Book review, Literary criticism, Man Booker Prize, South African Literature

Life & Times of Michael K by J M Coetzee

Coetzee pic

South African born writer, John Maxwell Coetzee, relocated to Adelaide, South Australia in 2002 and became an Australian citizen in 2006. 

J. M. Coetzee won the Booker Prize twice: for Life & Times of Michael K in 1983, and for Disgrace in 1999. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.

Life & Times of Michael K is a short novel in three untitled chapters: a long one, a short one, and an even shorter one. It is literary, not in the writing, which is simple, stark, and unadorned, but in its ideas.

The first long chapter begins with a very short description of Michael K’s undistinguished birth and the subsequent disappointment of his mother because her baby has a cleft lip. It is told in the third person by an unnamed and omnipotent narrator. Michael K’s early life is uneventful and he works in a mediocre job as a gardener. It is clear that the novel is set in a very violent and war-torn South Africa with curfews, gangs, and uncertainty. It seems to be always raining. His mother is desperate to leave Cape-town and return to her hometown of Prince Albert many hundreds of miles to the north. Without money, or the necessary papers – unattainable for Kafkaesque reasons – he attempts to push his mother in a homemade pram all the way north to Prince Albert. His mother dies on the way but Michael K finally manages to arrive at what he believes to be the farm, now deserted, where his mother was born. He tries to live off the land; for his own security he learns to sleep in a hole during the day and to work in his garden at night. He grows pumpkins. He is discovered and abused, escapes to the mountains where he tries to live without leaving a trace. He is hijacked to work for a road-gang, is interned in a work-camp, escapes and is taken to a hospital where he sparks the interest of a doctor.

The second chapter is told in the first person by this unnamed doctor and we see how Michael K, now identified as CM (coloured male ?) but referred to as Michaels, is seen by others. He is an enigma. He refuses to eat, talk, or co-operate. The doctor is tormented with the urge to help him but to no avail. The doctor comes to think that Michaels may have the real answer to living in this particular country at this particular time: living in order not to exist. The doctor is eventually thwarted in his kindly efforts as Michael K escapes.

The last, and shortest chapter, is a return to the third person narrator. Michael K eventually returns to the building in the city where he and his mother used to live. He is befriended by a group of nomads; one of the women has sex with him and he thinks he might even like her, but he continues to reflect on his time in the wilderness; all he would need in the wilderness was his garden, a shaft in the ground, and a teaspoon and string with which he could gather water. Then, “he would say, one can live.”

A happy and fulfilled life need only be concerned with what it is you need to survive, and nothing else. Life isn’t so bad if all you are doing is marking time.

This book is bleak, fascinating, frustrating, but ultimately rewarding – if you stay with it   – but a very different book to the mainstream literary works of today.

Coetzee,” says the writer Rian Malan, “is a man of almost monkish self-discipline and dedication. He does not drink, smoke or eat meat. He cycles vast distances to keep fit and spends at least an hour at his writing-desk each morning, seven days a week. A colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once. An acquaintance has attended several dinner parties where Coetzee has uttered not a single word.”

J.M. Coetzee’s latest novel, The Schooldays of Jesus and Late Essays: 2006-2016 are now available from Viking.

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Creativity, How to write fiction, prose, Short Story

A new short story …

A work in progress …

I was curious about writing in the second person. The first person (“I went to ….”) and the third person (“She went to …”) are common, but the second person (“You went to …”) is not. It is hard to maintain since the narrator is either talking to the reader or to another character, and in either case eventually the narrative takes over. Elliot Perelman begins his excellent novel Seven Types of Ambiguity with the second person and it has a disquieting effect. I thought I’d give it a go.

I’m sure there must be somewhere in your past, a person, a place, that screwed out a little knot of fear in your little child’s mind. You know what I mean; where a young child’s untamed immigration is let loose by an overheard adult conversation in hushed tones with shaking heads. Remember that fear and let it mingle with another memory I’m sure you have; of an adult that was introduced, innocently enough, into your family but that you wondered what the hell they were doing there.

I added the word anyway, “Anyway, remember that fear …” to make the tone more friendly, more intimate, more conversational.

However, if there is anything I’ve learnt from reading it’s that writers want their readers to believe that what is being written is true. Such truth, created truth: verisimilitude, is achieved with the use of detail, among other things; so let’s do this again:

I’m sure there must be somewhere in your past, a person, a place, that screwed out a little knot of fear in your little child’s mind: the old man with the cleft-lip who lived in an old bus, spoke to no one, and ate nettles on toast – so the story went; the falling-down shop-front, boarded-up and silent since a little girl had her throat cut by a mentally deranged greengrocer all those years ago. It was in all the papers. You know what I mean; where a young child’s untamed immigration is let loose by an overheard adult conversation in hushed tones with shaking heads. Anyway, remember that fear and let it mingle with another memory I’m sure you have; of an adult that was introduced, innocently enough, into your family but that you wondered: who is this person? What are they doing there.

