Catch It As It Fell

It’s no great secret to anyone who knows me that I am a huge Raymond Chandler fan. And today I saw on Twitter a link to a letter he wrote to a friend about emotion vs action in story. The quote is so beautiful it made me feel quite wobbly and sad after reading it (I had my first Covid vaccine today which could also be a reason!) and I had to share it.

It’s the most wonderful, haunting letter anyway, and shows what an elegant writer Chandler was, but it basically gets to the very heart of what great fiction is. The ‘creation of emotion through dialogue and description.’ That’s what I care about, too. More than I can ever express. You’re a true genius, Mr Chandler. And continue to inspire me after all these years.

The Bad Girl

Yet another offering from a South American author for the German book club this month, and one from an author who has one the Nobel Prize for Literature, no less. Last month our club member who put Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Bad Girl forward had some pre-match nerves, warning us that reviews of the novel were less than stellar. Perhaps Vargas’s reputation had preceded him, for whilst the novel didn’t set my world on fire, I found it an enjoyable read.

The plot, such as it is, is age-old. It’s the impossible love story. Boy meets girl as a youth, falls in love, they have a brief, passionate, but volatile tryst that ends with her leaving without a trace, rinse and repeat throughout, ending with an emotional death to conclude the never-ending cycle. I’m obviously over simplifying, but that’s the main gist. If that sounds sneering it’s not meant to be, some of the greatest novels of all time follow a doomed love, it’s the fabled automatic. And it can be utterly compelling and heartbreaking. The Bad Girl doesn’t quite touch these dizzy heights, but the theme of obsession and being stuck in a fatal loop that will always end in tears rings true. You know it’s never going to work out, and you shake your fist at the hapless Ricardo for allowing himself to be drawn in by the ‘bad girl’ time and time again, but you empathise. We’ve all been there, if in a lighter shade.

The obsession is partly sexual, and it is sexual desire that comes between them at times. The sex scenes in the book are reasonably graphic and probably the weaker sections. I can do without phrases like ‘arrogant breasts,’ which are stupid and make no sense, and generally I think ‘less is more’ would have been a better approach. I suspect this is what my fellow member feared would blight the book, especially when it veers dangerously close to misogyny (you probably learn more about the bad girls body parts than is necessary). What I liked much more was the scene-setting (the book takes place mostly in Paris, but in other parts of the world too), which draws out the various cities in nice detail, and the backdrop of Peruvian politics taking place throughout the novel in Ricardo’s homeland and weaving in and out of the narrative as it proceeds.

I think this novel lives or dies for the reader if you can empathise or relate to the bad girl. If you think of her as just a gold-digger, you may struggle to get through this. I did feel this to a certain extent, but there were enough nuances in her personality and relationship with Ricardo to keep my interest.

Five Alive

So, the simple update to this post is that it’s done. The first draft of novel number five is in the bag.

The feelings that I shared in the linked post above is pretty much where I’m at now. I did have a lovely moment in the last knockings where I saw round a corner and smoothed out a plot niggle into something that worked out a lot better. I live for those moments, when it all comes together like a miracle, and almost always when I’m thinking about something else, too. I spent the rest of the day running it over, looking for the sharp edges, grinning when I realised there weren’t any. It’s nice, especially when you work without plotting as I tend to do, when it clicks. The rest of the book was done within a week.

The doubts about it remain, while I’m in that hinterland between first draft and rewrite. I’ve never found it hard to leave the manuscript alone. I’d say at the moment it’s ideal, in fact. It will be a few weeks yet before the urge to take a peek will come. Then the unease will crank up a notch. At the moment I’m content to allow the characters to slowly fade into the background. They told their story, so their job is done. It’s up to me to mould it into the best it can be. The pace is the main concern. I’ve no idea whether all the interior monologue is going to be compelling, or just plain boring.

The novel is on the short side as it is, so it doesn’t give me as much to play with in future drafts if I want to keep it that way. I suppose it doesn’t matter if it does end up novella length, who cares really in the end? But I guess there’s something a bit more special about saying ‘I’ve written a novel.’ So we’ll see what happens. Every completed work still feels like magic. The fire is still there. That mixture of pride and relief and sorrow that comes after writing the final word is still the most honest feeling I have experienced, and the closest to defining me as a human being than anything else I’ve ever known. It takes a whole lot to get to that point, but that’s why I do it.

