Discovering the delights of Fribourg

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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.

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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.

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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

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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?

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

Childbirth in fiction – delivering the goods

Birth of Adonis by Marcantonio Franceschini

Birth of Adonis by Marcantonio Franceschini

Births, marriages, deaths. These are the building blocks of stories. But what does it take to write a good childbirth scene? Is it even necessary to describe how a fictional baby comes into the world? Not always, I would say. But sometimes, as shown by the examples below, the birth is much more than a biological event. It is an important driver of the story which has an impact on how the characters behave later on. We have to be there with these women in their hour of need.

There is a short story in Annie Proulx’s 2008 collection Fine Just the Way It Is called Them Old Cowboy Songs which contains one of the most tragic birth scenes imaginable. The mother is a teenage girl living alone in a cabin in a remote part of Wyoming in 1885 (were there any non-remote parts of Wyoming at that time? I’m not sure). Her young husband Archie has gone off on his last cattle drive before the birth, hoping to be back in time, having asked a neighbour to check in occasionally on Rose.

The next morning was cold and sleety and her back ached; she wished for the heat of summer to return. She staggered when she walked and it didn’t seem worthwhile to make coffee. She drank water and stared at the icy spicules sliding down the window glass. Around midmorning the backache increased, working itself into a slow rhythm. It dawned on her very slowly that the baby was not waiting until September. By afternoon the backache was an encircling python and she could do nothing but pant and whimper, the steady rattle of rain dampening her moaning call for succor. She wriggled out of her heavy dress and put on her oldest nightgown. The pain increased to waves of cramping agony that left her gasping for breath, and on and on, the day fading into night, the rain torn away by wind, the dark choking hours eternal. Another dawn came sticky with the return of heat and still her raw loins could not deliver the child. On the fourth afternoon, voiceless from calling for Archie, her mother, Tom Ackler, Tom Ackler’s cat, from screaming imprecations at all of them, at god, any god, then at the river ducks and the weasel, to any entity that might hear, the python relaxed its grip and slid off the bloody bed, leaving her spiralling down in plum-colored mist.

There follows a heart-rending scene where Rose crawls out of the cabin with her stillborn baby wrapped in a dish towel and tries to dig a grave with a spoon. I won’t say any more.

At the risk of mentioning Lionel Shriver once too often in this blog, I have to include an extract from the birth chapter in We Need to Talk about Kevin because the savage eloquence of Eva, writing here to her husband Franklin, is so remarkable.

So I made an effort, at which point I had to recognize that I’d been resisting the birth. Whenever the enormous mass approached that tiny canal, I’d been sucking it back. Because it hurt. It hurt a whole lot. In the New School course, they drummed into you that the pain was good, you were supposed to go with it, push into the pain, and only on my back did I contemplate what retarded advice this was. Pain, good? I was overcome with contempt. In fact, I never told you this before, but the emotion on which fastened in order to push beyond a critical threshold was loathing. I despised being spread out like some farm exhibit with strangers gawking between my canted knees. I detested Dr. Rhinestein’s pointed, ratlike little face and her brisk, censorious manner. I hated myself for ever having agreed to this humiliating theatre, when I was fine before and right at this moment I could have been in France.

In some countries, one in four babies is now being delivered by caesarian section and yet it’s not often you come across a description of a surgical birth. Maggie O’Farrell has one in her 2010 novel The Hand That First Held Mine. The birth is important in the book because things go drastically wrong just after this scene and the mother, Elina, spends most of the book recovering from the shock.

She could feel them, the two doctors, rummaging about inside her, like people who had lost something at the bottom of a suitcase. She knew it ought to hurt, it ought to hurt like hell, but it didn’t. The anaesthetic washed coolly down and then up her spine, breaking like a wave on the back of her head. There was a green canvas screen bisecting her body. She could hear the doctors murmuring to each other, could see the tops of their heads, could feel their hands in her innards. Ted was nearby, at her left, perched on a stool. And there was a great heave and suck and she almost cried out, what are you doing, before she realised, before she heard the sharp, angry cry, surprisingly loud in the hushed room, before she heard the anaesthetist, behind her, saying a boy. Elina repeated this word to herself as she stared ahead at the tiled ceiling. Boy. A boy. Then she spoke to Ted. Go with him, she said, go with the baby.

There are various other flashbacks of the birth as Elina tries to piece together what happened and come to terms with it. The other option is to skip the technicalities of the birth altogether, as Mary Costello does in Academy Street.

The pain struck at dawn. Willa came. In the hospital foyer her waters broke. She looked down at her drenched shoes and began to cry.

