‘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)

All aboard for a spontaneous evening

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One of the many things that disappear when small children take over your heart and your home is the ability to do spontaneous things out of interest. Much stronger reasons are needed to justify abandoning the chicks in the nest without warning, leaving your mate to find last minute worms and put up with all that chirping. Those reasons include traffic jams, emergency health issues and paid work. There may be one or two more but it’s a short list and it certainly doesn’t include lectures by interesting authors in other cities.

It is the unexpected dose of spontaneity that makes my trip to meet author and philosopher Alain de Botton for an interview in Basel last May so remarkable (to me). Picture the scene. I’m sitting at my desk on the outskirts of Bern cobbling information together on some distinctly non-literary topic. Probably something about an international tax agreement, climate change research or Swiss politics – I can’t quite remember. It’s a rainy Tuesday, or possibly Wednesday – definitely midweek.

On my Twitter feed which just happens to be open I notice Alain de Botton tweet the news that he is speaking in Basel that evening. I decide to pass on that snippet to other people who might be free to do things at the drop of a hat. On to the next thing. And then a few minutes later I get a tweet from de Botton himself along the lines of: ‘It’ll be fun. Why don’t you come along?’

Well of course you know the reason why. This is an unplanned midweek evening activity after a working day. Having left the house at 7 a.m., and expecting to do the same the following day, I am already fending off the niggling thought that I might be short-changing the children on essential mothering hours. I’m hardly going to make things worse by not coming home, am I?

Actually, a few phone calls and tweets later that is exactly what I decided to do. I got the all-important green light from father bird, sorted out tickets to the sold-out event by arranging to go in a professional capacity and found myself sitting on a train to Basel a few hours later avidly reading my newly-bought copy of Religion for Atheists, de Botton’s latest bestseller.

That evening, sitting in the back of the hall in the Literaturhaus, I enjoyed the pure pleasure again of doing something cultural out of interest – something more than just going for a meal, hitting the playground or going on a work assignment. I got some time to listen to new ideas, to reflect on them and be moved by some of the human truths that bind us all together.

Below is the link to the story I wrote for swissinfo.ch following the talk in Basel. Turns out it’s been 20 years since Alain de Botton’s first book was published. He’s been a busy bee.

http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/swiss_news/Alain_de_Botton,_20_years_a-writing_.html?cid=36044606

Have you done anything spontaneous recently to shake up the routine? Do tell.

Writing lessons from Charles Dickens

Oliver amazed at Dodger’s mode of ‘going to work’ – George Cruickshank
Oliver amazed at Dodger’s mode of ‘going to work’ – George Cruickshank

The first draft of a story is just the raw material, right? It will need to be revised, reworked, perhaps even radically overhauled, word by word, plot hole by plot hole. This is the fall back that makes writing a slightly less daunting endeavour. Thankfully everything you put down can later be improved, reordered or deleted.

That is the stage I am at now, trying to enhance my novel to the best of my abilities – and there’s a lot more work to do. But once in a while, a writer of genius come along who breaks all the rules, someone like the giant of 19th century English fiction Charles Dickens.

Last year being the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth there was a lot of Dickens talk and I happened to hear a radio discussion about the great writer in which one of the experts named Our Mutual Friend as the author’s best book. It had been years since I’d picked up a Dickens novel but he’s always been close to my heart. My grandmother, who shared my childhood home, was a lifelong Dickens fan and was always willing to read to us.

So I got my hands on a copy and tackled the near 800-page opus. At the back I was delighted to discover Dickens’ plot plans and notes included. It’s a fascinating insight into his working method and brain. He had worked out (monthly) number by number how the action would unfold, weaving all the storylines together and leading his characters on a merry dance through to conclusion.

Courtesy of Claire Tomalin’s suberb biography – Charles Dickens A Life – which I’m currently reading, I have discovered a lot more about Dickens. From the very beginning Dickens did not have the luxury of letting his stories evolve organically as they were serialised in monthly or weekly issues. Tomlin quotes Dickens as saying: “My friends told me it was a low cheap form of publication, by which I should ruin all my rising hopes”. He triumphantly proved them wrong.

