What W. H. Auden Can do for You by Alexander McCall Smith

Auden via Smith

In a primary school in a small country town on the Adelaide Plain in South Australia in 1960-something, poetry was a page of writing, usually with a rhyming pattern of a-a-b-b or, if we were good, a-b-a-b, given to us students at Friday’s last session. The copies were made on that ancient, clumsy, messy, clanky machine: the Gestetna. Each student had a poetry exercise book, blank not lined. We had to carefully smear Clag on the back of the poetry page and stick it nicely, no splodges, onto the right hand side of a double page in our poetry exercise book. On the blank left-hand page we had to draw something inspired by the poem. No matter what the poem was about, spring, the Queen, a train, elephants, I always drew a two dimensional, two-storey house as big as the page would allow; so big in fact that the smoke coming from the chimney – there was always a smoking chimney – had nowhere to go except, unrealistically, down the side of the page towards the ground. The teacher never made a comment about this.

No attempt was ever made to make us think that we could possibly write a poem. I didn’t write one but I learned one: a poem of the “A starling, a silly little darling, such a pretty sight to see” variety. I recited this poem to my parents one day in the car on the way to Adelaide, that little flat city that was the capital of the state and, to me, the centre of the universe. My stepfather said nothing: he was deaf. My mother said something nice to me, which I liked. I liked it very much even though my mother’s praise was usually of the “That’s nice, dear, but don’t get too big for your boots” variety. Somehow I understood that she thought that I had written it. I didn’t know how to tell her that I hadn’t and, besides the warmth of praise, even meagre praise, was something rare and utterly delightful. I let her believe that I had written it and felt guilty for years to come, especially since she made me write it down and submit it to my monthly children’s magazine, and in which it was printed. I thought the police would arrive any day and take me away and do what they did to little boys who told lies, claimed other people’s words as their own, and thought poems were things to be proud about.

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with poetry ever since: I love mine but hate everyone else’s. I thought for a long time that my schoolteachers weren’t telling me something: like a missing bit from an IKEA pack. However then I thought that maybe I was not getting something so I read a lot of poetry and from all those years only three have gained some traction in my satisfaction bank: Robert Browning’s Porphyria’s Lover, a narrative poem of sacrificial love but, as I understood later, extremely misogynistic; William Carlos Williams’ To a Poor Old Woman which is simple-sad but strong and showed me that poetry doesn’t need punctuation if the lines are the right length; and Clive James’ Japanese Maple which is about approaching death which is apt since he’s dying (talk-about write what you know!).

Anyway, imagine my expectation when I saw Alexander McCall Smith What W. H. Auden can do for you (2013) on a friend’s bookshelf. Maybe I’ll find what I’m looking for in this little book.

Mr. McCall Smith (or is it simply Mr. Smith?) obviously loves poetry and has been reading it since he was 15 and he also obviously loves Auden, although he seems eager to point out that his little tome is not a hagiography. Auden has often been criticized for using words simply for effect and without real regard to their meaning; a criticism McCall Smith agrees with. Here is a quote from his Letters from Iceland (1937).

And the traveller hopes; ‘Let me be far from my

Physician’; and the ports have names for the sea;

The citiless, the corroding, the sorrow;

And North means to all: Reject!’

The curious line “and the ports have names for the sea” is actually a misprint: he meant ‘poets’ but ‘ports’ was printed. Auden left it in. He liked the sound of it. The other line of interest is “Let me be far from my physician.” McCall Smith is critical of this word too, but as I read the first line the surprise certainly came with the word ‘physician’. I was expecting ‘mother’ or ‘country’ or ‘crowds’ (as McCall Smith suggests) but with the surprise came understanding. I read it as ‘far from all that is safe and fixable.’ McCall Smith thought it may stand “for all that is overly fussy and cosseting in modern society.” The point here is that, no matter what Auden meant, and what he meant is really irrelevant: meaning is in the mind of the reader. I’m sticking to my ‘safe and fixable.’

McCall Smith makes it clear that Auden’s homosexuality was reflective of his time which was full of perverse contradictions: single sex boarding schools which thrust a single sex together while punishing single sex itself, which is itself reflective in the hypocrisy of calling moneyed schools ‘public’ as if their money was for all, which it wasn’t. Such a system, a bed of oppression and treachery, not surprisingly, also produced spies. And intellectuals who in their declining years re-embraced Christianity, as did Auden. All this is mirrored in his choice of subjects, Freud, limestone, Iceland, Spain, Hitler, Rome, love – sexual and not, dreams, birds, water, fascism, and vales but not mountains.

Knowing something of the poet, and his times, helps in understanding his poetry; even an older Auden disowned the words of his younger self. Thank god he told us. McCall Smith also states that influences of time and place can’t be ignored. He identifies two great influences on artistic endeavour in the twentieth century: war and Freud… Now, hang on! All I’m looking for is an ‘in’ to the appreciation of poetry and here, Auden’s in particular. I, nor anyone, have the time for an academic investigation to eek out meaning to the words I’ve just read.

In the musical theatre characters sing when the emotion, or action, expressed is bigger than the text, when just words are not enough. Similarly it seems with poetry: it’s louder, stronger, more complex, more succinct, and usually more effective than mere words. To write about political decline, as he did in The Fall of Rome, less is more:

The piers are pummelled by the waves;

In a lonely field the rain

Lashes an abandoned train;

Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

 

 

Fantastic grow the evening gowns;

Agents of the Fisc pursue

Absconding tax-defaulters through

The sewers of provincial towns.

