Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Where do all these decades go?


Okay so that’s me. I’m taking my annual break. No more from me until 2011. Twenty-eleven – that still sounds so sci-fi to me. As a kid growing up in Scotland in the sixties the 21st century was so far away. That was Gerry-Anderson-land. And now we’re here, in fact that’s another decade done and dusted. When did that happen?

There will be some changes with The Truth About Lies when I return in January however. As regular readers will know I fell sick about four years ago (burnout) and – much to my irritation – I did not bounce back with my usual . . . er, bounciness. I’m all better now – have been for about nine months – but things have not quite got back to what passed for normal in my life. For starters I’m now writing a twice-weekly blog which although it kept me sane and gave my life purpose while I was ill now takes up far too much of my time. I’ve tried to get back into my current novel and although I have made significant progress (a complete rewrite of the 23000 words I’d already written plus an additional 13000 words) to be blunt it’s dragging on. I need to be done with it and start thinking about other things.

I’m not a quick writer – no book a year from this guy – and so when I start a new project I fully expect to spend several years in that particular universe. Because of ill health this one has taken longer than I expected but that’s not been a bad thing. The shape of the piece has changed substantially since I first conceived of it and although it’s less literary than I’d hoped the new approach suits the material. But I’m afraid I’ll start to lose momentum if I don’t dedicate a substantial chunk of my time to finishing it and so that is what I’m going to do. There, I’ve said it.

So, from January on expect only one post a week from me. I still have a small stockpile which needs to get used up and that will give me about three months’ peace before I need to think about writing new ones. I will, however, try to keep up with the review copies I’m sent which will probably mean that the site will get a little book review heavy for a while. I may also make an exception for the occasional Aggie and Shuggie if I get any more reviews myself; they don’t take long to write.

I won’t disappear from the blogosphere entirely but I’m going to be a lot stricter with my time and so if I don’t comment quite as much as I used to on other people’s sites then I apologise in advance. I’ve started to poke my nose out of my hole on Facebook so if you’ve not befriended me there please do. Here’s a link. It will enable wee touches so you know I’ve not forgotten you.

In the meantime I’d just like to wish all my readers a very Happy Christmas and a Happy New Year when it comes. Fill up over the holidays: it looks like 2011 might be a lean one. Now, bugger off and leave me alone.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

A response to 'Mr Bleaney'

Someone once said that the great thing is not to be different from other people but to be different from yourself. – Philip Larkin in a radio interview

Philip Larkin never set out to be a librarian. In fact, according to his biographer, Andrew Motion, in his telling biography Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life, “[j]udging by his treatment of books in St John’s [College, Oxford], he didn’t have much affection for libraries.” (p.109) This I read in my personal copy of the biography which used to be housed in the library of the Maze Political Prison in Belfast where it served a nine-year sentence from May 1993 until July 2002. It was borrowed by 25 inmates in its first fifteen months and then never again.

The reason Larkin ended up working as a librarian his whole life was down to chance more than anything else. After leaving university in 1943 he has aspirations to be a writer. He received a first in English language and literature. He had already begun work on the text that would eventually become the novel Jill but was struggling. He was realistic enough, even back then, to realise that he’d need another source of income until fame found its way to his door. So he applied to the Civil Service who promptly rejected him. He wrote to his friend Jim Sutton:

Did I tell you my Civil Service job fell through? Sfact. They can’t have liked my cheerful determination to be a writah [sic] and to use the CS merely as a means to livelihood. I am now perilously near being dragged into the Foreign Office as a hack clerk. (p.107)

This new possibility had nothing to do with Larkin. As a matter of routine the Civil Service had passed on his application but he needn’t have worried because the Foreign Office didn’t want him either. No doubt he did little to hide his utter lack of enthusiasm. He admitted to Sutton that he thought work was a good thing “in small doses. It canalizes one’s energy and stops one from starving” (p.108) but the simple fact is that everything going on around him was nothing more than a distraction from his writing.

For several weeks he kept working away on his book until one day out of the blue “a letter arrived from the Ministry of Labour, pointing out that his rejection by the Civil Service and the Foreign Office didn’t mean he should stop applying for other jobs” (p.109) – ah, such different, more civilised times – and so he picked up that day’s copy of the Birmingham Post, noticed that Wellington, Shropshire was advertising for a librarian, thought, How hard could that be? and applied.

His dad, Sydney, helped him with the application form, provided him with a green-bound copy of The Public Library System of Great Britain and told him to swot up prior to his interview. Larkin made a trip into Coventry where a helpful senior assistant spend a morning with him explaining “how books were ordered, accessioned and catalogued, and then given little pockets with individual tickets in them that were slipped into borrowers’ cards when the book was lent.” (p.110) Three days following his interview a letter arrived addressed to a ‘Mr Larking’ telling him that he’d got the job. Following a short exchange wherein Larkin confirmed the starting salary (and pointed out the correct spelling of his name) he accepted.

The idea of looking for a flat of his own was too much for the young Larkin to contemplate. He had been mollycoddled as a child and really hadn’t much of a clue how to fend for himself: “[h]e had never cooked a meal, never washed his own clothes, never had to pay a bill.” (p.111) He opted to rent rooms and take it from there.

The first place he settled on was 40 Church Street which was chilly, gloomy and not especially friendly. He had his own bedroom but he shared a sitting-room, kitchen and bathroom with two other lodgers. His landlady, Miss Jones, refused to allow him to play his jazz records which only added to his general misery. Jazz was always a duke ellington major part of Larkin’s life. He once said he could live a week without poetry but not a day without jazz.

Larkin’s jazz heroes and heroines were a restricted group: King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Eddie Condon. – Dr John White, Larkin With Jazz

I’d still like to think he might find something to like in some of the Bill Evans I’ve been listening to while I write this.

At first he hated the job but it grew on him and he grew into it. In later years, when called upon to explain his success as a librarian, Larkin said:

A librarian can be one of a number of things. He can be almost a pure scholar or he can be a technician . . . or he can be a pure administrator, or he . . . can just be a nice chap to have around which is the role I vaguely thought I filled. (p.113)

In January 1944, having taken as much as he could bear while with Miss Jones et al, Larkin moved to a boarding house in King Street called ‘Glenworth’ and the tender care of his new landlady, Miss Tomlinson. He was immediately disappointed with the place and told his parents:

There is plenty to grumble about. It is undeniably dirty: the food is scarce and occasionally badly prepared (we had an incredible kind of ray fish last week that smelt and tasted strongly of ammonia) and Miss Tomlinson is uncouth and moody. (p.123,124)

He also failed to bond with his fellow three lodgers.

In June 1946 a position opened up for a sub-librarian with University College, Leicester which he applied for and got.

Larkin lived in three different digs during his three years in the city. While he looked for the first he lodged in Loughborough, ten miles to the north, at his sister’s house. […] After three weeks of this he settled for the best alternative he could find: ‘a bed-sitting room – an attic really – very noisy with trams and 45 shillings [£2.25] a week, excluding lunch.’ At 172 London Road in Leicester. The noise (the trams weren’t discontinued until 1949), his three fellow-lodgers and the expense irritated him, but in other respects he was content. (p.149)

In August though his landlady, Joan Sutcliffe, told him that his room was needed for another lodger and so he had to make arrangements to move this time to an attic flat at 6 College Street. “‘Picture me in another garret,’ he told Sutton.” (p.171)

The only plus here was that, “the landlady … is deaf, and agrees to almost anything you ask her.” (p.171)

His next career move took him to Belfast. Queen’s University arranged for him to have a bed-sitting room in Queen’s Chambers, a tall Victorian hall of residence overlooking the main campus. On the whole it was very nice and he felt quite settled nevertheless when he wrote to his mother he said his room reminded him “of a very cheerless very bare hotel” (p.198) and generally bemoaned the furnishings and décor.

