I found this meme meme on Bookertalk blog in December 2018 and because I enjoyed it I offered my own version the following month. I altered it slightly from the original (my comments were getting too repetitive), and now here is an updated version.
The last book I gave up on
This was The Story of my Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney. I had greatly enjoyedLost Children Archive, which I read because it was the Book Group choice for March last year. Although the manner in which The Story of my Teeth was written, almost cooperatively, was interesting, the novel didn’t quite grab me enough to review on this blog. I did finish reading it however.
I don’t do this either. But people often ask me to sign my books, and I do it, although I don’t know why they want me to.
The last book I gave away
Refugee Tales IV Edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus
My local writing group doesn’t charge a subscription, so we raise funds in other ways. One way is a monthly raffle in which people are invited to provide writing-related prizes. As I had two copies of Refugee Tales IV, when it was my turn to find a prize in August I put one copy in the raffle. It was much appreciated.
Wave Me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Ed Anne Boston. I wanted to read these short stories and I had forgotten that I had a copy on my shelves. I bought another.After that I found the original. This is not an unusual event for me, buying duplicates. I loved this collection and wrote about it on the blog which you can read here.
The last book I argued over
Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers. This was another choice for the book group and they were more enthusiastic than I was. We didn’t really argue, and we all got something out of reading it.
The last book I couldn’t find
The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. I remember reading it and I thought I had a copy. But I couldn’t find a it so I acquired a second hand one. I could find it now. A theme is building up here.
More praise for short stories was the title of a post on this blog in January 2017. It updated an earlier post (November 2013). It has maintained a modest readership ever since, so I decided it was time to revise the second post and recommend more short stories for those who love reading them, as I do.
I love the form, writing them and reading them. They are not novels-lite, and the stories of Alice Munro are as rich as any novel, giving the reader the experience of a novel in one story. William Boyd suggested that the form’s strength derives from its roots in our oral traditions. He said:
The great modern short stories possess a quality of mystery and beguiling resonance about them – a complexity of afterthought – that cannot be pinned down or analysed. Bizarrely, in this situation, the whole is undeniably greater than the sum of its component parts. (in Prospect 2006, A Short History of the Short Story)
Nadine Gordimer said that short stories should ‘burn a hole in the page’. That’s another way of putting it.
Reading short stories
I love reading short stories, especially in anthologies. They can introduce us to new writers; give us a great experience of creative writing in a nugget; provide us with insights into different writing in a digestible form.
It is not clear why large publishers don’t like to publish anthologies of short stories. But smaller and independent publishers are doing their bit (let’s hear it for them AGAIN! because they listen to what the reading public say they want.)
A selection from Bookword
In the last year I have reviewed the following collections, with links included:
Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston
Elizabeth Bowen collection
Shirley Hazzard collection
Where the Wild Ladies are by Matsuda Aoko, translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton, Tilted Axis press (2020). A present from my daughter.
Writing short stories
Short stories have provided a platform for writers not visible in other forms. This is especially true for novice writers, and for women: think of the numerous short story competitions by Fish Publishing, the Bridport Prize, and the Costa Award. And you can find local competitions too, for example here in the South West there is the Exeter Short Story Prize, organized by Creative Writing Matters. These competitions are not usually limited to contestants in the area, although this one has an additional award for local writers. Online you can also find many journals and sites that publish short stories.
Most how-to-write-fiction books assume the reader is a novelist, so I recommend Short Circuit: A guide to the Art of the Short Story, edited by Vanessa Gebbie (published by Salt). Not only is the guidance relevant and helpful, but the writers all recommend further reading, further delights.
I say no more about writing them at the moment as I have been stuck on one for months and months and months.
On 28th July 1951 26 countries signed the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
Why do we have to continue arguing against the expulsion and return of refugees when it is counter to the terms of the Convention?
The Convention states
Article 23: Prohibition of expulsion or return (‘refoulement’) 1. No Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.
Why do we have to continue arguing that indefinite detention is illegal, against human rights and inhumane and contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
Article 9 No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile. (the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948).
How much longer will we have to walk, and talk, and tell the stories, retell the stories of refugees?
Refugee Tales IV
In this volume there are 14 stories, many detailing the spread of indefinite detention in other countries. Contributions are made by detainees as well as by Shami Chakrabarti, Robert Macfarlane, Bidisha, Rachel Seiffert, Dina Nayeri, Philippe Sands and Christy Lefteri.
These are stories of refugees’ experiences of seeking asylum, mostly about young men, shunted around the system, escaping only to be caught again in the endless battle to gain accepted status. Lives are wasted. Time spent studying is wasted. Conditions for living are terrible. Spirits are dashed. Help is well-meaning but often inadequate against the mysteries and convolutions of the legal processes. Each story is distressing in its own way. Each story reveals a small part of the system that makes up the hostile environment.
