Mazurka and Other Stroud Short Stories

I will be reading my story, The Truth and Several Lies About Butterflies, at the Stroud Short Stories event at Stroud Book Festival on Sunday.

Also reading are: Peter Adams, Sallie Anderson, Ali Bacon, Georgia Boon, Nimue Brown, Philip Douch, Sophie Flynn, Sarah Hitchcock, and Rick Vick.

When Rebecca Met Mrs Dalloway

It’s more than a stack, or even a shelf: to date, there’s a whole bookcase’s worth. I refer, of course, to my to-be-read list. And that’s only counting the physical books that I own: not the list of e-books, not the ever-expanding wishlist on my library account, not the endless ‘must look out for’ list picked up from reviews, publishers’ and booksellers’ emails, and from the recommendations of fellow readers. As a matter of necessity (not to say urgency) I have made peace with the certain knowledge that I cannot hope to read everything on my TBR list. And yet still there are certain books, old favourites that I return to again and again when nothing else quite draws me in. There is something in the act of reciting the opening line of a favourite book that sets off a chain of resonances much in the manner of Proust dipping his madeleine into his cup. It is necessarily a personal, highly subjective experience and while a novel’s opening line may appear to be a tasty little morsel enjoyed in private it is actually a Trojan horse, calculated to break through the reader’s defences (the three-second attention span, tiredness, inability to suspend disbelief, the compulsion to keep on scrolling, too much of importance going on in one’s ‘real’ life… etc. etc.) and lay the whole reading nation (in one’s more grandiose moments!) not only open to but powerless to resist the novelist’s designs.

With the benefit of copious amounts of hindsight, I want to look at the opening lines of two of my all-time favourite books, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. This time I want to do more than read them out loud to myself and stare off out the window while the resonances do their work: I want to scrutinise them, to see if I might figure out their workings. What is it precisely about these opening lines that catch me and how do they go about doing this? What expectations do they give the reader? It also occurs to me to wonder if they actually do more than this. Do they give any clues as to what will follow, in terms of actual and emotional content, if one is prepared to return from one’s reverie and pause for a moment to pay close attention before plunging in?

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

So, what do we have here? Nine words, twelve syllables. We have a strong iambic rhythm, giving a firmly measured and controlled feeling until ‘Manderley’ disrupts the pattern, only for ‘again’ to restore it immediately and, further, to provide forward momentum, in contradiction to the past-oriented facts of the sentence. We have a first person narrator. And already we have a lot of questions to ask!

There is a good deal of mystery and mood concealed in these apparently straightforward nine words. It’s all very uncertain: to begin with, who is this ‘I’ (two of the nine words)? Who is speaking? (Indeed we never do learn her name: so insignificant is she held to be that her story turns out to be named after her deceased predecessor.) To whom are they speaking? To the reader? To another character? To a diary? There are no clues as to their relationships within their world. The narrator is untethered. We do not know what or where Manderley is nor what significance it has to the narrator. We do not know the circumstances of their having been at Manderley previously, nor why they left nor what might call them back, even if only in a dream. We do not know the state of mind of the dreamer: was it a happy dream or wistful, or a cold fist of dread kind of dream? We know that recalling Manderley, and at the further remove of a dream (an involuntary production of the unconscious mind), is more significant to the teller at this point than are any details of their current waking life. The narrator’s attention is focused on the past (‘Last night’… and they went back to Manderley) yet the simple, direct verbs are active: ‘I dreamt I went’. The dreamer’s mind demands action and movement. There is no prevarication. At the level of the sentence, no sooner do they dream than they act. The effect could be described as one of wash and backwash.

The sentence’s iambic rhythm and primarily monosyllabic words, with the echoing of e and t sounds and near rhyme, provide momentum, their driving beat carrying us forward into the past (if that is not altogether too F. Scott Fitzgerald!). Trisyllabic ‘Manderley’ is musical and romantic in contrast.

In the opening line of Rebecca the mysterious narrator returns in a dream to Manderley but as we don’t know where they have set out from there is not the expected feeling of returning to a root note (to use a musical term). The matter is clearly not ‘settled’ or concluded. It provokes a sense of uneasiness (and curiosity!) at the suggestion of an action that happened in the past but which has left unfinished business that still weighs upon the narrator’s mind at unguarded moments.

I am happy to forget at this point that I already know the plot: I want to find out what happens next, what has already happened. I want to know who this person is. I want to go to Manderley! I want to read on. I must read on.

What then of Mrs Dalloway?