Holtby House In 1955 Larkin relocated for the last time, to Hull, where he would live out the rest of his life; he died in 1985. The University found him digs on the first floor of Holtby House in Cottingham which was a small hall of residence reserved for bachelor members of staff and post-graduate students. He was not well pleased with the accommodation: Holtby House “is not suitable: small, bare floored and noisy: I feel as if I were lying in some doss-house at night with hobos snoring and quarrelling all around me.” (p.247) Maeve Brennan recalls this remark:

I remember walking with him once towards Cottingham, a village-cum-suburb just outside Hull. As we passed a field in which some smart new pig-styes had been erected, round aluminium huts with coolie-hat style roofs, he commented: ‘Those pigs have better accommodation than the University Librarian!’ – The Philip Larkin I Knew, p.25

After a few weeks he escaped to “11 Outlands Road, also in Cottingham, where the landlady Mrs Dowling was ‘extremely kind and thoughtful’, the food was ‘not bad’, but ‘the house was too small’ and the family’s radio ‘like a nightmare,’” (p.247)

It was there, or thereabouts, that he wrote the only poem he managed to finish soon after arriving in Hull – ‘Mr. Bleaney’ (originally ‘Mr. Grindly’):


'This was Mr Bleaney's room. He stayed
The whole time he was at the Bodies, till
They moved him.' Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,
Fall to within five inches of the sill,

Whose window shows a strip of building land,
Tussocky, littered. 'Mr Bleaney took
My bit of garden properly in hand.'
Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook

Behind the door, no room for books or bags –
'I'll take it.' So it happens that I lie
Where Mr Bleaney lay, and stub my fag
s On the same saucer-souvenir, and try

Stuffing my ears with cotton-wool, to drown
The jabbering set he egged her on to buy.
I know his habits – what time he came down,
His preference for sauce to gravy, why

He kept on plugging at the four aways –
Likewise their yearly frame: the Frinton folk
Who put him up for summer holidays,
And Christmas at his sister's house in Stoke.

But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread

That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don't know.

About seventeen years later a mimeographed copy was passed to me during an English lesson and changed my life forever. Okay, perhaps that’s an exaggeration – you know the way we rewrite our own histories – because I had been writing poetry for a couple of years by then but it had lacked direction. The only poet up until then who had had any real impact on me was Wilfred Owen but the problem there was all he wrote about was war and, since we hadn’t been at war for some twenty-eight years and wouldn’t be for about another ten, war wasn’t really what I wanted to write about.

The thing that struck me most about this piece was how unpoetic it is. Yes it rhymes and the lines have a regular ten-syllable beat – through when you read it you’d never know – but where are all the babbling books and burning tygers? There’s nothing pretty here or Romantic. And the only mention of anything resembling Nature in the piece is some building land and that’s littered. Up until then I have never imagined that poetry could deal with anything that wasn’t in some way idealised and . . . well, poeticised to death.

Why though did this poem have such an effect on me? I had been in a B&B when on holiday once when I was about four or five but I remember nothing about the trip. All our other holidays were spent under canvas (not that we went on that many to be honest). All I can put it down to was that I was starting to ask the big questions at this point in my life, the whys that never seem to match up with the answers people say should be a perfect fit. Here was a poem that didn’t talk down to me, didn’t present any fake answer. Larkin told it how he saw it. I imagine he had read Nietzsche by this point in his life (especially bearing in mind his father’s political proclivities) so he was well aware what happens when ones stares into an abyss. I was not, although I thought what Nietzsche said was dead cool the first time I heard it, too.

The first five stanzas are marked by short, clipped sentences. In these he is looking out at Bleaney’s world. The last two comprise of one long sentence in which the narrator wallows in his own plight followed by a punch line which, “when it finally comes,” as David Lodge put it in his essay ‘Metonymic Muse’, “seems to spread back dismally through the whole poem, through the whole life of the unhappy man who utters it.” The narrator is not disparaging when he talks about Bleaney; he simply takes note. It’s only when he takes his place, lies on his bed, looks out of his window, that he starts to realise that Bleaney represents his future. There is no irony or satire here, a little humour, but that’s it. Just as it depicts a life stripped bare so likewise what we have here is a poem stripped bare.

After years of reading this poem I am not so sure about the “I don’t know,” at the end though. It depends how you read it. I know how Larkin read it but he was quick to point out that he only made recordings of his poems to show how they could be read not necessarily how they should be read. A lot of the time when people use the words, “I don’t know,” or more often these days I suppose, “I dunno,” which is usually embedded in a deep sigh, what they’re saying is, “I most certainly know but I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to go there.” I wondered if the narrator in the poem is Larkin himself. Larkin once said: “Don’t confuse me with the poems: I’m bigger than they are.” I can’t argue with that – I could say that about my own writing – that that doesn’t mean that a poem like ‘Mr. Bleaney’ doesn’t provide a snapshot and snapshots can be revealing even if they don’t tell everything. I think in this poem Larkin is both the narrator and Bleaney and what Larkin is seeing here is what Beckett saw in Krapp – his future. Both ‘Mr. Bleaney’ and Krapp’s Last Tape were written just as the authors were about to become famous; their lives could have ended very differently. In his book Philip Larkin: Poetry That Builds Bridges, Sisir Kumar Chatterjee has this thought:

The speaker may not “know” for certain, but he certainly guesses that Bleaney’s acceptance of or rather resignation to his unsatisfactory and unsatisfying condition and pattern of life was only apparent. As Larkin himself remarked, “Perhaps he [Bleaney] hated it [his life] as much as I did. The implication of the final gesture is that inwardly Bleaney was troubled (like the clouds tousled by the “frigid wind” which he used to watch standing absentmindedly by the window) by the “dread” of being misunderstood by people who evaluate a man’s nature and character from the exterior tenor of his life. Bleaney might also have been disturbed by a feeling of self-pity that led him to hopelessly rationalise the life he was doomed to live as something deservingly proportionate to his potentials. […] Thus, beneath its surface, ‘Mr. Bleaney’ contains an emotion of “distanced compassion” – compassion for the imagined suffering of a comical stereotype. (p.206)

Bleaney is a projection. We only get to hear what others think or imagine. We never know. Not for sure. It’s easy to assume that the narrator is disillusioned with his life. I think that’s perhaps the wrong word, unillusioned would be better. The narrator of the poem does his sums in plain view: this is who am I, this is what I will become.

<Samsung NV3, Samsung VLUU NV3> For the record by the way, it wasn’t until 1956, at the age of 34, Larkin rented a self-contained flat on the top-floor of 32 Pearson Park, a three-storey red-brick house overlooking the park, previously the American Consulate. Later he moved into his own house at 105, Newland Park, Cottingham Road – just opposite the university.

Like Larkin none of my poems come with answers, not many anyway. I love trying to answer questions. Just get me started on: What is a poem? and you’ll see how much I enjoy trying to answer the unanswerable. My goal as a poet has always been a simple one: to write my ‘Mr. Bleaney.’ I may well have. I don’t know. For a long time I’ve wanted to do something with the poem but I never knew what and I wasn’t sure if I dared. Then one day I read about something that Carol Ann Duffy did about three years ago. She wrote to a load of famous poets asking them first to choose a famous poem and then to write a poem in answer to it. What a great idea!

Without thinking I opened up a Word document and began to write. I don’t know about you but I’ve often found, thinking just gets in the way. I’m not sure if you’d call what I came up with an answer to ‘Mr. Bleaney’ but it is does individualise the poem. I made it about me. It’s not 100% about me and I couldn’t even call it autobiographical because, well, I’d need to be dead because in the poem the father (that would be me) is dead. The question the poem addresses is not quite the same as Larkin’s. It is similar though, more refined. The problem is, when you have a corker of an ending, do you muck with it? Take for example the ending to the original Planet of the Apes. How could you improve on that? Well, Tim Burton proved he couldn’t.

Anyway, for better or worse, see what you think:

(after Larkin)

‘This was my late father’s room. He’d always
wanted a place where he could write in peace –
somewhere quiet.’ Bookcases, coated in dust
line the walls and crowd around a tired desk

on which there sits an ancient Dell PC,
a Pentium III. ‘Dad wasn’t one to
throw out something that still had life in it.’
Clock, ergonomic chair, lamp, no pictures

on the walls, no family snaps or prints –
‘I’ll sort it.’ So I pack a lifetime’s worth
in boxes and crates and stub out my fags
on this heart-shaped dish his wife seemingly

brought him back from America. ‘I don’t
want a thing,’ his daughter said, ‘Sell it all.’
You learn a lot about a man by what
he leaves behind and what he takes with him.

He loved the classics: Vaughan Williams and Bax,
the poems of Larkin, plays by Beckett.
The book he was reading waits by his chair
a receipt from Tesco’s keeping his place.

