Thursday, December 31, 2020

Deborah Grace reviews Astral Travel

A lovely way to end the year, with a great review from Deborah Grace:

She calls Astral Travel 'powerful', and concludes: 

'Baines's beautiful, evocative and insightful writing transforms what might have been a difficult family drama into something far more extraordinary and optimistic. At its heart Astral Travel is about both the slipperiness of story-telling and its redemptive power. An utterly beguiling read!'

The whole review is here.

Nothing better to lift one's spirits amid the Covid gloom than a good review, and here in South Manchester there's snow, too, to brighten our lockdown New Year's Eve!

Here's wishing you all a better 2021!

Monday, December 28, 2020

Reading group: The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun

Ann suggested this short book which, newly reissued as a Penguin Classic, was a bestseller on its publication in Germany in 1932 but banned by the Nazis a year later, all German copies destroyed. It's the fictional journal of eighteen-year-old Doris who, longing to be a 'star', leaves her provincial home town for the heady lights of Berlin, only to end up in poverty and living off men in various ways.

The greatest admirer of the book in our group was Jenny, and most others appreciated it as a vivid portrayal of Weimar Berlin and a searing indictment of the plight of women in such a society, forced into a bitter choice between two types of transactional relationships with men, sexual or domestic. We noted the similarity to Jean Rhys's protagonists, but also the differences: Doris is a feisty working-class girl, and the diary mode is lightly satirical, exposing Doris's moments of naivity or lack of self-awareness in spite of her cynicism about men. Similarly, although she is spectacularly politically unaware, there are moments when she brushes against the political situation, such as the episode when 'blond windbreakers' enter a Jewish bar where she is drinking and trash it. She simply makes the vague comment: 'they are their enemies and it's got something to do with politics', and muses after the intruders have left, 'What was that all about?', her very innocence of the political implications underlining their import. There is an even stronger resemblance to Sally Bowles in Christopher Isherwood's later novel, Goodbye to Berlin, which we discussed here. (We suspected that Isherwood had been influenced by Keun's novel ). As John pointed out, however, the fundamental difference is that this book is written from the woman's point of view (whereas Sally Bowles is of course seen through the male narrator's eyes), making it more politically dynamic and indeed feminist. 

One problem with the book that Ann, John and I had was that at times we found it difficult to grasp Doris's tone. We wondered if this was a problem of the 2002 translation used in the new Penguin edition which we'd all read. Certainly we were brought up short by occasional Americanisms, and even anachronisms - 'women's lib' was a phrase that jumped out at us all. There were also frequent unfamiliar idioms I assume to be literal translations surviving from the original English translation, which sit oddly with the linguistic updating and are slightly confounding. (Ann said she had read that Doris's diary was in fact written in a very colloquial pre-war working-class German, which must have been difficult to represent in translation.) For instance, at one point a man asks Doris if she's a Jew:

My God, I'm not - but I'm thinking: if that's what he likes, I'll do him a favour - and I say: 'Of course - my father sprained his ankle at the synagogue last week.' ... and he got all hostile ... At first they pay you all sorts of compliments and are drooling all over you - and then you tell them: I'm a chestnut! - and their chin drops: oh, you're a chestnut - yuk, I had no idea.

While reading I found the unfamiliarity of that word 'chestnut' disconcerting, and later looked for it without success as a slang or abusive term for a Jew. Further investigation reveals that the German der Fuchs, meaning 'fox, or 'cunning devil', is also used to mean 'chestnut' (the colour of a fox), and so the racist pun becomes clear, but it doesn't survive the literal English translation. 

Some of us also found that the novel dragged a little in the middle as Doris becomes involved in a string of identically doomed transactional relationships with men. Clare appreciated this as formal depiction of the static trap in which Doris is caught, but though I could see this, it didn't stop me being frustrated by the lack of forward narrative movement, and the sense of repetition without much variation, encounters and liaisons merging one into the other with, for me, a consequent retrospective lack of vividness or memorability. John, in fact, felt this more strongly than I did.

However, the only entirely negative response came from Doug. He wasn't at all convinced that a young girl from such a provincial background would run away to the city as Doris did. And none of our objections - that she had a violent father, that she had stolen a fur coat and was afraid of being arrested for it, and above all, isn't that what young girls with stars in their eyes classically do? - cut any ice with him: he still found the book unconvincing and unengaging.

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


Friday, December 18, 2020

Last February, when Astral Travel was originally due to come out, I wrote a short article for The Big Issue about novels with a theme that Astral Travel shares: Difficult Irish Fathers. The article was pulled along with the novel, as lockdown descended on us and the Big Issue stopped being sold on the streets. When the novel was finally due to come out in November, the article was scheduled once again - but then of course, we were plunged into a second lockdown, and so the article appeared only online. I doubt that many people read it therefore, and I was tempted to put it on here or on my website, but that would of course deprive the Big Issue of income. The issue, No 1327 is still online, and can be purchased for a mere £2.50 here. So do please buy it, if you'd like to read the way in which Astral Travel links on this theme with Edna O'Brien's Country Girls Trilogy, John McGahern's Amongst Women and Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, and the ways in which it differs from them.

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Reading group: Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

Warning: spoiler - maybe!

This debut novel, suggested by Mark, won the 2019 International Dublin Literary Award (for which books are nominated by public libraries worldwide). Its narrative touchstone is an incident in the past of the novel, the hatchet murder of a small child, May, by her mother Jenny, in the family truck, on a seemingly placid and routine family outing to cut trees in a mountainside wood. At this Jenny's elder, nine-year-old daughter June fled into the woods and has never since been found in spite of years-long dissemination of posters depicting what she might look like as she grows. Jenny, who confessed immediately to the murder, was jailed for life. The focus of the novel, however, is not so much this past incident itself as its aftermath, and in particular the speculations about it by Ann, a teacher in the local school who afterwards married Wade, the father of this lost family. Very soon after their marriage Wade begins showing signs of early onset dementia, which his father suffered before him, and he is now losing his memory, so while Ann feels the need to carry memories of the past for Wade, and naturally wants to understand why the murder happened, the truth of it all is shrouded from her.

There was general agreement that this book is beautifully written on the level of the prose. The depiction of Ann's interiority is impressive and moving and the descriptions of the natural world spectacular, and Clare, accompanied by nodding agreement, pointed to the amazingly truthful portrayal of childhood in scenes between the two girls June and May. However, there was disagreement about the book's structure. It is strikingly non-linear, moving constantly back and forth between various time levels, and eventually into a future beyond our own present. Mark, agreed with by some others, said that he found this structure confusing, and constantly needed to check back to find out which incident had actually happened before another. Our Jenny and I, however, weren't so negative: although I agreed that it was sometimes a bit hard to keep up, the fragmented structure admirably replicates the workings of Ann's speculating and remembering mind, as well perhaps as the mental fragmentation caused by dementia.

Mark also found unsatisfying the fact that in spite of all Ann's speculations - and all her various and vivid mental recreations of the murder scene - she never comes to know why or even exactly how the murder happened, and neither do we, the readers. I suggested that the book's message is that the truth is sometimes just unknowable, but the fact is that most of us had found unsatisfying the way the book prompted us into speculations like those of the character Ann, only to have them frustrated.

