Getting feedback to improve our writing

Not all feedback helps to improve writing. Have you ever-experienced killer feedback? It’s the kind of feedback that makes you feel ashamed, humiliated and as if you wanted to put away the writing for ever. Everyone I know has received it at some stage. I remember the reviewer’s comment on an article I’d submitted to an academic journal. This was the sentence that did it: If the author aspires to an academic position they should learn how to reference. It was doubly killing as a) I was already a university lecturer and b) there was nothing wrong with the referencing. Nevertheless I abandoned the article on the spot.

Yet feedback can be very helpful. The three authors of The New Age of Ageing sought out readers to provide different types of feedback, and to learn from and improve our writing by taking their comments into account. Here are our reflections on our learning from this process.

243 New Age cover

Marianne Coleman says

We have asked for and received feedback throughout the writing of the book: right at the start on the proposal; on individual chapters and on the full draft.

It was really important to get feedback on the proposal. The publisher asked us to suggest suitable people to read our initial proposal so that they got a view on the viability of the book. That feedback was positive and constructive, and we took it into account when finalising the proposal, which was the initial skeleton of the book.

Throughout the course of the writing we were getting feedback from each other. For me the best thing about having co-authors has been the process of shaping the individual chapters and the book through the wonderful discussions we had each time we met. We also gave feedback to each other on draft chapters and that was incredibly useful. Obviously this can only work when you trust each other and can be honest, open and respectful of each other’s work and feelings.

In a wide-ranging book like ours, we covered areas where we were not necessarily fully expert and it was vital that we checked our facts with people who were. Their invaluable feedback enabled us to have confidence in what we were saying, but we found that we had to use our judgment about how much of their advice and how many of their suggestions to incorporate. Sometimes the sophistication and detail of their arguments were too much for the general nature of the book and more suitable for a thorough exploration of their particular area of expertise. This meant that sometimes after incorporating expert suggestions, they were trimmed back for the final draft.

A particularly useful feedback came from one of our readers at the point where we had a nearly complete draft. She came back with some vital over-arching comments including that we had not really established the standpoint from which we were speaking. This feedback made us think hard and helped us sharpen our thoughts and message for the final version.

The most recent feedback came in the form of editor’s queries. Although these tended to be mainly about consistency of spelling, punctuation and missing references, sometimes the editor has picked up a badly expressed thought that can be refined and improved for meaning.

But that is not the final feedback. That will come from our readers!

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Eileen Carnell writes

What we know for sure is that feedback can help authors become much better writers. But asking for, writing and getting feedback can be a tricky business. The process can be emotional and needs to be done with care. Here are 7 important points about feedback.

  1. You have to trust the readers of your work.

You need to have a good relationship and be prepared for the experience to be reciprocal. You are asking people to be generous with their time and be encouraging while providing authentic critique. Providing effective feedback is a highly skilled process. It’s about providing information, not about giving advice.

  1. All information about your writing can be useful.

Information can vary from seemingly small technical suggestions to comments about the overarching themes, consistency of arguments, important missing elements and the value of the project.

  1. Information provided is for the writer to work with.

As one reader said: ‘… just things which would have made my own reading of it easier – for you to take or leave as you feel fit,’ indicating that he knew that the writers are decision makers, not passive recipients of the comments.

  1. It can be helpful to ask readers for specific information.

We were particularly keen to know whether the voices of the three different authors were knitted together across the book and were keen to know if male readers would feel included.

  1. Getting feedback can be an emotional process.

Constructive criticism from others may feel like a criticism of the person rather than a critique of the writing as Caroline suggests when talking about ‘killer’ feedback. This may be even more the case when writing fiction.

  1. It can be helpful to get feedback from people who don’t know much about the themes or who are not experienced writers themselves.

Non-experts may ask questions that indicate that further explanation is needed, whether the writing is clear and if the argument is consistent.

  1. There are different ways of relaying information about others’ writing.

Everyday use of the term feedback (the dominant view) suggests the reader presents information to the writer – a one-way process. We describe this feedback as Gifts (see note). In other situations the nature of feedback has a social dimension, rather like Ping-Pong, where ideas are tossed back and forth and involve making connections. There are shared insights and new meanings established. Feedback here is a two-way process. The third example, our favoured kind, is what we define as Loops. Here there is an equal power dynamic in which new knowledge and concepts are created through dialogue.

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Caroline adds

On a writing course once, I was reminded that you cannot stand alongside everything you write and explain to the reader what they have not understood. In fact it is rare to receive comments directly about your writing. So when you get the chance, listen to the comments, take them into account and learn from them. You don’t have to agree or act on all of it. I try to remember this.

We would like to thanks the readers of the whole book who took on a huge, time-consuming task. We are very grateful for their generosity and expertise. We are also indebted to the many readers of individual chapters who made really helpful observations. Even though there were three of us writing this book getting feedback breaks the isolation of writing and it is really good to get a range of different perspectives.

Note: Askew, S & Lodge, C (2000). Gifts, Ping-Pong and Loops – linking feedback and learning, in Askew, S. (Ed) Feedback for Learning. London: Routledge.

The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change, by Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman. To be published by Policy Press on 7th September.

Related posts

We are writing monthly posts about the stages from bright ideas to publishing a book. Earlier posts have included

First Catch Your Publisher (April 2016)

One Book, Three Authors (March 2016)

Writers’ Residential (February 2016)

A post focussing on relationships in the feedback process is Critique Etiquette: the Ultimate Guide for Giving and Receiving Feedback by Angela Ackerman on Writers in the Storm blog in March 2015

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Souvenirs

Who doesn’t have one or two things that they keep to remind themselves of something in the past: a photograph, a pebble, an item of clothing? Those of us fortunate enough not to have a disrupted life are able to hold onto our souvenirs. For those, forced through fear of violence to flee their country, the souvenirs may be lost or less easy to understand. Tracy, a refugee and a victim of torture, said

What happened to me, the marks on my body, the memories, they are going to be my souvenirs.

FFT On My WayTracy had contributed these lines to the play Souvenirs. Living with one’s past can be unbearable, and that’s where the work of Freedom from Torture is so valuable. A group within that charity assists refugees through writing: The Write to Life group. I had a small connection with them before I left London. This is a revision of the post I wrote after I had been to see a production of their play: Souvenirs.

