The Last Word
Each year for the last 20 years, in early December, I have bought a copy of the book I have been the most impressed over the previous 12 months. I wrap it in Christmas paper and post it to Kirsten, a Danish friend who is the grandmother of my two Swedish godsons. Retired, she lives in Skagen on the northern tip of Jutland with her labrador.
A psychiatrist by profession, she has that facility with languages which seems to elude the English, and is a fluent reader of German, French and English, the latter with such ease that she ate up Dorothy Richardson’s stream of consciousness without a murmur the year I chose as my annual gift the first volume of Pilgrimage, at the time newly republished by Virago. That year, as every year, a short and neatly written letter from her arrived in late January, giving her verdict on style and structure in a pithy analysis that would not have shamed a literary critic writing for a weekend review section.
My 2011 choice for Kirsten is The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. It is the story of De Waal’s family told through objects. It begins in the Paris of the Impressionists and ends in the Vienna of the Second World War. The objects, netsuke, are small, intricately carved figurines of ivory used by Japanese men to tie their personal belongings by cords to their kosode and kimono. In the book, they supply a fitting narrative structure for a man who is a ceramicist before he is a writer.
As De Waal‘s medium of choice is objects, not words, it comes as no surprise that touch is central to the reader’s experience of the book: the feel of fine furniture and fabric in the houses of the wealthy, the dry bindings of manuscripts in dealers’ studios, the secretive touch of lovers. The Hare with Amber Eyes is captivating as biography and autobiography and illuminating as social and political history. Despite De Waal’s declaration that this is the only story he has to tell, it does something new and arresting in using language to describe so intensively the sensations of touch.
Eight OCA creative writing tutors have named their highlights of the literary year, commenting on what their personal highlights of the 2011 literary year have to say to writers as well as to readers. Here are their choices. What are yours?
A highlight in the writing/reading world this year as always was the NAWE conference in Northampton in November. The conference was opened by Carol Ann Duffy reading from her newest book The Bees. One poem that has stayed with me is Water about the death of her mother. Here are the last six lines:
“Nights since I’ve cried, but gone
to my own child’s side with a drink, watched
her gulp it down then sleep. Water.
What a mother brings
through darkness still
to her parched daughter.”
Also at the conference, a chance to workshop with Columbia University, Chicago writing tutors on how keeping a journal can lead you into writing a story; with poet Eve Grubin on reticence in writing poetry, how you don’t have to explain things away, trust your images to carry the message for you. She introduced us among other poets to Americans Mary Howe’s What the Angels Left, and Dorianne Laux’s The Shipfitter’s Wife.
I could go on with many more instances of illuminating and challenging workshops and discussions. But if you’ve never been to a NAWE conference before, start saving now for next November.
This year one of my favourite books has been A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore. It came out last year but since I am such a huge admirer of her short fiction, I was loath to read it in case it was a disappointment. It wasn’t. Sharp, funny and lyrical, it is a novel that explores our deep longing for wholeness in contemporary life, be that as mother or as a soldier. Her dialogue, as always, is brilliant, her imagery, jaw-droppingly accurate and she remains the kind of writer I return to when I want to remind myself how seemingly effortless good writing should be.
Earlier this year, an Australian resident in China submitted some poems for an OCA course after being advised to try his hand at poetry. I stuck my neck out, as a tutor sometimes may, and tentatively suggested that the approach he took to his cross-cultural encounters, even his sensibility, might work better in fiction than in poetry. He countered that, to understand what he was doing in his poetry, I should read an Australian poet called Ioana Petrescu.
By a peculiar coincidence, it so happened that Ioana Petrescu had written her first poems in English at some workshops I had given in Romania shortly after the fall of Ceaucescu. I located her present address in Australia and, informing her that she was being used as a stick to beat me with, asked her to send me her latest poetry. This she did, together with a request to write an introduction to her next collection of poetry.
In one poem, ‘Camping’, friends of Ioana’s in Australia tell her of the excitement generated by a camping trip in the Outback: no fresh food, no hot water, no mod cons. Such a happy approach to deprivation causes Ioana to recall her experience of urban life in Romania in the 1980’s. Life under Ceaucescu, she realises, could be seen to be ‘forever camping’.
I suddenly found myself in Romania again this summer and tried out Ioana’s poem on some students at a Fine Arts high school. The poem is self-explanatory, isn’t it, I asked the teacher, the students don’t need any briefing about Australia? They know something about contemporary Australia, the teacher replied, but they don’t have a clue what life was like in the last years of Ceaucescu.
