#indiechallenge – The Silken Thread: stories and sketches (Cora Sandel, translated by Elizabeth Rokkan)

DSCF8509

The blurb

‘And so Rosina is set free on the path of candour, where we so easily gallop a little further than we would wish. It looks so innocent to begin with. One starts out so far from the great confidences…’

A silken thread loosens Rosina’s tongue to admit the desperation behind her confident manner. A woman allows herself to feel secure when her lover gives her a bracelet, until the history of the bracelet is shatteringly revealed.

Cora Sandel’s short stories are about what is concealed behind ordinary situations; what people really want to say to each other when they argue about money or exchange niceties or merely sit in silence. This collection displays the extraordinary economy of Sandel’s writing: finely tuned and exquisitely understated, yet full of meaning.

The author

Cora Sandel is the pseudonym of Sara Fabricius, who was born in Kristiania (Oslo) in 1880. After studying to be a painter, mainly in Paris, before and during the First World War, she abandoned painting at the age of forty, settled in Sweden, and turned seriously to writing, publishing the first volume of her Alberta trilogy in 1926. She died in Sweden in 1974.

The publisher

The Women’s Press now seems to be defunct, but it used to put out a lot of feminist fiction and non-fiction. Its steam iron logo and stripy black-and-white spines are still worth keeping an eye out for when browsing charity shop shelves.

The bookshop

I can’t remember – this has been hanging around on my shelves for ages, waiting for me to read it – but am fairly sure it must have come from a charity shop in Woking.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘A Women’s Press’ (obviously); ‘An author from another country’; ‘A book from your TBR’; ‘Translated book’; ‘A press over 20 years old’; or ‘An anthology’.

My thoughts

There are some gems in here, set across quite a wide range of places and, to a lesser extent, times. The one that’s stuck with me ever since I read the book (several weeks ago, now) is Artist’s Christmas. It’s a detailed, atmospheric piece that evokes all the chill of winter and the misguided idealism of the bohemian lifestyle – with a vicious sting in the tail.

Some I inevitably found less successful, such as The Broad Versus the Narrow Outlook, in which a dispute between neighbours made a slightly clumsy metaphor for the Nazi occupation. On the other hand, I did find There’s A War On very moving – and a timely counter to the assumption that the Blitz was something that happened only to Britain.

This is by no means a comfortable read (and I would recommend skipping The Polar Bears or Two Cats in Paris and One in Florence if you’d rather not read about harm to animals) but I found it a worthwhile one, and am rather regretting letting it languish on my bookcase for so long.

The Reader’s Gazetteer: L

DSCF8462

L takes us back to Britain and back to the ecclesiastical shenanigans novel in Catherine Fox’s Lindchester series.

Lindchester is explicitly in the same universe as Barchester, and it has a rather more explicit location:

The diocese of Lindchester is not large, squashed as it is between Lichfield to the south and Chester to the north; so don’t worry, we will not be travelling far.

This locates it, unusually for an ecclesiastical shenanigans novel, in the northern province. The Archbishop of Canterbury surely has quite enough to deal with in Barchester, Christminster, Starbridge and Torminster. It’s only fair that the Archbishop of York gets to fret about Lindchester’s problems.

Transport links? If you were starting in London, you’d get a train out of Euston. Euston is horrible. Maybe don’t start in London. Change at Crewe.

I’ve been using ‘Lindchester’ as shorthand for the locale in which the action happens. This is not limited to the town of Lindchester itself; it encompasses the whole diocese: Lindchester, Lindford, Cardingforth… (In fact, the narrator is scrupulous about not depicting anything that happens beyond the diocesan boundaries.)

Recently, I’ve been mulling over a hypothesis about fictional places, about the difference between Barchester and Ruritania (I know we haven’t got to the latter yet). And I’m not convinced it’s entirely down to geography. It’s not the difference between a city and a state – in fact, so many modern Ruritanias are so tiny that they basically are cities. I think it’s more to do with the way that the characters – and particularly the protagonist – interacts with the place.

If you’re the protagonist, Ruritania is the place you visit. You might have a longstanding connection with the place, your visit may have a disproportionate effect on the place, and you might very well get more than you bargained for on that visit, but you’re essentially an outsider. Barchester is the place where you live, very probably the place where you were born. In Barchester, you’re a part of the system, the whole complicated interconnected web of human relationships. You may well be able to effect change, but the system is something that has shaped you. You can’t just pass through it.

