Excerpt from a reading journal, 2006
So here we go. The beginning of the year. This is where it all starts.
Right here. Right now.
(No pressure or anything, Anna.)
I think I’m going to kick off my Reading Programme with writing by women. This is a statement I never would have thought I’d make. Surely, writing should not be categorised by sex, or anything else for that matter – race, nationality, age. Surely it should be free to escape these confines of society, transcend them, even?
I wouldn’t, for instance, think that in this day and age one would claim that a certain book was good – for a black writer, or for an Indian. In the same sense I wouldn’t have imagined that someone would claim that a writer was good – for a woman.
Yet, astonishingly, I have had several conversations with well-read, intelligent, (supposedly) liberal-minded men who have said to me, casually, ‘yeah, I’m not really into women’s writing.’
Cue: red rag/bull.
And so, perhaps out of pure bloody-mindedness, I am starting here, with a quiet ode to female authors.
Interestingly, in our first workshop, Bill said that the overwhelming ratio of women to men on these courses was not simply because there was an overwhelming majority of women applicants, but rather because the quality of women’s applications generally was better.
(I promise that is the end of any feminist ramblings. I will get on with the job at hand, now. I have got it off my chest – so to speak.)
Hilary Mantel is an Irish writer who, until recently, I had never heard of. Her novel, The Giant, O’Brien is, she claims, ‘not a true story, but based on one.’
I am interested in where and how people find the stories that they are then compelled to tell. On Wednesday Damien said that he, ‘can’t make things up.’ In a Note at the end of The Giant, O’Brien, Mantel supplies facts of the lives of the two main characters in her novel, both of whom actually existed. One, an Irish giant called Charles Byrne who exhibited himself in London in 1782 before dying the following year. The other, John Hunter, a surgeon and scientist who, due to the fact that the Anatomy Act of 1832 had yet to be passed, had to steal bodies to dissect and study. ‘The bones of Charles Byrne,’ Mantel states, ‘may be inspected during the usual exhibition hours at the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London.’ Was it, in the corridors of this building, during these ‘usual exhibition hours,’ that the first seeds of this story were sown in Mantel’s mind? Is this where stories begin – with one’s attention, for whatever reason, being suddenly drawn, and captured?
(I am wondering this, probably, because there is blankness all around me at the moment – blank mind, paper, screen.)
Mantel’s prose is fascinating. She has a lyrical, almost poetical style that doesn’t make the storyline and characters’ easy to connect with. Maybe the beautiful, surprising images and unique sentences are what are captivating in the book, and that overwhelms everything else. I’m really not certain what it is, but I did find that I never became emotionally involved in the lives of the characters. This, strangely, does not detract from my admiration of Mantel’s prose – the images are stunning.
‘Crows above. Foreign black hands stretching across the sky.’
‘London is ringed by fire, by ooze. Men with ladders carry pitch-soaked ropes in the streets, and branched globes of light sprout from the houses. Pybus thinks they have come to a country where they do not have a moon, but Vance is sure they will see it presently, and so they do, drowned in a muddy puddle in Chandos Street.’
‘John Hunter is sitting in the dark, among his skulls. He’s knuckling his own head.’
Read that Mantel’s latest book Beyond Black is short listed for the Orange Prize.
Must read it.
Also, in regard to her characters, I was interested that there were only two women in The Giant, O’Brien, both of whom play minor parts in the novel as a whole. Is this relevant? I don’t know, but for some reason seems worth mentioning!
It is cold today, wintry. I have moved my laptop into the living room so I can sit by the heater. The dog is on his beanbag, a well-chewed plastic peg resting against his cheek, as if it is his prize possession. Maybe my prize possession today is this empty house. I have been thinking, certainly, that I’d be finding it easier to drop into writing if I had a study – a room of one’s own – perhaps overlooking the sea; perhaps in Tuscany. Ha. The constant excuses, procrastination.
