A short screed: Anita Brookner and the writing ‘House Rules’

anita-brookner
Something I often say in Creative Writing classes is this: a story (or poem, or novel, or essay) should contain the rules for its own reading. If you have intentions for a piece of writing, then those intentions should be embedded, or encoded in the piece. You should establish your own house rules, give clues as to what you’re trying to do. A dead body and a detective will tend to suggest the likelihood of a crime novel. But it goes beyond this. Take irony. You can’t be ironical without establishing that you’re being ironical. The regular use of the comma splice could be a stylistic choice, or it could be editorial sloppiness or grammatical ineptitude. If it is a choice, I want some implicit indication of this, perhaps in the relationship between content and form, or between narrative voice and character. I want to know you know what you’re doing.

This works well enough inside the Creative Writing course, where the idea of authorial intention is not only viable, but necessary. You can’t mark anything without objective criteria. In Creative Writing courses the universities set out the (quite broad) definitions of what ‘good writing’ is, and students are encouraged to present work that makes sense within that rubric. Make sure I know what it is you’re trying to do, and I’ll mark you accordingly. Embed your own house rules in your writing. Goethe’s three questions of constructive criticism very much apply:

What was the author trying to do?

Did they succeed?

Was it worth doing?

(There is a further complication produced by the current system of teaching, which is that often you already have an idea of what a particular student is trying to do, from discussions in the seminar, and so the encoded intentions, the house rules, go by the bye. This can cloud the marking – and shows the need for second marking, and moderation. Rewarding a piece of work primarily for its intention is clearly academically unsound, no matter that it is, critically speaking, unsounder still.)

Things get more tricky outside of academia, where the critical paradigms are more varied and confused. Two months ago I read my first novel by Anita Brookner, and yesterday I finished my second. The first was her debut, A Start in Life (1981), the second her eleventh, A Closed Eye (1991). I was struck by both books having the same narrative construction, one that I found frustrating, and I found myself asking myself: is this what she intended? It must be, if she did it twice. (I’ll explain what it is in a moment.) But why?

I’m afraid that, if I’d been ‘marking’ it, I’d have marked her down.

*** Continue reading

In praise of spoilable books: the books that one must not speak of

Among other things, I am a book reviewer. In other words, I spoil books for a living. I’ve been thinking about this aspect of writing – or otherwise communicating – about books recently, prompted by my reading of a novel, Sergio Y., by Alexandre Vidal Porto. I had been  been sent it by the publisher, and for a few weeks it had sat on the shelf in my study where these free books sit. I file the press releases in a separate folder, without looking at them; usually I give at least a glance at the front and back covers, and at the first page. Opening the post often happens when I’m in the middle of writing something quite different, and I don’t want to be distracted. That particular to-be-read shelf functions in a specialised version of the usual to-be-read shelves: the books sit there, patiently, quietly advertising themselves by their spines, and I glance at them as I pass, occasionally pull one out, glance at it or flick through it, put it back. Who knows what combination of memory, intuition and hope makes one reach for a particular book at a particular time. It would be lovely it there was something magical about it.

Two days ago, I reached for Sergio Y. Continue reading

For charity’s sake: high street serendipity and Eveline Mahyère’s I Will Not Serve

eveline mahyere

 

Much as I love the question, Where do you get your ideas? I much prefer the more specific, Where do you get your books?

The ecology of bookbuying is of course a hotly contested one, and while I will fight with my wallet for the survival of bricks-and-mortar, ideally independent bookstores in the face of Amazon’s behemoth, I have been less actively staunch in my defence of secondhand bookshops, and more guilty, if guilt applies, of supporting their particular nemeses: charity shops.

I buy a lot of books from charity shops.

They’re cheap, they’re local (wherever you live, they’re local: there must be statistics on their relentless influx into high streets everywhere), they serve a – generally – good cause, and above all they are hazed about with an almost magical charm of serendipity. You never know what you’re going to find among the Fifty Shades and Karl Pilkingtons. What’s not to like? Unless you’re a secondhand bookseller. And I do feel bad about that. If I see a secondhand bookshop, I always go in, and I always buy something, but I don’t go out of my way to support them, the way I do mainstream/retail bookshops in their own particular battle.

