Dying a fictional death

DSCN1218

Death comes to all, even fictional characters, but it is a particular challenge to write about death through the perspective and diminishing senses of the dying character. In previous blogposts I’ve written about dastardly husbands, childbirth and bad marriages in fiction so it seems death has a natural place in this series.

Before I get into the fictional accounts of dying, there is one very interesting factual account of dying, or the feeling of being close to death, that I’d like to share. It comes from a radio interview I heard two years ago when I was living for a short time in Dublin. Irish radio is full of these kinds of gems.

The woman being interviewed was an eminent surgeon in her early fifties with no children. She described a time when she had been seriously ill with cancer. Her life at that point was hectic because on top of her regular work she had taken on other charity commitments abroad.

A fiercely independent woman, she had never had to rely on anyone for help before. That was the first big transition she had to make. When things had got very bad, she said she remembered lying in her hospital bed, weak and completely helpless and being certain that she was going to die. She felt unmoved about the prospect of her life being over and not in the least alarmed. ‘So this is how all my problems are going to be solved,’ she remembered thinking with a feeling of relief.

Life does present us with a seemingly unending chain of problems, big and small, and how surprising it is when the chain suddenly turns out to have an end and the end is now. The individual who realizes they are dying may well have time to rationalize what’s happening before the lights go out for ever. This process is no more beautifully expressed than in the dying moments of William Stoner at home alone in John Williams’ novel Stoner.

“A kind of joy came upon him, as if borne in on a summer breeze. He dimly recalled that he had been thinking of failure – as if it mattered. It seemed to him now that such thoughts were mean, unworthy of what his life had been. Dim presences gathered at the edge of his consciousness; he could not see them, but he knew that they were there, gathering their forces toward a kind of palpability he could not see or hear. He was approaching them, he knew; but there was no need to hurry. He could ignore them if he wished; he had all the time there was.

There was a softness around him, and a languor crept upon his limbs. A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been.”

I’ve just finished A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson, which I read on the recommendation of fellow blogger Safia Moore (based in the United Arab Emirates), a great supporter of new writers and recent winner of the Bath Short Story Prize with her poignant story That Summer.

This novel was a delight to read – moving, entertaining, thought-provoking. You can check out Safia’s review here and then please read the book too because all of life is in it and there is so much to enjoy. The main character is called Teddy and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal his death scene here because the author makes it clear early on in the story that he lives to know his grandchildren.

Moments left, Teddy thought. A handful of heartbeats. That was what life was. A heartbeat followed by a heartbeat. A breath followed by a breath. One moment followed by another moment and then there was a last moment. Life was as fragile as a bird’s heartbeat, fleeting as the bluebells in the wood. It didn’t matter, he realized, he didn’t mind, he was going where millions had gone before and where millions would follow after. He shared his fate with the many.

And now. This moment. This moment was infinite. He was part of the infinite. The tree and the rock and the water. The rising of the sun and the running of the deer. Now.

This next one is a spoiler so if you want to read Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga, skip ahead to the end. The story, told in the multiple first person, is set in Mumbai and revolves around residents of an apartment block faced with an offer they cannot refuse by a ruthless property developer. In the end the neighbours turn against each other and the story concludes with the murder of one of their number, Yogesh Murthy, who is first badly beaten and then thrown from the roof.

Now, when he opened his eyes, he could not tell if he were dead or alive; these men seemed to be demons, though kindly, who were forcing his body to budge from some place between life and death where it was stuck.
And this was because he was neither good nor bad enough; and neither strong nor weak enough. He had lost his hands; he had lost his legs; he could not speak. Yet everything he had to do was right here, in his head. He thought of Guarav, his son, his living flesh. ‘Help me,’ he said.

And then he realized that the thing that was blocking his passage was cleared, and he was falling; his body began its short earthly flight – which it completed almost instantaneously – before Yogesh Murthy’s soul was released for its much longer flight over the oceans of the other world.

There are other notable dying moments that come to mind, such as the death scene in One Day by David Nichols which I thought was very movingly written, and the heart-wrenching drowning scene from The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell where the character fights for her life through the growing realization that she will be absent from all the future important moments of her child’s life.

OK, I’ll stop there. I hope I haven’t depressed anyone with these notes on dying. Can you think of any other memorable dying scenes that deserve a mention here?

