Monday, 8 October 2012

The imbrications of John Banville

Not only is there “an imbricated array of banana sandwiches” in John Banville’s Ancient Light, the book itself is imbrication upon imbrication: from  Nabokov,  Dostoevsky,Yeats, Shelley, Leopardi, Paul de Man, the characters and narrative of preceding books Shroud and Eclipse and The Infinities (via the reference to Kleist’s Amphitryon) to Banville’s long-standing preoccupation with the mirror-to-mirror unreliability of memory, even to Banville himself in the person of the biographer JB, the “somewhat shifty and self-effacing fellow” who writes “like Walter Pater in a delirium.”

All this in the strangely stagey Banville style in which characters and even Nature herself seem to be kept in the wings waiting to be called forth to strut and fret their hour upon the stage. It’s no accident that Banville is attracted to stories of gods, as in The Infinities, based on Amphitryon; there are few authors who play the deus ex machina more overtly.

Many readers will respond to the relationship between the young Alex and Mrs Gray, and to the unresolveable sorrow of Alex and Lydia’s loss of their daughter Cass. It’s harder to be interested in the Alex Vander narrative, and the outcome of the Mrs Gray story is verging on the banal. There is an uncharacteristic impatience, a loss of the control of tone, in the way Banville bundles her off by way of a condensed explanation from her daughter.

The end of the book suggests there’s more to come of the tale of Alex Cleave, his lost daughter, and Alex Vander. I wonder how long Banville can go on mining this particular seam.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Lorenzo, all is forgiven

Four chapters in, Sons & Lovers is triumphantly passing the iPod test. The tenderness, observation and psychological insight with which Lawrence creates the Morels' world are matchless.  There's real vitality here, the deep vitality that Lawrence worshipped in human relations, not the puffed-up, strained-for vitality that Women in Love bangs on about so tiresomely. So what went wrong? Is it another case of an author seduced by his own publicity (see our earlier post on Hilary Mantel on this subject), of an author writing more books than he has in him, of an author who knows he has death within him flailing about desperately to hold on to life?

Saturday, 15 September 2012

The iPod test

In the course of her travels recently Gert has taken to listening to novels downloaded from the free site LibriVox ( and has discovered that writer's tics and foibles leap out at her as they don't when she is reading, particularly if the book is one she's read more than once, as is the case with Women in Love.  She was reminded at every turn  of How not to write a novel (Mittelmark & Newman).  DHL needs a stern editor to remove all adverbs, restrict adjectives to one per noun, allow only "said" as a dialogue marker and come down heavily on all scenes involving horses or cattle. The scene in which Gudrun performs Dalcroze movements to a herd of surprised cattle made Gert laugh and laugh, as did Hermione's standing-up orgasm as she bashes Birkin on the head with a lapis lazuli paperweight.
Results of a scientific word-count:
1) loins - the runaway winner, followed by
2) queer ( as part of an adjective chain describing facial expressions or tones of voice)
3) swoon, -ed, -ing
4) inchoate

Loins, queer, swoon, inchoate - there you have the DHL project. A friend has also pointed out his fascination with women's stockings, sashes and hats, while the males are all loins.

Gert does, though, remember Sons & Lovers being rather better, and may subject it to the iPod test.

But how would her own work stand up to the test?

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Hilary Mantel, you little ripper

It's hard to say she just gets better and better, because what could be better,  each of its kind, than Eight months on Ghazzah Street, Beyond Black, Fludd, Giving up the ghost? No, the fascinating thing about Hilary Mantel is that she shows no signs of falling for her own publicity. Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, gifted writers derailed by their ego. John Banville,  entranced by his reputation for beautiful prose. Even the trucker Ian McEwan wobbles from time to time (Saturday). But good old Hilary's ego is swallowed up in her subject.  She looves it! as an Irish relative of ours would say. Bring on the third volume of the Wolf Hall trilogy.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Gert comes to the end