All this to introduce a book that I could only have found in a charity or secondhand shop, because it’s not in print. Not only is it not in print in its English translation, it’s also not in print in its native French. And this a succes de scandale from the 1950s, easily rankable alongside Francoise Sagan, full of heady teenage passion and rebellion, a debut novel from a young translator and writer who killed herself before it was published. If it seems sad that it’s not available in this country other than to the chance encounter of the charity shop, it seems hugely depressing that it’s not being pored over and passed around by French teenagers. It should be their Spring Awakening.

The hero of I Will Not Serve is 17-year-old Sylvie, who at the start of the novel has been kicked out of the convent where she is being schooled, for writing impassioned love letters to one of the nun/teachers, Julienne. I haven’t read any Colette, I’m afraid, so I’m not sure how this sits alongside the Claudine books in terms of lesbian school fantasies (see also Brigid Brophy’s hilarious The Finishing Touch), but really there is very little that is titillating here, and nothing at all that is salacious. Continue reading

A short Ferrante-inspired reading list

ferrante-days-of-abandonment

Yesterday I was at the South Bank’s Women of the World festival, deputising as host for a book group that met to discuss Elena Ferrante’s marvellous second novel, The Days of Abandonment. Reading it again ahead of the weekend (the third time of reading), this remains, for me, one of the most visceral and eye-opening pieces of fiction of recent years.

The story, for those that don’t know it, is about a woman, nearing 40 and with two young children, who is walked out on by her husband, and the spiral of mania, hatred and despair this sends her into. The story is full of violence and passion – more is abandoned than just a wife – but it never loses its grip on language or narration. It is as much a philosophical novel, as a psychological one. It’s also got a sex scene in it that has made me look at my partner with new, fearful eyes – it’s entirely naked in the way that Kerouac meant when he titled Williams Burroughs’ novel for him: “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” On the one hand, this is the book that should be given to every new husband, just on the off chance they might, one day, be tempted by a piece of young flesh. It shows what abandonment can mean to the person you not just betray, but drop: what that can do to the sense of self. On the other hand, for reasons I won’t spoil, this would probably be a bad idea.

Obviously one of the topics of discussion during the group was Ferrante’s anonymity, and the fact that it would be hugely surprising if this was allowed to last, and lo and behold when I got home, I found stories on the web informing me that an Italian journalist thinks he has unmasked her. Denials followed, from everyone concerned, but even if this particular journalist was wrong, it’s bound to happen at some point. Fuckers.

Rather than dwelling on that, however, I thought I’d share another topic of discussion in the book group, which was – as with any book group – other writers and other books that this particular writer or book brought to mind. Everyone present scribbled down these recommendations, but here they are for general information:

Another book about betrayal and the end of a marriage: Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds (poetry: not the first time I’ve heard great things about this)

Another book written by an anonymous author: Salt by Nayyirah Waheed, an entirely absent author, though one with an active Twitter feed – a way of reaching readers while bypassing the usual literary rigamarole. Poetry, again.

An even more ambitious form of anonymity: Wu Ming – a group of anonymous Italian novelists who write and publish their works collectively under an assumed name. They previously operated as Luther Blisset, under which name they published the successful novel Q.

Another book about a female friendship: We racked our brains trying to think of other novels that rivalled the Neapolitan Quartet for its portrayal of a life-long female friendship, with all the love, affection, rivalry, tension and comfort that entails. Someone suggested The Grandmothers by Doris Lessing, a novella about two old friends who both fall in love with each other’s teenage sons – a brilliant sounding conceit, and definitely one I will be checking out. (It was filmed as Adore, aka Two Mothers, starring Robin Wright and Naomi Watts. In book form it is available as a standalone film tie-in, called Adore, or as the title story in a collection of four novellas, The Grandmothers.)

Another book about female friendship: Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth. I chipped in with Sula by Toni Morrison. Someone also mentioned A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara as a take on male friendships written by a woman – the reactions were the usual mixture when this book comes up.

Another book that treats violence against women: The Book of Night Women by Marlon James – the previous book by the author of the Man Booker-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings.

Another (female) Italian author to check out: Margaret Mazzantini. There was one Italian woman in the book group, and she explained how she was rather surprised when she first saw the attention that Ferrante got in the UK. She was well-known in Italy, she said, and well-regarded, but was not necessarily lauded and celebrated quite as she is here. She suggested Mazzantini as the one of the most popular contemporary novelists, whose new book always causes a stir. Currently available in translation: Twice Born and Don’t Move, with another book, The Morning Sea, coming out May 2016.

