“The difficulty of writing a second novel is directly proportional to how successful the first novel was, it seems.” (Khaled Hosseini)

A few weeks ago I went to the Royal Society of Literature’s panel at the British Library as part of their move to find the Nation’s Favourite Second Novel (as they pointed out on the night, this had caused no end of confusion as lots of people thought they were seeking out the Nation’s Second Favourite novel).  You can read all about the unsurprising but deserving winner here.

I’d thought growing up in London, with a mother who instructed me in no uncertain terms when I was about six that I was never to approach famous people even if they were Adam Ant, meant I was celebrity immune. But apparently this is because I’m crossing paths with the wrong type of celebrity. Put me in a room where Evie Wyld is on the panel and Eimear McBride is in the audience and the result is mass evacuation because I have spontaneously combusted with excitement.

Anyhoo….this rambling preamble is to say I’ve chosen second novels as the theme for this post, one from the RSL list and one off-piste.

Firstly, Thirst by Kerry Hudson (2015) which I was looking forward to because I’d really enjoyed Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma. It tells the story of Alena and Dave as they fall in love over the course of a hot summer in London.

“he’d forgotten the sickness, right down to the soles of your feet, of wanting. To want and maybe allow yourself to have it and maybe be wanted back. He’d forgotten how terrifying wanting and having could be.”

It’s a sweet story, and about two people who aren’t often represented in literature: someone on low wage living above a kebab shop and an illegal immigrant. It’s a simple tale in many ways, charting the course of a romantic relationship. But there are potential complexities from the past of both Dave and Alena. Neither has behaved particularly well, and their secrets threaten the happiness they find with each other. Alena especially is in genuine danger:

“Dave only ran in the mornings but she was running all the time. She sustained herself on a diet of him, his kisses, his voice, his nearness. She sustained herself on promises, and silent deals and thoughts of three days time.”

Thirst is not as strong as Tony Hogan, which had verve and raw tenderness that this doesn’t quite match.  However, it’s a touching story and Hudson’s talent lifts the story above its rather simple premise. She excels at capturing beauty in places where it’s seldom recognised. She has a compassionate but unsentimental understanding of people and of both the damage and healing that can occur through love.

“As if she knew, lurking in the dark parts that had stayed, unbidden, inside her, that as soon as autumn did come, bringing the reek of dead leaves and fires and a cold that whispered across your skin like a lie, her old bad luck would be back too.”

Secondly, from the RSL second novels list, Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (1926). This thinly-disguised biography describes the lives of American ex-pats living in Paris in the 1920s, who then travel to Pamplona to see the running of the bulls and enjoy the fiesta.

“We ate dinner at Madame Lecomte’s restaurant on the far side of the island. It was crowded with Americans and we had to stand up and wait for a place. Someone had put it in the American Women’s Club list as a quaint restaurant on the Paris quais as yet untouched by Americans so we had to wait forty five minutes for a table.”

It is narrated by Jake, a veteran whose war wound has rendered him impotent. He is in love with aristocratic Brett Ashley who ricochets from man to man.

“The dancing kept up, the drinking kept up, the noise went on. The things that happened could only have happened during a fiesta. Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as if nothing could have any consequences.”

There is also much evidence of Hemingway’s love of bullfighting, which thankfully is not dwelt upon; there was only one passage that this blood-sport adverse reader had to skip.  Jake loves the bullfight so much he is accepted by the aficionados as one of their own:

 “Somehow it was taken for granted that an American could not have aficion. He might simulate it or confuse it with excitement, but he could not really have it. When they saw that I had aficion, and there was no password, no set questions that could bring it out, rather it was a sort of spiritual examination”

At first I thought this might be the end of my love affair with Hemingway. His simple prose style which offers such distilled beauty in his later writing seemed too basic here. But then I realised this was absolutely a stroke of genius. The novel is about the lost generation, the title taken from Ecclesiastes, referring to the insignificance and transience of humans:

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.

The simple, almost detached, documentary style of the novel effectively captures the numb rootlessness of a generation who have endured great trauma and are now surviving without knowing exactly what their purpose is. This isn’t depressing – there is humour, such as the wise aphorism I’ll certainly bear in mind: “Road to hell paved with unbought stuffed dogs.” But there is bleakness to it, not least the anti-Semitism voiced by some characters, foreshadowing the devastation of the Holocaust.

