New at Numéro Cinq

Way back in January I had a properly wonderful experience. I went to the studios of two very talented women: the painter, Miranda Boulton, and the poet, Kaddy Benyon, and spoke with them about their creativity.

The results were fascinating. Two amazing artists with two perspectives on creativity that could hardly be more different. We spoke about fear and anxiety, about process and productivity, about inspiration past and present, and about the roads their careers had taken them down.

The interviews are now up at Numéro Cinq and I think they’re both reassuring and encouraging for anyone who wants to live a creative life or simply explore their own relationship to art.

Artful

 

So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum

in painted quiet and concentration

keeps pouring milk day after day

from the pitcher to the bowl

the World hasn’t earned

the world’s end.

Wislawa Szymborska (trans. by Cavanagh and Baranczak)

 

Of all the riches in Ali Smith’s book, Artful, this is perhaps the one that spoke to me most insistently while I was reading. We are living in difficult times and teetering on the brink of worse ones, and it is perhaps only art that has the authority and the kindness with which to remind us that it was ever so. And also to provide an antidote to all that is toxic in the present day. The Roman historian Sallust (again, thank you, Ali) said ‘these things never happened, but are always’, and if he could say that a millennium or so ago, and the World hasn’t yet earned the world’s end, well, maybe there’s hope. See, this is the paradox of reading a book that is purely, unashamedly, in fact joyfully, literary and apparently about nothing to do with the present moment at all. Art always has something relevant to say.

Artful is the compilation of four lectures Ali Smith gave at St Anne’s College, Oxford in January and February, 2012: On Time, On Form, On Edge and On Offer And On Reflection. It is not – as some reviewers seem to think – the novel that Ali subsequently made out of the lectures, but the lectures themselves ‘pretty much as they were delivered’. They are, in fact, the most original form of art criticism that I’ve ever read, being a combination of fiction and critique rolled into one big, generous, sometimes overwhelming gift of narrative.

There is a story, then, that weaves all the material together. Our narrator has been grieving for a lost partner for over a year when, in the hope of breaking the deadlock, s/he plucks a book down from the shelf at random and it happens to be Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. Thus encouraged to move a chair, which in the narrator’s opinion has long needed moving, in order to get better light, s/he begins the book, and begins to think about the book, and at that point something extraordinary happens: the ghost of the lost partner appears in the doorway, dirty and torn, covered in bits of rubble and having some trouble with words, but back. However, this is not a ghost like all the others. The first thing the partner does is to sit down in front of the television (‘You came back from the dead to watch tv? I said’), and then empties a cup of tea on the floor. Before long the ghost is being quite the nuisance, stealing things and breaking things and smelling so badly that all the neighbours ring up to complain about the drains.

Interspersed with the story of the revenant are passages of literary criticism which turn out to be the lectures that the lost partner was writing in the months before dying. These lectures bring together snippets of lots and lots of wonderful works – old and new, poetry and prose, the references range from Shakespeare and Gilgamesh and Woolf and Graham Greene to Hitchcock and Saramago and Beyonce (yes, you read that right). And they are used to look at all the rich and varied ways that time and form create, sustain and renew art, and that borderlines and edges, gifts and promises and reflections all thrill and confound and enlighten us. There is, oddly enough, a hurrying quality to the literary passages, as if there’s scarcely time enough for the writer to shower us with the abundance of artful gorgeousness that s/he longs to collate together here. Sometimes the ideas come so thick and fast that you just don’t have time to make sense of them all, or to get what each little passage means. To get the best out of this book, don’t quibble. Just open up your reading arms and gather in as much as you possibly can. It’s like Ali Smith has become Ali Baba and for the time of reading, this incredible cave of literary treasure is open to you. So hurry, take all that speaks to you, knowing you can come back for more. ‘We’d never expect to understand a piece of music on one listen, but we tend to believe we’ve read a book after reading it just once,’ Ali Smith writes.

Books need time to dawn on us, it takes time to understand what makes them, structurally, in thematic resonance, in afterthought, and always in correspondence with the books which came before them…. Great books are adaptable… You can’t step into the same story twice – or maybe it’s that stories, books, art can’t step into the same person twice, maybe it’s that they allow for our mutability, are ready for us at all times, and maybe it’s this adaptability, regardless of time, that makes them art, because real art (as opposed to more transient art, which is real too, just for less time) will hold us at all our different ages like it held all the people before us and will hold all the people after us, in an elasticity and with a generosity that allow for all our comings and going. Because come then go we will, and in that order.’

