Us by David Nicholls

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British novelist and screenwriter, David Nicholls.

I love this book. It’s rare to find a laugh-out-loud read these days, but this is one of them. It’s a first person narrative of Douglas Petersen, a bio-chemist, and a man who always just seems to miss out on being, cool, mainly because he just doesn’t know what cool is; he doesn’t get most things. That’s certainly what his son, Albie, would say although he probably wouldn’t be so kind. The third component of Us (2014) is Douglas’s wife Connie. She’s an artist and an ex-hippie and is definitely cool. She wakes him up one morning and tells him that she might want to leave him. They embark on a (possible) remedy: a Grand Tour of Europe, and drag a reluctant Albie along with them. This is the Us. This trio. However there is another narrative interspersed with the Grand Tour: how Douglas and Connie got together in the first place; and many more incidents of their life together. You get to know these three very well. It’s really a portrait of a marriage.

It’s divided into many small chapters, 180 in all, which in itself, propels the reading along; ‘I’ll just read the next chapter before I walk the dog’; ‘I’ll read this short one before I start dinner’; ‘Just one more, it’s short, before my afternoon jog.’ And why do you want to do this? Because you love Douglas. He’s a gem and he talks to you as if you’ve known him since kindergarten. Us became my very early morning read when a trip to the loo erased all efforts to go back to sleep. But, so I didn’t wake the sleeping one, I tried to curtail my laugh-out-loud to something like, laugh-in-loud, but stifling a laugh-out-loud made my body behave like a trampoline-in-use and the mattress was forced, of course, to follow suit, so allowing the sleeping one to sleep didn’t work. I was banned from reading Us in bed. But that’s OK; you can get through a short chapter while waiting for the jug to boil, during a TV channel promo, even while stirring the custard.

The key to the humour is Douglas himself. He doesn’t quite know what to say when staring at a painting (I like that blue bit.); he feels inadequate to say what he likes about a piece of music (It’s loud, isn’t it?); and contemporary dance (Do they have to throw themselves against a wall?); and books (Erotic realism? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?); and food (flaccid courgettes in a green-grey water sauce made from water.).

David Nicholls also has several screenwriting credits including Tess of the D’Urbervilles‘ for the BBC in 2008,  Far from the Madding Crowd in 2015, and he wrote Patrick Melrose (2018), the television series based on the novels by Edward St Aubyn. He has penned several movies including the adaptations of his novels, Starter for Ten, and One Day. He also trained as an actor at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama but never quite made it in that field because, as he admitted, he wasn’t very good at the basic stuff, like standing still and moving from A to B. However he must have picked up some performance skills since his appearance at the recent North Cornwall Writer’s Festival had the audience in stitches as he read from his latest book, Sweet Sorrow, a passage devoted to the pitfalls of first-time kissing.

Us is currently being filmed in various location in Europe for the BBC. It stars Tom Hollander and Saskia Reeves with a script by Nicholls. However, a release date has yet to bee announced.

He’s a busy man and novel writing has to be squeezed in between big budget movies and television drams; he’s written five novels, so, for me, four to go.

You can watch an interview with David Nicholls about this book, Us, here.

You can buy the ebook, or other formats, here where you can also ‘look inside’ before you buy.

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry

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Irish writer, Kevin Barry

Get up, groan, write a bit, moan, eat breakfast, write some more, cycle my bike through the Sligo hills, make up country songs as I pedal along, sing them, have lunch, have a nap, groan, moan, write a small bit more, cook dinner, feed wifey, open a bottle, or several, slump, sleep.

I don’t quite operate within the realist mode. I kind of push the stories out towards the cusp of believability – that’s the area of interest for me.
♠♠♠
The style of Kevin Barry’s Night Train to Tangier (2019) feels like a play because it was originally conceived as one; but that was not what gave me pause when I read about him and this, his new book; it was the (many times) mention of Samuel Beckett and his play Waiting for Godot, and I thought, “Uh oh!” Vladimir and Estragon sit and wait under a dead tree for Godot who never comes. Maurice Hearn and Charles Redmond sit and wait in a ferry terminal for Dilly, Maurice’s missing daughter who never comes, maybe, maybe not.
These two guys are Irish drug dealers who made a shit load of money when they were younger, loved the same woman – since deceased, and now quite can’t get their old mojo back, although they try by intimidating and threatening strangers. You wouldn’t want to meet them in a back alley. It maybe that Dilly doesn’t want to be found. No spoilers here.

