On not knowing what your novel’s about

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On the blog today, it is my great pleasure to introduce the English writer Anne Goodwin, author of Sugar and Snails, whose journey to publication I have been following with great interest since we first connected through blogging two years ago. In this guest post, Anne shows it’s not always easy to distill the essence of your own story.

So, you’re lying on your deathbed (hopefully, many years from now) and an angel comes in with a shorthand notebook and retractable pencil. He’s been commissioned to write your obituary, but first he wants you to tell him what your life was about. Could you tell him? Would the sentence even make sense?

A novel isn’t the same as a life. A novel has structure. A novel has plot. But it can be just as difficult to reduce the essence of a novel to a single headline as it can be to sum up a life.

So I identified strongly with Clare’s post couple of years ago, What’s the book about? Yet some might imagine I should’ve known better. Unlike Clare, I wasn’t in the process of getting acquainted with my first novel. I was a few months into the submission circus, with some encouraging feedback from agents alongside the stack of rejections. Shouldn’t I have known what my book was about?

Of course I had my pitch. I had my carefully-crafted one-page synopsis. But these were summaries of what happened; what my novel was about lurked somewhere underneath.

In my initial attempts at synopsis writing, I’d finished off with a list of the themes. But somewhere along the line I was advised to drop the intangibles and focus on the fictional “facts”.

I’ll never know if my failure to snare an agent is attributable to my woolly pitch. It certainly didn’t prevent several requests for the full manuscript, but some of those who liked my novel might have been daunted by a perceived difficulty in representing it to publishers. Thankfully, there are lots of independent presses around who can take more of a risk (and the early reviews of my novel suggests they were right to do so).

But no-one’s going to want to publish a rambling novel without focus. When submitting to small publishers, I still did my best to present a coherent story. But this had a surprising downside, of which others should beware.

Sugar and Snails is a midlife coming-of-age story about a woman who’s kept her past identity a secret for thirty years. (An “about” sentence I’ve found only recently, partly through attending a media training day run by the Society of Authors.) The catalyst for change is her meeting with a man who takes a fancy to her at a dinner party and their on-off relationship provides the skeleton of the contemporary strand. Now, we all understand the romance genre; it’s hardwired with the fairytales we heard at our mothers’ knees. Somewhere along the line, without a conscious decision, boy-meets girl provided my novel a ready-made structure to contain the more amorphous story of a woman’s journey to self-acceptance.

Now, I knew Sugar and Snails wasn’t a romance. My publisher knew it wasn’t. My therapist certainly knew it wasn’t. Even friends and family who hadn’t yet read it but had listened patiently to me babbling about it knew Sugar and Snails wasn’t a romance. But when it came to writing the blurb to go on the back cover, that’s exactly how we framed it. In the emails shuttling back and forth in an attempt to perfect the words and punctuation, neither I nor my editor recognised we were stuck in the romance mode. It was as if we were engaged in a folie à deux.

Okay, we might have come to our senses without external intervention. The wider Inspired Quill team might have refused to give it the go-ahead. But, for me, it was only through the happenstance of consulting a few friends on a disagreement on some minutiae of the wording, that I recognised how close we’d come to mis-selling the book. Although a lucky escape, it was a painful moment to have this exposed. I was supposed to be the wordsmith, not my friends.

The romance element still gets a mention in the rewritten version, but it’s background to the larger story of a woman learning to live with herself:

The past lingers on, etched beneath our skin …
At fifteen, Diana Dodsworth took the opportunity to radically alter the trajectory of her life, and escape the constraints of her small-town existence. Thirty years on, she can’t help scratching at her teenage decision like a scabbed wound.

To safeguard her secret, she’s kept other people at a distance … until Simon Jenkins sweeps in on a cloud of promise and possibility. But his work is taking him to Cairo, and he expects Di to fly out for a visit. She daren’t return to the city that changed her life; nor can she tell Simon the reason why.