Fiesta is a brilliantly observed, deceptively simple portrait of a particular group at a particular time, but with something to say beyond its immediate context, about the struggle of the individual to find meaning in the world.

“There was much wine, an ignored tension, and a feeling of things coming that could not prevent happening. Under the wine I lost the disgusted feeling and was happy. It seemed they were all such nice people.”

To end, totally unrelated to the post: over Easter I was given a delicious haul of cheese and now I’ve eaten so much I’m worried I’ve become half-human, half-dairy product:

 

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“An artist is someone who should raise questions rather than give answers. I have no message.” (Michael Haneke)

Today is National Poetry Day in the UK and the theme is Messages. I fully endorse this choice, primarily because I didn’t have to think twice about which retro pop video I could shoehorn into this post:

Arguably any poem is a message, but I’m lazy don’t believe in shying away from the obvious so I’ve chosen two poems that are titled as messages. Nothing kills a poem like analysing it to death, hence not one of my typically waffling posts this week 🙂

Firstly, back to the 8th century and prolific poet Wang Wei (I’m not sure who translated the poem, but I took the version from here). I chose it because it also references autumn, which is apt right now for those of us in the northern hemisphere.

Message to P’ai Ti

Cold and blue now are the mountains
From autumn-rain that beat all day.
By my thatch door, leaning on my staff,
I listen to cicadas in the evening wind.
Sunset lingers at the ferry,
Cooking-smoke floats up from the houses…
Oh, when shall I pledge Cheih-yu [the great hermit] again
And sing a wild poem at Five Willows?

I love the simplicity of the poem, and how evocative it is of a slightly melancholic moment taken to reflect at the end of the day.

Secondly I chose Message by Dorothy Richardson, because it echoes Wang Wei as it also picks up on autumn, and ends with a question, this time to a silent interlocutor rather than the self. I also chose it because I’m really enjoying reading about Jane and Sarah’s experiences reading her Pilgrimage series, but I haven’t yet got round to these novels…

Seeing in flight along the lifting wind,
Like sudden birds peopling an empty sky,
Those last crisped leaves so long you had passed by –
Where dark they hung that had been fire behind
The pasture whose scant blossoms kept in mind
Our summer now grown gold for memory –
Did you remember as you saw them pass,
Flutter and sink, sully the silvered grass,
That each forsaken stem bears, fast asleep,
An eager bud to tell the tale of spring?
Will you forget, hearing darkness weep,
How each hour moves toward their awakening?

I liked how this poem concentrates on one action, a leaf in the air, and yet weaves a wide experience around it, structured in quite a complex way. The iambic pentameter (more or less, Richardson plays with rhythm a bit) echoes Shakespeare’s sonnets, which I just adore. The message of this poem is one I need to remember – I find the dark days of winter hard-going, so I will remind myself how each forsaken stem contains an eager spring bud in those seemingly never-ending grey days of January and February…

To counteract my comparative reticence in this post, some indulgence to finish. A second – yes, second! – 1979 pop video. Happy Thursday 🙂

“Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.” (Jean Rhys)

This is my contribution to Jean Rhys Reading Week, hosted by Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal and Eric at Lonesome Reader. Do check out their blogs and join in!

Jean Rhys

Firstly, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1930).

My edition is this 1970s Penguin - the subtitle manages to be both cheesy and misleading - bad Penguin!

My edition is this 1970s Penguin – the subtitle manages to be both cheesy and misleading – bad Penguin!

I feel I should have found this novel much more depressing I did. Julia is a woman whose looks are fading, an impending disaster for her, as she has no money and lives off the handouts of lovers who will find her easier to discard the older she gets. At the moment she has an ambiguous quality:

“Her career of ups and downs had rubbed most of the hallmarks off her, so that it was not easy to guess at her age, her nationality, or the social background to which she properly belonged.”

People tend to judge her harshly rather than kindly, particularly because she is a woman and at a time of more rigid social rules, they can read her lifestyle in her clothes, hair and makeup.  The men who use her escape more lightly, such as the titular lover with whom her relationship is breaking down:

“He was of the type which proprietors of restaurants and waiters respect. He had enough nose to look important, enough stomach to look benevolent. His tips were not always in proportion with the benevolence of his stomach, but this mattered less than one might think.”

