A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce.

The Irish writer, James Augustine Aloysius Joyce (1882-1841).

The opening of “A Portrait …” is one of literature’s most famous:

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.

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

He was baby tuckoo.

 There are several remarkable things about this opening. Firstly, the title has set up the idea that what you are about to read is going to be an autobiography, of the writer, the Artist, Joyce, about himself as a young man. But this is not what we read, this is not an autobiography in seems, since, if it was, the pronoun would be ‘my’ not ‘his’; so, it is not told by the Artist, the author, it is told by a third-person narrator. Secondly, it is written in the past tense, fine, as expected, but the moment you read the word ‘his’ you know that ‘his’ refers to the Artist, James Joyce. We only use a pronoun when it is clear who ‘his’ refers to and the only name prior to this pronoun is the author’s. It is him. This is confirmed by the line “He was baby tuckoo.” Again the pronoun and still only one name, the same name, the author’s, so, he is not the author. Well, yes, he is the author, we just choose to ignore that: we willingly accept what the author has written in order to enjoy the story. We play along. A few pages on this third person narrator, to confirm his existence, gives baby tuckoo a name, Stephen Dedalus. This is a story about a boy called Stephen Dedalus that we understand is the young James Joyce. Why has Joyce chosen to write his own story narrated by a third person god-like narrator? Because it is a much more useful novelistic tool. Writing in the first-person disallows the writer access to the minds, thoughts, tastes, dreams, wishes, and desires of all the other characters in the story. The first-person “I” can only describe what he feels, sees, tastes, dreams, and desires. The third-person god-like narrator has access to everyone and everything, but more importantly, the past, and the future. Also, the ‘baby’ language is the manifestation of yet another novelistic tool, new for 1914 and used here for the first time; so effective and now so widely used: a device that allows the narrator to adopt vocabulary, vocal mannerisms, colour, and tone of the character’s own speaking voice. In literary terms this is called free indirect discourse, or as critic James Wood likes to say, close writing. This is familiar to us now, (Edward St Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose Novels, 2012, for example, and almost any novel written in the last 100 years) but innovative then. Also, usually for his times, early twentieth century and before, in novels of coming of age (Dicken’s David Copperfield, 1849 for one), biographical, or auto-biographical, the narrator wrote from the perspective of adulthood; there was a distance from the narrator to the subject. But here, as Stephen grows on the path to maturity, so does Joyce’s language. In 1916 Joyce’s text was radical. It’s as if Joyce, with this opening, was writing about Stephen at 6 years old when he, the narrator, was 6 years old. The action and tone are far more immediate, compelling, and authentic, and along with the non-judgemental narrator sets the ground-work for modernism which would be experimented with and adopted, not just by Joyce but by his contemporaries as well.

However, we know from this opening that this is going to be a story about a person called Stephen Dedalus (James Joyce) and that we are starting at the time when he was a very young boy and that his father wore spectacles and a beard. The original title of this book was another name, Stephen Hero, but he changed the title and the hero’s name.

In Greek mythology Daedalus was a skilled inventor and architect who built the labyrinth for King Minos of Crete to house the Minator, a monster, half man, half bull. He was also the father of Icarus. After Theseus killed the Minator, with Daedalus’s help, and fled with Ariadne, the king’s daughter, Minos imprisoned Daedalus and Icarus in the labyrinth but they escaped – after all, Daedalus built it – and flew the island by making themselves wings of feathers and wax.

The Fall of Icarus by Jacob Peter Gowy, 1637

Despite his father’s warning, Icarus, excited by the thrill of flying, flew too close to the sun god Helos as he rode his flaming chariot across the heavens, and the waxed wings melted, and Icarus fell and perished in the sea. Daedalus, after surviving another vengeful plot by Minos, escaped and finally settled in Sardinia where he joined a group led by Iolaus, nephew of Hercules; and as far as we know lived to a ripe old age.

In Romanticism, Icarus came to denote impetuousness, rebellion, and hubris, while Daedalus represented the classic artist, skilled, mature, and successful.

The young Stephen Dedalus is an observer, a listener. Early in the narrative he describes in great conversational detail a heated argument at the family Christmas table; an argument about Parnell, an Anglo-Irish politician, who by shrewd but steadfast political decisions became the figurehead of the Irish nationalistic movement in the nineteenth century; he renounced violent anti-Parliamentary action, but he was a protestant. Colm Tóibín writes that this scene could easily have been refracted around the tables of Irish dinners in the 1970’s and 80’s as family members argued over what was going on in Northern Ireland. And the scene where Stephen is unfairly punished resonated with Irish readers and writers: corporal punishment in Irish Catholic schools continued until the 1980’s. The influence of this book overshadowed generations of Irish long after it was published in 1916.

