After I finished my 4th novel, well, the 3rd draft of it, who knows what needs to be done to it and at what time it needs to be done, I sent it off to my ‘agent’. He’s not really my agent as we don’t have a writer/agent relationship, he doesn’t have a relationship with me but with a book of mine, my 3rd novel, Johnny William & the Cameraman. However, what’s a writer to do after finishing number 4 but send it on to someone and an agent who has a relationship with number 3 is as good as any. He said he was looking forward to reading it. He said he liked it. With number 4 out of my hair, I felt like my pet budgie had flown away, a little lost. I scanned two abandoned pieces of prose, both over 20,000 words, one set in a declining rural town that seeks its survival only to have that thwarted by the media; and a story of a group of people who witness a tragedy on Sydney Harbour. Neither re-tickled my novelistic fancy.
J. M. Coetzee won the Booker Prize twice: for Life & Times of Michael K in 1983, and for Disgrace in 1999. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.
Life & Times of Michael K is a short novel in three untitled chapters: a long one, a short one, and an even shorter one. It is literary, not in the writing, which is simple, stark, and unadorned, but in its ideas.
The first long chapter begins with a very short description of Michael K’s undistinguished birth and the subsequent disappointment of his mother because her baby has a cleft lip. It is told in the third person by an unnamed and omnipotent narrator. Michael K’s early life is uneventful and he works in a mediocre job as a gardener. It is clear that the novel is set in a very violent and war-torn South Africa with curfews, gangs, and uncertainty. It seems to be always raining. His mother is desperate to leave Cape-town and return to her hometown of Prince Albert many hundreds of miles to the north. Without money, or the necessary papers – unattainable for Kafkaesque reasons – he attempts to push his mother in a homemade pram all the way north to Prince Albert. His mother dies on the way but Michael K finally manages to arrive at what he believes to be the farm, now deserted, where his mother was born. He tries to live off the land; for his own security he learns to sleep in a hole during the day and to work in his garden at night. He grows pumpkins. He is discovered and abused, escapes to the mountains where he tries to live without leaving a trace. He is hijacked to work for a road-gang, is interned in a work-camp, escapes and is taken to a hospital where he sparks the interest of a doctor.
The second chapter is told in the first person by this unnamed doctor and we see how Michael K, now identified as CM (coloured male ?) but referred to as Michaels, is seen by others. He is an enigma. He refuses to eat, talk, or co-operate. The doctor is tormented with the urge to help him but to no avail. The doctor comes to think that Michaels may have the real answer to living in this particular country at this particular time: living in order not to exist. The doctor is eventually thwarted in his kindly efforts as Michael K escapes.
The last, and shortest chapter, is a return to the third person narrator. Michael K eventually returns to the building in the city where he and his mother used to live. He is befriended by a group of nomads; one of the women has sex with him and he thinks he might even like her, but he continues to reflect on his time in the wilderness; all he would need in the wilderness was his garden, a shaft in the ground, and a teaspoon and string with which he could gather water. Then, “he would say, one can live.”
A happy and fulfilled life need only be concerned with what it is you need to survive, and nothing else. Life isn’t so bad if all you are doing is marking time.
This book is bleak, fascinating, frustrating, but ultimately rewarding – if you stay with it – but a very different book to the mainstream literary works of today.
“Coetzee,” says the writer Rian Malan, “is a man of almost monkish self-discipline and dedication. He does not drink, smoke or eat meat. He cycles vast distances to keep fit and spends at least an hour at his writing-desk each morning, seven days a week. A colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once. An acquaintance has attended several dinner parties where Coetzee has uttered not a single word.”
J.M. Coetzee’s latest novel, The Schooldays of Jesus and Late Essays: 2006-2016 are now available from Viking.
A work in progress …
I was curious about writing in the second person. The first person (“I went to ….”) and the third person (“She went to …”) are common, but the second person (“You went to …”) is not. It is hard to maintain since the narrator is either talking to the reader or to another character, and in either case eventually the narrative takes over. Elliot Perelman begins his excellent novel Seven Types of Ambiguity with the second person and it has a disquieting effect. I thought I’d give it a go.
I’m sure there must be somewhere in your past, a person, a place, that screwed out a little knot of fear in your little child’s mind. You know what I mean; where a young child’s untamed immigration is let loose by an overheard adult conversation in hushed tones with shaking heads. Remember that fear and let it mingle with another memory I’m sure you have; of an adult that was introduced, innocently enough, into your family but that you wondered what the hell they were doing there.
I added the word anyway, “Anyway, remember that fear …” to make the tone more friendly, more intimate, more conversational.
However, if there is anything I’ve learnt from reading it’s that writers want their readers to believe that what is being written is true. Such truth, created truth: verisimilitude, is achieved with the use of detail, among other things; so let’s do this again:
I’m sure there must be somewhere in your past, a person, a place, that screwed out a little knot of fear in your little child’s mind: the old man with the cleft-lip who lived in an old bus, spoke to no one, and ate nettles on toast – so the story went; the falling-down shop-front, boarded-up and silent since a little girl had her throat cut by a mentally deranged greengrocer all those years ago. It was in all the papers. You know what I mean; where a young child’s untamed immigration is let loose by an overheard adult conversation in hushed tones with shaking heads. Anyway, remember that fear and let it mingle with another memory I’m sure you have; of an adult that was introduced, innocently enough, into your family but that you wondered: who is this person? What are they doing there.
I wasn’t sure where this was going but I kept on
So, now that you have these two mingled memories you may understand how I felt when …
I needed to tie it all up and have it lead to something, someone; so I found myself writing …
… Mum brought home a bag-lady one day and told me I had to call her Auntie Marge.
Now I have a possible title: Auntie Marge. One of my father’s sisters was called Marge, and I called her Auntie Marge. She wasn’t scary but it was the first name that sprang to mind. I hardly ever spoke to her. Maybe I was scared of her. But now I have a character that I need to flesh out a bit.
I don’t know why I thought of her as a bag-lady, she didn’t have any bags with her …
This is another ‘trick’ I’ve learnt from reading: the admission by the narrator that they don’t know something or don’t remember something. It adds verisimilitude.
… but it was the first time I had ever seen a woman with uncombed hair so I thought that’s what she was. I got a slap around the legs for using the term so I only said it once but that’s how I always thought of Auntie Marge; a bag lady.
I first of all had Kathy Bates (from Misery) in mind.
I googled “scary aunt” and found this,
I think this is Geraldine Page. The hair is too neat, but the look is perfect. So with a mixture of these two images, but with messier hair, I had my look: Auntie Marge.
When she first looked at me she smiled down, unclasped her fingers and held out her hand and when I hesitated just for the briefest moment her face changed ever-so slightly like she suddenly knew exactly what I was thinking and I saw hatred in her pinched little eyes. I took her hand – I held my breath, I distinctly remember holding my breath – and she shook my hand and gave it a squeeze.
I thought my narrator should say something innocuous here, like “Nice to meet you” to which Auntie Marge could say, or say with a look of “Oh really?” However, my narrator is locked into only speaking when spoken to – and they were not alone, so I was left with a description of, of, her hand:
It was dry and scaly.
