Judging a book by its cover

I’ve just finished Barbara Pym’s novel, Quartet in Autumn.  I thought it would be useful to do some reading round a course that I’m going to be leading in October which will include another Barbara Pym book, Excellent Women.

b. pym novel coverFull marks for style and content to the author, five out of ten to the publisher who thought that the illustration by Pat Fogarty was suitable.  It’s a nice picture, but it inaccurately portrays the content of the novel.  True, it shows four middle-aged characters, and three of them do go into libraries at different points in the story, but never all four together.

Am I wrong to expect the cover to connect precisely with the content?  Obviously it doesn’t carry the same weight as a title created by the author, yet it does infect my reading.  Half-way through the novel I realised I was waiting for that scene.  The further I got into the story the less likely such a gathering place seemed.

It’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that the picture never does happen, and yet I gave it five out of ten.  That’s a high score for something I’ve just accused of misdirecting me.  Well, retrospectively, I see the value of the Fogarty cover over some of the others.

I’vebarbara pym novel been looking, and found some plain ones, and how about this patterned one?  Tasteful, I grant you, and it doesn’t in anyway impact on my plot expectations.

It reminds me of some wallpaper in my grandmother’s bedroom, and I can imagine picking up this novel to read.  Trust me, it says, to offer something domestic, elegant and tasteful.  Well, that’s true, up to a point.  But I like to be surprised  by a story, and this cover does not suggest the underlying darkness that Pym reveals.

barbara Pym

Then there’s this rather stylish, one.  Houses in the suburbs, and a distant church spire, are certainly part of the setting.  But why so much pink, and the clean straight lines? Perhaps the blank windows suggest that behind the order of the picture there are secrets…

It must be hard to design a cover to suit all readers.  It’s certainly tricky to come up with a perfect title.

And maybe I’m being too particular.  After all, what the Fogarty picture does get right, for me, is tone.  The four characters, formally dressed, carefully posed, set the period.  I like the distances between them, and the detail of their clothes.  They look real, and ordinary, and I want to know what they are talking about: what the painter is trying to tell me.  Add in the colours, especially that shimmering floor, and it does suggest, Quartet in Autumn.

Whatever my personal preferences are, each cover hooked me in a some way, and the diversity of those tones may well have tempted in readers who might never otherwise have picked up a Pym novel.

Imagine a row of us, sitting on the underground, each reading the same words, bound with contrasting covers.  I wonder what we look like?

 

 

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.

 

Fielding demonstrates how journeys can make a plot.

On Friday afternoon the reading group said goodbye to Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones.  The narrator has been a remarkably good host: fun, informative and welcoming. I’m feeling a little lost, a little disorientated, now that I’ve got both feet firmly planted in the present.

But I’ve learned a lot.  Putting aside the insights this novel has given about English History and life in the Eighteenth Century, Fielding’s management of cast and content was, to use a cliché, masterly.

For a reading group, there’s masses to think and talk about.  Writer’s might like to look at some of the techniques he employs.  I want to draw your attention to the way Tom’s journey provides structure.

brown_last_of_england- Ford Madox BrownRoad-stories are a tradition that can be traced back through literary history.  Think, The Odyssey, jump forward to  Don Quixote, and then further forward, Three men in a Boat, The Remains of the Day, or even more recently, The Hundred-Year-Old Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared.  And then there are the fantasy novels, just think about how many of those are based on journeys…

When characters have to move from one geographical location to another some of those important five Ws are instantly set in place:

  • Where from and to?
  • Why?
  • How?

Once you’ve set your character a reason for travelling, and a definite goal, you’ll need to figure out two more of those Ws: when & what will happen along the way?  The possibilities are endless.

And the great thing about journeys is that long or short fiction can put them to effective use.

IMG_0212

*Painting, The Last of England, by Ford Madox Brown

 

 

 

Prevarication, displacements and motivations.

This week, in an odd ten minutes when I went to my office to write, I began to tidy.  Yes, it was a displacement activity, but to be fair, my desk had disappeared beneath an avalanche of papers and books.

The papers had been dumped on my desk when we were expecting visitors earlier in the week, and I needed to clear them off the kitchen table.  What had started on Saturday as a couple of ideas about a lesson on the back of an envelope, had by Tuesday afternoon, multiplied into a phenomenal heap also containing grocery lists, outstanding jobs, appointment reminders, some junk-mail and a recipe book (so that was what I’d meant to do with those courgettes).

edward_collier still_lifeBecause time was short, and there were other aspects of tidying to be done, I weeded the recyclable portion of this heap straight into the recycle-bin, and put the rest on the only surface available in my tiny office, the desk.  In the next few days I added to that.  A couple of writing magazines arrived, then Nancy gave me four paperbacks she’d finished with and thought I might like, and there were several reference books I might need again.

