Tag Archives: Picador

Beowulf – 3: Grendel by John Gardner

A year ago I posted my first piece about Beowulf. I referred to versions of the poem that I had on my shelves at that time, two of which were designed for children: versions for present-day readers by Seamus Heaney, Rosemary Sutcliff and Michael Morpurgo.

A few months later I reported on a feminist version of the ancient tale. It is called The Mere Wife and is by Maria Dahvana Headley. She suggests that we can look at Beowulf another way, giving a name to Beowulf’s second opponent, Grendel’s mother, and telling a modern version of the story, avoiding depicting her as a monster.

The traditional story is quickly told. Beowulf, from the kingdom of the Geats, in present-day Sweden, brings his warriors to help the Danish king defend his beautiful great hall from Grendel, a blood-thirsty monster who terrorises the hall at night. Beowulf kills Grendel by tearing his arm off. The monster’s mother wants vengeance and Beowulf follows her into a deep, dark lake where he kills her too. Many years after his return to his homeland, Beowulf is made king and takes on a fire-breathing dragon in the battle to protect his people that is his last. 

Beowulf is a poem that delights in masculine power, and it is a story told by men about men for men. For this third Beowulf post I have read Grendel by John Gardner. As the title suggests, his rendition casts Grendel as the main character. When I first read it in the ‘70s, I was entranced. On re-reading it I find it rather overblown. 

Grendel

The story is narrated by Grendel. The monster is a lonely creature, unable to communicate with others; his mother has no language and the humans he encounters do not see beyond his monstrous body. He retells the story of the Danes, from the landscape of war lords, the accumulation of territory and power by Hrothgar, the celebration of Hrothgar’s achievements by the Shaper, including the building of the great hall.

I could have called this post Beowulf meets Jean-Paul Satre, but this would have invited ridicule and mocking accents of Monty Python; and it would have overloaded the interpretation of the story with existentialism and other philosophical references. See Wikipedia, which tells me that John-Paul Satre was a strong influence on Grendel. Judge for yourself.

What John Gardner does is retell the Danes’ heroic history, and Beowulf’s killing of Grendel in a way which subverts the widely known version reproduced above. The mocking reports by Grendel of his alternative version reminds us that victims have a story to tell that is seldom heard.

Grendel is bemused by the people on whom he feasts and not above random acts of cruelty himself. He is maddened by the hypocrisy, the vainglory and the boastfulness of the great hall and its thanes. As we are entirely within the head of Grendel we are privy to his reasoning and responses to those he meets: his mother (a mewling incoherent hag crazed by mother-love), the dragon (a nihilist of great greed), the Shaper (who sings songs of the Danes’ heroic past), the hero Unferth (a coward who is easily outwitted) and Ork the priest (who is deluded by his contact with Grendel). Of Beowulf he has nothing but contempt, seeing him as insane, but able to defeat him in the end.

The reader sees an outsider trying to make sense of a world that is antagonistic to him and offering a counter-version to the truths of great literature and myth. This alternative view was very refreshing in its time. People were revising all kinds of shibboleths and suggesting that some of the ways that were seen as taken for granted may have been illusions, sleight of hand to maintain power.

‘A surprising novel,’ said the editor Diana Athill in Stet (2000)She was recommending a number of novels she had come across and suggested her reader should seek them out, Grendel among them. 

‘If I hadn’t [sought it out] I would have missed a great pleasure – a really powerful feat of imagination.’ (93)

I agree that the imagination revealed is impressive, but I found it overloaded and in the end I tired of Grendel’s obsession with himself.

John Gardner

The author was born in New York state in 1933 and killed in a motorcycle accident in 1982. He taught Creative Writing and wrote other novels. The Art of Fiction and On Being a Novelist were both published in 1983.

This version of the Beowulf myth generated some spin-offs: a film in 1981, voiced by Peter Ustinov; two versions by rock bands, also in 1981; and an opera with dance more recently.

Grendel by John Gardner, published in 1971. I used the Picador version which I bought for 40p. 120pp. This edition contains the illustrations by Emil Antonucci.

Related posts

Beowulf – 1 (February 2021)

Beowulf – 2, in which he meets a feminist (June 2021)

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The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Eleven years ago, in January 2011, I joined a cruise at Tromsø, Norway, going north and then east to Kirkenes, a few kilometres from the Russian border, far inside the Arctic Circle. It was an amazing trip in many ways, not least because of the dark landscape through which we sailed. This was a time of the year when the sunrise was also the sunset.

Sunrise/sunset Kirkenes Norway January 2011

When I was given The Mercies for Christmas I was intrigued to find that it was set in the same area, on an island, Vardø, which we had sailed passed. The dark story matches the darkness of the landscape. In the early seventeenth century, there were dark deeds afoot, cruel attitudes to people who had little power, and men who would profit from the misfortunes of others.

