before the end of 'The Travellers' reminds us, that our Siberian innkeeper is an escapee from contemporary urban life, and it's a surprise - and entrancing - to find that the narrator of the fairytale-like 'Precious' has a modern wheelie suitcase. The effect is to make the stories, and the heartbreaking vulnerabilities and touching strengths of the characters, resonantly universal, and the marriage of this mythic quality with a sharp yet down-to-earth prose style makes for something very potent. In at least two of the stories, Davies reverses the myth-making process by telling us a story which turns out to be the 'truth' behind a familiar myth, and the effect is quite startling: the myth defamiliarised and made new to us all over again. There's an impressive restraint characterising the whole collection: in many of the stories a deep secret powers the actions of the central character, a secret not revealed until the end, and it is the wit and restraint with which Davies handles this that make so many of the stories in this impressive volume heartbreaking.

I thoroughly recommend this book: it's an absolute treat to read, and I guarantee that the stories will stay with you long afterwards.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Reading group: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Back to consensus. Ever since I reviewed this novel in the summer, I have been recommending it to all and sundry, so naturally I suggested it for the group, and to my delight it was received with enthusiasm by all present. It's the story of the struggle of Yolandi, a tumultuous forty-something single mother and writer of young adult novels, with the desire to die of her elder sister, the beautiful, famous and successful pianist Elfrieda. Narrated by Yolandi with a slicing wit in a kind of time-lapse as-it-happens (sometimes in present tense, sometimes in a past tense recording just-happened events), the account follows Yoli's struggle to counter and dispel Elfrieda's death-wish as she visits her in hospital (as the book opens Elfrieda has made yet another suicide attempt), and to understand it, mining for reasons their background: childhood in a repressive north-Canadian Mennonite community with its own history of persecution by the Bolsheviks and exile from Russia, a father who has already committed suicide, and a mother motored by a fighting spirit and eternal optimism.

The discussion was short, since there was little to argue about: everyone loved the book, and everyone agreed that it was both laugh-out-loud funny and immensely moving and tragic - Doug said, to nods all round, that most of the time he didn't know whether to laugh or cry and often ended up doing both at the same time - and that there's a kind of unique alchemy in the way Toews achieves this effect. People thought the book brilliantly written, and loved the light touch with which it conveyed its deeply serious issues. We weren't entirely without some demurring: although it's clearly not the intention of the book, one person saw Elfrieda as selfish since, although she is made perfectly aware of the devastating effects on her family, her death wish is long-term and rational and her suicide attempts planned and orchestrated rather than irrational actions made in sudden moments of despair. No one else however shared this objection, feeling that despair can be ongoing. John pointed out also the immense stress on Elfrieda of being a world-touring concert pianist. Mark felt there was too much of what he called 'name-dropping': Yoli, Elfrieda and their mother constantly quote from literature and philosophy, and the title of the book, 'All My Puny Sorrows', is a quote from Coleridge - Elfrieda's 'romantic-poet boyfriend', as Yoli calls him - which as a teenager Elfrieda scrawled as an acronym graffito signature - AMPS - over their little Mennonite town. Doug rather agreed with Mark. He said he thought it especially towards the end, when the family quote whole poems: it seemed somehow forced, and geared to make authorial points. No one else had this problem, but felt rather that the family in the novel is so clearly steeped in literature that all of this was convincingly realistic. Beside which, one of the novel's strong points is that a reliance on literature and philosophy can't stop Elfrieda choosing death: 'Books are what save us. Books are what don't save us.'

After being discharged from hospital, Elfreida makes another suicide attempt and ends up there again, and once again Yoli has left her Toronto home, and her children to fend for themselves, to be at Elfrieda's Winnipeg hospital bedside and help support their mother, this time reinforced by their mother's sister Tina. Doug said he felt that at this point the novel became a bit repetitive. No one else minded this, repetition being in the nature of the situation, but also there are developments. In this section not only does Yoli move on from trying to persuade Elf against suicide to struggling with Elf's request to help her die, the focus shifts more closely towards Yoli and we see the effects on her. Also, in this section there is a drama concerning the aunt, Tina.