The young boy is also a thinker:

Was that a sin for Father Arnell to be in a wax or was he allowed to get into a wax when the boys were idle because that made them study better or was he only letting on to be in a wax? It was because he was allowed, because a priest would know what a sin was and would not do it. But if he did it one time by mistake what would he do to go to confession?

He asked the kind of questions Irish Catholic schoolboys have been asking themselves – and no-one else – for decades.

The first chapter ends with Stephan ‘reporting’ to the rector his unjust punishment at the hands of the prefect of studies, Father Dolan. This was a brave thing to do and his classmates hoisted him up, carried him along and shouted “Hurroo!” and threw their caps into the air. A stirring chapter-end of vengeance, courage, just fulfilment, and Joyce’s poetic language, not in a character’s words but from the narrator’s prose.

The fellows were practising long shies and bowling lobs and slow twisters. In the soft gray silence he could hear the bump of the balls: and from here and from there through the quiet air the sound of the cricket bats: pick, pack, pock, puck: like drops of water in a fountain falling softly in the brimming bowl.

 Stephan has grown up a lot since moocow and baby tuckoo.

Chapter 2 is a portrait of a disillusioned young man in search of something profound which even he does not know what it is: “He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld.” This “it” became “her” as if they would “make their tryst … in some secret place … and in that moment of supreme tenderness he would be transfigured … Weakness and timidity and inexperience would fall away from him in that magic moment.” This “her” in his mind (his muse?) is mingled with the heroine from Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo, Mercedes, or maybe its Ellen who, after a family bit of singing and dancing, comes with him on the tram where he is aware of her closeness, her wish for him to catch hold of her, “nobody is looking. I could hold her and kiss her” but he did neither and “stared gloomily at the corrugated footboard.”

This, a constant battle between the developing Artist and the developing Young Man.

And when he finally writes something about the tram, and Ellen and the kiss not made he “thought himself into confidence” over “a new pen, a new bottle of ink and a new emerald exercise” and “there remained no trace of the tram itself nor the tram-men nor of the horses” but only “of the night and the balmy breeze and the maiden lustre of the moon” and the kiss not given became a kiss “given by both.” Finally, the Artist at work; and, so often, his muse, his Art is so confounded with women, with sex. Women “demure and innocent” he sees by day, but by night “her face transfixed by lecherous cunning, her eyes bright with brutish joy” and he is left by morning nothing but a “humiliating sense of transgression.”

At school, he is studious but aware of voices urging him “to be a good gentleman”, “to be a good catholic above all things”, “to be strong and manly and healthy”, “to be true to his country,” “to raise up his father’s fallen state by his labours”, and “to be a decent fellow.” All this bidding by voices all around, “but he was happy only when far from them, beyond their call, alone or in the company of phantasmal comrades.” The battle continues. Even in his own existence. From 1904 he lived with a Dublin chambermaid who had little education nor any understanding of Joyce’s work and felt that he made his life more difficult by writing so strangely. She was vivacious, humerous, loved music, bore him two children, and stuck by him through intense poverty in Zurich and Paris while writing his most famous work, Ulysses. He was a husband and father, a Man, but then inside something else something separate, an Artist.

He is cast in a school play but his part humiliates him, “A remembrance of some of his lines made a sudden flush rise to his painted cheeks” but, surprisingly, the excitement and youth around him “entered into and transformed his moody mistrustfulness.” On stage he was amazed that the play during rehearsals that seemed a “disjointed lifeless thing” had taken on a life of its own and it was a success. He is amazed and confused by this and “his nerves cried out for further adventures” – this is Art and it is Alive! I want more! When he meets his family in the excited crowd outside the theatre he feigns an errand he annoyingly says he has to make and leaves them all before they can say a word. He strides alone through the city, his mind a “tumult of sudden-risen vapours of wounded pride and fallen hope and baffled desire” until he finds himself in a “dark cobbled laneway” where he “breathed slowly the rank heavy air.” Then this …

That is horse piss and rotted straw, he thought. It is a good odour to breathe. It will calm my heart. My heart is quite calm now. I will go back.”