Once I expect he’d have stood here like me
and looked around at this now empty shell
imagined the things he might do in it
and shivered at the possibility

that one day he might think some great thought here,
might write something down that could change the world
or at the least make some sense out of it.
Perhaps he did. No one will ever know.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Sing Sorrow Sorrow

sing sorrow sorrow

Sing sorrow, sorrow, but may the good prevail – The Oresteia

I was reading an article in The Globe and Mail recently about fairy tales part of which I’d like to quote here:

Certain fairy tales resemble memes, a term coined by Richard Dawkins to represent the cultural evolution and dissemination of ideas and practices.. These tales form and inform us about human conflicts that continue to challenge us: Cinderella (abusive treatment of a stepchild), Little Red Riding Hood (rape), Bluebeard (serial killer), Hansel and Gretel (child abandonment), Donkey Skin (incest). In fact, the memetic classical tales and many others have enabled us – metaphorically – to focus on crucial human issues, to create – and recreate – possibilities for change. – Jack Zipes, ‘Why fairy tales are immortal’, The Globe and Mail, 21st November 2010

Of course he’s talking here about fairy tales as sanitised versions of folk tales. Why I mention this is because the book I’ve just finished reading, Sing Sorrow Sorrow, a collection of “dark and chilling tales” published by Seren Books, contains two stories that are loosely based on two of the fairy tales above, Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood. Both delve into the origins of the tales and having done some research on Little Red Riding Hood myself I can tell you that a lot of tweaking has gone on over the years.

The book was the brainchild of Penparcau-based writer, editor and translator Gwen Davies:

gwen-davies1I pitched the idea to Seren, the publishers, because I noticed that a lot of writers from Wales were interested in dark themes, that Welsh settings lend themselves particularly well to spookiness, and that Welsh folklore and myth are usually concerned with the blackest of universal themes: death, dysfunction and unhealthy urges. – ‘Death, dysfunction and unhealthy urges’, Cambrian News Online, 26th October 2010

When I first got this book I told people that I was reviewing a book of ‘ghost stories’ primarily because that’s what I thought I’d been sent. The final line of the blurb on the back, for example, invites us to, “Draw up your chair[s]: the fire’s lit,” and the opening story in the book, ‘Puck’s Tale’, in fact takes place gathered around a fireplace in a gentleman’s club where Puckeridge has been impelled to tell his tale:

You’re right, of course. I will speak, yes. It’s the very least you fellows deserve. But at some point this evening I fear that I must affect an abrupt departure. I’m hoping that it will occur following what I am about to tell you, but if, well, if you should look up and find this chair that I’m sitting in now unexpectedly empty, well, I’ll hopefully pre-empt your forgiveness. And hope still further that, should that moment arise, I’ll have been granted time enough to furnish you with sufficient information to allow you all to formulate some sort of reason as to why.

All in all it sounds like a ‘classic’ ghost story and, of all the stories in the collection, it is the one that comes closest. Puck, of course, although not a character in any fairy tale I know of is best known as a character in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Some Remarks on Ghost Stories, the author M. R. James, himself a prolific writer of ghost stories, identifies five key features of the English ghost story, as summarized by Prof. Frank Coffman for a course in popular imaginative literature:

  • The pretence of truth
  • "A pleasing terror"
  • No gratuitous bloodshed or sex
  • No "explanation of the machinery"
  • Setting: "those of the writer's (and reader's) own day"

And he summed up his approach in his foreword to the anthology Ghosts and Marvels:

Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are, to me, the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo.… Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.

The fact is that actually very few of the stories in Seren’s collection involve ghosts but, on the whole, they still follow James’ rules. For example, in ‘Just Like Honey’ we are introduced to two children, a boy aged seven and a girl of five:

On Autumn days, when my sister and I were children, we would fill bottles with water and honey to trap wasps. Every year they would invade the small garden behind our cottage, coming out from the green recesses where they’d hidden through the summer to swarm about the hedges and cluster around the deepening red of the hawthorn berries and the dark purple fruit of the plum tree.

And so he goes on happily (it seems) reminiscing about their idyllic childhood. But who is he telling his tale to? At first we think it’s us, his anonymous readers, but not too far into the tale he starts to address his sister directly:

Can you hear me now, I wonder? Are you listening? Look at you! How distorted and misshapen your features have become: your cheeks swollen and scraped; your nose shattered; your entire skin a bruise of different colours – purple and yellow and red. Look what your life has done to you!

Is this a ghost, a literal ghost or are we talking metaphorically here, is this the ‘ghost’ of his sister? What happened on that long, hot August day all those years ago? Little by little, like the wasps, we find ourselves drawn closer and closer just like his sister is drawn to the edge of the well, only it wasn’t really a well:

[I]t was really just a hole in the ground, covered with a piece of corrugated iron and ringed with rusty strands of barbed wire. But then again [Mum and Dad] called the cottage a cottage even though it was little more than a dilapidated bungalow. It was a sort of kindness wasn’t it? … Trying to hide the ugliness in our lives as if all that was needed was a sugar-coating of words.

I don’t know what the authors’ remits were but it’s clear that most of them took a broad-brush approach to these tales. In ‘Just Like Honey’ there is no literal ghost and there is no external malevolent force, and yet it’s clear that the narrator is a haunted man.

A further important requisite James made was that, "the ghost should be malevolent or odious: amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story." One would assume that he would conceive demons to be equally loathsome. In the second story in the collection, ‘The House Demon’ what we get presented with is a tale very much from the perspective of the demon even though it is written in the third person. This creature is invisible to all but he is nevertheless a presence and one the old woman has known a long time:

When the old woman was a young bride she had left a cup of tea on the hearth and begged the house demon to go with her to their new home. He yawned, tired out from tidying the mess she and her new husband had made, first with their hasty wedding and now with their packing…

The house demon drank his tea, and was just settling more comfortably when he heard the husband say, ‘Where you’re going there’ll be no place for these old superstitions. The minister won’t stand for it, see!’

She didn’t argue, but that night she left her husband’s high-topped boots before the fire, and whispered, ‘Please come with us. We hope you will be happy there.’

DomovoiIt sounds more like The Elves and the Shoemaker doesn’t it? But things have moved on a bit since James laid down his thoughts and we’re more aware that good and evil aren’t cut and dried issues not that that’s a new concept. In the Ukraine, for example, there are a number of demonological figures in their folk tradition including the domovyk (house demon) and the polovyk (field demon) and the lisovyk (forest demon). Not all are intrinsically bad although some like the bolotianyk (swamp demon) will happily lure people into swamps.

The domovik traditionally is the ancestral founder of the family, and moves with it from house to house. He is portrayed as an old man with a gray beard, and is always referred to as "he", "himself", or "grandfather" – never by a personal name.

The domovik lives behind the stove. When the family moves, fire from the old stove is carried to the new, where it is lit to welcome the domovik into his new quarters. The domovik watches over the family members, keeps hostile spirits from entering the house, and does chores. But if a family member displeases him he makes poltergeist-like noise disturbances. His harshest punishment is to burn down the house.

There are other types of domoviks, each of which has its own small domain: the chlevnik, who lives in the barn; the bannik who lives in the bathroom; and the ovinnik, who lives in the kitchen. –

So, he’s a spirit, a ghost in all but name. What we witness is what happens after the old woman dies and in the generations that follow how he is treated and how he reacts to that treatment.

One of the things I probably hate about ‘traditional’ ghost stories is that they deal with the unknown, keep what we get to know to a bare minimum and leave us none the wiser and there are several stories in this collection where we are simply not provided with enough information to say what definitely happened; we can only guess at what may have happened. The last story in the book is one of these. ‘The White Mountain’ is a little unusual in that the protagonist is a lesbian which must have caused some problems for the incubus or succubus or whatever it is that appears in her bedroom at night. She can’t decide:

I keep asking myself the same question. If it wasn’t Arianrhod last night, then who was it? The ghost? There isn’t anybody else in the house, I’m sure of that. So either I’ve been sleeping with a sixty-year-old former pop star or the ghost of a thirteenth-century Welsh princess.

We never find out. Incidentally Arianrhod is the same name as the niece of Math fab Mathonwy from the Mabinogion who would die if he did not keep his feet in the lap of a virgin so, again, we have another story with its roots in folklore even if it’s not an actual retelling of the original tale. The princess to whom she’s referring is Gwenllian who is probably based on Gwenllian ferch Llywelyn.

At the end of the book there is an extensive afterword by the book’s editor, Gwen Davis, in which she talks in some detail about the sources used by the authors. It’s fascinating reading and really opens up some of the stories. In keeping with James’ blood splatterguidelines none of the stories feature graphic sex or violence. Some horrible things do happen but they’re not described in any great detail. This is not that kind of anthology. It’s more interested in implication and suggestion than in-your-face horror. Something of an exception is ‘Three Cuts’. A “reimagining of the grimmer Grimm version of Cinderella,” writes Davis, “‘Three Cuts’, has an arranged marriage that ends badly. A blood bath with scattered body parts, this story is a fantastically paced, moving, gruesome feminist subversion.” It’s not a blood bath but you have to wonder what a girl might be willing to do to cram her foot into a glass slipper (actually it’s just a shoe in this version):

It’s not important what happens to me. She cut my foot, my heel. I have no real sympathy for a heel, no real nostalgia for a part of my foot that is so integral, the place that meets the earth, the round pocket that cushions my fall. In a shoe a heel can be done without.

