The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick

The Art of Personal Narrative

A deliberate slow read for me as I wished to absorb the teaching, while researching and writing my own work, something definitely clicked in my understanding which I hope translates across into my writing.

On The Essay
In the first half Gornick dissects a few essays, citing them as evidence of her theory of the narrative that really demands attention and works, because it has been structured, attention being given to understanding the difference between the situation and the story.

A theory that came to her like an epiphany while attending a funeral, where one person in particular moved her more than the others.

Her words had deepened the atmosphere and penetrated my heart. Why? I wondered even as I brushed away the tears. Why had these words made a difference?

She concludes that because the narrator knew who was speaking, she always knew why she was speaking. She had created a ‘persona’ of herself in order to eulogize the deceased. An instrument of illumination.

The unsurrogated narrator has the monumental task of transforming low-level self interest into the kind of detached empathy required of a piece of writing that is to be of value to the disinterested reader.

But getting from the understanding of a theory to being able to apply it in one’s writing was something that eluded her until she analysed her own attempt of personal journalism (part personal essay and part social criticism) when she was invited to go to Egypt and write about the middle class existence in Cairo. Overwhelmed by the energy of the city, the drama of its citizens, the work mimicked Egypt itself. It would take years before she was able to control the material with sufficient composure to see the situation and narrate the kind of story she wished to share.

Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.

Using examples from different essays and memoirs, she shares extracts to demonstrate the theory in it’s most eminent form e.g. Augustine’s Confessions, Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, George Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant, Ackerley’s My Father and Myself.

She compares a trilogy of essays that exhibit the way self-implication can shape a piece of nonfiction writing: Joan Didion’s essay on the companionship of a migraine, ‘In Bed’, Harry Crews’s divided feelings about home in ‘Why I Live Where I Live’ and Edward Hoagland’s disturbing urban nature essay, ‘The Courage of Turtles’.

We are in the presence, in each instance, of a mind puzzling its way out of its own shadows – moving from unearned certainty to thoughtful reconsideration to clarified self-knowledge. The act of clarifying on the page is an intimate part of the metaphor.

Joan Didion, perhaps the most practiced of them all, excavated her subconscious regularly, stayed in touch with the times, and wrote right down to the core of her self-examined existence.

“I have tried in most of the available ways to escape my own migrainous heredity … but I still have migraine. And I have learned now to live with it, learned when to expect it, how to outwit it, even how to regard it, when it does come, as more friend than lodger.”

Joan Didion, ‘In Bed’, 1968

On The Memoir

Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that, the power of the writing imagination is required.

She posits that modern memoir is of value to the reader only if it is able to dramatise and reflect on the experience of transformation or ‘becoming’ as the writer moves away from that person one has been told they should be towards the more authentic version that might be revealed beneath.

Quoting the example of Gosse’s, Father and Son she observes:

That this son must come into his own by making war not on a parent who is willful and self-involved (which he is) but on one filled with the tender regard that alone gives a growing creature the ability to declare itself (which he also is). This is the thing the reader is meant to register; this is the narrator’s wisdom. It is the betrayal of love that is required in order that one become.

These memoirs that succeed are works that record a steadily changing idea of the emergent self.

For each of them a flash of insight illuminating the idea grew out of the struggle to clarify one’s own formative experience; and in each case the strength and beauty of the writing lie in the power of concentration with which this insight is pursued, and made to become the writer’s organising principle. That principle at work is what makes a memoir literature rather than testament.

Ultimately the advice she gives is to aspiring writer’s is to ask oneself certain questions, both in reading and in writing:

What, we would ask of the manuscript,was the larger preoccupation here? the true experience? the real subject? Not that such questions could be answered, only that it seemed vital to me that they be asked.

That exploration of the subconscious might precipitate insights to rise to the surface and spill over onto the page, by digging deeper, one may stumble across the inner context that makes a piece of writing larger than its immediate circumstance.

“who is speaking, what is being said, and what is the relation between the two” had become my single-minded practice”

She ends with an observation about timing, the thing that a writer can rarely predict.

Writing enters into us when it gives us information about ourselves we are in need of at a time that we are reading.

This explains why a worthy book might be overly criticized while one of fleeting value is highly praised, the former, great though it may be, misses the mark because what it has to say can not be absorbed at the moment, while the latter

is well received because what it is addressing is alive – now, right now – in the shared psyche.Which is perhaps as it should be. The inner life is nourished only if it gets what it needs when it needs it.

A Long Absence, I Am Dust by Louise Beech

I don’t know why, but today something nudged me to write a few words about a book I have just finished reading. The first time I have had anything noteworthy to say about a work of fiction since August 2019.

I also have a couple of reviews I wrote in August, that I hadn’t posted yet, part of Women in Translation month that I will share belatedly. All coming soon…

It was the debut novel of Iranian author Shokoofeh Azar, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. It won’t be for everyone, as it’s written in a lyrical magical realist style, narrated by the spirit of a thirteen year old girl whose family flees Tehran during the Islamic Revolution.