Here the close writing of the third-person narrator (“he thought”) in the past tense gets so close that it slips from the past tense into the first-person (“my heart…”) present tense (“… is calm”) – truly radical for literary 1916 – and suddenly Stephen Dedalus is James Joyce. But only for these three short sentences. After the ***** the third-person narrator and the past tense returns.

Stephen was once again seated beside his father …

There is no linking action between Joyce’s scenes; this stream-of-consciousness would be picked up by his peers and by writers even to the present (Marlon James, The Brief History of Seven Killings, 2015). The dialogue is sparse but realistic, but Stephen’s internal thought patterns are poetic and constantly at battle with the world around him. He feels he is alien from his family, “mythical kinship of fosterage” and burdened with a “savage desire … to defile with patience whatever image had attracted his eyes.”  Joyce transformed the narrative into isolated scenes, the paragraph into pictures of feeling, and the sentence into impressionistic bits; like the painters were doing to landscape and interiors in studios and fields all over Europe.

But it is in part 3 that Joyce’s major theme, his Christian faith, is described and exalted in a lengthy sermon as his sinful, lustful, self is set against it and painted as on a slippery but vengeful slope to hell and damnation. The Christian parable is given in a naturalistic and almost movie-like narrative; the glory of heaven rent asunder by the treachery and downfall of the once “shining angel’, Lucifer, who is cast from heaven along with his “rebellious angels” into their fiery haven of Hell; and to fill the gap in Heaven left by these fiends, God created Adam and Eve and gave them a wondrous garden to live in; but Lucifer was jealous of these clay-born creatures and tempted them to disobey God and eat the forbidden apple; so the archangel Michael cast them out into the “world of sickness and striving, of cruelty and disappointment, of labour and hardship to earn their bread in the sweat of their brow;” but God is pitiful and promises a redeemer that will take on all the suffering of the fallen people and give them a way to salvation. It’s a heady and powerful text to the developing mind of a teenage boy who sees nothing but poverty and temptation all around.

He came down the aisle of the chapel, his legs shaking and the scalp of his head trembling as though it had been touched by ghostly fingers. He passed up the staircase and into the corridor along the walls of which the overcoats and waterproofs hung like gibbeted malefactors, headless and dripping and shapeless. And at every step he feared he had already died, that his soul had been wrenched forth of the sheath of his body, that he was plunging headlong through space… Flames burst forth from his skull like a corolla, shrieking like voices: Hell! Hell! Hell! Hell! Hell!”

Alone in the darkness of his room, curled up on his bed, hands covering his face his fear of Hell becomes manifest with images of reeking dung and weeds and  “goatish creatures with human faces … trailing their long tails behind them … soft language issued from their spittleless lips … circling closer and closer to enclose;” and so terrified he springs up, vomits, cries, prays and walks the city streets always conscious and fearful of his blackened and sinful self but fearing more the idea of confession: saying aloud what he has done, the seven deadly sins – he lost his virginity at 14 with a whore – he knows them all; the thought of saying it all to a goodly priest; shame fell on him like ash.

There has never been a more vibrant, terrifying description of a young boy’s idea of hell fostered by effective and horrific mind-altering descriptions from a pulpit, feeding the limited but hungry imaginations of those who listen. The Church knows how to do it.

But he does confess and is absolved of all his sins and the chapter ends with Stephen “sitting by the fire in the kitchen, not daring to speak for happiness” and dreaming of a glorious altar with fragrant masses of white flowers as he awaits among other communicants for the body and blood that will soon be his.

Stephen Dedalus, our 16-year-old hero, is now pious and as blameless as any person can be: his intricate piety and self-restraint – he allocates a rigorous discipline to all his senses – even surprised himself but they failed to eradicate “childish and unworthy imperfections” and he felt the “flood of temptation many times” but always eluded them like jumping back from an incoming wave which threatened to engulf him. His piety and dedication grows until the possibility of a priestly life is offered and his contemplation of it is many faceted in poetic language of the mind and the soul and the landscape and the image of an innocent girl standing island-like in the river shallows of the beach. Her skirts and petticoats are hitched up above the waves and “her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane’s and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh.” He runs from the idea of her and has to eventually admit that his “inherent sinful nature” makes a religious life impossible.

