Beyond Words.

My reading group and I have just been discussing  ‘An Indiscreet Journey’ by Katherine Mansfield.  It’s a bright, breezily narrated tale describing the journey a young woman makes across France to visit her lover, just behind the front-line.

WWI postcardLike so much of Mansfield’s fiction, the story is a pen-portrait of an actual event, and in this case, written soon after the visit took place, in 1915.  But why should we need to know that?  A story, surely, stands alone.  That the word world created should convince, as well as engage us, whether it is contemporarily familiar, or set in an environment distanced by space or time, isn’t that the real test?

This one passed.  We agreed unanimously.  We don’t always agree, of course.  I wouldn’t expect us too.  In this case though, there seemed to be something in the writing for every taste.  Comic character studies, poetic descriptions and a clever digression from the apparent plot all combined to provide a comprehensive entertainment and some enjoyable discussion.

Several of the group had not come across Mansfield before, and so we discussed a little of her background – mostly the more sensational aspects, of course.  Pooling our knowledge on the author and the era, brought me back to the text.

In it, there is a description of an old woman reading a letter from her soldier son, the first one she’d received in months.  When I was putting my ideas together at home, I had spent some time wondering about it.  The only detail Mansfield gives us out of the letter is a request for string and handkerchiefs.  What could it mean?  I came up with two possibilities, neither strong, but there seemed nothing more to go on.  There was so much more to investigate in the text that I moved on.

It was at the class, while we were discussing the soldier with weeping eyes, from later in the story, that the solution came.  Mansfield never directly states it, but we concluded that this soldier has been caught in a gas attack. When she was writing this story, Mansfield was staying at a flat in Paris, near to a hospital treating injured soldiers, many of whom had been caught in gas attacks.

When chemical weapons were first deployed, the armies were not prepared, and soldiers improvised gas masks with pads of urine soaked linen. ‘Yes,’ said one of the group, ‘they tied string to each corner of the material and looped it around their ears.’

For me, it was a eureka moment.  I saw beyond the words, to the implications of the way the mother reads her letter:

‘Slowly, slowly she sipped a sentence, and then looked up and out of the window, her lips trembling a little, and then another sentence, and again the old face turned to the light, tasting it…’

The story opened out again, as if Mansfield’s words were only a window onto a much bigger and more complex view of the war.  How terrible a letter it must have been for a mother to receive, and how discreetly Mansfield has conveyed this contrast between our narrator and the landscape she travels through.

I think I’ve mentioned before, that I don’t think of Mansfield as an easy read.  In some ways, this is one of her more accessible pieces.  The narrator’s journey provides structure.  The cameo portraits flesh it out and provide colour, and we could skip past the references that don’t have apparent meaning.  This was, after all, written ninety-eight years ago. On some level, isn’t story always a piece of social history, directly or indirectly, that we can choose to explore or ignore?

I think yes, and certainly not every story is worth digging into.  But to spend a little time on this one is to see what was happening in the wider world at that moment.  Once I started to find the patterns, even the title, An Indiscreet Journey began to acquire additional implications.

WWI postcardSo if you’re looking for a story to re-read, pick this one.  If you’re looking for a story to read with a reading group, ditto.  If any story can demonstrate the merits of what a reading group achieves, this is it.  As we head for the hundred year anniversary of the start of The Great War, there is certain to be a lot of re-discovery going on with literature.  Here’s a suggestion for an early start you might make.

Hitting a Deadline

I got the phoned request at 6 o’clock on the evening in question, just as I was halfway through chopping an onion.

‘Our speaker’s cancelled, could you fill in?’DSCF4762

I hesitated. ‘When?’

‘The meeting starts at seven-thirty, but you don’t need to turn up until eight.’

‘You mean tonight?’

She did. ‘If you can just fill in forty minutes,’ she said. ‘Then stay for refreshments afterwards, tea and cakes, and mingle.’  It sounded so simple put like that.  Well, I thought, at least I can postpone cooking until tomorrow.

I pulled out all my old course-files, wondering what might appeal to a gathering of women expecting to hear a talk about cooking-on-a-budget.  Nothing, I quickly realised, to do with cooking: nothing too specific, and nothing too technical.  It’s lucky, really that like a lot of other writers, I’m a ‘deadline-hitter’.

Natural inspiration is one thing: that generates its own momentum.  But not all of my writing is spontaneous.  Set me a task with space to think, and all too often I dither, wallowing around in my ideas.  Tell me I have a limited amount of time to complete something and suddenly I’m in gear.

It’s taken me a long time to develop strategies for dealing with this, and they’re not perfect, but I’m going to share one that I find effective.  Hopefully, you might then pass on one or some of yours in return.

