“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” (Variously attributed)

I was thinking about how this blog is supposed to be themes that relate books to life and how there are gaping holes in what I’ve covered so far.  This week I attempt to redress the balance by picking something that is a huge part of most people’s lives: music.  However, as the title quote shows, I may be digging myself the most enormous hole here, as trying to capture an aural experience through words is nigh on impossible.  Let’s take a breath and have some music so if nothing else this post does make some sort of melodic offering.  One of my favourite bands, and one of my mother’s favourite songs, Frogs Legs and Dragon’s Teeth by Bellowhead:

That was for you Maman!  Right, back to books, and two brave writers who’ve made music a big part of their novels.

Firstly The Courage Consort by Michel Faber (Canongate, 2002).  I’m fan of Michel Faber’s writing – I love his sparse style and unpredictability.  Anything can happen his books, there’s no “typical Faber”.  The Courage Consort is a novella (121 pages in my edition) told from the point of view of Catherine, one of five members of the titular a capella group headed by her husband, Roger.  Catherine is emotionally fragile (we are introduced to her trying to decide whether to jump out of the window) and her husband seemingly oblivious to her pain.  They join three others to rehearse an insanely complex piece called Partitum Mutante in an eighteenth-century chateau in Belgium.  The composer arrives briefly to assist them, a madman who attacked his ex with a stiletto in an airport and tells them to make their singing “more extreme, but more soft also…quiet but loud”.  Working on this seemingly doomed project, the disparate personalities that make up “the seventh most-renowned serious vocal ensemble in the world” start to come into conflict, but not in an entirely predictable way.

Faber creates a believably comic situation and the characters are generally well-observed, if bordering on national stereotypes at times.  The character of Catherine is sympathetic and Faber shows how music carries over into her musings about life in general:

“Other people might think it was terribly exciting when two females singing in thirds made the airwaves buzz weirdly, but Catherine was finding that her nerves were no longer up to it.  Even the way a sustained A flat tended to make an auditorium’s air-conditioning hum gave her the creeps lately.  It was as if her face was being rubbed in the fact that music was all soundwaves and atoms when you stripped the Baroque wrapping-paper off it.   But too much sonic nakedness wasn’t good for the spirit.  At least that was what she was finding lately, since she’d started coming…adrift.”

But things are not necessarily what they seem: Catherine hears screaming in the night and is told a ghost story about the forest that surrounds them.  No-one else hears it, and Catherine goes on to have an experience in the forest which is not told to the reader.  This lack of explication stops The Courage Consort being a straightforwardly comic novel, as an eeriness creeps around the house and its inhabitants.  Things do not go as planned, but ultimately the group comes to fully comprehend just how healing the experience of music can be.

Secondly, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty (Vintage, 1997).  Grace Notes tells the story of another Catherine, this one a composer struggling to manage her art alongside the demands of her life.  These demands include a new baby and ensuing post-natal depression, her father’s death, and conflict with her mother.  Musicality comes naturally to her, and she has an innate understanding form an early age:

“One day, when she was only three or four, she’d slipped away from the kitchen as her mother baked and listened to the radio.  On this particular day the piano lid was open.  Catherine had reached up above her head and pressed the keys as softly as she could.  No sound came from them.  She had to press harder to make the sound come.  It frightened her when it did.  Dar, deep , thundery.  The booming faded away and the noise of the birds outside came back.  She tried further up the piano where the notes were nicer, not so frightening.  She pressed a single note, again and again.  It wasn’t the note which made her feel funny – it was the sound it made as it faded away.  The afterwards.  It made her feel lonely. “

This idea, later defined as “the notes between the notes” – grace notes – is the novel’s theme and main image: what happens in the spaces between events, what is left unsaid, what is defined and what is undefinable.    Catherine gradually comes to terms with her life throughout the course of the novel and moves onwards, creating a new symphony, but the grace notes continue: “it began with a wisp of music, barely there – a whispered five-note phrase on the violins and she was right back on that beach with her baby. […] Like the artist’s hand which moves to begin a drawing but makes no mark”.  Having described Catherine’s life in an interwoven way – memories that come to her interspersed with descriptions of her life in the present – MacLaverty describes her music similiarly, the literal description of the action of instruments interwoven with the images that have inspired Catherine as she writes the symphony.  It’s a highly effective method, and probably the nearest I’ve read to a representation of sound, and the feeling it evokes, written down.