Sugar and Snails takes the reader on a poignant journey from Diana’s misfit childhood, through tortured adolescence to a triumphant mid-life coming-of-age that challenges preconceptions about bridging the gap between who we are and who we feel we ought to be.

Two weeks now since publication, I’m having fun playing around with what my novel is about. Writing guest posts and completing Q&A’s for my mammoth blog tour lets me explore my novel from different angles and the reader reviews reflect it back to me in interesting ways. I can’t begin to describe how wonderful, moving and humbling it is to have my novel not only read, but thought about, even discussed.

Yet there are still points at which I reach for that single-sentence summary. Print journalists and radio broadcasters need their soundbites and, grateful for the coverage, I try to give them just that. But I relish the opportunity to give a more discursive version of my story.

Thanks to Clare and her blog readers for indulging that need in me here.

Anne Goodwin writes fiction, short and long, and blogs about reading and writing, with a peppering of psychology. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, was published last month by Inspired Quill. Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist.

Best of luck with the book Anne!
Best of luck with the book Anne!

Dying a fictional death

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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.

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 I 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

Honest words from Donal Ryan in Zurich

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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!

‘A bored woman is a dangerous woman’

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You cannot be indifferent to Hausfrau, the new novel by Jill Alexander Essbaum set in Switzerland. It is a novel that will spark an array of contradictory reactions: You will loathe the main character Anna or you will weep for her. You will recoil at the graphic sex scenes or find them erotic; you will be intrigued by the psychological and linguistic analysis, or find it tiresome. Whatever happens, the power of the story will keep you reading to the end.

If you happen to be a foreign resident of Switzerland you will recognize many of the quirks and frustrations of living in this would-be paradise, ruthlessly exposed by Essbaum. But if you are in any way defensive of Switzerland, you will bristle at the Swiss bashing.

Hausfrau is the story of a woman who has lost her sense of self and abdicated responsibility for her life. She follows her Swiss husband back to his home town near Zurich to settle down and raise a family, but nine years on she still can’t settle in. She’s depressed and remains an outsider, to her husband, her children and her community – stifled by it all.

We already know that appearances can be deceiving but in Essbaum’s debut novel the gulf between appearances and reality is so wide it’s disturbing.

The world sees a well-dressed American mother living in an affluent bubble in Dietlikon, “the tiny town in which Anna’s own tiny life was led”. Anna Benz has accepted the age-old deal of husband (a banker, natürlich) making the money while she keeps house and looks after their three young children. The children’s school is metres away from their home and she has babysitting on tap thanks to her mother-in-law.

There is nothing Anna could not change in her life if she wanted to, as her psychiatrist tries to tell her again and again. Why the passivity, the indifference to her fate? That is the central question of the book and while we get many hints, it really remains unanswered because Essbaum provides scant details of Anna’s former life, apart from the fact that her parents were killed in a car crash.

The story begins when Anna is finally starting to make an effort by beginning a German language course and attending analysis sessions. At the same time she embarks on a reckless affair, seemingly on a whim.

Essbaum manages to successfully switch between different strands and moments in time – events at home, the language classes, memories, lovers’ trysts, therapy sessions, descriptions of Swiss culture, and a lot of Anna’s internal reflections. The scenes are short, some snapshots of just a few lines, but you instantly know where you are and the story is constantly moving forward.

The book is short but it is not short on ideas and Essbaum manages to sketch interesting relationships through a few interactions. The children remain peripheral characters, as Anna is going through a phase of waltzing in and out of their lives.

I don’t know how readers with no familiarity with Switzerland will tolerate the level of detail, bordering on information dump that happens throughout the novel. I’d say most readers will find some element that doesn’t grab them – the analysis sessions, all the commentary on language structure and vocabulary, the cultural information, the sex scenes, the insomnia wanderings. But the whole is much greater than the parts because Essbaum has created a baffling compelling character in a story with powerful momentum.

