Girl by Edna O’Brien

Edna Obrien pic
Irish writer, (Josephine) Edna O’Brien

Girl is a first person account of Maryam, a very young girl, who with many others are kidnapped by members of Boko Haram, an ultra extremist sect of Islam in West Africa, although in the text it is only known as The Sect. She escapes, wonders aimlessly in the forest with her baby daughter, is discovered, returned to her mother who doesn’t recognise her. Does she also need to escape her family?

There’s an issue with this book that goes to the heart of what fiction is. O’Brien travelled to Nigeria twice to research this novel. She’s just turned 89. She said …

So one day I was in a waiting room (Doctor’s ) and I read a small item in a newspaper while I was waiting which said: A girl called Amina Something Something was found in Sambisa Forest wondering with her baby with nothing to eat, didn’t know her name and didn’t know where she was. And for some reason that’s inexplicable to me, I thought: I have to write that story. I didn’t think it when I first read about the girls, or when I heard about the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. There was something about the girl alone in a forest that resonated with maybe lived and maybe imagined experience inside me.

The book is difficult to read. Her kidnapping, multiple rapes, witnessing a woman stoned to death, treated like a slave, mistreated and ignored by other women (perhaps the saddest blow), rendered invisible, are described vividly, if not in detail, although the detail she does share is certainly enough. It is confronting to think that human beings can treat other human beings like this. Yet, she was treated like this because she was a girl. Her forced marriage comes almost as a relief. Even her escape with her baby daughter was treacherous, misunderstood, and almost unbelievable, as well as unbelieved. Her reunion with her mother is distressing: they don’t know each other any more.

It is written as fiction – the word fiction implies untruth – yet we are lead to believe that these things actually happened to the girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria in 2014. O’Brien met them, talked to them, heard their stories, wrote them down. And yes, I believe these things did actually happen to those girls, so I suppose, my question is why did she choose the novel form to tell her story? She is a writer of novels so perhaps she thought of no other way.

If you are in any way squeamish about violence, extreme sexual violence, on the page don’t read this book, or if you are, but do, its fiction label may give you some reprieve.

In order to explain the abundance and importance of truth in fiction I have often used the line, Fiction is about truth but to make it clear one has to lie about it a little. This still holds true.

And, yes, as O’Brien admits in her Acknowledgments, Maryam, her creation is an amalgamation of ‘the imaginative voicings of many through one particular visionary girl.’

So yes, this is fiction, Maryam in untrue, but her story is not.

Edna O’Brien’s first, and most (in)famous book, The Country Girls, came out in 1960. She has been a writer all her adult life, but as she says, the first was easy, it had been welling up inside her all her young life, she wrote it in 3 weeks, but each book is harder than the previous one. This one took three years and it may be her last.

If you search for her on YouTube you will find many fascinating interviews. Here’s one from the early 1990s to get you started.

You can find various editions of Girl and her other works here.

Serendipity

Serendipity pic

– a short story by Michael K Freundt

Pollution saved my life. Air pollution gives us glorious sunsets but it was the watery kind that prolonged my life: as I breathed the water in – and that is what I knew I had to do – it was not easy, and it tasted vile so I spat it out again – Mah! – and immediately clambered out of the sewer-like river thinking of guns and poison. What a hideous mess! I should have chosen the pristine waters of a rural river, like Virginia Woolf, rather than the urban drain I had decided on. That primary stupid decision finally convinced me that perhaps I had not given the whole thing quite enough thought: I had reacted illogically to what had happened back at home. Now, however, my primary decision was about my ruined clothes – Look at me! Mah! – and how I was going to get to whatever destination I would soon have to choose. The fact still remained that if I was not going to kill myself I would have to face the fact that I had just killed my wife, but maybe, just maybe, it could be possible that the authorities will conclude that it was an accident; but probably not. I am not a very good liar. However, it is truly curious that the brain, in circumstances like this, prioritises decisions so effectively that once I was standing, dripping, and during the hours that followed, I was in no doubt what it was I should do next. If you have never witnessed a death, or attempted to cause your own, you may understand – but whether you believe me or not is of no concern to me, but as I stood on the dark river bank, in the overgrown grass strewn with more urban rubbish and vainly attempting to brush myself down, to regain a little of my lost dignity that complete saturation destroys, I was suddenly aware of what I must do: go home. It became incredibly important to me to get into clean, dry clothes, despite what such a decision may bring. 

What interested me as I finished writing the above paragraph was the tone. It was a line early in Dan Simmons’ The Fifth Element; you know, I’ve scanned those pages and still can’t find what sparked the thought train that led to the above; but it was the voice, the tone that got me writing. I love it when reading can do that, even if the book didn’t grab me – I didn’t finish it – sometimes a line, an image can get the juices flowing. My narrator, not yet named, sounds like a self-opinionated, stylish homosexual, arch, wilful, and from the Inner-Eastern suburbs of Sydney. Note the use of the word ‘vile’ in the first paragraph: very queer. I like the tone, but I need to be careful: he is straight – self-awareness and a rich vocabulary are not the sole domain of the homosexual – but giving him ‘gay’ and knowing characteristics creates a unique individualism. Let’s see how it goes.

I must have looked a sight as I walked up the few tiled steps to the verandah of my inner-suburban terraced house and the look on the police officer’s face confirmed it. My wife’s body had obviously been found. The night was cool and calm so very little evaporation had occurred and my feet still squelched in my shoes: they were my favourite pair and now completely ruined. Mah! The exertion of walking all the way from the river to my house had obviously kept me relatively warm but the longer I stood still, forced to do so while the police officer talked to someone on his phone, his superior I assumed – I had told the young man who I was – I could feel the cold creep over me like a sinister blanket. 

