Catching up on recent literary events:
On Sunday I went to Carol Ann Duffy's 'Shore to Shore' tour of poets at Caernarfon's Galeri, a really wonderful event attended by hordes, which I've written about on my other blog. It was a horrible rainy night, as horrible as rainy nights can be in this part of North Wales (I'm looking out at the trees whipping around and the rain batting on my window just now), but nothing could damp this event, and it was a bright and heartening two hours in the midst of our depressing political situation.
Information about the tour can be found here.
At the beginning of June I was in London at another launch, that of my long-time colleague Jane Rogers for her new novel, Conrad and Eleanor. Another lovely evening, this time in Hatchard's in Piccadilly: it was a hot evening and there was prosecco (my favourite!) and a super reading from what looks like a really very impressive novel about the effects of time on a marriage.
Really looking forward to reading both books.
Monday, June 27, 2016
There was immediate agreement in the group that this book fell into two different stories - the war story and the love story - which didn't really fit together. Everyone agreed that the war sequences were brilliantly executed in Hemingway's famously spare and telling prose, but everyone hated the episodes concerning the relationship with Catherine, which were chiefly conducted in dialogue and shockingly flabby and coy in comparison - or, as John pointed out, in comparison to Hemingway's short stories - and which certainly don't withstand a feminist reading (which Hemingway's short story Cat in the Rain, for instance, does). This is the exchange (much cut by me) when Catherine has asked Henry about his experience with prostitutes:
... "When a man stays with a girl ... she just says what he wants her to? ... I will. I'll say just what you wish and I'll do what you wish and then you'll never want any other girls, will you?" She looked at me very happily. "I'll do what you want and say what you want and then I'll be a great success, won't I?"John said it was perhaps therefore necessary to read the novel historically, that is, as a period piece. Ann found the book of great historical interest, dealing as it does with an aspect of the First World War usually overlooked, attention tending to be concentrated on the Somme. She said she felt that she almost wished that the love story had been left out as the war story was so searing and vivid.
"Yes ... You're so lovely."
"I'm afraid I'm not very good at it yet."
"I want what you want. There isn't any me any more. Just what you want."
We talked about the prose in those war sections. People were immensely impressed by Hemingway's ability to show rather than tell, to pick out telling details that obviate the need for distancing narratorial statements or explanations. Ann pointed to the horrific moment when Henry is carried wounded in an ambulance, dripped on by blood from the wound of the man above him. The blood suddenly stops dripping, and so Henry and the reader know that the man's heart has stopped pumping: he has died. Hemingway refrains from actually stating this last, but through that one detail allows Henry and the reader to think and experience it for themselves. Ann wondered if people still write like that, however. John and I commented that 'show not tell' is in fact the great creative writing mantra of the present day - people call on the legacy of Hemingway all the time - but that we felt it's often misinterpreted or badly done, with authors focusing solely on the most boring and mundane details that actually don't tell you anything about the inner lives of characters or the dynamics of situations and indeed mask them.
John said he felt there was a bit of that going on in this book, actually. Several of the chapters end with something strangely inconsequential and quotidian, such as 'We all got up and left the table' or 'I was terrifically hungry'(after the escaped Henry jumps a freight train to find it full of guns). I said I thought that perhaps this was a deliberate illustration of the lack of significance, or alienation from significance, occasioned by war, although I did agree that it often resulted in a disconcerting lack of resonance. Someone suggested that this, and indeed the whole prose style with its distanced spareness (but which paradoxically can create a lack of distance, as seen above), was a deliberate illustration of the narrating Henry's shell shock. Ann said that there is a school of thought that it is rather a result of Hemingway's own shell shock, with which I tended to agree. There was some demurring at this which was taken as a suggestion of lack of narrative control on Hemingway's part, but I pointed out that you can have both: writers can write instinctually out of their own psyches and then become aware of how it's serving their artistic purpose and consequently work consciously on honing the style (in fact, I'd say that that's fundamentally how the greatest writing is done).
