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

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Fair Play, A Novel

When does a collection of short stories become a novel? Many authors have taken characters from novels and incorporated them into short stories, often as minor characters. Holden Caulfield crops up in a couple of Salinger's for example and we also get to see characters like his brother and parents in others providing a backdrop to the novel. But they're still short stories, stand alone works that you can read and appreciate without any knowledge of The Catcher in the Rye. Likewise William McIlvanney incorporated characters from his earlier novels in stories, e.g. the protagonist from A Gift from Nessus crops up in the first short story in Walking Wounded.

In the Wikipedia entry as it stands today, Tove Jansson's book Fair Play is listed amongst her short story collections. It is easy to see why. The book consists of seventeen short sections, vignettes, that have little to connect them to each other apart from the fact they each revolve around the lives of two seventy year-old women who live for part of the year on a remote Finnish island and for the rest of the year in Helsinki "at opposite ends of a large apartment building near the harbour." Unusually there is a communal attic, a "necessary, neutral interval between their domains". Jonna is an artist, Mari, a writer.

The book is clearly described on its title page however as, Fair Play: A Novel and so we are left in no doubt as to what the author's intentions were. The question is: Does she succeed?

The book calls the women "friends" but it is fairly obvious from the jump that they are a couple. It would be easy to call them lesbians but in my experience to use a term like that can tend to place too much emphasis on the sexual orientation of the individuals to the detriment of the relationship. It is easy to think of these two women as a couple; sex does not appear to be an issue and the book does not concern itself with it. The women do things together, they do things apart; they are a normal couple, they shop, watch TV, share their day's experiences with each other … they even get jealous and fret about their future together despite the fact they have obviously been together a long time.

Amongst other things, like woodcarving and lithography, Jonna likes to take photographs and home movies which they look at on their evenings together when they're not taping classic films. Their preference is for the likes of Fassbinder, Truffaut, Bergman or Renoir; Jonna also has a fondness for "what she call[s] 'pure movies' – Westerns, Robin Hood films, wild pirate romances, and a lot of other simple stories of justice, courage and chivalry."

Mari, on the other hand, doesn't make such a fuss about her projects. We never find out what kind of films she prefers. In the chapter, 'Killing George', she brings a story to read to Jonna who insists on interrupting her with comments and suggestions. Mari, like any author, fights to defend her characters but finally gives in and allows Jonna to take on the role of editor. She is not totally subordinate – far from it – but it's clear that she has grown used to Jonna being the way she is and, since Jonna means well even if she is sometimes a bit thoughtless, Mari has grown used to taking a back seat.

Fair Play presents a slide show, snapshots if you will, scenes from lives that have taken seventy years to organise themselves into a workable relationship though who is to say if it is a perfect one. And like all snapshots there's only so much shown but, if you have enough snapshots, you begin to build up a composite picture and that's exactly how this book unfolds. It reminds me of a Rolf Harris painting. Rolf used to paint on these huge boards with the kind of brushes that the rest of us use to paint our living rooms and his catch phrase was, "Can you see what it is yet?" Splash by splash a picture in built up and it's not until the end that you realise you've read a novel and not a collection of stories. This is suggested in the opening chapter, 'Changing Pictures':

           “There should be an element of surprise when people’s eyes move across a wall covered with pictures. We don’t want to make it too easy for them. Let them catch their breath and look again because they can’t help it. Make them think, make them mad, even … Why did you leave so much space right here?”
           “I don’t know,” Mari said. But she did know. Suddenly she knew very well that deep down she didn’t like the painter colleagues who had done these undeniably very fine works. Mari began paying attention. As she watched Jonna rehang the pictures, it seemed to her that lots of things, including their life together, fell into perspective and into place, a summary expressed in distance or self-evident clustering.”

The novel, written in her eighties, is clearly semi-autobiographical, with Tove being the fictional Mari, and her lifelong partner, graphic designer Tuulikka Pietelä, being Jonna; the couple were together for forty years and actually lived for part of the year in a cottage on the remote outer edge of the Finnish archipelago until 1991. Perhaps this is the reason I felt that the book focussed more on Jonna; she certainly is the dominant of the two but that's always the case in any relationship; it is not a bad thing, just a fact of life.

Jonna and Mari interact like a real couple and they are certainly not a perfect couple:

           The little red light came on. Fassbinder confronted them in all his exquisite, controlled violence. It was very late when he was done. Jonna switched on the lamp, slipped the cassette into its cover, and put it on the shelf labelled “Fassbinder”.
           “Mari,” she said, “are you unhappy that we don’t see people?”
           “No, not any more.”
           “That’s good. I mean, if we did see them, what would it be like? Like always, exactly like always. Pointless chatter about inessentials. No composition, no guiding idea. No theme. Isn’t that right? We know roughly what everyone will say; we know each other inside out. But here on our videos every remark is significant, nothing is arbitrary. Everything is considered and well formulated.”
           “All the same,” said Mari, “sometimes one of us might say something unexpected, something that didn’t fit, something really out of the ordinary that made you sit up and take notice. You know, something irrational.”
           “Yes, I know. But make no mistake: great directors know all about the irrational. You talk about things that don’t fit – they use such things, with a purpose, as an essential part of the whole. Do you know what I mean? Apparent quirkiness but with a point. They know exactly what they’re doing.”
           “But they’ve had time,” Mari objected. “We don’t always have time to think, we just live! Of course a filmmaker can depict what you call quirkiness, but it’s still just canned. We’re in the moment. Maybe I haven’t thought this through... Jonna, these films of yours are fantastic, they’re perfect. But when we get involved in them as totally as we do, isn’t that dangerous?”
           “How do you mean, dangerous?”
           “Doesn’t it diminish other things?”
           “No. Really good films don’t diminish anything, they don’t close things off. On the contrary, they open up new insights, they make new thoughts thinkable. They crowd us, they deflate our slovenly lifestyle, our thoughtless way of chattering and pissing away our time and energy and passion. Believe me, films can teach us a huge amount. And they give us a true picture of the way life is.”
           Mari laughed. “Of our slovenly lifestyle, you mean? You mean, maybe they can teach us to piss our lives away with a little more intelligence, a little more elegance?”
           “Don’t be an ass. You know perfectly well...”
           Mari interrupted. “And if film is some kind of edifying god, wouldn’t it be dangerous to try and emulate your gods, always knowing that you’re coming up short? That everything you do is somehow badly directed?”

Although the women might be interesting enough on their own, Jansson includes some unusual secondary characters for the couple to interact with: one day Mari is visited by Helga, a woman in her fifties with a fear of thunderstorms who doted on Mari's mother, her scout leader when Helga was a girl; later Jonna takes on a student, Mirja, overweight, always hungry, dour and a source of jealousy between the old couple; most fascinating is the outspoken ninety-two year old Wladyslaw Leniewicz, The Marionette Master, who comes to stay with Mari for a fortnight in the middle of winter and who keeps her talking into the early hours, and finally there is Verity, a chambermaid at the Majestic Hotel in Phoenix who takes delight in organising their mementoes on the dresser in their room and then drags the women to Annie's bar to try her special banana drink.

These characters provide a backdrop to help us understand the relationship between these two in much the same way as the other stories provide obstacles for them to have to deal with as a couple: a seagull who has flown into one of their windows; the storm that threatens to sink their small boat; the fog that traps them in their boat or the Russian artillery raining shells onto the island as they practice in the distance, something they accept in a surprisingly matter-of-fact fashion.

The book can be called "slow paced" and "a quick read" and both are equally valid descriptions; not a lot happens and words aren't wasted describing it. And yet the layers build up, chapter by chapter until we know quite a lot about this slightly eccentric pair of ladies.

As a novel though it does have its climax in the final chapter; a letter arrives from Paris that puts a great strain on their relationship. How this is resolved says so much about this couple and, in particular, Mari who proves herself to be a much more resilient person than I might have expected her to be. This is a novel. The stories have an order and Jansson does not repeat details so you need to remember what has gone on before. That the chapters are self-contained does make them feel like short-stories and most of them would actually work as stand-alone pieces but they are so much more when read as they were intended to be read, as a novel.

Last word? If anyone wanted to test the assertion that character is plot then this is a good book to use.

Tove Jansson was born in Helsinki, Finland. Her father, Viktor Jansson, was a sculptor, and his mother, Signe Hammarten-Jansson, was a graphic artist. She studied art at Konstfack in Stockholm, the Finnish Art Society, and the École d'Adrien Holy and École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. She became an accomplished artist before beginning her career as a cartoonist in the 1920s.