Javier Marías: Enemy of le mot juste, master of or

There’s a line near the beginning of Javier Marías’s new novel, Thus Bad Begins, that made me smile.

Muriel was very rarely confused, on the contrary, he prided himself on being very precise, although sometimes, in his search for precision, he did have a tendency to ramble.

The narrator, Juan de Veres, is describing his employer, Eduardo Muriel, but he could just as easily be describing Marías’s own writing style, which is dilatory in the extreme: it moves forward incredibly slowly, in long, involved paragraphs, trying out words, phrases and descriptions in order to see which best approaches the behaviour being described. It’s not rambling as such, nothing so random or evasive: the prose seems to move through language in circles, returning and returning to particular key terms (best exemplified by the repeated use of the words in the volume titles of his magnificent trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow: Fever, Spear, Dance, Dream, Poison, Shadow, Farewell) ; the only forward motion is, paradoxically, inwards, deeper into the psychology of the characters. The prose has great psychological penetration.

One of the ways that Marías achieves this is through comma splices, as in the sentence quoted above. Another is through the simple word ‘or’. When Marías uses ‘or’, it is not to offer logical alternatives at the level of plot, but at the level of the sentence, even at the level of the word. No word is precise enough for Marías. Or rather, words are precise, in their way, but human behaviour is so complex and ambiguous that it might take a number of alternative words to successfully describe how a person is, or behaves.

Here is a passage a few pages further on in the book:

‘What on earth has he been told about this dubious friend of his – or, rather, this friend who suddenly appears to be dubious – what can he have said or done?’ I wondered, or thought. ‘After half a life of utter clarity.’ Or perhaps that isn’t what I thought, but only how I remember it, now that I’m no longer young and am more or less the same age as Muriel was then or perhaps older.

Six ors in that little passage; two perhapses; one rather. Sometimes the or is doing a simple job, as in the last one, when the protagonist reassesses his age compared to that of his employer at the time he remembers him; sometimes it offers basic alternatives – said or done; sometimes it is an attempt to improve on the clarity of thought or expression, as in the first line.

My favourite, however, and the one I consider most characteristic of this writer I love, is the one that offers a distinction between wondered and thought. Plain synonyms, in most writers’ hands, but not for Marías. He is the master of the fine distinction, that is never fine enough. Rather than describing a character in one way, and basta!, he offers two, three or four alternatives, with the definite implication that none of them are right.

As I writer, sometimes I use a thesaurus. Like many writers I usually end up back with the word I started with. But, probably like most writers, what I’m looking for when I pick the thesaurus up, is the most precise words, le mot juste. Marías, you’d think, uses the thesaurus not to find a better word to replace the one he has, but others to add to it.

I love this style, so much so that I tried to copy it in a story I wrote. Imitation intended, at least, as sincere flattery. The story is The Story I’m Thinking Of, which you can read on the White Review site.

A song lyric: End the Beguine

It’s been a long, hard Winter
And a short, sharp Spring
And you stand at the window (winder)
Like a character out of Pinter
And you don’t say a thing.

Oh, darling…

What’s the point in trying?
And where’s the use in sin?
The way that things are tending
Are we here to begin the ending
Or are we only ending the Beguine?

End the Beguine, end the Beguine
We go out where we came in
We’ve been through thick
And now by god you’re looking thin
You’re looking at the wrong end of the Beguine

Well I’m sick and tired of fighting
And frightened that I always win
The positions you’re defending
And the messages you’ve been sending
Are telling me we’re ending the Beguine

End the Beguine, end the Beguine
We go out where we came in
It’s just a trip upon
A ship that is sinking
And the band plays on till the end of the Beguine…

****

This lyric has been hanging around in my head for years. I could sing it to you, but try as I might, when I sit at the piano, I can’t find notes that fit it. Suffice it to say, it’s in a Noël Coward kind of vein.

Today’s sermon: In case you’d forgotten what reading has done to you – Jack Robinson’s By the Same Author

by the same author
By the Same Author
is a thin book by a thinner writer. The book itself is a collection of 39 paragraphs spread over 43 pages – plenty of white space; it doesn’t take much more than an hour to read, but that just means you’ll want to reread it – you’ll want there to be more of it. I intend to not lose sight of; it won’t get relegated to the alphabetised shelves, where – it’s so thin – it would end up being squished right out of existence by Marilynne Robinson and David Rose, neither of whom are particularly doorstops.

