Tag Archives: Helen Dunmore

Reading Death and Looking it in the Eye

Talking about death, thinking about death, reading about death, these are not morbid activities. Indeed, since the only certainties in life are death and taxes, (Benjamin Franklin, 1817) we may as well find out what we can about it. Perhaps we might find it easier to approach our own end if we consider what others say. As reading is my way into understanding the world and my life, it’s books I have gone to.

I belong to a group of wonderful women, originally eight of us, but Diana died a few years ago. Our group has been meeting for more than 12 years, exploring choices and possibilities in our lives, originally for retirement, but more recently about ageing and death. Some months ago we met to discuss our ideal death. Many of us referred to books in our contributions. I report on these before adding the results of further investigations.

The group’s recommendations

These books prompted us to think about death, good deaths, ideal deaths, and guided us in thinking about what we still needed to think about in relation to death. It was a session that contained as much laughter, as much encouragement and support, and as much help to look at our personal challenges as we always find from our group.

Salley Vickers Miss Garnett’s Angel

Ann Cleves Cold Earth

We know that we cannot easily choose how we die, but these two novels described the quiet and unexpected deaths of characters who were unaware that they were going to die. One of our members hoped for this kind of death. Having one’s things is order was considered part of this ideal death.

Max Porter Grief is the thing with feathers

This is a remarkable book, recommended by one group member who was asking the question ‘ideal for whom?’ reminding us that death affects more than the person who dies.

Another member frequently recommends poetry and she proposed the following:

Neil Astley Soul Food

Mary Oliver Wild Geese

Ruth Padel 52 ways of looking at a poem

In addition she recommended a book by Mark Doty, Dog Years, written by an American poet and telling of his experiences of deaths of partner and dogs.

We talked about people who choose suicide or assisted dying. Another reader mentioned Sweet Caress by William Boyd as it depicts the main character planning suicide but called back to life by suddenly realising she is thinking about what to have for breakfast next morning.

My own contribution was to read Canon Henry Scott-Holland’s Death is Nothing at All, frequently read at funerals.

Death is nothing at all.

It does not count.

I have only slipped away into the next room.

Nothing has happened. …

I told the group that it irritates me because it promotes the idea that separation at death is not permanent. But on rereading I had also found that it captures the idea that the dead remain with us, having influenced our lives and we can hear their voices and still think about them.

We also mentioned in our discussion these three writers and their books.

Diana Athill Somewhere towards the End and Alive Alive Oh

Terry Pratchett Shaking Hands with Death. Lecture on You Tube here.

Jenny Diski In Gratitude.

Books to read

Since then, and because I promised the group a list of books on the topic of death, I have noted these.

Before I say Goodbye by Ruth Picardie was published by Penguin Books in 1998. After she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Ruth Picardie described the progress of her illness in a series of articles in the Observer. They are collected here together with emails to and from friends, and a foreword and afterword by her sister and husband.

Dying: a Memoir by Cory Taylor. Her memoir on dying is ‘a remarkable gift’ according to three of her friends, writing in the Guardian.

Margaret Drabble wrote The Dark Flood Rises. It is a novel about several older people who are trying to live well in their final years. She spoke about death in October 2016, in an article entitled I am not afraid of death. I worry about living.

Katie Roiphe has written The Violet Hour: great writers at the end, published in 2016 by Virago. She writes a piece in the Guardian about her own experiences, and those of great writers. It is moving.

A Reckoning is a novel by May Sarton. Laura is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and on learning this decides to make a good death on her own terms. This intention is thwarted by her increasing dependency upon others, but she finds much to be pleased with in her final weeks.

The novelist Helen Dunmore has recently been diagnosed with cancer and wrote about mortality and legacy in the Guardian in March 2017: Facing Mortality and What we leave behind.

Another resource

Dying Matters website, strapline ‘Let’s talk about it’. This is an organisation that aims to help people talk more openly about dying, death and bereavement and to make plans for the end of life. Their site is a gateway to information and sources of support.

So let’s read about it, talk about it, plan for it. What do you think?

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Writers: why don’t you tear up those rules?

There are three rules for writers, according to Somerset Maugham, but unfortunately nobody knows what they are.

Only three? You can find hundred, no millions, out there.

  • Kill your darlings!
  • Show, don’t tell!
  • Start late, leave early!
  • Never use an adverb!
  • Never open the book with the weather!
  • Cut! Cut! And cut again!