Jansson first began contributing her art to magazines when she was 15. Her 1946 publication, Comet In Moominland, first introduced the Moomin characters for which she became most famous. In 1953 she began drawing the comic strip "Moomin" for The London Evening News. She has been awarded the Finnish State Award in literature three times and became the first person to receive the Suomi Award.

Her artistic successes have been such that her work as a writer for adults has been quite overshadowed but she is the author of several novels and collections of short stories.

You can read three chapters from Fair Play here.

Monday, 26 May 2008

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible

Okay, Jim so where's your usual incisive and witty blog gone?

Good question. Normal service will be resumed shortly. In the meantime I've had the first honest-to-goodness review of my novel and I'd like to share it with all of you. It's by a guy called Steve Kane and, no, I didn't pay him an embarrassingly large sum of money to say nice things about me nor did I threaten to display photos of him engaged in embarrassing activities on my website for the world – or at least my small slice of it – to giggle over. So there.

Fair enough. So where do we read this review then?

Glad you asked. Here's a link to Steve's blog:

You think this'll convince us to buy your book, don't you?

It's called marketing, folks and this is the real world. I slogged away at that baby for five years and, it may not be Ulysses, but I think it has something to say that's worth reading.

So, you want us to read the review?

Yes, please.


If you don't mind.

And you'll post a real blog later?


You promise?

Would I lie to you?

You're a writer aren't you?

Just read the goddamn review, why don't you?

Hey, no need to get tetchy about it. We're going right now. What's that link again?


You're welcome.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Part of the not-so-global community

I'm afraid you'll have to click on the link to Jasmin's Heart to find today's post. It's been moved temporarily.

The site is run by one Jasko Caus, a well travelled artist and the author of two books of poetry, who hails from Bihać a town in the north-western part of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

I met him through Entrecard and have been following his blog for quite a few weeks. The blog often features his artwork along with literary articles and examples of writing from an area of the world most of us would struggle to find on a map. I have particularly enjoyed his series of essays on James Joyce.

On one of the various art sites where you can find his work his 'artist's statement' is: Never try to kill any talent you have by watching too much TV. A noble sentiment but then maybe they don't get House, Boston Legal, CSI, Criminal Minds, Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy, Numb3rs and Shark in Bosnia-Herzegovina yet. Or maybe they do.

We talk about the World Wide Web as a global village but I do find that the greater amount of visitors to my site are from either the UK or the USA. I used to have a regular visitor from Australia but he's gone AWOL. I checked my visitor log and I actually get clickers from 86 different countries – thanks to Entecard no doubt – but I still don't feel as much a part of a global community as one might expect. I'm well aware that language is a barrier but not so much these days.

I have to say it would be nice to become more familiar with different writers. I was so delighted with that book by the Norwegian Erlend Loe that I ran across a few weeks back and I've got a novel by the Finnish novelist Tove Jansson sitting on my pile to read but what about the wannabes out there who could do with a bit of support and exposure?

Anyway, have a look at Jasko's site and, when you've finished with my contribution, stick around and see what else he has to say. And if you know of any decent literary-oriented-non-Anglo-American sites do let me know.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Thou shalt not write poems about poems

Don't write poems about poems. I've heard this or read this more than once. It's frowned on in the same way as writing a novel about a novelist writing a novel is frowned on. I'll be honest, I don't get either of them. I like to read poems about poems and novels about novelists.

I can understand why … up to a point. I expect a lot of these kinds of poems will be odes to their muse or alternatively epics about their nightly struggle with the anti-muse, writer's block. A lot of very bad poetry must have been written covering each of these topics but then a lot of very bad poetry has been written about the wonders of nature, for idealised mothers and to girls who won't put out. It does not take a great imagination to work out how a 'rule' like this came into existence though.

The reason I constantly find myself drifting back to this topic is the difficulty prose has coping with poetry. A while back, just for the fun of it, I tried to define a poem and I ended up with a whole mess o' words because poetry – these days at least – is a very fluid thing. I've always been led to believe that a definition that includes the word which it is trying to define is a bad definition but I don't think trying to define or describe aspects of poetic experience – be it writing it, struggling to write it or simply reading it – using poetry, is a bad thing. How do you describe dance, for God's sake?

In the concluding paragraph to her essay Writing Poems about Writing Poems: Why (Not)? Wendy Bishop has this to say:

Poems about poems are just that. An interesting type of poetry. A location for exploration and discussion. A fairly popular student genre. A sometimes dreaded object for writing teachers. A place of some tension and much promise. A place to explore, understand, savour, and then leave, better informed, as we go on to other poetic tasks.

I am not sure I necessarily agree with her. I can see how her experience of this kind of poem might have engendered this opinion and she is perfectly entitled to it. I think that it is a hard thing to write a decent poem about poetry. But if we gave up when things looked as if things were going to get a bit rough where would we be? Everest wouldn't have been scaled, the four minute mile broken or Niagara Falls survived in a barrel.

I've been fortunate enough to have five poems accepted for publication in Gloom Cupboard, a journal with a name far too cool not to submit to; four will be appearing in their forthcoming print edition (#3) and one, 'As Is', is in this month's on-line issue (#36). To have a clue what I'm going on about next you'd better have a look at the poem here. I'll wait.

(tum-ta-tum-ta-tum ta-ta-tum-tidly-tum-te-tum ta-ta-tidly- tidly- tum-te-tum)

Okay? Done? Right.

The poem is about something that has annoyed me for years. It's the instruction you find in the submission guidelines of virtually every magazine NOT to submit poetry that has appeared elsewhere. I have perfectly decent poems that appeared in tiny print magazines back in the nineteen-seventies that I can't submit elsewhere because someone, somewhere, somewhen has read them. Poetry doesn't go off. It can date but then so do furniture and hairstyles and mobile phones it seems.

So I thought I'd be up front with this poem. It has been read before. You were not the first person to read it. My wife read it, my daughter, Richard from Gloom Cupboard – which means you were at least the fourth person to read this poem – oh, wait, I posted it on the critique bit of Zoetrope and thirty people read it there (of which only nine people could be bothered to review it but I got and overall 82.2%) – and can you imagine if this was a novel that thirty-four people had read before you did? It would be all tatty and dog-eared. That is assuming you were the first person to read it today and what about all the people who will have read it on Gloom Cupboard since it's been posted?

I think I should get an A for that poem:

Solid performance
Basic skills mastered
Originality, Creativity, Depth of Analysis
Sees beyond the obvious, looks for relationships and connections.

The poem is, of course, being presented as merchandise, it is being offered to you "as is" or "as seen" – caveat emptor – buyer beware so you need to examine it carefully because you can't return it for a refund.

The third stanza is of particular interest. When do poems lose meaning? From the moment I finish the poem, give it a number, get the nod from my wife that it's not crap and put it in my great big red folder? It's up to the reader then to make it mean something. (I'll come back to that in my next post).

All the poet hands over are words, no notes, no hand signals. It is the reader who works with those words and makes something of them. Every poem comes that way, no user's manual and batteries not included. One of the poems that will appear in the print edition is 'Your Statutory Rights are not Affected' during which the reader is asked to insert 'a moment of meaningful silence' into the poem. In other words, they need to contribute to the poem for it to work properly.

I had a look through my folder and one of my earliest poems about poetry is this one:


Poems are near
naked thoughts: for

we will not take
off our clothes since

we are ashamed
of our bodies.

7 January 1979

It's not the greatest poem I've ever written but I still have a fondness for it. It's perhaps more subtle than some of my later work where I state outright that poets are liars. All I'm saying here is that it's human nature not to tell the whole truth so if you're reading poetry looking for truth you need to bear in mind who it is that writes poems, people like you and me.

A year later I wrote this one:


Do not analyse
my poems!
They will not conform
for you.
Neither stare into
any mirror
and expect your image
to give up
any truths or secrets.

8 December 1979

God, I was young and angry. I sometimes forget how passionate I was back then. Here's the next one I found:


Poems disappearing in words –
nothing there but voices.

Excerpts from other people's lives –
empty as a found photograph.

25 June 1980

I love the image of a found photograph. I have several. I even carry one in my wallet of a girl I've never met, a little passport photo I found while waiting for the lights to change early one morning. I think it's a good metaphor for the problems readers have with poems. They want to make sense out of them. They see familiar things but there's also missing stuff that they need to provide.