Such complaints were however only mild, and the general agreement was that this is a quite brilliant novel that we were thrilled to have read.

My own review of the book can be read here.

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

Reading group: The Sportswriter by Richard Ford

Warning: plot spoiler.

So much for the consensus we seemed to be developing in our reading group - though it was all of the rest of us against one. The dissenter was Doug who had suggested this 1986 novel. Getting on for 400 pages, it consists of the reflections over one Easter weekend of Frank Bascombe, a thirty-nine-year-old male sportswriter living in the fictional suburban Haddon, New Jersey, whose marriage has ended and who is struggling with the emotional aftermath. In a present-tense first-person narration the book follows Frank as he meets his ex-wife for their yearly visit together to the grave of their dead son; goes on a fishing trip with the Divorced Men's Club and is unwillingly befriended by another member, Walter; takes his girlfriend Vickie on a trip to Detroit where he's interviewing an ex-footballer; goes for Easter dinner at Vickie's parents' home and while there is simultaneously ditched by Vickie and called away because Walter has killed himself and left Frank a suicide note; escapes the drama of Walter's death to his office in the night-time city and encounters an attractive female intern, an escape which leads to eventual resurrection from his emotional gloom. Throughout all of this, Frank reflects on a low-key past punctuated by three dramatic events of loss or failure - the immediate fizzling out of a promising career as a fiction writer, the death of his young son and the end of his marriage - and on the meaning of life and his own feelings.

Doug found himself staunchly defending the book against a roomful of people who had found it, in Ann's word, 'tedious.' None of us disagreed with him that the prose is excellent on the sentence level, but he was the only person in the room who felt able to identify with Frank Bascombe and his troubles and musings. I said that I had really had to force myself to read the book, and Ann had been unable to make herself finish it in time. I said that I felt that if a woman had written a book of such self-indulgent and self-centred introspection she would have been immediately slammed (ie everyone would have recognised it for what it was), and everyone found laughable and objectionable Frank's sexism. Though Frank makes a great drama (an emotional drama of his own) out of the death of his son and a lesser drama out of his relationship with his living son, his daughter Clarrie appears (both in the action and as a focus of Frank's narrative attention) for the first time only on page three hundred and something (and thereafter is forgotten), and the fact that Frank refers to his ex-wife solely as X is a passable joke that not only wears thin but can't be excused the incipient sexism in its insistence (Doug admitted that he didn't find that psychologically convincing, that it seemed more of an author's joke than Frank's). Vickie is at one point 'a nice little bundle for a lonely fellow to call his in a strange city when time's to kill' (note the possessiveness, the patronisation of 'little', the objectification of 'bundle', and the disrespect implicit in the notion that she's something to kill time with). He refers to the girl his seminary-student lodger is seeing as 'the dumpy little seminary chicken'; he speculates an alternative past for himself which includes 'annexing a little wife', the female intern with whom he (briefly) runs off in the end apparently has 'a pair of considerable grapefruits', and all women are chiefly characterised by their physical characteristics. Reflecting on his escape from a woman asking for his help on the station platform and whom he thinks is the dead Walter's sister, he later muses: 'Fast getaways from sinister forces are sometimes essential.' Ann commented also on Frank's racism, the fact that any black character is initially characterised as precisely that, black, a 'Negro'. One description of his lodger is a quite splendid mix of racism and patriarchal penis envy: 'He is a man I admire, a bony African with an austere face, almost certain the kind to have a long aboriginal penis'.

