Friday, February 29, 2008

Book-buying addict

Now that I have finished Chekhov's short stories I am feeling bereft. However I notice in the criticism at the back of my Norton edition that his short novels are even better. So I have those to look forward to...but not yet.

Hodmandod Senior has begun to say 'More books?' and raise his eyebrows when he comes across those little cardboard packages from Amazon, and even I have to admit it is becoming ridiculous. I am finding myself tempted to hide them out of sight like an alcoholic hides his empty bottles.

Chekhov on editing.

"Try to rip out the first half of your story; you'll only have to change the beginning of the second half a little bit and the story will be totally comprehensible. And in general there ought to be nothing unnecessary. Everything that has no direct relation to the story must be ruthlessly thrown out."

Chekhov to S. Shchukin.

I am mulling over this and wondering if this good advice can be applied to my novel...and decide that it can't.

Chekhov on critics

"Critics are like horse-flies which hinder the horses in their ploughing of the soil...the muscles of the horse are as taut as fiddle-strings, and suddenly a horse-fly alights on his croup, buzzing and stinging. The horse's skin quivers, it waves its tail. What is the fly buzzing about? It probably doesn't know itself. It simply has a restless nature and wants to make itself felt - 'I'm alive too, you know!' it seems to say. 'Look, I know how to buzz, there's nothing I can't buzz about!' I've been reading reviews of my stories for twenty-five years, and I can't remember a single useful point in any of them, or the slightest good advice."

A quote ascribed to Chekhov from Maxim Gorky's 'On Literature,' 1956

Chekhov on writing for children.

"One should not write for children but know how to select from what has already written for adults, that is from real artistic works."

Chekhov to G. I. Rossolimo, 1900

Chekhov on clarity

" must be grasped at once, instantaneously."

Chekhov to Maxim Gorky, 1899.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Chekhov Short Stories - thirteenth (and final) installment

Here are my summaries of the final three stories:

The Lady and the Dog (1899)

This is the one Chekhov story I had read before. Another lecturer used it in a class I was co-teaching at a university and had some quite incredible insight about the writing; but I realised as I read it again that we had only looked at the first part...and it is in the later parts that the tale fully comes into its own. I shan't try to analyse it at all here because so many others have done it so well and so much better than I ever could. I shall just remark that the story is about the illogicality and frustration of falling in love.

In summary the story is this. An indolent man, who does not love his wife and has had many affairs, is on holiday at the Crimea. A new arrival, a young woman with her dog, arrives at the scene. He is attracted to her and they end up in her hotel room together. She feels he must now not respect her, and he doesn't deny it. Over the following days they continue their affair; she continues to feel guilty and that she has lost the respect of everyone, while he unwittingly falls in love with her. The woman's husband then summons her back home and so they part, expecting not to see each other again. However he cannot get her out of his mind; and she is depressed and distraught. He eventually visits her home town and deliberately seeks her out, eventually encountering her at the theatre. Their affair starts again and they come to see, at the end of the story, that it is the first time either of them have really fallen in love and that they belong together.

The Bishop (1902)
My favourite story so far. At first it seems like nothing remarkable - just a bishop going about his daily work: he says mass, he sees his mother, and he takes tea. He is a powerful man, a celebrity of sort; someone who inspires fear in all who encounter him, even though he is mild-mannered. This attitude of other people angers him; but it is the attitude of his mother angers him the most. He hears her talking to his assistant next door in a relaxed way, but to the bishop she is reverential and unnatural. He becomes ill with typoid, and it is only when he is near the end, when he is glad to be leaving the world behind, and his mother sees him shrivelled and old, does she revert to treating him as she used to treat him when he was her 'Little Pavel'.

The bishop dies and the world goes on. Easter is celebrated and a month later a new bishop appointed and everyone forgets his Reverence Pyotr.
'Only the dead man's mother...when she goes out at sunset to meet her cow, and joins the other women on the way, tells them about her children and her grandchildren, and her boy who became a bishop.
And when she mentions him she looks at them shyly, for she is afraid they will not believe her.
And as a matter of fact, not all of them do.'
Even though no one remembers his Reverence Pyotr, many people remember and feel they know Anton Chekhov through these stories.

The Betrothed (1903)
The characters are set out quickly in just a couple of pages and yet they are memorable: the girl betrothed to be married, her fiancé, her mother, her grandmother, the fiancé's father...and Sasha, an orphan - the son of a friend of the family. He is ill and comes to visit each summer for a rest. Sasha is outspoken and critical about the girl's family's, and her fiancé's way of life, which is idle. Furthermore he objects that they keep the servants in barbaric conditions. Gradually the girl realises he is right, and that her fiancé is superficial and that she doesn't love him. She then forsakes her fiancé and runs away with Sasha. Her return home a year or so later is poignant; it is clear that both her mother and grandmother have been destroyed by her action and yet they forgive her. News then arrives of Sasha's death and the story end with this:
'"Good-bye, dear Sasha," she thought. Life stretched before her, new, vast. spacious, and this life, thought still vague and mysterious, beckoned to her, drawing her onward.
She went upstairs to pack,a nd the next morning said good-bye to her family, and left the town, gay and full of spirirts - as she supposed, forever.'

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

After the Earth Tremor

Strange to think of the earth slipping,
lurching from its moorings,
a side-ways rock
or a lower rumble.
And all that I thought
was strong,
all that I thought I knew
is slipping too.
Like a table-cloth whipped away
and the plates and cutlery
still in place.
And you still there
- rocking slightly but still there.
Smiling when I say
I thought you'd gone.

Earth Tremor

Just woken up by the earth moving. It rumbled on for several seconds. No one else felt a thing...

Monday, February 25, 2008

What I'm Doing 17:

What I watched last:
Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Very funny 1980s film. Ferris Bueller is in his last year of High School and he decides to take a day off. He has prepared very well. All goes pretty much to plan and along the way his best friend and sister learn a lot more about themselves. As in all good comedy there are some really poignant moments, and even the slap-stick (which I normally can't bear) works well. Hodmandod Senior and I thoroughly enjoyed this.

What I'm reading next (after I've finished Chekhov):
We Are Now Beginning Our Descent by James Meek - looking forward to this. Meek's last book The People's Act of Love is an International Bestseller but I haven't read it yet although I have it on the great swaying TBR pile. I like the cover because of the mountains and the wrecked building and the man on his own looking at it all. It looks slightly surreal and sets my mind racing (it also chimes very well with the cover for 'The People's Act...). I've read the first section and it seems exciting...

What I'm Doing:
Still editing my Patagonia novel - and enjoying myself very much. I am convinced reading that reading Chekhov has helped me. I feel more confident in what I'm doing in my writing so I am pleased. Unfortunately I only have three more stories to read and I don't want to read them because then they will be gone...and I'm rather wishing now I had splurged out on the full 13 volume set. Ah well, still plenty more texts from the Francine Prose recommended reading list to try so that's good.

What I'm wearing:
Cord patterned purple skirt, purple tights, pink shoes, pink sweater - looks a little strange, but since I didn't step outside the house it didn't matter...

Style Tip (from Strunk and White):
When who introduces a subordinate clause, its case depends on its function. OK...I'm beginning to get really lost here, but I am going to try to make sense of this. I have no idea what 'case' means or what its function could be.

The two examples given are:
Fred Smith is the candidate who we think will win. (We think he will win).
Fred Smith is the candidate whom we hope to elect. (We hope to elect him).

And my examples are:
He is the one who inspires me (he inspires me).
She is the one on whom I depend (I depend on her).
(I hope they're right).

New Word.
Atavism = relating to or characterised by reversion to something ancient or ancestral.
Some people claim that a love of song or water is something atavistic in the Welsh.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Chekhov Short Stories - twelfth installment

About Love (1898)
Now here is a curious thing: the view-point of this story changes at the end. The three main characters are the teacher, the vet and the miller again, but at the start it is clear (to me, anyway) that the narrator is the vet. He mentions the teacher and the miller and then refers to everyone as 'we'. There then follows a story told by the mill-owner of his love of a married woman - absorbingly and poignantly told - which ends with her departure on a train. The tale then talks about the vet by name in the third person, which brings it in line with the two stories before.

