Archive for October, 2009

one fifth avenue

Here is some dialogue that you won’t find in Northanger Abbey. 

“I’m glad you liked that Candace Bushnell book I bought you. I saw you updated your status on Facebook. What was it you wrote? Reading One Fifth Avenue is better than going to bed with angry thoughts. I can’t stop reading it. Does that make me shallow?”

“Yes. I finished it. You should read it. It’s good.” 

“I hope people don’t think you have angry thoughts about me.” 

“Why would they think that?” 

“I’m really enjoying The Brothers Karamazov. Maybe I should update my Facebook status. Reading The Brothers Karamazov is better than going to bed with horny thoughts. I can’t stop reading it. Does that make me deep?” 

“You should stop reading all those old books. Read One Fifth Avenue instead.” 

“Is it better than Sex and the City?” 

“It’s different. I don’t know if it’s better. It’s contemporary. It’s about old and new money in New York. People with new money are very shallow. They’re looked down on, just like in the old days.” 

“What about people with no money, like us?” 

“You have to have money in New York.” 

“Is it as good as Edith Wharton?” 

“No. But it’s a quick, easy read. You should read it. You need to learn about the modern world.” 

“I am learning about the modern world. I had coffee with Elisaveta last week don’t forget.” 

“Who’s Elisaveta?” 

“The Bulgarian diplomat I told you about. She’s very modern. I got an email from her today. She said she really enjoyed our chat but she regrets telling me that thing about about the other girl.” 

“Which other girl?” 

“You remember. I told you about it.” 

“Oh you mean the threesome?” 

Elisaveta had told me that she had once made a playful suggestion to her ex-boyfriend that maybe they should spice up their relationship by having a threesome with a nice young woman. It was just hypothetical. She had no particular young woman in mind. But he wouldn’t let the matter drop. He kept asking her, “When are you going to bring this other girl along?” In the end she got fed up with it. He seemed more interested in this non-existent other woman than in her. “What about me?” she asked him. “What about showing me some respect?” 

“She said she regretted telling me that story because she thought I didn’t like it.” 

“It just shows you that you can never trust what a woman says about sex. Even if she is your wife or girlfriend.” 

“Well, that’s true. You mean her ex-boyfriend should have realised that she didn’t really want a threesome.” 

“Of course. She was just testing him, to find out how he would react.” 

“But I quite enjoyed that story actually. I may have looked like I disapproved because it was noisy in the café and I was concentrating hard to make sure I caught every word. It’s not the kind of thing you want to mis-hear. It could be very embarrassing if I thought she was talking about a threesome and she was talking about something quite innocent. She didn’t actually use the word threesome. She just kept mentioning this other girl, who didn’t actually exist. It was a bit confusing, the way she told it. Maybe I should tell her, I told you all about it and you loved it.” 

“Yes! I did!”

“But then again maybe not. I wouldn’t want her to think I tell you all her secrets.” 

“But you should definitely read that book.” 

“I’ll add it to my TBR pile.” 


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Lanying was nagging me to finish my novel again this morning. She didn’t know that I’d been writing for a few hours while she was asleep. “You have to publish it while the technology is current,” she said. She meant the social networking sites through which the characters get to know one another. “Technology moves so fast.”

But the relationships in my novel aren’t tied to the technology. It’s the relationships that interest me, not the media through which the characters communicate. I have never been much interested in novels that try to catch  a trend.

I am writing about modern romance, which these days is conducted over the internet using blogs, networking sites, instant chat, SMS and Twitter. These things do change the dynamics of relationships. Nowadays it is so easy to be unfaithful. It is so easy to get your desires fulfilled. You can have an affair with someone in another country just as easily as with someone in another town. Novelists have to take account of all these things if they are writing a love story today. But infidelity and inconstancy have always been a feature of romantic relationships. Technology hasn’t changed the way people feel.

In some ways my novel is a bit like a European version of Sex and the City but I can’t stand Sex and the City, although I’ve seen nearly every episode at least twice. Lanying was telling me one of the plot lines in Candace Bushnell’s latest novel this morning and I thought it was riddled with the same moral vacuity as the TV series. None of the characters in my story would express moral outrage at the loss of a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes during a visit to a friend’s party.

I like to think my novel has more in common with Middlemarch.

I have always felt an affinity with writers like Joseph Conrad and George Eliot who took up writing novels late in life. Even at the age of 19 I never anticipated being able to write anything worthwhile until I was at least 40.

