This was the first poem I loved, and it’s still my favourite. Here the country is the character, and like all well-drawn characters it is complex and has its dark side.
Far are the shades of Arabia,
Where the Princes ride at noon,
‘Mid the verdurous vales and thickets,
Under the ghost of the moon;
And so dark is that vaulted purple
Flowers in the forest rise
And toss into blossom ‘gainst the phantom stars
Pale in the noonday skies.
Sweet is the music of Arabia
In my heart, when out of dreams
I still in the thin clear mirk of dawn
Descry her gliding streams;
Hear her strange lutes on the green banks
Ring loud with the grief and delight
Of the dim-silked, dark-haired Musicians
In the brooding silence of night.
They haunt me — her lutes and her forests;
No beauty on earth I see
But shadowed with that dream recalls
Her loveliness to me:
Still eyes look coldly upon me,
Cold voices whisper and say —
‘He is crazed with the spell of far Arabia,
They have stolen his wits away.’
Literature Festival speakers. How can they best serve the audience? What makes attendance worthwhile for the writer?
For fans, seeing their favourite writer, or one who has fascinated them, is an exciting and uplifting experience. For writers, writing or research techniques may be uppermost in their minds when they attend to the author speaking about his/her book. There is a variety of approach an author might use, such as at WellsLitFest where the authors used a podium to deliver talks illustrated by their readings. I was privileged to hear Jonathan Bate give the first of his (superb) talks about his just-published Ted Hughes:the Unauthorized Life. As an academic at the pinnacle of his profession, he is an exemplar of this approach. However, the podium speech can be the undoing of speakers without his fluency, confidence and erudition. Two other recent presentations, both by favourite authors of mine, allow an interesting comparison of approach.
The jazz music increased in volume, the slight figure with an aurora of back curls strode up the aisle. A video of stage, screen and radio versions of A Winter’s Tale then preceded Winterson’s own dramatic performance. The voices of her characters rang out, even their oaths resounded beneath the stone reliefs of dead benefactors. I couldn’t help thinking of the rigidly religious Mrs Winterson, adoptive mother, bridling in outrage. As Jeanette Winterson stood where once there had been a pulpit, the drama around the foundling, pulled from the receiving window of the convent by her protagonist became immediately alive for us. A compelling reading continued for half an hour.
This can truly be described as an oeuvre, a reworking of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale as a novel, and brought into the present day to New Bohemia, an imagined area in New York.
With hardly a breath’s gap, Winterson went on to describe the historical and dramaturgical context of her novel. For instance, the changes in theatrical productions at the time Shakespeare had this play showing at The Globe, and how the innovation of intervals affected his play structure. Admirably fluent, she then discussed her own re-creation of the storyline, her choice of concepts and people to fill the character roles, and her powerful attachment to this play. The foundling that she was in her personal life and loved in A Winter’s Tale, led to the making of her novel and for a riveting hour for her audience.
Of most impact for me, however, was the fact that a play was recreated as a novel. The telling of this writing process then became a theatrical production in its own right.
Another winter was presented in a totally different manner at the Budleigh Salterton Litfest. Patrick Gale spoke of his book using the conventional style of the two armchairs, the glass of water, the introduction and intelligent questioning from the discussant. Putting his new novel in its context, Gale chatted about his fortunate childhood and education: the loving parents, the enlightened teacher who allowed an afternoon every week for writerly boys to sit and write without interruption or instruction, his family’s total tolerance and freedom to be himself that contrasted so tellingly with what Winterson had experienced. It was as if we were no longer in Budleigh Salterton’s village hall, but relaxing back on leather armchairs, drink in hand, listening to the urbane author in a post-prandial chat. He is as entertaining in talk as he is on page.
A Place Called Winter is not a soft and gentle story. At many points it is tragic and in some places tough on the emotions.
(This hardback version’s cover I much prefer to the paperback one)
The context of this novel is very personal since the tale is based on the experience of Gale’s grandfather. He went to Canada at a time when land was being given free to those who would live there and farm it. Once there, the new landowners discovered that they were now incredibly remote from any sign of civilization, and that for many months they struggled to avoid being literally frozen. This man left his comfortable life, his wife and children to go. But there was a reason.
Discussion of this reason took us through the Victorian response when facing anything different, especially within the family. Gale captivated his audience with often amusing anecdotes of his own experience, those he had discovered about his grandfather, and had imagined for his protagonist who is an extension into fiction.
Winter is at several levels in this novel. The Canadian town truly is called Winter, and not after the season. Surviving there involved managing the fearsome winter months, the winter of isolation, and of separation from all that is emotionally summery. Further, the protagonist has many reasons to have winter in his heart. Much later in the novel, there is certainly winter in the heart of his closest relative.