The conversation is sometimes repetitive, but the language is glorious, lyrical, and adventurous:

 

Charlie Redmond? The face somehow has an antique look, like a court player’s, medieval, a man who’d strum his lute for you. In some meadowsweet lair. Hot, adulterous eyes and again a shabby suit, but dapper shoes in a rusted-orange tone, a pair of suede-finish creepers that whisper of brothels, also a handsome green corduroy neck-tie. Also stomach trouble, bags like graves beneath the eyes, and soul trouble.

 

The pages are formatted with large gaps of white between sentences. One reviewer wrote, “The blank spaces that Barry inserts between paragraphs, the empty gaps in the text, seem to signify accumulated pain.” That’s kind. I’m of a more cynical bent; they seem to me to be the editor’s doing: if you’ve decided to print it between hard covers, you need more pages.

Almost all of the reviews for this book have been glowing, and it’s been long listed for the this year’s Booker Prize. However, I was disappointed. There are three elements of novel writing: description, dialogue, and narrative. Barry’s descriptions are poetic, imaginative, and surprising. He’s at his best with description (like the quote above). Dialogue? Well, firstly, his dialogue isn’t punctuated. That’s OK: dialogue usually sounds like dialogue, but sometimes it doesn’t and I don’t appreciate having to go back and check. Narrative? I found it shallow and, again, I had to go back a page or two and take another run at it to find out exactly where we were. Contemporary readers have to do more work, I know, but I don’t appreciate feeling left behind; it stops the reader being enthralled, and enthralled is where all readers want to be; and by enthralled I mean forgetting that your reading.

For this reader, Night Boat to Tangier is about parents and parenting, and how we usually get it wrong, or this from Dilly’s mother,

The fear of turning into our parents, she said, is what turns us into our fucking parents. 

I have to admit that it did grow on me a little but not enough to send me racing for his previous works, City of Bohane (2011) and Beatlebone (2015), both lauded and prize-studded.

You can buy the ebook, and other formats, here, and you can ‘look inside’ before you buy, or hear what sounds like Kevin Barry reading from the text.

 

The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells

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Swiss-German writer Benedict Wells; real name, Benedict von Schirach

Marcel Proust’s monumental – 7 volume – novel, certainly the longest, and arguably the best novel ever written,  À la Recherche du temps perdu, sometimes translated as In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past was the first to use memory as a novelistic tool. It appeared in English in 1922, the year of Proust’s death, and helped to change the way literary novels were written; its stream of consciousness technique was revolutionary at the time but still remains today as an author’s story-telling option: the Northern Ireland writer Anna Burn used it for novel Milkman, her 2018 Booker Prize winner.

Benedict Wells’  novel, The End of Loneliness (2016) is a contemporary product of how memory can ‘write’ a novel. Jules Moreau, the first person narrator, wakes up in hospital and tries to remember how he got there, but memory isn’t linear, it jumps around like a rabbit in a cage. He even draws it for us:

The End of Loneliness Memory Map

It is the story of three siblings who loose their parents when they are all very young and are sent to boarding school where they slowly drift apart, geographically, emotionally, and intellectually. Their lives seemed pre-ordained but the tragedy sets them adrift leaving them, and the reader, wondering what would their lives have been like if the accident had not happened. It is also a love story that runs parallel to Jules’s memory of the siblings’ separation and their slow and difficult return to each other.

Although an author’s dreams can sow the seeds of fiction, using dreams, real or fictional, as the basis for plot decisions, I believe is a lazy option for a writer. One reviewer warns that this ‘may irk the critical’. However, Wells keeps the writer’s interest with slight, but intriguing, references to some event in the future:

‘… all this had nothing to do with what happened later.’

But the real star of the show is memory. Only twice, before the end, does the narrative return to the present: Jules lying in a hospital bed, where his children are mentioned. Children? There’s been no mention of children. This is another reference to the ‘future’ which pricks the writer’s curiosity and adds to the page-turning momentum.

In contemporary literary fiction relationships and character are far more important than plot; but the set up – an injured man with plenty of hospital time remembering his past to understand who he is and why he is there – is credible and neat, and although the prose is straight-forward the emotional pull is strong which has a lot to do with Well’s talent. The word ‘tear-jerker’ has been used, too much I think, in many reviews of this book.

