This slim volume of essays is a very personal attempt to put into words what happens when a writer writes and a reader reads. No mean task. The first three were presented in November 2021 at the Teatro Arena del Sole in Bologna, Italy as the 2021 instalment of the Eco Lectures produced by Umberto Eco International Center for Humanities. They were read by the actress Manuela Mandracchia ‘in the guise’ of Elena Ferrante. The fourth and last essay, Dante’s Rib, concluded the conference Dante and Other Classics in April 2021 to celebrate the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. It was read by the scholar Tiziana de Rogatis.
Ferrante vividly reimagines her early school days when she was compelled to write on black lined paper but between two vertical red lines, one positioning the left margin, the other the right. She was diligent to recognise the ease to honour the left margin but recognising “that if your writing didn’t stay between those taut lines you would be punished,” she found the right margin difficult to obey.
I was punished so often that the sense of the boundary became part of me, and when I write by hand I feel the threat of the vertical red line even though I haven’t used paper like that for years.
There is, and always has been, a mysterious element to the creation of fiction. If you as a reader are surprised by what someone does or what someone says in a book, the writer probably was too. Most writers are pantsters: they fly by the seat of their pants. You can begin a scene not knowing where it’s going until you get there.
By mysterious I mean that which makes a writer re-read yesterday’s work and think, ‘Did I write that? Where did that come from?’ When a writer is in the heat of creativity and the keys (or pen) are jumping with energy and excitement, and the little black marks – typos misspellings galore – are coming lickerty-split onto the pale background there isn’t time to think, ‘What did Stephen King say about this situation?’ ‘Passive or active here?’ ‘Maybe I should re-read that Ferrante lecture’ and ‘I’d better ask what’s-his-name? that YouTube guy’. No, there isn’t time. If I stop I’ll lose it. One has to hope-to-god that all that advice, those corrections, mistakes, answers, instructions, and trial & errors have somehow, by osmosis perhaps, made it into my subconscious and are now flowing creatively through my fingertips shoving those little black marks all over that pale background and will coalesce into something worthwhile, giving me a rich and productive resource on which to later manipulate, via several drafts, into a good book. What is that magical force? (muse? imagination? the holy spirit? creative fire?). I don’t think we’ll ever know, because it’s an amorphous product of our imagination that our measly 26 man-made letters – no matter in what order we put them – are just too limited, or too few in number, to give it meaning we can understand.
She quotes Virginia Woolf, from A Writer’s Diary (1953):
“And your novel?
“Oh, I put in my hand and rummage in a bran pie*.”
“That’s what’s so wonderful. And it’s all different”
“Yes, I’m 20 people.”
*a bran pie = a tub full of bran in which treats are hidden: a lucky dip.
Ferrante believes there are two kinds of writing, the first compliant, the second impetuous; the first from the ‘outside’, the second from the imaginary ‘inside’ which is by its nature fleeting.
The thought-vision appears as something in motion – it rises and falls – [it’s not unlike watching TV in your mind] and its task is to make itself evident before disappearing.
And fleeting it certainly is. Many times between being hit by an exciting idea and racing to my nearest device with its Note App – it’s gone! And when I try to retrace my thoughts to whatever it was that sparked the thought train in the first place – the caption on a photo, a news article, a phrase – it’s nowhere to be found. Many writers have expressed this mysterious aspect of fiction writing:
Alexander McCall Smith: (writing fiction is) allowing the sub-conscience to escape.
Wole Soyinka: (writing fiction is) a kind of creative reportage.
John Irving: writing a movie is like swimming in a bath and writing a novel is like swimming in the ocean.
D. H. Lawrence: I am doing a novel which I have never grasped …there I am at page 145 and I’ve no notion what’s it about.
Jonathan Safran Foer: when writing non-fiction I always know in the morning what I’m going to work on; when writing fiction I get up in the morning NOT knowing what I’m going to work on.
Virginia Woolf again: writing is camping out in your brain.
There are quotable quotes in almost all of Ferrante’s paragraphs, ideas that will spark your own thought trains. If you are interested in this stuff please read it and re-read it as re-reading is wonderfully necessary; it will delight, amuse, and amaze you. If you’re not, don’t bother.
In this semi-autobiographical novel, a classic of American Modern Literature and set during the Depression at the University of Wisconsin, it isn’t surprising that the first person narrator, Larry Morgan, is a writer and so there are many references to the art, misuse, difficulties, and frustrations of such a profession.
Are writers reporters, prophets, crazies, entertainers, preachers, judges, what?
Is the gift, the talent, its own justification?
The process of writing fiction is an expression of self-discovery: being free and relaxed enough to let the sub-conscious out. And when it comes out you grab it and write it down. All the experiences of the world, the good, the bad, the insignificant, and the inferred make up one’s past life and the sub-conscious arranges them into memories which may or may not be accurate and can sometimes be perverse.
From these memories, the talent springs – the activity of imagining – but most of us, when the ‘talent springs’, do nothing about it. Scenes, conversations, ideas, rehearsed retorts, and wishful decisions occur to everyone all the time but only the writers write them down. But to write it down, you need to be practiced at writing things down, putting the products of your senses into words, and knowing the difference between a gerund and the infinitive.