A Doctor's Visit (1898).
A very interesting and appealing tale. A doctor is asked to attend the daughter of a factory owner. The girl is aged twenty and has always perceived to be frail. The doctor (or rather his assistant who attends in the doctor's place) sees the girl as ugly at first but then sees her as frail, charming and intelligent after she has broken down into tears and tells her of her feelings. There are magnificent and interesting descriptions of the factory and the girl's relationship with it. Despite being an heiress, she is unhappy and lonely and needs to talk to someone. The doctor's assistant is understanding. The story ends with the doctor's assistant appreciating the new morning and there is a strong sense of optimism.

The Darling (1899).
This is about a woman who needs to love; and she loves serially and passionately: first her father, then a teacher at school, then the theatre manager who happens to live close, then after he dies, a timber merchant, then after being widowed again takes to a veterinary surgeon who is estranged from his faithless wife and their son. Each time the woman ('the darling') takes on the interests of her husband or lover; in the times between she is empty. When the vet leaves with his regiment she is bereft and becomes unattractive and old.

Eventually though the vet returns with his wife and son. The 'darling' then takes to the son, following him around although he dislikes her and she in return loves him passionately: 'never had her soul surrendered to any feeling so spontaneously, so disinterestedly, and so joyously...' It is a sad ending because although the'darling' loves it is completely unrequited by the child.

Style Tip (from Strunk and White)
A linking verb agrees with the number of its subject
e.g. The strength of a Chekhov story is in its characterisations and strong subtle messages.

New Word
descry = to catch sight of
e.g. it is seldom possible to descry a complicated plot.

Seventeenth Sunday Salon 15.58

I'm supposed to be attacking the ironing pile but couldn't resist having a little peep at the Sunday Salon feed at Debra's. There is something exciting about it, I find... all those people reading books and telling each other about it across the world, and also the feeling of being part of it...

Chekhov Short Stories - eleventh installment (Sunday Salon 11.00)

Following my reading of Francine Prose's book 'Reading Like a Writer' and her recommendation to start with Chekhov, I have been continuing to read Chekhov's short stories and am now on the final six in the Norton Critical Edition. For each one I have been summarising it, and also summarising why I think it works so well. I am enjoying the stories very much and think I am getting a lot out of them; particularly through my efforts to write each one of them up on my blog.

I find they make me think not only about plot, character and structure, but also about wealth, celebrity and happiness. The two stories that follow are typical:

The Man in a Case (1898)

Rather like Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (and probably lots of other books I'm not aware of or can't think of at the moment) this story is almost entirely a tale within a tale: told by a teacher to a vet as they sit in a hunting lodge together one night.

The story concerns a teacher who is a recluse who somehow comes to dominate a village through his glowering and general disapproval of everything. When a new teacher comes to the school and is accompanied by his sister, who is handsome and desperate to marry since she is about thirty years old, there is a conspiracy involving everyone to marry the reclusive teacher off since they think this will make him more bearable. At first he is interested but then his relationship is ridiculed by a cartoonist, sees the woman in question riding a bicycle (which he thinks disgraceful), is pushed downstairs by the brother much to the obvious amusement of the sister. He then takes to his bed and a couple of months later, dies. His funeral brings much relief.

The story then goes back to the two men in the lodge. The teacher says that within a week the funeral everyday life had resumed its usual bleak course because 'there are still plenty of men who live in a shell'.

The vet agrees. He says that merely living a life in town in stuffy rooms with 'litigious boors' is living in an oyster shell too. He then goes on to show that he is just as intolerant as the teacher in the story. The story ends with the teacher who told the tale falling asleep, while his discontented companion lies awake.

Gooseberries (1898)
The same two characters appear in the next story. Again it consists of a tale within a tale, but this time told by the vet. However the story around the story is also interesting this time and is a wonderful character-study of a miller who lives alone with his beautiful young maid Pelugia. The school teacher and the vet are caught in the rain and are forced to take shelter in the house of a miller. The description of the miller is endearing: 'a stout man of some forty years, with longish hair, looking more like a professor or an artist than a landed proprietor. He was wearing a white shirt greatly in need of washing, belted with a piece of string, and long drawers with no trousers over them. His boots, too, were caked with mud and staw. His eyes and nose were ringed with dust. He recognised Ivan Ivanich and Burkin, and seemed glad to see them.'

He suggests that they all go to the bath-house since he drops into the conversation that he probably needs one since he has not had a bath for six months. They then go swimming and the teacher, who is younger, enjoys the experience so much they have trouble enticing him out. I found this description enchanting. I read it out to Hodmandod Senior and he agreed it was excellent too, but neither of us could say quite why it worked so well. There was nothing fancy, just a straightforward description of a man swimming, and yet it made us both feel happy.

This commonplace description, which was quite light, was in contrast to the tale that followed which was about the vet's brother. They had been brought up in a small estate and grown to lovely the countryside. However, after their father had died the estate had to be sold off to cover debts and the brothers had gone their separate ways. The brother had become a clerk in town and had spent the rest of his life pining for a country seat with gooseberry bushes. His obsession made him into a mean human being who was cruel to a wife he married just for her money. When the wife died he eventually acquired a country house and declared himself happy.

However, when the vet visited, he saw things in a different light. His brother was now responsible for an estate and ruled it somewhat despotically and erratically. He declared himself happy and demanded that the vet share his first crop of gooseberries. As the brother ate he declared each gooseberry delicious, but to the vet they were sour and green. The gooseberries were a metaphor for the brother's life; he declared it delicious, but it made the vet sad: 'There had always been a tinge of melancholy in my conception of human happiness, and now, confronted by a happy man, I was overcome by a feeling of sadness bordering on desperation.'

He then goes on to reflect how 'we neither hear nor see those who suffer, and the terrible things in life are played out behind the scenes.' He realised he too was happy and content in the countryside but found town life intolerable.

The teacher and the miller had been forced to listen to this long story and it was not really the sort of thing they wanted to hear. However the miller was determined to stay awake because he liked to hear about life outside his own. Despite this everyone soon goes to bed. The story ends with another amusing touch: the vet leaves his stinking pipe by his bed and the teacher lies awake - not with angst (as the vet was wont to do), but wondering where smell is coming from.

This story made me think a lot about human happiness and our attitudes today. 'Mislit' abounds and every day in the news we are assailed by real-life miserable stories, and so, perhaps, things have changed in this regard since Chekhov's time. However I think we all have a tendency to neither see or hear those that suffer around us and assume all is well; and that those that do have miserable lives do still seem to suffer in silence...or else use the anonymity of the internet to reveal all.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Chekhov Short Stories - tenth installment.

The House with the Mansard (1896)
This is an unusual love story. An idle artist falls in love with an idle girl called Missuse (from the name she gave her English governess, Miss Hughes). She is not the beautiful sister, and not the intelligent one, but the one who loves him. Her elder sister, Lida, is stern, intelligent, beautiful and ferocious, and even her mother is in awe of her. Lida teaches at the school, helps with the dispensary and is politically active. The artist is ideologically opposed to this saying that 'medical-aid posts, schools, libraries, dispensaries only serve the cause of enslavement under existing circumstances...the true horror of their situation is that they never have time to think of their souls, of themselves as images of God...' These spiritual activities, he says, distinguish human beings from animals and make life worth living. Giving aid '...enslaves more by introducing fresh superstitions into their lives, you increase their demands, not to mention that the fact that they have to pay the zemstvo for their leeches and their books, and, consequently, to work harder...'

This view is the opposite of that expressed in a previous story, The Teacher of Literature.

Lida and the artist constantly argue and irritate each other, and consequently, when Missuse falls in love with the artist, Lida insists that Missuse and the artist part. Missuse (who does seem to be pathetic, but nevertheless realistic) does not have 'the heart to grieve her by disobedience.' So she leaves for another part of Russia and the artist for St Petersburg. However he never ceases to pine for Missuse, the story ending with 'in moments of loneliness and melancholy, I yield to vague memories, till I gradually begin to feel that I, too, am remembered, that I am being waited for, and that we shall meet...'

The story takes place during one summer, and the weather is used symbolically. During the time of the developing love affair the world is warm and attractive; when Lida has her way autumn is beginning to set in.

