I believe in separating your working and sleeping space, but I’ve heard of plenty of writers and readers who feel at their most comfortable (or most inspired) in their bedrooms. And what about if you have no other space for writing? So here are some elegant solutions to this quandary. Which don’t involve lying propped up on cushions in bed (although that is perfect for reading).
The poet of this afternoon died suddenly at end of night,
jostling to pen a word, yawning bile in the long
run-up to the creep of dawn pebble-dashing the curtains.
Knuckled under weight of forms, proof of income, applications
flung in free tote bags he cannot begin to classify,
he’d like to burn but who has fireplaces nowadays, so instead
he snatches at garbled predictive jottings made in ghostly glow,
leave no strand untwisted, no word untravelled,
Divine dictations long since ceased, words do not meet the ear
ready-formed like birdsong. It’s digging in the garden,
toiling in manure for a speck of solid rock.
Linking this up to my favourite poetic forum on the internet the dVerse Poets Pub, with their fortnightly Open Link Night.
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?
Nelly Arcan: Folle
Still taking my time over this one, reading a few pages at a time. Not that I don’t like it, but it’s taking you too deep perhaps in a troubled, jilted, suicidal woman’s mind, so you need frequent breaks.
Elizabeth von Arnim: Elizabeth and Her German Garden
The perfect contrast to the above, this charming and gentle reflection of the passing of the seasons in a garden is calming even to a non-gardener but flower lover like myself. Plus, it’s a wife’s bid for having her own personal space, so what’s not to like?
Pierre Lemaitre: Three Days and a Life (transl. Frank Wynne)
Not really a crime novel as such, but a very believable description of a young boy’s way of dealing with guilt when he accidentally causes the death of another boy. Excellent social and psychological observation, although the end feels somewhat fortuitous.
Elizabeth Jane Howard: Marking Time (Cazalet 2)
Another feel-good book supposedly – although the subjects in this second book in the series are rather grim: war, death, abortions, abuse, cancer…
Goran Vojnović: Yugoslavia, My Fatherland (transl. Noah Charney) – representing Slovenia for #EU27Project, also an attempt to get my Netgalley shelves cleared.
Alison Lurie: Real People
A book about writers at an artists’ colony reminiscent of Yaddo, this satirises pretentious artistic egos and relationships. Apparently, Lurie was banned from Yaddo and other such places after publishing the book.
Well, that was the plan, at least, when I wrote this post at the weekend, but I ended up reading the Alison Lurie book before starting on the Elizabeth von Arnim one, so you will have seen the review of Real People already.
Borrowed from the library following a recommendation by Smithereens, it was in the reserve stock section in the basement and had last been taken out in 1988. Clearly, it has fallen somewhat out of favour, but it is a fun book and a quick read, while also posing some interesting questions about artistic ambition.
‘Are those artists, Mom, or are they real people?’
That is what a child visiting the luxurious artists’ colony Illyria asks, and with good reason, as hyper-sensitive mid-career mid-successful lady writer Janet Smith finds out. At first, it seems like Eden, with perfect weather, wonderful quiet, friendly and gentle artistic people. Although she seems to lead quite a privileged existence, it is such a relief to be away from the humdrum everyday worries of family life, and focus only on the writing. A sentiment all writers who dream about peaceful retreats will echo no doubt:
At home there’s always the telephone and the doorbell – Bessie will answer, but of course I hear the ring and wonder who it is. And whenever I raise my eyes, I notice something I ought to do something about: smudges on the wallpaper, that peculiar bill from the cleaners… If I look out the window, I don’t see a view; instead I’m reminded that the garage will need repainting soon, I must call White’s Nursery about spraying the fruit trees, and we’ve simply got to have the Hodgdens over to dinner. And when I look back at my story, it’s fallen apart again. I suppose the wonder really is not that I’ve had so much trouble working in Westford, but that I’ve been able to work there at all.