Although it is his fourth novel it’s a book that Wells had to write; it was stuck in his head for seven years but then, following its publication and success, his head was free to write the novels he wants to write. I look forward to those.

Wells changed his name to remain free from his famous family and chose ‘Wells’ from his writing mentor, John Irving’s hero Homer Wells in his novel Cider House Rules (1985).

Here is an interview, in German with English sub-titles, with Wells when he won the European Prize for Literature in 2016 for The End of Loneliness; and you can watch another interview with Wells, in English, when the book was translated into French, here.

Take Nothing with You by Patrick Gale

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British writer Patrick Gale lives in Cornwall and plays the cello, modern and baroque.

Having read a few of the 19 volumes written by Gale, A Sweet Obscurity, A Place Called Winter, The Aerodynamics of Pork, Ease, Notes from an Exhibition, A Perfectly Good Man, one thing stands out: he’s very good at self-discovery; by that I mean, his protagonists cope with discovering who they are. In this latest, Take Nothing With You he does it again. This is a coming-of-age story.

Actually it is two stories about the same person: Eustace as a pre-teen discovering his love of the cello and boys, and coping with his parents; and Eustace as a fifty-something coping with thyroid cancer, mortality, and an on-line, but serious, love affair with a British soldier in the Middle East who he’s about to meet face-to-face i.e., kiss, for the first time.

Although told in the third person but from the point of view of Eustace, the narrator is so close to our hero, think of him as an imp sitting on Eustace’s shoulder, knowing, seeing, but not understanding everything – just like a 10 year old. James Wood, literary critic for The New Yorker since 2007, calls this ‘close writing’, or if you prefer a more literary moniker, ‘free indirect discourse’. I prefer Wood’s term as it creates the idea that the third-person narrator could very easily slip into the first-person narrator, so close are they. Fellow British novelist Edward St-Aubyn in his quintet, which has become known as The Patrick Melrose Novels (1992-2012), uses such a technique for all of his major characters; it’s like the narrator-imp jumps from shoulder to shoulder using the language and tropes of each individual, depending on which shoulder he sits. In Take Nothing With You (2018, Gale’s 16th novel) this close writing enables Gale to create a narrative of the boy’s parents and their disintegrating marriage, including his mother’s secret, that Eustace is unaware of. This dramatic irony is what makes Eustace’s small-town family life, in Weston-super-Mare, a seaside holiday town in North Somerset, so interesting. We readers know more than he does.

By the way, his mother’s secret (no spoilers here) is never mentioned, but you know it because Gale lets you know it.

As an adult Eustace is more at ease with himself and the world, and although his thyroid cancer and its treatment are troubling, his new, as yet, unconsummated romance gives him hope and joy. The world is no longer a mystery to him, as it was when he was young, and he is sanguine about his future; but he hasn’t told Theo, the soldier, about his cancer as he doesn’t want to sour his only communication with him: their daily Skype calls. In this older Eustace narrative the action takes place mostly in the lead-lined hospital room where he goes for radio-therapy treatment and is advised, because of the radiation, that anything he takes with him has to be disposed of, hence he is told to ‘take nothing with you.’

The narrative never follows Theo which makes him less of a character and more of a metaphor for hope. But its Eustace’s hope and Eustace is who we care about.

For a lonely, quiet, and sensitive boy discovering a passion for the cello is heart-warming. Gale plays and performs on the cello himself and if you are interested in music, or a player of any instrument yourself, these passages are a delight. His passion is palpable and these scenes often blurred my vision.

Gale is allergic to clichés; in fact, I get the impression that he tries to invent clichés and then vows never to use them again. He is also a word-smith and sometimes his word choice takes you by surprise: ‘…heedlessly in love’ is almost a story in itself with a beginning, middle, and end.

Gale’s characters have meat on their bones and ideas in their heads. They are people you love, loath, want to see triumph, or fall on their arse.

Any Gale book is highly recommended.

You can buy the eBook and other editions here.

And here is Patrick Gale talking about Take Nothing With You and the three books that influenced it.

The Cat Sanctuary by Patrick Gale

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British writer Patrick Gale lives on a farm in Cornwall and plays the cello,  both baroque and modern. He chairs the North Cornwall Book Festival and is patron of the Penzance LitFest.