Now, I wanted to describe an event and an event when they were alone: something that upped the scary tone a bit. I’ve never written anything like this before.
I kept out of her way, which wasn’t difficult as I had been taught to keep out of everyone’s way. Adults didn’t like children hanging around; but one day when I was sitting at the big dining table, I had just installed a little electric engine into my lego windmill and I was trying to fix a jam-jar rubber around a little pulley so the silly thing would at least go round and round. I heard the door into the kitchen close behind me. This door was never closed, except in winter when there was a fire in the living room fire-place. This was summer and all the living-room curtains were drawn to keep out the heat so the room was gloomy but I had my desk-lamp plugged in and I was working in its light. I heard the door close and then nothing. I knew it was her. I knew she was there looking at me with her hands clasped together like she always did. I also became aware that there was no other sound in the house. My Dad was always out doing farm stuff but there were no other noises. Mum was out too. We were alone, Auntie Marge and me. In the house. Just us. And then she spoke:
“You don’t like me very much.”
That’s what she said, nothing else.
I didn’t know what to say. I had been taught to only speak when spoken to, and to never lie, of course, but this wasn’t a question. What was I meant to say? I didn’t know. Besides, I didn’t know what to say to something that was true, I didn’t like her. So I said nothing. Then she said, still just standing there, she said, “Are you sure you’re allowed to have a light on in the middle of the day?” Now, this was a question and a question deserves an answer, I knew that, and I did know Mum didn’t like lights on in the daytime but my lego town was too big for my desk in my room and it was too hot to play outside so I had to play with my lego town on the dining table in the living room and yes the curtains were drawn to keep the house cool so I had to have a light on. Again I didn’t know what to … and then she added quickly, “I could tell on you.” That’s what she said, just like fatty Raelene does when I pick my nose in class. I thought of turning off my desk lamp but then I’d be in the dark, all alone with Auntie Marge in the dark! And then she said it again “I could tell on you,” adding “and I think I might.”
I’m not sure what happens next. Yet.
A story starts with a jump.
When something makes me jump, a line in a book, a caption in a magazine, a phrase overheard, a tone of voice, a dream; a beginning. Short form stories are more personal than long form. I write most days but it can be on my notes page on my phone when I wake up at 3.46 am; on my iPad as I’m watching the news with a G&T at 6; on my desktop after staring at the screen for god-knows how long. Sometimes I’ll experiment. One of my current projects, a short story, I’m writing as a woman. I’ve tried this a few times but this time the woman is very unlikable, in fact she’s awful; the challenge is to make sure the reader understands that she’s awful. The reader has not to be on her side, yet is, in a way. That’s tricky, and more so as it’s in the first person. I test myself like this sometimes. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
At a New Year’s Eve party a friend told me a little anecdote about his piano lessons as a boy. I now don’t remember exactly what he told me because I turned it into a story and now, in my head, that story, Prelude, has become the reality of the anecdote. It’s no longer John’s anecdote, it’s Michael’s story.
I’m writing when my partner catches me talking to myself. I’m writing when I don’t answer him because I don’t hear him because I’m wondering what Robert will say when he sees his dead mother. “What? Sorry.” is a common phrase of mine at home.
I spew it onto the screen. I try not to worry about where does this fit or what can I do with this or how do I spell …, I just let it out. I usually write chronologically, but not always.
I’m always aware that I have to trust myself, my imagination, my ideas, my abilities. It’s no good second guessing; I’d get nowhere. What comes pouring out in the white heart of creation I have to trust that it’s right, correct, apt, necessary, true. It’s later when the white-heat is down to warm, in the cool light of next morning that decisions have to be made.
I write on an online publishing platform (Tablo); while the piece is labeled ‘draft’ no-one can read it. I have four or five projects going at once; two novels, three short stories, I think. One of them is dormant until I come across a really fail-safe murder plan. Once it’s finished I ‘publish’ it on Tablo and anyone can read it. I also have the option of posting it to iBooks where it is for sale. Regularly I email my notes, from my phone or iPad, to myself and cut and paste them onto the respective Tablo page. I have an iMac and don’t have Word; Tablo has all the editing tools I need.
When I’m trying to go to sleep at night it’s important to think about only one thing, not 247 things. That’s why counting sheep works. It’s one thing. I also concentrate on one thing: what Robert might do when he sees his dead mother, or any other character or snippet. These stories, half in my head, half on my screen, over time develop their own reality and they always get to a point where it’s imperative that I write them down; I have to write them down because they are the closest thing to the truth I know. If I don’t write them down they just sit there taking up space. Getting in the way. Writing them down is like getting rid of them.
But writing them down has its own responsibilities. I must think of the reader. I must get the process right. The process: my story, my descriptions, my ideas, my images being transported accurately, truthfully from my imagination to the reader’s imagination via little dark marks on a pale background, with no loss of information.
Once it’s in the imagination of the reader, it isn’t mine any more, and it means whatever the reader thinks it means. I have no say in it once it’s there, in your head. If you read the short story linked above, what was John’s anecdote, became my story, becomes your reading experience; and if you seek me out and ask me what did I mean by something, I won’t answer. It’s not my place to answer: it’s not mine, it’s yours now. It’s now you that has to trust your abilities.
Original illustrations by George Cruikshank
“It’s all among Workhouses, and Coffin Makers and Pickpockets,” said Lord Melbourne, the young Queen Victoria’s prime minister. “I don’t like those things; I wish to avoid them; I don’t like them in reality, and therefore I don’t wish them represented.”
I think it’s “excessively interesting,” said the young Queen.
Oliver Twist (1837) was a bit of a shock for Dickens’ fans who were introduced to the writer through that plump, accident-prone, well-off, and comic character, Mr Pickwick. And then along comes the serialised Oliver Twist, even before the serialised The Pickwick Papers, which garnered a circulation of 20,000, had finished; and in a new magazine, Bentley’s Miscellany, edited by Dickens. The underworld of London low life had, in the past, been treated lightheartedly, even comically, but Oliver Twist was something very different. Thieves, house-breakers, pickpockets all living squashed together in dingy slums and mud, taking pride in their work, but seemingly surviving in little groups that resembled something close to ‘a family’; and dealing not only with petty crime, but also, kidnapping, murder, treachery, and domestic violence.
If you think you know the story, you probably do.
A young orphan, innocent and alone, is put to work in a workhouse, fed on watery gruel, and where he has the audacity to ask for ‘more’; is mistreated, runs away, meets Jack Dawkins, the Artful Dodger, and Fagin and his gang of thieving street boys; is saved from the same occupation by the kindly Mr Brownlow; is kidnapped by Nancy, harassed by the villainous Bill Sikes and forced into a stint of house-breaking, only to be shot and taken in by the also kindly Mrs Maylie and her ward Rose – really his aunt; threatened by the mysterious and dangerous, Mr Monks – who is actually Oliver’s half-brother; but saved by the pitiable but kind Nancy, who is murdered by her lover, Sikes for her efforts; and ultimately reunited with the kindly Mr Brownlow, who adopts him for a predictable happy ending: the oft used, and abused, first rule of novel writing. Oscar Wild said it best and said it better by giving it to Miss Prism to say in his most famous play, The Importance of being Earnest (1895):
The good end happily; the bad end unhappily. That’s what fiction means.
