Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Reading group: The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

Prompted by the immense success of the novels of the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante, in particular her linked Neopolitan novels, and of course by the recent fuss around her apparent 'umasking', John suggested this stand-alone novel, and the rest of us, none of whom had yet read Ferrante, jumped at the chance to read it.

However, not everyone in our group shared the popular opinion, and views of the book were sharply divided.

Suspecting that this would be the case, John avoided expressing his emotional reaction to the book, and concentrated on discussing it in more neutral literary terms. A breathless first-person narration, it charts the emotional journey of Olga from the moment her husband Mario announces that, through an 'absence of sense', he feels the need to leave, and walks out on her and their two young children. As John said, the book is significantly titled: not only is Olga abandoned, thereafter she abandons herself, falling into the kind of madness of the abandoned woman she witnessed in childhood and subsequently despised and dreaded, and consequently at moments abandoning her children both physically and emotionally. As Jenny would point out later in the discussion, and as Olga herself will realise later, it is not Mario but Olga who, as a result of his actions, suffers an 'absence of sense'. (Mario has in fact of course gone off with another, younger woman.) Initially, before she comes to realise that Mario is never coming back, Olga makes a point of being reasonable and understanding, a stance she has always previously taken. It is the way in fact that women are traditionally supposed to behave, and is thus another kind of absence of sense.

Mark interjected that surely this was a hackneyed subject, but John stated that he thought that this novel was not simply telling a hackneyed story, but was very much a political statement of the continuing trap of the institution of marriage for women. Having once despised tragic heroines like Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, Olga is now haunted by the spirit of them (and, as she becomes more unhinged, haunted more literally by the ghost of the abandoned woman of her childhood, the poverella). Having at eighteen considered myself a talented young woman, with high hopes, and having indeed begun a career as a published writer, she has ended up a mere wife, modulating herself for the lives of others, subsumed to the Family. John thought it no coincidence that the book that most strongly haunts this novel, Anna Karenina, begins All happy families... He pointed out that, like that novel (and in his opinion most great novels), The Days of Abandonment begins with a sentence that gets right to the thematic point: One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. (Note that reference to lunch, not only locating Olga in the domestic that traps her and in which she will be left, but implying the familiar order and composure from which she is now shaken.)

It now became clear that the three women present, Jenny, Clare and I, had found the book utterly emotionally engrossing - although I had to confess that because I had read it at a huge compulsive rush I read it again, and the second time, without the tension of not knowing what was going to happen, felt less emotionally engaged and more distanced from the character. On first reading, however, all three of us had identified closely with Olga and her experience, and had found the portrayal searingly truthful. John and Mark, however, the two men present, both said that they had wavered as they read it, sometimes liking the book and sometimes disliking it, John saying that he found it sagged a little in the second half - a sensation I did have on my second reading. Mark seemed to come down on the side of dislike, as he went on to be pretty critical. He repeated his view that the situation - a woman emotionally trapped by marriage and motherhood - is outdated; he thought young women nowadays would be baffled by it. To begin with we found it hard to answer that, except to say that nevertheless women of our generation who do identify with it are a significant enough demographic not to be discounted and to account for Ferrante's huge popularity, and that in any case Italy is still a conservative enough society for its theme to be still current there for younger women. But a main point made by this novel, as had been said, is that that so-called outdated stereotype, which might baffle younger women, and which had indeed baffled the young Olga herself, is not so easily sidestepped even now, a notion that we three strongly agreed with as a result of our own experience.

Clare said she was really interested in the meta-issue of Ferrante's anonymity and 'unmasking' (as far as I know, no one knows for sure if the woman who has been fingered as the author behind the pen-name is really the author). In discussing Olga's state of mind John had mentioned that there is a lot of excrement and urine in the book, and the fact that Olga is obsessed with sex, in particular transgressive sex. None of this is gratuitous; all of it is an inevitable outcome of the situation and Olga's deteriorating state of mind. Rejected so suddenly and roundly by her husband she is inevitably swamped by a sense of her hitherto unsuspected inadequacy: has he found her sexually inadequate? Does his lover provide sexual satisfactions she hadn't? - questions that lead her unsuccessfully and depressingly to abandon herself 'without love' and 'with pure ferocity' to transgressive sex with a neighbour, Caranno, a practical stranger. Everything inevitably seems to her spoiled and poisoned - there is dog-shit on the pavement, a lizard and ants invade the house - and Olga herself becomes the focus of loss of control, letting the house fall into chaos, running out precipitously with the dog in her nightgown and needing herself to urinate and defecate in the woods. As one of her children falls ill with a fever, and the dog simultaneously lies dying and leaking shit, she becomes convinced that she is secreting some sort of poison that is affecting all around her. Such graphic material caused shock on the book's publication in 2002, which I consider a telling comment on continuing perceptions of women (women are not supposed to be so earthy or to lose control), and on what a female author is allowed to write. It is probably therefore significant that one suggestion has been that the author of the Ferrante books is a man.

I said that one of the reasons I found the book so deeply and personally compelling was that it made me wonder why I hadn't written about certain of my own experiences, and I realised it was because I don't write anonymously (although Elizabeth Baines is a pen-name, people have long known who I am). I would love to go back to the days when I first started writing under a pen-name and no one knew me: there was freedom then from my writing being judged through the lens of my real-life persona or vice versa. Reading Ferrante's book made me realise that the better known I have become, the more difficult it has become to write about certain experiences of my own in a way that could be interpreted as autobiographical.

Now there was a huge altercation. Mark seemed to think this fairly ridiculous. Surely when you write, he said, you don't write for others but for yourself? Hadn't we read the Paris Review interviews in which so many writers say they write for themselves? It is however a matter of degree and of negotiating between, on the one hand, the desire to express oneself and portray the truth as you see it, and, on the other, the need to communicate and the context into which your writing must be published. But surely, Mark said, it's fiction? He was right of course that it is a mistake to read fiction as autobiography, but the fact is that there is a huge tendency to do so, and to identify the author with the protagonist.

Mark then criticised the translation of the book, citing the substitution of the American use of Fahrenheit for the European Celsius (when Olga is taking her ill child's temperature) and the use of 'magnifying lens' which he thought should be 'magnifying glass'. The rest of us found these trivial points in a book dealing so truthfully with searing issues, and hadn't even noticed them. I found 'magnifying lens' acceptable anyway, and in fact more resonant in a book about shifts in perception, and John said he thought Fahrenheit was acceptable in a translation probably aimed at the American market. Mark criticised the prose, finding it lacking in punctuation, especially in commas. I said, isn't this a function of the fact that the breathless style mimics Olga's slipping state of mind, and isn't it actually explicitly addressed in the book: Olga reflects that as a young woman she despised the lack of commas in those novels of tragic heroines, but abandoning herself to loss of control in her new situation, she embraces a lack of commas. Mark said he knew this, but he still objected to the lack. (However, leafing through the book now I can't actually find this lack; the book is in fact liberally sprinkled with commas - sometimes in place of full stops, indicating Olga's sliding, uncontrolled state.) In direct contrast, the rest of us found the book extremely well-written, with style beautifully suited to the situation. In fact, I said to the group, I don't believe that I would ever go to pieces in the way that Olga does in that situation - I don't believe I'm like Olga  - but I found that the way the book was written made me identify with her totally on that first reading, and Clare and Jenny agreed.