So perhaps you can see that the ongoing story of the ghost is a brilliant way of reflecting on the reflections on art. The ghost is the creation of the narrative – which is its own time out of time, and which has the elasticity to make anything happen that it chooses. The ghost is also a liminal element, which is to say something that hovers on the borderline between life and death, which makes us, precisely, aware of that very borderline and as such presents a hypnotic notion to our imaginations. And the ghost returns in stories in order to make the people in them reflect on their lives; this is what ghosts have, after all, a very special gift of enlightenment that can’t be given any other way.

But perhaps most of all, what we understand by the end of this poignant, beautiful and demanding little book is that art is always recompense for loss. It crystallises the lost moment, the lost experience, the lost society, the lost age. It gives us in imagination what we do not have before us in reality. And it comforts us and sustains us with the truth, told in a way that we can bear, given in a form that nourishes us. ‘All the time I read this book, I felt it was feeding me.’ (Katherine Mansfield on D. H. Lawrence’s novel, Aaron’s Rod) If you ever feel like you are losing faith in the world and in the humans who live in it, then pick up Artful. Or indeed any of Ali Smith’s works, which I love because her writing is always full of joy. But Artful will remind you why art is so necessary and so vital, today and always.

Agent Hunter and other stories

So, where were we? Ah yes, we had finished the Barbara Pym part of the narrative concerning Mr Litlove and we were moving onto the Stephen King part of the narrative that involves me.

But first! Let me tell you about Agent Hunter. You may recall before Christmas I mentioned a novel I was thinking of selling, and I probably grumbled about the selling part because it’s so not fun. Any of my blog friends who’ve been around since I started blogging may remember that we’ve been here before. Back in 2008 I started working with an agent on non-fiction ideas. Now she was a lovely agent and I very much liked her; the problem was a cultural one. I was still theoretically teaching French (though on sick leave) and undoubtedly my mindset was very academic. I just could not put a proposal together that sounded the way the agent wanted it to sound. She even sent me a proposal under cover of darkness that she thought was a good one and between you and me, I didn’t think much of it. It was very vague, very unstructured and by this point I was beginning to feel as if I really ought to write something rather than plan endlessly to write something. We drifted our separate ways, with no hard feelings but I didn’t feel much the wiser about the commercial world.

The thing about working with an agent is that it’s a very, very strange relationship. When you start to write commercially an agent is presented as the Holy Grail. Find an agent, we are told, and then you have someone who believes in your work and who will sell it tirelessly to big name publishers like Penguin and Bloomsbury. And because the ratio of literary agents to people who have written a book is atrocious, the odds of getting an agent are slim. So, even more frenzy is whipped up. It’s impossible! But you must do it! And when you do you will be validated forever!

Ah well, life is never like the movies. I had a very nice agent. She liked my writing well enough and I liked her, but we couldn’t make it work. This is because having an agent is a lot like marrying a virtual stranger with whom you’ve shared a couple of internet dates.  The splicing together of agent and writer is such a high pressure, hardscrabble affair that you never get to know the really important things about one another until it’s too late. Then of course the commercial publishing world is such a viper’s nest that every new book becomes another hurdle in the agent/writer alliance. Most of the authors I know seem to spend their time switching agents.

Anyhow, I digress. When I began looking for an agent again, I have to admit that my heart wasn’t much in it, my confidence was low and my desire to trawl through the internet even lower. So when I saw that a site called Agent Hunter was offering a trial period for an honest review, I gratefully signed up. And thank goodness I did. This site is fab. You can search it for agents who are actively looking to build up their client list; you can search for publishers who don’t require an agent at all. When you find an agent there are often a lot of helpful interviews included that tell you what the agent is looking for. I’ll pass on the information right now that the vast majority want a chilling psychological thriller with a great twist. This makes my heart sink, but never mind, we’ve established that I’m jaded. The point is that in half an hour of my time I had a list of seven possible candidates with notes about their specific requirements in terms of submission materials. Sorted!