Coming up on the blog later this week I will have my first ever guest post, from new author Anne Goodwin. Keep an eye out for Anne who is on a blog tour to coincide with the launch of her novel Sugar and Snails. My copy has been dispatched so I will tell you more about the book as soon as possible.

Five reasons why self-publishing isn’t for me

20150711_113149

When you say you’ve written a novel, it’s common enough to be asked whether you’ve considered self-publishing. I usually mumble something non-committal about it being too much to take on, not the direction I want to take. But what is really holding me back?

Think of the pre-published author as a wannabe sailor. Actually want-to-be doesn’t cover it. This is someone who has dedicated years to developing their knowledge of sailing, they’ve bought all the gear, read all the books and bored everybody around them with their endless nautical talk. The only problem is they’ve never actually been out on the water.

Down at the harbour is the old respected yacht club. This is the gateway to sailing, the place where real sailors congregate. There are experts on hand, hot showers, a state-of-the art marina and opportunities to crew on fantastic yachts every day.

The sailing enthusiast grew up hearing about this yacht club and their only wish is to join the yacht club and become a real sailor. But the yacht club is exclusive. There is a long waiting list and the club selects only a handful of new members every year.

Why not just buy a little sailing dingy and launch it from the public slipway at the other end of the harbour? They’ll have to get the boat there themselves, carry it down to the water and drag it back up again. There may not be any wind the day they manage to get all this together but they will be sailing. They will have their place on the ocean. Why sit on the shore and wait when they might never get a chance to sail at all?

Here are five reasons why the single-handed option doesn’t appeal to me.

1. Drop in the ocean. Self-publishing has become hugely popular with close to 450,000 titles published per year! This massive democratisation of the sector has created legions of new readers and new writers and that’s a great thing. But it also means an incredibly crowded space for authors to be trying to catch a wind. Most of those little dinghies are still stuck inside the harbour and this is a frustrating place to be. Only a tiny minority make it out into the bay where they can pick up speed.

2. All hands on deck. Self-publishing requires strong project management and entrepreneurial skills and there is no avoiding the out-of-pocket costs, knowledgeably listed by Jann Alexander in this recent post:

Publishing is a teamwork-based business best navigated with the help of an agent. Do you really want to have to sort out the cover design, proofreading, printing and distribution on top of writing your next book? And I haven’t even mentioned marketing.

3. Pieces of eight. This is the part that gives me the shivers. The people I see who appear to be making a success of the self-publishing route have a big author platform and often a big personality to go with it. All their social media is strategic. They are manically engaging with people not based on any organic process of interaction but because they are pumping energy into an online presence that has to work for them – ALL THE TIME. Sometimes intelligent and interesting, sometimes inspiring but also a little bit scary.

4. Ship shape. No matter how much has changed in the publishing game in the past decade, having one’s work chosen by the industry as worthy of publication is still the most important measure of quality. It’s not that established publishing houses aren’t guilty of publishing poorly written books or that masterpieces can’t be found among the half a million. It’s just that self-publishing is an open door and that unavoidably lowers the value of the group.

5. Deep water. From what I’ve seen, self-published authors fall into two categories. There are the crusaders for whom self-publishing is a quasi-political movement and there are the pragmatists who have opted for self-publishing as the only viable way to get their book read, usually after trying and failing to go the traditional publishing route. The pragmatists are making the best of things and may even turn into crusaders in time but underneath it all you can sense the strain.

Obviously I’ve stretched the nautical analogy to the absolute limit at this point and probably managed to reveal how little I know about both sailing and publishing in one fell swoop. I’m aware that publishing your own work takes a lot of courage and dedication and that this discussion can be quite divisive. What are your thoughts? Is it possible to like one option without loathing the other?

(Please check out Marc Kuhn’s response to this post on his blog. A former radio journalist, Marc lives in Florida and is the author of two children’s novels and two adult novels.)

Discovering the delights of Fribourg

wpid-20150630_132123.jpg

Fribourg is a charming medieval town situated between Bern and Lausanne on the main Zurich to Geneva rail line, often overlooked as a tourist stop. Though I’ve lived here for the past twelve years, I’m still discovering hidden gems.

It’s that time of year when people are on the move. Some of you will be exploring Switzerland and if you can possibly make room for Fribourg on your itinerary, here are some suggestions on how to spend the day. If you don’t have the time or the means to get to Fribourg, let me show you around.