Europa Editions, one of my favourite publishers, describes it in this way:

From the pen of one of Iran’s rising literary stars, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is a story about the unbreakable connection between the living and the dead, and about the way a nation’s shared trauma shapes its national and personal narratives.

It speaks of the power of imagination when confronted with cruelty, and of our human need to make sense of the world through the ritual of storytelling itself.

That power of imagination and the use of storytelling to express something in another form, whether its verbal, written or visual, to make sense of how someone views the world around them was something very close to my heart, almost overwhelming, as I too struggle to make sense of it, yet appreciate the gift.

Allia Jen

I haven’t published anything here nor felt like reading or even thinking about storytelling, because in mid August my 17-year-old daughter Allia Jen passed away suddenly, without warning. And as you might imagine, something like that, changes something in us.

Though she was very young, she had already lived an extraordinary life, with both significant challenges and immense joys. And though it is little recompense, we have a bulging suitcase of her drawings and artwork, which she worked on and created prolifically – literally – as if there were no tomorrow. Though she didn’t quite make it to her 18th birthday and the independence she was so looking forward to, I am somehow comforted by the knowledge that in the belief system of her paternal culture, she is considered a Bird of Paradise, granted direct passage into Paradise.

I can’t write about reading without first acknowledging this personal loss, as something new begins to blossom and I  begin writing again. I am working on a new project I hope to finish this year and I have the intention to visit here from time to time, sharing what I’m reading, and if not here, at the very least on Goodreads.

I Am Dust

In the first of so many I still owe thank you’s to, I would like to say a heart-felt public thank you to a woman who makes magic with words, author Louise Beech, whom I first connected with while spending 10 days in Timone hospital with Allia as she recovered from a successful but distressing operation to correct a curvature of the spine.

I was reading Louise’s incredible, unforgettable debut novel How To Be Brave  inspired by her journey with her daughter and a Type 1 diabetic diagnosis (something we shared as mothers). We have stayed in touch ever since and she has written many more excellent, unputdownable novels.

Her latest novel, which I urge you all to read and share, is out now as an e-book but due for printed publication on 16 April 2020. Set in a haunted theatre I Am Dust begins with an amazing poem written by Louise’s daughter Katy and the following generous, kind and much appreciated dedication:

This is dedicated to the people

who pick up the glitter.

And to a girl who was glitter: Allia

Jen Yousef, or simply Jen.

I’ll now have to wait until after

the dust settles

to finally meet you.

I leave you with a few of my favourite pictures Allia drew, all of which are semi-self portraits and encapsulate something of her essence. She is in a good place now and has reversed our roles, I feel her presence around me constantly and will always be inspired by what she taught me in her short life.

I guess she’s telling me to get on with some of the things I’ve been neglecting, just as she would have done, by awakening the inspiration to want to share again.

Thank you for your kind thoughts.

Claire

Click here to purchase a copy of Louise Beech’s I Am Dust via Book Depository

Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2017 #BaileysPrize

Today the judges chose six novels for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017 and had this to say:

““It has been a great privilege to Chair the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in a year which has proved exceptional for writing of both quality and originality. It was quite a challenge to whittle this fantastic longlist of 16 books down to only six… These were the six novels that stayed with all of us well beyond the final page.” Tessa Ross

The shortlisted books are as follows:

Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀̀ (review)
The Power  Naomi Alderman
The Dark Circle by Linda Grant
The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan
First Love by Gwendoline Riley
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (review)

In my earlier post on the Baileys Prize Longlist, I listed all the novels with a summary of what they are about, you can refer to that post linked here to know more about all the 16 longlisted books.

For three of the titles below, I have taken a few quotes from Q& A interviews done with the respective authors by the Prize team, to give you a flavour of their motivations in writing the book and their literary inspirations and where that isn’t available, a summary of the blurb.

Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing

– In 1990 Canada , 10-year-old Marie and her mother invite a guest into their home: a young woman who has fled China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests. Her name is Ai-ming.
As her relationship with Marie deepens, Ai-ming tells the story of her family in revolutionary China, from the crowded teahouses in the first days of Chairman Mao’s ascent to the Shangahi Conservatory in the 1960s and events leading to the Beijing demonstrations of 1989. It is a history of revolutionary idealism, music and silence, in which three musicians, the shy and brilliant composer Sparrow, the violin prodigy Zhuli, and the enigmatic pianist Kai struggle during China’s relentless Cultural Revolution to remain loyal to one another and to the music they have devoted their lives to. Forced to re-imagine their artistic and private selves, their fates reverberate through the years, with deep and lasting consequences for Ai-ming – and for Marie.

On The Book

“I wanted the novel to unfold in a very specific time frame, the lifetime of an individual – the birth, life and death of a composer we know as Sparrow. He’s born at a historical crossroads: the fall of China’s Republican government and the birth of Communist China. History pulls his life apart, he’s at the mercy of so many forces, and yet he’s also free. In one sense, his life is taken from him; in another, it’s the only life he has and he must live it.”

Quotable Quote

“I’ve been troubled by language for a long time… How language can build meaning but also conceal or demean it.” Madeleine Thien

Literary Heroes

Alice Munro, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Shirley Hazzard, Yiyun Li, Dionne Brand, Hannah Arendt and so many more.