And then, not quite. Oh dear friends, I have been up and down the streets and around the houses with this question of an agent. As good as the Agent Hunter site is, it does not have a search criteria for agents who are willing to take on the medically challenged. And I keep imagining scenarios in which I have to explain that no, I cannot charge up and down the country giving author events, and no, I cannot turn my galley proofs around in 24 hours after six months of waiting for them because the editorial department has mysteriously got behindhand. In the wild dating world of the agent, I am not at all an enticing proposition as a go anywhere, do anything kind o’ gal. I’m more your refuse everything kind o’ gal.

I had an okay January, and it was definitely a busy one. Part of it involved doing interviews for an article  with friends of mine, one a poet, one a painter, about their different kinds of creativity. This was a lovely experience with two incredibly talented women. And then we were more booked up socially than usual. Towards the end of the month I saw my eye specialist and he was pleased with me; he decided I should try to come off the medication. I skipped out of the surgery… and then found myself straight back in it a week later, with keratitis back in one eye and a stye in the other. I’d never had a stye before but it didn’t bother me. The second one that came up did. And when I developed a third, all in the same eye, I was distinctly unhappy about it. I sort of had this feeling that CFS would form an unholy alliance with the perimenopause and February was all about that. I asked my eye specialist if hormonal imbalance could be at the root of the problem and he said, for sure. Apparently changes in hormones can completely alter the chemical composition of your tear film – hence the ongoing mayhem. By this point I also had a mouthful of ulcers, sciatica and a lovely new symptom involving muscle spasms and twitches up my diaphragm and esophagus. Think that’s nothing to do with perimenopause? I found this very interesting article that did make me feel better, in a dispirited kind of way. There was much in it that made sense to me, not least because I’ve always felt that my own brand of CFS has a lot to do with my hormones.

When I hit menopause I can go get myself some lovely HRT and feel better. But until that point, which may be a couple of years off… Well, extreme forms of dating are not very appealing. When I laid this problem out to my friend the painter, she was wonderfully clear sighted about it. She reminded me that I was selling the book, not myself, and that if anyone wanted the book, then they’d have to take its owner no matter what state she was in. ‘Litlove,’ she said, ‘we are just too old to be anything other than totally honest about the people we are.’ Which I absolutely agreed with. I think a lot of my problem here is that I did SO MUCH hoop-jumping in the Cambridge University years that my spring is sprung. I do believe we all have a hoop-jumping quota in our internal systems and once it’s exhausted, there’s no going back. And then she said that maybe the book deserved a chance to have its own life as an artwork. Oh, she is one clever woman.

So I am still just about in the game, though I promise faithfully that this is the last time I will mention this book as it’s a tedious topic. But I did promise Agent Hunter their review and it really is an extremely helpful site that I would like to recommend. Next time, I’ll talk about the books I’ve been listening to.

 

 

Two Apologies

I have been a terrible book blogger this year and whilst I owe apologies all round for visiting so infrequently and not replying to comments (I do hope for better things in the second half of 2016), I’ve also got two book reviews particularly on my conscience. Steven Mayoff’s Our Lady of Steerage and Britta Böhler’s The Decision were novels I read in December of 2015 and faithfully promised to review either on this site or Shiny. Six months late they may be, but the following accounts do seem oddly pertinent to the political moment, one way or another.

lady of steerageSteven Mayoff’s Our Lady of Steerage is a novel about emigration, the story of ‘Everyone who ever crossed an ocean to escape the inescapable.’ Its central focus is Mariasse Knyszinski who runs away from an overbearing father and a downtrodden mother in Poland to follow her beloved cousin, Piotr, to the promised land of Canada. The year is 1923 and she boards the S. S. Montmartre in Cherbourg for the week-long trip across the Atlantic, a voyage that will indelibly alter the lives of several of the travellers. Mariasse meets a young Jewish couple, Shulim and Betye who have suffered a tragedy during the train journey from Bucharest to Paris: their five-year-old son fell ill and died en route. Betye is so prostrated by grief that she is unable to care for her baby, Dvorah, (known as Dora for most of the novel), and Mariasse willingly takes on this task. The week of devotion creates a life-long bond between Mariasse and Dora, and also links Mariasse with the Krager family, whose son, Aaron, will come to benefit from the innate goodness in Mariasse that his parents so admire.

