I’d like to recommend…

I’ve just been on a journey backwards and forwards in time between 1936 America and Manila in 1902 and 1936 thanks to William Boyd’s, The Blue Afternoon. It was quite a trip, all in all. Some stories the reader just hitches a ride on the words and enjoys the passing scenery. Not this one. I’ve been kept involved all the way, guessing about connections and murders, taking a new view of history, working out what’s going on, and why, and trying to second-guess how.

I’ve stood at the shoulders of an architect and a surgeon as they worked. I’ve experience the blue afternoonthe joys, frustrations and passions of different kinds of love and loss and colonial life. There was so much story in this one short novel it would be difficult to write a summary without giving away the plot, so I’m not going to attempt that. You can find one somewhere else, if that’s what you’re after. But my recommendation, whether you’re a reader or a writer is to try this novel yourself.

I’ve not read any thing else by William Boyd, so I can’t draw comparisons with his other books.  I can only say that here, I find good writing.

What do I mean by good writing?  Well look at the first sentence.

I remember that afternoon, not long into our travels, sitting on deck in the mild mid-Atlantic sun on a slightly smirched and foggy day, the sky a pale washed-out blue above the smokestacks, when I asked my father what it felt like to pick up a knife and make an incision into living human flesh.

It’s a little long by some standards, perhaps, but look what Boyd does with it.   Besides giving us a situation, a setting and an atmosphere, it gets me asking myself, who is remembering, and why do they want to know about ‘living human flesh’?  I’m only an inch into the text and I’m already preparing to turn to the next page.

I like a lot of things about this story.  Take, for instance, weather and scenery. Los Angeles, 1936, ‘was cloudy and an erratic and nervy wind rattled the leaves of the palmettos that the contractor had planted along the roadside.’ In Manilla, ‘Cruz’s house was a substantial stone building with a tiled roof, hairy with weeds, and a saffron lime wash on the walls which was flaking and dirty.’  It’s economical.  There’s just enough of a word picture for me to create the image: not so much that I’m struggling to construct an exact replica.

Go back to that first sentence again and look at how he constructs his images.  Ever heard of a ‘smirched‘ day before?  I haven’t, and yet put it with foggy, and I think I understand exactly what he means.  Like the wind in Los Angeles, which is not just ‘erratic’, it’s ‘nervy’.  This is what we mean when we talk about keeping language fresh in our writing.  I don’t think it’s forced, and it doesn’t need to happen in every paragraph, or even chapter.  Its effect is made, at least in part, because it is unexpected.

For me, ‘unexpected’ is the key to my enjoyment of this novel.  The story unravels slowly, truths are teased out by our narrator, and, for the most part, delivered in such a way that I do not feel cheated: by which I mean that the author has not manipulated events to achieve his goal.  Here, the twists in the plot felt feasible rather than engineered, even when they were surprising.  They arose naturally as a result of the characterizations.

Here’s a story with some big events in it.  Things that told clumsily could have looked contrived and ridiculous.  Instead, there was a sense of inevitability about the way they unfolded and the final denouement.  I don’t think I can give a higher praise than that the ending surprised, pleased and stayed with me, long after I’d closed the covers.

Writers make Choices.

I’ve been browsing through an old notebook (1997).  It’s one of my favorites, not just because it was a gift from two good friends, but also because each page has a decorative border and a short literary quote.

notebookIt was such a lovely book that for a long time I could not bring myself to write in it.  Did I have anything worthy enough to spoil those pages with?  Especially since they weren’t lined, and without guides I invariably trail off towards one corner of the paper as I go down it.  As for my handwriting, well it’s far from elegant.

I was talking about the difficulties of making that first mark on a page with someone the other day.  She said that she could only write when she felt passionately.  At other times, no matter how good an idea she sat down with, it was impossible to begin.