From the meeting it looked as if our opinions of this book were divided along gender lines, but Doug, who hadn't been able to make the meeting, had written that, 50 pages in, he was finding it 'captivating and harrowing in equal measure' and couldn't wait to find out where it went next. And, conversely, Ann, who was also unable to be present, had written that she had found the translation clunky and clumsy, and had 'just wanted to shake the protagonist', finding her 'too overwrought, incompetent, incapable'. LIke Mark, Ann found her 'just old fashioned in attitude and assumptions' and simply thought 'At last!' when Olga comes to realise that she has invested too much of herself in her relationship and her role as a wife and mother. There is an agonising section where Olga is trapped in the house with her ailing child and dying dog because she can't undo the lock she has had installed by workmen who made lewd lock-based insinuations as they installed it. She is able to undo it only when the neighbour Caranno arrives outside the door. Ann thought this an outrageously overdone metaphor, and John pretty much agreed with her, but none of the rest of us women did. While it does of course operate on a symbolic level, I read it chiefly not as an authorial metaphor, but as a purely practical effect of Olga's state, which I found realistic (ie she was simply in too much of a state to get the thing open before she relaxed, her situation creating an emotional and physical block about it). Ann had also foreseen the ending of the book early on, but none of the rest of us had done so, since we felt that the book was interrogating traditional paradigms rather than simply employing them. And there was quite some amazement on the faces of us women at Ann's statement that if this is typical of the rest of Ferrante's work she wouldn't be bothering with it. 

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

Monday, November 21, 2016

A literary weekend: a meeting with prize shortlistees, reading with literary icons and a new review of Unthology 7.

On Saturday I zoomed off to London, first to attend a gathering for bloggers to meet the shortlistees of the Sunday Times/Peters Fraser and Dunlop Young Writer of the Year award, and then on in the evening to Waterstone's Piccadilly to read at Word Factory.

The Young Writer shortlist is fantastic, and we had a great afternoon chatting to the shortlistees and hearing them read and being interviewed by Andrew Holgate, prize judge and Literary Editor of The Sunday Times (below). You can read more about it on my critical blog, Fictionbitch, and the thoughts it prompted for me concerning innovative fiction and marketing.

After that it was off to Word Factory. I was reading with Lionel Shriver and novelist and Mslexia editor Debbie Taylor, at the end of a day-long festival for short-story writers, Small Like a Bullet. I read the title story from my collection, Used to Be (and the really great audience was gratifyingly receptive, laughing in all the right places - I guess a roomful of storytellers was just the right audience for a story about story-telling!). Debbie then read from her latest novel Herring Girl, which I have recently read: a fascinating and really quite daring tale of reincarnation set exactly where she lives, in a converted lighthouse at the mouth of the River Tyne, with a depiction of the past so vividly real and particular that I suspect Debbie of having indeed been there then! Finally Lionel entertained us with the tale of her commission from a luxury hotel chain, which she fulfilled by writing a story subverting the whole idea of luxury hotels. She then read us the story, in which, with her customary verbal irony, she put paid to the notion of luxury itself.

Afterwards poet and Word Factory organiser Cathy Galvin chaired a discussion that ranged from the the popularity or otherwise of short stories and publishers' attitudes to them, to the question of whether they are leading to brand-new forms that defy categorisation - Max Porter's Grief is the Thing with Feathers, one of the shortlisted books in the Young Writer Award, being cited as an example. Here's a photo taken by my online friend and Word Factory regular Oscar Windsor Smith:

And as I was coming back on the train next day, I discovered that there's a new review of Unthology 7 from brilliant writer Aiden O'Reilly. He loves the anthology:

I think this is probably the best anthology I’ve read, including all those ‘best new’ anthologies that come out every couple of years. There are just so many standout stories here

and I am of course thrilled by what he, such a talented writer himself, says of my story:

I loved the prose of Elizabeth Baines’ Looking for the Castle ... it’s just perfectly written.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Reading group: Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

After unanimous praise for our last book, there was unanimous dislike of this book, apart perhaps from the view of Jenny who had suggested it, and who said she couldn't decide whether she liked it or not, and wavered as she read it.

Set in millennial New York, it's the third-person account of one day in the life of twenty-eight-year-old multi-millionaire asset manager Eric Packer as, accompanied by his 'chief of security', he is driven in his limousine across the city to get a haircut, moving slowly through jammed traffic while his advisors, his 'chief of technology', his 'currency analyst', his 'chief of finance', his doctor, his 'chief of theory' wait at corners at appointed times and step in turn into the car for meetings. They are held up by a global protest, a state presidential visit and a massive funeral, and Packer nips out of the car now and then for sexual liaisons and to speak to the wife he has recently married as a financial deal, all the while trading in the yen in a way that will bring about a global and personal downfall. Partway through the day it is reported that there is a threat to Packer's life, but there is such an overall air of dissociation that it's not clear if the threat is real. In any case, the way he behaves from this point on seems guaranteed to push him in the face of that danger.

Well, it was hard for me to call up the events of the novel to write that synopsis, as quite frankly I really didn't care in the least what happened during that day to Eric Packer, and was happy to forget it, and neither did anyone else (apart from Jenny). Clearly the novel is about the alienation of capitalism (which we hardly found an original concept), and its death-wish, and Jenny pointed out that Packer's pursuit of a haircut in the run-down area of the city where he grew up in poverty-stricken circumstances is an inchoate attempt to reach back to life and the 'real'. He didn't know what he wanted. Then he knew. He wanted to get a haircut. Jenny said that this made her at times sympathise with him as a man damaged by his own ambitions and the financial world that has sucked him in.

However, while this is clearly a premise of the novel, none of the rest of us saw the book as operating on the psychological level that would elicit such sympathy. Packer seemed to us very much a cipher, and the whole thing is told from the outside in staccato, distanced prose mimicking the lack of affect of a financial world. The result is that it is often, or mostly, impossible to work out Packer's emotional state or motivations, so none of us could engage with him or the situation. Another effect was a (seemingly deliberate) loss of significance at moments that should have resonated with significance. An interesting occurrence in the novel (interesting in retrospect) is the fact that things begin to happen on the camera screen in Packer's car before they actually happen in real life - Packer sees himself rubbing his chin on screen in the brief second before he does it - indicating the takeover of virtuality from reality. However, presumably in an authorial attempt to illustrate the normalisation of such a horror, it is narrated so blandly and glossed over so quickly that it has no emotional effect on the reader (us readers, at any rate). Fairly near the beginning, well before it is heard that there is a plot to kill Packer, there is a first-person section, narrated by a Benno Levin and reporting that he has murdered someone unnamed. It was hard to work out whether or not this was a deliberate authorial bid to give the game away and subvert conventional dramatic tension, and it's an instance of the way we all felt we failed to get a grip on the novel. At this point in fact there is yet no hint of a plot against Packer and the link with him personally is not obvious: is it therefore an authorial attempt not to give the game away? But without that connection the piece seems to float disconnected (and confusing) from the rest of the narrative, and why else would the piece be there? However, I for one had already failed to engage with Packer's fate, and the whole section dropped away from my consciousness with little lasting significance. In addition, the piece itself is an essay in lack of significance: although the narrator writes of his motives for the murder and of his anger, he does so analytically (and again in that staccato affectless prose), and there is an air of futility: All through the day I became more convinced I could not do it [ie, commit the murder]. Then I did it. Now I have to remember why.  And: So what is left that's worth the telling?

In conclusion we all agreed that it's all very well writing about alienation, futility and lack of significance, but you have to find a way of doing so that doesn't alienate the reader and make the book itself seem futile and lacking in significance. On the whole, people got the feeling that this was one of those books commissioned and rushed out as a millennial novel by a Great American Author, which did not do justice to the talent we found in DeLillo's White Noise.

Through a last-minute change of venue, Doug failed to make the meeting, and when we called him later he said that he hadn't particularly wanted to discuss the book anyway, as he hated it, it had bored him rigid, though he did think it remarkably prescient in view of the 2008 crash.

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

Reading group: All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski

Everyone present loved this suggestion of Doug's, Walter Kempowski's 2006 novel set in 1945 East Prussia as the German army retreats from the Russian advance and refugees begin to trickle and then pour from the occupied lands.