 

 

Private rites of magic send

The temple prostitutes to sleep;

All the literati keep

An imaginary friend. …

 

 

Caesar’s double-bed is warm

As an unimportant clerk

Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK

On a pink official form…

The imagery here is singular but powerful: an abandoned train; fantastical evening gowns; tax-defaulters fleeing through sewers; private rites of magic; sleeping leaders; and an unimportant and disillusioned clerk. These are four of the six verses in the poem; Edward Gibbon’s  The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire stands at 12 massive tomes With Auden you don’t get the history, but you get the idea.

What I take from this book is the affirmation that if a poem doesn’t speak to you, read it again, really listen to what the words, and, more importantly, the words together, conjure, and what you think it means is what it means, but if you still can’t hear anything, put it back and read something else.

W. H. Auden
British poet, Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973)

Oh, and in 1940-41 W. H. Auden lived in Brooklyn Heights in a house, that has become known as the February House, with Benjamin Britten, Jane and Paul Bowles, Carson McCullers and Gypsy Rose Lee. What a Sunday-lunch gathering that would be!

For more insight into poetry John Goodman succinctly explains obscurity in poetry, not forgetting that obscurity as a fad in art comes and goes. You can read his article here.

And you can listen to Auden himself reading his As I Walked Out One Evening (1937) here.

 

Sherlock Holmes, where are you?

Sherlock Holmes, invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1897 in A Study in Scarlet, keeps popping up again and again; a contemporary television series “Sherlock” (2010) starring Benedict Cumerbatch, and a movie franchise “Sherlock Holmes” (1: 2009, 2: 2011, 3: in development) starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. Now he appears in two celebrated novels.

The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons

The Fifth Heart Cover pic

Fiction, by its very definition, is the process of “imaginative narration” or “a composition of non-factual events” and accordingly enables writers to create, to ‘make up’, whatever the hell they want. It is a little incongruous then that most readers seem to want to read stories that are familiar, plot driven (literary fiction is on the decline) and with an ending that is expected and therefore satisfying. I think it is fair to say that all stories can be whittled down to the good guy wins, the bad guy looses or, as Oscar Wilde has Miss Prism say about her three volume novel she wrote in her youth, in The Importance of Being Earnest, Act 2, Scene 1, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means”.  However fantasy and science fiction, extremely ‘made up’ narratives, are among the top five most popular literary genres. Still within their contexts what is familiar (treachery, jealousy, love, betrayal, and relationships) is still what is expected.

Dan Simmons pic

Dan Simmons is one of the few novelists whose work spans the genres of fantasy, science fiction, horror, suspense, historical fiction, noir crime fiction, and mainstream literary fiction. His books are published in 29 counties.

I first encountered Dan Simmons with his novel, Drood (2009), his re-invention of Dickens’ last and unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. I didn’t finish it. It had nothing to do with Dickens and I have very little time for horror/fantasy. However, with The Fifth Heart (2015) I was prepared to ‘swallow’ whatever Simmons ‘made up’; and he makes up everything except the names of his two main characters, Sherlock Holmes, a made up character himself, and the novelist, Henry James, a real person.

It is clear from page one that the reader is well and truly in Dan Simmons territory: Henry James, the famous American expat novelist (and real person once upon a time) is approaching 50, in Paris, depressed, and plans to kill himself by throwing himself into the Seine under Pont Neuf. Not surprisingly he is thwarted in his suicide attempt (it doesn’t take such Holmesian logic to realise that Henry James’s name is on the front cover and this is only page 4) by a Norwegian explorer who James instantly recognises as Sherlock Holmes (you know, the literary character invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) despite the disguise (wig and puttied nose); despite the dark and misty night; despite the fact that this is 1896 and Holmes, the fictional character, has been dead for 3 years, having been killed off in the last of the Holmes published mysteries, The Adventure of the Final Problem published in 1893 which saw Holmes tumble over Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls in the deadly grip of his arch-foe Moriarty. The bodies were never found. Ha! Oh, Henry James shrugs off all these discrepancies, and Simmons expects us to do so too, since James remembers meeting Holmes at an afternoon soirée at the home of his good friend Mrs. O’Connor four years before. Holmes is also contemplating suicide because he is worried that he may not be a real person; he only “feels really alive” when he is on (read “written into”) a mystery. This is real fiction I keep reminding myself and I promised myself I would keep my disbelief at bay and go along for the ride…that is what readers of fiction are supposed to do.

The mystery, “The Mystery of the Century” as the quote on the jacket cover reassures us concerns a group of friends, known affectionately as The Five Hearts, and known well by Henry James. One of them, Clover Adams, The Fifth Heart, committed suicide two years prior to the action but on every anniversary of the death, the remaining members of the group all receive a type-written card announcing unsubtilely “She was murdered.” Holmes coerces James to accompany him to the USA to help solve the mystery.

A novel is within its own universe; and this universe may or may not be the universe of the reader. This is most obvious is the genres of horror, science fiction, and fantasy; in fact it is possible, and easy, to argue that the universe of a novel is never that of the reader.

In the same sense that the stature of David had always existed in the massive block of stone that Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci fought over and Michelangelo, who obviously won the fight, simply had to remove the outer, and superfluous, rock to reveal the image of the boy, a story can also be thought of as having happened in all its detail, nuances, and meaning and someone just needs to tell it; to write it down. This is exactly what happens in journalism, history writing, and memoir. There is also a sense of this in all forms of fiction

Let us assume that I write a story about an astronaut who develops bowel cancer. This would be a very rare, and unlucky, even ironic, occurrence since all astronauts, before donning their space suit, for rehearsal, training, and the actual space travel itself, must undergo an enema; if you wanted an occupation that would guarantee you a healthy bowel, especially if your family history was riddled with unhealthy ones, then astronaut would be the job for you. Now, my story hangs on this one event: the tragedy of my protagonist who contracts a life-threatening disease, the one he was convinced would never happen to him and how he comes to terms with his own mortality even though he is the healthiest, most positive, most enthusiastic, fearless, and life-loving person he knows; he’s walked in space, for Christ’s sake, to repair a faulty solar energy unit while conducting experiments on neutron absorption, and stood on the moon watching the Earth rise. He deserves to live.

