Thursday, July 23, 2015

Do we read a novel for its issues, or its treatment of issues?

Our two most recent reading group discussions, in each of which the book tended to prompt discussion of the issues on which it centred, rather than itself as a literary artefact:

Saturday, July 18, 2015

It's all to do with how we like to see ourselves

Excellent Guardian article by Sarah Churchwell on Go Set a Watchman, newly published and marketed as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, but which was in fact Harper Lee's earlier attempt at the same book, which an editor advised her to rewrite by concentrating on protagonist Scout's perspective as a child. Churchwell considers and judges various responses to the revelation in GSaW that the anti-racist Atticus of TKaM, Scout's lawyer father, turns out to have been racist after all, and makes the politically and culturally important points that the values of the Atticus of TKaM 'are in fact rather more dubious than the book, or many of its readers, care to admit' and that this new publication highlights the fact that TKaM is a 'consoling, childish, whitewashed fable' - views of TKAM which our reading group ultimately came to when we read it. (You can read our discussion, in which we decided that TKaM was very much how America likes to see itself, rather than a representation of reality, here.) 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Simenon returns

I hadn't read the Inspector Maigret books - I've never been a fan of crime fiction - and I hadn't really watched the TV adaptations either - but he was somehow part of my consciousness as I
grew up: that pipe and bowler hat and, in the film adaptations, the homburg; the sense of a solid and impassive character at the still centre of a social maelstrom of crime and people pushed to the edge. And my curiosity was piqued when I had an invitation to a reception hosted by the agents managing his estate, Peters Fraser and Dunlop, to celebrate a resurgence in interest in the author. This includes a stunning new project by Penguin, English publishers of Maigret since the early fifties, to publish, over a 7-year period and beginning last autumn, new translations of all of his novels, unbelievably just less than 400 in all, 75 of them Maigrets.  Such a prodigious output is of course interesting in itself to a writer (how on earth did he do it?), but, without further investigation, it would be easy to dismiss Simenon consequently as inevitably a writer of pure pulp. Yet I began reading, and digging deeper, only to discover that he was greatly admired by none other than T S Eliot, Gide, Cocteau, Henry Miller, Colette, Muriel Spark, and a host of other literary writers, and to find there was indeed something in his insistently plain prose that is fascinatingly, almost magically evocative, and that at the centre of the books is a deeply humane and psychological interest in people.

The Belgian Georges Simenon (1906-1989) did start out writing pulp novels as a 19-year-old in Paris, typing 80 pages a day and publishing, between 1923 and 1933, more than 200 books under 18 pseudonyms. At the reception Simenon's son, John, told us that his father regarded that period as his practice in novel-writing. In 1931 he wrote his first Maigret novel, Pietr the Latvian - he produced 11 of them that year (at the same time as the short stories he had always also written) - and began also to write what he called his romans durs, his psychological 'hard novels', considered by many to be superior. It is however for the Maigret novels that he has been best known, and so it was to a Maigret novel, The Yellow Dog, one of those first 11, that I first turned, the story of a small provincial coastal town in which the prominent bourgeois citizens are being mysteriously murdered or attacked. As Maigret sets about solving the mystery, a strange yellow dogs lurks at the scenes of crime, a signature kind of touch in Simenon: something baffling, often seemingly inconsequential as far as the plot goes, but with unsettling reverberations that seem to me to symbolise the psychological dimensions of crime overlooked in institutional police procedure but which Maigret always purposefully waits and watches to uncover. Julian Barnes asserts in his TSL review that a Maigret novel has no subtext, but I would say that this does indeed thus amount to a pretty clever subtext - one that serves a double role as a subplot which, as Barnes puts it, 'ends up being part of the main plot.' Famously averse to the literary - rigorously excising all rhetorical devices such as metaphors, consciously using a restricted vocabulary and avoiding taxing the reader with anything more than novella length - Simenon yet manages to create resonance and atmosphere and a deep psychological dimension, and it's actually quite hard to work out how he does it. It's no wonder he has been so revered by literary writers: he's like the magician with the sleight-of-hand secret we all want. He does describe the weather - weather plays a huge role in the Maigret books; Maigret is always pulling on his coat against a deep frost or looking out through the window at rain and a grey, grey Paris - but he never employs metaphor to convey it or any of the surroundings, an alcohol-soaked world of seedy bars and backstreets, simply stating what they're like in plain terms. I have written before about the magical effect for me in childhood of the plain writing of Enid Blyton, a plainness that amounts almost to an absence of detail or dimension, which very absence released me as a reader to complete and enrich the story for myself, and, I must say, got me addicted to her books. Barnes sees something similar happening here. Similarly, he notices, Maigret is not fully characterised, and as a result '[Simenon] invites us to fill in the blanks, which we happily and sympathetically do.' Yet, unlike Blyton, Simenon somehow conveys a complex moral and social world - the world of pre- and postwar France with its social divisions and, over the years, the fate of the bourgeoisie and the bureaucratisation of the police force. Perhaps the clue is in the very 'absence' of Maigret's character. Maigret is characterised by reticence and silence, by his mode of watchfulness and waiting and psychological observation, and, aided by a simplicity of language and style with which we can all identify, we watch his world through his eyes, becoming active participants in the story ourselves. Most attractive to me about the books is Maigret's interest in and often sympathy with the criminal as a human being in extremis. The unravelling of the mystery is never the real issue: the real issue is the puzzle of the criminal's mind, often, as in The Friend of Madame Maigret, pondered over and unpicked long after his identity has been proved. Maigrets are never really whodunnits but whydunnits. John talked about his father's view that all people are essentially biologically irresponsible - in extremis the biological imperative overrides social responsibility - and the books I have read bear this out.

