Some writers describe gorgeously: a scene, a landscape, a person’s face. They may choose unusual, apt vocabulary and images to paint familiar things afresh. Yet the reader may quickly begin to fidget. Too much description, too early, and they might give up altogether, or at least to skip past ‘the boring bits’. When will something happen? This is a relatively recent phenomenon. We put up with descriptive passages in Hardy that would never get past an editor’s desk nowadays.
But we do need to know the texture of life: a person’s distinctive looks and gestures, the quality of light that sparks a memory. These details immerse us, make the action convincing, help us to step into this other strange world and feel that it matters what happens there.
A novel published recently by new venture Margaret River Press – Finding Jasper by Lynne Leonhardt – weaves descriptions of its lonely, searching characters and epic West Australian landscapes so seamlessly into its emotional and dramatic action that they cannot be teased apart. In this novel, in which war, exile and the rhythms and heartache of life on the land are felt through the lives of three women, Leonhardt’s descriptions are revelatory, necessary and often beautiful.
Here is Attie, working the family farm while her brother Jasper is away at war, remembering her childhood in Ceylon as she picks apples:
The Tamils, in their brightly coloured saris, were part of her childhood landscape. Every day, she had seen them working with their baskets on their backs. From a distance, they looked like giant locusts munching their way across the green terraced hillsides. Attie winced. It horrified her now recalling this childhood image, innocent though it was. The very young always delight in make believe. It is their instinct to personify or objectify almost everything they see. Yet still it stung her adult conscience that she could possibly have thought of the Tamils as anything other than human beings (107).
This is a complex moment. Attie is cast back into her colonial past, her memory of a vivid projection tainted by its callousness. Now she works on the land alone, her education of no use to her, her work arduous for all its pleasures. She goes on to entertain a brief fantasy of pregnancy, only to dismiss it as ridiculous, revealing further layers of her character.
Later, in a scene observed from the point of view of Attie’s sister-in-law Valerie, a lonely English bride waiting on Jasper’s farm for his return, approaching fire reminds her of the wild danger of this alien land:
… the three women stood on the veranda watching the rapid swell of smoke darken against the haziness of the state forest, clusters upon clusters billowing up higher and higher into the blue above. Valerie had thought it was a rain cloud at first, but now she was overwhelmed by the acrid smell of smoke, its grittiness filling the air around her (144).
Anyone who has seen the sudden building of a bushfire on the horizon will recognise this accumulation, this massing of approaching chaos. Its ‘rapid swell’, the darkening, its smell and gritty texture, the change of the air – all fill Valerie with helplessness. Jasper has told her of settlers ‘boiled alive in their rain-water tank’ and farmers ruined. While Attie goes out to help a neighbour, Valerie drinks tea, spilling it on her apron, chinking the china against her teeth (145).
Valerie’s daughter Gin, in later years, has painful cause to remember her nervous mother:
When everyone had left, and after Noel had finally padded off to the spare room, Gin had remained in the half-light listening to the silence … Everything was perfectly still apart from the ticking of the clock. Through the hush and the veil of shadows encroaching on the room, she could see a little red glow flickering. It looked like a cigarette, that ubiquitous cigarette that she kept seeing, and, suddenly, she felt the whole of her mother’s presence emerge from that glow (247).
In what begins as a description of an interlude after a distressing day, a quiet moment in the shadows of a newly emptied house, a flicker of light becomes the entire physical presence of her mother, a blow struck by memory, an image that connects the physical world with the interior world of loss in a way that is convincing and affecting.
There are many images in Finding Jasper that make such connections. A quiet moment, given full attention, reveals much about character and the ways in which memory knocks us off balance, casting new light on the world around us. This is a quiet book, in the best possible sense, unfurling its secrets stealthily and satisfyingly, letting descriptions grow into something not to be skipped past.
For a blog about procrastination there has not been much mention of it so far, but you will find plenty of evidence against me in the length between posts. I have been meaning to write about Emily Maguire’s Fishing for Tigers for at least a month, but a hundred other projects, plans and dreams intervened, including (briefly) NaNoWriMo. More on that later, maybe. Approached kindly, procrastination might be seen simply as a passion for launching headlong into grand schemes. We all love an optimist. Anyway, guilt and a few firm nudges have brought me back to my intended task.