After her cheques from Mr Mackenzie stop, Julia returns to England from France. Not quite estranged from her family but not on fond terms with them either, she lives in seedy Bloomsbury boarding houses:

“But really she hated the picture. It shared, with the colour of the plush sofa, a certain depressing quality. The picture and the sofa were linked in her mind. The picture was the more alarming in its perversion and the sofa the more dismal. The picture stood for the idea, the spirit, and the sofa stood for the act.”

I find that an astonishing piece of writing. To take a description of a dilapidated room and show how that reflects the mood of the person in it is one thing, but to extend it in such a way, so original and startling, really demonstrates why Rhys deserves to be lauded.

Julia ricochets around London, trying to find a man to take care of her. Rhys does not judge her protagonist which must have been quite shocking for 1930. Julia is sexually active, unmarried, childless, and is not punished by Rhys for such deviation from the feminine ideal. While she is a sad figure, even tragic, Rhys shows how we share a commonality with Julia rather than marking her out as Other.

 “She was crying now because she remembered that her life had been a long succession of humiliations and mistakes and pains and ridiculous efforts. Everybody’s life was like that. At the same time, in a miraculous manner, some essence of her was shooting upwards like a flame. She was great. She was a defiant flame shooting upwards not to plead but to threaten. Then the flame sank down again, useless, having reached nothing.”

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie is a sad novel, but what keeps it from being depressing, for me, are the gentle touches of Rhys’ humour, such as in the description of Mr Mackenzie, and the fact that Julia holds on to her resilience. She is not a victim, despite being treated appallingly, but rather a realist, who knows that her options as a woman in her circumstances are limited. Rhys has a great deal to say but does so in a non-didactic way, leaving the reader to reach their own conclusions.

Secondly, Good Morning Midnight (1939). Superficially, this sounds very similar to After Leaving Mr Mackenzie: Sasha Jansen returns to Paris alone and broke. She is losing her looks and feels lonely and desperate… but it is quite different.

A more recent Penguin edition - blessedly free of a cheesy subtitle

A more recent Penguin edition – blessedly free of a cheesy subtitle

Sasha does not flail around trying to extract money from everyone.  Rather, Rhys writes this novel in the first person, using a degree of stream of consciousness to explore how a single woman at this point in history comes to terms with her life and the future that awaits her. Sasha is fragile:

“On the contrary, it’s when I am quite sane like this, when I have had a couple of extra drinks and am quite sane, that I realise how lucky I am. Saved, rescued, fished-up, half-drowned, out of the deep, dark river, dry clothes, hair shampooed and set. Nobody would know I had ever been in it. Except, of course, that there always remains something. Yes, there always remains something…”

She is self-destructive and lonely:

“I’ve had enough of these streets that sweat a cold, yellow slime, of hostile people, of crying myself to sleep every night. I’ve had enough of thinking, enough of remembering. Now whisky, rum, gin, sherry, vermouth, wine with the bottles labelled ‘Dum vivimus, vimamus….’ Drink, drink drink…As soon as I sober up I start again. I have to force it down sometimes…Nothing. I must be solid as an oak.”

And yet, amidst the sadness, there is resilience. We learn of Sasha’s past in Paris as she walks the streets, meets new people and is drawn back into her memories. The stream of consciousness and flitting between past and present is a highly effective. Rather than feeling like a contrived literary style, Rhys is able to create a real sense of being inside Sasha’s head and how someone would think: not in straight lines but (to steal an analogy from Jeanette Winterson) in spirals, back and forth.

1930s Paris map

1930s Paris map

Based on these two novels, I would say Rhys is brilliant at creating flawed, vulnerable women who are somehow survivors – they have a strength which is not immediately obvious, that perhaps they don’t even recognise themselves.

“I am trying so hard to be like you. I know I don’t succeed, but look how hard I try. Three hours to choose a hat; every morning an hour and a half trying to make myself look like everybody else. Every word I say has chains around its ankles”

A single woman with a sexual history who is no longer young does not have the most rosy prospects in interwar society and Rhys does not shy away from this. However, there is a sense that Sasha (and Julia) is not alone in her struggles. The search for meaning in a society that can degrade through disregard affects many and there is fellowship and sympathy to be found.

“I look thin – too thin – and dirty and haggard, with that expression that you get in your eyes when you are very tired and everything is like a dream and you are starting to know what things are like underneath what people say they are.”

