Archive for September, 2009

The Carpathians

The Carpathians

How do you write descriptions of the natural landscape without being dull?

I really admire the detailed descriptions that contribute to the profound gothic beauty in the novels of Ann Radcliffe. All great novels establish a sense of place. But I have to acknowledge that not all readers are in love with nature. I was shocked to learn that a friend of mine, who is a voracious reader, always skips any description that is longer than a sentence or two; and those long passages in Ann Radcliffe’s novels were controversial even in 1797, before psychiatrists discovered attention deficit disorder and readers discovered just how much could be compressed into 140 words on Twitter.

Maybe it helps if you were read to as a child, which I was. I like to close my eyes and picture what is being described. As you get older you learn to visualise with your eyes open while you are reading; but for the past year I have been listening to two or three novels a month on my mp3 player, sometimes with my eyes shut and sometimes with them open.

I listened to this passage from Dracula while I was walking to work and I was so impressed I walked the long way round so I could savour it. Then I sought it out and read it online.

It owes something to Ann Radcliffe, but it’s much finer. There is so much more going on in the approach to Castle Dracula than in the approach to Castle Udolpho. For a writer who is often dismissed as a minor literary figure, Stoker is astonishingly good at everything. I really admire the little ironies and touches of dark humour in this passage as well as the thrilling visual sweep that has inspired so many films.


Read Full Post »

Martha Vickers explaining to Humphrey Bogart why she never read The Big Sleep

I can't believe you've never read The Big Sleep, Martha.

I was very interested in A.S. Byatt’s comments reported in the Guardian last month because most of the characters in the novel I’m writing are based on real people.

“I know at least one suicide and one attempted suicide caused by people having been put into novels. I know writers to whom I don’t tell personal things – which is hard, as these writers are always the most interested in what one has to tell,” she said. “Now we have the blog and the facebook everyone is a writer, and everyone’s idea of anyone else, kind or cruel, just or unjust, is available on the web, to be believed, or mocked. Blogs and facebooks, too, have caused suicides. Writers often realise the power of writing too late.”

How shallow it seems, after that, to mention that Lanying, my wife, is enjoying what I’m doing because it adds spice to our conversations. Today at breakfast I was talking about some creative decisions I’d made and she gave me a lot of  new material I could use based on conversations she’d had with the woman I’ve called Greta. We have Greta’s permission to use the intimate details of her life, so I suppose she won’t kill herself when she reads what I’ve done with them. I hope she won’t kill me either.

At dinner Lanying said, “Let’s talk about your book again.”

I was more than happy to comply.

One of the other female characters is a nymphomaniac. “Don’t worry,” I told my wife. “I don’t want to sleep with her.”

“I wouldn’t mind if you did.”


“No, because I know at the end of the day you would rather be with me.”

“That’s true. Then, perhaps in the interests of research…”

You can never know too much about your characters, can you? Or can you?

Unfortunately, although she is a nymphomaniac, she still finds time to read a lot, so I’d better be careful. I wouldn’t want to hurt her feelings.

Read Full Post »

emma and leonI’ve been studying how the novelists I most admire handle sex scenes. There are hundreds of examples to choose from. There also seem to be quite a lot of articles on the internet about this so you’d think modern writers have it easy; they should all be experts by now. 

But, as with every artistic topic, it is fraught with controversy. Some people think novelists shouldn’t write sex scenes at all, while others think no novel is complete without at least two. 

But how much detail should you go into? And what sort of sex should the characters have? Modern relationships are messy in every sense. 

The modern novelists I admire are subject to copyright laws, which makes it difficult for me to quote examples. Two of them are Tom Wolfe and John Updike. Unfortunately, they have both won the Literary Review’s bad sex award. Tom Wolfe’s winning passage was exquisite, I thought. It wasn’t meant to be erotic; it was meant to be funny. Judge for yourselves… 

Hoyt began moving his lips as if he were trying to suck the ice cream off the top of a cone without using his teeth. She tried to make her lips move in sync with his. The next thing she knew, Hoyt had put his hand sort of under her thigh and hoisted her leg up over his thigh. What was she to do? Was this the point she should say, “Stop!”? No, she shouldn’t put it that way. It would be much cooler to say, “No, Hoyt,” in an even voice, the way you would talk to a dog that insists on begging at the table.