The Mercies

On the remote island of Vardø there was a small community, living off the sea, far away from King Christian IV in Copenhagen. The king wanted to unite his kingdoms, even the farthest reaches, through the power of the church. 

In 1617, on Christmas Day, a sudden, brief and brutal storm destroyed the fishing fleet that had set out from Vardø, and the men were all lost. They left behind a village of women who had to find ways to live out the rest of the winter and continue their lives thereafter. When they were almost out of food, the women set about fishing and managed to survive until the spring. 

This part of the story is narrated from the point of view of Maren, a young woman who lost her fiancé in the storm, along with her brother and father. We see how the women work together to survive until they begin to divide into the pragmatic group, led by Kirsten, and the church group headed by spiteful Toril.

In pursuit of controlling the people of Finnmark, the king’s Lensmann, a fanatic known for ridding the seas of pirates, summons Commissioner Cornet from Scotland to bring the people of Vardø to order. On the way through Bergen he picks up a wife, Ursa. Her point of view now joins Maren’s. Ursa is naïve and unskilled in the arts required of a wife on Vardø. Maren comes to her aid and the two become friends. Ursa’s husband begins his campaign of bringing the women to order. He is a fanatic Calvinist, and so he sees the independence of the women as a challenge to the church’s authority.

The plot takes on a darker form as first the Commissioner goes after the Sámi peoples who live in the area, including Maren’s sister-in-law. And then he finds witchcraft among the women of Vardø. Two of the women are arrested, imprisoned in the grim Vardøhus and when one, Kirsten, will not confess, she is given a public trial by ducking. If you float it is proven you are a witch, if you don’t you probably drown. You lose, you lose.

As the two young women draw closer and the search for more witches looks as if it more of the women of the island will be arrested, tortured and put to death, the two women are forced to act.

 

Off the coast of Norway, inside the Arctic Circle, January 2011

Fanaticism, more than the dangers from the elements, or the harshness of life on the island, threatens the women of Vardø. This novel is based in historic truth. There was a storm, and witchcraft was ‘discovered’ and prosecuted in Finnmark, prompted by King Christian IV. There is a memorial to the women on the island by Peter Zumthor and Louise Bourgeois. You can see it in the illustration for the review of The Mercies by Sarah Moss in the Guardian here

Kiran Millwood Hargrave

This is the first adult fiction book by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. She earned many awards for her children’s fiction, including for The Cartographer’s Daughter (2014). Born in 1990 and currently living in Oxford, Kiran is also known for her poetry.

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, published in 2021 by Picador. 342pp

Thank you, Sarah, for another interesting novel set in the past, featuring women who are determined to live as they decide.

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Summerwater by Sarah Moss

To create her compelling fiction Sarah Moss places her characters out of their usual location, often on holiday. The characters are tested, by each other and by the environment and having wound them up she sits back and lets the drama unfold. This is something of a pattern in her books and it is very effective.

In Summerwater the characters are staying in log cabins in a holiday park in Scotland beside a loch. It is summer and it should be beautiful, but it is raining. It is raining so much that it feels like the end of the world. They have no phone signals and no nearby shops. The rain and the random selection of guests at the holiday park isolate the cabins’ occupants from each other.

Summerwater

We begin with the rain.

the sounds of blood and air

Light seeps over the water, through the branches. The sky is lying on the loch, filling the trees, heavy in the spaces between the pine needles, settling between the blades of grass and mottling the pebbles on the beach. Although there is no distance between cloud and land, nowhere for rain to fall, it is falling; the sounds of water on leaves and bark, on roofs and stones, windows and cars, become as constant as the sounds of blood and air in your own body.
You would notice soon enough, if it stopped. (1)

Short interludes, such as this one, separate the chapters. But pause a moment before getting into the story to notice the quality of the writing, the observation that rain in these circumstances gets everywhere and distorts the landscape (the sky is lying on the loch … no distance between cloud and land) and feels visceral. 

The occupants of the log cabins emerge into the day slowly, for what is there to do? Justine takes an early morning run. As she creeps out of the cabin, leaving husband and children sleeping, we learn about her frustrations, the lack of money, the lack of opportunities for families like hers. Her observations about the other occupants of the holiday cabins are revealed, including the Rumanians who held another loud party the previous night.

We meet a young lad who goes kayaking and ventures out on the loch and whose trip nearly ends in disaster. He does not tell his parents. A young teenage girl climbs out of her bedroom window to find a phone signal or to visit the ex-soldier in his tent. Here she is as she escapes from her parents for a while.