That’s because the place itself exists within a larger system, whether that’s political, religious, social, or any combination. It’s a system that the author suspects that many of their readers know well, might themselves exist within. Lindchester is a diocese within the Church of England. It operates in a similar way to any other diocese in the Church of England. Happy endings are very much a possibility, but they have to be negotiated within the constraints of the real-life system. The author has control of the fates of the individual characters, but they don’t mess around with the way we all know things work. That would be cheating. That would be far less satisfying.

 

Books referred to in this post

Lindchester series (Acts and Omissions, Unseen Things Above, Realms of Glory), Catherine Fox

Barchester series, Anthony Trollope

 

ABCDEFGHIJKLM

Back on the Book Bus (where do you get your ideas?)

DSCF8495

Last week I was back on the Isle of Wight for Ventnor Fringe. I had good intentions about selling a lot and writing a lot. As it was, I sold very little and immediately spent all the proceeds on other books. I finished a short story (submissions deadline was today) and managed to get the current novel about a thousand words further forward and a little bit tidier.

Apart from that, I sat in the sun, and listened to and watched other people doing their thing. Poetry. Music. Theatre. Comedy. I looked for lizards (and found them) and drank Belgian beer.

In between times, I did quite a lot of thinking, and I noticed how my best ideas seem to come from thought experiments of the ‘What if?’ variety. For example:

I know the Society of Authors aren’t expecting a novel inspired by the three weeks of foreign travel their award funded, but, if they were, what would it look like?

(Answer: a modern Ruritanian adventure with ice dancing!)

Or, this week:

If I were going to write something that I could sell at a price point of £4 or under, so that buyers aren’t going to be put off it in favour of the cheaper, and excellent, second-hand books around it, what could that be?

(Answer: a little book that can double as a souvenir!)

So that’s two projects in the pipeline. I’m also attempting to write more short stories. Some of those I’m submitting them to other people’s anthologies and magazines; others, I have other plans for. For example, I’m thinking of setting up a mailing list, and I’d like to offer an exclusive short story as a thank you for joining it.

At the moment, though, my main focus is still the sequel to Speak Its Name, which is currently standing at just over 62,000 words. It still doesn’t have a title. I thought of Scandal and Folly (sounds too much like a bodice ripper). I thought of Truth and Power (sounds too much like a political thriller). I’ll just have to trust that I’ll come up with something before it’s finished. And that’ll be early next year, at a guess. I’ll keep you posted.

How to tell if you’re in a Kathleen Jowitt novel

DSCF8024

How To Tell If You’re In A Kathleen Jowitt novel*:

You’re not nearly such a terrible person as you thought you were. A red-haired activist from the North is trying to make your life better whether or not you wanted her to. You have devoted your life to this institution and it isn’t thanking you for it. You’re going through hell, but you come out the other side. Your friends spend their lives arguing on the internet. You can’t make any assumptions based on someone else’s religion, but you do anyway.

Oh, and you were never interested in the politics, but that hasn’t stopped the politics in being interested in you. And your parents are appalling.

The reader can also expect to find:

  • a fictional location
  • politics
  • a bisexual character
  • a reasonably optimistic romance which might or might not be the focus of the story

 

 

P. S. I’m trying to write less appalling parents.

* preserved from Twitter, and expanded slightly.

#indiechallenge – Clio Rising (Paula Martinac)

DSCF8443

The blurb

In 1983, Livvie Bliss leaves western North Carolina for New York City, armed with a degree in English and a small cushion of cash from a favorite aunt. Her goal is to launch a career in publishing, but more important, to live openly as a lesbian. A rough start makes Livvie think she should give up and head home, but then a new friend helps her land a job at a literary agency run by the formidable Bea Winston.

Bea hopes Livvie’s Southern charm and “boyish” good looks will help her bond with one of the agency’s most illustrious clients—the cranky Modernist writer Clio Hartt, a closeted octogenarian lesbian of the Paris Lost Generation who has rarely left her Greenwich Village apartment in four decades. When Livvie becomes Clio’s gofer and companion, the plan looks like it’s working: The two connect around their shared Carolina heritage, and their rapport gives Clio support and inspiration to think about publishing again.