The narrator here is Hele, sister to Javotte and Cinderella. Oh, and her feet are not the only thing that ends up being mutilated. It is a strange retelling of the story, one I have to admit to finding uncomfortable reading.

When James talked about setting he said to use "the writer's (and reader's) own day" and although most of the stories have a contemporary feel the one that feels most contemporary is ‘The Pit’ the simple story of a miner who gets trapped during a mining accident and resorts to eating his own arm before moving on to his dead comrades to keep himself alive:

It was a garden of broken limbs, white tulip hands breaking through the dust stratum, faces of his friends now flattened or wrecked out of recognition, staring at him like dumb watermelons. He ate William Trevor’s buttocks over a three-day period, savouring the vague hint of carbolic soap which adhered to his skin. Him being a miner, William’s obsessive cleanliness had always provided a topic of conversation.

On the surface this could have been presented as a tale of the lengths a man will go to to survive like in the film Alive where survivors from a plane crash kept going by eating those who weren’t so lucky. The fact that the story is set at the time when Thatcher was in power takes the piece from simply being a piece of abstract horror (a mine that could be in any country during any time period) to something many of us remember quite vividly.

I think it’s noteworthy that the two stories that I enjoyed the most were the two that could sit just as comfortably in a science fiction collection as in this one. These were ‘The City’ and ‘Yellow Archangel’.

There has been much debate about what ghosts may or may not be. Some are more than happy to believe them to be the souls of individuals who still have unfinished business and TV shows like Ghost Whisperer thrive on that notion; every week a new ghost with issues to resolve. Science fiction is just as open to the possibility of other states of existence – a good example being Philip José Farmer's Riverworld – and so what exactly the city is in this short story we never find out for sure. All we know is what we’re told:

futuristic-cityI have a clear memory of the city’s arrival in my consciousness: I was walking on the shore one evening in a pale milky light; hardly any form was visible – the islands offshore were merely a smudge and the hills above me had dissolved in mist. But I saw the city clearly. As I moved across a gangway from one dimension to another I entered its gates without fear. … To remain there I had to concentrate in a way which was new to me; and it took me a while to get used to it. … But it was there from that day: the city. My city. Huge and silent, sheer and simple yet seemingly impenetrable – bolted together and layered neatly slab after slab.

Crossing between dimensions is a very, very old trope. Travel to and from another dimension is usually via some sort of portal – the exact term depends on the story – it can be a door, vortex, gate, window, back of an old wardrobe or, as in this case, a gangway. In Poltergeist it was a cupboard if memory serves me right (after the daughter is swallowed by the TV). And in Monsters Inc. it was closet doors.

Of course ‘the city’ might just be a fantasy state the narrator shifts to following the loss of a number of his relatives when their homes were flooded by violent thunderstorms.

My favourite story by far was ‘Yellow Archangel’ though to be fair it’s probably the least horrific in the whole book. There are no ghosts or demons or anything like that. There is simply the Virus:

The devastation in the cities was almost total. Country people like us had greater immunity, maybe, closer to the earth and the animals, to dirt and dung. And ours weren’t overcrowded like the urban areas. Mind you, plenty of us died too and we had to bury our own dead. Strangely, it was some of the younger, fitter ones went first. … After doing its worst the Virus abated, reappearing from time to time when least expected. By now there was no central government, just cobbled-together committees of local people who couldn’t do much but did their best.

So a dystopia. And there are hundreds we could reference but the two that come to mind are from TV: Survivors and The Last Train. What this story does is put forth the proposition that there might be a valid role in people’s lives for superstition. It’s an interesting suggestion. The narrator’s daughter, Kia, nearly dies (not due to the Virus – meningitis is their best guess) but she survives, and without any lasting problems, but changed:

She seemed so much older; quiet, melancholy. And there was another indefinable quality. Fey, maybe? She told us she was still alive because a yellow archangel had come for her and brought her back down the winter hill, carrying her in his arms and leaving her by the well. The archangel had a message for Kia. She had a task now, a special responsibility. She was here to help people and give them hope.

Was this a visitation from some spirit creature? Did she dream it? No one will ever know. But people can believe what they like and they start to: gradually a new myth is born.

I have never been a great fan of horror whether in book form or on the big or small screen. I think it’s only fair to mention this so it would be a lie to say that I loved this collection because I didn’t. I can be objective enough, however, to see that there are some well-thought-through stories here and it’s clear that the authors have done their homework. All are well-written but three stood out under the ‘Voice’ category: ‘Puck’s Tale’ by Niall Griffiths who gets the language of the men in the quasi-Edwardian gentleman’s club spot on; ‘The Lovers’ by Matthew Francis, only this time the setting is a public school and in ‘Herself’ Zillah Bethell conjures up Jim Barker - Gormenghastsome delightfully grotesque characters reminiscent of those found in the pages of Gormenghast or wandering around the imagination of Edward Gorey. Hers is also probably the only really funny story in the collection – an author’s ‘number one fan’ gets an audience with her but she is nothing like he expected.

Collections by a single author are hard to review but in this one there are twenty-two very different authors so I have little doubt that there will be one or two that don’t sit too well with each reader – that’s to be expected – but as long as you don’t try and rush your way through this lot there’s much to enjoy. It’s literary horror. The contributors all have a Welsh connection and about half-a-dozen have something of a Welsh feel about them but they’re not heavy-handed in their references and I would say this book would have a broader appeal than, say, Niall Griffiths’ The Dreams of Max and Ronnie which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago.

The cover, by the way, was produced by Aberystwyth professional photographer and designer, Gordon Crabb and is a photograph of a local girl, Stacey Lee, dressed as true-life sixteenth-century Hungarian serial murderess Elizabeth Báthory

who liked to bathe in virgins’ blood and was convicted on the count of 800 victims and was an early inspiration for the vampire stories, which makes her an odd choice since there are no vampires in this collection at all. Thank God!

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Better halves

“At the core of us is a writer, not a human being.” - Anaïs Nin talking about her relationship with Henry Miller

clip_image002So who is the woman in the picture? I struggled to find it. I have photos of her that I could have scanned but I thought it interesting how, when I typed her name into Google – both her maiden and married names – that I got hundreds of photos of her husband, even photos of other women, but none of her. I finally found this tiny one on a French site. The woman is Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil who was, for many years the common-law wife of one Samuel Beckett who finally married her in civil ceremony in Folkestone in 1961. On the face of it, this was to make sure that if he died before her she would inherit the rights to his work, since there was no common-law marriage under French law. He may also have wanted to affirm his loyalty to her.

The wives of writers – and, of course, the husbands of women authors – don’t often get much attention. They’re there in the background fetching drinks or acting as a firewall. Most, I have little doubt, are glad to stay out of the limelight but for the next few thousand words I would like to highlight a few of these unsung heroes beginning with Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil:

Suzanne has been seen as taking over the role that Beckett’s mother had played in his life. Certainly she grumbled, as his mother used to grumble, about his excessive drinking, for she did not drink herself. But there were crucial differences: above all, she had enormous respect for Beckett’s talents and total belief in his genius. When things were going very badly, she never lost this faith and was ready to do all that she could to help him. At first, she was remarkably tolerant, putting up with his late nights, his bouts of irritability and his moods of black despair when his writing would not advance. She also understood and shared his need for silence.[1]

Beckett summed up his debt to her a few months after her death:

I owe everything to Suzanne. She hawked everything around trying to get someone to take all three books at the same time. That was a very pretentious thing for an unknown to want. She was the one who went to see the publishers while I used to sit in a café ‘twiddling my fingers’ or whatever it is one twiddles.[2]

When I read about Beckett’s need for silence I immediately thought of Mildred Eldridge who also shared long periods of silence with her husband, the poet R S Thomas. A radio play about the couple, broadcast in July 2010, was called Alone Together. The blurb on the BBC3 webpage includes this sentence:

A portrait of a curious marriage which captures that essence of all marriages – a sense of shared space but separate lives.[3]

I do imagine that that is true when it comes to many marriages but I suspect it’s especially true where one or more of the parties is a writer or an artist or a composer. Diana, Princess of Wales, famously said: "There were three of us in this marriage," well, I guess that’s what the wife of every writer could say when so often the men in their lives turn to their art rather than turning to them.

If I talk to my wife what am I going to write about?

Why do we write? We write to get something off our chests, to try to understand something and for lots of other reasons but if we work things out with a third party (i.e. a wife or a husband) what is there left to write about?

