Posts Tagged ‘Charles Dickens’

The Examined Life

January 6, 2014

Happy New Year!

I hope you had a restorative break and are ready to throw yourselves into 2014 with gusto. I would love to know your New Year’s resolutions, especially if they are reading-based. Stuck for inspiration? Then here are some suggestions that I wrote for The Spectator a while ago.

This year, my rather unliterary resolution is to be able to do a press up. Yes, just one single press up. I know it seems unbelievable that anyone could be quite so feeble not to manage even one, but I have pathetically weak arms – probably thanks to a childhood spent reading rather than playing lacrosse – so I have at last resolved to take action to be strong. (No doubt, key to developing my upper-body strength is to read more heavy books and never to own such a spindly-arm-encouraging gadget as a Kindle.)

New Year can be a difficult time. Christmas is over and real life returns, only now we’re broke, fat and cripplingly used to lie-ins. As my bookselling friend and colleague said to me, when we were trying to pin down what exactly was so grim about January, ‘There’s something about it being a new year and yet nothing’s new.’

This is of course why many of us are so keen to try to change, to introduce something new to our lives. I am always thrilled by how many people turn to books for this element of newness, which makes for a curiously uplifting time in the bookshop. I had always anticipated January to be deathly and depressingly quiet after the frantic present-buying busyness of Christmas, especially given that we don’t have a sale. And yet the bookshop is thoughtfully, browsingly busy at the moment, as though people have decided that one way to make 2014 a good year is to begin it by reading some good books. A wise resolution indeed.

The Examined Life by Stephen GroszI dipped into The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz over Christmas, savouring a chapter here and there between rounds of charades or mince pies, but have really read it in earnest over the past few days. I would go so far as to say this is a life-changing book and I urge you to read it now, for when better to read such a thing? Added to which, it has just come out in paperback, although I put up with 2013’s hardback, prematurely wrinkled from when the husband dropped it in the bath.

Stephen Grosz is a psychoanalyst, and The Examined Life is a collection of his case studies. Many of the chapters began life as his column in the Financial Times, which gives them a winning incisive brevity. All names have been changed, all jargon eradicated, and the book reads more like a collection of short stories than a textbook. It is a clutch of diamonds – beautiful, elemental, gleaming with multi-faceted light, and sharp as hell.

Psychological issues tend to feel like overwhelming, ongoing problems, things that threaten to affect someone for their entire life. Grosz, however, distils a patient’s course of analysis, which often goes on for over a year, into just a few pages.

He describes the manifestation of the issue, delves in to discover its root, draws an illuminating parallel or two, and then, in his explanation of a patient’s behaviour, so comes the resolution. Unwieldy psychological problems are given beginnings, middles and ends – a narrative structure which makes for satisfying, illuminating reading.

There are many brilliant examples to choose from, but here’s one that I found particularly intriguing:

Amanda P., a twenty-eight-year-old single woman, returns home to London after a work trip to America. She has been in New York for ten days. She lives alone. She sets her briefcase down on her doorstep, and, as she turns her key in the lock, an idea takes hold. ‘I had this fantasy – I saw it like a film: turning the key triggers some sort of detonator and the whole flat blows up, the door exploding off its hinges towards me, killing me instantly. I was imagining that terrorists had been in my flat and had carefully primed a bomb to kill me. Why would I have such a crazy fantasy?’

Why indeed?! Having outlined the issue – a ‘crazy fantasy’ of paranoia – Grosz gives a few other examples and tells us that:

Most, if not all, of us have had irrational fantasies at one time or another … and yet we rarely acknowledge them … we find them difficult, even impossible to talk about.

What is at the root of our paranoia? First, key to his explanation is the fact that:

We are more likely to become paranoid if we are insecure, disconnected, alone.

Grosz explains:

Paranoid fantasies are disturbing, but they are a defence. They protect us from a more disastrous emotional state – namely, the feeling that no one is concerned about us, that no one cares.

Then follows a fascinating digression about soldiers suffering from paranoia during the First World War. Apparently British soldiers in the trenches were convinced that French and Belgian farmers were signalling to the German artillery. They saw codes in the way they ploughed the fields, or hung up their washing. Unsurprisingly, paranoia is also rife amongst the elderly:

All too frequently – like the soldiers in the trenches – the elderly face death feeling forgotten … Paranoid fantasies are often a response to the world’s disregard. The paranoid knows that someone is thinking about him.

And so, of course it makes perfect sense that when Amanda P. returned home to an empty flat, she had a paranoid fantasy:

The fantasy frightened her, but ultimately this fear saved her from feeling alone.

The case of Amanda P. is a satisfying thing to read. A curious incident, to which we can relate, followed by some interesting digressions, penetrating insight and then tidy resolution. A beginning situation, then middle development, and end resolution.