John told us about his working process: first the inspiration and digestion and then the rumination and walking to soak up the atmosphere of the settings (though one can't help feeling these must have been pretty quick stages!), next the 'click', followed by the rapid production of the first draft (interestingly, he moved from using a typewriter at this stage to using a fountain pen), and finally the polish in which all rhetorical devices such as adjectives and adverbs were rigorously removed.

Much has been written about Simenon's excesses as a drinker and a womaniser (Maigret doesn't womanise but he drinks all day on the job!), and one can't help feeling that someone who could produce such volume so quickly with such little revision must have been possessed of a manic energy, but in talking about him as a father, John movingly showed us a different side. He was always there for him and his siblings, he said, and had a Socratean mode of helping them with their problems, posing questions to help them to work out solutions for themselves - a method which does indeed, of course, transfer to the Maigret books, where patient questioning and waiting for people to reveal themselves are what win out in the end.

It seems strange that, as the most translated French-speaking author of the 20th century, and the third most translated author of all time in the US and UK, with over 500 hours of TV drama adaptations and more than 90 feature films, Simenon's books should have fallen out of favour, as seems to be the case, but this looks to change. The Penguin project gathers apace, with the Maigret series well on its way and the rest of the oeuvre begun, with some of the books translated into English for the first time. And it was announced that ITV is to produce two stand-alone films with Rowan Atkinson to play the leading role.

Thank you to PFD for opening my eyes to Simenon's work (and for a really lovely reception), and to John for the insights he gave into his ideas and working methods.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Places of the mind

David Nicholls writes in the Guardian on the subject of a sense of place in novels. It is of course one of the pleasures, indeed joys, of novels: the creation of a sense of place in which the reader can be immersed - can, in his or her mind's eye, look around and walk with the characters: it's one of the ways in which we can identify with the characters and events of a novel, and in which the characters and events can be made to seem real.

But what do we mean by reality when we are talking about fiction? Nicholls concedes that there are novelists who create a sense of a real place for the reader simply by making places up: writers of fantasy or futuristic fiction, and of historical novels: 'A notepad and camera won't help much if you're trying to conjure up Wolf Hall'. However, he is taxed by the issue of including current real-life places in one's fiction: what if you get the detail wrong? Well, he doesn't exactly spell this out but it can be disaster: if the reader knows more about the place than you do, then the fictional world of the novel, ie the fictional reality, is broken, intruded upon by common-or-garden real-life reality, and you've lost the reader. It's a worry all fiction-writers share when setting events in real-life places they don't know, or don't know intimately. Nicholls reports that he's physically travelled to avoid this problem and more recently has used Google Street View. I've done both of these things, too, but it makes me queasy: I always have the sense that I'm somehow missing the point; it's not only that, as Nicholls admits, one gets a very superficial view of a place this way, but more importantly that there is something wrong, or at least dangerous or diminishing, in so consciously injecting undigested geographic or topographic fact into one's long-digested fictional landscape.