She goes along the side of the gravel track, not that anyone would hear her footsteps over the weather, past the cabin with the sad woman who never goes out and the two kids. They’re still having their tea, and the scene reminds her of her old Playmobil dolls’ house, the stiff-jointed figures you could arrange around a green plastic table, the tiny plastic cutlery Mum was always telling her not to lose. The rain is seeping through her leggings and Alex’s hoody is beginning to cling to her hands at the cuffs. (150)

A couple spend most of the day in bed as they pursue his ambition of simultaneous orgasms. An older man, with his increasingly disabled wife takes her for a drive. He muses upon the happy times they had in the park when the holidaymakers owned their own cabins and came every year, providing consistency and friendship. Those times have long gone, and he must take care of his wife in the face of the limitations of the cabin, the park and the weather.

There are nearly middle-aged women who, like Justine, are finding life hard, and this cheap holiday is no holiday for them. Children are bored. The men are bored. Only the Rumanians appear to be enjoying themselves, although some of the holidaymakers think they might be Bulgarians and other that they might be Russians. What’s more, they appear to have phone connections, for as evening arrives so do visitors with drink and music and another party starts.

Here is a nightmare scenario: rain all day, nothing to do, nothing to see except your neighbours, the only thing to think about is your sad life and then loud music at night prevents sleep. Resentment is building and the partygoers are clearly going to be the object of judgements and aggressions that are building up. The men decide to go and ask the Rumanians, or Bulgarians or Russians, or Shit-chenkos, (according to one family) to turn the sound down. 

Watching from the neighbouring cabin the little girl see what happens when they knock on the Rumanians’ door.

The Shit-chenko woman steps back into the cabin and a man comes out with two bottles dangling from between his fingers and nods and hands one to Dad and one to the other dad, and then all of them go inside. (193)

By now the tension is very high and the novel’s resolution unfurls very fast, rather surprisingly and very badly. The little girl witnesses the events. She sees the tragedy, but also the community that is suddenly created in response. 

Sarah Moss writes so well, so succinctly, with detailed observations and, in this novel, fully inhabiting the range of characters in the cabins. 

Observing the way we subtly edit ourselves and one another – the limits that puts on us, as well as the strengths it creates – is Moss’s metier. [Melissa Harrison in a review in the Guardian in August 2020]

It is bleak, and harsh and almost apocryphal. It captures the current generally depressed mood and seems to be a comment on the modern world.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss (2020) Picador. 202pp. A paperback version is available.

Related post about books by Sarah Moss on Bookword

Night Waking by Sarah Moss (2011) in a post of two short reviews

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (2018)

Names for the Sea: strangers in Iceland (2012) in a post called Bookword in Iceland

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Eventide by Kent Haruf

Any writer admired by Ursula Le Guin is worthy of our attention. In a review of Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night she noted the quality of his writing:

Not for all the colloquial ease and transparency and apparent simplicity of the story, is there a glib word or predictable one. (From Words are my Matter, 213)

All his work is marked by great sensitivity and respect for his characters and their community, and a beautiful even tone which is reassuring and inspiring and helps you believe that there is good in the world, a great deal of good in the world.

It with great sadness that we learned that Kent Haruf died in 2014, so there will be no more novels set in Holt, the small town in Colorado. No more stories where paths cross, and some characters appear in more than one novel and where each of his small number of novels can stand on its own.

Eventide

Many of the people whose stories we follow in Eventide are not coping very well. Some will buckle under the challenges, others will be able to take advantage of the kindness of others, which is a feature of this novel.

Betty and her lumbering husband Luther fear the removal of their children by the social services. She has already had to give up one child in this way and is trying hard to look after the two children she has with Luther. One of the most poignant scenes is the brief moment when Betty’s first daughter turns up, having run away from foster care. They have not seen each other for sixteen years but the visit is not a success, and within two days Donna has gone again.

We met Raymond and Harold McPheron in Plainsong in a moving story where these two old men, as close as twins, running a ranch outside the town, take in Victoria when her mother throws her out. Now we meet them again as Victoria sets out with her baby to attend college. Soon after, Raymond has to witness and survive the death of his brother and his grief nearly overwhelms him, despite Victoria’s assistance. 

DJ is a young lad who lives with and looks after his grandfather, who is old and frail. They live next door to a young mother who has been abandoned by her husband. DJ‘s only friend is her daughter, Dena. They make a den in an abandoned hut. After a bad car accident and an affair, the mother and her daughters move to a town two hours away. DJ is left alone.

The most destructive force in the book is Hoyt Raines, Betty’s uncle, who is a bully and without any social responsibility. He is violent to those weaker than him, women and children and unassertive men. He disrupts the lives of several people in Holt before moving on, no doubt to continue as before. He too is not coping with life.

Many of the inhabitants of Holt provide support, large and small, to others when they need it. The friendly barmaid who helps DJ, Guthrie who works on Raymond’s farm when he is short-handed, even the cashier at the supermarket mildly rejects the criticism by another customer who comments on Betty and Luther’s shopping.

