Friday Fun: Writers’ Homes in the English-Speaking World

I’ve presented quite a few homes of writers and artists in France, but what about some homes for English-language writers in the US and UK? I don’t want to neglect Africa, Australia or New Zealand, so if you know of any noteworthy houses there, be sure to let me know in the comments section.

Evelyn Waugh certainly had plenty of inspiration for Brideshead, if this house is anything to judge by! From The Prose Blog.
Jack London’s study shows his passion for travelling, but also art. From QED.
It seems F.H. Burnett had some inspiration readily available for The Secret Garden or Little Lord Fauntleroy. From The Guardian.
Upton Sinclair’s home in California. From Pinterest.
Enid Blyton opted for the thatched cottage style. From Daily Mail.
As did Thomas Hardy. From Open Culture.
All right, this is in France again, but it’s James Baldwin hard at work in his St Paul de Vence study.

Finally, in this one you can actually stay overnight courtesy of AirBnB.

Steinbeck’s study in Pacific Grove, California. From AirBnB.

 

 

Having Fun with Poetry

I’m not participating in NaPoWriMo, as it’s too busy with work and children’s holidays accumulating this month. But I continue to write poetry as often as I can, even if I don’t always feel inspired. One good way to get into the groove is to play around with words, as if I were doing Scrabble or crosswords. The result is no masterpiece, but a great way to loosen up and perhaps produce better work in the following hour. Here is an example, where each verse starts with a letter of the alphabet, and I allowed some of the recent news to take over my subconscious.

Alphanumerical Fancies 

Aardvark primogeniture, he exudes all the confidence.

Barely born, he knows best,

Campaigns for privilege to remain untouched,

Dares others to get a word in edgeways.

Events all too graphic are kept from his gaze,

For ignorance is blissful,

Grovelling amiss, unless it is done well.

Hate-filled discourse seeps through filters

Into public space.

Jealous of those audience figures?

Know that it is not in vain, how easily

Like buttons are pressed

More substance and depth not required

No foodie picture is wasted

Old friends swoon in envy as we unleash

Perfect pouts

Quirky triumphs

Roiling we may be but

Surface is all, consumption

Trafficked widely, flung in our teeth,

Until one day, if ever,

Vaulting truths life’s misadventure

Wears out our curiosity about the world of others

X-rated, celebrated, maligned

Your small sequestered corner becomes precious

Zealot-free place.

 

#EU27Project: Czech Republic – Closely Observed Trains

I managed to find and order this book just in time and read it on the 31st of March for Caroline’s Literature and War Readalong. However, this was on the plane on the way to Lyon, so I didn’t get to write a review until this week.

Perhaps this should be an entry for Czechoslovakia, which is what the country was at the time when Bohumil Hrabal wrote this in 1965. But he wrote in Czech rather than Slovakian and, when he was born in 1914, his home town of Brno was in Moravia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The dangers of living in Central Europe… your borders may change several times over the course of your life.

After the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia following the Prague Spring in 1968, his books were banned, and you can see why that might be the case. He certainly has a mischievous streak in his story-telling, a combination of broad (almost slapstick) humour and darkness, but in Closely Observed Trains he is talking about the passive resistance of a group of railway workers against the occupation – and, although it takes place in the Second World War and the occupying forces are German, it probably resembled the situation at the time a little too closely.

Miloš Hrma is a rather naive young man, an apprentice at a railway station in Bohemia in 1945. The Germans have lost control over the airspace over the little town, and the trains are anything but running as normal.

The dive-bombers were disrupting communications to such an extent that the morning trains ran at noon, the noon trains in the evening, and the evening trains during the night, so that now and then it might happen that an afternoon train came in punctual to the minute, according to the time-table, but only because it was the morning passenger train running four hours late.

Miloš comes from a family where the men have successfully avoided hard labour for generations: his great-grandfather was only eighteen when he was granted a disability benefit for being wounded as a drummer-boy in the Imperial Army, his grandfather was a hypnotist who thought he could convince the marauding German tanks to turn back, his father had retired on a double-pension at the age of forty-eight and was busy collecting and recycling scraps, so that at home they have ‘fifty chairs, seven tables, nine couches, and shoals of little cabinets and washstands and jugs.’ Miloš himself is proud of his beautiful service uniform, with all the insignia of his status, brass buttons, splendid stars and a winged wheel like a little golden sea-horse.

Still from the film Closely Watched Trains, directed by Jiri Menzel, winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1968.