The fifth and final chapter sees him a university student, living at home and still existing on watery tea and fried bread crusts soaked in yellow dripping. He is not a punctual student and misses more classes, English, French, Physics, than he attends. He, instead, seeks out compatible priests and peers and discusses with them his theories and definitions, based on Aristotle and Aquinas, of truth, art, and beauty. Such dissertations are punctuated by scenes of the everyday streetscape: passing students, argumentative men, noisy vehicles and pretty girls, “holding the umbrellas at cunning angles…their skirts demurely”, who were his only distraction. There is always a connection between women, art and sex: each can dislodge the over but it is always art that has the strongest power but which is the most hidden but aches to be exposed; he aspires to “the highest and most spiritual art,” literature.

The penultimate scene is a long conversation with fellow students culminating in a more intimate discussion with his friend, Cranly, about freedom, art, and escape. Finally, the third person gives way to the first, Dedalas is Joyce, in the form of diary entries from March 20 to April 27 1904 where his mother is putting his second-hand books in order and dreading the inevitable: the loss of her son’s love that enables him to learn his own life “away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels.”

Welcome, O life. I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.   

But it is his oath and his confession to Cranly, a few pages earlier, that rings the loudest and the most true:

 I will no longer serve in that which I do not believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile, and cunning. 

And that is what he did.


You can find the free ebook here, along with all his other works published by www.ebooks.adelaide.com a wonderful resource of texts out of copyright established and maintained by the University of Adelaide.










Grand Days by Frank Moorhouse

The Australian writer Frank Moorhouse

Here’s a little anecdote …

Frank Moorhouse and his girlfriend were lying naked in their back garden drinking wine and soaking up sunshine when the writer threw aside the book he’d been reading and exclaimed: ‘My God. Oh my God. Copyright is the key to all understanding. If you understand copyright theory, you understand the whole way the world works. It’s all there.’ 

It’s just a vignette. But in its composition and tone, it’s also a story which takes us to the heart of Moorhouse and his work. There’s the eye for sensual detail. The juxtaposition of the intimate and the abstract. The continuum between the big picture and the everyday. The intellectual energy at play amidst other pleasures. And, of course, there’s the delicious irony of a man lying next to his naked lover, inflamed with passion by legal prose.

         ‘Our man at cultural studies cliff face’, by Professor Catharine (2004): in Gleeson, Lumby and Bennett: Frank Moorhouse: a celebration, Canberra: National Library of Australia.

Nowhere is the above more illustrative than in this following scene, from page 198 of Grand Days (Volume 1 of The Edith Trilogy, The Vintage edition, 2011).

The Australian protagonist, Edith Campbell Berry, an administrative assistant with the League of Nations in 1920s Geneva, is in Paris with friends at a jazz club. She is enthralled by the music, especially scat singing which she perceives as a new kind of language with staggering potential; she’s a little drunk. She is also fascinated with one of the black musicians, Jerome in a bowler hat, who comes, invited, to the table and explains about scat singing. A little time later, on her way back from the Lady’s, Edith stumbles across the musician’s room and enters, discovering Jerome, alone. She offers him her hand which he takes and guides her onto his knee. Then this sentence…

Time and movement then become slippery, as she gracefully slid, seeing for the first time his caramel and cream shoes and without thinking too much at all about things, it seemed his warm dark hands were on her exposed and very alive breasts, which she felt she had delivered up to him; all seemed to happen in flowing fixed steps, something like a waltz, except they were not moving from where they were adhered together in this strange way, and without any guidance at all and in no time at all, and with no impediment, with no thought at all, warm, fleshy and flowing, it was finishing, and she took her lips, tongue, and gentle teeth away, opened her eyes and looked across the room to an open instrument case.

Here the mundane, ‘cream and caramel shoes’, ‘no thought at all’, and ‘an open instrument case’, juxtaposed with the sensual, ‘dark hands’, ‘breasts’, and ‘lips, tongue, and gentle teeth’ create something perversely human; although once the penny drops and you realise what she has just done the sensual flavours the mundane and ‘an open instrument case’ takes on a brand-new meaning entirely.