In a very short while a tall attractive uniformed woman came out of my well-lit house to confront me. I told her who I was. 

It’s important that he finds her attractive: it could be useful later. You see, I’m not sure where this is going but I hope you’re as interested as I am.

“I’m afraid sir,” she said in the usual formal dry tone, “that I have to inform you that your wife has been found … deceased.”

“Yes, I know,” I said. Did she first think of saying ‘murdered’?

Despite her experience in such matters she hesitated, but then said, “And how do you know that, sir?”

“Because I … found her.”

“And was it you who called triple zero?”

“Yes, it was.”

If my unusual appearance had not impinged on her before it did so now, probably brought about by the fact that I had started to shiver violently.

“And why sir do you seem to be completely saturated?”

Now that my primary decision to go home had been fulfilled a new primary decision had automatically taken its place: it was absolutely clear to me what I had to say.

“Because I tried to kill myself.”

“And why did you try to do that, sir?”

It may give you some insight into my personality when I tell you that my immediate feeling now was of annoyance that every one of her questions had begun with a conjunction.

“I thought you would think I did it.” I did do it but not the way you think.

I thought I should amend that line to “I did do it but not the way you may think”. The use of the second person – referring to the reader – in prose fiction, by the way, is rare now. It used to be common – the opening to Elliot Perelman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity – great title – is an unusual modern example that springs to mind – I must read that again one day; but I like using the second person. It adds a personal touch, a writer-reader sense of confidentiality. It’s the word ‘may’ that I am concerned about. I cannot be certain what a reader might think but it is this note of uncertainty I do not like. I am very aware of words like ‘maybe’ or ‘perhaps’ or ‘could’ because they always weaken a phrase – except in dialogue, of course, where such words can be character-building – but ‘may’ sounds like one of them. No! I will leave it out.

I expected another, and obvious, conjunction-led question but my shivering had become so intense that she said, “I think you had better come inside and get out of those wet clothes.”

I was not allowed upstairs into our bedroom, now a crime scene or something – I wondered what they would find and what they would think it means –  and so a young underling was sent to get me a complete change of clothes. His choice was completely unsatisfactory – why would anyone match royal blue with that brown? 

That last phrase gives great insight into his character, don’t you think? I spent quite some time agonising over what colours to choose. Fashion today, to always embrace the new, has accepted anything with anything. I’m old enough to remember when paisley was in, and then when it was definitely out. Now I’ve seen paisley matched with floral. Mah! My narrator would only have block colours, I’m sure; maybe a stripe or check for summer; never floral, and never paisley. Brown and blue can at times go well together but his hatred of the match with that particular brown and that particular blue reinforces his opinionated sense of fashion. He so knows his own mind.

The young officer appeased his appalling fashion sense by bringing me a towel, but then my assessment of him plummeted again when he did not leave while I changed. I decided to ignore him. I undressed completely, towelled myself dry, resisted the urge to look up at him to see what he was looking at, and redressed as quickly as I could and refused to look in the living room mirror as I already knew I looked a fright.

Is the use of the word ‘fright’ too arch; too queer, do you think?

“Please take a seat, sir,” he said politely and when he did not leave the room I supposed he had been ordered not to leave me alone. I have always found it difficult not to talk to people when I find myself in close proximity to them but he was just standing there looking at nothing in particular so the urge to talk was weakened. I tried to attract his attention to the pile of wet clothes on the floor making it clear, I thought, that I expected him to do something about them: they were dampening the rug, but he paid no heed. I got up – he became alarmed a little at that – and removed them to a wooden chair. I resumed my seat on the couch and he relaxed. I remained as silent as he did.

It would be correct to use the word ‘him’ here: “… I remained as silent as him” – ‘he’ for the subject, ‘him’ for the object – but it sounds wrong, or, at least, clumsy; so, ‘as he did’ it is; to stop any reader with a fluffy grammar fixation getting annoyed. “Oh, thanks, Darling!” My partner, Tommy, just bought me a cup of coffee. He’s forgotten he’s brought me one already, poor man. It’s getting worse.

Eventually the pretty female officer entered without an iPad but with a note book and pen. How old fashioned! I needed to stay calm, but not too calm. She looked good in a uniform.

“Can I have your full name please? she said.

“Patrick Osman,” I said.

I chose a ‘foreign’ name and you will soon see why: a particular beef of mine.


“Turkish?”

“Australian”

“I beg your pardon.”

“It’s Australian,” I said more pointedly.

“Sounds foreign.”

“It is.”

She looked at me quizzically like I was a cheeky schoolboy with a bad record.

“All white Australians come from somewhere else,” I said. “Even you.”

“I was born here.”

“So was I.”

“And your point is?” she said as neutrally as she could, which was not very.

“An authentic Australian surname would be something like Yunupingu, Gulpilil, Noonuccal,” I said, pedant that I am.

“I see,” she said with exasperation but also, eventually, understanding: annoyed understanding. She took a breath with intent as if to challenge me further with, I expected, European names for indigenous people, but she obviously thought better of it. ‘Smartarse!’ she probably thought instead. 

“Mr. Osman, tell me what happened tonight.”

“My wife has – had – symptoms of early-stage dementia, one of which was a faulty sense of balance. She had just showered, then fell, and hit her head on the corner of the glass coffee table and died instantly.”

The attractive police officer was obviously flummoxed by the brief and precise description. She stared at me without writing anything down.