From the Advocate’s Tale
Put yourself in the shoes of those people fleeing their home, seeking refuge here in the United Kingdom, or in neighbouring countries. Once you made it here you would expect to receive some sort of help or protection, right? Well, in my case it was the opposite. My experience in detention was worse than I can describe. (122)
It is a terrible waste of people’s lives to be in indefinite detention. The accumulation within the four volumes of Refugee Tales is a terrible indictment of UK policy. Refugees have to wait, and wait some more, and are not allowed to work, or to be useful members of their community. It is difficult to promote their case, to access legal help, to access and help. And at any moment they might be released or put on a flight back to the country which tried to kill them.
It takes a terrible toll on people’s mental health to be in indefinite detention. In the first place, there is the injustice of being imprisoned when they have done nothing wrong. Then they must endure being powerless to resist. But worse, much worse, is the uncertainty, of the wait, lack of knowledge of the twists and turns of asylum law and what their fate will be. Several refugees report that they suffered more in indefinite detention than from the events that forced them to flee their country.
And don’t let’s even mention how refugees have been abandoned to the coronavirus in the Napier Barracks, and how fear is being stoked about those who try to reach the UK across the English Channel, or against those who are dubbed economic migrants. Or the Nationalities and Borders Bill of 2021
This is not what a decent society should do. This is not what a country that signed up to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugee and to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should do.
And there are good people doing the right thing: rescuing people from drowning; welcoming refugees on arrival; providing material help; providing advice; and campaigning; collecting stories to share.
Yet here we are: still arguing against indefinite detention; still walking; still talking and telling stories. There’s only one thing for it: we must persist. We must work towards making the UK a place where refugees can ‘expect to receive some sort of help or protection’.
Refugee Tales IV Edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus published in 2021, by Comma Press. 161pp
Here is another guest post on Bookword Blog. After my friend and co-author Eileen Carnell’s contribution Perfect Presents for a Bookish Bod I invited other blog subscribers to write me something if they wished. The writer Jude Hayland has written this brilliant post which connects her reading and writing.
Literary Lifelines and Stepping Stones
It’s the question that so many writers are asked and that is so impossible to answer:
So when did you start to write?
It feels akin to being asked:
So when did you start to read?
And I suppose the honest, but no doubt frustrating answer is – as soon as I could. For me, the reading and writing have always gone hand in hand. Once I had begun to read – with early memories of Milly Molly Mandy, Little Pete Stories, Teddy Robinson, My Naughty Little Sister– I wanted to write. My bedroom was full of small exercise books bought with pocket money from Woolworths, lined pages filled with my ill-formed handwriting spilling out stories of dolls that came to life at night, talking cats and bewitching fairies.
As I progressed onto reading about skating stars and vicarage children with Noel Streatfeild, wallowing in ballerina ambitions with Lorna Hill and harbouring theatrical dreams with Pamela Brown, so more exercise books were filled with attempts to emulate such plot lines. Always a child who enjoyed her own company, nothing was more treasured than retreating to my bedroom when I came home from school, losing myself in a book, then writing the latest chapter of my ballet tale or stage school saga.
When I was a teenager there was no such thing as YA literature. The transition to adult books from the children’s section of the library was via Catherine Cookson and Jean Plaidy before discovering Monica Dickens, Lynn Reid Banks and early Margaret Drabble. I am afraid I can’t claim that I read all of Jane Austen and most of Dickens by the time I was 18 as so many writers impressively seem to do – although Jane Eyre, studied for ‘O’ level, became a lifelong favourite and I remember reading LP Hartley’s The Go-Between one teenage summer, thinking that finally I had left children’s fiction behind.
But my own writing had stopped – those Woolworths’ exercise books now seemed childishly redundant – as I embarked on an English Literature degree and spent three years reading such awe-inspiring literature that the only way I could put pen to paper or tap away on my manual Olivetti was in critical praise of their brilliance.
What got me writing again?
Then I began to teach.
And, standing one day in a classroom of 14 year olds, setting them the task of writing a story, I thought I want to be doing this! I want to write stories, have the fun of making up characters, playing with words, inventing settings and conflicts.
And I began to write fiction again.
Not with any high literary aspirations – but for the pleasure of writing and the desire to be read. By this time, I had already had several non-fiction pieces published in national magazines – lightly amusing articles on learning to drive, my sister’s wedding, holidays for singles, flat hunting and sharing – so it seemed the obvious route to take to start submitting short fiction to women’s magazines.
And I was lucky.
Over the course of the next twenty years or so, I was published widely (under a different name than the one I now write under) both in the UK and in Scandinavia, Switzerland, Australia and South Africa. I acquired an agent and she took over the submissions to magazines such as Woman’s Realm, Woman, Woman’s Weekly, Bella, Fiction Feast and similar publications abroad. The market was rich with opportunities at that point with a high demand for stories – providing they fitted in with the prescriptive brief of the magazine.