To call the author thinner still is a nod to those familiar with their Dashiell Hammett. The author biog tells us that Robinson has “also written as Jennie Walker… and Charles Boyle”, Boyle being the man behind CB Editions, which publishes this slip of a book, as well as all manner of interesting material. He is a publisher of the old type, unbeholden to anything but his own taste. The previous book by Robinson that I’ve read is Recessional (2009), a barely bigger scrapbook of rants and screeds against political austerity and our conservative country. I don’t like it half as much as this one.

In the first paragraph of By the Same Author we learn the title of a book, XXX, which the narrator (Robinson, for the sake of argument) has recommended to him (for the sake of argument) by a waiter after he, the waiter, runs up to return a different book by the same author which he, Robinson, had left on a café table. One of those moments of connection. (Eric turns up again, quite a lot. Expand By the Same Author along certain lines, and their relationship would end up something like that of Lars and W in the Spurious trilogy.)

Over the page, in the second paragraph, we learn the name of the writer: T.S. Nyman. The book, then, is about Nyman, and XXX, and Robinson’s relationship to her and it. There is no narrative, no development, just an accumulation of reflections on a writer and her oeuvre. For example: a coach trip to Cardiff where Robinson sits sat next a girl reading XXX, and they spend the entire journey excitedly reciting it to each other; watching Nyman give readings, terribly, on YouTube; a glance at her author biography; an event in Paris billed as an appearance by Nyman that turns out to be a terrible solo male contemporary dancer. Continue reading

Books of the year 2015

2015 books

Suite for Barbara Loden, by Nathalie Léger, trans. Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon (Les Fugitives)

Reading is all about discovery, so this book had me primed for maximum impact. Why? Well, it’s a new translation of a book by a French writer I’d never heard of, about an American actor I’d never heard of, and specifically her sole directorial outing, which scarcely anyone ever has heard of. Wanda (1970) is out of print on DVD, and only turns up very rarely indeed on the festival circuit. Yet, while I’d jump at the chance to see it, at the end of this distinctive and thoughtful piece of writing, I certainly felt like I’d got a handle on it, or rather a handle on what Léger, the author, thinks of Loden, the actor, and on what Loden thinks of her film’s hero, Wanda, and, through her, the elusive, fugitive woman on whose story her movie is based. In hugely reductive terms, this is Geoff Dyer’s Zona meets Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick: an open and intelligent piece of art criticism that drifts into broader critique of social and cultural issues, and is honest about the fact that it can’t do any of these without also being autobiographical. That it is published in a beautiful edition that gives a boutique twist on the classic French livre de poche style, by a brand new British publisher proudly asserting their ownership of an important but overlooked niche, only adds to the charm. Book of the year.

I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus (Tuskar Rock)

All the stuff about the dissolving boundaries between fiction and non-fiction comes together in this revelatory novel-memoir-cultural critique, which has been steadily spreading its influence since its original publication in the US in 1997. The book starts out as a playful wallow in the abasement of unrequited love and failed creativity – as film-maker ‘Chris Kraus’ becomes besotted with a sexy ex-pat sociologist – and ends up performing a measured but comprehensive demolition of the cultural apparatus that is organised to mispresent and devalue her experience, both private and public. If Miranda July’s The First Bad Man set out to eviscerate the idea of the female author as ‘quirky’, then perhaps this does the same for ‘hysterical’. Kraus weaponises the language of critical theory by hauling it out of its safe zone (safe for men, safe for the status quo) and exposing its blandly sexist foundations – exposing herself and others in the process. It’s a high-wire act, and naturally I am reading it very differently from people who were involved or close by at the time, but, as with Knausgaard, we the readers are in the privileged position of being able to distinguish ends from means, and what Kraus comes up with seems more important than any toes she stepped upon during the process. It’s not written with the ‘general reader’ in mind, and I skimmed some of the Deleuze and Guattari bits, but this is off-set by some brilliant, scathing, undiluted writing about desire, and the differing strangenesses of coupledom and – is this a word? – singlitude.