P.S. I have this on my shelf, so I will definitely be reading it next!

The Dark Circle, Linda Grant

– It’s 1949, the Second World War is over and a new decade of recovery is beginning, but for East End teenage twins who have been living on the edge of the law, life has been suspended. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, they are sent away to a sanatorium in Kent to take the cure and submit to the authority of the doctors, learning the deferential way of the patient.

On The Book

“I did two long interviews with a woman who was x-rayed to take up her place at university in 1949. It was when she told me about the sanatorium going over to the NHS and a new influx off patients mixing with the middle-classes, that I knew that there was a story and a novel. I did read up on the history of the disease and its treatments and of course Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and other novels about TB. It has been a rich source for novelists because it involves so much lying around thinking morbid thoughts.” Linda Grant

Quotable Quote

“I became a journalist because it was a means of being paid to knock on the doors of strangers and ask them personal questions and then write about what they had told me, while I was waiting to have a novel to write.”

 

Naomi Alderman, The Power

– Suddenly – tomorrow or the day after – girls find that with a flick of their fingers they can inflict agonizing pain and even death. With this single twist, the four lives at the heart of this extraordinary, visceral novel are utterly transformed, and we look at the world in an entirely new light. What if the power were in women’s hands?

On The Book

“I didn’t start from the idea of making a matriarchal society. But the idea did come from a particular moment in my life. I was going through a really horrible breakup, one of those ones where you wake up every morning, have a cry and then get on with your day. And in the middle of all this emotional turmoil, I got onto the tube and saw a poster advertising a movie with a photograph of a beautiful woman crying, beautifully. And in that moment it felt like the whole of the society I live in saying to me “oh yes, we like it when you cry, we think it’s sexy”. And something just snapped in me and all I could think was: what would it take for me to be able to get onto this tube train and see a sexy photo of a *man* crying? What’s the smallest thing I could change? And this novel is the answer to that question, or at least an attempt to think it through for myself. …I just had this idea about women developing a strange new power.”

Quotable Quote

“Any woman who has made her living in writing is my hero and my friend; what a thing it is to be able to do, and how hard generations of women have fought so that I could be allowed it!” Naomi Alderman

Literary Heroes

Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret Cavendish, Ursula Le Guin, Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, Carson McCullers, Toni Morrison, Carol Shields, Mary Stewart, PD James, Marjane Satrapi, Alice Monroe, Amy Levy, Alison Bechdel, Han Kang.

Stay With Me, Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀̀ (reviewed)

– Unravelling against the social and political turbulence of 80s Nigeria, Stay With Me sings with the voices, colours, joys and fears of its surroundings. A devastating story of the fragility of married love, the undoing of family, the wretchedness of grief and the all-consuming bonds of motherhood. It is a tale about our desperate attempts to save ourselves and those we love from heartbreak.

 

The Sport of Kings, C.E. Morgan

– Hellsmouth, an indomitable thoroughbred filly, runs for the glory of the Forge family, one of Kentucky’s oldest and most powerful dynasties. Henry Forge has partnered with his daughter, Henrietta, in an endeavour of raw obsession: to breed a champion.
But when Allmon Shaughnessy, an ambitious young black man, comes to work on their farm after a stint in prison, the violence of the Forges’ history and the exigencies of appetite are brought starkly into view. Entangled by fear, prejudice and lust, the three tether their personal dreams of glory to the speed and power of Hellsmouth.

First Love, Gwendoline Riley

– Neve is a writer in her mid-thirties married to an older man. For now they are in a place of relative peace, but their past battles have left scars. As Neve recalls the decisions that led her to this marriage, she tells of other loves and other debts, from her bullying father and self-involved mother to a musician who played her and a series of lonely flights from place to place. Drawing the reader into the battleground of her relationship, Neve spins a story of helplessness and hostility, an ongoing conflict in which both husband and wife have played a part. But is this, nonetheless, also a story of love?

**************

So there is the shortlist! Easy to pick a favourite when I’ve only read one, I really recommend you read Stay With Me if you haven’t already, it’s a superb book and insight into the pressures of family expectations.

So, which is your favourite from the list, or which are you drawn to read? Any disappointments?

The winning novel will be announced on 7 June 2017!

Order any of the Books Via Book Depository via this link

BigMagic, Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

Signature (2)Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the best seller Eat Pray Love and more recently in 2013, the historical, botanical novel The Signature of All Things (reviewed here) has thought a lot about Creativity, so much so that she gave a TED Talk on the subject.

Tapping into one’s creative life can often be referred to as a sea of obstacles, fears, procrastinations and can tend to focus on what one lacks, rather than the small steps we can take in pursuit of it.

In Big Magic, Gilbert writes a lot about how we get in the way of our own creativity, covering a multitude of sins, some that we may find relevant, others not, depending where we are on the path to pursuing it.

The book is separated into six sections, Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust and Divinity where she discusses many aspects of e creative process, her own experiences and many anecdotes from well-known personalities.

