The Lure of London’s Literary Links

I tried to find more ‘l’ words to add to the alliteration, but this will have to do for now.

Petina Gappah in The Independent.
Petina Gappah in The Independent.

One of the advantages of moving back to the UK and living just a short train hop from London is that I can now attend some of the bookish events which I could previously only dream about and retweet enviously. Let me tell you about a couple I’ve attended and some which I won’t be able to attend, but which sound intriguing.

The Word Factory Salon: Sex and Death and Anais Nin (Waterstones Piccadilly, 10th Sept.)

Michele Roberts in Aesthetica Magazine.
Michele Roberts in Aesthetica Magazine.

An unusual evening, as it covered multiple topics: the launch of a short story anthology Sex and Death, edited by Peter Hobbs and Sarah Hall, with readings from the book; reading from a previously unpublished story by Anais Nin (which caused a little bit of embarrassment); and a lively, informal literary debate about Jane Eyre, squirmishness in writing about sex, and cultural approaches to death. I had the pleasure of seeing two writers formerly associated with the Geneva Writers’ Group at this event: Petina Gappah has lived and worked in Geneva for a number of years, while Michèle Roberts was an unforgettable guest instructor. Petina is one of the funniest panelists I’ve had the pleasure of seeing, while Michèle is thoughtful and perfectly candid at all times.

I have made a note of Word Factory, a national organisation dedicated to studying and celebrating the short story form, and hope to attend more of their events.

Lunch with Zygmunt Miłoszewski (19th Sept.)

Zygmunt explaining to English speakers how to pronounce his surname.
Zygmunt explaining to English speakers how to pronounce his surname.

One of the most promising Polish authors of recent years, Miłoszewski is best known for his gritty crime fiction trilogy featuring prosecutor Teodor Szacki, but he has explored other genres (horror, young adult fantasy) and is currently writing a literary novel about an old couple who get the chance to relive their lives in an alternative post-war Poland. I love the way Zygmunt discusses insidious problems in contemporary Polish society via his crime novels, and getting a chance to talk to him about the ways in which our respective countries have changed since ‘opening up to the West’ was enlightening. This was also an opportunity to meet Zygmunt’s translator, the ebullient Antonia Lloyd-Jones, who taught herself Polish (after studying Russian at university), and several reviewers whose knowledge I hugely admire, such as Barry Forshaw (of Brit Noir and Nordic Noir fame), Karen Robinson from the Sunday Times and Boyd Tonkin, great supporter of translated fiction and founder of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

In case you are wondering what on earth I was doing in such elevated company – I was representing the Crime Fiction Lover website (our editor Garrick Webster lives a bit further away from London and passed on his invitation to me). Thank you, Midas PR, for my first literary lunch!

Launch of Louise Beech’s second book (Waterstones Piccadilly, 22nd Sept.)

I wasn’t actually aware that the launch of Louise Beech’s novel The Mountain in My Shoe was happening that very evening, but I was going to London anyway to attend the event just below. Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books told me about it on Twitter, so I couldn’t resist. Where would I be without my Twitter recommendations?

Crime in the Court (Goldsboro Books, 22nd Sept.)

Did you know that the very first trip I made when I came to London to study was to Cecil Court to see the (now-defunct) Dance Bookshop and leaf through the books at all the other glorious bookshops on that hidden corner of central London? It’s a very special place to me, and so I can’t think of a better venue for a crime writing mingle with many of my favourite authors attending: Sarah Hilary, Alex Marwood, Kate Medina, Stav Sherez, Sarah Ward, Belinda Bauer and many more.

Pictures from last year's event, from Goldsboro Books website.
Pictures from last year’s event, from Goldsboro Books website.

Below are events which I sadly won’t be able to attend, as I also have to earn a living rather than just spend money on train tickets:

First Monday for Crime (City University, 3rd Oct.)

SJ Watson, Antonia Hodgson, Stuart Neville and William Ryan will talk about their books and crime in general, in a panel moderated by Karen Robinson.

London Literature Festival (South Bank, 5-16 October)

In a world which is starting to be frighteningly close to the realm of science fiction, how can the imagination give us access to other worlds which cast light back on our own? And what role can writers play in showing us better worlds to come? That’s the theme of this year’s festival in and around the South Bank, where writers, futurologists and transhumanists (whatever that might be) will come together to celebrate the power of the imagination to take us beyond our expectations as a species. I am trying to convince my older son that he would love the Young Adult Weekender event.

