Giving Up the Ghost

giving up the ghostI often think it’s harder to write about a book you’ve really loved than one you haven’t liked at all. Just as it takes more muscles to smile than to frown (and it really does, the other way round is a myth propagated by a conspiracy of determined optimists), it takes more firing synapses to praise than condemn. I’m tempted to say of Hilary Mantel’s memoir: It’s brilliant, go and read it, and just leave this review concise. But maybe it’s useful if I say a word or two – and give you a quote or two – in justification.

Hilary Mantel grew up just outside of Manchester, the majority of her immediate family living in two neighbouring houses, her grandmother presiding over one, her grandmother’s sister in the other. In and out of their houses all the time, she’s greeted by her great-aunt, Annie Connor:

“Hello, our ‘Ilary,”… my family have named me aspirationally, but aspiration doesn’t stretch to the ‘H’. Rather embarrassed for her, that she hasn’t spotted who I am, I slip her my name of the day. I claim I’m an Indian brave. I claim I’m Sir Launcelot. I claim I’m the parish priest and she doesn’t quibble. I give her a blessing; she says, thank you, Father.’

Yes, like many a writer, Hilary is a wildly imaginative child, believing her best friend’s father to be half-man, half-plant because of the thick, knotty veins in his forearms, able to recite whole chunks of the Knights of the Round Table from memory and convinced she will at some point transmute into a boy.

Trouble comes early: a severe and unexplained fever on her first holiday in Blackpool, when she first realises in that unarticulated childish way, that her parents aren’t happy and fears she is the cause. Forever after it seems as if she were the kind of child who simply absorbed negative energy and turned it into illness. And then there were the dull rigors of school:

I kept my bounce for a week or two, my cheerful pre-school resilience; I was a small, pale girl, post-Blackpool, but I had a head stuffed full of chivalric epigrams, and the self-confidence that comes from a thorough knowledge of horsemanship and swordplay. I knew, also, so many people who were old, so many people who were dead; I belonged to their company and lineage, not to this, and I began to want to rejoin them, without the interruptions now imposed. I couldn’t read, but neither could any of the other children, and it was a wearisome uphill trail in the company of Dick and Dora… It was dull stuff, all of it, and as my head was already full of words, whole sagas which I knew by heart, I was not convinced that it was necessary.’

The story of Hilary’s life is one packed full of ghosts, spotted or sensed here and there, flitting in and out of the margins of the narrative without much in the way of time or explanation spent on them. They just happen to crop up occasionally, and hardly ever cause her any harm, apart from one time when she was seven when something happened while she was in the garden, an experience with no defined contours that ‘wrapped a strangling hand around my life’, a sense of such evil and foreboding that: ‘Grace runs away from me, runs out of my body like liquid from a corpse.’ She refers to it as her ‘mauvaise quart d’heure’, and doesn’t refer to it much at all.

In any case, there is plenty of material trouble to be had with the living. Her parents, along with Hilary and her two young brothers, move into their own house up the road, and then before long so too does Jack, the man who will eventually become her stepfather. ‘You should not judge your parents,’ Mantel writes, on the grounds that they are young and unhappy and don’t know what they’re doing, except hoping for the best. But naturally, such a development caused extreme rifts within her family, and outside of it. When her parents finally split (and Hilary never saw her father again after that), Jack her stepfather evidently feels somewhat saddled with kids he didn’t ask for, a daughter the least useful of all.

