Category Archives: Books

The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf

I failed. I got to page 93 out of 185 and I stopped reading. I have tried. For several weeks I have picked up this book and read the first chapter. Then put it down and later tried again. Now at the half-way point, ten chapters out of 20 have been read, but I can’t go on. I’ve weighed up the time it was taking to read this novel against what I felt I got out of it. I’ve decided to move on to other books.

The title of this post should really read: The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf

The Quest for Christa T

Christa T is not an especially remarkable woman. Like the narrator, she grew up in eastern Germany during the war, and like many in that area, fled before the advancing Red Army. Living in East Germany (the DDR), as normality is resumed, the girls meet again in university and form a loose friendship. The narrator reconstructs Christa T’s life from the documents she left when she died young of Leukaemia.

Part of the novel seems to be about the impossibility of recreating anyone’s life, fictional or real. She opens the novel with doubts about memories.

The quest for her: in the thought of her. And of the attempt to be oneself. She speaks of this in her diaries, which we have, on the loose manuscript pages that have been found, and between the lines of those letters of hers that are known to me. I must forget my memory of Christa T.- that is what these documents have taught me. Memory puts a deceptive color on things.

But must we give her up for lost? (1)

It’s this kind of elliptical yet lyrical prose that made reading it so hard. And the novel continues by exploring witness evidence, documents, and conjecturing what happened in the gaps. There is very little narrative, more a series of events alongside the narrator’s suggestions of what might have been happening in Christa T’s mind and explanations of her responses.

What are we to make of the author’s name being shared with the main character? Why has Christa Wolf embarked on this search, the quest for her namesake, at all? I guess I’ll never know because I am moving on to other reading.

Christa Wolf

Christa Wolf lived 1929 to 2011, mostly former East Germany. The area in which she was born is now in Poland, and when her family fled the advancing Red Army at the end of the war they ended up inside the Russian Zone.

She worked as a literary critic and journal editor and although critical of the DDR leadership during the Cold War period she remained a socialist. She won many awards for her writing. From reading her obituaries and about The Quest for Christa T it seems that Christa Wolf was interested in individuals who make their own way rather than following the crowd. This had obvious implications for the East German state. Her book was not banned when it appeared in 1968, but only a limited number of copies were printed.

A Novel in translation

Well, I am sorry for my failure to get beyond half way. The Quest for Christa T was my October choice for the Women in Translation project. I chose it because it appeared in several lists of recommended reads for #WIT and others had responded positively. For example, on Heavenali’s blog and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. I plan to read another, but more recent, text by a German writer: Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (2017) in November.

I would like to hear from people who got further with Christa T than I did, and who got more out of it.

The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf, first published in English in 1970 by Hutchinson & Co. The translation from the German is by Christopher Middleton. I read a library copy from Exeter Library stacks. Virago also published a version.

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My Shitty Twenties by Emily Morris

In my case it was my shitty thirties. To be honest only certain aspects of my thirties were shitty. I became a single mother and tried to continue to make a life for myself. It was hard, very hard, and it came back to me when I read Emily Morris’s memoir about becoming a single mother in her twenties. It’s a memoir of a much more recent past than my struggles as a single mother.

The pregnant student

Emily was enjoying the life of a student in Manchester at the turn of the century. She had a job she loved, was just begun to find the focus for her studies as well as appreciating the contrast between her social life in the city and her hometown of Southport.

Then she discovered she was pregnant. And there she is: 22 years old, pregnant, studying, working, and in Manchester. She decided to keep the baby.

It has to be said that the father of her child comes out of this memoir very badly indeed. In the first place he lied to her suggesting he was not able to make her pregnant. In the second place, his response to her decision to continue the pregnancy was

Enjoy your impending shitty, snotty, vomitty twenties. Goodbye. (16)

In the third place, he offers no support and no interest once the baby was born. In the fourth place … you get the picture. I suppose he did give her a great title, and contributed a tiny something towards her son.

The heroine, not including Emily herself, is Emily’s mother who supports her as a model mother would. She backs her decision, is interested in how Emily will manage, offers her a home, provides her with a home, goes with her to hospital, including on the night Tom is born and then continues to support her for another 18 months or so. Every single mother should have a mother like her.

Emily herself shows considerable perseverance and determination. Just having a baby is physically hard work. It’s true what people say. They don’t call it labour for nothing. And then, this small dependant being takes over everything, and if you are the sole parent you have to make all the decisions, shoulder all the worry, make all the arrangements, and try to remember your own life in the midst of the focus on the shitty, snotty, vomitty baby.

A Memoir

I found My Shitty Twenties surprisingly readable. There is no self-pity, no mawkishness, no self-indulgence, no lingering over how hard it all is. And it all is. Rather, Emily’s courage and determination to bring up the child, to continue her studies and to earn her living are reported in a straightforward tone and with a combination of good humour and insight.

