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A Tribute to George Eliot.
The woman who has guided my life, and plucked at my shoulder whenever I neglected her was born this day 200 years ago exactly. I vowed I would finish a memoir that is not just a literary tribute to her but a sleuthing of her intermittent interruptions through my 78 years of following in her treads. I did so yesterday in time to light the candles today.
George Eliot packed four signed volumes of her last novel (Daniel Deronda)to my great great great Aunt (Eliza Mary Sanderson nee Barrett) who she had never met, and never would. The aunt, who was childless, and who lived in South Africa left them to my grandmother. Nobody knew what had prompted the gift, but the books were bequeathed to me. I first saw them when I was sixteen. Then they were stolen by my own aunt and given to a University Library in a place they would never be asked for.
The influence of George Eliot initially was that of overwhelming admiration, and the seduction to leave Africa for England, for its literature, its poetry, its traditions, its certainty of varied seasons. She summoned me to a different world, and ultimately to the ambition to write. But that was only half the story.
The other half was locked in the mystery of those books. The call to write the memoir was to discover the end of the story that began with them. That gift linked me directly to the author. I discovered not only her (adopted) family’s direct connections to my own but an unknown poetic work that I had never known of but echoed in my narrative poem Involution. It now seems that George Eliot was a restless muse, and found a scribe to finish what she had only just sketched before her premature death at sixty one. It seems my life was merely to mix the colours and sharpen the quills!
Perhaps that is all I was meant to do, to write her Religion for Humanity?
My life has been sliced into decades that echoed each one of hers, without knowing it. It mirrored her search for answers to belief, exploring every doctrine only to find each in turn insufficient. Each exploration of hers gave rise to a stupendous work, from Methodism in Adam Bede, Catholicism in Romola, to Judaism in Daniel Deronda, but the greatest novel of all, Middlemarch, exposed the dry vacuity of intellectual answers in the character of Casaubon seeking ‘The Key to all the Mythologies’. In his arid search for authority he betrays everything and everyone else, most importantly his marriage to his yearning idealistic wife, seduced by his so-called erudition. Erudition of that kind is the atrophy of the soul. This was the work Virginia Woolf called the ‘first novel for adults’. By that I take her to mean that meaning is not arrived at by catalogue or cogitation, or ‘givens’ from any source, but by independent ‘openness’ to all. And the courage to step away from any collective. (George Eliot was never a joiner of groups, not even those who expected it like the suffragettes.) I echo her in that.
George Eliot’s life was a life in search of love, and loving gave access to meaning, not just for oneself but through the lovers of music, inspiration, ideas, and the great adventure of life. Life was the ‘great book’ of wisdom.
Tomorrow I will add an imaginary conversation with the great author whose search was my own but whose recognition and rewards were the very opposite. For now I will rejoice in having known her. She is incomparable.
Since I am wrestling with a memoir that is built of such magical bricks ( no straw at all) and one of them has been the intermittent view halloo from Shelley Sackier I post this celebration. I have been searching for my critical friends who intervened at important moments and took their leave at equally momentous intervals.
She is right that serendipitous events must be merely sprinkled in fiction. Probably that should apply to memoir too, but when your life has been a fable from get go, and animals have appeared to nudge it along, there is no shirking or coyness possible.
Here they are.
Then came Milly. A collie more white than black and named for her namesake Milly Ndaba.
who made friends with Alfie and Alfie unwound a snake just at a critical moment when DNA had revealed its secrets.
But in the background was always Noel who kept me company without asking for anything.
An essay about a non-solution; a book that’s not a book but a well contrived catalogue. One solution to writer’s block- just write a long list, press publish.
This is not about a Book. (C’est ci ne pas une pomme.)
The head of steam burbling below the surface suggests an essay coming on. I always take ‘essay’ seriously. It contains built-in respectable failure. A what-the-hell invitation to let loose. The shrug will follow. Ah well is implied.