The last thing I want my reader to do is to rush to his computer and Google ‘enema+astronaut’ to verify that astronauts do indeed undergo enemas before they don their space-suits. I want my reader to accept that in the universe of my story, which may not be his/her universe, astronauts do undergo enemas before climbing into their space suits. By the way, I have no idea if astronauts have enemas or not; I made it up, but it’s not a difficult idea to accept; it’s plausible, in the universe I have created for my story; but my point is that it doesn’t have to be plausible it just has to be acceptable.

In the universe of The Fifth Heart people that actually existed in the reader’s universe (Henry James, William Dean Howells, and Samuel Clemens – yes, Mark Twain makes an appearance) rub shoulders, have dinners and arguments, and go on mystery-solving adventures with made-up characters from other literary universes, ie, Sherlock Holmes, and even he doesn’t know if he’s a real person or not. I find this very hard to accept; I know I should, but I can’t; and that’s why I stopped reading it.

Mr. Simmons also makes a novelistic mistake: he breaks the ‘fourth-wall’ and has his narrator address the reader directly.

“Wait a minute. The reader needs to pardon this interruption as the narrator makes a comment here.” (Who is speaking here? If it is the narrator surely he would say “The reader needs to pardon this interruption as I make a comment here.” This is another narrator! (Oh, picky-picky!)

This would be fine, and normally acceptable, if it is necessary, but it is not. Simmon’s narrator is not a character in the story, he is an un-named voice and like most un-named narrative voices, is all-seeing, all knowing, omnipotent: god-like. Mr. Simmons allocates almost a whole chapter to his narrator to apologise to the reader for switching the narrative’s point of view from Henry James to Sherlock Holmes when it is an acceptable tradition in fiction writing that an omnipotent narrator can change the POV whenever it is necessary. There are many novels that do this, the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn for example (see my blog post of October 6, 2014): St Aubyn’s narrator jumps around all over the place. The reason for Simmons doing this is that he may have never done this before and he felt that he owed it to his loyal readers to explain what he is doing; or, maybe, that is what distinguishes literary fiction from other genres; or, maybe, it is the publisher/editor speaking. Oh! Never mind!

Mr Holmes by Mitch Cullin

Mr Holmes Cover pic

The universe of Mitch Cullin’s Mr Holmes is unsullied. We meet the ageing Holmes (a real person in the same universe first created by Doyle) in the twilight years of his life, in 1947. He lives in a little cottage in Sussex tended by a saddened widow, Mrs Munro, who lives next door with her young delightful son, Roger. Mr Holmes has become quite an expert at bee-keeping and despite his curmudgeonly demeanour forms an affectionate attachment to the intelligent lad who shares his fascination and love of bees.

The story has three narrative lines: his quiet and, seemingly, idyllic life in the country, tending bees with Roger; a trip to Japan, from which he has just returned, where he was invited by another bee-keeping enthusiast, Mr. Umezaki who lives with his dour mother and male partner in Kobe; and an unsolved mystery, from the zenith of his career, which Holmes has been writing, but which needs a resolution and which the young Roger finds buried on Mr. Holmes’ cluttered desk and begins to read: The Glass Armonicist.

An armonica is a musical instrument consisting of glass discs of increasing diameters on a single shaft which when spun produce, via friction, notes of calculated tones. An armonicist is a player of such an instrument.

These three seemingly unconnected narratives coalesce due to a tragedy that rocks not only the ageing detective’s sense of himself but also gives him an understanding of life and love that he didn’t know he needed. This is literary fiction at its best: intriguing, beguiling, and satisfying.

Mitch Cullin pic 3

Mitch Cullin is an American writer, born in 1968; he has written seven novels and shares his time between Arcadia, California and Tokyo Japan.

A screen adaptation, Mr. Holmes, was produced in 2015 starring Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, and Hiroyuki Sanada.

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut

 

image
The South African writer, Damon Galgut

It is about a South African man called Damon; it may be Damon Galgut, or it may not.

He is only passing through … he doesn’t carry any abstract moral burdens, but their absence is represented for him by the succession of flyblown and featureless rooms he sleeps in, night after night, always changing but somehow always the same room.”

 He is a walker, a little lost, a little directionless, a little uncertain of his own motives; a sojourner. He is walking in Greece where he meets, on the road, an enigmatic, and attractive German, Reiner – “He knows that he is beautiful and somehow this makes him ugly”. They travel together but the relationship never grows beyond the casual, despite the sexual tension in the air. Galgut is good at sexual tension. Yet even the casual becomes a disaster.

His second journey, Lover, involves meeting a mixed bunch of people, Jerome, Alice, Charles, and Rodrigo and following them over half the African continent. He doesn’t know why. He sometimes is surprised at what his legs are doing, at what direction they are taking him. Jerome seems interested in him but Damon does nothing. He leaves them, regrets leaving them, plans to follow, but doesn’t then eventually does. This ‘action’ is by no means boring; it is the most intimate of prose, deeply interesting, deeply personal, almost uncomfortably so at times. “It is a story of what never happened, the story of traveling a long way while standing still.”

 The third part, Guardian, is concerned about his traveling companion, Anna, on a trip to India. She is teetering on the edge and threatens to drag him over with her. She relies on a trove of pills which, if taken as directed, will reboot her life but if taken all at once will take it away, and what’s he to do in India with a corpse?