Luckily, Ruth and Annie made the first mark in their gift for me.  Perhaps because they are both artists, one a poet, the other visual, and they knew me well enough to know how challenging I would find it, they wrote me an inscription inside the front cover.  It says, very neatly, ‘Happy Scribbling – Christmas 1997’.  Thanks Ruth, thanks Annie, without that it might still be tucked away with my two other beautiful pristine notebooks, in a box on top of the wardrobe.

This one looks a little battered these days, but the wear and tear are ‘life-marks’.  Its home is on my shelf of most used books, dictionaries, thesaurus, favourite writers and other reference books that seem to be necessary in my daily writing-life.  I found the perfect use for it, as a place to copy wise writing words, long and short, referenced or not – I try, but sometimes the author escapes me.  In it I’ve stored excerpts of interviews, fragments of interesting writing theories and bits of poetry

I started just under my friends inscription inside the cover, I’ve written, “Writers make Choices.”  Did someone tell me that, or did I read it?  Perhaps you will be able to tell me.

Then again, perhaps you think I’m just stating the obvious.  I say, sometimes we need to be reminded.  That might not apply so much to initial inspiration, but in the working out, and especially the editing, it’s well worth remembering that there are choices to make not just about what happens, but how we write it.

I’d like to recommend…

…a short story I’ve just read by A.M. Homes, called The Chinese Lesson.  It’s available to read for free on the Granta website, at the moment, because she’s just won The Women’s Prize with her novel, May We Be Forgiven.

This short story was the precursor of that novel, so for those of you who are not generally tempted by the short form, reading it might provide an useful taster.  For the rest of us, don’t be put off by the idea that I’m recommending an excerpt.  This is a beautifully told story, nicely balanced and elegantly written.

I read it yesterday, and the essence of it is still with me, despite an afternoon out with friends and some mundane jobs in between.  Am I tempted to get hold of the novel, now?  Well, yes, even though it would have to join a long queue of outstanding reading.

In an interview on the Granta site, Homes says that she uses short stories to begin working out ideas for her novels.  It seems to me that thinking about short stories in this way could be a useful addition to my arsenal of answers to that eternal question, ‘So, what is a short story?’



I had a farm in Africa…

Well actually, I didn’t have a farm anywhere, but whenever I remember Isak Dinesen’s, The Ngong Farm, I feel like I could have done, a long time ago.  Or perhaps it’s that I should have done.

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.

Is that the most perfect opening line ever written?  I don’t think so, there are after all, a lot of strong contenders that I like at least equally.  Yet this is the one that is fixed in my mind.  It’s not just that I can quote it, it’s a sentence that resonates at odd moments.  Sometimes really odd moments: like walking round a DIY store yesterday.

Like many of us, I first heard of Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen because of the film, Out Of Africa, so the associations this opening-line carries are complicated for me.  The words link to an image of Meryl Streep telling stories to Robert Redford.  That’s beautiful people fulfilling a writer’s fantasy isn’t it, Teller, Tale and Audience in perfect harmony?

Yet it’s more than that.  Those words are not just about the memory of a film, last seen a decade or two ago.  I’m not in the habit of memorizing dialogue.  Something else has fixed this in my mind.  The writer’s ‘voice’ is strong.

Oh yes, ‘The Voice’.  What is that exactly?  We frequently throw that phrase around in writing classes, particularly in beginners groups.  ‘You must have a distinctive voice,’ we say.  Do we mean style?  I don’t think so, at least, not on its own.  As comprehensive as the dictionaries definitions list for style is, it’s not quite the same as voice.

The Pastor's Fireside, by Henry Singleton

The Pastor’s Fireside, by Henry Singleton

Well, obviously, since voice refers to sound, an audible function that might seem incompatible with the written word.  Is it though?  Aren’t we still speaking when we write?  I am.  As I type this, I am sounding each word: testing each phrase in my head.  I can hear my voice.  Actually, occasionally so could someone listening at the door.  (I don’t think that counts as talking to myself, I am definitely addressing a listener, even if they are bodiless.)  Oh dear, when you’re in a hole, stop digging.