One of the best is from Richard Ford, author of Canada (reviewed here); he gave this response to an audience member who recounted all the things that he and Ford had in common; age, background, themes, the fact they’d both been writing all their life.

The big difference being this person had never been published, they were heartbroken, a “spirit crushed by all the rejection and disappointment”. He added that he did not want to be told to persevere, that’s all he ever heard from anyone.

Ford told him he should quit.

The audience froze: What kind of encouragement was this?

Canada1Ford went on: “I say this to you only because writing is clearly bringing you no pleasure. It is only bringing you pain. Our time on earth is short and should be enjoyed. You should leave this dream behind and go find something else to do with your life. Travel, take up new hobbies, spend time with your family and friends, relax. But don’t write anymore, because it’s obviously killing you.”

There was a long silence.

Then Ford smiled and added, almost as an afterthought:

“However, I will say this. If you happen to discover, after a few years away from writing, that you have found nothing that takes its place in your life – nothing that fascinates you, or moves you, or inspires you to the same degree that writing once did…well, then, sir, I’m afraid you will have no choice but to persevere.”

She writes about her theory that ideas are a separate entity to ourselves and if we do not pursue them when they come knocking in the form of inspiration, we risk them leaving us altogether and being passed on to someone else. When the momentum and inspiration has left us, which can also happen if we put something aside for too long, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to renter the zone to complete it.

She gives an example of a novel she was very passionate and inspired by, an Amazonian novel. She mentioned it to her friend Ann Patchett who was curious as she was at the time writing a novel set in the same location.

042812_1839_StateofWond1.jpgGilbert gave her a brief outline and asked Patchett what her novel was about and she repeated almost word for word the same idea – fitting into her theory that the idea had visited her and because she had put it aside for a couple of years, it left and had been passed on to Patchett to become State of Wonder (reviewed here).

It’s necessary to read her quaint theories with an open mind, Big Magic itself is the label she applies to all those instances of coincidence, luck, the unexplained, it is a form of belief in universal guidance or positive thinking, one conveniently packaged as Big Magic.

Fortunately, we need not put all our faith in it, she pulls back from the inclination of some to urge us to seek out our passion, especially when many struggle to find or identify with such a thing. She favours curiosity over passion.

Forget about passion, pursue curiosity. Curiosity is accessible to everyone, while passion can seem intimidating and out of reach.

‘…curiosity is a milder, quieter, more welcoming and democratic entity…curiosity only ever asks one simple question of you:

“Is there anything you’re interested in?”

Anything?

Even a tiny bit?

No matter how mundane or small?

Curiosity is like a clue, you follow it, see where it takes you and continue along that train of thought or research. It may lead somewhere or nowhere, it doesn’t matter, momentum is what’s important. She gives the example of following an interest in gardening, that lead to researching and eventually writing her much admired historical novel The Signature of All Things.

She acknowledges that the necessity to achieving a creative life of note takes discipline, luck and talent and puts more faith in the former, than the latter.

She doesn’t regard herself as being endowed with greater than average talent, she is not a perfectionist – admitting to flaws in her work she knew were there, that weren’t worth the effort to pursue in the grand scheme of things. An interesting observation, as one of the flaws she mentions was an under-developed character in that same novel, something I noted in my review, that she admits beta readers warned her of, a flaw she deliberately did not remedy. In some cases the effort required to fix something is greater than the reward it will bring.

Overall, a fast, easy read, that can act as a reminder and a motivator to us in relation to any creative endeavour, it’s one of those books to read with a filter, let it pass through you and take the gems for what they’re worth to you now.

“Possessing a creative mind is like having a border collie for a pet. It needs to work, or else it will cause you an outrageous amount of trouble. Give your mind a job to do, or else it will find a job to do, and you might not like the job it invents.

It has taken me years to learn this, but it does seem to be the case that if I am not actively creating something, then I am probably actively destroying something (myself, a relationship, or my own peace of mind).”

Baileys Women’s Prize Short List 2015

From a long list of 20 novels and from a collection of 160 original entries, the five judges have narrowed the field down to 6 novels vying for the Baileys Women’s Prize for fiction 2015.

Five of the authors have been shortlisted previously and one, my favourite (though I have only read two on the list) is a debut author, Laline Paull.

The shortlisted novels are:

It’s another excellent list from this worthy prize that celebrates hard-working, talented and inspirational women writers with a particular talent for creating life-like characters inhabiting believable worlds, whether it’s the smaller canvas of detailed family life in Anne Tyler’s fiction, or the imaginative hive of Flora 717, brilliantly conceived in Laline Paull’s The Bees.

Syl Saller, Chief Marketing Officer, Diageo had this to say about the shortlist:

“From a debut to a twentieth novel, this year’s shortlist celebrates exceptional female writers who display a rich and diverse talent for telling stories. Having always championed women, Baileys is thrilled to be working with the Prize to get these six novels by inspirational women into the hands of more book-lovers around the world.”

And the shadow jury (a group of blogging reviewers who are reading all the books and creating their own short list and winner) organised by Naomi at WritesofWomen, came up with their alternative shortlist below, having read and debated the 20 nominated novels.

