Archive for July, 2009

adonisWhen I was writing about Wuthering Heights at the beginning of the week, I kept thinking about another book called Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being by Ted Hughes.

Ted Hughes said writing this book probably brought about his early death from cancer; he should have stuck to writing poetry.

When I first heard or read this (I can’t remember which) I thought it was a bit of dry Yorkshire humour and I chuckled. Surely no-one is that allergic to writing literary criticism, I thought. But then he went on insistently about it and I realised he was serious.

I can remember that when I first started reading Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, I was shocked. It was a bold thesis and I had read some harsh objections to it in the literary press, but that wasn’t what shocked me; it was the fact that Hughes was giving away all his secrets. He was like a conjuror taking apart his apparatus on the stage to reveal how the trick is done.

Except, of course, it’s not that simple.

Ted Hughes was steeped in mythology. So was Shakespeare. What Hughes did in this book was reveal his interpretation of how Shakespeare was drawing on those myths in order to create literary works that define his own mythic psyche. He is talking a language that is already a step or two beyond most literary critics. But if you enter into this journey with him — and it’s not an easy one because you will have to re-read the complete works of Shakespeare along the way — it offers an unparalleled insight into the subterranean processes of a creative literary mind.

For Hughes, it was a wrench to do that. He was dragging into the light of day things that should have remained subconscious. He thought that’s why he got cancer. Instead of writing about the process he should have used that process to create.

I had something like that in mind when I said that I no longer want to understand or explain Wuthering Heights, I just want to appreciate its power. There is a lot in it that can be analysed and explained; but to take apart the structure, to dissect the imagery, to offer detailed explications of its themes, would be a bit like laying out the pieces of a watch and expecting them to reveal the mysteries of time.

The best book I have read about Emily Brontë and Wuthering Heights is an out of print book that was originally published in 1983. It’s called Emily Brontë: The Artist as a Free Woman.

It has never had great reviews from academics, I think, but, significantly, Stevie Davies went on to become a great novelist after writing it. Whether she became a free woman or not, I don’t know. I suspect she was one all along.


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bronte chairIt was quite hard not to think about Emily Brontë and Wuthering Heights during the 8-mile walk across the moors from her home in Haworth. There is a rock shaped like a chair between the Brontë falls and the Brontë bridge where Emily is supposed to have sat and gathered her thoughts.

“Are you sure it was Emily and not the other one who sat here?” my daughter asked me before sitting in it herself.

My daughter doesn’t like Charlotte. Something in Jane Eyre irks her but she can’t say what. It was my daughter’s idea to come to Haworth and go on this walk — because of Emily.

“It was definitely Emily who sat there,” I said.

Relief flooded her face and she leapt on.

I liked Charlotte best when I was a teenager. I liked her openness and vulnerability. There was a passage in Villette that impressed me greatly where she wrote about how it felt to be depressed. I thought this was brave, honest writing because it must have come from her own experience; but she was also very pragmatic and had a sharp, sarcastic sense of humour that I admired.

Anne was not as lively as Charlotte; and Branwell was a shadowy enigma.

But Emily — she was fierce, forbidding and completely unapproachable. She had a big dog called Keeper that bit people. Her romantic hero was a puppy-murderer and wife-beater who thought nothing of gouging out a person’s eyes.

I read the first 50 pages of Wuthering Heights three times before I understood them. And after that I had to keep re-reading almost everything three times. There is one shocking incident after another, not just the brutish violence of Heathcliff, but the equally shocking capitulations of Cathy.

If Northanger Abbey gently mocks romantic fiction, Wuthering Heights rips it limb from limb.

I’m not sure at what point I decided that Emily was the better novelist but, certainly, by the time my daughter was born I knew. That’s why her middle name is Emily.

I’m very glad I waited to have a child until I was sure.

Today is Emily Brontë’s birthday. Strange, that I have been thinking of her so much this week.

