Unfinished Fiction

Consider this an un-review. In recent years I’ve surprised myself with a growing number of books that I’ve abandoned before finishing. Sometimes I’m inspired by a film adaptation to read the original story. Such was the case with Twelve Years a Slave, which I thought as a film was an intriguing slave narrative. The book, however, was written as a memoir by Solomon Northup in the mid-1800s. For this modern reader, the prose was too formal and laden with description. Ten pages in, I gave up. But I wasn’t alone. According to Kobo, their e-book of Twelve Years a Slave was left unfinished by over 70% of readers who started it.12 years a slave

When choosing books, another draw for me has been the shortlists of major prizes, such as The Booker and Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction.  This gave me both Ann Pachett’s Bel Canto and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. With both, the writing and pace held my interest until I was just past the halfway mark.  For me, these applauded books sagged in the middle. Bel Canto, a modern-day hostage drama, took its grip off me when I didn’t care about the characters anymore. Some of the hostages were so two-dimensional I was wishing for their release or death just to have them out of the way. With The Luminaries, the middle lost me when I realised the plotlines and characters were too familiar. Of contemporary fiction, I’ve read many a novel set in Australia or New Zealand in the 19th century.  Like other books of this sub-genre, the focus was on characters, many humorously flawed, seeking their fortunes. Without the laughs, I probably wouldn’t have made it halfway.

Perhaps the most disappointing category of unfinished novels is the shelf inhabited by some of my favourite writers who let me down later in their careers. Annie Proulx’s Barkskins did just that. I thought The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain were exquisite pieces of writing, with passages and scenes that I still remember years later. Barkskins started out well, but killed off a couple of the main characters too soon. I stayed with it for a while into the next part as it is historically interesting, being about logging and the clearing of forests in French Canada in the 17th and 18th centuries. But grieving for these deceased characters, without replacing them with equally or even more interesting ones, got the best of me and I couldn’t continue.

Are there lessons to be learned from all of this? Just a few. The main one is that the appreciation of writing is highly subjective – something I try to remind myself of every time I get a rejection from a publisher.  The other involves the need to give up. Reading shouldn’t be a competition, even with oneself. Giving up on reading a book is not the same as giving up on writing one, especially if what I’m reading isn’t entertaining or helping me to grow as a person.

Crime Fiction and Tana French

When I occasionally read crime fiction I feel as if I’m watching television. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In recent years television has improved immensely, especially in the crime department, with the likes of Line of Duty, The Wire, The Fall and Luther, to name a few. But where crime fiction and television fall short are in being plot-driven. With fiction, I invest my time and soul into the activity of reading and I expect at the least a story which is character-driven – for me, a mark of good writing. Of course, some of the best television crime, like those already mentioned, have strong characters, whose lives and character journeys develop as subplots to the main crime plots.

I’ve recently read Tana French’s The Trespasser, a murder story set in Dublin. While it’s a plot-driven page turner, it’s equally about Detective Antoinette Conway. As narrator, Conway is opinionated and fierce, encapsulated in an entertaining Irish idiom. As a detective, she can be sarcastic, brisk and aggressive, especially with her co-workers. She knows that she ‘lacks charm’ but believes it’s her best defence against the squad that wants to be rid of her. With the murder story taking its twists and turns, this character makes her own journey of self-awareness and identity. And like Line of Duty, the story thrives on long, but gripping, interrogation scenes that explore the psychology of the interviewers as much as those of the interviewees.Tana French trespasser

I do wonder if The Trespasser didn’t have detectives and a dead body, it may have been shortlisted for awards in 2016, alongside Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent and Rose Tremaine’s The Gustav Sonata.

Gertrude Bell in Persia

She’s been described as ‘the female Lawrence of Arabia.’ I confess that I’ve used that glib and convenient phrase myself. But it doesn’t do her the least bit of justice.  One could argue that she accomplished a great deal more than T.E. Lawrence and that she had more barriers to overcome along the way.

Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was an archaeologist, scholar, writer and a political advisor, helping to establish modern-day Iraq and the National Museum of Iraq. As a contemporary of Lawrence, she worked with him at one point in Egypt. Both were British born and both developed a love and consequently insider’s knowledge of what was then called Arabia and Persia (or even more broadly and strangely to modern ears ‘the Orient.’) While Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom is still read by British and American forces stationed in the Middle East, Bell’s writings on Iraq and Syria are studied by military experts and scholars the world over.