However, what is equally as interesting is what Dickens can teach writers.
Oliver took the hint at once, for the fist had been so often impressed upon his body not to be deeply impressed upon his recollection.
Dickens sentences, usually long, are full of information and in a way that makes them seem packed with it; and sarcasm.
Oliver was frightened at the sight of so many gentlemen, which made him tremble; and the beadle gave him another tap behind, which made him cry; and these two causes made him answer in a very low and hesitating voice; whereupon a man in a white waistcoat said he was a fool, which was a capital way of raising his spirits, and putting him quite at his ease.
These two lines are early in the book, carrying some of the lightheartedness his readership would’ve expected having read The Pickwick Papers, but then surprising them later by his darker themes.
He also uses expression to mirror action. After Sike’s failed house-breaking attempt, during which Oliver is shot, the friends and neighbours of the assailed inhabitants, Mrs Maylie and her ward, Rose, decide to investigate the crime-scene.
Lights were then procured, and Messrs Blathers and Duff, attended by the native constable, Brittles, Giles, and everybody else in short, went into the little room at the end of the passage, and looked out at the window, and afterwards went round by way of the lawn, and looked in at the window, and after that had a candle handed out to inspect the shutter with, and after that a lantern to trace the footsteps with, and after that a pitchfork to poke the bushes with.
A lot of repetitive energy, and phrases, to produce not a scrap of evidence.
Dickens is a great character-builder with the use of dialogue.
Mr Bumble, the beadle, drops the first syllable of ‘apprentice’ (‘prentis), the ‘n’ off the article ‘an’ (‘a old lady’), any syllable that gets in his way (‘unfort’nate’), uses ‘porochial’ (instead of ‘parochial’), and ‘w’ instead of ‘v’. Mr Grimwig, a friend of Mr Brownlow’s, uses a unique expression not ‘… I’ll eat my hat” but ” … I’ll eat my head.” Barnaby, a street urchin, has an adenoidal problem over the letters ‘n’ and ‘m’: “Dobody but Biss Dadsy” (Nobody but Miss Nancy.) Bill Sikes regularly uses the word ‘damn’ but too risqué for British readers of 1838 so it was replaced simply by ‘D-‘; they understood what it meant but were not forced to actually ‘read’ such a shocking word. In a hierarchical society such as Dickensian London where one’s status is ruled by birth, income, education, and gender, such distinctive character differentiation may not be appropriate in a modern context but giving characters vocal habits is a useful device for character differentiation. Dickens has Fagin call everyone, regardless of gender, age, or status, ‘my dear’. Ascribing a character with a particular grammatical habit of, say, never using contractions helps to paint a rather serious and stern person. If characters are not first speakers of the readers’ first language grammatical mistakes ( no plural ‘s’, wrong prepositions, gerund misuse, etc) are really essential. I once heard a writer, a young male American, read, at a literary event, a section of his new novel that was set in Rome but had a Mexican character who sounded, when he spoke, nothing like a Mexican English-speaker living in Rome; he and each of the characters sounded like a young male American. A missed opportunity.
In contemporary fiction the narrator is, usually in the third person, a nameless, genderless, all-knowing, god-like voice with access not only to characters’ thoughts, desires, and plans, but also to their past and future lives. Not so with Dickens. He writes directly to the ‘reader’, calling them such, and refers to himself as the ‘biographer’, and ‘faithful historian … who knows his place’. He even chastises himself for keeping an esteemed character waiting while dealing with other plot necessities. The use of the narrator for plot-based effects is rare but was used effectively by Ian McEwan in his 2012 novel Sweet Tooth, where the first person narrator turns out not to be the writer; and, most intriguingly, the satisfying ending is only evident because you, the reader, have read the book: it’s because the book is available to read that you then know the ending. Curious? Check the link above. Dickens used his narrators in a far freer and more colourful way with direct input into not only the plot but the tone. Here, in a recent short story, Serendipity, is an example of the narrator not only intruding into the writing of the story, but also is a secondary narrator with his own story: a double narrative, if you like, one feeds on the other.
Dickens’ reference to himself, the narrator, as ‘historian’ leads now to another novelistic ‘trick’: creating
Yes, we know that we are reading fiction, that most of the whole thing – sometimes not all – is made-up but the writer wants us to believe that the story is true. Writer’s rely on our imagination to create for ourselves our own reality, and so allowing our emotions to do their work. However, writer’s don’t want to ‘lose’ their readers by letting the text slip too far from possibility. A text in the first person has a better chance of doing that, more so than a text in the third.
However, Dickens ‘tricks’ us several times implying that what he is saying is true: 1) he (the narrator) admits to omitting a word in the dialogue of a character because it is too impolite for your, the reader’s, ears. By refusing to tell us what the word is he is implying that he actually heard it, but decided it was not suitable; 2) a character observes a conversation between two people in the same room but can’t hear the exact words and so infers what is said. This is a plot point but it also implies that the conversation actually happened – no, the narrator is not making this up because if he was he would’ve placed the character closer to the talkers; and 3) forgetting a name. We, real people, do this all the time, so by the narrator confessing he has forgotten someone’s name, or the name of some place, reinforces the truth of the scene because actually the person or the place is made-up – this is fiction, remember – and being made-up the writer (narrator) could’ve provided a name. But he didn’t, so the implication is that the action must’ve happened.
It is true to say that contemporary fiction is the mainstay of a modern reader’s literary diet. However, a dip into the classics now and again, is a palatable way to hone critical thinking, get a grip on literary history, and understand where our literary tastes may be heading, and where our cultural references came from.
Most of the classic literary texts from Australia, Britain, Europe, and America are out of copyright and are, therefore, available online for free. The University of Adelaide has established a website where you can find a myriad of classic texts. It contains all of Dickens’ novels as well as a large collection of his short fiction and you can download ebook versions in various formats and for various devices. Happy exploring.
Dickensian sentence p 10
“He took the hint at once, for the fist had been so often impressed upon his body not to be deeply impressed upon his recollection”
P12 “… made him answer in a very low and hesitating voice… at his ease.”
“… the poor people liked it …”
Narrator as biographer p46
D is a great teacher of dialogue for character building:
Mr Bumble, the beadle, drops the first syllable of ‘apprentice’ (‘prentis), the ‘n’ off the article ‘an’ (‘a old lady’), and any syllable that gets in his way (‘unfort’nate’ p 296).
Mr Grimwig ‘… I’ll eat my head” p110
And Barnaby p119 with his adenoid problem
P155 Bill Sikes who regularly uses the word ‘damn’ but too risqué for British readers of 1838 so it is replaced by ‘D-‘. Mr Bumble, the beadle, uses ‘porochial’ (instead of ‘parochial’) and ‘w’ instead of ‘v’.