For what is fiction but itself a place of the mind? Fiction isn't a place you go chiefly to find facts; fiction's truth is chiefly emotional, psychological and moral. Yet, in our 'reality'-obsessed culture there does indeed seem to be a tendency to read fiction as fact - witness the rise in confessedly autobiographical novels and the recent, if fading, supremacy of biography over fiction, not to mention the insistence on author profiles and the need to sell a novel on an author's life story - and there does indeed seem to be a current cultural obsession with real-life places in literature. One member of my reading group, who, I think, is pretty representative of many readers who are not particularly literary, especially loves novels about places she knows, and I detect a trend amongst writers towards satisfying this desire for recognition by injecting real-life topographical detail and place-name-checks.

But what about those readers who don't know the place - the street or the cafe - you're name-checking? No same sense of real-life recognition for them. My fellow reading-group member replies that it doesn't matter, it's simply a different experience for the reader who doesn't know the place, but the danger is that that experience will be one of exclusion. As an untravelled working-class teenager reading novels with unexplained or glancing references to upper- or middle-class rituals and foreign locations, I had a sense of exclusion, a sense that others, able to envisage the manners and places and know they were right, were getting more out of the fiction than I was. I could imagine the places but I had a deep sense of not being necessarily right in my imagining; I could look them up in the library, but I hadn't had that recreation of one's own experience that others, reading the same novel, could have.

It's the author's job to create a world with which as many readers as possible will identify, which means either properly recreating a place (which as Nicholls says can be done with a few swift strokes, but needs to be more than just name-checking it) or  fictionalising it, which last, as he says, Hardy did so well in the highly fictionalised area he called Wessex. If we don't do this, fiction becomes parochial, fails its potential for universality. And once we do succeed in doing this, though we may wish for various reasons to name a place in a fiction, it is possible not even to do so: if we are writing about a real place, those who know it will not need it named - maybe, as I have discovered with one of my own stories*, they won't even notice it's not named - and those who don't won't be disrupted by that sense of exclusion. If we are fictionalising places - that is, bending the mere facts about them - real-life names, as Nicholls indicates in his discussion of Hardy, become an impediment.

Furthermore, the so-called reality of real-life places is never that certain. My London is not necessarily your London; his village in Dorset is not her village on the very same spot on the real-life map. One's sense of real-life places is individual, imbued with one's own personal experiences and personality, often at one very particular time. If a reader brings to a novel an association with a place that is inappropriate for the novel's atmosphere or theme, then once again you are stymied: so once again, name-checking is not enough; the author must override that association with his or her own mental landscape of the place.

Not so long ago, for a short story I was writing*, I did exactly what Nicholls says he did for his first novel, One Day: I revisited a place I had once lived, in order to write about an experience I had had there. The first shock was that the place had been completely erased, all the old buildings replaced by new ones or empty parkland spaces, and the whole topography erased and realigned in such a way that I didn't even realise at first that it was the place, and when I did felt completely disorientated. This was the place (that's a quote from the story), and yet it wasn't: the real place, the place with meaning for me, and which I wanted to convey in my story, existed only in my memory. My memory would have to be enough. Yet the new space, quotidian and alien, somehow shattered and displaced my very evocative memory. In a desperate bid to hang on to it, I went to a nearby suburb that I had also known well, and which I found unchanged. But here was the second shock: this place, though clearly unchanged, was not how I remembered it, and once again I found my sense of it all threatened. The place I wanted to explore and portray was after all a place of the mind. So the story came to be about precisely that: a protagonist walking with a map that fails to conform either to her memory or, it appears, to the present topography, towards this realisation: that places can only ever, in the ultimate analysis, be places of the mind.

And this is the power of fiction: its universality lies precisely in its capacity to give us landscapes of the mind.

*The first of my own stories referred to here is 'Tides, or How Stories Do or Don't Get Told', first published in The View From Here and reprinted in Best British British Short Stories 2014 (Salt), ed. Nicholas Royle.
The second is 'Looking for the Castle', to be published on 20th June in Unthology 7 (Unthank), ed. Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones. (Pre-order here.)
Both stories will be included in my new collection, Used to Be, to be published in September by Salt.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Edge Hill Prize shortlist 2015

It's that time of year again: the shortlist for the Edge Hill Prize for a short-story collection has been announced, and I didn't even get around to commenting on the long list.