Fribourg is a small enough town to get to know on foot. For anyone who doesn’t have the energy for the hills and cobblestones, there is the option to take the little tourist train, which leaves every day at 2pm, 3pm and 4pm from Place Jean Tingeuly, five minutes’ walk from the train station. This one-hour guided tour with a couple of stops will help you get your bearings and see the different styles of architecture stretching back 800 years.

Miséricorde campus, built in the 1930s

Miséricorde campus, built in the 1930s

Walkers can start by asking directions to Collège St Michel. If you take the back route by the main post office, you will pass by the main university building Miséricorde with its distinctive Le Corbusier style architecture, which is worth a look. Carry on along rue Joseph Piller towards the collège and you can break for your first coffee opposite the cantonal library in Marcello’s.

Marcello's is on the edge of the charming Quartier d'Alt

Marcello’s is on the edge of the charming Quartier d’Alt

Afterwards you can go up the steps of the college and wander around the grounds of what used to be a Jesuit seminary and is now a pre-university college, taking in a visit to the church of St Michel.

The college is at one of the highest points of the town, which descends, quite steeply in places, to the Sarine River. There is a wonderful view of Fribourg from the terrace at the back of the college. From there you can take the old covered steps, Escaliers du Collège, down to the narrow shopping street rue de Lausanne.

wpid-20150630_125947.jpg

Rue de Lausanne with its quirky boutiques and townhouses leads down to the Bourg area. Don’t forget to look up to see the stone carvings and decorative windows at first floor level.

wpid-20150630_125553.jpg

Now you arrive at the Hotel de Ville and cantonal court around the large open space of Place de L’Hotel de Ville where, if it’s a Saturday morning, the weekly market will be taking place. Grand Rue comes next, a narrow 17th to 18th century street which is completely unchanged, and used to be the town’s best address in its heyday.

Here you are faced with a couple of choices. You can loop around by the cathedral and back to the cafe des Arcades for more refreshments before visiting the mini gallery quarter which includes the Tinguely museum, the Museum of Art and History (lovely garden) and the small Gutenberg printing press museum. Two more heavy duty churches – the Basilique Notre Dame and the Église des Cordeliers – provide shade and tranquility on this part of the tour.

The garden of the Museum of Art and History

The garden of the Museum of Art and History

Or you can do down to the river. On this walk you’ve been gradually descending through the centuries and altitude towards the legendary Old Town – Basse Ville or Unterstadt. From this Hotel de Ville level there are at least three ways to get down – by taking the fairytale-like Stalden steps which begin at the end of Grand Rue, the more workaday steps from the Pont de Zaehringen (check out the view of the new Poya bridge) which gives you an opportunity to cross the Sarine River at the foot of the steps and enter the walled part of the Old Town through the impressive Bern gate.

Pont de Berne, close to the Bern gate and city walls

Pont de Berne, close to the Bern gate and city walls

Fribourg is a little confusing and the river doesn’t help for orientation because it keeps changing sides. That’s because the town is built on a sharp turn in the river which creates a river peninsula. The third way to reach the Old Town is from the other side of the Hotel de Ville, towards the rue de la Grande Fontaine where you will find more pretty steps.

What makes these routes even more interesting is that all these streets are lived in and many of the houses have been kept in excellent condition. You will see people bringing their shopping home, tending to their balcony plants or sitting on their front steps.

There is a bus that carries passengers up from the Old Town to the train station – the number 4. An alternative to the bus or the climb is the funicular railway which starts at the bottom of rue de la Grande Fontaine and leads to Place Python, which is also where the Wednesday farmers market takes place.

If this post proves popular I might do another one on things to do around Fribourg. In the meantime, here are some suggestions from Fribourg Tourism, where you will also find information on the festivals and events on this summer.

I’m off to Ireland next week for my own summer holiday. Next post comes from there when I’ve settled in. Wishing you all safe and happy travels.

(all photos taken 30.06.2015 © Clare O’Dea)

Good fathers are not a new invention

Father and Child by Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Bauerle (c) Cuming Museum

Father and Child by Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Bauerle © Cuming Museum

Every new generation knows better than the one that came before.  This is a natural law. According to this law, modern dads are doing a much better job than their own fathers who lived in the bad old days and did everything wrong.  I’m all for praising today’s dads but isn’t it time to stop dismissing the merits of the older generation?