The relationship between narrator and reader: strong in OT but rare in modern lit. P135
The narrator calling himself “author” and “faithful historian …. who knows his place” p216 and insinuating what kind of an author would he be to keep a beadle waiting …
Unpleasant description of Fagin: “loathsome reptile” p153. P154, by telling the reader that he, the narrator, will not mention something adds veracity to the tale.
Also, like forgetting a name, not hearing a conversation because the whispers were too quiet. P213;
Describing 1 or 2 minutes when nothing is said p 218
Possible theme: what Dickens can teach us about writing. Use of narrator. A N can be a biographer, a person, not just a dissociated god-like voice. But take it further, if s biographer, then why not a person; and one with opinions, attitudes, even a history, even a present history! Narrators nowadays are usually ‘apart’ from the narrative; what if the narrator was a part if the narrative, or framed a parallel story, see Serendipity. Link to Tablo.
Character: Nancy’s ‘acting’ p165 OT nor the reader is ever quite sure what Nancy is playing at.
Dickens on description p234-5 “0f the two ladies …” He describes not so much what they wear but the impression the whole picture gives.
“Lights were then procured, and …with” p246
The bad are bad but show a little bit of good, ie Fagin. The good are good but not bad (Rose).
Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, and the year that changed literature.
In January 1922 Adeline Woolf, everyone called her Virginia, turned 40 and was very sick with influenza that prevented her from writing; T. S. Eliot, everyone called him Tom, 34, had been over worked, unhappy, in therapy, but now quietly confident since he had started writing again but fearful of returning to the Bank that trapped him between the concrete and the sky; E. M. Forster, called Morgan, 43, was sexually and artistically frustrated; and D. H. Lawrence, called Bert, 36, had the threat of his books being banned (Women in Love, 1921, ” … ugly, repellent, vile”), and a libel suit against him so wanted to know “For where was life to be found” and thought by going to a quiet place by himself he might find it: Ceylon, New Mexico, or New South Wales.
All four had achieved some degree of literary fame: Woolf had published two novels and the third, Jacob’s Room, was waiting for her final revisions, however her illness kept her away from her work. Eliot had published successfully The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock in Poetry magazine in 1915 and had been a regular contributor of reviews and essays, primarily for The Times Literary Supplement right up to December 1921. Forster had achieved great success with a series of novels, usually about the English abroad, beginning with Where Angels Fear to Tread in 1905 but by 1922 nothing had appeared after the very successful Howard’s End in 1910. Lawrence was more infamous than famous and had had Women in Love published in June 1921. It garnered bad reviews, and low sales. This added to the outrage caused by its prequel, The Rainbow, 1915, when it was withdrawn by the publisher after it was banned under the Obscene Publications Act. Lawrence had also characterised in the latter work, an acquaintance, Philip Heseltine, and thought he had disguised him enough, but Heseltine was not fooled and threatened legal action.
For all four writers 1922 did not begin well.
Artistic endeavour is always trying to solve the problems of the art form itself. How does a writer write an autobiography and make it interesting without using the boring phrases, “Then I went …. she cried and so I said …., Then I said, and he went ….”? Novelists for centuries have been using description and dialogue to draw a character; but in an autobiography how do you create an image of the narrator? There must be another way. Yes, there is, and one of the first writers to find another way was James Joyce who began his autobiographical novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) like this
Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.
First of all he writes not in the first person, but in the third (very radical, this is an autobiography, remember) and the above opening is not dialogue, it is prose; it’s not said by the protagonist but by the narrator using the language that the little boy, James, might use to describe what he sees and what he sees is himself! It’s as if the third person narrator is not some all-pervasive, god-like know-it-all but an imp sitting on the shoulder of the little boy seeing the world through his eyes and hearing the thoughts in his head. This literary device has become known as free indirect discourse, or as the literary critic of The New Yorker, James Wood, calls it, ‘close writing’; and it’s as common today in contemporary fiction as Vegemite is for an Australian breakfast. But it can’t be used in the first person. Or can it? Now, there’s a challenge for an adventurous writer!
Painters sought to bypass the ‘real’ bit in order to paint, say, serenity, by trying to paint serenity with just the paint on the canvas, not trying to be something else, a face, a landscape, to ‘portray’ serenity. In other words, they painted not what they saw but what they felt. Writer’s similarly de-focused the ‘real’ bit and concentrated on, not what the characters did – the plot – but what the characters felt and thought. The plot became internalised.
Before January 1922 was over Eliot and Lawrence had succumbed to the influenza that brought Woolf so low and was rapidly becoming an epidemic to rival the devastating outbreak of 1918-19 that killed more people than the Great War. At least for Eliot the influenza kept him away from the bank and, despite the disease, hard at work on his long poem. His ill wife, also being absent, was yet another and usual worry out of the way.
On his way back to London from the unsuccessful trip to India Forster bought and read Proust’s first volume, Swann’s Way in French. He was “awestruck” and marveled at Proust’s use of memory to drive the narrative. Later in the year as the weather warmed he used Proustian ideas, and a poem by J. R. Ackerley, Ghosts, to impinge on him the truth that there is life after tragedy. His tragedy was the slow death of his unrequited lover in Egypt, whose death he almost wished would be sooner than later, as he was slowly re-reading the abandoned pages of his Indian novel, making notes and yearning for his tragedy to be behind him.
Woolf, with her illness almost past, read Proust too, in the spring while working on an essay about reading and dabbling with a minor character from her first novel, The Voyage Out, Clarissa Dallaway, weaving her into a short story called Mrs Dallaway in Bond Street. Woolf too was enthralled with Proust’s use of memory to evoke the current state of mind of a character. In the opening scene of the short story, which eventually evolved into the novel Mrs Dallaway, Woolf has Clarissa arrested by the chiming of Big Ben which announces the convergence of the past and present, not only in the character’s mind but also on the page. Very Proustian! Clarissa Dallaway in Woolf’s first novel is described by the narrator but Woolf was determined in this one, this modern one, to have Clarissa think everything the reader needs to know about her. As Woolf wrote later to a friend, she didn’t mind being sick as “Proust’s fat volume comes in very handy.” Woolf, who wrote that she wanted to write like Proust, didn’t of course, but it was because of him that she began to write like herself again.
Joyce, for her, was different. Woolf and Joyce were both British, they were both the same age, and Joyce in 1922 had “a novel out in the world, a massive – expensive – box of a book”, Ulysses, and Woolf had not published a novel in two and a half years. She was jealous. Besides, Ulysses didn’t impress her. She thought it was “underbred” by a “self-taught working man.” What she failed to realise was that Joyce had a degree, she didn’t; it was she, not him, who was self taught.