As the novels are about two musical women, here they are pictured with two more musical women: Dusty Springfield and Lily Allen Cooper:

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“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens/Bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens/Brown paper packages tied up with strings/These are a few of my favourite things” (Maria Rainer/Julie Andrews, The Sound of Music)

I write to you from within a fog of lemsip and cough syrup.  Yes, this week I’ve had a grotty cold.  Nothing major by any means, but just enough to make me feel grim and make the days a little greyer.  So I thought for this post I’d cheer myself up and be totally self-indulgent, by choosing two books that are thematically linked only in the fact that they are two of my favourites.

Firstly, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor (Bloomsbury, 2002).  This was McGregor’s first novel, longlisted for the Booker, and written when he was only twenty-six.  Choking down my jealousy, I am able to tell you that the accolades are highly deserved.  I think this is such a beautifully written, confident debut.  It tells the story of an ordinary street and its ordinary inhabitants, over the course of a day.

“The short girl with the painted toenails, next door, she says oh but did you see that guy on the balcony, he was nice, no he was special and she savours the word like a strawberry, you know she says, the one on the balcony, the one who was speeding and kept leaning right over, and they all know exactly who she means, he’s in the same place most weeks, pounding out the rhythm like a panelbeater, fists crashing down into the air, sweat splashing from his polished head.”

“In his kitchen, the old man measures out the tea-leaves, drops them into the pot, fills it with boiling water.  He sets out a tray, two cups, two saucers, a small jug of milk, a small pot of sugar, two teaspoons.  He breathes heavily as his hands struggle up to the high cupboards, fluttering like the wings of a caged bird.”

“She opens her front door, just a little, just enough, and she hops down her front steps, the young girl from number nineteen, glad to be out of the house and away from the noise of her brothers.  The television was boring and strange anyway, it was all people talking and she didn’t understand.  She taps her feet on the pavement, listening to the sound her shiny black shoes make against the stone…”

I hope these three examples give a good idea of why I love this novel so much.  McGregor is so skilled at finding the poetry in ordinary lives and how the self is expressed through seemingly innocuous actions.  Gradually the inhabitants of the street emerge as fully realised characters from the details of this one day.  This narrative is intertwined with a first person narrative, and you begin to realise that something significant, and tragic, took place on this ordinary day.  If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things is a novel of startling sensitivity and lyricism.

If this has whetted your appetite for McGregor’s novels, I discuss his second novel, So Many Ways to Begin here.

Secondly, Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov trans. George Bird (1996, English translation 2001, Harvill Press).  How to describe this novel?  It’s frankly a bit bonkers and one of those I think I understand, but maybe it’s about something else entirely.  It’s a great read though.  It tells the story of Viktor, an aspiring writer who gets a job writing obituaries, and his pet penguin Misha, who he took on when Kiev zoo gave all its animals away: “he had been feeling lonely. But Misha brought his own kind of loneliness, and the result was now two complimentary lonelinesses, creating an impression more of interdependence than amity.”

The character of this depressed penguin is as vividly realised as any of the human characters, and you really start to feel for this bird who symbolises the existential crisis of his owner and others caught up in a post-Soviet world that they do not understand: “Sleeping lightly that night, Viktor heard an insomniac Misha roaming the flat, leaving doors open, occasionally stopping and heaving a deep sigh, like an old man weary of both life and himself.”

The fragile relationship between Viktor and Misha is tested to its limit by a series of surreal events.  Viktor’s friend Misha-Non-Penguin leaves his daughter Sonya with Viktor, and so he drifts into a family unit with this self-contained little girl and her nanny.  But meanwhile, someone is using his obituaries as a hit-list, and he is being followed by a mysterious stranger known only as the fat man…

“The Chief considered him through narrowed eyes.