When I hear how fathers of 40+ years ago are characterised, I do not recognise my father or the fathers of my friends and extended family growing up. Distant, authoritarian, unwilling to push the pram or lift a finger at home – well they weren’t all like that.

There have always been dads who sang lullabies, gave bottles and played with their young children. Dads who cleared the table and did the washing up. Dads who did the grocery shopping and took the children to swimming classes. Dads who appreciated their children and understood them, were openly proud of them and affectionate. Dads like mine.

And even if they weren’t hands-on with the children and the household, think of all the fathers who gladly let the kids shadow them around the farm, teaching them important skills, or the ones who did all the driving and photographing on family holidays, or worked in jobs they didn’t enjoy or spent lonely months away as migrant workers to provide for their families.

Sure, we can judge the fathers of the past and find them wanting. Some were selfish and unkind, human traits have not disappeared with black and white television. But mostly they were good men who made sacrifices and loved their children above all. There is more to fatherhood than proudly parading your cute baby in the park. It’s a job for life and the dads who’ve been around the longest have done the most, taught us through the good times and the bad times to be better people.

I hope you agree with me that good fathers are nothing new.

On the subject of fatherly love, here’s a William Wordsworth poem you probably all know but is well worth reading again. The sonnet was written two hundred years ago in the aftermath of the death of his three-year-old daughter and “heart’s best treasure”, Catherine.

Surprised by joy – impatient as the wind

Surprised by joy – impatient as the wind

I turned to share the transport – Oh! With whom

But thee, long buried in the silent tomb,

That spot which no vicissitude can find?

Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind –

But how could I forget thee? – Through what power,

Even for the least division of an hour,

Have I been so beguiled as to be blind

To my most grievous loss? – That thought’s return

Was the worse pang that sorrow ever bore,

Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,

Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;

That neither present time nor years unborn

Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

Siri Hustvedt ablaze in Zurich

76_Siri%20Hustvedt-The%20Blazing%20World%20jacket

Siri Hustvedt is a literary legend and the owner of a brilliant mind, two reasons why I had to go and see her reading in Zurich yesterday. The old Schauspielhaus theatre was packed but it was not an occasion to sit back and be entertained.

It is customary for Hustvedt to throw out a rapid succession of philosophical references and intriguing ideas so that to listen to her speak involves a certain amount of mental gymnastics.

The New York writer had some interesting things to say about memory and imagination, and their link with creativity. Visualising the future and remembering the past are an essential part of being human but imagination is required for both, she said, just as imagination is required to create art.

Because the imagination is involved in recalling experiences, what we remember is not always reliable. “Every time we retrieve a memory it is open to revision,” Hustvedt told the audience.

Before I had a chance to crumble into a heap of self-doubt, questioning every memory I hold dear, Hustvedt had moved on to talk about the fact that creativity comes from play. Not to be able to play is pathological, she said, because play is an indispensable part of our existence.

So when we’re writing we’re playing? That makes perfect sense, especially when I think of the way my youngest daughter plays, completely immersed in creating worlds and characters.

I loved Hustvedt’s description of what novelists do. “We put on masks and discover, go to places we didn’t know.” What we find can be surprising or even disturbing.

Hustvedt believes we are all strangers to ourselves and, “artists confront that strangeness more often than other people”.

The appearance in Zurich was part of a promotional tour for the German translation of Siri Hustvedt’s latest book, The Blazing World. The book tells the story of an embittered New York artist late in her career who decides to take revenge on the misogynistic art world by passing off her creations as the work of three male artists. They receive the massive acclaim that the same exhibitions would not have garnered for her but things do not go according to plan when she tries to assert her claim to the work.

Hustvedt is very eloquent in her attacks on sexism and misogyny, whose imprint can be seen all the way back to Socrates, she explained. On my way home I wondered why it meant so much to me to see such a towering female intellect in action. People like Siri Hustvedt are there to banish any lingering doubt that women might not be as brilliant as men. Because, sadly that doubt does still linger in a world so utterly in thrall to male achievement.

Not only does Hustvedt question the expectations of gender, she also finds the notion of self problematic. “We all demonstrate in our daily lives a plurality of selves.” This plurality makes it all the easier for Hustvedt to inhabit the characters she creates, as long as that happens within a safe creative space she calls the “aesthetic frame”.