You see, I know where this is going now. Creative moments like this often cause younger, brasher writers to cry, “Oh, the writing process went so well; it wrote itself, actually.” No, it didn’t, darling, you did! Just like I am; but sometimes creative momentum can take over and you have to know when to let it, or reign it in. So, do you know where this is going? I hope not. Not yet.

“Could you please elaborate?” she asked.

“You’ve been in the bedroom. The sofa in the bay window, the coffee table, the wet feet, the wet floor, the body, the blood; doesn’t it look like that’s what happened?”

“Or made to look like that’s what happened.”

I chuckled. I could not help it. “I see. You think I picked up that large, extremely heavy and cluttered coffee table, hit her with it and then made it look like she fell on it?”

“Mr. Osman, your flippant tone isn’t helping you.”

“Do I need helping?”

“Without credibility, yes.”

I was disciplined enough to understand what she meant and so remained silent. It was then that she started to write something down. I waited.

“You said before that you were afraid that we might think you had done it.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I am on the public record, a television interview two weeks ago, as a supporter of euthanasia.”

“What was the name of the program, date, and time?” I told her. She wrote that down. Eventually she added, “So how would you describe what happened tonight?”

Serendipitous.” 

“I beg your pardon.”

I resisted a comment reflecting her possible ignorance of the word and forced myself to assume she was surprised by my supposed flippancy. “She died unexpectedly, accidentally, quickly, as opposed to gradually, sinking into confusion, a withering brain, organ dysfunction, pain, senility, a coma, then death. She loathed that scenario. Who wouldn’t?”

“Did your wife share your views on euthanasia?”

“Of course.”

“Did she also take part in that television interview?”

“No.” She wrote that down too.

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to take you into custody based on what you have told me.”

I’m resisting here to get bogged down in police procedural matters. My knowledge of the medical aspects of this story I have acquired from personal experience. However, when it comes to research for the sake of pedantic accuracy I find it unnecessary as it is safe to assume most readers are familiar with television police dramas from a wide spectrum of sub-genres, and possible procedures; and readers are willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of the story – up to a point, of course. Absolute reality is not necessary if procedural information decided on by the writer for the purposes of the story falls within the realm of possibility; besides, what is important here is the dialogue between these two characters and the development of plot and intrigue. I am talking here about what is more important: I don’t need to study aerodynamics to jump a puddle.

“You’re arresting me?”

“No, but you’re the only witness.”

“Are you going to charge me?”

“We’d like you to assist us with our enquiries.”

Oh, look! Tommy is sitting in my reading chair reading McEwan’s Amsterdam. He will not remember a thing he has read, of course. He’s read it before, when he was well. Maybe it is muscle memory at play. He used to read for hours every day. I don’t even think reading is possible for him anymore. If I had time I would watch to see if he turns the page. His balance is getting worse, too. And that is not all. However, the idea of making it look like he is doing something normal, requiring working brain function, is proof that something is still operational in that brain of his. Meanwhile I am worrying about continuing this interrogation here or back at the station. The stakes would be higher at the police station. OK. And there needs to be a developing expert who has been rabbiting around the scene, collecting information while Patrick has been questioned by the cute officer.

As I was led out of my house a dozen or so people, all clad in white plastic looking like workers in a nuclear power plant, passed me and invaded my house like ants. And yes, the police officer, the same one who saw me naked, did place his hand on my head, pushing it lower, protecting it from damage, as he directed me into the back seat of the police car. The ride to the station was uneventful: no one spoke. I was later led politely into an interview room and offered a cup of coffee. I asked for tea, English Breakfast, and the young man stared at me for a moment, either in ignorance or distain, but then went away to get it, maybe not English Breakfast, but he went away. I sat and waited. There wasn’t a vast mirror on the wall; you know, a two-way mirror for investigators to sit behind and watch proceedings, making clever but snide remarks, but there was a CCTV camera in the corner of the ceiling. At least some modernisation is occurring in our police force. And, lo and behold, a little red light went on as I was watching it. A few moments later she arrived.

She turned on the recording device on the table between us, stated the date and time, my name, and her name, “Detective Constable Lena Marinos.” She asked me the same questions she asked me at my house and I gave the same answers, minus some of my attitude: I thought it only fitting. I was curious what line of questioning she would take but she did not continue. Instead another person entered the room.   

He was a large man in a cheap suit. He had pages in his hand. Paper. This station is so behind the times. 

“Joined now by Chief Inspector Mullen,” said Detective Constable Lena Marinos for the sake of the recording but who did not see fit to introduce him to me.

“Mr. Osman,” said the new arrival referring to his bits of paper, “you said your wife had just showered and had walked into the bedroom drying herself presumably.” He spoke like a rugby player, all mumble, few consonants,

I won’t bore you with writing his dialogue phonetically; you get the idea.

“but the floor and her feet were dry.”

“Shouldn’t a lawyer be sitting quietly next to me?” I asked in the politest tone I could muster.

“We haven’t charged you with anything,” said Marinos. “You’re just …”

“Yes, I know,” I interrupted, “just helping you with your enquiries. It probably evaporated.”

“What?” said Mullen.

“The water,” I said helpfully. “It probably evaporated.”

“What work did your wife do?” he asked, ignoring my comment.

“We run a business together: an employment service specialising in relief staff for the medical industry.”

“Did she understand medical …” he waved his hands as he sought for the word, I expected him to say ‘stuff’, “… procedures?”

“She was a trained nurse with many years’ first-hand experience,” I said.

“Was she up with, ya know, trauma cases?”

“Most of her career was in the emergency department.”

“So she knew about trauma injuries.”

“That’s what usually happens in an emergency department; yes.”

“Did you see her fall?”

“No. I was about to sit but looking for a space on the cluttered coffee table to put my gin and tonic; she was walking from the en-suite drying herself.”