Souvenirs

Writing takes one to some surprising places and to meet some amazing people. Writing as therapy may sound dry and self-indulgent, but the Freedom From Torture’s Write to Life Group are lively, thoughtful and funny. They were also very welcoming when I joined them at one of their meetings. The group was established in 1997 and is co-ordinated by Sheila Hayman, assisted by a team of mentors. It supports torture survivors through writing, a therapeutic process.

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Souvenirs was based on the words of five of the group’s participants whoworked with two theatre companies: iceandfire and Tamasha Theatre Company. The writers played themselves.

Tracy said: What happened to me, the marks on my body, the memories, they are going to be my souvenirs. …I want to show people how I feel. In my struggle I did not have a voice and I want the world to know the truth. Talking, acting, writing about it, it’s another way to free myself.

‘The woman sitting in front of you…’ Jade, sitting centre stage, inescapable, speaks the first line. We, the audience, cannot escape. Her words, perhaps first spoken to Christine Bacon, the scriptwriter, are repeated several times in the short production. Jade sitting on the stage, is speaking to me, to you, to the other members of the cast.

The writer-actors tell us what we would rather not hear:

  • This country, my country, refuses asylum to some victims of torture
  • My country does not allow asylum seekers to work
  • My country treats people as if their needs for food, shelter, comfort, transport, communication with home, are irrelevant
  • Children in other countries are forced to become soldiers
  • Children can and do kill people
  • Parents leave behind their children and partners
  • Parents don’t know when or if they will see their children again
  • Refugees fear memories of torture but they are made to repeat details when they claim asylum
  • Individual acts of small kindnesses are treasured
  • Suffering does not stop when they reach the UK, and can be made worse by experiences here
  • Suffering and healing are all around us
  • Witnesses are sitting in front of us, on the stage.

Tracy says to the audience that she tells other sufferers of torture to speak out. This is part of the healing process. Another participant in the Write to Life group said, ‘talking, acting, writing about it, it’s another way to free myself.’ An audience is like a mirror in front of her, after all the horror and degradation, she is still powerfully and triumphantly alive. This is the mending power of words.

After a previous performance of Souvenirs at the Bath Literature Festival, Mohamed said:

When I saw the audience, I found myself saying it to them with my whole heart. Saying that script – it took me right back. … I want to change people’s perspective of asylum seekers – this is a kind of advocacy for people who are voiceless, which is invaluable. (from the Freedom From Torture blog)

Performing the play was an emotional experience for the participants. And also for the audience. The applause was prolonged.

Words bear witness to these things we don’t want to know. But we cannot now unknow them. We are the people in front of whom stood Jade, Mohammed, Tracy, ‘Uganda’, Hasani, and, in the revised script of the play, Conteh. Words allow us to know and to share, to change. Words lead to action. Now we know, what will we do?

‘Uganda’ said: This is the only way to speak out. It is a way to let the world know what is happening – we are alerting people to get things done.

Postscript

Rescue off the Canaries, November 15th 2006. Noborder Network via WikiCommons.

Rescue off the Canaries, November 15th 2006. Noborder Network via WikiCommons.

We tend to think that the crossing of the Mediterranean is the worst of the refugees’ journey to freedom. But what happens when they land, when they apply for asylum, these things can be as damaging as anything experienced up to that point. I am still ashamed now, more ashamed even, of how my country treats refugees. I continue to support Freedom from Torture.

The text of Souvenirs is available to buy from Freedom from Torture at £5.

254 FFTlogoThe original post, Souvenirs and Writing Home, was published in April 2013.

 

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Ruby by Cynthia Bond

Ruby by Cynthia Bond was shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Fiction prize 2016. It was also selected by Oprah and has been a New York Times bestseller. I feel as if I have read a great deal in novels and in newspapers about brutal and dehumanising behaviour especially towards women and the wretchedness of the lives of those at the bottom of the heap, yet this novel still managed to shock and move me.

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The story of Ruby

Ruby Bell was one of the prettiest girls in Liberty, a black township in Texas. She worked for Mrs Barbara when she was young and left for New York in pursuit of her mother. Her light skin enabled her to ‘pass’. She returns to Liberty, and as the years pass she is reviled by everyone for her unconventional and anti-social behaviour. Only Ephram Jennings, who knew her in childhood, wants anything to do with her.

After an incident outside the town store (see below) he decides to take her a gift of cake. Both his untypical assertive behaviour and the approach to Ruby are shocking and surprising to his fellow inhabitants of God-fearing Liberty. Ephram’s sister Celia, who baked the cake, sees Ruby as an instrument of the devil and forces the town to bring her brother back to her.

Ruby has powers to see spirits, especially the ‘haints’ (ghosts) of exploited and misused children. Most terrible is the Dybou, the spirit of Ephram’s father the Reverend Jennings, who introduced Ruby to prostitution when she was 8 years old. Everyone in this novel, female and male, has a tale to tell of abuse, be it lynching, exploitation or rape. The abuse reaches back into the previous generations, such as the story of Otha Jennings’s incarceration in metal hospitals.

The telling of Ruby

The story is told gradually, framed by Ephram’s commitment to Ruby and his attempts to bring decency, humanity and cleanliness to her life. He has to reckon with the judgemental attitude of the people of Liberty, revealed in the opening paragraph.

Ruby Bell was a constant reminder of what could befall a woman whose shoe heels were too high. The people of Liberty Township wove her into a cautionary tale of the wages of sin and travel. They called her buck-crazy. Howling, half-naked mad. The fact that she had come back from New York City made this somewhat understandable to the town. (3)

Within these few lines we have learned about the closed minds of the people, and of the posturing attitudes that dominate. There is some justification for the people’s suspicions of Ruby.

They had all watched, steadily, as she slipped into madness. Concern, mingled with a secret satisfaction, melted into the creases of their bodies like Vaseline. After a time they barely glanced up from their papers when Ruby walked up to the market. They yawned her existence away, or spit out a wad of tobacco juice to mark her arrival. A low joke might rumble as Miss P handed over her bread, followed by throaty chuckles.

But one end-of-summer day, Ephram Jennings took particular notice. One by one the men on the porch did as well. For instead of walking away with her bread, as she normally did, Ruby didn’t move. Her body rooted to the spot. She stood there, holding the brown sack, hand quivering like a divining rod. And then she peed. A long steady stream that hit the red dust and turned it the colour of brick. She did it absently, with calm disinterest. (5)

What are we to make of a woman, once so pretty, who offends against everyday decent behaviour with so little concern? The reader is being told that Ruby is not an easy person, not an innocent who is helpless in the face of the power of the people and especially of the dominant men of Liberty.