Putting aside some people’s criticism of the moral message of the book – fallen woman pays for her sins – the story is gripping. Hausfrau was an intense and thought-provoking read and it left me with lots to think about.

I’d love to hear what other readers thought of this book, inside and outside Switzerland. Looking forward to reading your comments!

(Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Husbands in books, from bad to worse

by Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt
by Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt

I did try to find good husbands, honest, but bad husbands are obviously overrepresented in fiction, unhappy families being so much more interesting. So here they are – stern and distant, abusive and alcoholic, the kind of men who make a prison of marriage and double as the gaoler.

It was this passage from Alice Munro’s short story What is Remembered that first set me on the quest for husbands in books. In a few short lines it tells us everything we need to know about gender roles in marriage in a particular class at a particular time. Makes me glad I was born in the 1970s and missed everything up to and including the Mad Men era.

Young husbands were stern, in those days. Just a short time before, they had been suitors, almost figures of fun, knock-kneed and desperate in their sexual agonies. Now, bedded down, they turned resolute and disapproving. Off to work every morning, clean-shaven, youthful necks in knotted ties, days spent in unknown labors, home again at suppertime to take a critical glance at the evening meal and to shake out the newspaper, hold it up between themselves and the kitchen, the ailments and emotions, the babies.

This next excerpt comes from The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which I reviewed in my last post but I’m allowing myself to dip into the novel again because I find this such a chilling fictional account of domestic violence. Tartt is nothing if not restrained; we had to wait until page 588 to find out this important information about our narrator. This childhood memory surfaces as the alliance with his group of friends is unravelling under the strain of covering up a murder.

I remember, when I was a kid, once seeing my father strike my mother for absolutely no reason. Though he sometimes did the same thing to me, I did not realize that he did it sheerly out of bad temper, and believed that his trumped-up justifications (‘You talk too much; ‘Don’t look at me like that’) somehow warranted the punishment. But the day I saw him hit my mother (because she had remarked, innocently, that the neighbours were building an addition to their house; later he would claim she had provoked him, that it was a reproach about his abilities as a wage earner, and she, tearfully, would agree) I realized that the childish impression I had always had of my father, as Just Lawgiver, was entirely wrong. We were utterly dependent on this man, who was not only deluded and ignorant, but incompetent in every way. What was more, I knew that my mother was incapable of standing up to him. It was like walking into the cockpit of an airplane and finding the pilot and co-pilot passed out drunk in their seats. And standing outside the Lyceum, I was struck with a black, incredulous horror, which in fact was not at all unlike the horror I had felt at twelve, sitting on a bar stool in our sunny little kitchen in Plano. Who is in control here? I thought, dismayed. Who is flying this plane?

Going back to the nineteenth century and over to Russia, here is a moment in Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy when Anna’s husband Karenin is in his study mulling over how to reprimand his wife for openly flirting with Vronsky at a social gathering.

He began to think of her, of what she was thinking and feeling. For the first time he really pictured to himself her personal life, her ideas, her desires; and the notion that she could and should have a separate life of her own appeared to him so dreadful that he hastened to drive it away. This was the abyss into which he was afraid to look. To put himself in thought and feeling into another being was a mental exercise foreign to Karenin.

And what he would say to his wife took shape in Karenin’s head. As he thought it over, he grudged having to expend his time and intellect on such domestic matters. But, in spite of that, the form and sequence of the speech he had to make shaped themselves in his head as clearly and precisely as if it were a ministerial report.

The final bad husband in our hall of fame today is Charlie van der Linden from On Green Dolphin Street by Sebastian Faulks, a lovely book about adultery. Actually Charlie is not such a bad guy, more of a mess, and he does love his wife Mary.

