It’s going to be difficult to talk about this book, Lessons (2022) without giving away too much of the plot; no spoilers. I’ll try.
The story is about Roland Baines and with a title of Lessons, it’s appropriate that it begins with a lesson: a piano lesson, but this one has lifelong repercussions.
The story isn’t linear but it progresses like a complex cable-knit from that piano lesson when he was 14 years old right into his early 70s.
The writing is dense and not conducive to the one and a half page read in bed before you go to sleep. This book demands your time and attention. It’s also a bit of a history lesson as world events impinge on Roland’s life from the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, through the fall of the Berlin Wall 1989 to the lockdowns of the 2020 pandemic. Roland was born in 1948, a real Baby Boomer, but only a few years before me; there’s little bits of my history that match Roland’s and those little bits are mainly reflected in his mistakes. It’s Roland’s mistakes – or, if you like, the lessons he didn’t learn – that lay down the path of Roland’s life.
For readers of Roland’s age you too will, I predict, see little bits of your own history as we all can’t be immune to the world and what goes on in it.
Roland’s life, in its teenage beginnings, has enormous potential as a pianist, a tennis player, and as a writer. What he does with that potential and how those choices affect him and those around him make up the spine of the story.
There is, of course, the piano teacher, Miriam, then his first wife Alissa and her German family, his only child, Lawrence, his second wife, Daphne, and an unknown brother, Robert, are all dragged along by the history around them; some do well, others do not.
After his trite little book, Nutshell (2016), which I thought was way below par, so much so that I didn’t bother with his next one, Machines Like Me (2019) Lessons is a return to the classic standard of his Enduring Love (1997), Atonement (2001), Saturday (2005), and The Children Act (2014). It’s not a return to his early work which was full of darkness and the macabre, but it’s a mature and serious work that delves into what it really takes for a person to fulfil their dreams and how easy it is for those dreams to turn to smoke.
The complexities if its timeline annoyed me a little in the first third, but there is a rhythm there you need to tap into but once you do the book rollicks along to its conclusion; well it did for this reader, anyway. I loved it! (But, please, make time for it and attend to it wholeheartedly)
Lessons is his most autobiographical work, about a quarter he says, and you can hear him talking about the book and his writing life here, in a short but fascinating video from the CBS Sunday Morning program.
You can purchase the book in various formats here.
I used to have a serious crush on the works of W. Somerset Maugham. I’ve read most of his fiction, novels, and short stories and always find something fresh on re-reading them. I usually don’t mention this past-passion: Maugham is very much now out of fashion. However, a recent conversation with a student about short story writing sparked my interest again and serendipitously I discovered this novel Cakes and Ale (1930) in my local second hand bookshop. I bought it.
Modern short stories tend to be more like anecdotes. Maugham’s stories are very neat, some would say old-fashioned: with a definite beginning, middle, and an end. So, to anyone interested in writing, especially short stories, I would highly recommend reading a lot of W. Somerset Maugham.
In his day Maugham was the most famous, the most successful novelist and playwright. His early success was in the theatre. In 1908 he had four plays running simultaneously on the West End. After writing thirty two plays he abandoned the theatre in 1933 to concentrate solely on writing fiction, many of which have been produced for film and television. His greatest fiction masterpiece, some say, is Of Human Bondage (1915), the film adaptation (1934) – the first of four – featured a then unknown actress called Bette Davis.
Cakes and Ale (1930) with an alternative title, The Skeleton in the Cupboard, is a satire on the literary world of Maugham’s day. The 1st person narrator is a writer and ex-medical student called William Ashenden – a name Maugham had used several times when writing autobiographical flavoured fiction.
The plot swings around a noble writer, Edward Driffield who has reached the lofty accolades of his literary career and is considered the ‘father’ of British literature. However, he came from very humble beginnings which Ashenden can attest to as he knew the Driffields, Edward then an unknown writer, but more importantly he knew the first Mrs Driffield, an ex-barmaid and very forthright woman called Rosie. The story opens with the literary rumblings about who will write Driffield’s biography now that the grand old man of British letters has died. It is Ashenden’s recollections of his student days when he knew the Driffields that provide the background and understandings of the great man’s past, and especially the skeleton in his cupboard: Rosie.