I have been reading Alice Munro again. I am trying – like a deep sea diver – to plunge down through the waters and find myself at the bottom, finally understanding how she does what she does. My father, in a flurry of delightful exuberance, bought all her books for me last year. They sit by my bed, hardly gathering dust they are so often referred to. Last night I reread Runaway, the title story of one of her recent collections. It occurred to me that she drops, almost soundlessly, into what feels like a real life; that her characters have all the complexities and contradictions of a fully formed person. They are characters, also, who have the depth and range of those in a novel. Bill has suggested to me that I try to write long stories – perhaps 10,000 words or so. Munro’s are generally long. Is this how she so successfully takes over one’s mind?
Justin Cartwright is someone whose writing I have admired for a long time. I first read Masai Dreaming years ago and was instantly struck by his simple elegant prose, tragic human characters, and engaging, enthralling plots. Masai Dreaming, In Every Face I Meet and White Lightning are all absolutely fantastic. This is what I think, anyway.
And so I was excited to see his latest novel The Promise of Happiness arrive on the book shelves. I saw it and I thought – now this will bring great promise and happiness to my reading programme.
I couldn’t even finish it. It was that bad.
How does this happen?
It reminds me of Michael Cunningham and his Writers and Readers session – which I missed, but which Emma was talking about the other day. There was an audience member, apparently, who took it upon himself to tell Cunningham exactly what he thought; exactly how disappointed he was. He – this audience member – loved Cunningham’s first two books and hated the most recent one, and felt that it was on him to tell Cunningham so. Not cool, obviously, but it does come as a shock when a writer that you love and admire produces something that feels to you like it could have been written by any Tom, Dick or Harry. I feel like The Promise of Happiness falls flat on its face. Is it just me who thinks this?
I can’t exactly pinpoint what doesn’t work for me about this book. I feel like Cartwright is trying something new – which is admirable, of course, but which doesn’t quite pay off. It is a series of interweaving stories based around the release of one of the characters from prison, where she’s been for the last two years for an art theft. The interweaving stories, therefore, consist of her immediate family members preparing for her imminent arrival. On paper this all sounds like a strong storyline, but my problem with it is that the characters seem to lack authenticity. The parents, both in their sixties, don’t seem realistic somehow. The father says – ‘I’m a cunt, aren’t I’ – to his wife after a disagreement. I might believe this if she wasn’t a church-goer and he an ex-accountant. Do conservative, elderly people really talk like this? Well, maybe they do, but Cartwright fails to sell it in the context of their behaviour, and so it just feels forced and try-hard-edgy. Same goes for their children, who also have a ‘modern’ way of speaking, which is probably more applicable to real life but which, once again doesn‘t seem to work on paper. They use ‘like’ as a filler in their sentences – such as, for example, ‘I’ve been thinking like about our childhood.’ I was continually tripped up and frustrated by this, even though I know that this is how many people talk. And on top of all this, maybe because of all this, I just didn’t care about the characters at all. So there you go. I got three-quarters through, read the last two pages to see if there was any point continuing, decided that there wasn’t, and so gave up.
Interestingly, I looked on the internet at reviews of The Promise of Happiness, all of which were positive. There was also an article on Cartwright in which he states that all his other books have been semi-autobiographical, and in this one he wanted to move away from this, try something new. Is this why – on some subconscious level – I disliked it? On some level could I tell that comparatively he was more removed from this novel than from the others?