Before Gale’s entrance, the person next to me said she had not read any of Gale’s novels. I told her of my favourite (Notes from an Exhibition). After Gale’s presentation, she, like the rest of the audience, rushed to buy A Place Called Winter. ‘My husband will love it.’
I have mentioned striking contrasts in these two author’s presentations of their new works. There is something vital in common. Both introduced contextual and background information that was new knowledge, rich detail set in a story that is totally gripping.
At Litfests it is not enough to talk about a book and its plot or characters. There needs to be a background story to the book, its research, its personal meaning to the author and its underlying theme or issue. We had this with these speakers, and for the writer, the healthy increase in the urge to scour new historic sources.
About a holiday taken with others. If you want to choose exactly what/where to visit, go alone or become a dictator. There are some wonderful art galleries in Belgium and the most beautiful riverside areas. No, I didn’t get to many, as I’d predicted, for I was holidaying with 7 others, including one engineer, one planner, one shopachocaholic and three teenage boys, one a football fanatic, one hyperactive and the other uninterested in the world outside the ipad. (The story of the engineer’s day will appear on this blog at some point.)
Bear with me. There will be a writerly message in this post. The philosophy is that writers should be open to all new experiences. There is always something to be gained, and I did.
This diversion en route to Maastricht to admire a transparent church in the middle of a field was the brainwave of our planner. Yes, it was difficult to find. The satnav, using the postcode, brought us to a small, uninteresting village. As we trekked around in 37 degree heat, with nothing likely in view, there were numerous complaints in tenor voices. After all, there was no shelter from the sun and we were delayed from a much more important stop to photograph a football stadium to add to the list of visited stadiums by our fanatic. The church wasn’t visible from any of the surrounding roads.
Isn’t it great that continentals have learned to speak English? Very sensible of them, given our own language limitations. One local directed us to the remote lane that led to a field of maize.
Shopachocoholic spotted the faint steeple outline hidden behind a water tower. We walked between fields of pear trees and maize until it came better into view.
The walk wasn’t really that long in the heatwave. And it was exciting to spot an apparently rusting edifice afar, at least for our planner, such that the remaining over-heated 6 considerably cheered up.
The design of the structure imitates the village church standing not far across the landscape. It was designed by Gijs Van Vaerenberg and built in 2011 by Belgian architects Pieterjan Gijs and Arnout Van Vaerenbergh in conjunction with the art museum Z33.
Is it transparent? Yes. When viewed directly from any side of the church, its walls appear to be roughly see-through. Is it substantial? Yes. If you see it from the right angle, the building seems like a solid chapel.
We approached the solitary church to find that it was amazing cool inside. The strong sunlight hit the ground fragmented in an intricate design worthy of a photograph in its own right. Planner provided one.
We all but one stayed inside and admired the construction. 100 layers of stacked steel forms create the semi-transparent walls.
Each layer is separated from another by over 2,000 squat steel columns. It weighs over 30 tons. By the time we had absorbed half of this, Monsieur Hyperactive had climbed to the top of the spire. From his point of view, the church had been built with flat layers for just that purpose.
Planner was photographing his find; engineer was closely inspecting construction and metals used; shopachocaholic and co. were ready for the next excursion; hyperactive was circling the cross on the top. I’m a writer so I was making associations and thinking of allusions. Could writing perspective be as thought-provoking?
The different perspectives allowed by the structure considerably change the outlook, and that changes according to the direction of focus. Of course I thought of narratives that change according to point of view, and how the author can alter again by redirecting his/her focus.
The unexpected cool of the interior on this hottest of days made for a dramatic in/out contrast. It reminded me of the heat or being inside or the cool of being outside a situation.
What was the purpose of this church, clearly not designed in any way for services or ceremonies? Effectively a giant optical illusion, it makes a number of statements and these are relevant to the writer.
I believe the architects’ intent was to show the permanence of architecture in relation to the landscape dependent upon weather and man’s use of the land, and the steeliness of church institutions against all onslaughts. The creation of a quiet place of reflection so far from other buildings means that a visitor is both removed from and exposed to the outside world.
The church is called Reading between the Lines. The landscape is read between the lines of the walls, depending on direction of viewpoint, but so is the temporary view of that world. My greatest pleasure in reading is when I surmise something that is not stated, or when it is stated but needs decoding.
Most tellingly, these artists of construction dreamed up a way that the visitor would be both absent and present in the landscape, as indeed the artists are. When I read fiction I don’t want to be aware of the author. S/he can let his readers invest in his characters, not in himself. He is wise to refrain from presenting himself as informer about the plot or background. However, he is the creator. The writer is both absent from the current scene, and always present.