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

Nine words again but this time we are given a third person narrative. The first thing we learn is the protagonist’s name. We know she is a woman and married. (We may or may not already be wondering who Mr Dalloway is.) By happy coincidence, it may be noted that ‘Dalloway’ has the same rhythmic stress as ‘Manderley’, likewise the a, d, l and y sounds. We learn that Mrs Dalloway is speaking to someone else. The stress falls on the words ‘said’ and then ‘buy’. This puts the emphasis on social activities and a relationship to others, contrasted with the ‘I’ of Rebecca who might only be talking to their diary. Mrs Dalloway is firmly rooted in her world, it seems, and has enough presence there that someone else has seen fit to write about her: she is not telling her own story. She is also looking forward, planning a future event. We are told she will buy the flowers. Not grow, not choose, not pick, not steal: she has the money for flowers, which gives a further clue as to her social standing. We might wonder what occasion she is buying them for. We might wonder who usually buys the flowers, runs her errands. As the final word of the sentence, ‘herself’ brings our focus back from the flowers to her. It is a circular sentence, a going out and an effortless return. To recall my previous analogy, Mrs Dalloway herself is the root note. There is a sense of completion, of all things being well in hand, with the satisfying feelings that brings, and she hasn’t even set out for the flowers yet!

This is such a contrast from the opening line of Rebecca that I can’t resist looking at the closing sentences, too.

And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea. Rebecca
Once again, the past (represented by the ashes, all that’s left of something that was but is no more) is seen to be blowing towards them. However, it is revealed that the narrator is not alone.

For there she was. Mrs Dalloway
There she is again, Clarissa Dalloway, at the beginning and the end of things, central to her own story, her presence book-ending all the events within.

I’m surprised by just how much and how easily I have been able to ‘read into’ the opening lines of these two books, chosen not randomly, exactly, but because I particularly enjoy re-reading them. Because I know what will come next, it is of course easier to see the seeds of the stories as a whole in their first words. I cannot say to what extent this was a conscious decision on their authors’ part. I do not know whether others books on my shelves would stand up to scrutiny in this way. I found it a fascinating exercise in resonance and possibility, and it is in that spirit that I offer this essay.

Reading wrap-up: March 2019

A month in which my book-buying ban went all to blazes.

Highlight

The Overstory by Richard Powers. Oh, this book! Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it would have been  my winner. Everyone I know who has loved it has said, “I’ll never look at trees the same way again!” I think I will never quite look at people the same way again. I don’t recall my ever being someone for whom humans are the only (or even, at times, the primary) species of interest. This book made me weep with rage, frustration and inconsolable sadness. But that’s not to say I didn’t love it. I enjoyed following the seemingly separate narratives as they came together. I felt for the characters (human and arboreal) through what came next. I appreciated having plenty to think about. It was so worth the four months I had to wait for it from the library.

Disappointment

(Not the book as a whole, which I actually enjoyed, but a particular aspect of it.) Witch Light by Susan Fletcher. Corrag is a solitary girl with a knowledge of herbs. She is also a witness to the Glencoe massacre. Put the two together and she’s set to be burnt for a witch. She is, quite simply, in love with life, however difficult and dangerous, and likewise with the natural world. I loved the vivid descriptions of her moment-to-moment experience of the Highlands. The actual love story felt superfluous, as though the author lacked confidence in Corrag as a sufficiently interesting character without having her sighing over a Jamie Fraser-alike. A disappointment, then, in a book that otherwise has much to recommend it.

Reading wrap-up: February 2019

Highlights

The most magnificent birthday book-haul I have ever received! Many of these came from friends on Litsy.

My most impactful read of the month was Finding Baba Yaga by Jane Yolen. Baba Yaga and I go back a long way. I chose to read this book one chapter at a time last thing at night, so that it could best do its work on me.

On the surface it’s a simple tale but as with all great folktales, it has resonances that grow more pronounced the longer you spend in their neighbourhood. Jane Yolen’s version has themes of female friendship, the parent/child relationship, and the power and policing of the spoken word.

The verse proved to be the ideal form for weaving together the familiar, if strange, world of Baba Yaga and the contemporary story of teenage runaway Natasha’s flight from an abusive/negligent family. I feel prose would have required too much exposition and would have seemed contrived. Poetry gives both stories the space and opportunity to encounter each other and co-exist, enriching one another in the process.

Shot through with barbs of wit and moments of real sadness, I think it’ll stick with me a while, this book.( And, on a personal note, it has shown me a potential way forward with a writing project of my own that stalled when I became afraid of it.)