“Your interest lies in not asking questions,” he said quietly.  But bear in mind this: the minute you’re told what the point of your work is, you’re dead. […] He smiled a sad smile.  “Still, I do, in fact, wish you well.  Believe me.””

Death and the Penguin is a surreal adventure story, a post-Soviet satire, an examination of the individual spirit up against forces that seek to control.  It’s funny and it’s sad, it has something to say, and it says it in a truly unique and engaging way.

Here are the novels with another of my favourite things, my psychotic cat (he looks calm in this photo, but trust me, he is hell-bent on world domination):

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“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” (Winston Churchill)

10 November was Remembrance Sunday, and so for this post I thought I would look at two novels dealing with the theme of war.

Firstly, Regeneration by Pat Barker (Penguin, 1991).  This was the first novel Barker wrote in the Regeneration trilogy, the other two being The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road.  I actually think The Ghost Road is the strongest of the three, but Regeneration is still an expertly crafted novel, and although each novel in the trilogy stands alone, I think it’s preferable to start at the beginning.  Regeneration tells the story of Dr WHR Rivers, a psychiatrist at Craiglockhart hospital during the First World War, and his shell-shocked soldier patients, including the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.  Although fiction, the novel is based on true events and Dr Rivers is a real-life character as well as the poets.  Barker said she chose the character of Rivers as, not being a soldier herself, she had to find a voice with some distance from the trenches.  Although this is the case, the way Barker looks at the horrors of war is unflinching.  I’m about to quote something truly atrocious, brace yourselves or scan past it:

“Burns arms were goose-pimpled, though the room was not cold.  The smell of vomit lingered on his breath.  Rivers sat down beside him.  He didn’t know what to say, and thought it better to say nothing.  After a while he felt the bed begin to shake and put his arm round Burns’ shoulders.  “It doesn’t get any better, does it?” […]

Burns. Rivers had become adept at finding bearable aspects to unbearable experiences, but Burns defeated him.  What had happened to him was so vile, so disgusting, that Rivers could find no redeeming feature.  He’d been thrown into the air by the explosion of a shell and had landed, head-first, on a German corpse, whose gas-filled belly and had ruptured on impact.  Before Burns lost consciousness, he’d had time to realise that what filled his nose and mouth was decomposing human flesh.  Now, whenever he tried to eat, that taste and smell recurred.  Nightly he relived the experience, and from every nightmare he awoke vomiting.”

Horrors like this are almost impossible to contemplate, and even more upsetting when you realise things like this actually happened.  Within this context, amongst their traumatised and screaming comrades, Sassoon and Owen try to express their disgust and anger through verse:

““What draft is this?”

“Lost count,” said Owen. “You did tell me to sweat my guts out.”

“Did I really? What an inelegant expression. “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” I see we got to the slaughterhouse in the end.” Sassoon read through the poem. When he’d finished, he didn’t immediately comment.

“It’s better isn’t it?”

“Better.  It’s transformed.” […]  He thought for a moment, crossed one word out, substituted another.  “There you are,” he said, handing the page back, smiling. “Anthem for Doomed Youth.””

Regeneration is not a long novel, 249 pages in my edition, but Barker crams so much in and I’ve barely scratched the surface here.  Alongside the issues of war, she considers themes of madness, what society expects from men, and what it expects from women.  How the state can betray its citizens, and what we can give to each other in times of crisis.