Sealed off from the growing chaos in their rundown rural mansion, the Georgenhof, the remains of an estate now largely sold off, is the semi-aristocratic von Globig household: a dreamy young wife, Katharina, known as a beauty, whose army officer husband is away in Italy requisitioning goods for the German army, her introspective twelve-year-old son, a spinster relative who acts as housekeeper, and their few Polish and Ukrainian servants. Unaware of the military threat, and of the slyer threat from their envious Nazi neighbour, Drygalski, the 'kind of deputy mayor' of the new housing estate across the road, the von Globigs merely watch curiously as the processions of refugees pass the house, and make no preparations to leave. Their peace begins to be broken, however, by a series of travellers who call at the house from out of the surrounding snow, and when Katharina is asked to harbour a particularly mysterious stranger for one night, their fate is set.

Doug said - to murmurs of enthusiastic agreement - that he thought the book brilliant. It begins in a mode that at first seems old-fashioned, with leisurely, objective and omniscient descriptions first of the house and then of each member of the household in turn - a mode which does indeed recall the nineteenth-century world from which the von Globigs have failed to be woken. Yet there are strange repetitions that do not belong to the polished, patrician prose of an earlier century: in the section concerning one character we will be told a fact that we have already been told in an earlier section dealing with a different character, and in exactly the same words, as though the fact is being introduced for the first time. There is too much of an overall air of authority to the prose for this to be authorial clumsiness. As Doug said, the precise verbal repetition creates a sense of the fateful connections between the characters - such as between the von Globigs and Drygalski - and, at the same time, of their psychic isolation from each other in the situation. As the book proceeds, there is a growing musicality in the repetition, and the novel builds like a piece of music, moving in simple prose through a dreamy tone towards nightmare as the chaos of war overtakes the von Globigs, and opening out to orchestrate a huge cast of characters, the repetitions becoming sinister: Where would they all end up? ; Had it all been for nothing?

Previously to writing this novel, after coming across abandoned papers and photos revealing the unrecorded experience of German people during the war, Kempowski had produced a monumental non-fiction work of witness, and this clearly informs All for Nothing. What had seemed at the outset a conventional omniscient narration about one family becomes a magnificent piece of free indirect discourse giving witness to whole populations devastated by war, moving from head to character's head and out again, breaking down the stereotypes through which they see each other and showing us all of them - Nazi, Jew, German, Ukrainian, Pole - from every perspective in all their flawed humanity.

The book is translated from the German by Anthea Bell, who also translated W G Sebald's Austerlitz (which we also loved). Once again we were extremely impressed by the translation. In particular, as Ann pointed out, the handling of idioms is especially impressive, easy on the English ear whilst never detracting from the German feel of the prose.

In a nutshell, we all loved it. There was one small doubt, which I think all of us shared: although the novel has something of the quality of fable (rather than of the realist novel), we did find the ending, which I won't give away here, psychologically unconvincing and potentially sentimental, though we forgave the book that for its overall magnificence.

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

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Katy Lumsden on Red Room

Here's a very lively YouTube review by Katy Lumsden of the Unthank anthology Red Room: New Stories Inspired by the Brontes which was edited by A J Ashworth, and published in 2014. It's a comparison of our anthology with the new one edited by Tracy Chevalier, Reader I Married Him, and, much to our gratification, she loves ours! I'm thrilled to say too that she picks out my story, 'That Turbulent Stillness,' and says I do interesting things with form and structure in my writing!

Monday, August 22, 2016

Reading group: Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

I suggested this book as a classic I had never read even though I found brilliant the film Cabaret, which is based on a section from it. Influenced by Isherwood's reputation as right wing and reactionary (prior to his rehabilitation as a gay writer in the 70s), and understanding that the film took great licence with the book, I had never been attracted to read it, or any of his other work.

As I said to the group, I was delighted to find my prejudice overturned.

Based on Isherwood's own experiences in Berlin, but flagged in an author's foreword as fictional - 'readers are certainly not entitled to assume that its pages are purely autobiographical' - the book consists of six loosely linked sections, not all of them following in chronological order, and spans the period from Autumn 1930 to Winter 1932-3 during which Berlin became transformed by the rise of the Nazis, and its licentious underworld culture attracting young men like Isherwood was swept away. During the course of the book, writer and English teacher 'Christopher Isherwood' settles into his new accommodation with his landlady Frl Schroeder, once genteel but now down on her luck (other occupants include a prostitute and a female Nazi); meets and becomes friendly with the garrulous and incorrigible nightclub singer (and unofficial prostitute) Sally Bowles (on whom the film Cabaret is centred); spends a period on a Baltic island sharing a house with Englishman Peter and his young working-class German lover Otto; back in Berlin, stays for a time with Otto and his family the Nowaks, and experiences the cramped conditions of the Berlin working classes; becomes involved with the Landauers, the wealthy Jewish family whose eighteen-year-old daughter, Natalia, he teaches; and finally, as SA men beat people up in the street, knows sadly that it is time for him to leave.

I said that I was hugely impressed by the quality of the prose and the insights into people and the way they are depicted - the affectionate depiction, for instance, of the bossy but naive and ultimately vulnerable teenager Natalia. On their first meeting, she makes Christopher tell her about the book he is writing (although he can see that she isn't really following his English):
When I had finished, she asked at once: 'And when will it be ready - how soon?' For she had taken possession of the story, together with all my other affairs. I answered that I didn't know. I was lazy.
'You are lazy?' Natalia opened her eyes mockingly. 'So? Then I am sorry. I can't help you.'

The first and last sections of the book take the form of a diary and are indeed titled thus (Berlin Diary Autumn 1930 and Berlin Diary Winter 1932-3), and the second paragraph of the book is the narrator's famous statement:
I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, and fixed.
 This is often taken as declaring a refusal to judge, but the point about a camera of course is that you can choose where to point it, and not only is there implicit judgement in the cool way Isherwood depicts characters, letting them reveal themselves, the book is a masterpiece of careful and telling selection. I said I loved the counterpointing that Isherwood thus creates: the two diary sections framing the book with vividly and sadly contrasting pictures of Berlin; the counterpointing of the louche and money-grubbing Sally Bowles and the pampered and naive Natalia, representatives of  contrasting social milieux; and most importantly of all, that of the good-hearted but politically naive Gentile Nowaks, vulnerable to Nazi propaganda, and the Jewish Landauers whose wealth and safety is doomed. Such counterpointing creates of itself a judgement on the overall social and political situation. The fact that the sections do not run entirely chronologically, and that as a consequence we discover that other events and friendships have been running alongside the ones we have been focused on, creates a kind of yearning sense of missed connection which I found very moving, and it seems to me that this, formally, is another comment on the social breakdown of the era. The endings of books are of course of prime importance, and the fact that Isherwood ends with descriptions of the growing Nazi violence he witnesses, however coolly he describes it, left me in no doubt about a fiercely left-wing authorial stance. The book was, after all, first published by notably left-wing publisher John Lehmann, and it is known that Isherwood held in great importance Erich Maria Remarque's anti-war and anti-establishment novel All Quiet on the Western Front, which we discussed here.

Everyone present agreed enthusiastically that the book was beautifully written and thoroughly engrossing, Mark in particular saying that he read it at a gallop in a couple of sittings. People elaborated on the things I had said, and amazement was expressed that Isherwood could have presented such a clear-eyed and politically acute picture of the rise of the Nazis, with even the mention of concentration camps, so early on before the war, and that such a book should have been published as early as 1939. Everyone was especially taken by the episode (near the end) picked out by Ann, where, as the Nazis take over the streets and the life of Berlin, Christopher attends a boxing match that the audience takes 'dead seriously', placing bets even though it is abundantly clear that the match is fixed, so that Christopher comments: 'The political moral is certainly depressing: these people could be made to believe in anybody or anything'. Impressive too is the depiction of the normalisation of Nazism in the minds of the populace, the muggings of suspected Jews presented by the narration with cool yet savage irony as 'not, in itself, very remarkable; there were no deaths, very little shooting, not more than a couple of dozen arrests', and the harmless and even likeable landlady Frl Shroeder coming to talk 'reverently about "Der Fuhrer" to the porter's wife.'