Wiki tells me that when first published, (male?) critics found this novel well written but too depressing. I thought it was beautifully written and sad, but not depressing. I think for me depressing comes with a certain bleakness, and I didn’t find either novel bleak: neither Julia or Sasha ever quite lose hope.

To end, if anyone can capture the vicissitudes of a life well-lived in Paris:

“Students, eh? Love ’em or hate ’em, you can’t hit them with a shovel!” (Terry Pratchett, Making Money)

Despite being woefully slow in my blogging, I’ve managed a second post for Reading Ireland Month hosted by Cathy at 746 books and Niall at Raging Fluff. Sláinte!

ireland-month

I’ve picked two novels linked by undergraduate protagonists – one a classic of Irish literature which is on Cathy’s 100 Irish Novels list, the other a little-known first novel by an author who has gone on to huge success.

b4b4ff7ddd0592c7b010e17aa00399630c9bf524

Ah, those heady student days…

Firstly, the classic At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien (1939). The unnamed narrator is in many ways a typical student:

“Whether in or out, I always kept the door of my bedroom locked. This made my movements a matter of some secrecy and enabled me to spend an inclement day in bed without disturbing my uncle’s assumption that I had gone to the College to attend to my studies.  A contemplative life has always been suitable to my disposition.”

His dissolution is perhaps a bit more extreme than most students however:

“It was in the New Year, in February, I think, that I discovered my person was verminous.”

Yuck. Gradually clues emerge that this student may be more literate than he first appears, such as how he describes his friend offering to buy him a drink:

“I rejoined that if his finances warranted such generosity, I would raise no objection, but that I (for my part) was no Rockefeller, thus utilising a figure of speech to convey the poverty of my circumstances.

Name of figure of speech: Synedoche (or Autonomasia)

The three of us walked slowly down to Grogan’s…”

The splintering of the narrative with the definition also hints at what is to come, as soon the story begins to be invaded by other stories the student is writing: about a devil Pooka and a fairy in his pocket; about Furriskey, born a fully grown man; a Western; versions of Irish folklore.  All the narratives start to reflect and echo each other, eventually they overlap and boundaries break down.  In other words, this is classic modernist brilliance, layering up myth and meta-narratives to create something astonishing. If you want to read Ulysses but you’re not sure you’re up to the task, At Swim-Two-Birds could be a good gateway novel 🙂 As Dylan Thomas said:

“This is just the book to give your sister if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl.”

In other words, if she’s a student.

Secondly, Stir Fry by Emma Donoghue (1994), who would go on to have enormous success with Room sixteen years later. This is the sort of first novel that doesn’t seem to be published as much now – perfectly decent efforts of thinly disguised biography whereby an author gets to grip with their craft. I’ve no actual facts to back up my theory, but it seems that while more and more books are published, first novels now have to have a huge wow factor – not necessarily a bad thing, but there’s an awful lot of truly dreadful writing being published because it will make money, while these better written but modest efforts flounder. I hope potentially good novelists are not being put off: hang in there budding writers!

Anyway, back to Stir Fry. Maria is seventeen and leaves her rural home to start university in Dublin.

“Dirty blue clouds were scudding over slate roofs. A good cold smell in the air and the whiff of turf smoke as she turned the corner made her think of home. The dusk lasted much longer in the country; nothing to get in the way she supposed. In Dublin there was only half an hour of grey, then the street lamps blinked on and all the shoppers hustled home in the dark.”

She is remarkably naïve, even given her young age, and takes forever to realise that her two flatmates are in a same-sex relationship:

“Now suddenly here were two friends of hers kissing on the table she ate at every night. Rapt faces and library books and garlic, how bizarre.”

She considers moving out, which may seem ridiculous, but Maria’s world sees discussions like this occur in all earnestness:

“‘Look, they’re both very nice. And they wear skirts sometimes too.’

‘Oh, I know,’ said Yvonne wisely, ‘but they’d have to, wouldn’t they, as cover?’”

What follows is a sweet story of Maria coming to realise who she is and what she wants. The characters are all very believable and they and Dublin are drawn with real affection. Stir Fry is a quick read, a bildungsroman in which nothing and everything happens. It doesn’t contain the brilliance Donoghue displayed with Room, but it still made me think it’s a pity we don’t see these types of first novels much anymore.