On Sunday 15th July we achieved the completion of our sixth joint work. We commenced on Monday 18th June and wrote our 1,000+ words a day until now we have 61,391.
But are they good words? Are they elegant and artful? Do they tell a tale like no other? Does the pathos wring our hearts and the humour cause us to fall backwards drunk with laughter? We think not, at this stage.
We have made a start, something has begun. Unlike our previous works which have leapt fully formed from our busy fingers, the as-yet-unnamed work is partial. We see the seeds of something more, the town needs to grow, the planet which guides the destinies of our characters is yet to be chosen. But we are excited. Something new has taken place. For the first time we truly know the meaning of 'first draft,' and see the path leading to 'second draft,' even 'third draft.'
Who can tell what turns we will take. For the moment we lie fallow and wait.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Some serious questions

Some disagreements have arisen as Gert struggles to extricate herself from the tangled web she has created with what has turned out to be a kind of murder mystery. We have had to consider:
does Pourgues want a sex-change operation?
is Gandharva a fraud?
why did Harry lend Alex the black Golf?
would you take a heavily-laden backpack on a romantic stroll in the moonlight?
is the headless body in the Walwa state forest just a red herring?
why, oh why, is Alex so mean?
and, crucially,
can you keep on loving someone who has called you a fat fool?
As we approach the finishing-line we have solved some, but not all, of these dilemmas.
We power on to a conclusion that has at least become vaguely clear with the motto, 'We can fix that up later' .

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Gert flounders about

Nearly three weeks in and we are still at sea. The problem is the task we set ourselves of writing more naturalistically than usual. In previous books where everything is slightly (or a lot) larger than life we can indulge our taste for caricature and the bizarre knowing that our readers understand that's what they're going to get, and they'll happily go along with the unlikely logic of the book's world. But this time our setting is the unadorned everyday and our characters, though we're fond of some of them, not particularly memorable. We are about to murder our nasty woman but we're still not sure who did it - many have motives. We're beginning to have great respect for those sturdy writers who construct plots and work to them, rather than just seeing what comes along. Ah well, we're keeping up our 1000-wd-a-day-each regime, the story is moving, here, there and everywhere - and in the end, who knows?

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Gert battles on

Two weeks down the track, 28,000 words written, but do we know where we're going? Not really. The saying 'you write to find out what you want to write' never applied more accurately to two writers. Where did we start? We thought we'd try a central character that was never physically described, who had a destructive presence, but not in any specific way, a self made Guru who with a close group of followers who struggle with his gnomic utterances, and a nice put-upon woman who is persuaded she has run over the destructive one. The nice woman is Freddie Todd. One of us found her uninteresting to the point of being annoying, and thought she had too much of a bland influence on the narrative. And where was the narrative? This was the first week. Now somehow we have a policeman with a feisty young daughter who teaches him how to 'do' the computer, and two gay men who have a loving relationship but financial worries made worse by a plague of mice.  Cats feature in the story also. Two men have bonded over weight problems, the destructive woman is spreading rumours and causing trouble in the town. Freddie Todd has attacked the destructive woman and turned into a complete virago. Some time in the coming week we plan to murder the destructive woman, have police come up from Sydney, and who knows what else.
And one of us has discovered an unrealized talent for writing slash fiction. e.g
She ran the knife oh so delicately down from the sweet dip in his throat, along the fluted sternum, plunged it just a little deeper into the yielding skin of his abdomen so that a fine trail of blood sprang up. She thought of the intricate intestines so close below the surface, of plunging the knife suddenly in, in and down, and dipping her hands… 

Aha, that got you in didn't it? 

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Gert saddles up again

The time has come for Gert to take up her pen again. What will it be this time? Every time we start again we try to do something we haven't done before. Our first book Crane Mansions - a novel about the redeeming power of cake was a sweetly Gothic tale of redemption set in a school run by a man obsessed with pigeon-lore. Then followed Writing is Easy, the story of an epic battle of egos between two self-obsessed writers running a workshop at a luxurious country retreat. For something completely different, The Art of the Possible dealt with the wonder youth drug Optiviva.  Prime Minister Flattley didn't intend to let the truth about its real effects to get in the way of his financial dealing or his re-election, but he reckoned without Dr Frank Owlbrother and his mythical steed Hrafni. Next we wrote The Lies and Life of Bella Hatherley, the story of a little girl who isn't sure if she's a liar or just has a very good imagination.  A YA book was next, seeing we'd never tried one. In Dark Pools of Selena 14-year-old Ali leads a privileged life in the rigidly-structured society of Hadur but she can’t rein in her effervescent, questioning spirit.   Falling in love with the glamorous, charismatic cameraman Ash, she is drawn into underground resistance forces working to document the injustice and cruelty of Hadur. Not so funny, this one, a bit po-faced really. 

