Posts Tagged ‘Salman Rushdie’

And So I Have Thought of You – The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald

November 26, 2012

I have been reading these letters for many months, a few at a time, at odd in-between moments – in the bath, waiting for the kettle to boil, or for the toast to be done. Penelope Fitzgerald is one of my literary heroines, and this chunky collection of letters has been a trusty companion, a reliable source for a quick fix of inspiration, a smile, and a sigh of relief that such a good writer existed.

I love the precision of Penelope Fitzgerald’s writing and often, when I’ve been angsting over how to begin an article or how to write something clearly, I’ve read one of her letters for inspiration, sitting down and trying to write the piece straight away afterwards, in the vain hope that some of her style might have seeped into my own. I could never hope to be half as good a writer, but certainly reading a letter has never failed to help.

The feeling I get when reading other people’s letters is the glee of an eavesdropper. All these nuggets of gossip and in-jokes and reassurances and wonderings and news. It is such an astonishing privilege to have this window into a personal, off-the-record side of a great writer. Even though it’s perfectly legitimate to read these published letters, it is hard not to feel those butterflies of naughtiness, of seeing something you oughtn’t, the exquisite fear of being caught.

There is so much in these letters, so many stories – some just hinted at, others sketched out, and others which develop over several years. Each holds its own distinct pleasure.

The hints are often gossip about other writers. There’s this to one of her editors, Stuart Profitt:

I realise now that you can’t get hold of Malcolm Bradbury, he seems to be made of some plastic or semi-fluid substance which gives way or changes in your hands.

Or this postscript to Stuart Profitt’s predecessor, Richard Ollard:

Poor S. Rushdie, or rich S. Rushdie, whichever you like, that was a publicity campaign that went dreadfully wrong. I don’t think he ought to go into hiding, though. My local Patel grocery on the corner tells me that it is not a dignified act.

She’s so clever in her insults! While I love these flashes of brilliant wit, they leave me longing to find out more about what she thinks on the subjects.

Then there are her sketches. Here is one of Fitzgerald’s finest, which appears in a letter to her daughter Maria, and could easily be lifted straight out of one of her novels. She describes a ‘surrealist tea-party’ in Rye, where the guests were:

a trendy cleric, his dull wife, a long-skirted daughter, going up to read English at Hertford, who evidently hadn’t wanted to come, and Henry James’s manservant (still living in Rye, but with a deaf-aid which had to be plugged into the skirting) who couldn’t really bear to sit down and have tea, but kept springing up and trying to wait on people, with the result that he tripped over the cable – and contributing in a loud, shrill voice remarks like ‘Mr Henry was a heavy man – nearly 16 stone – it was a job for him to push his bicycle uphill’ – in the middle of all the other conversation which he couldn’t hear.

It’s too perfect and had me in stitches over my burning toast!

Then there are the longer stories. The attempt to write L.P. Hartley’s biography, which in the end defeated her; the dire financial straits of her early married life, manifest in instances like being unable to afford to buy towels from John Lewis; her endless attempts to persuade her editor of the worthiness of a book she longed to write about the Poetry Bookshop; the struggle to be recognised as a writer. With respect to this latter strand, her correspondence with her editors at Duckworth, where she began her writing career, is eye-opening. She wrote this to Richard Garnett there:

It worried me terribly when you told me I was only an amateur writer and I asked myself, how many books do you have to write and how many semi-colons do you have to discard before you lose amateur status?

It’s too appalling to think of her editor calling her an amateur writer! Later she writes to Colin Haycraft, also at Duckworth, about her decision to move to a different publisher:

You did tell me, you know, that if I went on writing novels you didn’t want it blamed on you and that Anna thought I should do detective stories and also, by the way, that you had too many short novels with sad ending on your hands, and I thought, well, he’s getting rid of me, but in a very nice way. I don’t at all expect you to remember everything you say to 32 authors, but the trouble is we take all these remarks seriously and ourselves too seriously as well, I expect.

Luckily she moved to Harper Collins, where she found a much better editor in Richard Ollard and his successor Stuart Profitt. Reading their letters are a delight, as their warm literary friendship is conjured on the page:

Just to thank you for taking me to the party, I should never have had the resolution to go otherwise and indeed I noticed many people, obviously female novelists, standing about looking at a loss, and I was grateful not to have to do this.

Or here:

Meanwhile I feel that if Angela has gone and mice have got into the air-conditioning the Harper Collins palace must be almost untenable. But I’m so glad that Stuart’s Big Book after many worries is proving such an enormous success – what energy he’s got! If he gets this place in Herefordshire I suppose he will have to arrive up at week-ends and put together the roof and chimneys and then walk miles over Hay Bluff &c for exercise, but I expect that will be as nothing to him.

Her letters to Chris Carduff, her American editor, are also a treat. I especially love the fact that he calls his cat Charlotte Mew, after the poet associated with the Poetry Bookshop. It is to him that she drops this perfect line:

on the whole I think you should write biographies of those you admire and respect, and novels about human beings who you think are sadly mistaken.