“She was naked?”

“She was drying herself with a towel, so, yes and no.”

“And talking at the same time.”

“Yes. She could do that.” I instantly regretted that line. Marinos looked at her hands.

“What was she saying?” Mullen asked.

I did not hesitate. I thought little about what I should say, but I was aware that an instant reply was necessary, otherwise they may think I was working something out; weighing my options for a better answer. “Her condition was constantly on her mind, what to do about it, be in control of it, avoiding the medical and legal outcomes. I don’t remember exactly what she said but she always spoke about that, ever since she was diagnosed.”

I want you to believe him. Do you?

“I think I was thinking about all the coffee table clutter: where did it come from, what could be tossed. I don’t remember exactly.”

“Are you aware that aiding and abetting a suicide is a criminal offence?”

I chucked incredulously, “Yes.” I could sense a goal he was steering the questions towards. A goal he so desperately wanted.

“Do you remember when you realised something was wrong?”

“I hadn’t sat yet, or had I?” I thought about it. What did I remember? Oh, yes. “No, I hadn’t sat down yet. I heard a sound. A surprised sound. Like an ‘oops’ but it was soft, sharp but soft. Not alarming until I looked up.” I sighed deeply, closed my eyes, and flopped my head back.

“What did you see?”

I was trying to recollect the sequence of events, their order, their connections. Did I remember the sequence or did my brain fill in the gaps with invented logic? “It was just before she hit the floor.”

“The floor or the coffee table?”

I could feel their logic. “The floor. She was in the air, facing up.” I could see her as if caught in a photograph, suspended in the air. “Her backside hit the floor first, and then her head was thrown back sharply, whipped against the corner of the coffee table. The sound was like a bottle breaking on concrete.”

I worried about the words ‘arse’ or ‘backside’. He’s a man who would say ‘arse’, never ‘bum’; but given the circumstances, would he choose ‘backside’ as more polite when referring to his now dead wife? Backside, I think. Oh, dear! Here comes Tommy with another cup of coffee. Oh, now he’s staring at the used, empty cup on my desk. If only I could know what he is thinking at times like this. Now he has turned back to the kitchen with the fresh cup, confused no doubt. Poor man. Mah! Poor me!

“How did she come to rest?” asked Marinos. “On her front or on her back?”

“On her back,” I said. Yes, I can see her lying on her back.

“Where was the towel?” asked Mullen

“I don’t know.”

“Was she wearing it?” Marinos asked.

“Yes. No! I put it over her after I called triple O.”

“Mr. Osman,” said Mullen in a winning tone, “your wife was found lying on her stomach with her towel wrapped around her and tucked in above her breasts, like women do.” 

“But the wound was to the back of her head,” I said aware of the flutter in my voice.

“Yes. So, you moved her?”

“I remember closing her eyes.” Did I?

“Mr. Osman, I put it to you that you colluded with your wife to end her life. She knew exactly where a blow would have an instantaneous effect. She talked to you about this. You planned how it should look. The shower, the water on the floor, the cluttered coffee table, everything. An accident. She needed you to aim her head at the exact spot. That’s why you remember her eyes. You were holding her head aiming at the correct spot and with great force you jabbed her head onto the corner of the coffee table and achieved your shared goal. Putting her out of her misery. A noble deed, Mr. Osman, but an illegal one.”

“So you believe me,” I said quietly. “You said there was no water, so you believe me about the water. Hah? You believe me! You just ……” I could not help myself. “Chief Inspector Mullen!” I wanted to say ‘Mullet’! I shouted vehemently. “Do you understand how ludicrous that sounds? That is the most ridiculous story I have ever heard and that any courtroom has ever heard, or may still hear, no doubt. Why didn’t she just put a bullet in her head? Why didn’t she just jump off the roof? Why didn’t she take a handful of pills and slit her wrists in a hot bath like any sensible person? Why go to all this ridiculous trouble?”

“Because she loved you Mr. Osman,” said Marinos sweetly. “And you loved her. She wanted you to be her last image. There you were face to face. A kiss perhaps? Your face was the last thing she saw: you, then nothing. Her face was the last thing you saw: her, then she was gone. Over. Finished. Saved.” 

I stared at her feeling moisture in my eyes and then said to stop it, “You’ve been watching too much Swedish crime drama.”

I never did get my cup of tea.

There was a trial. A short trial. The police’s story sounded just as ludicrous in the courtroom as it did in the station. I was acquitted. There was such a lot of truth and fiction thrown around in that courtroom; so mixed up, no-one was ever sure which was which. One thing I do know though; I’m not such a bad liar after all.

Oh, Tommy! What – are – we – going – to – do – with – you?

-oOo-

Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

Trent Dalton pic
Australian journalist turned novelist, Trent Dalton

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

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

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

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

And what a ride!

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

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

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

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

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

John Boyne pic
Irish writer, John Boyne.

This is a masterful work as well as a bloody good story. Boyne uses several narrators, first person, third person, even second person to tell the blackening ambitious story of Maurice Swift, handsome, clever, manipulative, ruthless, and fiercely driven to be a writer. The only problem is his talent is limited, very limited; but this doesn’t stop him, although at great cost to those around him. At each section you wonder, ‘where is Boyne taking me now?’ It’s exhilarating to let yourself go, to totally trust the writer to never let you down; to give you insights into his literary world, and into the mechanisms of novel writing itself.

John Boyne is an Irish writer of some experience. He writes for young readers and for adults. His greatest success was his young-adult novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006). I discovered him via his previous novel for adults, The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017 ) another accomplished work of tragedy, love, and humour. He’s great with the comic, laugh-out-loud stuff. Check out my blog post on this remarkable book here.