As for her writing habits, Hustvedt writes every day except Sunday. She finds novels harder to write and periodically reads back over the book to make sure “the rhythm is right”. If it’s not right she’ll delete the last section. This approach is at odds with the keep-writing-never-look-back advice I’ve often read for first drafts. But the most important rule in writing fiction is to do what works for you.

Speaking of the plurality of selves, The Blazing World is told in the voices of twenty narrators, a technique that Donal Ryan also used in his breakthrough success The Spinning Heart. Coincidentally, it was while attending a reading by Ryan in Zurich Literaturhaus in April that I saw Hustvedt’s name in the summer programme (see previous post).

I’ll be keeping a close eye on their programme from now on.

Are there any Hustvedt fans out there? I read two conflicting reviews of The Blazing World, published in May last year. The Guardian review was largely positive but the Financial Times ripped the book to shreds. So far I’ve only read two of Hustvedt’s five novels – What I Loved and The Summer Without Men, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Can journalists make the switch to fiction?

vintage_newsroom

There’s a long list of successful authors who were once journalists but you can be sure there’s a much longer list of journalists whose novels never got off the hard drive or the back of a beermat.

I’ll admit I’m hoping the answer to this question will be yes for me, as I have been a journalist for most of my working life and have been attempting to make that leap to fiction. I’m currently seeking representation for my first novel while working on the first draft of my second novel.

But let’s be completely objective and take a look at what natural advantages and disadvantages news scribblers can expect on the rocky path leading from fact to fiction.

Uphill struggle

1. Lack of staying power. Journalism has always been about concise writing and fitting the space available. But things have taken a more radical turn with the advent of ‘mobile first’: some top news organisations are now advocating stories of 500 words or less. I worked under strict length guidelines for a long time with the result that I am now hard wired to have any story wrapped up within 1,200 words. I believe that has cramped my style in short stories, where I struggle to get above 1,500 words. And it makes me unconsciously (until this moment) write short chapters. One to work on.

2. Empty tank. The need to constantly come up with new story ideas in the day job can suck the creative juices dry. But it’s not just the idea mill that demands creative energy, more creative effort must go into the researching and crafting of those articles, with precious little inspiration left for other subjects.

3. Ingrained style. Journalism is about spelling it out, clarity all the way. You inevitably develop (and overuse) favourite words and turns of phrase. Newswriting is a genre in itself and you become steeped in it, consuming the work of others and probably imitating them too. There is some scope for introducing emotion or descriptive writing in feature articles but that still remains inside a set framework.

Grease the wheels

1. The groove. You’ve already got the habit and the discipline of writing on a daily basis. You have to produce texts that are coherent and correct, over and over again. That is definitely worth something. Language and storytelling skills build up over time, and the grammar, punctuation and sentence-building muscles become strong.

2. The Professionals. Once you have worked as one kind of professional writer, it should be possible to make the transition to a different category, shouldn’t it? Deadlines are not a problem. The same goes for the editing process. A good journalist can’t be precious about their work. They have to accept tough editing decisions and be prepared to rewrite if necessary.

3. Eye of the magpie. Journalists listen to conversations and watch situations differently. Could there be a story in that? is the reflex thought. They are keen observers, interviewing someone while at the same time taking in their appearance and the surroundings with a view to writing about it. I notice the same dynamic at work as a fiction writer. When I hear or see something sparkly that could be used for a story, I pick it up, magpie style, and stash it away somewhere for safekeeping.

There can be a hint of scepticism from people in the literary world when journalists stray into their territory. Are they interlopers who’ve jumped the slush pile because of their name or connections? I don’t know about that. Most journalists are (semi-)unknown and publishing industry outsiders. But some may have a platform and platform has become important. My guess is the publishing industry is so spoilt for choice they don’t need to give anyone special treatment.

Have I forgotten anything? It would be great to be able to add to the list of advantages (especially) or disadvantages (if you must) for journalists turning to fiction. Are there any journalists-turned-novelists whose work you’ve enjoyed, or not? I can think of three recent Irish examples – Kathleen MacMahon , Rachel English and Shane Hegarty, only one of whom has ‘given up the day job’ and it hasn’t all been plain sailing for her.