Ten rules for writers

The Guardian, in 2010, asked 27 well-known writers to give us their 10 rules for writing fiction. I warmed to Helen Simpson who did not follow the given format but said

The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying ‘Faire et se taire’ (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as ‘Shut up and get on with it’.

Flaubert’s travel diary

Among these rules there is a great deal of wisdom and good advice. Neil Gaiman’s first rule is simple:

Write

Or not so simple.

Here are a few others, some of which are more advice than rule.

Read Keats’s letters. (Helen Dunmore)

The first 12 years are the worst. (Anne Enright)

Editing is everything. Cut until you can cut no more. What is left often springs into life. (Esther Freud)

My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work. (Philip Pullman)

Rules for other creative, artistic workers?

I am intrigued. Why are there so many rules for writers? For no other art form are amateurs given so many instructions, or thought to want or need them. A Google search came up with more than 6 million possibilities of rules for writers., 500,000 for sculptors, 1 million for composers and slightly fewer for artists.

That’s six times as many rules for writers as for any other category. If I could create a chart I would insert one here to make the point visually.

Perhaps the reason that everybody, well 6 million people, feel entitled to provide rules for writers is because everyone, it is said, has a novel in them. And it is also said that those who can do (that is, they write), and those that can’t (write) teach, or in this case tell everyone else how to write.

Why rules at all?

There is a strong belief that writing can’t be taught. It is quite common, although you would never find people who suggest that musicians or artists shouldn’t have lessons.

Most rules for writers are behavioural. They imply that only people with certain behavioural characteristics can write. The rules include words and phrases such as honesty, self-discipline, hard work, attention to detail and so on. The ability to endure rejection is often referred to. The word never appears with frightening frequency. So does avoid. The consequences of sometimes or embrace are not revealed. Don’t do this, always do that! On and on. The tone is moralising. Avoidable.

Here are more. Some of these are tongue in cheek, and make good points.

Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire. (Geoff Dyer)

Don’t drink and write at the same time. (Richard Ford)

Write only when you have something to say. (David Hare)

Work hard. (Andrew Motion)

Finish everything you start. (Colm Toibin)

Advice not rules

Of course many writers interpreted the idea of rules as advice and offered some useful thought. Neil Gaiman (again):

The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true of writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it the best you can. I’m not sure there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

So with Philip Pullman’s only rule (above) in mind I’d better get back to my proper work.

My rule for writers?

Only follow a rule for a good reason, otherwise transgress.

And your rules?

Do you have any rules to offer? Or comments on the topic of rules for writers?

 

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Bookword in St Petersburg

We followed Anna Karenina and took the train from Moscow to St Petersburg. It is the tourist route. The countryside of Russia was flat, spacious, dominated by coniferous woods, rivers and dachas, occasionally interrupted by communities of brutalist concrete blocks of flats before quickly giving way again to the dark green trees.

Wedding of Alexander II and Princess Alix of Denmark in 1894 by Laurits Tuxen in The Hermitage. The future Edward VII is amongst those attending. Via Wikicommons.. ( http://gallerix.ru )

Wedding of Alexander II and Princess Alix of Denmark in 1894 by Laurits Tuxen in The Hermitage. The future Edward VII is amongst those attending. Via Wikicommons.

I had less idea of St Petersburg from books than my out of date image of Moscow (see earlier post To Moscow with Books ). But this is the city of Anna Karenina and of Peter and Catherine the Greats. In the nineteenth century in this city the aristocracy spoke French, they lived a glittering life of an elite more distant from the serfs (emancipated only in 1861) than from the upper classes in Europe within which the royal famiiy was intermarried.

Unexpected bookish things in St Petersburg

201 Bks in St P hotelIn my hotel room I found two books, part of the rather racy décor which twinned sage and lime green, pasted bordello-like wallpaper on the corridors, and rich round colours on the uncomfortable seating in the foyer (cherry red, bubble-gum pink, royal purple etc). Books in the bedrooms? My books were Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. Books were a feature of every room, but apart from an opera libretto I didn’t find out what other guests had been given.

201 Idiot cafeOne evening we dined in The Idiot restaurant. How could we not? I expect there are pubs in London named after Dickens’s novels, but can you imagine Pride and Prejudice Café, or Middlemarch Diner? It was a good experience. The décor was suitably writerly and the lighting very low and gloomy. I was disappointed to hear a tourist ask the waitress how it got its odd name.