Words at King’s Place

I once attended an excellent event on translation here, during one of my multiple business trips to London. It’s a new cultural venue and has a varied and extremely tempting programme of classical music, jazz and spoken word events. I’ve been wistfully eyeing the Poetry London Autumn Launch, the homage to John Berger, and ‘Up at a Villa’ – about that fateful summer of 1816 when Frankenstein and other monsters were unleashed on the world. And all from the shores of placid Lake Geneva! [This is the next best thing to actually staying in the villa itself.]

Villa Diodati, Geneva
Villa Diodati, Geneva

Quick Reviews: Kate Tempest, David Peace

tempestKate Tempest: The Bricks that Built the Houses

Becky, Harry, and Leon are leaving London in a fourth-hand Ford with a suitcase full of stolen money, in a mess of tangled loyalties and impulses. But can they truly leave the city that’s in their bones?

That’s the blurb. And the story takes us back to nearly a year before this significant moment, to see what led them to desperate measures. I have a hard time making up my mind about this book. There were aspects of it I really liked: the nuanced observation of life in South London, the ability to squeeze so much in a single sentence or description, the ear for dialogue. Plenty of raw emotion too, helping everyone to understand the younger generation better. Yet overall, the structure and the interplay between characters did not quite hold together for me. Too many coincidences, although I could relate with the characters’ struggle to find jobs and meaning in an urban life full of compromises and rejection.

However, Kate Tempest is a very talented and innovative poet and performer, and also a playwright, so I will always read anything she has to offer. She even has rapped with a band and brought out an album. Here is one song which seems to fit well with the novel: ‘The Beigeness’.

tokyozeroDavid Peace: Tokyo Year Zero

David Peace is another performance poet. This became clear to me when I saw him reading from his books in Lyon. He has a sensitive ear, so highly tuned to oral storytelling and any kind of sound effect. So many will find the excessive use of onomatopoeia exasperating (even I did at times, no matter how kindly disposed I am towards the author), but I can discern a purpose to all this. It’s the soundtrack of a  postwar Japan which has hit rock-bottom, has lost its soul, is being humiliated and punished (but also rebuilt). This is most certainly not going to appeal to everyone. The almost unbearably graphic portrayal of the Victors and Losers, the city teeming in bad smells, lice, prostitution, hammering. Peace describes the hunger and despair, the daily suicides and train delays, the overcrowding, with all the juxtapositions and repetitions of a rapper.

A very brief summary of the plot: A serial killer seems to be preying on vulnerable young women in 1946 Tokyo but the police are too frightened for their own jobs, too shaken by the trauma of war and the daily crime and horrors they encounter. The unreliable, frenzied, unlikable main character Detective Minami seems to be the only one stubbornly pursuing leads.

As usual in a David Peace novel, there is little comfort or fluffiness or redemption to be expected. An admirable experiment, but one that will divide readers like Marmite.

Bastille Day and Some Reading Recommendations

Bastille Day has dawned nice and sunny, but clouds are on their way in, thunderstorms are predicted, so the fireworks this evening may be a trifle muffled and damp.

For this last 14th July that I am spending in France, I thought I would bring together all of my favourite early French writers and poets in a long, long list. Hopefully, at least a few of them might be new suggestions for you.

  • Young Rabelais, from
    Young Rabelais, from

    Rabelais is like Chaucer: bawdy, entertaining, and yet with a lot of depth. In the rollicking adventures of Gargantua and Pantagruel he demonstrates his optimistic belief in the innate good nature of humans and the value of education:

‘parce que les gens libres, bien nés, bien éduqués, vivant en bonne société, ont naturellement un instinct, un aiguillon qu’ils appellent honneur qui les pousse toujours à agir vertueusement et les éloigne du vice’

Translation: ‘men that are free, well-born, well-bred, and conversant in honest companies, have naturally an instinct and spur that prompteth them unto virtuous actions, and withdraws them from vice, which is called honour.’

  • Only known picture of Villon, from
    Only known picture of Villon, from

    François Villon is the original bad boy of French literature: a tear-away, a vagabond, convicted of assault and robbery, frequently banished, yet writing assiduously through all this. Reminds me a little of Christopher Marlowe.

Je connois bien mouches en lait,
Je connois à la robe l’homme,
Je connois le beau temps du laid,
Je connois au pommier la pomme,
Je connois l’arbre à voir la gomme,
Je connois quand tout est de mêmes,
Je connois qui besogne ou chomme,
Je connois tout, fors que moi-mêmes.

Translation: I know flies in milk
I know the man by his clothes
I know fair weather from foul
I know the apple by the tree
I know the tree when I see the sap
I know when all is one
I know who labors and who loafs
I know everything but myself.