This near-short-story form points to something more profound than just a satisfying frame for reading. Grosz is emphasising the narrative similarities between real life and storytelling. At the beginning of the book, he quotes Karen Blixen:

All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.

This rings true to any reader or writer. For surely one of the main reasons why novels are so wonderful to read is because this creative sharing of a sorrow creates empathy which connects a reader both to the writer and to other readers.

Throughout The Examined Life, Grosz calls on stories from literature to illustrate his point. A Christmas Carol is used particularly well to show how a glimpse of your future self can haunt you enough to inspire change. What I loved most about Grosz’s case studies is that they are written not just by a psychoanalyst, but by a reader of fiction. So many adults – especially men – tell me that they have stopped reading fiction because there is so much interesting and important non-fiction to read instead. But what can be more vital than the emotional truths at the heart of a novel? I was struck by Julian Barnes’ brilliant conclusion to his article on the late great Penelope Fitzgerald in this weekend’s Guardian Review:

Writers, over the long run, are judged by the truths they detect about the human condition, and the artistry with which they represent those truths.

I couldn’t agree more. And I suspect Stephen Grosz feels the same. (Indeed I happen to know that Grosz is a fan of Penelope Fitzgerald, as he was in the bookshop when I was setting out to discuss The Blue Flower for Emily’s Walking Book Club, and said it was a great book, although alas he and his beautiful enormous dog didn’t join us.)

I would add to Julian Barnes’s insightful comment, that readers as well as writers are judged by the truths they detect about the human condition in the books they read. If someone has given up on reading fiction, then it suggests to me that he hasn’t read it well. He has paid it too little attention, or lacked the perspicacity to engage with what the writer is saying through the story.

Grosz is a very astute reader. Indeed he is so astute that he can find the truths about the human condition at the heart of a story, even when the writer struggles to tell it. Grosz responds to Blixen with the questions:

But what if a person can’t tell a story about his sorrows? What if his story tells him?

Psychoanalysis is a means of helping people to tell their stories. By enabling someone to put his sorrow into words, the patient can understand the truth about his particular human condition. Moreover, the patient can shape the narrative of his life, rather than be shaped by the sorrow from which he suffers. These case studies read like short stories because they are short stories – creative understandings of the human condition.

Read it. Read it now!

Holiday reading

June 21, 2011

The weekend’s Guardian review featured an illuminating article on various author’s favourite holiday reads. I was struck by how few of these memorable experiences offered any relationship between book and place. Yes, Jonathan Raban relished reading Death in Venice several times over when in Venice and John Banville loved reading The Portrait of a Lady in Florence (even though the coincidence of the book’s setting and his holiday location was purely accidental), but they are pretty much the only ones of the bunch.

Andrew Motion, who read The Odyssey on Ithaca, describes how pleasing a book-place connection can be:

Whenever I looked up from the page, I saw the ruins of Odysseus’s palace (so called), the beach where he eventually made landfall, the empty cave where his cult once thrived, the bare rocky hills described in the poem – and also saw myth and reality tumbling through one another.

Reading a book in its natural setting can be a truly magical experience.

I first came upon this realisation by going about it the wrong way round. In my GAP year, I spent a few months in Nepal, nominally teaching in a village primary school, but, as the school kept declaring impromptu holidays and the working day in any case was over by 5ish, when I returned to my room in a Nepali family home, I had rather a lot of time on my hands.

Luckily I’d had the foresight to ask for the Oxford English reading list before heading off, so the long evenings were easily filled by working my way through the Victorian canon. There were a few weeks of Eliot – Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss, Daniel Deronda; then of Dickens – Bleak House, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, The Pickwick Papers; the Brontes were over in a flash, but Vanity Fair took a little while. All this was punctuated by the odd bit of Browning and Tennyson. I remember feeling absurdly reckless when I put down the Victorians for a week to read Satre on a friend’s recommendation.

Reading all these English classics so relentlessly in a dim, grubby room in Nepal, enclosed in a sleeping bag and having to swap book-holding hands periodically due to the cold biting at my fingers, was deeply strange. There I was, supposedly finding myself, somewhere unlike anywhere I’d ever been before, and I was accompanied by the faintly nauseating voice of Bleak House’s Esther or earnest Jane Eyre – the latter, comfortingly familiar from when I’d read it a few years previously. I spent the weekends wandering around breathtaking stupas and temples, like Boudhanath and Swayambhunath (Kathmandu’s ‘Monkey Temple’), yet my reading material was based in nineteenth-century London or the English countryside. I remember being on a bus heading down to Pokhara for a trek to Annapurna base camp, trying to concentrate on Bleak House in spite of the bumpy roads, when an American lady asked me why on earth I was reading it.

‘Oh I know it looks off-putting,’ I said, ‘but actually it’s pretty good.’