What follows is the account of these intertwined lives from the early 1920s to the early 1960s, but the recounting of the events is in no way linear. Instead, we skip around in time, visiting moments in  the 1940s or 30s before heading into the past to understand what provoked them. From very early on in the novel, we realise that Mariasse and Dora are destined for terrible emotional hardships that will break them both, and only gradually do we piece together the chain of events that befall them. I thought that the disjointed chronological structure was the most impressive part of this novel. It is clever and well-orchestrated and adds depth and tension to the narrative. Mayoff teases the reader who wants to know what happens when Mariasse and Piotr finally meet (he doesn’t know she is coming), what drives Dora to a suicide attempt and electric shock therapy, what happens to the angry, bitter Betye, why Mariasse abandons Catholicism and embraces Judaism – and then why she converts back again. For me, the constant switchbacks really made the reading experience.

What’s perhaps more problematic is the bleakness of the story. It didn’t feel like a political point was being made here – it’s not the treatment the immigrants receive at the hands of the Canadians, for instance, that gives the characters pain. A more likely cause seems to be the displacement a person feels when they leave their native land behind, when family trouble or political unrest or poverty forces them into an exile that they will never really come to terms with, even when it has been undertaken with determined hope. And then again, there seems to be a deep vein of mental instability in the characters, combined with the hardship of just living, that cannot be assuaged. The bleakness is inevitable, however, when we consider the characterisation of Mariasse, who is supposed to be the light and hope of the novel, but who never really feels convincing on the page. Had she been a stronger force for good, rather than a nice person who is continually put-upon until she cracks, a more balanced novel might have resulted. Betye, on the other hand, leaps off the page at you and electrifies her scenes, and Dora never seems to overcome the legacy of being her daughter, or of her early neglect.

A very interesting part of Canadian history under the microscope and some fine storytelling to be had, then, but a dark, dark story.

the decisionBritta Böhler’s novel The Decision, focuses on three momentous days in the life of the German Nobel prize-winning author, Thomas Mann. Between the 31st January and the 2nd of February 1936, Mann frets over a terrible choice he must make. Does he or does he not denounce the Nazi party in the Swiss press? On the one hand, he feels morally compelled to do so, horrified by all that is happening in his beloved homeland and urged on by his politically-minded daughter. But on the other, any such denunciation comes at the cost of permanent exile, the loss of his German readership, the probable burning of his books.

This is only a short novella, but it achieves a masterful portrait of Thomas Mann. Sitting comfortably in the close third person, the voice is a brilliant evocation of a committed artist – the hypersensitivity, the hypochondria, the euphoria and the passion of creation, along with the lengthy stretches of insufficient work done, the anxieties over creative sterility. Thomas Mann loved Germany, and he needed his routine, clung to it and all the other beloved familiarities that allowed him to venture into the realm of his imagination. The occasion for his exile is an ironic one, a long essay he wrote about his hero, Wagner that became the basis for a lecture tour, and which was used by the authorities to denounce him, claiming he had ‘besmirched the memory of the great composer’. Mann is hurt, bewildered, and aware of the danger he is in. The denunciation is used as an excuse for the Nazis to search his house and he fears for the safety of his notebooks, in which he has written everything he could never say elsewhere, not least his romantic feelings for beautiful young men.

And so a holiday in Switzerland turns into a permanent exile, and from this most uncomfortable of positions, Mann must negotiate not only his personal effects, but his critical reputation. What sustains him during this time is, naturally, his creativity. He is writing the first novel in his tetralogy, Joseph and his Brothers, in what would become an epic work demanding 16 years of his life.

The great novel is set in the distant past, and yet it’s so near. Joseph, too, is an outcast, driven against his will from his own land by his jealous brothers, he has to find a new home in a strange country. A stranger in a world that he doesn’t understand. And Joseph, too, takes satisfaction in order and wants everything to be consistent; he takes a stand against chaos and disorder. Against the emergence of destructive forces that threaten a peace that is only apparently safe. It’s as if when he started the book he had an inkling that the same fate would befall him one day.’

I just loved this; I have a weakness for novels about writers in any case, and this is so exquisitely done. The whole of Mann’s life is here, combined with a neat but powerful account of what was happening in the German republic. Mann is a public figure and he takes pride in his prominence; he feels a duty to speak out, at a time when ‘anyone who does nothing, participates’. But he knows to do so might be the end of his life as a published writer. The decision he comes to, and how he makes it, feel exactly right.