Children and Parents in Literature

Sometimes it’s serendipity and sometimes it’s your subconscious deliberately selecting books which speak to your innermost needs and fears. I’m going through a bout of reading about mothers and children (occasionally fathers are involved too, but it’s mostly mothers and sons I’ve been eavesdropping on). Fiction has always provided me with more inspiration than any number of self-help books.

monstercallsPatrick Ness: A Monster Calls

The sinister black and white illustrations by Kay¬†perfectly match this story¬†about a 13-year-old boy whose mother is dying. Conor’s deadpan refusal to be impressed or frightened by the monster is realistic and brings a note of fierce humour in what could otherwise be a very bleak story about denial, anger and ultimately acceptance of loss. As for that final dialogue between Conor and his mother – oh, my! I borrowed it from the library with the intention of giving it to my children to read, but after emerging from it a tear-stricken mess, I decided better not. Not just now.

mountainshoeLouise Beech: The Mountain in My Shoe

A chilling tale of parental neglect and the difficulties of navigating the social care system, seen through the eyes of a young boy (also called Conor, incidentally). The ‘lifebook’ is an inspired method for conveying all the different stories and voices present in Conor’s life, and the quite dry factual content of many of the entries merely make the sadness all the more palpable, while avoiding sentimentality. The¬†title of the book¬†comes from a statement that the little boy makes around the¬†Muhammad¬†Ali quote: ‘It’s not the mountains ahead which wear you out, it’s the pebble in your shoe’ – and Conor has a whole mountain in his shoe.¬†Luckily, there is also much love in the boy’s life through¬†the three mother figures, although they don’t always know how to express it.

clevergirlTessa Hadley: Clever Girl

An example of Tessa Hadley’s subtle humour, choosing a title like Clever Girl and then proceeding to show us¬†how her main protagonist, Stella, demonstrates a lack of ‘cleverness’ by making what many might perceive as the ‘wrong choices’ and ending up with quite a difficult life as a result of it. Yet, as the story progresses and Stella’s two sons grow up, we realise that perhaps we need to rethink our definition of ‘clever’, as she ultimately succeeds in raising happy and reasonably well-adjusted children, and achieves some sort of contentment herself. Of course, there is also the slightly patronising tone of ‘clever girl’, which you might utter to a dog performing tricks… A writer who is simply masterly at elevating the mundane detail and making it appear full of significance, while also¬†providing¬†a great insight into character.

promessaubeRomain Gary: La promesse de l’aube (Promise at Dawn)

I will do a more detailed review of this book in another post, as it has been every bit as wonderful as Emma¬†promised. For now, let me just say that I adored this mother but would dread to become like her.¬†Not quite a memoir (although autobiographical, it has been fictionally heightened in parts for the utmost effect), it is largely the story of Romain’s arrival in France as a refugee with his mother. Above all, it is about motherly love and self-sacrifice, about her unbridled belief in her son’s glorious future, and¬†that son’s attempts not to let her down. In this book, Gary¬†pays tribute to a larger-than-life character who pushed him to so many achievements later in life. It is beautifully written – tender, passionate,¬†like an informal conversation with a friend, very poignant at times, and also very funny and self-deprecating.

To this set of¬†imperfect, absolutely human mothers, now also add¬†the stage version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, in which a mother can no longer cope with her ‘difficult’ child, and the effect this has on the entire family.¬†I just watched that on Saturday¬†with my own children and what do you get? ‘No, I’m NOT crying, I just have to blow my nose because I have a cold, all right?’

Fox Minding the Chicken Coop

There is a saying in Romanian that, if you are a wise farmer, you would not put the fox in charge of minding the chicken coop… However, at the Geneva Writers’ Conference this past weekend, they had no qualms about putting me (and the gentle, lovely Kathy – whom I want to resemble when I grow up) in charge of the bookstore. With predictable consequences!

I came away with quite a respectable book haul, especially since I could also get the authors to sign the books for me then and there. But even minding the bookstore is no guarantee that you’ll get hold of all the books you want, since some authors sold out so quickly, I didn’t have a chance to grab one of their books!

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One of the big-name authors at the conference was Tessa Hadley, recent winner of the surprise Windham-Campbell prize. I had already seen Tessa in action at the Morges book festival, and she is the most articulate, inspiring and modest writer you could imagine. This time I bought her latest book The Past, about a family reunion in the house of her childhood memories, and Clever Girl, which in many ways feels like the story of many a gifted woman who allows herself to be weighed down by the crunch of daily responsibilities and the merciless grind of life itself.