And I was happy to fulfil it, delighted to derive some small income from sales to supplement my teaching salary as well as to see my name, briefly, in print. The discipline of writing to a given word limit was a good training in editing skills and even the limitations of subject matter provided an interesting challenge.
By now, I was reading Anita Brookner, Margaret Forster, Jane Gardam; Susan Hill and Penelope Lively; Carol Shields and Anne Tyler. Of course my reading of contemporary novels was not limited by gender and writers such as William Trevor, Ian McEwan and William Boyd found their way into my selections. But somehow it was and is the women writers whose books I return to again and again – both as a reader and also as a writer, to examine and study their craft.
After a couple of decades of writing commercial short fiction, I was straining at the leash to write more freely. The markets were fewer, the parameters imposed growing more restrictive.
Confidence and self-belief were woefully lacking. Who was I to think I could write a novel of some 100,000 words, to believe that I had a story to tell that was worth a reader’s time and attention?
How did I dare to write a novel?
Two events, however, nudged me into trying. First, I had been a runner-up in the Bridport short story competition, judged one particular year by Margaret Drabble. Not exactly a full length novel, but at least my writing had been favourably judged. Then I graduated with distinction from an M.A. in Creative Writing. My final submission was the first 20,000 words of a novel and the examiners’ comment was: this is worth continuing and completing.
I would like to say I was off and at the finishing line within the year – but real life, of course, gets in the way of the best of intentions. There were the small matters of earning a living and bringing up a child, combined with increasing visits to much loved, aging parents.
Eventually, however, I completed that first novel. Then tucked it away out of sight and embarked on the next. And it was only after completing and publishing that next novel, Counting the Ways, that I went back to what was, ostensibly, my first book, redrafted it extensively, and released that as my second, The Legacy of Mr Jarvis. The journey to writing my third novel, Miller Street SW22 which was published in February, was a little more chronological and straight forward and I am now working on my fourth.
What I like to write
Like the novels I love to read, the novels I write are character driven. I am at heart, unfailingly fascinated by other people. About the chance events, the choices and impulses that drive their lives. Ideas start with a character, a relationship or a family dynamic that drives the plot.
I set my novels in the recent past – in the last half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. This is partly out of a need to write about a time that is fixed and open to hindsight. It also reflects my interest in domestic and social history and in particular how the nature of our lives is inevitably determined by the era in which we are born.
There is also a practical aspect for such setting. Technology in the form of mobile phones, internet access, social media et al can run rough-shod through plot lines that require characters to be elusive, capable of dissimulation. Secrets were far easier to perpetuate and thus fester in the past and all three of my novels depend partly on such concealment.
These days I am still reading and loving Anne Tyler. Additionally, Anna Quindlen, Linda Grant, Ann Patchett, Mary Lawson – to mention just a few of the names that flit into my head. And I am now trawling back to some wonderful 20th century writers that I unintentionally overlooked years ago while reading Iris Murdoch and Doris Lessing – writers like Cecily Hamilton, Dorothy Whipple, Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Taylor.
And I am pleased to say that I have never lost that childhood thrill of walking into a book shop, into the local library (lockdowns permitting) and spending time mulling over the shelves, suppressing the smile on my face at the thought of a new book to take home for company.
Reading and its inseparable partner writing are, for me, lifelines – this particular body’s essential daily bread.
This collection of short stories was a Christmas present from a sister. ‘I’m surprised you don’t know it,’ she said when I thanked her. ‘I know you like short stories.’ She’s right I do. And I like these ones very much. Wendy Erskine has been widely acclaimed for these stories and has published others. They have a particular poignancy and darkness to them. We are warned that all is unlikely to be happy in these stories, for Sweet Home was the name of the plantation in Beloved by Toni Morrison.
The ten short stories are all set in and around Belfast. This is the Belfast of the present day, not of the Troubles. These are stories of ordinary people, leading unremarkable lives, although often full or disappointment, loss and failure. The narration is in a down-to-earth, matter of fact tone that suits each story well.
Take, for example, the title story. It begins with the building of a community centre, but moves into the life of its architect and her husband. They seem to live controlled lives, few excitements. They hardly seem to be a couple. They are childless, but it is revealed that they lost a child at six years. A local couple work for them in the garden and in the house, and it appears that the architect’s husband is trying to appropriate their child. It does not end well.
Take, for another example, the story called Arab States: Mind and Narrative. A middle-aged woman, disappointed in her life, begins to obsess about a man she rejected at college. He is now something of a media pundit on the Middle East and has written a book, which gives its own title to the story. She decides to attend an event on the mainland at which he is due to speak. She mismanages the trip. It does not end well.