That quote is an apt example of free indirect discourse which has become the characteristic of literary modernism ever since Joyce knowingly used it, and understood it as a style, in his 1916 autobiographical work, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. There are also examples of it in the works of Goethe and Jane Austin but it was Joyce who used it in such an obvious and effective way, as a literary tool, that it was subsequently taken up and experimented with by his contemporaries such as Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse, 1927), and now it is so widely used that it’s hardly noticeable anymore. Free indirect discourse, or experienced speech, or, as The New Yorker literary critic and academic, James Woods, calls it, close writing, allows the author two very useful authorial tools. Firstly, it gives the writer freedom to flit from character to character to give their different view of the scene, character, action, etc. A vivid modern example of this is Edward St Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose novels (2012) where St Aubyn describes the (autobiographical) sexual abuse of his 4-year-old protagonist by his father from the boy’s and the man’s point of view. It’s as if the unnamed, god-like, all-knowing, third-person narrator flits from the mind of one character to the mind of the other. Secondly it allows the writer to use the language and tone of the character, the times, and circumstance to colour the narrative prose itself. Joyce’s opening to “A Portrait …” uses baby language – moocow, little tuckoo – not as dialogue for his baby protagonist, Stephen, but in the prose itself making it very clear, and without the necessity of saying it, that the boy is very young. By the end of the first chapter the narrative language is that of an intelligent, sensitive, and inquisitive school-boy which is what Stephen is at that time in the story.

If you read the Moorhouse sentence again – go on! Re-read it! – remembering that Edith is quite drunk, it is in language and tone (defensive) that she might have used if she was asked to explain what happened; the narrator’s prose is using the language of the circumstance, the situation, and the character.

Pre-Joyce, this rarely happened: the unnamed, god-like, all-knowing, third-person narrator was usually sage-like, mature, and distanced in time and character from the people and all the elements of the story. Dickens is a solid example of this.

Edith Campbell Berry is a sophisticated and complex creation, which was an entirely intuitive process, says Moorhouse, and her genesis began with his mother. Moorhouse has always been interested in social and personal politics, citing the liberation movements, both social and sexual, of the 60s and early 70s as having a transformative effect on him; and literary works such as James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956) he found enlightening and greatly affected his understanding of his own sexuality. Edith is aware of her multiple histories, ambiguities, desires and even chaos in her personal life which is separate and guarded from her professional life which she is immensely proud and protective of. She is an idealist and believes “the League had the task of making the manners of the world.” Her personal life in Geneva is founded on her early meeting, on the train from Paris to Geneva as she travelled to take up her post, of Ambrose Westwood, a British diplomat who too works for the League and, with Edith’s knowledge and support, investigates his own predilections for cross-dressing – she loans him her best evening gown forcing her to wear her second-best on their first tryst to The Molly Club – and homosexuality, while remaining Edith’s lover and confidant. Moorhouse admits there is some of him in the character of Ambrose Westwood. Her exploration of her own desires is stimulated by his, but she is constantly aware of, and ruminates at length, on her perceived reputation at the League (Is she a ‘vamp’?) finding it imperative that both her personal and professional lives are kept separate, and rightly so: a consistent theme in Moorhouse’s work. However, while making little effort to curtail her exploits with Ambrose into the secret and steamier side of Geneva’s social life, she is in constant threat of being exposed. This tension propels the narrative where both fictional and real characters and events are mingled to create a fascinating picture of the personal, the political, and the professional in the early years of the League of Nations.

At every turn, Moorhouse suggests, the answer to the question of how to live lies in learning to live with ambiguity and resisting the impulse to bury the contradictions of being human behind reductive, authoritarian codes.

It’s a fascinating read and once you get to know Edith Campbell Berry you are even pleased with the novel’s length – it’s big – as are the two to follow – because you just want more of her, as do many of the characters in the books.

Dark Palace is next, followed by Cold Light. A lot to look forward to.

The ebook edition of Grand Days is available here through ibooks for $US10.99.










On Experience: writing about writing


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Veronicability II: Veronica Spreads It Around. A work in progress

shop-fitting in progress

In light of my post yesterday concerning point-of-view (POV) here is a new scene from the sequel to Veronica Comes Undone, Veronica Spreads It Around that I’ve been working on today.

Let me set it up for you.

Veronica is determined to get back custody of her son Jack from her ex-husband, David, Jack’s father. To do this she has planned to give up her freelance psychology consultancy and open a ‘legitimate’ business: a business the family court will find acceptable. The scene is the shop she is renovating into a small hospitality business that she has big and unique plans for. She is sitting at a table in the corner of the space surrounded by workmen, dust and noise doing the accounts.

I’m writing ‘close’ (third person subjective; see yesterday’s post for details) but as the scene hots up (sexually I mean) I found myself slipping, briefly, into the second person POV; as if the narrator is talking directly to Veronica. This wasn’t planned and I don’t know examples of this in my reading history. It felt right though. I might leave it in.

Also note the change from past tense to present. I’m writing in the past tense but all of Veronica’s scenes with men are written in the present. It’s more immediate, more alive.