I list my deadlines in my diary.  And yes, the plural’s for real, I usually like to have three or four deadlines on-the-go at any one time, just to confuse matters.  But, and here’s the sneaky bit, I write them in as at least four days earlier than their actual cut-off.  I know, it sounds ridiculous to suggest I might fall for that, but somehow, I do. (I also keep the clock in my car, and the one in the bathroom five minutes fast, and that works too.)

We might assume I’m incredibly gullible, but I’m going to offer an explanation in my defence, because the trick depends on the, ‘at least’, part of the sentence.  The four days are never a constant.  I have, in the past, dropped them right down to two days, as well as upping them to seven. This means that unless I double-check with the original task I’m obliged to stick to the imposed deadline, and on that, I am surprisingly disciplined.

Oh, in case you’re wondering, my talk went down as well as their homemade cream cakes and sandwiches, which were very tasty, thank you.

Trade Report Only.

Trade Report Only, that’s the title of a cracking little story that I’m looking forward to sharing with the reading group later on today.  I’d never come across C.E. Montague until I opened up the Penguin Book of First World War Stories.  That’s not so surprising, since it seems that he’s primarily remembered for his autobiography, Disenchantment.  I won’t need to repeat the reviews on that, since apparently the title sums it up neatly, and you can easily find summaries of it on the internet.

However, on the grounds of the short story I’ve just read, I may have to add Montague to my list of authors to look out for.  I’m not going to sum up the story plot here.  That would definately be a spoiler, and I’m hoping you might decide to get hold of a copy of this to read for yourself.

Trees in the Fog,by Yann Richard, on

Trees in the Fog,
by Yann Richard, on

Why?  Well first, because as we head for the centenary of the outbreak of the war, why not try a prose account of it as well as, or even instead of, the more usual poetry.  But secondly, there are lots of literary reasons to look at this particular one, too.

It’s a first person narrative that was originally published in 1923.  Our narrator, the sergeant of a mining unit who have been posted to an orchard at the edges of the battle (no, this is not a story of the trenches) is an educated man, he is both sympathetic and poetic. Atmosphere, imagery, symbolism and classical and biblical allusions all come into play.

It begins:

No one has said what was wrong with The Garden, not even why it was called that name: whether because it had apples in it, and also a devil, like Eden…

Is it dated? Well, in the sense that the characters speak differently to the way we would today, yes.  Call me a purist if you like, but I prefer that.  I can never quite settle into historical fiction or faction where the characters have twenty-first century voices.  And in case you are wary of coloquial writing, don’t let that put you off, the dialogue, like the prose, is concise and  to the point, and is used sparingly.

‘Gawd a’mighty!’ Looker shrilled at the entry of Toomey, ‘if Fritz ain’t sold ‘im a pup!’

You can read this story for the plot, or like one of the war poems, you can reread and follow the treasure hunt. I promise you that’s well worth the effort.  I’m looking forward to discovering if the reading group share my enthusiasm.

If you never were in the line there before the smash came and made it like everywhere else, you could not know how it would work on the nerves…

Them bones,them bones, them…More Thoughts on Plots

To plan or not? That’s the story question that is asked most, and not just by writing groups.  Readers want to know how it’s done, too.

I’m thinking about it more lately, as I’m half-way through my crime-reading course.  If there’s one genre where the intricately worked details need to hang together, this is it.  The stories so far have been a mixed bag.  We haven’t all liked all of them, but there have been one or two, that to use the terms of their day, were ‘stinkers’.  Sorry editors, this reading group did not think your selection faultless.

Arthur mee encyclopedia, vol 3Which is not to say that all agreed in liking the other stories.  This is a group with varied literary tastes, and we’re still discussing the merits of classic-crime and hard-boiled in general.  I might get back to you on that later, meanwhile….

Some might assume that the older stories are the culprits.  They’d be wrong to generalise.  Dorothy Sayers 1932 story, The Man Who Knew How, is a cracker.  I’ve read it several times now, and love it.  As a reader, I don’t care how she put it together.  It’s an intricate and intriguing dark-read that I’ll be happy to go back to for pleasure or work.

As a writer, I’m in awe of her skill.  Sayers employed a host of literary tricks to provide a psychological crime story underpinned with observations about how crime fiction works, or doesn’t work, and managed to have fun playing around with ideas of coincidence.  (And no, I’ve no evidence for that statement, but I feel certain she had fun writing this one.)

I don’t know if DLS (as the members of The Dorothy L. Sayers society refer to her) wrote a plan.  No doubt I could find out.  But where does that get me?  I’m not DLS. You’re not either.  I could plot out the events of her story point by point, as she perhaps did, but in what way does that help?

Now don’t panic, I’m not advocating plagiarism here, but actually, that’s not such a bad idea, if you want to understand how something works.  I don’t suppose your GP has to look at bare bones very often, but I would hope he or she has a thorough understanding of the skeleton. I’m guessing they did quite a lot of dissection along the way – I know they used to.  Take it apart, see how it works; know how it fits back together.

Who knows what you might see in the process?