Lawrence left England in early 1922 for Ceylon, but found it unsatisfactory, then Perth, Western Australia, very unsatisfactory, then Thirroul, south of Sydney, where he transferred his thinking back to what he called his ‘interim’ books, short stories and journalism. Could he write a novel like those, in a month, or less, using nothing but what he had around him, namely Frieda and himself, and what he thought and felt? He decided to give it a go and the novel Kangaroo was born, but this too stalled. It was the third novel in a row that got ‘stuck’. However, without the help of Proust, Lawrence turned to memory, and chapter 12, the longest in the book and the only one not set in Australia, describes the fear he and Frieda experienced at the outbreak of World War I (she was German and had abandoned her first husband and children; he was excluded from service because of his frail body). Lawrence had instilled in his protagonist, Richard Somers, a ‘fear’, exemplified by the vastness of the Australian continent, and it was Lawrence’s explanation of this fear, via his personal experience, his memory, that ‘unstuck’ his progress, and he got the thing finished.
T. S. Eliot finally saw his long poem, The Waste Land, the poem that had battled with his job, his contemporaries, his wife, his past, and his health, finally published. Goldstein spends a lot of time, too much you may think, on the procrastination, arguments, letters, late replies, betrayals, that stall the publication; and all concerning people, publishers, agents, friends, supporters, who want it published.
For a year that started badly for all of them, 1922 ended like a new dawn: Virginia Woolf had a new novel, Mrs Dallaway; E. M. Forster was well on his way with his Indian novel, the one that had caused him so much anguish, A Passage To India, (1924), and would become his most celebrated; D. H. Lawrence had written a new novel, very different from his previous works, no sex, but had also been vindicated by the courts: The Rainbow and Women in Love were judged not obscene, although some passages were, but the press-obsessed trials led to a resurgence of sales and interest in his work; and T. S. Eliot finally saw his long poem in print, and received the accolades he thought it deserved.
For readers who are interested in literature and its history this book is a must-read. Goldstein has sculptured a surprising and complex narrative, esoteric and detailed, yes, but intriguing, stimulating, and fascinating.
In the year 1922 these four writers, for various reasons, had already been chipping away, with varying intensities, at a ‘crack’ in the English literary world, hoping their artistic challenges and vaguely-inspired experiments would lead them in a new and exciting direction. Then came the thundering blows of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and Joyce’s Ulysses which, along with The Waste Land, caused the ‘break’ and English literature did indeed cleave in two and took off in a new direction. However, the ‘piece’ that remained behind kept the majority of readers with it and it was those readers who demanded, and got, a whole array of plot-based genres, the names of which you can see topping a multitude of racks of books in any sizable book shop today; and over there in the corner of the shop topping a not insubstantial, but nevertheless alone, book-stack is another sign: literary fiction.
You can find the book in various formats here.
I have a mild aversion to literary fantasy. I rarely read fantasy novels; I’ve never had the slightest interest in reading George R. R. Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire, more commonly known by the TV version, Game of Thrones, although I did try to read Lord of the Rings when I was way too young, but I found myself acknowledging the genre, and roping it in support of my argument when a dinner guest, on hearing that I had written a novel on the sex life of a single mum, said, “So, do you know any single mums?” “I’m not writing a documentary,” I said, “I’m writing fiction.” She looked at me as if I’d said the world was flat. I continued, “Well, I’m glad you weren’t dishing out literary advice to Tolkien or George Martin otherwise we’d be without Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones.” Zombies, aliens, vampires, fairy god-mothers, elves, and talking rats and rabbits also sprang to mind, but she moved to the other end of the table before I could bring them in to bat.
When the British writer, Kazuo Ishiguro, won this year’s Nobel Prize for literature I scoured my bookshelf and found Never Let me Go (2005). I didn’t know anything about it, and all that I knew previously about Ishiguro, was that he had won the Man-Booker Prize for Remains of the Day, was born in Japan, and that his family had moved to London when he was a child.
Page one begins, “My name is Kathy H.” I had just read Sebastian Barry’s memorable The Secret Scripture, a male writer writing in the first person as a woman, so my pre-established prejudice against such literary cross-dressing had been severely weakened, to a point of not caring very much. However, halfway down the page there is this:
“My donors have always tended to do much better than expected. Their recovery times have been impressive, and hardly any of them have been classified as ‘agitated’ even before fourth donation.”
The words “donors” and “fourth donation” sent a worry-jolt to my brain and I suspected that the created universe in which this story would unfold was not the one that I live in, but I felt safe from dragons or talking trees, so I continued reading.
It’s important to tell you that I was hooked very quickly but the book also made me think more about why I don’t read novels from the fantasy genre, as I now thought this book belonged to. It’s a general feeling of aversion for the literary ‘cop out’. If the universe of the novel has dragons flying through the air, i.e., the universe of the novel is not your universe, then it seems to me that anything is possible. A plot complication of any magnitude could be sorted out by any deus ex machina the writer deems necessary. This feeling isn’t strong, but with so much to read in the genres I prefer, the urge to delve into others doesn’t really come up. Genres are only important for publishers, booksellers, and readers; I acknowledge them as a reader, but writers, and especially Ishiguro, don’t pay much heed to them. His Remains of the Day, a very English tale of love and painful reticence is in the most English of settings: below stairs in a manor house; while his most recent novel, The Buried Giant is a true fantasy novel set in post-Arthurian Briton.
Kathy H is a thirty-something woman remembering her education at a boarding school, Hailsham, and her friends, Ruth and Tommy. The school is recognisably British but with weird and worrying rules, attitudes, and characters. It becomes clear, through mis-matched memories, remembered inconsistencies, and briefly explained circumstances that the world of the novel is not the world of the reader; and the fate of the students is mapped out, rigid, and dystopian.
The almost lazy diary-style of remembrance, “It was just like the time when…”, “… looking back now…”,”I don’t know about you, but where we were…”, “… and that reminded me of Chrissie, who …”, “…the way I remember it is…”, “It’s funny now recalling the way it was at the beginning…”, “… and that’s when we had that talk I told you about …”, gets a little repetitive, and the incidents and events she remembers has about as much dramatic content as “sharpening a pencil”, as one critic joked; but these remembrances of seemingly minor happenings do create something in the reader similar to the experience of the narrator; no mean feat: a jumble-book of seemingly indistinct and trivial memories flavoured with asides and happenstance of their lives that coalesce eventually into a sprawling picture of unease, and controlled morality and personal destiny. You begin to like these young people; wonder how much and what they know about themselves and their circumstances; and what is this curious feeling of dread you find creeping over you like a blanket? Yes, the remembrances may be small but the stakes are incredibly high and when Kathy H and her peers discover the true meaning of their existence … no, no spoilers here; you’ll have to read it yourself to understand the frightful truth.
Ishiguro’s chosen narrative style is conversational, prosaic even, how a good friend may write a letter (remember writing letters?) telling you what they did on the weekend. No literary language or erudite psychological musings, just memories of a middle-class woman about her upbringing; oh, and allowing un-spoken assumptions that the reader takes in, by osmosis, that creates, deep-down at first, this creeping disquiet.
It’s not a book you can easily forget. It is one of the most unusual and emotionally disturbing books I have ever read. I admire Ishiguro’s control over what he writes; how his skill is hidden and you only marvel at it when the story is over, and then you understand that what you feel is a direct, and deliberate, result of it.