I recently read the first book she wrote, Safar Nameh: Persia Pictures.  It’s a journal of her travels in 1892 to what was then Persia, covering modern-day Iran and much of Turkey. She was accompanying her uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles, the British Minister to the region, which gave her access to people and places unavailable to most Westerners, especially women.Gertrude bell

Persia Pictures shows us a travel writer at the naissance of her writing life, before she knew herself the role writing would play in her career and the mark it would leave on her legacy. She relays impressions of the landscape, the towns and villages and the people that inhabit them with a sense of wonderment – that first discovery – of a part of the world few in the West knew much about. With this is her discovery of the Persian language and some of its most revered writers – in preparation for the adventure, she became highly proficient in Persian. (At this point in her life, she was already fluent in French and had begun studying Arabic.) Among the gems of this book are her fragments of translations of the Persian poet Hafiz into English. A few years later she published her translations of The Divan of Hafiz.

Bell concludes this short volume with what can be best described as a meditation on travelling. Here, she summarises her encounters with the locals in her role as traveller: ‘Although your acquaintance may be short in hours, it is long in experience; and when you part you feel as intimate as if you had shared the same slice of bread-and-butter at your nursery and the same bottle of claret in your college hall. The vicissitudes of the road have a wonderful talent for bringing out the fine flavour of character.’

With the films Queen of the Desert and Letters from Baghdad, Bell is slowly emerging from obscurity, but still appears to be relegated to ‘women’s studies’ as opposed to the writer, scholar and historical figure that her feats deserve. Yet, the day might come when T.E. Lawrence is referred to as ‘the male Gertrude Bell.’

Faulks – Where My Heart Used to Beat

I loved, loved, loved Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks’ novel about the horrors of the First World War that managed a complex love story at the same time. Where My Heart Used to Beat is also a meditation on the experience of war, but with a look at the lingering psychological damages many years after. Less of a war story than Birdsong, this novel’s protagonist, Robert, is also less likeable. He’s a medical doctor specialising in psychiatry who’s melancholic and unable to form meaningful relationships. At the start, he thinks and leads the reader to think that this emotional paralysis is due to the heartbreak he experienced while on leave in Italy. But as the story progresses, he finds himself undergoing a sort of talk therapy that makes him revisit his battle field experiences and to some extent those of his father, who died fighting in WWI. With this, his malaise takes on a new perspective and is part of a larger re-evaluation of the his life.S Faulkes

The narrative structure relays these events in ways that make this a page-turner and keeps Faulks on the ‘popular fiction’ bookshelves. But Robert is a self-made scholar whose interests in the classics and philosophy, set alongside the burgeoning field of psychology, make this a deeper, more literary read. In these ways, it stands up to Birdsong, but for me, didn’t have quite the emotional impact as this earlier work. And there were a couple of minor technical flaws in Where My Heart Used to Beat surprisingly not picked up by the literary editor.  But for Faulks’ fans, a worthwhile read. all the same..

Revisiting Emily Dickinson

Occasionally the screensaver on my Kindle pops up with the dour face of Emily Dickinson. She has become one of the most recognisable faces in American literature. Yet, only recently has her life been transferred to the screen with Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion.  The film d’auteur has its tableau moments, which slows down the pace and might not appeal to some viewers. But I found this fitting with the nature of Dickinson’s poetry – her elliptical language could cause images to freeze in the air. I liked too that the film contained sharp, intelligent dialogue in keeping with the dialogic style of many of Dickinson’s poems.  At the same time, these dialogues – many between Emily and her sister – remind audiences of the social liEmily D 2mitations thrusted upon 19th century New England life, especially for women. Although mostly a contemplative and melancholic film, humour and wit are present in a way that I felt was realistic to the poet’s life (Dickinson scholars are free to differ on this point.)

I’m also grateful to this film for reminding me that Dickinson wrote some poems about the US Civil War. We tend to think of Walt Whitman as the Civil War poet and of war poetry as being a male preserve.  But here is a Dickinson sampling:


Inconceivably solemn!
Things go gay
Pierce — by the very Press
Of Imagery —

Their far Parades — order on the eye
With a mute Pomp —
A pleading Pageantry —

Flags, are a brave sight —
But no true Eye
Ever went by One —
Steadily —

Music’s triumphant —
But the fine Ear
Winces with delight
Are Drums too near —

Since I was a teenager, I’ve liked Dickinson’s work, though I confess that there was a lot I didn’t understand younger. I think her writing and people’s understanding of it has been more helped by cognitive poetics (and other areas of literary stylistics) than by traditional literary criticism with its focus on biography, religion and history. Cognitive stylistics has shown how Dickinson manipulates grammar and word-choice to create different worlds that wrangle with, among other things, ontological questions. Here, I’m thinking mainly of the scholarship of Margaret Freeman, who gives a wonderful analysis of one of my favourite Dickinson poems:

A Spider sewed at Night

Without a Light

Upon an Arc of White

If Ruff it was of Dame

Or Shroud of Gnome

Himself himself inform.