Gosh these letters were such a pleasure to read! The only sad thing about them is the gaps – the missing years and people, thanks to faulty archiving or tragic incidents like the sinking of her houseboat. I see that Hermione Lee is writing a biography of Penelope Fitzgerald; she’s written a little about it here for the Guardian. I am literally on the edge of my seat with excitement for it – I’m sure that Hermione Lee will succeed in filling in some of these gaps, fleshing out those things that are only hinted at in these letters, shaping everything into a powerful narrative. Until then, I will happily read and reread her novels, and perhaps I might just start again on these witty, wry, wonderful letters.

Advertisements

Good Behaviour

September 3, 2012

I really was shocked by Molly Keane’s novel, Good Behaviour.

It bobs along, all hunting, gardening and dancing, but then, just as you begin to sink into the relaxing comfort of this old-fashioned, grand way of life, out thrusts a hideously dark, utterly shocking occurrence. But the reader is not allowed to dwell on this horrible thing. Indeed we can scarcely process it before the narrative forces us to return to the shimmering surface of grand country life. It happens again and again, thrust after horrible dark thrust disrupting the frothy surface, until the two fall into an uneasy co-existence. The narrator, Aroon, now middle-aged and looking back on her youth, insists on focussing on the surface, but the reader can’t ignore the sinister goings on underneath.

I read Good Behaviour with the unnerving sensation of feeling my jaw actually drop when the first of these dark moments erupted. It was all the more shocking thanks to the way Aroon refuses to let the narrative even so much as pause to let us give these moments our full attention. I blinked in disbelief. These hideous occurrences scream out at you as you are ushered past, instantly vanishing under the carpet as your attention is pulled away to the next hunt or dinner.

It’s hard to write about these dark moments without giving away the plot and taking away the element of surprise. But here is one instance that happens early on and doesn’t give much away. Aroon’s father has returned from the First World War without a leg. A page or so earlier he has written back from the front about the death of Ollie Reilly, one of the servants of the house, who had fought with him and – back in Ireland – had had a romance with another servant, Rose. In the letter he wrote: ‘Tell Rose he died instantly; he never knew what got him’. A little later, we get this:

This was an interval in his recovery; later in the year he was to have his wooden leg fitted. In the meantime he must rest, he must eat. He did both, and drank as well, growing every day more irritable and rather fatter. He followed Mummie about the garden at first; he even sat in the studio and watched her painting, after he had absorbed the small amount of racing news in the daily papers. All the time he seemed sadly unoccupied, as indeed he was. He couldn’t ride. He fell into the river when he went fishing. Long afterwards I knew things were on his mind then. Reeking, new, they must have been terrible. He had shot Ollie Reilly as he lay mutilated and dying; when he talked to Rose, Ollie’s death seemed quite enviable, here and gone, out like a light.

Such things were so near and so apart from the honeyed life in Ireland. Every day was a perfect day that April. The scrawny beauty of our house warmed and melted in the spring light.

So we get the shimmering ‘honeyed life in Ireland’ full of ‘perfect’ days and beautiful spring light. We get a young woman observing her father following her ‘Mummie’ around like a lost puppy, seeming ‘sadly unoccupied’ because he can’t ride or fish, and growing plump and crochety. But snuck into the middle of this, contained in just a single sentence is the horrible fact that ‘He had shot Ollie Reilly as he lay mutilated and dying’. It is obvious to the reader that Aroon’s father isn’t ‘sadly unoccupied’, but that he is dwelling on the horror of war, of having shot his mutilated servant to put him out of his misery. Yet this awful thing which so preoccupies him isn’t spoken about, is scarcely even mentioned. The narrator wants to believe – and wants us readers to believe – that her father was only irritable because he couldn’t hunt.

In this disparity between the shiny ‘honeyed’ surface and violent undercurrent, Molly Keane has quite ingeniously pulled off the feat of rendering a gap between what is understood by the narrator and what is understood by the reader. To my mind, this is one of the cleverest things a novelist can do. The writer has to create a blinkered narrator, deliberately limiting their knowledge, while at the same time dropping sufficient hints of the greater truth for the reader to grasp it. It’s a tough balance to get just right – not too obvious, not too obscure.

This gap between the false surface and the dark thrust of tragic reality is why the narrator – and indeed the whole family – relies upon the ‘good behaviour’ of the title. When a tragedy occurs, everyone does their best to behave perfectly – to see who can cry the least, never mention it, ignore it and return to gardening or reading the Tatler. By forcing themselves to live in the surface, they try to make the surface cover up and suppress the underlying tragedy.

In Jane Gardam’s elegant introduction to this beautiful Folio edition, she tells us about an episode when Molly Keane’s six-year-old daughter wanted to weep at the death of her father. Apparently Molly Keane told her child, ‘We mustn’t let [the butler] see us crying.’