Of course I'm not the only poet writing poems about poetry. Wendy Bishop lists a pile of them in her article but no hyperlinks. Here are the ones I've managed to find – most of them actually. Am I not good to you?

Rita Dove, 'Ars Poetica'

Archibald MacLeish, 'Ars Poetica'

Ars Poetica, Vicente Huidobro translated from the Spanish

Linda Pastan, 'Ars Poetica'

Larry Levis, 'The Poem You Asked For'

Donald Justice, 'An Elegy Is Preparing Itself' (you'll have to scroll down for it)

Agha Shahid Ali, 'Ghazal'

Basho, 'To a prospective student'

Desmond Skirrow, 'Ode on a Grecian Urn Summarized'

David Lee, 'Loading a Boar'

Ted Hughes, 'The Thought-Fox'

Ronald Wallace, 'The Bad Sonnet'

Peter Meinke, 'The Heart's Location'

Hayden Carruth, 'Saturday at the Border'

I don't care what people say, I have no intention of stopping writing about writing. I believe poems like 'As Is' are important because they help readers understand how they should look at all poetry.

I'll leave you with one last poem of mine, the last one I've written as a matter of fact, and, as another matter of fact, my first honest-to-goodness haiku. I'm blaming Dave King.

a haiku
floating in white space
a receding bird

14th April 2008

Thursday, 15 May 2008

A flea in a sandstorm

In my novel Living with the Truth, there is a scene when Truth passes comment on Jonathan's relationship to Charity:

“You have seven days a week, so you could attend an R.S.P.C.A. meeting on Monday, Greenpeace on a Tuesday, C.N.D. on Wednesday, distribute hot meals to the winos and junkies on the streets Thursday night and address a rally to raise public awareness of the various forms of cancer on Friday. On Saturday morning you could give a few hours to your local charity shop and in the afternoon visit one or two of the local pensioners. And on Sunday you could spread yourself as far as possible over the county’s AIDS sufferers. Not forgetting your spare time in which you could write long, fact-filled letters to your local MP about the country’s misuse of public funds and to food companies to warn them about the dangers of additives and to third world dictators about human rights. Would you do any good?”

“Maybe not but I’d feel as if I was doing something.”

“And that is practically all it would be, a flea in a sandstorm. You, you don’t even recycle your aluminium cans or your bottles let alone even one or two of those other things. You didn’t even watch Live Aid. In fact you do nothing.”

It's a striking moment and it raises important questions.

You're on your way to the shops. There's a girl standing on the corner of the street holding a donation tin and you drop your 50p in, accept your badge (so the world knows you're a giver) and head off to buy whatever it is you're after, a CD, a DVD, or something practical, ink for your printer or batteries for your cordless mouse. And then there's another one nestling in wait at the entrance to the mall and another as go into the shop. Charity's all about sticking your hand in your pocket, right? That's what Bob Geldof was shouting about during Live Aid: "Just give us the fucking money…"

Back in January the Burmese poet, Saw Wai, was arrested the day after his poem 'February 14' was published in a popular weekly entertainment magazine. I read about it on several blogs. It's old news. But where was the donation tin? I didn't see one so I passed on.

I wonder whatever happened to Saw Wai? I found a link that said he's been allowed to meet his wife but I got a 404 page. Oh well. He's got a Wikipedia entry but it's only a stub. It doesn't say too much. Maybe whoever wrote it lost interest. It seems he's in Insein prison and his wife tried to see him on January 28th but they didn't let her. Insein prison is an enormous detention centre built by the British near Rangoon and has become the symbol of the military regime’s repressive apparatus. It is known for appalling conditions and the frequent use of physical and psychological torture

I had a look on the Burma Campaign UK site but I couldn't see anything about Saw Wai. There's a DONATE button but I'm not sure Saw Wai would benefit from my money. Maybe money isn't the answer. I could write him a poem. He's a poet. He'd like that. But he probably doesn't read English and if they won't let him see his wife then I doubt they'd let him have a poem even if it was in English. I guess that's a bit of a non starter then. Mind you, in February Anti published a collection inspired by the incident called Crazy Senior General Than Shwe. I wonder if anyone sent him a copy?

Afer a bit of effort on another site I discovered that Saw Wai did eventually got to see his wife, Ma Nan San San Aye, on 20th February. After the visit she had this to report:

Apparently he told government officials during interrogation that the poem had already been rejected by the censor board before it was published in Achit Journal [Love Journal]. He said that the journal's editor, Myat Khine, knew publishing the poem in his journal would increase sales, and so decided to publish it anyway and said he would take the consequences. – DVB

On hearing of the accusation from Saw Wai, Myat Khine denied any responsibility: "No. We published the poem as we received it from Saw Wai," he said.

I can't find anything more concerning Saw Wai but when you investigate things a bit further there's no reason he should have been singled out other than he was a poet. The western papers never mentioned Soe Min Oo and Kalar Shae who were arrested on the same day or U Par Lay and U Maung Soe who were arrested two days earlier or Htet Htet Aung, Ko Kyaw Kyaw and Kyaw Zin Win who were all picked up on the 4th of January. They're just odd-sounding names to me but they were all a part of someone's family, they'll have had husbands or wives, children, parents, uncles, aunts.

Do I feel bad that Saw Wai is trying to get free by abdicating responsibility? Who am I to judge? What would I do in a place like that? Maybe he's not the heroic type. Maybe writing that poem was the best he could do.

We talk about the power of words. Talk's cheap. But is it pointless? Will this blog make a difference? Even when added to all the other blogs that will be posted today? The answer really is: I don’t know. I only have words and strangely enough the freedom to say whatever the hell I like but someone, somewhere along the line might read them who actually has the ability to do something but lacks the motivation. Isn't that the way writing works, when the right writer and the right reader come together? Or I could just click on the DONATE button and be done with it.

Have a look at the Blogger Unite website. I think someone might have forgotten to add a DONATE button to it through.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

You probably think this blog is about you (part four)

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Who in their right mind sits down to write a novel? I certainly never did. Not the first one in any case. I read blogs all the time of young people struggling with that first book, determined that they're going to drag that book out of themselves by hook or by crook. It takes balls and I take my hat off to them. (Pause to raise hat). I just sat down and wrote a novel. It wasn't an ego thing. I'm not saying I'm a natural or better than anyone else. It was just me working things out on a bit of paper and then a second bit of paper until I ended up with 181 printed and bound pages. I was a poet. What the hell was I doing writing a novel? I have to confess that it is a weird feeling holding a book in your hand – not a manuscript – an actual book with a cover, an ISBN number, a dedication, an acknowledgement and an advert in the back for your next book. It's also a nice feeling. I know I use 'nice' far too often but this is one of those occasions when it is the right word. It is a nice feeling.

I've already explained where the idea for the book came from so let me expand a bit on that.

Jonathan Noel, the protagonist in Patrick Süskind's novella, The Pigeon, works as a bank guard. He is in his fifties, lives on his own in a small room, which he is in the process of buying from the owner; he shops daily, owns seventeen books and has a sister who doesn't live in Stoke. He expects to have a good twenty uneventful years ahead of him before he has to worry about dying. He is an exceedingly Bleaneyish character. He's certainly more Bleaney than he is Krapp.

On the other hand, Jonathan Payne, the protagonist in my novel, Living with the Truth, is a bookseller. He's in his fifties and owns a small flat which he inherited from his father; he lives alone, shops daily, has a wall full of books and, strangely enough, also happens to have a sister who doesn't live in Stoke. He wishes he was dead and if he doesn't die soon he'll devolve into Krapp.

One of the questions they invariably ask at interviews is: Where do you see yourself being in x number of years. It's a question I really hate answering. When I started working on my novel I thought I'd reached about the lowest point in my life. Unbeknownst to me there were greater depths to be plumbed. It was however from that point that I gazed futureward: where did I see myself being in twenty years? I saw myself living on my own and that really was the plan. I had carted around a couple of hundred books for years so there was no way there wouldn't be books in my life but, as it seemed like I'd never write again (despite, ironically, the fact I was in the process of writing) I did wonder what kind of job would I like to end up doing? Working in a bookshop sounded cool. And undemanding. Owning one would be out of the question but what's wrong with a bit of wish-fulfilment? If my character was going to be a miserable old git then I wanted him to be in the right kind of setting and I've encountered a few miserable old gits in second-hand bookshops. On top of all that I still expected to have a sister who doesn't live in Stoke.