I said that the passage that really struck me in the book occurs in the chapter where Henry is hiding in the train wagon surrounded by guns:
My knee was stiff but it had been very satisfactory. Valentini [the doctor who had operated on him] had done a fine job. I had done half the retreat on foot and swum part of the Tagliamento with his knee. It was his knee all right. The other knee was mine. Doctors did things to you and then it was not your body any more. The head was mine, the inside of the belly. It was very hungry in there. I could feel it turn over on itself. The head was mine, but not to use, not to think with, only to remember and not too much to remember.It was at this point that the meaning of the novel fell into place for me: it's about the loss and fragmentation of self created by war. In this context, the schism between the two stories of the book can be seen as artistically apt: those two sides of Henry's experience are in fact irreconcilable. Indeed, the passage above goes on, in a prose that mimics with elisions his distressed state of mind:
I could remember Catherine but I knew I would get crazy if I thought about her when I was not sure yet I would see her, so I would not think about her, only about her a little, only about her with the car going slowly and clickingly, and some light through the canvas and my lying with Catherine on the floor of the car. Hard as the floor of the car to lie not thinking only feeling, having been away too long, the clothes wet and the floor moving only a little each time and lonesome inside and alone with wet clothing and hard floor for a wife.However, it's true that on the whole, throughout the terrible things that happen to him, Henry does retain a single-minded and obsessive romantic passion for Catherine, and someone in the group suggested that this wasn't actually very psychologically realistic - would he have the emotional space? Ann added that it's absent from most depictions of men's experience of active service in war, illustrating the alienation from such emotions created by active service. John wondered if it could be the result of the injection of autobiographical material into Henry's story: Hemingway was famously a passionate romantic when it came to women, and, although wounded, was less involved in active service than Henry. It was very clear, however, that the scene in which Henry is hit by a shell came from direct experience - no one in the group was in any doubt about that.
Still, people in the group went on musing about the necessity of the love story, which, in fact, takes over completely once Henry and Catherine are safely escaped to Switzerland. I think it was Mark who suggested it was there because Henry has to be a Knight in Shining Armour - there's a lot of macho humblebrag concerning Henry's decoration, like Hemingway's own, for bravery when wounded (oh, he doesn't think he did anything brave, but all the others insist he has to get a medal) - and of course a woman is essential to this heroic package. Some of the men in the group then also said they had wondered about the likelihood of the heroic journey that Henry makes with Catherine in a small rowing boat in the dark up Lake Maggiore to freedom in Switzerland - another instance, they thought, of dubious heroic posturing.
Everyone thought however that there was a very different tone to the ending, all heroics gone, when Catherine undergoes a horrific Caesarean section which Henry is allowed to watch from the operating theatre viewing gallery - once again, there was no doubt that this was drawn from real-life experience. The tragic outcome had moved group members to tears, and John commented that it's interesting that none of the book before this creates this effect, as if in formal enactment of the emotional numbing of war before this final, intensely personal moment.
He then added, however, that he thought it was significant that Catherine dies in childbirth. Although one of Hemingway's wives did undergo a Caesarean section, she did not die, but the marriage eventually failed due to his unfaithfulness (as did two of his other marriages) (and the real-life nurse on whom Catherine is based left him before they could be married). Looking at the relationship between Henry and Catherine, John said, it was clear that it would never have lasted, based as it was on romantic and narcissistic obsession - the heavily pregnant Catherine says to Henry of the coming baby as they walk in the Swiss woods: "She won't come between us, will she? The little brat" - and by killing off Catherine and the baby, Hemingway can preserve Henry's status as a (faithful) tragic hero while setting him free.
We all laughed at this, and agreed it was true, in spite of our having found the ending so sad. Once again Ann wondered how people might have read this at the time of publication. It seemed to me that such an irony would be unlikely to have occurred to them - we were looking at the book very much through a post-feminist perspective - and once again we came back to our major problem of clashing perspectives through which to view the book.
Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here
Saturday, May 28, 2016
Thursday, May 26, 2016
I've discovered that my web domain has been down for about a week, so anyone trying to access my site through elizabethbaines.com won't have got through. (Apparently the domain owners have sold on their business; the new owners are saying that my domain has expired - although it's paid for - and are insisting that I need to sort it out with the previous owners who are unobtainable and, it seems, no longer even exist!) I don't know how long it's going to take to sort it out, but in the meantime my website can be accessed via the basic url:
Thursday, May 05, 2016
This short 1978 novel, set in 1959-60, about a widow who opens a bookshop in the fictional East Anglian seaside town of Hardborough where she has lived for the past eight years, and the obstructions she encounters from the local population, was greatly admired by most in our group. Mark said he had suggested the book because when he read it some years ago he was stunned by the economy and elegance of the prose (for which Fitzgerald is so known) - an admiration shared by everyone else in the group - although, he said, he wasn't sure what it was about.
He was probably going to go on to elaborate on this, but I jumped in and said, surely it's about small-town politics and the kind of fascistic pressure that can be brought to bear in such small communities on those who don't conform to the wishes of those with power. Frances Green wants to buy The Old House, a house on the foreshore with its own (damp) warehouse, a former oyster house, for her bookshop. However, Mrs Gamart, wife of a retired general, has plans for the place as an Arts Centre - a bid to situate herself at the cultural centre of Hardborough (and in the process inveigle herself with the remaining representative of the old gentry, Mr Brundish, by whom she has so far been ignored). Mrs Gamart gets straight to work on Frances by inviting her to a soiree. However, Frances, unaware at the start of such motives and machinations, and certainly unaware of where they must inevitably lead, is undeterred and goes ahead with her bookshop, only to encounter obstructions so underhand that they can hardly be named, with even her own solicitor party to the social pressure against her, so that in the end she is undone. Ann said that the book is thus about the impossibility for an outsider of negotiating the unspoken rules of such a community (although Frances has been there eight years, she is in effect a blow-in). John commented that the plot indeed amounts to a witch hunt conducted on the most genteel terms.
Mark, Trevor, Clare and Jenny raved unreservedly about the book, in particular its depiction of the subtlety of the viciousness deployed against Frances. The stunning opening image, symbolic of the tussle between that viciousness and Frances's oblivion and determination was remarked on:
She had once seen a heron flying across the estuary and trying, while it was on the wing, to swallow an eel which it had caught. The eel, in turn, was struggling to escape from the gullet of the heron and appeared a quarter, a half, or occasionally three-quarters of the way out. The indecision expressed by both creatures was pitiable. They had taken on too much.Later, the narrative will comment about Frances: 'She blinded herself, in short, by pretending for a while that human beings are not divided into exterminators and exterminatees, with the former, at any given moment, predominating.'
We all thought that the descriptions of the environs were evocative, and beautifully symbolic of the forces surrounding Frances and the sadness of her fate:
The North Sea emitted a brutal salt smell, at once clean and rotten. The tide was running out fast, pausing at the submerged rocks and spreading into yellowish foam, as though deliberating what to throw up next or leave behind, how many wrecks of ships and men, how many plastic bottles.
There was some dispute about Frances's character. Clare saw her chiefly as ingenuous, and someone pointed in corroboration to the early description of her: 'She was in appearance small, wispy and wiry, somewhat insignificant from the front view and totally so from the back.' However, that early description is only - and no doubt narratorially deliberately only - of her outward appearance. Others of us countered that she was feisty, in the early pages hanging on to a horse's tongue while its teeth are filed and later responding to her solicitor who is failing to back her with a single-word letter: 'Coward!' In fact ingenuousness and feistiness are not mutually exclusive; it is indeed that combination in Frances that is central to the plot. It is interesting, though, that we had this dispute, and it is is perhaps relevant to subsequent points we discussed.