To end, an Irish band that first came to prominence when I was student – this song was played at many a sticky-floored student club back in my day:

“Poetry: the best words in the best order.” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

Today is World Poetry Day. Of all the events taking place, I think my favourite is the opportunity to Pay with a Poem for your caffeinated beverage of choice.

As the concept of World Poetry Day is so epic, I thought I’d look at a poem from this genre to start.  This style of poetry seems to have fallen out of favour since it’s heyday in ancient Greece, but a notable exception is Derek Walcott’s Omeros (1990).  Loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey & Iliad, Omeros is set in Walcott’s home of St Lucia, telling the story of various inhabitants, including the fishermen Achille and Hector.

“Wind lift the fern. They sound like the sea that feed us

fisherman all our life, and the ferns nodded ‘Yes,

the trees have to die.’ So fists jam in our jacket,

 

cause the heights was cold and our breath making feathers

like the mist, we pass the rum.  When it came back, it

gave us the spirit to turn into murders.”

Written in terza rima (used in another epic, Dante’s Divine Comedy) Walcott manages an extraordinary feat in Omeros: a sustained long poem of stunning imagery and elegant writing which also tells a story.

“as I brushed imaginary sand from off my feet,

turned off the light, and pillowed her waist with my arms,

then tossed on my back.  The fan turned, rustling the sheet.

 

I reached for my raft and reconnected the phone.

In its clicking oarlocks, it idled, my one oar.

But castaways make friends with the sea; living alone

 

they learn to survive on fistful of rainwater

and windfall sardines. But a house which is unblest

by familiar voices, startled by the clatter

 

of cutlery in a sink with absence for its guest,

as it drifts, its rooms intact, in a doldrum summer,

is less a mystery than the Marie Celeste.

Walcott is also a deeply political writer, engaging with the history of the Caribbean and all that entails.

“Once, after the war, he’d made plans to embark on

a masochistic odyssey through the Empire,

to watch it go in the dusk […]

 

but that was his daydream, his pious pilgrimage.

And he would have done it, if he had had a son,

 

but he was an armchair admiral in old age,

with cold tea and biscuits, his skin wrinkled like milk”

Omeros is absolutely astonishing in its ambition, breadth, artistry and intellect. Derek Walcott was a worthy winner of the Nobel Prize in 1992.

derek-walcott

(Image from: http://repeatingislands.com/2014/02/02/derek-walcott-60-years-of-poems-mix-anger-ambivalence-and-authority/)

Secondly, from breadth to brevity, Ezra Pound’s Alba.  If poetry is language stripped down to the essentials, Pound strips poetry back to the bare bones.  I think In a Station of the Metro is one of the most perfect pieces of writing I’ve ever read, but I chose Alba as it’s less well-known. OK, so he was a massive fascist, but I try and forget this as he distils language to such sparse beauty. An alba is part of the aubade tradition of poems, concerned with lovers parting at dawn.

“As cool as the pale wet leaves

                                     of lily-of-the-valley

She lay beside me in the dawn.”

That’s it.  The whole poem in its entirety.   I really hope you like it.

I realise I’ve chosen two poems written by men , so to redress the balance I’ll end with a retelling of part of another epic (Ovid’s Metamorphoses): the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy reading ‘Mrs Midas’ from her collection The World’s Wife.

Waiting for Godot – Samuel Beckett (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #12)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

I have to start a post about a work by Samuel Beckett with a picture of the author, as he has the most incredible face:

Samuel Beckett 1976

(Image from: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/jun/09/samuel-beckett-manuscript-first-novel-on-display )

Who wouldn’t want to read a work written by that face?  Well, as it turns out, a lot of people.  I remember years ago listening to radio phone in programme that was nothing to do with Waiting for Godot, yet somehow it came into the conversation, and it seemed that every listener, and the DJ,  had been tortured with the text by their English teachers.  They all hated it.  And yet Le Monde’s readers have voted it the 12th greatest book of the century. It’s also remained a perennial favourite on the stage, a recent production with real-life friends Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart was an enormous success on both sides of the Atlantic:

I think Godot is just one of those plays that divides people.  It is baffling, incomprehensible, hugely funny and relentlessly serious, tragic, absurd and profound.  It features two rough sleepers, Vladimir and Estragon.  The stage is almost bare, the only set being a tree and a mound.  This is the only scene in both acts.  As the characters wait for Godot, they have conversations that are oblique, filled with non-sequiturs, verge on nonsense, and yet address issues about existence, human nature, the meaning of it all.  Famously, very little happens, Godot never arrives. Vivian Mercier, theatre critic for the Irish Times in the 1950s, summed it up: “a play in which nothing happens, twice.” This is theatre at its most basic and its most complex, its most theatrical and its determinedly least dramatic.

Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting.

He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again.

As before.

Enter Vladimir.

ESTRAGON: (giving up again). Nothing to be done.

VLADIMIR: (advancing with short, stiff strides, legs wide apart). I’m beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I’ve tried to put it from me, saying Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven’t yet tried everything. And I resumed the struggle. (He broods, musing on the struggle. Turning to Estragon.) So there you are again.

ESTRAGON: Am I?

VLADIMIR: I’m glad to see you back. I thought you were gone forever.

ESTRAGON: Me too.

I think this is why it’s so beloved of English teachers and potentially so despised by students.  It can simultaneously seem to contain everything, and nothing.  Try to pin it down and it will slip away from you.  This is why there are so many interpretations as to its meaning.  When I discussed Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello (#53) I suggested that if you liked it, you might like Godot.  There are many similarities, mainly the absurdist quality, but whereas Six Characters was theatre about theatre, Godot is how theatre as a visual medium can represent the internal, the rarely articulated:

ESTRAGON: Let’s hang ourselves immediately!

VLADIMIR: From a bough? (They go towards the tree.) I wouldn’t trust it.

ESTRAGON: We can always try.

VLADIMIR: Go ahead.

ESTRAGON: After you.

VLADIMIR: No no, you first.

ESTRAGON: Why me?

VLADIMIR: You’re lighter than I am.

ESTRAGON: Just so!

VLADIMIR: I don’t understand.

ESTRAGON: Use your intelligence, can’t you?

Vladimir uses his intelligence.

VLADIMIR: (finally). I remain in the dark.

And this is where the audience remains, literally and figuratively.  If you like your plays plot-driven and tied up neatly at the end, avoid this play at all costs. But if you want to be made to think about questions to which there are no easy answers, and entertained along the way, you might find Waiting for Godot not as torturous as generations of schoolkids have come to believe.

Sadly, Rik Mayall died this week, at the age of 56.  In 1991 he and comedy partner Ade Edmonson took on the roles of Vladimir and Estragon:

“If I became a philosopher, if I have so keenly sought this fame for which I’m still waiting, it’s all been to seduce women basically.” (Jean-Paul Sartre)

Last week I watched When Corden Met Barlow, which had James Corden interviewing Gary Barlow. For those of you who don’t know these people, the former is a comedy writer and performer, the latter is a member of pop group Take That.  When Take That split, Barlow was vilified in the press, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, as he seems an all-round good bloke. Take That have since reformed, and Gary Barlow is now proclaimed a national treasure by the very same press that tore him apart (update: see comments below for why this might have changed somewhat!)  This got me thinking about how fame is constructed, and how it seems almost entirely arbitrary, not based on the person themselves but the image that is created, sometimes not even that.  To this end, I thought I’d look this week at novels that feature a famous person as one of the characters.

Firstly, The Great Lover by Jill Dawson (Sceptre, 2009), which concerns the poet Rupert Brooke.  I went into this novel with some degree of trepidation because I think Brooke was a fairly mediocre poet, whose fame was elevated because he was posh, pretty and patriotic; exactly the type of person the establishment wanted to represent its lost youth in World War One.

Image

(Image from: http://www.allposters.com/-sp/Rupert-Brooke-English-Writer-in-1913-Posters_i6856357_.htm )

Rather him than Wilfred Owen, who was middle-class, ordinary looking, gay, and whose verse took an uncompromising look at trench warfare.  Of course, since then the quality of Owen’s poetry has seen his reputation far outstrip that of Brooke.  But I will now climb down off my soapbox, and say that my concerns were unfounded, as this whole issue of  image construction is precisely what Dawson is analysing in her novel. For example, with the rumour that Brooke fathered a child in Tahiti:

 “perhaps people find it difficult to square the idea of the golden Apollo, the intellectual gentleman-soldier, finding peace not in an English meadow but on a tropical island far away.”