Beckett may have said that he owed everything to Suzanne, and indeed if she had not been there at the start who knows how history would have panned out, but he didn’t owe everything to her. She was never his muse. That position went to another woman, the actress Billie Whitelaw. That wasn’t the case with Beckett’s mentor, James Joyce. His ‘Suzanne’ was Nora Barnacle who also co-habited with her partner for a long time (27 years in their case) before Joyce made an honest woman of her. In her biography of her, Nora, The Real Life of Molly Bloom, Brenda Maddox had this to say:

Nora was above all ''the source of Joyce's inspiration'' – and that was quite enough literary work for one passionate but no-nonsense woman. ''She did not hunt for books for Joyce. She did not take dictation,'' Ms. Maddox writes. ''Nora's responsibilities were to feed Joyce, hold his hand, choose all his clothes . . . to accompany him wherever he went socially, to cut him down to size, and to reassure him, every time she opened her mouth, that Ireland was not far away. Joyce never asked more of her, and nobody else dared.''[4]

In her article in The New York Times from which the above passage is taken, Caryn James continues:

If Maud Gonne was Yeats's poetic beauty and political idealist, Nora was her prosaic country cousin. Her memory of a lover who died young is given to Gretta in 'The Dead'; her earthiness and uninhibited speech to Molly Bloom in Ulysses; her pull on Joyce, at once a lullaby and a siren's song, echoes in Anna Livia Plurabelle[5] in Finnegans Wake.[6]

Vera Nabokov So here we have two wives who although supportive in different ways never got involved in the day-to-day chore of writing. Which brings me to Vera Nabokov. The following is from an interview with Stacy Schiff, author of Vera: Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov:

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You quote an interesting exchange between Vladimir Nabokov and an interviewer where he asks, could you say how important your wife has been as a collaborator in your work?" And Nabokov answers, "I could not," so she was that important. Tell us how.

STACY SCHIFF: Well, she basically began simply as his typist. I guess you would say his typist-slash-editor. Every word that Nabokov wrote after the two of them meet is put on paper by Mrs. Nabokov, by Vera Nabokov, even before she becomes his wife, and as she sat at the typewriter. I suppose this is what we would say was the most crucial aspect of the relationship, she would essentially say from time to time, "no, no, you can't say it this way," and Nabokov would come up with a better solution, or she would say "isn't this a better solution?" -- and suggest something and he would take it. So there was that sort of elementary editing aspect which isn't so elementary. In many other ways she contributed observations that she had made to what we know as the final pages of Lolita, it was she who suggested certain works, which we know in their published forms. Nabokov's lectures on literature, which are the brilliant imaginative flights of unscholarly and scholarly fancy, include lines and research done by Mrs. Nabokov. So there is really a contribution at many, many levels.[7]

She is also due thanks for saving Lolita from the ashes when Nabokov set fire to it and tossed it in a trashcan. “When she met her husband, she felt that he was the greatest writer of his generation; to that single truth she held strong for 66 years.”[8]

A wife offering secretarial and even editorial support is nothing new: Dostoevsky's wife, Anna, began as his stenographer; Tolstoy's wife, Sofya, famously copied War and Peace by hand eight times:

With the aid of a special tray that enabled her to write propped up in bed, Sonya even managed to continue working on the manuscripts while she was recovering from an attack of puerperal fever that nearly killed her.[9]

The children’s author, Michael Morpurgo, when asked to list his personal 10 Rules for Writing includes his wife in two of them:

5 – Once the skeleton of the story is ready I begin talking about it, mostly to Clare, my wife, sounding her out.

7 – Once a chapter is scribbled down rough – I write very small so I don't have to turn the page and face the next empty one – Clare puts it on the word processor, prints it out, sometimes with her own comments added.[10]

There are some jobs that a man can take on that barely affect a wife; her husband leaves for work in the morning, returns in the evening and money appears in their bank account at the end of every month. With certain other jobs there is . . . what shall we call it? . . . spill over, e.g. President of the United States. Now I’m not suggesting for a second that Michelle sits in the corner of the Oval Office with her knitting while her husband powwows with the world’s heads of states but neither am I suggesting that she yells from upstairs, “The dinner’s in the dog,” when he gets home from a hard day’s presidenting. When you marry a man like that you know you’re marrying the job too.

I have no idea if theatre director Peggy Ramsay was married to a writer – I know she was married at one time – but she had very clear views on the role of ‘the writer’s wife:’

Peggy did not always get on well with writers’ wives. As Colin Chambers remarks in his biography, Peggy believed that it was the duty of writers’ wives to put their husbands’ talent before their own needs. She corresponded with quite a few of the wives and girlfriends (and gay lovers – in Kenneth Halliwell’s case). Sometimes this correspondence was strictly focused on her clients’ writing, but with others she provided emotional support and professional advice.[11]

SimpsonEileen Not all wives are suited to being married to a writer. Eileen Simpson was married to the poet John Berryman for 11 years. She was born into the generation of American women who were expected to be writers' wives rather than writers themselves:

From the beginning their marriage was unevenly balanced, for the man she had married proved demanding, self-engrossed, and deeply self-destructive, with suicide already a distressingly common topic of his conversation.[12]

She left him and, despite suffering from acute dyslexia, became a practising psychotherapist and penned several books herself. Much the same was the case with Martha Gellhorn, who was married to Ernest Hemingway and Elizabeth Jane Howard, who was married to Kingsley Amis. Let’s face it, it must be hard being married to someone who’s always looking for approval. In an article in Texas Monthly one writer’s wife had this to say:

I spend a lot of time … thinking up different ways to say I think his writing is good. If I say the least thing critical, it throws him into this profound depression. Writers’ egos are so delicate.[13]

Too true. And not all writers take constructive criticism from the partners well. Case in point? John Steinbeck:

He sometimes tested his characters' dialogues on his wife but, as she discovered, did not welcome her commentary.

"You're my wife. You're not my agent," he told her after she remarked that a line spoken by Cal in East of Eden was out of character. She burst into tears, then both began to laugh, but she never played critic again.[14]

If there was a Nobel Prize for a Writer’s Partner who would get the prize? According to Michael Herr one woman who would certainly be short-listed would be Janice Stone, the wife of Robert Stone, who he describes as “the patron saint of writer's wives:”

"I'm Bob's secretary, proof-reader, cook, chauffeur. I answer the phone and do the filing. Believe me, it takes up my time," she says, with reasonable good cheer. Asked if she feels she has given up too much, she says: "One always has regrets about the lives one doesn't live. But how many lives can you live?"[15]

Eliz Jane Howard But what about when two writers marry? Would that not be something of an ideal situation? Surely no one could have more empathy for one writer than another writer? Well it depends how the one writer treats the other writer. Here’s how Jane Howard remembers her time with Kingsley Amis:

I wrote very little in those years. I had a block, which came from being over-tired. Kingsley was one of the most disciplined writers I've ever known. Sometimes I envied him because he didn't have to organise the food, or other household matters, but that was part of the deal. He didn't stop me writing, and was encouraging about what I wrote. It's simply that I didn't have the time."

At weekends she would cook Sunday lunch for 12 or more, while Kingsley, his sons Martin and Philip, and guests adjourned to the pub. Her doctor discovered her crying over the sink one Sunday and prescribed quantities of tranquillisers, which didn't help the tiredness but stopped her crying.

She left Amis because of his drinking. "I don't think it's easy to live with someone who drinks too much, but in the end I couldn't live with someone who disliked me so much, as well. You can go on living with someone who doesn't love you, but what is really killing is someone who dislikes you. My sense of survival got me through that, and I was also helped by psychotherapy. If you want to be a better person, you take any opportunity that comes your way and I was lucky in having good psychotherapists, who introduced me to a women's group.[16]

After she left Kingsley, for which he never forgave her, she got back to writing and had a very successful career. But times have changed, are changing at least, and the power struggle that once was marriage isn’t quite the same. There are cases of marriages where both parties have successful writing careers:

One thinks of Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt, whose fine debut novel, The Blindfold, was full of allusions and intertextual winks to her husband; of Michael Holroyd and Margaret Drabble; and of Michael Frayn and Claire Tomalin, who found themselves in direct competition when they were both shortlisted for the 2002 Whitbread Book of the Year award.[17]

The couple that jumps to my mind are Louise Welsh and her partner Zoë Strachan.