I wasn’t sure where this was going but I kept on

So, now that you have these two mingled memories you may understand how I felt when …

I needed to tie it all up and have it lead to something, someone; so I found myself writing …

 … Mum brought home a bag-lady one day and told me I had to call her Auntie Marge.

Now I have a possible title: Auntie Marge. One of my father’s sisters was called Marge, and I called her Auntie Marge. She wasn’t scary but it was the first name that sprang to mind. I hardly ever spoke to her. Maybe I was scared of her. But now I have a character that I need to flesh out a bit.

I don’t know why I thought of her as a bag-lady, she didn’t have any bags with her …

This is another ‘trick’ I’ve learnt from reading: the admission by the narrator that they don’t know something or don’t remember something. It adds verisimilitude.

… but it was the first time I had ever seen a woman with uncombed hair so I thought that’s what she was. I got a slap around the legs for using the term so I only said it once but that’s how I always thought of Auntie Marge; a bag lady.

I first of all had Kathy Bates (from Misery) in mind.

Kathy Bates Auntie Marge

 

 

I googled “scary aunt” and found this,

Scary Aunt Marge.

 

I think this is Geraldine Page. The hair is too neat, but the look is perfect. So with a mixture of these two images, but with messier hair, I had my look: Auntie Marge.

When she first looked at me she smiled down, unclasped her fingers and held out her hand and when I hesitated just for the briefest moment her face changed ever-so slightly like she suddenly knew exactly what I was thinking and I saw hatred in her pinched little eyes. I took her hand – I held my breath, I distinctly remember holding my breath – and she shook my hand and gave it a squeeze.

I thought my narrator should say something innocuous here, like “Nice to meet you” to which Auntie Marge could say, or say with a look of “Oh really?” However, my narrator is locked into only speaking when spoken to – and they were not alone, so I was left with a description of, of, her hand:

It was dry and scaly.

Now, I wanted to describe an event and an event when they were alone: something that upped the scary tone a bit. I’ve never written anything like this before.

I kept out of her way, which wasn’t difficult as I had been taught to keep out of everyone’s way. Adults didn’t like children hanging around; but one day when I was sitting at the big dining table, I had just installed a little electric engine into my lego windmill and I was trying to fix a jam-jar rubber around a little pulley so the silly thing would at least go round and round. I heard the door into the kitchen close behind me. This door was never closed, except in winter when there was a fire in the living room fire-place. This was summer and all the living-room curtains were drawn to keep out the heat so the room was gloomy but I had my desk-lamp plugged in and I was working in its light. I heard the door close and then nothing. I knew it was her. I knew she was there looking at me with her hands clasped together like she always did. I also became aware that there was no other sound in the house. My Dad was always out doing farm stuff but there were no other noises. Mum was out too. We were alone, Auntie Marge and me. In the house. Just us. And then she spoke:

“You don’t like me very much.”

That’s what she said, nothing else.

I didn’t know what to say. I had been taught to only speak when spoken to, and to never lie, of course, but this wasn’t a question. What was I meant to say? I didn’t know. Besides, I didn’t know what to say to something that was true, I didn’t like her. So I said nothing. Then she said, still just standing there, she said, “Are you sure you’re allowed to have a light on in the middle of the day?” Now, this was a question and a question deserves an answer, I knew that, and I did know Mum didn’t like lights on in the daytime but my lego town was too big for my desk in my room and it was too hot to play outside so I had to play with my lego town on the dining table in the living room and yes the curtains were drawn to keep the house cool so I had to have a light on. Again I didn’t know what to … and then she added quickly, “I could tell on you.” That’s what she said, just like fatty Raelene does when I pick my nose in class. I thought of turning off my desk lamp but then I’d be in the dark, all alone with Auntie Marge in the dark! And then she said it again  “I could tell on you,” adding “and I think I might.”

I’m not sure what happens next. Yet.

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Irish literature, Literary criticism

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright

AnneEnrightAuthor pic 2

Irish Writer, Anne Enright. The Forgotten Waltz was the first book after her Booker prize: it doesn’t disappoint, although she goes on a  bit; but, I suppose you can do whatever you like after a Booker win.

Like The Gathering (2007), Enright establishes her story, this story, as having happened in the past but tells it in the present; or at least that seems to be the case as I finish page 1. I have a thing about page 1.

It is some years ago now. The house is new and this is my sister’s housewarming party …

Many readers I know have an aversion to narratives in the present tense but it gives the impression that the writer is telling you right now about a past event, but by telling it as if it is happening now gives the narrative the immediacy of gossip – and we all like gossip. It gives the reader a sense of it not having been written for you but of it being told to you, and only you, at this moment; even if the prose slips into the past at times.