This is an early novel, his 6th, from 1990.

It’s about three women in a house.

The narrative is like a favourite aunt’s doily with a little trio of characters in the centre intricately embroided; there are a few men involved but only around the edges, woven in like a lace border, to frame it.

Or it’s a piece of chamber music, intimate, intricate, but allowing each character to the fore, their solo bit, not only to enlighten us about her but also about the others.

Gale’s voice is at an appropriate and un-judgemental distance, sensitive to the humour that can emerge from conflict. He knows the full picture but hones in on specifics, to add colour, backstory, and therefore understanding while stitching the story for us. He’s at his best with family politics.

It inspired an understanding of the complexity and the importance to storytelling of gossip. Gossip: noun,  intimate detail about the people we don’t know. It’s television equivalent is soap opera. Intimate detail about the people we do know is higher art because we know the reasons, motivations, inevitabilities. It’s television equivalent is serial drama. We get to know these three women very well.

In novels, but not in television or film, this is achieved – not only but mostly – by the narrator; knowing what people are thinking, and sometimes the joy of reading about what people are thinking is knowing that what they are thinking is wrong, misplaced, or delusional. This, getting narrative information from what is not written – reading between the lines, is a hallmark of good writing.

Dialogue – in novels, television, and film – like “What’s wrong?”; “Are you OK?”, and “Do you have something to tell me?” are examples of bad writing. They should be completely unnecessary.

Good writers trust their readers to work it out; bad writers don’t trust their readers at all and spell it out.

Gale gives us juicy revelations; makes us doubt what we thought of something/someone; and forces us to do a lot of work (thinking) to assimilate the full complex picture. We are not always conscious of this but it is the major cause for answering the question “What was it like?” with “It was great. I loved it.”

Judith, a successful novelist lives in an isolated Cornish house with her lover, Joanna, a photographer. Judith’s estranged younger sister and a recent, and very sudden, widow, Deborah, comes to stay, to recuperate, reassess, get back on track. Three women in a house, all in a variety of positions on the road to contentment. Not far away lives a widow, Esther, who runs a dishevelled sanctuary for cats. And here is my only minor gripe: the metaphor: cats, women in a house all on the road to safety is very obvious. There was no need, Patrick, to explain it.

Conversations, backstory slotted in with ease, and three men, one in the present, two in the past, all pivotal are woven in with skill.

Here is a small sample of his writing: he’s describing the, now deceased, mother of the sisters, Judith and Deborah.

She had always drunk in company, but after her husband’s sudden death, she ceased what little entertaining she had ever managed and began to hide her bottles like so many lovers in a farce … A small rounded woman,  her mother had appeared on a first encounter like some roly-poly matriarch in a child’s picture book, or a motherly glove puppet – nothing on her mind but baking and sweetness, nothing beneath her skirts but clothespegs and starch. One surreptitious glass too many, however, and her nursery rhyme equilibrium was upset, revealing all manner of spite and grievances to the unready … ‘I hope you realise that we only stayed together because of you graceless bitches,’ was the sort of declaration she would make when nearing the point of nightly collapse.

In my previous post I described my frustration at finding something to read that sparked my interest. I found this one. I read it in a weekend so I’m now in the same predicament. To avoid another collection of wasteful days I’m going straight to another Gale, his latest Take Nothing With You, which I should’ve blogged about already.

So what did I think of The Cat Sanctuary? It was great. I loved it.

You can buy the ebook, and/or read a free sample, here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

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Australian journalist turned novelist, Trent Dalton

This is a rollicking good read. Entertaining, insightful, rich in characters, with a heavy dose of autobiography, and only marred a little by the ending; more about that later.

Eli Bell is 12 years old and the younger son of dysfunctional but estranged parents, Frances and Robert, and they all bump along day to day on the outer hazardous rings of petty criminality in Brisbane in the 1980s. Rugby, television, drugs, poverty, junk food, cigarettes, XXXX beer, and a surprising amount of love for each other get them through every day. Well, almost. Eli’s ‘family’ is extended to include his mum’s boyfriend, Lyle, the first man he ever loved – it takes him time to feel that for his dad; Slim Halliday, his babysitter, mentor, and possible murderer, but certainly notorious escapee from Boggo Road Goal; and his older brother, August, who has decided not to talk since he and Eli were possible victims of attempted filicide. He communicates only with Eli who has learnt to decipher his brother’s air writing. They are inseparable.