Every book, by anyone, has its own universe. Most of the time the universe of the book is exactly the universe of the reader: our universe. However, this is not always the case. In ….Pyjamas, the central relationship is between the son of a Nazi Concentration Camp Commandant, and a prisoner-boy on the other side of the fence, the boy in the striped pyjamas. Some critics have accused Boyne of inaccuracies: in German death camps during WWII inmates would never come into contact with the families of the staff, as Boyne describes, even given a fence. This may be so in our universe, but in the universe as created by Boyne it is what happens. It is a universe of a different internal and external geography. Similarly the same criticism could be dished out to Boyne here, in Ladder … , but Boyne makes it easy to trust him. In the heady atmosphere of reading fiction there is an element of suspension of disbelief, exactly in the same way as it works in the theatre; as readers we need to let ourselves be beguiled. One of the signs of bad writing is when the writer does not do this. Good writing will always set you up effortlessly to allow you to boldly go where you have never been before; where you accept what may be unacceptable, or unknown, in your own universe.

And with so many narrators the reader is rewarded when the narrator becomes Maurice himself, but … beware! … you almost start to like him!

You won’t forget Maurice Swift for a very long time, but don’t get him confused with Highsmith’s Ripley; it could be easily done.

You can read a Q&A with John Boyne about this new book here.

It was released in many countries, including Australia, in August, 2018.

You can buy the ebook here.

I am keen to read whatever Boyne has written, and will write. I need to make some room on my shelves.

A new short story …

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.

Kathy Bates Auntie Marge

 

 

I googled “scary aunt” and found this,

Scary Aunt Marge.

 

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.

How I write.

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.

The Attachment by Ailsa Piper and Tony Doherty

Ailsa & Fr. Tony pic
Writers Ailsa Piper and Monsignor Tony Doherty

With the slow demise of intimate snail mail it would seem that the numbers of epistolary books are dwindling, but here’s one to turn the tide; but, yes, not letters, emails.

Ailsa Piper is a ‘walker’, and some years ago she asked friends and their acquaintances if they had any sins they wanted her to ‘walk off’ on a planned pilgrimage along the centuries-old camino in western Spain to Santiago de Compostela. The response was overwhelming and far from the lightheartedness in which the offer was made: she was sent some very serious sins. The walk inspired a book, Sinning Across Spain (2012), now in it’s second printing. It was this book that Monsignor Tony Doherty read and so engaged was he that he emailed the author, a woman he had never met; and so began an extraordinary correspondence that eventually turned into a book: this book, The Attachment.

It’s impossible to say there is no narrative since there is a timeline, or, at least, a sense of time passing: Tony writes, Ailsa replies, Tony replies and asks a question, Ailsa answers and asks one back … a conversation. However, there are pieces written by each of them addressed to the reader, not to each other, which I was very glad about. It saves the work from that tricky sense of rude intrusion that unattractively hangs around a book of letters, like the lingering stench of too much information never intended to be shared. I don’t usually read other people’s letters for this reason.

Ailsa is an agnostic writer, director, walker and performer originally from the red-dry wilds of north-western Western Australia, although, during the writing of this book, from Melbourne; Tony Doherty, an urbanite, has been a parish priest in Sydney for over fifty years. They met well after their conversation began. Initially it must’ve been an admiring reader to an inspiring writer but it soon developed into a friendship that coloured topics like birth, death, child abuse, grace, forgiveness, god, family, belief, siblings, friendship, politics, nature, silence, celibacy, walking, creativity, professional calling, poetry, marriage, language, food, and words.

I once heard of, to my dismay, an Australian fiction writer and teacher who told her writing students to avoid dialogue. I hope I never meet her, but if I do I would simply urge her to read this book, if only as a strong argument for the revelatory and character defining use of dialogue. I should confess here that I know Ailsa but I have not met Tony, although I have recently found there is a close connection; how many degrees of separation are there these days? I had a few thoughts on Ailsa confirmed and a few debunked, but the voice is unmistakably hers, which gives me confidence that the sense I have of Tony is fundamentally correct.

It’s a quick read. Despite its size, the large font, thick paper, and wide spacing make it so – I’d love to talk to a publisher one day about these decisions – although the need to read the next reply, usually short and to the point, is strong enough to add page-turning to its excellent credentials.

Its other strong point is the encouragement, by an annoying urge, to join in the conversation of particular topics, like family, with points, anecdotes, arguments, and examples of my own. Tony comes from quite a well defined family; Ailsa from a messy one, of divorces, other marriages, more siblings, that has morphed into a loving and noisy tribe; mine was neither of these – what two families are alike? – and I was keen to add, “Yes, but…” and “No, I don’t agree because…”.

What this book will ultimately do to you is force you to find your own Ailsa, your own Tony, and tease out what you think and feel about important things that only a duo-logue of dark scratchings on a pale background can ultimately get satisfactorily right.

You can buy both books, Sinning Across Spain and The Attachment, including the audio versions, here.

The World Broke in Two by Bill Goldstein

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American academic, Bill Goldstein is the founding editor of the books site of The New York Times on the Web, reviews books and interviews authors for NBC’s “Weekend Today in New York.” He is also curator of public programs at Roosevelt House, the public policy institute of New York’s Hunter College.

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.

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Adeline Virginia Woolf 1882 – 1941

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!

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Edward Morgan Forster 1879 – 1970

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.

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Thomas Stearns Eliot 1888 – 1965

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.

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David Herbert Lawrence 1885 – 1930

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.

Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano

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Jean Patrick Modiano, known as Patrick Modiano, is a French novelist.