If I were less self-controlled this might be a book review, but it’s not. I have enough solidarity with a fellow writer not to want to pull any kind of bell or dead-drop rope. Besides like marrying the wrong person half the fault is your own; your expectations chose the book, your disappointment was also yours. So this is not a shout at a book, but wider than that. It’s a shout at the world of publishers, and those agents and sales reps with manicures and glossy lists who have a product willy-nilly, ready for the Christmas market with time for the reviews first.
Will there even be Christmas this year?
I have just read, skimmed, galloped through a book and it enraged me. I rarely do any of those; books have an authority I am loathe to challenge. There is always hope that redemption lies on the next line, or the next page. Not this one; I read it all but at speed.
I am used to being disappointed by books I order on impulse. This was not bought on impulse, but pre-ordered on the basis of what it promised because I am not so much in the throes of writing a memoir, but beached like a whitened cuttlefish above the salt tide of a perplexed repetitive rolling breaker life.This book would help get me re-floated. It was (ostensibly) about the difficulties of writing about family, with matters of confidentiality arising; it was about the perilous knife-edge between fact and fiction; it was about how a competent and much respected author/teacher was coerced to solve the problems, of keeping things fresh, and being creative and stimulated. All Laocoon problems being wrestled with chez nous.
In a way it did address all of those things, and solved none of them. Instead it explored, analytically the nature of the dilemmas in ‘finding a story’ and then finding ways to tell it engagingly. She never did find a story. She wrote a book about not finding a story.
‘Where’s the story’ dominated about twenty five percent of my valuable time, ‘Look into your family’ dominated the next twenty five percent. And looking for, not looking at, continued.
The members of her illustrious family were leafed through as by a finger in a card index, singly, with much lingering on the reasons for being renowned, before she moved on to the next. A five star family tree hung out to sparkle. So well documented were these estimable generations, she could find no space for herself. She could not add much to esteem, nor supply salacious details or invent a caprice. They were all rock solid in reputation. Or someone else had got there first. But half of a three hundred page book was devoted to this index. I can get the Yellow Pages for nothing and nobody expects me to read it.
I have been having similar problems with George Eliot who threads her running stitches through my book, and half of me thought I should uncover facts about her. Nine volumes of letters and seven biographies later I know less about her than I did. She walked speedily away because my George Eliot was not the same as other people’s. Facts added almost nothing. Or worse. Facts boxed in a Boadicea writer and placed her in carefully contrived ‘at homes’ with other notable visitors, all of whose names you recognised. They shone; reflected by being invited to tea. Same here. That was what I hoped this author would illuminate; how to relegate the biographical and make wild with conjecture; how to render conjecture truer than fact.
It often is.
Her despairing solution ( we are now sixty percent through) was to invent a fictional character that would thread through lives in their trivial and unexplored silences, the interstices that would admit a nanny, a governess or a secretary who might find herself interestingly compromised, abandoned, orphaned. I cannot remember what happened to her, this non-existent member of a family to which the author belongs. This fictional character never rose off the page, never spoke out loud because her function was simply to act as a needle and thread to replace the finger and sift through another generation of the estimable family, whose peppered names got shorter, but whose identities were even less interesting than the Wikipedia-like entries of the first half.
These smaller younger leaves on the family tree fluttered briefly without offering the slightest reason to notice them. Except their fast galloping names on the heels of one another. What their brief hooks permitted were extracts from the author’s other books and not very well obscured references to the hell of earning a living as a writer, and the depths to which one has to sink (Open University might or might not, this year? The exhaustion of coaching! Oh not another talk for another lit fest!) to make ends meet.
We already know all that. Some of us lack the agent who says ‘Find a Story, anything will do, and mention as many important family names as you can. I need this year’s offering and your name will sell anything.
