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.

 

Embracing the absurd.

I’ve just picked up on a challenge laid down for me a month ago, and read some of the absurdist stories of Daniil Kharms.   Thanks Mike, what a find, and how have I missed him before?

Literature is my favourite form of travel.  Think of the efficiency.  No hours on the road, or waiting around for connections.  Step between the lines of a story and I’m away.  The infernal combustion engines might transport us across the geographical world, but I’ve just travelled back in time, and got dunked into Russian culture.  No tourist destinations for me.

OldWomanLucieJansch

photo by Lucy Jansch

These Kharm stories read in a flash, resonate for hours.  They’re ridiculous, funny and dark.  Death slices through the lines of plot, taking out central character after central character.  The early twentieth century Russian landscape is grim, even bitter.  ‘Good people are not capable of getting a good foothold in life,‘  concludes Kharms, in his 1936 story, The Things.  I sense layers of suggestion, of anger, behind the flying dogs and missing legs, the drunken binges and vanishing brothers.  Like dreams, they sketch scenes, distort reality, break the rules.

These characters and their deeds twist my understanding of the world,  my sense of self and reality.  It’s brave, risk-taking writing, and I can’t predict the outcome of any piece.  They stop.

I think on, and see that sometimes writers need to be brave, and leap.

Clout Theatre 2013

Clout Theatre, 2013.   How a Man Crumbled.

 

 

 

 

 

Readers, narrators and authors.

That I’m reading a memoir this week is either a happy accident  or serendipity, depending on how you view the world. Friday morning, as I was heading for an appointment that was guaranteed to include a waiting room, I grabbed a book off my to-be-read shelf.

After three months of focused studying, I was looking forward to some simple pleasure-reading.  My course paperwork was finished, and ready to post, the new classes would not be starting until mid-April. The long Easter weekend could be given over to indulgence.

I don’t know how I missed knowing that Fever Pitch wasn’t a novel.  If I had, it would have been shelved with the other memoirs that I’ve been gathering as background for the Writing Family Histories course that is next on my list of classes to prepare, and perhaps I’d be writing this post next week.

fever pitchInstead, I was several pages in before my suspicions were roused.  That’s the thing with first person narration of course, when it’s done well, it should convince us that the character and their world is as real as we are, even when we know it’s a fiction.  The thing that tends to give memoir away is usually shaping.  It can be tricky to translate the random, scoincidental nature of life as most of us experience it, into a convincing novelistic form.

Nick Hornby has shaped his life around an obsession with football in such an entertaining way that I’m hooked.  I still couldn’t answer a pub quiz sport question, but he has helped me understand something about the need so many people have to cheer on a bunch of players chasing a ball around a cold, muddy field.  Before this, my most entertaining connection to the game was thanks to Sarah’s Knitted Footballer blog, which demonstrates another approach to expressing passionate interest in a sport.

 

 

 

Appreciating Elizabeth Taylor’s short stories.

I heard Phil Jupitus talking about paintings to Susan Calman on Radio 4 this week.  Amongst other sensible and intriguing things, he said that there are some paintings he just has to stand and study, because the details ‘have made me laugh out loud with how brilliant they are.’

Cat & Lobster, by Picasso

Cat & Lobster, by Picasso

It struck a chord with me, because I’ve been having a similar experience reading Elizabeth Taylor’s short stories.  Have I just been lucky in picking out the best of her writing from amongst the Complete Short Stories volume that we’re using for the reading group class?  Because so far, they’re providing masses of material for discussion.

Take The Letter-writers, which we discussed this week.  It’s about two people who, after ten years of exchanging letters, are meeting for the first time. Most assessments of the story will include the fact of Taylor’s letters to Robert Liddell, another novelist.

‘The correspondence between Elizabeth and me, begun in the autumn of 1948, was to become increasingly frequent and intimate, and it lasted to within a month of Elizabeth’s death, when she was no longer able to hold a pen.’

He lived in Cairo, Alexandria and then Athens, and it has been suggested that this story is a fictionalized account of their first meeting.