I had never heard of Patrick Modiano until he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2014. He is French of Italian descent and not only does he mine his own life for inspiration – usually to do with WWII and the city of Paris, he was born the year the war ended – but his focus is on the reliability, or not, of memory, which is not the same as one’s personal history, or memoir.

Reading Modiano is like walking through a maze: each chapter creates an expectation, but when you turn the corner, it is more of the same, another expectation; and when you get to the end, the centre of the maze, you realise that it’s not the end, just another beginning.

What is this book about? It’s about memory and its fickleness. A writer once said, “Memory is like an oven: you put something in, close the door, wait a while, open the door, and there it is, something else.”

There are three novellas in this short volume, Afterimage, Suspended Sentences, and Flowers of Ruin.

The narrator of the first, Afterimage, almost like the writer, is like someone remembering anecdotes that will eventually lead to a point, but one anecdote only leads to another. The veracity of these episodes is given weight by detail: the colour of a hat, the bullet holes in a wall, a list – Modiano loves lists – a footnote containing a minor thought or an address, the sound of leaves in a breeze. And all to do with the narrator’s memory of Francis Jensen, an enigmatic man who the narrator remembers over a period of 20 years.

The first sentence:

I met Francis Jansen when I was nineteen, in the spring of 1964, and today I want to relate the little I know of him;

which starts comfortably enough, but there is a wobble of uncertainty by the end of it: a book usually tends to contain a lot of information a writer knows about a person, not a ‘little’.

By the end of this short story – only 55 pages – you feel as if the short chapters – some very short – could be in any order. There is no obvious narrative ark. Francis Jansen is ‘revealed’ hazily through what the narrator remembers and the people, friends, lovers, and photographs the narrator discovers and the interplay he remembers having with them, which may have happened, or not. It reads like autobiography, and maybe it is, maybe it is not. This is fiction after all.

Mark Polizzotti, the translator, says “Modiano’s narrators seem fatally drawn to individuals who are uncommonly vague about themselves and their situation” and Modiano himself confirms this, “the more obscure and mysterious things remained, the more interested I became in them. I even looked for mystery where there was none.”

Read his biography in his own words here. In true Modiano-fashion he leaves out a lot of information, creating his own mysteries. He doesn’t say, for example, that the interesting reason that he spent his childhood with his grandparents was that his father was deported during the war and his mother was a touring actor.

The second, and title story, has a narrator of 10 years old: Patoche (a diminutive of Patrick), but here the prose is remembered by the adult Patoche who tries to remember and understand the adult world around the boy, and true to Modiano’s love of mystery there is one here. However, what does a 10-year-old boy know of the world of adults. Why are there policemen scouring his home one day when he gets home from school? And where are all the adults. No spoilers here.

“With each new book, Modiano has refined his memorial mode. He is perhaps the most repetitive novelist in world literature: he uses the novel as a serial form, like a screen print,” wrote Adam Thirlwell in The Guardian.

The third, Flowers of Ruin, is the narrator’s shadowy attempt to solve a double suicide and to uncover the history of an acquaintance: Phillipe de Pacheco, commonly known as simply ‘Pachero’; or his name could’ve been Phillipe de Bellune with a tarnished shadow of nobility.

I sat at a sidewalk table of one of the café’s facing the Charlety stadium. I constructed all the hypotheses concerning Phillippe de Pacheco, whose face I didn’t even know. I took notes. Without fully realising it I began writing my first book. It was neither a vocation nor a particular gift that pushed me to write, but quite simply the enigma posed by the man I had no chance of finding again, and by all those questions that would never have an answer.

Behind me, the jukebox was playing an Italian song. The stench of burned tires filled the air. A girl was walking under the leaves of the trees along Boulevard Jourdan. Her blond bangs, cheekbones, and green dress were the only note of freshness on that early August afternoon. Why bother chasing ghosts and trying to solve insoluble mysteries, when life was there, in all its simplicity, beneath the sun?

This sounds like the ending, doesn’t it? But it isn’t; there’s 33 more pages to go!

Like Virginia Woolf, and other modernists, and post modernists, the pleasure is in the action of reading them, not in following a story or remembering it later. Memory has not been explored like this since that other French writer, Marcel Proust (1871-1922). Modiano’s works are short; read one, and tell me what you think.

You can purchase this book in various formats here.

 

Don’t be Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Virginia Woolf, 1902

Virginia Woolf, 1902

In London on 7 February 1910 a telegram was received from Sir Charles Hardinge, the Permanent Under-Secretary of Foreign Affairs, by the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet and the captain of the H.M.S. Dreadnought, the flagship of the British navy, then lying off Portland, Dorset. It informed him that Prince Makalin of Abyssinia and his party were arriving in the afternoon and were to receive every attention. When they arrived by private train carriage they were received with an honour guard and taken ceremoniously on board. The chatter of the dusky-skinned entourage was completely unintelligible although one of the party, Prince Mendax, wearing a sky-blue silk robe, beard, jewels and a turban, constantly murmured “Bunga bunga” which their interpreter explained was Abyssinian for “Isn’t it lovely?” They refused all refreshments which the interpreter again explained was due to their religious beliefs as they could not be served food or drink with the naked hand. Gloves were not available.

A few days later the officers and crew of the Dreadnought were amazed and dismayed to learn, via the Daily Mirror, that it was all a monumental practical joke and the Royal navy was pilloried and laughed at for weeks in the national press and at every dinner table in the land. It has become known as the Dreadnought Hoax and was reported all over the world.