Conrad and Eliot are giants of literature so it is easy to forget how hard they struggled to get their work written and published. George Eliot’s first draft of Middlemarch concerned only Tertius Lydgate, the young doctor, whose pretty young wife was, like Carrie Bradshaw, more interested in shoes than science. Her extravagance nearly bankrupted him and he had to sacrifice his academic interests in order to pay the bills. Yet George Eliot couldn’t find the right form for this promising material and started writing a different story. This was the story about Dorothea Brooke, whose aspirations towards spiritual and emotional fulfilment came into collision with grim reality in the suffocating person of her scholarly husband, Edward Casaubon.

When she eventually decided to join the two stories together with additional material about Fred Vincy and Mary Garth and the financier Nicholas Bulstrode, she realised she needed four volumes instead of the usual three. The proposed publishing scheme of half-volume bimonthly parts would drive up the total cost to two pounds, which was double what readers normally paid for an instalment novel like those of Dickens and Thackeray.

Yet the publisher agreed, and the world is grateful.

The themes that are present in Middlemarch are still very much relevant today and it is acknowledged to be among the best novels ever written by anyone interested enough to compile such a list. This is why you should always write the novel you want to write, not what the publishers ask for or what someone tells you is fashionable.

My novel is not as good as George Eliot’s, of course, but it is, like hers, a medium for serious social, psychological and moral enquiry and, I like to think, quite a bit funnier too.

Another writer who inspires me is William Shakespeare. There is so much good material in his plays. These words spoken by Troilus and Cressida and written four hundred years ago still resonate with humour, pathos and wicked irony and are more interesting to me than anything in Sex and the City.

TROILUS. O, let my lady apprehend no fear: in all Cupid’s pageant there is presented no monster.

CRESSIDA. Nor nothing monstrous neither?

TROILUS. Nothing, but our undertakings; when we vow to weep seas, live in fire, eat rocks, tame tigers; thinking it harder for our mistress to devise imposition enough than for us to undergo any difficulty imposed. This is the monstruosity in love, lady, that the will is infinite and the execution confined, that the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit.

CRESSIDA. They say all lovers swear more performance than they are able and yet reserve an ability that they never perform, vowing more than the perfection of ten and discharging less than the tenth part of one. They that have the voice of lions and the act of hares, are they not monsters?

TROILUS. Are there such? such are not we: praise us as we are tasted, allow us as we prove; our head shall go bare till merit crown it: no perfection in reversion shall have a praise in present: we will not name desert before his birth, and, being born, his addition shall be humble. Few words to fair faith: Troilus shall be such to Cressid as what envy can say worst shall be a mock for his truth, and what truth can speak truest not truer than Troilus.

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darcy colin

I think the following conversation speaks for itself. Being far too busy to drive from London to Bath tonight, I called in a few favours with the West Country literary set, managed to get hold of Miss Jane Austen’s i-phone number, and was lucky enough to be granted a brief telephone interview.

“Miss Austen, it’s so good of you to spare the time to talk to me. I feel so honoured, being such an ill-educated nobody, to be able to chat about writing with you.”

“Haha! And I think, Mr. Grinton, I may boast myself to be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress.”

“You may be unlearned in matters of science and philosophy, Miss Austen, but I think your novels prove that you have made a thorough study of the human heart.”

“Haha! You flatter me, Mr. Grinton.”

“You are probably aware that thousands of shelves in university libraries all over the world are groaning under the weight of literary monographs about your work, but you yourself probably wrote the best assessment of it when you said a novel was ‘only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.'”

“Did I say that? How appropriate. You are very, very kind, sir, in committing such a sentence to memory, but my greatest anxiety as a novelist was always that my work should not disgrace that sentiment, which was, if I am not mistaken, expressed in one of my early works.”

Northanger Abbey, Miss Austen. But enough of this modesty. You are a genius and the world knows it. What we all want to know is, how do you do it? How do you write such great novels that endure the test of time and seem as fresh now as when they were written 200 years ago?”

“The secret, Mr. Grinton is in the dialogue.”


“Yes. You can never have too much dialogue.”

“Well, I suppose that is the essence of human interaction.”

“Yes, Mr. Grinton, but just as important, you see, is the problem of Hollywood.”


“And television. You see, sooner or later, if the world likes what you do, someone is going to want to make it into a film and then where are you? They rewrite everything. They chop it all about and twist it hickledy-pickledy. I can’t help thinking that what saved me was my dialogue. I gave them so little else, you see, that it was difficult for them to mess it up. Just pages and pages of dialogue. What could go wrong?”

“I never thought of that.”

“No. Well, I dare say you know what happened to Mrs. Radcliffe?”

“Oh, she is no longer read by the masses, I fear.”