Walking past the point of no return

tafers

I walked all day, more than I ever have before or ever will again. Up steep forest paths, along by babbling brooks, across fields of barley, through farmyards and back and forth over a railway line, I walked and walked as far as my legs could carry me. And then I stopped, defeated.

I had reached the outskirts of Bern and I had two pressing problems – my feet. You see, the walk didn’t exactly go according to plan. The plan was that I would walk from my home in Fribourg to my old place of work in Bern – a distance of 40 kilometres – over two days.

The first half of the walk would take me Schwarzenburg, covering part of St Jakob’s Weg, the pilgrimage route that leads from Konstanz across Switzerland and France to Santiago de Compostela. I left home at 9.30 in the morning, having delayed as long as I possibly could when I was hit by last minute nerves.

Five hours and eighteen kilometres later I was sitting in a bar in Schwarzenburg, sipping a beer and studying the map. I felt well, the pains in my legs and feet were tolerable, and it was clearly too soon to stop. But could I do the same distance again to reach my final destination? I had to give it a shot.

signs

Walking alone over a long distance is a great way of being present in the moment. The senses take over, the awareness of your own body going about its quiet work of being alive. You look at the ground, you look at everything alive and growing, you look at the horizon. The landscape is gracious, letting you pass – at times opening up far and wide, all rolling hills, woods and meadows; at times closing in to usher you through corridors of stone or dark tunnels of green.

It was a windy day, an east wind with a cold bite known as the ‘bise’ in this part of the world. I ate my lunch in a sheltered spot at the edge of a wood near Heitenried and watched the wild wind rushing across fields of barley. I was thankful for the sun which kept up a regular appearance all day.

sense

An hour and a half after Schwarzenburg, I stopped for a break at an old restaurant beside the bridge and railway station of Schwarzwasserbrücke. According to the hiking signs that I had come to depend on, I had two and a half hours to go. When I stood up my legs were so stiff and sore I half-waddled, half-hobbled out of the place. I felt a pain on the sole of my foot that made me unwilling to take my boot off. The ankle on the other side was already a problem area. I pressed on and the aches faded for a while.

Over the next two hours I crossed some of the loveliest country, farmed in peace for generations. That is the ultimate prize every country should be so fortunate to have.

path

I had my route printed out on ten sheets of A4 paper. On map eight I was still enjoying the view but by map nine I didn’t want to look up anymore to see how painfully slowly I was approaching the next village. The turning point was Niederscherli.

There’s a wonderful approach to the village across a wide area of pasturage called Rifishalte. That part I appreciated. Also the two sweet boys on skateboards who helped me get on the right road out of Niederscherli towards Gasel. But that interruption cost me. A small eternity of twenty minutes later, I limped past Gasel and set my sights on Schliern, every step a trial. I will not forget these places.

There was no possibility of me walking another hour or more across the city of Bern to get to my original destination of Ostring. In Schliern I saw a smartly-dressed old woman going in to a restaurant, every inch the widow. I longed to follow her. It was seven o’clock on Saturday night and I had walked well over thirty kilometres since morning. I turned a corner and saw a bus, a Bern city bus sitting at its terminus, a most welcome sight.

That’s where my walk ended. The bus was due to leave in three minutes. I bought a ticket from the machine, the best two francs I’ve ever spent, and allowed myself to be carried in total luxury four stops to Köniz. All that was left to do was to call my trusty driver to come and get me, and sit content and patient in the last of the sun. I was ready to go home.

I’m going to walk my commute

The road less travelled © Clare O'Dea

The road less travelled © Clare O’Dea

It’s almost exactly 40 kilometres, or 25 miles if you prefer, and I’ve decided I’m going to walk it. I should say I’m not much of a walker. And yet I love it every time I go walking.

Yesterday evening I took a walk to the next village. It took just under an hour. Not a big deal, except it was the first time I had covered that short distance on foot. I probably do that five-minute drive to the local shopping centre three times a week, always in a rush. Never did I expect to become so car dependent.

This time I took the lanes that you don’t see from the road, the natural pathways from farm to farm, through woodland and meadows, fields of rapeseed in bloom. In was delightful, in the true sense of the word. That perfect fifty-minute stroll along country lanes with the sun going down over my right shoulder gave me an idea. Or it reawakened an old idea.