‘I know it’s good. It happens to be one of my favourite novels,’ she said, ‘but why are you taking it with you on a trek?’

‘Got to get through my university reading list,’ I explained, a bit puzzled as to why she found it so odd.

‘But it’s so thick and heavy!’

‘Well I need something to keep me going for a couple of weeks.’

‘And it’s so English. Don’t you think you should be reading something about Nepal instead?’

Until that point, it really hadn’t occurred to me that it made sense to read a book – other than the omnipresent, omniscient Lonely Planet – about Nepal. Luckily it wasn’t long before I spent a couple of weeks in a Buddhist monastery, from which I emerged wanting only to read books written by the Dalai Lama and The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Oh, and (shamefully) The Alchemist came a few week’s later. I don’t mean Ben Johnson’s.

There was undoubtedly something truly special about the way in which those Victorian classics transported me back to England, about how they absorbed my imagination so fully that I really could have been reading them anywhere – that I was in a smelly sleeping bag in a Nepali village couldn’t have mattered less. But I can’t help but feel that reading some books from the subcontinent would have been even more special.

Ironically, when I finally went up to Oxford, a few months later, struck low by a bug in third week and panicking at all the reading still to do, I decided to read Kipling, thinking that The Just So Stories might be comforting for the sickbed. I zipped through them and The Jungle Books, and was on to Kim by the second day. There I was, lying in my duveted single bed in one of the most English places in England, eating toast and drinking tea, reading all about a young boy scampering through Lahore. Although I’ve never been to Pakistan (although back then, of course, it was India), it took me straight back to my time in Nepal. There followed my best essay of the term.

A couple of years later I returned, not to Nepal this time, but to India. As soon as I landed in Delhi, I bought a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, much to the Indian bookseller’s delight. Ok, I wasn’t in Bombay, but I was at least in India, and this was the perfect chutnied, chaotic, polyphonic accompaniment.

Since then, I’ve tried to match, more-or-less, book to place. Last year’s holiday to Italy, for instance, was perfectly matched with Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and Forster’s Where Angel’s Fear to Tread. I’ve written elsewhere about Forster’s powerful use of landscape and setting, and it was remarkable to be reading about Gino’s sultry and indolent loggia and then to look up and see one.

The previous year’s trip around Japan was accompanied by Mishima, Soseki, Kawabata and, of course, Murukami. How incredible to be in Kyoto while reading The Temple of the Golden Pavilion! How glorious to be in Tokyo and to read Kokoro, set in the same city, a hundred years ago!

Perhaps it’s for the same reason that, when I’m not on holiday, but getting on with life in London, I particularly enjoy books in which London has a strong presence – from Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand that First Held Mine, which I polished off in about three days straight last week, to Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington, and from Iain Sinclair’s Hackney to Richard Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside.

Reading these books when in the right place, makes me feel even more there, even more part of London, or Tokyo or Tuscany. It acts as another layer of absorption – not only is everything one actually sees belonging to that place, but everything one sees in one’s mind eye belongs there too.

Next week, when I’ll be on holiday in the Outer Hebrides – so you might have to wait a couple of weeks for the next post, I’m afraid – I’ll take Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water, which takes place on the remote West Coast of Scotland and is heralded as one of the greatest pieces of nature writing of all time. I might also take some Robert Burns, possibly a copy of Macbeth, perhaps something by Sir Walter Scott. And I shall definitely take the rather majestic Lore of Scotland, a comprehensive guide to Scottish myths and legends, which pinpoints each one to a place. I will keep an eye out for selkies. I suspect they might be easier to spot after a few whiskies.

I’m ever so excited.

The Victorian House

April 26, 2011

Someone – a literary agent, in fact – suggested The Victorian House by Judith Flanders might be a useful source book for the novel I’m currently writing. My book’s about a derelict house, and various episodes are going to take place in Victorian times; a book which details everything that went on inside a Victorian house is bound to be helpful.

But what I found, within about three pages, was that rather than just being helpful, The Victorian House was utterly fascinating. Which meant that I read it in the most annoying way imaginable:

I would settle down on the sofa with the book. Soon I’d have an audibly sharp intake of breath. The fiancé, sitting at his computer, clicking at architectural models, would look over. I would pretend not to notice and continue to read. The fiancé’s attention would return to the computer screen. And then, ‘Wow,’ I’d say. The fiancé would continue to click, while asking ‘What?’ unimpressed. ‘What?’ I’d ask, innocent. ‘What is it?’ That’s him again. ‘Oh, nothing. Just something I’m reading.’ He’d return to his screen, I’d return to the book. Two minutes later: ‘No…’ I gasp. ‘What the hell is it?’ says he.

But then, when I’d tell him whatever Victorian fact from which I’d gleaned such geeky enjoyment, he’d usually say ‘wow’ too. So it was all ok.