They have mini-marshmallows on top. She goes to pop one in her mouth, then pulls back in surprise. 

‘Ooh, pink!’ she says.

I don’t know what I was waiting for. 

Not “I didn’t know what I was waiting for” (both verbs in the past) nor “I don’t know what I am waiting for” (both verbs in the present) but the first (do) in the present and the second (was) in the past.

It feels like there are two narratives going on here: the story itself (in the past) and the telling of it (in the present). But this is what I think we all do when we tell someone now about something that happened then, and by using this double-tense Enright is being conversational, conspiratorial, and so making us feel comfortable and special: a real friend. Readers love this.

I don’t think Enright is conscious of this nor does she sit down meticulously studying the verbs and deciding which tense they should be to get the effect she is after. My mentioning it is, however, a serious attempt to describe how a writer gets this conspiratorial, gossipy, tone into their writing. In order to get this particular tone the writer needn’t manipulate it- in fact, shouldn’t manipulate it –  but needs to be thinking in this particular tone so the tone in the head becomes the tone on the page.

Or you may think I’m being a wanker and why don’t I get on with it and just read the bloody thing? OK, I will.

On page one, line one, we are given the nut of it.

I met him in my sister’s garden in Enniskerry.

This is the first person account of a woman, Gina Moynihan, and her sexual obsession for a man, Sean Vallely, who like her, is married to someone else.

Enright writes Gina’s monologue as if she’s explaining, justifying at a crackling pace, to a … a … psychologist. She’s keen, this Gina, to tell us everything, but also to leave us guessing:

We managed to linger after everyone had gone, and the details of what corner we found and what we did; how we managed it, and who put what where, are nobody’s business but our own. 

and, of course, by NOT telling us the details our minds race frantically with all sorts of images of ‘doing it’ and ‘putting what where’ and in ‘whose corner’ and ‘managing it where?’ that we’re all in a lather anyway.

Her prose has a momentum that belies the action. There is action everywhere whereby reading it makes you feel exhausted; there’s a breathless tone to the reading, like a theatrical monologue some aspiring, or reviving, actor does of The Gospel According to Matthew. The Gospel According to Gina; where a simple static description is busy with verbs:

Lines of black posts marched down to the shoreline, small and smaller, overtaken, each in their turn by the shifting sand.” 

There’s ‘marching’ and ‘overtaking’ and ‘shifting’; so much happening, so many doing words, but it’s just the view of a bloody empty beach! The empty beach seems as busy as the sex in the corner.

Gina is self-possessed, or maybe just blind, but she has no thought that just as she has a keen sense of perspicacity other people might have a similar talent. She can see through everyone but she is certain no one can see through her. She thinks her secret is safe. This is the tension.

She’s not very likeable – in fact, I’d be very wary of having her at my lunch table, but you’re flattered that she’s confiding in you so much of what she’s thinking and feeling; it’s all so intimate, that you would have to admit your friendship with her even if only to bolster your own standing. Like admitting to a friendship with a Weinstein simply because he’s famous and he talked to you once.

There was a time when “Prefaces” or “Introductions” were mis-understood and not seen as part of the story – we couldn’t wait to get to Chapter 1, for the story to begin – which I think now has, thank god, changed, but Enright starts the book with a “Preface” that you MUST read as it pre-empts the story: Sean’s little troubled girl, Evie, sees Gina and he kissing and it is seen as the “first official occasion” of their love. Enright has used this devise – a child witnessing something very ‘adult’ – before, in The Gathering, and admits in an interview that after writing this preface scene says to herself,* “Oh God! I’ve done it again.”  But the pivotal scene is the pivotal scene and once it’s there, it must remain.

It’s not giving anything away to say that the book is about an affair; it’s not the affair, nor even its aftermath that interests Enright, what interests her is how Gina sees it, manipulates it, how a woman sees herself, loses herself, against a background of an Ireland where such a thing, not so long ago, would’ve been the end of her; the end of everything for her. It’s hard to think of the Ireland then, and the Ireland now with it’s same-sex marriage legislation, its abortion referendum (May 25, 2018), and it’s out, gay, Prime Minister of Indian parentage.

The affair is exciting, propelling, and with a momentum all of its own, because it isn’t, has nothing to do with, the domestic. The two adulterers – such a loaded term – know little about each other, hardly speak:

“All this. Have you done it before?”

“Well, you know,” he said.