Reading wrap-up: November 2018

For the second month running I have stuck to my book-buying ban!

Highlights

Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia by Martin Shaw. He shares several Dartmoor stories, walking the ground of their being as he does so, and offers a lively, thoughtful and sometimes surprising commentary on them, informed by his belonging to this land. This may sound rather narrow in scope but he covers a lot of cultural ground. I found the book fascinating, exciting to read, challenging at times and at others a huge relief. I don’t want to say too much about it though. It’s still percolating. Have a listen to the man himself: drmartinshaw.com/books/scatterlings

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. Evasive celebrity novelist Vida Winter invites amateur biographer Margaret Lea to stay in her Yorkshire mansion to hear her tale and write her life story. But why has Vida chosen Margaret? And what hidden connection does Margaret have to Vida’s story? This is a proper, good old-fashioned gothic novel. I watched the BBC adaptation (with Olivia Colman and Vanessa Redgrave) a while back so knew I would enjoy the story but I wasn’t expecting Margaret to be such a bookworm! I loved all the nods to the Bronte sisters but am not quite the fan of a “proper” ending that Margaret is: I prefer things a little less neatly tied-up. (And, yes, I did have a wistful hankering after Vida Winter’s non-existent novels.)

Disappointments

Game of Thrones (Volume 1) by George R R Martin. Curiosity got the better of me: I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. It’s not bad but it isn’t my cup of tea. The chaps charge about being heroic or dastardly and the women mainly get to be their wives, mothers, sisters, daughters. (I’ve been told that they “come into their own” later. Well, I would hope so: there’s only so much satisfaction to be gained from having fabulous hair.) I think I’m too much of a bolshevik to tolerate all the my-lords and my-ladies. All in all, Tyrion was the only character to hold my interest, probably because he is morally ambiguous and he thinks.

Reading Wrap-up: October 2018

A month in which I stuck to my book-buying ban and made good use of the Poetry Library’s online collection.

Highlights

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. I’ve chosen this as my pick of the month (though Burial Rites is a close second) as I think it is the one that will stay with me the longest.

“To succeed, to enjoy lasting good fortune, one must have a different temperament from mine. I shall never do what I could have done and ought to have wanted and pursued.”

Vincent, friend, you did all right! These are fascinating letters which, naturally, give great insight into his art and what it meant to him but which also show him and his work interacting within a wider context than that of the isolated madman of his “mythology”. He comes across as a driven and difficult individual, yes, but also a deeply thoughtful and vitally involved one. The collected letters are simultaneously heart-breaking and affirming.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. The story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person to be executed in Iceland, for the murder of her lover/employer. I was astonished to learn that this was a debut novel, and will definitely look out for more of hers. I thought there were striking parallels (e.g. the nature of the crime committed, the circumstances and ambiguity of the woman found guilty) between this book and Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace but, while Atwood is undeniably clever, I feel that Kent’s book has more heart: the last chapter, especially, made for difficult reading.

Disappointments

The Canterbury Tales: a Retelling by Peter Ackroyd. I enjoyed Chaucer very much when I first encountered him, many years ago: here’s the cast of lively characters that I remember, with a host of boisterous tales to tell. I still enjoy Chaucer (and one day will re-read the original). Twenty and more years ago I loved everything I read by Peter Ackroyd so was looking forward to a treat: what a disappointment! Why? In a word, misogyny. Whether of the casual or deliberate kind, there’s no let up. The characters, Chaucer and Ackroyd all fall back on “no offence intended: just repeating what I heard” and while this may be accepted as par for the course in Middle English verse, in contemporary English prose the effect is harder to stomach.

The male characters reveal themselves by their words and behaviour as blusterers and blatherskites (Chaucer has a laugh at everyone’s expense, his own included) but the constant harping on the failings of women in a modern voice is at first irritating and then cumulatively demoralising. That’s not my idea of entertainment.

Letters Against the Firmament by Sean Bonney. Written against a backdrop of “austerity” and other Tory doublespeak, I get the rage, I really do. But, for me, this collection is an example of what happens to poetry when it is disembodied, so to speak, when the idea becomes paramount. And it reads as though written not from a need to communicate but to enjoy the big, shocking sound of its voice bouncing off the walls.  The result is phrasing such assertions as: There is no prosody, there is only a scraped wound – we live inside it like fossilised, vivisected mice. Well that’s certainly a striking and nasty image but what on Earth does it MEAN? Anything? Imagine putting hours of machine gun fire into Google Translate: there you have it.