History in St Petersburg

You expect to find a city’s history written on its buildings: the wide boulevards of Paris that prevented revolutionary activity; Amsterdam defined by its canals; Berlin’s triumphal   Brandenburg Gate. Although Moscow was full of monuments to the three great Russian victories (over Napoleon, and Germany in the two world wars) I expected to see and hear more of St Petersburg’s history.

On the face of it St Petersburg wears its history proudly. Its buildings in the centre of St Petersburg still present the city of Peter and Catherine the Greats and the deposed Romanovs. The French influence is everywhere, in the pastel buildings, the wide spaces, the palaces.

201 Winter PalaceThis city saw some of Russia’s most significant 20th Century events: the square of the Winter Palace was the scene of the Bloody Sunday Massacre in 1905. A peaceful demonstration of striking workers came to meet the Tsar, and were fired upon at will be the troops. This event lead to the first Russian Duma (parliament) and the beginning of the end of Romanov power. The Palace was stormed by the Bolsheviks in 1917.

The Peterhof, a post-war reconstruction

The Peterhof, a post-war reconstruction

The Siege of Leningrad (the name of St Petersburg at that time), we were told, lasted nearly 900 days (8th September 1941 to 27th January 1944) and that most of the centre was destroyed. We were given no idea about the human damage. Despite huge destruction the city was reconstructed and rebuilt within three years rather than modernised. So all those marzipan buildings are reconstructions?

The façade of St Petersburg presents a very modern European city then, a reconstruction where the difficult events of the 20th Century are laid aside. There is more people’s history in the novels I read.

  1. The Ice Road by Gillian Slovo

201 iceroad coverThe ice road is the route across the lakes that saved the people of Leningrad during the siege. It is no easy road, of course.

The Ice Road is more than 500 pages long, and covers the story of several characters, told with different voices and points of view, from the early ‘30s to end of the siege of Leningrad. It follows their lives through the pogroms of Stalin and the fear that followed, including the outbreak of war and the siege. Their stories interweave as characters influence the outcomes of each others’ lives.

One theme of the novel is the corruption of ideals through the apparatus of the state and through the urge to survive. People make compromises for each other, make mistakes, love and care even when it jeopardises them.

The Ice Road by Gillian Slovo (2004) published by Virago 541pp

Shortlisted for Orange Prize for Women’s Fiction.

  1. The Siege by Helen Dunmore

201 Siege coverThis novel is tough, as fits its subject. It is less to do with the politics of the city more about individuals and what happens when they struggle to survive in extreme circumstances. We follow four people as their lives become smaller and smaller as a result of hunger and cold. As the siege persists their focus recedes from the higher aspects of human life, love, work, beauty, care for the family to brutal survival preoccupations, and surviving means letting go of loved ones and ideals. What matters is the search for food and for wood.

The Siege by Helen Dunmore published in 2001 by Penguin Books 320pp

Shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize and the Orange Prize for Women’s Fiction

  1. Subtly Worded by Teffi

201 Teffi coverThe early short stories in this collection date from Teffi’s life in St Petersburg before the Revolution. She fled to Paris, as so many White Russians did, and continued to write there. Her story about meeting Rasputin reads as if it were an actual experience of encountering this mythic man (mythic even at that time). Perhaps it is an imagining in order to understand the phenomenon that got so close to the Tsar’s family and whose death is the stuff of legends.

Another story I enjoyed is called Tolstoy and it is an account of the author as a young girl calling on Tolstoy to ask him not to kill off Prince Andrei Bolkonsky in War and Peace. I had heard the story on Radio 4 in April 2015 (no longer available) and been charmed by it. It reflects the power of fiction upon a young.

Subtly Worded by Teffi published in 2014 by Pushkin Press 301pp

Translated from the Russian by Anne Marie Jackson with Robert and Elizabeth Candler, Clare Kitson, Irina Steinberg and Natalia Wase.

Related links

Check out tripfiction.com for recommendations for reading in different locations.

The Goodreads list of Books set in St Petersburg is headed by Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, with War and Peace fourth on the list. Other classics are included, The Idiot by Dostoyevsky, The Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin by Pushkin, The Overcoat by Gogol, and Fathers and Sons by Turgenev.

That list reminds me of how many Russian classics I have yet to read.

Previous travel and book related posts on this blog are:

Judenplatz, Vienna (March 2013)

Tales from the Vienna Streets (July 2013)

Berlin Stories (Oct 2014)

Amsterdam Stories (Dec 2014)

Bookword in Alsace (May 2015)

To Moscow with Books (Sept 2015)

 

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