A second visit to the Cheltenham Booker debate

It seems like the Cheltenham Literary festival has some special deal with someone when it comes to weather.  Once again, the event was bathed in such warm sunlight that I wondered if I shouldn’t be calling in to the Lido.

I was there for a fantasy event: if there had been a Booker award in 1945, which book might have won it.  The festival invited a panel of five writers to debate this in public, each author being set to champion one of the titles.  The line up was:

  • AS Byatt for Elizabeth Taylor’s  At Mrs Lippencote’s
  • Rafaella Barker for  Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I sat down and Wept,
  • Akalla for George Orwell’s Animal Farm
  • Rachel Johnson for Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love
  • Alexei Sayle for Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

chelt-booker-2016I thought that this year the choice was trickier than the one I watched last year, when two of the contenders had seemed rank outsiders.  Or perhaps, because then I’d gone along anticipating The Good Soldier was the only possible winner, I had more of a commitment to the debate.

This year, I had not done all of my homework.  A couple of weeks ago I finally got round to reading Brideshead Revisited, but there were two on the list that I hadn’t read, or tracked down as second hand copies.

I know, I should have gone out and bought them new.  The Taylor, at any rate, would have been a useful addition to the shelf I’m gradually giving over to her writings.  But the last few weeks have been busy, and I kept putting that trip to town off.  So I read the little that was available free of each of them on-line and had my preconceptions confirmed.

Taylor’s opening intrigued, and drew me in…

‘Did the old man die here?  What do you think?’ Julia asked, as her husband began to come up stairs.

‘Old man?  What old man?’

She stood on the shadowy landing with its six white doors.

‘What old man,’ asked Roddy once more, coming up and putting his arm along her shoulders.

‘The husband.  Mr Lippincote.  Oh how I wish we needn’t live in other people’s houses.’

‘What if he did?’

Yes, what indeed?  The dead cannot communicate with the living, or do harm to them.

If there had been more available than the tantalising first ten pages I would have read on.  Note to self: must put this on my Christmas list.

Note 2: no ditto on Elizabeth Smart’s novel.

It’s taken me a long time to reach the point where I know when to give up on a book, and this one will go on that fairly short list.  Even the rather passionate advocacy of Rafaella Barker could not move me to go back and read more of this:

I am standing on a corner in Monterey, waiting for the bus to come in, and all the muscles of my will are holding my terror to face the moment I most desire.  Apprehension and the summer afternoon keep drying my lips, prepared at ten-minute intervals all through the five hour wait.

On stage, there was some debate about the merits of poetic prose, but the agreement of the whole panel seemed to be that the novel has no narrative line.

I had it in mind that this one should be the first to fall, and it was offered up for the first round of votes, along with Mrs Lippincote’s, but it was Taylor’s novel that went out at the first round, while Elizabeth Smart’s made it through to the last.  Two days later and I’m still not clear how this could have happened.

I hadn’t enjoyed Brideshead Revisited, it seemed lacking in heart.  But, if I had to choose between Smart’s description of a love affair or Waugh’s, I’d opt for the latter, despite its slow start, and off-key ending.  Not so the panel, who dropped him.

As they did,  The Pursuit of Love.  Well, it’s a nice book, a funny book, but I would have been surprised to see it win.  So, the last two books standing were Animal Farm and By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. 

Interestingly, these were the books whose advocates had given the most passionate opening arguments, and perhaps that’s why the rest of the panel fell away.  All had offered literary accounts of their chosen novels, but the first three had lacked the engagement with their texts that Akalla had for Animal Farm, or Rafaella Barker for By Grand Central Station…

It was obvious that their books had touched them.  They did not just admire the writing, they loved it.  And for that reason, I’m thinking that though Smart’s novel did not, in the end win, I ought to give it a second chance, and read it through to the end.

After all, I could borrow it from the library, I don’t have to put it on a Christmas list.

The Oxford Book of English Short Stories

I’m sitting at the front of the class, with my notes and my presentation, throwing out leading questions on the two short stories we’ve read for our homework.  Sounds like school, but this is adult education.  We’re in the church hall, on a sunny Autumn morning, by choice.

DSCF8020My paperback copy of The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, edited by Antonia Byatt, is battered, but still holding together.  It’s a working copy, with a continually shifting fringe of post-its.  The terse notes on them have, here and there, strayed onto the pages.  You’ll have gathered that, as an object, this book is no longer a thing of beauty.

As a source book for a reading group though, this anthology is a joy.  The stories provide a taste of how short story ideas changed during the twentieth century, and they’re a challenge.