Nearly two decades I’ve been at this game, now. I’ve got more from it than I dared to hope. Loved it more than I could imagine. That’s all I can wish for. But would I like to call it my fifth novel? Hell, yeah.

Ficciones

When I was at university many years ago I undertook a module on Modernism as part of my Literature degree. I think before I went to uni I had swam around in the shallow end when it came to my reading breadth and depth. I’d include college in that too. I certainly had my eyes open to what was out there through my college studies (it was where I decided I was going to write fiction for the rest of my life after reading Catcher In The Rye), but it was once I got deep into the subject at university that I really saw the staggering originality, ideas and vivid imagination that were present in literature.

The modernism module was the catalyst for this – Woolf, Rushdie, Coeetzee, Carter, and so on. All writers who delve into magic realism, fable and myth, new narrative devices, the list is endless. But it was Borges who really captured my imagination. The book I read back then was Labyrinths. This month’s German book club offering, which contains some of the same stories, was Ficciones.

It’s almost impossible to pin down the stories of Borges. The narratives are non-linear, and describe infinite universes, and in his most famous story ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, the infinite outcomes theory, where all possible outcomes of an event occur simultaneously. Time is an abstract concept throughout. Mirrors and labyrinths add layers of duplicity and intrigue. His work is a kind of maze, passages opening at random, sometimes circling back on each other, or adding new layers on top of existing ideas. Dreams are prominent, blurring the lines between reality and fantasy. There are passages of surrealism. Tales of mythology. Philosophy. It’s a breathtaking array of ideas.

Now to be honest I can admit that some parts of the book I didn’t fully understand, or at least the tales themselves didn’t open to me on first reading. But this is a book that cries out for multiple readings anyway, to try and unlock its secrets. You can tell from the prose that Borges had the most dazzling mind, playful yet sincere, satirical yet earnest. A sheer intellectual heavyweight. It feels daunting initially, reading something with so much heft, that explores such a vast expanse of terrain. But persevere and many delights will be revealed.

Progress Report

So, the latest news here in the UK is that at long last, we have a roadmap out of lockdown and dates for our diaries when (all being well of course) restrictions can be lifted and life can return to something approaching normal. I have found this lockdown (I believe it’s our 3rd) probably the toughest. Being stuck indoors during the stark winter months, with little allowance to go outside and get fresh air, means I’ve felt a little starved of sunlight and despite getting a daily walk and doing workouts at home, I just don’t feel in tip-top condition. Everyday monotony doesn’t help my mental state either – I can say that I have probably gone no further than the nearest supermarket and local walking trails in the whole of February.

So with this backdrop I am in the surprising position of almost having another piece of writing finished. I’ve only spoken about this as yet untitled novel a little bit, and I’m still quite perplexed by it. The tone of the novel is quite far removed from State Line, which is great, I don’t like to do the same thing twice, but there is a ton of inner monologue stuff and very few set-pieces. It’s more psychological and emotional, the main themes being grief and how to start over after significant personal tragedy. And I have no idea how to pace this one. My main worry is that the reader will get bored wading through paragraphs of character self-analysis. When I come to the rewrite I know I’m going to find it so hard to judge what is extraneous and what should remain.

Although I have yet to finish the novel, the first draft should be complete in the next couple of weeks. Another concern is that the conclusion is almost certainly not going to tie up all the loose ends. It’s going to be very open to interpretation, which always annoys some. I think there is a risk that a reader could struggle to see what the point was. I’m asking them to do a lot more work filling in the gaps, and I guess some may think the pay-off isn’t worth it.

All told it should come in about 45-50,000 words, which places it right at the border between novel and novella. Slightly shortly than State Line, but not by much. So that will mean I have written two novels in the space of 18 months, which sounds miraculous written down and even more so repeating back to myself. Whether this one will go on Amazon or not I’ve yet to decide. Once the first draft is complete I’m taking a break for a month or two, which will hopefully coincide nicely with the extra freedoms and the chance to actually see friends and hang out again. I’m looking forward to it, in all truth. Much as I love writing, the thought of having a few weeks of watching Netflix and giving myself some downtime sounds like heaven.