Or, for a truly shocking example, Lady and Dog. This story features a teacher who does not want to change her ways. Olga behaves with passive aggression and this is gratingly revealed at the start of the story. She is delaying her meeting with her headteacher by sharpening pencils. Ms Druggan wants to sort a few things out, especially related to Olga’s use of the computer. This is how their meeting ends.
Another thing, if you haven’t switched on your computer in two weeks, do you not feel you’ve missed a lot of communication? Olga thinks. Not really, she says. What do you mean not really? This is a primary school with eight people working in eight rooms. It’s hardly a conglomerate. If anyone needs to speak to me, they know where to find me. And if I need to speak to someone the reverse holds true. Olga picks up the handbag that has been resting at her feet. Is that it? she says. (161)
Olga may be capable of sharpening pencils to avoid a meeting, but she is capable of much more instrumental, self-serving and shocking actions in pursuit of other projects outside the school.
These are ordinary people, living unremarkable lives, but buried in each life is failure, or disappointment or loss. Many of her characters are acutely lonely. All are unable to improve their lives.
While her tone is without fireworks, or drama, she is able to be very tender towards her subjects. We are not being asked to despise them. In the story of the widow who looks out at a family of Somalis who have moved in over the road, it is the dreadful son who is unfeeling and self-centred. He does not notice that she also misses his former partner and their son. The story is not about the strangeness of the newly arrived family. It is about Jean’s attention to them, rather than to her son.
Jean’s son Malcolm had decided to make one of his infrequent visits. He took the seat in front of the television and when he turned it on she heard him let out his usual sigh at the poor choice of channels. Jean was positioned at the end of the sofa because it gave the best view out of the window. Malcolm was telling her that he had a new boss. The boss had only been in the job a couple of weeks but Malcolm didn’t like him. Some of the others did, up to them, be he didn’t Only a couple of weeks, Jean said. Still early days then really, isn’t it? Early days and already not going well, Malcom said. (35)
These are the opening four paragraphs of Inakeen. You already know everything about Malcolm and his lack of attention to his mother, her life, what she says and his responsibilities.
In both these quotations you can see that an outstanding feature of her prose is the dialogue.
This is Wendy Erskine’s first collection of short stories. I will look out for the next one. Thank you Sal for the introduction.
Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine, published in 2018 by Picador, and now available in paperback. 218pp
They are among the most vulnerable, feared and despised people on earth. There are about 26 million at the moment, of whom half are under 18. Last year the UK government granted asylum to 20,339 applicants (out of 35,099). You should know that Turkey supports 3.6 million refugees.
We hear of them crossing the Mediterranean in rubber boats, 16,724 in the first four months of 2020. At least 575 died. The English Channel has recently been in the news for attempts to enter the UK: 9500 in 2020 with at least 6 deaths and 3 missing.
A refugee is someone who, due to a well-founded fear of persecution, war or violence, has been forced to flee their home country.
Every refugee has an individual story, a story of fear of persecution, of war or of violence. Each one has been forced to leave their home country. And yet the policy of our government is to treat them like criminals and to dissuade potential applicants through the creation of the hostile environment.
I am ashamed of our government. I am ashamed of those who treat refugees as undeserving. This post brings together some books that illuminate the reality of fleeing and trying to achieve legal status in a safe country (with links to posts on Bookword Blog).
For younger readers
Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah
A boy from mixed parentage Ethiopia/Eritrea comes to the UK with his father to escape persecution and war. His father leaves him in London and the Refugee Council steps in to help. At first he is in a children’s home, and later moves to foster care and attends an East London school. When his mother is killed in Africa his father comes to the UK, which sadly means that Alem must move out of foster care. Father and son are threatened with deportation. His schoolmates organise a campaign to oppose this and Alem sees that he must face his future, not alone, but with all the people who have rallied to help.
Written for older children, it touches every child’s fear of being abandoned.
Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah (2001) Bloomsbury. 287pp
The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier
Set in the chaos of massive movements of peoples at the end of the Second World War, the Balicki children from Poland must travel to find their parents. It is a classic quest, with near escapes, disasters and a great deal of kindliness from individuals: Red Army soldiers, Germans (the farmers), British and US soldiers, and the refugee organisations set up to help the many, many refugees with their journey and with tracing family members. Against all the odds, capture, betrayal, hunger, tiredness, illness, orders to return to Poland, and travelling by foot, lorry, and even canoes, they are reunited with their parents in Switzerland.
The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier, first published in 1956 by Jonathan Cape. US title Escape from Warsaw. Puffin Books in 1960.