Here is a clip from Gilles MacKinnon’s excellent 1995 adaptation of Regeneration (released as Behind the Lines in some countries), including some lines from one of Wilfred Owen’s greatest poems, Dulce et Decorum Est:

Secondly, further back in time to the Crimean War, Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge (Abacus, 1998).  This was the novel for which Bainbridge was posthumously awarded a Booker Prize in 2011, with a special prize, the Best of Beryl.  I haven’t read all of Bainbridge’s books, so I can’t vouch for whether it’s her best, but it’s certainly highly accomplished.  It tells the story of George Hardy, a surgeon and photographer who, after a family tragedy, decides to leave Liverpool for the Crimea.  His adoptive sister Myrtle and geologist brother-in-law Dr Potter accompany him, alongside fire-eater and sometime lover of George, Pompey Jones.  These three voices narrate the story, and learning about the eponymous character from others is entirely appropriate, as George is an enigmatic and conflicted man, as obscure as one of his blackened and fading photographic images .  As Myrtle observes:

“There’s a sameness about death that makes the emotions stiffen – which is for the best, else one would be uselessly crying all day long.  It’s why Georgie often seems insensitive to other people’s feelings.  Dealing with the dying, one must either blunt the senses or go mad.”

Amongst the filth and squalor of the Crimean battlefields, all see death more often than not.  Bainbridge presents it in a determinedly low-key way; the Charge of Light Brigade happens outside the story, and Dr Potter’s pragmatic response speaks volumes about the dehumanising effects of war:

“I am in two minds as to whether I should bother to pack my tent, it being in a wretched state, perfectly sodden and much holed.  It would be better for my health if I slept in the hospital tent, though that too is in a deplorable condition.  I am at least better off as far as transport is concerned; three days ago over two hundred cavalry horses of the Light Brigade stampeded into camp, their riders having perished in a charge along the north valley.”

It may not be “Half a league, half a league, half a league onward…” but while Bainbridge shuns Tennyson’s pomp, her use of small detail says more than enough about the futility of the combat and the waste of human lives.  Master Georgie is a haunting novel that stayed with me long after I finished it.

Here are the novels with the symbol of Remembrance Sunday, a poppy:

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“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language /And next year’s words await another voice.” (TS Eliot)

Today marks a year since my first blog post.  During the year I’ve got so much more out of blogging than I ever thought possible, and that is due in no small part to my fellow bloggers, you gorgeous bunch.  So I thought it would be apt to commemorate my first year by looking at a piece of writing by another WordPress blogger.

First birthday

(Image from http://www.juicyoccasions.co.uk/2012_02_01_archive.html)

Becky Mayhew blogs at Becky Says Things.  Her blog is funny, insightful and truly original.  Do check it out, I promise you will be better for it as Becky points and laughs at the absurdities of life, and has something interesting to say about it all too. In 2011, Becky had a collection of short stories published by the lovely Treehouse Press, Lost Souls.   It is collection of three stories, “Shelves”, “Ramona” and “Roses”.

“Shelves” is told to us by a librarian, whose sexual encounters are intertwined with her job and the reading matter of her partners.  So she sleeps with the “insipid, vole-like” Geoffrey when he takes on board her suggestion to abandon John Grisham for Jane Austen, and later, after Wuthering Heights:

“I think the dynamic impression of hot-blooded Heathcliff had gone to his head a little, as he had the audacity to suggest we go back to mine. I conceded, and took him round the corner along the twelve houses to my flat, almost entirely for my own personal interest in what a week of Heathcliff does to a man; as it turned out, less than I hoped.”

As the passage above shows, there’s a wry, dry humour running through the tale, and the librarian’s voice is strong and distinctive.  There are some beautiful images and Becky has an original turn of phrase:

“His eyes slid like oil over titles, one black eyebrow raised; occasionally he paused to finger a book spine or to bend to a lower shelf, and then he moved on, disappearing and reappearing in and out of bookcases like a thief.”

Fellow bibliophiles, didn’t we always know that libraries are hotbeds of sexual tension?

The narrator of “Ramona” is a middle-aged teacher, struggling to assert herself in all aspects of her life.  I know enough teachers to know the description of how “it is depressing trying to teach a class of idiots who are far more interested in their social and sexual status than in how Margaret Atwood develops her characters” rings true.  The narrator’s interest in one of her pupils, Ramona Manson, is slightly baffling to her, as Ramona “is not charming, she is not beautiful, she is not even particularly threatening”, and yet, she goes through life with an ease the narrator cannot achieve, and with a sense of authority that continually evades the older woman.  The plot of “Ramona” is a simple one, and yet through this largely unremarkable time the fracture lines in the teacher’s life become fully exposed.  The story is an artfully constructed portrait of an ordinary life teetering on the edge.