The Pencheneg (1897).
An old cossack lives in an isolated farm. He has just suffered a life-threatening stroke and is forced to contemplate, what he believes to be, his imminent death (I just have to remark that this chimes very familiarly with me just now). He encounters a kind hearted unassuming attorney on a train, and since the attorney's destination is fairly close to the cossack's he invited him to stay the night.

The cossack, apparently, has earned the name 'Pencheneg' which alludes to barbarianism, when a previous house-guest left after spending the whole night listening to the cossack's relentless talking.

The character of the cossack is gradually revealed through his one-sided conversation; he is a misogamist ('I don't consider women human beings') who keeps his wife and two sons in an outhouse with the animals; he questions the attorney's vegetarian views at length; and when, after a thunderstorm, the attorney declares he needs some air, follows him outside. He doesn't sleep all night.

The next morning the attorney cannot wait to escape. As he flees on a cart he turns around and for a while he is prevented from calling out something similar to pencheneg as his kindness triumphs. Eventually though, he is stirred up enough to call out ' You bore me to death.'

Although the cossack has repellent views, I cannot help but feel sorry for him, as I feel sorry for many who just talk and talk. It is a need we all seem to have at sometime, I think. At one time or another we are all capable of being a pencheneg.

A Journey by Cart (1897).
This is just as it says - the journey of a school teacher by cart. It is a sad tale because this school teacher has had an unsatisfactory life and now is middle-aged an lonely. As the journey progresses she meets a middle-aged man who she can see is heading for ruin through drink and reflects that it is sad he does not have a woman to look after him; but this is just a transient thought - soon she is back considering aspects of her school. She stops at a tavern and is unregarded until her coachman reprimands a peasant for swearing in front of her; then she is acknowledged by everyone there. It then transpires that the people in her village, including her coachman, regard her as overpaid; and than she had no calling to be a teacher, and the only reason she has been unable to continue in her profession is that she is a beast of burden. 'Those who are sensitive, and impetuous and nervouse, and talk of a mission in life and of advancing a great ideal, soon become exhausted and give up the fight.'

How did Chekhov know all this? As I read it strikes me again and again how modern and familiar everything he writes sounds, to my ears at least.

The story ends poignantly. Her driver is too ambitious and coaxes the horse through too deep a ford and she is soaked. Later they are forced to wait for a train to pass and there the teacher sees a woman standing on the first class balcony and she, at last, remembers her mother, and then a happy family life in Moscow that she had forgotten. She weeps, but could not say why... a very sad and poignant piece.

Style Tip (from Strunk and White)
A singular subject remains singular even if other nouns are connected to it by 'with', 'as well as', 'in addition to', 'except', 'together with' and 'no less than'.

e.g. A teacher, together with most members of the various professions, often works for a higher purpose than just money.

N.B. correction in red - thanks to Karen (see comments).
New Word
hobbledehoy = clumsy or awkward youth

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Chekhov Short Stories - ninth installment

White Brow (1895)
The mother wolf is hungry. She leaves her three cubs and goes in search of food. Eventually she comes across a stall containing sheep and lambs. She climbs the snowdrift to the thatched roof and falls in. However the owner of the sheep is now disturbed and gives chase and the she-wold grabs what she can. This turns out to be a very stupid puppy.

The puppy plays with the cubs, and the she-wolf is tempted to eat the puppy but it smells too doggy. The puppy eventually returns home because it is hungry and the she-wolf overtakes it and tries to catch a lamb again. The wolf is given away by the puppy. It barks joyfully at seeing the she-wolf and raises the alarm. The she-wolf escapes and the puppy is trained to enter houses through the door rather than the roof because it is so very stupid.

An amusing story with great descriptions. I kept wondering if it was allegorical, but couldn't really think how.

Anna on the Neck (1895)
Chekhov, I think, does not aim to tell a tale. He does not aim to make a point or round things off, or even give things an ending. I think his main interest is to depict what it means to be human. He does this by telling stories and slices of life that are not neatly tied up in the conventional way but end unsatisfactorily, much like life itself. There is no allegory and no deep meaning to the plot of the tale because that is not the purpose. The purpose comes from the detail and the story of Anna shows this very well.

Anna is poor and has married for money. Her mother and father are educated - her father a teacher and her mother was a governess before she married - and so Anna is educated too. But her mother has died and since that her father has become an alcoholic, almost lost his job and fallen into debt. In an attempt to remedy this she has succumbed to social pressure and married a local wealthy official who is 'elderly' (in his fifties). However she now finds herself poorer than before. The official intimidates her and she can't eat at mealtimes and then is given no money to buy food inbetween. She has to do what she is told and although he buys her jewelry it is not really hers - she cannot sell it and he makes her keep it in a drawer which he checks, and she is unable to help her alcoholic father and brothers.

Everything changes when Anna is invited to a ball. She is the belle and soon realises that she has power. This changes her husband's attitude to her and also the attitude of Anna to the world around her. It would, I suppose be a simple rags to riches story with a happy ending if it were not for this: her power makes her father and brothers feel more remote from her and feel they cannot even greet her in the street. This, I feel, takes the story to a higher (Chekhovian) level because it makes you think. Of course the reader is glad that Anna has found freedom and power, but is it worth this loss? It is a modern tale of celebrity.

Style tip (these are all from Strunk and White, BTW - my attempts at self-improvement)
A compound subject is formed when two or more nouns are joined together. It always requires a plural verb.
White Brow and Anna on the neck are two stories by Chekhov.

New Word.
Solipsism: The theory that the self is all that can be known to exist. I often think this. So does Dr. Grump. I know, because we share the same head.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Chekhov Short Stories - eighth installment

The Teacher of Literature (1889-94)
Sometimes I read something and it is as if someone has seen into my feculent (I am trying to get all the new words I am finding rooted into my brain, and the only good way I can think of doing that is by using them) mind. So it is with some of this Chekhov.

In this story an ordinary man, a school teacher, courts and marries a young woman from a liberal family. The young woman has a sister who is slightly older and therefore feels 'left on the shelf' on the day of the wedding and this scene is remarkably moving, and deftly written. The young teacher lives with a friend, another teacher, who provides some comic relief since he is the sort of person 'who always says what everyone else already knows' e.g. on the teacher's wedding day: 'Hitherto you have been unmarried and have lived alone, and now you are married and no longer single.'

The story is in two parts: the first part deals with the courtship; the second with life after the marriage. While the courtship is charming in its awkwardness and things left unsaid, it is the second story which has startled me the most. At first the schoolteacher feels content, but after about a year he is coming home after playing cards and he begins to feel irritated with what one of the other players has said (an implication that losing did not matter to him because of the substantial dowry from his wife), and from that time on he begins to feel dissatisfied.

Chekhov is analytical. The reason the school teacher is not content is because he has everything and is not harrassed by anxiety. When he goes to bed that night he cannot sleep. he feels his head is 'an immense and empty as a barn, and that new peculiar thoughts were wandering about it like tall shadows...he thought that apart from this little world in which he and this cat (and his wife!) lived so peacefully and happily , there was another world...and he had a passionate, poignant longing to be in that other world, to work at some address big audiences, to write, to publish, to raise a stir, to suffer...'

Ah, reading that now, I again think how true that is. When life is calm and contented, when we have time to think - is it true for all of us that we wish were doing something else?

He talks to himself, tells himself how ridiculous he is and how he is in the most noble of professions, but then he convinces himself otherwise: he is nothing 'but a government employee...commonplace...mediocre...'

He realises his peace of mind is lost and that happiness is no longer possible for him. 'He realised that the illusion had evaporated , and that a new life of unrest and clear sight was beginning which was incompatible with peace and personal happiness.'

After that he just goes through the motions, paying lip service to guests and family problems. The story ends with an entry in the teacher's diary: 'Where am I , my God? I am surrounded by vulgarity and vulgarity. Wearisome, insignificant people, pots of sour cream, jugs of milk, cockroaches , stupid women...There is nothing more terrible, mortifying, and distressing than vulgarity. I must escape from here, I must escape today, or I shall go out of my mind.'

Ah, yes, how true, how true...that's it doubt the people around me feel exactly the same way too.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Today's tip and word...