The story is told in the first person and Eli’s colourful language, obvious intelligence, unwavering loyalty, and passion for words make him an unforgettable character. There’s a love story, or love fantasy, woven into the second half that is centred on a Courier-Mail crime reporter, Caitlyn Spies, eight years his senior. Eli hankers after, not only her lips and other parts of her body, but also a job like hers: he aches to be a crime-busting journalist. But does he make it? No spoilers here.

There is a lot of back-story to get through before the narrative really starts, so the opening is a bit slow but once Dalton gets in his stride you are grateful for the time taken; he also weaves in a flavour of surrealism that doesn’t quite work, for this reader, but it’s easy to go along with it and to allow yourself to be ‘taken for the ride.’

And what a ride!

It has all the flavour and action of a television crime story right down to the satisfying climax and the just-desserts handed out to the bad-guys.  But there is a climactic tag, a chase sequence that is contrived, too long, and unnecessary. It’s like this sequence has been lifted from another genre and medium; it sits uncomfortably, and ‘tacked-on’, at the end of such a well-written story. But this is a minor criticism.

Yes, it would be perfect for a television, and an adaptation is in the pipeline, produced by Joel Edgerton, but, surprisingly, it is the theatre that has snaffled the goods first. The stage version is scheduled for the 2020 season of the Queensland Theatre Company for the Brisbane Festival in September of that year. Sam Strong, QTC’s artistic director will direct the adaptation written by Tim McGarry.

You can watch a promotional video here, where Dalton gives away a few secrets of inspiration for this, his debut novel with the books that helped him write it.

You can buy the ebook, and other formats, here.

Lanny by Max Porter

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British writer, Max Porter.

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.

The Tree of Man by Patrick White

 

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Australian writer, Patrick Victor Martindale White, 1912 – 1990. Offered but declined a knighthood in 1970. Won the 1973 Nobel Prize for Literature.

I have had a checkered reading of Patrick White: I started The Tree of Man (published in 1955) when I was too young to appreciate it, so stopped; I started The Twyborn Affair (1979) but, not long in, threw the thing against the wall – I don’t remember why; and in 2011 I read A Fringe of Leaves (1976) several times – for academic purposes – and loved it! It was his first novel after the Nobel Prize and the pressure must have been immense.

The title comes from A. E. Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad (31):

There, like the wind through woods in riot, 
      Through him the gale of life blew high; 
The tree of man was never quiet: 
      Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I. 

In 1957 Patrick White wrote in a letter, “I felt the life was, on the surface, so dreary, ugly, monotonous, there must be a poetry hidden in it to give it a purpose, and so I set out to discover that secret core, and The Tree of Man emerged.”

“I wanted to suggest in this book every possible aspect of life, through the lives of an ordinary man and woman. But at the same time, I wanted to discover the extraordinary behind the ordinary, the mystery and the poetry which alone could make bearable the lives of such people, and incidentally my own life since my return” … to Australia in 1948. 

He uses the word ‘poetry’ in both these quotes. If you see this word on the cover, or more usually on the back-cover, of any book it usually means ‘literary’, ‘difficult’ and such a book won’t be found in an airport bookshop. It is, apart from anything else, informative.

The Tree of Man is about life. Stan Parker, a young ordinary man, (Life had not yet operated on his face) marries Amy, a young orphan (…had not yet felt affection for any human being) and takes her to live with him in a rough hut he has built on a plot of rough inherited land in the bush. What happens to them is the plot. What they feel, and usually don’t understand, and the discovery of meanings, insights, and poetry is the narrative and far more important; the description is the place and what it does to them, and the dialogue is how we get to know, and feel for, all the characters. These are the elements of a novel: narrative, description, and dialogue. And in the first two is where the poetry is.

Early in the book, after a devastating flood Amy Parker takes in a stranded boy, assumed an orphan. During the boy’s first night with the Parkers, she finds the lad late at night sitting by the fireplace looking at the dying fire through a piece of red glass:

‘What are you doing here?’ the child asked. 

‘Why,’ she said, ‘I live here. This is my house.’ 

But her skin was cold. She was uncertain of her furniture.