Fishing for Tigers is a finely written, original and compelling novel about a thirty-something woman in Vietnam, Mischa, who embarks on a relationship with the son of a friend, Cal, who is half her age. Until she meets him, her only passion is for Hanoi, her chaotic haven from life’s misadventures. Cal’s beautiful body, half Vietnamese and half Australian, is the focus of much narrative attention, but Mischa’s physical love for this boy-man formed only one element of what I found striking about this book. Maguire’s writing expresses the many forms that love takes, how they compete for attention, how they sneak up on her narrator, knocking her off balance with their unexpected force.
Love is difficult to write about without lapsing into sentimentality, which is a kind of exploitation of the reader, a manipulation. Yet there is something very appealing about a narrative that wears its heart on its sleeve. Human beings do love; it shapes us. Why not explore how that works? Fishing for Tigers reminded me in its willingness to do this of Debra Adelaide’s A Household Guide to Dying. In the details of the things we do for each other and of the shape of the hole certain people leave in characters’ lives, human beings are given their full significance. I suppose that is what I mean by love and the convincing expression of it is a key pleasure for me in reading fiction.
Mischa, who has kept her desires contained since fleeing an abusive marriage, is bewildered by her intense attraction to the dramatically unsuitable Cal. She attempts as an act of resistance to separate her own feelings from that of her body, which she calls ‘just another opiate-addicted hunk of meat that would do anything to get its fix.’ But how is this distinction between body and self to be made? Every part of her body wants every part of his. She concludes: ‘If the parts of which I am made are so convinced, then what is left of me to protest?’ (153)
The difficulty of this kind of love is its selfishness. It does not heed the requirements of other loves, of her friend Matthew, Cal’s father, or of her family in Australia, who need her. Learning of her sister Margi’s cancer she begins to pray in the form of the repeated word: please. But then, immediately afterwards: ‘I don’t want to go back, I thought, and my panic was replaced with shame’ (165-6).
Cal is not too young to know of the complexities of love. Talking of his grandfather, who came to Australia as a refugee of the Vietnam war, he tells Mischa: ‘“Sometimes grief catches you off guard – that’s what Grandpa says. He’ll be going about his day, everything fine and then bam he’s curled up in bed, can’t even speak. When he gets like that, I take my homework in and do it on the floor of his room just so he won’t be alone”’ (169). The child of a traumatised family shows his love in the gift of his silent presence, because what is there to say to someone who lost almost everyone?
Mischa’s phone rings and Cal tells her to leave it. He requires her presence, and later she sees that it was her sister Mel, reminding her of her own responsibilities to family, ‘but it was far too late to call back’ (169). Many times in Fishing for Tigers love is expressed as many-stranded and competing. Mischa, who lost her parents young and married disastrously, is continually buffeted by its demands, not assertive enough to prioritise them, or to stake a claim for her own space in the world from which to respond to others. It is clichéd to say that we have to love ourselves to love anyone else, but good novels often display the intricacies behind simple messages.
Love for this isolated expatriate is shot through her memories of how life was. Here is how Mischa remembers Margi, whose illness she must face:
This woman who had known me my entire life, who had sworn to keep me safe and had wept with rage and threatened murder when she found out she had failed. This woman who was once a girl who had barred me from her bedroom, which was blue and grown-up unlike my babyish pink one, and who would go weeks without speaking to me and then all of a wonderful sudden gather me up in her jasmine-smelling arms and kissing may face all over (206).
Her memories of her sister recede into a past in which love overwhelms resentment. That sudden physical urge of an older girl to smother her baby sister with kisses seems true and sweet and yet I have not seen it written about before. It comes as an urge after weeks of silence. Love in this novel breaks in waves. The force of love is not constant or predictable or usually even manageable.
When connected to sex, love can be shameful. Mischa, back in Sydney with her sisters, remembers Cal in a web of older memories that bring pain and a sense of complicity, denial, sorrow and anger:
Cal is like remembering the way the dry cleaner giggled at the rip in my wedding dress and the doctor examining my ‘jogging injury’ asked no questions about the fingerprint bruises on my upper-arm. Thinking of Cal makes me bitter and regretful and ashamed and defiant. God, of course I miss him. Savagely (293).
