If on a winter’s night a traveller

If you have never read Italo Calvino this may be a misleading book to start with, it’s certainly not reminiscent of his short stories and I believe it is unlike his other novels, but it has a kind of cult status in that it is was an original and much talked about experimental work.

‘If on a winter’s night a traveller’ starts out as a conversation, Calvino entering and leaving the exchange within the pages of his novel in an unpredictable fashion. This is not a book to lie back and lazily escape into, it requires your attention and concentration to stay with where you are at and to understand what is going on and then just as you are spirited away by his seductive prose and enjoying the ride into the depths of one of his stories, you turn the page and Monsieur Calvino is back.

I enjoyed the diversions, although I was disappointed that he was unable to find a way to leave the sex of the reader neutral, having been almost convinced he might well be speaking to me, it becomes clear he is speaking to his male readers, political correctness not in full swing in the early 1980’s when this was published. But I readily forgive him, especially when assured by Lorna Sage, author of the memoir ‘In Bad Blood’ who wrote in the Observer:

‘devastating, wonderfully ingenious parody of all those dreary best-sellers you buy at the airport…It is a “world novel”: take it with you next time you plan to travel in an armchair’

Chapters are interspersed with stories, the titles of which are referenced in each preceding episode, the stories are the beginning of novels and you the protagonist are searching for the rest of the story while listening to Calvino expound on readers, reading, and writing. Best described in an extract from one of the stories themselves, where he writes:

I’m producing too many stories at once because what I want is for you to feel, around the story, a saturation of other stories that I could tell and maybe will tell or who knows may already have told on some other occasion…I see something like a forest that extends in all directions and is so thick that it doesn’t allow light to pass…so it is not impossible that the person who follows my story may feel himself a bit cheated, seeing that the stream is dispersed into so many trickles, and that of the essential events only the last echoes and reverberations arrive at him…’

Playful, impossible to label, is it a…, it is a question, a poem, a collection of stories, a novel and a conversation with Italo Calvino. The author imposes himself and his voice within the pages and we as the reader also become involved in the action as Calvino switches into the second person narrative. If I were an academic I would probably be littering this text with a lot of technical terms describing the literary tools Calvino plays with, literature students are likely to come across it, or at least they did in the past, as David Mitchell, author of ‘Cloud Atlas’ reminisces about here, when he rereads it for a second time.

It’s an oeuvre that defies categorisation, which plays with the reader and will entertain some while annoying others, myself I am content that it has now stopped taunting me from the bookshelf, my curiosity sated, it can now be talked about with some knowledge of its interior. That curiosity won’t rest long however, no doubt it will soon find another dusty volume to settle on, another book I haven’t read by that author I have often read about but have yet to enter their imagined world.

How to Spot a Psychopath – A journey through madness or a mad journey?

In the early 19th century, French psychiatrist Philippe Pinel coined the term ‘manie sans delusion’ referring to the one per cent of the population that appeared normal on the surface but lacked impulse controls and were prone to outbursts of violence. In 1891 it became known as ‘psychopathy‘.

I have just finished reading Jon Ronson’s riveting journey into the heart of that difficult to detect but fascinating to read about affliction, in his recently published book ‘The Psychopath Test’.  An extract from the book published in the Guardian piqued my interest as I was 1500 words into writing a short story around the theme of ‘Ego’ and I had a notion that one of the protagonists was a psychopath, or at least had psychopathic tendencies, so I was interested to know more about how to identify and make those behaviours manifest through a character. Through Ronson’s article I followed a trail and found myself eventually consulting Bob Hare’s 20 point checklist and thus had the insight I was looking for.

‘The Psychopath Test’ is no textbook and it shouldn’t be used to do what he did – random analysis of people you know; its part mystery, full of intrigue, with equal doses of curiosity and anxiety as we follow him equipped only with his journalistic tools into a world of charm, deception and manipulation where nothing is as it appears to be, or is it? He uses his tools to excellent effect to present us with investigative stories he pursued which read more like a detective novel than the work of non-fiction it is. Only it’s not a detective novel because ironically you would need more the qualities of a psychopath to be a successful detective than the anxieties and overdose of empathetic feeling the author has. Ronson is very entertaining, he admits and shares his anxieties and self-diagnoses his own mental deficiencies in a playful and identifiable way.

He presents a look into a field that has had its share of experimental and controversial programs, practices and institutions as well as its staunch adversaries such as the Scientologists, who continue their campaign to discredit the profession and individuals within it to this day.

Having tried to solve the initial mystery of uncovering who has sent a group of neurologists and academics copies of the same cryptically puzzling book, Ronson sets out to acquire basic skills in identifying potential psychopaths and arranges interviews with likely candidates, searching for and pleased by anything that seems to fit with his criteria and admitting his disappointment when their responses don’t quite fit the profile.