For ten months in 1837 two of his serial stories, The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, ran simultaneously. Dickens was producing the chapters for two different publishers and coordinating with two illustrators – an incredible juggling act, on top of which he was also editing and contributing to a monthly magazine Bentley’s Miscellany.

“Managing this double feat was an unprecedented and amazing achievement. Everything had to be planned in his head in advance. Pickwick had started as a series of loosely rambling episodes, but he was now introducing plot … and Oliver was tightly plotted and shaped from the start. There was no going back to change or adjust once a number was printed; everything had to be right the first time. … Each number of Pickwick and Oliver consisted of about 7,500 words, and in theory he simply divided every month, allotting a fortnight to each new section of each book. In practice this did not always work out as well as he hoped, and although he sometimes got ahead, there were many months when he only just managed to get his copy to the printer in time.”

Just four years earlier, aged 21, his first piece of non-journalistic writing was published – a ‘sketch’ or short story, published anonymously and for no fee in a very small circulation magazine called the Monthly. He remembered dropped in his offering “stealthily one evening at twilight” after the place had closed. The sketch was followed by many more and led to fame within months and a 30-year stellar career.

We cannot watch fly-on-the-wall documentaries about life in Victorian England but we do have Dickens, who transposed so many of the characters and everyday scenes around him into his work. The people loved him for his crusade against the appalling social injustice of the day and we still have the privilege of learning from the great master of storytelling.

Green light for return to Ireland

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In the author description of Douglas Kennedy’s latest book Five Days, we are told that the writer divides his time between London, Paris, Berlin, Maine and Montreal. Is he serious? You have to wonder what kind of lifestyle that involves. A lot of fridges to clear and restock.

Most of us are confined to one geographical base at a time but that doesn’t mean we don’t dream of other possibilities. Last year I met an Eritrean refugee who risked his life crossing the Sahara and the Mediterranean, mournfully reconciled to living in Switzerland, while longing to go back home.

A lucky few have holiday homes and can shuttle between two different lifestyles and even climates. Wealthy Northern Europeans love to buy up properties in Spain, France and Italy. You can only admire their good sense.

This year I will be ‘dividing my time’ between Switzerland and Ireland, leaving Switzerland in August, ten years to the day since I arrived here to live, and staying on in Dublin until Christmas. The germ for this idea came around a year ago and the trip has come together thanks to a little serendipity and perseverance.

Last summer I had a conversation with my sister about my wish to live in Ireland again someday. Working out when my youngest child would be independent, I reckoned I could possibly arrange something around the age of sixty. This reflection shocked me to the core and started me thinking.

A short time before that on a flight from Dublin to Geneva I met an Irish woman who had lived in France for 20 years. She was married to a Frenchman and they had four daughters together. She told me she had twice moved with the children to Ireland for a school year, staying in her old family home. She was able to keep up her small travel business from Dublin and her husband, a teacher, used all his holiday time to visit them.

Moving forward to the end of last summer, one of my colleagues went to Florence for six weeks to do an Italian course, thanks to a creativity fund in work. I found out more about the fund that supports employees wishing to pursue various projects.

Now it just so happened that I had a very active creative project in progress – writing my first novel. I looked at courses in the Irish Writers’ Centre and found one that would be ideal for me. Everything was telling me to seize the moment.

My funding application was finally approved last week and I went ahead and booked the flights. What I have gained is the most precious thing of all – time. Time to write, time to spend with friends and family, time for my children to get to know their origins and time off from being a foreigner.

Wish me luck!

The Woman Who Went to Bed For a Year

No it’s not me. The most I have managed is half a day. Great title though. When I saw that this novel was written by the British icon of young adult comic fiction in the 1980s, Sue Townsend, I was intrigued. I hadn’t read anything of hers since the early titles of the Adrian Mole series.

The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year is a cautionary tale for wives and mothers everywhere. When your identity – and all your time – is subsumed by what you do for other people, you may suddenly find yourself a lost cause.

On the day her twins leave home for university, Eva climbs into bed and stays there. She doesn’t have a plan or a manifesto, just a conviction which evolves into a phobia that she cannot leave that bed.

Against this backdrop Townsend introduces a host of characters, some loveable, some dreadful but all very human and highly amusing. The best laughs of the book come from the antics of Eva’s appalling husband Brian, closely followed by his long-suffering mother.

What I like about the book is that it’s entertaining first and thought provoking second. It will be enjoyed by young women – should even be handed out in maternity wards as a guide to the pitfalls of mothering (and marriage!) – but perhaps most appreciated by older women.

On a practical level what I took away from Townsend’s story was a decision to step back ever so slightly last Christmas. Eva’s long description of the exhausting self-imposed burden that the family’s Christmas celebrations had become rang warning bells for me. This time round I shared the festive secrets and the to-do list, and will do my best to resist the temptation from now on to scale up the traditions and obligations from year to year.

Back to Blackbrick

May I introduce myself? I was the person sitting next to you on the flight last Sunday who had to keep closing her book because she was welling up. I also had to keep going back to it because I was hooked by the plot. What was I reading? Back to Blackbrick by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald. I don’t normally read young adult fiction; it all looks a bit deliberately silly to me – judging by the covers (I know!). But this novel is different. The main character Cosmo is like Adrian Mole’s sweet younger cousin. He has all the right instincts in the face of life’s challenges, without the judgement or the conviction to make the right moves. Cosmo can’t really handle his emotions and yet he is the character who remains truest to those he loves.

Who hasn’t dreamt of going back in time to see how our forefathers lived? The Blackbrick of the title is the stately home where Cosmo’s grandfather lived and worked as a boy. Distressed at his grandfather’s decline brought on by Alzheimer’s, Cosmo goes back to Blackbrick and discovers a way to unlock the secrets that overshadowed his grandfather’s early life. There are some pretty adult themes in Back to Blackbrick – bereavement, the perils of the class system and the stigmatisation of unmarried mothers. But here is a writer who can make you smile when she describes the tragic advance of dementia, who celebrates the bonds of family and friendship no matter what. If you are looking for something a little more meaningful to buy your teenagers or bright pre-teens, Back to Blackbrick is it.

Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s book was launched earlier this month in Limerick and Dublin, published by Orion. The US version will be published soon as far as I know and translations are in the pipeline. So, bearing in mind the small disclaimer that I was once Sarah’s sweet younger cousin (less sweet now), rest assured this is an exceptional piece of fiction.
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Back-Blackbrick-Sarah-Moore-Fitzgerald/dp/1444006592

Growing up with books

Every writer starts out as a reader. If I cast my mind back to my childhood, books were a central feature of our lives. The greatest influence came from my paternal grandmother who lived with us growing up. She was a remarkable woman. Born in her father’s brewery in Kilkenny, Ireland in 1911, she had a small but fantastic library of books. Nanny, as we called her, trained as a Montessori teacher in London in the 1930s and later worked as a governess. She had a wonderful way with children. She introduced us to her favourite authors over the years and one of my sweetest memories is of sitting wedged into the armchair beside her as she read aloud.

There was the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome about a family of kids living in the English Lake District and My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell describing his years living on the island of Corfu. Nanny was crazy about Dickens and read through Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Dombey & Son, Nicholas Nickleby and  A Christmas Carol for us. She had a beautifully illustrated edition of the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen.

The more girl-oriented stories included The Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, A Little Princess and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Little Women and Anne of Green Gables were in there too as was the fantasy novel The Midnight Folk by John Masefield.

Stories featuring animals began with the Beatrix Potter series, moving on to Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne and The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.

My own favourite children’s book of all time is The Animals of Farthing Wood by Colin Dann, the story of a group of animals forced to flee when their forest is destroyed. Tom McCaughren’s Run Swift, Run Free series also featured foxes’ adventures. The list goes on and the great thing is I now have the pleasure of starting all over again with my own children.