Doug said that he did find something missing: a sense of the precise nature of Christopher's relationships with each of the other young men in the book, as it was clear that, writing in the early 30s, Isherwood would have had to suppress any explicit homosexuality. I quickly agreed, remembering that I'd had the same problem: for instance, when on the island of Reugen Otto abandons his lover Peter each evening to go dancing with women and Christopher and Peter end up spending the time together at a cafe, does this mean that Christopher is stepping in merely on the level of friendship, or in a more involved way? And, after the relationship between Peter and Otto breaks down, what is the precise relationship between Christopher and Otto when Christopher moves into Otto's cramped family home, and indeed shares his sleeping quarters? What indeed was his relationship with the nephew of the Landauers, Bernhard, with whom he is fascinated but who seems ambivalently to hold him at arm's length? Mark thought it was obvious that all of the relationships would have been physically sexual. I said, but even so, because of the suppression, we can't know the emotional level. For instance, later Christopher is apparently wistfully arrested when someone mentions a Peter (who will turn out not be the same Peter): does this mean he was unrequitedly in love with him, or not? As was agreed generally, it's a reading problem created by our contemporary hindsight: at the time of publication readers would generally have accepted the surface representation of the relationships.

John said that he thought this suppression was closely linked to the camera conceit at the beginning. A photographer records, and in the way he records interprets, but leaves himself out of the picture. The only way for the narrator to suppress his own homosexual involvement with characters would be to excise himself from the story as active participant, and place himself in the role of observer. This is indeed movingly codified on the first page where Christopher, newly arrived in his lodgings, listens to the young men in the street below whistling up to their girls:
Their signals echo down the deep hollow street, lascivious and private and sad ... soon a call is sure to sound, so piercing, so insistent, so despairingly human, that at last I have to get up and peep through the slats of the venetian blind to make sure that it is not - as I know very well it could not possibly be - for me.
a statement of longing and exclusion that blew me over before I had hardly begun the book.

And then, to my surprise, Mark, who had stated the most robustly that he'd found the book a compulsive read, said that nevertheless he did disagree with me about its left wing stance: he thought that it was after all fundamentally right wing and racist. Christopher makes a conscious political point of getting to know the Landauers after hearing anti-Jewish sentiments expressed, but Mark said that there is exoticism in the portrayal of Bernhard: with his Oriental furnishings and dressing gown Bernhard is portrayed as mysteriously exotic. I objected that the exoticism was surely that of Bernhard himself and of the time, Orientalism being a fashionable obsession of the 30s. I have to concede that Bernhard does come across as fundamentally unknowable, ambiguously fascinating and repellent, but feel on reflection that that's a matter of suppressed homosexuality rather than racism, since the attitude to the other Landauers is straightforward and affectionate. Mark pointed to the statement that a gang of Nazi roughs 'manhandled some dark-haired, large-nosed pedestrians' as evidence of racial stereotyping on the part of Isherwood. I read that, on the contrary, as Isherwood's ironical comment on racial stereotyping by the Nazis - note that these pedestrians are not identified by the narration as Jews; they are people, not necessarily Jews, who because of certain physical characteristics are assumed by the Nazis to be Jews. It's also significant that the passage comes at the very start of the section on the Landauers, prefiguring the fate in store for them that will be a matter of great sadness.

For Mark, I think, Isherwood's position as a privileged upper-class young man slumming it with a family like the Nowaks as a matter of curious writerly choice and observing the coming political storm from a position of safety (he can return to England while Bernhard Landauer remains to suffer a horrific fate), weakens his observations. It is also a matter of fact that Isherwood left England for America with W H Auden just before the war, declaring to his publisher John Lehmann that Europe was no longer of concern to him, a matter about which Lehmann was still writing bitterly in the late 80s, and which clearly fuelled the reputation that had put me off Isherwood's work.

However, it seems to me that irrespective of Isherwood's ultimate political stance, close attention to the text of Goodbye to Berlin shows it to be a work of political acuity, humanity and integrity. The social status of author Isherwood and narrator Christopher cannot to my mind detract from the searing nature of the depiction of the poverty-stricken boys who come from the countryside to the city to seek unattainable work, and the cruel character of the city, the heart of political oppression:
the city, which glowed so brightly and invitingly in the night sky above the plains, is cold and cruel and dead. Its warmth is an illusion, a mirage of the winter desert. It will not receive these boys. It has nothing to give. The cold drives them out of its streets, into the wood which is its cruel heart. And there they cower on benches, to starve and freeze, and dream of their faraway cottage stoves

and the air of restrained longing and sadness infusing the whole creates a lament not just for oppressed homosexuality but for oppressed humanity.

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

Friday, August 19, 2016

'Falling' interpreted

Googling your own name is a well known as an act of vanity, but writers do it also to try and gauge responses to their work (it's always good to know what people think of what you've done). So there I was idly Googling a couple of times recently and I came across two responses to my story 'Falling' which really tickled me. First of all, it turns out that, all without my knowing, a recording of the story has been uploaded to YouTube - a really nice recording, I think, the story well read.

Then yesterday I came upon this, the description by design graduate Gus van Manen of his graphic design interpretation of the story, a beautiful little book that lets you, as he says, 'fall' through the story - exactly the kind of sensation I was hoping to create for the reader. (Go to the page for the images, which I can't copy.)  It never palls, that sense of gratification when you feel that someone has really understood what you're doing. And when they pour their own creativity into attending to it in these ways - well!

Oh, and I discovered from Google yesterday that two years ago a paper was presented at a conference of the Association for Welsh Writing in English at Bangor University in 2014 by Michelle Deininger on 'The Politics of Disease in the Short Fiction of Elizabeth Baines'  - all without my having any inkling! *

'Falling' can be read on East of the Web and is included in my latest collection of short stories, Used to Be (Salt).

* I am grateful to Michelle Deininger for posting in the comments below a link to her thesis, from which her paper was taken, and which I have brought up  hereShort Fiction by Women from Wales: a neglected tradition. Pages 177-188 deal with two of my early stories.

Friday, July 29, 2016

New Nightjars: Campbell and Burns

Through my door not so long ago: the latest beautifully produced chapbooks of individual stories from Nicholas Royle's Nightjar imprint - stories by Neil Campbell and Christopher Burns that fulfil perfectly Nightjar's concern with the uncanny and the macabre, each unsettling in both subtle and shocking ways.

Neil Campbell's Jackdaws is drenched with unease as the first-person narrator describes walking in the Derbyshire hills around his home - first in snow, then in summer - and the effects of the weather, snow and floods, on the row of houses in which he lives. The descriptions are stunning, but there is something deeply unsettling about these sequences - about the fact that we know so little about the narrator himself, about the obsessive nature of his descriptions (we could draw a map from them). And why is this all we are getting - descriptions of walks and weather and no story? When the denouement comes, it comes as a real jolt, and we understand the very shocking story that has been running underneath all along. Masterful.

Christopher Burns' story opens in a similar manner, with a protagonist walking in an atmospheric dawn. This time our sense of foreboding comes too from the protagonist's own unease as he approaches the farmhouse from which he feels he has been more or less disinherited. However, when the moment of shock arrives here, it is again entirely unexpected and at this moment Burns executes a clever narrative switch which lends a dynamism and true horror to the events that then rapidly unfold.

The covers of both volumes are aptly illustrated by details from two of the stunningly atmospheric landscapes of Manchester artist Jen Orpin.

Don't forget: these are limited signed editions, and they soon sell out! You can order them here.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Reading group: Duplicate Keys by Jane Smiley

 Warning: plot spoil. Our discussion of this book, suggested by Clare, centred on whether or not it works as a thriller, and therefore it was inevitable that right from the start we should talk about its workings, including the handling of revelation and the ending.

Since Jane Smiley is renowned as a literary and Pullitzer prizewinning chronicler of family relations, most of us expected this book, her only thriller, to be a superior literary and psychological example of the genre, but for all but two of our group it was a disappointment.