Of Immortality

His Strategy Was Physiognomy.

(J 1138, lines 1-6; ms)

I think it’s time to return to this poet and see how I get on with her language and wisdom in my middle age.

On James Baldwin

I read James Baldwin for the first time when I was 13. My English teacher was keen on contemporary writers and issued us a summer’s reading list, which included Notes of a Native Son. It was the first essay collection I had ever read. I was catapulted out of my comfort zone of fiction, poetry and magazine articles from the likes of Time and People and into a world that not only employed metaphors and symbols, but dissected them.  This world had a social conscience and an eloquence that went beyond the dinner-table rumblings of my anti-establishment older siblings.

A few months later I read Giovanni’s Room. That was my first openly gay novel – though there were plenty of suggestively gay works from Wilde, Forster and Mann. Neither of Baldwin’s books were part of the standard curriculum. There were other African-American writers taught in those days, but they tended to be historical slave narratives. Perhaps Baldwin’s books were too raw in their expression to be official reading material for young minds. I am to this day grateful for my English teacher. Together these works formed a literary coming of age.

With the release of the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, I’ve been reminded of Iamnotyour negroBaldwin’s life as a civil rights activist. Director Raoul Peck takes us on a journey through the civil rights protests and public discussions on race during the 60s and 70s, with some unspoken allusions to present-day hate crimes in America. Baldwin is positioned at the centre of this sometimes-loose narrative. We watch him on television talk shows, lecturing at all-white university campuses and demurely in the crowd of some of the most iconic marches of the twentieth century. The real treat and reason for seeing this film are the sonorous tones of actor Samuel L. Jackson reading passages from Baldwin’s much-quoted works while images recapture the horrors. Although some of these quotes have been exploited on posters, coffee mugs and Facebook postings, in the context of this film they have re-found their rightful home.

Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday

I was drawn to this book by its author (loved Swift’s Waterland) and cover, a portion of one of Modigliani’s reclining nudes. I’ll confess that I was also seduced by the compact size of the novel of some 150 pages after having just finished a 400+ pager and having another literary brick waiting for me.

Mothering Sunday is a beautifully written meditation on events that take place in one day in Edwardian England in the life of a maid, Jane Fairchild. Although it says ‘a romance’ on the cover, I thought it more erotic than romantic. Jane has been having an affair with Paul Sheringham, a wealthy neighbour of high social standing who is already engaged to someone of a similar background. More than anything else this novel is a study of character, class and the way our lives can be altered by one incident.

Worth reading for the writing alone, this is a masterclass in controlled narrative, navigating a disrupted storyline with descriptive mood and motifs.

Below is another of Modigliani’s nudes, one which I personally prefer for its boldness – this is from 1916.mothering sunday 3

The Essex Serpent

Some are describing it as gothic because it’s set in late Victoriana and features the fears and alleged sightings of a winged leviathan. But for me, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent is mostly a novel of ideas. It cleverly employs characters to represent the burgeoning sciences placed in opposition to traditional Christianity and superstition. It brought to mind Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon, which also mixed history with legend and speculation during the Age of Enlightenment. But unlike Pynchon, at times the opposition performed by characters in The Essex Serpent is perhaps a bit too blatant – the novel works best in its more nuanced and subtle moments.

The story is also more a feminist narrative than it is a gothic one. The main character Cora has lost her husband, but finds it hard to play the role of the grieving widow with her joy and sense of freedom getting in the way. An amateur palaeontologist, Cora is quite happy to tromp around the marshes in men’s tweed jackets, her hair dishevelled. Her companion and maid of sorts, Martha, is an active socialist in what the reader knows is the naissance of the suffragette movement.