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top withens

Wuthering Heights is the only book I’ve read so often that it fell apart. I’ve also listened to it, read beautifully by Patricia Routledge. I’ve read books and essays about  it and discussed it with various Brontë experts, and still it remains a mystery.

It was a mystery, too, to the critics of the time, who puzzled over the ugly rural setting, the coarse language and the rough, malevolent characters.

It was even a mystery to Charlotte, Emily’s sister, who wrote:

“Whether it is right or advisable to create beings like Heathcliff, I do not know: I scarcely think it is. But this I know: the writer who possesses the creative gift owns something of which he is not always master – something that, at times, strangely wills and works for itself.”

I have given up trying to understand or explain Wuthering Heights; nowadays I  prefer simply to experience its power. I don’t know where the confidence and creativity came from that produced this unintelligible masterpiece but it inspires me more than I can say.

I find it staggering that Emily ignored her family’s rebukes and defied the shallow fault-finding of “the empty world” in order to create such a strange novel. In one sense it is strange. But when you look at Emily’s poems and learn something of her life, perhaps it is not so strange. It is in fact the truest expression of her deepest passions; it is her soul.

Emily knew, above all, how to be true to herself.

Often rebuked, yet always back returning
To those first feelings that were born with me,
And leaving busy chase of wealth and learning
For idle dreams of things which cannot be:

To-day, I will seek not the shadowy region;
Its unsustaining vastness waxes drear;
And visions rising, legion after legion,
Bring the unreal world too strangely near.

I’ll walk, but not in old heroic traces,
And not in paths of high morality,
And not among the half-distinguished faces,
The clouded forms of long-past history.

I’ll walk where my own nature would be leading:
It vexes me to choose another guide:
Where the gray flocks in ferny glens are feeding;
Where the wild wind blows on the mountain side

What have those lonely mountains worth revealing?
More glory and more grief than I can tell:
The earth that wakes one human heart to feeling
Can centre both the worlds of Heaven and Hell.

Tomorrow I’m going to Haworth to have a look at where that wild wind blows. I can’t believe I’ve never been before. I wonder if I’ll come back changed.

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flaubertNo-one knows more about the process of rewriting a novel that Flaubert.

Gustave Flaubert spent five years writing and rewriting his most famous novel, Madame Bovary. He rewrote one scene 52 times. He agonised over every word, as his letters to his long-suffering friends clearly show.

Probably no-one suffered more than his lover, Louise Colet. He promised to show her the manuscript of Madame Bovary so she could understand “the complicated mechanism that leads me to make a sentence.”

Perhaps that’s what drove her into the arms of Alfred de Musset.

Astonishingly, Flaubert never threw any of his drafts away and now, thanks to the painstaking efforts of 130 Flaubert fans, we too can see his incredible manuscript and get a unique insight into the great man’s creative process.

Be warned, this is strong stuff. Dare you enter the mind of a genius?

If it’s too scary, there is help available.

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trollopeDo you ever feel that you are trying to do two jobs? I’m struggling to complete my novel because I want to spend eight hours a day on it and I’m only finding half an hour here and there. I need a pep talk from a pro. Since I’ve just finished a jolly enjoyable novel by Anthony Trollope, I thought I’d spirit myself back in time and ask him how he managed to write it.

I caught up with him in the whist room at the Garrick club. “Frittering your time away playing cards, Anthony?” I asked him. “Shouldn’t you be writing your next best seller?”

“I completed my day’s literary work before I dressed for breakfast,” he replied cheerily.

“What, you get time for breakfast? Some of us have to work, you know.”

“Ha ha ha!” He realised I was joking and tolerated my impertinence with great good humour. “During the day I do the work of a surveyor of the General Post Office, and so do it as to give the authorities of the department no slightest pretext for fault-finding.”

“What? So you really squeeze your novel writing in before breakfast? It must take forever to finish anything that way.”

“Young man,” ( he was scarcely six years older than me I think, but never mind), “I feel confident that in amount no other writer contributed so much during the last twelve years to English literature. Over and above my novels, I have written political, critical, social, and sporting articles for periodicals without number.”