I was not surprised to read that this memoir began as a blog. The chapters are short, and often end with the reversal of some belief, or a person being proved wrong, or a new insight into life. She presents her struggles with breastfeeding, the mothers’ web site, the consoling parrot, and we understand them all. She writes with the immediacy of the best bloggers, and doesn’t go on too long.

This I know

It’s hard and unrelenting work being a single mother. The rewards are huge. Managing work, the expectation and assumptions of strangers and friends and family is tiring, although often amusing afterwards. There are bad days, abuse by strangers, misrepresentations. There is also unexpected kindness and luck. And in writing My Shitty Twenties she has built a history to share with her son.

I hope that we can expect more from Emily Morris now she has reached her ******y thirties.

My Shitty Twenties by Emily Morris (2017) Published by Salt. 310pp

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Picture credits:

Baby crying Photo credit: liewcf via Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA

Smiling baby Photo credit: Vato Bob via VisualHunt.com / CC BY

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Tell me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen

A woman who is old is not merely an old woman. She is all the people she has been in her life. Tillie Olsen tells us that Eva has been a revolutionary, a prisoner, an immigrant, a mother and now, at 69 she wants to live in her own way. She rejects being defined as a grandmother. This is the significance of the title. She refuses to amuse the young, she will not tell a riddle.

Tell me a Riddle is the 29th in Older Women in Fiction series on Bookword. Tillie Olsen’s short story was originally published in 1961, and has gained the status of American classic.

The Story

Here is the opening paragraph of Tell me a Riddle. Her desire to live in her own quiet and space brings Eva to a serious quarrel with her husband David.

For forty-seven years they had been married. How deep back the stubborn, gnarled roots of the quarrel reached, no one could say – but only now, when tending to the needs of others no longer shackled them together, the roots swelled up visible, split the earth between them, and the tearing shook even to the children, long since grown. (74)

They have raised seven children and never had enough money. They are Jewish immigrants from Russia to US. Eva wants to live in quiet in her own home, to decide on what she does. David wants to sell their house and live in a care home, the Haven. They sink into warfare: she is often mute, he is furious.

Then she becomes ill and it is terminal. He takes her to stay with various children and eventually to California, where they are looked after by a granddaughter, Jeannie who is a nurse. Eva dies there.

Eva and David’s relationship changes: from hostility, to distance and to fear of impending loss, with an underlying love. The love survives even if he has pushed her, as everyone has, into the role they think she should play. It’s a complex and hard story.

The older woman

Eva is a woman who at the end of her life tries to live as she wants after a lifetime of giving to others. She rejects, now, the roles people want to give her. But she must confront the wishes of her husband and is defeated by death.

The history of their marriage is sketched in through the story. It is not unusual. Eva has been defined in her marriage by the needs of her children. Eva’s closed, constrained life emerges in their quarrels. Here, for example, David tries to persuade her with arguments about the leisure that the Haven will offer.

“In the cottages they buy what you ask, and cook it how you like. You are the one who always used to say: better mankind born without mouths and stomach than always to worry for money to buy, to shop, to fix, to cook, to wash, to clean.”

“How cleverly you hid that you heard. I said it then because eighteen hours a day I ran. And you never scraped a carrot or knew a dish towel sops.” (77)

He suggests she would enjoy a book group at The Haven. She reminds him that he never once stayed at home with the children so that she could go to a book club. And that she had to ask for every penny they needed, that she was the one required to manage.

She would not exchange her solitude for anything. Never again to be forced to move to the rhythms of others. (79)

This last line is repeated in the story. What is unusual, or was in the 1960s, is the articulation of the deprivation of the years when they had children.

When the family are told that she has at best a year to live, everything changes. We learn that Eva was active in the 1905 revolution, and that David found her in prison. We learn that she still has strong beliefs about how the world should be. She loved her children but no longer frets over their lives. And indeed her children and her grandchildren have become hard to understand. Her life is so different. Here’s a scene from a visit to cousins in California.

Jokes, stories, people they had known, beginning of reminiscence, Russia fifty-six years ago. Strange words across the Duncan Phyfe table: hunger; secret meetings; human rights; spies; betrayals; prison; escape – interrupted by one of the grandchildren: “Commercial’s on; any Coke left? Gee you’re missing a real hair raiser.” (106)

Her experiences include hunger; secret meetings; human rights; spies; betrayals; prison; escape. This is not your typical American housewife. This part of Eva’s life is ignored by everyone, is even unknown to them.