Half of my class, at least, are not sure about either of the two stories I set them to read for this discussion.  ‘He didn’t keep to the point,’ says Jean.  Several of the group nod, and Geoff adds that he’s not sure what’s going on with the ending.

You might wonder why people would choose to read stories that they don’t ‘get’: some kind of torture, perhaps?

Well, it is a stretching exercise, but I hope that’s for pleasure rather than feeling they’re on a rack.

The reason for choosing this anthology is that it contains a wide range of carefully constructed stories, each open to more than one interpretation.  Readers have to be active.  I like to think of us as detectives, gathering clues.

We’re never sure where any story will take us.   There are twists in tone and plot, and tricks in the language to be watched for.  We look for patterns. One person’s interpretation of what those clues mean is as valid as any other.  What happens in a reading group is that we sift through as many ideas as we can so that each of us can take away ideas that suit us.

The amazing thing is, although I’ve read the whole collection several times now, when I go back to them, they’re never quite the way I remember them.  Then I take them to a new group, and they always provide me with something I haven’t thought of.

Where do these understandings come from?  Our lives and experiences are reflected in our readings as well as our writings.

Isn’t that magical?  Imagine creating something able to achieve that kind of connection.    It’s no wonder my classes set my mind buzzing, and that I leave them feeling that I’ve come closer to discovering some of the secrets of story.

 

Some thoughts on why writers should read fairy stories

This week I’ve been reading The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, by A.S. Byatt.  It’s both the name of a collection of five fairy stories published in 1995, and the title of the last story in that collection.  I could discuss the whole book.  There’s a lot going on between these pages, but in the interests of brevity, I’ve decided to focus on the title story.

the-djinn-in-the-nightingales-eye-2To be picky, this one is probably closer to being a novella than a short story, though since the definitions for either of these modes of writing seem to be flexible who am I to quibble?  Besides, for writers who don’t have to confine themselves to competition or submission guidelines, I suppose the whole classification by word-count thing is irrelevant.

What matters is quality.  Well, in my humble and only slightly biased (slight being an entirely subjective unit of measurement of course) opinion, each story in this collection is a gem.

The Djinn in The Nightingale’s Eye begins with a traditional fairy-story phrase, and then goes on to list the usual trappings: the dreams that initiate quests, the magical attributes that enable the protagonist to overcome hurdles, and the amazing wonders that materialize along their way.

Once upon a time, when men and women hurtled through the air on metal wings, when they wore webbed feet and walked on the bottom of the sea, learning the speech of whales and the songs of the dolphins, when pearly-fleshed and jeweled apparitions of Texan herdsmen and houris shimmered in the dusk on Nicaraguan hillsides, when folk in Norway and Tasmania in dead of winter could dream of fresh strawberries, dates, guavas and passion fruits and find them spread next morning on their tables, there was a woman who was largely irrelevant, and therefore happy.

Think about it, that ‘Once upon a time.’  It’s ageless, isn’t it?  It is the start of a thousand and more tales that trace their lines back beyond the moment of writing to firesides and gatherings all around the world.  It’s the link between what got fixed onto pages and the shifting, adapting tales of the traditional bards and storytellers they came from.

Byatt’s narrator first removes our sense of time, and then re-places us, making our view of today slightly aslant.  That repeated ‘when’ keeps us aware we are in the past tense, but her choice of images belongs to the near past.  Airplanes and scuba diving, the study of marine-life, of the variety of our modern diet, these are things we often take for granted.

How does the fairy-story fit into the modern world?  Byatt gives us a protagonist whose ‘business was storytelling.’  She’s an academic, a narratologist:

…whose days were spent hunched in great libraries scrying, interpreting, decoding the fairy-tales of childhood and the vodka-posters of the grown-up world, the unending romances of golden coffee-drinkers, and the impeded couplings of doctors and nurses, dukes and poor maidens, horsewomen and musicians.

If you’ve wondered who reads fairy-tales today, Byatt’s just told us.  We most of us do, either through the media or in the pages of our novels.  The stories get updated, twisted a little, and that’s good, isn’t it?  It makes me feel that writers are still connected to the oral tradition, moulding their material to suit the audience.

This is not just a story about reading, it’s a story about telling.  Who tells, how they tell, and what they tell are all included.  If you’re someone who believes that fairy-stories are for children, this story might make you investigate further.  It is an adult tale, both in form and content, and that’s as much as I’m willing to tell you.

If you’re someone who already enjoys a good tale, and you haven’t stumbled upon this one, then why not set yourself the task of reading it?

If you should be a writer in search of a story, this one might make you look back to some of your childhood favourites for inspiration.

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