Now we're out to do something a bit against type, not so broad and rumbustious. Something slyly funny but with a touch of the melancholy of a Muriel Spark. We've discussed the general drift of it, at least where it starts, but as usual we really have no idea how it will unfold.  Monday June 18th is the starting day.  In thirty days we'll have a 60,000 word draft, good, bad or just plain plodding, but we will have that draft.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Orange Prize 2012

The Orange Prize for 2012, and the last of its kind has been announced. The winner Madeline Miller the fourth American to win over the last four years.

Comments in the Guardian cover predictable topics:

the folly of a prize just for writing by women
the bad writing of this particular winner
the moving and wonderful nature of this story
why should women have special treatment
where is the next women's prize coming from?
and so on

Short stories

Short stories

A friend has sent a copy of John Steinbeck's letter to one of his creative writing teachers, in which he says

Although it must be a thousand years ago that I sat in your class in story writing at Stanford, I remember the experience very clearly. I was bright-eyed and bushy-brained and prepared to absorb from you the secret formula for writing good short stories, even great short stories.You canceled this illusion very quickly. The only way to write a good short story, you said, was to write a good short story. 
Only after it is written can it be taken apart to see how it was done. It is a most difficult form, you told us, and the proof lies in how very few great short stories there are in the world.The basic rule you gave us was simple and heartbreaking. A story to be effective had to convey something from writer to reader and the power of its offering was the measure of its excellence. Outside of that, you said, there were no rules. A story could be about anything and could use any means and technique at all—so long as it was effective.
 As a subhead to this rule, you maintained that it seemed to be necessary for the writer to know what he wanted to say, in short, what he was talking about. As an exercise we were to try reducing the meat of a story to one sentence, for only then could we know it well enough to enlarge it to three or six or ten thousand words.

We love that bit about "no rules". We're tired of reading well-constructed stories that follow the rules (someone has to want something very badly, etc). We're for a bit of madness in a short story.
Some we love:

A bullet in the brain   Tobias Wolff
Destroyed  Hilary Mantel

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

John Lanchester "Capital"

What a strangely likeable book this is.  Not really a novel - you’d have to think that if Lanchester didn’t already have a name his publishers might have said, “Nice ideas, but it doesn’t really hang together”.  And it’s formulaic:  a sweep through the lives of people living or working in Pepys Road, one of those London streets once home to poor immigrants and now sought after by the nouveau-riche, right on the edge of the great financial crash. The characters play out the formula: Roger, the markets man and his wife Arabella, close to caricatures; Mark, Roger’s narcissistic deputy who believes he can outplay the markets; Smitty, a kind of Banksy figure who has made pots of money from his challenging and illegal urban installations; Parker, Smitty’s wannabe assistant, with all the aspiration but none of the talent; Quentina, the rejected asylum seeker from Zimbabwe working illegally as a traffic warden; Freddie, the phenomenally gifted Senegalese footballer breaking into the bigtime; Zbigniew and Matya, Polish and Hungarian seekers after a better life in unfriendly London;  the  Kamal family who run the corner shop and have an uneasy relationship with militant Islam; and Petunia, the elderly widow who has lived all her uneventful life in Pepys Road. Interesting things happen to all these people, and there is a plot device that should tie them together and drive the story but just doesn’t.  Someone is harassing the occupants of Pepys Road, starting with postcards saying “We want what you have”, progressing to silent videotapes moving up and down the road and zooming in randomly on their properties and then an abusive website and dead birds posted through letterboxes. Unfortunately, a lot of the time you just forget about all that because you’re more interested in what’s happening to the characters in their individual lives.  It’s a pity that Lanchester tried to do too much, because he is a wonderful writer (The Debt to Pleasure, Mr Phillips).  He deals with dark themes but swerves away in the end from the full consequences.  Quentina, for instance, will be deported to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, “but Quentina had a secret weapon.  She knew things would not be like this forever.”  Things go horribly wrong for Freddie, but there is still a happy ending for him. But with all that, it’s a book that makes you like the writer. It makes you feel we’re all in this together.