“Exactly. All those wordy descriptions, you see. Not enough dialogue. And have you seen what they’ve done to Mr. Dickens?”

“Oh, you mean all those awful, dark, scary films?”

“Exactly. Where is the humour? Gone. Quite gone. Because it’s all in his style. You can’t film style, I’m afraid.”

“But — but you’ve read Dickens, have you? I mean, wasn’t he, well, wasn’t he writing after you were dead?”

“Oh, Mr. Grinton, never mind that! I have read hundreds and hundreds of modern novels. Do not imagine that you can cope with me in a knowledge of Mr. Pickwicks, Moses Herzogs and Bella Swans.  If we proceed to particulars, and engage in the never-ceasing inquiry of ‘Have you read this?’  and ‘Have you read that?’  I shall soon leave you as far behind me as Phileas Fogg left his detractors at the Reform Club. Consider how many years I have had the start of you. And do you not think I have time to spare now that my reputation has been made? Why, there is nothing for me to do but sit back and enjoy myself with a hot pot of tea and a good novel!”

“So what do you think of all the fuss about popular novelists like J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown?”

“Oh, Jo and I call ourselves by our Christian names. We are very intimately acquainted, Mr. Grinton, for, you know, we novelists should not desert one another. As for Mr. Brown, I have heard something of his acclaim and if he would but write in English, I dare say I would take to him. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy and talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans.”

“But then there’s that awful man, Seth Grahame-Smith who turned Pride and Prejudice into a zombie novel. What about him?”

“Haha! Pride and Prejudice needed no reanimator, I think, Mr. Grinton. Good dialogue. Remember that. Write good dialogue and you can fend off even a zombie attack.”

“And may I ask you one last question, Miss Austen, before my pay-as-you-go credit runs out?”

“Of course, Mr. Grinton. Ask away.”

“Who do you curl up with on a cold, windy night when you want to snuggle under the covers and be entertained?”

“Oh, Mr. Grinton, I hope you are not being amazingly impertinent, or I shall flare up in a minute and treat you with spirit.”

“No, no, Miss Austen, I merely intended to ask you who is your favourite writer now?”

“Well, in that case, Mr. Grinton, I don’t mind telling you that there is no more supreme pleasure than that afforded by my dear Cassandra.”

“You mean your sister?”

“Exactly. If I were to labour at it all the rest of my life and live to the age of Methuselah, I could never accomplish anything so perfect as her dear, charming and humorous emails to me.”

“It’s good to see you embracing modern technology, Miss Austen.”

“Oh, I embrace more than that, Mr. Grinton, but what else is there when the cloven-hoofed gentleman has certainly employed one of his menial imps to bring about this complete, though trifling mischief of the postal strike?”

“Well, thank you once again for this exquisite pleasure, Miss Austen, and I wish you a good night.”

“Good night, Mr. Grinton. I hope I was of some use, though like my dear Dr. Johnson I believe I have dealt more in notions than in facts.”

“Notions are what I was short of, Miss Austen. Good night!”

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I like to think of myself as a connoisseur of style. In my ambitious youth I teased myself with Homeric Greek, Dostoyevskian Russian and Flaubertian French in an effort to become more intimate with my idols. But then, in my twenties, came the devastating realisation that my native English style, despite years of patient effort, was still glaringly deficient. Writing stories was very difficult for me, writing business documents even harder. I struggled to put one sentence after another in anything like a coherent pattern. 

I started to read books on how to write. All my foreign novels went up into the attic and I refused to read anything in translation. I sought out the purist English stylists and eschewed anything showy or slipshod. 

Iris Murdoch became a favourite, followed by Terry Pratchett. 

I was appalled when I saw a television interviewer ask Iris Murdoch, “How do you account for your status as one of Britain’s best living novelists, given that you don’t really have any style to speak of?” 

“I like to think I have quite a neat little prose style,” she said. 

That was telling him! 

One of the things about great style is that it often goes unnoticed. All the craft is hidden. What emerges instead is the meaning, which the reader flatters himself he has grasped easily because he is clever. 

What makes Dostoyevsky great is his lucidity. It doesn’t matter that his work is mediated by an imperfect translator or that he tells his stories in a rambling, discursive style with lots of digressions and debates. The souls of his characters appear luminously before you and their moral and spiritual preoccupations are laid out with comprehensive candour. Nobles and peasants, cynics and idealists are all given equal treatment. There is breadth and depth in his novels. Yet everything unfolds with apparent ease. 

The style of The Brothers Karamazov, his last and greatest novel, is the effortlessness of a professional man of letters who knew that the hardest challenge was to set everything before the reader in such a way that it could be readily understood. Reading it is one of the easiest and most pleasurable things in the world only because it’s the culmination of a lifetime dedicated to the craft of writing. 