One writer, Muzi Kuzwayo, in the acknowledgements to one of his books admitted this:

In my next life I hope not to become the wife of a writer. It must be the most horrible experience. You are asked to read and comment on every half-baked thought that goes through your husband’s mind. So I am grateful to my wife, Ntombi, who read the book while it was in bits and pieces…[18]

kids_0264a Which brings me to . . . well, me. I’m a writer and I have a wife. She’s called Carrie Berry. It’s not her maiden name. It was her married name before we met and just sounded to cool to give up. I met her online about fifteen years ago which is when I first discovered the wonders of the World Wide Web. I’d been wandering round not really knowing what I was doing. I quickly developed a couple of friendships with poets but, although both of these ladies kept me occupied, they weren’t what I was looking for online, not that I was really looking for anything concrete. My previous marriage had come to an end fairly recently and I really wasn’t aiming to get involved with another woman so I made sure that I avoided UK sites. Another nice lady, Rachel (not any of the many Rachels that pass comments on this site) suggested I submit my poems to Metamorphosis, a poetry workshop on a site called Fandango Virtual, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The owner of the site was one Carrie Berry who responded favourably to my first submission, the single poem ‘Reader Please Supply Meaning’, which was accepted and published in Iguanaland and we began to correspond. A year later she was getting off a plane in Glasgow Airport and to this day I have no idea how that happened but if anyone was ever to ask me what I thought about online dating I’d say, “Go for it.” In the past all my relationships were clouded by the physical. The initial attractions were always physical and then once we became physical all reason went out the window. With Carrie and me we didn’t even know what the other looked like for quite a while. We got to know the person on the inside. That (when we finally swapped photographs) neither of us was repelled by the other was a bonus, that’s all I can say. Six months after getting off that plane, purely as a formality to keep her in the country, we were married in a civil ceremony and this December it’ll be our Lace Anniversary; that’s thirteen years during which time I’ve written two novels, some forty short stories, two plays and about three-hundred poems.

Carrie also continued to write after she came to the UK completing a novel, a novella and I have no idea how many poems because, unlike me, she doesn’t number then fastidiously to make counting easy. But a good few. As her health declined so her writing also began to dry up. For a while she continued to be involved in the writing business through her various webzines, finally turning two, Bonfire and Gator Springs Gazette, into actual print journals. She was planning to start publishing novels, our own of course but also others (the first book was actually supposed to be someone else’s) but ill health put paid to that and so, with considerable effort, she’s only been able to do one book a year for me. The plan still is to publish more but time will tell. She attends to everything to do with the book production: editing, layout, contracting the printers, organising the FV Books site, sorting out Amazon and the like and processing sales. Her next project will be eBooks.

Having a wife who understands one’s need to get out of bed in the middle of the night or who doesn’t mind being shushed while I finish writing something down is simply wonderful. All the other women in my life have viewed my writing as a hobby and simply weren’t equipped to support me. I’m not like Kuzwayo. I rarely share half-baked ideas. My wife gets finished novels handed to her and never presses me to know what I’m writing. She knows full well that she’ll be the first person to read whatever it is if it ever gets finished. If I drop dead before her she’s welcome to go through my folders and if she finds some gem then great. I’ll be dead and she can do what she likes with my stuff.

Now all the above makes it sound as if everything is always rosy in the garden and on the whole it is. One of the main reasons for that is that because of the failures in my previous relationships I’m super-conscious of not being a self-absorbed pig. The writing gets done only not as quickly as I’d like but what I like more is not being alone. As it is she’s well aware that even though I’m sitting not ten feet from her for most of the day that my head is somewhere else. For a writer I’m surprisingly non-observant. I remember when she first came over here and was talking about the curtains in the living room which had giant butterflies on them – not as horrible as it sounds – and I said, “I have butterflies on my curtains?” It has become a bit of a running joke, the things I fail to notice because I’m so wrapped up in my own wee world.

I rely on Carrie constantly. She bought the flat we live in now. I didn’t see it until we had the keys. My only conditions were: 1) we each need to have our own office and 2) there should be no garden. As both of these were satisfied I was as happy as Larry. Carrie deals with all the bills. I have no idea who supplies our electricity or how much our groceries are each week or how much interest we get on our bank accounts. I have no idea how much we even have in our current account. She orders the groceries online and so I’m never involved with the shopping other than in carrying it from the door to the kitchen and helping her put some of it by. Fiercely independent, she would do more if she was physically able.

She reads everything I write, edits and proofreads it. If she doesn’t approve it then no one else gets to see it. It wasn’t easy at first. I fought her on every tiny edit on Living with the Truth but I’m a lot better these days. She’ll just tell me that she’s sorted out a few of my sentences in a blog and I’ll say, “Fine, fine.” It bothers me that her own spark has faded but, as I’ve experienced myself, I’m well aware that even after a gap of several years all you need are the right conditions to bring you back to life. She has another two novels in draft that I know of and I would love nothing more than to see that’s she’s pottering around with them again.

I said that I didn’t know why she got on a plane and crossed the Atlantic to be with me. The answer isn’t that complicated. She believed in me as a writer. Since being here she’s found some more things to believe in but that was the important one. I think it’s the only one that matters. I’m sure those of you who are married, cohabiting or in a civil partnership know what I mean because if I had to choose to be only one thing in this world I would choose to be a writer and I need someone by my side who thinks picking up Silver is just fine. In my mind, that alone earns her the Gold.

Here are links to Carrie’s poetry and prose. She has a blog but it’s been yonks since she actually posted anything. The entry for 6th April 2009 is worth a read though. Inspiration is a two-way street.


[1] James Knowlson, Damned to Fame, p.296

[2] Ibid, p.376

[3] Alone Together, BBC Radio 3 Now

[4] Caryn James, ‘BOOKS OF THE TIMES; Joyce's Wife: The Source of His Inspiration’, The New York Times, 6th August 1988

[5] In ‘The mystery of the muse: Anna Livia Plurabelle uncovered’ in The Independent (27th March 2007) the author believes that Joyce’s true inspiration is actually his daughter, Lucia

[6] Caryn James, ‘BOOKS OF THE TIMES; Joyce's Wife: The Source of His Inspiration’, The New York Times, 6th August 1988

[7] ‘Pulitzer Prize Winner – Biography’, Online NewsHour, 11th April 2000

[8] Stacy Schiff, Life and Letters, ‘The Genius and Mrs. Genius,’ The New Yorker, 10th February 1997, p. 41

[9] Susan Jacoby, ‘The Wife of the Genius’, The New York Times, 19th April 1981

[10] Michael Morpurgo, ‘Ten rules for writing fiction (part two)’, The Guardian, 20th February 2010

[11] Zoe Wilcox, ‘Peggy and the WAGS’, British Library Modern Theatre Blog, 20th November 2009

[12] Andrew Rosenheim, ‘Obituary: Eileen Simpson’, The Independent, 22nd November 2002

[13] Gregory Curtis, ‘The Inside Story’, Texas Monthly, May 1979, p.6

[14] Elaine Woo, ‘Obituary: Elaine Steinbeck, 88; Stage Manager and Writer's Wife’, Los Angeles Times, 29th April 2003

[15] Bruce Weber, ‘An Eye for Danger’, The New York Times, 19th January 1992, p.7

[16] Clare Colvin, ‘Elizabeth Jane Howard: “All your life you are changing”’, The Independent, 9th November 2002

[17] Jason Cowley, ‘Commentary’, New Statesman, 4th April 2005

[18] Muzi Kuzwayo, There's a Tsotsi in The Boardroom: Winning in a Hostile World, p.9

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Pereira Maintains

Pereira Maintains

Tabucchi is acutely aware of the implicit pact between author and reader, a pact he takes pleasure in exposing and undermining. – Charles D Klopp, ‘Antonio Tabucchi: Postmodern Catholic Writer’, World Literature Today, Vol. 71, 1997

The Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi wrote Sostiene Pereira in 1993. It was translated into English two years later by Patrick Creagh and published by W. W. Norton & Co under the title Pereira Declares. Inside it adds ‘A Testimony’ and that is how Amazon lists the paperback, as Pereira Declares: A Testimony.

Sostiene – third-person singular present tense of sostenere – suggests a defence, a supporting testimony. Judges declare people innocent or guilty whereas those charged maintain their innocence. It’s a minor point – we get the idea – but tone of this book is an important one. In it Dr Pereira states his case or to be more precise Dr Pereira has stated his case for the record and that record is now being read back to us; by whom we do not know. A court official? Perhaps. Perhaps this is a police report. Whatever it is it is a record of what Dr Pereira maintains happened to him. I imagine this is why now that Canongate have decided to reprint the book they have taken the opportunity to make this subtle change in the book’s English title.