Set at the beginning of the eighties, it opens as early-thirties librarian Alice Ellis is interviewed by a detective about the horrific scene she has just discovered when visiting the flat of her friend Susan, absent in the Adirondacks, to water the plants: the bodies of Susan's partner Denny and Craig, Denny's adopted brother who lives with them, slumped in easy chairs and shot through the head. Denny and Craig are members of a once almost successful pop group with whom Alice and Susan moved from the Midwest to New York ten years earlier, old school and university friends seeking fame and fortune (and inevitably disappointed). Other members of the group eventually come under suspicion for the murder: Noah Mast, whose wife Rya, it will turn out, has been having an affair with Craig, and Ray Reschley who has sold the two men a large amount of cocaine but failed to get his money from them and is inevitably under pressure from his dealers. But then there are the unknown number of people to whom Susan and Denny lent the keys to their apartment and the unknown number of times they may have been copied...

A promising enough scenario, but for me it instantly failed to deliver, and by the time of the meeting I had managed to read only 50 pages, so tedious did I find the book (although I did force myself to finish it afterwards in order to write this up). The whole thing is seen through the eyes of the musing Alice, a clear authorial intention to make this thriller psychological, but she - along with all of the group - is so lacking in affect that right from the start I was unconvinced by the psychology and there was a consequent lack of tension to engage me in the plot. After her interview with the detective, Alice goes to Ray's apartment for dinner where Noah and Rya have also arrived, and is greeted at the door by Rya with, ' "Isn't it amazing?"
' "We're just shocked," said Rya, whose blond hair was wound on top of her head. If she unpinned it, it would fall down in a single shining mass, Alice knew. The only sense of expertise she ever got about Rya was when the other woman was arranging her hair or choosing clothes. "Just shocked, shocked. I can't express it."
"Astonished. Dumbfounded," suggested Noah.
"Noah is shocked, too. Believe me. He teases to cover up."
"Floored. Taken aback."
"Don't make us laugh, Noah." '
Ray arrives with takeout food which both the group and the author relish in a way I found unintentionally laughable in the situation, Rya 'moaning over the mo-shu pork, the oysters with straw mushrooms, the gong-bao chicken with charred red peppers and cashews, the sizzling rice soup, the shrimp toast.'

If this is intended, as the New York Times Reviewer would have it, as the affectless 'cool' cultivated by thirties-something New Yorkers, I simply don't buy it. The murder of members of a longtime friendship group is surely the very thing to break through that 'cool', however disaffected the members may have become with each other. And although Rya's behaviour is commented on by her husband Noah as 'odd',  it doesn't, in the hindsight allowed by the later knowledge that one of the murdered men was her (generally) secret lover, seem to me likely, however affected, or indeed much different from the almost indifferent behaviour of the others. (Alice has to wonder as they eat 'if the others were thinking constantly of Denny and Craig and Susan, as she was'). And if the general indifference (which makes for unlikeable characters I simply can't get interested in) is intended as an authorial manipulation to bring all of the characters under the reader's suspicion, it doesn't work for me, because only a few pages in I guessed correctly that Susan, Denny's partner, had committed the murder. Clare and Jenny, the two members of our group present who had liked the book, asked me how I had known. To begin with, Susan is glaringly significant as the only one not around, officially away when the murder takes place and therefore the only one who, if she did commit the murder, covered her tracks. Secondly, one of Susan's main characteristics is her neatness and organisation, and the murders are strikingly neat: both men sitting in their places and nothing in the room disturbed. Most importantly, when she returns and is told of the murder, although the one most likely in conventional terms to break down, she acts with the greatest cool and least affect of all.

Jenny objected that often in thrillers the most likely person turns out not to have done it, and I did briefly consider that this was a double-bluff on the part of the author, but there were other things that signalled to me that the author was simply not in command of the thriller mode. When Alice gets back after the meal to her flat she opens her bedroom door and is startled to find Susan, returned, in her bed (which indeed signals a kind of sneakiness and unpredictability on the part of Susan, and strongly links her, associatively and thematically, with the danger of duplicate keys - not to mention the giveaway fact of her having gone on her return to Alice's flat and not to her own where the murders have taken place). This means it must fall to (the unsuspecting) Alice, there and then, to tell her about the murder of her partner (though rather unconvincingly she puts it off for as long as possible). Alice gets into bed with Susan and snuggles up to her: 'And then, when Alice had her securely in her arms, she told her. After a minute or two, Susan disengaged herself and got up, went into the bathroom and closed the door.' During the subsequent silence from the bathroom, Alice falls asleep (which again doesn't seem all that likely: wouldn't she be on edge, wondering and worrying about her friend?), waking later to find Susan 'moving about like a mother in Alice's room', tidying up: 'Always well groomed, she was even more so now.' The narration presents this as unremarkable: 'If [Alice] expected wailing, she should not have, for Susan was not that way' and 'How typical of Susan, she thought, to face devastation with a cleanup.' However, this seemed to me a complete authorial fudge. The most significant moment - for both thriller and psychological mode - would be the moment of telling and those moments afterwards before Susan gets out of bed. How did she react in those moments? What expression was on her face? (The light isn't off.) What happened to her eyes? Did they widen? Her mouth? Did her face twitch? What about her breathing? Did she gasp? Did she make any sounds? In fact, she could have been made to have reactions that Alice and the reader could interpret as shock and horror but which in hindsight would turn out to be the guilt of a murderer, thus putting the reader off the scent. Instead, the author implies she had no facial reaction by telling us beforehand that Susan has a naturally calm and inexpressive face, an inadequate and psychologically unconvincing explanation for a blank reaction to such news, and then glosses the moment in which she is thus revealed as a cold bitch most likely to have committed the murder.

I stumbled too over a moment on the second page. The detective interviewing Alice asks her to confirm that while Susan was away she was watering the plants (which is how she came upon the murders). She replies, ' "I was supposed to. I told Susan I would come every three days." ' This supposed to immediately alerted me to the fact that she may not have done precisely as promised. This will eventually turn out to be the case, and there is a reason for her not having done so that will be the crucial clue incriminating Susan, and which, revealed in its true light at this stage, would give the game away from the start. However, it seemed to me unlikely that the detective wouldn't pick up on this very obvious hint that all was not as it was supposed to be, as indeed he fails to do, and since we are locked into the musing Alice's viewpoint, it seemed a glaring omission that we don't share knowledge of this reason. The clever thing for the author to have done would be to reveal the reason but find an alternative explanation for it that seems to let Susan off the hook, or indeed diverts attention away from her. Instead, the moment is glossed and left hanging, and it stuck out for me as a clumsily planted and inadequately smoothed-over clue.

Susan's motive for the murder is over-signalled throughout and yet psychologically obscure, pummelled at the reader in long speechy conversations between her and Alice over more relished exotic food, and amounting to nothing more than the fact that she couldn't bear any longer to go on living with the overriding obsession of two men obsessed with the stardom they never managed to grasp and can't believe they never will. ' "You've got to understand what it's like hearing the same conversations over and over for years... It hurt me. It literally made my skin prickle and my heart pound." ' If we are to accept that this emotional state was intense enough to drive her to murder we need a better, more dynamic insight into it, but as it is we need to take Susan's word for it. It seems to me that part of the reason the author fails to tackle this dimension is that she has set Susan up as so self-contained that such extremity in her is unlikely - not to mention the fact that crimes of passion don't tend to involve the kind of cold-blooded forward planning in which Susan turns out to have engaged: obtaining the gun, learning how to use it and planning her alibi. If, as in a conventional thriller, we are not to need to be convinced on such a psychological level, then Susan needs to have some more obvious and easily graspable motive.