Writing takes talent but it also takes practice. You can teach the practice but you can’t teach the talent.
Crossing to Safety (1987) tells the story of the remarkable friendship between Larry (the narrator) and Sally Morgan, young, poor, intelligent, and curious and a slightly older couple, Sid and Charity Lang, already ensconced in the English Department, and to the Morgans, a wonderfully urbane, astute, fascinating, devoted, and wealthy couple who take the newbies under their luxurious wings.
It’s easy for a first person narrator to slip into the third – they could tell a story, just like Terry Hayes does in I Am Pilgrim, – just as it is equally easy for the third person to get so close to a character that it a-l-m-o-s-t becomes the first. That’s why this more usual knack is sometimes called close writing. In more literary circles it’s called free indirect discourse. I prefer the less formal. What is unusual here is that Larry, Stegner’s first-person narrator, has only just met Sid and Charity and knows nothing about how their past unfolded, nor do they tell him. This is not a problem for Stegner. He imagines the meeting and early courtship of Sid and Charity;
“Who is this boy?” I can imagine her mother asking. “Do we know him? Do we know his family?” Suppose they are sitting …”
Yes, an audacious technique but one that works given that imagining is what fiction writing is all about.
It’s also audacious to let a character, Charity’s sister, keep the name Comfort. It’s likely Stegner didn’t choose it; it just happened. Things like that often occur when writing fiction. I know of a novelist who, at 83,000 words, thought he had nothing but a pile of poo until out of the mouth of a young character came, out of the blue, the title of the thing. Not only did the phrase give the thing a name, and its theme, it also turned the pile of poo into a novel and out of relief and gratitude the author burst into tears.
It’s moments like these that one could easily believe that fiction comes unbidden, from another place, from another being: fate, a muse maybe, or even a spirit or god. It’s also the reason why you might hear young writers foolishly say, “Oh, actually it wrote itself.” That’s nonsense of course, but the feeling is real.
Being a semi-autobiographical novel, the events may be part of the writer’s past but the intimate moments, the conversations, and minute-by-minute thoughts must rely on imagination; imagined and written down.
The fulcrum of this quartet of characters is Charity Lang. She is forceful, controlling, opinionated, always right, passive aggressive, and never backs down. Two major scenes stick in my mind and will for some time to come. I can’t describe them as that would give too much away but the first revolves around preparation for a camping expedition and whether a packet of tea-bags was packed, or not. Seemingly a trite scenario but in the hands of Stegner it’s a pivotal moment in the building of Charity’s character. The second, the devastating climax, is about who should or shouldn’t go on a family picnic. Here the character of Charity is at its most prickly, unbending, and cruel. However, the reader understands her point of view, and it’s a tribute to Stegner that you also understand the three other points of view. It’s a shattering scene.
This is a book of rich language with a commitment to nature, happiness, and the human foibles that shatter or uplift our lives.
Here you can view an interview with Stegner from the early 1970s.
And here is an hour long documentary “Wallace Stegner: A Writer’s Life,” narrated by Robert Redford and produced only a few years before the writer’s death in 1993.
In his unpublished novel, Gulliver’s Travels, the writer Michael K Freundt* tackles this notion of truth in fiction. His protagonist, a young writer, Robert Gulliver, takes over his mother’s work after she dies suddenly. Edith McGowan was a novelist, an agoraphobic, and not a very good wife and mother who only lived for the books she wrote, published, and sold on-line: a series of novels about a free-lance psychologist called Veronica.
Up until her death Robert had been helping her with her research and increasingly writing scenes and even full chapters; so much so that when she died it didn’t take much for him to take over her work completely. However, his intelligence and precociousness stimulated his marketing prowess and turned him into a social media star and eventually into the mainstream when a paper-book publisher picked him up. The books were moderately successful but then he craftily manoeuvred himself into a literary festival where his good-looks, charm, and audacity wowed the audience. It was at this festival, the inaugural Tathra Literary Weekend, that the following interview, in front of a live audience, took place with Emmy Mueller, an arts administrator and partner of the Festival’s director, Michelle Day.
Emmy finally gets around to Robert’s mother’s death.
‘I read in a newspaper report, Robert, you emailed it to me I think, that she died suddenly at her keyboard. She fell forward and her head typed hundreds of thousands of pages of the letter ‘t’ before you found her and lifted her off!’
‘Well, not quite like that.’
‘But hundreds and thousands of pages of the letter ’t’? That’s amazing!’
‘Actually, it was only 4378 pages.
‘But, I’m sure I read hundreds and thousands …’
‘No, it was 4378 pages. The exaggerated figure was, to be real, from a tabloid report.’
‘You sent me fake news then.’
‘You could say that.’
‘But with the letter ’t’.’
Robert adopts a well-rehearsed naughty boy expression, smirks, and says, ‘Actually, no.’
‘Another bit of fake news?’
‘No. I changed it to the letter ’t’.’