It’s commonly mentioned by writers as a problem: keeping focus on the book you’re currently writing. It isn’t just the intrusion of other writing or everyday chores. More than ever, writers blame the ingress of social media caused by two pressures: firstly the attraction of seeing friends’ and family’s daily activities, with consequent need to like, comment, or even worse, engage in a to and fro dialogue; secondly, the constant emphasis on the importance of social media for marketing the books we write.
There is only one way round this problem. Limitation. In the same way that we curtail, if not curb, our pleasure in food and drink in order to escape obesity, we can avoid gluttonous social media activity.
Easiest to restrict family/friends to a time of day assigned to relaxation. Just best not to open those Facebook etc at other times. There’ll always be something to divert you. For marketing, wisest to schedule a set day and time for such work and avoid it at all other times.
I wonder if Pasternak was having trouble focussing in this picture, or was tormented in sympathy with his characters?
Keeping focus on the book in process does not mean never doing anything else until it’s finished, however. You can take off for a break somewhere entirely different and yet keep your focus on your characters. Keep them and their problems in mind and relate what you hear and see to their situation.
For instance, working on my WWII trilogy, A Relative Invasion, I realised that my protagonist, Billy, had not been punished by his adversary, cousin Kenneth, for a well-meaning interference. Manipulative Kenneth would surely not let Billy get away scot free. Taking time away from the computer, I set off to wander round an arboretum and get some fresh air (and fresh ideas). On the way, I listened to a radio programme about printing and book binding. The word ‘pigskin’ made me sit up. Of course! The pigs Billy loved and fed daily had been taken to the abattoir to Billy’s great distress. Kenneth could punish by giving Billy a pigskin wallet for Christmas.
The arboretum itself made me realise that I hadn’t included much description of the boys’ surroundings beyond the initial one. How would they react to the countryside when evacuated away from the blackened buildings of London?
I listened to an interchange between some children nearby. The running and quarrelling suddenly stopped when one of them saw a squirrel burying nuts. It was vigorously stamping its feet, or that’s how it seemed to the younger child. She turned to her mother, ‘It’s having a tantrum!’ The other child laughed. A lovely moment, and one I could work at for hostility between my two boy characters.
There were other ideas, too, that came from this outing. These could be called ‘writing refreshments.’
I could have taken a break and thought of other things, but keeping my focus on my book didn’t stop me benefiting from this time away from the computer. In fact, I wrote more rapidly once I got home, all the new ideas fresh in my mind. As is often the way, one new idea helped others so that the narrative moved along.
Have any of you gained unexpected ideas through taking a break away from your desk?
Comma Press publishes new writing and has championed the short story. Most excitingly, it has brought translated works to the wider world. With well-chosen and diverse titles, it gives insight into lives from little known places via the best of short stories.
Gaza is ‘foreign’ to the outside world in the full meaning of the word. Few readers live in an area constantly surrounded by force from land, sea and air. What is known of Gaza comes from news of its wars and accusations of attacks from both Palestine and Israel. And so it was Comma Press’s wish to show what it means to be a Palestinian “through stories of ordinary characters struggling to live with dignity in what many have called ‘the largest prison in the world’”. The resulting anthology The Book of Gaza was edited by Atef Abu Saif, one of the authors. Grimly, as it was published, 51 days of another war began.
During Israel’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’, Saif wrote a diary entry each day in English. Compiled by Comma Press, The Drone Eats with Me, has two meanings. The author likens the strikes the drone makes to the sating of its hunger (for lives). Secondly, the constant presence of the drones culminates in targeted strikes which appear to coincide with the two main meals of the Gazan day. Although there are battleships whose guns strike the shore, armoured tanks at the borders and F16s bombing key buildings, it is the drones that dominate the horrors of the narration. Whereas the bombs may decimate entire buildings, they are less discriminate, more neutral.
It is the frequent mention of a single operator sitting at his computer control picking out his distant target that shocks the reader. According to Saif, the child in the street, the family sitting at dinner, the young motorcyclists have all been deliberately targeted. The drones supervise and threaten even during truces. They have sensors which provide an all-seeing eye to select targets anywhere in Gaza.
“Drone operators can clearly see their targets on the ground and also divert their missiles after launch,” said Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch. . . . “Drones carry an array of advanced sensors, often combining radars, electro-optical cameras, infrared cameras, and lasers. These sensors can provide a clear image in real time of individuals on the ground during day and night, with the ability to distinguish between children and adults. . . .The missile launched from a drone carries its own cameras that allow the operator to observe the target from the moment of firing to impact. If doubts arise about a target, the drone operator can redirect the weapon elsewhere.” (Precisely Wrong, June 2009)
How to review a book like this – a first-hand and on-the-spot account of life during another episode of Israeli/Palestinian conflict? The diary is not a political invective, although it is taxing to do the work justice without making political comment. It is a piece of history in the making, but cannot be put in context without countless pages of unbiassed analysis. The writer is a journalist, and the book can be discussed as journalism, but he is not on location, he lives in Gaza, he was born there, he knows no other place as home and he is an integral part of Israeli’s enemy. He writes from the guts; the endangered man unable to protect those he knows and those he loves.