So the chief problem for me is that though this purports to be a psychological thriller, the psychology of the characters is unconvincing or impossible to grasp, conveyed as it is through 'talky' speeches and narratorial 'telling' rather than properly dramatised interaction - though I should say that neither Clare nor Jenny had a problem with this. Since Susan is portrayed as so affectless, I found it impossible to understand why Alice has always been needy for her friendship (and is now guiltily glad of the opportunity the murder gives her to spend more time with her). It's not enough for the narrator to tell me, on behalf of Alice, that 'No one was like Susan, after all, no one thought about things as Susan did. Some quality of her mind was unique, attractive but indefinable, inaccessible' since Susan never came across to me as attractively mysterious but tediously blank. Immediately after finding the bodies, Alice meets a man with whom she becomes involved, a relationship involving a certain (if ambivalent) passion, and I found it psychologically unconvincing that she can't tell him about the murders, as did John. (Alice's musing rationale - 'Henry entering her present circle [would be] a complication of cruel proportions' - seemed to me merely authorial rationalisation for avoiding narrative complications.) 

As for the thriller/plot element, Alice seems to come to the realisation that Susan is the murderer instinctually (rather than through the obvious clue planted at the start that should have told her the truth all along), and, on the psychological level, her continuing attachment to Susan after this realisation - and indeed even greater sense of satisfaction in the new closeness she imagines - seems unrealistic. When Susan eventually stalks Alice with a gun, there has been nothing planted beforehand to make us feel that this was inevitable or psychologically realistic: it seems merely a manipulated plot twist, and Alice's escape through a window and along a high ledge clinging to the building seems highly unlikely and smacks of nothing more than the insertion of a cliched cinema trope for the sake of a possible film version.

Once again, on the thriller/plot level: John thought it highly unlikely that only one detective should be involved in a double murder, as is the case, or that he should not make more effort to protect Alice from Susan if, as turns out, he suspected Susan all along (the lame excuse he gives is lack of manpower). Even Jenny and Clare, the book's defenders, found it laughable that, after being told by him to get her locks changed, Alice ends up abandoned by the locksmith and alone at night without a lock on her door or even the obvious emergency expedient of a bolt.

Ann summed up the book succinctly: that normally in a thriller you can in retrospect trace a pattern of clues as they were systematically planted, but that that wasn't possible with this novel, and that it didn't really work as either a thriller or a psychological novel.

Jenny however found the theme of faded dreams in this book socially realistic and compelling: she thought that there had been a real social phenomenon in the seventies of people moving to the city expecting to find fame and fortune and by the eighties becoming disillusioned.

The meeting had been sparsely attended, all of the men except John absent. Afterwards, I bumped into Trevor and Mark separately, and both said they felt as I did about the book, Mark having managed only 100 pages, and both had guessed from very near the beginning that Susan had committed the murders.

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

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Catching up on recent literary events:

On Sunday I went to Carol Ann Duffy's 'Shore to Shore' tour of poets at Caernarfon's Galeri, a really wonderful event attended by hordes, which I've written about on my other blog. It was a horrible rainy night, as horrible as rainy nights can be in this part of North Wales (I'm looking out at the trees whipping around and the rain batting on my window just now), but nothing could damp this event, and it was a bright and heartening two hours in the midst of our depressing political situation.
Information about the tour can be found here.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at the launch in Southport for Carys Bray's new novel, The Museum of You. After a walk on the immense beach, which I had never been to before - the sea so far away you could hardly see it - I turned up at Broadhurst's bookshop with beach mud on my shoes and splashed on my trousers. The event was lovely. The Museum of You is the story of a young girl who knows nothing about her dead mother since her grieving father won't talk about her, and who tries to piece together her mother's life in a 'museum' of objects stored in the spare room. The book sounds wonderful and Carys made the evening even more special with little gift bags containing objects featured in the novel, and cakes decorated with their shapes. Broadhurst's Bookshop also did an impressive and apt window display.

At the beginning of June I was in London at another launch, that of my long-time colleague Jane Rogers for her new novel, Conrad and Eleanor. Another lovely evening, this time in Hatchard's in Piccadilly: it was a hot evening and there was prosecco (my favourite!) and a super reading from what looks like a really very impressive novel about the effects of time on a marriage.

Really looking forward to reading both books.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Reading group: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Our main reaction to this, Hemingway's now classic second novel (suggested by Ann), was that it was difficult to know how to read it from our present-day perspective. Famously based on Hemingway's own experience as an ambulance driver for the American Red Cross in WW1, it is the first-person narration of Frederic Henry, an American in the Italian army overseeing ambulances on the Italian-Austrian front. Henry recounts his journey from his posting in a sleepy Italian town where the action, though advancing, is heard only distantly in the hills, and where he meets and falls in love with an English nurse Catherine Barkley, to his embroilment in direct action; his serious wounding and hospitalisation in Milan, nursed by Catherine (who happens to be posted to the same hospital); his return to the front and experience of the retreat of the Italian army; his escape from execution as a retreating officer and consequent gruelling undercover journey back to the pregnant Catherine; and their flight to Switzerland, a triumph cut short by personal tragedy.

There was immediate agreement in the group that this book fell into two different stories - the war story and the love story - which didn't really fit together. Everyone agreed that the war sequences were brilliantly executed in Hemingway's famously spare and telling prose, but everyone hated the episodes concerning the relationship with Catherine, which were chiefly conducted in dialogue and  shockingly flabby and coy in comparison - or, as John pointed out, in comparison to Hemingway's short stories - and which certainly don't withstand a feminist reading (which Hemingway's short story Cat in the Rain, for instance, does). This is the exchange (much cut by me) when Catherine has asked Henry about his experience with prostitutes:
... "When a man stays with a girl ... she just says what he wants her to? ... I will. I'll say just what you wish and I'll do what you wish and then you'll never want any other girls, will you?" She looked at me very happily. "I'll do what you want and say what you want and then I'll be a great success, won't I?"
"Yes ... You're so lovely."
"I'm afraid I'm not very good at it yet."
"You're lovely."
"I want what you want. There isn't any me any more. Just what you want."
John said it was perhaps therefore necessary to read the novel historically, that is, as a period piece. Ann found the book of great historical interest, dealing as it does with an aspect of the First World War usually overlooked, attention tending to be concentrated on the Somme. She said she felt that she almost wished that the love story had been left out as the war story was so searing and vivid.

We talked about the prose in those war sections. People were immensely impressed by Hemingway's ability to show rather than tell, to pick out telling details that obviate the need for distancing narratorial statements or explanations. Ann pointed to the horrific moment when Henry is carried wounded in an ambulance, dripped on by blood from the wound of the man above him. The blood suddenly stops dripping, and so Henry and the reader know that the man's heart has stopped pumping: he has died. Hemingway refrains from actually stating this last, but through that one detail allows Henry and the reader to think and experience it for themselves. Ann wondered if people still write like that, however. John and I commented that 'show not tell' is in fact the great creative writing mantra of the present day - people call on the legacy of Hemingway all the time - but that we felt it's often misinterpreted or badly done, with authors focusing solely on the most boring and mundane details that actually don't tell you anything about the inner lives of characters or the dynamics of situations and indeed mask them.

John said he felt there was a bit of that going on in this book, actually. Several of the chapters end with something strangely inconsequential and quotidian, such as 'We all got up and left the table' or 'I was terrifically hungry'(after the escaped Henry jumps a freight train to find it full of guns). I said I thought that perhaps this was a deliberate illustration of the lack of significance, or alienation from significance, occasioned by war, although I did agree that it often resulted in a disconcerting lack of resonance. Someone suggested that this, and indeed the whole prose style with its distanced spareness (but which paradoxically can create a lack of distance, as seen above), was a deliberate illustration of the narrating Henry's shell shock. Ann said that there is a school of thought that it is rather a result of Hemingway's own shell shock, with which I tended to agree. There was some demurring at this which was taken as a suggestion of lack of narrative control on Hemingway's part, but I pointed out that you can have both: writers can write instinctually out of their own psyches and then become aware of how it's serving their artistic purpose and consequently work consciously on honing the style (in fact, I'd say that that's fundamentally how the greatest writing is done).