Shadow Jury Alternative Shortlist

Shadow Jury Alternative Shortlist

One of the jury members, our much admired reviewer Eric of LonesomeReader had this to say about the prize:

“Whichever book ultimately wins, I am so glad this prize has introduced me to a range of unique books I probably wouldn’t have read otherwise. From Laline Paull’s outrageously original The Bees to Jemma Wayne’s ambitious take on the aftershock of war in After Before to Rachel Cusk’s fascinating chorus of voices in Outline to Grace McCleen’s elegant portrayal of madness in The Offering to Marie Phillips’ hilarious Arthurian tale The Table of Less Valued Knights to Sandra Newman’s challenging mighty tome The Country of Ice Cream Star. In my opinion, book prizes help us notice great literature we might have missed and the Baileys Prize has offered up a lot of excellence this year.”

I recommend visiting either of these blogs mentioned if you wish to read reviews of the books.

So, any predictions for a winner? We will have to wait until 3 June 2015 to find out!

A Journey From Hobbiton to Provence

Carolyne Kauser-Abbot is a freelance writer who has a passion for food, travel and Provence and shares many wonderful things to see and do here in the lifestyle travel magazine Perfectly Provence as well as a food and travel related blog Ginger and Nutmeg.

Recently she asked me how I came to be a writer/blogger and Aromatherapist in Provence.

If you click on the photo below you can read the article:

Claire's Christmas Aromatherapy Remedies

Claire’s Christmas Aromatherapy Remedies

I hope you enjoyed the diversion from reading a book review.

 Claire

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante tr. Ann Goldstein #FerranteFever

Those Who StayThis is the third book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy about two friends Elena and Lila, growing up in an impoverished neighbourhood of Naples.

It follows on from Book One, My Brilliant Friend and Book Two, The Story of a New Name (click on the titles to read earlier reviews).

Lila has married, had a child, reformed her husband’s business, strayed and finally separated from her husband and moved to another area outside the neighbourhood to live with Enzo, a childhood friend. She gets a job in a sausage factory, working under oppressive conditions that attract the interest of social activists and harsh threats from the ‘fascists’.

“Can you imagine what it means to go in and out of refrigerated rooms at twenty degrees below zero, and get ten lire more an hour – ten lire – for cold compensation? If you imagine this, what do you think you can learn from people who are forced to live like that?”

In Pisa, Elena has remoulded herself, no longer referring or comparing herself to Lila. She observes how people from her type of neighbourhood and class are perceived outside it, among the bourgeois, those raised within the milieu of intellectuals and achievers, those with access to money, social connections, many of whom are gifted with a presence she can only dream of. Elena finishes her university studies and becomes engaged to Pietro, who was raised within that other world; coming from a well-known academic family, he too will become a university professor, teaching and writing academic works like his father.

As she is concluding her studies, Elena writes a fictional story drawn from aspects of her past, though never admitting it is anything but fiction. She gifts the story to Pietro on an impulse, hoping he will read it. He passes the manuscript to his well-connected mother Adele, thus Elena treads the path laid in front of her, towards becoming an author. Adele introduces her to contacts that will result in her first book being published, establishing her career as a writer.

“I spoke of the necessity of recounting frankly every human experience, including – I said emphatically – what seems unsayable and what we do not speak of even to ourselves.”

Though Elena does her best to avoid it, Pietro finally meets her family and though he insists on a civil ceremony for their marriage, a decision that stuns and terribly disappoints her mother, he wishes to do the traditional thing by asking her father for her hand. Her father is calm and accepting, however her mother’s thoughts insist on an airing and she lectures the young professor unabashedly.

  “When at last she was silent, he said that he knew very well how precious I was and that he was grateful to her for having brought me up as I was.”

Through marriage, Elena succeeds in elevating herself above her roots, though finds herself stranded in not quite belonging to either her future role or her past. They are like roles she assumes outside herself, taking care not to stand out when she returns to the neighbourhood and paying attention to how she should behave in her new role as the wife of a professor.

“As soon as I got off the train, I moved cautiously in the places where I had grown up, always careful to speak in dialect, as if to indicate I am one of yours, don’t hurt me.”

However, marrying the young professor, writing the story that turns into a successful novel, moving to Florence and becoming a mother leave her little time to play any other role than that of housewife.

Lila leaves the neighbourhood, escaping her marriage and taking on a job in a sausage factory owned by a friend of Nino Sarratore, whom the girls met one summer. Her job leaves her little time to spend with her son. Unwillingly, she becomes connected with worker’s rights activists and discovers the dirty arm of the neighbourhood loan sharks who are leaning on her employer, while continuing to try to lure her back into their realm.

Lila and Elena’s worlds drift further apart and although they are aware of the need to share with the other, they each possess the instinct to soldier on without admitting their struggle or need for support or encouragement. Elena will receive both her mother-in-law and her mother at different times so that she can write and Lila will return to the neighbourhood to ease her difficulties. Both have opportunities within their reach, yet both are susceptible to self-destruction.