The book created a furor when it first appeared as is was believed it was a blatant jab at the recently deceased British writer, Thomas Hardy. “Trampling on Thomas Hardy’s Grave” and “Hitting below the Shroud” were only two of the vindictive reviews that appeared at the book’s publication. Maugham denied the association, of course. He asserts it began as a short story about a notable writer whose famous works were all written while he was married to his first ‘common’ wife but whose second wife, his secretary, ‘made him into a figure’.
Maugham took his title from a line of Sir Toby Belch to Malvolio in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” Cakes and Ale were literary symbols (thank you Aesop, whoever you were) for the good life.
It’s written in the literary style of the day and despite the often self-deprecating remarks from the narrator Ashenden, he (Maugham) comes across as a self-serving sarcastic ponse. Yet, the highlight of Cakes and Ale is the character of Rosie. Maugham was particular good at creating ‘common women’. He gave them self-awareness, honesty, and the ability to undermine the pompous men who usually sought their company.
It’s as entertaining as any of Maugham’s work but doesn’t quite meet the standard of his most famous, his novels The Moon and Sixpence (1919) and The Razor’s Edge (1944). The curious characteristic of both these novels is that they are both about someone who isn’t there: in the former it’s about a painter (based on Paul Gauguin) who is dead, and the latter is about a young American, Larry Darrell who is always abroad searching for the meaning of life. Their stories are told by those who were left behind.
I have heard several heated discussions about this book. I’m a Tsiolkas fan but my appreciation has waned since his Damascus which was an ambitious work and although there were some evocative sections it was ultimately a disappointment for this reader. In fact I’ve been reading Tsiolkas since The Jesus Man (1999) – good, then Dead Europe (2005) -fantastic, and then, of course, The Slap (2008) – brilliant, then Barracuda (2013) -good, Merciless Gods (2014) – very good, then Damascus (2019) – not so good. I found this one in a swap-library at a modest beachfront hotel in Candidasa, Bali, my island home now for 12 years. So, I picked it up and exchanged it for several copies of The Economist.
All of these matters politics, sexuality, race, history, gender, morality, the future – all of them now bore me.
It’s a novel about a writer going away by himself to write a novel. It’s a mixture of autobiography, memory, criticism, natural history, angst, and confession.
Most writers are glorified and bewildered by the fiction writing process. The difficulty of squeezing in the writing process into one’s life seems a rich seam of inspiration. And it is! But not, I fear, for readers. What Tsiolkas has tried to do is worthy of trying but there’s a reason that it’s not attempted more often. I’m not really interested in how a stylish but comfortable pair of shoes is made; I just want them to be stylish and comfortable.
Although he tells us there are 3 stories he wants to write we only really get to know one: Sweet Thing.
A young couple, Paul and Jemma, who met as porn movie actors, and their son, Neal. An elderly gentleman offers Paul $US150,000 for 3 nights with him. They need the money. There isn’t a moral dilemma here, the tension is the trip back to the USA, and not the encounter with the desotted man but the attempt to reacquaint himself with friends, family, and country; a trip into, and escape from, his personal idea of hell, with undertones of, and references to, Dante’s Inferno, the first part of 14th Century writer’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy.
The marketing blurbs on the covers put me in mind of a writer who isn’t comfortable with his idea, a long held idea, he tells us, and so needs to isolate himself with only the idea for company.
…truth and imagination are enemies.
I don’t believe that: fiction, via our imagination, can help us see the truth. He says he wants to write about beauty. But what does that mean? Beautiful people? Beautiful actions? Beautiful relationships? He loves the idea of writing about beauty but doesn’t articulate how it may be achieved. What is most vivid in this book are the scenes where beauty is nowhere to be seen.
Every artist, very writer, must have an element of the superstitious to them … we have faith in alchemy. Yes.
He gives in to the temptation of writing as therapy, yet doesn’t acknowledge that such self-absorption sidelines the reader. All writers must know that writing is, as he says, via alchemy; writers want that alchemy to be understandable, enjoyable, want it to resonate with the reader, and so edit it to make it more so. I don’t know how a writer can ever ignore the reader.
I am a writer, and I believe in the utility of by accident, its necessity.
There are moments of verbosity that sound forced but can be forgiven since this is not so much a novel as a DIY manual – with examples.