But there is a terrific tensile strength in Hilary Mantel, a resolution not to be broken or bowed by the stupid, the pointless and the unwittingly cruel in life, and a determination to stand up to any bully who comes her way. These qualities are tested to the limit when, as a young woman, she transfers her degree course to Sheffield to be with the man she will eventually marry, and starts to experience nausea, sickness and atrocious pains in her legs. She goes to the doctor who, because he doesn’t have any explanation for it, sends her to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist diagnoses excess ambition (‘If I were honest with myself, he asked, wouldn’t I rather have a job in my mother’s dress shop than study law?’). He puts her on anti-depressants, whose only effect is one of ‘making print slide sideways and fall out of the book.’ Until she tries valium, which makes her fit to be tied – apparently it has the effect of enraging some people. From this point on, Hilary is given stronger and stronger drugs to counter the side-effects of whatever she has previously taken, until she ends up knocked out in a clinic on Largatil. Realising the drugs are now the problem (which no one else does), she stops taking them all and simply claims she is well. Which of course she isn’t at all. It’s not until many years later that she starts researching her illness herself and comes to believe she is suffering from endometriosis, ‘a gynaecological condition with a dazzling variety of systemic effects.’ After some torturous surgery and hormone drugs that make her pile on weight and lose her hair and her hearing, she is out of danger but also a stranger to herself. But that indomitable courage never really goes away: ‘Bald, odd-shaped, deaf but not defeated, I sat down and wrote another book.’

Although the memoir is framed by the act of selling two homes and buying one, the real heart of the book is in these central sections, in which damage is done to Hilary Mantel, inadvertently for the most part, but enough to make her a woman of many lives, in other words, a writer.

I am not writing to solicit any special sympathy. People survive much worse and never put pen to paper… There are other people who, like me, have had the roots of their personality torn up. You need to find yourself, in the maze of social expectation, the thickets of memory: just which bits of you are left intact? I have been so mauled by medical procedures, so sabotaged and made over, so thin and so fat, that sometimes I feel that each morning it is necessary to write myself into being’.

Giving Up the Ghost is a book that takes you by the throat and does not let go, written with consummate stylishness and a clever, teasing wit. I don’t think I’ve read a better account of what it’s like to be a child, the terrible disappointments that come with grasping the essence of growing up as it is sold to the small and helpless. The parts about chronic illness are hypnotic. The ending, a sort of coda in which Hilary Mantel sells her old homes and buys a new one, wasn’t as intriguing or endearing, but who cares? The rest is amazing. A final thought: in the book, she writes that she’d never seen the point of memoir, but writing her own had taught her something new: how to let the story arise, how life eventually revealed its own shape, if you let it, and she hoped this would help with her fiction. And what did she go on to write next? Yup, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. I guess it was useful after all.

Balthasar’s Gift

balthasar's giftThere’s a back story to this one. Once upon a time, now many years ago, a group of women writers, all friends online, came together over a feminist blog: What We Said. We were all involved with different kinds of writing; novels, short stories, nonfiction. Now one of our group has published her crime novel, Balthasar’s Gift, which is the first in a series featuring maverick journalist, Maggie Cloete.

The setting is South Africa, post-apartheid but before the turn of the millenium. Maggie is going about her normal business (chasing muggers on her motorcycle, in fact) when the call comes in: a shooting at the local AIDS mission. Maggie arrives to find a young man dying in the arms of the woman who runs the place, and it’s only when a passer-by knows the victim’s name, Balthasar Meiring, that Maggie realises she’s heard of him. A little while back he had called her on the phone, urging her to attend the court hearing of a class action against a doctor selling a fake cure for AIDS. Maggie had decided to pass the information onto her colleague at the paper who works on health issues, mostly because she was resisting the pressure Meiring seemed to want to put on her. And of course now, she regrets it.

While the general assumption is that his death is a robbery gone wrong, Maggie begins to suspect there’s a great deal more behind it. Following up on leads that she hides from her editor at the paper, she begins to believe that the two sides of Balthasar’s life have clashed: his private school friends, some of whom are now operating far too close to the limits of the law, and his work with AIDS sufferers, of whom there are escalating numbers. It’s the mid-90s and the government is reluctant to provide the drugs that could save thousands of lives, while the people react with fear and superstition. It’s a bad situation, ripe with all the urgency and exploitation that leads to murder.

Maggie is a terrific character: determined to be the alpha male in any situation, stubborn and provocative and with the subtlety of a jackhammer, but fundamentally it’s her tender side that gets her into trouble, undermining any professional distance she might try to have. She reminds me a whole lot of V. I. Warshawski.