That evening when it was all over she thought she had scaled Everest, stood at its peak, exhilarated.

What, that’s it?
Actually there is a little more. Costello continues:

The next morning the enormity of it all hit her. She had brought forth life, rendered human something from almost nothing, and this power, this ability to create, overwhelmed her.

She did not take to the child. The light down on his skin resembled fur. She could not bear to touch the head, the unknitted bones of his crown. She thought of him as half-hatched, not quite finished. She was not in her right mind. Her body had been riven open, pummelled, her innards displaced. A disgust at her physical self took hold, at the engorged breasts, the bleeding. I am a cow, she thought. But cows are good mothers.

Nine and five years on I still remember the births of my own children in forensic detail and I remember feeling an urgent need in the early weeks and months to tell the story as often as I could (hopefully to a willing audience). Telling the story is a way of fully understanding and celebrating what has happened. It is too big an experience to fit into one day.

What about you? Do you think it’s desirable for authors to write detailed fictional accounts of labour? Have you ever written a childbirth scene or read one that stayed with you?

Honest words from Donal Ryan in Zurich

The Literaturhaus on Limmatquai in Zurich

The Literaturhaus on pretty Limmatquai in Zurich

Imagine a struggling writer standing over his kitchen sink burning page after page of handwritten manuscripts because he doesn’t want any record of “these travesties” to remain on earth.

That’s what’s Donal Ryan did with seven or eight (!) novels and one hundred (!) short stories before he became Ireland’s most successful debut author with the release of The Spinning Heart in 2012. I heard this account from Ryan yesterday evening at a reading in Zurich Literaturhaus. His honesty and Tipperary accent were a tonic.

In fact some of the early work that Ryan destroyed was festering in the hard drives of old computers and it was a case of delete and empty trash rather than burning. But what made him trash the old material and believe in his first published novel so much he submitted it “to every publisher in the English-speaking world”?

Ryan discarded the work he wrote in his twenties because it didn’t ring true. “The voices were too forced and contrived and I had a weird low-level nausea in my stomach when I was writing.”

Then, with The Thing About December, Ryan tuned in to the right station, as he put it, and found his voice. The book, written before The Spinning Heart, was published last year and tells the story of Johnsey, a vulnerable young man in rural Ireland, hopelessly ill equipped to deal with the changes life thrusts upon him after his parents die. The story is written in the close third person and Johnsey’s predicament is told in his own deceptively simple language. The writing is moving and eloquent, and funny when it’s not devastating.

The story is well described in this Irish Times review.

Ryan spoke about love a lot on Monday night and reading between the lines he appears to care deeply about Johnsey and what the character represents. Even his mother became fiercely protective of Johnsey and spoke of him as if he were a real person (rather endearingly, Ryan mentions his family a lot).

Ryan’s compassion is evident when he is talking about his characters. “Johnsey is a distillation of all the men I know who don’t speak. And I know lots. These are men who live alone in totally isolated farmhouses. I wanted to know what the inside of their heads would sound like.”

“All stories are about love, or the absence of love. All stories are based on declensions between those two states.” Ryan repeated this idea, which seems to be his motto.

I’m in the submission doldrums at the moment, that point when a writer begins to doubt their worthiness and the wisdom of committing so much time and passion to the whole enterprise. So of course I asked Ryan how he struck submission gold. He mentioned sheer luck and a scatter-gun approach but perseverance seems to have been the key.

Interestingly Ryan wrote The Spinning Heart (also set in Johnsey’s village but about a decade later, and written in 21 chapters of different first person narratives) swiftly and without a struggle while he was submitting The Thing About December, to take his mind off the rejections.

When he moved on to the submitting stage with The Spinning Heart he clocked up dozens of rejections. He kept print-outs of his email rejections in a folder and once, when asked by a journalist, made a rough count of forty seven, but there were more that didn’t make it into the folder, he said.

Ryan has been described as the best literary chronicler of the Celtic Tiger but in typical unassuming style, he says the fact that his two novels provided bookends for the Irish economic boom was accidental. “It was fortunate for me because it got me published. It was my hook.”

Donal Ryan has a collection of short stories coming out in December, also set in the same fictional village as the novels. He describes it as the best work he’s ever done. Meanwhile, work on his third novel is progressing painfully, he admits.

I left the Literaturhaus with a smile and with the feeling I was fortunate to have spent time listening to a great ambassador for Irish writing. It’s a reminder that whenever things get tough, it’s good to connect with other writers (if only from a distance) for inspiration and encouragement.

I’ll be back in Zurich next month to attend a talk by Siri Hustvedt. Can’t wait!

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