We now began a detailed discussion about this matter. With regard to this, one aspect of the book in particular took our attention. Although Ann's speculations dominate the book, there are in fact passages outside of her consciousness, and which take the viewpoint of other characters. Thus we have an evident authorial consciousness which we would expect to know things of which not all the characters are aware, including of course the truth about the murder. The second part or chapter of the book begins with a new character, Elizabeth, a prisoner who eventually comes to share a cell with the character Jenny, and later in the prison scenes - scenes where Mark said his engagement with the book waned - we move into the viewpoint of Jenny herself. Never, however, in the conscious moments of the imprisoned Jenny that we share, does she once even think about the murder. It might seem obvious to argue that she is repressing the memory, but there is no apparent authorial indication of this. Indeed, there is an implication that she is suffering a self-imposed penance - for a long time never leaving her cell for exercise, for instance, and choosing to remain doing the most menial prison task - which would imply perhaps that her guilt, and therefore the murder, are overwhelmingly central for her. Authorial withholding of the information in these passages therefore seemed to us tricksy.

One striking speculation of the character Ann's left one member of our group convinced of its accuracy, so vividly was it told. The way that Ann and Wade had met was over a problem with nine-year-old June at the school where Ann was the music teacher, after which Wade began coming to Ann's schoolroom for piano lessons. Ann imagines Jenny, having guessed that something was developing between them, sitting in the truck for a break on the day of the murder, joined by her younger daughter May, and flipping when May begins singing the song that Ann has taught Wade to play, and turning in a moment of mad jealousy and swinging the hatchet at May's head. However, that did not seem to me a convincing motive for any mother, leave alone for Jenny: there is a striking section which is not in Ann's head but is authorially conveyed, so that we may take it as fact, in which Jenny is portrayed as a particularly understanding and empathic mother, empathising deeply with May who has been rejected by June, and eager to distract and comfort her. 

Few in our group however entertained any notion other than that Jenny had indeed, for some unfathomable reason, killed May. Our member Ann and I however had both wondered at times if in fact the murderer was June, the nine-year-old runaway sister and daughter, and that Jenny had covered for her by confessing to the murder. We weren't at all sure, however, as it seemed so unlikely: there didn't seem enough grounds. Looking back at the book now in order to write this, however, I am wondering more strongly if that was the authorial intention, or at least a deliberate authorial red herring.

It is made clear that June is, at least, a particularly emotionally charged child. The thing that brings Ann and Wade together at the start is the fact that June has stolen one of the decorated knives that Wade makes, in order to give it to an older boy with whom she is obsessively in love. Unaware that the boy, Eliot, has just left the school, she leaves it in his locker - unaware too that Ann has observed her doing so - along with a note: With All Of My Deepest Love in My Heart. The fact that June attends Ann's school sets her apart in the first place: it is a 'charter' school for 'high-achievers', though when Wade comes to the school to retrieve the knife, he makes it clear that the reason she has been sent there is because she had to be taken out of the 'normal school', as he puts it - and one wonders if this coinage is meant to be taken as significant. The reason for this move, it seems, is June's overemotional nature: she is  constantly falling in love with boys and getting her 'heart broken', he says, and he and his wife 'don't know what to do, really'. (Although that seems to me a somewhat tenuous reason for changing a child's school - particularly as it has clearly not solved the problem.) The stealing of the knife in itself could of course be seen as potentially sinister, although it would be little more than symbolic, since Wade assures Ann that June would never have used the knife for any violent purpose as she is 'very gentle' (and there is no real indication that Wade is wrong about this), and the act is of course done in the name of love. Another example of her obsessiveness is the occasion when Jenny needs to comfort May for being rejected by June. Having settled May, Jenny goes upstairs to June, and finds her seated on the floor whispering to herself as she acts out in her head one of her imagined scenarios, the obsessive nature of which unsettles Jenny enough for her to back out of the room quietly. There is a following scene in the garden in which May feels the rejection of the growing June's emotional movement away from her into her private (and romantic) mental world. Thus emotionally abandoned, May ruminates on the fact that June has a particular smell, a smell which is not pleasant, but like that of a 'frightened dog'. This again marks June out as different and strange and perhaps unwholesome, but again it is symbolic rather than psychologically indicative of her likely behaviour, and in any case the smell is characterised as that of fear rather than anything more dynamically sinister. And after all, while reading we in our group had all seen these scenes as admirable depictions of the typical behaviour of little girls and between sisters.

Then there is the strange matter of how June got her name. She wasn't always called June: she was initially Lily. We learn that Wade's father, in his dementia, came to believe that he had fathered a woman neighbour called June Bailey Roe, and when he died turned out to have left all of his money to her, dispossessing Wade. During their marriage Jenny writes several times to this June to try to retrieve Wade's lost inheritance, never to receive any reply. Then one day Wade tells Jenny that he wants their baby Lily to be called June. His motive is somewhat mystifying: he says that he doesn't like the woman she would be named after, but he does admire her for her tenacity. Jenny suggests that it could mess a child up having her name changed (though Wade overrides her by saying that the child is  so young she will never know). Once again, if the authorial intention is to cast some kind of discordant or troublesome air over the child June, then again, it's only symbolic, without any real psychological or factual substance indicating a potential for violence in June herself.

The character Eliot is surely, however, significant in this matter. He features only briefly and offstage at the start of the novel as the boy with whom June is in love and whom Ann teaches singing and is particularly fond of - a boy everyone falls in love with and who had lost a leg when the jetty at the edge of the lake in the school grounds collapsed beneath him. He suddenly reappears as an adult late on in this lengthy novel, and we share his memories of the accident: his rucksack placed by someone on the jetty, little girls at a table nearby giggling in hero worship at his presence and writing in secret games before getting up for their bus, and the horror for Eliot of falling through and being left alone, stuck all night. However, a girlfriend overturns his view of it all by suggesting to him that maybe the whispering little girls placed the rucksack on the jetty with malicious intent, knowing that he would fall through. Very soon after this in the novel we are witness to a scene between June and May in the woods where they are playing a writing game which is meant as a charm for predicting one's romantic destiny. June says that she doesn't need to do the game as she has already chosen her romantic love, whom we can assume is Eliot. As Eliot reassesses his memory, he remembers that there was a piece of paper on the top of his rucksack carrying just this charm game, so we can link June with the little girls by the lake and with Eliot's accident. It is hard, though, to believe that her motive was malicious, since it is after this that she will leave her gift and passionate note in his locker. Again, the authorial intention may be to show the witch-like character of obsession and its unfortunate consequences, but this does nothing to suggest the likelihood of the kind of violent act that killed May.

If it was June who committed the murder this would be a better explanation for why she ran away than the unsatisfactory reasons our group had pondered (Was she just too horrified to stay? Was she afraid of her mother after seeing her kill May? But then why didn't she run to Wade? And why would she never return - she was only nine, after all? Did something happen to her in the woods to prevent her doing so? So why then was her body never found?) When Jenny is finally released from prison Ann feels the need to look after her by giving her the money that has finally been returned by June Bailey Roe and setting her up with a new life, and critics have seen this as a huge act of forgiveness and redemption (and forgiveness and redemption as the main themes of the book). If Ann suspected that June was really the murderer then this would be a more concrete motive for such an act of restoration. However, I noticed no hint within the text that she does have such a suspicion. Indeed, as far as I remember all of the above hints about June's potential strangeness occur in the sections that take the viewpoints of others or are located in a more authorial consciousness.

In addition, as we were reading the book we found those sections less significant than I may have made them seem here, as they are among other sections that focus on the lives and preoccupations of more peripheral characters - the character Elizabeth who comes to share a cell with Jenny, Wade's dying father, the childless couple whose house Wade knocks at immediately after the murder, and even the bloodhound who fails to pick up June's scent in the wood. This last is a piece of quite virtuoso writing, and the short section concerning the childless couple is very moving and a set-piece in itself. Our member Ann said it read like a short story, and both she and John voiced the suspicion that the novel had been compiled by drawing several short stories together, and that this explained what to us was a lack of cohesion and rationale.