Tsiolkas’s narrative jumps seamlessly, grammatically speaking, from his minute by minute existence at the beach house to the story he’s writing, Sweet Thing, to memories, some long lost, as he paddles around the beach and house while trying to write. The ‘work’ is always present. This may make the reading confusing but it doesn’t. Writers, I’m sure, know this feeling, which causes great annoyance to the people who share their lives: their current project is forever taking the writer away from, and getting in the way of, them and the present.
There are pesky little mistakes that the editors should’ve picked up but didn’t. He describes an eagle circling the ocean and beach then diving into the sea and emerging with a fish in its beak. Is this an attempt at writing about beauty? Eagles are raptors and so grab their prey with their feet as they skim the water. This mistake doesn’t worry me, as it might others, since I no longer assume that the universe of the book I’m reading is my universe. However, it does grate a little. Maybe it was a cormorant or booby; they do dive for their prey; he just thought it was an eagle, or wanted it to be an eagle. And no bird eats on the wing. But, maybe it was the image, ‘of the profound amorality of nature’ he was after: ‘… drops of blood and flesh [that] fall from the fish it has taken; they fall softly as rain …’ The image is what’s important even if the details are wrong. Anyway, I don’t let it undermine the veracity of the narrative. Some would.
There wasn’t a time when I wanted to stop reading, although I did skim the more purple prose of his nature writing and his repetitive description of bodily odours. I’m interested in writers and their writing processes, as some readers are, and would’ve liked more of it. We get the main bits of Sweet Thing but not the continuing, and potentially intriguing, detail. This reinforced my idea that he never quite trusted the idea to stand on its own and so wrote it into a story about the writing of it. It isn’t clear whether the work, Sweet Thing, actually was finished, or written. The end of this book is more about the end of the retreat and getting back to his partner than the end of the novel he was trying to write.
Once I finished reading, I felt like it wasn’t written to be read; it was written to be written. As a reader, I felt a little sidelined, left out.
There’s no doubt Tsiolkas is a writer of talent, authority, and variety. What this reader wants is for him to return to the truth-telling of family. He is SO good at that. It is, after all, a bottomless well.
Here is a longish interview, via the Avid Reader Bookshop, with Tsiolkas about 7½.
The story is simple. The language is simple but with purple patches – “silvery spheres too many to count rotating about each other with an unearthly hum, in neverending space”: simple words describing a cosmic image. This and oft used Spanish words and names together with the present tense and an absence of contractions gives the narrative a strange tone, a mysterious placement. This is heightened by a curious grammatical pairing of pronoun with proper noun: ” …says he, Simón” (but only for this character, no other) hinting at a possible translated text from an old time. Halfway through the book you will discover that although this book you are reading is in English, the story is in Spanish. Only the 10 year-old boy has an English name: David, an orphan, who plays football well because he also dances. He is a strong willed and serious boy.
Unlike most novels there is a lack of detail. Clothes, the weather, the place, and surroundings are minimally described, if at all. This has a further curious effect of making the work sound like a fable.
He is in the care of Simón, also a dancer, and Inès; they try to behave like real parents. David becomes enamored of Dr Julio Fabricante, the proprietor of a local orphanage and football team, who has a liberal free-thinking but anti-book learning attitude to raising children. David is attracted to the idea of orphan-dom and decides to live at the orphanage. Simón can’t stop him and Inès is angry at him for not trying harder. Their relationship, tenuous but stable but only because of the boy, is further strained.
When David’s legs mysteriously stop working the orphanage gives him back to the couple. David is broken. In hospital his condition is mysterious but he gathers attention from other patients, visitors, and staff, including a reformed murderer of David’s early acquaintance working as a janitor. He tells them stories from his head about Don Quixote, the only book he has ever read and it remains the only book he reads. They all gather around his bed listening to him. He is called ‘Young Master’ and he has an old dog who, along with the reformed murderer, are the only ones who understand him.
What does it all mean? There are parallels with the life of Jesus: a boy whose parents are not his parents, a boy of a weak body but a strong mind, a boy who garners followers, a boy who befriends sinners, alianates authorities, and has a life infused by an old text.
Some writers, John Boyne, the writer of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006), in particular, have been heavily criticised and even beleaguered and verbally abused for not, according to his abusers, getting his facts straight. His detractors obviously expect a novel to be ‘in’ the same universe as they are. This is an unnecessary assumption. Made-up stories about witches and elves, vampires and blood-drinking, walking talking trees and ents are obviously NOT in the universe of the reader. Why then assume that other made-up stories must be? Just because the world of a novel ‘looks like’ the world of the reader, readers should not assume that it is.