Now I understand the deadening effect of fact when you have wings to fly creatively. I had been taking maiden flights of fancy with the facts of my life for three years. I hoped this book would offer ‘lift-off’. I understand that restraint may be necessary with other people’s (in my case offspring’s) feelings, but how to stay true? I hoped for suggestions of stratagems. How much fictional recreation is legitimate? How much is taboo? The thin line between imaginative re-creation and distortion? How to tell? How to curb? Is truth merely your impressions or does it need ‘sources’ because sources add nothing to emotional veracity on the day (however riveting the facts on another day, or for another kind of reader). Wrong facts can tell a better story, if they were indeed true for you.
All these answers were implied by the banner over this book of a ‘writer’s travel through her family’. Instead it was a lot of ‘woe is me’, how curtailed I am by the importance of my family. I can hardly breathe! Where is there place for me?
The answer came. No doubt with an advance for the attics and cellars of ‘not there, not here’. And ‘this’ll do fine’. It has enough words, doesn’t matter what they are about. Available for pre-order, to which I appended my contribution. The book signings and speech making will follow.
This book, which shall remain nameless, is a lens to light the fire of indignation to a roaring blaze. For those of us who have too many stories to tell, without enough life left to tell them, without the agent to promote them, without the pedigree to make a sow’s ear from a silk purse, are dealt a final body blow with the current hype of this cynical exercise in self-promotion. It is not a novel, not a memoir, not a non-fiction trawl through illustrious forebears, but a non- book. It is a catalogue of harrowing self-congratulation for being too well connected. Very well written.
A bit like trawling through recipes under consideration by Marco Pierre White but never cooked.
Still hungry for answers.
How I do like a realist, even better a humerous realist who joins hands and says okay, got it, measure the distance…let’s jump!
Sir, you don’t have to tell us the whole story. It’s enough to say “novel” or “memoir” or “blog post” and how many words or what goal you’re—
Fiction or nonfiction? Well, what’s your book about? There’s computers? And you’re creating a character like you… That’s fiction. No, it doesn’t matter if it’s set in the real world, as soon as you start making stuff up, it’s fiction. I mean, unless you’re writing memoir and being honest about fuzzy memories. But I’ve never seen a bookstore shelf labeled “Fiction but Also Nonfiction.”
Sure, I can give you a couple tips. Let’s just get everyone else started and—
Yes, planning a story is hard. You might find this website useful, it breaks down a traditional three-act structure…
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First Love, First Light: Seduced by Adam Bede
I have not addressed the wider world for many moons. I lost any belief that I have new things to say, nor could I find any convincing reason why anyone should heed them if I had. Writing my memoir was an exercise to keep an old brain flexible, and discover whether my life had really had the importance I ascribed to it. It always seemed hell bent on commanding my energies towards something that evaporated as soon as it was accomplished. Anyway…
In recovering my own innocence, so that my disillusionment should shine the brighter, I have been revisiting the books that I now realise shaped not merely my ideas but my very life itself. I searched out what started as fiction and became my reality. The first critical vision of noble loyalty (whether accurate historically is beside the point) was John of Gaunt in Anya Seton’s Katherine. What a mensch he was! But that was all courtly, braided, curtailed and remote from my own world. It fed a kind of velvet dream but could not be dragged back into every daylight. It was a scented sachet of a book that spread lavender at unexpected moments, mostly a vision of an England I longed to know. A place of history and self confidence, a romantic hero of constancy.
Far more binding were the ropes of Adam Bede. In my school we were only permitted to read ‘approved fiction’ that were ranked in a dusty room under the keys held by the Latin teacher- the book room. There we could sort through Dickens, Trollope, Walter Scott in uniform bindings and bear away one book that we could read when prep was over but before the bell release. Adam Bede was my literary initiation. I was smitten at fourteen with a complete hero, but equally with a world I felt I knew. It was the recovery of the best beloved, both exultant joy and weepful gratitude!