Their affair progresses on “in its Friday pace,” and it’s this that Gina loves. It’s just about fucking every Friday. The ‘falling in love’ bit could ruin it all! But they do; or, at least. she does. The ‘wife’, Sean’s wife, Aileen, isn’t Gina’s nemesis, as one would expect, that role falls to Evie, Sean’s little ‘mistake’ of daughter. She’s enigmatic, chubby, but plain, and not at all healthy, but it’s the daughter that, if any atonement is to be got for Gina and her wild imagination – and all of it could just be that – then it will come via Evie; it’s Evie she also needs to woo.

This is the third Enright I’ve read in a row: an Enright-fest. She has rocketed to the top, well, near the top, of my favourite-writer list: Colm Tóibín still holds my #1 place although Enright, John Boyne, Patrick Gale, and Sebastian Barry are barking at his heels. She says she doesn’t know what she will write next; she’ll find out, I’m sure, and do it. Soon, I hope.

You can purchase the book, in various formats, here.

* The presenter and interviewer are a little boring, fast forward through them to get to the good bits: Enright, herself.

 

 

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Book review, Irish literature, Literary criticism

The Gathering by Anne Enright

 

Anne Enright pic

“None of the Irish writers I know are afraid of the pleasure of the sentence.”

If you read the blurb on the back cover you’d get the idea that this is a book about a family gathering for a funeral;  and, like me, you’d think you know what it’s about – it seems such a cliched reason for a book – but the actual ‘gathering’ doesn’t happen until Chap 30 (out of 39) and a lot of fabulous stuff happens before chap 30. This book has been unread on my shelf for four years because I thought I knew what it would be like. I was wrong.

Enright has employed this same idea recently in The Green Road, although in that book the event is a house-sale;  but still a family gathers. Anne Enright is big on families.

And this is Anne Enright on big Irish families:

There is always a drunk. There is always someone who has been interfered with, as a child. There is always a colossal success, with several houses in various countries to which no one is over invited. There is a mysterious sister. These are just trends of course, and, like trends, they shift . Because our families contain everything and, late at night, everything makes sense. We pity our mothers, what they had to put up with in bed or in the kitchen, and we hate them or we worship them, but we always cry for them – at least I do. The imponderable pain of my mother, against which I have hardened my heart. Just one glass over the odds and I will thump the table, like the rest of them, and howl for her too.

Both these books, The Green Road and The Gathering are similar in structure. She places an event at the nut of her tale and weaves around it threads of people, their plights and joys, pasts and presents until you have something like a doily of a story. A weave of narratives around a perfect whole. In one masterful chapter two of her characters, Ada Merriman, the narrator’s grandmother, and the man, Lambert Nugent, who has always loved her, and who she should’ve loved, but didn’t, touch. She a hand on his shoulder, he a hand on her hip; and the narrator, a writer, the granddaughter, Veronica, who admits to writing all this down, describes what might have happened had both their hands moved a little further, a little more truthfully until they were on the floor with him inside her. The reader certainly wants this to happen and Enright, having us in mind, gives it to us. It’s satisfying. It didn’t happen in the story, only on the page, but satisfying nonetheless.

Hovering above for most of the book, like a drone, is the little mystery Enright, (Veronica?) tells us in the very first line: something happened in Ada’s house when Veronica was eight and her brother, Liam, the corpse at the centre of this doily, was nine. Something happened that little Veronica shockingly saw.

The Hegertys are a big clan: the nine surviving children, there were more births than survivors, gather for the funeral of one of their own and Veronica needs to bare witness to an uncertain event. She remembers it but as something so improbable – she was very young -way outside her, then, experience that now, as an adult, it’s entirely possible, she thinks, that it might not have happened at all.

the Gathering Booker pic

Pleased as punch; and rightly so.

The Hegertys were “dragged-up”. They were entirely “free range”. But this is all pre-80s, pre-parenting, pre-how-to books, pre-child murders, pre-4-wheel-drives to school; pre-dry cleaning plastic as death-bags: pre-fear, when us baby-boomers were all “free-range”, and all “dragged up.” If you are over 50 you probably know what this is like. 
Anne Enright writes sentences chock-full of meaning, or insight, or revelation; and even her linking sentences between chock-full sentences are chock-full. But then she throws in a little doosey: It is like Christmas in Hades, and I laugh and think she is going to suck the universe dry of all the good lines leaving us in her wake scrabbling for left-overs.
She uses dialogue to re-assure us that these people are complicated, but real:
‘Thanks,’ he says.
‘What?’
‘Thanks for staying with me.’
‘Oh, for God’s sake.’
‘No. Really.’
‘I’ll be back in a minute.’
and prose for more meaningful and ‘under-the-surface’ revelations:
I thought about this, as I sat in the Shelbourne bar – that I was living my life in inverted commas. I could pick up my keys and go ‘home’ where I could ‘have sex’ with my ‘husband’ just like lots of other people did. This is what I had been doing for years. And I didn’t seem to mind the inverted commas, or even notice that I was living in them, until my brother died.
The doily book, The Green Road, was written in 2014, and it’s a book Enright calls “more of a proper book” insinuating that the other doily book, this one, The Gathering, written in 2006, is not. I know what she means. The Green Road is tighter, neater, more confident, and adventurous, the pattern more stable; this one is loose, equally compelling and recognisable, but free-range and at the same time narrow in its world; but for lovers of contemporary literary fiction, so rewarding.
So, yes, a lot happens to Veronica, the narrator, before the point of it all; and near the end the mystery is revealed; then the gathering itself; but Enright keeps a little ‘gasp’ to send you off into the last little chapters when, by the end, you realise it was all, not about a family, but about a woman, coming to turns with hers:
God, I hate my family, these people I never chose to love but love all the some.   
I’ve never read another author’s work back to back before. I have another Anne Enright book on my shelf: The Forgotten Waltz (2011); that might be next. It’s turning into a little Anne Enright Reading Frenzy. Read her yourself and see why.
You can find The Gathering in various formats, including audible and audio CD, here.
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Book review, Irish literature, Literary criticism