I first became aware of Persephone Books http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk/ last year. They are a small London publishing house reissuing fiction, poetry and non-fiction by neglected nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers. Working my way through the catalogue, and after a trip to India, I read ‘The Far Cry’ by Emma Smith, which was first published in 1949. She gives us the story of a young girl’s ocean voyage to India, where she starts a new life. Although, from this creative writing tutor’s point of view, the narrative viewpoint changes abruptly and is often omniscient, the descriptions of the sights, smells and sounds are constantly vivid and surprising, such as ‘The swimming pool continued to sparkle with children’. The intensity of her use of sensory detail, especially verbs, really drew me in.
I’d like to mention Fay Weldon’s Chalcott Crescent (Corvus, 2009) for a line that comes towards the end of the book: I have always used fiction to get to the heart of the matter, to discover what it is that I know. This, I think, distils what a lot of writers may be doing without realising it. Good authors often tell us things we already know, but have never managed to actually put into words – and only then can we really examine a concept, and kick it around a bit. I’ve always been a fan of hers – well before she gave my own book, Missing Link, a terrific review in 2009! The novel is an interesting read, with a dystopian take on life, and an inventive structure. She has a unique style, and would be a useful addition to any creative writing student’s booklist.
I had not encountered Hari Kunzru before, despite the fact he was one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 2003. In fact, I knew so little of him, that on starting the book he published this year, Gods Without Men, I wrongly presumed he was American; the control and confidence he uses within his setting…mostly an area of the California desert called the Pinnacles…convinced me he knew the US well. The breathtaking sweep of the novel immediately reminded me of Don Delillo, Tom Wolfe or even John Irving.
The novel bobs back in forth in time, from 1778 to 2008. The main theme is that of Jaz, who has a Punjabi background and his wife, Lisa, who is Jewish. They’re from New York and live acutely New Yorker lives – Jaz is a computer whiz working on Wall Street. Their story is the tragedy of a disrupted holiday in a holiday resort close to the Pinnacles. Their autistic son, Raj, disappears into the desert, setting up a dramatic hunt that reminds the reader of recent media hype around ‘missing children’ cases.
The modernity of these lives is counterpointed by other characters who are also drawn to the desert. These include mystic North American Indians, hippies, an eighteenth century Spanish official, a British rock star, a UFO quester called Schmidt, a man with murder on his mind and a shell-shocked soldier from the first world war. Hari Kunzru manages to bring all his characters together using specific themes and leitmotifs, together with a quote at the front of the novel from Balzac…in the desert there is nothing…C’est Dieu sans les hommes…
I wondered, at first, as the myriad sections of the novel got underway, if this book was going to be too conspicuously clever for its own good, but Kunzru’s main objective, thank heavens, is to tell stories…they were all extremely readable and I was soon hooked by the characters’ lives, experiences and personalities, which allow the reader to become involved while the underlying text makes itself known.
I thought of comparing this book to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas; it has the breadth and quirky approach to structure that Mitchell likes to take, alongside a gripping narrative that delves deeply into the many characters. But in my opinion, the scope of Gods Without Men has even more control and heart than Atlas, and I loved Kunzru’s concentration on one landscape, which he describes so vividly that it becomes a character in its own right.
Gods Without Men was not eventually short-listed for the Man Booker this year; I thought that was short-sighted of the judges. It also proves that taste in literature is a subjective thing…I’d be interested to hear what other people think.
Julian Barnes provided a worthy ending to my year’s supply of reading for me and my book blog. The unputdownable Man Booker Prizewinner this year, The Sense of an Ending was too good not to read in one session. It’s my choice for a fascinating insight into how high quality literary writing can either encourage a would-be writer’s aspirations to attain perfection or dash their hopes of ever reaching such a pinnacle. Low on plot and action, yet the core of the story provided the pivot for the inner world of the characters and the repercussions that lack of communication can engender for us all.
Above all, Barnes’s superb use of the English language pulled me into his enigmatic world with its incisiveness and insight and left me with the urge to recommend it to all my students as a point of reference. It’s a worthy successor to last year’s winner, Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, which, although hard to get into initially, threw up some thought-provoking questions that the author possibly wanted to explore in a well-balanced argument through his characters. Both books are character-led, showing how important it is to develop believable characters who can create the emotional pull needed if fiction is to represent real life.
One of the highlights for me this year was being introduced to the performance poetry of Martin Daws http://www.martindaws.com/ when I hosted a Poetry Slam for Literature Wales in June as part of Denbigh Midsummer Festival. I also heard him perform a full set at The Absurd, a bi-monthly live literature event at Theatr Clywd in Mold http://www.theabsurd.co.uk/ and highly recommend him as a fine poet and an innovative entertainer. Also, for anyone wondering about alternative ways of getting their poetry to an audience, he’s an inspiring introduction to the world of spoken word.
What would you choose and why?