But something isn’t quite right with Clio’s writing. And as Livvie learns more about Clio’s relationship with playwright Flora Haynes, uncomfortable parallels begin to emerge between Livvie’s own circle of friends and the drama-filled world of expatriate artists in the 1920s.

In Clio’s final days, the writer shares a secret that could upend Livvie’s life—and the literary establishment.

The author

Paula Martinac is the author of four published novels and a collection of short stories. Her debut novel Out of Time won the 1990 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction. She has published three nonfiction books on lesbian and gay culture and politics as well as numerous articles, essays, and short stories. Also a playwright, her works have had productions with Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company, Manhattan Theatre Source, the Pittsburgh New Works Festival, No Name Players, and others. She teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

The publisher

Bywater Books describes itself as representing “the coming of age of lesbian fiction… committed to bringing the best of contemporary lesbian writing to a discerning readership.”

How I got this book

I won this in the Women & Words Hootenanny giveaway.

The bingo card

This might count towards: ‘A Woman’s Press’; ‘An author from another country’; ‘A new to you press’; ‘Marginalised people’; or ‘LGBTQIA’.

My thoughts

A historical novel with two layers: the narrator, Livvie, goes to New York in the 1980s to find a job and the lesbian scene. The job puts her in contact with Clio Hartt, a giant of the lesbian literary coterie in 1930s Paris and author of The Dismantled, but now living alone in a Greenwich Village apartment.

The Dismantled is a classic, but Clio has published nothing since. Livvie’s job is to try to get Clio writing again, which seems to lead inevitably into digging into her past to find out why she stopped writing in the first place. I enjoyed (and occasionally cringed at) Livvie’s attempts to find out, but the big twist behind this felt a bit like a fuss about nothing to me. I couldn’t quite buy it on an emotional level.

Livvie’s relationship drama tended to come second to her investigation of Clio’s past. This worked for me, if only because I wasn’t massively invested in it, and I rather liked the low-key way in which it played out.

I enjoyed the evocation of 1980s New York, and the contrast with Livvie’s Southern background. My own preference would have been for a little more inter-war Paris, though that’s purely personal, and the structure worked well as it was.

There was some period-typical but narratively unnecessary biphobia, which made me find the character it came from rather less sympathetic than she was intended to be.

I ought to have loved this one, dealing as it does with settings that I find fascinating, but overall it fell a bit flat for me.

Engaging with the tradition

DSCF8273

A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with a friend about what I was writing and what he’d been watching. I’m writing the sequel to Speak Its Name, which in its current state is mostly about vocations and relationships and what they do to each other. He’d been watching Fleabag, and thought that it had quite a lot to say to what I was doing, and had I seen it?

I said that I hardly watch any TV at all, because I lack the staying power. I can keep up with something for one or two episodes, but then life gets in the way and I get behind. (So I mostly watch Doctor Who, where you can dip in and out and it makes just as much sense as if you had managed to see last week’s episode.) So no, I hadn’t seen Fleabag.

But it’s a very good point. Whatever you’re writing about, whatever genre you’re writing in, someone will have been there first. (And if you don’t engage with that tradition, then there’s a very real danger of making yourself look like an utter plonker. See: Ian McEwan and sci-fi.)

Speak Its Name and whatever-the-sequel’s-going-to-be-called sit not quite comfortably within the Barchester genre. And that is a tradition that I’ve been engaging with ever since I wrote my undergraduate dissertation (Fit Persons To Serve In The Sacred Ministry of Thy Church: representations of Anglican clergy 1855-65) if not before (my mother, seeing me with a copy of Glittering Images shortly before my A-level exams, prudently removed it from me). Most recently, of course, there’s been Catherine Fox‘s Lindchester. Sometimes I think I’m engaged not so much in a dialogue with Lindchester as in a stand-up screaming match, while at the same time finding it intensely familiar and moving. So maybe I’ll get round to watching Fleabag, or more probably I won’t, but I think I’ve probably done enough homework there.

A Spoke in the Wheel is slightly different. Not so much in terms of genre – I suppose it’s somewhere between a romance and a social problem novel – but in terms of subject matter. I read loads of cycling books, but they were all non-fiction. Most of them were memoirs.

There isn’t really a tradition, you see. Elsewhere (and elsewhen – almost a decade ago, in fact) on the Internet, William Fotheringham has a list of the top ten cycling novels. They’re a mixed bag, and the diversity of genres represented suggests that he had to scratch around quite a lot to find any ten, let alone a top ten.

If I were feeling inspired I’d try matching the titles to the various roles within a team (sprinter, GC contender, domestique, grimpeur, rouleur, etc), but I’m feeling a bit too tired for that. And I’ve only attempted three of them in recent years. (I’m sure I must have had The Adventure of the Priory School read to me when I was a child, but it hasn’t stuck.)

  • Cat ought to be the sort of thing I’d love, but every time I’ve tried it I’ve foundered on the extended passages in italic type.
  • Three Men on the Bummel is not quite as good as Three Men in a Boat, and contains quite a lot of tedious national stereotyping.
  • The Rider was the one I saved for after I’d finished writing A Spoke In The Wheel, because when something’s been sold as ‘the best cycling novel of all time’, it’s a bit intimidating when you’re just trying to write a decent one.

And I’ve now downloaded The Wheels of Chance (thank you, Project Gutenberg).

Actually, the one cycling book I’m really glad I didn’t read before starting ASITW is Fotheringham‘s own Put Me Back On My Bike. I just don’t think I’d have had the nerve to write about fictional doping with that magnificent and uncomfortably vivid account of the tragedy of Tom Simpson always in the back of my mind.

 

* Having said that, I’ve now watched all of Good Omens, so it turns out that I’m perfectly capable of watching television when somebody else organises it and when it’s a day that I didn’t have earmarked for writing. I’m still two episodes behind on Gentleman Jack, though, and it’ll be three if I don’t get my act together this weekend.

#indiechallenge – First Time Ever (Peggy Seeger)

DSCF8407

The blurb

Born in New York City in 1935, Peggy Seeger enjoyed a childhood steeped in music and politics. Her father was the noted musicologist Charles Seeger; her mother, the modernist composer Ruth Crawford; and her brother Pete, the celebrated writer of protest songs.

After studying at Radcliffe College, in 1955 Peggy left to travel the world. It was in England that she met the man, some two decades older and with a wife and family, with whom she would share the next thirty-three years: the actor, playwright and songwriter Ewan MacColl. Together, Peggy and Ewan helped lay the foundations of the British folk revival, through the formative – and controversial – Critics Group and the landmark BBC Radio Ballads programmes. And as Ewan’s muse, Peggy inspired one of the twentieth century’s greatest love songs, ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’.

Peggy’s life comprises art and passion, family and separation, tragedy, celebration and the unexpected – and irresistible – force of love. It would by any standards be an extraordinary story, but what elevates her account is the beauty of the writing: it is clear-eyed and playful, luminous and melodic, fearless, funny and always truthful, from the first word to the last.

The publisher

Faber & Faber calls itself ‘one of the world’s great publishing houses’. It was founded in London 90 years ago. I’d associated it more with the highbrow end of the market and with poetry, but it also does things like the QI tie-in gift books.

How I got this book

Around my way, there’s a tradition of leaving unwanted items outside one’s front gate in case someone else likes the look of it and takes it away. I liked the look of this and took it away.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘An author from another country’; possibly ‘Biography’, though Seeger in fact recommends someone else’s biography of her to be read alongside this to fill in the gaps; ‘A press over 20 years old’; ‘Non-fiction’, and, despite the blurb’s strenuous attempt to ignore the fact, ‘LGBTQIA’.

My thoughts

I think Peggy Seeger is great. I saw her perform at Cambridge Folk Festival a few years ago, and when I asked her to sign one of her CDs she complimented my hat. So there. Anyway, she’s a member of a great musical dynasty and she’s a great musical figure in her own right. In this book she looks back on a long life, with a complete absence of self-pity and an honesty that sometimes made me wince. There was much that resonated, including the thoughts on class, and the impulse to hope that keeps you writing in the face of looming political despair. It’s fascinating as history and as a reflection on the art of performing music and, most of all, as a portrait of the development of a person.