First-hand Accounts of Experiences
The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri
She left Iran in 1988 with her mother and younger brother. This is an account of how they arrived in Oklahoma, and how they each made a life for themselves. She also tells the stories of some more recent refugees and of their experiences. She raises many important and interesting questions about fitting in, and what the host country owes to the new arrivals, and the terrible toll of hostile environments in Europe.
Crossing the Sea with Syrians on the Exodus to Europe by Wolfgang Bauer
The German reporter, Wolfgang Bauer, experiences the terrors of the Mediterranean Sea crossings for himself. The reality of the risks, the process and the dangers of the voyage are explored, including the role of the ‘middlemen’ and their business structures. He also tells the stories of other migrants who make the journey, some successfully.
Crossing the Sea with Syrians on the Exodus to Europe by Wolfgang Bauer, first published in German in 2014. English translation with update published by And Other Stories in 2016. 122pp. Translated from the German by Sarah Pybus. Photographs by Stanislav Krupar.
As told to others
Some experiences of seeking asylum, or of meeting refugees, are so hard that they are best told by others. Refugee Tales have now issued three volumes of stories, which make it evident that the attempts to dissuade asylum seekers are contributing to their suffering, especially when it involves detention.
Refugee Tales 1, 2 and 3
Many people’s lives are blighted by the UK’s response to those who seek safety in Britain. There are the professionals and the enforcers, the victims and their friends, the volunteers, the health professionals etc etc.
Refugee Tales edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus
The principal intention of Refugee Tales was to help communicate the scandalous reality of detention and post-detention existence to a wider audience and in the process to demand that such indefinite detention ends. (Afterword 143)
The first aim was successful, but unfortunately indefinite detention is still with us.
The second volume was published in 2017. When I wrote about it, I focused on the abuse of Human Rights that is indefinite detention. Here’s the link.
And in June 2020 I was moved to action by the third volume. I raised money for the group by walking across 25 bridges. In that post I recommended six things that could be done to support the cause.
Refugee Tales, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus, published by Comma Press. Proceeds go to Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group .
The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby
One of the accounts that stays with readers is this tale of ordinary Italians who came across the most awful scene while out sailing. The optician believes that what he and his friends did is what everyone would do. There are countless stories of selfless and generous behaviour towards the migrants as they land or are rescued from the sea around the islands of the Mediterranean.
One of the best ways to introduce people to experiences they do not meet in person is through fiction. Here are four novels that explore different aspects of refugees and their experiences in today’s world.
Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, (2017) translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
Eileen Carnell sent me an email. I asked her if I could use it on my blog. Eileen and I wrote several books together. (Here we are at a reading of Retiring with Attitude at Leatherhead Library in Autumn of 2014).
A response to your blog of the 10th January: Best Books for … the Long Haul
On Saturday morning there was no possibility of taking a walk. There were chores to do and indoor exercises to undertake but I thought that while I drank my decaff I’d read just for a few minutes. About two hours on, and 71 pages later, I put down my birthday copy of Hamnet*. I was captivated, transported back to 1596, my brain conveyed to a different landscape. I was immersed, time stopped, the outer world no longer existed. This is how I love to read – it feeds my spirit, provides sheer joy, escapism and a sense of well-being. As such Hamnet is a brilliant book to read during lockdown and the terrible connection between the plague of that time and Covid makes it even more timely.
I’m not a fan of cartoons. Comics were banned in our family when I was growing up so I never really learned how to read them, not knowing which bit of writing to read first or which part of the picture to look at**. But a second birthday gift this year changed my mind about such reading formats. This is Couch Fiction with its great sub-title A Graphic Tale of Psychotherapy.This book is witty, droll and delightful. Phillipa Perry *** is the psychotherapist in question. Flo Perry, her daughter provided the illustrations.
This book works on two levels. It tell the story of a psychotherapeutic encounter through pictures, speech and thought bubbles. Then beneath each page of the interactions between the two characters there are notes which demystify the encounter providing an easy read of the theory, for example, it highlights if the therapist is moving too fast, her use of hunches, any clumsy interventions and how the person being helped may react, and for students of the process there is some useful stuff on transference and attachment theories. So this is familiar territory for me but a great light but satisfying reminder – a perfect gift for me.
The Best of Me
And speaking of the joy of the familiar and ideal presents I will never tire of reading David Sedaris. In particular his short story about the mouse entitled Nuit of the Living Deadis fantastic. This book The Best of Mewas one of my Christmas presents. Reading what makes me laugh out loud is such a tonic and really does raise my spirits – a treat to come for anyone who hasn’t read it – so witty, so subversive. I was lucky to have heard him reading this story aloud at The British Library a couple of years ago.
I love being read to so Talking Books are a joy to me, especially to send me off to sleep during these troubled times. Instead of watching the news at ten I settle down to listen to stories. Re-reading is also something I enjoy and I’ll never tire of Sissy Spacek reading Scout’s account of her first day at school with that wonderful Southern accent of To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve also listened this month to Elizabeth is Missing, How to be Both, The Accidental Tourist(again)and Jane Eyre – hence my opening sentence ****.