The Green Road by Anne Enright

Anne Enright pic

Irish writer, Anne Enright, won the Man-Boooker Prize for The Gathering (2007)

After the last page is turned, after you’re full to overflowing with this book you’ve just read, Anne Enright writes an Acknowledgements page, and she starts it like this: Thanks for the information used and cheerfully misused in this book are due to: and she lists a whole swag of people. That is the branding mark of a writer: once she knows something, then and only then, can she choose to change it.


With the very first sentence she grounds the story in the domestic:

Later, after Hanna made some cheese on toast, her mother came into the kitchen and filled a hot water bottle from the kettle on the range;

but it’s the very first word ‘later’ that made me jump: what?, this uncertainty, tension; something happened before the cheese on toast and the filling of the hot water bottle. But what was it? What?

And then on the 2nd page, this

He took them for rides in fast cars, up over the bridge, bang, down on the other side.

It’s the word, ‘bang’ that hit me this time. With that one out-of-place word, not a word, a sound; no quotation or exclamation marks, nothing but surety about the picture it conjured: a too-fast car, over a bump, where you hit your head on the roof and the sound of the car bouncing back to earth with the woop and cheer of kids, out where they shouldn’t be. Such a big picture from such a small sentence.

I smile to myself and think: I’m in the hands of a master, and I breathe a little sigh of relief: a very good feeling at the start of a read..

But then Chapter 2 opens 11 years later in the East Village, New York, with a gay male narrator among gay men torn between their right to be promiscuous and a stalking, discriminating death.

What Billy wanted was big, shouty unafraid sex with someone who did not cry, or get complicated, or hang around after the orange juice and the croissant. Billy was across the threshold and cheerfully out and he wanted men who were basically like him; sweet guys, who lifted weights and fucked large, and slapped you on the shoulder when it was time to swap around.

 Where did an Irish 50-something mother of 2, who looks like a little housewife from Central Casting, find authentic language like that? I was now severely impressed with this writer; and she can do that relaxed but spiky gay table-talk; sassy, arch, and funny.

I don’t want to give too much away because there is too much to enjoy about this novel; but it is neatly constructed. Divided in two, the first half assigns a chapter, each with a different narrator, at a different time for each of the four beautiful children of the difficult woman Rosaleen; and at the end of which is the reason that all of them are lured home to Ireland, County Clare, for Christmas in the family home that their prickly mother has decided to sell.

Bring on Part 2.

In a London Review Bookshop interview she describes the first half of the book, a ‘proper’ book, as getting to know the four siblings in a way that none of them could ever know about each other; in a sense this is dramatic irony on a large scale. We readers know more about each of them than any other family member knows about each other. They have gone off elsewhere (New York, Asia, Africa, Dublin) to care for, or sleep with, the lost, the undernourished and come back home full of themselves, their adult selves; but to the childhood home where their mother, Rosaleen, is waiting to be empathised with. That’s all she’s ever wanted. They go off to look after big-bellied African babies, or dribbling disease-ridden men but here she is not being looked after at home … alone. She has a point. The trouble it she doesn’t know how to accept it, or express it.

I foolishly avoided Anne Enright’s books, even though there they were on my bookshelf, and even though I’ve met the woman (twice!), I thought her books were all about families collected together at a funeral, a wedding, a last Christmas, and I thought, yes, I know what they’re like. I’ll get to them … one day. And this book is like that. Exactly like that; but at the same it is so unexpected, unpredictable and therefore rewarding, satisfying, and oh-so wise.