“Too many bad things, and some terrible, had happened over the years, and to regain our old intimacy we would have had to speak our secret thoughts, but I didn’t have the strength to find the words and she, who perhaps had the strength didn’t have the desire, didn’t see the use.”

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is a compelling story of the lives of two women and those around them, and a penetrative observation on the creation and consequence of decisions women make, how they live with those decisions and the often destructive way they bring about change. It narrates a journey of moving away from one’s origins and the sacrifice the attainment of that desire requires.

Elena leaves her past and a life she didn’t want, behind her, however in attaining a new life, she loses sight of who she really is and what drives her. She is just coming to the point of realising that when her world spins out of control. And thankfully for us all the fourth book is being translated. I expect the wheel may come full circle.

Italian Screenwriter Francesco Piccolo

Italian Screenwriter Francesco Piccolo

Note:  It has been announced that My Brilliant Friend will be made into a television series in Italy. The author/screenwriter Francesco Piccolo, winner of the esteemed Italian literary Strega Prize 2014 (with his bittersweet memoir of life on the Italian Left, ‘Il desiderio di essere come tutti’ (The Desire To Be Like Everyone) will work on the screenplay.

Next Book in the Series: The Story of the Lost Child (publication in English due Sept 2015)

Literary Blog Hop Winner of My Brilliant Friend

Thank you to everyone who participated in and entered the Literary Blog Hop to win this excellent book, My Brilliant Friend, originally written in Italian by Elena Ferrante.

My Brilliant Friend

And thank you for all the wonderful comments and book recommendations of your favourite translation or book written in a language other than English. As you can see, my TBR is growing!

My New Book Haul

And the winner of the draw is…..

Michelle Willms

Congratulations Michelle! I’ll send you an email to ask you for your address details. Please answer this by Sunday 9th November.

Thanks again to everyone who commented and participated and shared such wonderful book recommendations.

Happy Reading All!

“All Paths Lead to Rome” – The Vatican Cellars by André Gide tr. by Julian Evans

Vatican CellarsOriginally published in the summer of 1914, this year is the 100th anniversary of André Gide’s Les Caves du Vatican otherwise known as The Vatican Cellars and sometimes as Lafcadio’s Adventures in English.

André Gide had quite a reputation and was adored and detested in equal measure in the French literary community during his time. He was a provocative writer, not sensationalist by today’s standards, but he rocked the foundations of robust entities in the early 1900’s and tested some of his friendships with his provocative, satirical works, that challenged the solemnity of the novelistic form and bourgeois attitudes of the time.

He declared the book not to be a novel, but a sotie, a medieval farce in which the players freely mock the powers that be, more often than not, the Church.

“Even in the authentic soties of the Middle Ages there was the attempt to demonstrate the madness of the real world by showing it capsized and lead by fools.” Wallace Fowlie, Andre Gide: His Life and Art

He did this to stand apart from that tradition of European fiction, characterised by its extreme seriousness. Many chose to judge it at face value, or to apply an interpretation that wasn’t his own and cause him to be ostracized by some.

A Young Gide Source: Center for Gidean Studies andregide.org

A Young Gide
Source: Center for Gidean Studies
andregide.org

He wasn’t looking for recognition or accolades, but he was a writer who wasn’t afraid to take on a subject and look at it through a symbolic, metaphorical lens even if it did court contempt in some quarters. Though still highly controversial in France, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1947, he died in 1951 and a year later his works were placed on the Vatican’s list of banned books.

That act was certainly provocative and no doubt helped to heighten the author’s popularity as negative publicity tends to do. So when this book arrived unsolicited in my mailbox, I was curious to find out more, not just about the story, but André Gide, a writer previously unknown to me. In a strange coincidence, this week I see that Papal controversy – or is it just rumour, continue, when I read this headline in The Independent.

God isn’t a magician with a magic wand according to the pope and there are non-believing vicars 

The basic premise of The Vatican Cellars centres around the members of one family, whose connections are slowly revealed, whether by blood or marriage, the first three books (more like parts as the book is only 300 pages) are portrayed from each of the main characters point of view and running throughout the narrative is the effect of a rumoured plot that a gang has kidnapped the Pope and placed him in the Vatican cellars, an imposter installed in his place. The fourth book introduces us to the gang, referred to as The Millipede and the final book is dedicated to the young man Lafcadio and brings all the characters to Rome.

Book One introduces us to Anthime Armand-Dubois, a crippled freemason devoted to scientific research, an atheist who leaves France to settle in Rome to be near a specialist in rheumatic diseases. His departure causes his brother-in-law Julius De Baraglioul great sorrow and his wife Véronique small joy.

“As one of those people who fill their flat disappointed lives with countless small devotions, in her sterility she offered up to the Lord every attention that a baby would have demanded from her. Sadly she entertained almost no hope of leading her Anthime back to Him. She had known for a long time how much stubbornness that broad brow, knitted in perpetual denial, was capable of. Father Flons had warned her.”

Julius, his wife (Véronique’s sister) and their 9-year-old daughter Julie visit, during which Anthime experiences an apparition of the Virgin Mary and the miraculous healing of his affliction. He converts, but loses his freemason and lucrative research contacts and must move to Milan to await compensation promised by the Vatican.

