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.

Reading in #Translation, A Literary Revolution #WITMonth

Sometimes it’s interesting to pause and look back at a reading journey and observe the reading milestones that helped deliver us to where our preferences are today. As many of you who’ve been reading Word by Word for a while will know, I like to read around the world, across cultures and that has led me to read more literature in translation.

It has become easier to find more diverse literature than in the past, thanks to the wonderful community of readers/bloggers who write with passion about books and to initiatives like the annual August ‘Women in Translation’ #WITMonth, also lead by a passionate blogger, Meytal Radzinski who blogs at Biblibio.

Tilted Axis Press was founded in 2015 by Deborah Smith, translator of Korean literature, while she was completing a PhD in contemporary Korean literature. She translated both of Han Kang’s excellent books, which I’ve read and reviewed here, the incredible Human Acts (my personal favourite) and last years Man Booker International Prize winner The Vegetarian. They are a small, not for profit publisher of works that might not otherwise appear in English, books with

“artistic originality, radical vision, the sense that here is something new”

Recently they asked me for my thoughts on  reading literature in translation, and published my response on their website, which I’ve linked here. It also includes a list of some of my favourite novels in translation and some of the excellent bloggers I rely on to keep me informed. Click on the link below to read the article.

My Thoughts on

Reading in Translation, A Literary Revolution

I hope you enjoy it and find a good book to read in translation during August. Do you have a recent favourite book that you’ve read in translation to recommend? Please let me know in the comments below.

 

Man Booker International Longlist 2016 #MBI2016

MBI logoToday the longlist of the newly formed Man Booker International (MBI) 2016 was announced. In the past, this award was made every two years to an author for a body of work, so usually an author who has written numerous novels and is recognised as having made a significant literary contribution.

That changed after 2015, which was the last year under the old rules, I remember last year, from the longlist of 10 authors you can see here, I decided to read some of the works of the Guadeloupean author Maryse Condè.

She didn’t win the prize, but she was the right choice for me. I read her childhood essays Tales From The Heart, True Stories From My Childhood , the novel Victoire: My Mother’s Mother and the masterpiece she is most well-known for Segu.

Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé

Literary Works of Maryse Condé

In addition to the MBI, there was another prize called the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) which rewarded one novel, a recent publication, that had been translated into English in the previous year.

In 2016, these two prizes have joined together, to become one, retaining the rules of the IFFP Prize and the name of the Man Booker International Prize. The £50,000 prize is shared equally between the author and the translator.

Boyd Tonkin, chair of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize judging panel, said:

‘For the first longlist in its new form, the Man Booker International Prize invites readers to share a thrilling journey of discovery across the finest fiction in translation.

The 13 books that the judges have chosen not only feature superb writing from Brazil to Indonesia, from Finland to South Korea, from Angola to Italy. Our selection highlights the sheer diversity of great fiction today.

From intense episodes of passion to miniature historical epics; from eerie fables of family strife to character-driven chronicles of urban life, this list showcases fiction that crosses every border. It also pays tribute to the skill and dedication of the first-rate translators who convey it to English-language readers.’

Thirteen books have been announced on the longlist:

José Eduardo Agualusa (Angola) Daniel Hahn, A General Theory of Oblivion – On the eve of Angolan independence an agoraphobic woman bricks herself into her apartment for 30 years, living off vegetables and the pigeons she lures in with diamonds, burning her furniture and books to stay alive, writing her story on the apartment’s walls.

Elena Ferrante (Italy) Ann Goldstein, The Story of the Lost Child – book four in the Neapolitan saga of two friends, Lena and Lila, now adults, returning to their childhood town, dealing with life as mother’s, lovers, surviving an earthquake, tragedies of nature and humanity.

Han Kang (South Korea) Deborah Smith, The Vegetarian – Yeong-hye, seeking a more ‘plant-like’ existence, decides to become a vegetarian, prompted by grotesque recurring nightmares. In South Korea, where vegetarianism is almost unheard-of and societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision is a shocking act of subversion.

Maylis de Kerangal (France) Jessica Moore, Mend the Living – takes place over twenty-four hours surrounding a fatal accident and a resulting heart transplant as life is taken from a young man and given to a woman close to death, examining the deepest feelings of everyone involved.