The book isn’t really about Victorian architecture. Rather it takes each room of the house and uses it as a filter to describe a particular aspect of a Victorian middle-class woman’s life. So the nursery offers a window into education; the dining room, food; the scullery, servants. There’s even a finale about street life. One of my favourite facts is in this last section:

Until the 1880s there was a cow in St James’s Park, to supply milk on demand for nurses and children out for their daily walks.

‘Wow,’ I hear you say.

Perhaps I should just list a few other brilliant Victoriana facts, discovered from this book:

  1. ‘[Laundry] costs were so substantial in comparison to the rest of the household budget that when people stayed with friends they expected to be presented with their washing bill on departure.’
  2. ‘“Pteridomania”, or rather more simply, fern-collecting, had become by the mid 1850s one of the most popular drawing-room crazes.’
  3. Mrs Beeton recommended the following cooking times: ‘1 ½ to 1 ¾ hours to boil the macaroni’; up to 2 ¼ hours to boil the carrots; 2 hours to stew ‘very gently’ a cutlet.
  4. The most common ‘ketchups’ were anchovy, mushroom or walnut. The only rare one was tomato.
  5. Women were known to change their outfits seven times a day
  6. Lavatory bowls were heavily decorated – patterns of birds, fruit or flowers were common. There were also Italianate garden scenes and even reproductions of Windsor Castle!

Now there’s a Royal Wedding souvenir opportunity missed.

Reviews of the book are less kind than I’d imagined. Reviewers enjoy Flanders’ brisk, no-nonsense tone, but they tend to pick holes in her research, saying that there aren’t enough primary sources and that it seems to have been done in a bit of a rush, with dates being occasionally muddled up. As I’m not a historian, these little slips passed me by.

But what I did find particularly enjoyable – and what I think the reviews seem to have unfairly passed over – is Flanders’s habit of using Victorian novels as sources. It’s such a joy to read a passage from Dickens in a new, contextual light.

For instance, Flanders quotes the passage from Bleak House in which Mr Guppy asks Esther Summerson to marry him. Perhaps this leapt out at me as I saw the really excellent Bleak House television series quite recently, and I remembered this embarrassing scene particularly well. Here is the extract from Dickens:

‘My present salary, Miss Summerson, at Kenge and Carboy’s, is two pound a-week. When I first had the happiness of looking upon you, it was one-fifteen, and had stood at that figure for a lengthened period. A rise of five has since taken place, and a further rise of five is guaranteed at the expiration of a term not exceeding twelve months from the present date. My mother has a little property, which takes the form of a small life annuity; upon which she lives in an independent though unassuming manner in the Old Street Road. She is eminently calculated for a mother-in-law. She never interferes, is all for peace, and her disposition easy. She has her failings — as who has not? — but I never knew her do it when company was present; at which time you may freely trust her with wines, spirits, or malt liquors. My own abode is lodgings at Penton Place, Pentonville. It is lowly, but airy, open at the back, and considered one of the ’ealthiest outlets. Miss Summerson! In the mildest language, I adore you. Would you be so kind as to allow me (as I may say) to file a declaration — to make an offer!’

Even when I read it at university, this passage struck me as quite ridiculous. What a strange, absurdly practical way to propose to someone! What a case of too much irrelevant information! Poor ridiculous Guppy …

Flanders explains that the humour really lies in ‘the confusion of boundaries’. This speech should have been given to the father, but as Esther has no father, it is – completely inappropriately – given to her. As well as detailing the ins and outs of correct Victorian marriage proposals, Flanders also explains how Guppy’s salary makes him an inappropriate match for Esther. She might not have her own income, but she is being looked after in an upper-middle-class household. Flanders says:

She had her own maid, as well as a house full of servants, indicating that her guardian’s income was probably heading towards £1000 a year, if not more; the potential Mrs Guppy on £100-odd could expect to be the employer of, at best, a young maid-of-all-work in her first job.

This context about etiquette, income, servants, classes makes for a much more nuanced understanding of Dickens’s humour.

I found it to be a fascinating book, useful both as an aide for understanding Victorian life and also – quite unexpectedly – for sharpening my focus on some rather blurry details of Victorian literature.

The perils of sending a message

March 14, 2011

We live in an age in which everyone is sending messages to everyone else all the time. Telephone calls and text messages; Facebook and Twitter; emails and instant messages … there have never been so many different ways to communicate.

Before all this technology, the only alternative to saying something face-to-face was to write a letter. Penn a note, seal it up and then dispatch it with a messenger … maybe it only sounds really fun because it’s so old-fashioned. But, whethere it’s fun or not, it has definitely served as an excellent literary device.

Letters can hold absolutely vital information so, in novels, a great deal rests on keeping them out of the wrong hands and delivering them safely. Letter-related plots tend to go along the lines of: X writes a terribly important letter to Y, but Y doesn’t get it in time. Or Z sees Y reading it and that ruins everything. Or Z reads it instead of Y …

‘One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister.’