She got her hair done in a place so posh it didn’t look done at all,

and this is one of those rare books where you can believe what’s written on the cover: ‘brilliant’, ‘radical’ – don’t let that put you off, ‘beautiful’, ‘virtuosic’, and ‘hugely readable.’

I sincerely wish this book on everyone.

You can find the book in various formats here.

 

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How to write fiction, prose, reading

How I write.

A story starts with a jump.

When something makes me jump, a line in a book, a caption in a magazine, a phrase overheard, a tone of voice, a dream; a beginning. Short form stories are more personal than long form. I write most days but it can be on my notes page on my phone when I wake up at 3.46 am; on my iPad as I’m watching the news with a G&T at 6; on my desktop after staring at the screen for god-knows how long. Sometimes I’ll experiment. One of my current projects, a short story, I’m writing as a woman. I’ve tried this a few times but this time the woman is very unlikable, in fact she’s awful; the challenge is to make sure the reader understands that she’s awful. The reader has not to be on her side, yet is, in a way. That’s tricky, and more so as it’s in the first person. I test myself like this sometimes. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

At a New Year’s Eve party a friend told me a little anecdote about his piano lessons as a boy. I now don’t remember exactly what he told me because I turned it into a story and now, in my head, that story, Prelude, has become the reality of the anecdote. It’s no longer John’s anecdote, it’s Michael’s story.

I’m writing when my partner catches me talking to myself. I’m writing when I don’t answer him because I don’t hear him because I’m wondering what Robert will say when he sees his dead mother. “What? Sorry.” is a common phrase of mine at home.

I spew it onto the screen. I try not to worry about where does this fit or what can I do with this or how do I spell …, I just let it out. I usually write chronologically, but not always.

I’m always aware that I have to trust myself, my imagination, my ideas, my abilities. It’s no good second guessing; I’d get nowhere. What comes pouring out in the white heart of creation I have to trust that it’s right, correct, apt, necessary, true. It’s later when the white-heat is down to warm, in the cool light of next morning that decisions have to be made.

I write on an online publishing platform (Tablo); while the piece is labeled ‘draft’ no-one can read it. I have four or five projects going at once; two novels, three short stories, I think. One of them is dormant until I come across a really fail-safe murder plan. Once it’s finished I ‘publish’ it on Tablo and anyone can read it. I also have the option of posting it to iBooks where it is for sale. Regularly I email my notes, from my phone or iPad, to myself and cut and paste them onto the respective Tablo page. I have an iMac and don’t have Word; Tablo has all the editing tools I need.

When I’m trying to go to sleep at night it’s important to think about only one thing, not 247 things. That’s why counting sheep works. It’s one thing. I also concentrate on one thing: what Robert might do when he sees his dead mother, or any other character or snippet. These stories, half in my head, half on my screen, over time develop their own reality and they always get to a point where it’s imperative that I write them down; I have to write them down because they are the closest thing to the truth I know. If I don’t write them down they just sit there taking up space. Getting in the way. Writing them down is like getting rid of them.

But writing them down has its own responsibilities. I must think of the reader. I must get the process right. The process: my story, my descriptions, my ideas, my images being transported accurately, truthfully from my imagination to the reader’s imagination via little dark marks on a pale background, with no loss of information.

Once it’s in the imagination of the reader, it isn’t mine any more, and it means whatever the reader thinks it means. I have no say in it once it’s there, in your head. If you read the short story linked above, what was John’s anecdote, became my story, becomes your reading experience; and if you seek me out and ask me what did I mean by something, I won’t answer. It’s not my place to answer: it’s not mine, it’s yours now. It’s now you that has to trust your abilities.

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Essay, How to write fiction, How to write novels, Literary criticism

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

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Charles John Huffam Dickens      1812 – 1870

 

Original illustrations by George Cruikshank

“It’s all among Workhouses, and Coffin Makers and Pickpockets,” said Lord Melbourne, the young Queen Victoria’s prime minister. “I don’t like those things; I wish to avoid them; I don’t like them in reality, and therefore I don’t wish them represented.”

I think it’s “excessively interesting,” said the young Queen.

Oliver Twist (1837) was a bit of a shock for Dickens’ fans who were introduced to the writer through that plump, accident-prone, well-off, and comic character, Mr Pickwick. And then along comes the serialised Oliver Twist, even before the serialised The Pickwick Papers, which garnered a circulation  of 20,000,  had finished; and in a new magazine, Bentley’s Miscellany, edited by Dickens. The underworld of London low life had, in the past, been treated lightheartedly, even comically, but Oliver Twist was something very different. Thieves, house-breakers, pickpockets all living squashed together in dingy slums and mud, taking pride in their work, but seemingly surviving in little groups that resembled something close to ‘a family’; and dealing not only with petty crime, but also, kidnapping, murder, treachery, and domestic violence.