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VirnaLisiLanying is getting restless again. “When are you going to finish your novel? I can’t take any more of Edith Wharton or Somerset Maugham. I want something contemporary!”

I’ve been busy painting the house, throwing away years of clutter, shopping for a flat, writing to solicitors. How does she expect me to write a novel too?

So I bought her a present this week.

“Is it The Moon and Sixpence?” she asked eagerly.

“No, it’s the lastest novel by Candace Bushnell.”

According to Ms Bushnells’ website, her most-recent novel, One Fifth Avenue, is

a modern-day story of old and new money, the always combustible mix that Edith Wharton mastered in her novels about New York’s Gilded Age and that F. Scott Fitzgerald illuminated in his Jazz Age tales.

So I hope Lanying likes it.

If not I will have to put my nose to the grindstone and get busy.

“Just give me until December,” I told her, “and I’ll have a draft just about good enough for you to read.”

Last night we watched that old romantic comedy How to Murder your Wife starring the stunning Virna Lisi. Lanying was laughing her head off. She loves that kind of thing. She also loves the novel Wilt by Tom Sharpe which steals some ideas from the film.

But while Lanying was laughing, I was thoughtful. A novelist never rests. Well, not a novelist with a nagging wife anyway.

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grinton wharf

If all goes according to plan I’ll be moving into this historic wharf on the River Thames.

My family moved to London’s docklands several generations ago. My great great grandfather owned a stevedore company, unloading ships. Our family name was painted in large letters on the warehouse along the wharf.

My great grandfather drank away the family fortune and the business went to ruin. He was a boxer and a steeplejack. He had a reputation for being fierce and fearless but he was also a drunken bully.

My grandfather, in contrast, was a gentle man and teetotal. He never consulted a doctor if he could help it, preferring remedies made from herbs that he grew on his allotment. He was a day labourer on the docks, which meant he had many days without work and the family often had to eat bread and dripping or tripe for supper.

My father studied hard and, after leaving the army at the end of World War Two, became an accountant. My mother was from Newcastle but she came to London during the war and that’s how she met my father. They moved out of London before I was born but my grandmother lived all her life near the docks. Coming home from her house in the dark, I would be curled up in the back of the car and I often used to stare at the dark blue sign of East India Dock Road and wonder what kinds of ships were unloaded there in my grandfather’s day.

Great_eastern_launch_attemptThe wharf  I’m moving to was originally the shipyard where the Great Eastern was launched in 1850. This was the largest ship ever built at the time and getting it afloat was quite a struggle. It was launched sideways and it took four attempts.

When the ship building industry moved, the site was used for the manufacture of paint. The buildings were converted into apartments in 1995 and are a Class II historic site, which means they’re of special historic interest.

Indeed they are.

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Selfish Pleasure

TheReader1Some days I’d much rather read than write. So I thought I’d do one of those blog entries that lets you know what I’ve been reading.

I’m trying to compete with one of my favourite bloggers who manages to put me to shame, fill me with envy and simultaneously charm me with her casual allusions to how much she reads each month.

Let me see…

The Carnival Master by Craig Russell. It’s a thriller and I chose it because some scenes are set during the carnival in Cologne. Since I’ve also written some scenes in Cologne and Munich during the carnival, I wanted to see what he’d done.

When Eight Bells Toll by Alistair MacLean. I first read this when I was about 13 and wasn’t very impressed even though I read it with intense absorption and enjoyed every minute. Now I am studying it line by line. What I’d give to find another book I could read so fast and with so much pleasure!

Circus by Alistair MacLean. Interesting to compare this expertly-plotted novel that doesn’t work with others by MacLean that do. This one is trash but has a pleasurable momentum in places.

Cakes and Ale by William Somerset Maugham. A fascinating satire on writers but also a very honest and, as always, searingly accurate portrayal of people who shaped his life.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Simply wonderful. What I love about it is, were it not for the outrageous premise, it is so utterly convincing in every detail.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The best people to learn from are the greatest writers. Harper Lee demonstrates with every paragraph that this book deserves its legendary status. Reading it is a supreme pleasure. It is everything a great book should be.

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. Graham Greene was my mother’s favourite writer and I’ve always felt disloyal to her because I’ve never liked any of his books except, possibly, The Third Man. But this one is compelling and has a great, though very simple, plot.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I re-read the Sherlock Holmes stories regularly because there is so much to learn from a writer who conveys suspense in just about every sentence.

I have some really exciting books lined up for this month. I wonder if I’ll have time to read them all.

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