There is no antagonist in Krapp's Last Tape. Krapp wrestles with the truths about himself. There is no antagonist in Patrick Süskind's novella. At least not in the first nine pages. There is a pigeon. What was I going to do?

I have racked my brain and I couldn't tell you at what stage I decided to introduce the personification of truth as Jonathan's foil but I can't. I just kept bringing my Jonathan up to that point where he opens the door to be confronted by … by what? In my youth I'd read The Master and Margarita and a bit of Gogol so the concept of magical realism was not unknown to me even if I wasn't aware of its name. Besides I'd grown up with so many TV programmes from I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched and My Favourite Martian on and it was never a problem for me to suspend disbelief.

What does Truth look like? We know what the stereotypical Death looks like or at least we used to until Neil Gaiman came along and re-imagined her as a skinny goth chick. Justice is this blindfolded bird with scales and a sword. Father Time is this old dude in a robe, lugging around a dirty great egg timer. But what about Truth?

I see Truth as a personal thing. My Truth wouldn't necessarily look like your Truth. Jonathan's Truth appears as a young man of about thirty, with curly hair, bright eyes and dressed in a pinstriped suit. He sticks out like a sore thumb in Rigby, the seaside town in which Jonathan lives. Do I really have to explain the choice of name? Apart from the obvious association with the Beatle's song (Rigby is where "all the lonely people" live) I was also thinking about the character of Rigsby in Rising Damp. In Beckett's writing he references Dante and Racine, I reference pop culture.

What would you do if Truth knocked on your door? He's one of those characters that's pretty hard to avoid. Many of us succeed for years. But it's a rare individual who can keep off his radar for ever. And our Jonathan is simply not one of them.

If you'd like to see how our poor Jonathan reacts when he first encounters him you can read the entire second chapter on my website. You'll also find examples of my other writing, essays, short stories and poems and a bit of a bio.

The book is now available for those who simply have to know more. It's available on and Foyles but unless you're ordering it as part of a larger order that qualifies you for free shipping you would be cheaper to order it via the publisher's website and I suspect delivery will be that bit quicker too.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

You probably think this blog is about you (part three)

Part One

Part Two

Beckett’s posthumously published first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, is a blatantly autobiographical work set in Dublin, Ireland. The story of Beckett’s first antihero, Belacqua Shuah, whom the publisher (Calder Books) calls an alter-ego for the author, is actually narrated by a Mr. Beckett. His biographer, James Knowlson notes:

[M]any of the figures who appear in the novel are closely based on people whom he knew – in some cases much too closely for this not to have been a source of embarrassment to the older Beckett, who, after several initial attempts to get it published, became extremely reluctant to see it appear during his own and their lifetimes.

This did not stop Beckett writing future works which had autobiographical elements but he is never quite as ham-fisted in his treatment of facts about himself, his friends or his family as he is in this book. I was gifted a first-edition by my lovely wife a few years ago and I have to confess it is not an easy read but at least I can say I've read it after a fashion.

One of the most significant events in Beckett's life was the death, in 1950, of his overbearing mother, May Beckett. The loss of any parent is never something to be trivialised but Beckett's relationship with his mother was very strong albeit often tumultuous. It was seven years before he could write about it; some things take a long time to process. The play, for many his most accessible, was Krapp's Last Tape which I have seen a number of times and have studied in depth.

Krapp’s Last Tape … represents one of the most autobiographical pieces with references to the death of the author’s mother, his sweetheart in Germany and the discovery of his creative vein before leaving Ireland for good, and shows a particular interest in autobiographical form. The separation of Krapp’s personality into his present self listening to the episodes of his past self, recorded on the day of his thirty-ninth birthday on a tape recorder, foreshadows Beckett’s concern with different versions of the self and signals the reduction of human character to voice. - Alfred Hornung, Fantasies of the Autobiographical Self: Thomas Bernhard, Raymond Federman, Samuel Beckett

In the play we get to hear an account of an epiphany, Krapp's "vision at last" on the pier at Dún Laoghaire and, in the past, scholars have taken this literally as a reflection of Beckett's own revelation. But that wasn't the case. Later on Beckett wrote to Richard Ellmann: "All the jetty and howling wind are imaginary. It happened to me, summer 1945, in my mother’s little house, named 'New Place', across the road from Cooldrinagh." So, the epiphany was real enough but the nature and circumstances were quite different.

The same goes for the female characters in the play, the nurse, the girl in the green coat and the girl on the punt – they all display aspects of a couple of different women Beckett had been in love with and have become metaphors for his ideal woman, the one he let slip from his grasp to pursue his craft. Zooming out and considering all the women in the play it's easier to see what Beckett is looking at here: womankind, from his mother to the older woman he fantasised about at college to the idealised 'girl next door' to the old whore who visits Krapp at the end. This is autobiography but only of a kind.

What really captivates me is the character of Krapp, the sixty-nine year-old Krapp we see on stage. Who is he? Is he Beckett?

When you examine the early drafts of the play we learn a few interesting things. He wrote it in what scholars refer to as the 'Eté 56' notebook, the one he started in summer 1956. Most unusually for Beckett he originally set the play in April 1986 which he subsequently amended to 1985, then to "the nineteen eighties" before settling on "in the future". In other words he was projecting himself thirty years into the future. The whole play is a what-if scenario. The original age for the middle-aged Krapp was thirty. This was revised to thirty-seven at first and finally thirty-nine. By that age he had written three novels, Dream of Fair to Middling Women (unpublished in his lifetime), Murphy and Watt and a collection of short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks, amongst a few other bits and bobs. Famous he was not and it never looked as if he was going to be. What if he'd never written En attendant Godot in 1952? How would Beckett be thought of today? He'd probably be lumped in with the likes of Robert Pinget, Marguerite Duras and Maurice Blanchot, none of who are especially well known or appreciated.

In the play Krapp focuses his attention on the women in his life and much speculation has gone into finding the real life counterparts of the girl in the green coat, the dark young beauty and the girl in the punt. I won't take up time here explaining who is who – I covered it all in my (admittedly overlong) Wikipedia article – but the one person who does not appear is Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, who eventually became Beckett's wife. She does not figure significantly in his life till after his stabbing in January 1938, when he was thirty-one, but, from all accounts, Suzanne was never the love of his life.

I talked before about autobiographical novels as being part wish-fulfilment and I suppose most do tend to accentuate the positive but can you ever imagine Beckett doing that? In Krapp Beckett takes all his worst characteristics and lets them play themselves out. It was a play he always had a soft spot for though. He expressed his feelings well in a letter to Barney Rosset:

I feel as clucky and beady and one-legged and bare-footed about this little text as an old hen with her last chick.

In the autumn of 1993 I sat down in my father's study, what had at one time been my bedroom, and wrote:

Had it been Death that had called that day then that would have been all right.

Twenty-one single-spaced A4 pages later I was done. I'd written my first novel. Okay it wasn't much of a novel at 20,000 words, more of a novelette really. The next draft made it to 34,000 (a novella), then 43,000, then 50,000, a full-blown novel. Yay, me! I really wrote more than was necessary to hit that magic number because, after editing, the final version I have sitting beside me is 48, 981 words long. Ah well.

In Beckett's play, Krapp pauses a couple of times to look behind him and peer into the darkness. Beckett explained to Martin Held at a rehearsal in Berlin: "Old Nick’s there. Death is standing behind him and unconsciously he's looking for it."

My protagonist wasn't a failed writer. It seemed a bit too obvious to go in that direction. But Jonathan is certainly a failed human being. It really wouldn't trouble him if Death appeared to cart him away. He's younger than Krapp too. Beckett was fifty-one when he wrote Krapp; I was in my thirties so when I decided on Jonathan's age, fifty-three seemed old. Now I'm forty-nine I think I might have made him a bit older but I did want to portray a man who was prematurely old. I've always looked older than I really was and no one has ever guessed my age right. Even now I get mid-fifties.

I never sat down to write a novel. I just sat down to write. Something. Anything. I had not written a word for just over two years. I looked in the mirror and I didn't see a writer any more. I didn't know how to be the man I was turning into. The master plan was … well, let's be honest, there wasn't any plan. I was in a dead end job. My marriage had failed. I was suffering from Depression – whoppin' great big capital D there – and I was back sleeping in the same bed I had done as a child only with a new mattress to help my bad back. That mattress felt like the only good thing I had at the time.