It’s such a marvellous opening to Howards End. And there are several letters in Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge – the one which reveals to Henchard the secret of Elizabeth-Jane’s birth, and the incriminating stash of love letters between him and Lucetta. Of course, Bleak House sees Dickens using a stash of love letters too. Even Ian McEwan uses a, now infamous, letter at the start of Atonement.

Too many novels make use of letters for me to list them all here. But let’s not forget plays and, let’s certainly not forget Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet must make the most tragic use of this plot device. When Friar Laurence tells Juliet of his plan, for her to take a ‘distilling liquor’ that will make her assume a ‘borrowed likeness of shrunk death’, vital to its success is that ‘Shall Romeo by my letters know our drift’.

And Romeo expects these letters, asking his man Balthasar, ‘Hast thou no letters to me from the friar?’ But the messenger fails to deliver the letter to Romeo and Friar Lawrence laments:

‘The letter was not nice, but full of charge,

Of dear import, and the neglecting it

May do much danger.’

And we all know how it ends up. All because the message didn’t get to Romeo.

Nowadays, there are still plenty of opportunities for a message intended for someone to be read by someone else. How many of us have accidentally sent a text about someone to that person instead of to the friend to whom they meant to send it?!

But at least messages don’t go astray as they used. There’s no messenger running around delivering very important sealed letters and so there’s no opportunity for the messenger to get waylaid. Instead, someone makes a phonecall, or sends an email, or a text message. The message is instantly delivered. Yes, ok, there’s a very slim chance that the message might get lost somehow. The email could go into the Junk Mail folder, or the phone number’s wrong. But I don’t think it would really be believed in a novel.

But now we have so many different ways of communicating with each other, how do we pick which one to use? Why a facebook message rather than an email? Why a text message over an instant message?

If, for instance, you’ve had dinner at a friend’s house, how do you thank them the next day? Does a text message seem a bit flippant? Is a postcard a bit OTT? A phonecall would definitely be weird. Would an email be too formal? And, of course, what seems like the right choice for you, might well not seem right to them.

And, now we’re so used to instantaneous communication, when should the thank you be sent? A text the next morning? What if you forget until teatime? And if you send a postcard, that means there’s going to be a whole day’s wait – will the host spend that day thinking that you’re rude? Once, on the way home from a dinner, the host sent me a thank you text. Had I already left it too long?

Dating brings a whole new dimension to this quandary. In Jane Austen novels, Mr Darcy (or the equivalent) always turns up at the young lady’s house. Or he might send a letter confessing his love. When I was younger, if a boy liked you, he’d get your number and then phone you up to ask you out. This was pre-mobile phones, so the chances were, he’d speak to one of your parents, or big brothers, first. It must have been terrifying. Now, it comes down to no more than a text message. ‘Do U Want2C a film on Fri night? x’ (Although I think anyone who asked me out in text-speak got an automatic rejection.)

It seems that the age of the phone call has been superseded by the age of the text message and email. It’s odd, really, that we’ve moved away from this form of spoken communication back to written.

I wonder why we prefer expressing ourselves in writing. As anyone who’s ever sent a text message to someone they fancy knows, a hell of a lot of time can go into its composition … and into analysing any message from a potential date. Should I write ‘Hi’ or ‘Hey’ or ‘Hello’, or none of them? Should I ask a question so they have to reply? What does he mean by two kisses at the end?

I’m slightly ashamed to admit to having spent an entire evening helping a friend compose a text message, only to then spend the whole following day waiting with her for a response.

And that’s another thing key to written communication instead of spoken. One has to wait for a response. The ‘conversation’ can be drawn out over a whole week. Especially when one takes into account the rules of playing hard to get, not replying within a day, teasing everything out in a noncommittal way. It would be so much easier to phone someone up and get it all sorted out then in a five minute call. So much easier, but so much less ambiguous … and so much less fun too.

Unless, that is, the feeling isn’t mutual. How long can one wait for a response to a text message or an email before accepting the rejection? Most of us tend to invent excuses rather than take it as a no. I don’t think it sent properly. I think he said he was on holiday this week. Maybe his phone got stolen. It must have gone into his junk mail.

Perhaps it is our literary heritage of written communication that comes into play here. We are very used to reading novels and plays about letters going astray, messages being intercepted, something preventing the sound completion of an act of communication. Rather than accepting the fact that we’ve been ignored or rejected, it’s much kinder to pretend that our message has gone astray. Even if the chances of that actually happening – when it’s a text message rather than a letter – are slim to none.