So you must, mustn’t you, agree that the desk clearance was a necessity?  What’s not quite so certain is whether I can justify moving on to the collection of quotes pinned to the inside of my office door.

It’s true most of them are curling at the corners, but obviously that hasn’t bothered me…for years, judging by the way the paper had discoloured.  I twitched the nearest one down but instead of screwing it up, gave it a quick glance, and…

‘…and nobody could write about Danny the way I might if only I had the courage to fail.  Someone no doubt could write it all more perfectly, but no one can say what I have to say unless I say it myself.  It’s the doing that counts…’

Ann Netzke

…the reason I’d kept those words in the first place caught me squarely in mid-procrastination.  I’d stuck them at eye-level to my chair, and then looked above, below and to the side of them ever since.

I can’t remember who Ann Netzke is or was.  I’ve tried an internet search but only found a series of ancestry sites.  It doesn’t matter.  One of these days, now that I’ve remembered where to look, I’ll stumble across her, and think, aah, of course.

But if I don’t, her words are back on my door and this time, I’m keeping them in sight.

And, since I’ve cleared the top of my desk, I’ll need a different set of excuses for further procrastination.

 

*Illustration, Still Life, by Edward Collier 1699.

What is a writer?

This week, for a change in tone, I’m back to reading Graham Greene’s Ways of Escape, his collection of autobiographical essays that I was given at Christmas.  It was published in 1980.

In it, Greene begins by looking back to 1926, when he started to write the first of his novels that would get published.  If you’re wondering about the relevance of such a gap to our digital age, take a look at this extract from the first chapter.

What a long road it has been.  Half a century has passed since I wrote The Man Within, my first novel to find a publisher…Why has the opening line of that story stuck in my head when I have forgotten all the others I have written since?

Perhaps the reason I remember the scene so clearly is that for me it was the last throw of the dice in a game I had practically lost.  Two novels had been refused by every publisher I tried.  If this book failed too I was determined to abandon the stupid ambition of becoming a writer.  I would settle down to the safe and regular life of a sub-editor in Room 2 of The Times…It was a career as settled as the Civil Service…in the end there would be a pension and I would receive a clock with a plaque carrying my name.

Third time lucky then, or was it?  Persistence was required. This speaks of a strong drive to create.

Greene says that the very first novel he wrote, ‘…seemed to me at the time a piece of rich evocative writing…’  the second, I called…rather drably The Episode and that was all it proved to be.

He talks of his influences, of reading the great novelists and of studying the theory.  In Greene’s early years, Percy Lubbock’s 1921 literary criticism, The Craft of Fiction provided him with guidance.  This was the period before literary criticism took much interest in novels, so Lubbock’s investigation into ‘How [novels] are made’ was a key text for understanding writing techniques.

This has chimed with what I’ve been reading in the eighteenth century classic, Tom Jones, where Fielding explores ideas about what a novel is or should be.

I wish…that Homer could have known the rule prescribed by Horace, to introduce supernatural agents as seldom as possible.

This not only tells us about Fielding’s approach to writing, it reminds us that the idea of reflecting on writing goes back to ancient Greece.   Like artists in all of the other media, writers study not only their contemporaries, but also the works and thoughts of those who came before them.

I don’t know of a novel, story, play or poem that has no ancestors.  In my experience, the best reading is a result of the writer’s previous best readings.

There haven’t been many novelists who’ve discussed this so directly with the reader as Fielding does in the course of his fiction.  Generally the approach is similar to Greene’s, a separate collection of thoughts or essays about their writing.  The beauty of that is that it allows me to dip into a few paragraphs of non-fiction at a place of my choosing.  That may be while I’m midway through a chapter of a novel, or at the end of the whole.   You might say, that it allows me to make a buffet metaphor out of them…to fill my plate with a selection of ideas and apply different combinations of approach to my reading and my writing. IMG_0180

Well you have to allow a woman to make a small poetic flourish occasionally, haven’t you?

 

A fine sense of place: Henry Fielding.

With all this reading of classic novels and short stories I’ve been doing lately, I can’t help but be reminded how important literature is as source of social history.  I’m not just talking distant history, either.  It’s one thing to set out to write about the past, and consciously recreate a historical period, but I’ve been thinking about how sense of place works when we’re reading it in the future.

Illustration_from_Tom_Jones_LACMA_M_78_94_15

Illustration by Jan Punt 1750

For instance, Henry Fielding wrote Tom Jones, with the intention of making his contemporaries think…really think, about how their world worked, and how novels could be written.  How do I know this?  Each of the eighteen books begins with a chapter where Fielding sets us up for the coming events.