I’m going to walk my commute. It’s not my commute any more but it was for the best part of ten years until two months ago. I worked at the international news service of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation. The office is in Ostring, on the far side of Bern from Fribourg, where I live. Because it takes twice as long to get there by public transport, I drove to work, most of the way along the highway at 120km per hour. I got to know that route so well but I don’t know the country at all.

A lot of my life is governed by routine. That’s a good thing with children but it’s important too to have days out of the ordinary. My first proper self-employed project is starting next month. Meanwhile I’m getting tantalizing crumbs of hope for my first novel from submissions to agents, but I’d rather not sit around waiting for emails.

A walk like this will be good for body and mind; this specific walk even more so. I’d like to be able to say I walked it once, that I really know the way. Technically you could do it in a day but I think I’ll give myself two days. There’s no time like the present so let’s say I have until the end of this month to start and finish the challenge. I’m using the word challenge loosely here because it’s a beautiful time of year and, although the view has been a bit of a blur until now, a beautiful route too.

This blog has a small following, mostly self-employed people or writers who probably don’t have a commute. But I’m still hoping one of you might have a yearning to do something similar and join me in spirit. Any takers? If you do embark on a special walk, why not send me a photo at the address on the Contact page and I’ll include a mention in my next blog post.

Let me know if you have done something similar, or would consider it, or just like the idea. I’m off to buy hiking boots!

Every day is Mother’s Day

mothers_day_vintage-739560

I’m wary of making too much of a public fuss of mothers on Mother’s Day. At the hairdressers on Saturday they were giving out red roses to the mothers who came in to have their hair done. They do the same thing in restaurants in Switzerland. Even the woman on the Scientology stand ran after me in the street to give me a rose.

Ten years ago, when I was feeling very low after a miscarriage and the only non-mother at a family gathering, I was handed a flower in a restaurant on Mother’s Day and it nearly killed me. I didn’t know that I would be the mother of twins within a year. All I knew was that the whole country had chosen that day to lean on my pain and that carrying that flower home was a torment.

I know mothers do an important job and should be appreciated for that but, for all the drudgery involved, it is a job with substantial built-in rewards; let’s not forget we are looking after our own children, hardly the most selfless task in the world.

Why not make next Sunday University Graduate Day? A day when graduates can feel special and be rewarded for their, ahem, years of hard work. When I was a child, I sometimes complained that children were short changed. Why was there no such thing as Children’s Day? I would protest. My mother, annoyingly but quite rightly, just laughed and told me that every day was Children’s Day.

I’m not giving back the beautiful homemade cards and presents my children surprised me with on Sunday. Their excitement and pride in doing something thoughtful for me is also mine to cherish. But I don’t need public praise and congratulations on top of that. Besides, the significance of motherhood has nothing to do with a mass-produced flower.

Instead of trying to write something meaningful and original about motherhood, I’m going to leave you with this passage from The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell, set in the 1960s and written in the voice of Lexie, journalist and mother of baby Theo.

To distract herself, as ever, she worked. The women we become after children, she typed, then stopped to adjust the angle of the paper. She glanced at the paintings, almost without seeing them, the cocked her head to listen for Theo. Nothing. Silence, the freighted silence of sleep. She turned back to the typewriter, to the sentence she had written.

We change shape, she continued, we buy low-heeled shoes, we cut off our long hair. We begin to carry in our bags half-eaten rusks, a small tractor, a shred of beloved fabric, a plastic doll. We lose muscle tone, sleep, reason, perspective. Our hearts begin to live outside our bodies. They breathe, they eat, they crawl and – look! – they walk, they begin to speak to us. We learn that we must sometimes walk an inch at a time, to stop and examine every stick, every stone, every squashed tin along the way. We get used to not getting where we were going. We learn to darn, perhaps to cook, to patch the knees of dungarees. We get used to living with a love that suffuses us, suffocates us, blinds us, controls us. We live. We contemplate our bodies, our stretched skin, those threads of silver around our brows, our strangely enlarged feet. We learn to look less in the mirror. We put our dry-clean only clothes to the back of the wardrobe. Eventually, we throw them away. We school ourselves to stop saying ‘shit’ and ‘damn’ and learn to say ‘my goodness’ and ‘heavens above’. We give up smoking, we colour our hair, we search the vistas of parks, swimming pools, libraries, cafés, for others of our kind. We know each other by our pushchairs, our sleepless gazes, the beakers we carry. We learn how to cool a fever, ease a cough, the four indicators of meningitis, that one must sometimes push a swing for two hours. We buy biscuit cutters, washable paints, aprons, plastic bowls. We no longer tolerate delayed buses, fighting in the street, smoking in restaurants, sex after midnight, inconsistency, laziness, being cold. We contemplate younger women as they pass us in the street, with their cigarettes, their make-up, their tight-seamed dresses, their tiny handbags, their smooth, washed hair, and we turn away, we put down our heads, we keep on pushing the pram up the hill.