The Letter-writers was first published in 1958, and portrays a rural spinster living a quiet, contained life.  You could read it as that and enjoy the details of characterisation:

For years, Emily had looked into mirrors only to see if her hair were tidy or her petticoat showing below her dress.  This morning, she tried to take herself by surprise, to see herself as a stranger might, but failed.

and the descriptions,

The heat unsteadied the air, light shimmered and glanced off leaves and telegraph wires and the flag on the church tower spreading out in a small breeze, then dropping, wavered against the sky, as if it were flapping under water.

However, if you work on the assumption that this is a carefully constructed story, and therefore every word has been deliberately chosen, then you have to look again at how the narration is operating.

Is it just the air that is unsteadied?  Why does the light ‘glance’ off the leaves and telegraph wires?  When I attack the text with my highlighter, tracing patterns, clues within the text, I begin to see an alternative, contrary reading.  I’m reading now from a new perspective, asking myself, why would it be a crisis for Emily to meet, ‘the person she knew best in all the world’?

The theory I’m shaping suggests something beautifully, elegantly, clever.  Can a writer really create something so subtle that it can have multiple, even contradictory meanings?

Consider how Taylor describes Emily’s approach to writing.

Emily, smiling to herself as she passed by, had thoughts so delightful that she began to tidy them into sentences to put in a letter to Edmund.

If you carry the idea of this apparently simple description on into the story, Edmund will tell us how carefully Emily ‘tidies’ her words:

In Emily’s letters, Mrs Waterlow had been funny; but she was not in real life and he wondered how Emily could suffer so much, before transforming it.

Words then are not simple tools.  Writers, like painters, arrange the details of the world they are portraying.  They decide which perspective to show us, arrange the light and shade, and order the components to create a specific effect.  Nothing in a good painting is chance, it is designed.  So I ask myself, was Taylor also transforming some thing, with her story about writing?

At first he thought her a novelist manqué, then he realized that letter-writing is an art by itself, a different kind of skill, though with perhaps a similar motive – and one at which Englishwomen have excelled.

 

 

Reassessing my relationship with W. Somerset Maugham

Maugham, by Graham Sutherland, 1949

Maugham, by Graham Sutherland, 1949

I admit now, that despite his long-time home on my bookshelf, it took a discussion with a reading group to push me onto opening my two volumes of W. Somerset Maugham stories.  It’s not that they were on the shelf as decoration, but there have always been so many other authors, well recommended, that I wanted to read.

In a way, I’m glad that was so.  If I’d picked them up casually, would I have read them carefully?  Because despite the fact that I’ve seen some great film versions of his novels, I had preconceived ideas about his writing.  His short stories, I understood, were…well…old-fashioned, and horror of horrors, commercial.

I think I might have missed the point without an agenda attached to my reading. Instead, because we’re going to be discussing two of his stories this week, I’ve looked more closely at what’s going on.

You know what? They are ‘ripping yarns’, but they’ve also got layers of other meanings embedded in them.  There are subtleties in the way the narration works.  So although I can see how his words could be misread as promoting colonialism, I read the opposite message, and more…

What he has, in abundance, is entertainment value.  The two stories we deconstructed in the previous reading session went down a storm, and I’m expecting these will too.

I might love the brevity of the modernist style stories, but many of my students see them as difficult, and often struggle with the idea of open endings.  I understood that Maugham belonged to the Maupassant school of story telling, but he’s not so simple to pin down.  The French influences are there, but so too is Chekov, and it shows.  The stories I’ve read so far, despite having a beginning, middle and end, are not closed.

I’m left with the feeling that these characters moved on into new stories, and are about to behave just as badly in a fresh setting.

 

 

Thinking about the benefits of reading groups for writers

The most confusing and repeated piece of advice that I was given during the years when I sat on the other side of the desk in Creative Writing classes, was to read, lots.  Not knowing how to fit more books into my days, I decided that my tutors must mean I should be more selective, so I cut back on the thrillers and romances, and looked out for novels that had literary reputations.