Every made-up story exists in its own unique universe. It is an example of speculative fiction.
Coetzee’s The Death of Jesus (2019) is a made-up story. It’s universe is similar but not the same as ours. Strange things happen and strange ideas are championed for reasons that go to the heart of the work. Readers need to find their own unique meaning of what they read. This is part of the joy of reading fiction. This understanding, which few people understand, is the sole responsibility of the reader. It has nothing to do with the writer. When you read it and discover your own meaning it will be very different to mine. I’m sure.
Its futile wondering what Coetzee meant – it’s very likely, Coetzee being a novelist (a conduit of literary creativity), that he doesn’t know what he meant.
Although the title may give away how the story unfolds, it is not as one would expect. In fact the ‘end’ of the story loses narrative tension, but still the expectation of what you don’t expect serves the same purpose.
Whatever it is, it’s a bloody entertaining and intriguing read.
Recently established at the University of Adelaide is the J M Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice where its namesake is the Patron. It is a research centre devoted to understanding creativity and a cultural hub where leading literary, musical and multimedia scholars and artists can learn from one another and collaborate.
You can hear the man himself pronounce his name here. (John Cortzee – jon kert SEE)
The thing is not to write what no one else could have written, but to write what only you could have written.
When this book came out in 2008 the Australian literary scene lit up! The collection of longish short stories heralded a major new writer of extraordinary scope and skill. He was 27.
The first story, Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice is as one would expect. The narrator, Nam, a Vietnamese Australian living in the US and studying writing at the Iowa Writers Centre is hosting his father, a Vietnamese war veteran whose relationship with his son has been fractious. It is now better but still not grounded and never easy. References to the other stories in this collection make this first story work like a preface to the book itself. When Nam, then a lawyer, told his father that he was quitting his job in Melbourne to go to Iowa to become a writer his father said ‘The captive buffalo hates the free buffalo.’ He was prone to talk in proverbs.
His description of peak-hour traffic: it’s rinse of noise. His smile was as stiff as his suit. … their amusement, coughing it around their circle like a wet scrap.
The second story, Cartagena, is set in Colombia and is very unexpected. It knocks your socks off! The syntax is simple, no contractions, the occasional use of favela Spanish, restricted punctuation – no quotation marks, and a recurring misuse of a verb: ‘Luis, who had the same age,” makes it sound like a mistranslation. All these grammar tricks conspire to give veracity to this 1st person narrative. It feels authentic, belying the fact that the author is not a young Colombian thug, but a young Vietnamese Australian. The narrator is Juan Pablo, fourteen and a half years old, a sicario – hitman – who has been obedient, a faithful soldado and loyal to his agent, El Padre, except recently. He did not make his last hit. He said he could not find him. He lied to his agent whom he has never met. The hit is his best friend, Hernando. Juan Pablo is in deadly trouble. He knows this because he has been summoned. Everyone knows this can only mean one thing. No spoilers here but, well, a devastating climax. It was this story that was scorched in my brain from my first reading over a decade ago.
And then comes Meeting Elise. A completely different tone, more traditional grammar and another 1st person narrative: a middle aged artist whom women leave and who’s having trouble with hemorrhoids and colon polyps. He fucks things up by talking too much, mostly the truth, he reckons – too much verbiage, too much booze. He’s getting ready to meet his long lost 18 year old daughter, a musician, whom he hasn’t seen for 17 years. He’s exhilarated but scared, sorry but expectant. It all sounds like the work of a different writer.
Halflead High This story is a 3rd person coming of age; a coastal high school student full of raging hormones, adult disappointments, and life getting in the way; an ill mother, high school jealousies, loves, lusts, and betrayals. It’s touching, recognisable, and insightful.
His mother was dying and seemed torn between ignoring it and rushing towards it.
It’s lines like this, and those above, that for me cements a writer’s worth. Something clicks in the reader – it did with me – simply stated but describes an unrecognised truth made manifest in a line like that.