The man behind them shook his head at the checkout woman. Would you look at that. They’re eating better than you and me and they’re on food stamps.
Oh, let them be, the woman said. Are they hurting you?
They’re eating a steak dinner and I’m eating beans. That’s hurting me.
But would you want to be them?
I’m not saying that.
What are you saying?
I’m not saying that. (41)

Women are among the most generous of Kent Haruf’s characters. We met Maggie Jones, a teacher, in Plainsong, and she reappears here to introduce Raymond to Rose. Rose is perhaps the most generous of Holt’s residents. She is a widow who works in the social services. She deals sensitively and persistently with Betty, Luther and their children. She also develops a generous relationship with Raymond.

The stories of these characters cross over and affect each other. Every event has ripples which bring people together or tears them apart. There is great kindness, and much gentleness, and neighbourliness. Food is provided, lonely people included in social events, spaces opened up for listening. All of this creates a pervading sense of the value of community. From small or official acts, to the big life-changing events, someone is there to stand by and assist.

Eventide is beautifully written with calm and careful prose, appropriate vocabulary, and no extra punctuation to interrupt the flow of life. The author appears to step away and allows the stories to unfold before you.

Here are Raymond and Victoria, in the hospital, talking about Harold, after he has died. Raymond makes a comment about his brother.

Harold was pretty set in his ways.
They were good ways though, Victoria said. Weren’t they.
I think they were, Raymond said. He was a awful good brother to me.
He was good to me too, Victoria said. I keep expecting him to come walking in that door any minute now, saying something funny, and wearing that old dirty hat of his, like he always did.
That was him, wasn’t it, Raymond said. My brother always did have his own way of wearing a hat. You could tell Harold from a distance anywhere. You tell him two blocks away. Oh hell. I miss him already.
I do too, she said.
I don’t imagine I’ll ever get over missing him, Raymond said. Some things you don’t get over. I believe this’ll be one of them. (95-6)

I love the way this passage shows the affection between Victoria, Raymond and the dead man. And how the speech is authentic, even slightly quirky, honest. How Raymond and Victoria are consoling each other. And how important Harold’s memory will be to them.

I am so pleased that I still have Benediction to read.

Eventide by Kent Haruf, published in 2005 by Picador. 317pp

Related posts

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (in the older women in fiction series)

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

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Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine

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. 

Sweet Home

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

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Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy

They are at it again. They are always at it. Teacher bashing! I spent nearly 50 years working in schools professionally (and another decade as a school child). They have always done it. Blamed teachers for: falling standards of morality; falling standards in exams; grade inflation; poor grammar; crime; teenage pregnancy; homosexuality; radical politics. And now blaming them for the pandemic, or for being cowards or not helping with the roll out of testing. Or for the rising rate of infections. Whatever it is it’s the teachers what done it.

I have way more experience of schools and teachers than any gavin-come-lately education minister. I know teachers who knew what it was to hold to a child steady between the chaos of home and their own selves. I have seen teachers feed and clothe children, not their own. I have known teachers coax necessary disclosures from young people. And teachers who have inspired youngsters with love of knowledge, of history, or geography or maths. Teachers who introduced young people to literature and to becoming readers for life. 

You know these people. You have met these people. They always have stories to tell. They always have experiences that are illuminating. They are adaptable inside the classroom or in the playgrounds and corridors to rapidly changing situations , and to governments and ministers who claim to know better what to do. (Governments and ministers easily fall into this trap as there is so little over which they have influence, especially, it seems, at the moment).

I found the experience, including as the headteacher of in inner London comprehensive, so draining, so exhausting that I have retired to the country and don’t involve myself very much at all with educational discourse. This book changed that.

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me

I first came across the talent of Kate Clanchy when I discovered her tweets during the first lockdown, many of which contained poems by young people she was working with. That taster led me to Unmute, a collection of poems by young poets who met on-line during Lockdown. All thirteen had at one time or another attended her weekly poetry workshops when attending their Oxford secondary school. I obtained a copy and was very impressed and wrote a post on this blog about it. You can find it here.

A friend (yes from the world of education) told me about this year’s winner of the George Orwell Political Writing prize: Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. She knew I would be interested in the writings of a teacher who respected the voice of students. It came to the top of my reading pile recently

The world of schools and teachers must seem a little exclusive to outsider. It is hard to understand the way it calls you, holds you, gives back almost imperceptibly the richness of the school community. But in her Introduction to Some Kids, Kate Clanchy has captured why so many people become entrapped and entranced.

Thirty years ago, just after I graduated, I started training to be a teacher. As far as I remember, it was because I wanted to change the world, and a state school seemed the best place to start. (1)

Most teachers I know began with the same desire. To those who belittle the profession, partly because it employs so many women, Kate Clanchy suggests more people should listen to teachers. Having considered and accepted the title Miss, she goes on:

I would like more people to understand what Miss means, and to listen to teachers. Parts of this book, therefore, are a kind of telling back: long-stewed accounts of how teachers actually do tackle the apostrophe; of how we exclude and include; of the place of religion in schools; of how the many political changes of the last decades have played out in the classroom; of what a demanding, intellectual, highly skilled profession teaching can be. These confident answer, though, are short and few, because mostly what I have found in school is not certainty, but more questions. Complex questions, very often, about identity, nationality, art, and money, but offered very personally; questions embodied in children. (4)

It is not the public perception that teaching is ‘a demanding, intellectual, highly skilled profession’ is it? But this book demonstrates exactly that.