I think that I am much more discriminating in my reading than before. I want to be getting something out of the book, for it to be useful to me in some way, and if it isn’t I just can’t be bothered. I’m not sure that this is right! But this year feels so valuable that wasting time on unworthy literature feels like sacrilege. And it’s not necessarily just ‘unworthy’ books but books that actually are brilliant, but that don’t feel helpful, that I’m giving up on. A friend lent me The Stories of Tobias Wolff. I am an absolute fan of Raymond Carver’s and have been told that Wolff follows in his literary footsteps. And yes, in terms of style, subject matter, etc. etc. he does. His stories have the same sense of heavy desperation in them that Carver’s do. In any other situation – if my reading, for instance, was purely for ‘pleasure’ – I would probably gobble this up. But in this pocket of time, I feel that every word I read counts. Wolff’s style, although admirable, is not what I am aiming for in my collection. The stories have that Carver quality of having been stripped and stripped and stripped back, the stilted dialogue, the depressed ‘suburban’ characters. I guess I’m afraid that if I read too much of this, or any other distinctive style, for that matter, it will seep into the back of my brain and start influencing me, without my even knowing it. (This is probably neurotic . . . )
That said, one stand-out story in the collection was ‘Hunters in the Snow.’ Brilliant!
On Friday we watched two more Lannan videos – Phillip Levine and Sharon Olds. Both inspiring – as always. Sharon Olds, in particular, was quite astounding. Her poetry is vivid, shocking, raw. It seems to me that she is striding into territory that most of us avoid. Not just writers, I mean, but humans. Olds explores sickness, death, sex – all the ‘taboos’ of society – with such sensitivity, such truth, that you can’t help being moved.
Speaking of Lannan videos, I have finally got some David Malouf out of the library. Remembering Babylon – the novel that he read excerpts from on the tape – and a collection of stories – Dream Stuff. I had a flick through Dream Stuff last night and it failed to grab me. Perhaps I was tired and distracted. I’ll try again later.
In a matter of days, it seems, the trees outside our windows have become thin and brittle; shedding their leaves like old skin. I am astonished at how fast this transformation has happened. We can see the city again from our house, after a summer of being surrounded by plump green. Only a handful of leaves still cling on to the tops of branches. They are holding on.
I am thinking all this, and noticing it, because it is a sign of the rapid approach of winter, and therefore the rapid approach of the end of the year. This is a cause of anxiety for all us members of the class. We want to slow Time down.
I have only written one story so far, and have just the seeds of another one brewing. There is always the fear that nothing will come, though I think this is probably untrue. Who was it that said ‘inspiration is the thing that happens when you’re working hard’?
I have dropped the notion of trying to write connecting stories. Bill agrees that it could come across forced, heavy-handed, too ‘tidy’. I am relieved to have let go of this idea; it felt like a big ask of myself, like it could so easily go wrong. When reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried one wonders how you could ever pull off such an idea with the same success. Leave it to the big boys, I say!
I find The Things They Carried utterly brilliant. The weaving in and out of the same story, the returning over and over again to a detail of memory and trauma – it is all so muscular, so demanding of presence. Now that I have dropped the idea of trying to connect stories, like he does, I feel free to read each one separately, and to really drop into it. The story that I have been writing – ‘Working Girl’ – uses a particular summer, and particularly the heat of that summer, as a backdrop to the events of a childhood. I am interested in the part that seasons and weather can play in literature. Done well I think that weather can almost become a character in a story, affecting and moving with the human inhabitants. ‘Speaking of Courage’, one of the stories in O’Brien’s work uses heat very well, I think. The heat gives the story the same quality that it has on the people within it; it makes it feel slowed down, endless. Norman Bowker drives a seven-mile loop around the lake. It is summer, July 4th. He goes round and round, thinking and watching, lost after coming home from war. There is desperation in the heat, but it is slow-burning. It is weighted down. And this is the quality that the story has too.
We are in the first of our five week break.
Today our class is meeting at Chow for a morale boosting lunch. The thought of being separated for over a month is unacceptable to all of us. Pretty cute how we have found ourselves in a ten-person-co-dependent-relationship!
There has been a series of icy still blue days over the last week. They almost have an enchanted quality. I can work with the door open and not get too cold, and can look out at the flat plane of the harbour, the bare dark branches of the trees, the hills – which today look smudgy, almost rubbed out by some kind of sparkling haze. This is the best of winter, mornings like these ones.