One of the hoaxers, Prince “Bunga Bunga” Mendex, was, in reality, a young girl who was quoted as saying “I found I could laugh like a man easily enough but it was difficult to disguise the speaking voice. As a matter of fact the only really trying time I had was when I had to shake hands with my first cousin, who is an officer on the Dreadnought, and who saluted me as I went on deck. I thought I should burst out laughing, but, happily I managed to preserve my Oriental stolidity of countenance.”

This young lady was the 28 year old Miss Adeline Stephen, who two years later married and became Mrs Woolf. We know her better as Virginia.

The Dreadnought hoaxers. Virginia Woolf far left. 1910

The Dreadnought hoaxers, 1910. Virginia Woolf, far left.

Apart from being a practical joker, Virginia Woolf was a very beautiful woman. This is certainly not how we think of her today but all the people who wrote about her, and there were many, used adjectives, especially those that knew her well, like, beautiful, mischievous, intelligent, talkative, and inquisitive. She would say things like, “You said you went for a walk, but what made you go for a walk?” When out walking herself with a friend she would see a farmer tossing hay and say, “Look at that farmer pitching hay. What do you think he had for breakfast?” It was this inquisitiveness that made her attend to everything you said to her; and attend with real interest. When you talked to Virginia you always felt that you were intently listened to, and, once literary fame came into the picture, you didn’t even mind that she was mining you for information, words and reasons for human behaviour; in fact, you were flattered that such a famous and beautiful woman was hanging on your every word; gazing into your eyes and eagerly waiting for your next pronouncement. Of course under such scrutiny, if you simply said ‘I don’t know’ you could be sure that she would lose interest immediately and seek someone else’s company. She had a habit of forcing you to search your brain for the right words, because nothing less than the right words were always expected.

She was tall, with a thin face, slender hands and always wore shapeless clothes of indeterminate colours: fashion was of no concern to her.

She was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in 1882 but almost immediately was called Virginia despite the confusion of initials with her elder sister, Vanessa. She came from a good family of landowners and was well but home educated. She was the third child of her father’s second wife and an incident with her half-brother, George Duckworth, was to have a profound effect on her.

“I still shiver with shame,” she wrote many years after the incident, “at the memory of my half brother standing me on a ledge, aged about six or so, exploring my private parts.” Then, many years later, when her father lay dying from cancer three floors below, George would fling himself on her bed, kissing and hugging her, aged in her early 20s, “to console her”, he later said. Quentin Bell, her biographer and nephew, would write, “in sexual matters she was from this time terrified back into a posture of frozen and defensive panic.”  She briefly considered accepting Lytton Strachey’s proposal of marriage knowing that he was homosexual so she thought a simple brother-sister sort of marriage may be preferable to one that included the ‘horror of sex’. She wanted to be married, since being a spinster was considered a failure and finally accepted the proposal of Leonard Woolf and they were married on August 10 1912 after an engagement that, her sister wrote, was “an exhausting and bewildering thing even to the bystanders.” Virginia said to him “I feel no physical attraction to you, … and yet your caring for me as you do almost overwhelms me. It is so real and so strange.” They were planning a honeymoon in Iceland (how metaphoric) but settled for a Mediterranean one instead. Michael Holroyd wrote,

“There seemed some unfathomable inhibition that made male last, even when compounded with love, if not horrific, quite incomprehensible to her. The physical act of intercourse was not even funny: it was cold. Leonard regretfully accepted the facts and soon brought the word in line with the deed by persuading her that they should not have children. It was a sensible decision for, though she could never contemplate her sister’s fruitfulness without envy, children with their wetness and noise would surely have killed off the novels in her: and it was novel-writing that she cared for most.”

Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, The Hours, 2002

Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in The Hours, 2002.

In 2002 the film The Hours was released with much fanfare and a stellar cast. It was written by David Hare and based on the Michael Cunningham Pulitzer Prize winning book of the same name, which in turn used Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway (1925) as the core of the film about, not only Virginia Woolf and the writing of the book, but also its effect on two women. one in the 1950s and one in the 1980s. Readers can find Mrs Dalloway curious, annoying and tedious but when you read you must not let the words wash over you as one lets light from a fire without looking into the flames; into the beauty at its core.

Her novel of 1928, Orlando, is dedicated to Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s friend, neighbour and sometime lover and tells the story, over a period of 300 years, of the romantic adventures of a man called Orlando, who suddenly, miraculously, half way through the book becomes a woman. This is revealed in the film version, starring Tilda Swinton, as Orlando with his long, straight, reddish blond hair gazes at himself standing naked in front of a full length mirror and seeing the reflection of a long, straight, reddish blond haired naked woman staring back saying, “Same person, different body.”

Vita Sackville West

Vita Sackville-West, the inspiration for Orlando (1928).

Virginia confessed her affair with Vita to her sister Vanessa and in a letter to Vita describes the moment.
“I told Nessa the story of our passion in a chemist’s shop the other day. ‘But do you really like going to bed with women’ she said – taking her change. ‘And how’d you do it?’ and so she bought her pills to take abroad, talking as loud as a parrot.”

Uncharacteristically a lot happens in Orlando but it’s not plot that interests Virginia Woolf ( “facts are a very inferior form of fiction”) but the feelings, nuanced emotions that precede the action, or arise because of it; she was more interested in, not the ‘What’, but the ‘Why’, and, more importantly, how one                                                would describe that ‘Why’.

Leonard and Virginnia Woolf photographed by Vita Sackville-West, 1926

Leonard and Virginia Woolf photographed by Vita Sackville-West.

Nowhere is this more evident than in her novel (most call it her masterpiece) To the Lighthouse (1927). The very title is full of expectation and when the possibility is revealed to little six year old James he is transfixed, incapacitated with the joy of it. This is the opening, including the title which is really part of the first sentence.