But, because we now send each other messages all the time, via so many different media, we are all much worse at responding to them. If someone gets one message a day, chances are, they’ll reply. If they get a hundred, chances are, they won’t. Yes your message was delivered, yes it was probably read, and yes it was ignored, or overlooked, because it wasn’t quite important enough.

Of course, if this is in the context of dating, then forget it – they’re not interested. But perhaps we need to be a bit more lenient to friends, colleagues and others who don’t reply when they ought. I’m sure we’re guilty of the same thing ourselves.

Or, failing that, maybe the answer is to go back to writing letters. At least for the important things in life. That way, if one doesn’t get a response, one can tell oneself that it really could have got lost in the post.

Lyra, I’d like to introduce you to Harry Potter, a wizard …

June 28, 2010

The thing that was so particularly exciting about our engagement party on Saturday, was all our friends being in one place at the same time. We’re going to get married – our lives are coming together – and part of that is our friends coming together too.

The bar was a blizzard of loved ones’ faces, from all different parts of our lives. It was such fun to introduce best friends from primary school to the fiancé’s friends from university, bringing people together who would otherwise probably never meet each other, but I felt sure would get on. It was like picking out different flavoured Jelly Beans and choosing which ones to eat at the same time – which combinations would taste good, even if the results might be somewhat unexpected.

I wonder what would happen if it could be done with books as well? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to take the different characters and introduce them to each other?

What would Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (always the first character to pop into my head), make of Forster’s Mrs Moore (in A Passage to India). I feel they’d get on. Although Mrs Moore would probably be slightly patronising about Mrs Dalloway’s obsession with her cocktail party.

And what if Pullman’s Lyra could meet Dickens’ Pip? I bet she’d make him get over Estella and go on some more adventures. If only they could meet soon after he steals the food for the convict, and Lyra could keep leading him down that route of mischief and fun and helping people in need, preventing him from being a society bore desperate to impress a spoilt little brat. Or Pip might fall in love with Lyra instead of Estella. They’d be a much better match.

And Lyra would also be a good influence on Harry Potter. She’d tell him to stop being such a self-absorbed angsty teenager and get on with saving the world. I’m sure Hermione would be quite protective about Lyra entering their group – she wouldn’t like another intelligent girl being around one little bit. But perhaps the competition would force her to make a play for Ron earlier on and we’d be spared several hundred pages of build up. And how would Mildred Hubble get on with them all?

Moving away from children (although I do think that this lot would be much more fun at a party than grown-ups), what if Strickland from Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence met Roark from Rand’s The Fountainhead? A determined young man who leaves his wife, children and whole life to try to become an artist, even though nobody likes his paintings, and another determined young man whose belief in his own modernist form of architecture is unshakeable – even when the tide of opinion is strongly against him. Would they give each other encouragement and strength?

Sadly I think they’re both too caught up in themselves to really care what some stranger at a party might say. Roark might be cross that someone else was trying to be a tortured impoverished artistic soul – and being one in Paris definitely beats being one in New York. But you never know, they might share a whisky and feel some kind of solidarity.

But I’m sure Ayn Rand would be seething! She’d see Strickland as a communist good-for-nothing and wouldn’t want Roark coming anywhere near such a boho.

But then Ayn Rand would have nothing to do with it. I suppose having a party and introducing all these different characters to each other would be the ultimate act to prove the power of the reader over the author. And, because everything would be fiction, absolutely anything at all could happen …

Reading and Writing in Cadences

March 18, 2010

Just before dropping off into a snooze in an attempt to heal the wounds, post-tonsil-removal (if only I could use that excuse forever), I often think about my novel-in-progress. I’ve felt quite guilt-stricken about not really doing any work on it for nearly three whole weeks now (ouch, but I shall keep blaming the tonsils) and so these little not-quite-fully-awake thought meanderings tend to be an attempt to feel a bit less slack.

Yesterday I was thinking about the atmosphere that I want to surround the ending. From the very first moment of the novel’s conception – one glorious evening in the bath – I’ve wanted the ending to be about creating a certain feeling, something murky and unsettled, something that doesn’t let the reader walk away and leave it completely behind, something that resists a perfect resolution.

Perhaps because I was in that half-asleep state, and perhaps it was the remnants of painkiller still in my bloodstream (sadly I don’t think I can compare myself to a pre-‘Kubla Khan’ Coleridge), it occurred to me that what I need is to write an imperfect cadence.

Yes, an imperfect cadence, as in music theory. I have to say I’ve always been rubbish at music theory, but I just about grasped the concept of cadences. They occur at the end of a piece, or the end of a phrase, and there are four basic types: perfect, imperfect, plagal and interrupted. You can listen to them all here.