It was an art, knowing whether Charlie should be indulged, rebuked or put to bed, but it was one in which Mary was practised. It was a failure to her if he could not be made to have dinner, but would only curl up with a bottle, rebuffing her attempts at friendliness. She decided to leave him where he was while she took a bath; sometimes a short sleep could pull him on to the main line of the day, especially if followed by a shower and a large scotch on the rocks.

There is one more awful character who should be featured here but I don’t have a copy of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. If I did I would be scouring the pages for a damning description of the awful Edward Murdstone who tyrannised David’s mother (for once a wicked step-father!), sent her son away, ruined her health and inherited her property.

Any other contenders folks?

The Secret History opens a door to the past

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You don’t have to have murdered someone in your college days to go through a spell of nostalgia after reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt. This haunting book captures the clannishness, the impressionability, the uncertainty and excess of those years. It is a story about the defining experiences we would rather forget, if only we could.

Of course the Greek-quoting, champagne-swilling lifestyle enjoyed by the six main characters in The Secret History is far removed from the experience of the average student. The rarefied atmosphere cultivated by these privileged classics students belongs to a lost era; this is how we imagine things were when only the rich and brilliant entered the hallowed halls of university.

Told as a memoir from the perspective of the latest addition to the exclusive group, the novel reveals how, and ultimately why, five of the six “clever, eccentric misfits” end up colluding in the killing of their friend.

The book, set in an elite college in Vermont, takes up the mantle of The Great Gatsby so overtly that the students, in tweeds and cashmere, could be the grandchildren of Tom and Daisy Buchanan and the narrator Richard a direct descendant of Nick Carraway.

Those formative years between adolescence and adulthood are fertile ground for fiction and The Secret History draws on other classics such as Catcher in the Rye, Crime and Punishment and Brideshead Revisited, sometimes by direct reference.

But nothing in the 600 plus pages of The Secret History happens by accident. The novel is so well crafted it screams good writing. There is so much to enjoy – from the biting satire in the depiction of the family of the murder victim Bunny, to the heart-wrenching descriptions of tortured souls and the beautiful passages on the changing seasons. My only criticism would be the sense of repetition in the countless scenes of heavy drinking and hangovers. But knowing the writer, that was probably deliberate.

Like many people, I was inspired to read The Secret History after the long-awaited and much-fêted appearance of Tartt’s third novel, The Goldfinch (don’t say anything, I’m only on page 304). Somehow I missed The Secret History when it was first published in 1992, even though it was right in the middle of my college years.

I’d love to hear your impressions of this book or any thoughts on the folly of youth. Among the small readership of this blog are three people I went to university with who have remained good friends to this day. I believe that the decision we made in 1989 to study Russian was one of the most significant and far-reaching of our lives. Or maybe I’m just carried away by The Secret History.

Here’s what Donna Tartt’s narrator Richard Papen has to say on the question. Read the punctuation and weep!

I suppose there is a certain crucial interval in everyone’s life when character is fixed forever; for me, it was the first fall term I spent at Hampden. So many things remain with me from that time, even now: those preferences in clothes and books and even food – acquired then, and largely, I must admit, in adolescent adulation of the rest of the Greek class – have stayed with me through the years.

Take a walk with an old man

2014-04-09 12.57.06

Most English speakers will go through life without ever reading a Swiss novel. It’s not surprising. There are so many countries, so many languages – and not enough of their literary treasures are scooped up in the English translation net. But the ones that make it are well worth opening, if only to look at the world through a different lens.

You might find something beautiful, something completely different to anything you’ve ever read before, something like Zbinden’s Progress by Christoph Simon.

I just finished the book on the train on the way home this evening. I also read it while sitting in a department store restaurant in Bern at lunchtime, and in between flipping pancakes for breakfast on Sunday.

The Zbinden of the title is Lukas Zbinden, a frail elderly widower living in a retirement home who loves to talk and loves to go for walks. His progress is his slow journey from his room on the third floor down to the ground floor entrance, on the arm of a carer. The bulk of novel is narrated in his voice during this arduous trek. I can’t imagine how Simon pitched the book but within the confines of this device, he manages to skilfully and movingly present a life story, a love story and a comedy of manners.