3D Artworks by Julian Beever

3D Artworks by Julian Beever

It was an interesting and eclectic period in my reading history.  I didn’t mind whether a book was a classic or modern; so long as someone had considered it worth mentioning, I’d give it a try. Once I’d entered the first page of a novel I forgot all about my writing tutors.  Well, isn’t that how it should be with a good book?

Of course it is, and that’s fine.  But as I closed the covers on one book I was already checking the shelves for my next read.  What I hadn’t understood then was that having read for pleasure, I needed to take time to think about what I’d read, and how it worked…or what didn’t work, and why.

Some writers seem to pick that up early.  I didn’t get it until I became a mature student, studying Literature and Creative Writing.  Since then, my horizons have broadened with every read, whether that’s with a fresh text or one of those that I first read when in that voracious period.

I’m often asked if that doesn’t spoil the fun of reading.

3D Artworks by Julian Beever

3D Artworks by Julian Beever

Actually, it opens up a text.  Yes, I can often see the workings, but I like that, because it offers another dimension of story to enjoy.  I like the process so much that I teach it, and the thing I’ve discovered is that this approach is as rewarding for readers as it is for writers. We get into some fascinating discussions about how writing works.

And most importantly, we share ideas on what a story was about.  Think you know something inside out?  Give it to a group of readers and then get into a discussion and see what is revealed, I’m continually finding that the exchanging of ideas opens up unexpected worlds beneath the surface of the words.

Thinking about how readers read has to be a useful thing for any writer, surely?

Thoughts on wording titles.

I’ve spent a lot of time this week tinkering with the title for a new writing course that will be linked to the local archives.  We’ve done the meetings and the discussion about content, structure and themes, so you might assume that the title would be the easy part.  Surely not something that will involve a Ping-Pong of emails.

Thesaurus.yourdictionary.com

Thesaurus.yourdictionary.com

But how do you sum-up a seven week course in half-a-dozen words?  I need something eye-catching, enticing and straight-forward that says this is a hybrid course and it will include writing, researching and ideas for ways to present family history and memoir so that it can be easily shared.

I’ve learned to be careful, ever since someone turned up to one of my ‘Creative Writing’ classes expecting to learn about Calligraphy.  They stayed, to see what I meant by creative, and re-discovered an enjoyment in word-play that had lain dormant since their schooldays, but I can’t depend on such a lucky outcome.

Titles, I find, are tricky.  From the readers point of view they are a promise, an enticement to take part.  They can be direct, as my class titles need to be, but even then, readers might not take the same meaning from my combination of words that I think I’m providing.  So, I negotiate with my WEA organizer over what we think my words suggest.

Ambiguity can be interesting and desirable in fiction.  In reading groups we spend a lot of time investigating the way a title works on a text.  Where does it come from?  Is it directing us to read in a specific way, for instance, pushing us towards a theme?  How does it fit with the content: complementary or contrarily?  These are only some of the questions that have come up in relation to the James Joyce, Elizabeth Taylor and W. Somerset Maugham stories I’ve been discussing with groups over the last two weeks.  They’ve been fertile questions, raising diverse opinions and re-assessments and sending me back to read again something I thought I’d already got to grips with.

So it makes a change for me to be working on making my meaning simple, instead of looking for something witty and capable of multiple meanings.  But I’m glad we have now found the necessary words.

 

 

Forgotten novel – Headless Angel by Vicki Baum

A British news story, this week, reminded me of a novel that at one time was high up on my list of favourites for re-reading.  Somehow, over the last few years my copy has moved up my bookshelves and out of my eye-line, but evidently not out of my consciousness.

baum, vickiHeadless Angel is a romantic adventure that begins in Weimar and moves to Mexico.  It could have been a sentimental mess, like so many of the other cheaply bound novels I borrowed off my grandfather’s shelf as a teenager.  Instead it has a feisty heroine whose narration begins:

Now that September is blue and hazy upon the land, I like to walk up to my grave in the early afternoon and remain there until in the slanting sun the shadow of my tombstone grows long and lean and begins licking the hem of my skirt.