When we discussed this book at book group, a description used several times was that it was ‘real’, like ‘true’, an interestingly ambiguous term to use about fiction. Its ‘realness’ for me was in its distinction between how we would like things to be and how they are. We would like to keep the ways we love distinct from one another. We would like to be strong enough to make wise choices about who we love. Fishing for Tigers makes a case not for what love should be but for what it is. In a lovely final metaphor, the book’s closing passages once more show the intricacies of our connections to one another – the continual engagement required to give each person in our lives their proper weight and meaning.
Funding writers through postgraduate creative writing qualifications…skews funding in favour of the gutless. Enrolling in a postgraduate writing course is a hedge against failure, costing thousands of dollars, for those who are too scared to take off a year to get on with it and write. It attracts those who are everything a good writer is not: compliant, institution bound and approval seeking. Lisa Pryor, 27 February 2010
I have a Masters in Novel Writing and am awaiting examiners’ reports on a Doctor of Creative Arts in writing. Only one of my three novels was written independently of an academic institution. I’ve taught undergraduate and adult education fiction classes. Shortly I will be participating on a panel at the National Young Writers Festival in Newcastle called ‘Are Writing Courses Any Use’. I am also running a workshop at the festival for writers trying to finish novels.
I am often asked about the value of creative writing courses. Sometimes the question masks a position already quite strongly held and based on suspicions of elitism, or at least partly based on a belief that writers ought to suffer for their work. Lisa Pryor’s column a couple of years ago on creative writing courses as a ‘pyramid selling scheme’, in which writers do PhDs in order to teach PhDs to writers who will compete for the chance to do the same, encapsulated several of the reasons they irk people. It’s for that reason I focus on it here. She was only saying what many think, I know.
A lot of writers move in and out of academia in a similar pattern to my own. Most keep it quiet in the commercial sphere of publication, because of this sense of mistrust. You can’t teach talent. It’s a rort to keep academics in work. Real writers aren’t afraid of starvation. Or as Pryor put it: ‘if you need it spelled out slowly with the benefit of a circle of plastic chairs and a whiteboard, you lack the mettle to be a great novelist’. This reminds me of another vividly drawn portrait of what happens at universities, this time from Geoff Dyer, in his book on DH Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage. I’ll paraphrase because it’s very rude, but he also has academics forming a circle, this time with their backs to the world in order to perform intimate acts on one another. Academic literary criticism, he says, ‘kills everything it touches’.
I laughed hard when I first read Dyer’s description. I’ve sat in conferences wondering what language people are speaking. But something about this argument, whatever its source, is deeply at odds with my own experience, so I’d like to suggest some of the reasons that spending some time at university is rich and valuable for writers and potentially rich and valuable for the culture.
Recently I spent three years full time at university completing a doctorate in creative writing. My thesis was a novel and an exegesis, which I think of as a long essay that puts your own creative work in context by making a small survey of the field in which you’re writing. The various institutions have differing affections for theory or self-reflection. Mine was a bit of both, but was mostly an examination of other novels that like mine explore the idea of history as an inheritance.
The point of doing this is that none of us write in a void, and if we are going to write in an academic setting, we had better demonstrate some thought and reflection on the culture in which we are attempting to participate. Pryor wrote of ‘overthinking’, of heads ‘swirling with academic jargon’, and again it’s not at all an unusual criticism of the requirement for creative writers to engage in criticism. At various times we all had minor freak outs about the bloody exegesis.
But, in the end, I found writing and researching my own work in parallel with careful reflection about others’ writing satisfying, challenging and worthwhile. There is an incredible spark that comes from being in a room with people from many different backgrounds writing about fascinating and urgent subjects. We heard about research on the conflict in Afghanistan and the division of Cyprus, from someone writing a creative memoir of life in Iran and others sharing pieces on migration and belonging. Listening to the papers and creative work of fellow students again and again I had those moments in which all the different ideas in the world seem connected. I went home ready to work, and if I ever felt discouraged, I would not have given up because apart from the many other reasons to continue, I would not have let my colleagues down. We wanted to see each other’s books. One by one now we are finishing our projects and taking them out into the world.