But he is a troubled boy, who has only just returned to duty after trying to slash his wrists three months previously. The reason for that (or at least the most overt reason for it) becomes gradually apparent: an embarrassing moment of sexual inadequacy with the young conductor Masha. He is desperate to lose his virginity, but not quite sure how to go about it, in equal measure intrigued and repulsed by his randy colleague Dispatcher Hubička’s gross misuse of the station’s official stamps upon the pretty telegraphist’s anatomy. Meanwhile, stationmaster Lánský only seems to care about his pigeons and not being made a fool of during the government inspection. Then, somehow, Miloš gets caught up in plans to sabotage an ammunition convoy passing through.

This image of Hrma from the film perfectly sums up the young man.

I’ll stop telling any more of the story here, because I run the risk of making my review longer than the actual story, which is very slim, around 80 pages. More of a novella really, but packed with content and emotion. Even the brief recount above gives you an idea of the tragicomic blend of gruesome fact and salacious humour, of rapier wit and compassion, even surreal elements, sometimes in the very same sentence. A very tricky balance to achieve, but not a word is wasted. Here is a description of the wounded soldiers returning from the front:

And in this mobile sick-bay at which I was gazing, the strangest thing was the human eyes, the eyes of all those wounded soldiers. As though that agony there at the front, the agony they had inflicted on others and which others now were inflicting on them, had turned them into different people; these Germans were more sympathetic than those who were travelling in the opposite direction. They all peered through the windows into the dull countryside so attentively, with such childlike earnestness, as though they were passing through paradise itself, as though in my little station they saw a jewel-box.

A remarkable, punchy read, with only slightly veiled depths. Even if the intention was not obviously political , this book was published at a time when each sentence could be (and indeed was) interpreted in both literal and metaphorical fashion. It has made me very eager to tackle another of Hrabal’s books Too Loud a Solitude.

Cultural Beliefs About Writing or Plain Economics?

Inspiration or craft? Can writing be taught or is it an innate talent? Well, the answer to that may often be culturally determined. From what I saw at the Quais du Polar last week and, following a bit of debate about it on Twitter following this article announcing the demise of the British short story, it seems to me that French culture leans more to the ‘inspiration’ school of thought, while Anglo-Saxon culture believes more in the capacity to hone one’s writing talent. Hence the proliferation of MFA courses in the US or MA courses in the UK. Hence the different way of discussing the writing process and getting under the skin of the main female character (although Ron Rash seems to be more French than American in that respect).

Queuing up for their literary fix in Lyon…

As usual, I am somewhere on the fence on this topic. I believe no amount of tuition or feedback will turn a truly tone-deaf writer into a sterling one. But, on the other hand, I also believe even innate talent needs to be tamed: whether this is best done through courses or feedback groups or mentors or even self-study of other authors – whatever works for you. As long as you are aware that you can always learn something, that you can always do better. A musician or a dancer can become very competent if they put in hours and years of training – and so can a writer. They might not have the spark of genius that turns them into the next Mozart or Anna Pavlova, but they can run alongside many of their contemporaries. Sometimes stamina and resilience counts for more than that elusive inborn talent. (Another great recent debate has been around the failed novelist.)

Perhaps there is something else at work here other than definitions around the locus of talent.

In France (and Germany and probably quite a few other European countries), it is possible to make a living from writing alone: there is tax relief for writers (and other cultural contributors), book prices are fixed, writers are paid for festival appearances etc. Because the contract is directly between publisher and writer (literary agents are practically non-existent in France), authors achieve a larger proportion of the royalties. You cannot underestimate the freedom a modest income gives a writer to truly focus on their writing and perfect their craft. As most French writers do: they retreat to Provence or Dordogne in winter, when there are no tourists or book festivals to bother them, and work hard to produce a book in time for the rentrée littéraire, that publishing bonanza in autumn. Many of them produce something every year, or every second year, so they work as hard as their English counterparts (but often without the additional teaching obligations). There are some ateliers d’écriture in France, but these are either targeted at schoolchildren or else a kind of ‘writing circle’ organised by and for the local community, often heavily subsidised, without much expectation of future publication.

Quais du Polar had 80,000 visitors this year.

Meanwhile, costs of MFAs or their UK equivalent, MA in Creative Writing, are soaring, so it is difficult to justify them (to oneself and one’s family) if you do not have expectations of being published or at the very least working in the field. In the US in particular there is much discussion whether getting an MFA is ‘worth it’ or if it is a pyramid scheme designed to give employment to writers. Everyone dreams of being a writer, so a whole industry of publishing, editing, proofreading, coaching etc. has spawned alongside the official courses. Some of them valuable, some of them money-making schemes which prey upon the gullible.

However, things are beginning to change even in France. At the Quais du Polar in previous years there had always been a competition for best short story or dictation of a passage from a crime novel or reading out loud for young people. This year, for the first time, there were also writing courses for 12-15 year olds, plus workshops on self-publishing and Open Pitch sessions for adults.