But this isn’t supposed to be a not-particularly-good crash course in music theory. I thought it could be quite fun to think of cadences in books. Bear with me …

Essentially a perfect cadence – from the dominant note (Vth in a scale) to the tonic (Ist in a scale) – feels like certain resolution. Finished, ta-da, the end. So, for novels, although this must be by far the most common closing cadence, it is particularly apt for the end of a detective story. Think of Agatha Christie’s Poirot stories. All the characters are assembled in the drawing room, your mind is spinning from all the different possibilities of who the murderer might be, and then Poirot puts everyone out of their misery, unmasks the villain and peace is restored.

The other easy one to spot is a plagal cadence. This is from the subdominant (IV) to the tonic (I) and can be quickly recognised as the ‘Amen’ at the end of hymns. It sounds churchy, religious – the correct resolution but in a bit of a preachy tone. In book terms I’m afraid that Graham Greene instantly springs to mind. I know he’s a brilliant writer but why does everything always have to end up being about Catholicism? The same goes for Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

Then there are the two types that are harder to recognise. The imperfect cadence is, unsurprisingly, the opposite of perfect. So the progression is from tonic (I) to dominant (V). It feels unfinished, the listener is waiting for the tonic to come back again at the end and a happy resolution to be found. It leaves one unsettled, uncomfortable, uncertain of what will happen next – because something almosthas to happen next. It makes me think of Twin Peaks – I will never ever forget that final image. And King Lear, when Albany, Edgar and Kent are left standing at the end looking forward into an uncertain future after the horror that has passed. ‘We that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long.’ What will they see? What will happen next? What can possibly happen next when the world seems to have exploded into nothingness? That’s what I want in my novel.

And then, finally, the interrupted cadence. This is from the dominant (V) to any note that isn’t the tonic. It often goes to the supertonic (II), the subdominant (IV) or the submediant (VI). I expect there is a better, more nuanced explanation of this somewhere, but what matters for me is that this cadence always feels utterly unresolved. It’s more of an opening into something new than an ending. I suppose the effect is an extreme version of that of an imperfect cadence – one isn’t so much waiting for resolution, as waiting for a whole new chapter. This cadence brings to mind books that were initially published in serial form, like Little Dorrit, or pretty much anything else by Dickens. And it doesn’t make me think of the final ending, it makes me think of those significant moments in the plot where one episode ends, leaving one desperate to know what happens next. Cliffhangers. Although they’re now to be found more in TV soap operas than in novels.

It’s a comforting thought, that rather than striving for the perfect ending, an imperfect one can be infinitely more haunting. My eyes (and ears) are peeled remain peeled for more.

My Top Ten London books … part one

February 10, 2010

I sometimes get asked, at the bookshop, to recommend something that’s set in London. There are so many London books that I’ve loved, it’s hard to know where to begin. But recommending something is trickier than one might imagine, because it has to be recommended for that particular person, not for oneself, or anyone else. For instance, a young man came in the other day and asked for a good crime novel. I suggested a couple, saying that not only were they exciting, they were also very well written and not trashy at all. His whole expression dropped; he put the books down straight away. ‘I don’t like well-written,’ he said. ‘Don’t you have anything like John Grisham?’

So, the following aren’t books that I’d recommend to just anyone. But they are the books about London that I love the most. I’ll start off with the fictional ones; next time will be London’s non-fiction.

1. Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

I know that lots of people hate Virginia Woolf. They think she’s snobby and pretentious, and a bit ridiculous. Fine. She probably was a snob. But she’s an absolutely brilliant writer. The thing is, one can’t just start reading Mrs Dalloway, or any of her books, and expect to follow a straightforward narrative. Reading Virginia Woolf is always a bit of a shock, more than a fraction discombobulating, but if you persevere, you might discover something you absolutely adore. I certainly did.

Mrs Dalloway was the first of Woolf’s novels that I read, and I remember reading it very clearly. It was during the holidays before my second term at Oxford. I was sitting on the living room sofa with a cup of tea, feeling a mixture of tremendous excitement and great trepidation. My tutor was a specialist in Woolf, you see, so it would have been a bit of shame if I’d hated it. But as soon as I began, there was a kind of BANG. A WOW. A complete amazement that writing could be this different, this exciting and this good. I ended up specialising in Woolf, reading all her novels, most of her essays, many of her letters and diaries, but Mrs Dalloway was the beginning; it was where I first got hooked.

Now, whenever I reread Mrs Dalloway, I still love accompanying her on her walk through London. The geography is so precise, I can trace her route through Victoria, Westminster, St James’s almost perfectly in my mind’s eye. I like the way Mrs Dalloway’s mind jumps around – as one’s mind does when one’s walking – following one thought, and then, catching sight of something, hastening along another. Then, when she walks past Hatchard’s on Piccadilly and sees that line from Cymbeline, ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, / Nor the furious winter’s rages’, Woolf brings death into the picture. And the shadow of the recent First World War begins to creep over the page, making its presence more and more keenly felt.