“Oh, but come on, Anthony. Journalism. That’s hack-work. What about something that will stand the test of time: a novel of quality?”

The literary lion leant back in his chair with a complacent sigh. “My morning routine allows me to produce over ten pages of an ordinary novel a day, and if kept up through ten months, will produce three novels of three volumes each in the year; which must at any rate be quite as much as the novel-readers of the world can want from the hands of one man.”

“Hmm. That’s quite impressive, I have to admit. So what exactly is your morning routine?”

“It’s my practice to be at my table every morning at 5.30 a.m.; and it’s also my practice to allow myself no mercy.”

“5:30! I’d need a strong cup of coffee to get my brain into gear at that unholy hour.”

“I have an old groom, whose business it is to call me, and to whom I pay £5 a year extra for the duty. I also allow him no mercy. Fortunately for him, he has never once been late with the coffee which it is his duty to bring me.”

“So that’s your secret, is it? I dare say if I could afford servants, I could be a successful novelist too.”

“I do not know that I ought not to feel that I owe more to him than to any one else for the success I have had.”

“But I suppose these days there are machines that can deliver a steaming cup of coffee at the crack of dawn. I’ll google it when I get back to the office.”

Mr. Trollope shook his whiskers at me in a distracted fashion as if he were impatient to get back to the whist table. Ignoring my last utterance, he opined, “All those I think who have lived as literary men, working daily as literary labourers, will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write.”

“Quite, quite,” I said. “If I had three hours in the day to sit and daydream … I can see that it actually might be quite pleasant to rise early, nibble on your pen and stare at the walls for a bit before breakfast.”

“You misunderstand me, Sir,” he said gruffly. He was beginning to show more and more impatience. “The literary tyro should so have trained himself that he shall be able to work continuously during those three hours, — so have tutored his mind that it shall not be necessary for him to sit nibbling his pen, and gazing at the wall before him, till he shall have found the words with which he wants to express his ideas.”

“That coffee must really do its work well,” I said.

“It has become my custom,” he said proudly, “to write with my watch before me, and to require from myself 250 words every quarter of an hour. I have found that the 250 words are forthcoming as regularly as my watch goes.”

“Oh! What, so you write 1,000 words an hour for three solid hours?”

“My three hours are not devoted entirely to writing. I always begin my task by reading the work of the day before, an operation which takes me half an hour, and which consists chiefly in weighing with my ear the sound of the words and phrases. I would strongly recommend this practice to all tyros in writing.”

“You mean writers should actually read what they’ve written? Oh, I’ve tried that. I don’t like it at all!”

“That their work should be read after it has been written is a matter of course, — that it should be read twice — ”


“Twice at least before it goes to the printers, I take to be a matter of course. But by reading what he has last written, just before he recommences his task, the writer will catch the tone and spirit of what he is then saying, and will avoid the fault of seeming to be unlike himself.”

“What about this ghastly modern habit of rewriting everything?”

But before he could answer this perfectly reasonable question, Mr. Trollope was pulled from his chair by a couple of cronies and forced to make up a fourth hand at the whist table, after which, I’m sorry to report that I couldn’t get another syllable from him of any significance.

[All the utterances from Trollope, with some slight alterations, can be found in his Autobiography. No doubt he was inspired to write those passages after this stimulating interview.]

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Prunella Scales and Timothy West

Prunella Scales and Timothy West

Anthony Trollope is one of my favourite novelists but I have to admit that I don’t always finish his novels. While I’m reading them I really enjoy them but some of them are quite long. Somehow it doesn’t matter that I don’t finish them because it’s usually obvious what’s going to happen. He also tends to repeat things quite a bit so the chances are that, in bailing out early, you’re not missing as much as you might think. In fact that’s one of the things I like about Trollope; he never assumes you can remember who everyone is or what their goals in life are. He likes to remind you often. They always have a goal. That’s another good thing. You can learn from these characters. They have a goal and they set about achieving it. We should all do that really, shouldn’t we? That would stop us from moaning in our blogs about how useless we are. Frank Gresham’s plan, for example, is to marry money. Not that he wants to, but everyone tells him he must. Frank must marry money otherwise he will be ruined. The woman he falls in love with, Mary Thorne, doesn’t have any. She loves Frank truly and deeply so her goal is to avoid marrying him at all costs.