‘Sorry?’ Emmy Mueller had been annoyed at Robert’s email; taking it as a bit of author interference in her moderating role but the thousands of pages, still being created before Robert lifted his mother’s head off the keyboard, appealed to her sense of the theatrical, but she wasn’t prepared for this little admission.
‘I changed it to the letter ’t’,’ repeats Robert with a little uncomfortable burr in his brain, as if his little plan isn’t going to work.
‘So, if the letter isn’t true, what about the pages?’
‘Oh, there were thousands of pages.’
‘Over four thousand pages?’
‘But not with the letter ’t’.’
‘You changed it.’
‘You altered the facts. You lied to the police.’
‘No, I’m pretty sure I didn’t lie to the police. They could see the pages and what was written on them.’
‘So when did you lie?’
‘When I was interviewed a few days later.’
‘Why did you lie to the Press?’
‘So it would be believed.’
‘Robert, you’re going to have to explain that to us.’
‘The facts are not believable.’
‘You mean, the truth is not believable?’
‘ … Yes.’
‘What is the truth?’
‘The number of pages is the truth…’
‘But the letter that took up thousands of pages is not?’
‘No. That’s right. The letter is not.’
Suddenly a frustrated voice comes from the audience: ‘What was the bloody letter?’
After the laughter dies down he says, ‘The letter ‘y’ – next to the letter ’t’; so it could’ve quite easily have been the letter ’t’.’
‘But it wasn’t.’
‘No. It was the letter ‘y’.’
‘What is so unbelievable about the letter y?’
‘Well, think about it. If you read the truth: the e-novelist, Edith McGowan died, suddenly, inexplicably at her computer. She was discovered face down on her keyboard where her head had typed 4378 pages, and counting, of a single letter y, why why why why why why why…. Would you have believed it? I think your reaction would’ve been, ‘Oh, come on!’ Doesn’t it sound … a bit manufactured? Why did I die? Why why why! It has a false ring about it. You see? Like it was made up to be so ‘neat’ so ‘ironic’, so … not-real.’
‘So you changed it.’
‘Yes. I changed it to make it believable. I only changed one letter. In my report to the police, everything is true. But I needed to change that letter for the public. I needed to fictionalise it in order for the whole story to be taken as truth. Which it is. 99.9999% is true. And that’s what I love about fiction: it has the undeniable capacity of creating the believable, revealing the believable, and re-making the truth.’
‘The old, Truth is stranger than fiction, cliche?’
‘No. Fiction can also be more believable. And that’s what writers do: we take something made up and make your brain believe it. So much so that you laugh, cry, feel annoyed, or angry at what you really know is a made up story. Humans can do this, and we’re the only animal on the planet that can, and we do this because we have imagination. You can believe in it and not believe in it at the same time – the suspension of disbelief trick – you know you’re sitting in your living room in your reading chair by the window but your imagination is not with your body but with the story. Multi-tasking at its best.’
It’s not that truth is stranger than fiction, it’s that truth, in a novel, can be weaker than fiction; and this is possible because from a very young age we are lied to by our parents and by the society in which we live: told stories, usually for educational, sociological, and disciplinary reasons, good reasons it could be argued, but lies none-the-less. The Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Boogie Man, god, growing pains, the trustworthy priest, the helpful policeman, the benevolent government, the winning lottery, the best price, the fool-proof diet … I’m sure you could add a few more. We are so used to this duality that sometimes they get confused and people can become to rely on the lie because it’s all that they know and it’s comforting to believe in something, even if it’s not true.
Our imagination, the sole thing that makes us human, has it’s own dark side.
American Dirt (2020) is a novel about a Mexican mother and her son who are forced to join the hordes of immigrants to try to enter the USA. The controversy around it rests on not just a white woman writing about a brown woman, and a writer who doesn’t understand the plight of ‘the other’, but critics are also questioning her writing skills.
The two sides are simply described by NBC journalist Gwen Aviles:
The novel’s defenders maintain that Jeanine Cummins’ book, released on Jan. 21, is an important narrative confronting a topical issue, U.S. migration from Mexico and Central America. The book has been championed by high-profile celebrities, like Oprah who named it her bookclub pick.
The novel’s critics, however, primarily consisting of Latinos and other people of color, have deemed the book opportunistic and racist and are questioning why Latino authors often don’t receive a similar level of support for their projects, which touch upon similar themes and are written from an insider’s perspective.
This white-privileged use of people of colour and from other cultures as ciphers in novels has been around for hundreds of years: Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861) and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) are the most famous examples and both spurned novels that ‘wrote back’ to the colonial centre with Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea respectively. The characters: Dickens’ Abel Magwitch, a convict escaped from Botany Bay, and Bronte’s creole and unnamed mad-woman in the attic were used as plot points and not as rounded characters and it took Carey and Rhys to give these characters a voice and their own power and agency. These latter books are part of a literary genre known as Post-Colonial literature.
It’s not that a white writer cannot write about a brown character, it’s that when a white writer does they must do it with an understanding that that brown character has agency, honour, a past, and future. In other words the brown character must be respected.
The publishers of the American Dirt, Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan have cancelled their planned national book tour because of the controversy.