Style Tip:
With 'none' use the singular verb if none means 'no one' or 'not one'.
e.g. None of us in the Hodmandod Household has heard of Adele before 2008.

However a plural verb is used when none suggests more than one thing or person.
e.g. None of the dancers in this video have ever been tempted to try sumo wrestling on a wet Wednesday, I expect.

New Word
augury = a sign of what will happen in the future.
Luckily none of us can

What I'm Doing 16:

What I'm listening to:
Adele's Chasing Pavements. I rather like this weird video too in a Romeo and Juliet kind of way - but am relieved to see that when they are stretchered off at the end they each have a drip attached, which gives me hope that the end is perhaps not so tragic...

What I'm reading:
Chekhov's short stories- have I mentioned these?

What I watched last:
L'Homme Du Train
Interesting film - A very cool dude (who turns out to be a criminal) arrives in a small French town with a headache and asks for aspirin at the Pharmacie. However he is sold soluble instead of the ordinary sort(zut, or maybe merde). An elderly fellow customer invites him to his house for some water and from there an unlikely liaison begins. Both men are planning a dangerous phase of life, and the end is unexpected and very effective. I particularly like the way the medium of cinema is used to tell the story with great flourish.

What I'm hoping for:
A fully-functioning brain again.

Chekhov Short Stories - seventh installment

Chekhov, I have decided, is very bad for me. If I read his work and then look at my own it is like looking at a boiler suit after a velvet and diamante evening dress. It is dull, lifeless; says nothing. It does not glitter. It is not intense. It is clumsy, banal, useless.

Ah, I feel better now, a little self-loathing always clears the mind. I tell Hodmandod Senior about my misery and even read a fragment of a Chekhov-passage out to him and he is very kind. He says that such intensity is only possible in short stories and this reassures me a little. So I go back to my own work but still it seems stale. Maybe it is over-kneaded, I decide. Maybe writing is like dough and it is possible to revise too much. Or maybe, says Hodmandod Senior, it is simply that the last few days have been a bit of a strain.

So I decide to give up trying to do any work and relax into Chekhov - perhaps if I read enough some of his flare will rub off onto me.

In Exile (1892)

I am not sure what to make of this story. It is about a ferryman in Siberia and his encounter with a Tartar. The ferryman relates the story of a man from Moscow who is determined it is possible to 'live' (ie have a similar life to the one he had in Moscow) in Siberia. The ferryman mocks him for this idea; but the Tartar is of the same mind. He wants his wife to come and live with him. I suppose it is some analogy for the idea of progress and whether a person is happier if they leave things just as they are...but I am not sure.

Rothschild's Fiddle(1894)
Another strange little tale with black humour and anti-semitism. The coffin-maker Yakov makes a meagre living because people are not dying enough. He supplements it with his fiddle-playing but quarrels with the rest of the members of the orchestra who are mainly Jewish. His wife, whom he treats churlishly, dies after reminiscing about a child they once had which Yakov, quite unbelievably, can't recall. He then is cruel to Rothschild, a Jewish member of the orchestra, but then he happens upon the willow where his wife says they used to go and sit with the child. He then remembers the child and also realises wasted potential: he could have fished, raised geese, played his fiddle to audiences, but as it is he is owing one thousand roubles. Death, he considers, will bring relief.

While he is waiting to die (of the same fever that killed his wife), he plays his fiddle and Rothschild comes across him. Rothschild is much moved by his playing and Yakov regrets his cruelty to such an extent that he leaves Rothschild his fiddle (so it is not orphaned). After Yakov's death Rothschild and his fiddle are much in demand for their sad tunes.

I suppose, if the tale has a message, which I think actually it probably does not, it is to make the most of your talents and opportunities. A strange tale, and if anyone has come across it and has a view, I'd love to hear it.

The Student (1894)
A student of the clerical academy is walking home. It is cold, and this coldness seems important. He comes upon a couple of widows and tells them about Peter's betrayal of Christ (denying that Peter knows Christ three times before the cock crows). This makes the older widow, the mother, cry, and the younger widow, her daughter, look uncomfortable. The two women must have been moved by the story because what had happened nineteen centuries ago is related to present. The student realises that it was nothing to do with his narration but because the older widow's 'whole being was interested in what was happening in Peter's soul.' Joy stirs in the student's soul and the student thinks that 'the past is linked with the present by an unbroken chain of events flowing one out of the other. And it seemed to him that he had just seen both ends of the chain; that when he touched one end the other quivered.' The story ends by saying that 'life seemed to him enchanting, marvellous and full of lofty meaning.'

There is something about all this that I find oddly thrilling. I'm not sure I understand it all but it is invigorating, somehow, and I'm really glad I read it.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Chekhov Short Stories - sixth Installment.

The Siren's Song (1887)
Extremely comic piece; the judge has to write up his 'dissenting opinion' but unfortunately is attempting to do this while some other judges and the clerk are in the room. It is the clerk that is the problem: he insists on describing food and drink in such provocative and sensuous terms that one by one they are forced to leave the room. In the end the dissenting judge gives up. He has spoilt six versions, and he too leaves, and the clerk is left to gather up the papers. I imagine this scene working very well on the stage.

Sleepy (1888)
A description of how sleep deprivation can lead to infanticide. The poor maid Varka, who is just thirteen years old and has been forced by destitution into service to a tradesman, is expected to stay awake all night rocking the baby, and then function all day as a maid of all work. During the second night a hallucination, brought on by extreme exhaustion, allows her to see what is keeping her from sleeping. By the end of it the reader almost agrees with her that it is the only possible course of action.

The Grasshopper (1892)
The protagonist of the is story, Olga, is remarkably modern: ' She worshiped the famous, she was proud of them, she dreamed of them every night. She thirsted for celebrities and could never slake this thirst. Old friends disappeared and were forgotten, new ones came to take their place, but soon she grew tired of these too, or they disappointed her, and she began seeking new friends, new celebrities, and when she had found them, looking for others.'

This shallow, but rather familiar person, falls in love with a most unlikely person - the very ordinary doctor who tends her father through his final illness. At first they have a blissful existence. Soon, however, she starts an affair with an artist, and her husband innocently continues to support her and indulge her pointless life of artistic 'potential'. The affair sours but their relationship continues and the husband, even though he has by now realised the truth, continues to support her. The story ends with Olga interrupting the artist with a woman, the artist acknowledging that Olga is not an artist at all and the husband dying after catching diphtheria - so needlessly it is apparent that he had a death-wish. The final irony comes with Olga's realisation that her dead husband was, in fact, not ordinary at all. In fact he was the most extraordinary celebrity she had ever encountered in her life.

This is a story to read alongside any edition of a colour-supplement of a Sunday newspaper where people in the Arts are fêted as 'one-to-watch' and their glittering futures predicted with certainty; whereas the real celebrities, the ones that make an important difference to the world, tend to be neglected and ignored.

Style Tip:
Use a singular word form after each, either, everyone, everybody, neither, nobody, someone.
e.g. everybody in Chekhov's stories is Russian...well, more or less.

New Word:
feculent = containing dirt, sediment or waste matter.
Tabloid journalists are often on the look-out for feculent stories about celebrities.

Chekhov Short Stories - fifth Installment

The Chorus Girl (1886)
A 'chorus girl' seems to be a euphemism for a prostitute in Chekhov's time. I guess the chorus girls were really part of a chorus but part of the work was also to take gentlemen friends back to their boudoirs. This tale concerns one chorus girl called Pasha and her lover, Nikolai. Unfortunately for them Nikolai's young and beautiful wife discovers their liaison and calls upon them unexpectedly. Pasha's anfractuous conversation with her (while Nikolai hides) and the way Nikolai's wife extracts what she wants from the chorus girl (money or something of value) is very impressively written.

Dreams (1886)
Two soldiers are escorting a prisoner. One soldier is short and talkative, the other tall and stern; while the prisoner is small and weak. This is just a shortened description - Chekhov's, of course, is wonderfully vivid. Gradually, through their conversations the history of the prisoner is revealed. Although he is weak and puny, the prisoner's dreams have a powerful effect on all three men. The guards seem to become imprisoned by them, especially the shorter guard - and after they have heard them they continue to walk on in silence.