Incidentally, there is a rather brilliant novella ‘Villon’s Wife’ by Dazai Osamu, about a ne’er-do-well Japanese novelist and his long-suffering wife, which seems to illustrate the nature of ‘genius’ and its self-justifications really well.

  • The young Marquise.
    The young Marquise.

    Mme de Sévigné is perhaps to blame for the cult of motherhood: left a widow at an early age, she devoted herself entirely to her children and wrote them the most loving, concerned, nagging yet also witty, vivacious and observant letters. She reminds me of Moominmamma, always calm, unflappable, generous and imaginative, but with a dry sense of humour.

Ideal beauty is a fugitive which is never located.

I dislike clocks with second-hands; they cut up life into too small pieces.

We like so much to talk of ourselves that we are never weary of those private interviews with a lover during the course of whole years, and for the same reason the devout like to spend much time with their confessor; it is the pleasure of talking of themselves, even though it be to talk ill.

  • louiselabeLouise Labé was that rarity: a 16th century female poet of non-aristocratic origin (her father was a ropemaker in Lyon), well-educated, multilingual, equally talented in sports and in literature. She ran a literary salon in Lyon and there are rumours that she was a courtesan. I suspect that means she slept with whoever she pleased when she pleased. Her poetry is frank, unashamedly feminine and deceptively simple, avoiding the flamboyant artificial flourishes of her period. She reminds me of Emily Dickinson or Emily Brontë.

Je vis, je meurs ; je me brûle et me noie ;
J’ai chaud extrême en endurant froidure :
La vie m’est et trop molle et trop dure.
J’ai grands ennuis entremêlés de joie.

Tout à un coup je ris et je larmoie,
Et en plaisir maint grief tourment j’endure ;
Mon bien s’en va, et à jamais il dure ;
Tout en un coup je sèche et je verdoie.

Ainsi Amour inconstamment me mène ;
Et, quand je pense avoir plus de douleur,
Sans y penser je me trouve hors de peine.

Puis, quand je crois ma joie être certaine,
Et être au haut de mon désiré heur,
Il me remet en mon premier malheur.

Translation: I live, I die, I burn, I drown
I endure at once chill and cold
Life is at once too soft and too hard
I have sore troubles mingled with joys

Suddenly I laugh and at the same time cry
And in pleasure many a grief endure
My happiness wanes and yet it lasts unchanged
All at once I dry up and grow green

Thus I suffer love’s inconstancies
And when I think the pain is most intense
Without thinking, it is gone again.

Then when I feel my joys certain
And my hour of greatest delight arrived
I find my pain beginning all over once again.

  • Voltaire. How could I avoid the patriarch of the neighbouring village? He was at times an insufferable know-it-all, a born meddler, who could not sit still. But his intentions were honourable and he was so progressive for his time. His world-weary, sometimes cynical pronouncements about human weaknesses and the opium of religion have shaped so much of subsequent French writing.

Zadig dirigeait sa route sur les étoiles… Il admirait ces vastes globes de lumière qui ne paraissent que de faibles étincelles à nos yeux, tandis que la terre, qui n’est en effet qu’un point imperceptible dans la nature, paraît à notre cupidité quelque chose de si grand et de si noble. Il se figurait alors les hommes tels qu’ils sont en effet, des insectes se dévorant les uns les autres sur un petit atome de boue.

Translation: Zadig made his way amongst the stars… He admired those vast globes of light which to our eyes seemed to be mere feeble sparks, while Earth, which is indeed an insignificant blob in nature, seems to our covetous gaze to be so big and so important. And that’s how he saw humans themselves: insects devouring each other on a lump of clay.

Voltaire and Mme du Chatelet, probably an apocryphal painting, from
Voltaire and Mme du Chatelet, probably an apocryphal painting, from

Besides, I adore Voltaire’s ‘marriage of true minds’ with Mme du Chatelet. At her death (giving birth to another man’s child), he wrote: “It is not a mistress I have lost but half of myself, a soul for which my soul seems to have been made.”


First World War Literature: Lesser-Known Works

The 100 year anniversary of the beginning of Battle of the Somme (it dragged on for 4-5 endless months) should show the monumental stupidity and futility of war and the dangers of heeding the siren call of nationalism. Thy advanced all of five miles during those months and suffered nearly 60,000 casualties on the first day alone, over a million deaths (on both sides) over that period.

The First World War was a war of empire and young men were used as cannon fodder, so, not surprisingly, it was also a time of ‘rude awakening’ and cognitive dissonance for those young men. There has been a steady stream of literature depicting the horrors but above all the psychological torments of that war. I remember reading Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est‘ when I was 12 and shivering. If that doesn’t make you a pacifist, nothing ever will!

