I’ve started to get helpful messages from Mr Microsoft on improving my writing. Little unsolicited bubbles appear when I’m hard at it composing on Word. Sometimes, he thinks he can punctuate “better’ than me. Most frequently he offers to help me be more concise, be more succinct, have a more condensed style, say what I want in fewer words, ramble less. Such impertinence.
So, corona virus restrictions are being reimposed. Less socialising, less going out of the house, maybe worse to come. But the upside of all that is, you can top up your lockdown reading … Your Books To Be Read pile might have shrunk in the past six months, but why not add to it now? Why not choose something new, maybe something you wouldn’t normally touch?
Taking some books at, er, random – you can enjoy historical fiction, thrillers, comedy, romance, novels exploring relationships and the human heart; revel in the settings of London (in the 18th century and today), modern Czechia, Sussex, the Lake District, Alaska, South Wales, Devon and the Cotswolds.
Or you can read biography and moving memoir; and if you are a manager and your staff are all working from home, why not take advantage of their absence and bone up on management thinking? And if you’re a parent or doting grandparent, get a lovely book for the little one.
Last, but not least, there’s poetry. What better way to cope with today’s vicissitudes than settling down with some great poetry ‘the best words in the best order’, as I think someone said.
How do you ask someone to return a book you lent them literally years ago? Without making them feel awkward, especially if they haven’t read it yet? And if the reason you want it back is only because you don’t want to lose it, you just want to refill that gap in your shelf? Asking for a friend.
Can you write a 26-word story? In alphabetical order? That’s one game being played on Twitter during lockdown.
Here’s one, in reverse order. Let’s have your better examples? If 26 words is too short, how about 52?
Zorba’s yellow xylophone was very ugly. The squat, really quirky police officer never much liked kissing jaundiced instruments: he groped for every dubious caveat before acting.
A Villain from the Pages of Literature : Elizabeth Bennet’s Father
Surely not, you protest? For Mr Bennet of Longbourn is initially an extremely appealing figure. Cultured and educated, we see immediately that he is shackled to a wife seemingly designed to make any man of refinement squirm. While feeling deeply sorry for him, we are amused by his quick wit. By his dry, acerbic humour. And by his frequent retreats from family life into the eighteenth-century man-shed of his study, with its much-loved books and a decanter of the finest Madeira.
‘No more lace, Mrs Bennett, I implore you.’
‘If he had any compassion for me, (Mr Bingley) would not have danced half so much! For God’s sake, say no more of his partners. Oh! that he had sprained his ankle in the first dance!’
At the same time, we admire his acute social perception and good humour.
‘For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours and laugh at them, in return.’
Yet this is also a man who is publicly dismissive of his wife, frequently in front of their children and, as we come to know him better, his sarcasm – coldness even – begins to grate. What twenty-first-century wife would not chuck a heavy china ornament at a partner who delivers such careless rejoinders to legitimate concerns about the future of their girls, and what will happen when she and they are eventually evicted from their home?
‘You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.’
‘Let us flatter ourselves. I may be the survivor.’
Eventually, however, considering Wickham’s treatment of the Bennet daughter, Lydia, – seducing a sixteen-year-old and only making an honest woman of her after being handsomely paid off by Darcy – we see how badly his moral compass is skewed:
‘Wickham’s a fool, if he takes her with a farthing less than ten thousand pounds. I should be sorry to think so ill of him, in the very beginning of our relationship.’
Pride and Prejudice, as Jane Austen signals from the beginning, points a beady eye at marriage and how essential mutual respect is to marital happiness. Through dissecting the Bennet’s own shaky partnership – based, we learn, on little more than youthful passion and imprudence – Austen highlights, as evocatively as only she can, the realities of marrying in haste and repenting at leisure.
Disappointment has made Mr Bennet cruel and results in making this reader sigh for the man he might have been, had he either chosen a more compatible wife or made an effort to be more understanding of the fallible woman to whom he has tied himself.
Even Elizabeth, the closest of his daughters to her father, has ‘never been blind to the impropriety of her father’s behaviour as a husband.’ He loves her (being at least prepared to stop a marriage to the ridiculous Collins), and she him, but the soundest lesson he is able to pass on to her is that love alone is rarely enough. And that being a bad father can have dire consequences.