I have just re-read it, with some trepidation, for I was afraid to lose the first work that gave me not only a world, but a passion for what literature was. I suspect I was unconscious of that directly, but it lay as undisturbed as the thatched hayricks await the need for food before they are dismantled and borne away. I do crave the recovery of that food, my own innocence that can be aroused, and here is where trepidation begins because I doubt that many now would read it without a curled lip- oh really! Too much! People aren’t like that!
Innocence is now disdained in fiction, yet George Eliot was far from innocent when she wrote her first real novel. Yes, like most writers her first work is autobiographical, but for a sophisticate critic, long a Londoner, always a travelling, now in Berlin at the Opera, now with Franz Liszt for breakfast, she immerses herself back in ‘Loamshire’ in the village of Hayslope and gives us her own innocence amongst the characters that are scattered in steady farmsteads or tumbling cottages, where bright brooks well from the ground and all travel takes much walking. They all have dogs, Gyp, Juno, and Vixen and the dogs are ever present, monitoring and observing.
This was my first visit to rural England, where the seasons turn with dependable benevolence, and currents are harvested by small children in stained pinafores, and workers treated after the fields lie to stubble. It was that steady antiquity of tradition that I longed to be part of, and to be encompassed by. I realised again the power of its portrait, back along. In South Africa there was no such antiquity, nor communities of such steadiness. We were all tossed by more violent seasons, and more cogent fears, and a spectacular landscape in which we had had small part. The country was not shaped to fold its cloak of steeples and hedges about our shoulders; we had hardly penetrated its autonomy. We could love it for its beauty, its wild storms, its cirrus or cumulo-nimbus skies, but if we walked away it would not notice our departure.
So the England of Adam Bede held out such a hand of comfort. But here’s the thing. It still does. It no more exists now, than it did for a 60’s South African. But in the mind rural Loamshire remains perfect, for what it said about George Eliot’s love of her country, her family’s experience among such people. There will be many (probably most) who would find the book improbable, for its almost universal redemption of error, or disgrace. The Methodist sermons of Dinah the preacher are overlong for today’s literary scrimping, that must apostrophe for scant concentrations but they reflected George Eliot’s own rejection of her father’s Church observance, and the hostility she faced. She was exploring their appeal as much for herself as the rough workers who gathered on the hillsides to be captivated by a woman in a white cap and grey dress.
Then there are the long entertainments of dialect and the acidic or philosophical in Mrs Poyser’s pithy put-downs. George Eliot had a wicked enjoyment of language, its metaphors and disrespect; her characters did not ‘give-over’ nor, even when moved to change, do so easily. So at then end when all ends well, I was not provoked to disbelief. They were their best selves in a society small enough to temper, and close enough to reject. Rather pleased they had survived their trials, more or less unchanged.
I did not start this piece with a review in mind, but rather an examination of my own naïveté, and in the hope of taking up the pen with greater conviction. I might now, and allow myself to entertain rather than follow the plot of my life. I shall do what George Eliot does, reading a reader’s thought, break off and speak directly to counter their misgivings, plead for my prejudices as though prejudice is permissible, and acknowledge that the point of a book is to share what is important to the writer, not conform to expectations. If a reader knows beforehand what they seek, they might as well write it themselves.
My mother did not often speak of her monotonous schooldays in Staffordshire, where she boarded for six long years without ever going back to Uganda for holidays. Instead she and her sister spent them with a Welsh Methodist preacher’s family where Sundays meant chapel and no swimming. But she did tell me of school Easter Sundays walking to church in heavy cloaks, with the snow falling on the daffodils and on the straw boater, and ‘Let us pray’ dripped melted snow onto the prayer books. That was why Easter was always more important than Christmas. Literature is built of single moments and may need nothing more than capturing them, without asking for more.
By di ablewhite, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13434662
By Joan Sykes, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13882295
!One I wrote earlier- before Stephen King asked me to.
Honey I’m Home.
Stories in Search of an Author?