I can still remember the fascination of that first line.  What was this going to be, this plain boarded novel?

If ever I want to discuss what a narrative hook is, here’s a great example.  The pacing of this novel is exemplary.  Vicki Baum was a writer who knew how to intersperse action with description with back-story.

The Prologue is an exercise in lures.  Here’s the voice of an old woman, ‘in the good company of my memories’ who is supposed dead.

But what a life it must have been.  Who is this Albert, who has made a tomb for her and writes songs and poems about her?  Does he know who she is?  Why and how did she cross the Cordillera and live in ‘the wild mountain fastnesses of New Spain’?

Secrets are implied in the contrast between Albert’s reverence for classical art, and Clarinda’s pleasure in earthly satisfactions of simple food and views.  Promises are implied in the juxtapositions of Clarinda’s observations:

In a small way my grave has become one of the sight-seeing places near Weimar, and quite often travelers round out with a visit to Helgenhausen their pilgrimage to the sacred sites where Goethe and Schiller lived.

And how clever is the connection she makes?  It tells me that these are not false promises, she has mixed with interesting people.  Look how comfortable she is with Goethe, telling us that he slept in one of the bedrooms ‘a few times’, carved his initials on a tree, and drank water from the spring, using a tin cup.

Should we trust the word of a woman who is believed to be dead?

…the tin cup from which Goethe is said to have drunk the spring water…is an open fraud, for Goethe was here for the last time in 1818, much too careful and ailing an old gentleman to drink of the questionable liquid; and no doubt Babette has furtively replaced the old tin cup with a new one at regular intervals in the twenty-two years since.

Ah, so she’s willing to reveal the secrets, the truth behind the illusions.  That alone would make for an interesting read.  But the icing on the writing for me is summed up in the description she gives of the angel that Albert had carved and placed beside her grave:

It is a rather attractive angel, gracefully lifting a torch skyward in one hand while pouring with the other a flood of stiffly arrested marble tears from a marble urn down upon the little mound; unfortunately, my pretty angel has lost its head.  Poor Albert assures me that the resemblance of its face to mine was truly remarkable.  However, during the stormy days of 1806, after the Battle of Jena, when Wiemar was ransacked by Napoleon’s soldiers, a platoon of them bivouacked in our yard, used the angel’s face as a target in a friendly contest of marksmanship, and blew it to pieces.

That’s my kind of humour.  I’m already thinking up an excuse to cover settling back down with my old friend Clarinda…

Baum, viki

 

Dubliners

 

A-Birds-Eye-View-Of-Dublin-.jpgI’ve been preparing for the new class starting this week, ‘Meet the Dubliners‘.  Written more than a hundred years ago, these are individual short stories, yet read together they provide a portrait of Dublin city in early 1900, and are sometimes thought of as a novel.

41Nz+xOlieL__SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Whoa-there though, did I just suggest you could think of Dubliners as a novel?  Hesitantly, I say yes.

Why am I hesitant?  Because I believe that to get the most from literary short stories like Dubliners, we need to approach them as we do literary poetry. For me, that’s a slower read than I tend to give to novels.

It’s a single process too.  I don’t want to move onto the next piece of writing (or chapter) until I’ve had chance to immerse myself in the words.

My favorite sorts of poems and stories aren’t just capable of being re-read, they respond to it.  When I revisit them they give up an additional layer of meaning that I couldn’t have picked up without spending more time absorbing the meanings embedded between the lines and in the multiple interpretations our language is capable of providing.

So why suggest Dubliners could be read like a novel?  Well Joyce designed a reading order for us to follow, and taken together, the stories deliver a coded pattern to be unraveled.  A surprising number of critics do liken this to reading a novel.

Yet it is a collection of short stories.  The proof of this is that any one of the sections will stand a lone reading, and two of them, Araby, and The Dead, have been included in a variety of anthologies.

So, does it matter whether we call this a novel or a story collection?

I think that’s one of the questions I’m going to be asking the reading group.