But perhaps what I admired most in this novel is the setting of Pietermaritzburg. I’ve never been to South Africa and know very little about the country, but this story is so steeped in the atmosphere of place and time, I felt as if I’d been there. The best crime fiction doesn’t just tell a pacy, high-octane story, it also has a profound awareness of the social injustices and loopholes that create the right conditions for crime to flourish. I really admired this in Eva Dolan’s crime novel, Long Way Home, a few weeks back, and was again impressed by that same depth in Charlotte Otter’s.

I should also say that I read an early version of this novel, when Charlotte was first drafting it. It was a great read then, but now it’s amazing. Every scene is crisp, the transitions are smooth, the characterisation sharp and vivid, the story unfolds so neatly and lucidly… All too often I read books that feel a bit ragged still, as if they should have gone through another edit before reaching their readers. But this one is as slick and tough as a turbo engine. And finally, hard-boiled crime fiction has a new edge in the 21st century, led by women writers who marry uncompromising social insight with compassion. The old sisterhood would be justly proud to bits of Charlotte.

 

Thursday Reading Notes

Looking back over the past month or so I see that my reading has been all over the place, rather like the golden rose in our back garden that will suddenly shoot two or three long suckers out in random directions. There have been distinct obsessions lately and quite a lot of books read that I haven’t mentioned here.

eva dolanAs ever, once we’ve finally put an edition of Shiny out, I take a fortnight’s vacation in crime. Of several titles I read, the standout was Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home. I picked it up because it was set in Peterborough, a town not far from where I live, and which does seem to have featured on the news lately as a Place Where Bad Things Happen. Eva Dolan’s novel was brilliant, focusing on the large immigrant population in Peterborough and the dangerous drudgery of their lives. Although it was a much darker book than I usually read, the writing was excellent and the situation so fresh and contemporary I almost expected to read about the crime in the local papers. Gripping and pacy, I really rated this one.

the telling errorI also read my first Sophie Hannah, The Telling Error. I’m late to this particular writer and initially I wasn’t at all sure I’d like her. The murder was committed in a ludicrous way, which I could have forgiven had her main detective not rushed in with a series of interpretations that were even more implausible. However, as the story got into its stride and the complexities of the plot unfolded and were ironed out, I was lost in the story in a wholly good way. I’m not going to say anything about this one – Mr Litlove was driving me to lunch in Saffron Walden, and I spent the entire half hour recounting the plot in a way that even confused me long before we reached our destination, and I like to think I can make a reasonable job of a synopsis. I was left with even greater respect for Sophie Hannah’s powers of narrative organisation. Heaven only knows this story was complicated, but I followed it perfectly at the time.

Interestingly enough, I was at a book event in town on Tuesday where Sophie Hannah and her mother, Adele Geras were both speaking. Sophie Hannah was talking about her new Poirot novel, The Monogram Murders, and how it came into being. Apparently her agent had a brainwave that she would be the perfect person to write a continuation novel for Agatha Christie, and by strange coincidence, the estate actually felt the time was ripe for one (having shuddered at the prospect for many a year). The Christie family is apparently delighted with Sophie’s book. Amusingly, Sophie said that usually when you publish a novel, you have to brace yourself for some moaning, but the good thing about this novel was that she was inundated with complaints on twitter as soon as it was announced she’d be writing it. So the publication had been fairly uncontentious by comparison.

I was actually there, though, for her mother. I’m interviewing Adele Geras for Shiny New Books towards the end of the month, and trying to zip through a portion of her huge back catalogue before we meet. This means unusually for me, I’m reading YA fiction – her rewrite of Greek mythology in Troy – as well as more romantic novels. Her latest, Cover Your Eyes, and one from a few years back, A Hidden Life.