Access to the writers and academics we had on our faculty was a joy. The careful supervision of long projects is an echo from the old days of close and continuing involvement with publishers. Learning to accept (or reject) and use criticism as a necessary element of becoming more skilled – this is part of the training for all crafts and professions, except for the odd rare genius. But dig deep and they often have mentors too.
I’m an editor as well as a writer. I learned to frame my criticisms in writing workshops. There are ways of talking to writers that will help them do the work they need to do. We are not born knowing how to talk this language.
On the subject of funding, in a curious sense it goes both ways with creative writing courses. Basically, masters students contribute financially to the university, doctoral students get scholarships, because they are producing research (although quite a few continue to work away unfunded at their other careers while putting astonishing hours into their study and writing).
You will have your own opinion on whether writers should be funded in this way. Speaking from a partisan position, with the humanities under threat, and yet few seeming to worry quite so much about musicians and artists being trained and mentored within academic institutions (and ‘only’ emerging as teachers), if there is a place in which a part of our culture is flourishing, and students are learning to write, reflect, teach, edit, publish, philosophise and encourage and inspire others to do the same, I am thrilled. For better or worse, as literature courses wane, one place books are still read, analysed and appreciated is in creative writing workshops. A discussion for another day, perhaps.
Not all writing courses are created equal. I hope that the quality of postgraduates competing for places will lead to a very high standard of teaching and supervision across the board. I also hope that the postgraduates who do not become published writers continue to take their skills and knowledge out into the culture and make it richer in other ways. Pryor talks of the entrenched privilege of university graduates being offered funding to further qualify themselves. I worry too that writers who would benefit from the encouragement and intensity of a good-quality workshop don’t have access. To the mind of many, they’re better off without it. Some writers undoubtedly are. Not everyone wants to discuss their work as they’re doing it, and even those who do, often need to disappear from the world for long periods. But on the subject of privilege, why single out writing? Equity of access to education is a universal concern.
Criticisms from writers undertaking courses who feel they are not getting the support they need to become better writers are valid. Writers who feel left out of the system because they don’t have the time or money or first degree to get involved also have a strong case. I can’t let the word ‘gutless’ stand though for people who invest time, desire and money to put creative work at the centre of their lives for once, and to enter an environment where they are supported by others who have made the same decision. Sensitive as I probably am, this kind of thing feels like having a placard waved at me that says in large letters: GET A REAL JOB.
I’ve got several real jobs, and probably will have all my life. For three years, my real job was being a writer. If you have the chance to do the same, and know that you will do something valuable with that rare time, space and encouragement, take that privilege, and make something with it. I look forward to reading it.
(This entry is cross-posted from Southerly.)
The talented Angela Meyer interviewed me recently for her blog. I liked her questions so I’ve reblogged here.
Just so you know, I am alarmed by the size of my photograph as it appears in the reblog, but I don’t seem to be able to delete it.
You can check out Angela’s beautiful blog for interviews, reviews, news of festivals and links to Angela’s stories.
Belinda Castles is the author of Falling Woman and The River Baptists (for which she won the 2006 Australian/Vogel Award). Her latest novel is Hannah and Emil, which traces two characters across Europe, the UK and Australia and charts their complex struggles, and the love that pulls them through. Emil fights for Germany in WWI but is forced from his home with the rise of Nazism in the 1930s.
(Cross-posted with Southerly.)
Just over five years ago, I decided to write a novel about my grandparents. Their names were Fay and Heinz (in the novel they became Hannah and Emil), and like so many caught up in the wars of the last century, their lives in those times were characterised by displacement and agonising separation.
Heinz, a German veteran of the First World War and anti-Nazi socialist, escaped from Germany in 1933, fleeing tragedy and great personal danger. Having crossed the border into Holland and then Belgium, he met Fay, a translator, at the Maison du Peuples in Brussels, where she worked for the trade union movement. They settled in England, her home, and ran a youth hostel until 1940, when Heinz was arrested as an enemy alien. He was soon afterwards sent to Australia on HMT Dunera with 2000 mainly Jewish Germans and Austrians and interned at Hay Camp in the Riverina region of New South Wales.
Fay, a woman for whom the term indefatigable was invented, used British Labour Party and trade union contacts to follow him across U-boat infested waters. She finally had him freed for war work in April 1942, almost two years after his internment, whereupon they married in Melbourne, had two sons and returned to England after the war.