Vanka (1886)
This story is based on the writing of a letter: a boy of nine gradually reveals both the life to which he would like to return, and the wretched life that he leads now as a servant to a cobbler in Moscow. It ends poignantly with the boy happily thinking of his grandfather receiving his letter - even though the letter carries just his grandfather's name and no stamp and therefore, presumably, will never get there.

At Home (1887)
This story describes a father's attempt to discourage his seven year old son to stop smoking, but of course there is much more to the tale than this. It is also a study on how the mind of a child works, the differing relationship between parents and children, the morals of explaining what is right and wrong using stories and persuasion, and also the power of story telling (since it is this that finally persuades the child).

Meanwhile there is someone pacing on the floor upstairs, and someone monotonously practising scales on a piano. Both these noises are important and although the piano players eventually give up, the person on the floor above continues to pace. This seems to me to emphasise that the father's problems will always be there and, like most problems, they will always recur even when they are thought to be solved.

I particularly liked this passage: 'And thoughts such as these came floating into Bykovski's head; light evanescent thoughts such as only enter weary, resting brains. One knows not whence they are nor why they come; they stay but a short while and seem to spread across the surface of the brain without ever sinking very far into its depths.'

It is a very affectionate portrait; the father succeeds by telling the boy a parable: the prince in a story who smokes dies young and thereby destroys his father and his father's kingdom. This clearly affects the boy and he says he will no longer smoke. The son loves his father just as much as the father loves the son.

A Disturbing Interruption

On Thursday I got a phone call from my brother, who is a consultant at a hospital, to tell me that my father had had a massive stroke, was in a coma, and was not expected to last very long. However, just before Hodmandod Senior and I got there the next morning, my brother rang again to tell me my father was showing signs of improvement, and when I got there the obstinate man was sitting up in bed and fairly lucid, at least some of the time. No one knows what was or is wrong with him, and my brother says we should all take just one day at a time, so I am just relishing now. My mother is bearing up quite well, given the circumstances.

So now I am back at my desk trying to put my brain in order; a rather difficult task since I seem to have misplaced just about everything. I have, in the meantime, read rather a lot of Chekhov, and the resumés will follow shortly.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Good-bye blog for a while

I have to go away for a while. I hope to be back soon.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Chekhov Short Stories - fourth installment

The story starts describing a young man called Savka whose 'favourite state is one of concentrated immobility'. He is also handsome, clever and powerful but because he cannot bring himself to work, lived like a vagabond - and is consequently sent by the commune to take an old man's place as a watchman and scarecrow. When the narrator visits him they are caught up with a conversation about nightingales, which goes on into the evening, until Savka remarks that Agatha is about to visit. It is only then that the most important facet of this young man's personality slips in: he is a adulterer and, like the young medical student in the previous story, treats women with contempt.

Agatha comes, but the young man is distracted chasing after a bird, and Agatha, lulled by vodka and promises of his company, stays after nightfall - even though she knows that her liaison will soon be discovered. The story end with her walk, the next morning, back to her husband who is waiting for her. The way in which Agatha makes that final walk - striding boldly and then stopping, looking back, sinking, before finally finding the courage to continue, is interspersed with comments about what both parties must be feeling, and is extremely memorable.

Grisha is two years and eight months old and is making his first journey into the outside and 'every inch of his awkward little figure...bespoke a boundless perplexity'. The day is full of incident - ordinary things made mysterious because they are being experienced for the first time. Some of it is funny and poor Grisha ends the day being fed castor oil because the outing seems not to have agreed with his stomach and has given him fever.

A Gentleman Friend (1886)
Vanda, a party girl, has fallen on hard times. All we know is that she has just left hospital and the only money she has is a rouble from the sale of her only jewelry: a turquoise ring. She feels shabby and in order to re-enter her previous world she needs a little money to buy a hat and shoes. Her shabbiness affects her outlook, her confidence and her character. At last she finds the courage to visit a gentleman friend - a dentist - whom she thinks will help. But he (of course) doesn't recognise her in her servant's clothing and her new more humble demeanor. She also sees him in a different light; in the light of everyday he seems ugly. Vanda has her tooth needlessly extracted for which she pays her only rouble. The story ends on a happy note: the next Evening Vanda, clad somehow in hat and shoes, is back partying in her club.

I like the way this story doesn't try to explain the changes in Vanda's life. All that seems to be of interest to Chekhov is the effect this temporary poverty on Vanda. I think it is a metaphorical piece on life in general; how success attracts, and how quickly a downturn in fortune can cause a person to feel alone.

Style Tip
The number of the subject determines the number of the verb.

e.g. The message of this story - like all of Chekhov's stories I have read so far - is survival.
or...One of the best writers in Russia who are translated into English.

New Word.
gadfly = a fly that bites livestock or, figuratively, an annoying person, especially one who provokes other into action by criticism.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Bus passengers.

It is strange how I remember just snatches from my day: an elderly woman alighting from the bus, her eyes a faded blue, which brought to mind what I'd read this morning - how it is possible to dislodge cataracts with a blow on the head, or a poke near the iris with a needle, and how the Romans did this all the time, and which also explains something that puzzled me for some time - because the Inuit did this too, but I wasn't sure how, until now. She was tiny, this old woman. She picked her way along like a sparrow, smiling and thanking the people around her, and I thought how I hoped I would be like her: happy and mobile, pretty, even though my face is as crumpled as padding paper, and exuding a contentment that made people want to nod and smile back.

And then there is this: the middle-aged man with Down's syndrome, small and slight, a fringe of hair around his head, receding from both top and bottom, black and grey, anxiously keeping watch for his stop, getting up and then sitting down again, then standing for so long that a couple of youths have to edge past him in their black padded jackets, and I looked at his face, seemed new, somehow, despite its age, as if some inner innocence kept it smooth.

New Word:
torpid = mentally or physically inactive, lethargic (of an animal = dormant).

No style tip tonight. I have left it too late and I am tired.

Chekhov Short Stories - third installment

Francine Prose says that reading Chekhov makes her feel happy. I think she cannot be thinking of the story I read next with its very apt name: Misery (1886).
It is about an elderly coachman whose son has just died. He desperately needs to talk about it but no one is interested. Fare after fare treat him with disdain and contempt. It is almost unbearably sad. I read this first thing in the morning and I felt it was going to colour my whole day so I moved quickly on to the next.

Which is The Requiem (1886).
This again is about a man whose child has recently died, and this is sad too, but not in the aching way of Misery. The sadness here is because the father seems unmoved by his daughter's death, and expresses sorrow merely because she lived her life 'as a harlot'. In other words she had become an actress, and from the short snatches of his recalled conversation with her it is possible for the reader to see how much she too regrets her life and her distance from her father; and yet the man himself can do nothing but condemn her - both in life and death. It's an excellent story because so much is conveyed in very few words.

Anyuta (1886) I read going on the bus into town.
The 'heroine' of the piece is a girl who is generally taken for granted by the medical student who allows her to share his room. She is a drudge but we see her mainly from the point of view of the medical student, and he treats her coldly and without affection. After he has told her 'We must part!' her lip begins to tremble. She puts on her coat and gathers up her things, and in doing so she finds some sugar wrapped in paper and lays it on the table by the books.
'That's...your sugar....' she says softly, and turned away to conceal her tears.
'Why are you crying?' asks the medical student, and I could hardly help but feel tearful with her.

Ah, rejection is such a miserable thing - everyone experiences it at one time or another, but I think writers tend to experience it more than most.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Chekhov short stories - second installment.

I have decided to work my way through a collection of Chekhov stories in order to try and improve my writing. Here are three I have read today:

Oysters (1884).

A starving child sees a sign above a restaurant advertising oysters. He asks his father (a beggar) what they are and he is told they are marine animals. He then imagines eating them. When he finds out later that they are eaten alive his imaginings become grotesque but still he eats. Eventually he calls out for them and is taken in and given some by passers-by. He ends up back in his room with his father (who has still eaten nothing) musing that he should have asked for some money off the rich people who had paid enough for 5 dinners for the oysters.