And the perception that the questions raised in schools are ‘embodied in children’ is succinctly put. I remember Oddy (full name Odysseus) and the stolen koi carp, Boris (another wayward one) and the milk float, the child of the murderer, the refugee who did not know the fate of her parents, the child afraid he was homosexual, Carl who lied and lied and was not literate, the slow to read, to write, to understand. 

Kate Clanchy explores the questions raised by the young people she has met, and by some brilliant fellow teachers, much of it mediated through poetry. Here are some chapter headings:

About Love, Sex, and the Limits of Embarrassment,
About Exclusion
About Nations, Papers and Where We Belong
About Writing Secrets, and Being Foreign
About the Hijab
About Uniform
About Selection, Sets and Streaming
About What I think I am Doing.

Each chapter embodies its topic in young people’s stories and struggles. 

No wonder readers are suggesting that trainee teachers and would-be teachers read this as part of their preparation. 

I would have liked to  have worked with her. I would like to have had her teaching poetry in the London Comprehensive where I was headteacher in the early ‘90s) alongside the many brilliant teachers of Art, Drama, RE, English, PE and life. And all the brilliant work that we did with our students.

The Schoolyard by Cynthia Nugent. (That’s me on the right there, in the blue jumper, carrying some files.)

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy, published in 2019 by Picador. 269pp Winner of the Orwell Prize for political writing 2020

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Plainsong by Kent Haruf

There is a finite number of novels by Kent Haruf and I have now read three, all gems. Plainsong is the first of a trilogy featuring the inhabitants of Holt, Colorado. The small town dramas are delicately revealed and discreetly dealt with. For all their smallness and quietness, the events of these novels have much to teach us about what matters in our world and about human values.

Plainsong  by Kent Haruf

The story of Plainsong weaves together the small events in the lives of several citizens of rural Holt. Tom Guthrie, American history teacher at the high school, has been abandoned by his wife and falls out with a particularly obnoxious pupil; Guthrie’s two boys, Ike and Bobby, are learning to live without their mother who had a breakdown; Victoria’s mother has little affection for her daughter and when Victoria becomes pregnant throws her out; two old brothers run a farm together for decades following the death of their parents. The wisest head belongs to another teacher Maggie Jones, who finds solutions to the difficulties of these characters and nudges them towards their better selves.

The title is interesting. This is printed before the title page.

Plainsong – the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times; any simple and unadorned melody or air.

To begin with, the voices of these characters are separate and isolated, but as the story progresses they come to work in unison, but remain ‘simple and unadorned’. They are united by the dominant values of the small town: generosity, care and protection towards others, forgiveness. The two old guys take in Victoria and protect her against her ghastly former boyfriend; Guthrie stands up for what is right as he confronts the recalcitrant pupil and parents, even as his own sons are bullied; neighbours help each other out.

Reading Plainsong

Kent Haruf died in 2014. His novels are highly recommended by readers I trust, and especially by Ursula Le Guin, who said in a review of Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night:

Not for all the colloquial ease and transparency and apparent simplicity of the story, is there a glib word or predictable one. (From Words are my Matter, 213)

She reminds us that writing about the everyday is a tough job. Kent Haruf communicates the importance of the everyday by using a spare style: there are few adverbs, and no quotation marks. The result is an even tone, remaining calm even as tensions build and characters suffer. We learn people’s reactions from what they do and what they say.

Here’s a scene from a store where the old guys have taken Victoria to choose a crib for the baby she is expecting.

The girl watched it all from a kind of abject distance. She had grown increasingly quiet. At last she said, Can’t you wait? It’s too much. You shouldn’t be doing all of this.

What’s the matter? Harold said. We’re having some fun here. We thought you was too.

But it’s too expensive. Why are you doing this?

It’s all right, he said. He started to put his arm around her, but stopped himself. He looked down into her face. It’s all right, he said again. It is. You’ll just have to believe that.

The girl’s eyes filled with tears, though she made no sound. Harold took out a handkerchief from the rear pocket of his pants and gave it to her. She wiped at her eyes and blew her nose and handed it back to him. You want to keep it? Harold said. She shook her head. (174)

There is so much sensitivity, tenderness and trust revealed in this short example. It is simply done, with just the right amount of attention to each moment.

If you haven’t read Kent Haruf before you should treat yourself.

Plainsong by Kent Haruf, published in 1999. I read the edition by Picador.288pp. In this sequence there are also Eventide (2004) and Benediction (2013)

Also by Kent Haruf on Bookword: Our Souls at Night.