Evidently this rule of ‘stiff upper lip’, ‘not in front of the servants’, always acting in accordance with social mores, was experienced, and to some extent, followed by Molly Keane. Perhaps this is why she examines it quite so expertly in this novel. It is from first-hand experience that she has created these characters who adhere so impeccably to the code of ‘Good Behaviour’, and yet, by creating these dark jolting interruptions to the otherwise well-behaved narrative flow, she challenges the code. The reader can’t help but see that some things deserve to be spoken about, ought to be grieved over, mustn’t be swept under the carpet.

As the novel progresses, we see that Aroon has spent her youth learning, however uncomfortably, how to behave as socially impeccably as her parents. We can see how appalling the parents’ behaviour actually is – the mother cruel beyond belief to Aroon, and the father sleazing on to every woman in sight – and yet this is masked with their fantastically ‘good behaviour’, gliding along and looking the other way. Feat after feat of horrible cruelty is disguised and excused by good manners. It is like a more literary incarnation of that nightmarish character from Harry Potter, Dolores Umbridge, inflicting cruel pain from a fluffy pink frilly smiling exterior. And so we gather from the main body of the novel, the excuse for what must be one of the most shocking opening scenes in all literature.

Good Behaviour begins with middle-aged Aroon murdering her mother. She does this, however, in such a polite, well-mannered way – insisting on feeding her sick mother, who she has propped up on a million soft pillows, rabbit mousse – that you almost can’t believe it.

This polite murder is startling at the beginning, but by the end of the book you realise that really it is the very pinnacle of ‘good behaviour’. Aroon has developed manners so finessed, so smotheringly good that they really will allow her to get away with murder.

Good Behaviour is an extraordinary book. It is dark and lethal, but deliberately frothed up into something that appears to be comforting and palatable. I suppose it is like that fatal rabbit mousse which Aroon serves to her mother.

It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981, the year that Midnight’s Children won. I can’t think of two more different novels. Good Behaviour is so restrained, so poised, so preoccupied with what is unsaid; Midnight’s Children is a splurging explosion, madly exuberant, bursting on to the page with a million highly-charged words. Each novel is a masterpiece. While Good Behaviour might appear to be the less remarkable of the two, in fact it is just understated – a mark of really very good behaviour indeed.

A Literary A-Z

November 7, 2011

The lack of last week’s post was in part because I was tied up writing the first of my fortnightly columns for the Spectator’s Book Blog (cue applause, thank you). It was also thanks to the horror of tackling a rather tricky trio of letters for the next instalment of my Literary A-Z. PQR. Not quite a football team, but not far off. PQ aaaargh is closer to how it feels.

But I can delay no longer. Here it is.

P

 

P has to be Proust. I say this not having read any Proust. I base my judgement almost entirely on my father’s opinion, where Proust is held higher than any other author. I do want to read Proust, and, as a teenager, often threatened to do so, but this prospect filled my father with terror. ‘No, you shall not read him yet,’ he said, with near-Victorian sternness. ‘You are too young.’

I don’t think I minded that much. Yes, I felt a bit patronised, and said, more than once, ‘It’s so unfair. I hate you.’ (All in the name of Proust.) I think I might even have begun Swann’s Way out of spite, but after a couple of paragraphs, I realised that it was rather slower than the books to which I was used, so I quietly replaced it on the shelf. Back to such teenage classics as Junk and Goodbye Johnny Thunders.

But I do have one – albeit tenuous – Proustian connection. At my hen party (written about at great length in this post), a dear friend presented us with a batch of home-baked madeleines. A literary treat, and delicious to boot. In no time, we were reminiscing about the good old days … and I’m sure that’s more-or-less Proust’s point.

I suppose, if one were to be strict and disallow Proust, either on the (not unreasonable) grounds that I’ve not read any, or on the grounds that my father’s other favourite reading material is Winnie the Pooh in Latin … then I’d go for Orhan Pamuk. I did think that Snow was really terribly good. And The Museum of Innocence wasn’t bad either. Just a shame it went on and on and on a bit too much in a post-modern imitation of the narrator’s obsession over the girl. But there we go, take your pick. Proust or Pamuk depending on how lenient you are feeling.

Q

 

Perhaps Q should go to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who did, after all, style himself as the initial ‘Q’. This Cornish author wrote a few Robert Louis-Stevenson style stories, but the reason I’d heard of him was in his guise as an anthologist. He created the Oxford Book of English Verse in 1900, which was the big poetry anthology until the seventies. That’s quite a long time. I quite like the idea of his editing a quintessentially English book, which people pocketed as their companion while they roamed the Empire.

But I’m not sure it’s fair for an anthologist to take the biscuit, so it shall have to go for the only other Q I can think of: Thomas de Quincey.

I was very excited about reading Confessions of an English Opium Eater. I remember reading about him at university, as an influence on Virginia Woolf. Apparently some of her more hallucinatory prose was in part thanks to her Quincean reading material. Of course, when I eventually got round to reading it, a few years later, when a damaged copy was lying around the bookshop, I expected his crazed language to seep into my own writing too. I hoped that by reading about opium I might even do a Coleridge.