TheLastAsylumMy real obsession at the moment, however, is with memoirs. I’ve been reading some utterly brilliant ones. A few weeks back I finished Barbara Taylor’s account of her psychotic breakdown in The Last Asylum, where she was put for want of anything better to do with her. Barbara Taylor writes so engagingly and so honestly about her mental collapse, I properly could not put the book down. I am never quite sure why reviewers so often praise a lack of self-pity in memoirs, when quite often those writing them have a great deal to be sorry about. But in this book, Taylor’s powerful, straightforward and lucid voice is just wonderful. Throughout this time she was seeing a psychoanalyst – indeed the implication is that therapy forced her to confront her problems without being able to prevent her lapse into psychosis – and essentially this relationship becomes the spine of the story. Taylor is mean to her therapist in an eye-watering way, but he hangs on in there for her and eventually becomes her route to sanity.

Also utterly, breathtakingly brilliant was Hilary Mantel’s memoir, Giving Up The Ghost. I’d better not say much about this other than I loved it and hope to review it properly soon.

zeno's conscienceFinally, I am plodding through Zeno’s Conscience, an Italian Modernist hit from the early part of the 20th century. I’m reading it because it has such a good story behind it. It was the third self-published novel by its author, Italo Svevo (whose real name was Ettore Schmitz), and each of his books had appeared to an indifferent critical reception before sinking without trace. He’d given up trying to publish anything for 25 years before writing his last, and he believed his best, book. When it, too, looked like it would disappear unnoticed, he sent a copy to his old friend and one-time English tutor, James Joyce. Joyce was enthusiastic and told him to send copies to prominent French critics that he knew. They took it up with excitement and the novel then catapulted Italo Svevo to brief, late fame. He absolutely loved it, all his dreams had come true, but he only lived a few more years to enjoy it. Generally I can get into any book if I make the effort, but this one is resisting me quite stubbornly. I think it’s a gender problem, as the novel is the story of a lazy, cowardly, morally dubious man who spins everything to put himself in a better light. He is the Homer Simpson of the early 20th century, a man who may not always be right, but who is never wrong. I know he’s meant to be unsympathetic, but his torturous meandering thoughts do sometimes grate upon my nerves. Still, I will plod on.

I shouldn’t really ask, but if you have recommendations for excellent memoirs, just whisper them in the comments below.

Mentor

mentorThis memoir of the tortured trajectory of the writer’s life was completely fascinating, if not always for the right reasons. Tom Grimes’ brave and excruciatingly honest account of sixteen rollercoaster years of his life is a startling documentation of the craziness, both literal and figurative, that can descend when a person decides to stake his entire life on becoming A Published Author. One small anecdote caught my eye: it’s reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises at community college that inspires Tom to become a writer; he wants to be Jake Barnes, journalist and the novel’s narrator. ‘The only problem was, I’d romanticized Jake’s life so completely that, until my professor pointed out this fact in class, I didn’t realise Jake was impotent.’ Beware all would-be writers with urgent ambitions. Whether he intends it or not, Tom Grimes is a terrible warning rather than an excellent example.

Ostensibly, the memoir is about the relationship between Tom and Frank Conway, author of a classic memoir, Stop-Time (and not much else), when they first meet, but more crucially, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Tom is waiting tables in Key West, Florida, a struggling writer going nowhere, but all that is about to change. Having crudely snubbed him when they first meet, Frank Conway astounds Tom by phoning him after he submits his application to the workshop. ‘”I never call anyone,” he said, “but I’ve read your manuscript.”’ At this point, doors to the Aladdin’s Cave are flung wide, with Frank offering Tom his agent’s services, scholarships, and every other glittering prize he can think of. Tom enters the program at Iowa as teacher’s pet, his arrival heralded in advance on the strength of the early chapters of his literary novel about baseball. Over the next two years, buoyed by such spectacular support, Tom writes his novel with manic intensity. An earlier novel is picked up by a small publisher and put out to encouraging reviews, and a play he has written also finds backers and a theatre.

The speed at which Tom’s star rises overwhelms him somewhat, and this sense of swimming out of his depth culminates in the auction for his novel, not quite the bidding frenzy he had thought it would be, but a painfully drawn-out day of escalating advances that never seem to come from the right people at the right time. Having already overthought this moment too many times, Tom has a whole shopping list of literary ideals – the right house, the right editor, the right price – but ultimately in the confusion of having to make a decision on the spot, he does not go with the house he has always wanted, but takes the larger offer from Little, Brown. In no time at all, the editor he signed with has switched jobs, leaving his novel an orphan. And now Icarus feels the intolerable heat of the sun on his wings. The novel is handled as ‘just another baseball novel’, the reviews are meagre and bad, the book never makes it out of hardback into paperback, and the chapters of the new novel he has recently begun are looked upon from this tainted perspective and roundly rejected.