Some beginnings are embedded in my brain and while reading I’m looking out for beautiful descriptions and passages that I wish I’d written. I love examining openings, not just of books themselves, but of paragraphs and new chapters. It can often take me a while to read a book because I spend ages re-reading sentences to analyse their construction. I love names too and often make a note of them to steal later for my own novella – swopping first names of some with different surnames – Gregory Page-Turner and Saffron Milford are examples of ones I plan to introduce soon – he a church warden, she a novelist.
I’ve also got waiting for me from Christmas and birthday:
Raynor Winn, The Wild Silence
Sarah Moss, Summerwater
Monica Connell, Gathering Carrageen
Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain
Mark Billingham, Cry Baby
Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing
Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere
Jacqueline Winspear, Birds of a Feather
And with a book token given to me by my brother-in-law for Christmas I am going to order the second and third in the series of Ian Rankin’s Rebus thrillers.
I’m confident I have enough reading material to keep me going for ages. Who knows when I’ll get my second vaccination or when lockdown will end but I hope I’ll have one or two books left to take on board a train or ferry to Scotland or Ireland again. Roll on Summer.
* Hamnet and Hamlet were used in Shakespeare’s day interchangeably. This remarkable book is written by Maggie O’Farrell (2020).
** An exception to this rule was Posy Simmonds in The Guardian
*** Her husband is the more famous artist Grayson Perry.
I wanted to read more Angela Carter. I picked The Bloody Chamber as the timing was auspicious for a zoom lecture and discussion I planned to join. Ah me, the best laid plans and all that. I managed to miss the session. And perhaps there were dark reasons for this consistent with the black tones of the stories?
The Bloody Chamber
This collection of ten short stories are based on well-known tales, such as Blue Beard, Little Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast and Puss-in-Boots. They were published in 1979, at the height of feminism’s second wave. The stories are of different lengths, one as long as 34 pages, another only two.
Angela Carter explained that she wanted ‘to extract the latent content from traditional stories’. Just pause a moment to consider that phrase ‘latent content’. How often in fairy stories are young women, nearly always young and beautiful women, rescued by handsome men, or their fathers, from sleeping, or being eaten, or some other gruesome fate? What about the other girls? What about the women who were no longer virginally attractive to men?
What Angela Carter does in their retelling is to suggest some alternatives. Take the truly terrible story of Blue Beard, who murders each of his wives, and keeps each victim in a room in his castle for the next wife to find. The story is retold by the final wife in The Bloody Chamber. She is about to be beheaded when she is rescued by her revolver-toting mother, who hearing distress in her voice over the telephone comes at all speed to rescue her. See what she did there? A little dose of modern day sprinkled into an old tale.
Feminism in The Bloody Chamber
So the introduction of feminism into these tales is very welcome. The reader, female or male, must ask why, in traditional fairy tales, women and girls are represented in the ways they are. And how would the world look if power did not lie only with men? How would the world look if sexual relations were built not on pain and subjugation?
The result is a flamboyant and exuberant set of stories.
To begin with, the heroines are often strong young women, with intelligence and respect for others. The protagonist of The Bloody Chamber is a lonely young woman, with a talent for playing the piano. Her new husband has offered her huge wealth, and isolation in a castle with its own piano. Of course, there is a key on the ring which he entrusts to her, that she must not use. But of course she does. And what she finds is horrifying. Because she has disobeyed him, he intends to kill her.
Or, in The Courtship of Mr Lyon, Beauty is a thoughtful and perceptive young woman. Helped by the beast’s spaniel, she comes to see that she could be happy with Mr Lyon. She is not helplessly caught up in his spell as in the original story. And so on.
One of the themes is that domesticity can be a horrendous trap. Again, the castle in The Bloody Chamber is seamlessly managed, the décor is beautiful, delicious meals arrive, all comfort is provided. But the secret is in the chamber where the previous wives have been horribly murdered and arranged as if in domestic situations; on a bed, under a sheet, or impaled by an Iron Maiden. An Iron Maiden is not very domestic, but note its name.
The dangers in distorted male sexuality is another aspect of these stories that is hard to read. Blue Bear of course, but the tiny story of The Snow Child is deeply disturbing and entirely about a man dominating his wife. (She rejects it, but only after we have seen his vile attempts to impose his will on her).