I loved the first line of the final story, “Roses”: “There he is, inside a flaming scarlet halo.” It’s a perfect example of what is to come – a beautifully written, unnerving, and insidiously violent tale. Unlike the other two stories, “Roses” is told in the third person, from the point of view of Elizabeth, a florist and fantasist, for whom the flowers are people:

“The bamboo chuckles raspingly under its breath.  The lilies poke out their tongues; the sunflowers nod on their aching necks, shoulders shaking with weary laughter…”

Elizabeth spends her day obsessed with a man who uses the coffee shop opposite her florists:

“Sometimes she can feel him, in the long stretches when she is alone with her flowers; she can feel a presence, a warmth about her, as though he is sitting right there beside her, breathing her perfumed air.  Their worlds beautifully interlaced like the coiling infinity of an open rose.”

That last sentence is such perfectly balanced writing: an image of originality and meaning without any pretension or heavy-handedness. I don’t want to say too much more about “Roses” as it would give the plot away, but the final page of this book, containing the last four short paragraphs of this story, was breathtakingly well-written.  The images are startling and evocative, and I absolutely loved this story.  Becky has blogged in the past about her tendency to procrastinate.  I can only hope she is more successful than me at beating this behaviour, because I want to read more of her work very soon…

On their website, Treehouse Press say “we want our books to be unique and beautiful objects, a thing you’d want to hold in your hand, and also for the writing and the artwork to engage you”.   Hopefully I’ve convinced you of the engaging quality of Becky’s writing.  In the book the stories are alongside the haunting images of Paul G. Vine’s photographs, certainly making it a lovely object. You can buy Lost Souls direct from the publisher at http://www.treehousepress.co.uk/products/lost-souls , so if you’d like to get Becky’s book can I enter a plea that you buy it there and not from a certain tax-avoiding multi-national company?

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(Image from http://www.treehousepress.co.uk/products/lost-souls )

Thanks to everyone who’s looked at the blog/followed/commented/re-blogged etc and made the last year such a joy!

“When I was a teenager, I read a lot of Poe.” (Dario Argento)

It’s Hallowe’en!  OK, it was Hallowe’en.  I delayed this post slightly to make it a joint one for my friend D’s birthday, as she is a massive fan of Gothic. Happy Birthday D!

While the cooler kids are no doubt watching films by Dario Argento last Thursday, (who I’ve quoted above) there are some for whom nothing says horror like Hammer.  Hammer Films are a British production company whose classic output you can see clips from here:

Some insight into my upbringing there: as a teenager my mother fell in love with Christopher Lee in those roles; it’s a wonder I’m so normal (I always brush my fangs every night before bed).  Also, one of my long-standing girl crushes, Valerie Leon, makes an appearance in the Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb.  She’s the one the narrator describes as “smoking hot”, and indeed she is.  Oh Valerie, how I wish I looked like you, even a little bit would do…  If you think To the Devil a Daughter looks amusing, well, you are probably right.  I’ve never seen it, but a few years back I took my mother to a talk by Richard Widmark.  Christopher Lee made an impromptu appearance in the audience (my mother is still recovering, as am I, to be honest) and the two of them reminiscing about that film was the funniest part of the night.  Definitely worth a look, I’d say.