While I felt that a lack of rationale in life, the impossibility sometimes of ever knowing the truth, was indeed the point of this novel, and a message that I consider in theory to have integrity, I didn't feel the satisfaction in it that I might have, since the authorial hints and mystifications (deliberate or otherwise, it's hard to tell) prompted me, like the rest of our group, not to accept this message, but to want the solution that was simply not available. And I think it was this lack of textual redemption that for me made the book unbearably sad. I am normally perfectly happy to read dark books about tragedy, but on this occasion there was no catharsis: once I had finished reading I was left with a feeling of utter bleakness, and nearly all in our group agreed. Though Doug, whom I had expected to like the book for its fine writing, said that he simply hadn't been able to engage with it at all.  

Finally John made the comment that usually when we discuss a book we come to a greater understanding of it, but that the more we discussed this book the less sense we made of it.

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

Friday, November 20, 2020

Astral Travel dubbed 'intricately beautiful and abruptly brutal'

That period when your book is just out and you're waiting for your first review is always somewhat nerve-wracking. I always try not to think about it too much - I've been getting on with painting a bedroom and turning my mind to a new writing project - but there's always the worry that what you felt at one time was good enough to send off to your publisher is just not going to pass muster after all, or that however good it is it just won't please others. So I was thrilled and hugely relieved to switch on my alerts and discover a really wonderful first review of Astral Travel from Amy Riddell for Bookmunch. She calls the prose 'intricately beautiful and abruptly brutal', and is clearly gripped by the story. She says: 
'I greedily consumed every paragraph, and yearned for more free time when I had to put the book down to do something inconsequential like work or sleep ... I can’t remember the last time a work of fiction aroused such sympathy and indignant anger in me ... one of the most memorable and brilliant books I’ve read this year.'

I'm very grateful to Amy and to Peter Wild, editor of Bookmunch, and in celebration I'm off to make some bread while my next novel brews in the greater space the relief has created in my head.

The full review is here. (And Astral Travel is available here.)

Monday, November 16, 2020

Astral Travel finally published.


Well, here's Astral Travel, finally officially published, after all the delays and stops and starts of lockdown. What a history this book has had. I conceived it many years ago now, and, as I think I've explained before, although none of the three or so drafts I wrote took me much time to write, it was a long time before I found the form the book needed - a complicated story about a buried secret and buried pasts - and there were long periods between drafts while I had to put it aside. (I've written a blog post about that process for the Salt website, which should be appearing soon.) Then of course, when the book was about to be published in the early spring, lockdown was upon us, and Salt sensibly postponed publication. Ah well, it's here now, and can be bought from the Salt website 

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Astral Travel goes live.

Astral Travel, my long-promised novel - postponed due to the lockdown in March - is now available from the Salt website - two weeks before publication date! Those who put their names down for it on the site in February, should now be hearing that they can get it at last. Ah, well, all good things come to those who wait, my Welsh Nanny used to say (mainly because I was a very impatient child!), and I just hope that those who have waited for Astral Travel, do find it worth their while!

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Reading group: Distant Star by Roberto Bolano

John has read several of BolaƱo's door-stopper novels but the book of his he suggested for the group is short, a novella, and in fact an amplification - or correction, as the somewhat fictive 'author's note' has it - of the last chapter of a longer work, Nazi Literature in America. It consists of the reminiscences of narrator Artruro B (whom we can read as an alter ego for the author - in the 'author's note' the 'author' says that the whole thing was recounted to him by Artruro B), along with reports he has heard from others down the years, concerning an enigmatic figure, Carlos Wieder. Artruro's first encounter with Wieder was as a student poet in Chile in the early 70s. At that time Wieder goes under a different name, Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, and though clearly not a student - he calls himself an 'autodidact' - arrives on the student-dominated left-wing poetry scene. He stands out for his difference, his expensive clothes and accommodation and his somewhat distant manner, and immediately captures the hearts of the Garmendia sisters - the most accomplished poets in the group, with whom the other male members are unrequitedly in love. When the army takes power under Pinochet in 1973, the left-wing students are scattered, either arrested or gone into hiding or disappeared, and by the end of the first chapter, which began with wry depictions of student poetic and romantic passions, it is clear that 'Ruiz-Tagle' has been an informer of a most vicious kind.

The narrator's next encounter with Ruiz-Tagle, now known as Carlos Wieder, comes when the narrator is a prisoner arrested by the Pinochet regime as a suspected terrorist. The prisoners are exercising in the yard when Wieder, now a pilot in the Chilean airforce, appears on the horizon in a WW2 Messerschmitt (a 'distant star' - the motto of the Chilean airforce refers to the stars). Directly above the prison he writes in the sky the beginning of the Vulgate version of the Bible, which mesmerises and spooks those watching below. This is the first of his patriotic and repressive sky writings and part of his fascistic avant-garde performance-poetry project, for which he becomes generally feted and enamoured of the regime.

At this point Wieder drops out of Artruro's narration as Artruro recounts the subsequent fates of some of his fellow poets, including a heroic tale about their former poetry professor Julian Stein, which when Artruro's friend Bibiano O'Ryan tried to track Stein down, turned out to be probably not true. Inevitably, however, Wieder pops up once again in the narration, and in Artruro's life, like a bad penny: after his release (without charge) from prison, Artruro, like so many, left Chile and wandered in Europe, and he tells now of then hearing occasionally of Wieder's exploits, in particular of a photographic exhibition of the worst atrocities of the regime, a graphic representation that so offended its officials that Wieder was subsequently sidelined and disappeared from public view.

Artruro narrates how he was finally settled in Barcelona when he was approached by a Chilean private detective, Abel Romero, and we are now treated to Romero's story - inevitably entangled with the country's recent history - and it seems as if Wieder once again has dropped from the focus of the novel just as he dropped from public consciousness. But guess what, Romero turns out to have been employed by an unidentified avenger to find Wieder, and he has come to Artruro bearing various neo-fascist avant-garde magazines in which he would like Artruro, with his poet's eye, to look for possible pseudonymous writing by Wieder. After some searching, Artruro does identify Wieder's writing in one magazine, after which Romero is able to track him down living under his new pseudonym surprisingly close by. The two set off there by train and Wieder is finally 'dealt with' by Romero.

John and I had thoroughly enjoyed and admired this novel, and were surprised by the reactions of some of the group -  those of Jenny, Doug and, most especially, Mark. Mark had found it tedious, lacking in narrative drive and all over the place with its stops and starts and changes of focus. John had indeed begun the discussion by saying that the book was 'all over the place', but that this was deliberate, and artistically interesting. The novel doesn't so much centre on Wieder as circle him, and the way he drops out of the narrative (making it seem to switch periodically to a new focus) is a formal representation of the way Wieder drops in and out of things with his dissemblings and changes of persona, as well as the switches and uncertainties of life under a totalitarian regime. I said I found very satisfying (and horrifying) the sense it gives of the impossibilty of escaping the sinister forces of such a regime, the way they underpin and connect everything even when they seem to disappear from view. I said too that the uncertainty about Juan Stein's fate, which others, in particular I think Jenny, had found unsatisfying, was surely instructive, illustrative of those horrifying uncertainties. 

Basically, though, Mark's opinion was that this wasn't a book with an easy entry for an uninitiated audience. He and the others had said that they were bored by the early pages concerning the poetry workshops - nothing happens, they said, until the atrocity at the end of the first chapter and the revelation of Wieder's true role. If you guess from the start that Ruiz-Tagle/Wieder is an informer in the student camp - as did Ann, who had lived as a child under a similar regime, and as did I with my personal experience of political organisations - then those early pages are charged with tension, but this was sadly lacking for them who, with no familiarity with the experience, did not. I'm thinking now, as I write this, that perhaps one difficulty for an uninitiated readership is that at this point the narrative takes the viewpoint (though ironically) of the unsuspecting students, an irony to which an audience familiar with the experience would be much more readily attuned. Mark also really disliked the long lists of poets, which for me and John graphically signalled the tragedy of a regime that suppressed poets - they are a kind of memorial - (and the irony of the fact that in our own country poets would never be considered so important as to need to be suppressed). As a result of this difficulty in engaging with the book, Doug (agreed with by Mark) said he had not been at all able during the reading to get to grips with the point of Wieder's so-called artistic exploits, the sky-writing and the photographic exhibition, and he didn't seem immediately convinced by our explications - that they were illustrative of the fascist avant-garde, and the way that art, including poetry, can be subverted for immoral and political ends. Jenny agreed with them both. She didn't like the lack of clarity or the lack of a decent narrative arc, and was unimpressed when I said that I felt that these were functions of the postmodern aspects of the book, the fact that it was about the unreality and uncertainty of both life and literature.

It was left to John and Ann and me to praise the book. I said that it had shocked me with the gut reality of something that I had only heard about at the time on the news in the corner of a suburban living room. Ann said how the book opened one's eyes to the multinational nature of Chile, as marked in the multinational names of the characters. John was very affected by the links you can make between elements of the book and our present day political situation - Wieder's religious sky writing and the religious fundamentalism embraced by the contemporary right, the way that the regime embraces a popular figure and the way politicians do so now, and the link that occurred to him between the regime's obsession with Wieder's aerial career and Trump's obsession with appearing everywhere with Air Force One in the background. And by the end of the meeting both Mark and Doug were saying that they would go away and look at the novel again and reassess.

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

Monday, October 26, 2020

Reading group: Elmet by Fiona Mozley

I recommended this Booker-shortlisted book as I had loved it when I wrote about the books on another shortlist it made: the 2018 Young Writer of the Year Award.  It's the first-person narration of Daniel, who tells the story of how, at the age of fourteen, he lived with his father and elder sister in a house his father built in a Yorkshire wood, the remains of the wooded Celtic kingdom of Elmet, which once stretched right across Yorkshire. Neither children attend school.  A sensitive boy, Daniel keeps house and makes a garden, growing vegetables and cooking, while his sister Cathy prefers to learn the tough, foraging ways of their father John. John is something of a giant of a man, renowned among the drifters and travellers on the edge of society for winning wagered bare-fist fights, somewhat lawless but fiercely moral when it comes to fighting for the rights of the downtrodden, in particular against cruel landlords and landowners. As someone in the group said - I think Ann - he's a latter-day Robin Hood who is indeed name-checked at the start of the book when Daniel describes the wood in which the three settle:

The soil was alive with ruptured stories that cascaded and rotted then found form once more and pushed up the undergrowth and back into our lives... Robyn Hode and his pack of scrawny vagrants...

It is not long before the three begin to feel threat from the owner of the land on which they are living, and we are soon caught up in the violence that erupts when those on the edge of society come into conflict with it over land and property.

The book begins with one of several italicised sections occurring through the book, in which, in the aftermath of the shockingly violent denouement, Daniel is drifting throughout the country looking for his lost sister. The bulk of the story, seen through this lens, has too an elegiac and mythical, almost fairytale quality, and the prose in which it is told is both tough and lyrical. As I said in my earlier blog I found the book engrossing - exciting and moving, and drenched in an atmosphere that is entirely affecting. I said then that I found one fault with it, which was that perhaps the lyrical language and some of the thought processes were too sophisticated to have been expressed by the fourteen-year-old Daniel who has not long escaped the violent ending of the life in the wood. However, on my second reading it occurred to me that we are not necessarily meant to take this period of Daniel's life as the narrative time frame - the present tense in which the italicised sections are told could be read as historic.

Most others in the group wholeheartledyly shared my enthusiasm. Mark, who couldn't attend, phoned beforehand to say how wonderful he thought the book was, and how amazed he was that a debut from such a young author (Mozley was 29 when the book was published) could be so beautifully written and so mature in its insights. Others entirely agreed, and there was much admiration for the convincing nature of the depiction of the tough and violent underside of society, of the simmering violence of those seemingly 'civilized' and in charge, and indeed, by implication, the fundamental violence of capitalism. We also found, in the way the characters of Daniel and Cathy upend conventional expectations, an insightful examination of gender. 

There were just two waverers. John said he found the book 'long-winded' - which basically took our breath away; we simply couldn't see how he could have thought that of a book so compelling, the pages of which you just kept turning. He said it took far too long for something to happen, ie for the landowner Price to start threatening the little family. We totally disagreed and thought he must simply have been having an offday and unable to attend to the book properly: we felt that both the existential threat to the family and the threat of violence from Price are there from very early on. Jenny expressed some dissatisfaction: she found that there were too many things that were unlikely or unexplained. For one thing, people don't just build houses in the wood like that in this day and age, and what about the children not attending school, that would surely have been followed up. We all strongly disagreed. For one thing, the mythic, fairtale quality of the book allows suspension of disbelief, but in any case, children do sometimes scandalously fall through the net of contemporary social structures. As for the house in the woods, well, apart from the fact that some of us knew of makeshift woodland houses of homeless people to which the authorities are turning a convenient blind eye, there is a substantial plot twist involving the children's mother which  explains (the character) John's sense of his right to the piece of land on which he builds (and also Price's impulse for  revenge). Jenny also said she didn't think a girl could in any way manage the acts of violence and strength carried out by Cathy at the end, but we all disagreed - as (our) John said, at the end it would be a matter of the training she'd had in the woods, but also fundamentally it would be the element of surprise - after all, a main thing that had prompted the family's retreat from society was that Cathy, who has inherited her father's mindset and strength, had beaten up the boys who bullied Daniel in school, but was punished because no one could believe that a girl could do such a thing. 

I don't think we convinced Jenny, as when Mark asked at the next meeting what we'd all thought of the book, she reiterated her criticisms, but she did also say both times that she'd enjoyed it and found it engrossing, and we praised it all over again. 

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

Friday, October 23, 2020

Reading group: The Braid by Laetitia Colombani

This was our first-ever zoom meeting, conducted in lockdown. Most of us weren't much used to zoom at the time, and when John and I bumped into Jenny in the park beforehand - at a socially-responsible distance, of course - she suggested it would stop us interrupting each other, but in the event it did nothing of the sort! 

It was Jenny who had suggested this short book, an international bestseller and apparently a reading group favourite, translated from French. It alternates between the stories of three women in very different circumstances and different parts of the world - Smita in India, an untouchable who flees with her young daughter to save her from the life of clearing excrement to which Smita herself has been condemned; Giulia in Palermo, Sicily, who works in her father's wig-making workshop and must take over when he has an accident and face the fact that, due to the growing local scarcity of human hair, the business faces ruin; and Sarah, a Canadian lawyer whose role and identity as a forceful career woman is threatened by her diagnosis of cancer. These stories run along unconnected, until, through the very matter of hair, they are braided together like the hanks of hair with which Guilia works.