I said that the passage that really struck me in the book occurs in the chapter where Henry is hiding in the train wagon surrounded by guns:
My knee was stiff but it had been very satisfactory. Valentini [the doctor who had operated on him] had done a fine job. I had done half the retreat on foot and swum part of the Tagliamento with his knee. It was his knee all right. The other knee was mine. Doctors did things to you and then it was not your body any more. The head was mine, the inside of the belly. It was very hungry in there. I could feel it turn over on itself. The head was mine, but not to use, not to think with, only to remember and not too much to remember.
It was at this point that the meaning of the novel fell into place for me: it's about the loss and fragmentation of self created by war. In this context, the schism between the two stories of the book can be seen as artistically apt: those two sides of Henry's experience are in fact irreconcilable. Indeed, the passage above goes on, in a prose that mimics with elisions his distressed state of mind:
I could remember Catherine but I knew I would get crazy if I thought about her when I was not sure yet I would see her, so I would not think about her, only about her a little, only about her with the car going slowly and clickingly, and some light through the canvas and my lying with Catherine on the floor of the car. Hard as the floor of the car to lie not thinking only feeling, having been away too long, the clothes wet and the floor moving only a little each time and lonesome inside and alone with wet clothing and hard floor for a wife.
However, it's true that on the whole, throughout the terrible things that happen to him, Henry does retain a single-minded and obsessive romantic passion for Catherine, and someone in the group suggested that this wasn't actually very psychologically realistic - would he have the emotional space? Ann added that it's absent from most depictions of men's experience of active service in war, illustrating the alienation from such emotions created by active service. John wondered if it could be the result of the injection of autobiographical material into Henry's story: Hemingway was famously a passionate romantic when it came to women, and, although wounded, was less involved in active service than Henry. It was very clear, however, that the scene in which Henry is hit by a shell came from direct experience - no one in the group was in any doubt about that.

Still, people in the group went on musing about the necessity of the love story, which, in fact, takes over completely once Henry and Catherine are safely escaped to Switzerland. I think it was Mark who suggested it was there because Henry has to be a Knight in Shining Armour - there's a lot of macho humblebrag concerning Henry's decoration, like Hemingway's own, for bravery when wounded (oh, he doesn't think he did anything brave, but all the others insist he has to get a medal) - and of course a woman is essential to this heroic package. Some of the men in the group then also said they had wondered about the likelihood of the heroic journey that Henry makes with Catherine in a small rowing boat in the dark up Lake Maggiore to freedom in Switzerland - another instance, they thought, of dubious heroic posturing.

Everyone thought however that there was a very different tone to the ending, all heroics gone, when Catherine undergoes a horrific Caesarean section which Henry is allowed to watch from the operating theatre viewing gallery - once again, there was no doubt that this was drawn from real-life experience. The tragic outcome had moved group members to tears, and John commented that it's interesting that none of the book before this creates this effect, as if in formal enactment of the emotional numbing of war before this final, intensely personal moment.

He then added, however, that he thought it was significant that Catherine dies in childbirth. Although one of Hemingway's wives did undergo a Caesarean section, she did not die, but the marriage eventually failed due to his unfaithfulness (as did two of his other marriages) (and the real-life nurse on whom Catherine is based left him before they could be married). Looking at the relationship between Henry and Catherine, John said, it was clear that it would never have lasted, based as it was on romantic and narcissistic obsession - the heavily pregnant Catherine says to Henry of the coming baby as they walk in the Swiss woods: "She won't come between us, will she? The little brat" - and by killing off Catherine and the baby, Hemingway can preserve Henry's status as a (faithful) tragic hero while setting him free.

We all laughed at this, and agreed it was true, in spite of our having found the ending so sad. Once again Ann wondered how people might have read this at the time of publication. It seemed to me that such an irony would be unlikely to have occurred to them - we were looking at the book very much through a post-feminist perspective - and once again we came back to our major problem of clashing perspectives through which to view the book.

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

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Domain name working again

My domain name is working again, thank goodness. It's now possible to get through again on

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Accessing my website

I've discovered that my web domain has been down for about a week, so anyone trying to access my site through won't have got through. (Apparently the domain owners have sold on their business; the new owners are saying that my domain has expired - although it's paid for - and are insisting that I need to sort it out with the previous owners who are unobtainable and, it seems, no longer even exist!) I don't know how long it's going to take to sort it out, but in the meantime my website can be accessed via the basic url:

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Reading group: The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

Warning: plot spoil.

This short 1978 novel, set in 1959-60, about a widow who opens a bookshop in the fictional East Anglian seaside town of Hardborough where she has lived for the past eight years, and the obstructions she encounters from the local population, was greatly admired by most in our group. Mark said he had suggested the book because when he read it some years ago he was stunned by the economy and elegance of the prose (for which Fitzgerald is so known) - an admiration shared by everyone else in the group - although, he said, he wasn't sure what it was about.

He was probably going to go on to elaborate on this, but I jumped in and said, surely it's about small-town politics and the kind of fascistic pressure that can be brought to bear in such small communities on those who don't conform to the wishes of those with power. Frances Green wants to buy The Old House, a house on the foreshore with its own (damp) warehouse, a former oyster house, for her bookshop. However, Mrs Gamart, wife of a retired general, has plans for the place as an Arts Centre - a bid to situate herself at the cultural centre of Hardborough (and in the process inveigle herself with the remaining representative of the old gentry, Mr Brundish, by whom she has so far been ignored). Mrs Gamart gets straight to work on Frances by inviting her to a soiree. However, Frances, unaware at the start of such motives and machinations, and certainly unaware of where they must inevitably lead, is undeterred and goes ahead with her bookshop, only to encounter obstructions so underhand that they can hardly be named, with even her own solicitor party to the social pressure against her, so that in the end she is undone. Ann said that the book is thus about the impossibility for an outsider of negotiating the unspoken rules of such a community (although Frances has been there eight years, she is in effect a blow-in). John commented that the plot indeed amounts to a witch hunt conducted on the most genteel terms.

Mark, Trevor, Clare and Jenny raved unreservedly about the book, in particular its depiction of the subtlety of the viciousness deployed against Frances. The stunning opening image, symbolic of the tussle between that viciousness and Frances's oblivion and determination was remarked on:
She had once seen a heron flying across the estuary and trying, while it was on the wing, to swallow an eel which it had caught. The eel, in turn, was struggling to escape from the gullet of the heron and appeared a quarter, a half, or occasionally three-quarters of the way out. The indecision expressed by both creatures was pitiable. They had taken on too much.
Later, the narrative will comment about Frances: 'She blinded herself, in short, by pretending for a while that human beings are not divided into exterminators and exterminatees, with the former, at any given moment, predominating.'

We all thought that the descriptions of the environs were evocative, and beautifully symbolic of the forces surrounding Frances and the sadness of her fate:
The North Sea emitted a brutal salt smell, at once clean and rotten. The tide was running out fast, pausing at the submerged rocks and spreading into yellowish foam, as though deliberating what to throw up next or leave behind, how many wrecks of ships and men, how many plastic bottles.

There was some dispute about Frances's character. Clare saw her chiefly as ingenuous, and someone pointed in corroboration to the early description of her: 'She was in appearance small, wispy and wiry, somewhat insignificant from the front view and totally so from the back.' However, that early description is only - and no doubt narratorially deliberately only - of her outward appearance. Others of us countered that she was feisty, in the early pages hanging on to a horse's tongue while its teeth are filed and later responding to her solicitor who is failing to back her with a single-word letter: 'Coward!' In fact ingenuousness and feistiness are not mutually exclusive; it is indeed that combination in Frances that is central to the plot. It is interesting, though, that we had this dispute, and it is is perhaps relevant to subsequent points we discussed.

I said that although I found the prose elegant and the observations of people acute, I did actually find the narration emotionally flat, with which Doug, Ann and John agreed. Doug said he suspected it was imbued with the psyche of the author, whose life was indeed hard, the events of this novel echoing an episode of her own. Clare said that on the contrary she saw the tone of the prose as a reflection of the state of mind of protagonist Frances. However, as had been pointed out, Frances's psyche is fundamentally feisty, and I said that even if it weren't, then there's no need for the prose itself to be affectively flat, since the novel is a third-person omniscient narration.