Slither slither slither slither went the tongue, but the hand that was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological caverns – oh God, it was not just at the border where the flesh of the breast joins the pectoral sheath of the chest – no, the hand was cupping her entire right – Now! She must say “No, Hoyt” and talk to him like a dog. . .

. . . the fingers went under the elastic of the panties moan moan moan moan moan went Hoyt as he slithered slithered slithered slithered and caress caress caress caress went the fingers until they must be only eighths of inches from the border of her pubic hair – what’s that! – Her panties were so wet down. . . there – the fingers had definitely reached the outer stand of the field of pubic hair and would soon plunge into the wet mess that was waiting right. . . there–there–

[From I am Charlotte Simmons p368-9]

 So how do you write an unfunny sex scene? For all the good advice out there and fine examples to follow, it’s not easy. 

One of my favourite sex scenes is the one in Madame Bovary when Leon takes Emma for a long bouncy ride in a carriage. It manages to be serious and funny at the same time. It gains in excitement from the fact that they are rushing out of Rouen’s Notre Dame Cathedral where a persistent beadle is determined to give them a guided tour. At once erotic and sacrilegious, it’s no wonder the book was the subject of a sensational obscenity trial in 1857. 

Flaubert achieves his erotic effects partly by leaving as much as possible to the imagination. But the real power of this scene comes not from the details that have been omitted but from what has been included before. The sensory detail packed into the description of Leon’s preparations is lavish, beautiful and witty. Then comes the sexual tension. Leon is forced to wait for two hours in the cathedral, first anticipating Emma’s arrival and then waiting impatiently for her to finish her prayers at the altar of the Virgin. The irony is obvious but the subtle ingenuity of Flaubert’s technique is not. In erotica, anticipation is essential. Without the elaborate build-up, and the boiling frustration that Leon endures while fending off the tenacious beadle, the carriage scene would be flat and uninteresting. It is in the cathedral scene, just before the non-stop sex in the carriage, that Flaubert demonstrates the full range of his talent and the consummate mastery of his art.

Read Full Post »

Joseph Conrad: the master of passion
Joseph Conrad: the master of passion

One of the things that always intrigues me when I read a novel by Joseph Conrad is the way he effortlessly shifts points of view mid-paragraph. It’s something I would never dare to do. But then he does many things I would never dare to do. He’s one of the most daring writers I know. He moves backwards and forwards in time and never seems to stumble in his use of the pluperfect. Without warning he will veer off into an intense description of the world seen through the eyes of a very minor character. He will introduce a backstory that goes on for fifty or more pages. A sentence that begins with the panoramic description of a continent can end with a tiny detail like a donkey kicking up some dust on a mountain trail. He has narrators begin a novel by handing over the task to a character they meet in a boat. Almost the whole of Lord Jim is written within speech marks. What a nightmare for a proofreader!

Yet he was a very nervous writer. Each paragraph was a colossal effort. I think he counted himself successful if he wrote 500 words in a day without having some sort of paroxysm.

Some topics made him more nervous than others. He said in one of his prefaces that he had no idea what two society women would talk about when they were having a chat in a drawing room and he really envied people like Henry James and Edith Wharton, who knew what they were about.

But what a great writer of love scenes!

I’ve been reading a lot of love scenes recently and I have to say that his are some of the best. Maybe I’ll quote some of the others that have impressed me another time. But here, for now, is an extract from Almayer’s Folly, Conrad’s first novel. Dain, the son of a Malay prince, is hiding in a jungle clearing, waiting for Almayer’s daughter, Nina.

I’ve missed out the section where she’s approaching with a paddle (With what skill and what endurance could those small hands manage a heavy paddle! ) and he’s wondering if she’s going to come. I suppose that would only make modern readers snigger.

Read Full Post »