Although this sounds like an interesting proposition, I'm afraid to say that Jenny was alone in finding anything very much to praise about this book. We all thought the way the stories of the women were finally drawn together was somewhat superficial, and, much more seriously, we found the book not at all well written. It's sometimes hard to judge from a translation, as Jenny said in its defence, but there are so many cliches, repeated so often - for instance, Smita gets 'butterflies in her stomach' on the second line of the book, and the phrase keeps recurring throughout - and so much repetitive overstatement, that we felt that the clumsiness and naivity we found in the narration must lie with the original prose. Jenny conceded these things, and was perhaps more confused and irritated than anyone by interjected sections in italics set out like poetry, the unidentified first-person voice of someone braiding strands of various materials. Nevertheless, she said she found the book fascinating, as it taught her things she didn't know, about wig-making, and the fact that untouchables in India have to clear the excrement with their bare hands. Which goes back to a long-running argument we have had in this group - whether or not you go to fiction for factual information or something much deeper and metaphysical.

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

Monday, October 05, 2020

Dreams into books

Here they are - the fattest (ie longest) book I've ever published! (Though I'm told by those who saw the manuscript that it's a speedy read!) It's always an exciting moment when your author copies arrive - that feeling never goes - but this time I had to bite down on the anticipation. They had been expected to arrive in early September, but it seems that the post is still slow and they didn't come after all before I was heading off to Wales for a week. So there I was amongst the autumnal hills of Snowdonia wondering whether they had arrived yet, and worrying that they might go missing. Had the postman knocked next door and left them safely there, or were they sitting forlorn and exposed on the doorstep? Or been taken away again, only to be lost in the system?  As it happened, when I got back there was a note saying that they were being kept at the post office, so off I hared to stand in a line of masked customers and collect them, and then at last there they were - my years dreaming up the story, the hours of sitting at the desk, the typewritten files and the mounded print-outs, all turned into printed and bound books! It does feel like magic.

Publication day is 15th November. 

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Astral Travel off to press

I'm so happy to say that Astral Travel, my latest novel, which was postponed due to the coronavirus lockdown, is now scheduled for publication in the autumn, and yesterday went off to the printer's. This novel, unlike some - I wrote Too Many Magpies in six weeks - had a long gestation: I wrote several drafts over several years alongside a load of other stuff.  No draft ever took me very long, but each one was never right, and the final version, which I did write in a white heat, turned out pretty different from the rest, but you could say that the basic idea was a long time developing. So although it was frustrating when lockdown put a break on it just as we were gearing up for publication, it seemed almost like part of the process!

I just have to pull myself out of my state of literary stasis now. Since, like many writers, I couldn't write, and even found reading quite hard, I've spent lockdown in a practical matters, turning this attic room into something useable. (It was worse than this when I started, with huge holes in the plaster, and it's not quite finished yet, papered but not painted, so I don't have proper before and after pics.)

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Coronavirus delays

It will be obvious by now that my novel, Astral Travel, which was due in early spring, has been delayed as a result of the coronavirus lockdown. My publisher Salt predicted rightly that bookshops would close, supply chains break down and sales of books would drop just as we would have been trying to launch the book into the world, and made the quick early decision to postpone their spring/summer list. I'm grateful for their perspicacity and even more grateful that they've now received an ACE grant to help them over the crisis and enable them to go ahead with the list they had planned for spring and summer.

I don't think it's just that that has given me a sense of arrest and has created in me a complete creative stalling. I read that it's not just me who can't write in this situation - other writers seem to be suffering just the same thing. I've thought long and hard about why this should be - after all, lockdown, you might think, is the perfect opportunity to get down to it: all the quietness and lack of distraction that you normally fight for to be able to carve time and headspace as a writer. But there is distraction, after all: plenty of it. In fact, there's so much to think about - making sure you don't stand too close to others, disinfecting or quarantining your shopping, watching all the time what you touch and washing your hands, worrying about your elderly relatives. You have to be on the alert for your environment, you can't just ignore it and live in your head, your day-dream world which is the psychological state that I at any rate need for writing. And it seems to me too that we're undergoing a huge psychological shift in our alignment to the world around us, a shift that is still in flux, and to write, for me, you need to feel pretty sure of your relationship with world, at least for the duration of a project. And we can't know what kind of future, and therefore what context,  you'd be writing into. It's made me realise that when I write I have a definite sense of the society I'm writing into and speaking to: its assumptions and prejudices and contradictions. But will those be different in our post-lockdown or post-coronavirus future, as some hope? Maybe they won't, maybe we'll go back quickly to our old commercial, polluting ways. But to write I need to feel I have a good grasp of at least some aspect of the world, and right now most of it seems so uncertain.

Still, I'm lucky enough to have a garden to tend, and I'm watching the birds nesting in our bushes. There's nothing better to make you feel hope and a sense of things moving forward after all than the sight of blackbirds, goldfinch and sparrows going about as usual tending their nests and their young.

Not a very good photo: he came right up to my chair but I didn't catch him before he hopped off.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Reading group: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

At last, a book everyone present loved (apart, maybe, from John, for the reason I'll reveal below).

Suggested by Doug, it's the first-person narration of Janina Duszejko, a woman of a 'certain age' with a wonderfully unique take on the world. An ex bridge builder turned schoolteacher, she recounts the events when a series of deaths of men, all but the first clearly murders, occurs in the tiny settlement on a windswept Polish plateau where she lives. All of the men who die were hunters, and Duszejko (she hates her first name) is convinced that they have been killed by animals in revenge. Obsessed also with astrology, she calculates that the fates of these men were written in the stars. She sets out to try and convince everyone else including the local police.

Her letters to the police are hilarious - at one point she lists various instances of medieval cases of animals (such as rats) having been indicted for upsetting human affairs. Needless to say, she is dismissed by the police as a nutty old lady, as she well understands:
I could almost hear [the police Commandant's] thoughts - to his mind I was definitely a 'little old lady'   ... 'a silly old bag', 'crazy old crone', or madwoman'.

John's objection was to the long sections devoted to astrology, which he found offputting. Duszejko does in fact, hilariously, say that she knows they would be boring to anyone not interested in astrology, and most of us took that as a cue to skim them, and we didn't mind. The chapters are prefaced with quotes from William Blake, another original and anti-establishment thinker, whose poetry Duszejko and her former pupil Dizzy are translating.

While some people in our group did think Duszejko could be characterised as mad - in a likeable way: Ann called the book 'gloriously bonkers' - so many of her insights and observations are utterly sane: '... the human psyche evolved in order to defend us against seeing the truth'. And it seems to me that the denouement of this novel - as clever as any in the crime genre the book in fact upends - can be considered as showing that she is anything but mad. It would be hard to go into why here without giving the game away. Suffice it to say that we thought the book great - as well as the English translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones: the English translation of several different attempts by Duszejko and Dizzy to translate a Blake poem into Polish was a tour de force.

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

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Reading group: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Jenny said it again during our discussion of this book, shortlisted for the Women's Prize: how awful people could think it, that our group so readily trashes praised and revered books. In fact, this book did have one defender in the group, Clare, who had suggested it, and some of the rest of us were less negative than others.

It's basically a retelling of Homer's Iliad, an account of the latter days of the Battle of Troy chiefly from a female viewpoint. Narrator Briseis is a lesser-known queen, captured by the Greeks in their sacking of the city of Lyrnessus, and taken to live in the Greek camp outside Troy as a slave and concubine to the Greek warrior Achilles. In a scenario not unsimilar to that at the heart of the Trojan war, (the Greek attempt to recapture the beautiful Helen, wife of King Menelaus), Briseis becomes a pawn in the tussle between warriors, in this case between the two Greeks Achilles and King Agamemnon, a conflict that affects the course of the battle.