If this book were fiction, we might criticise that the crisis is not well placed, such as three quarters of the way into the narrative, that this book is all crisis. But it is non-fiction, and the 51 days offer little other than crisis. The reader is on the edge of his seat dreading the next bomb will be a direct hit on the narrator and his family. As it is, he ‘only’ loses a step-brother, whereas other individuals lose entire families and some witness their children decapitated, their loved ones mangled into lumps of flesh by the bombs. The dreadfulness of family losses and gruesome deaths Saif records with a kind of paralysed dissociation. A child sees his father and uncle smattered into merged body bits and his family “are having difficulty calming him down.” Were it fiction we might criticise the lost opportunity for impassioned words over the horrors described. But because it is no fantasy, a dream-like state may be the only way to move through the hours of onslaught.
The journalist risks his life walking out in the evening to see friends, to check on the progress of the war – that is, the extent of devastation during the previous hours and its exact locations. Keeping a routine seems essential. He is constantly aware that he is “alive by chance” and that he will die by chance and wonders how many chances he has used up. His days suffering the fear of annihilation, his nights tormented with the noise of bombing and the nightmares where he dreams he is running through it with his little daughter, all result in a dazed confusion between what disaster has happened and what might happen. His awakenings take time before he can accept that is truly still alive.
Meanwhile, farmers cannot risk collecting produce from their fields, the souks dare not open, housewives rush out to buy anything they can during any lull but they cannot stockpile because electricity is only available for an unpredictable hour or so. The mother struggles to keep the five children safe by not allowing them out and the reader imagines her coping with all of them in a confined space, day after fearful day, often in the dark. But this family are lucky. They are only sharing with her father. The Palestinians support each other lending each other flats, crowding, whole extended families of ten or more, into a relative’s small house. Most go to the accepted places of ‘safety’ in the centre of Gaza, avoiding the tanks on the borders, the warships at sea. 100,000 already live in Jabalia Camp’s 1.4 square metres and now many more rush in, many made homeless by the bombing. They take refuge in United Nations schools. But bombs fall there too.
Saif notes carefully the death toll of each day but he “doesn’t want to be a number”. Throughout the book he adds footnotes naming those killed: the four boys playing football on the beach, the men in the cafe, the entire families wiped out by a single strike. Perhaps naming them is some attempt to honour them and properly respect their death. Funerals are too dangerous for many to attend, stretchers carry body parts not bodies, even the cemetery – a strange source of perceived threat – is bombed, so that the dead “die twice”.
Saif’s 11-year-old son has now lived through four wars. The four sons and baby daughter understand little of the bombardment around them. They know that they cannot leave the flat where they have taken refuge often for days on end and that their parents argue about whether after dark, the older boys may go with their father a four minute walk away. Their desire: to play computer games at the internet cafe – one of the few places where there is fairly reliable electricity. It takes little imagination to guess what they play on the computers. The chosen game is unlikely to be Pacman, although that game closely resembles the daily life of a Gazan as described by Saif. And while they play the computer games their father is preoccupied by the computer operator of the drone and what he might choose to target.
If this were a work of fiction, I would liken it to Golding’s Pincher Martin as a work describing a demise. Pincher fights a lone and hopeless battle for survival, gradually becoming aware of the real nature of the struggle he is engaged in.
Throughout Saif’s daily account, the reader searches for meaning behind the onslaught the Gazans suffer. How far do the Israelis mean to cause this suffering? The Telegraph interviewed an Israeli commander. Major Yair stressed how he avoids innocent deaths. Hamas operatives, he says, routinely exploit Israeli restraint by hiding behind civilians. “It is sometimes frustrating because you feel that you’re fighting with your hands tied. There are a lot of situations where you see your targets, but you will not engage because they’re next to kindergartens, because they’re driving with their wives and their kids.” Should Yair read Saif’s book, what disenchantment for him to learn how signally this belief in restraint has failed. The Independent’s data gives virtually 1/4 of the total killed in that episode of the war as children.
The Drone Eats With Me is a testament to history not learned. I need not say more.
To read Saif’s book is to marvel that its pages were not blasted into smithereens together with its author before it was complete. But the miracle – the win – is to have survived. The suggestion is that survival was not the intention of the attacker. Perhaps to adjust, the miracle is to have survived this time.