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Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

Loneliness in old age. It’s the biggest killer. In Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf Addie Moore has an idea about how to deal with her loneliness, especially at night when it hurts most. She approaches an acquaintance, Louis Waters with her unusual proposition and they begin a friendship with unexpected consequences for them both. They are both are over 70, widowed and living in the same area in their small American town, Holt Colorado.

Our Souls at Night is the 27th in my series on Older Women in Fiction. Thank you to my friend Sarah for the suggestion.

The story

Addie proposes to Louis that they could spend time together, at night, in bed, talking and sleeping and perhaps cuddling. Their relationship attracts gossip and assumptions but they continue. Addie’s grandson, Jamie, comes to live with her over the summer while his parents sort out their marriage. For a while this disrupts the new friendship, but Louis and Jamie get on well and especially after they acquire Bonny the dog. The relationship of the two old people unfolds as they talk more, explore their past, their marriages, their children and their regrets. And as they share the care of boy and dog.

Both Addie and Louis must deal with the disapproval of their adult children. After he has collected his son and plans to re-establish his own marriage, Addie’s son Gene continues to react badly to his mother’s friendship. He forbids them to see each other, and will not allow Addie to be with Jamie unless she complies.

Although they no longer share physical closeness, they continue to talk on the phone. What is left is the warmth and pleasure that their relationship has given them.

It’s a story about love and friendship: about love between children, grandchildren, animals in older life. It is also about how people react to the intimacy of others, mostly of older people, although Louis and Addie don’t have sex.

The Old Woman

Both main characters, Louis and Addie, are fully realised in this novel, but for the purposes of the older woman in fiction series I am focusing here on Addie. Here is how Louis sees her when she makes the bold step of proposing sleepovers.

He was watching her. She was a good-looking woman, he had always thought so. She’d had dark hair when she was younger, but it was white now and cut short. She was still shapely, only a little heavy at the waist and hips (4)

Addie refuses to be cowed by the small town gossip. She believes that her arrangement with Louis is their own business and she does not mind if people know about it. On his first night’s visit, Louis tries to be discrete and use her back door.

What are you doing back here? Addie said.

I thought it would be less likely for people to see me.

I don’t care about that. They’ll know. Someone will see. Come by the front door out on the front sidewalk. I made up my mind I’m not going to pay attention to what people think. I’ve done that too long – all my life. I’m not going to live that way anymore. The alley makes it seem we’re doing something wrong or something disgraceful, to be ashamed of. (9)

Weeks later, they reflect upon how they are no longer news for their neighbours. She says to Louis,

Do you want to be news?

No. Hell. I just want to live simply and pay attention to what’s happening each day. And come sleep with you at night.

Well, that’s what we’re doing. Who would have thought at this time in our lives that we’d still have something like this. That it turns out we’re not finished with changes and excitement. And not all dried up in body and spirit. (147)

This is a positive view of old age: ‘not finished with changes and excitement’ and ‘not all dried up in body and spirit’.

Much of the narration of the novel concerns their nocturnal conversations, and how they learn about each other’s lives. Addie is especially good at making sense of what has happened in the past.

Like any woman she has had her difficulties in life, especially the outcomes of the death of her daughter as a child and later of her husband. Her son is a casualty of these events, and is unable to understand her position. When he confronts his mother Gene uses words like ‘ashamed’, ‘approval’, ‘sneaking over’ and ‘meeting in the dark’. And all this being done by ‘people your age.’

The only weakness in the portrayal of Addie is her lack of other friends. A woman of her sense and age is likely to have a developed a network of women she could call upon. She seems only to be friends with one older woman Ruth, who lives nearby.

The writing

This was Kent Haruf’s last novel. He died in 2014. His other novels are on my tbr list, and highly recommended by readers I trust, and especially by Ursula Le Guin, who says in her review:

I don’t think there is a false word in Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night. Not for all the colloquial ease and transparency and apparent simplicity of the story, is there a glib word or predictable one. (From Words are my Matter 2016, p213)

It is not a long novel, and the story is told in 43 very short chapters, each one begins by locating us in time. Their brief story (from May until the following winter) is tightly plotted. The writing style here is spare, un-dramatic, simple, even in tone. There are no speech marks to interrupt our reading. The language is simple and does not pause to explain. In the extracts quoted above there are few words longer than two syllables. We learn people’s reactions from what they do and what they say.

Ursula Le Guin again:

Writing about the everyday is a tough job. … So the light comes on in the bedroom on Cedar Street in Holt, Colorado. And a happiness is very cautiously, courageously, tenderly achieved. Not however in the way we might expect, but on quite complex terms, involving quite a few of the older citizens of Holt. Perhaps happiness is less predictable than misery, since it partakes of freedom, and it can’t be forever. But it can be real, and in this beautiful novel, we can share it. (Words are my Matter p233/5)

In tis brief novel we learn the value of relationships, of the talk that develops them and of the family and community influences upon them. A gem!