As usual, the long list is dominated by independent publishers, with 9 of the 26 titles coming from Celtic publishers - no less than 5 of those from Ireland - and the established London houses fielding a mere 4 between them. Two books from big publishers, however, make it to the shortlist of 6, along with one from Scotland (Freight), one from Ireland (Doire), and one each from independents Seagull and Salt, based in Kolkata and Norfolk respectively:

Waiting for the Bullet, Madeleine D'Arcy (Doire)
The Redemption of Galen Pike, Carys Davies (Salt)
Infidelities, Kirsty Gunn (Faber)
Life-Like, Toby Litt (Seagull)
Any Other Mouth, Annaliese Mackintosh (Freight)
The American Lover, Rose Tremain (Chatto and Windus)

I've never thought to wonder previously about gender representation on previous shortlists and long lists for this prize, but as one of my Facebook commenters pointed out, this shortlist includes only one man, reflecting perhaps the fact that the long list is weighted towards female authorship, which possibly indicates that women currently dominate the short-story scene.

Heavyweights Hilary Mantel and A L Kennedy miss out, which is interesting: personally, I liked Mantel's book, although as critics pointed out, it did have the air of stories written over a long period and thus lacked the cohesiveness that this prize is specifically looking for in a collection. Cohesiveness certainly characterises all of the books on the shortlist. Annaliese Mackintosh's confessedly autobiographical and amazingly energetic collection obsessively circles the same moments and operates more as a short-story cycle; Toby Litt experiments cleverly throughout his collection with different forms, but overall it is a kind of jazz riff featuring connected characters. Kirsty Gunn's beautifully written stories are tightly bound by voice, theme and sensibility, as are Madeleine D'Arcy's and those of Carys Davies whose collection has the mythic quality she has made all her own. And while the stories in Rose Tremain's collection are strikingly varied in subject matter, and sometimes voice, a sense of her steady authorial sensibility makes these a strength.

I can't imagine who is going to win...

Monday, May 18, 2015

The conditions needed for writing

I can't write at the moment, and here's why. The room in which I like to write is an attic room, under the sloping ceiling with no space between me and the actual roof. As I work I can hear the pigeons trotting across the slates just above me, and their cooing is a soothing background soundtrack. I feel so at peace there, so removed from the hum-drum world down below and free to sink into other worlds. I know it's a cliche, the writer in the garrett, and it's often presented as a writer's hardship (having to live in a garret, which is traditionally associated with poverty), but our garret is an extra, and I know I'm lucky to be able to work there. However, since it's directly under the roof it's been vulnerable to leaks, and I have often also sat writing with water dripping - and more recently pouring - into a bucket. So now the roof is being mended, the view from the window is blocked by scaffolding, my partner John is working on the window frame, since it went rotten while we didn't consider it worth decorating up there, and everything's covered with drapes. I feel bereft: I had to abandon the desk hastily, because the roofers began earlier than I had expected, and it's a struggle to get back up there to get things I need for writing but had forgotten, as, on the stairway just outside, the old skylight is being replaced and the stairwell is blocked with tarpaulins. And anyway I can't write.

I don't think it's just the sound of hammering above, and battens being thrown down all around; it's also to do with my displacement from my nook. I've puzzled about why, since I've written in so many other places: I've lived in so many other places, for a start, and I've written in basements and shared bedrooms; I've written in other places in this house, on the table I'm sitting at now in our living room, and on the landing, even, with all the doors shut, when I've needed insulation from the sound of other people's roofs and building work being done. I've often written very successfully while travelling alone on trains, usually with the excitement of a brand-new idea, and I think that's a clue, travelling alone being not only stimulation but a kind of mental insulation: a removal from the day-to-day, and a throwing back of oneself onto one's own resources and insights. It's a question, in the main, I've found, of carving out a kind of physical-mental space, a corner of the room, say, where these particular thoughts and inspirations happen. So why can't I do it now? After all, the roofers aren't here at weekends, or when it's raining, as it is at this very moment, and anyway I could take my writing pad and laptop off to a quiet cafe and work there.

I think it's to do with the particular work I want to tackle next, and it makes me realise something about the process of writing, at least as it works for me, as well as having implications, I think, for the kind of fiction our distracting culture makes difficult. What I want to tackle next is a story of very deep emotional turmoil and betrayal, and I know I can't do it - not properly, not with justice - unless I feel utterly calm and sorted and on top of everything. I know that, if I'm not, the story could overwhelm me, and I could fail to achieve a light enough touch for the story not to be overwhelming for the reader. I'm too locked on to it now to turn in the meantime to anything less complex or shorter, but I can't start it in odd moments of peace, as I know it's going to need an immersive and uninterrupted effort.

Seems to me, then, you need to be untroubled to write tragedy well, and you need peace to write of turmoil - not to mention the private income or decent remuneration that can provide them.

Crossposted to my author blog.