That last line of two short sentences is an example of literariness. The link between her last spoken line, This is my house and the next line of prose, But her skin was cold is not linear. There is a knowledge gap. And there is another, bigger, gap between that line and the next, seemingly strange one, She was uncertain of her furniture. What has to happen here is for the reader to fill in those gaps. This reader filled in that the child was warm but she wasn’t, so at a disadvantage; the child had control here, and she, not much more than a child herself, was intimidated by him. The second larger gap I filled in with an even stronger feeling of inadequacy: she knew nothing about anything, not even her furniture, which suddenly seemed irrelevant to her, as if she had no say in it; again like a child.

The child was looking at her hand. It was lying with some lost purpose along his arm. She still had to learn the words that she might speak.

This is what literary fiction does: the thought processes are not linear so requiring the reader to use their intuition, experience, and self-trust. What the writer meant by all of this is irrelevant – they’ve either moved on to their next book, or are dead – it’s in the realm of the reader, always, and what the reader thinks is correct.

This is an Everyman story of how people behave based on their own wishes and desires and to each other, the poetic majesty of living, loving, and making a life for themselves out of the scrubby wilderness but without any of the words necessary to express such feelings and mysteries. They talk to each other as uneducated country people do while the narrator reveals everything else.

Like all readers, we make a pact with writers to accept their omnipotence and let them lead us blindly along the tracks, twists, and turns of the narrative, no matter how ordinary the action is. The ‘novel’ is in the narrative. If you pick up a Patrick White novel and open it this is what you have to do. This is where the pleasure is.

Along the way, in the narrative, not in the dialogue, there can be incredible wisdom.

But he respected and accepted her mysteries as she could never respect and accept his.

This is profound. In one short sentence White encapsulates the essence of male-female relations that lie at the heart of countless novels, films, musicals, and, indeed, relations between the sexes for centuries, as in the song, Marry the Man Today, from the 1950’s musical Guys and Dolls, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser.

Marry the man today
Rather than sigh in sorrow
Marry the man today
And change his ways tomorrow.

As a literary work about the essence of mankind such pronouncements are the result of his intention: to discover the ‘poetry’ of human existence. His sentence instantly paints that archetypical relationship in which the husband unquestionably, but usually because he just wants peace between them, follows the tenants of his married life as stipulated by his wife, but she is forever ‘nagging’ him to change his ways. During this scene where White uncovers such universal truths the pair are talking about selling a calf: he thinks they have too many, she thinks the heifer, she calls her Nancy, will fret; she worries about their daughter who has cried over the extraction of a splinter under her fingernail, he thinks she’s doing fine if that’s all she has to worry about. Character based dialogue, simple and personal, but the wisdom and truth is in the literary narrative with language that the uneducated characters of their own story would never use.

His simplicity had not yet received that final clarity and strength which can acknowledge the immensity of belief. So instead of praying he went into a café and ordered a plate of food.

What people mean when they say ‘I believe…’ is often ‘I believe in the believing’. Believing comes with ritual, mannerisms, uniforms, social contact, expectations, and the resulting satisfaction. People pray without a sense of who they are praying to. They believe in the action of praying. It’s comforting. It’s doing something. Something that many people would approve of, and is therefore satisfying; like ordering a plate of food, which, realistically, is far more comforting because it actually arrives.

The narrative follows the couple, their two children, Ray,  who doesn’t turn out well, and Thelma, who marries a solicitor and has the opportunity to wear furs and crocodile skin shoes and so she has the excuse to look down on her parents. Stan and Amy Parker have two grandchildren and it’s possible they might like to make things right with the children and the children’s children; but it’s too late: it’s not their call any more. They missed it, and it’s inferred that the next generation, as parents, will do no better.

White explores the dichotomy of parental love and how we have no control over it: you love them as kids but maybe not as adults. They grow-up and grow-away. Even the people with we live with for decades we learn to take for granted. So when the grandson  comes in wet from a storm …

And Stan 

The old woman began to remember her husband whom she had forgotten. She forgot him now for whole days.

White started out to find the poetry in life, instead he found the truth.

 

 

On Writing. A memoir of the craft by Stephen King

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American writer Stephan King. “Nothing can live up to the memory of a good scare.”