One last push to get there, though.

Year of Wonders

For reasons either of familiarity or to gain knowledge and experience, in the last twelve months the German book club has explored books to do with pandemic or plague. Albert Camus’s The Plague is the most famous, and one I have discussed at length on this blog before, and this month saw us discuss a much earlier tale of pestilence and misery, Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders.

Now the old football cliche is ‘it’s a game of two halves.’ This novel is somewhat like that. Let’s start with the good. The novel is based on a true event, the bubonic plague which afflicted the town of Eyam in Derbyshire in the 17th century. Essentially the town, led by their rector Mompellion, decide to isolate themselves from the outside world after the plague is bought in by a traveller from London, who dies an excruciating and graphically told death in the house of our heroine, Anna Frith. Despite making this decision many of the villagers are wiped out, including Anna’s children. It’s visceral, brutal stuff. The villagers agreed to this self-isolation and saw it as a test of their faith and trust in God, and firmly believed that reward would be waiting for them if they survived.

For the first 250 pages of so, Brooks weaves a tale of immense suffering, persecution under the guise of religion in the form of witch baiting and Wicker Man style ostracising, brutality and pain. But also the great endurance of the human spirit, as Anna helps Mompellion and his wife to administer help and prayer to the sick and dying. Despite all the tragedy their underlying goodness and faith shines through. You can tell an enormous amount of research has been put into the book, and the atmosphere, scene setting, and tone are all spot on.

Then we get to the last 50 pages and the novel turns into a Mills and Boon bodice ripper which runs completely at odds to all that went before. My personal feeling is that Brooks had all of her research to fall back on to start with, but when the characters actually needed a story beyond just that of the plague, she didn’t know where to go next and the whole thing fell apart. It’s genuinely like two different books. Really awful, convoluted plotting (absolutely tons of stuff happens very quickly with minimal explanation), character actions that make no sense, and frankly all plausibility went out the window. Talk about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Really a great shame in the end then. I think the novel could have ended once the village had been rid of the plague and it would remain an atmospheric tale. Don’t read the final 50 pages and you’ll probably enjoy it.

Unorthodox

Actually, the title of the book, as detailed above, is appropriate in more ways than one. Thinking about it now, it’s obvious that was the intention, but this memoir that we read for this month’s German book club, about one woman’s escape from an ultra-religious community, is Unorthodox to its core.

The author Deborah Feldman grew up in an unbelievably strict Hasidic sect in New York. And I mean strict. The first thing that struck me was the utter stupidity of some of the rules she had to live under – showing her soiled sheets to a priest when it was that time of the month, for example. Another jaw-dropping bit, just thrown in at the end of a paragraph, was a teacher who told the class that assimilation into society was the cause of the Holocaust. I was completely taken aback by that. Right from the very start Feldman is confronted with this rhetoric, and like many religious denominations, there is an ongoing struggle to adapt ancient traditions and customs to modern life. In the Hasidic community they mostly don’t, hence the dress etc, but when frictions arise it sows the seeds of doubt in Feldman’s mind.

Her love of reading is highlighted from the opening pages, and it is this that keeps Feldman questioning the orthodoxy. Reading for pleasure (and in English) is banned, so she hides books in her bedroom. Exploring literature opens her mind to new experiences and this exploration was the strongest part of the book for me, it reflected how virtually everyone gets the bug of reading, for the avenues of imagination and freedom it opens up. Indeed, Feldman ends up enrolling on an English course, and through the confidence and strength it gives her, enables her to leave the Hasidic community with her son, and eventually write the very memoir we read.

The other main thread of the story is her arranged marriage to Eli, and the subsequent difficulties they have, mainly around sex, at least to start with. Feldman’s naivety around sex (not even knowing that she had a vagina) is almost impossible to comprehend. Such are the clouds of secrecy that surround the act, with all the rituals to undertake to become as clean and pure as possible for your husband on the wedding night. Of course the problems are evident outside the bedroom as well, as you would expect of a couple who only met twice briefly before they tied the knot. Eventually they divorce and she leaves the community.