Comma Press have ensured that a first-hand account of that war will do so. Others can then read The Difficult Lesson.
(c) 2015 All of these blog posts are the copyright of Rosalind Minett. Not to be reproduced without prior written permission, or without crediting me as the original author and providing a link to the original article on this website.
Some writers complain of writers’ block. Perhaps they are due for pollination from other sources.
I’ve written before about how cross-fertilization within the arts is something to seek out and to treasure. A writer, performing artist, teacher, does him/herself no good by constantly giving out and never feeding the self. Exposure to other art forms stimulates unexpected associations that would not otherwise occur. Learning the techniques involved in these arts achieves even more than just appreciating the painting, dance, acting or exposition. You can imagine the reception of new stimuli neurologically: neural pathways highlighted and speeding like electric sparks across the cortex. For a writer, new associations, especially unexpected ones, enrich the language that later emerges under the pen.
This post results from participation in a wonderful watercolour workshop arranged by Pelisande courses near Stroud.
An original idea for a botanical painting workshop, Bugs and Botanical provided two outstanding tutors with complementary skills to tutor on the topical subject of pollination. 15 participants learned from RHS gold medal-winning botanical artist Julia Trickey (plants) and Cath Hodsman, ASB, Natural History Museum wildlife artist (insects).
The two artists chose aquilegia as the flower to examine and paint because of its unique method of pollination. The nectar lies in the tip of the curled spurs, coyly tucked away at the furthest point from the seductively displayed pollen on the pistils.
Aquilegia, a beast to paint, is like an unfaithful wife. It can be approached for its nectar from the front (by humming hawkmoth) and from the rear (by bumble bee). The hawkmoth zooms into the front entrance legitimately, showing off its tremendously long proboscis (as long as its body). The aquilegia meanly keeps its nectar as far away from its front entrance as can be, but the hawkmoth can reach it, hovering humming-bird style at the flower’s mouth.
Here is Cath’s painting, showing the hovering wings and proboscis’ tell-tale golden cache, post-visit, held away from its body.
Under the microscope the fluffy body is more like a loofah, quite rough in texture. The wing has minute overlapping segments like the tessellation of a Roman mosaic.
Not to be outdone by the moth’s super-long proboscis, the bumblebee, displaying no shame about its lesser member, flies straight to the back of the flower and drills through the tube, filling its sac with nectar. This means it gathers no pollen on its furry body, a job carried out unwittingly by the moth. For its efficient pollination work on most other flowers, the bee is the ultimate in hairiness, even its eyes have hairs.
Under the powerful microscopes, the worthy bee, post nectar-gathering, is weighed down by its enormous load, carried like panniers either side of its thorax. Its complex eye has a surface like a fine metal grille. Not enough to say ‘I have eyes in the back of my head’ it has enormous eyes, comparable to the cheeks on a pig, plus three simple eyes, in the middle and either side of the top of its head. It must never stop looking.
Cath demonstrated her technique for painting every detail in the microscopic accuracy for which she is acclaimed, and is used by Kew Gardens as scientific illustrator. Her painting is a matter of many painstaking layers, very fine brushes, a steady hand and tiny movements: dots for the bee and dashes for the moth. Her drawings are the amazing result of reproducing what is seen when enlarged very many times. When a writer can portray a character or setting in that detail, readers can feel they are truly entering the lives of those in the narrative.
It was a privilege to listen to Cath’s extensive knowledge of wildlife, and equally to watch the exquisite painting of flowers by Julia. Under her hand the complex form of the aquilegia came to life, petal by petal and not just with great attention to accuracy but with incomparable interpretation. Before painting, Julia examines the plant in detail so that its structure is as clear as the light and shade on its form.
Painting wet on wet, Julia’s not so small brush delivers a touch of colour that slithers into place, The brush comes away leaving a perfect petal behind it, immaculate edges, veins, light, shade and shape. Note the plate beside her. It indicates how little paint she uses; she uses the cloth in front of her as often. Julia has videos of her techniques, as well as her beautifully illustrated books so that those who attend her courses can follow her techniques at home. http://tiny.cc/76n1yx
During the 2 1/2 day course, participants worked intensively on their own attempts at both flower and insect, straining their eyes to capture the details that make the difference between a cursory and an informed detailed illustration. Fortunately, Pelisande courses include delicious food. Participants went home enriched in mind and body, if cross-eyed.
The humming hawkmoth pollinates jasmine, honeysuckle, gardenia, pittosporum, plumeria, oleander, star-jasmine and flowering tobacco amongst others. Writers would love to think that their words were that widely imbibed.
Among most species that breed in water, the males and females each shed their sex cells into the water and external fertilization takes place. Ideas and images in our environment are cast out in different artistic forms. They are absorbed, then mentally reworked into the receiver’s mental system. In the case of fiction writers, a story emerges mostly many years later.
Among terrestrial breeders, fertilization is internal, and the parallel for the writer might be the unconscious adoption of behavioural tendencies that can come from early relationships. These then enrich the development of characters in the writer’s stories.
In reproduction, by recombining genetic material from two parents, a greater range of variability for natural selection to act upon, increases a species’ capacity to adapt to environmental change. So in writing, by reworking imageries from different art forms, something new can emerge that has greater meaning to readers than the unpollinated material that went before.
Where do your words come from? Here’s the tree showing the main roots. When you eventually find the little twig that is English, it’s the sort of twig size that might be chopped off by the gardener to encourage strength in more viable branches. So English is quite a little victor in the fight to receive the most oxygen.
Such a diagram helps enormously to conceptualise the place of one language in comparison with another and the relationship between apparently unlike languages. I found this diagram from bing images. Later, I found ethnologue.com, a site full of rich information.
However, I didn’t just come upon these randomly. This is why I love Stumbleupon. It is a serendipity resources. It is full of such excellent information and illustration (provided you make full use of the thumbs up and thumbs down). After listing your categories of interest – mine are diverse – you are offered pages fairly randomly within those categories. According to whether you give them thumbs up or not, your preferences are further refined by the site. Warning, don’t do this too much or you may miss items that you had not realised were within your interest.
You see a page that sparks your interest, and off you go on another research journey that might, at some time, come in useful for one of your books.
I originally saw a page from Vox with a wonderful chart by Minna Sundberg (which I can’t legally reproduce here). This led me to research out the further sources.
See Sundberg and her chart:
The origins of English —– Minna Sundberg
Where English comes from
English, like more than 400 other languages, is part of the Indo-European language family, sharing common roots not just with German and French but with Russian, Hindi, Punjabi, and Persian. This beautiful chart by Minna Sundberg, a Finnish-Swedish comic artist, shows some of English’s closest cousins, like French and German, but also its more distant relationships with languages originally spoken far from the British Isles such as Farsi and Greek.
When readers ask ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ The answer is often ‘from reading’. And then that reading leads to more reading . . .
In Bulgaria, the short story is not a lesser literary form as it is in the UK. Quite the reverse, it is highly valued. There are some fine Bulgarian writers of short stories and this post concerns just one.
Miroslav Penkov‘s short story collection, East of the West, is the most powerful of reads. We are taken into the heart and bowels of Bulgaria through the voices and situations of the various characters. This is very fine writing, and not just the name story. That won the BBC short story award of 2012 (by unanimous vote of the judges).
The story is full of symbolism. A village is divided by river and that river is used as a boundary between west and east at the end of World War II. There is jealousy caused between the villagers because those on the west bank have access to western materialism. The eastern bank villagers long for jeans and Nike trainers, however worn-out.
The villagers are allowed to meet once a year, but they try to keep contact other times by shouting across at its narrowest point, or, in the case of young lovers, by swimming to the centre and risking shots from the armed guards. The villagers once tried to maintain their identity by diverting the river so that it kept the village undivided. The result was a flooding, the church being completely drowned. The protagonist is encouraged by his loving, but aggressive cousin, to meet her at the submerged cross of this church.
His sister makes a similar swim to meet her fiancé, to show the ‘diamonds’ for her wedding the next day. Both are shot by guards. They are dressed in their finest, dead, for two funerals, each on its own bank of the river.
Somehow, in the face of his own love and career disappointments, the protagonist must move on, a metaphor for Bulgaria.
It seems opportune, at the very time that the number of Bulgarian immigrants (amongst others) is being agonised over, that the harsh lifestyle Bulgarians suffer is brought to the consciousness of other nations. It may be that it takes someone raised in the culture, but career-boosted outside of it, to write about Bulgaria with that telescope of understanding.
Penkov studied so hard that his English was excellent by the time he reached the US to further his studies. Therefore, his stories have the advantage of being written in English, not translated. Each of these stories is entirely absorbing and thought-provoking. The choice of words often holds a significance that points to larger issues. It was sobering to find that several stories were written when the author was very young. No-one, we would think in the West, should have inside knowledge or direct experience of such dark matters: the hanging of dissidents, the enforced changing of names, the lack of medical aid to severely ill people, the poverty and hunger, the lack of corporate compassion for the young or needy.
Penkov manages to get within the head of young and old Bulgarians, male and female. Filtered through the narrative is the history of a once-strong country beleaguered by political discord and powerful nations. The consequent poverty and desperation that cause alienation and anarchism come through these stories in a way that is fresh and bleeding.
The stories are both warm and dark, some so dark that it is difficult to read on. Why turn to fantasy and horror when more real events are offered here? For instance, the dead (accidentally killed?) child being lifted into position for a family photograph. Or the almost dead vagrant on the church plinth being readied, or is it desecrated, for eternity? An adolescent with his sidekick, running loose, alienated, anarchic and yet retaining some humanity, ends up in the church tower pissing down on his compatriots who are literally jumping to political command – a darkly humorous message.
The tragic and emotionally neglected young girl, her head shaved so that she can be like her dead brother, is trained to make bagpipes, their soft section the nearest to a comforting breast her world provides. When her father is arrested, she is left to care for her terminally ill mother and ultimately is left alone with her bagpipe. The reader can almost hear its plaintive sound.
A young man goes against home politics by being in America, wars with his grandfather who is eventually proved to be in the more enviable (Bulgarian) position. The Bulgarian desire to receive good education, career opportunity, a decent lifestyle, conflicts with all those values and close family ties that make life worthwhile.
The yan that drives and threatens to destroy the individual has a meaning beyond mere envy. It almost has a personality of its own, defining the Bulgarian and almost, his culture.
Like the medlars prevalent in the countryside of Bulgaria, these tales are bitter but necessary to assuage (literary) hunger. We can understand why Bulgarians, despite loving their country, need to emigrate to gain the basic necessities of life.
I feel the richer for reading these stories, and their content will stay with me.Penkov is due to publish a novel shortly. It is something to look forward to.
Last night I saw a French Canadian film, Monsieur Lazhar. It was one of those films that immerse you completely in the watching, and fails to leave you for many hours, perhaps days afterwards.
Lazhar is an Algerian who sidles into an unexpectedly vacant teacher’s job. The Head is pretty desperate and has no applicants, so that when he presents himself, obliging and immediately available, she takes him on. His class of 11-12 year olds in this small primary school in a suburb are trying to adjust to the suicide of their teacher, found hanging in their classroom by the scamp of the class. They quickly take him to their hearts and their grades go up as he stretches them academically. We realise he hasn’t the teacher training to rely upon. He starts with a dictation from Balzac. However, his total commitment to the children pays off.
The plot unravels to reveal why Lazhar needed the job and his especial sensitivity to the children’s feelings. We also find the effect the suicide has on the different children in the class and their various perceptions of events. The teachers, the Head, one of the children gradually reveal what caused the suicide.
It is a beautifully written and directed film (Philippe Falardeau) with memorable acting from all actors, including the children. It was good to see how each child was individually portrayed, not as a class mass. The quality of acting gained from two of the children was exceptional. I also enjoyed the clever and amusing small part of the drama teacher making a play for Lazhar. The scene where she hopefully has him to dinner was delicately and subtly managed.
The themes of this film are far bigger than expected. What should we say or not say to children who have witnessed a terrible event. How should we deal with their distress and possible misunderstandings? The film shows the tension between the ‘Let’s move on, help them to forget it’ and the opposite view. One child uses her oral presentation assignment to throw the whole subject open, putting a very different slant on the event.
Bigger still, and a subject that badly needs much public re-think, is the zero tolerance policy for touching of any sort. The sports teacher has the children running in circles (literally) because he cannot help them climb, or mount the ‘horse’ any more. The other teachers reflect on the impossibility of disciplining or restraining students. Lazhar, never having been trained as a teacher, taps the back of a child’s head for throwing an object at another child. (Sackable offence?) Ultimately, we learn what happened when the dead teacher comforted a boy who was crying.
The outfall for good will and love is undeserved punishment, but the last shot of the film makes its emotional point.
The Dalai Lama advised that tenderness is vital for a child’s healthy development. How sad if teachers and others must withhold what they see is sorely needed.
Ballet teachers are in difficulties; no longer can they correct a body position, such as a leg in arabesque, (“higher, turn it out”) with a push or point at the part of the body needing fine adjustment. This kind of touching, often not gentle, was formerly regarded as a sexless and necessary part of communication.
On the wider front, nowadays, it is felt that children cannot be allowed to trust automatically. Unknown adults must be mistrusted automatically.
For this reason, as well as the wonderful direction, acting and literary feel of the film, I hope ‘Monsieur Lazhar’ will gain a wider audience. We all need to re-think.
Perhaps it is down to writers to help things along. Falardeau has certainly done his bit.
When you know a novel has suicide as a central focus, you wait to find the right – the strongest – frame of mind before reading it. This was true of me, and so it is some months since I received this impressive work for independent review from Swan Isle Press. Fresh from reading the captivating ‘To the Beautiful North’ with its irrepressible characters (by Luis Alberto Urrea, another Mexican), I took up this well-presented volume with its haunting, probably haunted, portrait on its dust cover.