Doug argued that this was Frank's mentality which the author is exposing with irony. It is indeed hard to believe that a master of prose such as Richard Ford would be unaware of such connotations. It's hard too to believe he isn't making fun of Frank when it turns out that the woman Frank thought was Walter's sister was nothing of the sort and he was escaping her for nothing, or by the fact that on the final day of the weekend, Frank goes from being in love with Vickie at lunchtime and wanting to marry her to contacting an old girlfriend in mid-afternoon, to trying by evening for a reconciliation with his wife and inviting her to have sex with him in the newly-dead Walter's bed (!) (a suggestion which makes her immediately send him packing), and late that same night is picking up the new intern. But the rest of us couldn't find a savage enough irony in the author's overall attitude to Frank either to entertain us or to prevent us from feeling that fundamentally we were meant to identify with him (a point raised in the review, less critical than ours, by Alice Hoffman for the New York Review of Books, which famously prompted Ford and his wife to shoot copies of one of Hoffman's own novels).

Frank's meditations on life seem to be intended to be taken seriously, and indeed merit it, stemming as they do from the grief of his son's death and the end of his marriage. I said that one problem for me, though, was that I wasn't ever clear precisely what Frank's attitude to life was. At times I thought he was looking for transcendence (in his relations with women, in his surroundings: 'Hoving Road this morning is as sun-dappled and vernal as any privet lane in England'), but at others he seems in retreat from anything so unsettling as the search for transcendence - 'Holidays can hold too many disappointments that I then have to accommodate' - and orderly suburbia his chosen place of retreat from it. Jenny said she had no such problem; she saw Frank as quite clearly suffering mid-life crisis. Looking at the book again to write this, I see that there is perhaps a progression (or rather, an about-turn) from Frank's relish of suburbia to contempt as he finally escapes on the train: '...climbing down tonight onto the streets of any of these little crypto-homey Jersey burgs could heave me into a panic worse than New York ever has'. However, the book did not engage me enough, I think, for me to perceive Frank's earlier attitude as ambivalent rather than merely inconsistent.

I also said I had an overall problem with the narrative voice: who was Frank speaking to in spilling out all of his deeper feelings? Doug said, well, he's talking to himself, as one does at life-crisis times. I said, but you don't need to tell yourself who you are or where you live, which is precisely how this novel begins: 'My name is Frank Bascombe. I am a sportswriter. / For the past fourteen years I have lived here at 19 Hovington Road, Haddam, New Jersey, in a large Tudor house bought when a book of short stories I wrote sold to a movie producer for a lot of money...' Thus the book doesn't work as an interior monologue. However, I wan't sure that the novel worked as a direct address to a reader, either, as although there are other moments of direct address and lots of backstory explanation, I felt that the listener was intended as other than the reader, more specific. If so, however, that listener is never identified as in the convention of a dramatic monologue. My overall impression therefore was that the focus of the narrative voice was blurred and it lacked integrity.

Finally, someone said to a chorus of agreement, and to Doug's dismay, that there wasn't an ounce of humour in the book. Here I had to come down on Doug's side. It seems to me that Frank's tone throughout is wry, that in spite of his sexism there's a gentle and often humane comedy in the depiction of many of the characters, and that Frank has a nice line in ironic word-play ('Face the earth where you can. Literally speaking, it's all you have to go on.')

One interesting thing was that this book was chosen for discussion by the group over another, contemporary novel, because of its good reputation stemming from generally enthusiastic critical response at the time of its publication in 1986. Mark in particular was very keen to read it, as he had read it many years ago and had really liked it as a depiction of male middle-age he could look forward to. However, he was shocked on reading it again to find his view of Frank, and of the book, markedly different. This perhaps indicates that the book suffers from a change in social attitudes - that we are perhaps meant to identify with Frank rather than despise him (rather than that Ford has failed on the literary level to satirise Frank properly), but that changed social attitudes made us unable to do so. It is also therefore perhaps interesting that Doug, who said at one point that he does identify with Frank, had also read the book fifteen years ago, but had not had time to read it again for the meeting.

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