I said that although I found the prose elegant and the observations of people acute, I did actually find the narration emotionally flat, with which Doug, Ann and John agreed. Doug said he suspected it was imbued with the psyche of the author, whose life was indeed hard, the events of this novel echoing an episode of her own. Clare said that on the contrary she saw the tone of the prose as a reflection of the state of mind of protagonist Frances. However, as had been pointed out, Frances's psyche is fundamentally feisty, and I said that even if it weren't, then there's no need for the prose itself to be affectively flat, since the novel is a third-person omniscient narration.
We four felt that the flatness of the prose didn't do justice to the viciousness of the situation being depicted, but the others countered that it was precisely this contrast that made the viciousness so telling, and this was a strong disagreement in the group.
I said too that I felt that the characters were stereotypes, and once again Doug, Ann and John agreed, John strongly so. I was conceding to the rest that in such small towns in the fifties and sixties there were stereotypes - the retired general, his social-climbing wife, the ageing representative of old money, the louche commuting BBC employee, the more salt-of-the earth working-class characters, all of which appear here - when John made a point that perhaps explained some of our disagreements.
There is no interiority in the piece, he pointed out. Everyone, including Frances, is seen very much from the outside. At most we are told what Frances's emotions are. The book, as Ann said, is in the narrative tradition of writers such as Trollope, Edith Wharton and Barbara Pym, operating chiefly as social commentary rather than psychological exploration, and taking a rational objective view of all of the characters including the main protagonist. We are not made, as we are in the more modern literary mode of interiority, to share the protagonist's emotional experience, but have to take on trust the narrative judgement of her. The reader's way of apprehending her is thus in turn directed to be rational rather than experiential - which perhaps led to our differing reasoning about Frances. With regard to the other characters: although I had conceded that people do in life act in stereotype roles, it is also true that no one in life is truly a stereotype: there is always a complicating interiority. This novel eschews that interiority, leaving its more peripheral characters perilously grounded in the shallows of stereotype.
An aspect of the book that almost everyone felt unsure about was the poltergeist that inhabits the Old House, the 'rapper' as it is locally called. The locals take it for granted, which Frances herself does, and for a while after she moves in it seems to settle down as a low-key presence, but then later becomes more obstructive, refusing to let her open her own door then letting go and sending her flying, and making wild and vicious noises. Because this is such a realist novel, some of us in the group had wondered as we read if the rapper were really the locals trying to hound Frances from the house, but as everyone agreed, no evidence whatever emerged to suggest this. It seemed that we were meant to accept its presence as a fact and symbolic only of the social pressures on Frances, initially subtle but finally overt.
Everyone agreed that the ending of the novel is stunning. Here the objective observational narrative mode works to brilliant effect, formally enacting the exclusion of Frances as we watch her leave with an emotion she has been made unjustly to feel:
As the train drew out of the station she sat with her head bowed in shame...
Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here
Wednesday, May 04, 2016
review in Confingo, here's another really great review of Used to Be, this time in the inestimable Short Review. Reviewer Cath Barton discusses several of the stories in depth, and concludes:
Life is a series of might-have-beens, near-misses and what ifs. This is a tremendous collection of stories. They do not seek to be didactic, but may nonetheless give many of us who read them cause to reflect on the choices we have made in our own lives, and to be more mindful of the options which open in front of us every day.
Tuesday, May 03, 2016
There'a a lovely review of Used to Be in the new issue of the Manchester-based magazine Confingo. Confingo is an extremely smartly-produced publication, with stunning artwork and photography and high-standard fiction and poetry. This issue also carried an interview with David Gaffney. I thoroughly recommend it as a magazine worth subscribing to.
Of Used to Be, reviewer Emma Bosworth says: 'The writing is is vivid, buoyant, incisive ... vibrant evocation of time and place - and the power of the human mind to transcend both.'