It wasn’t midday yet but the numbers began to swim and shake on the computer screen. She knew transferring all her accounts onto a spreadsheet was sound sense but she also knew she had to concentrate and input the information accurately: one little slip and all her formatting would produce false results. Her coffee latte was cold. Why did she always do that: forget about it and waste the last third? She propped her elbows on the table where she sat in the corner of the space and rested her face in the palms of her hands letting her fingertips massage her closed and prickly eyes.
She attended to the noises. A moment ago all sound had morphed into one: a white noise she ignored. Now she heard the whine of a tile-cutter; the traffic outside in the busy street; a car-horn; a rhythmic hammering somewhere; and Vera’s buzz-saw voice talking on her mobile berating a dodgy supplier.
She opened her eyes and took in the scene. The sign writer, Paco, was putting a border around the enormous plate glass window. A workman, young, skinny, goofy-looking, cleaned paint-rollers in a tray of turpentine. Another man angled tiles into a cutter that spat out dust and a piercing and ever modulating drone. Two men were installing the large hood over the stove in the long kitchen, and a burly man in overalls stood at a portable workbench cutting glass panels.
She had noticed him before. He was tall but stocky. He had reddish-sandy hair that stuck out from under his hard-hat; a neat, very neat but short, beard and wore overalls over a plaid shirt, with the sleeves rolled up his sandy arms. His hair was messy but his beard was tailored, tended, clipped. He obviously had spent some time in front of a mirror. She decided the messy hair was deliberate. This man looked after himself. She liked that. She wondered about the beard. A beard. This beard; how it would feel on her finger tips as she touched his cheek; moved through the growth to the soft lobes of his ears and the wispy sandy hair. She had kissed a bearded man once, a long time ago but it was black, thick and his moustache had hung down over his top lip. She had felt it. It was not unpleasant; but this beard was short. She wondered how it might feel brushing her cheek; fussy? prickly? ticklish? She wondered how it would feel against her thighs, against her …

He’s staring at her. How long has he been doing that? Not as long as she’s been staring at him. She looks away, but, hey; it’s all a bit late for coyness. She smirks and looks up again and meets his gaze.

He puts down his tool and walks towards her. She is aware of intense embarrassment, her hot cheeks, but she holds his stare as he approaches. He sits down. His eyes are brown.
“I was always taught not to stare at people,” he says in a soft voice tempered with a faint grin, “but that’s for children; for grown-ups it’s something completely different.” Veronica opens her mouth to speak but hesitates: she knows she’s been caught out; she knows she was staring; she knows her cheeks are red; and she knows that he knows all this. “Sorry Bill…”
“Bob. Robert.” His grin widens, warms.
She returns his smile, mimics it, which is really all she can do. “Robert. Sorry. I was day dreaming.”
“Really? So you weren’t staring at me?”
“ … I was staring, yes.”
“I know you were.” He waits. She still isn’t sure why. What is he expecting? She only thinks she knows.
“You remind me of someone, ” she says.
“I see. Do I look like him?”
“No.” She could’ve said yes.
“So, what’s to remind?”
She wishes she had said yes. “The way … the way you hold yourself.”
“Really! That’s very perspicacious of you.”
She’s impressed by his use of this word – he’s a shop-fitter! – and wonders now if her understanding of it is correct and instantly, to cover a whiff of intimidation, she counters dryly with, “Actually it’s your beard.”
“I see. So he had a beard like mine.”
“No. It was long.”
“Do you like it long?”
“I don’t know. His is the only one I know. I was just wondering…”
“Would you like to touch it?”
“Bob,” she reprimands.
“Oh, have I crossed the line, have I?” and his eyebrows jump; “and it’s Robert.”
“It’s not that, Robert. It’s …” Yes it is! You want him to cross the line. You want him to lean over and put his cheek against yours. You want to feel his hairy cheek against your skin. You want to lick it! And if the truth has air you want him to put his tongue in your mouth; and a few other places you could name. But instead you say, “It’s very light in here.”
“Oooo,” he says with dancing eyes, “You’d like some place darker?”
“Bob.” She says abruptly. “Robert, it’s the middle of the day in the middle of a workplace.”
His smile fades. “I see. It’s the old ‘lady boss’ and ‘tradesman’ divide.”
She worries that she may have offended him. She’s worried that she may have turned him off; so she counters, and with a smile says cunningly, “That’s not a negative.”
He stares at her and she holds it. He stands up, puts his hand in his pocket and pulls out a business card, gives it to her, and says “Call me when you finish.”

He walked back to his workbench.