It is a hard read: hard in the sense that it is intellectually challenging; hard emotionally; hard in tone and use of language as opposed to soft and fluid; hard in its relentless move towards facing death.
The author, Jorge Volpi, is one of the originators of the Crack movement in Mexico, ‘crack’ or fracture – a break from what is trivial or superficial, and from the established magical realism of authors such as Marquez, well loved in the UK. Perhaps ‘crack’ is apposite with regard to Volpi’s novel since it centres upon the cracking up of an esteemed poet and chemist, Jorge Cuesta, and ultimately of the narrator. We use ‘cracked’ or ‘crackers’ to denigrate people who have become mentally ill. Cuesta’s ‘crack’ connects with his ambivalent sexual identity. His attempt at a fusion between the male/female ended with self-emasculation. But more than that, he was obsessed with catching the moment to the point of defeating time, perhaps finding a crack through which he could pass in order to do so. “Time doesn’t stop, but passes.”
If magical realists such as Marquez write about incidents, characters, and settings that could not occur within the physical world as we know it, Volpi straddles a world in which the reader is witness of what seems to be occurring but is in fact fiction, and is informed of a parallel set of events that are factual. Boundaries are deliberately blurred. The narrator is Jorge, like the author, like the poet. His friend, Eloy, has the same name as the author’s father and Cuesta’s colleague.
Jorge, a poorly paid writer, overhears mention of Cuesta’s name and suicide following self-mutilation. He tells us at least twice that sharing the christian name hurts his life twice. It seems to place him under a responsibility to tell Cuesta’s tale.
The novel begins as Jorge visualizes in great detail the last agonizing days of Cuesta’s life. He gives an unnervingly empathetic account.
Jorge Cuesta is not really known in UK. His achievements in two professions were remarkable, yet the acme of his inventions appears to have coincided with his mental deterioration. The wisdom and despair of his poetry seep through the novel as Jorge searches out the poet’s point of view. “I’m searching for Cuesta’s not my own.”
While immersing himself in researching Cuesta’s life, Jorge listlessly follows his own. He is in an unrewarding relationship, unrewarding for his partner as well as for himself. Volpi’s unpicking of this relationship is masterly. He shows us the selfishness of both partners and their unwillingness, not inability, to engage in the other’s raison d’etre and preoccupations. It is a hostile dependency that fails to improve or to end.
Jorge amasses all the information he can about Cuesta, studies the poetry, takes note of the inventions, imagines the extent to which Cuesta loved, believed and understood. His scholarly and increasingly emotional investigation includes tracking down the two important women in Cuesta’s life, his lover and his wife. Increasingly, the reader notes the parallels between the two Jorges’ existences, and despairs in his obsessive moves towards repeating the pattern.
In the process of his research, Jorge’s own life becomes increasingly deranged. He believes that if he could fuse male with female he could preserve the moment of ecstasy, could break through the force-field of time. Volpi skilfully shows the intricacies of his thought pattern. The reader becomes concerned for Jorge’s self-destructive behaviour, his immersion in dark thoughts.
He visits the hospital where Cuesta lived his last days before hanging himself. The current patients are circling around a central flower bed. He asks a nurse why they do this. She answers, ‘Perhaps they want to exit time.’
Jorge’s work to reveal Cuesta’s ‘meaning’ culminate in scholarly articles. These are met with ridicule and condemnation by his intellectual colleagues and the academic community. This is devastating not only to his self-esteem, but to the chance of conveying the central concept via Cuesta’s biography. Volpi, in the voice of the narrator, sees Cuesta as one of the “fugitive poets that favoured a clandestine existence rather than submit themselves to the absurd rules of time.”
Meanwhile, Jorge’s refusal to commit to an emotional and supportive involvement with his partner causes her to leave him. She has been no better able to provide an emotional investment in Jorge. She goes away with her former lover despite her sudden realization that she loves Jorge.
Left on his own, the last vestiges of normality leave him or perhaps it is more accurate to say that his last hold on himself as a unique individual drifts away. He is in despair.
A major strength of this novel is the economic and skilful delineation of the process of thought and the coming apart of a tortured mind.
Cuesta waited to end his life until he had written his poem, Song to a Mineral God. Early in the novel, this is discussed by Jorge and his friend, Eloy. With premonition, Jorge states “I’m going to write an essay -” In his last moments he does so. It is an account of his feelings. He is fully aware of the irony that this comes too late to save his love relationship. He writes his essay before repeating the act and manner of Cuesta’s death.
The suicide of Cuesta, poet and chemist, was a great tragedy. Without academic recognition, Jorge’s struggle to understand Cuesta and convey to the world the significance of the ‘moment within the moment’, the implacability of time, now has no hope of standing the test of time. He is defeated by it and faces death in spite of its dark silence.
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