Sadly not. Confessions of an English Opium Eater was a bit of struggle to get through. There was a lot of preamble and the actual opiumy bits felt rather overblown and silly. I suppose I did always quite like the way he talked of ‘eating’ opium, as opposed to taking it. It made me wonder if this were a literary pre-cursor of the current vogue for drug dealers to call drugs ‘food’. But I digress.

As neither of these are particularly satisfactory, perhaps we could go completely off-piste and say Queen. As in the band. Bohemian Rhapsody has some pretty wild, silly lyrics.

Scaramouch, Scaramouch, will you do the Fandango!

Twentieth-century opium eating?

R

 

Phew. This one’s easier. It must be Salman Rushdie, although I did spare a (brief) moment to consider an author of the same initials, Samuel Richardson. Incidentally, while I was engaged in the distraction-fuelled putting-off of this piece, I saw that on Twitter Salman Rushdie was staging a #literarysmackdown between Richardson and Sterne. Little did he know that, over at EmilyBooks, the former was already engaged in a literary smackdown against his nibs himself.

But Rushdie wins hands down. Clarissa was so exhaustingly long, and while the whole letter device was quite fun and addictive, she pretty swiftly got on my nerves.

Granted, several people find that Rushdie’s writing gets on their nerves pretty swiftly too. But I am firmly of the school of thought that finds his writing imaginative, inventive, invigorating and really quite incredible. I read The Satanic Verses first, when travelling around Spain with my Muslim best friend, after leaving school. Perhaps it was a bit insensitive of me. She was more than a bit cross about it. But, as I told her then, in no uncertain terms, it is a wonderful book.

Then I went on to study Salman Rushdie at university, as part of the post-colonialism course. At Oxford, where life feels rather determinedly old-fashioned, studying books that aren’t classics and can be bought somewhere other than Blackwells, felt like sticking a finger up at the establishment. Bring on the revolution, I told myself, while others were quietly getting on with Chaucer and the Romantics.

So perhaps it is in part thanks to the intoxication of naïve student days, but I have since reread Midnight’s Children and loved it just as much. And apparently Rushdie’s children’s books are pretty brilliant too. Luka and the Fire of Life is one I’d like to read when I’m next feeling a bit poorly.

Gosh I hope that S, T and U are easier!

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.

Some literary mistakes

October 11, 2010

Last week, I wrote a piece for the Spectator’s Arts Blog about the mess-up surrounding publication of Jonathan Franzen’s latest book Freedom. A week after its much-hyped, viciously embargoed, British release, it was revealed that the publishers had accidently printed an earlier draft of the novel, not the final version. Apparently typos and grammatical mistakes peppered the text, in addition to some ‘small but significant’ changes to characterisation.

Now, after a great deal of fuss, and a great deal of pulping, the copies of Freedom in the shops are free from error. And I am left with no further comment other than that I pity the journalist or PHD student who has been instructed to compare and contrast the two different versions.

In my article (which you can read here), I suggested that typos aren’t the end of the world. Don’t they reveal the human fallibility of the author? Isn’t that somewhat reassuring? And isn’t that particularly apt for a novel about human fallibilty?

Most readers disagreed and I was left with a couple of comments insisting on the ghastly interference of typos.

But the Franzen debacle led me to wonder about other literary mistakes … here are a couple that sprang to mind.

One case is Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (which I actually happened to mention in the article because of the repeated typo of ‘Rusdie’ in the author biography in my old paperback). There are some more notorious mistakes in Midnight’s Children. To mention a few:

The characters Picture Singh and Saleem go on a train from Delhi to Bombay which is said to pass through Kurla; land is reclaimed in Bombay using concrete tetrapods; and the singer Lata Mangeshkar is on the radio in 1946.

These are all errata, factual impossibilities: Kurla is on a different railway line; the tetrapods in Bombay have only ever been used to protect the sea wall against coastal erosion – not for land reclamation; and Lata Mangeshkar didn’t enjoy any real success until the 1950s.

But for those who aren’t particularly well-versed in Indian railways, Mumbai’s coastal protection policies, or Bollywood singers, they could easily slip through the net – why would one suspect these things to be false? A more serious error is getting the date of Gandhi’s assassination wrong, which is highlighted in the text when the narrator, Saleem, says:

Rereading my work, I have discovered an error in chronology. The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi occurs, in these pages in a wrong date.

Why the mistakes? Why all these factual errors? How is one to trust Rushdie or his copyeditor ever again?

In an essay written in 1983 Rushdie defends these mistakes, claiming that they are intentional, deliberate errors. They interrupt the narrative and force the reader to question the narrator, Saleem (the reader isn’t supposed to question the actual author, Rushdie). With all these mistakes, Saleem is portrayed as full of human fallibility and unreliability. Saleem is, after all, remembering his story and Rushdie emphasises the distorting process of memory:

One of the simplest truths about any set of memories is that many of them will be false … as I wrote the novel, and whenever a conflict arose between literal and remembered truth, I would favour the remembered version.

He highlights the notion of ‘memory’s truth’, to which he gives more importance than actual historical accuracy.

All rather shakey, unreliable ground.