All too often we forget the ancestry of the written word is speech, both as writers and readers.  The writers of the nineteenth century didn’t.  Much of their work was intended to be read aloud.  Literacy levels were improving, but authors expected, even hoped that reading would be a participatory activity, something that involved the family.   Reading could be solitary, but check out the paintings and illustrations in Victorian books and you’ll get the message – cosy fireside, family grouping with children gathered at the feet as one of the family read the latest installment of At Home or some other ‘improving’ magazine.

Mother Hubbard imageGradually though, prose moved over to being a personal, individual occupation.  I wonder if it goes with the idea that children should be seen but not heard.  All those paintings of children engrossed, alone… I think books were selling an appealing image on more than one level.

That link to the spoken nature of words remains clearest in poetry I suppose, which often benefits from being read aloud.

Interestingly, I found my copy of Out Of Africa on the shelf next to the poetry, rather than with the other short stories.  I don’t remember how I came to store it there, but thinking about it, it seems like a good place.  Look at the rhythm in my much repeated phrase.  Each word seems to carry weight, to require a thoughtful, careful delivery.  I can’t say or think it fast, I willingly wallow in her rose-lit prose.

She had a farm in Africa…it can only draw me on.  A simple phrase, self contained, and yet full of interest.  Who is this woman on the other side of the page: what is she?

‘Really?’ I think, ‘Tell me more…’

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.

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 wikimedia.org

Trees in the Fog,
by Yann Richard, on wikimedia.org

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…

Who Reads Short Stories?

I do.  I have a fairly good collection of them now, but I think I must be in the minority, if the state of our local library and bookshop shelves are anything to go by.  To find any short story collections or anthologies in either can take a lot of searching.  Asking for a specific title or author is a matter of luck, or ordering in.

Whatever might be said about the role of the publishing industry in supporting, or not supporting, short fiction, the hard truth is that few people choose to read it.  Most British fiction readers prefer the novel, and the public book-shelves reflect this.  I say this because I have talked to a lot of readers over the last ten years, both as a tutor of creative reading groups, and creative writing groups, and because I know that what my students have told me mirrors my own experience.

As I grew up the print I read got smaller, the illustrations disappeared and the books got thicker.  I read one or two collections of ghost or horror stories as well, but mostly my friends and I bought, borrowed and swapped longer and longer narratives.  We were aiming for novels.  School too was pushing us that way.  They asked us to write short stories so that we could demonstrate our understanding of punctuation and grammar, but for literature, we would study, The Novel.

Our first grown-up novels were like contraband, passed around secretly.  Before long we were reading them openly.  I might occasionally go back to a childhood favourite, but in secret.  In public, I did not go near the children’s shelves again, and neither did my friends.  By the time we left school I had a strong novel-reading habit.

I did read a few short stories as I came across them, mostly in magazines.  I remember some Katherine Mansfield stories, and a collection by a modern writer.  I remember because of my disappointment.  I could see that the sentences were well written, and I knew that these were important writers, but surely these were not stories.  Where were the plots?

No wonder I didn’t get them.  I had approached those two collections exactly as I did a novel.  I turned from one story to the next, often without pause, simply because the pages were numbered consecutively.  It was a long time before I went back to them.  It took a night class and a new approach to writing before I read them as I should have.

I wish I had learned earlier that I did not need a degree course to appreciate the beauty of a well-crafted story.  We learned the skills in English Lit at school.  I just hadn’t understood how to adapt them.

Now, when I teach creative reading or writing groups I say, approach short stories as you would a poem.  The great British short story writers of the 1920s and 30s knew this.  H.E.Bates, in his book, The Modern Short Story, (1972) wrote that, after the first world war the new generation of writers, ‘needed and sought as a form something between lyric poetry and fictional prose.’  He credited Katherine Mansfield and A. E. Coppard in, ‘assisting the English short story to a state of adult emancipation.’

His study may be forty years old, but I cannot disagree with his analysis.  I only wish that more people could see it.