An open letter signed by 138 writers has been sent to Oprah Winfrey asking her to rescind her support for the book. The letter succinctly explains the criticism and you can read it here.
Step one: Choose a common phrase like, There and Back to See How Far it is, Head you Off at the Pass, It’s a Long Way to ……, you get the idea, and make it your title.
Step two: Collect anecdotes of your coming of age (COA).
Step thee: rack your brain for your pubescent sexual fantasies (PSF).
Step four: make a list of your own foibles (SD = self-deprecation).
Step five: have handy anecdotes from other trips to the same places (SP).
Step six: if you’re an American living in Britain, collect phrase and stories that put down the Yanks or the Brits. (OPD = own put downs).
Step seven: collect puts downs of a nerd that gets put down a lot by your targeted audience, like the Irish, the Mormons, the Kiwis, etc. (NPD = nerd put downs)
Step eight: you’ll also need some RPD’s – racial put downs.
So, let’s begin.
Chapter One. Of course, you start with a journey. However, if the journey is a little boring you can always rely on a PSF:
I fanaticised about “…finding myself seated next to a panting young beauty being sent by her father against her wishes to the Lausanne Institute for Nymphomaniacal Disorders, who would turn to me somewhere over the mid-Atlantic and say, ‘Forgive me, but would it be alright if I sat on your face for a while?”
and you can then tack on an NPD which has OPD overtones:
“In the event my seatmate turned out to be an acned string-bean with Buddy Holly glasses and a line-up of ball-point pens clipped into a protective plastic case in his shirt pocket.”
But if you find yourself on an inspirational roll you can continue this novel scenario:
“I spied a coin under the seat in front of me, and with protracted difficulty leaned forward and snagged it. When I sat up, I saw my seatmate was at last looking at me with that ominous glow.
‘Have you found Jesus?’ he said suddenly.
‘Uh, no, it’s a quarter,’ I answered and quickly settled down and pretended for the next six hours to be asleep, ignoring his whispered entreaties to let Christ build a bunkhouse in my heart.”
It’s important to understand that such ‘stories’ don’t necessarily need to come from the trip you are now writing about, nor do they necessarily need to have happened at all. Let’s call it comedic license.
And of course, when in Germany, it’s likely that funny incidents are few and far between but there’s always a good PSF to come to your aid:
“I had only signed up for German [as a boy] because it was taught by a walking wet dream named Miss Webster, who had the most magnificent breasts and buttocks that adhered to her skirt like melons in shrink-wrap.”
Or, as in his few pages on Cologne, he begins with an RPD about the woman running the statin café who ignored him because he ignored her:
“This is the worst characteristic of the Germans. Well, actually a predilection for starting land wars in Europe is their worst characteristic, but this is up there with it.”
He then segues into an SP about a previous visit to Cologne when he stayed in a cheap hotel and read soft-porn magazines that other guests had left behind. He then contemplates the massive cathedral and comments on its size with a little OPD:
“You can understand why it took 700 years to build – and that was with German workers. In Britain they would still be digging the foundations.”
Without any nicer things to say about Cologne Bryson indulges in a reminiscence about flying on a 747, and regaling the reader with the lack of American know-how of audio electronics – a bit of ODP – and praising the Japanese “for filling my life with convenient items like a wristwatch that can store telephone numbers, calculate my overdraft and time my morning egg” – a sort of reverse RDP. He then cuts short his Cologne stay when he spies a non-stop porno cinema in the train station, which one would’ve thought would’ve given Mr Bryson an extra beat of his heart but it instead caused him to high-tail it out of Cologne and head for, ironically, Amsterdam.
His stay in Hamburg is similar: he complains about the ugliness of the prostitutes, the smallness and expense of his carpet-less hotel room, the sex-shops – “nothing compared to those in Amsterdam” – although he does praise their ingenuity when it comes to manufacturing and promoting sex dolls. He indulges in a little RDP, ODP, SP and then tops it off with a lengthy analysis of why beautiful and stylish German women don’t shave their armpits; like “a Brillo pad hanging there. I know some people think it’s earthy, but so are turnips …”
Oh, and he also hates dogs.
It seems that Mr Bryson understands well his potential readership: the kind of travellers that other travellers try to avoid.
However, after reading the dense prose of our human stains in the stories by Tsiolkas, a house-brick sized Moorhouse about mores, political and sexual, in Canberra in the 1950’s, and the ethereal beginnings of literary modernism in Joyce, I thought I needed something light.
Neither Here nor There (1992) is entertaining-ish, undemanding, diverting, and completely forgettable, but don’t let it inform you about Europe.
Access to all 46 formats and editions you can find here.
When you open a book to page one you usually do so with a blank mind, but an expectant one; waiting for the writer to paint you a picture which becomes – the quicker the better you hope – understanding: place, time, people, action. But right from the start of Max Porter’s Lanny this assumption is useless.
Don’t be put off, if by the end of page 9 you haven’t got a clue what’s going on. Let the snatches of village gossip and easy chatty phrases wash over you like breezes, like waves: exactly like they do on the page – yes exactly like waves, not in straight lines.