Story No. 5 is a 1st person narrative: this time a young Japanese girl in an evacuation centre sleeping “four mats away from the radio”. She and all the other children scrub the wooden floors of the temple till they shine and press their hands together for the glorious Imperial Forces who fought the reviled enemy China and now the cowardly enemy, America. Soybean rice with mugwort grass is better than pounded rice cakes. Do without until victory. Honorable death before surrender. It’s the last days of the war. The text is dense, no delineated dialogue, just a stream of consciousness from a little girl. Short, plain sentences. Present tense. Subjects jump around: scrubbing floors, running during exercise, Big Sister, Mother covered in dust, rice soup, Imperial heros, the wind, the loud warnings, Big Brother who has gone to Confidential Place, sore knees, the sounds of B24s, or is that a B27? cicadas, hunger. The rabbity mind of a little girl, named Little Turnip. The title, Hiroshima, is ominous.
The 6th story is the least successful; Tehran Calling follows a young American woman travelling to Iran to see her old university friend only to be caught up in youth unrest, Iranian hypocrisy, and self-deception. However, the syntax and form is different from each of the other stories. It’s as if Le is searching for his voice, his tone, his style, the work he feels most comfortable with. But astoundingly each story has a style that is different but authentic, authorial, with weight and verisimilitude.
Style is everything. Style is eye, window, and view. And, of course, when it serves its purpose, style is beside the point, is rightly subsumed by subjectivity and subject. Perhaps the handiest definition of literature is language where style and subject are inseparable. (2021) He certainly proves it.
‘Why do you write about Colombians, Japanese, and Iranian girls? What about us!” says his father in the first story. So he does.
The last and title story, The Boat; I was forced to schedule daytime reading time for it. Reading it before sleep was impossible. The opening scene of the view from the crowded bilges of an unstable refugee boat on the very high seas is terrifying. In appalling, almost unimaginable conditions where bodily functions are just part of the boat’s geography. Drinking water is rare and hallowed; human relationships based on nothing but instincts. A little boy obsessed with counting heads after every splash overboard. A little boy, like an old man squeezed within a skeletal frame.
It was a face dead of surprise.
The range, skill, and boldness of these stories is breathtaking. Seventeen years ago a novel was eagerly anticipated as if short stories weren’t somehow good enough. How stupid is that? If Le writes nothing ever again what he has written here will cement his name in Australian literature as a voice to be honoured. Along with Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, every Aussie home needs this book on their shelf.
Here you can watch Nam Le reading a short excerpt from the 1st story.
And here you can hear Nam le talk intimately about writing and why he does it.
I’d forgotten I had this book on my shelf. I read it when it first came out in 2008 with trumpets blaring and accolades galore. I remembered little about it. I don’t read much crime fiction but made an exception with this one. I lost my entire library on our move to Bali twelve years ago so don’t know how this copy got onto my shelf, nor what made me read it again.
Temple is famous for his Jack Irish crime series, but this is a stand alone work which won the Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award: the UK’s Crime Writers Association’s best crime novel of the year (2007)
My copy is looking a bit faded and world-worn, a bit like its protagonist, Joseph Cashin. He’s a good guy cop, unambitious, world-weary, smart, a body racked with past injuries, but with a healthy disrespect for authority.
It was darkening when Cashin reached home, the wind ruffling the trees on the hill, strumming the corrugated iron roof. He got the fire going, took out a six-pack of Carlsberg, put on L’elisir d’amore, Donizetti, sank into the old chair, cushion in the small of his back. Tired in the trunk, hurting in the pelvis, pains down his legs, he swallowed two aspirins with the first swig of beer.
Short sharp sentences separated by commas, semicolons too posh for Joe Cashin. It gives the narrative that staccato American punch epitomised by the famous American crime writer, Dashiell Hammett. But 3rd person here, not 1st. His dialogue between Aussie men is perfectly obtuse, as if each alternative line has been omitted. I was surprised at the extent of the ‘foul’ language, although appropriate for these Australian male characters. The rural setting and tone belying its contemporary (2005) release.
A well respected and wealthy local is found dead in his home. What seems a simple break-in-gone-wrong, exacerbated by a botched police chase which leaves all three suspects dead, leads everyone to think case closed, despite or because of police efforts. All except Joe Cashin that is. The crime formula is honoured: tight-lipped family, newly exposed secrets, increased sinister misdeeds, a seemingly unrelated but vicious murder, a dead man proves not to be, lies and police corruption, a few red herrings, and a sexul dalience. Good crime fiction stuff. It’s staying on my shelf.
I first read and blogged about this book in June 2016. It led me to add Patrick Gale to my list of literary favs. I had read his Rough Music (2000) years before and read it again in 2019. Having now read most, yet not all, of Gale’s twenty one books, these two stand out, for me, as his best.