We four felt that the flatness of the prose didn't do justice to the viciousness of the situation being depicted, but the others countered that it was precisely this contrast that made the viciousness so telling, and this was a strong disagreement in the group.

I said too that I felt that the characters were stereotypes, and once again Doug, Ann and John agreed, John strongly so. I was conceding to the rest that in such small towns in the fifties and sixties there were stereotypes - the retired general, his social-climbing wife, the ageing representative of old money, the louche commuting BBC employee, the more salt-of-the earth working-class characters, all of which appear here - when John made a point that perhaps explained some of our disagreements.

There is no interiority in the piece, he pointed out. Everyone, including Frances, is seen very much from the outside. At most we are told what Frances's emotions are. The book, as Ann said, is in the narrative tradition of writers such as Trollope, Edith Wharton and Barbara Pym, operating chiefly as social commentary rather than psychological exploration, and taking a rational objective view of all of the characters including the main protagonist. We are not made, as we are in the more modern literary mode of interiority, to share the protagonist's emotional experience, but have to take on trust the narrative judgement of her. The reader's way of apprehending her is thus in turn directed to be rational rather than experiential - which perhaps led to our differing reasoning about Frances. With regard to the other characters: although I had conceded that people do in life act in stereotype roles, it is also true that no one in life is truly a stereotype: there is always a complicating interiority. This novel eschews that interiority, leaving its more peripheral characters perilously grounded in the shallows of stereotype.

An aspect of the book that almost everyone felt unsure about was the poltergeist that inhabits the Old House, the 'rapper' as it is locally called. The locals take it for granted, which Frances herself does, and for a while after she moves in it seems to settle down as a low-key presence, but then later becomes more obstructive, refusing to let her open her own door then letting go and sending her flying, and making wild and vicious noises. Because this is such a realist novel, some of us in the group had wondered as we read if the rapper were really the locals trying to hound Frances from the house, but as everyone agreed, no evidence whatever emerged to suggest this. It seemed that we were meant to accept its presence as a fact and symbolic only of the social pressures on Frances, initially subtle but finally overt.

Everyone agreed that the ending of the novel is stunning. Here the objective observational narrative mode works to brilliant effect, formally enacting the exclusion of Frances as we watch her leave with an emotion she has been made unjustly to feel:
As the train drew out of the station she sat with her head bowed in shame...

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

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Review of Used to be in the Short Review

I'm having a nice couple of days: hot on the heels of the review in Confingohere's another really great review of Used to Be, this time in the inestimable Short Review. Reviewer Cath Barton discusses several of the stories in depth, and concludes:
Life is a series of might-have-beens, near-misses and what ifs. This is a tremendous collection of stories. They do not seek to be didactic, but may nonetheless give many of us who read them cause to reflect on the choices we have made in our own lives, and to be more mindful of the options which open in front of us every day.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Review of Used to Be in Confingo

There'a a lovely review of Used to Be in the new issue of the Manchester-based magazine Confingo. Confingo is an extremely smartly-produced publication, with stunning artwork and photography and high-standard fiction and poetry. This issue also carried an interview with David Gaffney. I thoroughly recommend it as a magazine worth subscribing to.

Of Used to Be, reviewer Emma Bosworth says: 'The writing is is vivid, buoyant, incisive ... vibrant evocation of time and place - and the power of the human mind to transcend both.'

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Reading group: Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

Warning: plot spoil.

This 1941 novel, Trevor's suggestion, features thirty-four-year-old George Harvey Bone who is in the grip of an infatuation with Netta Longdon, an out-of-work minor actress at the centre of a group of idlers who hang around London's Earl's Court all day drinking, or indeed, blagging drinks from others, chiefly from George. The novel opens, however, when George, staying with his aunt on the Norfolk coast for Christmas, suffers one of the mental lapses to which he is increasingly prone, in which he momentarily forgets where he is and is then overtaken by a purpose which at other times he entirely forgets: to kill Netta. Netta and her cohorts treat George cruelly, blatantly and even tauntingly using his infatuation with her to exploit him and going so far as to trick him, but so great is his obsession with her that in his 'sane' moments, he entirely forgets his desire to kill her and once more simply longs to be admitted into her affections.

Introducing the book, Trevor said he had found it hard to get to grips with these mental shifts, by which I think he meant he couldn't understand them on a psychological level. Although there is some implication that they are fuelled, or at least exacerbated, by excessive drinking, the book is epigraphed with a now outdated definition of schizophrenia: SCHIZOPHRENIA: A cleavage of the mental functions, associated with assumption by the affected person of a second
personality. However, George's lapses are in fact more akin to what we might now call a fugue state, a state of forgetting, dissociation and escape. It also seemed to some so very alien to George's somewhat passive and put-upon character that he should have such an impulse in even a dissociated state.

I said however that I didn't think this was meant to be a psychologically realist novel, and Ann agreed, saying that the mental shifts were more of a device, used in my view for a political rather than a psychological purpose. The novel begins very explicitly and indeed self-consciously at the start of 1939 and the run-up to war. As he walks the Norfolk cliff, George wonders when he should kill Netta: 'January the first? That seemed a good idea - starting the New Year - 1939.' Netta and the group around her approve of the Munich appeasement which troubles George; Netta is attracted to fascism for all the most decadent reasons:
She was supposed to dislike fascism, to laugh at it, but actually she liked it enormously. In secret she liked pictures of marching, regimented men, in secret she was physically attracted by Hitler. She did not really think that Mussolini looked like a funny burglar. She liked the uniform, the guns, the breeches, the boots, the swastikas, the shirts. She was, probably, sexually stimulated by these things in the same way as she might have been sexually stimulated by a bull-fight
and the unpleasant Peter, with whom George is devastated to find Netta is sexually involved, and who has been in jail, once for what he calls 'a minor spot of homicide with a motor-car', (and whose brutality is another source of attraction for Netta) is a Nazi sympathiser, if not an out-and-out Moseleyite.

In my view George's obsession with Netta, mired in the unthinking alcohol-soaked stasis of an idle life, is intended to stand for the dreamlike British psyche in the run-up to the war; it is George's fugue-like states which are the true sanity: the moments in which he sees evil for what it is and recognises that it must be destroyed, however contrary that runs to his nature.

Ann said she felt there was also a class theme operating. Netta and Peter and co are social climbers and they tolerate George not simply for what they can get out of him materially, but for the association with the kind of social background including a minor public school education that is George's. Indeed, in discussing Netta's attraction to fascism, the narration comments: 'And somehow she was dimly aware of the class content of all this: she connected it with her own secret social aspirations'. John noted the similarity in atmosphere and situation to that of Jean Rhys's Voyage in the Dark, published seven years earlier and which we discussed previously: a book set in a similar alcohol-soaked social milieu in the run up to the earlier war, with a similar sense of social breakdown and uncertain future - though, as we all noted, Rhys's book is much more psychologically internal (and thus to my mind more modern).

Jenny said she had read this book more simply as a depiction of a man manipulated by cruel people and unable to withstand them due to his amenable nature, and had found it very moving indeed. Everyone agreed that the book did work powerfully on that level, but whether this mix of modes works is perhaps questionable. Because George's character and emotional state are so richly portrayed, I found it difficult to believe that he would ever kill Netta. Others reported being very engaged by the question of whether he would, and the tension created as the narration led towards the possibility. John had said he thought the 'schizophrenia' device was a clever way of engaging your sympathies with him when he finally does so, but people experienced surprise, even shock, while some, including me, rather lost sympathy with George at this point - or rather, I found myself jerked out of the emotional engagement induced by the psychological realism and forced back to the detachment created by a more political allegory.

On the whole, I think people found the book thus slightly problematic, but everyone was agreed that it is a striking book, steeped in atmosphere and social-historical details that everyone relished, and rendered in acute prose beautifully exemplified in this description of Peter from George's point of view: 'And he laughed in his nasty, moustachy way.'

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