Outside the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria in the centre of old Florence is the statue of David by Michelangelo. Actually it’s a statue of David by someone else. It’s a copy. The original is in the Galleria dell’Accademia not far away. Michelangelo’s David is truely remarkable but what is more revealing are the accompanying statues of slaves; unfinished statues. The figures seem to be emerging out of the stone; or to put it another way, they were always in the stone; Michelangelo just had to remove the marble from around them to reveal them in all their glory. Music is like that. The Clarinet Concerto always existed; Mozart just wrote it down so now it’s called Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. Stories are like that too.

I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves … Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.

or, in other words; stories have always existed, writers just have to write them down as accurately as they can.

If you hear a writer say “…Oh, it just wrote itself, really,” this is what they are talking about without really understanding anything about it.

Plotting is way down on King’s list of what’s important. For him it’s narration – to move the story along; description – to create a sensory reality; and dialogue – to bring characters to life.

I’ve never plotted any more than I ‘d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible …. plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible … It’s clumsy, mechanical, anticreative. Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored. 

I’ve heard, and read, many times that Stephan King is a writer’s writer. It’s a good line, although I’m not sure what it means. I took it to mean that I should read him. I’ve been planning to but as his work is not my preferred type (hate the word ‘genre’) other books kept preempting my plan. And then this one came along: a Christmas gift from my sister.

King calls it a memoir, and it certainly is. His chapter on his early struggles – menial jobs – many rejections, a family to support – is particularly honest and heart-warming. Yet, his chapter on being an alcoholic is electric. Talk about ‘being honest.’ It’s an insider’s view, the view of an alcoholic looking out with all the denials, justifications, and excuses that are virtually the ‘brand’ of all alcoholics but while he’s being one, seem particularly applicable to him and him alone.

But the life story doesn’t take long and soon he’s into the advice: the reason for reading it. I was heartened to read that his first piece of wisdom is, if you want to write, you must read. Phew! Good. I do that. His next piece of advice was to wage war on adverbs, especially attributive adverbs in dialogue: he said dismissively, she blithely said. His argument against adverbs like these was particularly convincing. I got up and opened my computer to the writing I had done that day and erased all my attributive adverbs, well, most of them. I had to make a few other adjustments to follow his advice: it should be perfectly clear how a line of dialogue should be said from the words themselves and, of course, the accumulated tension, tone, and information. Don’t be scared of oft repeating, he said, she said.

All I ask is that you do as well as you can, and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.

And vocabulary? “As the whore said to the bashful sailor, ‘It ain’t how much you’ve got it’s how you use it.” And if you have to run to the thesaurus to find the right word, it’s probably not the right word. He quotes Earnest Hemingway to seal the point.

“He came to the river. The river was there.”

He’s equally honest and up-front about narrative, description, dialogue and a myriad of other implements from his literary toolbox. I am very happy to now know that I share his belief in dialogue as one of the best ways to built character. There are some writers who avoid dialogue. What a missed opportunity!

However, I was, at times, at a disadvantage reading this book because he often makes his point by referring, in detail, to his own work and decisions he had to make, and why. I have never read anything by King so I found these passages redundant. Not his fault, but mine.

For a new writer like me (I can’t use the adjective ‘young’ any more), who’s grappling with the second draft of a major work that at the moment is a broad, messy, and a wooly thing, reading King’s On Writing now is the most serendipitous and useful coincidence.

All writers, especially new ones, and most readers would get a lot out of his insights into the writing process, the hazards and joys of writing for a living, and the more profound elements of imagination, fiction making, and self-fulfilment.  Highly recommended.

-oOo-

I have a gripe with Mr King. He’s down on adverbs, but he’s also down on pronouns. And so he should be; he uses them so clumsily (Yes, I now its an adverb but its necessary here.)

Move too fast and you risk leaving the reader behind. either by confusing or wearing him/her out.

The phrase ‘him or her’ is bad enough, but ‘him/her’? Unforgivable! He uses ‘he and she’ and even ‘he/she’ – but thank god, not ‘s/he’!

This is one of the English language’s greatest failings: there is no gender-neutral singular pronoun. For centuries it has been common practice to use the masculine ‘he, him, and his’ to refer to both genders. Today, this is not acceptable. But, there is a solution. What’s wrong with using the gender-neutral plural pronoun? Nothing. This has been around for a few hundred years, from the 16th century in fact* (It’s also been a solution for Jane Austin, Bernard Shaw, and Barak Obama). Yes, it’s breaking a fundamental rule of subject-pronoun agreement which maybe a small problem for some but it fixes a much bigger problem. Hence King could’ve and should’ve written,

Move too fast and you risk leaving the reader behind. either by confusing or wearing them out.