Some of the younger members of the group appreciated and found innovative the authorial stratagem of countering the male-oriented history with a female perspective, though others of us found it a familiar, indeed now somewhat old-fashioned, feminist fictive mode, and Ann pointed out that it wasn't as if it hadn't been done already in Greek literature itself, in Euripedes' play The Trojan Women. And some of us felt that here it was not at all well executed.

Not everyone was familiar with Greek literature, and it was those of us who were who objected most. For Ann and me fundamentally problematic were the tone and linguistic register, which I characterised as bourgeois British housewife, and which to us entirely belied the ethos of the world, and world-view, of ancient Greece. There is a coyness to the language and mentality that is entirely divorced from the powerfully tragic and elemental emotions of the fallen and captured royal women of Euripedes' play, which though imagined by a man seem to me more psychologically authentic. Someone countered that Barker was showing how the women were forced to adjust to life in the Greek camp, and found it perfectly conceivable that they would, but I have to say that the scenes in which the captured women gather made me think of nothing more than seventies meetings of the UK British Housewives' Register (though the younger members of our group didn't know what that was). Witness the following exchange concerning the women's realisation that one of them is suffering physical abuse by her captor:
...the folds of cloth fell open to reveal black fingermarks round her throat. She knew we'd seen. For a long time, nobody spoke.
'Trouble in Paradise?' Uza asked, addressing herself, apparently, to vacant air.
Ritsa shook her head, but it was too late.
Such polite delicacy and coy reluctance do not seem to me at all authentic in the situation in which these women have found themselves, having watched their brothers and sons butchered, and having been taken as slaves, basically raped, some of them sodomised.
Similarly with the following in the same scene:
'I'm amazed [Chryseis is] not pregnant.'
'He prefers the back door,' Ritsa said.
She'd know. Ritsa had a jar of goose fat mixed with crushed roots and herbs that the common women round the campfires relied on if they'd had a particularly rough night. She was too discreet to reveal that Chryseis had been to see her, but the implication was obvious.
As Doug said, why was there a need to use that coy phrase 'the back door'? Why not use the word 'sodomy', which is after all, famously, an Ancient Greek word.

The point may be to avoid abstract language and thus make the situation more concrete and vivid for a modern readership, but it seems to me that if you use language so specifically associated with modern society, and thus drenched in its ethos and connotations, then you are not in fact conjuring the character of the original. ('Oooh, sorry I spoke!' says someone; Yeah, you and me both, thinks someone else, and the whole book is scattered with the construction would'vecould've etc.) Updating something in order to allow a modern audience to relate to it is one thing, but there's no point if in doing so you simply destroy the whole ethos of the original. Someone pointed out that it wasn't even the present day that was always referenced in the updating - for instance, there is a reference to a 'half-crown' - and John said the book reminded him of fifties and sixties films like Cleopatra, overlaid as they were with mid-twentieth-century fashions and obsessions.

Ann also pointed out another way in which the book fails to represent the Greek world view. For the Ancient Greeks the gods were ever-present, meddling full-time in human affairs, and appear as full-blown characters in Greek literature, but there is little sense of them here apart from the emergence from the sea (towards the end) of Achilles' sea-nymph mother with supernatural armour to help him in battle, which sits oddly within the entirely human-occupied rest of the book.

Jenny said she had enjoyed the book but felt that it wasn't well written, and it was generally agreed that another major fault was its mode of telling rather than showing, as in the following passage:
...though I sympathised, almost involuntarily, with [the Greek] men having their wounds stitched up or clawing at their bandages in the intolerable heat, I still hated and despised them all.
It's an ambivalence we have to take on trust; we are given no emotive description to create any somatic sense of it for the reader. It is this that made the book for me very lacking in vividness or ability to engage emotionally.

Doug said that since the idea seems to be to redress the balance, replacing the traditional male viewpoint with that of a woman, he couldn't see the point of sections devoted to Achilles' viewpoint that begin to appear some way into the book. While Briseis's sections are a first-person narrative told in the past tense, these are third person and present tense. No one could see the point of these shifts, except perhaps that it gives the author the chance to portray the male experience of being in the thick of battle, which Ann pointed out is an almost word-for-word imitation of Homer. But, people asked, what is the point of that? I noted that Briseis's narrative voice isn't actually clear. Sometimes it seems to be an interior monologue taking place long after the events described, but at other times it adopts the mode of a dramatic monologue addressed to an unidentified listener unfamiliar with the world and situation she is describing - though as Briseis's tale comes to an end, the battle over, she appears to have been telling her story to someone present there and then, as she embarks with the Greeks for their homeland.

People also pointed out some factual errors: Mark had been struck by a mistake in the portrayal of the weaving that occupies the women: you don't 'spin' on a loom, you weave; and Ann, an expert in such matters, pointed out that the author has Helen stitching the scenes of tapestries by hand (again, tapestries aren't embroidered they're woven), and she didn't think that several of the looms of the size needed would fit into the one tent into which Barker places them. People also wondered how the camp, which lasted for years outside the walls of Troy, could possibly have been supplied with sustenance on land that Barker describes as laid waste by the battle. Where, since the book seemed ostensibly to be about the daily life overlooked in the male histories, were the ships and caravans bringing goods from elsewhere? And where on earth did they get all the fatted bulls they sacrificed? And, asked Jenny, since the whole point of the book seemed to be the quality of life in the camp for the women, and since the whole point of their existence there was to be sex slaves, where were the births that must have inevitably resulted, and would surely have radically coloured the quality of that life?

Basically, we were all left wondering at the rave reviews and accolades that this book has received.

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

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Reading group: Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay.

Halfway through our discussion of this book, Jenny commented with a shamed grin: 'Isn't it awful how in this group we take famous and respected novels and tear them to bits?' We approached Picnic at Hanging Rock with the knowledge that it is considered one of the great books of Australian literature, but by the time we came to the meeting, we were all pretty much wondering how it could have achieved such status.

In fact, it is important from a thematic point view. Published in the late sixties and set in the year 1900, it concerns the unresolved disappearance of three senior boarders from Mrs Appleyard's College for Young Ladies, along with one of their teachers, while on a picnic trip to the mysterious Hanging Rock, the distinctive geological formation in central Victoria. The school, and the neighbourhood in which it is situated, with its English-suburban-type gardens, are the seat of a colonial mentality that has no understanding of the wild land outside its own boundaries, a land believed by its indigenous people to be alive with spirits of its own. Under the influence of the hot day and the surroundings, the schoolgirls on the trip unbutton the civilised trappings of their gloves, and four of them wander too far from the designated picnic site and onto the rock. As the three elder girls climb, seeming to be overcome by some dream-like state, the youngest, Edith, the 'school dunce', becomes frightened and runs back, seeing in the near distance as she does so their teacher stumbling upwards through the bracken minus her skirt and in her pantaloons. By nightfall none of the others has returned to the picnic site and searches of the rock have failed to find them. Over the next days, further attempts, including a search by an indigenous tracker, fail in the same way. While the school party had been picnicking, another group had been picnicking nearby, Colonel and Mrs Fitzhubert and their nephew from England, Michael, along with their coachman. As the four girls walked towards the rock they passed this group, the coachman wolf-whistling, and Michael falling instantly in love with one of the three senior boarders, Miranda. Consequently, after all the official searches have failed, Michael makes a lone trip to search the rock for Miranda, only to be found unconscious with a broken ankle and mysterious scratches, though not before having laid a trail that leads his rescuers to the slumped, unconscious and bloody body of another of the missing girls, Irma. Later the narration will tell us that Irma is no longer wearing her corset, a fact overlooked by the Fitzhubert's housekeeper who puts her to bed to recover in their house. Afterwards, neither Michael nor Irma will have any memory of what happened to them, and the other two girls and the teacher will never be found, which will lead to the ruin of the school.