Monday, 27 February 2012

On memory and imagining

Reading Perlmann’s Silence and, coincidentally, a recent LRB review* by Jenny Diski of Alison Winter’s “Memory: Fragments of a Modern History” makes us muse about the reins writers do or do not keep on their personal memories as they ride the beasts into the territory of imagination.  It’s a truism that many a first book is autobiographical, and we have experienced the difficulty of wrenching a memory away from the anchorings of “what really happened” to set it free in imagination to become a short story or a novel.  How do you take the “me”, with all its attachments and special pleading, out of such memories? Assuming that there is an autobiographic element in Anita Brookner’s many novels about introverted young women often involved in the art world, as Brookner is, it is a marvel that she keeps us interested, but she does.  So does Jean Rhys. Maybe it’s just a question of technique, of keeping at writing long enough to develop that second skin that lets you look quite coldly at your own experiences and at the same time still feel the surge, the bite, that tells you there’s a story in it. 
* vol 34 no 3 9 Feb 2012)

Friday, 24 February 2012

Penguin Books

It's on again, the Penguin call for submissions on the first week of the month. They are willing to receive whole manuscripts and say they will read them. (That's if the first page appeals.) I guess it's better than the slush pile.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Vale John Fairfax

One of the models for our character John Brow has left this life at the age of 74. His life was extraordinary, not everyone would want to row from England to Australia, but still  I think John Brow's exploits of dragging tyres across deserts, his waterless vegetable diet, and his policy of always standing give him the edge. And his mission is to change lives (for a while anyway) until he finds his protegees are too weak to live up to his rigorous standards. See Writing is Easy our second book.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Pascal Mercier

Don’t be put off by the less-than-enthusiastic comments by Amazon readers on Pascal Mercier’s Perlmann’s Silence.  It’s wonderful. For reasons of our own, we have also been reading a lot of A. S. Byatt recently – far too much A.S. Byatt.  What a difference there is between the self-regarding imagination of Byatt and the subtle, agile, humane imagination of Mercier.  We’re tempted to launch into wild generalisations about the difference between the British sensibility and the European – no, no let’s leave it at that.
Reflecting on the work of his unfashionable Russian colleague Leskov early in the book, Perlmann, a renowned authority on linguistics, thinks, “What was impressive was how good Leskov was at describing things, much better than most of the other people working in the field. It made one realise the extent to which, before any kind of theory, the important thing was to describe our experiences very precisely with language” (p. 51). Sounds simple, even simple-minded? Now the book takes you on a hair-raising plummet into the depths of that apparently simple thought. Perlmann is experiencing, to his terror, a dreadful emptiness at the heart of his being. The catalyst is the sudden death of his wife, but he sees that the emptiness, the absence, was there even before she died. He has, he finds, literally nothing to say, not on his work in linguistics, not to his daughter, not even to himself.  He has the impression that his memories of the past, even of his wife, cannot be relied on. Instead of preparing a paper for the linguistics conference at which he’s the star turn, he spends his time translating Leskov’s work, pursuing Leskov’s argument that our memory of the lived past is based around a self-image that is linguistically-created, by the telling and retelling of stories.  He pursues that self-image for himself by obsessively reading a “chronicle of the twentieth century” with pictures of the famous events of the century, through which, he thinks, he might “reappropriate his own life by imagining what had happened in the world outside while he was still alive.” (68) All this time, the deadline for his presentation is looming over him and the reader in a cloud of sick panic. Things get worse and worse. He plagiarizes Leskov’s work and then plans to murder Leskov when he turns up unexpectedly at the conference. There is a terrible black comedy in the description of his laborious planning of the murder and the banal twists of bad luck and coincidence that hinder him. From here on the book is a genuine thriller, the reader horribly engaged in the tortuous processes of Perlmann’s thought, his fears and his transient reliefs.
Music is a constant theme in the book, Perlmann having been a gifted pianist who abandoned his studies in a period of “irrevocable clarity about the boundaries of his talent” (86). Perhaps the best analogy for the book is that of a Beethoven symphony, full of anguish, tension and sorrow, but also of a rich and consoling humanity.


Tuesday, 14 February 2012

We have been commenting on the Guardian Books page on a rather patronising article by a handsome young man. As usual we had information  at our fingertips that showed him not to be as au courant as he supposed