Much simpler, easier, cleaner, and no confusion, despite the broken rule.

He neuer forsaketh any creature vnlesse they before haue forsaken them selues.

– J Fisher Wayes to Perfect Religion (before 1535)

You can find the Kindle edition, as well as other formats, here.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

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Yuval Noah Harari, Israeli Historian and Professor of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

For a man who likes fiction, and who usually only reads fiction, I found myself, because of Christmas, with 4 new non-fiction books on my bedside table: Anne Summers’ memoir, Unfettered and Alive; Colm Tóibín’s Mad, Bad, & Dangerous to Know: the Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce; Stephen King’s On Writing, and this one, Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014).

The first I have because Anne Summers is a friend; the second because I am a fan of Colm Tóibín and I collect everything he writes; the third was a Christmas gift from my sister; and the fourth was a grab-bag gift from the festivities of Christmas Day. They all interest me, in fact many non-fiction books interest me, but volumes of fiction always got in the way. Even now, there are seven novels hovering ready to pounce and to grab my attention.

Let’s start with Harari’s definition of history: the development of elaborate human structures called cultures which the organism known as Homo Sapiens began to form about 70,000 years ago. Once I read this I knew I was in safe hands and that I was going to, not only find out stuff that would fascinate, but that it would all be in accessible language.

Sapien’s time on this planet is a very short period in the cosmic time frame: if you could squeeze the time from the beginning of the universe to the present day into a 12 hour period, Homo Sapiens would have first stood upright at about 11.59.

The book is full of fascinating detail and remarkable insights. Homo Sapiens was not the only Homo species to exist at the same time but the reason Sapiens prevailed and destroyed the others – as one theory goes – is not because of our strength or our brain size – the Neanderthals had bigger brains and bigger bodies –  but because of one fundamental difference: our cognitive ability, via language, to imagine things that do not exist: fictions like religion, nationalism, honour, human rights, politics, literature, and (the only fiction that everyone in the world believes in) money.* These mental constructs were what enabled Homo Sapiens the where-with-all to organise themselves in large numbers. Large crowds of people, from 2,000 to 100,000 individuals can organise themselves to behave well and orderly for many hours to witness the outcome of a competition (football) or the staging of a story (Wagner’s Ring Cycle). If you put only 500 of our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees, in a theatre there would be chaos. Of course, large crowds of humans can degenerate into chaos but only when the acceptable boundaries, rules; i.e., agreed constructs, that all members of the gathering adhere to, or believed would be adhered to, are broken. For example, the premier of Stravinsky’s ballet Rite of Spring.

And fundamental to the success of our ability to co-operate in large numbers is our obsession with social information: gossip. This fascinating topic and its historical necessity I’ll leave for you to read about.

English suffers from the absence of the third-person singular and genderless personal pronoun. We have plural ones: themthey, and their, and they are allowed to be used in singular form (“Each writer needs to be merciless when re-writing their work” – his/her is no clumsy), but the long standing acceptable way around this problem has been to use the masculine singular personal pronouns: he, his, and him.  Harari raises the finger to such ‘traditions’ and opts for the feminine: she, her, and hers. A nice touch, given our current social and linguistic shenanigans around gender. It puts it firmly in the 21st century.

The language is not simplistic but is easily digestible – you need to read it with the TV off –  and is peppered with humour, irony, and hyperbole. It’s a wonderful read, entertaining, enlightening, and often astounding.

You can watch and listen to an excerpt from Harari’s TED talk (June 2015) on “Why Humans Run the World” here.

Everyone is reading this book and the two that follow it: Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016) and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018). They are everywhere. If you haven’t seen a copy you’re either blind or have just returned from Mars.

* Money was created many times in many places. It’s development required no technical breakthroughs – it was purely a mental revolution. It involved the creation of a new inter-subjective reality that exists solely in people’s shared imagination. Money is not coins and banknotes. Money is anything that people are willing to use in order to represent systematically the value of other things for the purpose of exchanging goods and services. Money enables people to compare quickly and easily the value of different commodities (such as apples, shoes and divorces), to easily exchange one thing for another, and to store wealth conveniently. Sapiens, Page 197