But all is not well in paradise, of course. The Garden of Eden is beset by worms, serpents, temptation, envy and monstrous egos, especially when a pretty young girl turns up in their midst. Artists prove obtuse or vulgar, pretentious, self-absorbed, while Janet muddles through, feeling guilty about not working, feeling she has nothing new left to say, desperate to prove herself in this milieu yet blind to her own failings. It is beautifully precise social comedy about the scandals and squabbles of the artistic and literary community, but also has something to say about dreams and ambitions and selling one’s self short. Finally, Janet admits to herself that she has in fact a patron, her husband, who is supporting her lifestyle and writing ambitions, although he doesn’t see her literary merit. She considers herself lucky that she doesn’t have to apply for grants or work three jobs to support herself, but in a moment of complete honesty she realises she has given up writing to a certain degree:
… when I decided not to write stories that would embarrass Clark and the children, I gave up writing seriously… Not that it happened all at once. I censored myself gradually over the years, as the children learned to read, as Clark became more prominent locally, as my stories began to be published in magazines more people read… But what I see now is something else even more disquieting. It’s that over the years I’ve begun to avoid doing – and sometimes even seeing – any thing I couldn’t write about.
Fiction is condensed reality; and that’s why its flavor is more intense, like bouillon or frozen orange juice. I know all this; I’ve known it for years. But all the same I’ve begun adding water, more and more lukewarm water, to every batch I made. Because I was afraid the that undiluted stuff would freeze and burn me, and everyone around me.
This kind of over-specialised musing and satire may appeal only to other writers, but it’s a shame that there aren’t more books set in artists’ colonies, as there is a rich seam of humour to be mined. Sadly, perhaps all writers are aware that if they let rip, they will alienate their writer friends and publishers, and risk never being granted permission to attend such retreats (above all, to teach at such retreats, a valuable source of income).
While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?
We’re at the lower centre-left bookshelves now (I always go bottom to top, for some reason) and this is where my literature in German resides, as well as my Nordics. I have a lot of Scandinoir, obviously, including the entire collection of the Martin Beck novels, which is one of my favourite crime fiction series ever. I also have a lot of Tove Jansson and live for the day when everyone will appreciate her as much as I do. But I have written about these before, so my choices are slightly more obscure now. And when I looked more closely, I realised they all represented different parts of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Translated into English as ‘The Tongue Set Free’, this is a memoir of Canetti’s peripatetic childhood and youth in Vienna, Zürich, England and Bulgaria. A book with multicultural references and influences which will resonate with any ‘Third Culture Kid’, it is also an insight into the life of a well-educated Jew in the early 20th century in Central Europe. This book tells me more about being European than many contemporary writers. We are all creatures of many different facets, where worlds collide and merge.
What gives a man worth is that he incorporates everything he has experienced. This includes the countries where he has lived, the people whose voices he has heard. It also takes in his origins, if he can find out something about them… not only one’s private experience but everything concerning the time and place of one’s beginnings.
This is the English translation of what is generally considered the definitive biography of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Sissi), the romantic, unhappy, complex figure who has been adulated and booed at, and who found her death on the shores of Lake Geneva. The author was a well-respected German historian who lived in Vienna for most of her life, and her books are not only well-informed and meticulously researched, but also fun and readable. She also happened to be the mother of my earliest childhood friend, and I spent many happy days at her home when I was a wee mite. Her book Hitler’s Vienna, proving that Hitler’s anti-semitism and ideology of hatred was nourished by the Austrian capital just before the First World War, proved controversial of course in Austria. She passed away last year.
OK, I admit, Kafka is anything but obscure, but he was one of my major literary influences as I was growing up. In this volume, Max Brod gathered together pretty much all of the fragments of notebooks which Kafka had bequeathed to him, and they are the ultimate inspiration for anyone who is struggling to be a writer. He scribbles about everything – self-hatred, moaning about his friends, complaining about his work, about the world, how hard it is to write – but he also writes about his dreams and fragments of fiction and ideas for stories. I may admire his finished work more, but it’s above all this diary (and Virginia Woolf’s) which made me a writer.