Watch and listen to Max Porter talk about the making and the essence of his book, Lanny.
In the first sentence you are introduced to Dead Papa Toothwort; at this moment, and for a few pages to come, a mystery. The more you read the more theories of his identity test themselves until you think that Dead Papa Toothwort is a presence, something like an invisible, all-knowing spirit that flits, swoops, and hovers in and over a village, through its stories, myths, and pliable imaginations, past and present. The strange beginning and pages of wavy lines are necessary: once you accept the existence of Dead Papa Toothwort, and you must, Porter prepares you to accept a whole lot more (no spoilers here).
But the village is real, as real as a novelistic village can be; a dormitory nameless village on the outskirts of London – and we finally meet characters in that village, and we are on safer ground. Understanding, place, time, characters, action emerge like a happy vista through a rising fog. Lanny’s Mum, Lanny’s Dad and Pete. They tell you their stories in the first person, and all of their stories revolve around Lanny. A boy. An exceptional boy. Everyone loves Lanny. He scares people sometimes, especially his parents. He sings when he walks. He collects stuff like a bower bird. He soothes anger with a well-chosen question or a song. And then Lanny disappears.
This book is not a conventional book. Porter has created something different, and what that something is I’m not sure, yet. What it has in common with a conventional book is that it is satisfying, a strange, but satisfying read. There are some conversations and dialogue but not in the familiar form – punctuation is minimal, but no quotation marks – yet it’s always clear what you’re reading, who is speaking, what is being said. You get to know these people very quickly. It’s a small book, I read it in two consecutive afternoons.
In the middle of the book when the town, the police, the media, turn on these three people the tension, the fear, and the unease is told through multiple voices; it isn’t important who says them; you can guess who says them.
Lanny is the centre of the story, but Lanny isn’t given his own voice. You learn to love Lanny via those around him. Porter gives you recognisable emotions, flawed parents, uncaring neighbours, who themselves sometimes are given a voice; familiar novelistic traits that are compensation for, it seems, for the unconventional beginning and format.
I have only one criticism: I would’ve liked to have witnessed more of Lanny’s exceptionalism; his soothing of anger with a song, for example, than just been told about it.
As Porter says, it is not a book that has much to do with today. There are no mobile phones, computers, or text-speak. It is a book about sound and our imagination and how we need to let a writer tickle that imagination into forms and acceptances that are a little out of our comfort zone.
I urge you to give him that chance.
Max Porter’s first novel, Grief is The Thing with Feathers (2015), won many awards and nominations and has been sold in twenty nine territories. A theatrical version was staged in Dublin in March 2018.
You can watch an interview with Porter about Lanny, it’s themes and genesis, here.
On my dining room table. Each post-it note is a chapter and/or plot point. Over the last 4 years I’ve been spewing out scenes onto my screen in some, but generally no particular order. Today was an attempt to find the narrative arc. Initially it looked a mess – well, it still is a mess, but it’s now a mess with a little more order. It also gave me some idea where the holes are. There are many.
Here’s the Prelude to give you an idea of what it’s about.
If you ask a family member – of any family – if they are happy, they would invariably pause, not wanting to simply say “yes”, and try to think of a word, or words, that would accurately describe their … but they would all so quickly realise that they have no idea how to describe how they feel so they say, “Yes,” usually adding, “of course.” You know this is a lie, but politeness and fear forces you to acquiesce and you smile and say something limp in acknowledgment, like “Good.” This is an example of two lies being better than none. You can both now get on with whatever you were doing; conditioning your hair, mowing the lawn, doing your tax, without upsetting the balance of the universe, happy in the nameless knowledge that you have successfully bypassed the slippery dip to yelling, tears, and/or the breakdown of your world as you know it. This is the bedrock of why families survive; sometimes, even when they shouldn’t.
If you realise at any time that you have somehow been perplexingly born into the wrong family, or if circumstances render your family suddenly, or slowly, unacceptable to you, you need to – or may be forced to – do something about it.
This is a story of a boy who did just that.
I needed an idea of what this boy might look like and I found this photo on the web and immediately I knew it was him:
He’s a fifteen year old boy who was hit by puberty ridiculously early and hard.
He’s a very naughty boy but affectionate, intelligent, and often annoying
… and he’s still at school.
A boy in a man’s body.
Potential titles: Knitting with Fog, Gulliver’s Travels, or just Gulliver.
I was curious about writing in the second person. The first person (“I went to ….”) and the third person (“She went to …”) are common, but the second person (“You went to …”) is not. It is hard to maintain since the narrator is either talking to the reader or to another character, and in either case eventually the narrative takes over. Elliot Perelman begins his excellent novel Seven Types of Ambiguity with the second person and it has a disquieting effect. I thought I’d give it a go.
I’m sure there must be somewhere in your past, a person, a place, that screwed out a little knot of fear in your little child’s mind. You know what I mean; where a young child’s untamed immigration is let loose by an overheard adult conversation in hushed tones with shaking heads. Remember that fear and let it mingle with another memory I’m sure you have; of an adult that was introduced, innocently enough, into your family but that you wondered what the hell they were doing there.