You can find the book, in various formats, here.
The movie version (2010) stars Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, and Charlotte Rampling; adapted by Alex Garland, and directed by Mark Romanek.
Oh, and BTW, here is a piece of advice from Kazuo Ishiguro, “Write what you know is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard”. I wish I’d known about this quote as more ammunition for my brief literary discussion with above dinner guest.
This is not a story, and readers may find it difficult and not worth continuing with, but it takes a little gear change to alter your expectations. However, for readers interested in the life of the novel To the Lighthouse is an interesting read; but before sitting down with it a little research into the times and the literary landscape into which it was written is a good idea. It is considered a pioneering work of literary modernism.
Modernism is hard to define since it’s such a broad term and encompasses other ‘isms’ like expressionism and surrealism to name just two; and modernists did not actively adhere to any philosophy or movement like the visual impressionists did. However, it is generally considered to show a strong feeling for experimentation, and anything that was new, as well as a strong anti-Victorian bent. It is also difficult to pin down a starting date but generally it is agreed that literary modernism began at or near the turn of the 20th Century. While Robert M Kirschen of the English Department at the University of Nevada, opts for the end of Modernism in 1939 (some say 1945) with the publication of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake: “the ultimate work of Modernism. It is truly the pinnacle of this experimentation and novelty. After the Wake, it is no longer possible for a writer to attempt to supersede his or her predecessors in the way Modernists often strove to do. As such, the Modernist movement had reached its natural teleological* conclusion, and anything which came after must be part of a different part of literary history” i.e. Postmodernism. However, these labels are arbitrary and are the result of literary theorists looking back into the immediate past and recognising similar themes, memes, and ideas across the broad spectrum of literary endeavour. James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Proud and Virginia Woolf are all considered pioneers and pillars of modernism.
In To the Lighthouse the drama, like many modernist texts, is not in the action, there is very little. Action did not interest Woolf. The book begins with the announcement of a desire, for the boy’s sake, for James, to go to the lighthouse, and ends, 10 years later, with them actually setting out. The drama is internal, the weave and weft of emotional attachments, of familial love and hate, the gamut between, and even dissertations on life matters. There is also an argument, external to the book, but installed in it’s very creation, about doubt of the creative force; about two guests, two of many, at the house: Charles Tansley, a sycophant, who pronounces that women do not have a creative force, and Lilly Briscoe, a woman who desperately yearns, and attempts, to be an artist, a successful painter, but fails. She is a metaphor for Woolf herself and her own legendary self-doubt (thinks Margaret Atwood); but ironically Woolf not only completes this work, and publishes it, but knows its success.
The man, Mr Ramsey, stands over his wife, while she knits a pair of stockings for the underprivileged boy of the lighthouse keeper, which she hopes to take and give to him, if they ever get there, and he demands sympathy, since he declares himself a failure as a man. While knitting, as the boy, James – loving his mother, hating his father – stands between her knees clutching a book, she assures her husband, “beyond a shadow of a doubt, by her laugh, her poise, her competence” that he is wrong about himself. Look at the undying admiration of Charles Tansley, and his very own fecundity, his own house “full of life” – he has eight children – and in response to his wife’s success in turning his self-doubt into self-admiration- not via the sympathy he sought – but “as a nurse carrying a light across a dark room assures a fractious child” he goes for a walk to watch the children playing cricket. But once he is gone she is exhausted and can hardly lift her needles; can hardly read the fairy tale James so wants to hear, with the demands on her to mend her husband as well as wonder where the fifty pounds will come from to mend the greenhouse roof; and all this laden with the half knowledge that her husband is right about himself, adding lies to the accumulated burden she has to bear.
It is this internal drama, thoughts, treacheries, responsibilities, and admissions that interest Woolf. Then here, while knitting and thinking about why children must grow up; why can’t they stay happy forever, she thinks, “We are in the hands of the Lord?”
What brought her to say that: “We are in the hands of the Lord?” she wondered. The insincerity slipping in among the truths roused her, annoyed her. She returned to her knitting again. How could any Lord have made this world? she asked. With her mind she had always seized the fact that there is no reason, order, justice: but suffering, death, the poor. There was no treachery too base for the world to commit; she knew that. No happiness lasted; she knew that. She knitted with firm composure, slightly pursing her lips and, without being aware of it, so stiffened and composed the lines of her face in a habit of sternness that when her husband passed, though he was chuckling at the thought that Hume, the philosopher, grown enormously fat, had stuck in a bog, he could not help noting, as he passed, the sternness at the heart of her beauty. It saddened him, and her remoteness pained him, and he felt, as he passed, that he could not protect her, and, when he reached the hedge, he was sad. He could do nothing to help her. He must stand by and watch her. Indeed, the infernal truth was, he made things worse for her. He was irritable — he was touchy. He had lost his temper over the Lighthouse. He looked into the hedge, into its intricacy, its darkness.
It is this combination, this ‘conversation’ between the narrator, Mrs Ramsey, and Mr, but all in the narrator’s ‘words’, that, among others, mark this text as a work of ‘modernism’; and, indeed, one of the first.
If you think of the third person narrator as an omnipotent genie commenting and assessing each character, every moment, past, present and future, and sitting on the shoulder of the protagonist listening in to their thoughts and desires and explaining, prophesizing, and assessing them for the reader, here it is like that genie is not just rooted to the shoulder of the main character but, flitting to and fro onto the shoulders of many characters. And in the final short sentence of chapter 11 Woolf has all three voices ‘speaking’: the narrator, wife and husband,
For he wished, she knew, to protect her.
James Joyce’s Ulysses was published in English in 1922 and Woolf’s reaction to it was initially uncomplimentary, “puzzled, bored, irritated & disillusioned as by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples,” but she later came around to admitting his genius even if she may have not finished reading it. However, it is clear that she was influenced by him, and, no doubt, by the first English translation of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, translated into English as In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past, which also came out in English – it was originally published in France – in 1922. What a year!**.
However, it is important to keep in mind that just as fads flutter through most of our civilised efforts, food, fashion, and politics, so too do fads pepper our literary history; and ‘obscurity’ was a particular literary fad of the early 20th century. Writers thought that every story that could be written had been written so they sought ‘the new’ within the structure of the novel itself, the use of the language, and in the relationship between writer, narrator, and reader.
Woolf did not deliberately seek to be obscure, no writer does, but in order to describe, set down, what interested her she had to find new ways of convincing her readers that they would be interested in it too.
The pleasure of the works of Virginia Woolf is immediate; it is in the reading, not the remembering.
You can find the ebook, in various formats, for free here, as well as other works by Virginia Woolf including all her novels and a large number of short stories. If you are interested in discovering Woolf try her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915); a good place to start.
* Teleology is the philosophical attempt to describe things in terms of their apparent purpose, directive principle, or goal
** THE WORLD BROKE IN TWO: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and the Year That Changed Literature, by Bill Goldstein, comes out in November this year.
The first-person narrator, a boy, walks past the house of his dying priest night after night, wondering whether he is dead yet, but this night knows it to be true.
“Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism.”
So begins the first story, The Sisters, in James Joyce’s collection Dubliners (1914) but in it is a clue to the theme of the book itself. Joyce wanted to write about the people of Dublin because to him it was the “city of paralysis” and the shadow of this word permeates the whole collection. For Joyce “paralysis” meant the inability to life meaningfully. Joyce spent most of his life on the continent, far away from Dublin, so strong was his belief that the city was tainted.
Here the “paralysis” is both literal, in the case of a dying priest after his third stroke, and moral: “simony” takes aim at the Catholic church’s corrupting stranglehold on Irish society; “gnomon” is somewhat different, being more about form than content (a gnomon is a parallelogram with a section removed, as well as the shadow-casting part of a sundial). The word is a cryptic warning to the reader that these stories contain many absences, not least traditional plot, character and scene-setting. These absences are part of what Joyce referred to as the style of “scrupulous meanness” with which he wrote Dubliners, meaning the frugality he applies to language, image and emotion.
Freytag’s pyramid, or dramatic arc or structure, suggests that a clear beginning consisting of a proper introduction of the setting and the characters, a middle discussing the conflict that would lead to a climax, and an end that ties the story together with a denouement are indispensable to any written work of fiction.
So was the literary thinking in 1914 – and in some circles it still is today. Joyce ignored it all, which may be why it took him 6 years to get this collection published.
In the story A Little Cloud, a shy and fragile clerk, known as Little Chandler, since “he gave one the idea of being a small man” meets in a bar, after 8 years, his friend Ignatius Gallaher, who once “known under a shabby and necessitous guise had become a brilliant figure on the London Press.” Little Chandler yearns of becoming a famous writer and dreams about the rave notices he would get for his work. He is delighted to see his old friend and Gallaher shouts him several whiskeys and regales the little man with innuendo and suggestions of his racy experiences in London and Paris: no married life for him. Of course, Little Chandler is late getting home to his young wife and child and had not brought the tea and sugar she had urged him not to forget. “She was in a bad humour and gave him short answers” and decides to go out and get the tea and sugar herself. “She put the sleeping child deftly in his arms and said: ‘Here. Don’t waken him’.” Little Gallaher cradles the child and stares at a photograph of his wife wearing an expensive blouse he had bought her. The image of his wife weaves no comparison to the “rich Jewesses” with “dark Oriental eyes” of Gallaher’s salacious plans and stories. Little Chandler feels nothing but entrapment, paralysis, in his mean little cottage with debt-laden furniture and no way of writing the book that “might open the way for him.” He reads some melancholy verse by Byron while nursing the child and wonders where he can find the time to write like that; he has so much to say. The baby wakes and cries and will not stop no matter how hard he tries to sooth him. Everything is useless. He is “a prisoner of life!” He loses his temper with the child and shouts at him which scares the infant and causes him to scream and “sob piteously”. His wife arrives and rescues the babe and glares at her useless husband and he listens to the child’s sobbing grow less and less in the arms of his loving mother. The story ends with Little Chandler just standing there as “tears of remorse started to his eyes.”
The reader is left with a feeling of pity and yearning for this little man who did the right thing, that every man should do, marry, start a family, and work to keep and protect them; while his friend did the other thing: travelled, wrote and became famous and whored around in London and Paris. This is the ending that Freytag’s pyramid espouses but it is a thought, not on the page but in the mind of the reader.
This was radical for 1914, when this collection first appeared. However, is it true today that more and more writers of fiction are leaving aspects of descriptive, consequential, and circumstantial narrative out of the text and up to the reader. This is so true that it is not the writer’s place any more to answer the question, “And what did you mean by writing that?” After a story is in print – or, for that matter any creative work that is finally in the public domain – the meaning of what the reader reads is all to do with the reader – it means what the reader thinks it means – and has nothing to do any more with the writer and what was meant by the writer in the first place.
Although Dubliners is considered one of the greatest short story collections ever written, it is Anton Chekhov, the Russian playwright, who is generally considered the father of the modern short story. “The revolution that Chekhov set in train – and which reverberates still today – was not to abandon plot” – or Freyberg’s Pyramid – “but to make the plot of his stories like the plot of our lives: random, mysterious, run-of-the-mill, abrupt, chaotic, fiercely cruel, meaningless”. Chekhov’s short stories had been available in English since 1903, but Joyce didn’t get Dubliners published until 1914. He claims not to have read them. Many critics think this a little implausible since Dubliners seems to owe a lot to the work of the Russian. However, Joyce finished the collection by 1907, and with Chekhov’s work having been available in English only for a few years when Joyce was working as a teacher in Europe, it is entirely possible that he did not read it. Although William Boyd, American novelist and short story writer asserts that Chekhov liberated Joyce’s imagination as much as Joyce liberated writers that followed and “that the Chekhovian point of view is to look at life in all its banality and all its tragic comedy and refuse to make a judgment”. The Joycean view seems to look at life from the inside of his characters: to chart his country’s “moral history” in Dublin; and he does this by turning the plot inwards. It’s the landscape of dreams, desires, hopes and disappointments that bind the 15 stories together into a whole, which in itself is unique, creating a form of a novel in fifteen disparate but morally interconnected chapters: the early stories are from childhood, the centre charts the middle years, and the final devastating story, The Dead, his masterpiece, culminates in a mature realisation of man’s insignificance in the universe. In fact, the first image of the first story: a boy looking up at a window behind which lies a dead man, is reflected in the last image of the last story where a man looks out of a window contemplating all the dead that have gone before him and which one day he will join. Images like bookends.
Joyce’s narrator varies from story to story: first person in the first, but usually in the third-person but not of the omniscient kind:
“…as he set himself to fan the fire again, his crouching shadow ascended the opposite wall and his face slowly reemerged into the light. It was an old man’s face, very bony and hairy.” (Ivy Day in the Committee Room). The narrator doesn’t know the face until it is seen as everyone else sees it, including the reader. It’s like the narrator and the reader see and know everything at the same time; as if you and he are watching the scene together.
It is the final story, The Dead, that marks Joyce a masterful writer and it is easy to argue that it is the best short story ever written. It is the quintessential modern story although it’s structure is almost classic. It opens with a scene featuring minor players in the story; a device used by Shakespeare in the opening scenes of many of his plays: it’s a way to introduce the scene and action before the principle players emerge, creating setting, background, and expectation. The bulk of the story is the colouring of the situation: the interconnecting relationships, the characters, the party as life’s metaphor, building tension and expectation, preparing the reader for what will happen.
Lily the house maid is “run off her feet” tending to guests as they arrive for the annual dance party given by the aging Misses Morkan, Kate and Julia, and their niece Mary-Jane, a music teacher to some of the “better-class families on the Kingstown and Dalkey line.” All eyes and ears are attuned to the arrival of Gabriel Conroy, the old ladies’ nephew, and his wife, Gretta, but they are also worried that the local drunk, the course-featured Freddie Mullins, might make a too-soon appearance and spoil the party. All arrive as expected and the party is in full swing; shoes shuffle and skirts swish and sway to the dance music on the polished floor of the upstairs parlor under the chandelier and a piano recital is given by Mary-Jane and songs are sung by the talented tenor, Mr Bartell D’Arcy. The strata of Dublin society are represented: the proud and successful Gabriel and his unhappy wife, Gretta; the Morkans drenched in their good-natured, middle-class hospitality cocooned in their well-established morality; and the likes of Freddie Mullins who prizes a drink over employment, filial duty, and nationalistic pride.