The other literary mistake that springs to mind might be rather less intentional. It arises in a fantastic book – Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih.

The narrator, Meheimed, returns to his native Sudan after spending seven months in England. Salih makes it clear that Meheimed wants to return to his village in Sudan and see it unchanged, as though he never left. But this desired vision of continuity is repeatedly disrupted, most emphatically through the character Mustafa Sa’eed, a newcomer to the village. As the novel progresses, it transpires that this character has also spent time abroad, in Cairo and in England, and Meheimed begins to piece together Mustafa Sa’eed’s story.

The ‘mistake’ occurs when, one evening, Mustafa Sa’eed recites in English, ‘in a clear voice and with an impeccable accent’ a poem, which the narrator says he later found in an anthology of First World War poetry. Here is the extract that appears in the book:

Those women of Flanders

Await the lost,

Await the lost who never will leave the harbour

They await the lost whom the train never will bring.

To the embrace of those women with dead faces,

They await the lost, who lie dead in the trenches,

the barricade and the mud.

In the darkness of night,

This is Charing Cross Station, the hour’s past one,

There was a faint light,

There was a great pain.

There’s no point in googling this, or leafing through anthologies searching for the first line ‘Those women of Flanders’. This poem would never be found in a First World War poetry anthology. What would be found in its place is Ford Madox Ford’s ‘In October 1914 (Antwerp)’. Here is the corresponding extract:

These are the women of Flanders.

They await the lost.

They await the lost that shall never leave the dock;

They await the lost that shall never again come by the train

To the embraces of all these women with dead faces:

They await the lost who lie dead in trench and barrier and foss,

In the dark of the night.

This is Charing Cross; it is past one of the clock;

There is very little light.

 

There is so much pain.

Mustafa Sa’eed is reciting a bastardised version of Ford Madox Ford’s poem. How on earth has this happened?

Season of Migration to the North was originally written in Arabic and so the poem, in the original text, must have appeared in Arabic as well. When Denys Johnson-Davies translated the novel into English in 1969, he translated the poem into English. Perhaps he didn’t recognise the poem’s provenance and so didn’t find the original for quotation. It seems a bit mean for Tayeb Salih not to have let him know!

What we have now in Season of Migration to the North is an English translation of an Arabic translation of English. It shows what a complicated and distorting process translation can be – how impossible it is to neatly reverse, instead bringing one further and further away from the original.

It is a bit like the distorting process of memory, pointed out by Salman Rushdie. When remembering something, one can’t just reverse time and go straight back to the unchanged moment. In the process of going back things change, details slip, factual impossibilities occur.

And if one takes translation on a bigger scale – the literal ‘bearing across’ not just of language but of a person – a similar distortion occurs. Season of Migration to the North is about the translation of the narrator and Mustafa Sa’eed from Sudan to England and then back to Sudan. And, as I mentioned, Tayeb Salih is keen to emphasise the changes in Sudan when each character returns:

We pass by a red brick building on the Nile bank, half finished…I tell him that when I was here only seven months ago they hadn’t even started building it.

If change happens in physical translation, then surely in this tiny microcosm of Ford Madox Ford’s poem, then change must happen too. It can’t move seamlessly from English to Arabic and then back to English – change and disruption must leave their mark. Perhaps Denys Johnson-Davies deliberately continued the process of translation rather than finding the original poem.

Or else there’s rather a glaring mistake. Lucky for the publisher that Tayeb Salih isn’t still around to make such a Franzenesque fuss about it.

Plumbed Fiction

April 23, 2010

I met someone at a dinner party the other day and it transpired that we both wrote blogs.

‘What’s yours about?’ she asked.

‘Oh, it’s about books. And about me,’ I said, worrying that I wasn’t making it sound all that great.

‘What about yours?’

‘It’s about plumbing.’

‘Really?’

 ‘Yes.’

But how can you possibly find anything interesting to say about plumbing? I wanted to ask, but managed to stop myself. I began to see it as a challenge; I wondered if I’d be able to write a post about plumbing.

I spent the rest of the dinner party racking my brains to think of any books about plumbing. But unblocking drains is not the most literary of pursuits, and I drew a complete blank.

When I got home I stared at the piles of books in the living room (we have yet to buy bookshelves), and combed through the titles. If one were to just take a book’s title, there would be several contenders for plumbing-related books:

The Waves by Virginia Woolf

Wild Swim by Kate Rew

Liquid City by Marc Atkins and Iain Sinclair

A Bend in the River by VS Naipaul (if only one could insert ‘U’ before ‘Bend’)

And what about Shame by Salman Rushdie?

But, obviously, none of them is actually about plumbing. Missed opportunities? I wonder what a novel about plumbing would actually be like.

The plot would risk being achingly similar to soft porn. A woman, at home, alone. Her sink is blocked. She calls a plumber. He says, ‘Take off your rubber gloves and leave them with the rest of your clothes on your bedroom floor.’ Or perhaps she says, ‘The sink isn’t the only thing that needs unblocking …’

Or it could be a crime novel.