Themes

One of the most powerful, and alarming aspects of this novel is the role played by spirits. In an early scene Ephram recalls a shared childhood experience when Ruby is told by the exotic witch-like older woman, Ma Tante, that she is followed by ‘haints’ – a southern term for spirits or ghosts of lost souls. In adulthood Ruby refers to these as her children, and she counts among them her own aborted child from when she was forced to work as a child prostitute. But the pursuit of Ruby by the Dybou, who inhabits men’s bodies, is shocking.

I do not think that Cynthia Bond was excusing the terrible behaviour of some men by giving evil to this spirit-character, rather she was giving form to the worst behaviour and attitudes that one can imagine. And that it can thrive under cover of a respectable town and a man of the cloth is one of the themes of this book. We should be aware.

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It has been described as a love story. Ephram is set apart from the other men in Liberty. He is weaker than they are, suffering chronic pain from time to time. Unlike the other men, he has patience and understanding and will bear the derision of the town and the manipulative ways of his own sister in order to support Ruby. He is not especially believable, but he is necessary in the plot to allow Ruby to stand up for herself.

In the denouement of the novel Ruby fights back against the evil Dybou.

“I ain’t yours! I ain’t your whore! I ain’t your nothing!”

She began to push out, with her hands. Her feet stomping hard on the ground. He held on, held on, until Ruby felt the tug, the anchor of the rope that bound them.

She looked at him, the fire of spirit burning through her eyes. She felt the tether weaken.

“I’m not meant for using! I never was! Never was! I ain’t never, never going to be used again!”

She felt the rope burn to cinder. He paused, then flew out of her. He seemed to shake, then fall away, swirling into the shadow of the forest until he became too small for Ruby to see. She sat in this new silence. Felt a new freedom in her bones. (326)

In the calm that follows the departure of the Dybou she recognises that the undemanding attention Ephram gave her has restored a little of her self-respect. That is the love story.

The novel is strong and shocking in its confrontation of abuse. The story-telling is wild and imaginative, with vivid use of imagery and language and wit (such as the name of the township). I could have done without the reading group questions and the recipe for Celia’s cake, but it’s certainly a book worth reading.

Ruby by Cynthia Bond (2015) published by Two Roads. 330pp

253 Baileys-2016-logo

Related posts

The shortlist for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016 also includes The Green Road by Anne Enright.

The winner will be announced on Wednesday 8th June.

Another enthusiastic review of Ruby can be found on The Writes of Women blog.

Cynthia Bond has a website, which includes details of various organisations that work in North America to help trafficked and other abused women.

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Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street by Virginia Woolf

The first line jolts the reader:

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the gloves herself. (146)

Surely that should be flowers?

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. (5)

The gloves are from Virginia Woolf’s short story Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street – my choice for this third contribution to #Woolfalong. The flowers are from the opening line of the novel Mrs Dalloway, published later.

Mrs Dalloway appears in Virginia Woolf’s fiction on several occasions. First in The Voyage Out, then in the short story, then in the novel and finally in several short stories written after Mrs Dalloway. I think we can conclude that Virginia Woolf found her useful to her writing.

252 VW SH Stories cover

Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street

Mrs Dalloway does indeed buy some gloves right at the end of this story, which is less than 8 pages long. The gloves are French, white, half an inch over the elbow with pearl buttons. As in the novel we follow Clarissa through the streets from her home in Westminster to the glove shop in Bond Street.

The story is an early experiment in stream of consciousness, a technique to convey the layers, textures, and loops of consciousness experienced by Clarissa. She leaves her house, meets an old friend, remembers the death of another, notices the other people in Bond Street and enters the glove shop. Virginia Woolf records the variety of thoughts in Clarissa’s head, memories, impressions, things she observes and muses upon, including the feeling of familiarity about the other customer in the glove shop.

There was a violent explosion in the street outside. The shop-woman cowered behind the counters. But Clarissa, sitting very upright, smiled at the other lady. ‘Miss Anstruther!’ she exclaimed. (153)

And so the story ends.

The appearances of Mrs Dalloway

We first met Clarissa on the ship sailing to South America in The Voyage Out. She and her husband join the Euphrosyne in the stormy passage from Lisbon to the African coast. Clarissa is portrayed as slight, rather empty-headed but also generous and gracious, a striker of attitudes.

‘It’s so like Whistler!’ she exclaimed, with a wave towards the shore, as she shook Rachel by the hand … (36)

After her departure Mrs Dalloway is described by a more modern woman:

‘She was quite nice, but a thimble-pated creature.’ Helen continued. ‘I’ve never heard such nonsense! Chitter-chatter-chitter-chatter – fish and the Greek alphabet! – never listened to a word any one said – chock-full of idiotic theories about the way to bring up children. ‘(79)

I love the ‘thimble-pated creature’.

In the short story she is more fleshed out, has more of an interior life, and indeed her inner life is the point of the story.

She mounted the little hill lightly. The air stirred with energy. Messages were passing from the Fleet to the Admiralty. Piccadilly and Arlington Street and the Mall seemed to chafe the very air in the Park and lift its leaves hotly, brilliantly, upon waves of that divine vitality which Clarissa loved. To ride; to dance; she had adored all that. Or going [for] long walks in the country, talking about books, what to do with one’s life, for young people were amazingly priggish – Oh the things one had said! But one had conviction. Middle age is the devil. People like Jack will never know that, she thought; for he never once thought of death, never, they said, knowing he was dying. And now can never mourn – how did it go? – a head grown grey . . . From the contagion of the world’s slow stain . . . have drunk their cup a round or two before. . . . From the contagion of the world’s slow stain! She held herself upright. (148)

She has moved from thinking about the Admiralty, to the park, her youthful self, and the death of her friend Jack to quoting Shelley’s poem Adonais. (Also quoted by her in The Voyage Out, where she exclaims ‘I feel there’s almost everything one wants in “Adonais”.’ (40)) The short story touches upon genealogy, the social changes brought by the war, the possibility of generosity to the shop woman, class, in short many of the themes of Mrs Dalloway.