Oh, to be able to create such complex characters as Mr Bennet!
The villain speaks
At least that simpering whining little thing has gone to London. She’s out of my sight, thank goodness – I can’t bear to see her creeping round this house, this lovely mansion that isn’t hers and never will be. I do get some pleasure in tormenting her and frightening her but that doesn’t make up for the ache I get when I think of the real mistress.
But the master has gone to London with her. Why does he stick with her? And why marry her in the first place? His wife had been dead for only a year. How could he fall for her in Monte Carlo? I suppose he was lonely. Maybe she just happened to be there and simple male desire made him go for her – men are so stupid that way. But I can’t think that she would satisfy him in that respect – you can’t imagine her doing anything but just lying there and waiting for it to be over. Now the real mistress, she’d be lively, adventurous, exciting in bed! I bet she taught the master a thing or two, for all his debonair man-of-the-world appearance.
Was it because this one is so different? She’s got no spirit: she doesn’t stand up to me, and she lets that overseer Crawley take advantage of her. Timid, she is – one example: she hasn’t even asked me what happens to all the food that’s not eaten at breakfast – I know she’s curious about that, but she just hasn’t got the nerve to ask! How feeble. And when I showed her her writing desk, where she’d be writing her letters – well, the look of dismay on her face! The real mistress, she had friends in high society, in London, in foreign places, everywhere. But this one doesn’t know anyone. No-one to write to.
The master has to see that he’s made a dreadful mistake in trying to bring this one here. She’ll never take the place of the old mistress in this house. I’m seeing to that. I thought I’d managed to drive him away from her at the ball, tricking her into trusting me and wearing the real mistress’s gown: the look on his face, that was magnificent! The shame, the horror on hers! I really thought I’d broken them then.
But it didn’t work. He still seems to want her. She should’ve got rid of me after that. But she’s not brave enough. So I’m still here. I’ll have to do something else, something that will drive her out even if it doesn’t make him kick her out. This may take a little time, I must plan something even better than the ball gown trick. I know she’s afraid of me, but I’ll become her friend again, then she might be so pleased, I could do anything. I’ll do nothing for a few weeks, lull her into a false sense of security. Yes, that’s it. Be all smiles when they get back, and for a couple of months …
Can I smell burning … ?
The trouble with fictional villains is that they don’t always translate to the screen.
Moriarty is a straight bad egg in the books, a moustache-twirling crazy-clever enemy of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle designed him expressly to meet the need to challenge the ridiculous intellect of Holmes. We respect and fear Moriarty, but don’t have much in the way of mixed emotions about him….in the books. Put him on screen, and cast Andrew Scott, and we are confronted with a boyish, gentle psychopath, one with a soft Irish accent and melting eyes…and we kind of want to mother him as well as run away from him. We see his genius, we admire his suits…we slightly fancy him. I thought Scott was awful casting when he first appeared, but gradually I grew to adore him. He wasn’t the villain. He was the star attraction. He was hardly a villain at all.
I haven’t read the Villanelle novels that arrived on screen as ‘Killing Eve’. Perhaps Villanelle is written just as Jodie Comer plays her, but I can’t imagine anyone could get down on paper what Comer does on screen. She’s the coldest sociopath, who kills on a whim for mischief, in hideous (but often blackly hilarious) ways. Yet she’s also wonderful, a riot of convincing accents and disguises, who find endless pleasures in life, who is by turns childlike and hostile with her handler Konstantin. We understand why Eve is so fascinated with her. We don’t want to be fascinated ourselves, but somehow, appallingly, we are.
But the most unsuccessful translation of a villain from book to screen, for me, remains Daniel Cleaver in Bridget Jones’ Diary. In the book he’s an out-and-out sh*t. We feel his villainy ooze from every paragraph. Dump him, Bridget! we silently implore. Run to Mr Darcy! But on screen, they had Renee Zellweger forced to choose between Colin Firth and Hugh Grant. Both utterly butterly, I’m sure we agree. But Daniel’s charm was supercharged by Grant. Watching him, I felt I could almost overlook his dishonesty, ruthlessness and lechery. The producers didn’t think this through. After all, there’s not much chance any of us will ever need a suitor to spring us from a Thai prison. But a man who can make us laugh and fancy us because of our Big Pants? A man who makes us feel sexy at all times?