But the Dunera affair was only one episode in lives packed with incident and poignancy. When Heinz died in 1963, Fay told her sons two facts previously kept from them. One was that she was Jewish, and that so consequently were they, and the other was that their father had been married before and had had a German son, who fought for the Hitler Youth Army at the end of the war.
(Am I a writer because this is the sort of thing spilling from the family closet? Or just ‘fortunate’ to be the recipient of others’ painful history?)
In early 2008 I travelled from Sydney back to England, the country of my birth, and tore around the country photocopying papers and visiting the places my grandparents had lived. At one point I found myself standing on the street outside Fay’s old flat in West Hampstead, memory flooding over me like a wave. My uncle in Oxford gave me Fay’s unpublished memoir, revealing a store of vivid moments returning in old age: sleeping on Goodge Street tube platform on raid nights in the First World War, roaming the streets of the West End as a child, the soldiers marching by her father’s shop on Tottenham Court Road – the fabulous redcoats of pre- war replaced by dull khaki uniforms.
My lightning dash around England gathering gems allowed only one night to stay at my uncle’s in Oxford. He had some photographs that he wanted to give me but could not put his hands on them. I went off to Germany for the next mad few days of cramming information, experience, connection with my family’s past, and then returned to Australia, where the light was gold at the end of summer after the grim freeze and reluctant snow of Europe.
Some weeks later an email arrived from my uncle. He had found the photographs, scanned them and sent them to me. Here is one of them.
This is my grandfather Heinz. The boy on his shoulders I had never seen before. But look at their noses and their eyes as they squint in the sunlight. Look at the way Heinz holds his fingers gently, too gently to be holding him on his shoulders. He holds his hand the way we often hold children’s hands: not always to keep them safe but rather to touch their fingers.
Another photograph in the sequence is clearly in Winchester, in front of the Old City Mill youth hostel they ran in the 1930s, which places the photographs for me. Here is another.
Heinz is on the left, Fay is on the right and between them are the same boy and a woman as fair as the child. She was in the previous photograph, hovering in the background. Here they are then, Heinz, his ex-wife, their son and his English lover Fay. I knew that this boy had existed. There is no reason Fay would have made him up, and my cousin and I found a reference to him in the town archives in my grandfather’s hometown in Germany. That is not the same as seeing him in these photographs, sitting on his father’s shoulders, or sitting with his mother and Fay on a picnic table, his skinny body leaning towards Heinz.
There is always something heartbreaking about a photograph taken before separation and loss. In this last picture, Heinz looks off into the distance as though he can see the future and knows it’s the kind for which you steel yourself. It is difficult to say what this picture means to me. What, I kept thinking, was the story of that day?
I will never, ever know, so I have had to make my own.
(For September, entries will be cross-posted with Southerly, where I am guest blogger.)
Recently I had the misfortune to finish reading Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, her second novel imagining the life of Thomas Cromwell, adviser to Henry VIII. I put off the moment of finishing for several days, not on this occasion because I am a pathological procrastinator, but because as I’d found with the first of these novels, Wolf Hall, life is duller once you’re done.
Writers can be bitter, unlikable people, brimming with venomous bile at the talents of others. Frequently, they will put down a book thinking: Well, yes, we could all do that, if that’s how you want to spend your time. It can be liberating for such people when they read something they could never pull off in a million years.
Is there any point then, in approaching Mantel’s supple, moving, intensely vivid portrait of Cromwell with an eye on the silver? Is there anything to make off with here? If we take apart works of literature perhaps we will be left sitting with the pieces on our laps, unable to restore them to the astonishing, mysterious thing that we have just impulsively dismantled (no pun intended).
In Reading as a Writer, Francine Prose argues that writers should engage in close reading of the giants of literature in order to see how they achieve their effects, and, more importantly, to make life better for themselves. I’m with Ms Prose (and only partly because I love her name). Reading and rereading passages that strike us as beautiful or particularly effective can only ever enrich our reading and appreciation of this art that unfolds in our minds. A writer is a reader first, someone for whom others’ writing is a gift: the proof that certain things are possible, that fine new things can still be made.