Septimus is absent, a damaged victim of the war who brings a sense of tragedy and inhumanity to Mrs Dalloway. It is a lesser, more sketchy idea that Mrs Dalloway expresses as she buys her gloves:

Thousands of young men had died that things might go on. (153)

The story grew, as Virginia Woolf noted in her diary. ‘Mrs Dalloway has branched into a book; and I adumbrate here a study of insanity and suicide,’ (October 1922, 52).

188 Mrs D cover

Through writing Mrs Dalloway Virginia Woolf developed what she called her ‘tunnelling process, by which I tell the past by instalments, as I have need of it.’ Not surprisingly Mrs Dalloway was turning out to be a richer character than her earlier appearances in The Voyage Out or Bond Street.

The doubtful point is, I think, the character of Mrs Dalloway. It may be too stiff, too glittering, too tinsely. But then I can bring innumerable other characters to her support. (October 1923. 61)

And as she worked on the novel she reflected on her writing processes, what she was achieving. After returning from Charleston one evening in August 1924 she recorded:

I don’t often trouble now to describe cornfields and groups of harvesting women in loose blues and reds, and little staring yellow frocked girls. …All my nerves stood upright, flushed, electrified (what’s the word?) with the sheer beauty – beauty surrounding and superabounding. So that one almost resents it, not being capable of catching it all and holding it all at the moment. One’s progress through life is made immensely interesting by trying to grasp all these developments as one passes. I feel as if I were putting out my fingers tentatively on (here is Leonard, …) (August 1924. 65)

In my view Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street is an early exercise in grasping all of that and in Mrs Dalloway she demonstrates her confident use of it.

Clarissa has walk-on parts in some of the stories written after the novel. In her diaries Virginia Woolf noted that Mrs D ‘ushers in a host of others, I begin to perceive’ (August 1922, 48). Clarissa’s party was a device for Virginia Woolf to explore the responses of a number of people in social situations. She wrote these while she was mulling over To The Lighthouse. Readers of that novel will be familiar with the extended evening meal in the first section of the book. By the time she wrote To The Lighthouse she could write of the inner world of several characters in the Ramsay household.

In The New Dress, I especially like the awkwardness experienced by Mabel Waring. Already lacking confidence and with a husband who has no interest in her, her social isolation is explored in the context of the wrong dress at Clarissa’s party. And I notice the disdain with which Mr Serle treats Miss Anning when they are introduced in Together and Apart. The interaction between the two is painfully observed.

So much to gain from reading these stories, especially in tracking the development of Virginia Woolf’s writing.

Virginia Woolf c 1912 by Vanessa Bell

Virginia Woolf c 1912 by Vanessa Bell

More Mrs Dalloway

The character was also drawn on by Michael Cunningham in The Hours, which was a title Virginia Woolf once had for Mrs Dalloway.

There are still the flowers to buy. Clarissa feigns exasperation (though she loves doing errands like this), leaves Sally cleaning the bathroom, and runs out, promising to be back in half an hour.

It is New York City. It is the end of the twentieth century. (9)

252 The Hours cover

So, New York, twenty years ago, not the effects of the Great War on London, but of HIV/Aids on the US.

Clarissa works so well for writers. Perhaps you have written a Mrs Dalloway story? Perhaps you will now?

Texts used

A Haunted House, the complete shorter fiction by Virginia Woolf. Introduction by Helen Simpson, Edited by Susan Dick. Published by Vintage in 2003. 314pp

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf, first published in 1915. Penguin Modern Classic.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first published in 1925. Penguin Modern Classic.

The Hours by Michael Cunningham published in 1998. Paperback edition by 4th Estate. 226pp

Related posts

Previous posts for #Woolfalong hosted by Heavenali on her blog.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

I have also written Mrs Dalloway is ageing

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Frankenstein at the ballet

How does Liam Scarlett’s choreography of Frankenstein translate Mary Shelley’s words to an art form that has no text? Here are some thoughts on a crossover endeavour: fiction into ballet. It’s fiction we all think we know.

Sadly the movies haven’t resist a stitched together monster, and switched the name of Frankenstein from the maker to the creation. This image of horror is known to movie moguls and horror buffs everywhere. See related posts – below. Cue: impression of large sleep walking-type gait, shuffling with determination towards its quarry. In Mary Shelley’s novel Victor Frankenstein is the creator of life.

From Frankenstein, 1931

From Frankenstein, 1931

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: the novel

Mary Shelley wrote a cautionary tale – take responsibility for the outcomes of your actions or terrible things will happen. The story is framed by the letters of an explorer Walton to his sister as he attempts to penetrate the mysteries of the cold regions north of St Petersburg. Someway into the voyage a monstrous creature is seen speeding across the landscape ahead of them. Soon after they rescue a man in apparent pursuit. As he recovers, Frankenstein, for it is he, tells his story to Walton, of his childhood and how he used the new scientific knowledge of galvanism to give life to a body, but how he was so afraid of his creation that he abandoned it. Some of Frankenstein’s narrative is the monster’s story retold in his words, about how he learned language and understood human kindness. And how rejection by humans led to murderous instincts being roused. Another theme of the novel, then, is how the savage learns, from social contact, affection, example, all of which are denied to Frankenstein’s creature. Rousseau’s ideas can be traced here.

250 Frankenstein Peng

Frankenstein studied in Ingolstadt, where the creature was given life. It followed him to his home in Geneva, when he finally returned. Frankenstein finds his creation in the mountains. He demands that Frankenstein make him a mate, and uses the murder of Frankenstein’s loved ones to force a promise that he will. The story moves to remote islands off the coast of Scotland (how did the monstrous creature cross the sea without being noticed?) Here, on the point of a second creation, Frankenstein decides the risks are too great. More revenge murders lead him to try to hunt down and destroy the life he created. This is where Walton finds him and his last sight is of Frankenstein leaping out of the cabin window as he pursues his creation across the ice, ‘lost in darkness and distance’.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, first published in 1818.

Copy given to Lord Byron

Copy given to Lord Byron

Frankenstein by Liam Scarlett: the ballet

Any retelling of a story in a different medium will alter the original source. We know that from films, which are so frequently less rich than the original text. Ballet emphasises stories too, in a different way. It too shows actions better than introspection.