And then there are the galoshes. Gabriel wears them and urges his wife to, but she refuses. They are a symbol of modernity, recently arrived from London and “Gabriel says everyone wears them on the continent”. They are a sign of progress but, of course, the locals don’t wear them, much to Gabriel’s disappointment, thinking that he may have been able to bring the modern world into the lives of his community and family; Aunt Julia isn’t even sure what they are; Gretta thinks they’re funny and “says the word reminds her of the Christy Minstrels”. The social boundaries are clearly drawn.
On the dance floor, Gabriel, preoccupied with his forthcoming speech and worrying that his planed quotes from Browning “would be above the heads of his listeners”, is half-jokingly harassed by his dance partner, Miss Ivors, who “has a crow to pluck” with him. She chastises him for writing book-reviews for an English newspaper; refusing to holiday in his “own land” among his “own people” and to speak his “own language” and therefore labels him a ‘West Briton”.
Gabriel is a dignified man. He is angered by Miss Ivor’s assertions regardless of her light-hearted tone; considers Dublin, like Joyce, a back-water of pseudo-happy and ignorant people; looks to England and Europe for artistic, fruitful, and intellectual sustenance; but, despite all this, tonight he is excited by the idea of Gretta and he spending the night, without the children, in a local hotel. Their marriage has soured over the past few years into something that he sees as all too common in this society. He is hoping for, maybe even lustful, but at least an intimate night alone with his wife.
After all the singing, dancing, and a minor ruffle between the Catholics and “the other persuasion”, the goose is carved at the head of a fine, happy, and plentiful supper table. Gabriel’s speech is a great success. The champagne flows freely. The annual party is drawing to a close and Gabriel while putting on his coat asks after his wife. He finds her standing high on the landing in the semi-darkness gazing at nothing in particular but seemingly listening to something. There is a plaintive singing voice “in the old Irish tonality” and distant chords on a piano that seemed to render his wife transfixed. This is the peak of the drama. What is happening to Gretta, what is going on in her mind, will bring down the story’s protagonist. But Joyce stretches the tension. There is the walk with others into the city, then to the hotel, then to their room, and their preparation for the night. Here, he, all expectant and eager, is willed finally to ask why she is so melancholy. Her reply, his reaction, and the devastating realisation because of it, ends the story.
What begins as a classically structured tale of Dublin life, full of Chekhovian realism bolstered by detail, humour, character, emotional connections, and social hierarchy, the epitome of life itself, ends as a modern fable, not based on action, but internal thought. And like all good writers, Joyce ends with an image: a disappointed and humbled man gazing through a window on to a darkened city as snow gently begins to fall all over Ireland.
“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
The works of James Joyce, Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegan’s Wake, are out of copyright and can be downloaded, via various formats, for free here.
The most remarkable thing about Cold Light, the last in the Edith Trilogy (Grand Days 1993, Dark Palace 2000, Cold Light 2011), and indeed the trilogy itself, is the woman, Edith Campbell Berry. She is the type of woman who, while working at the League of Nations in Geneva in the 1920s and visiting a Paris nightclub, slips lightly from the lap of a lone black musician and puts his penis in her mouth; falls for and marries a bi-sexual, cross-dressing, English diplomat but only after mis-marrying an American journalist who turns out not to be whom he seems; masturbates a mutilated war veteran as her deed for post-war reconstruction; hates the smell of keys, and who kisses her brother’s girlfriend on the lips. This is Edith Campbell Berry who in 1950 finds herself, aged in her 40s, living in Canberra “…about as far from the centre of the modern world as you can get without being in a desert … a slap-dash country of such unhappy food.”
If this mismatch isn’t mismatched enough Cold Light opens with Edith discovering her long-lost brother, Frederick, who is now a working member of the Communist Party which is about to be banned by the new Prime Minister, Robert Menzies. How’s a girl, with a lavender husband and a red brother supposed to get a job in this town? This is particularly galling for Edith who wants – believing she deserves it – a status-riddled diplomatic post, which was something then a married woman could not have no matter what colour her husband was.
Because of a few pulled strings, she gets an invitation to dinner at the Lodge, where she airs and wears her Chanel, but diplomatically tells the other wives ‘it’s a copy’, and gets a hand up her dress from the man on her left, something she relishes, and offered a job by the man on her right, something she despises, because it’s only a job of sorts: as ‘special’ assistant to Canberra’s Town Planner. However, despite its low status, really no status as all, she is inspired by the sketches of the Canberra dream made by Marion Mahony Griffin, wife of Walter Burley Griffin, and takes the job but insists on her own office, gets one, but one with no windows, and decorates it with bespoke furniture from Melbourne and a cumquat tree. She drinks Scotch, is a fastidious dresser, wears stockings under slacks, a Tam o’ Shanter, when necessary, and does her husband’s nails and lets him wear her silk nightie to bed.
Edith Campbell Berry is a hotel cat: mistrusted by a few, loved by most, but belonging to no-one. Her wish for a Bloomsbury life leads her to recognise a man for her, and so marries again, but after years that began passionately, her marriage slips into one of normality and routine (wonderfully and insightfully described by Moorhouse) and when confronted by a new Prime Minister, Mr Gough Whitlam, whose lieutenants know nothing of her, her ideas, or what she has to offer, she is then unemployed, discarded, and emotionally alone. However, her past does not desert her, and her experience as an officer of the League of Nations in Geneva (Grand Days), her work in Spain during the civil war and her position on a UN committee (Dark Palace), and her reputation in Canberra, mainly fuelled by incorrect gossip about MI5, ASIO and her truthful but unconventional life, comes to the attention of Whitlam. She is offered a position as an ‘eminent person’ to be a pair of eyes for the new Australian government in areas of international diplomacy and unease. She is delighted. This takes her to the Middle East where the book ends, surprisingly, dramatically, but really, so appropriately. No spoilers here.
Frank Moorhouse is a living Australian writer who deserves to be better known. He has won the Miles Franklin Award (for Dark Palace) and many state and national awards as well. The Edith Trilogy is a major contribution to Australian literature where trilogies are rare: Henry Handle Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney (1917 – 1929) and Ruth Park’s Harp in the South (1948 – 1985) are ones that spring to mind. The books are big, Cold Light, is very big, but where Moorhouse excels is his tone and insight into love and all its shades, romance, sex, politics, human frailty, personal ambitions, and inevitable failures. All three books can be read in isolation but once you taste Edith Campbell Berry you will want to taste her again, so read them all. You won’t regret it and you won’t forget her.
You can buy the eBook here for $10.99, as well as the others in the trilogy.