In retrospect all of this can be read as the undoing of the fabric of colonial civilisation by the forces of Australian nature. We didn't however find that this message was very strongly realised in the book, and it didn't particularly impress itself on us as we read. There are indeed detailed depictions of the teeming life of the landscape: 'unheard rustlings and twitterings, scufflings, scratchings, the light brush of unseen wings', and the point is made early on:

Insulated from natural contacts with earth, air and sunlight, by corsets pressing on the solar plexus, by voluminous petticoats, cotton stockings and kid boots, the drowsy well-fed girls lounging in the shade were no more part of their environment than figures in a photograph album, arbitrarily posed against a backcloth of cork rocks and cardboard trees.
However, the prose style is somewhat workaday, failing to conjure for us readers any tangible sense of the mystery and force of the landscape, and leading one to read the book as a realist mystery. John said he spent a lot of energy trying to work out whodunnit, and some of us agreed: there do indeed seem to be clues that push the reader in this direction. Did the fact that Irma was wearing no corset mean she'd been raped? Was it Albert the coachman, who is pulled up by Michael for his crude behaviour in whistling at the girls? It's also made clear later that Albert is sexually attracted to Irma. (And what about the missing teacher's state of undress, as witnessed by Edith?) Was the headmistress Mrs Appleyard responsible for doing away with them, since it's quite clear she's a dodgy character, and she seems implicated in the later death of another pupil, Sara, whom she hates for her stubbornness and tendency to challenge? While most of these suspicions are dissipated by subsequent events, they serve to distract attention away from any notion of a force greater than mere human agents at work. And the death of Sara is indeed treated in a realist-crime-novel manner, with planted clues - which however people in our group failed to pick up, presumably because of poor pacing in the narration. I never understood the reference to a note which Mrs Appleyard looks for on Sara's dressing table after her death, and looking back I failed to find a previous reference to it. No one in the group could enlighten me, as it seemed they had missed it altogether. Furthermore, in spite of this realist-crime treatment, it is never clear exactly what part Mrs Appleyard did play in Sarah's death. 

I said that I actually found the writing quite clumsy (which again militated against the possibility of an atmosphere of mystery). There are sentences that don't even make sense, such as this description of the rock before the girls start to climb: 'The immediate impact of its soaring peaks induced a silence so impregnated with its powerful presence that even Edith was struck dumb.' A lack of clarity at the start when the schoolgirls are introduced to us (either through poor pacing or lack of vividness or both) - and elsewhere - meant that I failed to register or remember who was who and had to keep looking back to find out, and at the long list of characters with which the book is prefaced. Others said it had been the same for them, and Clare said that the need for a Dramatis Personae was comment enough in itself. The bulk of the book concerns the breakdown of everything at the school after the girls go missing, and although the narration states that this is the 'spreading pattern' of the incident playing itself out in the lives of all of the characters, it did seem 
to us artificially manipulated. I suppose one can theorise that the psychological effect on the headmistress of the impending financial ruin of the school leads her into irrational behaviour, which leads in turn to her cruel treatment of Sara, and to other teachers leaving. However, because of the flat telling, it doesn't feel like an inevitable propulsion, and the subsequent immediate death of one of the departed teachers in a fire is surely coincidental. The section in which the rescued Irma falls unrequitedly in love with Michael (who is still holding a torch for the lost Miranda) seems (on the contrary) inconsequential (flatly told as it is).

A major fault for me was the fact that the novel affects the mode of omniscience, ie all-knowingness, entering the viewpoints of different characters at different times, and sometimes telling us facts that none of the characters know (such as that of Irma's missing corset), yet the narration withholds information about those characters and, of course, about the wider situation. Having been party to some of Mrs Appleyard's private and unspoken anguish about her school, we are suddenly told: 'Whether the events just related [an incident in the school gym] were eventually made known to Mrs Appleyard can only be surmised'.  For me such inconsistencies make for an uncertain narrative voice, and the end result is to make the mysteries seem tricksy and manipulative of the reader. 

Everyone in the group was dissatisfied by the seemingly manipulated mysteries and the lack of narratorial resolution. John suggested that part of the problem may have been that author Lindsay, who was interested in the occult, had in fact written a further, final chapter in which it was revealed that the three girls and their teacher had been overtaken by the spirit of the rock and had gone through a mysterious entrance into another world, their abandoned corsets hanging magically in the air before dropping from the cliff and disappearing. Her publisher, it seemed, persuaded her to cut that final chapter, and thus perhaps pushed the novel into the unfulfilled realism through which our group read it.

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

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Writing kicks off again

I've had a long period away from my desk, and haven't written anything since September. First of all, John had ankle surgery and for a while was completely immobile, in a wheelchair and requiring round-the-clock help. On top of that, a week after John came out of hospital, and was at his most helpless, I had to have urgent eye surgery, with follow-up procedures since. I seem to have been living a life of fetching and carrying and medications and eye drops - and my forays from home seem chiefly to have been visits to the eye hospital (with some light relief at the fracture clinic with John). All the while the room I usually work in was dark and cold and empty - apart from the stuff the family visitors dumped there when they were here at Christmas! However, John is now swinging around on crutches, and last week I was free to tidy up and heat the workroom - just in time, it turned out, as writing business suddenly kicked back into life.

Firstly, I had an unexpected, indeed thrilling email telling me that a story, 'Going On', had been longlisted and highly commended in the Manchester Fiction Prize. (It didn't make the shortlist; congratulations to those whose stories did; you can read the shortlist here.) The picture above features the author and editor Nicholas Royle, who has chaired the prize since its inception. The very same day I received the proofs of my story, 'Double Helix', which is due in the next issue of the London Magazine, and I needed to sit down straightaway and work on that. And then the day after that, Jen at Salt sent me the first edits of my novel Astral Travel, due very soon, and which I'm working on now. Yesterday another nice email came: my story 'Kiss', which was longlisted in the Short Fiction Journal Prize, published at MIROnline, reprinted in Best British Short Stories 2019 and picked up from there for The Barcelona Review, is to be featured in a Norwegian textbook for High School students. I am suddenly feeling like a writer again!

There is an award ceremony for the Manchester Fiction and Poetry Prizes at Chetham's School on February 7th, when the shortlists will be featured and the two winners announced. Entrance is free but booking is essential.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Reading group: A Month in the Country by J L Carr

Warning: plot spoil.

John's suggestion, this slim book, published in 1980 and Booker-shortlisted, is the first-person narration of Tom Birkin, old now but looking back to a time when, as a young man traumatised by the first world war, he was employed for a summer to uncover a medieval church painting in the (fictional) Yorkshire village of Oxgodby. As the painting is slowly revealed, and as he makes contact with the people around him and absorbs the peace and beauty of the rural surroundings, Tom moves slowly towards psychological healing.

Some commentaries seem to see the book as rooted in a perception of English pastoral and of English cultural heritage as constants that can heal, and indeed admire it as such. We didn't think it was as simple as that.