Where the waters muddy is in that age-old discussion point of the memoir – how much is really true? Unbeknownst to me, the book was published to a storm of controversy. You would expect pushback from those still within the community, but some eager fact-checkers did some digging and came up with large swathes of Feldman’s past that never came up and would certainly change the narrative (an unmentioned younger sibling for one). She has admitted that some people were left out to protect their privacy, and some events were condensed or given to one character to streamline the story. The disclaimer before the first page suggests as much. But once the questions are there, they are hard to dismiss. I read the book with an open mind and was willing to accept the contents at face value, but with every new facet of information revealed, the questions increase.

I guess every reader has to try to make up their own mind about the essential truths of the book. As a light shining into a reclusive and extreme religious sect, the book is a success. Whether the embellishments and changes made are deliberate misdirection or outright dishonesty are harder to define.

2020: The Reading Year

Another year, another failed Goodreads challenge. Barely scraped a book a week and missed my target of 60 by a long way. Seem to be slowing down as I age, I guess! Quite a lot of them were re-reads as well, so it feels like this year’s highlights are slim pickings. Still, away we go…

Damon Galgut – The Quarry Discovering Galgut has been a massive plus this year. I read a second book of his recently, which was superb, but I prefer this short, sharp, stripped-down tale of murder, which is utterly gripping. Going to hunt down as much of his work as I can find.

Robert Hughes – The Fatal Shore Quite unusual for me to pick non-fiction, but this account of the brutal transportation policy from Britain to Australia was a great read. Comprehensive and incredibly easy to read for a scholarly work. The definitive account, I’d have thought.

Tim Winton – In The Winter Dark Much like the Galgut, this early novella from Winton is bleak and sparse and pulsating. which is right up my street. Compelling.

Gavin Extence – The Universe Versus Alex Woods I picked this novel up on a whim at a library sale, and very glad I did. It’s an unusual tale in many ways, very quirky, but it makes you laugh and the core relationship at its heart is empathetic and poignant. Very much a slow-burner.

Michael FinkelĀ – The Stranger in the Woods Another non-fiction, this one a bizarre tale of a man who upped sticks one day and went to live in the woods. For 27 years. The relationship between author and subject is a little objectionable, but I find I think of this book often since I read it, so it must have done its job.

Michael Sala – The Restorer Did this for Australian book club earlier on in the year. It’s a tense, perfectly paced thriller. The sense of impending tragedy is almost overwhelming, but keeps you turning the pages as if your life depended on it.

Patrick Hamilton – The Slaves Of Solitude Hangover Square is one of my all-time favourite books, so reading another Hamilton was high on my wish list. This proves he’s no one-hit wonder. Contains all the melancholy you expect from Hamilton, but moments of charm and lightheartedness as well.

Lawrence Block – Dead Girl Blues I am one of the world’s biggest Block fans, so I snapped up his new novel immediately (possibly his last considering his age). A brutal and disturbing opening which turns into a really interesting character study of a sociopath. An author in his 80s knocking spots off writers half his age and still capable of shock and awe? What a man.

Ta-Nehisi Coates – Between The World And Me Part memoir, part polemic, written in the form of a letter to his teenage son. I didn’t agree with all of it, but Coates writes with fire in his belly and hope in his heart.

Sally Rooney – Normal People This has been everywhere this year, the TV adaptation was a huge success, so I thought I’d see what the fuss was about and read it. I think the novel is flawed, the secondary characters aren’t that well developed, but the central romance is brilliantly drawn and Rooney clearly has a great ear and eye for teenage life.

OK, so maybe I did read some decent stuff after all. Trying to get anything done during the year we’ve had has been a struggle, but reading has been a great escape from the turmoil of the daily news, and for that I’m grateful. Going to downgrade my challenge next year to a book a week and see how we go. Happy New Year!

Year End Musings

It’s Christmas Eve, and last night I received a notification from the NHS Covid-19 app telling me that I had to self-isolate for 6 days as I had been in recent contact with someone who had tested positive for the virus. I knew this was coming to be fair – a work colleague had let me know yesterday that they had developed symptoms. But it brings all the year’s turmoil into sharp focus as we near its conclusion. It will be all 2020 is remembered for.