An author who writes more in my genre (although she actually straddles multiple genres, and very elegantly too) is Liz Jensen. I had recently read her very chilling (and yet quite funny) book The Uninvited and had to buy the previous one, The Rapture, which is its companion piece (although an entirely distinct story).

I bought two more crime novels, this time by authors who are either part of the Geneva Writers Group or have close links to it. D-L Nelson is American, but has lived most of her life outside the States and writes murder mysteries featuring third-culture kid Annie Young. As a TCK myself (and mother of a TCK), this proved irresistible. Besides, D-L is the kindest, wisest person I know, generous of spirit and indomitable of heart.

The final crime novel Behind Closed Doors¬†is by a Zurich-based writer, Jill Marsh, and takes place there. It’s about ‘poetic justice’: an unethical banker suffocate, a diamond dealers slits his wrists, a disgraced CEO inhales exhaust fumes… a series of apparent suicides by slimey businessmen. But of course, there is more to it than just a sudden attack of conscience…

Maps1The final book I came away with is very expensive but beautiful. Diccon Bewes has written several witty and insightful books about Switzerland and its people, but his latest, Around Switzerland in 80 Maps, is an utterly flawless combination of information and gorgeous old maps or illustrations.

Below are some examples of the illustrations. A lovely souvenir of my time in Switzerland, I think you’ll agree.

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Maps4

Womanly Wit, Satire and Compassion

Two books I read in September (but never got around to reviewing) have stayed with me for similar reasons, even though outwardly they couldn’t have been more different. The first was a family saga of sorts, seen through the eyes of three generations of women. The second book was a satire, a series of interconnected short stories set in a nameless (but easily recognisable) international organisation.

The obvious similarity between them is that they might both have been labelled ‘women’s fiction’ – but of course that is a meaningless term. What they both brought to me as a reader was a wit at once fierce and yet tender. So if there is such a thing as women’s fiction, is it possible that women are more prone to sharp observation of character flaws, but also more gentle and forgiving of them?

hadleycoverTessa Hadley: Everything Will Be All Right

Family sagas are so not my thing (although I did go through a brief period in my teens when I enjoyed the Cazalets, Flambards and the Eliots of Damerosehay). But this book is more about exploring what it means to grow up a woman in three (perhaps even four) different eras, each one with its own challenges, opportunities and limitations. Joyce grows up in the early 1950s and wants to break free of the constraints of the housewifely existence she sees in her mother’s and aunt’s generation. Art school seems to be her way out of suburbia, but then she marries her art teacher and has children. Very soon, she learns to content herself with dressmaking, homemaking and a less than perfect marriage.

Her daughter Zoe disdains these compromises and grows up in the more adventurous 1970s, with expectations of gender equality. Yet when she falls in love with fellow student, the scornfully intellectual Simon, and falls pregnant, she too struggles with the ‘tension between motherhood and intelligent life’. Finally, Zoe’s daughter Pearl is still a thoughtless teenager in the late 1980s or early 1990s: the only thing she is sure of is that she doesn’t want to end up either like her cerebral mother or her domesticated grandmother.

In her Q&A session in Morges, Tessa Hadley said that this was the most autobiographical of her novels. She certainly describes all the permutations of female emancipation in a no-nonsense Northern family, with memorable characters and sensitive descriptions of complex mother/daughter relationships. Throughout, she casts a remarkably lucid and critical eye on the shortcomings of each generation – there is none who seems to have got it entirely right. Women are all still chasing after their illusions and learning to live with disillusionment.

The multiple points of view, although the shift is a little jarring at times, allow us to see each character, warts and all. It could be argued that the men are particularly covered in warts in this story – useless, unlikeable and, above all, unreliable. Yet often, in their unsentimental, selfish way, they see things most clearly. Here’s what Simon has to say about studying with babies:

He had not wanted this baby. He had always had a horror of a certain kind of semi-academic domesticity, PhD students turned whey-faced and sour-tempered over their grubby-mouthed and badly-behaved offspring; rented flats filled up with a detritus of toys; typewriter and books pushed resentfully aside to make room for plates of baby pap. It seemed to him self-evident that intelligent women with minds of their own would not make the best mothers: how could they bear, if they liked room to think and breathe and read, to be constrained as the mothers of small children must be to the sticky and endlessly repetitive routines of domestic life?