I added the word anyway, “Anyway, remember that fear …” to make the tone more friendly, more intimate, more conversational.
However, if there is anything I’ve learnt from reading it’s that writers want their readers to believe that what is being written is true. Such truth, created truth: verisimilitude, is achieved with the use of detail, among other things; so let’s do this again:
I’m sure there must be somewhere in your past, a person, a place, that screwed out a little knot of fear in your little child’s mind: the old man with the cleft-lip who lived in an old bus, spoke to no one, and ate nettles on toast – so the story went; the falling-down shop-front, boarded-up and silent since a little girl had her throat cut by a mentally deranged greengrocer all those years ago. It was in all the papers. You know what I mean; where a young child’s untamed immigration is let loose by an overheard adult conversation in hushed tones with shaking heads. Anyway, remember that fear and let it mingle with another memory I’m sure you have; of an adult that was introduced, innocently enough, into your family but that you wondered: who is this person? What are they doing there.
I wasn’t sure where this was going but I kept on
So, now that you have these two mingled memories you may understand how I felt when …
I needed to tie it all up and have it lead to something, someone; so I found myself writing …
… Mum brought home a bag-lady one day and told me I had to call her Auntie Marge.
Now I have a possible title: Auntie Marge. One of my father’s sisters was called Marge, and I called her Auntie Marge. She wasn’t scary but it was the first name that sprang to mind. I hardly ever spoke to her. Maybe I was scared of her. But now I have a character that I need to flesh out a bit.
I don’t know why I thought of her as a bag-lady, she didn’t have any bags with her …
This is another ‘trick’ I’ve learnt from reading: the admission by the narrator that they don’t know something or don’t remember something. It adds verisimilitude.
… but it was the first time I had ever seen a woman with uncombed hair so I thought that’s what she was. I got a slap around the legs for using the term so I only said it once but that’s how I always thought of Auntie Marge; a bag lady.
I first of all had Kathy Bates (from Misery) in mind.
I googled “scary aunt” and found this,
I think this is Geraldine Page. The hair is too neat, but the look is perfect. So with a mixture of these two images, but with messier hair, I had my look: Auntie Marge.
When she first looked at me she smiled down, unclasped her fingers and held out her hand and when I hesitated just for the briefest moment her face changed ever-so slightly like she suddenly knew exactly what I was thinking and I saw hatred in her pinched little eyes. I took her hand – I held my breath, I distinctly remember holding my breath – and she shook my hand and gave it a squeeze.
I thought my narrator should say something innocuous here, like “Nice to meet you” to which Auntie Marge could say, or say with a look of “Oh really?” However, my narrator is locked into only speaking when spoken to – and they were not alone, so I was left with a description of, of, her hand:
It was dry and scaly.
Now, I wanted to describe an event and an event when they were alone: something that upped the scary tone a bit. I’ve never written anything like this before.
I kept out of her way, which wasn’t difficult as I had been taught to keep out of everyone’s way. Adults didn’t like children hanging around; but one day when I was sitting at the big dining table, I had just installed a little electric engine into my lego windmill and I was trying to fix a jam-jar rubber around a little pulley so the silly thing would at least go round and round. I heard the door into the kitchen close behind me. This door was never closed, except in winter when there was a fire in the living room fire-place. This was summer and all the living-room curtains were drawn to keep out the heat so the room was gloomy but I had my desk-lamp plugged in and I was working in its light. I heard the door close and then nothing. I knew it was her. I knew she was there looking at me with her hands clasped together like she always did. I also became aware that there was no other sound in the house. My Dad was always out doing farm stuff but there were no other noises. Mum was out too. We were alone, Auntie Marge and me. In the house. Just us. And then she spoke:
“You don’t like me very much.”
That’s what she said, nothing else.
I didn’t know what to say. I had been taught to only speak when spoken to, and to never lie, of course, but this wasn’t a question. What was I meant to say? I didn’t know. Besides, I didn’t know what to say to something that was true, I didn’t like her. So I said nothing. Then she said, still just standing there, she said, “Are you sure you’re allowed to have a light on in the middle of the day?” Now, this was a question and a question deserves an answer, I knew that,and I did know Mum didn’t like lights on in the daytime but my lego town was too big for my desk in my room and it was too hot to play outside so I had to play with my lego town on the dining table in the living room and yes the curtains were drawn to keep the house cool so I had to have a light on. Again I didn’t know what to … and then she added quickly, “I could tell on you.” That’s what she said, just like fatty Raelene does when I pick my nose in class. I thought of turning off my desk lamp but then I’d be in the dark, all alone with Auntie Marge in the dark! And then she said it again“I could tell on you,” adding “and I think I might.”
Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, and the year that changed literature.
In January 1922 Adeline Woolf, everyone called her Virginia, turned 40 and was very sick with influenza that prevented her from writing; T. S. Eliot, everyone called him Tom, 34, had been over worked, unhappy, in therapy, but now quietly confident since he had started writing again but fearful of returning to the Bank that trapped him between the concrete and the sky; E. M. Forster, called Morgan, 43, was sexually and artistically frustrated; and D. H. Lawrence, called Bert, 36, had the threat of his books being banned(Women in Love, 1921, ” … ugly, repellent, vile”), and a libel suit against him so wanted to know “For where was life to be found” and thought by going to a quiet place by himself he might find it: Ceylon, New Mexico, or New South Wales.