The style of The Bloody Chamber
Angela Carter’s writing is gloriously flamboyant, extravagant and exaggerated, as fits the origins and subversions of her stories. Some of it is joyous. I loved the story of Puss-in-Boots, and our hero, like Figaro in The Barber of Seville that she evokes at the start of the story, is wonderfully naughty, impish and daring. He has his own side-line in feline amorous pursuits, but he happily and ingeniously engages in supporting his human friend to defeat the pantomime older man who has married an attractive young woman. The story is told with swagger and bravado, entirely appropriate to this engaging adventurer. Puss-in-Boots tells how he became the owner of the boots one night as he sang of his passion:
Do you see these fine, high, shining leather boots of mine? A young cavalry officer made me the tribute of, first, one; then after I celebrated his generosity with a fresh obbligato, the moon no fuller than my heart – whoops! I numbly spring aside – down comes the other. Their high heels will click like castanets when Puss takes his promenade upon the tiles, for my song recalls flamenco, all cats have a Spanish tinge although Puss himself elegantly lubricates his virile, muscular, native bergamasque with French, since that is the only language in which you can purr. (68)
There is so much fun to be had in that paragraph, and also much to be admired in the language and vocabulary used. It is operatic, although the subject is an attempt to stop feline caterwauling.
The imagery used in these stories also underlines her purposes. In The Bloody Chamber the protagonist describes the removal of her clothes by her new husband ‘as if he were stripping the leaves off an artichoke’ (15). We can notice again, the male attempt to control the woman and where there is the additional notion of him consuming her.
In the bloody chamber itself, so full of horrors, the young pianist finally comes across the corpse of her husband’s most recent, Romanian wife.
She was pierced, not by one but by a hundred spikes, this child of the land of the vampires who seemed so newly dead, so full of blood … (29)
Every sense is enticed in these stories, not just visual ones as in the spikes and the blood. But she draws on taste (I love artichokes and they have a rich and complex taste and texture. The image of peeling a young woman like an artichoke I fin to be alluring and disgusting in equal measure.) There are plenty of sounds, and music is a frequent aspect of hearing: the piano, the opera, the caterwauling, locks and keys and birds. And touch, our sense of touch is fully activated: furs, cold keys, spikes, roses and thorns. Smell, lilies, and blood, and wine and other exotic aromas.
When I read The Magic Toyshop recently, I said in my post that I wanted to read more of her work. It took something of a strong stomach, and required some trust in the writer because even now I find her to be shocking. It is not just the material, the inversion of traditional subjects, but the language in which she coaches her insights into the reader’s awareness. In the post I said of The Magic Toyshop, ‘I loved its magic, its sensuality and the creative way in which abusive behaviour is revealed and gets its comeuppance.’
Angela Carter (1940 – 1992) was born in Eastbourne, UK. She spent some of her childhood with her grandmother in Yorkshire as an evacuee. After school she followed her father into journalism, and then to Bristol University. She wrote novels, short stories, articles, as an editor and translator and in TV, film and radio.
Her biographer Edmund Gordon refers to her ‘subversive intelligence’ which contrasted with the sober social realists who dominated fiction in the ‘60s in the UK.
If you have stuck with me this far, I will reveal the reason I missed the online session about The Bloody Chamber. I am discomforted by the prolonged effects of the pandemic, and this manifests in missing appointments and muddling up times – which I have done a few times recently. No bloody chambers here!
See also the post on The Magic Toyshop (1967) which was included in the Decades Project in 2020 on this blog.
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, published in 1979. I read the edition from Vintage, 1995. 126pp
When you have had enough of something, it’s time to stop. I don’t mean to sound like public warnings issued by betting sites in their advertisements. But I can’t see the point of continuing with a series on my blog when I am feeling tired of it.
So it’s goodbye to the Decades Project, which I have run on different themes for several years.
Novels by women (2017)
Non-fiction by women (2018)
Children’s fiction (2019)
Women’s fiction published by Virago (2020)
Every year I picked eleven books, one chosen from each decade since 1900, reviewed each month from January. I often think like a historian and I am interested in change and how books relate to the times in which they were written. The project allowed me to notice how things changed over the century and to follow themes that emerged.
In 2020 all the choices were written by women, most published by Virago and ten were featured in the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood.
The collection Brilliant Careers reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. I own copies of and had previously read many of the books featured. Others I had heard of but was not familiar with. The choices were easy, given the extracts and my desire to extend my familiarity with the Virago back catalogue.
The most obvious theme was of protagonists struggling to control their own lives, especially in the early years. The world wars changed women’s ability to become independent. No longer struggling against their families or against society’s expectations, they began to find opportunities such as entry to higher education and the professions.
Wave me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Edited by Anne Boston (1988)
Three books were especially significant for me.
A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940) was new to me. The novel was written out of the great pain and suffering of the Czechs in 1938-9, and their betrayal by the Allies, especially the French but also Chamberlain with his ’kid-glove fascism’. Martha Gellhorn was writing from her first-hand experience as a journalist in Europe. It’s a novel raw and stricken.
