Posts Tagged ‘Patrick Ness’

A Literary A-Z

September 19, 2011

The latest installment…


It would appear that M is rather a popular letter for an author’s surname. There are the Mitfords, Iris Murdoch and that other I.M. – Ian McEwan. There’s Somerset Maugham, William Maxwell and Gavin Maxwell. Richard Mabey, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore. And let’s not forget Malory, Marvell and Milton. Or Japan’s Murikami and Mishima, or Scandinavia’s Mankell. Blimey.

I have to admit to feeling rather ill-equiped to judge the winner of the Ms. For, although I’ve read something by each of these writers, I’m afraid I haven’t read much by any of them. And most of them are rather prolific. How can I possibly judge Somerset Maugham, having read only The Moon and Sixpence? Ditto for Iris Murdoch, having read just two of her substantial oeuvre. I quite like the idea of Gavin Maxwell versus Richard Mabey as both The Ring of Bright Water and The Unofficial Countryside are published in elegant Little Toller editions, but again I feel reluctant to boil either author down to just one of their books.

The only way out of this indecision is to imagine being stuck on a desert island and to decide which one of these author’s books I’d like to be have for company. And, while I’m sure this makes me terribly conventional and more than a bit snotty, I have to say, without a shadow of a doubt, Milton. (He also has the advantage of being the one author from that list of whom I’ve read rather a lot, having studied him at university.)

It’s rather unfair, I think, that Milton seems so off-putting and formidable to many readers. He’s one of those names that’s so far up there in the canon, that many people assume that he’s terribly important, but also that he must be studied at length – like Shakespeare – and that he uses lots of difficult old words. And, whereas everyone has to study Shakespeare at some point, thanks to the curriculum, poor old Milton is rather less compulsory.

I wish that instead of seeming so terrifying, Milton could gain the reputation of being a poet that, really, is quite straightforward to read and understand. His poems are great long narratives, and most of them tell stories that we all know anyway. Rather than having to read a short poem, painfully slowly, scrutinising every single word, I’d argue that Milton’s longer poems can be read almost like a novel.

He often uses enjambment, instead putting the break half-way through the line. This makes it very easy to keep on reading, and really it can be quite hard to stop! Take the opening of Paradise Lost, for instance:

Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit

Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste

Brought death into the world, and all our woe,

It isn’t until one reaches ‘woe’ that one can properly draw breath. And the clever thing about this structure is that the second half of each line often refers to both the first half of both that line and of the following. So, for instance, ‘and the fruit’ refers back to ‘Of man’s first disobedience’ – i.e. what comes from man’s first disobedience – and also on to ‘Of that forbidden tree – i.e. that notorious apple. It makes the poem seem twice as thick with meaning.

The other, quite geeky, thing that I love about Milton is the way that many of the words he uses have double meanings. So, for instance, when Satan tempts Eve to eat the apple, he is described as ‘the spirited sly Snake’. ‘Spirited’ here means possessed by a spirit (of Satan), but it also means ‘brisk, blithe’, and indeed the snake is described as ‘blithe’ just a few lines later. Then again, Satan doesn’t just tempt Eve, he ‘seduces’ her, tempting her, and also ‘leading her astray’, as he literally leads her to the forbidden apple. This resonance is from the Latin meaning of ‘seduce’: ‘se’ meaning ‘aside, astray’, and ‘ducere’ meaning ‘to lead’.

But above all, Paradise Lost is exciting. Satan is a surprisingly intriguing character rather than being a straightforward baddie, and there are some quite funny digressions, such as how it is, exactly, that angels have sex!


Rather slimmer pickings for N. I have to say straight away that I can’t bear V.S. Naipaul. And I must also ashamedly admit to never having read any Nabakov. So I’m going to make rather a surprising choice for N and go for the teen author Patrick Ness.

Patrick Ness won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize a few years ago for his astonishing novel The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first of the Chaos Walking trilogy.

Todd, the main character, lives in a place where everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts, which swirl around them as something called ‘Noise’. This means there’s no privacy, no quiet and no secrets. But then, Todd finds a patch of silence, and everything changes suddenly and terrifyingly.

What’s so brilliant about The Knife of Never Letting Go is how it treads the line between the familiar and the alien so well. Everything is recognisable, yet also different. The idea of being able to hear people’s thoughts is at once very easy to imagine, yet also horribly strange. The language reflects this too, for instance, a question is called an ‘ask’ and a child is called a ‘pup’. Similar and understandable, yet also different.

And this really is an exciting adventure story. I could barely put it down. More exciting, even, than Milton.


O is another letter for which there seems to be a strange paucity of writers. I’d say it essentially comes down to Ovid versus Orwell.

I did so enjoy reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses soon after I finished school. The Greek myths were such a huge part of my childhood, and it was with utter joy that I could grow reacquainted with them in such readable and elegant verse. Here again were Orpheus and Eurydice, Daedalus and Icarus, the Minotaur, Echo and Narcissus … all these wonderful stories that could be read all over again. And there were new revelations too. I remember being stunned by the entry on Pythagoras, who was known to me only for having that theory about the squares of the sides of triangles adding up. Who knew he was vegetarian and so eloquent with it too?