But Frank’s faith doesn’t waver in his star pupil. He simply exerts himself even more to get teaching positions and grants and awards to sustain Tom while he works on his second novel. Frank doesn’t want to hear the negativity and brushes all the bad stuff off. As he negotiates for Tom, Tom has an unsettling moment of clarity. He knows Frank is genuine in his admiration, but ‘he also wanted to prove he still had the clout to bestow upon me a major literary honor solely on the strength of his name.’ For Frank’s star is currently in the ascendent – the novel he is writing has editors salivating and offering outrageous advances. And meanwhile, Tom Grimes sinks into delusion and paranoia in a mental breakdown from which his creativity never seems fully to recover (until, we suppose, this memoir).

Let us pause here for a moment and consider the impossible equation that is publishing. Tom accepts an advance of $42,000, with which he is a little disappointed, truth to tell, as Frank had thought he’d get $100,000 at least. The novel took him about three years to write, and he could have earned $10,000 a year if he’d stayed waiting tables. However,

A year after Seasons’s End’s publication, its paperback edition was nonexistent. Twenty-two hundred hardcover copies sold. Thirteen thousand were remaindered. And Little, Brown had recouped only forty-four hundred dollars of my forty-two thousand dollar advance.’

Ouch. He does publish his next novel, for a $17,500 advance. It had six reviews, mostly positive, but only sold 4,000 copies and again never made it to paperback. Even Frank Conway’s much-anticipated novel, Body & Soul, although it certainly does recoup its large advance, never makes it to the bestseller list and receives somewhat mixed reviews. What are we to make of all this? Tom Grimes’ memoir never comments upon it, viewing the situation entirely from the perspective of his own humiliation and thwarted longings. But what is going on here? And how is it sustainable for any of the players involved?

What does come across, loud and clear and somewhat mesmerising, is the painful solipcism of the author. Tom never spares himself any harsh criticism, but does he realise his own self-obsession? His sister attempts suicide a couple of times in the book, but having mentioned it and indeed flown back to see her, the narrative focuses exclusively on Tom’s research trip to the local baseball team (I’m sure they’re famous but baseball makes no impression on me and I can’t be bothered to look their name up). What takes his attention is the slighting behaviour he has to endure from a journalist for the New Yorker, who asks about the publisher for his first novel and then seems to dismiss him and ignore him for the rest of the day; ‘his publishing pedigree made me feel more than ever like a literary mutt’ Grimes writes. It’s all so desperate, this hunt for status, this desire to be one of the players. In retrospect, Tom blames his mismanaged first auction on the fact that he had to handle it alone. ‘Frank should have been sitting behind his desk and I should have been sitting across from him in my chair,’ he writes, because nothing is so important as that auction, certainly not Frank’s life. It’s no wonder that when Tom falls ill, it’s paranoia – an anxiety disorder that arises paradoxically out of the fear that one is insignificant – that holds him in his grip.

And what of Frank, the wonderful mentor? Grimes argues that his story’s obvious trajectory, from success to failure, can actually be overwritten by a more important arc: ‘The meaningful story is: I arrived fatherless; I departed a son.’ But you can’t help but think that Frank’s input has been a lot of baseless enthusiasm that might have been swapped for more insightful literary critique.

If I’m making this sound like a bad book, I don’t mean to at all. It’s an excellent book. It is gripping and engrossing and, I fear, all too true to life. Grimes’ straightforward, show-don’t-tell style means that we are left with a lot of questions that a more self-aware and nuanced character portrait might have elucidated. But goodness it’s fascinating trying to come up with answers to those questions. An absolute must-read for anyone who thinks they not only want to write, but publish, too.