Recently I watched an interview with him in which he mentions that the devastating opening scene was based on a news item and it was this first scene that he wrote without any idea what was going to happen next … except that the two characters, the perfectly good man, Father Barnaby Johnson, and a young man, Lenny, had to be connected in some, as yet, unforeseen way.
This to me is the essence of what novel writing is: a strong scene that just has to be written and then the writer in the privacy of his own mind, experience, and in a space (room) of one’s own (thank you Virginia Woolf) lets the subconscious out for a walk and writes down what he sees and hears. This is how most novelists work; they’re called pansters (by some): they ride by the seat of their pants. I’ve yet to meet or hear from a writer who plans every detail before writing begins, although I hear that Gustave Flaubert was one.
I’ve said this before but it’s worth saying again: if you are surprised what you read on the page it’s highly likely that the writer was too.
For any would-be novelist this book is a must read. The idea of letting a strong novelistic event with only two characters and one setting plant the seed of the story of a man’s life spanning half a decade is tantalising. The timeframe of the action is segmented and re-arranged. Gale loves taking time and playing around with it. Hence chapters called “Lenny at 20” are followed by “Dorothy at 24” are followed by “Barnaby at 52” and finally, “Nuala at 52” is followed by the final chapter “Barnaby at 8”. This format makes each chapter not unlike a short story although all of them are preempted with known knowledge which allows the reader to understand and sometimes realise an important reason or revelation that is only known by the reader, and not by any of the characters. You feel privileged.
And that’s how you learn about the connection between Father Barnaby Johnson and young Lenny: it’s not stated, you work it out.
You can find many of Gale’s books, including this one, here.
This slim volume of essays is a very personal attempt to put into words what happens when a writer writes and a reader reads. No mean task. The first three were presented in November 2021 at the Teatro Arena del Sole in Bologna, Italy as the 2021 instalment of the Eco Lectures produced by Umberto Eco International Center for Humanities. They were read by the actress Manuela Mandracchia ‘in the guise’ of Elena Ferrante. The fourth and last essay, Dante’s Rib, concluded the conference Dante and Other Classics in April 2021 to celebrate the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. It was read by the scholar Tiziana de Rogatis.
Ferrante vividly reimagines her early school days when she was compelled to write on black lined paper but between two vertical red lines, one positioning the left margin, the other the right. She was diligent to recognise the ease to honour the left margin but recognising “that if your writing didn’t stay between those taut lines you would be punished,” she found the right margin difficult to obey.
I was punished so often that the sense of the boundary became part of me, and when I write by hand I feel the threat of the vertical red line even though I haven’t used paper like that for years.
There is, and always has been, a mysterious element to the creation of fiction. If you as a reader are surprised by what someone does or what someone says in a book, the writer probably was too. Most writers are pantsters: they fly by the seat of their pants. You can begin a scene not knowing where it’s going until you get there.
By mysterious I mean that which makes a writer re-read yesterday’s work and think, ‘Did I write that? Where did that come from?’ When a writer is in the heat of creativity and the keys (or pen) are jumping with energy and excitement, and the little black marks – typos misspellings galore – are coming lickerty-split onto the pale background there isn’t time to think, ‘What did Stephen King say about this situation?’ ‘Passive or active here?’ ‘Maybe I should re-read that Ferrante lecture’ and ‘I’d better ask what’s-his-name? that YouTube guy’. No, there isn’t time. If I stop I’ll lose it. One has to hope-to-god that all that advice, those corrections, mistakes, answers, instructions, and trial & errors have somehow, by osmosis perhaps, made it into my subconscious and are now flowing creatively through my fingertips shoving those little black marks all over that pale background and will coalesce into something worthwhile, giving me a rich and productive resource on which to later manipulate, via several drafts, into a good book. What is that magical force? (muse? imagination? the holy spirit? creative fire?). I don’t think we’ll ever know, because it’s an amorphous product of our imagination that our measly 26 man-made letters – no matter in what order we put them – are just too limited, or too few in number, to give it meaning we can understand.
She quotes Virginia Woolf, from A Writer’s Diary (1953):
“And your novel?
“Oh, I put in my hand and rummage in a bran pie*.”
“That’s what’s so wonderful. And it’s all different”
“Yes, I’m 20 people.”