The book opens:

Pereira maintains he met him one summer’s day. A fine fresh sunny summer’s day and Lisbon was sparkling. It would seem that Pereira was in his office biting his pen, the editor-in-chief was away on holiday while he himself was saddled with getting together the culture page, because the Lisboa was now to have a culture page and he had been given the job. But he, Pereira, was meditating on death. On that beauteous summer day, with the sun beaming away and the sea breeze off the Atlantic kissing the treetops, and a city glittering, literally glittering beneath his window, and a sky of such blue as never was seen, Pereira maintains, and of a clarity almost painful to the eyes, he started to think about death. Why so? Pereira cannot presume to say.

It is an odd tone and it takes a while to get used to it but every now and then the words, “Pereira maintains,” drag you back to the reality of the moment: you are not reading a book; you are having a book read to you. Important distinction. The temptation to skip to the end and find out who was doing the reading and under what circumstances was quite strong and the more I discovered about the good doctor the less likely it seemed that he was the kind of person who would end up having to record such a statement. And why doesn’t the statement say who it was he met? Is it the accused? Or the plaintiff? Perhaps it’s the deceased. Maybe all Pereira is simply providing is a witness testimony.

Pereira Maintains was written in 1993 but it describes events that took place in and around Lisbon in 1938 beginning on 25th July. For the geographically-challenged out there can I just let you know that Lisbon is the capital and largest city of Portugal which is surrounded by Spain and for the historically-challenged can I remind you that the start of World War II is generally held to be 1 September 1939.

SalazarIn 1932 António de Oliveira Salazar became the country’s Prime Minister and continued in that role until 1968. Under his leadership in 1933 a new Constitution was approved in a false referendum, defining Portugal as a Corporative, Single Party state (that party being National Union). A fascist-leaning right-wing Dictatorial regime entitled Estado Novo was then installed. In much the same way as Germany had its Third Reich this was Portugal’s Second Republic. Salazar's program of social reform was opposed to communism, socialism, and liberalism. It was, however, pro-Catholic, conservative, and nationalistic. This dictatorship lasted until 1974 when the country entered its Third Republic.

This is the world in which Dr Pereira lives. He lives in that world but he is not of that world. He is not entirely ignorant of the fact that his country has undergone significant changes and is continuing to change and not necessarily for the better but he is more concerned with deciding what his next article will be to worry about it, let alone do something about it.

When the book was first published in Italy, however, it was not read simply as a historical novel:

The very fact that Italian history contains a fascist tradition ensured that Tabucchi's readers would understand the Salazarist regime in distinctively Italian terms, not merely as an allusion to Mussolini's dictatorship, but as an allegory of current events. Sostiene Pereira was written in 1993 and published the following year, when fascists returned to power in Italy with the election victory of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia movement. As Tabucchi himself said of his novel, "those who didn't love the [current EAG] Italian political situation took it as a symbol of resistance from within" (Cotroneo 1995: 105, my translation). – Lawrence Venuti, ‘Translation, community and utopia’, in L.Venuti ed. The Translation Studies Reader, p.487

Because of this the book sold 300,000 copies within its first year of publication. The English translation was nowhere near as successful. Within two years of publication of the American edition (published by New Directions) it had only sold some 5,000 copies. It simply didn’t resonate with its readers. In the article I quoted from above Venuti, a translation theorist, lays some of the blame for that at the feet of the translator, Patrick Creagh:

Creagh’s translation at once inscribed an English-language cultural history in Tabucchi’s novel and displaced the historical dimension of the Italian text.


Creagh maintained a lexicographical equivalence, but the remainder in his translation was insufficient to restore the cultural and political history that made the novel so resonant for Italian readers, as well as other European countries with similar histories, such as Spain.

Nevertheless, in a review in The New York Times, he complimented the translator on the conversational quality of his translation:

His English consists mostly of the standard dialect, but he strews it with slangy colloquialisms that make the writing eminently readable. He renders "quattro uomini dall'aria sinistra" (literally, "four men with a sinister air") as "four shady-looking characters," "un personaggio del regime" ("a figure in the regime") as "bigwig" and "senza pigiama" ("without pyjamas") as "in his birthday suit." Yet, since he also mixes in some colourful British expressions ("Bolshie," "I'm in a pickle," "natter")…

I don’t read Italian and so can’t comment other than to accept that an inevitability of translation is a trade-off. It’s like when they filmed Lord of the Flies in 1990 and, instead of English schoolboys, we have young American military cadets. It’s not a big change, especially since they shed their uniforms quickly enough, but it’s still not quite right; the 1963 film is much better. I personally had no problem with the language. There are enough foreign expressions to remind you constantly that this book is set in a strange country and the formality of address alone informs you that this all happened during a different time.

Goodbye to BerlinWhereas, in his Berlin Stories, Christopher Isherwood presents us with, as Orwell described them, "Brilliant sketches of a society in decay," what Tabucchi offers us is far more delicate. It is a character study essentially. Yes, you could describe the book a ‘political thriller’ but that’s not what it feels like when you’re reading it.

In his younger days Dr Pereira had been a crime reporter. Now he is old and content to work for a second-rate paper as its one and only literary editor. He has been given carte blanche by the paper’s editor-in-chief to write what he pleases but he finds himself gravitating towards translations rather than simply reprinting old Portuguese short stories. His choices seem popular enough with the public and so he’s left very much alone to get on with his job. In fact he doesn’t even work from the head office. He has acquired a little room in Rue Rodrigo da Fonseca, a dismal place with an “asthmatic fan and the eternal smell of frying spread abroad by the caretaker, a harridan who cast everyone suspicious looks and did nothing but fry fry fry.” He’s convinced she’s a police informer.

He is old, as I’ve said, though we do not know how old, a widower, his wife having died of consumption some years before (although he still talks to her photograph on a more-than-daily basis), fat and as a consequence of his obesity suffers from heart trouble and high blood pressure. His doctor has warned him directly that he is living on borrowed time. Perhaps this is why when we first encounter him he maintains he had been dwelling on death. His sedentary lifestyle coupled with his diet, which seems to consist of little more than omelettes aux fine herbes and glasses of extremely sweet lemonade, does suggest that if he were to join his wife sooner rather than later this would not be a big problem for him.

While he is mulling over death– specifically his difficulty accepting the Catholic doctrine of the resurrection of the body (why on earth would he want his current body back?) – he begins to leaf through a magazine in which he reads a reflection on death by one Francesco Monteiro Rossi, a young man who had apparently just graduated from the University of Lisbon with a First in Philosophy. What he reads impresses him and he wonders if the man might be a suitable candidate for his assistant, to perhaps prepare obituaries in advance. He locates his number in the telephone directory, calls him, arranges a meeting at an open-air dance in Praça de Alegria where the young man had been invited to sing a Neapolitan song (apparently Rossi is half Italian) and there and then hires him; he even pays him an advance for an obituary of Lorca even though he really would have preferred one on Bernanos; this is to prove the first of many concessions. When the article appears it proves quite unsuitable. He tells him:

I cannot publish it, no newspaper in Portugal could publish it, and no Italian paper either, seeing as how Italy is the land of your ancestors, so there are two possibilities: you are either irresponsible or a troublemaker, and journalism in Portugal has no place for either irresponsibility or troublemaking, and that’s that.

Rossi promises to rewrite it but Pereira isn’t having it:

I don’t know whether you are aware of it, my dear Monteiro Rossi, but at this moment there's a civil war raging in Spain, and the Portuguese authorities think along the same lines as General Francisco Franco and for them Lorca was a traitor, yes, traitor is the very word.

He’s being facetious: the festival during which he first met Rossi was a Salazarist festival; indeed he had wondered when he arrived there and saw that “a lot of people were wearing the green shirt and the scarf knotted round their necks” – an image that causes him to hang back in terror – if Rossi is perhaps “one of them.” So he thinks he knows full well what Rossi is and is not aware of. What Pereira doesn’t realise is that he’s got Rossi all wrong . . . in so many ways. That he has still to learn. In the meantime he acquiesces and gives his new assistant another chance to shine. Some days later “an article typed on flimsy paper [entitled] The Death of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti,” an Italian Futurist, arrives at his office which reads in part:

ZangTumbTumb-1914With Marinetti dies a man of violence, for violence was his muse. … An enemy of democracy, bellicose and militaristic, he went on to sing the praises of war in a long eccentric poem entitled Zang Tumb Tumb, an onomatopoeic description of the Italian colonialist wars in Africa … Among his writings is another nauseating manifesto: War: the World’s Only Hygiene. … The Italian Fascists conferred a great many [medals] on him because Marinetti was among their most ardent supporters. With him dies a truly ugly customer, a warmonger . . .