Meet Pete Sinker. He’s a plumber. And a psychopath. How about Bob Snatcher, who bludgeons his victims to death with a sink plunger and spanner? Or Sam Yanks, the serial killer who finds his victims with an ad in the Yellow Pages, in which he poses as a plumber.

I suppose it could be chick lit. A sad single woman finds love when a dark handsome man comes to fix her bath. She’s too nervous to ask him out, so she keeps breaking things – sinks, dishwashers, washing machines etc – so that she can see him again. Then, of course, they realise they both love each other and live happily ever after.

Or, more alternative, there’s an old Polish cleaner in a very smart house, who accidently breaks the washing machine. She calls a plumber, begging him to be as quick as possible – it’s an emergency, if the mistress of the house finds out, she’ll get the sack. The plumber arrives and turns out to be from the same village in Poland/her long lost brother/her husband who she thought had been killed. There are some good in-jokes. They reminisce about when they first got running water in the village and their favourite type of cabbage, and laugh in the afternoon light.

Now I come to think of it, the possibilities are endless. Maybe one day I will come across The Heart-broken Washing Machine or A Short History of Sinks in Polish or Pete Sinker Plunges Again. And when people look sceptical and say, ‘How can there possibly be an interesting book about plumbing?’, I will direct them to this post and hope they will see what fertile stuff lies dormant in the U-bend.

Anachronistic paranoia?

January 27, 2010

So I didn’t give you the full story, when I said I went to a friend’s for dinner in South London on Saturday night. We didn’t just have dinner. We also played a game called ‘Germans in the Dark’.

Germans in the Dark is a game that I used to play when I was a child, whenever our family went and stayed with my grandparents, who lived in the countryside and had a very big garden. My brothers, cousins, occasionally a grudging parent, and I would excitedly charge up Grandpa’s practically antiquarian torch, longing for it to be dark enough outside to play. The game is essentially a version of 40 40. Everyone runs off and hides, while one remaining person – the German – counts to a hundred before coming to look for them, with aforementioned torch. Everyone who is hiding has to try to get back to the home base – which was a large metal gate – without being caught by the German. If the German sees you, there then ensues a race back to the base; if you touch it first then you’re safe, if the German does then you’re caught. But, even if you are caught, there’s still the hope that someone else will reach the base safely, and in so doing, automatically free you.

I grew up thinking this was a game that everyone played. Like 40 40, or It, or Stuck in the Mud. It was only very recently, when I suggested to some friends that we should play – we’d got bored of Sardines – that I realised it was unique to my family.

On Saturday night, after dinner, I explained the rules. It wasn’t quite as seamless an explanation as the one above, because there were several interjections. In fact it went a bit like this:

Me: Everyone goes and hides and then the person left behind – the German – comes looking.

Others: What? That’s mad. So we’re all the Jews, hiding from the Nazis?

Me: Well, yes, I suppose so. But, well, you could be black, or gay, or just English, or anyone else who Hitler didn’t like.

Others: So what happens when the Nazis find you? Do you get sent to a concentration camp?

Me: No. Then you race back to the home base – that can be the sofa – and you’ve got to try to get there first or —-

Others: The home base? So is that Israel?

Others again: No Israel wasn’t around then. It should be Switzerland.

Others: Ok, I see. So we all have to hide in the attic and then try to get to Switzerland.

You get the picture. Essentially, it became clear to me that I’d spent years of my life playing a game that was a sort of make-believe-fleeing-the-holocaust drama. Of course, when I was a child, I didn’t really process all of that. It was just an exciting game. In the dark. With a really big torch.

Rules eventually explained, the game, on Saturday, began. I raced upstairs and hid in a wardrobe, making myself as small as I could and covering myself with clothes. There was a lovely smell of washing powder. To start with, it reminded me of that bit in Midnight’s Children, where Salaam is hiding in his mother’s laundry basket. Then I heard my friend coming up the stairs hunting for everyone. He was shouting out, ‘I’m coming to get you! Where are you hiding? Where are you all, my little Jews?’ And he put on a German accent.

I heard him enter the room where I was hiding. And then a rather unexpected thing happened: I felt scared. I could hear him pacing around the room, calling things out, looking under the bed, opening the doors of the other wardrobe. Any second now, I thought, he’ll open this one, and then he’ll have found me. I could feel my heart drum inside me – almost down to my feet.

The door opened and I held my breath. A hand came in and ferreted around. It touched a shirt that was covering me, pressed down on it through to my arm hiding behind. You’ve got me, I almost said, almost bursting out of there to try and win the unwinnable race down to the sofa – Switzerland. But I didn’t. Something in me wouldn’t move at all. And then the hand withdrew, the wardrobe door banged close, and he was moving away, running out of the room towards footsteps we could both hear on the floor above.

I inhaled. I couldn’t believe that somehow he’d missed me. I almost thought he might just not have said anything so that he could have a head start in the race to the sofa. Once I was sure I could hear him moving around upstairs, I crept out of the wardrobe, down the stairs and into the living room, where I sank, relieved, into the sofa.