Here are some lesser-known novels about the First World War, which truly question in some depth the role of individuals in history, how history shapes each one of us, how we become its pawns and whether we have any choice in the matter.

Love my old 2 volume edition of it, in black-white-red.
Love my old 2 volume edition of it, in black-white-red.

Camil Petrescu: Ultima noapte de dragoste, întîia noapte de război (Last Night of Love, First Night of War) – 1930

Ștefan Gheorghidiu is a rather self-important, naive young man who falls in love and marries Ela, a woman who seems his polar opposite in every respect. He becomes increasingly jealous and suspects she is only interested in his fortune, but war intervenes and he is sent to the front.

Many present-day readers feel the book delves too much into Ștefan’s tortured psychology, but that was precisely what I loved about it.  As he is confronted with the harsh realities of war, he realises just how petty his own problems are and becomes aware of the greater tragedy and absurdity of life. This book is very similar in theme to the next on the list below. It hasn’t been translated into English, but there is a French version of it.

Vintage edition of Parade's End tetralogy.
Vintage edition of Parade’s End tetralogy.

Ford Madox Ford: Parade’s End – 1924-28

This book doesn’t describe war scenes in great detail either – rather, it’s about the psychological effects of war on the people who live through it, on the front and beyond. Christopher Tietjens and his flight wife are very similar to the couple in Petrescu’s book, but the style is far more modernist and experimental. Tietjens is more infuriating than Stefan – a big block of an emotionally stunted man who seems to be a passive recipient of things, rather than over-agonising mentally. And yet, both novels show that sex and war are two sides of the same coin: when passion becomes obsession and we become overly focused on just one thought, one person, one ideology.

Original 1929 edition in German.
Original 1929 edition in German.

Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front – 1929

Rather better known than the others featured here, but still not quite as popular in the English-speaking world as it deserves to be. It shows the war from ‘the other side of the barricades’, the German side, and just how unwilling and disenchanted the average soldier could be about being a cog in a very large imperial machine which had little to do with him or his life. The author makes it clear that he wants to tell the story of ‘a generation of men who even though they escaped the shells, were destroyed by the war’. The filth and squalor, the boredom and random cruelty of trench warfare are shown here quite graphically.

Padurea-spanzuratilor-402Liviu Rebreanu: Pădurea spânzuraţilor (Forest of the Hanged) – 1922

This is in some ways the most shocking of the books on the list. For those unfamiliar with Romanian history, before the First World War Transylvania was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. All the ethnic Romanian men were recruited and fought on several fronts, including against Romania, which was on the side of the Allies. The author himself was considered a deserter for leaving Transylvania during the war and settling in Romania, but the real inspiration behind the story was the tragic fate of his brother, who was an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army and executed for treason for refusing to fight against his fellow Romanians. The Forest of the Hanged is a haunting image, apparently based on a picture of a forest filled with Czech soldiers who had been hanged for treason (for refusing to fight against their compatriots behind the Italian front).  It’s not great battle scenes, however: it’s about one man’s internal journey and the awakening of his conscience. There is an English translation from 1986 – out of print now, obviously.

If any publisher would like to reconsider a translation, I’m happy to offer my services. I love this book so much!

Couv_1102Didier Daeninckx: Le der des ders (The Last of the Last) – 1984

The title alludes to the fact that the First World War was initially known as the ‘War to End All Wars’. So far from the truth!

This is almost a crime story set in the confused, anarchic period just after the end of the war. A former colonel hires a former soldier turned detective (René Griffon) for an apparently banal case of suspected adultery. But what Griffon uncovers is a wide-ranging case of corruption and conspiracy, which mocks all of the idealistic principles of war and fatherland. Similar to Lemaitre’s Au-revoir la-haut, but predating it by 30 years. There is also an immensely evocative BD version illustrated by Tardi, an English version has been recently published as ‘A Very Profitable War’ by Melville House .

Voltaire and His Creation, Ferney

Why would a world-famous writer and philosopher at the height of his creative powers choose to bury himself in a tiny hamlet of no more than 150 inhabitants in the middle of nowhere? Voltaire was a sociable being, certainly not someone to chase solitude, but what he did crave was freedom: to think and write what he pleased. And Ferney’s very isolation and distance from Paris were what made the location attractive to him.

Or perhaps it was the view from the terrace?
Or perhaps it was the view from the terrace?

After a stint in Prussia, Voltaire was aching to return to Paris, but Louis XV was not keen to have the writer back, agitating spirits. So in 1754 Voltaire started searching for a town with a thriving printing industry (he knew he couldn’t stop himself from writing). He was told that in Lyon he would be persona non grata (conservative archbishop etc.), so he settled initially in Geneva, a traditional place of refuge for Protestant French.