If you think you know the story, you probably do.

A young orphan, innocent and alone, is put to work in a workhouse, fed on watery gruel, and where he has the audacity to ask for ‘more’; is mistreated, runs away, meets Jack Dawkins, the Artful Dodger, and Fagin and his gang of thieving street boys; is saved from the same occupation by the kindly Mr Brownlow; is kidnapped by Nancy, harassed by the villainous Bill Sikes and forced into a stint of house-breaking, only to be shot and taken in by the also kindly Mrs Maylie and her ward Rose – really his aunt; threatened by the mysterious and dangerous, Mr Monks – who is actually Oliver’s half-brother; but saved by the pitiable but kind Nancy, who is murdered by her lover, Sikes for her efforts; and ultimately reunited with the kindly Mr Brownlow, who adopts him for a predictable happy ending: the oft used, and abused, first rule of novel writing. Oscar Wild said it best and said it better by giving it to Miss Prism to say in his most famous play, The Importance of being Earnest (1895):

The good end happily; the bad end unhappily. That’s what fiction means.

George_Cruikshank_Oliver_Twist 1

“I want some more.”

However, what is equally as interesting is what Dickens can teach writers.

Expression.

Oliver took the hint at once, for the fist had been so often impressed upon his body not to be deeply impressed upon his recollection.

Dickens sentences, usually long, are full of information and in a way that makes them seem packed with it; and sarcasm.

Oliver was frightened at the sight of so many gentlemen, which made him tremble; and the beadle gave him another tap behind, which made him cry; and these two causes made him answer in a very low and hesitating voice; whereupon a man in a white waistcoat said he was a fool, which was a capital way of raising his spirits, and putting him quite at his ease.

These two lines are early in the book, carrying some of the lightheartedness his readership would’ve expected having read The Pickwick Papers, but then surprising them later by his darker themes.

He also uses expression to mirror action. After Sike’s failed house-breaking attempt, during which Oliver is shot, the friends and neighbours of the assailed inhabitants, Mrs Maylie and her ward, Rose, decide to investigate the crime-scene.

Lights were then procured, and Messrs Blathers and Duff, attended by the native constable, Brittles, Giles, and everybody else in short, went into the little room at the end of the passage, and looked out at the window, and afterwards went round by way of the lawn, and looked in at the window, and after that had a candle handed out to inspect the shutter with, and after that a lantern to trace the footsteps with, and after that a pitchfork to poke the bushes with.

George Cruikshank OT 3

Oliver discovers what his street-mates are up to

A lot of repetitive energy, and phrases, to produce not a scrap of evidence.

Character.

Dickens is a great character-builder with the use of dialogue.

Mr Bumble, the beadle, drops the first syllable of ‘apprentice’ (‘prentis), the ‘n’ off the article ‘an’ (‘a old lady’), any syllable that gets in his way (‘unfort’nate’), uses ‘porochial’ (instead of ‘parochial’), and ‘w’ instead of ‘v’. Mr Grimwig, a friend of Mr Brownlow’s, uses a unique expression not ‘… I’ll eat my hat” but ” … I’ll eat my head.”  Barnaby, a street urchin, has an adenoidal problem over the letters ‘n’ and ‘m’: “Dobody but Biss Dadsy” (Nobody but Miss Nancy.) Bill Sikes regularly uses the word ‘damn’ but too risqué for British readers of 1838 so it was replaced simply by ‘D-‘; they understood what it meant but were not forced to actually ‘read’ such a shocking word. In a hierarchical society such as Dickensian London where one’s status is ruled by birth, income, education, and gender, such distinctive character differentiation may not be appropriate in a modern context but giving characters vocal habits is a useful device for character differentiation. Dickens has Fagin call everyone, regardless of gender, age, or status, ‘my dear’. Ascribing a character with a particular grammatical habit of, say, never using contractions helps to paint a rather serious and stern person. If characters are not first speakers of the readers’ first language grammatical mistakes ( no plural ‘s’, wrong prepositions, gerund misuse, etc) are really essential. I once heard a writer, a young male American, read, at a literary event, a section of his new novel that was set in Rome but had a Mexican character who sounded, when he spoke, nothing like a Mexican English-speaker living in Rome; he and each of the characters sounded like a young male American. A missed opportunity.

George Cruikshank OT 2

Nancy is betrayed.

Narrator.