As she becomes more sick, she begins to ramble, to taunt David and to sing the songs of her youth. But when she lies in her hospital bed at night and he sleeps beside her in the double bed, they hold hands. As David observes, she finds it hard work to die.

Eva wanted to reclaim the idealism of her youth, which once she shared with David. She is pained that he has lost this vision for the world and that her children never shared it. In the final scene of the short story, David understands what he has lost by abandoning the struggle of their youth.

All her names

David, Eva’s husband, has developed a habit of calling her by names laden with sarcasm. You can almost follow the story by these names:

Mrs Word Miser       Mrs Unpleasant

Mrs Live Alone And Like It

Mrs Free As A Bird  Mrs Take it Easy

Mrs Excited Over Nothing

Mrs Inahurry                        Mrs Bodybusy

Mrs Suspicious          Mrs Invalid

Mrs Orator Without Breath

Mrs Miserable           Mrs Philosopher

Mrs Babbler              Mrs Live Alone

Mrs Cadaver             Eva

Other people call her Mum or Granny as appropriate to their relationship. Her seven children and husband have defined her. Only as she dies do we find out that she is called Eva and and she can reclaim her name.

I am reminded of the doctor in Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, who says of Claudia Hampton ‘that yes, she does seem to have been someone’.

Tillie Olsen

Tillie Olsen by Julieoe via WikiCommons. Tillie Olsen recording Tell me a Riddle and other stories at The Library Of Congress in 1996.

Tillie Olsen was an American feminist who lived 1912-2007. She was born into a family of Russian immigrants and became active in trades unions and the communist party. For much of her life she lived in California. Tell me a Riddle was her first published book, but her output remained small, largely because of her domestic and family responsibilities. She also wrote the non-fiction Silences (1978).

Tell me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen. Published in the UK by Faber & Faber in 1964 in a collection of four short stories. 53 pp

Recent posts in the older women in fiction series:

Kent Haruf Our Souls at Night

Elizabeth Von Arnim The Enchanted April

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International Translation Day 2017

International Translation Day occurs every year on 30th September to celebrate the work of translators in publishing. It’s a good day to celebrate their work and it’s a good day to focus on books in translation. We need to do this from time to time because books in translation do not form a very large part of our reading diet – just 4%. Not much is published, not much is read.

Fiction in Translation

Daniel Hahn is a translator. He suggests that literary translations are founded on these principles:

It assumes that just because you’re from Here doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be reading stories from There. That it’s possible to strip a story of its language, wrest it thousands of miles, re-clothe it in a strange new language, and keep its essence intact – because stories can be citizens of the world, just like we can. That just because something is particular doesn’t mean it’s not universal. (A basic principle for all great literature, surely?) That openness to other literatures – and other narratives, and lives, and worlds – doesn’t threaten our own, it strengthens and enlivens it.

[From Carrying Across, in The Author, Summer 2017].

Only 4% of fiction published in the UK is in translation. Of that 4% about 20% is by women. Partly to correct this Meytal Radzinski who writes the Biblibio blog promoted events with the hashtag #WITMonth: Women in Translation month for August, and encouraged people to join in. This year it was very successful again. There were articles in advance that included lists of recommendations. Here’s an example: 13 books by women writers to add to your Reading List for #WITMonth from the Booksatchel Blog. And here’s another list from Jacquiwine’s blog for the same event.

And recently (13th September) the long list for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation has been published. You can find it here.

These events and posts feature many recommended books in translation.

On Bookword

To maintain the impetus of #WITMonth I announced in August my project to read at least one book by a woman in translation every month and to write a response here on Bookword blog. These are my reasons:

Fiction in English does not hold the monopoly on quality. A great deal of excellent fiction is written in other languages. If the job of fiction is to take you to new worlds I want to explore those other worlds written in another language as well as those in English. Promoting fiction in translation is part of my intention for this blog.

Fiction by men does not hold the monopoly on quality either. Promoting fiction by women is another purpose of my blog. Women’s fiction gets less space in the printed media than men’s. See VIDA statistics for how much less.

I will promote women in translation over the next year or so and I am doing this at a time when popular culture favours creating barriers not making connections across language and gender. I hope you will be inspired by some of my choices.

Here are recommendations from the last 12 months, some of which appear in the linked lists and posts above:

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan, translated from the French by Irene Ash.

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi, translated from the Arabic by Sherif Hetata.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

I’m planning to read these novels very soon:

The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf, (1968) translated by Christopher Middleton.

Go, Went, Gone by Jennifer Erpenbeck, (2017) translated by Susan Bernofsky.

Over to you

Tell us which novels in translation would you recommend from your reading?

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Bookword in Poland

Last week I was in Poland, spending four days in and around Krakow. I came, with a friend, to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was the biggest of the concentration and extermination camps built in occupied Poland by the Third Reich.