You can see he was a born troublemaker: on the church he built for his villagers, he not only clearly states that it was Voltaire who built it for God, but his own name is in bigger letters than God's.
You can see he was a born troublemaker: on the church he built for his villagers, he not only clearly states that it was Voltaire who built it for God, but his own name is in bigger letters than God’s.

However, the Calvinist spirit of that town soon quashed his enthusiasm, so after just three years he escaped outside the city limits, to a domaine which had previously been disputed between Savoy and the Swiss: Fernex. So many place names in the area end in ‘x’ – Gex, Ornex, Echenevex, Founex, but the final letter is not pronounced, so one of the first things Voltaire did was change the spelling of the place-name to correspond phonetically.

The chateau is currently under (some much needed) renovation.
The chateau is currently under (some much-needed) renovation.

Of course, Voltaire was already 64 when he moved to Ferney, so one might well have expected him to live in peaceable retirement, but he was not the kind to put on his slippers and smoke his pipe and just receive a couple of visitors with whom to reminisce about past glories. His energy was astounding, although even he could not have expected to live for another 20 years here.

Always thinking ahead, he even built his own grave, in a pyramid shape outside the church - neither in nor out, as he called it.
Always thinking ahead, he even built his own grave, in a pyramid shape outside the church – neither in nor out, as he called it.

By the time of his death, he had drained the marshes around the hamlet, created a flourishing town of more than 1200 inhabitants, predominantly Huguenot watchmakers and artisans who had fled the persecutions in Paris. He built a church, a school, a water reservoir, a theatre, many streets and houses, lent money for the artisans to set up their businesses (with an interest rate ten times lower than the usual ones), introduced a breed of sheep and cattle (their descendants still roam the fields around the chateau today) and new methods of farming, even tried to set up a silkworm farm.

Just beyong the flower show, you can see the fish pool he installed on the grounds.
Just beyond the flower show, you can see the carp pool he installed on the grounds.

Every year, he spent between 70 to 85% of his income on Ferney itself, and his niece Mme Denis claimed that the town ruined Voltaire. But he never regretted it.

Voltaire built a small theatre on his grounds, like this orangery which still stands today, but he soon had to move it into the village itself, as there were too many people coming to watch his plays.
Voltaire built a small theatre on his grounds, like this orangery which still stands today, but he soon had to move it into the village itself, as there were too many people coming to watch his plays. The carriages coming from Geneva caused the first traffic jams in the area!

After his death, unfortunately, things went belly up. Mme Denis couldn’t wait to leave the countryside and rush back to Paris, and in just 4 months she had sold the chateau, the library (to Catherine II of Russia) and the manuscript collection, as well as all precious objects. The chateau was bought and sold on in quick succession, most of its period detail was lost in the process, while bits and pieces of Voltaire’s heritage were sold or demolished. People began to abandon the village; the watch and jewellery makers moved back to Geneva.

In the late 19th century the village became a tourist attraction once more because of Voltaire, and this building once housed a hotel.
In the late 19th century the village became a tourist attraction once more because of Voltaire, and this building once housed a hotel.

It took over 100 years to reach the population levels of Voltaire’s time and 200 years to reach those prosperity levels once more. So it’s not surprising that the townspeople have always felt gratitude towards their benefactor and wanted to add his name to that of his village. They first did so in 1780, two years after Voltaire’s death, but in 1815 it reverted back to the old name. Napoleon could be very autocratic, when he wanted! Finally, with the celebration of the centenary of Voltaire’s death, in 1878 the village was allowed to change its name officially to ‘Ferney-Voltaire’.