On the face of it, my period of isolation will be fine. I’m asymptomatic at the moment, and with a Tier 4 lockdown 2 days away, I wouldn’t have been going out much anyway. A family dinner out has had to be cancelled, which I was looking forward to. But the fridge is well-stocked and I have been refunded in full, so no harm done there either really. The extra time at home will hopefully give me the impetus for a final reading and writing push before 2021 is upon us.

I wrote earlier on this year about how I feared creativity would be hampered by the virus, despite the extra time at home that furlough and lockdown has brought. But I’ve done OK this year. State Line has been completed and published, which is something I’m very proud of. The first draft was completed before all this madness started, but I’ve done two re-writes to get the manuscript into shape and it’s been out there for purchase for nearly a month now. I got Gaslight finished too, which is my magnum opus. Trying to find a home for it will no doubt prove impossible, but I’ll always be amazed and a little intimidated by that novel, that something so epic in scope came from my imagination.

And I’m 20,000 words into a new story. It’s progressing well, and we’re coming into the closing stages now. My word count is still quite slow (it’s taken 3 months to get this far) but I like how it has turned out different to my expectations. There is an air of sorrow about the narrative that I like very much. The same worries about length and theme remain, but I’d feel uncomfortable if they didn’t!

I think what this year has taught me is that you have to recognise what is important, make that front and centre of your life, and discard the things that waste time and hold you back. The importance of family and friends has been reinforced through the lockdowns and distancing, and I hold those bonds closer and dearer than I ever have. But I know that writing must play a central part. For too long I’ve allowed my day-to-day work to intrude on my creative life. There’s no time for that anymore. They are tales that need to be told, and I have to try and dig out as many as I can. So that’s my resolution going into 2021. Merry Christmas one and all.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

After a brief hiatus, I was back for the Germany book club this month. Illness and the Covid-permissible travels of the season meant numbers were thin on the ground. Plus I had the honour of being the only one present who had read the book the whole way through. Such is my lack of a social life…

Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being is considered (I never really know how such accolades are won) as something of a modern classic, a book everyone should read, etc. This was my second reading of the novel and first for a decade, and it is structured in quite an unusual manner. The unidentified narrator tells the story, interspersed with his philosophical musings on various topics, and the timeline shifts all over the place, giving one-line giveaways of major plot events and then going back and re-telling from a different characters perspective. It’s quite an effective method once you get used to it, but the meandering nature could have been why other members struggled to finish or really get involved in the story.

The underpinning theme of the novel is that life only occurs once, and that every event in life occurs only once and never again. Hence the ‘lightness of being.’ Kundera uses this idea of lightness as freedom, and the main character Tomas certainly lives free from the burdens of consequence, with his vast array of lovers and long-suffering wife at home. His mistress Sabina also displays this lightness, taking satisfaction, not guilt or shame, from the act of betrayal. Tomas’s wife Teresa is the opposite, ‘weighed down’ by her husband’s infidelities but blaming herself for his actions. Indeed, the author’s notion of love and sex is defined as light, love being seen as fleeting and brought about by coincidence rather than strong feeling.

But Tomas does commit in the end, in the end deciding that if there is only one shot at life, then committing to someone can be accomplished without it becoming ‘heavy’. I haven’t explained the idea perfectly, but I’m sure you get the idea!

My favourite parts of the novel were the more political sections. Tomas gets in trouble with the Communists in Prague because of an article he wrote whilst a surgeon. Franz, a lover of Sabina and something of a dreamer, ends up seeking his ‘lightness’ in Thailand, joining a protest march on the Cambodian border and ending up mortally wounded in a Bangkok mugging. These scenes were more meaty and apprehensive than the philosophy stuff, and provided a nice contrast.

There’s tons more I could say about this novel – it has a vast array of reflections, religious and historical themes, and a spot of magical realism. It’s very much a novel of ideas, and interpretation of those ideas based on a number of differing viewpoints. It’s style may put some off, but I would persevere – it never tries to answer the existential questions, it forces us to look at them to make sense of what can seem a jumbled, haphazard life.