I was surprised that the ballet was very traditional, including pas de deux, a wedding waltz, the corps de ballet. For me the ballet’s most successful part was the third act. It’s all action here as the creature hunts down and kills each of Frankenstein’s loved ones, until Frankenstein kills himself, and the creature walks off into the fire. We’ll come to the substitution of fire for ice later. Here was tension and action as the creature hid himself among the dancers, appearing more and more frequently and obviously, and each time more menacingly.

Frontispiece to Mary Shelley, Frankenstein published by Colburn and Bentley, London 1831 Steel engraving in book 93 x 71 mm. via WikiCommons

Frontispiece to Mary Shelley, Frankenstein published by Colburn and Bentley, London 1831 Steel engraving in book 93 x 71 mm. via WikiCommons

I also enjoyed the pyrotechnics of the creation scene, set in the anatomy theatre at Ingolstadt University. Although the synopsis suggests that ‘Victor is horrified’ by his creation, we hardly see the rejection as the creature runs off. Mary Shelley emphasises Frankenstein’s rejection of his creation. In the novel he continually rejects and hides the truth: when his young brother is killed by the creature, the nursemaid hanged for the murder, and when his father, wife and best friend are each dispatched.

In the ballet Victor frequently stands transfixed while his creation wreaks havoc. And finally he kills himself, which at least means his creature cannot have a mate.

So I found that in the essential moment of rejection by Victor, the ballet fudged it. But in other ways it was enchanting: the dancing, (the pas de deux), brilliant effects (the galvanising scene, which in the novel is more about Victor’s horror at what he had done than this momentous scientific achievement), and an exciting climax.

We also lost the sense of the brutal and cold landscapes, as Frankenstein pursues his creation in the mountainous region near Mont Blanc, for example. And the terrible chase across the Arctic, which frames the novel. Instead the climax of the ballet plays out in front of intensifying fire, to which the creature turns at the death of his creator.

It was well received by the first night audience, who saw Frederico Bonelli in the title role, Laura Morera as Elizabeth and Steven McRae as the creature. Alexander Campbell danced the role of Frankenstein’s friend Clerval.

Frankenstein, danced by The Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House, May 4th 2016.

Of the two Frankensteins, I think Mary Shelley’s will make the more lasting impression upon me. But I might not have read it if I hadn’t been coming to the ballet. And the ballet was very enjoyable.

Related posts

The previous post: Mary Shelley, the creator of Frankenstein

Frankenstein in Hollywood by Barry Forshaw, on the Wordsworth Trust blog in June 2014

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Mary Shelley, creator of Frankenstein

Mary Shelley was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, radical writers of the late 18th Century. She ran away with and later married a radical from her own generation, Percy Bysshe Shelley. She spent time in the company of Lord Byron, and wrote her most famous novel trapped by the rain in his Italian villa. These associations are significant, but Mary Shelley made her own contribution to cultural life, not least through the novel Frankenstein.

Mary’s Life

The tragedy of Mary’s childhood was the death of her mother from puerperal fever within days of her birth in 1797. Her father was devastated. Mary grew up motherless. Godwin remarried, partly to provide a mother for baby Mary and her half-sister Fanny Imlay (Mary Wollstonecraft’s older illegitimate child). Her stepmother provided her with stepsiblings, including Jane, later Claire, but very little affection.

250 Mary and Percy Shelley

Mary spent intellectually formative time in Dundee with friends of her father’s, but on meeting and falling for Shelley in 1814, ran away with him and Claire to France. Shelley was already married to Harriet who was pregnant and later committed suicide. Her half-sister Fanny Imlay also committed suicide at this time. Mary married Shelley on Harriet’s death. She and Shelley already had a son and were to go and have three more children. Only one survived.

In 1816 the Shelleys and Claire returned to Europe, staying in Geneva near Byron. Claire had already started a liaison with Byron, but he soon tired of her. It was here that Mary had her first ideas for Frankenstein.

Over the next few years the Shelleys lived and travelled in Europe, where three of Mary’s children and Claire’s daughter by Byron all died. Shelley was drowned in June 1822. It is not surprising that Mary suffered from depression with her life defined by the death of many of her most important people.

Mary supported herself and her remaining son until she died in February 1851 through her writing. She wrote travel books (as did her mother) as well as six more novels, at least 50 biographical essays for an encyclopaedia and edited her husband’s work for publication.

Of her works, only Frankenstein has remained well known.

1816 – The Year without a Summer.

In April 1816 Mount Tambora erupted in the Dutch East Indies – present-day Indonesia. It was the most violent eruption ever recorded. The effect of the huge volumes spewed from the volcano was to change weather patterns all over the world for at least 12 months. In Europe the dreadful, wet summer resulted in failed harvests, and the high prices of grain brought starvation and political unrest.

In Geneva it rained day after day and the Romantic poets’ party was confined to their houses. It was here that someone, Byron it seems, announced ‘we will each write a ghost story’.

Writing Frankenstein

250 Frankenstein text

Mary took time to find her inspiration, and it was the conversations that the party were having about life and its principles, and specifically about galvanism, that led Mary to form her ideas. After one such conversation she records

When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. (quoted in the Introduction xxi)

She began writing:

It was a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. (58)

In the revisions the sentence appears at the start of Chapter V of Book 1.

The novel reveals her extensive self-taught understanding of ‘natural philosophy’ as physics was called at the time. She also knew the classics, and read the new knowledge being revealed by enlightenment scholars. Mary’s most famous novel is not so much a ghost story as a gothic science fiction horror story.

250 Frankenstein Peng

Not surprisingly women cannot be forgiven for so much transgression nor allowed to achieve intellectual status. Some commentators have suggested that Frankenstein was actually Shelley’s work. Although he apparently provided some editorial assistance, this was Mary’s.

More on Frankenstein in the next post, looking at the Royal Ballet’s production of Frankenstein, by Liam Scarlett – a world premier.

Frankenstein at the Royal Opera House

Frankenstein at the Royal Opera House

Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter

Both women challenged conventional acceptable behaviour by women, refusing to accept that women should be treated differently. Both had unmarried sexual relationships with men, and both had illegitimate children.

Both wrote fiction and travel writing, but Mary Shelley did not publish polemic books such as the Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Both women married radical men. Both suffered for their love, Mary Wollstonecraft was abandoned, more or less, by Imlay, despite their baby Fanny. Shelley seems to have indulged himself wherever he chose, including with Claire (Mary’s step-sister, who accompanied them on their travels). Claire is known to have had a child by Byron. It is not surprising that the group were known as the ‘league of incest’. The men of the circle seem to have behaved like those men of the 1970s who exploited women’s new sexual freedoms, whatever the cost to their partners.