The Essex Serpent is nevertheless a compulsive read, with an understated love story competing with other plotlines and always an incident cropping up to change the direction altogether.essex serpent 2

Ever the stylistician, I must comment on the writing. The descriptions are exquisite in a pictorial way, though lacking in the psychological detail and intensity one might find in other literary fiction. There isn’t the inventive turn of phrase found in Mantel or McEwan. But the writing contributes to making the work engaging all the same and another reason for reading this book.

Writing ‘The Scent of Oranges’

Since the publication of my short story ‘The Scent of Oranges,’ some people have asked me why I chose to write on such a subject. And they’re speaking through gritted teeth, unable to hide their discomfort. The story is about a woman paedophile.

The topic surfaced in part because Mslexia announced that their showcase theme for issue 73 was ‘guilt.’ Of course, like any good self-absorbed writer, I first looked to my own life. We all have our residue of guilt. The guilt leftover from actions in my childhood, some of which I’ve written about, are at their strongest when viewed from a child’s perspective. In keeping with the audience and purpose of Mslexia, I wanted this to be an adult woman’s story. Most of my guilty feelings from adult years are rather undramatic and feeble – not so much guilt, as feeling regretful for not keeping in touch with friends or not taking on more responsibilities or not acting in a more sympathetic way – those sorts of things.  Then I considered the actions of others I’ve known over the years. While I’ve known some dodgy characters, I was never directly involved in their white-collar crimes. Even those adventures seemed too soft for a short story about guilt.

I needed something with force.

Paedophilia is a topic with force. As a child, it terrified me; as an adult, it sickens me. Unlike other crimes, it’s also something I can’t imagine myself doing.  Anytime I see a good heist film, I envision myself with the toolbelt and all the technological know-how to break into the safe, take the rolls of money and get away with it. As an antihero, I’ve even imagined myself committing murder – there are some people I think the world would be better without. But I cannot conjure up a scene involving paedophilia with me in it.

Of course, it’s possible to write about characters unlike ourselves or people we know. I find that easier when I write male characters, and I did in fact write about a male paedophile some years ago in my play A Special Boy. There, I kept myself at a safe distance from the awfulness of the topic. The play was more about a misguided community of vigilantes than a pederast – and that character was an emotional abuser and manipulator, leaving the existence of physical abuse for the audience to decide.mslexia-march2017

For ‘The Scent of Oranges,’ once again I’ve positioned myself and the reader at a slight distance.  I placed the physical act in the past. The paedophile has served her time and has to deal with life on the outside. I drew some ideas from the newspapers. Occasionally one reads about a woman being arrested for having a relationship with a teenage boy – in other words, the boy had to be old enough to get it up, but not old enough for legal sex. But I didn’t want to make it appear that the paedophile was a victim of strict laws about the age of consent – that would have been a copout. So, in the end [SPOILER ALERT] it’s a battle between guilt and temptation to do it again.

The Improbability of Love

Note to self – don’t judge a book by its title. Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love is not genre romance at all. I’d say it’s middle-brow literary fiction. The only love story in it is a small subplot. The rest is a delightful satirical romp through the world of masterpiece art collecting, complete with the avarice, pretence and money-laundering one would expect. ‘The Improbability of Love’ is the title of a painting by Antoine Watteau, a real-life French painter of the rococo period. At some point in its 300-year past the painting went missing and in this story it turns up in a junk shop in London and eventually into the hands of our clueless heroine.Improbability of Love 1

The story integrates elements within the painting, the artist’s emotionally-wrought life and the painting’s history of ownership with a modern-day story depicting many of the same themes. While other novels have fused a painting into a storyline (e.g., Frayn’s Headlong, about a long-lost Bruegel), this is unique in giving voice to the painting – literally. In keeping with the painting’s provenance, the narrative voice of this masterpiece has traces of French and snobbery from years of living in grand homes, including a stint at Buckingham Palace. Rothschild wisely uses the painting to tell only part of the story, allowing for a more tradition third-person omniscient narrator for the bulk of the novel.

But the painting does get some of the best lines, such as this gem:

Like other successful religions, art has evolved and offers glorious temples and learned high priests as well as covenants and creeds. The new churches are known as museums, in which the contemplation of art has become a kind of prayer and communal activity. The very wealthy can create private chapels stuffed with the unimaginable rarities and guarantee a front row seat. It was ever thus.

Although The Improbability of Love is on the whole clever and imaginative, it does falter by bringing into the plot the Nazis and their notorious looting of art works. That plotline is getting worn out.

That aside, it’s an excellent book, deserving of its position on the Bailey Prize shortlist 2016.