There is something about this book that I must tell you; it is the most unusual fiction, although thrilling too, I have ever read. I was in two minds about telling you about it; it may put you off, I can think of two people that it would put off, but it is so essential to the tone of it, the flavour of it that I could not not tell you. It is told in the third person, and begins, “He sets out in the afternoon on the track that has been shown him….” and very soon he sees a figure in the distance walking towards him. Eventually they approach each other; both watching each other. The figure is described, all dressed in black; “Even his rucksack is black”, and then at the bottom of the first page, there is this, “What the first man is wearing I don’t know, I forget.” I felt a jolt. What? There is the walker, and the man dressed in black, and now another man? “I”? I read the first page again; maybe I had missed something. No I had not missed something. I read on and peppered sparingly are these first person references, and I realised that the third person narrator is referring to himself: the ‘he’ and the “I” are the same person, Damon; so, yes, maybe Damon is Damon Galgut. The writer is his own character. This is a little alarming only if you aren’t prepared for it; hence my telling you. Galgut is also free with punctuation especially of conversation:

Where are you from. He has an improbable English accent, very overdone. South Africa, goodness me, how did you get up here. Through Malawi, my word, I’m off to Malawi in a few days. Look around, yes please, be my guest. What did you say your name was.”

My same two friends would be equally put off by this, but it is surprisingly clear; or maybe it is only a thought of conversation, an expectation; a fictive chat.

Despite the title of the book what action there is takes place as far away from a room as you can get: the open road. Whether it be Greece, Malawi, Switzerland, India, or Kenya he is a traveler and his life is about the people he meets and journeys with, but the drama of this book is in the man himself, the ‘he’, the ‘I’ and in a sense this is a stronger form of autobiography: Galgut (I) is standing apart from himself, watching himself (he), describing his actions, trying to work out what it is about himself. “I am writing about myself alone, it’s all I know, and for this reason I have always failed in every love, which is to say at the very heart of my life. He sits in the empty room, crying.”

Lines like “I don’t remember what they do for the rest of that day” meaning ‘what I did for the rest of the day’ give the feeling of truth; ironically the admission of no action makes it all the more believable.

“In the morning his actual departure will be an echo of this one. He has already left, or perhaps he never arrived.”

Yes, in the first two parts of the book the action is languid, undefined, unimpressive; where the drama is all internal: a personal journey to try and work out why Damon is like he is; fascinating it its novelistic skill. Part three begins as expected but suddenly a life hangs in the balance and Damon is forced to act. The pace is frenetic, the action white-hot, and Galgut doesn’t pull any punches. It hits you in the guts just like it did him, and I read and read ’til the end, redefining the term ‘page-turner’. His skill at internal drama is eclipsed with his mastery of fast-paced action. It’s head-spinning stuff!

I wait with heightened expectation for Galgut’s next work.

 

 

 

 

 

Collecting Stories by Michael Freundt

My writing desk
My writing desk

Collecting Stories, my first short story collection, goes live online on Monday August 3rd.

You can find it here

The stories have been written over the last 25 years; the latest, A Marriage of Convenience, was written last month. Inspiration comes from some unlikely sources: a bus ride from Balmain, a conversation in a foyer, something a friend said, and among others, an opening paragraph from a magazine article which I read again and again, after returning from my laptop where I recorded the thought, but darned if I could find what it was among those few printed words that sparked the thought in the first place. Apparently the history of my sparking synapses leaves no footprint; or is that just another sign of my age?

I have not included every story from my collection; a few now seemed trite, uneven, and dull so I left them where they are.

And friends, if you think that I have used you for literary purposes you’re right and if you object, then let’s talk about it.

More often than not, the stories are of the What If? kind. Nothing more needs to be said because I will always steer away from expaining to an inquisative reader what I meant by a story, a line, or an idea for two reasons: usually I don’t remember what I meant in the first place, my synapses being what they are, but more importantly I believe that what the reader thinks it means is what it means.

Sometimes stories tumble out like washing from a dryer; at other times they are few and very far between. I’m in the middle of one now which augers well for volume 2.

I hope you enjoy volume 1 and if you do, and even if you don’t, tell me about it.

Veronica Spreads it Around by Michael K Freundt

IMG_0606

For all you faithful readers of Veronica Comes Undone, the sequel, Veronica Spreads it Around will be available online at 12 midday on Wednesday 26 May 2015. 

There are new men in her life, and a temptation she tries hard to resist; but also a new career that could be the death of her. She’s not quite, but almost, 40, and she still has lessons to learn.

Only 15 days to go!

My Dream of You by Nuala O’Faolain (noola o fway lorn)

Nuala O'Faolain
Nuala O’Faolain

I loved this book!

After the international success of O’Faolain’s memoir Are You Somebody? this novel, her first, was published in 2001 and in a brief Afterward she acknowledges “splendid energetic advice” from fellow Irish writer Colm Toibin who recently opined that

“… in autobiographical writing your [the writer’s] job is to create illusion, to work with rhythm and image and detail to make the reader feel that whatever is on the page matters and must have happened.”

I would venture to say that this also applies to writing in the first person, memoir or fiction, since the first person point of view is meant to make the reader believe the protagonist is also the writer. I recently complained that in The Cast Iron Shore, Linda Grant’s debut novel, that I reviewed on this blog recently (posted January 27), Grant failed her first person POV responsibilities by inadvertantly creating a disconnect between the protagonist and the writer: they seemed like two different people.

O’Faolain does not make the same mistake. Although a novel (fiction), My Dream of You reads like a memoir, feels like a memoir; so skilfully does O’Faolain make you believe, using “rhythm and image and detail” that her story actually happened to her. Having read her first memoir there is a lot of O’Faolain’s past in Kathleen’s but autobiography and fiction are interwoven seemlessly. How do I know this? I cared about her.