Both women were ostracised for their sexual activities. Both spent time abroad, Mary Wollstonecraft in France during the revolution and Mary Shelley in Europe with Shelley until his death.

Despite the tragedies in both their lives and the attitudes of their times, both women pursued education, radical ideas and have influenced ideas for more than 200 years.

Romantic Outlaws: the extraordinary lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Marcy Shelley by Charlotte Gordon published by Corsair 2015. 652pp.

Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley. I used the Penguin Classics revised edition 1992, edited with an introduction by Maurice Hindle.

Related posts

Katacharin on Mary Shelley on sheroesofhistory.

Mary Wollstonecraft, a Romantic Outlaw from this blog in March, looking at Charlotte Gordon’s biography of the two Marys.

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Dear Diary, today I wrote …

Why are writers so often advised to keep a diary or journal? How can regular entries support your writing? I always wanted one of those 5-year diaries with a key, kept in a box or a slipcase, bound in padded faux leather, edged with gold. Instead, every Christmas I was given an adult’s one-year pocket diary, with rice-thin paper and four or five lines per day. They were often business gifts my father had received at work, so they bore the trademark of the company and details of relevant business organisations inside.

I diligently made entries for a few weeks: ‘went on a walk’, ‘snowed’, ‘went to see the Bennetts and played charades’, that kind of thing. Then around the time I went back to boarding school (mid-January) the entries would tail off. After all, every day was more or less the same. Got up, had breakfast, made my bed, did English/Maths/Geography and Games. Rained.’ and so forth. It became boring to write, it is boring to read. But I was learning a useful skill: recording in words.

Writers’ diaries.

249 Jrnl of a novel

On writing courses I have been recommended to read writers’ diaries, specifically John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel from the time he was writing East of Eden. In this collection of letters you learn that Steinbeck was a keen amateur woodworker. He wrote in pencil and really did have a pencil sharpening routine as a prelude to his writing. He planned a fixed amount to write everyday and which scenes. It was all mapped out in advance. Nothing I read in his diary has any relevance to my writing, except it was often very hard work for Steinbeck as well.

Journal of a Novel by John Steinbeck, published by Penguin Classics. 192pp

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Virginia Woolf kept diaries. They have been edited by her husband and published, with an eye to illuminating her writing practices. When I posted about To The Lighthouse as part of #Woolfalong recently I greatly enjoyed looking up the references to the novel in the diary. The entries cast light on her writing processes, what she saw as her innovations, how she felt she was dealing with the new approaches she was trying. Recommended!

A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Leonard Woolf, first published in 1953. One edition was published by Persephone Books in 2012. 372pp.

Reasons to keep a diary

I mentioned my desire for the locked 5-year diary. Two features of my thwarted wishes indicate important reasons to keep a diary:

  1. To make a record over time. I grew up to read a history degree. Perhaps you can see the connection.
  2. To have a secret or at least a private place. An interesting piece in the New Yorker in March referred to the importance of diaries as secret places in a review of What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi: Black Women Writers and the Secret Space of Diaries by Morgan Jenkins.

And I can think of a number of other reasons why I still do have a journal of sorts:

3. As I indicated above, it is a place to make sense of the world through words.

4. It’s a place to make sense of my writing through reflection, comments, experiments, notes, mistakes.

249 deardiary

I have a daily weekday routine of getting up, making coffee and writing two A4 pages by hand, intending to focus on my writing. But it often turns out to be a reflection on activities of the previous day: a play, an exhibition, a conversation, a walk, a book or a dilemma not connected to writing. How is it helping my writing? Perhaps it just gets my writing mojo going. A way to loosen the ligaments, to use Virginia Woolf’s phrase (April 20th 1919, p13).

The benefits according to others

Writing about traumatic experiences and the associated emotions for 20 minutes a day speeds up the healing of wounds, it is claimed. Research on this was reported by Oliver Burkeman in his Guardian Blog in July 2013.

Michael Palin has an instrumental reason for keeping his diaries: a record of his days, helping him remember things he would otherwise have forgotten. But he also has this to say

I’ve tried to approach each morning’s entry as a story of the day that’s just passed, without limits and without self-censorship. And composing a story a day is not a bad discipline for any would-be writer. (The Guardian, Do Something supplement, September 2015.)

Journaling to help learning

249 blank pages

I think the most useful aspect of my regular writing is that it is part of my reflective process. I record my successes – a story completed and entered for a competition; the MS of The New Age of Ageing sent to the publishers; a target number of words achieved and so on. I record my frustrations. Periodically I review the pages of my journal, focusing on what I did, and what I learned from my actions. And sometimes I plan what I will do in future in the light of this learning.

On my tbr pile

What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

Diary of a Notable Woman by Jean Lucey Pratt

Journals of Sylvia Plath

Over to you

How does writing a journal help your writing? Are there any journals by writers that have influenced your writing?

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Sisters in Fiction

Why do fiction writers so often use sisters in their novels? Is it because sisters usually have good relationships, certainly long ones, and allow authors to explore a variety of themes: growing up, marital prospects, contrasting experiences, enduring relationships or rivalries. Here are some thoughts on sisterly novels.

What little girls must learn? Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Everybody’s favourite gives us the lessons that must be learned about how little girls turn into grown ups. Who doesn’t identify with Jo Marsh, and who doesn’t yearn for the simplicities of 19th Century New England childhoods? We learn that sisters must grow up right, and that more than two of them ensures terrible trouble for the family.

The marriage market: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Five sisters, again a problem for their parents, and here specifically in the meat market that was an un-moneyed middle class Georgian England search for husbands. How will the sisters get their men? They are beautiful (Jane), intelligent and with bright eyes (Elizabeth), wanton (Lydia), boring (Mary) and stay-at-home (Kitty).

The delights of this novel include the mutually supportive relationship between Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, and the satisfaction in them both getting nice (rich) husbands.

Contrasts: 1. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Fiction is full of examples of sisters who grow up differently in the same household. The convenient contrast allows authors to look at the effects of birth order: the older having more responsibility than younger sisters. That is certainly true of the saintly Eleanor who is thwarted by Marianne’s gullibility in Sense and Sensibility. Jane Austen’s novels are full of contrasting sisters: Anne and her sisters, (patient, selfish and grasping) in Persuasion, and the play-acting rivals Maria and Julia Bartram in Mansfield Park.