'How to Spot a Psychopath' by Lo Cole is available as a limited edition print from http://www.etsy.com/listing/76743583/spot-the-psychopath

Fascinating though the extremes are, it is interesting to see how many ordinary people give accounts of behaviour in pursuing high achieving goals at work, which border on psychopathic behaviour, such as detachment, the eradication of empathy and remorse. What’s more the percentage of psychopaths in the corporate sector, while low, is three times above the general population and cause for some concern, although I found myself not entirely surprised by this revelation after watching some of these executives under questioning from government officials and judges in the recent financial crisis, where a lack of empathy, failure to accept responsibility and lack of remorse or guilt seemed to be common traits.

It’s an imprecise malady with no known cure and involvement best avoided if one encounters anyone with an overabundance of the suggested characteristics, and while we might think it shouldn’t take a neurologist or a psychiatrist to point that out, to be human is not always to be logical or to follow common sense, especially while under the spell of a charming, manipulative liar.

Slaves and Siblings, Sorcery and Sadness, Strength and Salvation – Isabelle Allende’s Island Beneath the Sea

Isabel Allende.

I well remember being introduced to her debut novel ‘The House of the Spirits’ in my early twenties by a good friend and discovering this wonderful story teller. We became immersed in the lives of members of a Latin American family, following it during a time of political upheaval and personal transformation and though it was far from our own reality, it was pure joy to escape into.

Whenever I came across a new book I read it, including two of her wonderful young adult books ‘City of the Beasts’ and ‘The Kingdom of the Dragon’ and who could forget the heart-breaking but beautiful ‘Paula’. I haven’t read all her books, but I will continue to read those that cross my bookish path, just as ‘Island Beneath the Sea’ did recently, spotted on my book buddy’s shelf while feeding her son’s cat Oscar.

In this gripping novel, Allende takes us on a troubling but engaging journey to the sugar cane plantations of what was the French colony Sainte-Domingue, in one of its most historic and transformational eras during the late 1700’s and ends in New Orleans as Napolean trades terrains as if they are commodities with the Americans.

Toulouse Valmorain arrives in the colony from France where the dauphin King has just married Marie-Antoinette and few anticipate the changes to come with revolution in France or the effect that will have on this prosperous Caribbean island where slaves labour on crops that produce a third of the wealth of France and whose usefulness once they set foot on the island averages eighteen months; the fortunate dubbed the Maroons fleeing to the hills, the less fortunate en route to that place they believe all souls go, the island beneath the sea.

Knowing little of changing French laws that might change their status in the colony, many of the slaves find respite through voodoo and belief in men who escaped like the legend Macandal ‘The Black Messiah’. The Maroons will make history as they lead a slave revolt eventually resulting in the first black republic of Haiti.

Valmorain never expected to visit the family plantations but the premature death of his father and the necessity of supporting remaining family in France drive him to the colony where he must take over the family interests. Through him we meet high profile cocotte Violette Boisier, a free woman of mixed African heritage, the teenage slave Zarité, maid to Eugenia the troubled Spanish wife and her brother Sancho, Valmorain’s business partner. The story follows these characters as their fates intertwine and their lives are affected by society’s strictures and historical events.

The characters of Zarité and Violette jump off the page in a way that almost makes me wonder whether the author had her ‘favourite’ characters, we see them in situations and feel their struggles whereas I didn’t get quite the same feeling with the character of Eugenia, I found myself wondering how it really was for her as the drumbeats got inside her head and slowly drove her to madness. She wasn’t a strong character and although she suffered, we learn of it rather than experience it.

I realised towards the end that much of the novel is narrated, which also made me wonder how much longer it could have been if more of the narrative had been portrayed through the events themselves and dialogue, the characters are certainly engaging enough but at 457 pages, it is lengthy already. After being totally engaged with Josephine Bonaparte’s story beginning in another Caribbean plantation in Martinique, I could easily have been tempted by a sequel.

Allende narrates great stories and brings the reader to unforgettable settings during fascinating historic periods; she places interesting characters in this context, constructed with great clarity and insight and history comes alive as if it is the present and the reader is witness to it. For me ‘Island beneath the Sea’ was a real page turner and I was sad to finish it.

What Allende could never have anticipated while writing this book, was the major earthquake in 2010 that would disrupt this country, now known as Haiti, however it is a timely reminder of the previous chapters in the history of this trailblazing republic.

The Forest for the Trees – An Editor’s Advice

Reading books on writing is a little like panning for gold. Most of what we read washes away, some of it is interesting to consider but doesn’t necessarily gel and then occasionally we find a gem.