No doubt you’ll soon take a shine to them all: the respectable ladies and eccentric gentlemen, the talkative widows and taciturn bachelors, the seasoned walking-frame users, shuffling stay-at-homes with faces like dried meat. The confused ones, whose thoughts roll around like peas on a plate. Those on medication with a cocktail in their veins of which blood’s just a minor ingredient. Veteran engineers, tradesmen and -women, office workers, housewives, civil servants, army personnel, fire extinguisher inspectors, bus drivers, over-achievers, service workers, stationary shop staff.

Zbinden’s Progress is a slim volume but we get to know a lot of Lukas’ fellow residents and their foibles. But most of all the old man likes to wax eloquent about walking, and he puts a lot of energy into trying to convert others to this noble calling.

Do you know what it means to go for a walk? Going for a walk is: acquiring the world. Celebrating the random. Preventing disaster by being away. Speaking to the bees though you’re already a bit too old for that. Not being especially rushed on a street that’s like an oven in the afternoon sun. Missing the tram. … Going at your own pace. Going for a walk is: saying hello to more people than you know. Losing Frau Dürig amid the turmoil of the Christmas market. Sensing a storm brewing, from a distance.

The endearing thing about Lukas Zbinden is that he knows how ridiculous he sounds. A former teacher, he realises he is a pedant but he is never pompous. This is probably because he was married to Emilie, a thoroughly practical woman who combined rock solid self-belief with exceptional generosity of spirit. We hear a lot about his love for Emilie and relive the defining moments of their marriage.

What I love about Zbinden’s Progress is that the main character both encapsulates and subverts the Swiss stereotype. On the surface he has led such a conventional life – army recruit, schoolteacher, married father-of-one, enthusiastic walker – but at heart he’s a revolutionary. I’ll keep an eye out for him on my walks from now on.

Yes, this book will stay with me. Its message of stopping to smell the roses is one we need to be reminded of more than ever in the communication whirlwind modern society has become.

And I really like what he says about competition, “the lion tamer, constantly cracking his whip and rushing people”.

Competition takes us up a very high mountain, from which you can see far. It opens the curtains and we can see all the riches of the world and all its splendour. Competition says to us: I’ll give you all of that if you are industrious enough and compete well.

Zbinden’s Progress (Spaziergänger Zbinden) was translated by Donal McLaughlin, a prolific translator of contemporary Swiss fiction. I mentioned before that I met McLaughlin in Bern recently when he was over from Glasgow for a reading from another of his translations Naw Much of a Talker by Pedro Lenz. I’ll be able to link to a podcast discussion with McLaughlin and Lenz next week when it is published on swissinfo.ch.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your recommendations. What book, translated or not, has awakened strong feelings in you?

‘The Impositions of the Body’

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A paper cut, a sore throat, a sprained ankle – these are the little reminders that the body is fortress that is all too easily breached. I’ve just thrown away my crutches after a minor foot injury and I’m so relieved to be back to normal, defence walls mended – until the next time.

A while back I wrote of review of Still Alice by Lisa Genova, a beautiful portrayal of a woman going through the onset of Alzheimer’s – a wonderful novel which has won a place in my top ten forever. In the same blog post I mentioned So Much for That by Lionel Shriver, which also has illness as one of its main subjects. In this story Glynis, the rather unsympathetic wife of the main character Shephard, is going through aggressive and debilitating treatments for cancer. There is a passage in the book where we get an insight into what Glynis has learned from her difficult experience. I find it bleak but fascinating.