*a bran pie = a tub full of bran in which treats are hidden: a lucky dip.
Ferrante believes there are two kinds of writing, the first compliant, the second impetuous; the first from the ‘outside’, the second from the imaginary ‘inside’ which is by its nature fleeting.
The thought-vision appears as something in motion – it rises and falls – [it’s not unlike watching TV in your mind] and its task is to make itself evident before disappearing.
And fleeting it certainly is. Many times between being hit by an exciting idea and racing to my nearest device with its Note App – it’s gone! And when I try to retrace my thoughts to whatever it was that sparked the thought train in the first place – the caption on a photo, a news article, a phrase – it’s nowhere to be found. Many writers have expressed this mysterious aspect of fiction writing:
Alexander McCall Smith: (writing fiction is) allowing the sub-conscience to escape.
Wole Soyinka: (writing fiction is) a kind of creative reportage.
John Irving: writing a movie is like swimming in a bath and writing a novel is like swimming in the ocean.
D. H. Lawrence: I am doing a novel which I have never grasped …there I am at page 145 and I’ve no notion what’s it about.
Jonathan Safran Foer: when writing non-fiction I always know in the morning what I’m going to work on; when writing fiction I get up in the morning NOT knowing what I’m going to work on.
Virginia Woolf again: writing is camping out in your brain.
There are quotable quotes in almost all of Ferrante’s paragraphs, ideas that will spark your own thought trains. If you are interested in this stuff please read it and re-read it as re-reading is wonderfully necessary; it will delight, amuse, and amaze you. If you’re not, don’t bother.
One of the enemies of sleep is an overactive brain, which is why there are many pieces of advice that all aspire to getting a light-sleeper ready for sleep: listening to your own breathing, concentrating on a mantra, counting sheep, or reading a book; give the brain one thing to do, and not let it buzz around thirty eight.
I’m reading Hanya Yanagihara’s latest, and third novel, To Paradise, but I’m reading an ebook edition on my tablet and since modern medical advice is that reading on an electronic device before sleep is not a good idea – it tends to inhibit sleep, not encourage it – I usually have a paper book by my bed for those many minutes of bedtime reading.
Note! I’m not at all advocating choosing a dull read for bed-time reading; not a book to put you to sleep but one to prepare you for sleep.
Short stories are good. Raymond Carver’s short story collection, Short Cuts (1993), has been my recent and decent bedtime read.
The famed American filmmaker, Robert Altman, praised Carver for capturing “the wonderful idiosyncrasies of human behaviour … that exist amid the randomness of life’s experiences.” That paints a very general picture of what Carver wrote about; what he mainly wrote about was far more specific.
Carver was born and lived in the American North West and as a young married man – he was married and the father of two while still in his teens – he worked odd jobs, from picking tulips to sweeping floors to managing an apartment building. He knew all about unplanned responsibilities, the threat of unsatisfying work and unemployment and the mysterious chicanery of personal relationships. This is the stuff of Carver’s characters. They are lorry drivers, traveling salesmen, waitresses, the badly educated, disillusioned, the down-and-almost-out, alcoholics, quickly bored, easily distracted, and equally likely to be the betrayed as the betrayer. Their lives are beyond their control and since God has everything to do with it they don’t blame him since he doesn’t seem to care, but anyway, that’s okay because they aren’t that far away from believing they deserve everything they get.
Carver’s stories are usually cautionary tales, highlighting casual moments as the causes of distrust, treachery, and the erosion of tenuous human standards. His characters and situations may be dark and seemingly mundane but they contain a wealth of understanding and insight into the human condition and are told in bold and sparse prose.
Most fiction is told through an omnipotent unnamed third-person narrator who knows everyone’s, and the world’s, past, present and future; they know what everyone is thinking, needing, and planning and tells the reader what they say and do and what they think and want. Carver’s third-person narrators aren’t that powerful. His third person narrators have the same power as everyone else: they just report what is said and done, like his first person narrators. What the characters may be thinking at any one moment is either of no consequence or completely incomprehensible.
His writing is reader-focused: you fill in the gaps, the spaces for psychological insight that each reader brings to such texts which makes these stories so personal and endearing.
Short stories are not the most popular form of fiction but writers who do them well, Anton Chekov, Alice Munro, Katherine Mansfield, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, W Somerset Maugham, James Joyce, Nam Lee, and Raymond Carver do them very well indeed.