But perhaps Orwell has to win. I challenge anyone not to feel overawed by either Animal Farm or 1984. One invariably reads at least one of them when one is a young teenager, when they seem completely groundbreaking. Political, satirical, funny, dreadful, shocking, dystopian, terrifying …

I read a few of his essays at university, but it wasn’t till a couple of years ago that I really re-engaged with his work, when I read Down and Out in Paris and London. I’ve written about this elsewhere, so I shall spare you a long digression, but I really did think this was a brilliant book. Certain elements will stick in my mind forever, such as the broiling heat of a Paris kitchen when he was a plongeur, and the ‘tea-and-two-slices’ which was the standard meal of every tramp in England. And the description of how one particular OAP lived on his tiny pension, eating nothing but tea-and-two-slices or even just dry bread, sleeping in doss houses but still sparing enough money to have a weekly shave, summons a great deal of respect.

O, then, surely must be for Orwell.

Life is like …

August 13, 2010

… a box of chocolates.

I found myself saying that particularly memorable line at a dinner party the other day, when we were all deliberating which yummy choccy to pick from a rather tempting plate.

The following morning, rather hungover, the fiancé and I went for a fry up. We chatted about the night before. ‘I was ok, wasn’t I?’ I asked, ‘Not too embarrassing?’  (I always need to check. Sometimes, when overexcited in public, apparently I can say really silly things.)

‘Yeah, you were fine. Not nearly as bad as when you said that thing about The Crystal Maze in Italy.’

In Italy, staying with friends a month or so ago, we’d all got on to the subject of old television shows from our childhood. I said that I always used to think that when I grew up, life would be like The Crystal Maze. Everyone gave me a look. Nobody got it, no matter how hard I tried to explain. Someone charitably changed the subject and then that was that.

Life is like … well, there are hundreds of quotes, although perhaps none so memorable as that one from Forest Gump. Most of the ones littered around the internet are by people I’ve never heard of. But I do like this one from Einstein:

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.

And, I shall reassert my childhood dream:

Life is like The Crystal Maze. You only have a certain amount of time to meet the challenges it throws at you.

I suppose this belief harks back to my post about quests and children’s books (here). When I was young, I believed that I’d grow up into a life filed with adventures. This was almost entirely because of what I read in books.

In fact, needing a break from adult books, a couple of days ago I read Patrick Ness’s fantastic book The Knife of Never Letting Go, which won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize a couple of years ago.

Todd, the main character, is chased out of ‘Prentistown’ and finds himself on a terrifying adventure through New World, accompanied by his dog (who talks) and Viola, a newcomer to his world. They both have to run (a lot), escape several life-threatening situations, fight, hide … you get the picture. And it was even more compelling than Inception – I read the whole thing in twenty-four hours, unable to put it down.

The basic elements of the plot aren’t so different from that of many exciting children’s adventure books. The main characters have to pit all their wits against an enemy pursuing them and the terror of the unknown ahead. They are constantly on the run and so don’t have enough time for anything. And they are constantly striving onwards to reach their goal … before it’s too late.

Now that’s not all that different from being stuck in a room with a timer counting down to zero and having to work out how to get through various obstacles to find the crystal. Except, thankfully, Richard O’Brien isn’t shouting over their shoulders all the time.

And, as I pointed out in my quests post, when that’s what you read about, that’s what you imagine will happen. And, while the dreariness of everyday London life isn’t particularly crystalline, well perhaps there are elements of The Crystal Maze to be found.

Take writing a novel, for instance. How can one get past all the obstacles that are lying in wait – the crises in confidence; the flaws in the plot; the unexpected blips; a computer crash? How can one bring it all together? How can one solve the puzzle of what unfolds?

And, although it doesn’t seem like there’s a time limit – especially when one’s not actually writing to a publisher’s deadline – of course there is, it’s just less obvious. It’s like going into a room in The Crystal Maze and not knowing how long you have to solve the puzzle. There’s a timer ticking away and you don’t know when it’ll be too late and you’ll be locked in the room.

Because the thing is, one is almost always convinced that something can be improved, if one had more time. One always thinks, if I only had another couple of weeks, if I just had an extra five minutes, or – in The Crystal Maze – another ten seconds … And, in life, almost every project does have a time limit – a deadline at work, or some kind of pressure to get it done by a certain time.

What I’ve found with writing is that although there is no official time limit, there is an internal one. A moment by which if one hasn’t finished it, then one is so fed up with it that there’s no point in continuing. A moment at which the book becomes too stale to be kept alive.

I have certainly felt the counter heading down towards zero hour in my writing. This novel has taken me over two and a half years. Friends don’t really know what to say anymore. ‘How’s the novel? Still going?’

Unfortunately, writing a novel is one of those things that just does take a long time. For me, I suppose, a very long time. And, during that time, I’ve got incredibly fed up with it. To the point when having to explain the plot to a naïve new friend forces a sigh and a downcast look and I have to try to work out how to change the subject as quickly as possible.

But, just in the nick of, I think I’ve finished it. Well, nearly. The third draft is now all printed off and in a (rather thick) pile on our table. It’s waiting for me to read through it, make the occasional tweak, and then that will be that.

My internal time limit is September. All tweaking must be finished by then.

Nearly there. If I were in The Crystal Maze, at this moment I would be running towards the door, crystal clasped tight in my hand, hoping to be able to squeeze through in the final seconds before it’s slammed closed.

Life is, indeed, like The Crystal Maze. Now I’m beginning to dread what will happen once September arrives and I get into the enormous Crystal Dome, in which I’ll have to try and catch a publisher.