Contrasts: 2. Easter Parade by Richard Yates

248 Easter Parade Cover

 

Richard Yates took the contrast between two sisters’ lives from before the war to the 60s to tell a sad story of alcoholism and marriage failure.

Sarah, the older sister, quickly settles for the most classy man her mother finds for her. He turns out not to be classy, and also turns out to be a wife beater. His attitudes are typical blue collar American despite his English education.

Emily, the younger sister, chooses lots of men, and also ends up lost, without success and unemployed. Only her nephew, who is an ordained minister, seems to offer any hope or understanding. Everyone else has been consumed by drink.

Easter Parade Richard Yates (1976) Published by Everyman 188pp

For a very good review check out Jacquiwine’s Journal on Easter Parade.

Contrasts 3: They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple

248 Dorothy Whipple

I haven’t read this yet, but the Persephone catalogue describes it as ‘A 1943 novel by this superb writer, contrasting three different marriages’. Dorothy Whipple has a good eye for family relationships. See my review of Greenbanks.

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published by Persephone.

Loyalty: Housekeeping (1980) by Marilynne Robinson

This novel defies description. The sisters, Ruthie and Lucille, live in a weird and rather isolated environment, called Fishbone, in the American Mid-West. They are orphans and a succession of relatives fails to look after them. Finally, their aunt cares for them until the younger sister breaks away. The scene of the flooded house lives in my memory.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, published in the UK by Faber & Faber 224pp.

Long-lasting: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

The central mystery of this successful novel is Maud’s attempt to find out what happened to her sister since she disappeared at the end of the war. She pursues the clues, despite the passage of time and her own fading mental powers.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (2014) published by Penguin Books. 275pp

For more on this novel see the post in the older women in fiction series.

Rivalry: The Looking Glass Sisters by Gohril Gabrielsen.

248 Lglass Sisters cover

The unrelenting horror of this story of a co-dependent relationship turned worse and more destructive by the page is a contrast to the other novels mentioned here.

The story is set in the remote far north of Norway. Two sisters live in a house, their parents have died. They are middle aged but the narrator recalls their earlier lives. She is younger and disabled, having lost the use of her legs in childhood, an outcome she partly blames on her sister for not alerting her parents to her worsening illness. The younger sister riles and deliberately provokes and annoys her older carer. The situation is changed by the arrival of Johan, and his inability to cope with the invalid and the invalid’s jealousy of her sister. The situation declines and declines and in the end everything is terrible.

The Looking-Glass Sisters Peirene (2008) 183pp

Translated from the Norwegian by John Irons

Sisters in fiction always a happy ending?

Sisters are doing it themselves!

On the whole, sisterhood is good in fiction, as in life. It is not surprising that the second wave of feminism took to calling all women sisters.

But there is ambivalence in these novels (and perhaps life). The relationship is not always easy. In novels, especially from the 19th century it seems that there is always a fear that one woman’s marriage/achievements will spell another’s poverty.

Over to you

Have you any suggestions about why sisters appear so often in novels? What other fictional sisters would you recommend?

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The Vegetarian by Han Kang

It seems that to be a vegetarian is a challenge. I remember in the 1970s in Coventry where I was teaching the children at lunchtime would ask why I had a special meal, and then try and catch me out because it appeared to them to be unbelievable that I chose never to eat meat. I bet you eat fish and chips. No. Smokey Bacon crisps? No. And on Christmas Day, what do you eat then? I bet you eat turkey! This was usually delivered with a triumphant ‘caught you’ kind of voice. But I haven’t eaten meat for nearly 40 years. Not even on Christmas Day. Then for me as now in Korea for the main character in this novel. When Yeong-hye announced she would no longer eat meat it was regarded as a social transgression. Several people thought that her behaviour must be corrected.

247 Veg cover

The Story

The story of Yeong-hye is told by three different people: her husband, her brother-in-law and her sister. Each one has a different view or need for her. Each one carries the point of view for a section.

The first section, called The Vegetarian, is narrated in the first person by Yeong-hye’s husband. He believes she is mediocre, malleable and no challenge to him. He married her on this basis, and her announcement that she will no longer eat meat brings unwanted changes to his life. He resents this for he sees her role only in terms of himself. In one of the most shocking episodes of the book the husband recounts, in a bloodless way, how Yeong-hye’s father strikes her twice and forces meat into her mouth, sparking her first psychotic episode. She cuts her wrist and is hospitalised. The husband makes no effort to intervene, does nothing to prevent the violence.

The brother-in-law is a video artist who becomes obsessed with painting her body with flowers. In the second section, Mongolian Mark, he moves from being a sympathetic person, the one who carried Yeong-hye to hospital, through a fixation upon her birth mark to painting flowers on her body and recording her movements. Finally he paints and records himself as well and the results are predictable and not a little erotic. But when they are discovered it is Yeong-hye who again goes to hospital.

Her sister, Kim In-hye, visits the hospital in the section called Flaming Trees. Kim In-hye feels guilt because she did not prevent violence towards her younger sister in childhood as well as in adulthood. Although her marriage has finished because of the painting the body episode, Kim In-hye cares for her sister. She pays for the treatment and she visits periodically. Now it seems that nothing can be done for her, Yeong-hye wishes to become a tree. She does not want this life, but another.

Themes

There is rage in this book, resistance and revolt against conformity. It is also about the body and its meaning in relationships and to the individual. Expressing oneself physically is only allowed in certain ways, and not eating meat, cutting oneself, wishing to become a tree, hiding out in the woods – these things cannot be accepted from Yeong-hye. It is her sister who witnesses the second shocking attempt, this one by the hospital staff, to force-feed Yeong-hye to save her life. She questions whether Yeong-hye’s wishes should not prevail, even if she dies.

Yeong-hye’s only explanation for her vegetarianism is that she had a dream and she pursues her dream to become a tree as the novel progresses. Her decision provokes others to act upon her and her body. The more she withdraws from the world the more she is imprisoned within it: in hospital wards, by strait jackets and drugs and even trussed like a bird for roasting to transport her away from the psychiatric hospital.

While we have three voices observing and commenting on Yeong-hye, her voice is rarely heard except in a small voice or an animalistic howl.