All four had achieved some degree of literary fame: Woolf had published two novels and the third, Jacob’s Room, was waiting for her final revisions, however her illness kept her away from her work. Eliot had published successfully TheLovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock in Poetry magazine in 1915 and had been a regular contributor of reviews and essays, primarily for The Times Literary Supplement right up to December 1921. Forster had achieved great success with a series of novels, usually about the English abroad, beginning with Where Angels Fear to Tread in 1905 but by 1922 nothing had appeared after the very successful Howard’s End in 1910. Lawrence was more infamous than famous and had had Women in Love published in June 1921. It garnered bad reviews, and low sales. This added to the outrage caused by its prequel, The Rainbow, 1915, when it was withdrawn by the publisher after it was banned under the Obscene Publications Act. Lawrence had also characterised in the latter work, an acquaintance, Philip Heseltine, and thought he had disguised him enough, but Heseltine was not fooled and threatened legal action.
For all four writers 1922 did not begin well.
Artistic endeavour is always trying to solve the problems of the art form itself. How does a writer write an autobiography and make it interesting without using the boring phrases, “Then I went …. she cried and so I said …., Then I said, and he went ….”? Novelists for centuries have been using description and dialogue to draw a character; but in an autobiography how do you create an image of the narrator? There must be another way. Yes, there is, and one of the first writers to find another way was James Joyce who began his autobiographical novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) like this
Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.
First of all he writes not in the first person, but in the third (very radical, this is an autobiography, remember) and the above opening is not dialogue, it is prose; it’s not said by the protagonist but by the narrator using the language that the little boy, James, might use to describe what he sees and what he sees is himself! It’s as if the third person narrator is not some all-pervasive, god-like know-it-all but an imp sitting on the shoulder of the little boy seeing the world through his eyes and hearing the thoughts in his head. This literary device has become known as free indirect discourse, or as the literary critic of The New Yorker, James Wood, calls it, ‘close writing’; and it’s as common today in contemporary fiction as Vegemite is for an Australian breakfast. But it can’t be used in the first person. Or can it? Now, there’s a challenge for an adventurous writer!
Painters sought to bypass the ‘real’ bit in order to paint, say, serenity, by trying to paint serenity with just the paint on the canvas, not trying to be something else, a face, a landscape, to ‘portray’ serenity. In other words, they painted not what they saw but what they felt. Writer’s similarly de-focused the ‘real’ bit and concentrated on, not what the characters did – the plot – but what the characters felt and thought. The plot became internalised.
Before January 1922 was over Eliot and Lawrence had succumbed to the influenza that brought Woolf so low and was rapidly becoming an epidemic to rival the devastating outbreak of 1918-19 that killed more people than the Great War. At least for Eliot the influenza kept him away from the bank and, despite the disease, hard at work on his long poem. His ill wife, also being absent, was yet another and usual worry out of the way.
On his way back to London from the unsuccessful trip to India Forster bought and read Proust’s first volume, Swann’s Way in French. He was “awestruck” and marveled at Proust’s use of memory to drive the narrative. Later in the year as the weather warmed he used Proustian ideas, and a poem by J. R. Ackerley, Ghosts, to impinge on him the truth that there is life after tragedy. His tragedy was the slow death of his unrequited lover in Egypt, whose death he almost wished would be sooner than later, as he was slowly re-reading the abandoned pages of his Indian novel, making notes and yearning for his tragedy to be behind him.
Woolf, with her illness almost past, read Proust too, in the spring while working on an essay about reading and dabbling with a minor character from her first novel, The Voyage Out, Clarissa Dallaway, weaving her into a short story called Mrs Dallaway in Bond Street.Woolf too was enthralled with Proust’s use of memory to evoke the current state of mind of a character. In the opening scene of the short story, which eventually evolved into the novel Mrs Dallaway, Woolf has Clarissa arrested by the chiming of Big Ben which announces the convergence of the past and present, not only in the character’s mind but also on the page. Very Proustian! Clarissa Dallaway in Woolf’s first novel is described by the narrator but Woolf was determined in this one, this modern one, to have Clarissa think everything the reader needs to know about her. As Woolf wrote later to a friend, she didn’t mind being sick as “Proust’s fat volume comes in very handy.” Woolf, who wrote that she wanted to write like Proust, didn’t of course, but it was because of him that she began to write like herself again.
Joyce, for her, was different. Woolf and Joyce were both British, they were both the same age, and Joyce in 1922 had “a novel out in the world, a massive – expensive – box of a book”, Ulysses, and Woolf had not published a novel in two and a half years. She was jealous. Besides, Ulysses didn’t impress her. She thought it was “underbred” by a “self-taught working man.” What she failed to realise was that Joyce had a degree, she didn’t; it was she, not him, who was self taught.