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. Picador (2015) 180 pp

The next novel in this series will be The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim in July.

Over to you

Have you read Our Souls at Night? Or other novels by Kent Haruf? How did you react? Did you know that a film has been made of Our Souls at Night, starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford but with no date set for release yet? Can you suggest any additions to the older women in fiction series?

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Why use real people in fiction?

So why do writers use real people as characters in their novels? Doesn’t the choice of real people as characters limit the writer’s creativity? Perhaps the author wishes to correct a settled view of the character, or offer an alternative interpretation to the established version of events as in Burial Rites (see below). Perhaps the discipline of keeping to what is known about a person, limiting to some extent the creation of the character, allows freedoms elsewhere in the writing? It may be that people’s actions and motivations, being the stuff of fiction, are more vivid when they are drawn from life.

I seem to have read a number of fictions based on historical events or people recently. So here are some thoughts on factual fictions (or is it fictional facts? – no it isn’t!), some reviews and mentions of other novels.

Writing about real people

For the writer it may be that it is useful that the storyline is already established. But there are some challenges. Not least, the outcome may constitute a spoiler. Or not. I was pleased, as a reader, that I knew Agnes’s fate in Burial Rites. Knowing that she was to be executed focused my mind on the changing relationships as her fate approached, which I believe was Hannah Kent’s intention.

A danger lies in the writer’s attachment to all that research. Some writers appear to include everything. Some writers wear their research lightly. Hilary Mantel appears to be in complete command of all her material, even when her interpretation counters some established ideas. I think of the righteousness of Sir Thomas More in Wolf Hall, for example. She presents a very different view from what I learned in my A Level classes, or to Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons. Research is a very seductive part of writing. Writing on the booksbywomen blog Anna Mazzola reflects on writing her novel The Unseeing and advises:

Work out what to research, and know when to stop.

She spent a year researching London and criminal justice in the 19th century and the murder at the centre of the plot.

In retrospect, I should have mapped out the plot and deduced from that which questions I needed to answer in order to write the book.

Perhaps her most useful advice comes in her recommendation

Recognise that the history is not the story.

The job of the fiction writer is not to be a historian or biographer but to provide ‘a wider sense of what people’s lives might have been like in a particular era: to fear, to love, to escape, to survive’.

So here are some recommendations.

Burial Rights by Hannah Kent

This unsettling novel is based on the true story of Agnes, executed for her part in two murders in Iceland in 1829.

The novel focuses on the period leading up to her execution when Agnes is billeted on a farm. We read about the responses of the family, neighbours and the priest she has asked to help her prepare. The everyday interaction with Agnes as well as her muted behaviour and then the retelling of her life story help gradually shift attitudes towards her.

In some ways it is a feminist novel. Hannah Kent has interpreted Agnes as a strong and independent woman who does not fit the norms of Icelandic society. In Burial Rites she stands up to male abuse to herself and a younger girl, and this eventually leads to the death of her tormentor. The younger girl is pardoned, being pretty and somewhat simple.

The details of Icelandic life fit well with what I have read, and the harsh realities of the law and the hierarchy of the island (subject to distant Danish rule) are well evoked. The writing is vivid and moving.

Recommended by Morag in a comment on the post Bookword in Iceland.

Burial Rights by Hannah Kent, published by Picador (2013) 355pp

The Great Lover by Jill Dawson

Jill Dawson has made her writing career writing about real people. The Great Lover features Rupert Brooke during his years at Cambridge and in Tahiti. Other historical figures make an appearance, including Lady Ottoline Morrell and Virginia Wolf. The girl whom Rupert thinks he loves attended Bedales School, known for naked swimming and free lessons.

It was a Richard and Judy summer read, which must have brought Jill Dawson and Rupert Brooke to the attention of many readers who had not known them before. The story zips along, through endless pre-war sunny days, endless glimpses from afar and endless self-examination by the main characters.

The Great Lover by Jill Dawson, published by Sceptre (2009)

Other fictions based on real people by Jill Dawson include Fred and Edie (2000) and The Crime Fighter (2016), which I recently reviewed, here.

Magda by Meike Ziervogel

Magda is the wife of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. The novella’s narrative captures different moments in her life. We meet her first as a girl, for example, in a convent, where the endemic cruelty of the sisters and the other girls is designed to promote conformity. The sections are filtered through different women: Magda herself in the convent, later it is her mother, her daughter’s diary, her own imagination of what it her life will be like after the war, and a more detached narrator.

We get a sense that abuse rattles down the generations, reinforced through institutions especially the Catholic Church and National Socialists, which is presented as a religion. It’s a vivid, and raw account of what it meant to be a child in pre-war Germany, as it was collapsing in 1945, and it meant to be one of the favoured ones in that distorted society.