Mrs Dalloway is filled with brilliant detail, but one I’m particularly fond of is Big Ben, which chimes throughout the book. It first strikes a page in:

one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribably pause; a suspense […] before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolve in the air.

I was at school just around the corner from Big Ben, and could hear the ‘irrevocable’ chimes on the hour every day. There really does seem to be a slight gasp, a pause, before it strikes.

2. ‘The Waste Land’, T.S. Eliot

From Woolf’s Big Ben, to Eliot’s rather grimmer ‘dead sound on the final stroke of nine’ from a city Church …

This is the last of the Moderns I’ve chosen, I promise. I read this one when I was at school. We’d studied ‘Prufrock’ and I wanted to read ‘The Waste Land’ to find out what all the fuss was about. I can see, like with Virginia Woolf, why Eliot doesn’t appeal to everyone. The Latin and Greek at the beginning are pretty off-putting, and he does jump around a bit, making one’s head spin. But, a bit of a perseverance pays off …

The London image that sticks most in my head is the following:

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,

To where Saint Mary Woolnoth keep the hours

With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

When I was living in Whitechapel last year, I used to cycle in to work every morning, crossing over Southwark Bridge, one west of London Bridge, en route. The streams of lifeless commuters were shocking, hideous, inhumane. I often tried to time it so I was mid-bridge bang on nine o’clock, when I would hear various churches chime out the time – with that dead gloom of a sound.

Somebody once quoted that bit of Eliot to me to prove why he thought Eliot was a terrible snob. How dare he be so condescending towards people who have to go to work everyday to earn a living? But the thing is, Eliot spent years working as a bank clerk, before quitting to work in publishing. It’s not like he never experienced the deadly commute; he wasn’t looking down at it from an ivory tower. Eliot had been part of that deadening sight, and the image is all the more affecting because of it.

3. Metroland, Julian Barnes

There’s a passage in Metroland that always makes me think of those lines from ‘The Waste Land’.  Christopher (the main character) takes his friend Toni on the Metropolitan line, showing him his journey to and from school. They look out of the window when they’re passing over Kilburn:

Thousands of people down there, all within a few hundred yards of you; yet you’d never, in all probability, meet any of them.

There’s the same feeling of the city’s anonymity, inhumanity.

I read Metroland at school for AS level coursework. My English teacher had a habit of at once patronising us and also seeming to want to be one of us, talking with fondness of his days of being a teenager – so impressionable, so passionate, so young … So Metroland, a novel about a thirty-something-year-old looking back at being a teenager, was a particularly appropriate book to study. It’s a great coming-of-age novel, and it also effectively captures what it’s like to be in suburbia, coming into central London and leaving it again every day.

Julian Barnes brilliantly crafts a particularly suburban feeling at the end of the book. The main character makes his peace with compromising, settling for an easy middle-of-the road life. He realises that his teenage dreams were naïve and is happy to pursue them no longer. It must be a common phenomenon, but Barnes executes it so perfectly, the feeling becomes almost poetic.

4. Unsafe Attachments, Caroline Oulton

This stunning collection of short stories rails against the disconnection of London life, touched on in that Kilburn passage of Metroland. Oulton subtly weaves the narrative strands loosely together, so the various characters move between the different stories, slipping from main character in one story to cameo in another. The stories explore the instability of relationships, flirtation and infidelity, and are unsettlingly well-observed. London’s geography is firmly etched into each story, but Oulton’s real feat is in capturing so acutely the hectic, brittle fragility of London life.

I read Unsafe Attachments when it came out a couple of years ago. I was working in a nine-to-five London publishing job, and I found that the book really chimed with the daily grind of working life. It’s filled with people searching for excitement in the margins of their days – leaving work at six, knowing they need to be back in the office the next morning at nine. Oulton casts London as a city with a workforce, a workforce that often misbehaves.

5. Bleak House, Charles Dickens

The exhausting number of characters and sub-plots in Bleak House left me feeling, at times, like I was reading a collection of linked stories. But as the plot twists and turns and connections are made, it comes together into one magnificent novel, and one that is utterly London.

The Londonness is clear from the very first sentence, which is just ‘London.’ The opening is incredible, conflating time so that the city becomes at once prehistoric and apocalyptic:

As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn-hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.

Whenever I’m passing through Holborn I cannot help but think of this opening. Then I try to imagine seeing a dinosaur waddling along.

I read Bleak House when I was in Nepal. It was on my Oxford reading list, along with several other classics, and I wanted to get through some of them while I had so much time to read. It was a very strange book to be reading out there. Dickens creates a world that is so grimey, smoky, claustrophobic, and there I was in the boiling chaotic sunshine of Kathmandu, where everyone else was reading something by the Dalai Lama. Whenever I opened Bleak House, I was transported straight back to London. And, although it was an unnerving experience, perhaps that is the ultimate test of a London book.