Lawrence left England in early 1922 for Ceylon, but found it unsatisfactory, then Perth, Western Australia, very unsatisfactory, then Thirroul, south of Sydney, where he transferred his thinking back to what he called his ‘interim’ books, short stories and journalism. Could he write a novel like those, in a month, or less, using nothing but what he had around him, namely Frieda and himself, and what he thought and felt? He decided to give it a go and the novel Kangaroo was born, but this too stalled. It was the third novel in a row that got ‘stuck’. However, without the help of Proust, Lawrence turned to memory, and chapter 12, the longest in the book and the only one not set in Australia, describes the fear he and Frieda experienced at the outbreak of World War I (she was German and had abandoned her first husband and children; he was excluded from service because of his frail body). Lawrence had instilled in his protagonist, Richard Somers, a ‘fear’, exemplified by the vastness of the Australian continent, and it was Lawrence’s explanation of this fear, via his personal experience, his memory, that ‘unstuck’ his progress, and he got the thing finished.
T. S. Eliot finally saw his long poem, The Waste Land, the poem that had battled with his job, his contemporaries, his wife, his past, and his health, finally published. Goldstein spends a lot of time, too much you may think, on the procrastination, arguments, letters, late replies, betrayals, that stall the publication; and all concerning people, publishers, agents, friends, supporters, who want it published.
For a year that started badly for all of them, 1922 ended like a new dawn: Virginia Woolf had a new novel, Mrs Dallaway; E. M. Forster was well on his way with his Indian novel, the one that had caused him so much anguish, A Passage To India, (1924), and would become his most celebrated; D. H. Lawrence had written a new novel, very different from his previous works, no sex, but had also been vindicated by the courts: The Rainbow and Women in Love were judged not obscene, although some passages were, but the press-obsessed trials led to a resurgence of sales and interest in his work; and T. S. Eliot finally saw his long poem in print, and received the accolades he thought it deserved.
For readers who are interested in literature and its history this book is a must-read. Goldstein has sculptured a surprising and complex narrative, esoteric and detailed, yes, but intriguing, stimulating, and fascinating.
In the year 1922 these four writers, for various reasons, had already been chipping away, with varying intensities, at a ‘crack’ in the English literary world, hoping their artistic challenges and vaguely-inspired experiments would lead them in a new and exciting direction. Then came the thundering blows of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and Joyce’s Ulysses which, along with The Waste Land, caused the ‘break’ and English literature did indeed cleave in two and took off in a new direction. However, the ‘piece’ that remained behind kept the majority of readers with it and it was those readers who demanded, and got, a whole array of plot-based genres, the names of which you can see topping a multitude of racks of books in any sizable book shop today; and over there in the corner of the shop topping a not insubstantial, but nevertheless alone, book-stack is another sign: literary fiction.
This is Robert Gulliver, and he’s in the process of being born.
Over the last few years, longer probably, I have sketched out a story about this curious character in script form. Because that’s how I originally saw him, it. I don’t remember where he, the idea, came from. He is sixteen but the rigours of puberty landed heavily and early on dear Robert; that, and given his unusual parenting, and intellect, he is very much a round peg in a square hole. In fact, he is a man still in high school.
I was inspired to re-visit Robert recently as circumstances are that I don’t have the luxury of blocks of hours at my disposal to give long-form writing the wealth of time it needs. I have a few long-form projects that need just that. I thought polishing and cut & pasting an existing work would be a much better use of the time I have. Unfortunately I had written 80% of Gulliver’s Travels on a script-writing program called Final Draft; my subscription had expired, the update was expensive, and I was locked out of the program. However, although Robert has been sitting there, locked in the ether, he has been a lot on my mind: the story is well formed and remembered, and re-remembering it, but in a different form, was an interesting and challenging idea to dive into.
Robert’s story is about family. And the moment I wrote that word ‘family’ Leo Tolstoy’s famous opening line from Anna Karenina sprang to mind:
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. (Translation by Constance Garnett)
And a comment by Patrick Gale, a British and favoured author of mine, in which he said he likes page one to hold some sort of key to the whole work itself. It’s not that Robert’s family is unhappy or that I need a cryptic smack of the whole thing to begin, but what those two thoughts inspired was this,
by Michael Freundt
If you asked a family member – of any family – if they were happy, they would invariably pause, not wanting to simply say “yes”, and try to think of a word, or words, that would accurately describe their … but they would all so quickly realize that they have no idea how to describe how they feel so they say, “Yes,” usually adding, “of course.” You know that this is a lie, but politeness and fear forces you to acquiesce and you smile and say something limp in acknowledgment, like “Good.” This is an example of two lies being better than none. You can both now get on with whatever you were doing; conditioning your hair, mowing the lawn, doing your tax, without upsetting the balance of the universe, happy in the faceless knowledge that you have successfully bypassed the slippery dip to yelling, tears, and/or the breakdown of your world as you know it. This is the bedrock of why families survive; sometimes, even when they shouldn’t.
If you realise at any time that you have somehow been perplexingly born into the wrong family, or if circumstances render your family suddenly, or slowly, unacceptable to you, you need to – or may be forced to – do something about it. This is a story of a boy who did just that.