Just down the main driveway of the chateau stood the house of Voltaire's great friend, the polyglot traveller and seaman ('cher corsaire') Henri Rieu, who translated, copied and lent books to Voltaire. It's now the Catholic school St. Vincent.
Just down the main driveway of the chateau stood the house of Voltaire’s great friend, the polyglot traveller and seaman (‘cher corsaire’) Henri Rieu, who translated, copied and lent books to Voltaire. It’s now the Catholic school St. Vincent (Voltaire must be turning in his grave).
Another grand old lady with Tsarist connections lived down the same driveway.
Another grand old lady with Tsarist connections lived in secluded surroundings on the same driveway.
And this is the house I would love to renovate and live in, also on that driveway, on the corner. It was once the village pub and cabaret, later on it became the workshop of the sculptor Lambert, who bought the chateau and bequeathed a statue of Voltaire to the village.
This is the house I would love to renovate and live in, at the bottom of the same driveway, on the corner. It was once the village pub and cabaret; later on it became the workshop of the sculptor Lambert, who lived in the chateau and bequeathed a statue of Voltaire to the village.
Voltaire was generous and liked to build houses for his friends, so they could all live close to him. This building is now the Protestant temple and vicarage, but on its ground he originally built the Palais Dauphin for his friend Mme de St Julien, but the building collapsed due to a faulty design before she could move in. Opposite it was the best and most epensive residence in Ferney (after the chateu) - Le Bijou, which Voltaire built for his nephew, the fabulist Florian.
Voltaire was generous and liked to build houses for his friends, so they could all live close to him. This building is now the Protestant temple and vicarage, but on its ground he originally built the Palais Dauphin for his friend Mme de St Julien. The building collapsed due to a faulty design before she could move in. Opposite it was the best and most expensive residence in Ferney (after the chateau) – Le Bijou, which Voltaire built for his nephew, the fabulist Florian.
I can't help but think that Voltaire would have loved all the bustle of festivals, music and colour in his old domaine.
I can’t help but think that Voltaire would have loved all the bustle of festivals, music and colour in his old domaine.



Three Women Writers and Memoirs to Discover

I sometimes use little green stick-its to mark passages I particularly want to return to or quote in the books I read, and the three books below are FULL of green. They are all memoirs of one sort or another, looking at motherhood, being a woman in the modern world, moving between cultures and countries, how to be creative and fulfilled. And they are all poetic, funny, sad, and don’t beat you around the head at all with preachy ‘self-improvement’ tips.

Elif Shafak, from
Elif Shafak, from

Elif Shafak: Black Milk (transl. Hande Zapsu)

After the birth of her first child, the highly successful Turkish author experienced a severe case of post-partum depression, which puzzled her and crippled her creativity. She describes how she overcame it and found salvation through writing. So far, so dry a blurb, but this is Shafak we are talking about. So, in the storytelling tradition of Shehrazat, with typical scorn for conventionalities, we embark upon a stormy tale of how the author came to terms with all the warring women inside her. Miss Highbrowed Cynic, Milady Ambitious Chekhovian, Little Miss Practical, Mama Rice Pudding, Dame Dervish and Blue Belle Bovary are at times suppressed or neglected, at other times they come to the fore and attempt to install a military dictatorship. It’s a witty way of talking about inner turmoil and life in general – and woven in we find Shafak’s usual candour, erudite cross-cultural references and self-deprecatory humour. Here’s a quote from the end of the book, chosen not because it is typical of her style, but because it seems to me to speak about so much more than just inner peace.

That is not to say that they [the 6 women] agree on every issue. But by listening, not just talking, they are learning the art of coexistence. They now know that to exist freely and equally, they need one another, and that where even one voice is enslaved none can be free. Together we are learning how to live, write and love to the fullest by simply being all of who we are. Sometimes we manage this beautifully and artlessly, sometimes we fail ridiculously. When we fail, we remember the moments of harmony and grace, and try again.


Elizabeth Smart: The Assumption of the Rogues and Rascals

elizabethsmartopenbookontarioNowadays if you do a Google search for the name, you will find a former kidnap victim talking about her experiences, but before that, Elizabeth Smart was a Canadian writer best known for her fragmented, personal, prose-poetry work By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, a barely fictionalised account of her tumultuous love story with English poet George Baker. This volume is a continuation of the first one, in which Smart is a single mother of four trying to make a living as a copywriter in post-war London, in equal measure addicted to and annoyed by a feckless lover.

It surprised me, upon looking at Smart’s biographical details more closely, to discover she was very successful and made lots of money in her profession… and that she found ways to be a prolific writer (although it was mostly published posthumously). The way she presents herself in this book (and in its predecessor) is very much ‘woe me’, with an anger and ferocity of spirit, an openness about love and sex and feeling unfulfilled, which must have been very fresh and scandalous at the time.  Yet the observations are not just personal: there are excellent descriptions of austere, grey London after the war; of the centuries old division of labour- a proto-feminist too; a champion of ‘our hard-working deserving poor’.

Everyone must work; nobody must loaf. ‘Pull your own weight,’ my mother repeats… ‘Keep clean, bear fruit, and wait.’ This seems to cover housework, childbirth, sainthood. But money must come into it… I am reluctant, until we know more, to see the future so drearily laid out like an allotment garden, with each to his patch of work.

theassumptionsThere is little continuity in a narrative of this type: it is made up of glimmers of brilliance, highly quotable passages, and then we’re off on a new tangent, a new jumble of thoughts and impressions. The author acknowledges she may not be to everyone’s taste.