Surprisingly I was reading a lot. If you can't write then read. It really is the next best thing. Always attracted to short books I'd picked up a copy of Patrick Süskind's novella The Pigeon which describes a man who is terrified of a pigeon. It is an odd image:

He had almost set foot across the threshold, had already raised the foot, his left, his leg was in the act of stepping – when he saw it. It was sitting before his door, not eight inches from the threshold, in the pale reflection of dawn that came through the window. It was crouched there, with red, taloned feet on the oxblood tiles of the hall and in the sleek, blue-grey plumage: the pigeon.

I never finished the book. I bought a copy a couple of years back and I still couldn't get past this scene – Jonathan Noel was his name, by the way – and the preposterous position he found himself in. I found I didn't really want the reasons behind his predicament explained either. I found that I wanted to do the explaining. But the first thing I needed was to establish my character on the page.

(This all sounds so contrived looking back, but, believe you me, there was absolutely no planning. I simply sat down and started writing. It's only looking back I can pinpoint some of the significant stages in the book's development).

Names are important. There are some cultures (or perhaps "were" as I'm unsure if they still exist) where at birth a person is given a "child name" and then when some certain thing happens, perhaps finishing puberty or marrying, then the "child name" is discarded and the new adult gets to choose their own adult name. Of course people can still change their names and I include a minor character in the novel who changes his name to 'God' but how do you decide on the name for a character?

I've heard that Simenon used to fret over piles of telephone books until he found the perfect name for a character and once he found the name he would write it on a manila envelope on which he would build up a complete history of the character the vast bulk of which he would never use. I never felt the need for that but I did need the right name. It came easily. I'd love to say that I sweated blood over my protagonist's name but it really was obvious from the jump, he was a man in pain, a man who had been in pain for years; I called him, Jonathan Payne.

In my next post I'll tell you who I cast as the pigeon.

Part Four

Thursday, 8 May 2008

You probably think this blog is about you (part two)

Part One

Writing is a very personal thing. I write to work things out. I write a sentence, maybe a paragraph, and I look at it and say to myself: "Does that make any sense? Am I saying what I mean here?" I've just done that here. I know each and every word very well. I use them regularly and I have full confidence in every single one of them to deliver my precise meaning every time I use them. And that's fine when it comes to simple sentences. Once we get onto broader topics, once we start incorporating figures of speech, everything starts to get that bit fuzzier.

Writing is an act of vanity because it presumes that other people will want to read what's just been written. On the whole I'm not a vain person. I like my clothes to match when I go outside but really that has nothing to do with vanity and everything to do with not drawing attention to myself. When it comes to my words, I would really prefer to distance myself from them, as if they would lose credibility if you someone knew I wrote them. Larkin managed to survive the revelations about his lifestyle and attitudes but look how poor Gerald Ratner's empire crumbled when the press got a hold of him by the short-and-curlies. Some blog writers are very up front, they post all sorts of details about themselves so that it's hard to see where they end and the writing begins. I suppose, in their minds, there's no distinction and one flows naturally into the other.

I expect, for some, blogs are like chapters from ongoing autobiographies. The thing about autobiographies, even those covering several volumes, is that they can only deal with the highs and the lows; the mid-range, day-to-day, what-I-had-for-breakfast stuff has to get dumped and yet so much of what makes up our lives is, well, beige. Other than to illustrate my point I would never think to mention in a post that I need a haircut or that my eyes are especially itchy today.

All biographies are fictional in that they present an incomplete and skewed picture. You get to read what the author decides is relevant and what ends up on the page is only ever as accurate as an individual's memory will allow. This is something I discuss in my second novel, Stranger than Fiction, that all our remembrances are concoctions, part fact (the things we remember accurately) and part fabrication (the bits we have to make up to make the memory flow smoothly). The fabrications are usually things like: Did she say, "Oh, that's fine," "Yes, that's fine," "That'll be fine," or something else along those lines? At the end of the day, does it matter? Yes and no. Only one of them will be factually accurate, the way it was said, with all the right inflections. Only one of them will be the truth but any one of them will do. "Good enough for government work," as my wife is fond of saying.

The writer Beckett has never shied away from incorporating what Matthijs Engelberts calls "autobiographical residue" in his works. In the late play Ohio Impromptu Beckett settles his protagonist in "a single room on the far bank. From its single window he could see the downstream extremity of the Isle of Swans." This clearly confirms the location as Paris where Beckett lived for the greater part of his life. On the table there is a "Latin Quarter hat" which is significant because Joyce used to wear a hat like that. This makes the Isle of Swans doubly interesting because Beckett and Joyce used to go for walks together on this Parisian islet and yet the character in the play has moved there hoping that relief "would flow from unfamiliarity". Is Beckett talking about his motivation for moving to Paris in the first place in 1928?

It’s all guesswork. In his early works he used locations around Foxrock, the Dublin suburb where he grew up, in fact I own a large-format book called The Beckett Country by Eoin O’Brien that devotes 400 pages to highlighting the various Irish locations that crop up throughout Beckett’s works. At the end of the day these are just settings and one should avoid the temptation to read too much into them. In The More Things Change I set the action in Victoria Park in Glasgow and then modify the facts to suit my story, e.g. I needed the pond to be kidney-shaped so it became kidney-shaped.

Settings are one thing as are props but once you start to study Beckett in depth it is impossible to ignore the amount of autobiographical snippets that keep cropping up in his writing. I could give a character a beard – I’m familiar with being bearded – but that doesn’t mean that character is me; lots of people have and have had beards. It is one thing a character having the characteristics of the author, it’s another thing having them mimic the persona of the author. I could have a character say, "Genocide is a good thing," but you shouldn't read too much into that.

Beckett not only used detail and locations from his life, he also grafted in references from the bible, philosophy, psychology and Classical literature. In a letter of 11 April 1972, Beckett wrote as follows:

I simply know next to nothing about my work in this way, as little as a plumber of the history of hydraulics. There is nothing/nobody with me when I'm writing, only the hellish job in hand. The 'eye of the mind' in Happy Days does not refer to Yeats any more than the 'revels' in Endgame (refer) to The Tempest. They are just bits of pipe I happen to have with me.

I can relate to that. To get a complete picture of me, you need to be aware of the society I’ve grown up in and the things I’ve experienced, the films I’ve seen, the books I’ve read – all of this has a bearing on who I am. Let’s consider a single sentence from the opening paragraph from Living with the Truth:

All his affairs had long been in order, down to the milk money put aside in the saucer souvenir on the kitchen window sill; a piece of memorabilia from the past, once perhaps a vessel for an honourable purpose, but now simply where he kept the milk money.

Nowadays it’s unusual to get milk delivered but when I was young is was common place. Even though the book is set roughly in the mid-eighties I decided to have my protagonist get his milk delivered. That he would choose to have his milk delivered also indicates something about him, that he’s not comfortable in the modern world, that he is happier clinging onto the way things were. As I put it later in the novel:

Nostalgia – sounds like an ailment, a sickness of the soul perhaps.

The saucer souvenir is straight out of ‘Mr. Bleaney’:

'I'll take it.' So it happens that I lie
Where Mr Bleaney lay, and stub my fags
On the same saucer-souvenir…

This again says something about the man, that he might well be Bleanyish in nature. What no one would guess is that one of the first gifts my present wife gave me was a saucer souvenir so, even though that was not in my mind when I first wrote the sentence (I never even knew her at that point), every time I read it I’m reminded of her. Its meaning has deepened.

In his letter to Timothy (2:20) the apostle Paul wrote this:

In a large house there are vessels not only of gold and silver but also of wood and earthenware, and some for an honourable purpose but others for a purpose lacking honour.

Paul is talking about people and how a young Christian should watch his associations. This reference implies that my protagonist is at least familiar with the scriptures but it also exposes the fact that I, as the author, may be reasonably well versed in the scriptures. It doesn’t make clear whether either of us was or is either a practising Christian or even a believer. I might've simply stumbled upon it in a book of quotes though. The subtext here is that if something as simple as a saucer souvenir can have lost its standing then what about its owner, is he an honourable or a dishonourable man? And, if you lack honour does that automatically lead to dishonour or is there some middle ground? We're not writing about Klingons here. Well, you need to read on to find out.

The simple fact is that I wrote that paragraph and I inserted whatever "bits of pipe" I had lying around into it to make it work. As you witness the character develop it’s easy to see him as a patchwork man, assembled from things I am and things I've known and then exaggerated; he’s a caricature trying to fake it as a real person. The protagonist of my first novel is not me though. He’s about twenty years older than the man I was when I started work on the book. I called him Jonathan Payne.