(I reviewed I Love Dick for The Independent: here) Continue reading

Whence and whither the short story? Notes on Philip Hensher’s introduction to The Penguin Book of the British Short Story

penguin british short story3

 

The new Penguin Book of the British Short Story is a magnificent production – and at £25 apiece for the two volumes you’d hope it would be. One of the consequences of its magnificence, beyond the 90 writers it includes in its 1,500 pages, from Daniel Defoe to Zadie Smith, is that 25 pages of it are given over to an extended introduction from the editor, Philip Hensher.

Hensher makes a point of acknowledging as inspiration AS Byatt’s 1997 Oxford Book of English Short Stories (37 writers, some two thirds of whom make it into Hensher’s list) and although her introduction is of a comparable length, she spends much of it talking about her individual choices. Hensher takes a more general approach. I read the introduction this morning, and although I’ve only dipped into the stories themselves, Hensher’s excellent piece gives enough prompts for thought about the short story as a form that I want to get them down right away.

As is traditional in these things, Hensher gives apologies for absence (Anna Kavan, David Rose and Gerard Woodward among them) and boasts of exclusion (HE Bates is witheringly expelled), offers qualms over the wobbliness of the admissions criteria, and attempts at definition, but what I found most useful was the long look Hensher takes at the publishing history of the short story.

As much as any art form, how we experience the story is integral to its make-up, but whereas the novel has, notwithstanding the ancient history of serialisation and the advent of digital technologies, generally offered the same reading experience, the short story has seen a complete upheaval in the means of its delivery. Once, it was read in periodicals of often staggering popularity, sometimes devoted to the form, sometimes showing a more varied mix, whereas now it comes to us by and large in the form of author collections.

Hensher reminds us that until well into the last century the short story was one of the most lucrative forms available to professional writers, and while this is not exactly forgotten it’s worth considering quite far this aspect has evaporated from the legacy of the short story, for current and recent generations. If, pace Dr. Johnson, no man but a blockhead wrote, except for money, then certainly you’d have to be a major blockhead to write short stories for it under the present circumstances.

He avoids repeating the old saw that the short story is always undergoing or on the verge of a rebirth or revival; in fact his assessment of the current state of the form is far from positive. Naturally he puts this down to the lack of outlets willing to pay writers for their stories, commending The New Yorker for giving British writers such as Zadie Smith and Tessa Hadley the time and space to develop the art, where nowhere in Britain is willing or able to.

He is clear, too, that the dominant structural support offered to writers today, the short story competition, is in no way a satisfactory alternative. Continue reading

Elena Ferrante: Four ways in to the Neapolitan novels, and no way out

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To Lutyens & Rubinstein last night to help launch the final instalment of Elena Ferrante’s quartet of Neapolitan novels, The Story of the Lost Child, along with Cathy Rentzenbrink (The Last Act of Love), Tessa Hadley (The London Train etc), and Susanna Gross, literary editor of the Mail on Sunday. We had a fascinating discussion, with help from the attentive audience, though as was pointed out by I think Cathy, this was largely because by the end we were less certain of our thoughts and opinions on the books and its author than we had been at the beginning.

I’ll say a little about my personal take on the books in a moment, but perhaps the best way of sharing something of the spirit and content of the evening would be to introduce the four passages that each of us chose to read. This was very much unplanned: we only decided to do it when we met up just before the event, but of course we all had our favourite bits marked in our copies and knew precisely what we’d like to read. What was so fun about this element was that it was different to a standard author reading, where – and I know I’m guilty of this – the author reads a bit they’ve probably read a dozen times, because they know it works, or it’s funny, or has got some sex in it. (And the humour, or comedy, of Ferrante is something that got discussed: Susanna said she remembered precisely the two points in the four books that made her laugh, and we agreed that while the books aren’t funny as such, and are full of violence, pain and misery, still there is something of the human comedy that runs through them; if their 1,600 pages were simply unremitting tragedy and trauma then we wouldn’t skip through as eagerly and easily as we – most of us – do.)

We read our passages in the order they came in the books, and introduced them by saying what the books and the author meant for us personally.

Susanna read from the second book, The Story of a New Name, from when the still teenage Elena has taken Lila along to her professor’s house for an evening of intellectual debate. Lila, the spikily intelligent but essentially unschooled best friend, says not a word all evening, while Elena tries valiantly to keep up and ingratiate herself, but once they’re out in the car, Lila sounds off to her husband, Stefano: Continue reading