Attempting to plunder the House of Mantel for its entire haul of riches is beyond this blog’s humble ambitions. So today I will try to slip away with one small bag of jewels, a little purse containing something bewitching that I will call…
The strangeness of England
England, in Bring Up the Bodies, is storing up strife. The land is ancient, and though momentarily peaceful, will stir itself towards war. Cromwell, a blacksmith’s boy, spectacularly self-made, knows himself to be at the heart of things, a man who shapes not only his own life but whole kingdoms, belting them violently into the form he sees in his mind. He rides with the king through the western counties, where they enjoy the hospitality of subjects grateful for peace and keen for advancement. ‘These days are perfect. The clear untroubled light picks out each berry shimmering in a hedge’ (p8). Cromwell notices such things, because it is in his nature, and interest, to notice everything. In the stillness of the individual berries we see England in moment of calm. The light is untroubled, but nothing will be untroubled for long. The place will be awash with blood. ‘It’s not just the past you think of, as you ride these fields. It’s what’s latent in the soil, what’s breeding; it’s the days to come, the wars unfought, the injuries and deaths that, like seeds, the soil of England is keeping warm’ (p8).
In the space of a page the voice describing Cromwell shifts from third person to first person plural to second. He, we, you. I found myself thinking again and again reading this book, and Wolf Hall, is she allowed to do that? That’s the sort of thing editors are for, usually. But Mantel is always in control. Cromwell is part of an ancient landscape that holds history in its soil – what has happened and what is yet to happen. With this he, we, you the reader is drawn powerfully into the moment the land is changing. History dissolves into experience. Thomas Cromwell sees the berries shine in the clear light at the end of a bloody summer, at the end of fifty years of peace. It is a collective experience; we are English, remembering ‘our forefathers the giants’. You are Thomas Cromwell, and it is 1535.
Mantel has a rarely paralleled power to immerse. The distance between my own life in twenty-first century Sydney, unhaunted by potential beheading, and that of Cromwell, riding through England to do the king’s business, disappears. I have read a thousand novels and will read a thousand more in search of such moments.
One of the many pleasures of Bring Up the Bodies is the sense of a man recognisable to modern sensibilities: ambitious, dextrous, worldly, operating in a land in which a feeling of Arthurian legend seeps from the earth. This is partly the source of the novel’s power to convey a felt history. A man like Cromwell, making the stirrings of a king’s heart law and history, operates in a realm that frequently seems uncanny. At Wolf Hall, where the king takes an interest in Jane Seymour, Cromwell drifts towards sleep pondering the king’s troubles, his lack of a viable heir. ‘The old families of England are restless and ready to press their claim…He can almost hear them, hidden among the trees’ (p25). Hard-headed contemplation of the troubles before him slip into strange visions.
You may find a bride in the forest, old Seymour had said. When he closes his eyes she slides behind them, veiled in cobwebs and splashed with dew. Her feet are bare, entwined in roots, her feather hair flies into the branches; her finger, beckoning, is a curled leaf…
At the edge of his inner vision, behind his closed eyes, he senses something in the act of becoming. It will arrive with morning light; something shifting and breathing, its form disguised in a copse or grove (p25).
An irresistible force in the form of a forest bride is coming from dreams and the woods to change England. Ancient legends, the feeling at the edge of sleep of grasping towards truth, the vast wooded tracts of Seymour land, combine to create dark portent. (And if you read these sentences aloud, how lovely are they? When he closes his eyes she slides behind them, veiled in cobwebs and splashed with dew.)
Place in Bring Up the Bodies tells us what is coming in a way that is more subtle, mysterious and lovely than the bald statement: heads will roll.
Note to self: such things are possible.
P.S. Hilary Mantel’s rule no. 9 for writing fiction (see About for relevance) fills out Colm Toibin’s nicely: If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient. See no. 8 about writing place as well.
Thank you for reading my very first blog entry. I plan to write about the books I’ve found useful as a writer, the books I just love anyway and how I’m going with the endless struggle with distraction that as far as I can tell is the life of a writer. I may also, God forgive me, share links to bits and pieces to do with my latest novel, Hannah and Emil. On the About page you’ll find the origin of the phrase ‘No going to London’.
Wish me luck with the slightly bewildering process of getting organised digitally. I was born in a different age.