Unlike gold, one woman’s gem doesn’t necessarily guarantee universal approval and when I recall the books I thought were fantastic ten years ago, I realise now how far I have moved on, now those same inspirational pages from yesteryear elicit nothing more than nostalgic fondness, no longer capturing the thinking place I am at today.

I remember with absolute clarity coming across Dorothea Brande’s 1934 classic ‘Becoming a Writer’ during the period I enrolled in my first creative writing class with writers Maggie Hamand and Henrietta Soames at the Groucho Club in London and how it seemed to speak to me and contain all the questions and doubts I had at the time. There is definitely gold in this book for someone starting out on the writing path, though I have given my volume wings and allowed its pages an airing by passing it on rather than let it languish on the shelf unread.

‘The Forest for the Trees’ was recommended on writer Sandra Gulland’s blog and I’d just finished reading the Josephine Bonaparte trilogy, so I jumped in and bought it on impulse. Divided into two sections Writing and Publishing, is a little misleading, the first half reading more like a psychological analysis of writer behaviours, who are the ambivalent, the natural, the wicked child, the self-promoter, the neurotic or touching fire, along with numerous anecdotes to validate these suppositions. Whilst I have no doubt, the author has come across each of these stereotypes, I found the labelling patronising and found myself wondering about the hidden majority who don’t fit so clearly into these headings – or do I just need to get out more to meet these people? Tell me writers, do you identify with one of these labels?

The frequent references to Truman Capote created a distance that was difficult to bridge and too many of the examples seemed like exceptions; I admit I was searching for the paragraph that I could identify with, an example of someone who seemed like an ordinary person, the kind that might convince the reader that to write successfully and be published is possible. It’s the cult of the celebrity factor again, with hindsight one can look back and select anecdotes about writers who were the exception rather than the rule. Disillusioned, I blame my market research background where the anecdote has little credibility and witnessing the propensity of politicians and tabloids to use them in the place of verifiable evidence.

The main message in the second half was: be respectful and patient with your editor and publicist, they’re all juggling multiple balls, you don’t really understand what goes on behind the scenes, if you did, you’d leave us to get on with the job. This debate is likely to continue with the advent of electronic publishing and the industry having to redefine its role and prove its value, however I found this section more insightful and it did highlight many of the strengths and weaknesses of the publishing process.

If you are looking for a tongue in cheek attempt at writer’s psychological profiles, interesting and funny anecdotes and an inside look at one editor’s career path, then this will entertain. We can also learn much about the industry by keeping up with writer’s blogs and online communities, which without a doubt reflect the situation of writers today, whether persevering towards it or already succeeding to be published.

Eerie, Evocative, Engrossing – The Diving Pool

I picked up this slim volume of three enticing novellas during one of my scouts of the excellent Oxfam bookshops in London recently. I was intrigued by the cover and the discovery of an international author I had not read before whose credentials intrigue but I was sold by the quote on the cover by Nobel Prize-winning author Kenzaburō Ōe.

“Yoko Ogawa is able to give expression to the most subtle workings of human psychology in prose that is gentle yet penetrating.”

Yoko Ogawa for those like me who have not come across her before, has published more than twenty works of fiction and nonfiction, she has won every major Japanese literary award and her fiction has also appeared in The New Yorker, A Public Space
and Zoetrope.

From unknown to me until the last couple of months, I wander into my local bookshop this week and see Ogawa’s more recently published novella ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ sitting on a small table next to Murakami’s big fat ‘1Q84’ and Jonathan Franzen’s sizeable ‘Freedom’, names that need no introduction. So in anticipation of reading a second of her lovely slim books, I will tell you about the first.

‘The Diving Pool’ is both the title of this collection and the first of three novellas contained within; it introduces us to Aya, an introverted teenage girl with foster orphan siblings who feels distant from her family, yet finds a closeness being in the proximity of and observing her foster brother without his knowledge – she sits in the bleachers and studies his form, watching him with obsessive infatuation as he executes each flawless dive with his smooth, sculpted body. The depths of her infatuation rarely break the surface and spill over into engagement or physical contact though she desires it; she does not provoke, she wills it.

Ogawa depicts the girl’s keen observations and cruel impulse with the precision of a surgeon’s knife, slicing into the mind of a daughter with a disturbing transparency that entices the reader to continue to see just how far she will go.

It is a story that is worth rereading a second time from a writing perspective, not just the carefully crafted words, but what it is that the author does to create that effect of getting under your skin when reading it. I’ll definitely be adding her next book to my collection, her evocative style is addictive indeed.