Kathleen de Burca is an Irish travel writer fast approaching fifty, and with a waist to match, who travels the world, usually with her best friend, an gay American man called Jimmy, writing travel copy for her boss, and also close friend, Alex. These two men, and staff in the office in London, serve as her family, since she has all but abandoned hers, and her country, many years before. Then there is her boyfriend, Hugo, a law student, who interests her in a divorce case from the annals of Irish history: the young wife of an English aristocrat, on a forlorn Irish estate in the middle of nowhere, is accused of infidelity with her husband’s Irish groom, a very common man. In those days, the 1850’s, a divorce needed an act of parliament so the event is well documented although from a very English point of view. The wife is chastised, forsaken, deprived of her young daughter, and locked up in an asylum where she inevitably goes mad.

Kathleen is intrigued and fascinated by this tragedy and when Jimmy, her moral compass, suddenly dies she takes leave of her job (Hugo, the boyfriend, she betrayed and lost) and travels to Ireland to, maybe, write a book about this young wife and her passion for a comman man.

The book has three narrative arcs: Kathleen’s journey to Ireland, her adventures, and the brief reunion with her siblings and their families; her memories of her arrogant, distant, and emotionally violent father, her deeply unhappy and useless mother, and her friends and lovers; and the story from the 1850s of Marianne and her affair with the lowly William Mullen. Yes, there is a book within the book.

She thinks she is going to Ireland to research a story about someone else’s passion but what she actually does is confront passion in her own life and what she discovers is not what she expected.

The writing of the Marianne’s story (in the third person) begins confidently and the affair with Mullen is handled expertly: O’Faolain makes the reader understand how intense physical attraction can operate outside the realms of reason; but Kathleen discovers another document that proports to prove that … well, I don’t want to spoil it for you. There is here the flavour of a mystery to be solved.

O’Faolain’s literary skills are put to good use as she weaves the first and third narratives into a shared ending which also ends the book itself. Very satisfying.

My Dream of You is about love, sex, family, and aging, and it contains one of the best descriptions I have ever read of female friendship – how it works – and how emotional love with a woman can be far more rewarding and long-lasting than sexual love with a man. Mind you, Kathleen has a lot of experience with sexual love with men and she understands, and shows, that passion is far more complex and evolutionary than romantic books make out; and she comes to realize that her relationship with her body is also a part of the ‘passion’ equation and far from what she would like it to be, or thought it was. She is, or was, a beautiful woman and there are magic passages where a beautiful woman talks about being beautiful, without pride or sentiment, and when she believed it and when she didn’t. This is unusual stuff.

Nuala O’Faolain was engaged once but never married, had a fifteen year relationship with the Irish journalist, Nell McCarthy, but spent her latter years with a New York lawyer, John Low-Beer. She was diagnosed with metastatic cancer in 2008. Hugo Hamilton, whose memoir The Speckled People I recently reviewed on this blog (posted February 10), was a friend of O’Faolain’s and his 2014 novel Every Single Minute is a fictionalised retelling of a trip he took with the very ill O’Faolain to Berlin just before she died (May 9 2008).

She wrote two volumes of memoir Are You Somebody: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman (1996), and Almost There: The Onward Journey of a Dublin Woman (2003); another novel published posthumously in 2009 Best Love, Rosie; and a ‘history with commentary’ The Story of Chicago May (2005). Chicago May was the nickname of Mary Ann Duignan, an Irish criminal, who became famous in America, France and Britain in the beginning of the twentieth century.

Impression vs Experience

On April 25 1884 Walter Besant, English novelist and historian, gave a lecture at the Royal Institution, the London organisation devoted to scientific research founded in 1799. It was called Fiction as One of the Fine Arts. Besant’s novel All Sorts and Conditions of Men was published two years earlier and sold over 250,000 copies. It anticipated the rise of the slum novel and with the publication of The Revolt of Man (1882), The Inner House (1888) and The Children of Gibeon (1896), he consolidated his fame as a master of dystopian fiction.

British novelist, historian and humanitarian, Walter Besant (1836 - 1901)
British novelist, historian and humanitarian, Walter Besant (1836 – 1901)

However he is best known today for the little pamphlet of his speech given at the Royal Institution that April day, which was published as The Art of Fiction. Most importantly it surprised everyone that people seemed to be interested in such a subject.

Besant’s little speech started an excited debate on the purpose of literary fiction and since that time many writers have weighed in to the argument with their own thoughts, beliefs, and theories on the subject.

Besant believed that writing fiction should be considered as a ‘fine art’ and like other fine arts – painting, sculpture, music and poetry – it “is governed and directed by general laws; and that these laws may be laid down and taught with as much precision and exactness as the laws of harmony, perspective, and proportion.” But fiction, like the other fine arts, is “so far removed from the mere mechanical arts that no laws or rules whatever can teach it to those who have not already been endowed with the natural and necessary gifts.”

Prior to this time “the general – The Philistine – view of the Profession is, first of all, that it is not one which a scholar and a man of serious views should take up: the telling of stories is inconsistent with a well-balanced mind.”

Everyone, it seems, agreed with what Mr Besant had to say, especially the belief that Fiction is an Art; but what started the debate was his assertion that “a young lady brought up in a quiet country village should avoid descriptions of garrison life; a writer whose friends and personal experiences belong to what we call the lower middle class should carefully avoid introducing his characters into Society … never go beyond your own experience.”

As an exponent of the ‘slum’ novel Mr Besant seems to be saying that when writing fiction one can write ‘down’ from your own experience but not ‘up’.

You can find most of Walter Besant’s work, fiction and non-fiction, including his essay, The Art of Fiction, at http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au where you can download them for free.