You begin to understand the attraction of Wickham.
The Servant – the book we hope to be reading soon! Many congratulations to ninevoice Maggie Richell Davies, who has won the Sharpe Books/Historical Writers’ Association Unpublished Award 2020.
The other eight ninevoices have heard this book progress (and change form) for some time now and we know how good it is. We’re in 1765: and, to quote the HWA website, “Fourteen-year-old Hannah must go where she’s sent, despite her instincts screaming danger. Why does disgraced aristocrat William Chalke have a locked room in his house? What’s sold at the auctions taking place behind closed doors?” The story evokes 18th century London and its squalor and brutality and also its redeeming features.
It’s clear from the descriptions of the short- and longlisted novels how strong a field the judges had to choose from. Our congratulations to all those authors in those lists! See http://www.historiamag.com/hwa-sharpe-books-unpublished-novel-award-winner/
Achilles, Brad Pitt, British Museum, Byron, Cassandra, Chaucer, Clytemnestra, Euripedes, Euripides, Homer, Keats, Lady Hamilton, Margaret Atwood, Pat Barker, Penguin Puffin, Pompeii, Priam, Roger Lancelyn Green, Shakespeare, Sophocles, Stephen Fry, Troy, Virgil
The Trojan War has for centuries (millennia, even) inspired writers and artists. We can think of so many writers – Keats, Byron, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Sophocles and Euripedes, as well of course as Homer and Virgil. In our own time we can think of Margaret Atwood’s amazing Penelopiad (I wish I knew who it was I lent my copy to) and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls.You can see how artists have mined this great seam at the splendid Troy – Myth and Reality exhibition at the British Museum. But hurry – it ends on 8 March.
From a jar of 530 BC showing Achilles killing the Amazon queen to a poster of Brad Pitt as the same great warrior in Troy (2004), you can see in how many different ways art has portrayed the tale of Troy. This picture of Helen boarding Paris’ ship for Troy was once on someone’s wall in Pompeii: what does that expression on her face mean?
This wonderful bowl shows Priam begging Achilles for the return of his son Hector’s body – it may well have been made in the time of Christ. We know that soldiers’ lives aren’t all danger and excitement, but there are long periods of boredom while the troops wait for something to happen. Here are Ajax and Achilles whiling away some time playing a board game.
Lady Hamilton’s life was lively enough without needing to call on the classics, but here she is as Cassandra (painted by George Romney).
The exhibition website is at https://www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/troy-myth-and-reality.
Like many others I first was taken with it as a child reading the Puffin books The Tale of Troy and Tales of the Greek Heroes by Roger Lancelyn Green. I’m now much enjoying Stephen Fry’s so readable and entertaining retelling of the Greek myths – Mythos and, my current reading, Heroes. This doesn’t get to the Trojan War – I hope there’ll be a third volume for that.
Where do good ideas come from?
Sometimes you read a book with a strikingly original and simple idea; you then think, “Well, of course, I could have thought of that if I I’d tried,” but the point is YOU DIDN’T.
Two examples from books I’ve just read:
The Cockroach by Ian McEwan. We know Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which opens with a man waking up to find he’s a giant insect. Why not reverse that? Have an insect who wakes up to find he’s turned into a man? Brilliant. And when we learn that that man is the British Prime Minister, who is leading the country into a whole new economic system that merely a few years back was advocated only by people who were thought crackpots …. Well, you can finish the sentence. A topical satire and, as I’ve said, a great and simple idea. (Unfortunately I’ll have to return the book to my sister who lent it to me, as she got it signed by the author at the Cheltenham Literary Festival.)
The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent is the other (translated from the French by Ros Schwartz). Here the simple idea is to have a central character who loves books but is compelled to work in a factory that destroys them. This is an appalling place where books are pulped. They are devoured and converted into a disgusting slush by a dreadful and dangerous machine into which our hero has to climb each day as part of its maintenance. And each day he rescues a page from whatever book is going into its maw, and reads it to his fellow-commuters on the train to work the next morning. They love it. The other characters are grotesques, all with some often bizarre link to books and writing. (Fortunately I was given this by a friend so can keep it. Thanks, friend.)