Dr Thorne is Mary’s uncle. He knows something that Frank and Mary don’t know but which could make a vital difference to their lives. His goal is not to disclose it, because that could create false hope. But he’s a kind man and he also wants Mary to be happy; making sure she can be is another of his goals.

I actually made it to the end of Dr. Thorne and I was very pleased with myself. Everything turned out nicely and I had no reason to complain — about Frank or Mary or Dr. Thorne or my own fickleness.

I must confess, though, that I didn’t actually read the novel. I had it read to me by Timothy West. He did a great job, as he always does, and he even made me laugh out loud a few times. I don’t mean LOL, I mean really laugh out loud.

I have sort of met Timothy West. We were at the cinema together and he had a little drink in the pub next door with his wife, Prunella Scales. All right, I didn’t really meet him, but only because I kept my distance out of respect. I could have met him. Anyway, he is a brilliant actor and Trollope is a brilliant novelist. What a combination they make!

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Atlantic_OceanRichard Bausch never bases his characters on people he knows; he makes everything up. I discovered this by reading an interview with him in the Washington Post. It’s an old interview that I found on the internet.

Off the Page with Richard Bausch

I became interested in Richard Bausch because I’m reading a book of stories chosen by him. It’s called Best New American Voices 2008 and the stories are “culled from hundreds of writing programs” from across America. In his introduction Richard Bausch claims that the short story is America’s contribution to the world’s literary landscape, which is very similar to what Dave Eggers said in an anthology he edited recently and which I’ve also been reading. Dave Eggers hoped Europeans would become excited about the story after reading his anthology and start writing stories themselves.

That was an interesting idea, I thought. I didn’t realise we weren’t already writing stories in Europe. The vast majority of short story collections I own are by Europeans. But when you see just how many short stories are being written in America, maybe Eggers has a point.  The senior fiction editor of The Atlantic claims to reject 3,600 stories every week (how does he even find time to count them?) while at the same time keeping up “a vast correspondence with young writers seeking counsel.”

The Atlantic has an interesting editorial policy, I discovered. While remaining “committed to the form” of the short story, it chooses not to publish one in every monthly edition. That’s because it would rather concentrate on “long-form narrative reporting.” (I wonder if the long-form narrative reporters need counselling.) I’ve never seen a copy of The Atlantic so I’m not that bothered about its editorial policy but I’m quite curious about where those 3,600 rejected stories end up.

“The reading public don’t want stories,” publishers tell us over here. Maybe that’s true; but with every passing year my longing to read short stories gets stronger and good stories get harder to find.

I was wondering if I should get hold of some stories by Richard Bausch. He seems to have written a lot. It’s the thing he’ll be remembered for, according to the Washington Post. He’s even written some he’s never tried to sell:

“I always write stories, and I write poems, too. I just never sell them to anybody, but I write them. They’re good, too. They never leave the house. They’re too disclosing. I get to hide in the fiction.”

Oh, Richard. Those are the stories I most want to read, those private stories that tell us all about you.

I wonder how many other fiction writers are hiding in their fiction and keeping all their best work for themselves. What I like about fiction is that the best of it tells us much more than even the writer knows. In nearly all the stories I admire, the writer’s soul is laid bare. Everything is disclosed. There is nowhere to hide.

Probably I won’t order that book of stories by Richard Bausch. Maybe if I want to read some good stories I should start a magazine. I could call it The Other Side of The Atlanticshort stories for Europeans.

But wait, I smell Blood…

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