Pereira gives up reading at this point. Strangely, rather than simply bin the piece he saves the obituary in a file on which he writes ‘Obituaries’. Even stranger still, he sends Rossi payment for the piece even though it is unusable. On top of that when Rossi telephones that Saturday rather than take the opportunity to end their business relationship over the phone and at a safe distance he agrees to meet with him for a tête-à-tête – his word. He may seem like a bit of a naïve fool, allowing himself to be duped like this, but he’s perceptive enough to ask Rossi if he’s in trouble. Of course he is but refuses to discuss it over the telephone and simply says that he’ll contact him to arrange a meeting.

It is at this meeting that he learns of Rossi’s political proclivities when Rossi asks his help in finding a safe hideaway for his cousin who is in “an international brigade … fighting on the republican side [who’s] here in Portugal to recruit.” If paying a man for producing clearly inappropriate work was surprising what Pereira does next is downright amazing: he agrees to help.

Why did Pereira [do] this? … Pereira has no idea, he maintains. He only knows that clearly he had got himself into a fix and needed to talk to someone about it. But this someone was not in the offing so he thought that when he got home he would talk it over with the photograph of his wife. And that, he maintains, is what he did.

Needless to say things go from bad to worse. But I’ve said enough. Pereira records his life in almost painful detail at times, what he thought, what he said, what he might have said even; the only thing he doesn’t do is relate his dreams in detail. He is not beyond mentioning that he had a dream but that's about all:

That afternoon, Pereira maintains, he had a dream. It was a beautiful dream about his youth, but he prefers not to relate it, because dreams ought not to be told, he maintains. He will go no farther than to say he was happy, that it was winter and that he was on a beach to the north of Coimbra, perhaps at Granja, and that he had with him a person whose identity he does not wish to disclose.

What we see in Dr Pereira is a man who is waking up to the truth that is around him. As we can see from his first meeting with Rossi he’s not entirely oblivious to what’s going on but none of it concerns him. He is the literary editor of the Lisboa and that's the length and breadth of his world. It is only through a number of interchanges, first with Rossi; then Rossi’s girlfriend, Marta; a one-legged German Jewess on a train and, finally, a doctor at a thalassotherapeutic clinic south of Lisbon that he is forced to open his eyes and, as the German woman encourages him to, “do something”. What he does is open himself up to realities and possibilities.

At one point during his first meeting with Rossi he recalls one of his uncle’s oft-repeated sayings:

Philosophy appears to concern itself only with the truth, but perhaps expresses only fantasies, while literature appears to concern itself only with fantasies, but perhaps it expresses the truth.

Alphonse_Daudet_2The true power of the press is what is revealed to him only when he translates a story by Alphonse Daudet about the Franco-Prussian War which ends in the phrase, ‘Vive la France!’ and gets hauled over the coals by his editor-in-chief who points out that Germany is currently an ally of Portugal and his “panegyric on France” had caused offense in high places. Pereira’s defence that a) the censors had passed it and b) Portugal had, in fact, made no alliance with Germany is ignored. The editor-in-chief tells him to “use [his] nous. If there are no alliances there are at least sympathies, strong sympathies, we think along the same lines as Germany does, in home and in foreign policy, and we’re supporting the Spanish nationalists just as the Germans are.” Pereira is instructed to pass all his articles through to him for approval in future and to stick to Portuguese authors.

Truth might simply be a matter of timing. Ultimately what Pereira undergoes throughout this book is a crisis of identity. What is happening to him is explained, a little too easily I have to say, by the doctor he visits, and befriends, at the thalassotherapeutic clinic, Dr Cardoso. “Pereira was a Catholic, or at least at the moment he felt himself a Catholic, a good Roman Catholic;” he believed he had a soul but when the doctor talks about something he calls “a confederation of souls” (which derives from the French médicins philosophes) and suggests that Pereira’s choice of story was “a glimpse of a new ruling ego” he starts to look again at some of his recent decisions. This conversation happens before the Daudet story is published, before people in high places have had a chance to take offence and before he’s been hauled over the coals by his boss. At the time he can’t see the harm in it. But he soon does. And there are other, more serious consequences, he could never have imagined.

Where Pereira ends up is interesting: he has the revolutionary left as represented by Rossi on one side and the conservative right as represented by his editor-in-chief on the other. It might seem from what I’ve written so far that his choice is an obvious one but it’s not. The German woman told him to do something and so he does. He does something. He sends a message in a bottle. Tabucchi uses this precise analogy in his book, the “message in a bottle.” It presumes two things, an author and a mode of transmission; the existence of a reader is purely up to chance. It’s what all books are if you think about it, all literature if it comes to that. 300,000 Italian people found this particular bottle.

One of the hardest things in writing is to find a unique voice and Tabucchi most certainly has here. Like many modern authors he has chosen to do without quotation marks which I don’t understand or particularly appreciate. This means that many of the paragraphs end up being pages long and some care needs to be taken while reading them especially during conversations. This isn’t too bad though because all of the chapters are fairly short: 195 pages, 25 chapters – you can do the maths. Not knowing the political background is less of an issue than you might imagine but not understanding the significance of the authors he references means that some of the import might escape non-Continental readers: Pessoa, Maupassant, Lorca, Mann, Rilke, Balzac, Daudet, Eliot are all mentioned for reasons; through these authors of fiction the good doctor has everything he needs to make sense out of the world he is living in. Most readers will get the point though: Dr Pereira plays a tubby Winston Smith to Rossi’s Julia. That’s why I’m a little surprised that the first English edition sold so badly in the States. Tabucchi himself attributed his novel's Italian success to his invention of "an antihero, a common man in whom people can recognize themselves." I don’t see that as an especially Italian thing and I certainly had no problem imagining myself in Pereira’s shoes.

One of the best comparisons of this novel was made by Fin Keegan in his review of this book for The Second Circle in which he describes the books as:

An uncharacteristically straightforward story from one of Italy's leading novelists, it stands to the rest of Tabucchi's oeuvre much as David Lynch's The Straight Story stands to the rest of his work, a work of mature artistry without flashy effects.

Frequently categorized as a post-modern writer, in his earlier fiction Tabucchi demonstrates the influence of magical realist writers such as Pea and Bontempelli, as well as by authors such as Conrad, Henry James, Borges, Márquez, Pirandello, and, in particular, the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa.

His characters, like Pirandello's and Pessoa's, are often endowed with a multitude of personalities and his plots are full of reversals. He is particularly effective both in suggesting a dreamlike atmosphere of mystery and ambiguity and in conveying a message of libertarian commitment. He often presents an intellectual quest, which may take the form of travel to exotic places or purely of a journey in the mind, which allows him to create enigmatic and ephemeral realities. –

That is why the comparison to Lynch’s film is so appropriate here. This is a straightforward story told in a straightforward manner. But like all seemingly simple stories nothing is ever that simple once you look closely at it. I thoroughly enjoyed it and heartily recommend it.

The book has been filmed but I couldn’t find a copy with English subtitles. I’ll still leave you with a clip to give you a feel for the character. Although Marcello Mastroianni is a fine actor I have to say I pictured Pereira a little bulkier, more like Richard Griffiths to be honest.


antonio_tabucchiAntonio Tabucchi was born in Pisa in 1943 but grew up at his maternal grandparents' home in Vecchiano, a nearby village. He is an Italian writer and academic who teaches Portuguese language and literature at the University of Siena, Italy. Deeply in love with Portugal, he is an expert, critic and translator of the works of the writer Fernando Pessoa. Tabucchi was first introduced to Pessoa's works in the 1960s when attending the Sorbonne. He was so charmed that, back in Italy, he attended a course of Portuguese language for a better comprehension of the poet.

Tabucchi's awards include the Inedito Prize in 1975, the Pozzale Luigi Russo Prize in 1981, the French Medicis Etranger in 1987, the Viareggio and Campiello Prizes in 1994, and the Nossack Prize from the Leibniz Academy in 1999. In 1989 Tabucchi was conferred the title of Comendador da Ordem do Infante Dom Enrique, by the President of the Portuguese Republic, Mário Soares. In 1996 he was made Officier des Arts et Lettres in France. Tabucchi is married to María José Lancastre, a native of Lisbon; they have two children. With her Tabucchi has also translated much of Pessoa’s work into Italian.

Tabucchi is one of the founders of the International Parliament of Writers, which protects writers and intellectuals threatened with death, persecution, or imprisonment. "It's the job of intellectuals and writers to cast doubt on perfection," Tabucchi has said. "Perfection spawns doctrines, dictators, and totalitarian ideas."

His books and essays have been translated in 18 countries, including Japan.

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