The novel is alternately narrated by Brooke and a maid where he boards in Granchester, the spunky and (mostly) wise Nell Golightly.  In the present day, she is trying to convey the man she knew in a letter to the possible daughter of Brooke, who is now an elderly lady in Tahiti.  In this way, Dawson draws attention to how biographies are as much about the biographers as their ostensible subject:

“I believe your mother wrote: “I get fat all the time.” Well, any woman would understand the meaning in that sentence.  Unfortunately, your father’s biographers have all been men.”

The novel also shows the burden of fame, of being proclaimed “the handsomest young man in England” by WB Yeats. “I have the strongest feeling of foreboding.  Something beyond my worst fears is about to happen […] And I think I know what it might be, but what I cannot tell is whether it is coming from inside my head or outside.  Whatever it is, it is here at last. The construction, the Rupert Brooke, cannot hold me any longer.”

Through the first-person narrative, Dawson doesn’t give us a perfect golden-child Brooke, but the wholly subjective experience of a flawed, troubled man who is just so young, and given to unintentionally funny insights:

“The Great Lover, that’s me, not the beloved.  The beloved is despicable. That’s the role of a girl.”

“I have resolved that Sodomy can only ever be for me a hobby, not a full-time occupation.”

This callow, aggrandising way could irritate some readers, but for me it just brought home how beyond all the image, Brooke was just a young man, as human as the rest of us, and how tragic it was that he and so many like him had their lives cut short: “the war was only the last eight months of his life, and yet that’s what he’s remembered for”.

What Dawson gives us through Nell’s voice is a fond but clear-eyed portrait of Brooke. “All that he was to me was gathered into that look I cast, but I don’t know if he saw it, or knew.” It made me feel that a well-researched (as this novel clearly is) fictional interpretation is probably just as valid as a “factual” biography.

 “he was a difficult man to pin down, and he was in the habit of saying things playfully that he did not mean at all, or were quite the opposite of his meaning, so maybe it’s true that he was a little more of a slippery fish than some.”

So what are we left with?  The answer is, the same as with any artist we admire: “Rupert’s true heart beats only on paper”.  Their works are what speak most eloquently for them.

Secondly, someone who allegedly went skinny-dipping with Rupert Brooke, Virginia Woolf.

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(Image from: http://www.4thestate.co.uk/?attachment_id=10089 )

The Hours by Michael Cunningham (4th Estate, 1999) is Pulitzer-winning novel which tells the story of three women linked by Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway.

One is Woolf herself, writing the novel in 1923; the others are Laura Brown, a housewife reading the novel in Los Angeles 1949; and Clarissa Vaughan, planning a party for a friend who calls her Mrs Dalloway, in New York at the end of twentieth century.  The Hours is proof that a book doesn’t have to be long to be brilliant. At just 226 pages in my edition, it is so beautifully written that I had trouble pulling out individual quotes for this post.  Each of the women lives a single day, both ordinary and extraordinary:

“Here is the brilliant spirit, the woman of sorrows, the woman of transcendent joys, who would rather be elsewhere, who has consented to perform simple and essentially foolish tasks, to examine tomatoes, to sit under a hairdryer because it is her art and her duty.”

Virginia Woolf’s fragile mental state is handled with great sensitivity, showing how she struggles to remain sane, and how the desires of those around her to keep her so may not be the best thing for her life:

“She is better, she is safer, if she rests in Richmond; if she does not speak too much, write too much, feel too much; if she does not travel impetuously to London and walk through its streets; and yet she is dying this way, she is gently dying on a bed of roses.”

The novel brilliantly captures the small, transient moments that make up life, and how they can all add up to great meaning, whilst seeming to signify nothing:

““You can’t possibly have too many roses” Clarissa says.

Sally hands the flowers to her and for a moment they are both simply and entirely happy.  They are present, right now, and they have managed, somehow, over the course of eighteen years, to continue loving each other.  It is enough.  At this moment, it is enough.”

Astonishingly, the echoes across the three women’s lives from Mrs Dalloway and between each other never feels contrived.  It is a brilliant evocation of lives led more or less quietly, and each character is strongly drawn enough to stand alone as well as alongside the other two.

I loved The Hours.  The individual plots were well-paced, sensitive and insightful, in a style that used language delicately but was never pretentious. Highly recommended.

A film was made of The Hours in 2002.  It’s quite good if you can get past the distraction of Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic nose (it took me a while):