In addition to this, the City of Paris has recently launched (with some fanfare) a writing school Les Mots which is specifically targeting innovation and publication, across all genres (from memoir to writing for children, poetry, theatre, graphic novels, blogging etc.). Authors, editors, literary critics will be helping budding writers to improve their manuscripts and some of the names on their list are truly impressive: Karim Miske, Jerome Ferrari, Antoine Laurain. The venue will also harbour a bookshop and a literary café. With a full price of 15 euros per hour (reductions available for students and the unemployed), it is clear that these workshops are deliberately designed to be accessible and inclusive. It remains to be seen how viable this price point really is and what success stories will emerge from this.

 

 

 

 

Friday Fun: What About Your Own Study?

It’s all fine and dandy to look at all those palaces and glorious home libraries or artists’ studios, but what does your own writing space look like? I am mildly obsessed with writer’s studies, as you might have gathered, and a couple of years back could not get enough of the Periscope #whereiwrite initiative. So, while this might not qualify as escapist, I’ll show you mine if you show me yours…

Busy? Maybe, but I like inspiration on my walls.
The bookshelves are starting to groan…
Map of Japan from 1745 (the original, not my print).
French dog and Japanese cat living in perfect harmony.
The messy side of the room and armchair filing system
Not quite outside the study window, but this camellia bush is one of the great delights of my garden.

And a special late addition for Lady Fancifull, who was disappointed at the lack of real cats… Here is Zoe in her favourite position when I am working at my desk.

The Search

I looked around for beauty but I got distracted

by the grey rain streaks echoed on my kitten’s fur

as she sits all pensive on the window sill.

All I notice are water-stained window panes.

 

My brain fries synapses and skips seven beats.

She darts forth on sure-footed pads through the snow

like a lynx in the mountains I no longer have before me

to make up for the fault in my wiring.

 

I missed the deadline on dVerse Poets for the poetic prompt on anthropomorphism of beloved pets, but I am not sure that this poem would have been quite suitable for it anyway. So I am linking it instead to Open Link Night. Join me there for some poetic fun during this month of poetry celebration!

 

WWW Wednesday 5th April

WWW Wednesday is a meme hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

A similar meme is run by Lipsyy Lost and Found where bloggers share This Week in Books #TWiB.

Currently reading:

Marcus Malte: Les harmoniques (not yet translated into English)

Vera has been murdered, burnt alive. Mister, the pianist, loved her, as much as she loved his music, so he needs to know who killed her and why. With his friend Bob, a philosophical, multilingual cab driver, he sets out to search, interrogate, sniff out bit by bit Vera’s earlier life, beyond some distant shore on the river Danube, to corpse-strewn Balkanic regions.

We met Marcus Malte in Lyon and he recommended this book as being the one where his love for music is most obvious. He has also created a concert around it, which you can listen to here.

Just finished:

Two books for review on Crime Fiction Lover (the reviews will be up very soon):

Lindsey Davis: The Third Nero (Hodder & Stoughton, coming out 6th April)

I used to love the Falco series set in Ancient Rome, but this is the first in the Flavia Albia series which I have read. You can’t help but see some political parallels to the present-day with a totalitarian, paranoid ruler and the fear of an Eastern Empire taking over…

Kjell Ola Dahl: Faithless, transl. Don Bartlett (Orenda Books, coming out 8th April)

When the body of a woman turns up in a dumpster, scalded and wrapped in plastic, Inspector Frank Frølich is shocked to discover that he knows her—and their recent meetings may hold the clue to her murder. As he begins to look deeper into the tragic events surrounding her death, Frølich’s colleague Gunnarstranda finds another body, and things take a more sinister turn. With a cold case involving the murder of a young girl in northern Norway casting a shadow, and an unsettling number of coincidences clouding the plot, Frølich is forced to look into his own past to find the answers—and the killer—before he strikes again.

Reading Next

Fiona Melrose: Midwinter

Father and Son, Landyn and Vale Midwinter, are men of the land. Suffolk farmers. Times are hard and they struggle to sustain their property, their livelihood and their heritage in the face of competition from big business.
But an even bigger, more brutal fight is brewing: a fight between each other, about the horrible death of Cecelia, beloved wife and mother, in Zambia ten years earlier. A past they have both refused to confront until now.

Bogdan Teodorescu: Spada (not yet translated into English, transl. in French by Jean-Louis Courriol)

A little tramp is found with his throat slit in the streets of Bucharest. A second and a third victim are assassinated with the same deadly weapon and it becomes clear that there is a serial killer on the loose in the Romanian capital. His victims all have two things in common: they are Roma (gypsies) and all have a criminal record. A powerful political thriller, indictment of mass media, political parties and slogans, this is a true Balkanic Borgen.

Have you read any of these or do any of them tempt you?