“To the Lighthouse
“Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” said Mrs Ramsay. “But you’ll have to be up with the lark,” she added.
To her son these words conveyed an extraordinary joy, as if it were settled, the expedition were bound to take place, and the wonder to which he had looked forward, for years and years it seemed, was, after a night’s darkness and a day’s sail, within touch. Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallise and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator, as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss. It was fringed with joy.”

And what is illustrative, most of all, of her genius, and her deep and all-consuming curiosity of human intention and behaviour, and her determination to create art, is that by the last page the lighthouse itself disappears into a mist and we, the readers, along with the remaining onlookers in the house, can only assume that they have arrived.

Leonardo de Vinci fought tooth and nail to acquire a particular block of marble, also much coveted by, his rival, Michelangelo because he knew that inside there was a statue of David and all he had to do was chip away the extraneous rock to reveal the body within. If Virginia Woolf were present it would be the act of chipping the marble and the chips of marble lying on the floor that would attract her interest and not the finished, polished figure.

Janet Vaughan (a medical scientist and friend) had this to say about Virginia Woolf and ‘genius’.
“Well, it’s a sixth sense. It’s somebody who jumps a gap which other people would need a very, very solid bridge to walk across. She didn’t do it as a scientist might, she did it by interpreting what she saw and what people might be thinking and how they interacted with one another. But she had this quality of jumping gaps.”

And similarly Vita Sackville-West describes it thus: “I always thought her genius led her by short cuts to some essential point which everybody else had missed. She did not walk there: she sprang.”

But it’s the adjectives ‘mischievous, witty, warm and humorous’ that are most intriguing. She loved to tease and teased most those she was most fond of; and those teased seemed to love it and certainly were not offended by it since the teasing was done with such warmth.

In the early 20s Virginia Woolf used the name of writer Berta Ruck (albeit mis-spelt) on a minor character, and a subsequent tombstone, in her novel Jacob’s Room (1920). Angus Davidson, friend, literary critic, and manager for a time of their publishing house, The Hogarth Press, said this was done unwittingly. This is hard to believe as the name Berta Ruck is quite distinctive and her name and the names of her novels were emblazoned on the tops of London buses. However Ms Ruck was a writer of a very different genre than Virginia’s. She wrote romantic stories and almost seventy novels (Khaki and KissesLove on Second Thoughts, etc) where beautiful young women were treated dismissively by fathers, brothers and men in general but who fell in love with one of them and lived happily ever after. One can imagine Virginia Woolf thinking this scenario extremely unlikely and with a name like Berta Ruck, and the married name of Mrs Onions, perfectly ripe for mischief. Ms Ruck, however, did not see the humour in the incident and with urgings from her indignant husband, wrote to Woolf in sorrow and indignation threatening legal action. Virginia wrote back rather sarcastically, “I am more pleased than I can say that you survived my burial. Never will I attempt such a thing again. To think that you have bought my book.” It took Ms Ruck eight years to discover the slight so Woolf could hardly have taken her seriously. However they ‘made up’ via correspondence and almost a year later Ms Ruck got her own back by becoming the success at a party, attended by Virginia, by singing a very risqué song, “Never Allow a Sailor an Inch Above Your Knee.” Virginia was reported as being “filled with amazement and delight.” All animosity was forgiven.

Unfortunately, the memory of her is clouded by her diaries which record her mental suffering and her depression even though her husband, and editor, went to great pains to explain; “…diaries give a distorted and one-sided view of the writer, because, as Virginia Woolf herself remarks, one gets into the habit of recording one particular kind of mood – irritation or misery say – and of not writing one’s diary when one is feeling the opposite. The portrait in therefore from the start unbalanced.”

Her bouts of illness sprung from the effort of writing, and in particular the exhaustion from finishing a particular work. Her headaches would begin and if left unchecked, she would lose coherence of speech, and her brain would race with images and noises (birds crying out in Greek) and delusions (King Edward VII, among the azaleas, swearing in the most foulest language). Complete rest and quiet would eventually restore her normal life but her recovery would be ridden with doubt and worry about the worth of her just-completed work. Praise and encouragement were oxygen to her.  So eventually with Leonard’s care and concern, her own courage, immense courage, she would roll up her sleeves and begin to write again, knowing that creation was hard, completion fearful, and a bout of madness inevitable.

Portrait of Virginia Woolf, 1939 by Gisele Freund.

Portrait of Virginia Woolf, 1939, by Gisele Freund, two years before her death.

And then this: her final piece of writing; a short letter to her husband, written on the day she died.

Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that — everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.

She then put on a hat, a coat, grabbed a walking stick and headed to the river. There she put down her stick, took off her hat, put rocks in her pockets and disappeared into the water. When Leonard found the letter, he, along with the house keeper, Mrs Meyer, searched the house, the grounds, and the surrounding countryside and when they found her stick and hat assumed the worst. Three weeks later her gruesome body was found by children as it bumped against the bank of the river many miles downstream. She was 59.

Remember Virginia Woolf as a beautiful and intelligent woman, a prankster, a great and innovative writer, the creator of the outrageous Orlando, and the cheeky biographer of Flush, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s little cocker spaniel; she was a curious and inquisitive human being, a tease, a lover, and a writer who launched modernism on the literary world. And remember that when her little nephews, nieces, and their friends were preparing for a party who was number one on their invitation list?

“V-i-r-g-i-n-i-a!” they would shriek with delight, because Aunt Virginia always made them laugh. Virginia Woolf, 1927

 

 

Virginia Woolf, 1927, aged 45, the year To the Lighthouse was published.