 

Falling in love with fictional babies

Image courtesy of tuelekza at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of tuelekza at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The baby was astonishing. He had little cloth ears, floppy as cats. The warmth of his round stomach could heat the world. His head smelled like a sacred flower. And his fists held mysterious, tiny balls of fluff from which he could not bear to be parted.

Meet baby Raqib, the adorable son of Nazneen in Brick Lane by Monica Ali. I read and loved this book when it came out in 2003 and particularly remember being enchanted by this baby. It seemed that he was the first convincing baby character I had come across in a novel.

Babies are given birth to, carried around, fed, loved and admired in books, but it’s rare for a baby’s personality to emerge on the page. And babies are brimming with personality. They’re fun to be around, for their expressions and gestures alone. Back to Raqib.

Nazneen curled around him on the bed. He raised an arm, which reached only halfway up his head. He put it back down. The futility of this exercise appeared to anger him.

In the same scene, Nazneen’s husband Chanu is droning on about setting up a business. He asks: “What can you do without capital?”

Raqib tried to lift his head from Nazneen’s shoulder as if he knew the answer to this difficult question. Overcome with his burden of knowledge, he collapsed instantly into sleep. Squinting down, Nazneen looked at his month-old nose, the sumptuous curve of his cheek, his tight-shut, age-old eyes.

There is more of Raqib and every appearance he makes is so beautifully written you want to reach out and stroke that little cheek.

Often, the fictional baby’s role is to channel the thoughts of the parent or caregiver. Baby Jonah in The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell is that kind of baby. This scene takes place with his mother Elina out in the garden.

She moves the rattle from side to side and the coloured beads ricochet around inside their clear globes. The effect on the baby is instantaneous and remarkable. His limbs stiffen, his eyes spring wide; his lips part in a perfect round O. It’s as if he’s been studying a manual on how to be a human being, with particular attention to the chapter, ‘Demonstrating Surprise’. She shakes it again and again and the baby’s limbs move like pistons, up, down, in, out. She thinks: this is what mothers do.

There’s another ‘as if’. There is a tendancy to ascribe thoughts and emotions to babies that they aren’t capable of having. Also the idea that they have some ancient knowledge – I’m sure I’ve read that more than once but can’t find any references now.

But in real life as in fiction, babies are interesting in what they reveal about the people who love them. Take baby Matt in What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt, whose parents tracked his development “with the precision and attentiveness of Enlightenment scientists”:

For a baby he seemed weirdly compassionate. One evening when Matt was about nine months old, Erica was getting him ready for bed. She was carrying him around with her and opened the refrigerator to retrieve his bottle. By accident two glass containers of mustard and jam came with it and smashed on the floor. Erica had gone back to work by then, and her exhaustion got the better of her. She looked at the broken glass and burst into tears. She stopped crying when she felt Matt’s small hand gently patting her arm in sympathy. Our son also liked to feed us – half chewed bits of banana or pureed spinach or mashed carrots. He would come at me with his sticky first and push the unsavoury contents into my mouth. We read this as a sign of his generosity.

The examples I found are all boy babies. I wonder if this is a coincidence or do we consider the archetypal baby to be a boy?

We’ve had childbirth on this blog, now babies. My next blogpost will look at new mothers or motherhood in fiction – and then I’ll leave the subject alone for a while. Promise.

Has anyone else come across any good babies in fiction? I can think of one obvious bad baby, also a boy, but I’m more interested in the sweet ones. I think it’s difficult to write a convincing baby. Nicki Chen, a fellow blogger and author, does it in her novel Tiger Tail Soup. I’ll dig that excerpt out as soon as I get my copy back.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 267 other followers