I don’t know if it’s a sad indication of things not having moved on very much, that women nowadays still have to make those restrictive choices of hearth and career, life of the mind or domesticating the body, that motherhood still reverts us back to gender stereotypes.

glasshousesShirley Hazzard: People in Glass Houses

Shirly Hazzard worked for the UN Secretariat in New York for a number of years, but was also familiar with diplomatic service and British Intelligence, so she had quite a choice of ‘organisations’ and ‘corporate nonsense’ to ridicule. This was probably the first book to lampoon organisational man (and woman) and the absurdities of the bureaucratic world. Yet the author reserves her sharpest arrows for the stultifying, soul-crushing organisation itself, its odd rules and procedures, the way it forces people to pretend and cheat. So many great insights into how organisations with their pretensions and doublespeak grind down and dehumanise people, how only the mediocre and ‘well-adapted’ or sycophantic survive.

The people themselves are mocked with compassion, perceived perhaps as victims. We see erudite, gentlemanly but rather slapdash Algie Wyatt being given the boot. Geeky researcher Ashmole-Brown is made fun of but then publishes his results and hits the bestseller lists; Swoboda, a Slav refugee during the war, has made up for lost educational opportunities through sheer hard work – yet is denied the promotion he feels he deserves and loses all respect for his bosses. Idealistic Clelia Kingslake flies out to Rhodes to deal with a crisis – but finds that no one seems to care about or rate her peace-keeping abilities.

All this in an elegant, uncluttered prose. The anger is toned down, yet with sly asides – a very British irony which reminds me of Barbara Pym.

Clelia Kingslake was happy because, first of all, she was a Canadian. Fished out of the Annual Reports Pool at Headquarters… flown to Rhodes at one day’s notice, arriving there to sunlight and sea, to trees in leaf, flowers in bloom, to the luxury of finding herself beside the Mediterranean – all this by itself might not have been thoroughly enjoyable to her strict northern soul had she not come to assist in a noble undertaking. She had been sent to serve the peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean in their hour of need, and it was this that sanctioned her almost sensual pleasure in her surroundings…

Have you read these books or other books by these authors? I will certainly be seeking out more of their work.

Signed, Seen and Just Missed: Morges 2015

I couldn’t resist the siren call of the literary festival in Morges called¬†Le Livre sur les Quais¬†this weekend, although I should have been working and packing for an upcoming business trip. But who can resist a boat trip on Lake Geneva in the company of the wise and witty Tessa Hadley?

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Watching chateaux and villas (usually invisible from the road) sliding smoothly by in all their glory, while listening to fellow writers from the Geneva Writers Group reading from their latest book (there were more people than that at the readings, but I forgot my camera and was late to remember my mobile phone). The full list of authors reading (with links to the books they were reading from): Lesley Lawson-Botez, Ellen Wallace, Katie Hayoz, Massimo Marino, Olivia Wildenstein, Nancy Freund, Gary Edward Gedall, Peter St. John, Daniela Norris, Susan Tiberghien and Leonie van Daalen, who was also celebrating her 63rd wedding anniversary onboard.

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The tent where books, authors and readers meet each other was constantly full, even at lunch time, but I forgot to take pictures of the authors I did get to see.

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To arouse your envy, here’s a short list of authors I spoke to (some of them I also got to see later in panel discussions): Christos Tsiolkas, Ben Okri, Petina Gappah, Michelle Bailat Jones, Gabriel Gbadamosi, Dinaw Mengestu. And not just English-speaking ones: Yasmina Khadra, Alain Mabanckou, Metin Arditi, Romain, Slocombe, Gregoire Delacourt, Joseph Incardona (who actually remembered me from last year – I was very flattered). The pictures I did remember to take at the panel discussions are not very good, unfortunately.

Christos Tsiolkas and Gabriel Gbadamosi.
Christos Tsiolkas and Gabriel Gbadamosi.
Ben Okri, Petina Gappah and Dinaw Mengestu from Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia/Midwest Unites States respectively.
Ben Okri, Petina Gappah and Dinaw Mengestu from Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia/Midwest United States respectively.