The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967) was not the first book by her that I had read, but it made a big impression on me for its boldness, its ability to shock with teenage sexuality, and for the quality of the prose. I promised myself to read more of her work, and have done. Watch out for a post about The Bloody Chamber.
Wave me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Edited by Anne Boston (1988) was a collection that impressed me greatly. After I had posted in November I discovered I had previously bought and read the earlier version. So good I read it twice! The stories reveal the multitude of ways in which war was experienced and written about by women.
Perhaps it’s a result of reading that collection, Wave me Goodbye, that I feel inclined to read more books from the first half of the Twentieth Century. Not only was it a time of great change for women, but also a time when excellent women were writing.
In the last few decades publishers have reintroduced readers to some of the most distinguished writers of that time: for example Rose Macaulay by the Handheld Press. Persephone Books continues to publish books by neglected writers from the middle years of the century. Virago’s back catalogue will continue to delight for years.
So next year, that’s what I plan to do some of the time on Bookword Blog.
What can we learn from the experiences of women in the past? How can their reflections help us think about the occurrences of our own lives? The so-called Blitz spirit has been evoked since the Coivid-19 pandemic began to take hold earlier this year. We even celebrated the 75th anniversary of VE Day in May at a distance with scones and little union flags.
In Wave Me Goodbye there are 28 stories, all written in English and from the experience of women from the UK or the ‘colonies’. All the stories were written at the time of the second world war (except one). This is a special and important collection. This is a special and important addition to the posts of the Decades Project 2020 (see below)
Wave Me Goodbye
The first thing to say about them is that these stories reflect the very wide range of women’s experiences of the war. They were not all staying at home and making do and mending, or fire watching, or working in war jobs. And the experiences here range from the so-called Phoney War, while everyone waited for the war to start, through to the first post-war visits to war-ravaged Europe.
There are stories about
Working in a field hospital The Blitz partners leaving for active duty, and home on leave adventures abroad in the Balkans land girls losing treasured things, such as letters from a lover living with other women the war in Africa fantasy the aftermath.
In writing their stories they drew upon their experiences and reflected what was happening and how it affected their different lives. Some are about the acute experiences of departure and loss, others provide insights into the arrangements made by women in the absence of so many men.
Quality of writing
The second thing to note is the quality of the writing, almost every mid-century writer of note wrote a short story that was included in the collection.
Rosamond Lehmann Jan Struther Mollie Panter-Downes Rose Macaulay Olivia Manning Elizabeth Bowen Elizabeth Taylor Barbara Pym Sylvia Townsend Warner …
It reads like a combined Virago and Persephone catalogue!
In the introduction Anne Boston quotes Elizabeth Bowen:
All war-time writing is… resistance writing. (xxi)
In a sense the resistance is oblique: it is to the distortions that war brings with it; distortions in relationships, time, clothes, food, careers, homes, life itself. And that is one of the parallels with the pandemic: that too is distorting our lives as well as killing thousands of people.
Some stories of resistance are triumphant. I loved Sweethearts and Wives by Sylvia Townsend Warner, which concerned a household of women managing their domestic arrangements, largely without men, in a haphazard and cheerful manner.
Short stories and the war
And thirdly the short story was the genre of those days. Many of the writers were established novelists, but turned their attention to short stories during the war. The fragmentary nature of short prose captured the disconnected experiences that war handed out, rapid and catastrophic change. An example is Miss Anstruther’s Letters by Rose Macaulay, in which Miss Anstruther frantically tries to find her dead lover’s letters after she has been bombed out. This was Rose Macaulay’s experience, and it reflects the fragility of material belongings. With the quality of writing, it is easy to find insights, description, experiences narrated with great skill.
The depth of damage resulting from six years of war is beautifully captured in Elizabeth Taylor’s story of a couple visiting France and trying to reconnect after their different experiences of the war. It is called Gravement Endommagé and considers damage at many levels.
I can’t review individual stories here, but refer you to JacquieWine’s blog (see below) where she looked at many individual stories in two posts when she explored this collection earlier this year.
So what can we learn from the Second World War that might help us with Covid-19? We need to be resourceful and resilient. We need to adapt our lives to the profoundly anti-social aspects of the response to Covid-19. We can expect experiences as different as people are. We can expect great responses and more feeble ones. Humans, women have done it in the past. We can do it again. The values that underpin the good life must be held onto in difficult times: community, care for others, decency and integrity.
On HeavenAli’s blog she recommends this quite marvellous collection in her review in June.
Another enthusiastic reader is JacquiWine who provided two posts on her blog to do justice to the collection.
Wave Me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Ed Anne Boston, first published in 1988 by Virago and republished in 2019. 360pp
The Decades Project 2020
In 2020 I explored ten novels by women, one a month, framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. For November I have added this important collection. In December I will review the year’s blogs and consider a theme for 2021.