For one thing, narrator Birkin makes several references to the fact that the world described - a world of horses and oil lamps - is a world gone. John had begun by suggesting that perhaps the book was in consequence nostalgic - and nostalgia, as he pointed out, is often linked to nationalism and even fascism. He pointed to the moment when narrator Birkin appears to bemoan the fact that the strong dialect of the place at that time, 'that splendid twang', is probably now flattened by 'comprehensive schools and the BBC ... with their dread stamp.' At the same time, however, there is a certain paradoxical patronisation and 'othering' in Birkin's attitude to the dialect: he says it 'might have been ... a foreign language' and replicates it phonetically (a mode I nearly always find patronising), and says seemingly without censure that the English of the local lay preachers was 'so wild' that the organist and choir 'choked behind their handkerchiefs'.  John added here that in fact he had found the character Birkin rather dubious - he appears to read the Daily Mail (known for its fascist sympathies between the wars), and, narrating the story, the older Birkin tells us that when he first arrived at the village, struggling through unmoving passengers to get his kit off the train, he thought (xenophobically), 'If this was a fair sample of northerners, then this was enemy country so I wasn't too careful where I put my boots.' (John also pointed out that Birkin shares his name with the protagonist of Sons and Lovers by D H Lawrence, an author whose sometimes paradoxically reactionary tendencies have often been noted, and I would agree that Carr's book does have something of a Lawrentian tone.)

Others in the group however weren't so sure that the book was nostalgically reactionary, and when it came to the matter of cultural heritage John wasn't sure, either. The painting Birkin is painstakingly uncovering is not exactly a site of peaceful resolution, but rather of disruption and mystery. A Judgement, depicting the Righteous 'trooping off to Paradise' and the Damned 'dropping into the bonfire' of hell, it turns out to be a 'masterpiece', created with expensive materials including gold leaf (at least to depict the Saved). So why, Birkin wonders, was it covered over with limewash? And there is something disruptive and strange in the painting itself: the Damned are executed more crudely, apart from one figure which stands out from the rest - vivid with bright hair and a crescent-shaped scar on his forehead and tortured by demons in a startling Breughelesque style long before Breughel himself, a figure Birkin comes to refer to as the 'falling man.'

While Birkin is working on the painting, an archeologist, Moon, is camped in the nearby meadow and digging, employed by the local heiress, before her death, to look for the grave of an ancestor discovered to have been excommunicated and thus likely to be buried outside the churchyard. Privately, however, he is taking the opportunity to uncover the remains of an early chapel, the signs of which he has spotted from an aeroplane. The two strike up a companionship. Moon sees the depiction of the Damned in the painting as reminiscent of the tortures of the trenches which he too had experienced, although Birkin, seeking calm from the painting's artistry, is reluctant to see it in that light. As the book comes to a close, as both the summer and the men's employment come to an end, Moon calls Birkin to help him uncover the grave where all along he has guessed (from a depression seen from the air) that it lies, just outside the churchyard wall. What they uncover is a true revelation (and the clear reason for the ancestor's excommunication). Inside the tomb lies the skeleton of a man wearing a chain with a crescent - a noble ancestor who clearly converted to Islam on a Crusade, and whom Moon immediately realises is the 'falling man' of Birkin's painting.

Thus the novel seems in fact to be actively challenging the very myth of English Christian heritage and continuity that the covering over of the painting was clearly intended to preserve and to which the young Birkin cleaves (and which some have seen the novel as relishing). A look at the author's Foreword is perhaps instructive. There the author admits that when he set out to write the book he did indeed have in mind simply to depict a 'rural idyll', and although it was a world 'irrecoverably lost', to have his narrator 'look back [on it] regretfully' (ie regretting its loss; ie nostalgically). However, he tells us, 'original intentions slip away. And I found myself looking through another window at a darker landscape inhabited by neither the present nor the past.' The character of young Birkin can be seen as representing this shift, in particular in his attitude to the young wife of the vicar, Alice Keach. To him she represents an idyllic beauty and goodness - 'I was reminded of Botticelli... - the Primavera' - and he falls romantically in love with her, and sees her as horrifically trapped by her older, ascetic husband, the Reverend Keach. By the end of the novel, however, he must come to terms with the fact that it is a useless love, and there is a growing maturity in his recognition that the vicar, who is suddenly more open with him, is more complex than he had allowed. ' "It's not easy, he said. "I wasn't always, well, not as I may appear to be." ... And partly ... he was right: we had cast him in the role of a sour paymaster'. Finally, as the older Birkin recounts his youthful departure from the village, his 'land of lost content', he muses: 'We can ask and ask but we can't have what once seemed ours forever'. 'This was something I knew nothing of as I closed the gate and set off,' he tell us, but it's clear that Birkin is now embarked on a lifelong lesson. After all, his initial hostility to the locals very quickly turned to affection, and his faults, often commented on by the more mature Moon, can be seen as primed to be erased by that journey.

Clare, or maybe Jenny, noted that the title, 'A Month in the Country' is a misnomer, since Birkin spends a whole summer in Oxgodby. Others pointed to the fact that one of the names (the vicar's first name, I think) changes halfway through the novel, and it was clear that these were editing errors due to the fact that the book was initially self-published. On the whole, we thought, in view of this last fact, the book was impeccably written in terms of correctness.

Everyone liked the book, and I was the only one not to have entirely enjoyed reading it. I'm afraid I found the overall tone foygeish - something which does seem to me reactionary - and the conversations between Birkin and Moon artificial and indeed sometimes twee (not to mention my discomfort at the way the dialect was represented). It hadn't struck any of the others that way, however, and since I read the book during the long day in the hospital cafe as I waited while John had a three-hour operation and then lay for a worryingly long time in the recovery room, I thought at the time of the discussion that maybe I hadn't given the book the commitment it deserved.

I must say that some of the connections and meanings I've outlined above weren't clear to me on that first reading, registering only when I trawled through the book to write this. I failed to register, for instance, the fact of the shape of the scar on the forehead of the falling man in the painting, as well as the significance of the painting's quality, and the relevance of this to the fact that it has been hidden. The quality of the painting - the fact that certain expensive pigments had been used rather than others - didn't in fact strike me as being of particular interest. Nor did Moon's arrangements and his motives for being there, which were consequently hazy to me. But then John now says that he missed the same things, and looking back at our group discussion I sense that others did too: none of these details were actually mentioned in the discussion, and there was indeed some puzzled wondering about the significance of the Muslim-converted ancestor as well as about some of the characters, in particular Moon and the vicar. I do wonder on reflection if this was a result of a failure of pacing and attention in the writing - ie a failure to slow down or construct the narrative at significant moments to correctly direct the reader's attention. Moon's arrangements and motives, for instance, are conveyed via dialogue (or rather a speech): he tells Birkin about them on their first meeting in a conversation that is potentially superficial, since we don't yet know Moon's character (and therefore how much importance to give anything he says), and when the reader's attention is directed rather towards the drama of the encounter and the interaction between the two men. The information about the composition of the painting is conveyed in a similar way: it is one of the things Birkin tells Alice Keach when she sits watching him work, when again the chief interest is the drama of the situation, ie his growing attraction to her, and when it's possible that his emotions are forcing him to gabble (although much of the dialogue throughout the book consists of somewhat artificial speechifying). And although the matter of the mystery of the painting is sometimes located in Birkin's private musings (rather than in dialogue with others), as I say, it didn't impress me as it should (John and I both failing to register the shape of the scar in the painting) and I do wonder now if this is a function of the foygeishness I thought I detected in the overall voice of the novel, a rhythmic over-smoothness stemming from a fundamental complacency concerning meaning and significance.

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