Eka Kurniawan (Indonesia) Labodalih Sembiring, Man Tiger – A slim, wry story set in an unnamed town near the Indian Ocean, Man Tiger tells the story of two interlinked and tormented families, and of Margio, an ordinary half-city, half-rural youngster who also happens to be half-man, half-supernatural female white tiger.

Yan Lianke (China) Carlos Rojas, The Four Books – In the ninety-ninth district of a sprawling labour camp, the Author, Musician, Scholar, Theologian and Technician are undergoing Re-education, to restore their revolutionary zeal and credentials. In charge of this process is the Child, who delights in draconian rules, monitoring behaviour and confiscating treasured books.

Divided into four narratives, echoing the four texts of Confucianism and the four Gospels of the New Testament, The Four Books tells the story of one of China’s most controversial periods, demonstrating the power of camaraderie, love and faith against oppression and the darkest possible odds.

Fiston Mwanza Mujila (Democratic Republic of Congo/Austria) Roland Glasser, Tram 83 – In a war-torn African city-state tourists converge with students, ex-pats and locals. Their one desire: to make a fortune by exploiting the wealth of the country, both mineral and human. As night falls, they go out to drink, dance, eat and abandon themselves in Tram 83, the only night-club of the city, a den of all iniquities. An African-rhapsody novel infused with the rhythms of jazz.

Raduan Nassar (Brazil) Stefan Tobler, A Cup of Rage – A pair of lovers – a young female journalist and an older man who owns an isolated farm in the Brazilian outback – spend the night together. The next day they proceed to destroy each other. Erotic cult novel by one of Brazil’s most infamous modernist writers explores alienation, the desire to dominate and the wish to be dominated.

Marie NDiaye (France) Jordan Stump, Ladivine – a psychological tale of a trauma that ensnares three generations of women, via a woman captive to a secret shame. Once a month, Clarisse Rivière leaves her family and secretly takes the train to visit her mother, Ladivine. Just as Clarisse’s husband and daughter know nothing of Ladivine, Clarisse has hidden nearly every aspect of her adult life from this woman, whom she dreads, despises but also pities.

Kenzaburō Ōe (Japan) Deborah Boliner Boem, Death by Water – his recurring protagonist and literary alter-ego returns to his hometown village in search of a red suitcase fabled to hold documents revealing the details of his father’s death during WWII: details that will serve as the foundation for his new, and final, novel.

Aki Ollikainen (Finland) Emily Jeremiah & Fleur JeremiahWhite Hunger – 1867: a year of devastating famine in Finland. Marja, a farmer’s wife from the north, sets off on foot through the snow with her two young children. Their goal: St Petersburg, where people say there is bread. Others are also heading south, just as desperate to survive.

Orhan Pamuk (Turkey) Ekin Oklap, A Strangeness in My Mind – the story of Mevlut, the woman to whom he wrote three years’ worth of love letters, and their life in Istanbul. Mevlut Karataş sells boza (a traditional mildly alcoholic Turkish drink) in Istanbul and wishes for love and riches. He doesn’t have the best of luck (falling in love with a woman and accidentally eloping with the sister) as he ages, attempts to discover what is missing from his life.

Robert Seethaler (Austria) Charlotte Collins, A Whole Life – Andreas lives his whole life in the Austrian Alps, arriving as a boy taken in by a farming family. A man of few words, when he falls in love with Marie, he has friends light her name at dusk across the mountain. When she dies in an avalanche, pregnant with their first child, Andreas’ heart is broken. He leaves the valley just once more, in WWII – and is taken prisoner in the Caucasus – returning to find modernity has reached his remote haven.

*****

A fabulous lineup of books and authors across countries and languages. I have read two of the books, Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child and Aki Ollikainen’s White Hunger, both of which are excellent, and although I haven’t read The Vegetarian, I have read Han Kang’s more recent novel Human Acts which was brilliant!

I’d love to read Marie NDiaye, Orhan Pamuk, Kenzaburō Ōe, Robert Seethaler, Yan Lianke, they all sound fantastic. And Man Tiger sounds interesting, and I definitely want to read more of Han Kang!

A shortlist of six books will be announced on 14 April.

So many great reads, which of these sounds the most appealing to you? Have you read any already?

Further Reading

The Guardian ArticleMan Booker International 2016 longlist includes banned and pseudonymous authors

Purchase A Book:

If you wish to buy one of the above books, you can do so via the Book Depository link below, with whom I have an affiliation.

Buy One of These Books at Book Depository

 

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).”