In exploring the life of Jonathan Payne I’m not exploring myself but I am exploring a self and I’m doing that by referencing what I know of my own self and life experiences. In examining another personal resonance is inevitable, literally we try and understand the character by comparing him to who we are and what we know. We translate him. I have never been to a prep school nor did I even know what one was when I first read Catcher in the Rye but I didn’t need to know to get what was important in the book.

When Sara Willis Parton published her first novel, Ruth Hall, under the pseudonym, Fanny Fern, she wrote in the preface the following:

I present you with my first continuous story. I do not dignify it by the name of "A novel".

Ruth Hall has been described as "part autobiography, part wish-fulfilment, part lie of omission, part public shaming". It's the wish-fulfilment part that interests me. A man is more than the things he has done. We also have to factor in the things he aspires to or, at the very least, the things he expects to get around to. Who do you see when you look in the mirror?

In the next part of what is getting to be a very long post I'm going to focus on Krapp's Last Tape and the notion of a projected or imagined biography.

Part Three

Samuel Beckett by artist Alex Martinez. Notting Hill, London

Monday, 5 May 2008

You probably think this blog is about you (part one)

In the opening paragraph from the preface to what became the first volume of his 'autobiography', Unreliable Memoirs, Clive James has this to say:

Most first novels are disguised autobiographies. This autobiography is a disguised novel. On the periphery, names and attributes of real people have been changed and shuffled so as to render identification impossible. Nearer the centre, important characters have been run through the scrambler or else left out completely. So really the whole affair is a figment got up to sound like truth. All you can be sure of is one thing: careful as I have been to spare other people's feelings, I have been even more careful not to spare my own. Up, that is, of course, to a point.

What surprises me somewhat is that he didn't opt to use the, to my mind, now-clichéd expression "thinly-veiled autobiography". "Most … first … novels…" It's one of those sweeping statements that we hear all the time and mostly take for granted. It is an assumption many people make that the aspiring novelist, having little life experience to draw on, will automatically plunder what life he or she has had to construct their first go at literary fame. Like I wrote in The More Things Change:

Writers don't have real lives, they have ongoing research.

I'm reminded of the scene in Woody Allen's film Hannah and her Sisters where Hannah corners her sister, Holly, in the kitchen and berates her over the script Holly has just written, her first. Hannah objects to just how much of her and her husband's private life Holly has incorporated in it; their mother, on the other hand, is over the moon with the 'mother' character's presentation despite painting her – accurately it has to be said – as an unfaithful, loud-mouthed, alcoholic. It is noteworthy that Allen would include this element since he has often been accused of making thinly-veiled autobiographical movies. He lampoons this at the end of Annie Hall where we see a couple of actors playing the roles of 'Alvy' and 'Annie' in a play Alvy has written; the 'play' also provides the happy ending the film does not.

The thing that gets me about the expression "thinly-veiled autobiography" is that it is usually a disparaging term, the subtext being, "Oh, he couldn't be jugged to think up a decent story so he wrote about himself."

As a precocious fourteen year-old Elizabeth Browning wrote in her autobiographical essay, Glimpses into My Own Life and Literary Character:

To be one's own chronicler is a task generally dictated by extreme vanity and often by that instinctive feeling which prompts the soul of man to snatch the records of his life from the dim and misty ocean of oblivion.

So, that is the crux of it, a "thinly-veiled autobiography" is regarded as an act of vanity, perhaps a greater act of vanity even because it does not have to pretend to be faithful to the truth. When she had grown up a bit (she was Barrett-Browning by this time, she wrote an epic poem (9 books) called Aurora Leigh that charts the life of its titular heroine and it's tempting to look for autobiographical elements when you read it. The opening stanza is worthy of note:

OF writing many books there is no end;
And I who have written much in prose and verse
For others' uses, will write now for mine,–
Will write my story for my better self,
As when you paint your portrait for a friend,
Who keeps it in a drawer and looks at it
Long after he has ceased to love you, just
To hold together what he was and is.

The expressions 'story for my better self' and 'paint a portrait' suggest that the following nine books are going to present an air-brushed picture of Aurora Leigh rather than a warts-and-all character study and I think that is why critics can't help but being just a little disparaging about "thinly-veiled autobiographies" because they feel perhaps they are being short-changed in some way.

I wrote an autobiography when I was about sixteen. I still have it. It's in two brown hardback jotters I bought from Woolworths. I let my wife read it a few years ago but I've never looked at it in a very long time. It begins:

I was born, or so I'm told because I can't actually remember much about it. 'Snot the sort of thing you care to remember much about (messy business).

It's not that it's inaccurate but it was written for a girl and so presents cherry-picked moments from my life, whatever I hoped might impress. It was nothing more than an exercise in vanity. And yet, at the same time, I was privately embarrassed by it because it simply wasn't me.

There is a plethora of authors who have been accused of strip-mining their lives to fuel their writing: Charles Dickens (David Copperfield), Louisa May Alcott (Little Women), F. Scott Fitzgerald (This Side of Paradise), Sylvia Plath (The Bell Jar), Charles Bukowski (Ham on Rye), Monica Dickens (One Pair of Hands), Leonard Cohen (The Favourite Game), Philip Roth (Portnoy's Complaint), Carrie Fisher (Postcards From the Edge), Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) … just to mention a few. You can find a longer list of you check out the Wikipedia entry under Autobiographical novels.

As an example let's consider David Leavitt's oddly-titled novel Martin Bauman: or, A Sure Thing where the protagonist is a young gay writer (not that dissimilar to David Leavitt) who studies with a flamboyant creative writing teacher (which from all accounts Leavitt's teacher, Gordon Lish, was) and who has to cope with the mixed blessings of early success (a lot like Leavitt had to). I suspect only the famed lawyers from Crane, Poole and Schmidt would have any chance of arguing that was not "thinly-veiled autobiography".

Since we've invoked popular culture I'm reminded of the TV programme Dragnet. The show's opening narration went:

Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

In The Case of the Thinly-veiled Autobiography this is more often to protect the guilty I fear.

In 2004, author James Delingpole cut to the chase and published a novel wittily entitled, Thinly Disguised Autobiography, which one Amazon reviewer described as a "bildungsroman without the bildung". In his column, British Journalist Toby Young had this to say to him at the time:

The thing is, mate--and I know this isn't what you want to hear--I don't think it's quite ready for publication. For starters, I don't quite get this is-it-or-isn't-it-an- autobiography thing. It comes across like you're trying to be all tricksy and post-modern, like Martin Amis including a character in Money called "Martin Amis", and, well, to be frank, it's a bit irritating. I mean, it's basically a memoir, right? This Josh Deveroux character, he's you, isn't he? It reads like you've essentially written your autobiography, but you don't want to name names for fear of embarrassing anyone who might be in a position to harm your career so you've decided to make a virtue out of your cowardice by pretending it's a deliberate, genre-straddling bit of literary experimentation. My advice is to drop all that poncey stuff, come clean about the fact that it's a memoir and name the guilty men. Whatever ill-will you attract will easily be offset by the yards of column inches you'll generate in Londoner's Diary. Stop being such a wuss. –

Doesn't miss the barn door, does it? Neither does our next contestant.

In 2007 the chief judge of that year’s Orange prize, Muriel Gray, a typically forthright Scot, caused a bit of a kafuffle when she launched the prize’s long-list with a controversial speech about how contemporary female writers were failing to write imaginatively. In an article at the time she wrote:

As a judge in this year's Orange prize, it's hard to ignore the sheer volume of thinly disguised autobiographical writing from women on small-scale domestic themes such as motherhood, boyfriend troubles and tiny family dramas. These writers appear to have forgotten the fundamental imperative of fiction writing. It's called making stuff up. – The Guardian

Not all writers it has to be said have immediately hurled themselves on the "thinly-veiled autobiography" bandwagon. Alison Gresik has this to say about her first novel:

With my first book of fiction, Brick and Mortar, I deliberately avoided thinly-veiled autobiography, because

1) I didn't want to be a typical author whose first book is a kunstlerroman about a girl growing up to be a writer;

2) I wanted to be a better writer before I dealt with personal material, so that the work I produced would do justice to the importance of the subject matter; and

3) I wanted to experiment with writing from many different characters' points-of-view, as a sort of apprenticeship. – Wrestling The Angel

It's a commendable stance, not to take the easy option.

There are writers it seems that rightly (or not) get up in arms at any suggestion that what they're pedalling as fiction is remotely autobiographical. Philip Roth finds the critics impulse to describe his novels as thinly-veiled autobiography downright offensive. He told philosopher, writer, professor and radio show host Alan Finkielkraut once, "You should read my books as fiction, demanding the pleasures that fiction can lead … My autobiography would consist almost entirely of chapters about me sitting alone in a room looking at a typewriter." Roth insists he has "nothing to confess," that his fiction is his attempt to "invent" "selves" not to expose his own self. This hasn't stopped the Encyclopaedia Britannica describing his writing as being "marked by thinly-veiled autobiography and a sardonic sense of humour about Jewish life in the United States."

I'll come back to the "invent" "selves" bit in a second. In the meantime consider how one young author and her publisher cleverly turned the expression "thinly-veiled autobiography" into positive selling point. Melissa Panarello grew up in a small Sicilian town near Catania in Italy. She became famous as the author of the erotic novel One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed about her extreme sexual life during her teenage years, which was based on a diary that she kept. She claims that everything in it mirrors her experiences as a fifteen and then sixteen year-old in a suburb of the Sicilian city of Catania. "It's a very realistic picture," she says.

I've not read the book so I can't comment.

Now the inventing selves bit. Jonathan Ames in an interview in The Modernist, had this to say about the use of autobiographical material: "A long time ago Joyce Carol Oates gave me the advice that you can take a character and give that character an aspect of yourself, and build a whole character of that aspect." I think this something that more novelists will feel comfortable admitting to. Lois Lowry doesn't mind:

Without the exception of the autobiographic books, all of my characters are made-up ones; but of course everything we imagine comes from everything we have ever known or experienced. Most of that is subconscious, of course; but when I "create" a character, he or she is really being born from the fragments of every similar person I have known, seen, or read about.

That, of course, has to include herself.

The novelist David Mizner finally cuts to the chase though:

I guess it's a cliché that all your characters are you, but it’s true for me.

Great, someone's admitted it but I think what the playwright Christopher Shinn said in response to a similar question is worth sticking in another quote before we move on:

Nobody else writes it, so it all came from inside me. The question is why? I think that all the time. Why did I write this? Whether it happened to me or not. Why did I put this on the stage? What are the real reasons?

"All fiction is autobiography and all autobiography is fiction," is a popular aphorism. Do you tell the reader more about yourself when writing about other people's lives than when you write directly about yourself? I was very interested in a small chunk of an interview with Paul Theroux that appeared in The Guardian a while back because it touched on an area close to my heart:

Obs: You seem to be wanting to say in your work generally, but in this book [Hotel Honolulu] more than ever before, that all fiction is in some way autobiography and that all autobiography is fiction.

Theroux: Well, I think that's true. Everything is fiction. You only have your own life to work with in the way that a biographer only has the letters and journals to work with.

Obs: What's fiction for?

Theroux: For telling the truth. And I think it's a version of the truth which is made up of...

Obs: Lies?

Theroux: Speculations more than lies, but it really is the most truthful thing at its best. That's why people still read it and why we still need it.

The face we see in the mirror is not the same face our friends see. Truth, reality – it’s all a matter of images, and images by definition are elusive and ephemeral. The act of remembering is the act of fictionalising – there are always gaps, things we don't remember perfectly. Back in January I wrote a poem about it in fact:

Handle With Care

Unremembered things stay true.
Every time we recall the past

we risk spoiling it and it
becomes harder to believe in.

The cost of remembering
is the loss of memories.

I still dream you now and then.
At least I expect I still do.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

I call my blog The Truth About Lies for a reason. It's a cool title. Okay, two reasons: I think it is incredible how a writer can make up something that never happened to people who never existed – in essence a lie, because it's not true – and yet that 'lie' can contain the most profound of truths and I took this perspective to its most obvious and logical conclusion, by actually making one of the characters in my first novel the personification of truth.

Pat Schneider says in her book Writing Alone and With Others:

Fiction is the dream of the writer, made visible on the page. It may be the writer’s lived experience or it may be entirely imagined.

She then remembers a television interview given by Pulitzer Prize-wining novelist Eudora Welty in which Welty was asked if the source of her fiction was autobiographical or imagined. Welty replied, "If I tell you it is autobiography, you will be embarrassed. If I say it is imagined, you will feel cheated. So I will tell you the truth: It’s a mixture."

Schneider continues:

All fiction is autobiography, because even that which we imagine is a collage of images and meanings that have come into, and have been transformed by, our minds. Fiction is an autobiography of the imagination.

Hold that thought. I think this last point is worth a whole post to itself but you'll have to wait till next time for that.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Are you a writer or a typist?

"That's not writing, that's typing." Truman Capote dismissing Jack Kerouac's work

I have had asthma attacks all my life. I've them it since I was a kid only we called them bronchospasms back then because that's what the doctor said I was having and indeed bronchoconstriction is one of the most noticeable symptoms of asthma. It runs in the family but I've always suffered the worst. When I was young and didn't really understand the condition I used to have attacks constantly. My dad tried to make a list of what caused the attacks but it seemed like everything I did could bring on an attacks: laughing, crying, coming in out of the cold, going out into the cold, running, lying down… he gave up eventually.

Over the years I got better at managing my breathing. I started to realise that, if I didn’t panic, then even without medication I could control an attack. That said to this day I carry an inhaler with me at all times. Most of the time I don't need it. Most of the time simply knowing it's there prevents an attack but there is nothing worse than being caught out without it and finding you can't breathe.

(Note to new readers: He does this, don't fret about it. None of this has anything to do with writing but he will get his act together in a couple of paragraphs).

A wee while ago I was reading one of the what feels like hundreds of blogs I check daily when I chanced upon one by a young lady called Rebecca talking about what she referred to as "poetry attacks" – lovely expression. What she was on about, and I've been there, is being caught outside somewhere when your head starts to fill up with words and ideas and your beloved computer is five miles down the road hibernating or whatever computers do when you're not there. What can you do before, to use another of Rebecca's wonderful expressions, "complete total poetic meltdown" occurs?

There was a time – I know it's difficult for some people to imagine – when there were no computers, or, if there were any, they took up entire rooms and all they were useful for was calculating π to umpteen-thousand decimal places. I know – I was there.

And during that time there was a simple and elegant solution we writers used to use – a notebook. I have a collection in my office dating back 30 years, tatty things full of scribbles and unfinished poems and things I can't quite read any more.

My advice to Rebecca was: "Buy one. A good one. Take your time selecting it. Pick a nice small one and, if these things matter to you as much as me, a good pen, put them in your handbag or your coat pocket and never leave home without them."

What I'm talking about here is note-writing, getting the ideas out of your head to make room for new ones. And I'm very serious when I put it that way. My parents both told me that you can't do two things at the same time and, awkward wee bugger that I was, I'd go away and prove them wrong, at which point they would qualify their statement (i.e. move the goalposts): "What we meant was you can't do two things properly at the same time." Now that is true. If you're struggling to remember things it's much harder to think up new things. Get them out of your head as quickly as possible.

Poetry is incurable I'm afraid. Some people grow out of it but I was never one of them I'm afraid. I tried using a palmtop – I have an old Hewlett Packard HP620Lx (with a full keyboard) – but it's died a death besides it's not the kind of thing you can stick in your back pocket. Great for public transport mind. It rather depresses me that current models shy away from having a separate keyboard.

Of course, all of this started me thinking about writing in general.

I watched a repeat of Star Trek Deep Space Nine a few weeks ago (an episode called The Muse) where the character of Jake Sisko, an aspiring writer at this point in the series, meets his muse – literally - in the form of an alien energy-sucking vampire called Onaya who is capable of unlocking the potential of artists; the process has a rider though, it kills them although they achieve immortality through their art. One detail that struck me about the episode is that when Jake starts writing under her influence – on paper and with a fountain pen – his writing is actually quite beautiful and, for someone who spends all their time working on those daft computer pads they carry round all the time, this seemed unlikely.

Over the years my handwriting had disintegrated to the point I decided I'd have to do something about it. I bought a selection of fountain pens (mainly Osmiroids but I did have a matt black Sheaffer) and started to relearn how to write. In time my gothic hand got quite good but fast it was not. So, to speed up the process I began writing using a ruler (a very very expensive ruler) to keep the lines straight. Eventually I dispensed with the fountain pens – but not the ruler – and developed a modified gothic style. Without my ruler (actually now I have three of them) I'm afraid my writing is still untidy. Nowhere near as illegible a Beckett's but still pretty awful. Most of the time anyway, I can read it.