Well, it’s been a very quiet and uneventful fortnight… just kidding, of course! I probably got too loud and obnoxious for those who are not politically inclined, including on Twitter, but I am over it now.
What fun we had with the General Election here in the UK on the 8th of June! Faced with such a bad campaign from my own MP (known as Prime Minister Theresa May to others), I was tempted to think she didn’t want the job. Except she obviously does, because she is clinging to it by the skin of her teeth, with an alarming alliance which could start up all sorts of nasty processes again in Northern Ireland. A new election before the end of this year seems likely – hugely fatiguing for everybody, especially the voters. You begin to see the attraction of military coups, don’t you, as people start muttering about how much they crave stability…
But this is not a political blog, and on a personal level it has been a fairly quiet and contented time: half-term holidays, a birthday party for my youngest, meeting up with old friends, impromptu flower arrangements. I managed to rescue a few peonies before the storm flattened them and blew away most of their petals. I am becoming most definitely middle-aged…
Book Haul and Writing Update
Aside from the small pile of books I managed to accumulate during my trip to London, I also ordered a few second-hand books from various sources, based upon the recommendations of my fellow bloggers and Tweeters. This is where I get all of my book-buying impulses nowadays!
Roberto Bolano’s quasi-crime novel was praised by one of my fellow Crime Fiction Lover reviewers Phil Rafferty as being one of the books which got him hooked on crime. Yuri Herrera has been reviewed by Tony Malone and Stu Jallen; also, it’s about migration, so that’s three favourites right there… The British Library Crime Classics often throws up interesting little gems and this particular title Family Matters was recently reviewed by Guy Savage. Finally, I succumbed to Miles Franklin’s books following Kim Forrester‘s spirited recommendations of books on Twitter, with a particular emphasis on Australian fiction, which I have read all too little.
I can now tell you about my writing prize for poetry, although I am none the wiser if it was 2nd or 3rd (I do know it wasn’t 1st). It was the Geneva Writers Group Literary Prize, now in its fifth year. This year the judges were Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books for Fiction, Nick Barlay for Non-Fiction and Naomi Shihab Nye for Poetry. And that is the reason I am so super-excited to have won anything at all, since Naomi Shihab Nye is one of my favourite contemporary poets and also the person who single-handedly inspired me to go back to writing poetry in 2012, after a couple of decades of neglect.
I’m having great fun digging up some of the more obscure times from my bookshelves – it amuses my geekish nature and brings back fond memories. Over the past fortnight, I’ve looked at my Japanese collection and my small collection of hardcover books.
Two blog posts which I try to include on a monthly basis are my May Reading Summary and Six Degrees of Separation meme. This time the latter started with a book I hadn’t read, Steve Martin’s Shopgirl, so it required some acrobatics to find suitable links.
The blog post that got the most attention this past fortnight was my personal reflection on The Handmaid’s Tale and its recent TV adaptation. I was amazed, flattered and humbled by just how many people read it, talked about it, tweeted about it, including many people who had never visited my site before. Thank you all! It completely smashed my previously modest blogging stats. I seldom get more than just over 100 visits per day (on a good day), but the day I posted that I got 776 and the blog post was viewed nearly 1000 times.
My favourite blog post to write, however, was the simple description of my very enjoyable day out in London.
For those who prefer me when I am less loquacious, however, I also posted two poems: an autumnal one and a military-inspired caper about depression. And of course I continued with my eye candy Fridays of tiny homes and sheds.
Keeping it a politics-free zone today, although Schadenfreude and ‘The future belongs to young people’ does come to mind…
There is a very ugly term for these scrumplicious creations: ‘she-sheds’ – insulting to both women (as if only men have the right to own sheds) and to men (as if only women have the right to have pretty things). I keep measuring my garden to check if I do have space after all for a shed or two, especially if they look anything like these…