I have come to believe that the stories we tell, exist before we confine them with words, harass them along paths, or have the arrogance to decide where they begin and end.
I have dreamt stories. I don’t mean derived stories from dreams, I mean written a complete story within the dream, at a desk in an examination setting with a two hour deadline, handed it to the ‘examiner’ and woken up. That story was set in Vermont.
That was inconsiderate since I have never been to Vermont, and when I showed it to those who had, one said ‘Soggy leaves do not lie on the autumn ground in Vermont, they get blown into corners against fences, in piles’. Another said that my hick-speaking character would live further south in Appalachia.
Still it was a good story, and one day I might redraft it. Or go to Vermont!
But my conviction in the pre-existence of stories found corroboration in reading Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’. I have avoided picking up this book because I am a curmudgeon by nature, and everyone had said ‘This is the only writing book you HAVE to read.’ So I didn’t.
But I now just have. Yes, it is as good as they all said.
Here comes the interesting part.
Some years ago I thought I would try my hand at a genre story, crime, romance or some such just to prove I could. And because what I normally write has an uphill climb to find readers, too literary, too poetic, too philosophical, too difficult to Dewey. You name any difficulty and what I write will plead ‘guilty as charged.’
I would also write a short short story since my others run to 5K or more. I would stick to 2K. and do what I usually avoid, write in the present tense.
So I wrote a story called ‘Honey I’m Home’.
Now Stephen King sets one single practise ‘exercise’ in the course of his book. Here it is paraphrased and derived from the ‘Police Beat’ section of most local papers, most weeks, Here is what he sets.
‘ A woman- call her Jane- marries a man who is bright, witty and pulsing with sexual magnetism. We’ll call the guy Dick, the world’s most Freudian name. Unfortunately Dick has his dark side, short tempered… control freak… Jane tries to overlook…make the marriage work…They have a child…when the little girl is three or so the jealous tirades begin again. Abuse is verbal and then physical…
At last poor Jane can’t take it anymore. She divorces the schmuck and gets custody of their daughter, Little Nell. Dick begins to stalk…Jane gets a restraining order…about as useful as a parasol in a hurricane…finally after an incident which you will write in vivid and scary detail…Richard is arrested and jailed/
After Dick’s incarceration…Jane takes herself home to a house…how she comes by this house the story will tell…Something pings at her as she lets herself in…makes her uneasy…decides to have a cup of tea and watches the news. Three men have escaped killing a guard in the process. Two were recaptured the third still at large…Jane knows beyond a shadow if doubt the one who escaped was Dick. That unease was the smell of Vitalis hair tonic. Only Dick would make sure he had hair tonic in jail.
It is a good story but not unique. I want you to change the sexes of the antagonist and protagonist before beginning to workout the situation in your story. Narrate without plotting and let this one inversion carry you along….” ( On Writing Stephen King)
So here is the one I prepared earlier. Names are unchanged. Every single one. I promise. Just a hasty draft to see if I could!
When you have read it tell me the probability of the synchronicity? Or consider whether the writer anywhere is simply a scribe?
Honey I’m Home.
The trainee nurse in the white cap and uniform sitting in the pallid spring sunshine pretends to read. The long fair pigtail down her back hangs like a bell-rope, there for the pulling. It had been twelve years, almost to the day.
‘I want to come to you’ he’d written’ somewhere anonymous, somewhere nice. Go feed the ducks in St James’s Park and I’ll walk to you. I want the pleasure of finding you.’
She sits feeling as conspicuous as an archery target, unable to predict from which direction the arrow might come, and unwilling to swivel or look anxious. She would wait for a hand on her shoulder before she would believe him. It comes, falling familiar despite the years.
“Oh Daddy, at last!”
“My love, you waited” The shell of her father, this thin new ascetic in a checked shirt walks around the bench and gathers her to his chest. Silently they stand, and weep, soundlessly, mingling in joy. They had waited together and apart since that day.