André Gide Source: Centre for Gidean Studies andregide.org

André Gide
Source: Centre for Gidean Studies
andregide.org

Book Two is Julius De Baraglioul, a novelist who arriving back in Paris receives a letter from his father, who is on his deathbed and wishes him to anonymously make the acquaintance of a certain Lafcadio Wluiki to check out his ambitions and character. Julius visits the Lafcadio’s lodgings, meets Carola Venitequa and snoops around his things reading a private notebook since the room is unlocked and uninhabited. He eventually meets him and gives him a copy of his latest novel, one that has been panned by critics. Recognising the book is based on the author’s father, Lafcadio eyes the dying man as a potential new “Uncle” and goes to see him.

In Book Three we meet Amédée Fleurissoire, debated by some to be the true hero of this story; within these pages the entire plot to kidnap the Pope is unveiled. A priest calls on the widow Countess de Guy de Saint-Prix, Julius’s younger sister just after her return from her father’s funeral in Paris and regales her with the extraordinary tale of the Pope’s demise. And here there is an author interjection, a sidestep of the story plot to tell of the factual plot, as the story was inspired by real events that occurred in 1893 by a gang of fraudsters, taking advantage of the Pope’s sympathies toward the French Revolution.

“Whether God’s representative on earth could have been abducted from the Holy See and, by the intervention of the Quirinal, stolen from all of Christendom as it were, is an excessively thorny problem which I do not have the temerity to raise in these pages. But it is a historical fact that, around the end of 1893, rumours were circulating to that effect. It goes without saying that numerous devoted souls became deeply agitated. A pamphlet on the subject appeared in Saint-Malo and was suppressed. …There is no doubt that countless pious souls made financial sacrifices, but it was dubious whether all those who received donations were genuine campaigners, or whether some were perhaps fraudsters.”

The priest wishes the Countess to make a significant donation, so she rushes off to see Madame Fleurissoire, the younger sister of Véronique and Marguerite and wife of our genuine hero Monsieur Amédée Fleurissoire. Hearing about all the fuss Fleurissoire decides he must leave Pau and travel to Rome himself to see what can be done.

Book Four is The Millipede (the centipede) which continues to follow the travels of Amédée, the presence of the gang undetected. He is intercepted at the station and brought to slovenly rooms, where we again meet Carola and he is taken on a bit of a wild goose chase to Naples and back, bumping into Julius who has also appeared in Rome.

Then Book Five brings us back to Lafcadio, raised by his mother and five uncles, across different European countries, he is at home everywhere, but belongs nowhere. After his encounter with Julius’s dying father, he too decides to take the train south, but he is heading for adventure, his destination Borneo. He is the anti-hero, the free spirit, parentless, he lives without obligation or restraint, he can do as he pleases, provided he has the means. His charm takes care of that.

And what happens when they all find themselves in Rome? For that you’ll need to read the book.

As the literary critic Albert Guerard said:

“Perhaps only the maligned casual reader sees that les Caves du Vatican is above all a very funny book.”

It is a book that Gide had in the back of his mind for 20 years before writing it and many of the scenes were inspired from aspects of his own life or those close to him. For example, Anthime’s conversion is said to be based on Emile Zola’s Freemason cousin, who abjured his atheism in a public ceremony at a church in Rome.

The Vatican Cellars is an entertaining, easy read and can be intellectually stimulating if you are interested to analyse it further. I enjoyed it very much and all the more for having read around it, dipping into some of the published literary essays to understand the intentions of the author and the responses of the critics.

He was a humble author with a fascinating intellect who refused to accept literary prizes and acknowledgement at home, until it came to the Nobel, which he felt would have gone to Paul Valéry, if not for his untimely death and accepted it without reserve, though he was too ill to receive it in person.

In an open letter to several leading Swedish newspapers which had sought interviews, Gide confessed that he had received the Nobel Prize:

“with deep emotion, with tears in my eyes, like a schoolboy who has won a prize.”

I leave you with this very funny anecdote that I picked up from an essay by the critic George D.Painter.

“On 7 January 1930 Gide was returning by train from Toulon to Paris with Jacques de Lacretelle. At the opposite table, which was covered with flowers, sat a honeymoon couple, the husband engrossed in The Vatican Swindle. It was the first time Gide had ever seen a stranger reading himself. ‘Here’s your chance,’ said Lacretelle, ‘Tell him who you are – write him a dedication!’ But to do this, Gide would have had to feel sure that the unknown liked the book. Suddenly the young man pulled out a penknife. Good heavens, was he about, like Lafcadio, to plunge it in his thigh? But no, worse still, he seemed to intend to cut the book itself in pieces, and Lacretelle was seized with a fou rire. With great care the bridegroom cut the threads of the binding, detached the part he had read, handed it to his young wife; and both buried themselves in their reading.”

train reading

Note: Thank you most kindly to Gallic Books for sending me a copy of the book.