Sadly, I did not get to see any of the Greek writers who were the guests of honour at the festival: Petros Markaris, Ersi Sotiropoulos, Yannis Kiourtsakis, Takis Theodoropoulos. Nor did I have enough time to go back to the tent and meet the following authors who are very much on my TBR list: Peter Stamm, Emilie de Turckheim, Sophie Divry, Mathias Enard, Hadrien Laroche.

In its sixth edition now, the festival is becoming perhaps just a little too big to be able to see everyone and attend all the sessions you would want (many of the most interesting ones were concurrent). To me, however, it’s¬†an unmissable event in my annual literary calendar. And when the sun comes out, it’s even more beautiful.

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A good book haul ensued as well – all with rather lovely dedications. Meanwhile, a little part of Morges will be accompanying me on my business trip: Michelle Bailat-Jones’ ‘Fog Island Mountains’ will be coming with me to Japan, where it is set.

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Things to Look Forward To: Livre Sur les Quais 2015

lelivresurlesquais2014Last year I waxed lyrical about the great atmosphere of this book festival for readers and authors in Morges, on the banks of the bonny Lac L√©man. This year it’s taking place between the 5th and 7th of September and I’ll be heading there again for what promises to be a great line-up and a chance to enjoy the last days of summer in congenial surroundings. There is a giant book tent where you get a chance to buy books and get them signed by your favourite authors, as well as a number of panel discussions or Q&A sessions with authors.

From actualitte.com
From actualitte.com

This year too, you’ll find the usual suspects of Swiss and French-speaking writers, including old favourites of mine (or those I look forward to reading), such as: Metin Arditi, Joseph Incardona, Yasmina Khadra, Martin Suter, Alex Capus, Emilie de Turckheim, Tatiana de Rosnay, Alain Mabanckou, Timoth√©e de Fombelle.

From website of the festival.
From website of the festival.

They will be joined by a diverse bunch of writers who also speak English (not all of them write in English): Esther Freud, Jonathan Coe, Louis de Berni√®res, Helen Dunmore, Amanda Hodginskon, Jenny Colgan, Tessa Hadley, Elif Shafak from Turkey, Petina Gappah from Zimbabwe, Gabriel Gbadamosi from Nigeria, Frank Westerman from the Netherlands, Paul Lynch (the Irish writer rather than the Canadian filmmaker). Also present: several members of the Geneva Writers’ Group who’ve had new books out recently, writers I’m proud to also call my friends, such as Michelle Bailat-Jones, Susan Tiberghien, Patti Marxsen. The Geneva Writers’ Group will also be hosting a breakfast on the boat from Geneva to Nyon to Morges, a wonderful opportunity for readings and Q&A sessions with some of our authors.

Boat rides on Lake Geneva, www.genferseegebiet.ch
Boat rides on Lake Geneva, http://www.genferseegebiet.ch

 

This year’s guest of honour is poor, battered Greece, a reminder that art and creativity can nevertheless survive like wildflowers peeking through cracks in austere cement. Here are a few of the writers I look forward to discovering there:

  • crime writer and masterly painter of the Greek crisis,¬†Petros Markaris
  • Christos Tsiolkas – Australian of Greek origin, who needs no further introduction
  • Ersi Sotiropoulos: an¬†experimental, avant-garde writer, whose novel about four young Athenians musing about their future, Zig-Zag through the Bitter Orange Trees, has been translated into English. She is currently working on ‘Plato in New York’, described as a¬†hybrid of a novel that uses fictional narrative, dialogue, and visual poetry.
  • Yannis Kiourtsakis – suspended between France and Greece, novels exploring the heart of displacement and emigration
  • Poet Thanassis Hatzopoulous, whose wonderful words (translated by David Connolly) I leave you with:

DAEMON
The clacking of prayers persists
And the rattles of the temple where
The beauteous officiates

And yet no one
Can bear this beauty, the touch
Everything glows and fades incomprehensibly
By itself carrying so much desolation
And charm peculiar to verbs

The seasons rotate under the veil of rhythm
And the people who bear them
Return more vigorous full of freshness and breeze
Conveyed in their steps
Dripping their tracks

And whatever life gives them they return
So equally the soul’s universe is shared
Rendering in radiance whatever
In at times its own way avaricious
Nature intends

Yet beauty has no justice
All turmoil, prey to chance is meted
And finds peace.