A Living Chronology (1885).
Very funny. An elderly man recounting how lively his town used to be to a dashing 40 year old officer. The elderly man's wife, who is 30 and a little more listens. The old man remembers past events and important visitors according to the births of his children - but plus a year. It is only when the third child is described as swarthy (and whose arrival) was about a year after a visit from some dark Asiatics that I realised but then I am pretty stupid about these things.

The Huntsman (1885).
A sad affecting story. A 40 year old handsome huntsman suddenly encounters a 30 year old female herd-girl in a lane (who turns out to be his wife). Through their conversation and a kind of omniscient view-point - which freely enters both heads - it becomes obvious that she loves him but he has no interest in her. She pleads with him to come back and he retorts that he only married her when drunk. At the end he gives her a rouble.

Style Tip:
A dash is a stronger separation than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses. Can be used to set off an abrupt break and to announce a long appositive or summary.

e.g. Chekhov seems to not follow any obvious point of view - other than that of perhaps omniscient narrator - and I suspect that consideration of such things was unimportant to him.

Use a dash only when other more common marks of punctuation seem inadequate. This is something I need to pay attention to - I tend to use the dash much too readily. Heh.

New Word:
bridled = bring something under control or showing resentment or anger especially by throwing up the head or drawing in the chin (from action of horse's head when bridled in).

SERIOUS THINGS by Gregory Norminton in the Sunday Telegraph

I have been trying to write a review of Gregory Norminton's book SERIOUS THINGS but find that Neel Mukherjee of the The Sunday Telegraph has done it for me. It ends: "...his scaling of the treacherous cliffs of the human heart will take your breath away." It's a great review and very accurate in my opinion.

A Winter Weekend For Bookaholics

The last couple of summers I was guest-author at Roujan in France on a Booklovers holiday - part of 7 day wonder holidays which is run by a very enthusiastic and hard-working couple - Zoe and Lee.

Apart from the books there was also food. Lee and Zoe are excellent cooks and I am sure their meals would win the approval of any gourmet. The wine also flows in generous amounts - and I saw a lot of happy and contented faces each time I went. You meet some very interesting and like-minded people and it is very relaxing to just indulge yourself reading and talking about books. It is a bookaholic's dream.

This year they are running a Winter weekend break with the critically acclaimed author, Charles Palliser, in this wonderful-looking place, a 16th century mansion house in Garrotxa in Catalonia...

The holiday features:
a 'meet-the-author' session;
walks in the nearby woods;
book group sessions;
fantastic suppers;
fireside stories with mulled wine;
and a general sharing of a love of literature.

It starts on the 28th February - and there are still some places left. For further information see their website here. I wish I could go but I can't at the moment.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Fifteen Sunday Salon: 19.47

Just reading a little Chekhov before finishing (as prescribed by Francine Prose). The first story in this collection is THE CHAMELEON. It's an amusing tale: a dog bites a man then a policeman is summoned. Then, for the rest of the story, the policeman blames either the man or the dog - his opinion depending on his changing perception of the importance of the dog's owner. It is a satirical and accurate depiction of the squirming nature of all politicians everywhere.

Style Tip:
Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list. an appositive, an amplification or an illustrative quotation.
e. g. Chekhov seems to have been a compulsive short story writer: there are thirty six in this anthology alone.

New Word:
colophon = publisher's symbol or imprint - especially on the spine or title page.

Fifteenth Sunday Salon 15.05

Just finished The GENIZAH AT THE HOUSE OF SHEPHER. It seems to me to be a book that is mainly about family history; a kind of quest for roots and belonging, which is caused by the appearance of a codex. This quest is important for the protagonist, Shulamit, since she has come to realise that she is going to be the last of her line.
'It was then that I realised I would never have children. For to have children you must have something to hand on. Either that or the fervour of beginning. I possessed no such fervour; and how could you hand on something when you are floating in a void? All I could give would be memories and longing, a sense of dislocation, a source of pain.'

At the centre are a couple of love affairs (hers and her father's) which have dictated the course of the Shulamit's life; and the book is, in some ways, a study and exploration of this too. I like the way an almost biblical (and sometimes an actually biblical) traditional narrative gradually merges with the modern day. Distant times eventually become the familiar events of recent history, and this helped me identify with the characters as the book proceeded. The story centres around the discovery of a codex; but this in itself is unimportant. It is the effect of the codex on the family that counts, and the way that discovery can shape and perturb. At the end of it I feel I have learnt a lot: about Jewish history; and also what it feels like to be dislocated and displaced.

Apart from doing a little housework all I have done is sat here and read. A very indulgent Sunday.

Another Sunday Salon

I have just discovered via Matthew Cheney's blog, Mumpsimus, that there is another Sunday Salon, a physical one with a tripartite structure in three different cities (New York City, Nairobi and Chicago); and Matthew is reading at it today in New York City.

Matthew Cheney is an excellent writer. I've read one of his stories out to a couple of groups recently and it evoked the sort of concentrated listening that only happens when the audience is utterly involved. It sounds like a great evening and I wish I could be there.

Fifteenth Sunday Salon 11.20

Outside the sky has the watery whiteness of whey. The fog is a surprise because yesterday the air smelt of spring. I should have gone to aerobics but I spent too long over breakfast talking to Hodmandod Senior, and I am still in my pyjamas now, reading Tamar Yellin's book. Everything is quiet. A man in a flat cap walks briskly by, and once he is past it is as if the street settles down again into stillness. It is a good day for reading.

Tamar Yellin is especially good on evoking a sense of place. I particularly like her description of Tel Aviv:
'This is the city which was founded on sand by zionists, and look what it has become. A tangle of dead ends and one-ways, unexpected barriers and sudden pavement. A labyrinth designed to fox the visitor. A city which began as a dream and grew dense, like a jungle; which began white and is now a general grey. The white visions of the dream have turned dark with salt. a hot moiture hangs in polluted air: the air pounds with the noise of traffic and work, sirens and horns and the hearts of hundreds of thousands of people.'
I have never been to Tel Aviv, but now feel I have a good impression of the place.

Fifteenth Sunday Salon 8.20

I like books that make me think; and Tamar Yellin's book, THE GENIZAH AT THE HOUSE OF SHEPHER certainly does that.

The narrator reflects on her face, noting which aspects resemble her mother's ('The line of my jaw was hers. I had to acknowledge that. I disliked the line of my jaw which was too heavy'), and her father's ('I had his colouring and his eyes. I was not dark. My hair was light gold, like his, my eyes blue; I had dry pale lips which split open in winter'). But although she prefers to see her father in her face, she doesn't want to believe that she resembles either of them.

I think we all want this for ourselves. I am told by everyone that I strongly resemble my mother and I don't much like to be told this. It is not because of how my mother looks, but because I just want to look like myself, which I think I do.

The narrator also points out that 'It was my opinion that I looked English' (unlike her parents who were not). Her uncle replies '"Of course you looked English. You've lived your whole life in England." Uncle Cobby said with authority, "you would look like us."' I think this is true as well; the way we look is fashioned by where, and also when we live. It is not just the superficial things like hairstyle and make-up, but there are subtler differences too: the repetition of speaking the local language probably hones the structure of our throats; gestures like a shrug may cause us to hold our shoulders in a certain way; or an oft-expressed and fashionable cynicism might cause frown lines of a sneer. Then there is the effect of poverty or pollution or a hard life carrying children or coals - or a wealthy life spent in the sun or massaged daily in what perhaps are rejuvenating oils; all these would have an effect. Slowly we become a part of where and when we live and how we live; our surroundings become ingrained so deeply they eventually become part of us.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

What I'm Doing 15

What I'm listening to :
Alice's Champagne Palace from Ellis Paul's Album AMERICAN JUKE BOX FABLES. This is one of my favourite end-of-day albums because I find the man has a very soothing voice.

What I last watched:
CLOSER. Excellent film. I loved just about everything about it - the acting, the story, and, most importantly, the music.

What I'm reading: The GENIZAH at the HOUSE OF SHEPHER by Tamar Yellin. I've had this on my bookshelf for a long time. Tamar Yellin is a scholar of Hebrew and Greek and I am learning a lot about Jewish history and culture which I am finding quite fascinating. The book, so far, is set in Jerusalem. It has a very attractive mythic quality which reminds me a lot of Edward Whittemore's masterpiece, SINAI TAPESTRY. A good read.