I imagine there are quite a few younger writers out there who have never thought to try and write longhand. For starters there's the matter of transcribing what you've written onto the PC. I'm sure it seems like a non-starter. I expect more poets might be inclined to pick up a pad and scribble away on it. There's not much work in transcribing a poem.

Louis de Bernières (author of Captain Corelli's Mandolin) has said, "I still believe that you can't write poems on computer; you must write poems longhand. There's something antithetical to the poetic spirit about computers." I'm not sure that I agree. Strangely enough the last batch of poems I've written have all be straight onto the computer – usually the laptop I keep in the living room – but this is a new thing for me.

I've never romanticised computers. They've never been more than a tool. Perhaps that is what de Bernières is on about here. I have an emotional attachment to many of my pens, especially my dad's Parker, but I've never wept buckets when I've had to upgrade my PC.

Taking into account what Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mark Strand has to say I think I might get it though:

Well, I think, when I write, I try to resist reading my poems as long as possible, and type seems too final. While I'm writing longhand, I'm under the illusion that I'm hearing the poem. Type seems almost like print, and you're fooled into thinking – or I'm often fooled into thinking – a poem is done before it's actually done, if I see it in print.

Poems are one thing but what about writing an entire novel by hand?

Joyce Carol Oates deliberately practiced as a college student by writing a novel in longhand, then turning the pages over, writing another novel on the flipside. Both novels were then tossed in the trash. Since high school she began "consciously training myself by writing novel after novel and always throwing them out when I completed them" – Women writers at work: The Paris Review interviews

She's not the only novelist to work longhand.

Novelist Peter Quinn, writes all of his books in longhand, on yellow legal pads. The murder mystery-writing nun Sister Carol Anne O'Marie writes long-hand in a green Naugahyde easy chair across the bay from San Francisco. Neil Simon wrote his plays longhand using a fountain pen and extra long legal pads, all of which he brought back from England. He said he simply never got on with typewriters, word processors, PCs; he felt technology hindered the creative aspect of writing. Mary Gordon does her writing longhand with a vintage Waterman pen. Neal Stephenson said: "The manuscript of The Baroque Cycle was written by hand on 100% cotton paper using three different fountain pens: a Waterman Gentleman, a Rotring, and a Jorg Hysek."

In his article, How I Write and Authors who Handwrite Novels, author Mike Shea has this to say about Neil Gaiman, author of American Gods and Neverwhere, writes his first drafts in longhand:

I'm writing my novel with two different fountain pens (a Lamy 2000, and a regular Lamy) filled with two different coloured inks (a greenish one and a reddish one), and I'm alternating pens each day, which means I can see at a glance how much writing I've actually done that day, or that week. More than five pages in the same colour of ink must have been a good day. The Lamy 2000 days are my favourites because the regular Lamy, although a good pen for signing in, is less happy writing a novel, and handwriting like mine needs all the help it can get.

One reason I like writing by hand is it slows me down a little, but it also forces me to keep going: I'm never going to spend half a day noodling with a sentence to try and get it just right, if I'm using a pen. I'll do all that when I start typing.

Joe Haldeman uses a fountain pen, as does Stephen King (a Waterman cartridge fountain pen). Can we see a theme developing here?

Novelist Elizabeth Bear has this to say:

I come by the fountain pen thing genetically. My mother's been using fountain pens all my life, and I started with them in high school. And they are, unmistakably, a superior creature. I spend hours every day writing – long-hand and keyboard – and at one point I did nearly all of my fiction writing and poetry longhand. Back in the dim mists of history, lo, when I didn't even own a word processor. – They Must Need Bears

Novelist Anita Nair has similar thoughts:

It's not that I can't write straightaway on the computer, but I like going through the ritual of writing. The pen and paper gives you a time lag to deliberate. Writing is a sensual experience and the sensuality is lost on the machine. It may be a sentimental notion but writing becomes less romantic and more of a chore. – The Hindu

One student writer reported: 'Maybe I'm too far away with the computer. I mean the screen is there, and I'm here. With a pencil and paper I'm touching the words. I know Nabokov was fond of pencils, and I have used them, but I much prefer a good pen. I wrote about half of my last novel using the Cross fountain pen that my daughter bought me. It uses non-standard cartridges so I tend to run out and I have to go into Glasgow town centre to buy more but it does have a lovely feel to it. I would write a block, usually no more than a couple of pages, and then type it up – editing as I went as is my wont – and then I'd usually keep on writing on the PC until I dried up. And I just kept on going that way till the book was finished. Pocket notebooks are for emergencies only. I don't much care what I use when I'm writing in them.

Here's a dour wee poem I wrote a while back about trying to write with a pencil:


Dead words on a page
sitting side by side by side
black and twisted
the tombs of truths.

You can rub them out.
They know nothing.

There's no sense in death
precious little in living.
Meaning glimmers
for an instant

as it falls into
its shallow grave.

24 February 2007

I liked the idea of the indent the pencil makes in the paper being like a shallow grave. I have to say I was feeling quite negative about the whole writing process at this time. Interestingly I think I wrote it straight onto my PC.

There are other arguments of course for writing longhand. Consider this from the Washington Post talking about the fact that writing is losing ground to typing:

The loss of handwriting also may be a cognitive opportunity missed. The neurological process that directs thought, through fingers, into written symbols is a highly sophisticated one. Several academic studies have found that good handwriting skills at a young age can help children express their thoughts better…

In one of the studies, Vanderbilt University professor Steve Graham, who studies the acquisition of writing, experimented with a group of first-graders in Prince George's County who could write only 10 to 12 letters per minute. The kids were given 15 minutes of handwriting instruction three times a week. After nine weeks, they had doubled their writing speed and their expressed thoughts were more complex. He also found corresponding increases in their sentence construction skills.

Things are changing. William G. Sharp and David S. Hargrove from the Department of Psychology at The University of Mississippi, hypothesised that writing longhand and typing about a stressful experience were equivalent in terms of emotional arousal and essay content. This is what they discovered:

168 college students were randomly assigned to describe either a neutral or emotional topic by typing or writing longhand, in a 2×2 factorial design. Compared with students in the neutral conditions, students instructed to describe an emotional topic reported greater negative affect following the writing task and produced essays that contained significantly more personal and psychological content. Consistent with the hypothesis, participants writing longhand and typing were equivalent in the direction and degree of this difference. These findings suggest that at least a portion of the population (i.e. college students) is now comfortable and/or adept in expressing themselves emotionally on a computer. – Emotional expression and modality: an analysis of affective arousal and linguistic output in a computer vs. paper paradigm

The arguments for using pens, as stated by King and others, tend to focus on slowing down the writing process. Since I actually write quite slowly anyway I can't really comment on this. I think the main reason for this is my gestation period is so long. I think about what I'm going to write. And then I think about it some more. Then a bit more. And then I sit down and write and it doesn't really matter where or what with. I don't know. But that's just me.

There's an interesting post, The Surprising Process of Writing, which, although it deals with school papers makes some valid points about how the quality of typed essays is improving:

With substantial practice at the keyboard, I do believe that students are can become more “fluent” at writing and produce a product as creative as that produced by handwriting. In fact, studies often show that students do as well on a computer than they do handwriting compositions.

I know, I know, progress marches on but I do think that the tactile quality of writing is something every writer should experience. There is a fascinating article by Dr Daniel Chandler called The Phenomenology of Writing by Hand which I would recommend you have a look at when you have a quiet moment but I'd like to highlight this quote from Wendell Berry:

I am not going to use a computer because I don't want to deny myself the pleasure of bodily involvement in my work. In using computers writers are flirting with a radical separation of mind and body, the elimination of the work of the body from the work of the mind. The text on the computer screen, and the computer printout too, has a sterile, untouched, factory made look... The body does not do work like that. The body characterizes everything it touches. What it makes it traces over with the marks of its pulses and breathings, its excitements, hesitations, flaws and mistakes... And to those of us who love and honour the life of the body in this world, these marks are precious things, necessities of life.

The article mentions that it was very important for Rilke to send a copy of the finished poem in his beautiful hand to somebody, because that was the poem, not the printed imitation. I've always thought that was something writing had over art, that we could give away our work and still retain it. I'm not so sure now.

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