But this is supposed to be about books, right?  Well, I’m getting there.  Hammer have produced some pretty high-profile films in recent years, including The Woman in Black.  As part of their raised profile, they’ve gone into partnership with Arrow books, and asked contemporary authors (Helen Dunmore, Julie Myerson, Sophie Hannah, Melvin Burgess) to write some creepy stories.  I thought it was the perfect marriage for a Hallowe’en book blog post, so my first choice is The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson (Arrow Books in association with Hammer, 2012). The novel tells the story of the Lancashire Witch trials of 1612.   Winterson has taken this real-life story and woven it with her own fiction to brilliantly evoke a nation caught up in paranoia around the power of women, of ritual, and of a new Protestant faith trying hard to establish itself over the old Catholic one.  Lancashire was a Catholic stronghold, and it’s where the conspirators of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot sought refuge:

“The north of England is untamed.  It can be subdued but it cannot be tamed.  Lancashire is the wild part of the untamed.  The Forest of Pendle used to be a hunting ground, but some say that the hill is the hunter – alive in its black-and-green coat cropped like an animal pelt.”

Alice Nutter is a rich woman who lives alone, rides astride, engages in falconry, and rescues witches from a ducking.  Given these unwomanly ways, she naturally raises suspicions.  She studied under the occultist John Dee, and invented a deep magenta dye “like looking into a mirror made of mercury” which made her fortune. Alice struggles to remain apart from the society she is surrounded by, and eventually gets drawn into the town politics that have seen several women arrested on witchcraft.  The Daylight Gate is a short novel and I don’t want to give too much away, but what I will say is that amongst the witchcraft (severed heads talking with other people’s blackened tongues, people transforming into hares, familiars, elixirs of youth and the like) what is truly shocking is the state-sanctioned capture and torture, based entirely in reality.  Brace yourselves:

“In the cell was a rack, a winch, a furnace, a set of branding irons, a pot for melting wax, nails of different lengths.  A thumbscrew, a pair of flesh tongs, heavy tweezers, a set of surgical instruments, a series of small metal trays, ropes, wire, preparations of quicklime, a hood and a blindfold […] They made a small neat cut in his side and drained a quart of blood to weaken him.  Then they forced him to drink a pint of salt water.  They did not break his fingers joint by joint or pull out his teeth one by one.  They were relaxed. They drew pictures on his chest with delicate knives…they pinned back his eyelids with metal clips and dropped hot wax into his eyeballs. When he screamed they debated whether or not to take out his tongue.  But they wanted his tongue for confession.”

Eek.  I’m not a big fan of horror, but I imagine part of the appeal is that it’s a safe way to scare yourself, secure in the knowledge that Freddy Kruger et al are entirely removed from your life.  In The Daylight Gate, Winterson shows us the horrors that really aren’t so far removed, and as such offers very little comfort.  A truly chilling read for Hallowe’en.

Secondly, The Monk by Matthew Lewis (1796, my copy Oxford University Press 1995).  The Monk was written by Lewis in 10 weeks, shortly before he turned 20.  I decided to read it as at least 3 people, including my friend D, told me it was the most barking mad novel they’d ever come across.  How could I resist?  They were so right, I had no idea how right they were.  The Monk is so insane, to try and review it is near impossible.  Its plot is so convoluted, I can’t give you a summary in a single blog post. Instead, let’s make a list of typical Gothic tropes:

  • Virginal, beautiful young maidens who struggle to remain so
  • Old crones, often in caretaking capacity to the young maiden
  • People with obscure origins inc. family members pretending to be other than they are, to get close to family who for some reason have spurned them
  • Large buildings, many rooms/corridors/secret passageways
  • Large building probably also crumbling
  • Large building has garden where weather ably reflects psychological states of characters
  • Curses – which are ignored at peril also, oaths of vengence
  • Transgressions – religious/sexual (forbidden desires)/moral/societal (leading to or caused by isolation from society)
  • Supernatural – ghosts/spontaneous bleeding inc. signs in blood/resurrections
  • Magic – inc. witches/objects that provide user with all they desire/potions
  • Death and feigned death, murders
  • Dungeons
  • Torture
  • And, of course – Satan

Yep, The Monk has them all.  I can’t believe Lewis forgot to include vampires.  Maybe he thought that was going too far…

Here is a trailer for the most recent adaptation of the novel; the makers should be commended for even attempting it.  No-one does insanity-induced strabismus like Vincent Cassell: