I’ve just got back from a holiday in France – hence no blogging for a while – with a cold that turned into a sinus infection. Feeling low a day or two ago I got into a hot bath with a novel by Jeffery Deaver. If there is a writer who is the absolute polar opposite of Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, he would be a pretty good contender. His novels are virtually pure plot and it is a bit mean of me to refer to him as a guilty pleasure because of their kind they are so well done. They are the verbal equivalent of cottage pie or macaroni cheese for supper – no effort is required on the part of the consumer, plenty though I am well aware on the part of the cook and the same will be true of Deaver. They are very inventive, move at a terrific lick, and he’s a better writer than Dan Brown, who I really can’t read. The other writer for days when I feel really weedy is Agatha Christie, who is a more sedate precursor of Jeffery Deaver. I can only read those if I can’t remember who dun it.
For my serious reading at the moment I am reading Flannery O’Connor’s letters and am so impressed by her, especially her lack of self-pity. Her life was cut short by lupus at the age of 39 and even as a young woman in her twenties, her life was very circumscribed by the disease. Yet these very limitations allowed her to concentrate on her considerable talent as a writer. She lived a fairly isolated life with her mother on a farm in Georgia and much of her contact with other writers was through these fascinating letters. Chapeau! as they say in France to salute an achievement.
It was reading MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY by Winifred Watson that got me thinking about this. It’s usually a derogatory term, but I, for one, would rather have one hit than none at all. Alain-Fournier is the classic example of this with LE GRAND MEALNES. Death in the trenches of WWI ended his career when he was only 27. He left behind just one much-loved novel, almost perfect in its evocation of adolescent love and longing. He would have gone on to other things, but what about Harper Lee (still alive as far as I know)? TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD came out in 1960 and the rest has been silence. That too dealt with childhood and adolescence. Maybe she had only one novel in her, or perhaps she felt that she couldn’t top that. It won a Pullitzer prize and has sold many millions world-wide. There are other writers who wrote a few other things, but only one major novel (CATCHER IN THE RYE, UNDER THE VOLCANO . . . ). Other writers have produced a whole body of work, but are only really remembered for one thing and that seems to be especially the case with comic novels, such as Stella Gibbon’s COLD COMFORT FARM and Jerome K Jerome’s THREE MEN IN A BOAT. Where am I going with this? I’m not sure. But maybe there is a problem with the idea of writing as a career, and a lot of second-rate novels are written because the writer has to write SOMETHING if only to put bread on the table. Maybe Salinger and Lee are to be applauded: they wrote the great novel they were born to write and pretty much left it at that.
So what about Winifred Watson? She did write other things, but MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY is the only one which has lasted. It came out in 1938 and was reprinted a few years ago by the estimable Persephone Press. It’s a delicious frothy fairy tale, a Cinderella for the 1930s. Poor downtrodden middle-aged Miss Pettigrew is almost at the end of her rope when she goes for a job as a companion and finds herself transported into a world of dazzling glamour. It’s narrated at breakneck speed, it’s witty, unputdownable and is the literary equivalent of knocking back a glass or two of champagne. Not a great novel, but great fun.
PS. If you are reading this, Deborah, I’ve got hold of Flannery O’Connor’s letters. It’ll be a while because I’ve got other things to read first, but watch this space.
Ted Hughes mentions this in discussing the influences on her work, when he is being interviewed in THE PARIS REVIEW INTERVIEWS VOL 3. I found this an arresting thought as I had thought of her as being a sixties figure – her work still seems so modern – but of course she died in 1963. She was thirty-one and has of course remained that age in my idea of her. It’s strange to consider that she was only a few years younger than my mother.
I thought at first that I wasn’t enjoying this volume of the Paris Review interviews as much as the first (have somehow missed the 2nd), but there are some real gems, particularly the interview with Raynond Carver. When I wrote about short stories a while ago, I didn’t mention him and I don’t know why not, because he is right up there with the best, just about my favourite short story writer in fact. What I loved most about this interview was his defence of fiction. He argues that it doesn’t have to ‘make things happen, or change the world. ‘Good fiction is partly a bringing of the news from one world to another . . . it doesn’t have to do anything. It just has to be there for the fierce pleasure we take in doing it, and the different kind of pleasure we take in reading something that’s durable and made to last, as well as beautiful in and of itself. Something that throws off these sparks – a persistent and steady glow, however dim.’ Wow! That’s just what I feel about Carver’s own work. Hard to pick out favourites but ‘Elephant’, ‘Fever,’ ‘A Small Good Thing’ and ‘Distance’ are among the stories I go back to again and again.
Today is the first anniversary of my mother’s death. Like so many people these days, she doesn’t have a grave and she was unsentimental about the disposal of her ashes, simply requesting that they be scattered at the crematorium. Long before she was ill she used to say that she would like there to be a bench on the esplanade at Scarborough in her memory, but she changed her mind about that. There are already so many, and she felt the money would be better used at the hospice. I suggested that as well as that I could sponsor a seat at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in her memory and she liked that idea. We went there often, both to the new theatre in its converted Art Deco cinema and to the old theatre before that. We had so many meals there in the restaurant, sometimes just the two of us and sometimes with with my daughter. Looking back over the years, some productions stand out, notably HAUNTING JULIA, a ghost story that scared the wits out of me. I can feel myself gripping my mother’s arm as I write this. We took my daughter to see MR A’S AMAZING MAZE. My husband and I saw THE WOMAN IN BLACK there. And last year when my mother was too ill to go out, she wanted me to go on my own, and I saw A TRIP TO SCARBOROUGH, Alan Ayckbourn’s play based on the Sheridan original. When I got back, I sat on the bed and told her all about it.
There is something else that’s special about the SJT for me. Seven or eight years ago when I was researching my second novel, Alan Ayckbourn kindly let me sit in on rehearsals for a children’s play, THIS IS WHERE WE CAME IN. I loved doing that, it was fascinating, being a fly on the wall. It was good too to have the opportunity to spend more time with my mother. STAGEFRIGHT has turned out to be the novel I most enjoyed writing.
Earlier this week I finally went over to Scarborough to chose a seat. It was bitter-sweet experience, roaming about the auditorium, strangely quiet and empty, thinking back over the eighteen years that my mother spent in Scarborough. In the end I chose A11. There’ll be a plaque. So, if any of my readers visit the STJ, cast a glance in that direction, won’t you?
This is a collection of Penelope Fitzgerald’s letters and I was particularly anxious to read them, because I knew her. In fact I actually have a letter from her myself, tucked inside my copy of her marvellous biography of the Knox brothers. I’d written to tell her much I had enjoyed that and her novels and her biography of Burne-Jones. That last accounts for where our lives intersected. I met her when I was curator at the William Morris Society.
But I have to admit that when I skimmed through this book, I began to wonder if it should have published. She certainly didn’t write with a eye to publication and was a reticent and private person. I certainly wouldn’t want my own letters published – not that it is ever likely to happen, thank God. And then, too, where I dipped in, some of the letters to publishers seemed a little too mundane to have been worth printing. Certainly she is not one of the great letter- writers, no Keats or Byron, but once I got into their rhythm, I began to appreciate this chronicle of small pleasures (in which the discarding of a flannel is regarded as ‘reckless’) and not so small sorrows. Even the letters to publishers contain some gems. I loved this: ‘Still doggedly going on with the Independent Foreign Fiction awards, only to find that one of the books we’ve got on the short list has been pulped by Macmillan’s already – the whole book business is getting very depressing.’ Yes, indeed. This was 1995 and things haven’t changed.
In the 1970s she complains about old and tired she is, virtually on her last legs – she had two teaching jobs, so no wonder – when actually she had well over twenty years to go and all her great success and acclaim was ahead of her. For one of the marvellous things about Penelope, in the eyes of a middle-aged writer like myself, is that she didn’t even published her first novel until she was sixty.
One of the disadvantages of becoming a writer is that you lose your innocence as a reader. I used to love to dive into a crime novel, suspending my critical faculties as I was swept along by the excitement of it all. That doesn’t happen so much these days. Now that I produce the stuff myself, I can see just where the writer has tried to covered up an enormous hole in the plot, or where they have painted themselves into a corner and something implausible has to happen to get them out. I find myself muttering, ‘she wouldn’t have done THAT’ or ‘no, no, the solution can’t be as obvious as all that’. This happens with TV crime shows, too, and it annoys the hell out of my husband. The converse is that when something is really good, there is an extra dimension to my enjoyment: I can relish the skill and the craft of it.
So, did Stieg Larsson’s ecstatically reviewed novel, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, pass this test? ‘The ballyhoo is fully justified, wrote Marcel Berlin in THE TIMES. But was it? Not quite, perhaps. The friend who passed it on to me warned me that it took a long time to get going and it did. Still, eventually I did find myself being carried along by it. It’s dense and complex and thoughtful. Though I was never all that surprised by the way things turned out, I did enjoy it and I’ll read the next one. It’s sad, very sad, that Larsson died soon after delivering the manuscripts of three novels to his publisher and didn’t enjoy their great success. Maybe too if he had lived, he would have revised it and made it even better
A few weeks ago it was my mother’s birthday (she would have been 83) and in memory of her I made a donation to Oxfam to help stock a library in a school. It seemed appropriate, in part because she valued education so highly, not least because she chose to leave school at sixteen and regretted it later. She was thrilled by my educational achievements and those of my brother and came to all our degree ceremonies.
But also, she loved reading and in my mind’s eye that is how I often see her, in the sunny sitting room of her top floor flat in Scarborough. Quite a number of her crime novels were passed on by me – I used to take bagfuls when I visited and I can see her now, looking through them and exclaiming. I even remember where I bought some of them. That copy of the THE SWAYING PILLARS by Elizabeth Ferrars with the wonderfully lurid cover was bought about 20 years ago in Chiswick when I was working for the Victorian Society, for 50 pence, I note.
In my earlier blog about my mother’s books, I wrote about the difficulty of knowing what to do with them all. A couple of months after she died, I joined my brother at her flat to help him sort through her things. He was keen to get rid of as much as possible – the charity that runs the hospice where my mother died was coming to collect. What to do with all the Dick Francis novels? I had a hunch that my mother-in-law, also an avid crime-fiction reader, might like them. I rang her and she said she would. My brother decided to take the Robert B Parkers because my mother had thought he might enjoy them. I’d already taken the ones I especially wanted, either because I might read them again or because I associated them particularly with my mother. But there still remained several hundred. I did another trawl and then at my brother’s behest I bagged up all the rest in black, plastic bin lins.
On the way home I knew that I had made a mistake and I couldn’t let them go – not all of them,anyway. I rang my brother, who was still at the flat and told him so. And that is why there are boxes on my study floor containing dozens of copies of books by Elizabeth Ferrars, Anthony Gilbert, Patricia Wentworth, Sarah Woods and others. More about this another time.
It’s half-term and also I’m not well – so will be back to blogging next week. Monday probably. See you then.
I’ve written elsewhere on my web-site about independent libraries. I have always loved libraries. I treasure my membership of the London Library: it is one of my favourite places and certainly my favourite library. I’ve sometimes had a fantasy that I could secretly live there, hiding among the stacks, and emerging after closing time. The same with Cambridge University Library and there the fantasy is fuelled by the first aid room which actually has a bed in it (no sheets though, as I discovered when I was ill once and had to lie down in there). And CUL has a cafe too (used to be famous for its cakes and cheese scone). With all the open stacks, too, it would be easy to lose oneself in there. I noticed once that the regulations forbid walking bare-foot in the library (conjuring up images of long gone hippy students with flowers in their hair) but it doesn’t say anything about not spending the night there.
I’m delighted to say that I’ve just had a short story accepted by the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It’s set me thinking about the form. There are not many modern writers who devote themselves exclusively to it, though one who did, Edward D. Hoch, wrote over 900 and famously published one in every copy of the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine for 34 years. Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore are best known for their short stories and there are other writers, like John Updike, who are as well regarded for their short stories as for their novels. Generally speaking though publishers are reluctant to publish collections of short stories and if it is difficult to make a living as a novelist (and it is!) then it is even harder if all you write is short stories. It didn’t use to be the case: the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century were a golden age in that respect, think of the Strand Magazine and Sherlock Holmes. And it’s a pity because a well-crafted short story can be deeply satisfying for both reader and writer. It is possible to do things in a short story – for instance, write from an unusual viewpoint or sustain a particular tone – that might grow tiresome or be too difficult to pull off over length of a novel. The short story of mine that EQMM has accepted is set in the years following the Gunpowder plot in the early seventeenth century. I’ve never written any historical fiction before, but didn’t feel too daunted when it was a matter of a short sprint rather than a marathon.
The Strand has recently been revived, by the way, and is published in the US, where they seem more receptive to the short story as a form.