Wondering what to do with that gift card you got for Christmas? You could see if you like as much as I did what these writers made of these original and simple ideas.
The Cockroach by Ian McEwan, published in 2019 by Jonathan Cape, ISBN 978-1-529-11292-4 RRP £7-99 (it’s only 100 pages)
The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent, translated by Ros Schwartz, published in 2016 by Pan, ISBN 978-1-5098-3685-7 RRP £8-99
Agatha Christie, Alison Shell, Barbara Pym, Book of Common Prayer, Capital punishment, Charlotte Bronte, Charlotte M Yonge, Charlotte Maria Tucker, Church of England, Dorothy L Sayers, East Anglia, Elizabeth Goudge, Evelyn Underhill, Gaudy Night, Iris Murdoch, Jane Austen, Jane Eyre, Judith Maltby, Lambeth Palace Library, Margaret Oliphant, Monica Furlong, Murder Must Advertise, Noel Streatfeild, P D James, Prayer Book Society, Rose Macaulay, Shirley, The Nine Tailors, Unnatural Death
There have been more Anglican women novelists than you might think. 13 of them feature in Anglican Women Novelists – from Charlotte Brontë to PD James, edited by Judith Maltby and Alison Shell, and published only this year. Two of the ninevoices were at its launch in the magnificent setting of Lambeth Palace Library in July.
The editors explain that to keep the book of manageable size they restricted it to writers who were British and deceased. But questions of selection are inevitable. Iris Murdoch is here? Yes, because although she lost her faith in Christ’s divinity, and was drawn towards Buddhism, her world was still infused by Anglicanism and she still attended Anglican services. The author of the Iris Murdoch essay (Peter S Hawkins) entitles it “Anglican Atheist”.
And why no Jane Austen, in whose novels the C of E features so much, when Charlotte Brontë gets in? Because between the two lie Catholic Emancipation and the repeals of the Test and Corporation Acts, meaning that other denominations could now take their place freely on the national stage: Anglicanism had lost its ‘default’ position as the nation’s faith and was becoming more of a denomination that you made a positive choice to join.
The essay on Charlotte Brontë (by Sara L Pearson) argues how much her life was rooted in the C of E and how much of her work does too. Shirley, we read, shows her “longing for the Church of England’s preservation and reformation”. In Jane Eyre the male representatives of the Church, Mr Brocklehurst and St John Rivers, are hardly role models, and their failings are compared with (and perhaps compensated for by) the qualities of female characters around them. Also, “the Book of Common Prayer haunts the pages of Jane Eyre … not only for its contents but also as a physical object”: it will have formed such an ever-present part of her childhood.
‘Dorothy L Sayers – God and the Detective’ is the title of Jessica Martin’s piece. She speaks of the role justice and punishment play in her detective novels. She makes the important point that Golden Age detective novels were written in the time when the hangman awaited the unmasked murderer: in that sense the stakes were higher, the ultimate retribution is always in the background. Sayers had trouble with this, we read: she had “increasing unease with narrative arcs which must privilege orderly acts of justice over the wilder power of mercy”. She sees the limitations of this, and justice must come from elsewhere: “her plots have an invisible protagonist, and his name is Jehovah”. The essay then analyses Murder Must Advertise, The Nine Tailors, Unnatural Death and Gaudy Night in this light.
The final essay is ‘PD James – “Lighten our Darkness”’ by Alison Shell. She compares PD James to other Golden Age detective writers, principally Agatha Christie, concluding, “For all her own homage to Christie, her novels are far more violent and desolate than her predecessor’s; if Christie is the quintessential Golden Age detective novelist, James’ fallen world locates her within an Iron Age of crime fiction.” Evil is a reality: and the essay speculates on the degree to which PD James saw evil as a force in its own right. Her novels are steeped in the Anglican Church and its tradition. Churches (in a bleak East Anglia) provide the settings for many key events. PD James herself was a lover of the beauty of its traditional language and was a great supporter of the Prayer Book Society, set up to keep alive the glorious heritage of the Book of Common Prayer. Quotations from it recur in her work.