Everything about visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau is difficult. Friends questioned my motives. I dreaded the visit. What did I hope to achieve by looking at the place where so many people were murdered?

Birkenau Gate

Can fiction help us understand the Holocaust?

I prefer my reading about the Holocaust to be non-fiction. I prepared for my visit by reading A Train in Winter (see below), and I had some knowledge from my history studies. Our guide around Auschwitz kept saying. ‘imagine if you …, imagine how it would be …’ as we passed photographs of the Selection, of new arrivals and we gazed on mountains of suitcases (all labelled with names), shoes, eyeglasses, hair, and household objects. I did not want to imagine any more. I wanted to ask historians’ questions: How did it happen? Who could have stopped it? What prevented people stopping the creation of the camps? What does it mean to be part of an enterprise that murders so many people? And so on.

I wasn’t expecting any answers but a different way to experience the questions.

Auschwitz

I know we need heroes, like Schindler, because heroes give us hope. But we need more than heroes.

I know we need more than imagining walking a mile in those shoes.

We need to understand how we can continue to work against this capacity of humans to murder on such a scale. The Holocaust happened in the decade before my birth. There have been/are other such horrors: Cambodia, Rwanda, Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya, continuing struggles against white supremacists in the US, the re-emergence of the far right in the German election. It is likely there will be more. It is likely that the struggle will never be over.

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead

This is the stunning story of courage generosity and hope (cover blurb) but it is also an endlessly depressing account of barbarity, inhumanity and the infliction of suffering. What is omitted in this account of the 230 French women sent to Auschwitz in January 1943 is any detail of the fate of their menfolk, friends, and the others who died in huge numbers even before the women arrived in Auschwitz.

The culpability of the Vichy government, the French police, the German occupiers of France, the many who betrayed the communists and members of the Resistance, the guards and commanders of the camps, the medical staff, the Kapos is overwhelming. And so is the disappointment of the women who were largely ignored on their return to France.

What kept the 49 women who survived alive? Friendship, care for each other, courage, hope and a determination to tell the story of what they had experienced and seen.

It must have been a hard task to research and then write about so much death and cruelty. I felt defeated by it, wretched that humans can behave so badly.

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead (2011) Vintage 374 pp

See also Village of Secrets by Caroline Moorehead in my post on Bookword in the Cevennes.

The Auschwitz Violin by Maria Angels Anglada

Auschwitz

I think it is almost impossible to write an authentic novel about the Holocaust. This partly because a concentration camp, the tattoo on the wrist, is a trope that prevents critique, let alone criticism and limits the reader’s responses. I felt this way about this novel.

The Auschwitz Violin is a short novel which aims to show the power of music to save the spirit in the darkest of times. Daniel is a violin maker (a luthier) in one of Auschwitz’s satellite camps. Although registered as a carpenter he finds himself used by the Commandant in a bet to make a violin. This endeavour saves him and his friend the violinist Bronislaw from death.

It was contrived and unevenly framed. I found myself asking can the sweetness of a violin cut through the dreadfulness of the camp? The tension arises from whether the violin can be made in time and be of a adequate quality under such conditions. But tension is undermined by the reader’s knowledge that it already had been made. And by the knowledge that so many in Auschwitz did not have the luthier’s skills to save them. It felt very much in the tradition of the Holocaust novels of the ‘80s.

The Auschwitz Violin by Maria Angels Anglada, first published in 1994, and in English in 2010. Corsair. 128pp. Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennant

Other books about Auschwitz It quickly became clear that there should be a monument to Steven Spielberg in Krakow, as the film Schindler’s List is so appreciated here and much referred to by our city guide. My mutterings that it was based on a novel, Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally (1982), impressed no one. Perhaps people deal better with the savagery of the Holocaust when it is mediated through films and/or novels. Did they feel better for a hero?

And to a lesser extent the same happened with Sophie’s Choice, also a film, this time based on the novel by William Styron (1979).

Here are some books relating to Auschwitz by those who there, without novelists or film directors.

I still think about If this is a man by Primo Levi.

An important book that I read some years ago is Man’s search for meaning by Viktor Frankl (1946).

And a book that explores subsequent generations’ experiences of the Holocaust is After such Knowledge by Eva Hoffman (2005).

Lovely bookish things in Krakow

To finish on an easier note the city of Krakow provided several bookish delights.

We had a delicious lunch in the bookshop Bona. Delicious lunch and books …

And, according to our guide and the plaque, the first European bookshop was opened in the square.

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Greetings, Novel Reader

Greetings fellow novel readers. As I will be away in Poland when this post appears I have decided to bring together a small number of books with a simple link. They all have a salutation or greeting in their titles. These titles step outside the norm for novels. Perhaps the authors wanted to make a direct engagement with their reader. But don’t take the connection between these five novels too seriously. It’s my way of presenting some recommendations.