Henry James: The Art of Fiction.

James’s famous ‘reply’ using the same title as Basent’s pamphlet has become the cornerstone of fiction writing as an art, far outshining Besant’s in the fame stakes. His rebuttal is extremely polite to Besant and he certainly agrees with his elder that fiction writing is an art. However James took a more light-hearted tone and what the general pubic at the time thought of the novel, James famously wrote, “there was a comfortable, good humoured feeling abroad that a novel is a novel, as a pudding is a pudding and that our only business with it could be to swallow it.” This attitude, in some quarters, persists today.

James explains his ideas thus …

Experience “is the very atmosphere of the mind; and when the mind is imaginative … it takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of the air into revelations… I remember an English novelist, a woman of genius, telling me that she was much commended for the impression she had managed to give in one of her tales of the nature and way of life of the French Protestant youth. She had been asked where she learned so much about this recondite being, she had been congratulated on her peculiar opportunities. These opportunities consisted in her having once, in Paris, as she ascended a staircase, passed an open door where, in the household of a pasteur, some of the young Protestants were seated at table round a finished meal. The glimpse made a picture; it lasted only a moment, but that moment was experience. She had got her impression, and she evolved her type. She knew what youth was, and what Protestantism; she also had the advantage of having seen what it was to be French; so that she converted these ideas into a concrete image and produced a reality.”

James sums up his advice to novice novelists as,

“Above all, however, [the novelist must be] blessed with the faculty which when you give it an inch takes an ell, and which for the artist is a much greater source of strength than any accident of residence or of place in the social scale. The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it.”

In other words, impressions are experience; and the novelist’s task is to convert those impressions into reality: “the power to guess the unseen from the seen…”

You can read James’s The Art of Fiction at
http://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/artfiction.html

Other writers who have written on this subject.

Robert Louis Stevenson (1885): Essays in the Art of Writing
Free ebook at http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au

Arthur Schopenhauer (1891): the Art of Literature
Free ebook at http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au

Anonymous (1901): How to Write a Novel
Free ebook at http://manybooks.net

Clayton Hamilton (1918): A Manual of the Art of Fiction
Free ebook at http://manybooks.net

E. M. Forster (1927): Aspects of the Novel
Available through Amazon.com, BukuKita.com and Gramedia

John Gardner (1983): The Art of Fiction
Available on Kindle (ebook) through Amazom.com

Ray Bradbury (1990): Zen in the Art of Writing
New and used editions available on Amazon.com

David Lodge (1992): The Art of Fiction
Available through Amazon.com, BukuKita.com and Gramedia

Ayn Rand (2000): The Art of Fiction
Available through Amazon.com, BukuKita.com and Gramedia

Stephen King (2000): On Writing
Available through Amazon.com, BukuKita.com and Gramedia

John Mullen (2006): How Novels Work
Available through Amazon.com, BukuKita.com and Gramedia

James Wood (2009): How Fiction Works
Available on Kindle (ebook) through Amazom.com

Colm Toibin (2010): All a Novelist Needs: Colm Toibin on Henry James
Available from Amazon.com

The Paris Review: The Art of Fiction Interviews
(from 1953 to 2015 and continuing)

http://theparisreview.org/interviews

Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

The South African writer, Damon Galgut
The South African writer, Damon Galgut

Damon Galgut, when he is not travelling, lives in Cape Town, South Africa, is 52, and an openly gay man – which begs the question, why mention it? I mention it in relation to his latest book, Arctic Summer, which is a fictionalised account of the middle years – the early 20th century – of E.M. Forster’s life, his early career, his success with Howard’s End, his long roaming interlude that finally brought him to A Passage to India, but most importantly, his grappling with his homosexuality.

“At the time I grew up in South Africa,” said Galgut in a recent interview, “it was illegal to be gay. The whole system of apartheid was extremely patriarchal; all its values were skewed in that direction. To be gay growing up in Pretoria in the 1960s – it would be hard to overstate what a terribly suffocating oppressive place it was. I learned, like quite a lot of gay men do, to hide and to assume fake personas. That sense of concealment has stayed with me, even now. I suppose I’ve internalised a lot of self-dislike – self-doubt, maybe, is a better way to put it.”

Edward Morgan Forster
Edward Morgan Forster

Forster also hid and assumed a fake persona, all the more tragic that the persona he chose to hide behind was an imitation of the same persona all the men around him hid behind as well: English, literary, controlled, stiff-upper-lip, and straight, if only in that English way of not seeming to be interested in marriage. He also suffered immense self-doubt especially about his novelistic portrayal of relationships between men and women of which he had no experience at all. Yet he craved intimacy, especially sexual intimacy but had no idea of the actions or words needed to satisfy such a craving. When ‘it’ finally happened he stumbled into it, and before he knew it, there it was and his seducer did all the work; and although it was fleeting he was amazed and pleased, but he was thirty seven years old.

Arctic Summer was the name of another Forster novel but one that he abandoned in early 1913 having succumbed to a weariness at only writing, or being allowed to write, about the love between men and women.

Galgut’s writing is masterful especially in creating and colouring indecision, sexual expectation, and longing. Forster, who everyone calls Morgan, visits a country friend of a friend whom he hasn’t met yet although he has read some of the man’s writings on “Homogenic Love” which excited him. This country friend, Edward Carpenter, lives with his younger ‘companion’, George, a working class man from the Sheffield slums, and the three men have lunch, after which Morgan helps George clear the table. The following is the description of putting down the plates in the kitchen. A simple domestic act, but oh, there is so much more.