The other authors covered in the book are Charlotte Maria Tucker, Margaret Oliphant, Charlotte M Yonge, Evelyn Underhill, Rose Macaulay, Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Goudge, Noel Streatfeild and Monica Furlong.
Published by t&tclark, ISBN 978-0-567-68676-3 RRP £27-99
This week I heard the author Simon Mawer speak about writing: specifically about his novel Prague Spring, but also his other Czech-based books The Glass Room and Mendel’s Dwarf. Prague Spring is set against the events in Czechoslovakia in the fateful summer of 1968, leading to the invasion by the armies of the Warsaw Pact.
Four things of writerly interest in my mind from that talk:
He was asked what effect having The Glass Room shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2009 had for his career. It benefited hugely, he said, sales went right up, though not as much as if he’d won! He was easy about not actually winning that year, he assured us, though he was just a bit galled when Hilary won it again two years later …
One good thing about being a novelist, he told us, is that you can reinvent your own life. The example he gave was how in the summer of 1968 he had hitchhiked around Europe with a male friend. When in Bavaria they had discussed whether to cross into Czechoslovakia, then enjoying the best days of the Prague Spring, but had decided to go to Greece instead: a decision he had ever since regretted. In Prague Spring two of his main characters set out from England to hitchhike across Europe – a male student (as he had been) James, but this time with an attractive female companion, Ellie; and this time events lead them to cross the Iron Curtain (and thus into the story) rather than go to the Italian sun as planned.
He used more of his own direct experience in James and Ellie’s story. When he and his friend had been hitching they were given a lift by a German lady harpsichordist who interrogated him where he was studying, and when he gave the name of his Oxford college she asked if he knew a particular law professor there, whose friend she was. In Prague Spring he retells this story, with James and Ellie meeting a lady cellist who, likewise, is a friend of a don at his Oxford college.
Perhaps less commonly for novelists, Simon Mawer has a scientific background: his degree was in zoology and for many years he worked as a biology teacher. This shows in a remarkable simile in one of the extracts he read to us on Tuesday: a Russian tank lost in the streets of Prague is likened first to a Martian in HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds but then, more uniquely, to a reptile or arthropod, the muzzle of its gun being a proboscis, which “shifts back and forth, as though sniffing the air, perhaps even trying to work out where the humans have gone.” Not an image that would have occurred to those of us with English literature or history backgrounds, perhaps.
In thrillers, he reminded us (and in whodunits, come to think of it), everything that happens must be related to the plot. But life, of course, isn’t like that. Lots of things happen that don’t link up with anything else. But in a novel you can explore these, and tell them for their own sake. One bizarre episode that features in Prague Spring but is not essential to the plot is the appearance of the Moody Blues. They actually were in Prague at this time, and the day before the Russian invasion they were filmed performing on the city’s famous Charles Bridge. Their appearance in the novel adds colour and interest and tells a true story, and you’re glad it’s there, but in a thriller you’d be wondering what its significance was.
(You can see this surreal performance on YouTube – go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w4_xCA4IO7U , to see these Brummies miming Nights in White Satin to adoring fans on an otherwise empty Charles Bridge for a Franco-Belgian TV programme. It’s strange to think that 24 hours later that area was busy with invading soldiers.)
Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction Dept: In his interview Simon Mawer asked us to reflect on the fact that once the invasion happened, the British Embassy somehow arranged for the Moody Blues to be flown out of the country, apparently in an RAF transport plane. How was it, he asked, that in all the chaos and busyness of those events, someone managed to persuade the new Warsaw Pact controllers of the country to allow an RAF plane into Czechoslovak air space to evacuate a group of British pop singers? Would you dare put such an unlikely happening in a novel?
The interview was organised by the Czech Centre at the Czech Embassy in London. Simon was interviewed by Prague-based journalist David Vaughan, followed by a lively Q&A session with the audience. Thanks, Czech Centre!
Prague Spring was featured on this blog at https://ninevoices.wordpress.com/2018/12/10/prague-spring/ and The Glass Room at https://ninevoices.wordpress.com/2017/08/15/the-glass-room-revisited/ . You can listen to all of Simon Mawer’s talk at https://soundcloud.com/czech-centre-london/simon-mawer-prague-spring .