The Man Booker International Prize 2015 Winner #MBI2015

Lydia Davis

Lydia Davis

Man Booker IntlToday the winner of The Man Booker International Prize was announced.

This prize recognises one writer for his or her achievement in fiction. It is awarded every two years to a writer whose work has been published in English or is generally available having been translated into English.

Unlike the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, there are no submissions from publishers, it is a decision left solely to the judging panel, who must consider a writer’s body of work and not just their latest novel.

The 2013 winner was short story writer and translator Lydia Davis (America).

The finalists for 2015, alongside a quote made by one of the judges were:

Alain Mabanckou (Republic of Congo) ‘His voice is vividly colloquial, mischievous and … outrageous’

Amitav Ghosh (India) ‘In Ghosh’s hands the contemporary historical novel is transformed’

César Aira (Argentina) ‘A performance on page’

Fanny Howe (US) ‘[her] care for words matches her care for characters’

Hoda Barakat (Lebanon) ‘The unrivalled bride of the Mediterranean

László Krasznahorkai (Hungary) ‘What strikes the reader above all are extraordinary sentences’

Marlene van Niekerk (South Africa) ‘The author of two immense masterpieces

Mia Couto (Mozambique) ‘His pages are studded with startling images’

Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe) ‘A monumental body of work that acts against forgetting’

Ibrahim al-Koni (Libya) ‘Reading al-Khoni is a transcendental experience’

Finalists

The Guardian interviewed all 10 finalists in this excellent article, asking each of them:

  • to describe their work to someone unfamiliar with it
  • which of their books they’d recommend to a first time reader
  • whether as a writer,  they felt a distinction between local and international readers
  • who their literary heroes were
  • whether it was the duty of a novelist to engage with the political issues of the day
  • to share something new about themself

After reading this article, I could tell immediately that I would love to read the work of Guadeloupean author Maryse Condé. I have ordered a few of her books already. I recommend reading it if you are interested in knowing which of these authors might appeal to you.

One of the judges, New York Review Classics editorial director Edwin Frank had this to say:

“It would be pretentious to say we wanted to survey the world, but we wanted to be mindful of the wider world of literature. For me, I’ve learned all sorts of things about authors I’d never read especially in Arabic literature, which is still woefully underrepresented in English. And we have various writers from Africa, writing in very different languages and literary traditions.”

And so the winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2015 is…..

Winner 2015

Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2015

lbaileyslogoTwenty books have now been selected that make up the 2015 long list for the Bailey’s (previously The Orange) Prize for Fiction. They will be reduced to six on April 13 and the winner announced at the Royal Festival Hall on 3 June 2015.

Previous winners include Eimear McBride for A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2014) and A.M. Homes for May We Be Forgiven (2013), Madeline Miller for The Song of Achilles (2012) and Téa Obreht for The Tiger’s Wife (2011).

Shami Chakrabarti, Chair of judges, had this to say about this year’s selection:

“The Prize’s 20th year is a particularly strong one for women’s fiction.  All judges fought hard for their favourites and the result is a 2015 list of 20 to be proud of – with its mix of genres and styles, first-timers and well-known names from around the world.”

From the list of 20, I have read only one and it was absolutely brilliant, Laline Paull’s The Bees and I am currently just over half through Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread which reminds me of the experience of reading Jonathan Franzen’s family saga The Corrections.

So here it is, the list of twenty books long listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction:

Rachel Cusk: Outline

Lissa Evans: Crooked Heart

Patricia Ferguson: Aren’t We Sisters?

Xiaolu Guo: I Am China

Samantha Harvey: Dear Thief

Emma Healey: Elizabeth is Missing

Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven

Grace McCleen: The Offering

Sandra Newman: The Country of Ice Cream Star

Heather O’Neil: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night

Laline Paull: The Bees

Marie Phillips: The Table of Less Valued Knights

Rachel Seiffert: The Walk Home

Kamila Shamsie: A God in Every Stone

Ali Smith: How to be Both

Sara Taylor: The Shore

Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread

Sarah Waters: The Paying Guests

Jemma Wayne: After Before

PP Wong: The Life of a Banana

The prize is being shadowed by a group of excellent bloggers, including one of my all time favourites Eric at Lonesome Reader, organised by Naomi at The Writes of Women.

They will be reading all the books and many of them have read at least five or six already, that’s where I’ll be heading to decide which books might appeal to me and where I recommend you look for some of the best reviews.

So which books have you read, or plan to read?

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