Magda is an interesting mix of historical fact and imaginative exploration. I understood something more about how Bavarians and Catholics became such keen advocates of National Socialism, how women were abused by the ideas of fascism, and how women are forced to use their sexuality to make anything of themselves, especially in times of crisis and chaos.

Magda by Meike Ziervogel Salt Publishing (2013) 103pp

Recent reviews on this blog:

Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor In this novel the main character is the actor Molly Allgood.

Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien A searing look at how charming and seductive evil can be, hiding in plain sight, even if he is the Beast of Bosnia.

Other fictions that I am tempted by …

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (Shostakovich) (2016)

Or have read in the past.

Memoirs of Hadrian by Margaret Yourcenar (1951). The Emperor writes a letter to his successor towards the end of his life.

Summer in February by Jonathan Smith (1995); a circle of painters in Cornwall, three of whom create a doomed love triangle. Laura Knight, Harold Knight, Alfred Munnings among them.

Tom and Will by Matthew Plampin (2015). A novel based on a possible episode in the lives of two young painters JMW Turner and Tom Girtin.

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What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

Here’s a fresh and startling, joyous and playful collection of short stories from Helen Oyeyemi. The ideas spill out, teeming onto the page so that the reader is swept along from the opening of a story to its destination, which might appear to be unconnected. And suddenly you meet a character from another story, or an idea that rocks you backwards and you have to slow down your reading. It was a delightful experience to read What is Not Yours is Not Yours.

The Short Stories

‘Bigarrure’ is a word found on p184 of these stories, defined as ‘a medley of sundry colours running together’. I was so unsettled by Helen Oyeyemi’s creativity that I wasn’t sure if the word existed and had to look it up. It does exist. And it does mean variegation or colourful mixture. And it’s a good word to use about this writer’s style: bigarrure.

As a reader you are entering uncertain territory with this collection. You are given very little guidance. Nothing on the cover or the title page announces that this is a book of short stories. There is no contents page. The nine stories (or perhaps there are 10, it’s not clear) announce themselves by their titles. This is just the beginning. The character who appears to be central turns out to be a minor player. Little indication is given of the gender of first person narrators, or indeed their ethnicity, there are few descriptions of people’s appearnaces. Locations shift. Time is unstable. The reader senses misdirection.

She is an accomplished an experienced author, so one has to accept that Helen Oyeyemi means to unsettle and challenge the reader. So you thought this, she seems to be saying, but that was not what I told you. You assumed.

The stories have some connections. Their locations vary, and are not always clear. Sometimes we are in Prague, sometimes in a fictional country, sometimes in a country that could be part of the UK. But characters reappear, often as narrator, sometimes in walk–on parts. And in every story there is a key, usually locked doors, and therefore secrets and things lost.

The genres of the stories vary, even within a story. The first one, books and roses, begins with a foundling and takes on the characteristics of a fairy story, shifts to a surrealism worthy of Leonora Carrington, then to a love story and in parts is made of letters and notes.

The collection includes a truly awful story, drownings, which begins

This happened and it didn’t happen: (125)

The story is about a tyrant who drowns people on a whim. He has drowned many, many of the citizens in the marshes.

… the marshland stretched out further and further, slowly pulling houses and cinemas, greengrocers, restaurants and concert halls down into the water. If you looked down into the swamps (which he never did) it was possible to see people untangling their limbs and hair, courteously handing each other body parts and keys, resuming residence in their homes, working out what crops they might raise and which forms of energy they could harness. (140-1)

Things work out, in a fashion, in drownings.

Yet more unsettling is presence, a strange tale about loss, and especially the loss of what you never had. An experiment is conducted by two psychologists to conjure up the son who never was.

There are puppets, a public tale of apology through social media, and other stories where ideas seem to pour out of Helen Oyeyemi’s pen.

My reactions

I was excited to read this book. It took me to places I was not expecting, shifting my understanding of the stories, doubling back and leaping to new locations or situations. For once I found the blurb quotations were accurate: strange delights, startling, dazzling, fireworks, disorientating, gothic, captivating. Like life really.

Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi

No review of her work avoids saying that Helen Oyeyemi is young, female and black. Born in 1984 she made a name for herself with prize-winning novels even before she left school. The titles of her novels indicate her love of oppositional ideas:

  • The Icarus Girl (2005)
  • The Opposite House (2007)
  • White is for Witching (2009)
  • Mr Fox (2011)
  • Boy, Snow, Bird (2014)

A little digging reveals that she is a peripatetic writer, born in Nigeria, brought up in London, studied at Cambridge, had a university residency in America, and is currently living in Prague, perhaps. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

Related Posts

Lonesome Reader blog reviewed What is Not Yours is not Yours when it was first published in April 2016.

As did Stuart Evers in the Independent in March 2016.

What is Not Yours is not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi published in 2016 and available in paperback from Picador. 262pp

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