What I'm wearing: ankle length bright red cord skirt, boots, turquoise jumper and blue coat. Hodmandod Senior bought me the coat as a surprise about six birthdays ago and I still love it very much. The long skirt is, of course, not very practical, and I have had some close shaves going down stairs and I don't know what I like wearing such things, but I do.

What I'm lusting after: a Macbook Air (saw one in the Apple shop today. It was gorgeous and I want one.)

Style Tip:
Do not break sentences in two. That is do not use periods (full-stops) for commas.

e.g. NOT...Today I saw a Macbook Air. Brought out like a piece of black market merchandise from the back of the Apple shop (it is not due for release until 18th February).

New Word (from Bloomsbury)
machicolation = An opening at the top of a castle wall through which boiling oil or missiles could be cast down upon a besieging force. The act of so doing.
Obviously a somewhat specialised term - but I can imagine it has some good metaphorical possibilities.

Friday, February 08, 2008

New Words

Today I am going to post a little test for myself. I am going to list the new words that I have come across and described in previous posts and put their meanings in comments.


Thursday, February 07, 2008

Les Miserables.

Dr. Grump just found this poem by Jacques Prévert (from Paroles, 1946) which made a big impression on her when she was studying French at O level. There are some other poems by Jacques Prévert just here.

'Bit miserable, aren't they?' I said - but that's the point, apparently. She says she likes it because there is so much unsaid in the gaps and it reminds her of her unhappy relationship with Dr. Winstanley from the department of Meteorology.

Déjeuner du matin

Il a mis le café
Dans la tasse
Il a mis le lait
Dans la tasse de café
Il a mis le sucre
Dans le café au lait
Avec la petite cuiller
Il a tourné
Il a bu le café au lait
Et il a reposé la tasse
Sans me parler

Il a allumé
Une cigarette
Il a fait des ronds
Avec la fumée
Il a mis les cendres
Dans le cendrier
Sans me parler
Sans me regarder

Il s'est levé
Il a mis
Son chapeau sur sa tête
Il a mis son manteau de pluie
Parce qu'il pleuvait
Et il est parti
Sous la pluie
Sans une parole
Sans me regarder

Et moi j'ai pris
Ma tête dans ma main
Et j'ai pleuré.

Style Tip
If the second clause (from yesterday) is preceded by an adverb (e.g. accordingly, besides, then, therefore or thus) then the semicolon is still required.

e.g. Sometimes Dr. Grump likes to wallow alone in tears and sadness; then I just hand her the box of tissues and close the door.

New Word
anfractuous (from Bloomsbury) = sinuous or circuitous.
Dr Grump often prefers an anfractous explanation.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Gym Philosophising

'Ever come here, Tuesday?'
'No, why?'
'You should come, Tuesday. There's a Roman Centurion. He's...'
'I've seen him in town, showing the kids around.'
'He doesn't wear much, does he?'
'I changed groups. I was with the fat centurion, but when I saw him I changed groups.'
'He does weights. I look at him doing the weights...'
'Yeah. Me too. Didn't look at the Roman stuff - was too busy looking at him.'
'What do they chant? Do you hear them?'
'Something in Latin, isn't it?'
'That Roman Centurion, though. You should go on a Tuesday.'
'All he wears is that loin cloth...'
'And some armour.'
'Not that he notices me.'
'That's coz you're married, see Lind.'
'No one whistles at me any more neither.'
'They must know you're married.'
'Yeah, that must be it.'
'Can't jump as much now, either.'
'Getting old.'
'Yeah, I suppose.'

Style Tip
Independent clauses should not be joined with a comma.
If two or more grammatically complete sentences are not joined by a conjunction then a semicolon should be used. Alternatively the two clauses could be either made into two complete sentences separated by a period (full-stop) or joined by a comma and then a conjunction.

e.g. Dr Grump frequently overhears conversation at the gym; sometimes she attempts to find an empathy that really isn't there, and this saddens her and further increases her sense of isolation.

New Word

lascivious = feeling or revealing overt and often offensive sexual desire.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Conversations of Enlightenment.

The conversation with the eminent doctor flew past so quickly that we only got through half my questions in an hour - whereupon he had to go to a meeting. So we are going to do the same thing tomorrow night. I am delighted about this since it gives me time to write it up, mull over answers and clarify things.

Style Tip
Two part sentences which are introduced by as (meaning because), for, or , nor, or while (in the sense of 'at the same time') also require a comma before the conjunction.

I am going to go on a long journey, as I am searching for new ideas and magical places.

New Word
Ingenuous = innocent and unsuspecting

An Aural Palimpsest.

Tonight an eminent doctor in Alaksa has very kindly agreed to an interview for my new project. However the time difference makes things a little awkward because 1800hrs GMT = 0900hrs AMT.

But how strange and wonderful I think this is: his evening to my morning, his snow and ice to my cool but temperate wind - and the words coming down the wire, bouncing off satellites, and landing in my little room. I have thought up questions and sent them to him by email, and now I am checking my recording device. I shall make notes as well, but sometimes it is difficult to keep track.

Now I am clearing my tapes and, as I do, I listen to words spoken years long before, and immediately I am back there: in a sunny outhouse in Patagonia talking to a descendant of a person I am still writing about; or in an Art Gallery in Manchester talking to a member of the British Council; or in a small office in the cathedral square in Chester talking to a festival organiser. Snippets of a lucky life, I tell myself.

I listen one last time before I regretfully decide to record on top. But maybe, just maybe, some trace of each voice will remain, at least I hope so - like a vague fond memory or an aural palimpsest.

Monday, February 04, 2008

My Article in DWELL... on-line now with a rather gorgeous picture here.

Style Tip
A comma should be placed before a conjunction (and) introducing an independent clause.

e.g. My article in DWELL has gone on-line, and I am so pleased that now my friends all over the world can see it.

New Word.
apotheosis = highest point in the development of something

An Interview with Caroline Smailes.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, on Saturday I went to Caroline Smailes's book signing in Waterstones in Chester.

The genesis of Caroline's book is an interesting one, since it owes much to the internet and blogging. She has kindly agreed to answer a few questions about both her first book, IN SEARCH OF ADAM, and her two new publications.

Caroline Smailes was born in Newcastle in 1973. She moved to the North West to study English Literature at Liverpool University, before going on to specialise in Linguistics. A chance remark on a daytime chat show caused Caroline to reconsider her life. She enrolled on an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) in September 2005 and began to write IN SEARCH OF ADAM.

Caroline lives in the North West with her husband and three children. Her debut novel IN SEARCH OF ADAM. was published in June 2007, selling out of its first print run within ten days.

The Interview
General Questions.

C.D. Do you have any connection with snails?
C.S. Erm … my mother craved them when pregnant with me. They’re quite a Maltese specialty, served in a spicy tomato sauce.

C.D. What is your proudest moment?
C.S. Personal, being a sense of survival. Professional, the launch party of IN SEARCH OF ADAM.

C.D. Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
C.S. Yes (cringe), I watched a lunchtime repeat of Richard and Judy. They referred to someone as a ‘nearly woman,’ implying that she was an individual who never quite did what she stated that she would. I was having my lunch and was struck by a realisation that I was a ‘nearly woman.’ I’d been saying that I wanted to write, that I would write a novel, but I was doing nothing about it. I was studying a PhD in linguistics, yet no longer enthused.
I decided (after a few email exchanges with a friend) to commit to writing, not wanting to spend the rest of my life telling people that I ‘nearly’ wrote a novel. Within the following two weeks, I gave up my Ph.D. and enrolled on an M.A. in Creative writing.

C.D. What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
C.S. I’ve seen and heard far too many sad things. It’s hard to rank them in a specific order. My instinct is to say the voice a child who has been abused. The loss of innocence, of stolen childhood, has to be amongst the saddest that I have heard and seen.

C.D. If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
C.S. This alters daily; today I’d say my name. I’d prefer to be more exotic sounding like Anastasia or Lola or Trixibelle. Ask me tomorrow and I’ll probably say my face. I’d love to have several identities and altered looks.

C.D. What is happiness?
C.S. An abstract noun, often spelt incorrectly.

C.D. What is the first thing you do when you get up?
C.S. I’m a creature of habit. I put on my glasses.