Very Inspiring Book Blogs

The Very Inspiring Blogger Award is flying like an angel around the blogosphere, touching down on many of the dedicated and inspiring people out there dedicated to books and writing and sharing the word on literature.

very-inspiring-blog-award-logo

So congratulations to the following for being nominated, you are all an inspiration to me and I thank you most kindly for nominating Word by Word.

Thank you:

  1. Lizzi at These Little Words – Thoughtful considered reviews,she reads a mix of contemporary recent publications and favourites from the shelf waiting to be read.
  2. Sandra Danby Author of Ignoring Gravity – a new blog for me, but I am soon to read her book, so watch this space.
  3. Jacqui at Jacqui Wine’s Journal – Long-time reader and tweeter, new recruit to blogging, excellent shelf of reads with a penchant for translated fiction and a connoisseur of wine! Also part of the Shadow Jury for IFFP – see Stu below.
  4. Nancy at Ipsofactodotme – Out of The Comfort Zone Reading more like it, Nancy is Inspiration extraordinaire, taught herself to read in French through reading classic French literature, with a cat and a Heineken for company, while living in the Netherlands, I love the eccentricity and achievements of inspirational bloggers!

The award has the following rules:

  • Thank and link to the person who nominated you.
  • List the rules and display the award.
  • Share seven facts about yourself.
  • Nominate 15 other amazing blogs and comment on their posts to let them know they have been nominated.
  • Optional: display the award logo on your blog and follow the blogger who nominated you.

Seven Things About Me You May Not Know:

  1. Golden Plover - the other life...

    Golden Plover – the other life…

    The first time I went on a date I had to ride 6 kilometres across farmland on my horse to get there.

  2. I learnt to drive on a Massey Ferguson tractor with no second gear.
  3. I was once an extra in a film called ‘Bedlam Britannica’ a documentary about how the British treated their mentally ill. My role was a lunatic, part of a patient’s hallucination.
  4. When I was travelling in India, someone asked me if I was Japanese.
  5. Now people ask me “Vous êtes Anglais?”
  6. I once attended two weddings in subsequent weekends; the first was in Beirut, the second in Lagos.
  7. I love the sea and sometimes wonder how life might have unfolded had I said yes to that job on a tall ship sailing around the world.

So Fifteen Book Bloggers That Inspire Me Today:

  • The Lonesome Reader – I will read anything and everything he reviews, whether I like the book or not, Eric is an inspirational and aspirational reviewer, one of the best. His reviews read like compelling essays and I know Col (see below) is a big fan of his too.
  • Vishy The Knight – Diligent reader, lover of books across genre, the most comprehensive reviews ever & the kindest, most attentive blog commenter in history.
  • The Only Way Is Reading – When Col gives a 10 (check out his awesome rating system) I absolutely have to read the book, introduced me to Primo Levi.
  • The Writes of Women – Reviews of Books By Female Writers, Influential Opinion Maker on Books @Frizbot
  • Winstons Dad – Stu is the Super Champion of Translated Fiction and Chair Person of the Shadow Jury for IFFP (International Foreign Fiction Prize), a Translation Activist who reads around the world!
  • HeavenAli – Unearths and Rediscovers Forgotten Books, has read more Persephone Books than Anyone I know!
  • My Writing Life – Julia Hones, a creative spirit writing, reading and sharing insightful and compassionate pearls of wisdom, a place to rest a while.
  • A Life In Books – Susan is an ex bookseller and knows what’s coming out, writes informed reviews and contributes to the conversation.
  • Book to the Future – SteJ reads books with the weirdest covers ever, he thrives on finding the literary bizarre and his reviews and blogs are compelling and original. Blogging shines a bright light out from under the bushel for this one.
  • KimberlySullivan – Kimberly is based in Rome but travels a lot and writes amazing short stories and she goes to the Matera Women’s Fiction Festival every year!! One day I’m going to meet her there! She is total inspiration and gets out there and achieves her dreams and reads and blogs and juggles kid stuff.
  • Thinking in Fragments – Alex is a thinker, a reader and comes to blogging having left the academic world which we are all the richer for having her valued presence and contribution to our virtual world.
  • Books and Reviews – Elena, Spanish Feminist, I came across her wonderful blog when we both read Carmen LeForet’s Nada at the same time, inspirational indeed!
  • ReadEng. Didi’s Press – Well Deidre is up there in the North of France and I’m down here in the South and one day we’ll meet in the middle, I love her, love her blog and A D O R E her Youtube channel! She’s evolved into a SuperStar BookTuber, Go Girl! Love all her recommendations, and she’s great to listen to. More on Youtube than the blog these days. I’m sure we knew each other in a previous life. J
  • Mes étagères en franglais – What dedication, reading in French and English, she puts up her reviews in both languages, dedication to books and reviewing and the French/English languages. Bravo I say!
  • Biblioglobal – Another champion of reading around the world, across cultures, translated fiction and fiction written by those who live or come from other cultures, always love visiting here.

Wow, that was hard work! And sorry for those I missed, there are too many to choose from, so many great blogs by writers as well as readers, I hope you enjoy the selection and find someone new to visit and follow. Just click on the title to go there. And of course, no obligation to those nominated to participate.

After all that, I need a little inspiration from Matera!