  1. Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

The young Jean Rhys

Sophie Jansen is in Paris in the late ‘30s, having a break from her awful life. She is an exiled Englishwoman alone, out of place in London, and on the way to being out of place in respectable Paris. She has a very small amount of money. The story follows her as she struggles to survive and as she recalls her past when she was a young wife and previous times when she has been in Paris.

Told by Sophie in headlong first person narrative, shifting swiftly between the periods of her life she makes one first realise how often one averts one’s eyes from such people and then how close one’s own life could be to that desperation that makes her declare she is an inefficient human being, unemployable, unreliable and unable to hold herself steady in the world. Sophie has gradually crossed the line to become a woman without even her sex to sell.

Some of the writing is surreal, some captures the desperation of the life led in isolation, and some is joyful. AL Kennedy describes ‘her eloquence in the language of human sexual transactions, chilling, cynical and surprisingly moving’. I reviewed this novel on Bookword here.

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys (1939) Penguin.

  1. Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

This novel is set in the 1950s during the summer on the Cote d’Azure. Cecile has been living for 2 years with her widower father Raymond in Paris, leading life as his companion, despite his many mistresses. They spend two months in a villa near Nice, with Elsa, his latest mistress. Then Raymond informs Cecile that he has invited Anne Larsen, a friend of his former wife, to join them. Elsa moves on and Cecile becomes determined to come between her father and Anne because they plan to marry.

Cecile schemes to appeal to her father’s vanity and gradually the balance tips in her favour and Anne drives away. Her car goes over the edge at a dangerous bend. Suicide? After Anne’s death Cecile returns to Paris with her father and although they miss Anne, soon they pick up their old lives. This novel was reviewed recently on this blog, and many readers commented on their affection for it. You can read it here.

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan (1954) Penguin. Translated from the French by Irene Ash.

  1. So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell

The narrator is an old man exploring what he might have done differently in his life, in particular in relation to a friendship during his school days.

The narrator’s mother died when he was a young child and he is agonised by the loss. His father never engages him about what it means. A kind stepmother is acquired after the necessary 3 years. At school he is bullied and continues to suffer. Playing on the building site of his new house, he meets Cletus Smith, whose parents have separated, and whose mother’s lover has been shot by his father. The boys do not reveal their private agonies to each other. And then Cletus disappears. A couple of years later, when the narrator has moved to a high school in Chicago, he and Cletus pass in the corridor, but neither boy acknowledges the other. The narrator wonders what if …?

Recommended by Heavenali on her blog, which you can find here.

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (1980) Vintage.

  1. My name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

This novel is an elaborate murder mystery, a historical fiction, a love story and an exploration of the cross-cultural influences of the late 16th century between Europe and the Ottoman Empire. It’s like a very richly coloured and embroidered cloth.

A gilder is murdered, and the trail of enquiry involves the elaborate exploration of the workshops, religious outcasts, female roles and the Sultan’s treasury in 1590s Istanbul. The narrative is passed from one person to another, to a colour, to Satan, to at least two people as they die. The richness of the text is its main attraction: in the end the identity of the murderer is not so significant as his reasons for the killing.

My name is Red by Orhan Pamuk (2001) Faber & Faber. Translated from the Turkish by Erdağ Göknar.

  1. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016

Lucy is remembering being ill in New York with complications after appendicitis, missing her husband and young girls, looking at the Chrysler building through her window. Her mother, not seen for ten years, comes to visit her from Illinois. Her mother has no sophistication, never been on an airplane before, stays sleeping in the chair in the hotel room for 5 days and night and then leaves.

The women talk, and the relationship of the two is revealed by their conversation and by the gaps in it we see that Lucy’s uncertain identity and sense of self are built from her relationships, especially with her parents, in poverty (cultural as well as financial), and with the city of New York.

My appreciation of this novel appeared on Bookword last year; you can read it here.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (2016) Penguin.

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Rebecca Solnit and How to be a Writer

Rebecca Solnit is a writer I admire very much. She writes beautifully and she writes about important things: walking, hope, distortions in public life, feminism, and above all about the importance of having a voice. This theme runs through all her writing. You will find links to several posts that refer to her work at the end of this one.

About a year ago Lithub.com published How to Be Writer: 10 Tips from Rebecca Solnit. In every one of her 10 tips there was some wisdom and wit. If you are a writer you might do no better than read the original: here.