‘Looking for a clear surface on which to set down the plates, he was aware of George’s closeness behind him and of the sound of his breathing.
“Is this right?” he said. “Here?”
“Let me see. Yes, that ‘s all right. Just put them down.”
He put them down and stood, not moving. He could hear the sound of breathing, close enough to be intrusive. Then he realised it was his own.
“Oh,” he said, surprised.
And then a little frightened.
Because George was touching him.
It was merely a hand, in the lower curve of his back. The contact was suggestive though the fingers didn’t move. Perhaps it was the talk they’d been having, or the thoughts he’d entertained, but there was something subversive about that hand. Something flowed out of it, transmitted through the palm: a presumption of equality, or worse – ownership. Yes, this must be how it felt, to be touched by a lover. He could feel the heat of it, the possessive certainty of its contact. Then the hand dropped down to his bottom, wavered there for a moment, and came to rest a little above his buttocks, at the base of the spine.
It was astonishing. Something had happened to him. He wasn’t quite in the kitchen any more, not quite in his own body. His mind had flashed away from itself, to some inner place where the events of the day were still being arranged. Now they were arranged differently.
“Yes,” George said again. “That’s all right, there.”
Carpenter’s voice called outside, and the hand fell away.’

Forster did write a gay novel, Maurice, a happy-ever-after romance between men from different social backgrounds but it was only published after his death and inspired, Galgut suggests, by the scene of domestic ordinariness of that luncheon with Edward Carpenter and his companion, George.

This is a story concerning real people, real events but it is also full of conjuring, and flights of imagination, like the above quote – and Galgut’s depiction of Forster’s first sexual encounter – which sets this work as fiction, not biography. The above event may not have happened but it’s possible, and believable, that something like it did.

Galgut describes several of Forster’s relationships. The first, sexually unrequited, with an educated Indian, Masood, and the second, more successfully, although far from passionate, with an Egyptian tram conductor, Mohammed. Galgut also gives Forster the opportunity to tell the former about the latter: a ‘romance’ he called it, and it is due to Galgut’s skill that when Foster finally says it: vocalises his love for another man I was overjoyed for him, not so much that, finally, he had known sexual love, meagre though it was, but that he was able to express it.

Arctic Summer is not unlike Colm Toibin’s The Master, about another writer, Henry James, who also grappled with his sexuality, but in the American it was buried so deep that not even Toibin’s masterly conjuring could’ve produced a scene like that above, and nor would it have been appropriate: for James, thoughts such as those reliably never existed, whereas for Forster they plagued his every waking hour and sometimes his sleeping ones as well.

This work is an example of historical biographical fiction and if you are concerned about what is true – and you shouldn’t be – all that can be said is that this is Galgut’s version of what ‘maybe’ true; and there are many others. What IS important is what the reader understands, enjoys, is enlivened and enlightened by.

Damon Galgut was unknown to me until the arrival of my ‘book fairy’, a European friend who comes twice a year to the tropical island where I live bearing news about books and his reading adventures but also books themselves. He had forgotten the name of this book and its author but knew the work was about E.M. Forster. Google did the rest. Fancy finding it here in a local bookstore! It has only been out a year.

Galgut’s first book, A Sinless Season, was published when he was 17, and following a serious cancer scare, a collection of short stories appeared, Small Circle of Beings, in 1988. He has been short-listed for the Man-Booker prize twice: for The Good Doctor in 2003 and In a Strange Room in 2010. He has also written plays and taught drama at his alma mater, The University of Cape Town.

“… we’re constructing the story of our lives all the time, and memory, in the end, is no different than the telling of another kind of story.” Damon Galgut.

I’m going to make a space for Damon Galgut on my bookshelf between Anna Funder and Helen Garner.

On Experience: writing about writing

 

Mark Twain’s memorable quote ‘Write what you know’ is probably one of the most misunderstood in all literature and according to Nathan Englander, the author of the short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, it isn’t about events, it’s about emotion; “Have you known love? jealousy? longing? loss? Did you want that Atari 2600 so bad you might have killed for it? If so, it doesn’t matter whether your story takes place in Long Island or on Mars – if you’re writing what you know, readers will feel it.”

Our literary landscape is full of proof of the veracity of such a statement: how many vampires did Stephanie Myers interview before writing Twilight? How many witches did J K Rowling interview before creating Harry Potter? None, of course. What is important is imagination and ‘don’t sell your imagination short’ said the American author Richard Ford (author of the Frank Bascombe novels that began with The Sportswriter in 1986). By that he meant, as he explained to his audience at a Southbank interview in October 2012, not to over-rely on what you know because, for him, writing is really about the imagination.

And so it is for the Irish writer, Colm Toibin,

“The imagination is a set of haunted, half-lit rooms. Sometimes we have no idea ourselves why a novel begins, why a style takes root, or a plot grows.” More about this later.

In his essay about Henry James and his final abode, Lamb House, (The Haunting of Lamb House in the collection All a Novelist Needs) Toibin describes his wandering through the master’s house, the ground floor of which is a Henry James museum, and then being invited upstairs to the private apartment of the owner. He was embarking on auguably his masterpiece, The Master, about the five years in the life of James following his disasterous tilt at being a playwright.

“I had what I was searching for – the two objects over the mantelpieces, the view, the height of the upstairs rooms. All I needed now was to get back to work.”

And then in the title essay he explains what he means,

“This is all a novelist needs, nothing exact or precise, no character to be based on an actual person, but a configuration, something distant that can be mulled over, guessed at, dreamed about, imagined, a set of shadowy relations that the writer can begin to put substance on. Changing details, adding shape, but using always something, often from years back, that had captured the imagination, or mattered somehow to the hidden self, however fleetingly or mystreiously.”