 

You could see these as being the equivalent of tv adverts: those fragments of scandal and adventure that tease us into tuning in for the next episode, or the new drama.  There is something of that happening in most of them.  However, their real purpose is to educate, to teach readers not to be passive consumers, but to think about the characters and their actions, to be judicious readers who will exercise judgement, for ,

…I am, in reality, the founder of a new province of writing, so I am at liberty to make what laws I please therein.

Here is a novel that broke established rules.  It skips over time, it reminds us continually that it is a work of fiction.  So many things we take for granted were fresh with this novel.

You can skip those first chapters.  Our narrator gives his permission at the end of his book-five essay.  He has, of course, first gone to a great deal of trouble to explain how drama and comedy need to be contrasted with their opposites, in order to gain their full comic or exciting aspect.  In fact if you’ve read to that point of the chapter, it’s to be hoped that you would disagree that these are ‘laboriously dull’, and ask yourself what Fielding is really suggesting when he says;

 ‘…I would have the reader to consider these initial essays.  And after this warning, if he shall be of opinion that he can find enough of serious in other parts of this history, he may pass over these…and begin the following books at the second chapter.’

Some do take his words at face value.  I have a rather attractive paperback on my shelf that came out with the 1963 Tony Richardson directed film starring Albert Finney and Susannah York in the lead roles, that has none of the essays, despite Fielding’s warning.

As someone who aspires to the good esteem of the narrator, I opt for the essays.  Besides, for a true sense of place and time, I want the whole time-travel experience.   The language used, the rhythms and shapes of the speeches are as valuable to me as the insights into the way the characters interact, and the lives they are living.   To get that I need all of the voices, and our narrator is the best guide I could ask for, tricky, wise, wry and observant, he keeps me up on all the latest ideas.  I’m not just learning about the past, I’m thinking that some of the political preoccupations speak to the twenty-first century too.

 

 

 

 

The True story of Ethel & Ernest

In the process of building a bibliography for my Family History Writing Course I discovered this Raymond Briggs graphic novel.  What a find.Ethel and Ernest book cover

Beautifully drawn, gently humorous, it hooked me from the first picture.  Should I have said cartoon?  The story of Ethel and Ernest begins, as such a title should, with the meeting of the couple, on a Monday in 1928.

How about this for an opening?Ethel and Ernest page oneEthel and Ernest page 2

This story of a working-class couple covers most of the twentieth century.  Each frame concentrates on Ethel & Ernest, and shows us how one family faces and embraces change.

I like the way it keeps its focus, and includes social and political history as part of the plot.  For instance, in one of the 1930s domestic-evening frames, Ethel is doing the ironing as Ernest reads out from his paper: “It says ‘The average family needs £6 a week to keep it above the poverty line…”

Ethel says, “What’s the poverty line?”

“Dunno,’ says Ernest.  “I just wish I earned £6 a week.”

There is an elegant economy about the way Briggs tells his story that we prose writers can learn from.  It says no more than it needs to, and trusts us readers to fill in the rest.

Look again at those first two pages, and what you see is a young woman in a black dress, apron and cap dusting a table.  Her role is clear.  The house is implied by the richness of the curtains, and her feelings by the colour that comes and goes on her cheeks.  We can imagine the rest.  The young man is crouched over his handlebars, glances back, and waves his cap.  The street is no more than a shadowy outline of prosperity.  What matters is his wide grin and the cigarette clenched between his teeth.

 

The Milliner’s Tale

The last few weeks I’ve been alternating between two hats.  For my reading group, I’m wearing a morphing, anarchic design, that has me flying through The Once and Future King.

Steampunk_Hat_PNG_Clipart_PictureI’ve been enjoying the way White plays with history, rippling time so that events shift in and out of period, and juggles with our ideas about the characters who make up the Arthurian Legends.  I’m so comfortable with my head-gear that once donned, I forget I’m wearing it.

Like any extreme fashionista, I am a devoted follower of my latest mode.  So for a moment I’m taken aback when some of the group say that they find TH Ladies-Steampunk-Hats by tag hatsWhite’s use of anachronism distracting.

This gives us some interesting discussion on techniques for reading texts that challenge us, and sets me thinking about writing intentions.  The explanation White gave to his friend was:

I am trying to write of an imaginary world which was imagined in the 15th century. .. I state quite explicitly that we all know that Arthur, and not Edward, was on the throne in the latter half of the 15th century, at the beginning of my second vol. .. By that deliberate statement of an untruth I make it clear to any scholar who may read the book that I am writing, as I said before, of an imaginary world imagined in the 15th cent. .. I am taking 15th cent. as a provisional forward limit (except where magic or serious humour is concerned…

Malory and I are both dreaming. We care very little for exact dates, and he says I am to tell you I am after the spirit of Morte d’Arthur (just as he was after the spirit of those sources collected) seen through the eyes of 1939. He looked through 1489 .. and got a lot of 1489 muddled up with the sources. I am looking through 1939 at 1489 itself looking backwards.