“Before Glynis had become something of a mystery to After Glynis. … This Before Glynis was a woman, she gathered, who had enjoyed the luxury of vast tracts of time unfettered not only by the need to make money, as Shephard was forever harping on about, but – all that really matters, it turned out – by the impositions of the body. This was a woman who was “well”. (Perhaps more than any other quality, this theoretical state eluded the After-Glynis grasp. But only as an experience. As a concept, she understood being “well” better than anyone else on the planet.) For After Glynis had discovered a terrible secret: There is only the body. There was never anything but the body. “Wellness” is the illusion of not having one. Wellness is escape from the body. But there is no escape. So wellness is delay. What had Before Glynis – Well Glynis, Pre-Inorexably-Going-To-Be-Sick-Any-Minute-Now Glynis, done with her free ride, her gift of the soon-to-be-revoked illusion that she was not, after all, a body – a body and only a body?”

Another passage about illness that made a big impression on me comes from The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby. This unforgettable memoir was dictated by Bauby who suffered a massive stroke and was left paralysed and unable to speak with Locked-In Syndrome. It must be the only book which was dictated by blinking one eyelid (he describes the technique in the book).

“In fact it is in my respiratory passages that I can hope for improvement. In the long term, I can hope to eat more normally: that is without the help of a gastric tube. Eventually, perhaps I could breathe naturally, without a respirator, and muster enough breath to make my vocal chords vibrate.

But for now, I would be the happiest of men if I could just swallow the overflow of saliva endlessly flooding my mouth.”

Although Bauby laments all that he has lost, the book is not an exercise in self-pity but a record of what is beautiful and precious in life.

Has anyone else come across interesting books that deal with the subject of illness? Or is it something you have written about yourself?

(Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Famous last words

Image courtesy of arztsamui at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

How many of you are bold enough to read the ending of a book before beginning it? I might take an occasional guilty peek but only when a novel begins to drag. As a rule I am an obedient reader and let the author lead the way. Also when I am enjoying a book, the ending becomes ever more precious and I want to appreciate the full power of the finale.

There is a popular notion that a writer has to capture his or her potential reader on the first page. With all the emphasis on the opening of a novel, I haven’t been giving that much thought to endings but as far as any lasting impression of a book goes, the ending has more weight. It is the place where you are likely to hear the author’s voice most clearly and often find the real message of the book.

To the most recent example: I have just finished On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, a wonderful depiction of lost love. The private hell of the newlyweds’ wedding night is beautifully portrayed but it is the row on the beach after Florence and Edward’s doomed attempt at lovemaking that broke this reader’s heart. The two main characters are trapped in an escalating argument where they find themselves saying the most hurtful and reckless things to each other, simply because honesty is impossible.

So it makes perfect sense to me that McEwan ends the novel back at the beach on that fateful night, with the message that not even a lifetime of regret can undo the consequences of our actions, or in this case, inaction.

On Chesil Beach he could have called out to Florence, he could have gone after her. … Instead, he stood in cold and righteous silence in the summer’s dusk, watching her hurry along the shore, the sound of her difficult progress lost to the breaking of small waves, until she was a blurred, receding point against the immense straight road of shingle gleaming in the pallid light.

Here are a few more endings for your enjoyment:

The Gathering by Anne Enright

Gatwick airport is not the best place to be gripped by a fear of flying. But it seems that this is what is happening to me now; because you are up so high, in those things, and there is such a long way to fall. Then again, I have been falling for months. I have been falling into my own life, for months. And I am about to hit it now.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

And I thought of a cresting wave of water, lit by a moon, rushing past and vanishing upstream, pursued by a band of yelping students whose torchbeams criss-crossed in the dark.
There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.

A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks

A rare surge of feeling, of something like vindication, came from the pit of his belly and spread out till it sang in his veins. As he stood with his hands in his pockets, staring out over the sleeping city, over its darkened wheels and spires and domes, Veals laughed.

I’ve got to say McEwan with his “cold and righteous silence” is my favourite here but maybe that’s because I’m still under the spell of the book.

(Image courtesy of arztsamui at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)