In contemporary fiction the narrator is, usually in the third person, a nameless, genderless, all-knowing, god-like voice with access not only to characters’ thoughts, desires, and plans, but also to their past and future lives. Not so with Dickens. He writes directly to the ‘reader’, calling them such, and refers to himself as the ‘biographer’, and ‘faithful historian … who knows his place’. He even chastises himself for keeping an esteemed character waiting while dealing with other plot necessities. The use of the narrator for plot-based effects is rare but was used effectively by Ian McEwan in his 2012 novel Sweet Tooth, where the first person narrator turns out not to be the writer; and, most intriguingly, the satisfying ending is only evident because you, the reader, have read the book: it’s because the book is available to read that you then know the ending. Curious? Check the link above. Dickens used his narrators in a far freer and more colourful way with direct input into not only the plot but the tone. Here, in a recent short story, Serendipity, is an example of the narrator not only intruding into the writing of the story, but also is a secondary narrator with his own story: a double narrative, if you like, one feeds on the other.

Dickens’ reference to himself, the narrator, as ‘historian’ leads now to another novelistic ‘trick’: creating

George Cruikshank OT 5

The end of Bill Sikes

Verisimilitude.

Yes, we know that we are reading fiction, that most of the whole thing – sometimes not all – is made-up but the writer wants us to believe that the story is true. Writer’s rely on our imagination to create for ourselves our own reality, and so allowing our emotions to do their work. However, writer’s don’t want to ‘lose’ their readers by letting the text slip too far from possibility. A text in the first person has a better chance of doing that, more so than a text in the third.

However, Dickens ‘tricks’ us several times implying that what he is saying is true: 1) he (the narrator) admits to omitting a word in the dialogue of a character because it is too impolite for your, the reader’s, ears. By refusing to tell us what the word is he is implying that he actually heard it, but decided it was not suitable; 2) a character observes a conversation between two people in the same room but can’t hear the exact words and so infers what is said. This is a plot point but it also implies that the conversation actually happened – no, the narrator is not making this up because if he was he would’ve placed the character closer to the talkers; and 3) forgetting a name. We, real people, do this all the time, so by the narrator confessing he has forgotten someone’s name, or the name of some place, reinforces the truth of the scene because actually the person or the place is made-up – this is fiction, remember – and being made-up the writer (narrator) could’ve provided a name. But he didn’t, so the implication is that the action must’ve happened.

It is true to say that contemporary fiction is the mainstay of a modern reader’s literary diet. However, a dip into the classics now and again, is a palatable way to hone critical thinking, get a grip on literary history, and understand where our literary tastes may be heading, and where our cultural references came from.

Most of the classic literary texts from Australia, Britain, Europe, and America are out of copyright and are, therefore, available online for free. The University of Adelaide has established a website where you can find a myriad of classic texts. It contains all of Dickens’ novels as well as a large collection of his short fiction and you can download ebook versions in various formats and for various devices. Happy exploring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dickensian sentence p 10
“He took the hint at once, for the fist had been so often impressed upon his body not to be deeply impressed upon his recollection”
Sarcasm –
P12 “… made him answer in a very low and hesitating voice… at his ease.”
p13
“… the poor people liked it …”
Sinecure
Narrator as biographer p46
D is a great teacher of dialogue for character building:
Mr Bumble, the beadle, drops the first syllable of ‘apprentice’ (‘prentis), the ‘n’ off the article ‘an’ (‘a old lady’), and any syllable that gets in his way (‘unfort’nate’ p 296).
Ie Dodger,
Mr Grimwig ‘… I’ll eat my head” p110
And Barnaby p119 with his adenoid problem
P155 Bill Sikes who regularly uses the word ‘damn’ but too risqué for British readers of 1838 so it is replaced by ‘D-‘. Mr Bumble, the beadle, uses ‘porochial’ (instead of ‘parochial’) and ‘w’ instead of ‘v’.
The relationship between narrator and reader: strong in OT but rare in modern lit. P135
The narrator calling himself “author” and “faithful historian …. who knows his place” p216 and insinuating what kind of an author would he be to keep a beadle waiting …
Unpleasant description of Fagin: “loathsome reptile” p153. P154, by telling the reader that he, the narrator, will not mention something adds veracity to the tale.
Also, like forgetting a name, not hearing a conversation because the whispers were too quiet. P213;
Describing 1 or 2 minutes when nothing is said p 218
Possible theme: what Dickens can teach us about writing. Use of narrator. A N can be a biographer, a person, not just a dissociated god-like voice. But take it further, if s biographer, then why not a person; and one with opinions, attitudes, even a history, even a present history! Narrators nowadays are usually ‘apart’ from the narrative; what if the narrator was a part if the narrative, or framed a parallel story, see Serendipity. Link to Tablo.
Character: Nancy’s ‘acting’ p165 OT nor the reader is ever quite sure what Nancy is playing at.
Dickens on description p234-5 “0f the two ladies …” He describes not so much what they wear but the impression the whole picture gives.
Action
“Lights were then procured, and …with” p246
The bad are bad but show a little bit of good, ie Fagin. The good are good but not bad (Rose).

 

 

 

 

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