These nine stories and one poem that make up this volume were the inspiration for Robert Altman’s multi-award winning film Short Cuts released in 1993.
Here is a feature-length documentary on Altman, the making of Short Cuts, the movie, and his reverence of the work of Raymond Carver.
In this semi-autobiographical novel, a classic of American Modern Literature and set during the Depression at the University of Wisconsin, it isn’t surprising that the first person narrator, Larry Morgan, is a writer and so there are many references to the art, misuse, difficulties, and frustrations of such a profession.
Are writers reporters, prophets, crazies, entertainers, preachers, judges, what?
Is the gift, the talent, its own justification?
The process of writing fiction is an expression of self-discovery: being free and relaxed enough to let the sub-conscious out. And when it comes out you grab it and write it down. All the experiences of the world, the good, the bad, the insignificant, and the inferred make up one’s past life and the sub-conscious arranges them into memories which may or may not be accurate and can sometimes be perverse.
From these memories, the talent springs – the activity of imagining – but most of us, when the ‘talent springs’, do nothing about it. Scenes, conversations, ideas, rehearsed retorts, and wishful decisions occur to everyone all the time but only the writers write them down. But to write it down, you need to be practiced at writing things down, putting the products of your senses into words, and knowing the difference between a gerund and the infinitive.
Writing takes talent but it also takes practice. You can teach the practice but you can’t teach the talent.
Crossing to Safety (1987) tells the story of the remarkable friendship between Larry (the narrator) and Sally Morgan, young, poor, intelligent, and curious and a slightly older couple, Sid and Charity Lang, already ensconced in the English Department, and to the Morgans, a wonderfully urbane, astute, fascinating, devoted, and wealthy couple who take the newbies under their luxurious wings.
It’s easy for a first person narrator to slip into the third – they could tell a story, just like Terry Hayes does in I Am Pilgrim, – just as it is equally easy for the third person to get so close to a character that it a-l-m-o-s-t becomes the first. That’s why this more usual knack is sometimes called close writing. In more literary circles it’s called free indirect discourse. I prefer the less formal. What is unusual here is that Larry, Stegner’s first-person narrator, has only just met Sid and Charity and knows nothing about how their past unfolded, nor do they tell him. This is not a problem for Stegner. He imagines the meeting and early courtship of Sid and Charity;
“Who is this boy?” I can imagine her mother asking. “Do we know him? Do we know his family?” Suppose they are sitting …”
Yes, an audacious technique but one that works given that imagining is what fiction writing is all about.
It’s also audacious to let a character, Charity’s sister, keep the name Comfort. It’s likely Stegner didn’t choose it; it just happened. Things like that often occur when writing fiction. I know of a novelist who, at 83,000 words, thought he had nothing but a pile of poo until out of the mouth of a young character came, out of the blue, the title of the thing. Not only did the phrase give the thing a name, and its theme, it also turned the pile of poo into a novel and out of relief and gratitude the author burst into tears.
It’s moments like these that one could easily believe that fiction comes unbidden, from another place, from another being: fate, a muse maybe, or even a spirit or god. It’s also the reason why you might hear young writers foolishly say, “Oh, actually it wrote itself.” That’s nonsense of course, but the feeling is real.
Being a semi-autobiographical novel, the events may be part of the writer’s past but the intimate moments, the conversations, and minute-by-minute thoughts must rely on imagination; imagined and written down.
The fulcrum of this quartet of characters is Charity Lang. She is forceful, controlling, opinionated, always right, passive aggressive, and never backs down. Two major scenes stick in my mind and will for some time to come. I can’t describe them as that would give too much away but the first revolves around preparation for a camping expedition and whether a packet of tea-bags was packed, or not. Seemingly a trite scenario but in the hands of Stegner it’s a pivotal moment in the building of Charity’s character. The second, the devastating climax, is about who should or shouldn’t go on a family picnic. Here the character of Charity is at its most prickly, unbending, and cruel. However, the reader understands her point of view, and it’s a tribute to Stegner that you also understand the three other points of view. It’s a shattering scene.
This is a book of rich language with a commitment to nature, happiness, and the human foibles that shatter or uplift our lives.
Here you can view an interview with Stegner from the early 1970s.
And here is an hour long documentary “Wallace Stegner: A Writer’s Life,” narrated by Robert Redford and produced only a few years before the writer’s death in 1993.