It was just a game. How utterly ridiculous that I was scared! But, now I try to understand that fear, I think the game tapped into a much bigger problem that I have …

The thing is, I am scared of the Holocaust. Still. Despite the fact that it happened over sixty years ago. This is because I am absolutely certain that I wouldn’t have survived.

I am bad at hiding. I have bad luck – it would be typical for me to sneeze when the Nazis were standing under my attic. When I would, inevitably, have been sent to a concentration camp, I would not have lasted more than about a day. A week at most. This is because I am always getting sore throats, I am very weak (my arms are practically concave where the muscles should be), I am hungry all the time, and I need lots of sleep. I am also not very good at being told what to do. And I can be a bit tactless. None of these would have got me out of there alive. And my great-grandfather was worked to the bone, made to dig his own grave, and then was shot. So there is a precedent, in my family, for not making it.

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, the sixty-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is a day to remember the atrocities which happened, listen to the survivors’ stories, learn from their testimonies. The Guardian has a good article pointing out why this is so important.

One of the most charming (I know that seems inappropriate) stories I’ve heard was retold by Linda Grant, the brilliant writer, at a talk she gave back in October. She related the story of an old Jewish lady she met when researching her latest book The Thoughtful Dresser. I apologise for any inaccuracy, but as far as I remember, the story went like this:

The lady was, and always had been, incredibly fashionable. When she was sent to a concentration camp, she couldn’t bear the sexless striped outfits and compulsory shaving of heads. Determined to do something, she cut a strip off the bottom of her uniform and tied it in a bow around her head. When the guards came to inspect them, one of them said to her something along the lines of, ‘Was ist das?’ And she sweetly, naively, replied, ‘I wanted to look pretty for the inspection.’ Her cheek charmed the guard enough to send her off to help in the kitchens. And so, because of the bow, she survived.

Now that wouldn’t have happened to me. I’m not very good at tying bows. And I would have got the humourless guard who would have spat on me, or far worse.

Every now and then, I think about what would happen if … and I feel utterly panicked. Playing Germans in the Dark just brought on one of those moments. I wasn’t caught that time, but in real life I wouldn’t have been so lucky.

I have termed this worrying ‘anachronistic paranoia’. It is so completely out of place, out of time, to be scared of the Holocaust, sixty-five years after Auschwitz was liberated. There are other instances of anachronistic paranoia too. I remember learning about the First World War at school and being genuinely terrified that my brothers would be called up to fight and would then be killed. And it’s not just me: a friend told me she used be scared of German bombers flying over London.

So why is it that there is this fear about things which happened decades ago? I think we’re scared they might happen again.

Wars still go on. 251 British troops have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. This war may be on a completely different scale to the First World War, but young men are still going to fight and are being killed. And Holocausts still happen. Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia … all instances of genocide on horrific scales.

I’d like to think that the fact I’m Jewish would never be counted against me, certainly would never be a cause for me to be rounded up and murdered, but anti-semitism, upsettingly, still abounds.

I rarely come across blatant prejudice against Jews – probably because most people know I’m Jewish. Just like most people who are slightly homophobic wouldn’t admit to it to their ‘gay best friend’. It is usually more subtle than that. A wry comment here, a joke in slightly bad taste, a glib criticism of ‘all those Jewish people who are destroying Palestine’.

I was appalled the other day when a perfectly respectable-looking gentleman came into the bookshop, bought two or three reasonably weighty hardbacks, engaged in friendly chit-chat, before picking up a book called Is it Good for the Jews?, laughing and then saying, ‘God how ridiculous. The thing that Jews should really ask themselves, is “why is it always us?” There is a reason, you know.’ It took me a while to process it. I couldn’t believe that a well-educated stranger would make an anti-semitic remark to another stranger while buying a book. I said nothing. My colleague, who was putting all his books in a bag, passed them over and agreed with him. I expect it was just out of politeness. He left before I’d had time to think of a suitable comeback.

I’m not sure why I was so taken aback by that exchange. On reflection, that particular situation seems to be pretty typical of the anti-semitism that I come across. It’s a kind of unstated assumption that a huge number of people have, ‘Oh yes, those Jews. Rich, moneyed, clearly up to no good, but we’re not really supposed to talk about it.’ Instead of overtly stating their prejudice, they veil it in comments like this, said to me when looking at Freefall – the new book by Nobel-prize-winning liberal economist Joseph Stiglitz: ‘Ah Stiglitz. He has the sort of name where you just know he’s going to be stinking rich. A bit like Goldman.’

The worst thing is that I don’t often have the nerve to respond. In that instance, I wish I’d said something like, ‘Aha, yes, of course! Such Jewish names! Well, as we’re all in a conspiracy to take over the world, it’s not surprising they’re minted.’ Instead, I get overcome with a cripplingly English – and not at all Jewish – embarrassment and awkwardness. I go silent, and red, and think, ‘Oh I wish they hadn’t just said that. I’ll sort of pretend not to have heard.’