I am the obsessional type. Which type are you? If you are the butterfly type you will never forgive my intensity…. An obsessional fog, even if it is made of a flock of holy ghosts, is not the sort of thing we can put before the members of Parliament… too fleshy too flighty too messy for debating floors?

Before you can start shifting uncomfortably in your chair, however, and complain that she is dripping in self-pity, she points out precisely that, proving that awareness of privilege is not a new thing:

O stop the caterwauling! Women with gusty voices pound pianos in pubs, impossibly happy against great odds. More ravaged and more successful by far than you, they know how to back-slap life with a greeting of gratitude. I am old enough to know that nothing I want will ever happen. I might get a faded facsimile. If I were lucky a man I want might happen to find comfort in my simple meals, or warmth from a fire always burning at the right moment. This isn’t at all enough, but I see I must make it do. I must. I see I must.


‘Miss Smart, you are not the first woman to have had four children.’

Smart thinks and writes like a poet, so there is no story arc here to speak of. Instead, you have diverse approaches to the same body of a problem, like birds coming to peck at a cadaver from all different angles. You have repetition, strong rhythmical patterns which need to be chanted out loud, clusters of images exploding under their own weight at times. While it hasn’t got the raw power and coherence of her more famous book, it is brittle and smouldering and shrill. An acquired taste, perhaps, best read in instalments, a cry of real pain, with added burrs of satire and wit, and much compassion for frailty, drunkenness, despair. I can see myself liking it more and more after several rereadings.

Isabel Huggan: Belonging

Isabel Huggan near her house in France, from
Isabel Huggan near her house in France, from

By contrast, Huggan’s style is not at all convoluted: it is limpid-clear like a mountain spring, occasionally mischievous, and warm and welcoming like a bowl of soup. Huggan makes us feel one with the world and humanity in general. Although it’s a very personal story of (yet another) Canadian writer who lived in Kenya, the Philippines, France, and finally renovating a house in the south of France, it is in fact a mix of memoir and fiction (to show just how permeable the line between the two is), and something to which many readers will be able to relate. Above all, there is that generous, humble, self-aware spirit which makes me love the work and its author. Modesty, I suppose, is the word I am looking for: gentle curiosity, wisdom, openness, empathy for others, willingness to learn. Something which is often lacking from the ‘me, me, me’ shouty, selfie-touting discourse on social media nowadays.

I know all about homesickness – sipping maple syrup from a spoon while listening to a tape cassette of loon calls, endlessly writing letters to friends asking for news, sifting through old photographs, weeping on the telephone. I’ve been there, that strange and dangerous place where longing can blind you to everything else. And so you learn to live with mal de pays as with chronic illness or disability, you salt your days with nostalgie. Then finally you wake up and compare yourself to the millions of displaced people in the world who will never see their homes again, and you feel ashamed, and you stop.

She gives us the most succinct and true picture of what it really means to be moving abroad, that you will never be the same again:

… neither of us suspects how changing countries, even temporarily, is going to change us. He hopes that this job will open doors for him in the future, but we do not yet know the windows and doors in our hearts that will be opened – be wrenched open and torn from their hinges, never to be shut again. We do not know that we have begun a long journey with no return.

belongingI used to be somewhat suspicious of memoirs, seeing them as ego-driven exercises, for what could average people possibly have to teach to others? A strange attitude for an anthropologist, who loves listening to other people’s stories. However, after reading the unusual approaches to memoir-writing taken by these three women writers, I am converted. Memoir is really about sharing stories around the camp-fire, about sharing memories, finding the universals in human experience. I end this very, very long post (well done if you’ve made it this far!) with another wonderful quote from Isabel Huggan:

Since my earliest days I have been a merchant for Nostalgia, setting up my souvenir stall on the road to the wharf on the River Styx. I do not hoard memories and I am willing – even eager to part with them.

‘Here now, sir, here’s something to take in the boat with you as you pass on to the other side. A line of poetry smooth as a pebble, a phrase bright as an insect’s wing, a clause transparent as snake-skin shed in the grass. Take these souvenirs, if you wish, you who travel forward, and keep them close to your heart as you move into the darkness. You cannot take your gold and jewels, you cannot take your fossils. But you can take your stories across the water.’




Feverish after Ferrante?

ferrante1I was impressed by Elena Ferrante’s fierce honesty and gritty style in ‘The Days of Abandonment’, but I avoided the Neapolitan novels for a long time. The hype, the marketing of it as a family saga, the sheer wordiness of 4 thick volumes seemed to me run counter to everything I admire and aspire to be as a writer: elegant and pared down style, hidden and allusive observations, modest and restrained topic matters.

But then I found the whole set in English at the local library, so I thought I’d give them a whirl.