How to be a writer

I like to read books about writing, and books for writers. I like to read the advice of writers I admire, including Rebecca Solnit even if they say the things I have heard before, seen everywhere. Here are my responses to her tips:

Write and read

To be a writer you must write and you must read. Thanks also to Stephen King (1999) On Writing, Anne Lamott (1994) Bird by Bird, Francine Prose (2006) Reading Like a Writer and to many other writers. To write well you must write, write lots, write frequently, write more. And you must read, read recently published books and read from the past, read in your field and outside it, read for pleasure and to critique. Read.

Writing is more than typing

I love Rebecca Solnit’s claim that writing is more than typing because it gives me a reason to walk on Dartmoor or by the sea, to visit places, to talk to people about my writing and to practice my developing skills as a writer.

Remember that writing is not typing. Thinking, researching, contemplating, outlining, composing in your head and in sketches, maybe some typing with revisions as you go and then more revisions, emendations, additions, reflections, setting aside and returning afresh, because a good writer is always a good editor of his or her own work.

All those actions – 12 of them listed above – are necessary. I was involved in all of these this morning as I grappled with redrafting the opening scene of a short story. I related particularly to emendations, additions, reflections, and now the draft sits waiting for the next time I work on it, set aside.

Pay attention to your own feedback

Listen to your own feedback and remember that you move forward through mistakes and stumbles and flawed but aspiring work, not perfect pirouettes performed in the small space in which you originally stood.

Pirouettes indeed! But yes, and this is difficult, learning to listen to your own responses to you writing.

I read the sentence again and note the perfect rhythm of the sentence. And also that it perfectly captures the difference between learning to develop capacity and skill and learning to perform for a test or for popularity.

You need some time, some passion and a little joy

All writers know this, but it’s good to say it out loud, or to write it down:

It [writing] takes time. This means you have to find the time.

And you need to believe in what you are writing, so this requires passion and joy:

If you’re not passionate about writing and about the world and the things in it you’re writing about, then why are you writing?

Good question. And you need to bring the joy to bear when you might not feel up to the writing, when inspiration is lacking, and around you everything is depressing.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, and referring back to the importance of voice she says:

The process of making art is the process of becoming a person with agency.

The artist produces meaning rather than consuming it.

Thank you Rebecca Solnit.

And I shall be I the audience when you visit Bristol on 1st November 2017. Rebecca Solnit will be in more places in the UK around that time.

Some links

How to Be Writer: 10 Tips from Rebecca Solnit on Lithub.com

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit in January 2017

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

Men Explain Things to Me and other essays by Rebecca Solnit (2014) Granta. I posted on Bookword about this book and mansplaining in May 2015

The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit, published by Granta, September 2017.

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Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner

We have reached the 1980s in the Decades Project. This month’s choice is a prize-winning novel. I read Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner when it was first published in 1984 and went on to read most of Anita Brookner’s 24 novels, She died last year. Hotel Du Lac explores the question asked by the main character, Edith Hope, ‘what behaviour most becomes a woman’?

In this novel marriage is not the answer for Edith Hope. We can note that her circumstances are very different from Lily Bart who featured in the first novel in the decade project: The House of Mirth. Lily had no means of support unless she married, but Edith in Hotel Du Lac has choices, including marriage, which she rejects.

The Story

Edith Hope, a writer of romantic fiction, has been dispatched by her friends to the hotel in Switzerland. Her friends want her to reflect on her disgraceful behaviour and come back more grown up and responsible. For her own part she is determined not to change, but to sit out her exile writing her next novel. She is 39, it is the end of the season and there are only a few guests left in the hotel.

In the hotel she meets Mrs Pusey and her daughter Jennifer, both of whom trade on good looks and extreme wealth to indulge their selfishness. We know this from their shopping expeditions and the attention they demand from everyone. Then there is Monica who is about Edith’s age, and a very tall and willowy woman with an annoying dog. She is at the hotel to sort out her eating problems for she must make herself fit to conceive the heir her husband wishes for. Old Madame de Bonneuil is parked in the hotel during the season for the convenience of her son’s wife, who does not want the deaf old lady at home. The old lady bears this exile in silence, although he is the only thing of interest in her life.

Into this mix of people comes Phillip Neville, a perspicacious man, who sees in Edith the opportunity to acquire a wife so that he is not embarrassed by the loss of his previous wife. His proposal is about as unacceptable as Mr Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. It’s all about him and his knowledge that marriage provides what society thinks women want. There is an irony for Edith writes about traditional romantic ideas in her novels.

It emerges that before she arrived at the hotel, Edith had accepted a proposal from a very kind, gentle but very boring man, and whom she lets down at the last minute.

Despite these examples and choices Edith returns to the secret love affair that has dominated her life for years. She has understood more about the choices available to women, and although changed by her time at the hotel she chooses to return.