The writing

Here is the opening paragraph of the novel. The words are Yeong-hye’s husband’s. So much information, so little affection or admiration.

Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her. Middling height; bobbed hair neither long nor short; jaundiced, sickly-looking skin; somewhat prominent cheekbones; her timid, sallow aspect told me all I needed to know. As she came up to the table where I was waiting, I couldn’t help notice her shoes – the plainest black shoes imaginable. And that walk of hers – neither fast nor slow, striding not mincing. (3).

Later the writing becomes quite sensual. Here are the brother-in-law’s observations when he has first painted her body with flowers.

This was the body of a beautiful young woman, conventionally an object of desire, and yet it was a body from which all desire had been eliminated. But this was nothing so crass as carnal desire, not for her – rather, or so it seemed, what she had renounced was the very life her body represented. The sunlight that came splintering through the wide window, dissolving into grains of sand, and the beauty of that body which though this was not visible to the eye, was also ceaselessly splintering … (85)

The final scenes are vivid, disturbing and haunting.

The translator, Deborah Smith, has done an excellent job.

247 mbi2016-logoShortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. It was an opportunity to read a book by a woman in translation. I have never read a book by a Korean author before.

 

The Vegetarian by Han Kang published by Portobello Books in 2015. 183pp

Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.

 

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Vertigo by WG Sebald

Vertigo is that nauseous feeling induced by losing balance or from being at a height. Everything appears to be unsettled and to whirl around. It is hard to keep the scene in front of you coherent as it moves and eludes perception.

The book’s title is perfect; it is a work that teeters at the edge of uncertainty … Sebald’s journey into himself and his past is compelling, puzzling, unique. [Erica Wagner in the Times, quoted by Stephen Moss, see below.]

226 Vertigo

Structure and other features

The question of genre is frequently raised about Sebald’s work. Vertigo is a novel and a memoir and a travel book and a disquisition on European culture. It is organised into four parts, describing the travels of Beyle (better known to us by his pen name: Stendhal), WG Sebald, Dr K (aka Kafka) and WG Sebald again. They travel through Europe, mostly on railways, occasionally by foot. Connections between the four sections are not obvious.

Beyle, Sebald and Dr K share hypersensitivity. The effect of this is that their journeys and the narration of their travels can turn in a moment, and take the reader down a side track, a digression. The digression quickly becomes the topic of the next few pages. And the original narrative line is left behind. Much like a railway journey really. Impossible to read for some, but I get seduced, like looking out of a railway carriage at the scenery.

As with his other novels, the text contains many grainy pictures. Some of them appear to have no connection with the text, others appear to illustrate it. Some might have given Sebald ideas about what to include: for example the grusome Drs Ringger and Pesavento on pages 118 and 119. There is a sense that some may be frauds, stand-ins, and some real, like memory, or the randomness of life from which we try to make sense. Nothing is clear.

Themes

Memories and truth seem to be the big themes, especially in the last section where Max revisits his birthplace W., not visited for decades. The critical scene perhaps is when he is in the attic with Lukas he touches an old grey chasseur uniform from the 19th century it crumbles to nothing. You touch and it’s gone.

At last he explains, or does not, what he has been about in the place of his birth:

… Lukas wanted to know what had brought me back to W. after so many years, and in November of all times. To my surprise he understood my rather complicated and sometimes contradictory explanations right away. He particularly agreed when I said that over the years I had puzzled out a good deal in my own mind, but in spite of that, far from becoming clearer, things now appeared to me more incomprehensible than ever. The more images I gathered from the past, I said, the more unlikely it seemed to me that the past had actually happened in this or that way, for nothing about it could be called normal: most of it was absurd, and if not absurd, then appalling. (212)

30 WG Sebald2

Writing

The writing gives the impression that the narrator is detached from the events described. There is an evenness of tone, an absence of dialogue, little reported speech. The narrative is like the railway lines, stretching behind, and onwards, with branches off which he may or may not take.

The restlessness manages to be the opposite of dull, and perhaps this is due to Sebald’s extensive middle European cultural knowledge, especially of art and literature and his skill in descriptions of landscapes. Obfuscation is what happens all the time. There are no explanations, no emotional responses to events. In Milan, two young men set upon the narrator, and I had to read the passage twice before I could understand that they had taken nothing from him.

Not until I turned on my heel and swung the bag off my shoulder into the pair of them did I manage to disengage myself and retreat to one of the pillars in the archway. LA PROSSIMA COINCIDENZA. None of the passers-by had taken any notice of the incident. I, however, watched my two assailants, jerking curiously as if they were out of an early motion picture, vanish in the half-light under the colonnades. In the taxi, I clutched my bag with both hands. To my remark that Milan was dangerous territory, ventured in as casual a tone as I could muster, the driver responded with a gesture of helplessness. (109)

And we are into a description of the fortified taxi cab, and then of the hotel. The mugging is already behind him.

We don’t know whether the people referred to really existed or not. How do the four sections relate? Why are Stendhal and Kafka referred to as Marie Henri Beyle and Dr K respectively? Is this memoir or fiction? Is it a new form of travel writing? I think it defies labelling and we need not be detained trying to fit the labels to this book.

I’ve recently been reading Virginia Woolf and it strikes me that she was trying to reproduce how humans experience the world, and that may also be Sebald’s purpose. The world is not delivered to us in neat packages, but in an ever-turning series of events, which change and become less secure as we examine them. The experience of the world is not unlike the experience of vertigo.

It has been suggested that his four novels should be seen as a quartet: The Emigrants, Austerlitz, The Moons of Saturn and Vertigo. I don’t think it matters too much whether they are seen as separate or a quartet. They all have virtues, and together they remind us what was lost when Sebald died in a road accident in December 2001.

Vertigo by WG Sebald was first published in English in 1999 and published by Vintage in 2002. 263pp

Translated from the German by Michael Hulse.

226 Emmig

Related posts

Why you should read WG Sebald by Mark O’Connell in the New Yorker to mark the 10th anniversary of Sebald’s death, December 2011, is a useful introduction.

Written in January 2000, before Max Sebald died, this post by Stephen Moss in the Guardian made most sense and was very helpful to me. Falling for Vertigo

Returning to The Emigrants by WG Sebald from January 2016

The original post The Emigrants by WG Sebald; one of those enduring blogposts that receives constant readership, from May 2013

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