Got that?

The idea that the past informs about the present can take a little getting used to, especially if you are someone who cares for exact dates.  When I put my Life-Writing-Hat on, I have to care, and yet, looking around, it seems to me that few of us live exactly within our time.  The things we use, wear, own and live with belong in variations to past days, weeks, months and years, even if we don’t live in historic houses.

It seems to me that reading history always requires some imaginative leaps.  Usually we do that from a present-day perspective.  What White does is to reverse this process, to comic effect, but also as an attempt at helping us understand something of what that past culture was like.  How do you set a story in medieval England without long explanations?  You translate every experience into a language children can recognise.

So I’m thinking of ways to translate dates and names into shareable texts, and what I see is that sometimes it takes an imaginative approach to explore truths.  After all, wouldn’t we all rather have a designer hat, that’s maybe a little shocking, than something mass-produced?hats

 

*Steam-punk hat photos from pin interest & Tag Hats.

 

More thoughts on, The Once & Future King.

This week was our first session discussing White’s novel, which for the sake of brevity, I think I’ll refer to as TOAFK, from here on.  Amongst the various thoughts we had about the reading, an interesting observation was that it was tricky to get hold of a second-hand copy from the usual local suppliers.

One shop said that the book rarely came their way, which led us to speculate about whether most people developed sentimental attachments to theirs.  I still have my first copy, held together with an elastic band, in the drawer with Wuthering Heights which also got read-to-bits.

Why do I keep them? It’s not just sentiment, they’re riddled with notes.  One of these days, when I’ve some spare time, I’ll sit down and see if there’s still any value in those old thoughts.

I don’t write in all of my books, usually only ones I’m studying.  I’m a bit precious about books, not even holding with folding over the corners of the pages – yes, you know who you are…we’ve talked about this.

annotated novelHowever, quite a few of my books have been annotated, because I often buy second hand, and I’m nosy.  I like to see what someone else thought, so given an option, I’ll choose the copy laced with resentment and exclamation marks.  Mostly this happens with old text books, but sometimes I’ll stumble over a note some reader was driven to make in the text of a novel.

Getting back to TOAFK, what I find interesting is that it’s still in publication.  You can buy a paperback or hardback copy, which suggests that it’s still selling well.

I like to think that copies of it are holding their places on a lot of family bookshelves.  Perhaps they are waiting to be re-read, perhaps to be handed on to the next generation.

 

david turnley  us military in saudi arabia

Photo by David Turnley.  U.S  military in Saudi Arabia

 

Judging books by their reputation?

This week I’ve been reading the opening chapters of The Once And Future King by T.H. White, ready for our new reading course, and getting charmed all over again.

Here’s one of my favourite sections from book 1.  It’s part of the description of Merlyn’s study/bedroom, and surely only a minimalist would fail to be charmed by this.

It was the most marvellous room that he had ever been in.

Launceston Corkindrill

The Launceston Corkindrill

There was a real corkindrill hanging from the rafters, very lifelike and horrible with glass eyes and scaly tail stretched out behind it.  When its master came into the room it winked one eye in salutation, although it was stuffed.  There were thousands of brown books in leather bindings, some chained to the bookshelves and others propped against each other as if they had had too much to drink and they did not really trust themselves.  These gave out a smell of must and solid brownness which was most secure.  Then there were stuffed birds, popinjays, and maggot-pies and kingfishers, and peacocks with all their feathers but two, and tiny birds like beetles, and a reputed phoenix which smelt of incense and cinnamon.  It could not have been a real phoenix, because there is only one of these at a time.

 

Perhaps you think it’s a children’s book.  Many people do.

I challenge you to look at the end of this descriptive paragraph and tell me what age group would recognise and enjoy this kind of detail.

…two skulls, plenty of cut glass, Venetian glass, Bristol glass and a bottle of Mastic Varnish, some satsuma china and some cloisonné, the fourteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (marred as it was by the sensationalism of the popular plates), two paintboxes (one oil, one water-colour), three globes of the known geographical world, a few fossils, the stuffed head of a cameleopard, six pismires, some glass retorts with cauldrons, Bunsen burners, etc., and a complete set of cigarette cards depicting wild fowl by Peter Scott.

cameleopard  Edward Topsell, History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents. 1658.

History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents by Edward Topsell. 1658

 

So to what extent is it a book for children?

I think that’s a question I’ll be considering with the reading group.