The novel

One of the strengths of Anita Brookner’s writing is her description of places. Here is the opening:

From the window all that could be seen was a receding area of grey. It was to be supposed that beyond the grey garden, which seemed to sprout nothing but the stiffish leaves of some unfamiliar plant, lay the vast grey lake, spreading like an anaesthetic towards the invisible further shore, and beyond that, in imagination only, yet verified by the brochure, the peak of Dent d’Oche, on which snow might already be slightly and silently falling. (7)

She has complete control of that very long second sentence, and follows it with another even longer sentence that describes the small town in which the hotel is to be found. A few paragraphs further on Edith, newly arrived at the hotel, contemplates her room.

Turning her back on the toneless expanse beyond the window, she contemplated the room, which was the colour of over-cooked veal: veal-coloured carpet and curtains, high, narrow bed with veal-coloured counterpane, small austere table with a correct chair placed tightly underneath it, a narrow, costive wardrobe, and, at a very great height above her head, a tiny brass chandelier, which, she knew, would eventually twinkle drearily with eight weak bulbs. (9)

Anita Brookner is famous for her controlled prose, but she includes humour and daring, for example when she in describes the bedroom as veal coloured.

She also sketches characters with deftness, so that even if they are mysterious, or something is not yet explained, one sees the individual emerge. Here is Madame de Bonneuil taking tea in the salon.

The pug-faced lady was eating grimly, her legs wide apart, crumbs falling unnoticed on to her lap. (17)

Again humour lurks underneath Anita Brookner’s sentences. Frequently it is her choice of words: the slightly and silently falling snow, the costive wardrobe, the veal, eating grimly. And here is Monica with the coffee pot: she poured it out largely and carelessly. (70)

There are advantages to containing the action of a novel within a hotel, and it is a device used by other writers. I blogged about this in a post called Five Novels set in Hotels: here.

A novel about the single woman

Edith Hope (novelists get to decide the names of their characters) chooses the single life, not because she is desperate – she has rejected two offers of marriage. It is because she is honest and this novel celebrates the quiet courage of the single woman, as do so many of Anita’s Brookner’s novels. For more on this idea see the appreciation by Christina Patterson: Anita Brookner’s subversive message – the courage of the single life deserves respect.

Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner (1984) Penguin.184 pp. Booker Prize Winner in 1984

Note: A tv adaptation was made of the novel in 1986 by the BBC.

The Decades Project

I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport is stamped on completion of a book from a different decade. I select a book from every decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here.

Previous posts in the Project

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi, published in 1975

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, published in 1969

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, published in 1950

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

The next decade: 1990s

I will be reading The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx (published in 1993) in October for the decade of the 1980s. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 2000s (November) and 2010s (December).

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Puffins or Bookword on Lundy Island

There’s a loose association here and I’m going to work it. Bookword and grandson went to Lundy Island towards the end of August. Where is Lundy? Everyone who listens to late night radio in Britain (and beyond) has heard of Lundy: Fitzroy, Sole, Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea … These names are from the famous incantation of the Shipping Forecast. Lundy is a small island, 3 miles long and less than 1 mile wide, about 11 miles off the coast of Devon. Most of its landmass occupies a plateau at about 90 – 130 metres. It’s like a little bit of Dartmoor dropped in the sea.

Puffins

The name of the island, in one explanation, comes from the Old Norse. Lundi is Old Norse for puffin and ey means island. Putting them together we get Lundy, or Puffin Island. Puffins are what Lundy is famous for. Here’s the invisible join: Puffins.

Penguin books were introduced by Allen Lane. I wrote about the important revolution by Allen Lane, establishing quality paperbacks in 1936 after waiting on Exeter Station. Just four years later he added Puffin Books with Noel Carrington, the first editor.

Since the 1960s Puffin has been one of the most industrious and successful publishers of children’s books. The first in 1941 was Worzel Gummidge by Barbara Euphan Todd, (who also also wrote Miss Ranskill Comes Home which I reviewed here.)

My own childhood tastes in reading were encouraged by the annual pre-holiday family trip to WH Smiths to buy two Puffins each. In this way I read Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield, The Family from One End Street by Eve Garnett all the Narnia series by CS Lewis along with many others. I think I owe my love of reading to those endless days in campsites and on beaches in France, lying on a campbed, the grass or sand with a Puffin Book. Once my two choices had been devoured I would begin on the books chosen by my brother and sister. Here’s my 8 year old grandson, on Lundy Island, following the tradition:

A colourful history

Lundy lies where the Bristol Channel meets the Atlantic Ocean. Administratively it is part of Devon. There is evidence of occupation or visitation from the Neolithic period onwards. There are Bronze Age burial mounds.