The publishers of the notable Australian writer David Malouf have recently released two volumes of his collected miscellaneous writings, the second of which is entitled The Writing Life and collects in one inspiring volume speeches, articles, and essays on what it means to be a writer.

He explains that sometimes our mind ‘plays a peculiar trick on us’ and we remember an event ‘so real, so alive’ that we can only believe it to be an actual event from our past; but when we think again we realise that this is not so but something we read in a book! ‘But’, he asks, ‘didn’t that also happen … to our ‘reading-self’? We read, go to the theatre, to the movies, to have just this kind of experiece.

Who among you is a murderer? No-one I hope, but you have an infinite number of experiences of murder and, who knows, all you may need is an ingenious trick or twist in a plot to be the writer of one.

Malouf quotes two literary ‘glimpses’ that help to illustrate Malouf’s, and Toibin’s point. One is an anacdote from the diary writings of Henry James where he tells of an English novelist, a ‘woman of genius’ who was much admired for her fictionalised portrayal of ‘the nature and the way of life of the French Protestant youth’; and what opportunities came her way to enable her to write with such assurance and believability? Only one, a glimpse, ‘in Paris, as she ascended a staircase, passed an open door where, in the household of a pasteur, some of the young Protestants were seated at a table round a finished meal. The glimpse made a picture; it lasted only a moment, but the moment was experience.’

The other is from Dickens’ David Copperfield who when visiting the Micawbers in prison the young man is asked to fetch a knife and fork from Captain Hopkins, another prisoner on an upper floor. He encounters in the Captain’s room ‘a very dirty lady’ and ‘two wan girls, his daughters with shock heads of hair.’ The young Copperfield knows ‘God knows how’ that the two wan girls are the Captain’s daughters, but the dirty lady is not his wife. He had only a glimpse of the room but he returned to his host knowing that what he held in his head was just as true as the knife and fork he held in his hand.

Malouf infers that it only takes a glimpse for a writer to expand that glimpse into knowledge and he uses a quote from James to explain what he means; that a writer needs the ability ‘to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole by the pattern, the condition of feeling life in general so completely that you are well on the way to knowledge of every corner of it … If experience consists of impressions, it may well be said that impressions are experience.’

On Saturday afternoon, 23 March, 2013 I experienced a mental ‘flip’ while I was sitting on my daybed reading a book review in The International Herald Tribune, as it was then called. I was only a few column centimeters into the review when suddenly a voice popped into my head: an angry, domineering, female voice chastising a wayward daughter for making bad decisions and giving her mother nothing but grief and disappointment.

It happened somewhere in the first two paragraphs but where exactly eluded me. I searched for it many times. It may have had something to do with ‘growing up evangelical in a secular age’ or ‘a buttoned down morality – a more adventurous approach to religious faith’ or maybe not.

What was important was that I had to write it down. It: the tone, the voice; hit me heavily. It is absolutely true that from the daybed, where I was reading, to collecting my iPad, to sitting down at the table, the ‘flip’ evolved into something else and then into something else again as I began to tap it out, and something else again as I wrote the last word and consolidated a reason. It was like what happens inside a chrysalis: no-one can possibly know. This is the imagination as Toibin’s ‘half-lit room’.

I recorded the above at the time and what I wrote down became not a very good one-act play called Truth which eventually turned into a much better short story called Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

I mention it here as an example of something happening, I still don’t know what, while reading a newspaper, which sparked my imagination which in turn morphed into a situation, two characters, and a comment on American culture. The point of what I wrote down only developed by the time I had finished; it certainly wasn’t there when I began.

In my soon-to-be-posted novel, Veronica Spreads it Around, the sequel to Veronica Comes Undone, there is a fire, a devastating, tragic fire, that my protagonist, Veronica, is trapped in. I have never been in this situation, and hope never to be, and, I confidently surmise, neither have you, but because of my many glimpses and impressions of terrible fires I launched into the writing of it relying on those glimpses and impressions and not on any direct experience. I knew it had to be hot, very, very, hot but I tried not to use those trite words; I had to find other words; I had to make writerly decisions about metaphor and simile. I also needed to ask myself important and pertinant questions: how do I describe the heat and the noise? without it sounding obvious and silly. How does she escape? I am using close writing (subjective free indirect discourse), eveything is seen from Veronica’s point of view, so she has to be conscious, trapped but conscious. Serendipitously there was another story-line that needed a conclusion that I realised at this moment, and not before, could be included in the introduction to this scene that would also provide a ‘red-herring’: the reader would think the scene would develop in one direction so when I dramatically took it in another there would be an ‘Oh my god!, moment. I definitely wanted an ‘Oh my god’ moment – what writer doesn’t? – and my confidence in my solutions to the problems of this scene is great enough for me to think that by telling you all this here you will still, when you read it, have the ‘Oh my god!’ moment. I hope.

Anyway, my decisions were more to do with what words and expressions to use rather than getting the experience right. Remember that the fire is seen from Veronica’s point of view so if she fainted she had to quickly recover in order to experience it and therefore for me to write about it and if she is then conscious she has to be protected in some way so as to be thinking, planning to get herself out of this very dangerous situation while the threat rages around her.

I knew that when I began work on this scene that the fire would happen at some stage but I did not know about the red herring idea or how she was going to survive. In fact the red herring idea provided the means for her survival. I repeat, I did not know this when I sat down at my desk to write the scene.

What happened to me that morning was an example of what I have written above: what Ford, Toibin, Malouf, and James were explaining in their various ways about experience and the incredible role imagination plays in the creation of something that can take the place of experience when direct experience is lacking, or, indeed, not needed, and that, I hope, will lead my readers to go along with the story, ‘believe’ the story, and be interested in Veronica’s many affairs, joyed by her success, moved by her plight and satisfied… if she makes it out alive.