The flashes of insight and genius which I’d glimpsed in the standalone novel were what sustained me for the first few chapters. 60-70 pages in, I scoffed: ‘Soap opera’.  After the next few chapters, I paused:  ‘Hmm, soap opera with gender politics.’ Halfway through the first volume, I readjusted this to: ‘soap opera with gender and class politics’. I never watch soap operas on TV, but I started to understand why my mother would: this made for compulsive reading. I finished the first volume and almost immediately made a trip to the library for more. And now I’ve finished all four in record time and am tempted to say: ‘political and feminist discourse disguised as a soap opera’.

Many reviewers have spoken of its ferocious howl of anger – but there is also resignation, resilience and ‘getting on with things’ in the most unheroic of ways. I have mentioned before how it reminds me of my female relatives: the trials and tribulations, small joys and greater pains of their own lives, the way they come together to support but also sabotage each other.  Events unfold at high speed, often with melodrama, blood, guts and tears, much shouting and throwing of objects, families and friends breaking off relationships for years, then perhaps reconciling for practical reasons. One of Ferrante’s brilliant abilities as a storyteller is to accelerate and slow down time at will, move from the overarching universal to the very particular detail and then zoom out again, in a way which feels very natural and effortless.

Picturesque Naples, from Raileurope site.
Picturesque Naples, from Raileurope site.

She has also been described as the Dickens of Naples. Yes, she conveys the noises, smells, charm and grubbiness of the city, she is unafraid to show its darker sides rather than the picturesque touristy bits, and she populates her pages with numerous vividly drawn secondary characters, but there is also a running commentary and analysis of events (through Elena/Lenu), as they occur, which is seldom the case with Dickens. Ferrante’s narrator shows a lucid self-awareness and hunger to understand, and the reader embarks upon the journey of self-exploration with her and gains her wisdom at the end of the tale. I am not quite sure that we get this level of self-dissection and clear-eyed, unsentimental analysis of those close to one’s self, even in David Copperfield.

One touching and very revealing moment occurs when the two friends, Lila and Lenu, both pregnant, are caught up in a major earthquake. Lila becomes surprisingly fearful and breaks down, trying to explain herself and her world view to her friend like never before (or after). She speaks of her need to control and manipulate things, and explains it as arising from her terror of dissolving boundaries, of being caught up in a messy flood, of something seeping through the cracks of reality (very reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s famous diary entry), of overthinking and overcomplicating things until you lose all joy in life:

…the fabric that I weave by day is unraveled by night, the heads finds a way. But it’s not much use, the terror remains, it’s always in the crack between one normal thing and the other. It’s there waiting. I’ve always suspected it… nothing lasts… Good feelings are fragile, with me love doesn’t last. Love for a man doesn’t last, not even love for a child, it soon gets a hole in it. You look in the hole and you see the nebula of good intentions mixed up with the nebula of bad.

Elena finally understands that perhaps brilliance comes in flashes rather than a steady lifelong light, and that she had been the stronger one after all in their friendship:

Everything that struck me… woud pass and I – whatever I among those I was accumulating – I would remain firm, I was the needle of the compass that stays fixed while the lead traces circles around it. Lila on the other hand… struggled to feel stable… However much she had always dominated all of us and had imposed and was still imposing a way of being… she perceived herself as a liquid and all her efforts were, in the end, directed only at containing herself. When, in spite of her defensive manipulation of persons and things, the liquid prevailed, Lila lost Lila, chaos seemed the only truth and she – so active, so courageous – erased herself and, terrified, became nothing.

elenaferranteI’ll be honest: Ferrante inspires me with mixed emotions. She writes in a voice which, despite my best efforts to be polished and Anglo-Saxon in attitude, comes through far too loudly and clearly in my own life. As with Javier Marias, I recognise in her a kindred spirit: she writes the way I think when I don’t censor myself, when I allow my Romanian side to come out. A voice which I have suppressed and perhaps slightly disparaged all my life. A voice which is easy to mock as too convoluted, messy and therefore inferior. A voice which has been misunderstood, laughed at, satirized or met with aggression and prejudice. So it will take a while for me to appreciate this voice – and I find it surprising that English speakers are so attracted to it.

At the same time, I feel exhilaration and liberation when I read her work. It is OK to be like this. And she also fills me with envy and the sadness of a missed opportunity. If in future I were to write the saga of my own extended family, farmers and shepherds in the sub-Carpathians, against the backdrop of war, Communism and then wild capitalism, with all the mixed messages about gender and family which have been the bane of my life… it wouldn’t be my story, because it’s all been done now by Ferrante in a different location.