It has a lively history, owned by the Knights Templar, disputed by the Marisco family. The duke was implicated in the murder of one of Henry II’s household, and the king sent troops to the island. Henry III built the castle in an attempt to restore order. It was occupied by Barbary Pirates, supported the Royalist side in the Civil War, went through a period of lawlessness before being sold more than once. It was given to the National Trust in 1969 and is now leased to and managed by the Landmark Trust.

Over to you

I have great affection for these Puffin titles. As you can see from the photo of those I still own, many of them are historical novels. I loved those by Henry Treece and Rosemary Sutcliff in particular. I don’t know what happened to the other Puffin books I once devoured. They were probably handed down to the younger brothers and sisters – we were a large family. Do you have favourite books from childhood? Do they stand the test of time?

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Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

A dark tale, inventively told, chilling because the reader is prevented from pausing. The pages must be turned, the end must be encountered. Fever Dream is my choice for September’s Women in Translation, written by the Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin and translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell. It was also chosen for the short list of the Man Booker International Prize in 2017.

Disturbing

The framing of this novel requires the reader’s attention in order to make sense of what is happening. Amanda is lying in bed in a clinic, and she is dying. Beside her is David, a young boy. The narrative is told through their conversation. David’s contributions are in Italics. Here is the opening paragraph.

They’re like worms.

What kind of worms?

Like worms, all over.

It’s the boy who’s talking, murmuring into my ear. I am the one asking questions.

Worms in the body?

Yes, in the body.

Earthworms?

No, another kind of worms.

It’s dark and I can’t see. The sheets are rough, they bunch under my body. I can’t move, but I’m talking.

It’s the worms. You have to be patient and wait. And while we wait, we have to find the exact moment when the worms came into being.

Why?

Because it’s important, it’s very important for all of us. (1-2)

So Amanda retells the story of how she came to be in the emergency clinic, prompted by the boy, who frequently draws attention to the important thing.

The story begins when Amanda met David’s mother, Carla. But she must report what Carla told her about what happened to David before that. The reader must follow these strands, the conversation at the bedside, and the story of how Amanda became ill and Carla’s story about David. And there is another player, Nina. Nina is Amanda’s daughter, and in danger.

Concentrating hard, the reader discovers that Amanda and her daughter Nina were on holiday in the area when they were befriended by Carla. But Carla has a dark story about her son David and the reader must stay in this complex narration to find out about the important thing.

There is transmigration, unexplained events involving horses, plastic liquid containers, sandals, pools and streams, witches …

Rescue Distance

It’s a disturbing story, playing on one’s fears as a parent. Amanda is always aware of what she calls her rescue distance from Nina.

I always imagine the worst-case scenario. Right now, for instance, I’m calculating how long it would take me to jump out of the car and reach Nina if she suddenly ran and leapt into the pool. I call it the “rescue distance”: that’s what I’ve named the variable distance separating me from my daughter, and I spend half the day calculating it, though I always risk more than I should. (16)

The concept is well known in Argentina. Indeed the title of the novel in Spanish is Distanca de Rescate. I think it would be a better English title as well: Rescue Distance. Fever Dream implies an ending that goes, and then I woke up and it was all just a terrible dream.

Amanda is not able to stay within rescue distance of her daughter for, as she tells David, the sequence of events result in the condition that brings her to the clinic. The anxieties, fears, terrors of being a parent drive this novella.

The darker secret is not the monstrous child, the woman with healing powers in the green house, the horse that escapes or the husbands. The frequent mention of water is the clue.

The important thing is that David was poisoned by the water in the stream and Amanda and Nina were soaked while they watched men unload water in plastic drums. As David says,

It’s a very bad thing. (73)

The world is being poisoned. Here is Amanda’s husband returning to the city, and the final sentences of the novella.

He doesn’t look back. He doesn’t see the soy field, the streams that crisscross the dry plots of land, the miles of open fields empty of livestock, the tenements and factories as he reaches the city. He doesn’t notice that the return trip has grown slower and slower. That there are too many cars, cars and more cars covering every asphalt nerve. Or that the transit is stalled, paralysed for hours, smoking and effervenescent. He doesn’t see the important thing: the rope finally slack, like a lit fuse, somewhere; the motionless scourge about to erupt. (151)

Reading this novel is not a pleasant experience. But its twisted narration when unpicked reveals a brutal truth, an inconvenient truth as Al Gore called it, that we may not be able escape.

Some links to reviewers’ comments

Here’s a review in the New Yorker by Jia Tolentino from January this year: The Sick Thrill of “Fever Dream”.

And here’s a review on the blog Lizzy’s Literary Life.

The Guardian review of Fever Dreams, by Chris Power, expressed admiration for the craft of the writer in cranking up the tension and its clever structure.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, published by Oneworld Publication in 2017. 151pp. Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

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