Questions about Caroline's work.

C.D. How did you get published?
C.S. I finished In Search of Adam and launched my blog and website in August 2006, mainly to try and seek advice about how to write a synopsis and letter to an agent. I’d been blogging for three weeks, when Clare Christian from The Friday Project stumbled onto my blog. She requested my manuscript and within three days I had a publishing contract. This sounds very easy and straightforward, but the year before this I’d given up a Ph.D. in my second year of study, favouring an MA in Creative Writing over a Ph.D. in linguistics. I’d committed to writing and had completed In Search of Adam during the first year of my M.A.

C.D. Can you tell me a little about the themes and origins of your novel IN SEARCH OF ADAM.?
C.S. Suicide, Sexual abuse, self harm, eating disorders, love, loss, redemption. Am I selling this as a cheery read? The story develops through a number of thematic threads, aiming to present an authentic depiction of the consequences, of the spiral after sexual abuse. The themes are layered with religious and fairytale imagery, hoping to illustrate loss of innocence and confusion surrounding the existence, or rather identity, of a God who allows others to harm innocent children.
As the novel is told from a limited first person perspective, I utilised the white space and altered fonts to add stress, emphasis of voice or adjusted mood within the presentation of the words.

C.D. Please would you tell me a little about your new novella, DISRAELI AVENUE?
C.S. When writing In search of Adam I was rather meticulous (some would say anal) in my preparation. The main character (Jude) lived on a street of 32 houses. I developed detailed back stories for each of the characters, within each of the houses. I went as far as detailing car registrations, front door colours, ages … I liked the detail.
The back stories were sometimes referred to within snippets of gossip, but mainly used to maintain consistency. Disraeli Avenue has been born out of the back stories. I have produced 32 flashes, 32 stories working my way along the houses within Disraeli Avenue. The stories and characters weave together and also into, or rather echoing, In Search of Adam. Disraeli Avenue will be released as a free download, with voluntary donations going direct to the charity One in Four.

C.D. What does this charity do?
C.S. One in Four is an organisation run for and by people who have experienced sexual abuse or sexual violence. They offer unconditional support and advice to those who need it. They’re a small charity, so I know that all donations will make a difference, will be significant.

C.D. What made you make the decision to donate the proceeds to charity?
C.S. A number of people have reacted to IN SEARCH OF ADAM., they have identified with the abuse that the main character experienced. The number one is four, that one in four individuals will have experienced some form of sexual abuse before the age of eighteen, is alarming. After writing In Search of Adam, after hearing reactions and after realising how lucky so many are to have survived, I knew that I wanted to find a way to give something back to those whose lives have been touched by abuse. The charity One in Four was suggested to me by a blog reader. I will not be charging for the e-book, rather offering the option to give a voluntary donation.

6. C.D. How is the publishing process in producing an e-book different from publishing a conventional novel? In particular, how does it affect you as a writer?
C.S. So far the process has been similar to that of a conventional novel, but clearly a lot quicker. I finished the first draft of the novella at the end of December. Clare Christian (from The Friday Project) read and edited the story mid January. I then contacted the typesetter (Wordsense Ltd) who had worked on In Search of Adam and she agreed to work on DISRAELI AVENUE, free of charge. The first proofs were produced within a week and are currently being read. I also contacted SnowAngels and they produced a front cover, again free of charge. I wanted to maintain a consistency between the format of In Search of Adam and Disraeli Avenue, so was thrilled that professionals were willing to support my need to complete this project.
The process lacks production and financial restrictions, so has been a lot smoother. I have been involved creatively, writing front cover briefs and in direct contact with the typesetter, so this is a very new creative experience. I have maintained all rights, not signed a contract for the novella, so there would be a possibility of it being morphed into another form (current thinking being a monologue play of sorts) and, of course, there is no financial gain. I will not be making money from the free download, which will be available from February 18.

7. C.D. As well as DISRAELI AVENUE you have another novel coming out in July called BLACK BOXES. Are the themes similar to those of your first book, IN SEARCH OF ADAM?
C.S. I guess that the recurring shared themes in my work flow as loss, neglect and growth or perhaps redemption. Black Boxes is a very insular novel, a monologue that is crying out for performance. There are two voices heard, a mother and a daughter. The story stems around the mother’s (Ana’s) monologue which spills details of her life, her loss and her inability to exist within the present day. The monologue is then interrupted by the daughter’s (Pip’s) voice, a diary which offers details of the neglectful existence that she and her brother (Davie) are enduring. Then, finally, there are sign language drawings, the communication between Pip and Davie, included to show the silence, Davie’s inability to voice his distress. I guess that all of my writing has focus on voice and voicing.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Fifteenth Sunday Salon 20.28

Before I started Mr. Pip I was lucky to come across Anne S's post on her stay in the Solomon Islands. It's a lovely post full of pictures of the time she went to stay there with her uncle. Her visit was even at around the same time as the book - 1990 - and there is a girl she describes there, who is, for me, Matilda. I recommend this if you want to get a feel for the setting of Mr. Pip.

I shall finish this book fairly soon, I think. I am enjoying it very much. The last chapter I read was surreal and I loved it. One of the villagers instructed the children on what is blue. Blue, she said, crashes onto a reef and releases white. It 'belongs to the sky and can't be nicked...' 'Blue is the gap in the air of all things...' Wonderful.

It's strange but what I read today chimed with the posts of many other Salonists: viz TableTalk on descriptions of reading, and Crafty People who recently acquired Mr. Pip too, but hers had a very irritating non-sticker which spoilt the cover. I love these connections - it makes me really feel part of a community.

I shall finish here, I think.

Style Tip
Restrictive clauses are not parenthetic and should not be set off by commas. A sentence with a restrictive clause cannot be divided into two sentences.
The book sitting on my desk refers to a book by Charles Dickens (restrictive).
(cf. The book, which is sitting on my desk, refers to a book by Charles Dickens. (nonrestrictive)). Think that's right.

New Word.
mythopoeia (from Bloomsbury site) = the making of myth.
According to Bloomsbury it is 'the deliberate and knowing creation of myth'.
Which may be a polite (or mystifying) way of calling someone a liar, I suppose.

Fifteenth Sunday Salon 17.42

Slow progress, as usual. Since reading Francine Prose I feel no compulsion to rush. I read and reread because some words, even the simplest ones, are best savoured.

After the first couple of pages I was a little worried about this book. I think I am the only person on the planet who has not taken to the fiction of McCall Smith. I'm afraid it reminded me of the adventures of Brer Rabbit, but I know I am pretty much alone in that.

However, in Mr. Pip things soon picked up enormously; some simple writing, I find, is actually very deep. The voice of an adolescent can give a unique viewpoint, especially one as earnest and searching at Matilda's. I have read a couple of teenage narrators recently but this is the voice I like the best. There is a strange knowing innocence about the voice. She lets things drop into her account with the detail she gives: her mother turns over on her mat for instance - so from that we learn that they sleep on the floor.

I particularly like the passages that describe the effect of listening to a story has on the children. No one had told 'us kids' that they could find friend in a book. 'Or that you could slip inside the skin of another.'

There are passages that made me laugh out loud; here is one of the children's mothers giving them some 'cooking tips'.
'To kill an octopus bite it above the eyes. When cooking a turtle place it shell down first.' ...'To kill a pig, get two fat uncles to place a board across its throat.'
In response to the teacher asking how big those uncles had to be she says:
'Fat ones. Fat ones is good. skinny no bloody good.'

Then, immediately after that passage, the villagers run into the jungle in panic after helicopters are heard. He describes them hiding:
'Everywhere in the shadows I saw sweating faces. We tried to blend in with the stillness of the trees. Some stood. Other crouched; those mums with little ones crouched. They stuck their teats into the mouths of their babies to shut them up.'

This is followed by a passage about an old dead dog, which is incredibly moving.

Reading this book has helped me with my own work. The other day I wrestled with the word 'ululation' - should I use this instead of 'howl with grief'? Is it really any better? Orwell would say no, I think, because everyone knows what it is to howl whereas ululation might make some people, like me a few days ago, reach for the dictionary. Reading Mr. Pip has convinced me to stick with howl.