Not to say that I’m relaxed, though. No, the stress levels seem to be increasing with the passing of each minute these days. I realise that feeling anxious and therefore, not writing, is not a particularly helpful way of handling myself. Calm down, Anna. This needs to be my mantra.
I find that I am in a start-but-don’t-finish frame of mind with my writing at the moment. From the last couple of weeks I have two incomplete stories that, when I began them, I felt enthusiastic about. I don’t think I have found the ‘in’ yet, in terms of where their hearts lie. Perhaps the ‘in’ isn’t there and I’ll just abandon them and move onto something new. Bill, certainly, thinks that continually moving forward is best, that if a story is meant to be it will carry on doing the work subconsciously. Imagine if it could just grow and grow, like a baby in the womb; pop out fully formed, little fingernails, hair, perfect feet. All I’d have to do, then, would be to give it a name! Mmmm.
Anyway. My reading.
Tim O’Brien, Richard Ford, Sharon Olds. These are the people stacked beside my bed at the moment.
I read O’Brien’s novel In the Lake of the Woods the other day, pretty much in one sitting. An interestingly structured book – the formation of the mystery building with chapter titles – ‘Evidence’, ‘Hypothesis’ – recurring over and over again throughout. I love Tim O’Brien, as you know, and although I felt there was a lot of good in this novel it did not strike me as much as The Things They Carried. Something about the plot felt slightly predictable. Still, a thoroughly engrossing read. I was particularly taken with the atmosphere – descriptions of the feeling of the air, the smells, the sounds, sights. They have a languid, vivid, oppressive quality. This is what I want to steal, to take away from my reading of Tim O’Brien. I want that.
Mary, in our class, says of Richard Ford, ‘I hate him.’ In a way I know what she means, although I love him. The other day, after finishing his collection of stories, A Multitude of Sins, I had to go to bed for an hour, in the middle of the afternoon, to try and sleep off the cobweb of doom that seemed to have settled on my life.
These stories are so bleak. Each one is about people, letting down, destroying, damaging, those that they love. In a strange way with Ford, I sometimes feel like he is just telling the same story over and over again. Adultery, collapsing relationships, strangely helpless, hopeless characters in a materially rich world. And this is what I admire about him. Who is it that says that in a way that is what we are doing, as writers, trying to find an answer to an unanswerable question? (Ha. Maybe no one said this. Maybe me?) To me, Ford seems obsessed with people, ordinary people, making a mess of their lives; sometimes teetering on the edge of disaster, sometimes on the edge of nothingness. Some base thing in me understands these stories, which is odd considering that a lot of them seem to be about middle-aged men in unhappy marriages – something quite far removed from my own experience!
I have an admission to make. Well, two really. One, is that mostly I write in bed, fully clothed, under the blankets, all propped up with my laptop on my lap. Something about this feels unprofessional, although I would say quite practical given how cold one gets sitting still, and how sleepy, with a heater on. So there you go. Emma says that Marian Keyes writes in bed. I have never read Marian Keyes, and don’t imagine her being someone to aspire to, but I am still pleased to hear I'm not alone. I can hold her up as an example of a bed-writer who is actually successful. She can be my Bed Writing Ambassador.
Once I heard an interview with the writer of Rumpole of the Bailey, who said he starts writing at 6am, but only after a glass or two of champagne. Or was it gin? I heard this interview a few years ago and worried that I would never be able to stomach that; I would never be able to follow in those footsteps. Maybe Marian and I are quite a good pair after all.
The other thing I have to admit – and I’m not sure why I feel the need to pronounce myself here, to you, whoever you are – is that I spend a good portion of each day on the internet, looking up authors, reading interviews with them, listening to audio tracks of them reading their work etc. etc. This seems slightly obsessive and unhealthy. I have an almost voyeuristic fascination in finding out everything about whomever it is that I’m following this particular week. I would go through their underwear drawers if I could. Oh dear. What’s become of me?