And it’s that terribly British, terribly polite, embarrassment, the quiet getting on with the conversation and not stamping the prejudice out of people’s minds, that means that anti-semitism, albeit far watered-down from the Nazi version, is still rife in Britain today.

And, with anti-semitism still a presence, how can I help but feel a bit scared when hiding in a cupboard, hearing somebody traipse upstairs shouting German, pretending to look for Jews? How can I not help but worry, if it were to happen again – because it doesn’t feel completely impossible – that I wouldn’t survive? Perhaps what should be just anachronistic paranoia, isn’t that anachronistic or paranoid at all.

Thought-block

January 25, 2010

People often talk or, ironically, write about ‘writer’s block’. Well I’m going to write about a different affliction, which I shall christen ‘thought-block’. It’s worse.

I think in words. I’m pretty sure that most people do. Although maybe artists sometimes think more in terms of colours or compositions, and then I suppose musicians might think in melodies, or even in harmonies. Intriguing … But none of those is an option for me. My thoughts are definitely in word-form.

The problem with my word-thoughts is that sometimes they get into a bit of a muddle. Instead of forming sentences, they are prone, occasionally, to spin entropically into mess. My head can become full of nonsensical phrases crashing into each other, so I have no idea what I’m thinking – what is trying to emerge from the chaos. This is thought-block. And it’s ghastly.

Yesterday I had a severe attack of thought-block. I woke up and felt awful. Really dreadful. My boyfriend was going away for ten days and my weekend was looking rather bare. As I said goodbye, I could feel all the words in my head begin to spin and mix themselves up, as though in a tumble-dryer. It swiftly became a blind empty panic, which was completely paralysing.

Once he’d gone, I lay in bed with a feeling akin to that which Salman Rushdie describes so astutely in his ‘Notes on Sloth’ in the current issue of Granta magazine. (109 Work. I can’t find the essay online anywhere, but, incidentally, it looks like it was a rather controversial piece. Details are in this article from the Bookseller.) Rushdie describes a new boy at boarding school, who starts to feel ‘unwell in an unfamiliar way’: ‘his arms and legs feel heavier than they ought to be. It is actually difficult for him to get out of bed and dress …’ I lay in bed in my dressing-gown, looking out of the window and half-listening to Radio 3, unable to move. Perhaps I was indeed feeling ‘slothful’. Maybe ‘depressed’ is slightly kinder. ‘Thought-blocked’.

I couldn’t get hold of any thoughts: words were just flying, slippery and dangerous, through my head. Unsure how to stop the stream of crescendoing nonsense and gather myself together enough to get out of bed, I phoned my mother. We arranged to go for a cup of coffee in half an hour’s time.

The coffee was disastrous. I still couldn’t articulate anything from my head, so trying to have a conversation was unbelievably frustrating and irritating. I found myself being completely horrid to mum and then we both started crying in the middle of the coffee shop. Everybody looked. It was grim. I eventually decided to leave.

I walked to the British Library. By then, my thought-block was reaching a critical level. My head was filled with noise – nonsense, folding in on itself again and again; my eyes were brimming with tears; I was full of hot rage about everything and nothing, and I didn’t know why. I had to sort my head out or else I would continue to short-circuit and I really didn’t want to explode.

I got to the British Library, sat down, opened up my laptop and began writing a list. Forcing out sentences was a way of freeing the words trapped in my head. The dust began to clear and I could see the problems. Here is the list:

1. My boyfriend has gone away for ten days, leaving me on my own. This makes me feel at once sad, because I miss him, and annoyed with myself for being so pathetic. After all, it’s not for very long at all, and we will speak lots on the phone. I should be tougher about it.

2. I have no plans for today, and can’t quite face finding a structure for a flat empty day, all on my own. This is connected to problem 1.

3. It was stupid of me to meet mum, when feeling like this. Now I feel even more frustrated and I can add guilt on to that too.

4. As a result of 1 and 2, I have a clear day ahead. I know that I should make use of this time to do lots of work on my novel. But my head’s in such a state I won’t be able to concentrate, and so it will be a waste of a day. I’m sure that real writers don’t get thought-block.

And it was that last thought that did it. Writing – maybe not my novel, but writing nonetheless – unblocks my thoughts. There they were, written on the screen in front of me, and my whirring head finally began to cool down.

The thing is, I think better when I write the words down. My particular word-thoughts don’t really care for being spoken; hearing them out loud or in my head doesn’t untangle or clarify them at all. They need to be typed up in black and white. Then they are given substance; they become visible, real, understandable – and so conquerable.

Yesterday actually turned out rather well. Soon after completing the list, a friend asked me round for dinner, so problem 2 vanished. The hilariously fun evening which ensued took the edge off problem number 1 and, on the bus heading down into south London for dinner, I spoke to my mum and apologised about earlier, thus dealing with problem number 3. But the best thing that came of yesterday was that, in an attempt to continue writing, but not get hopelessly stuck with the novel (problem number 4), I began this blog. Emerging from the ashes of entropic thought-block, EmilyBooks made its way into the world.