In the July 15th New York Times Book Review, in a review of Alexander Chee’s book How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, J.W. McCormack writes: “In Chee’s telling, the writer’s life always lurks just beyond the page…” I’m always interested in the writer lurking just out of reach and the relationship of the book to the writer’s life. I don’t mean that I expect incidents to reflect personal experience or characters to be modeled on friends and family. There’s a much more subtle relationship that I’m interested in.
For the past 18 months I’ve been on the reading committee for the new Jewish Fiction Award given by the Association of Jewish Libraries; the winner announced this past spring was Rachel Kadish’s novel The Weight of Ink. The book is set in London in the 1660s and today, an example of what I call a “split-screen” novel. In the historical plotline, Ester Velazquez is a young woman working as a scribe for an eminent blind rabbi. Women were never scribes; it’s an endeavor hedged about with strictures and tradition, closed to Jewish women who, in any case, usually didn’t receive much education. In the modern part of the story, the rabbi’s papers are discovered hidden in an old house and a Cambridge scholar is hired to examine this unusual treasure trove. The reader knows that Ester is the scribe; that knowledge dawns on the Cambridge scholar and her assistant only slowly. From hints and clues they piece together Ester’s remarkable life. The reader always knows more about Ester and the ending is bittersweet as we realize that her life will never be fully known by the researchers.
I’ve heard Kadish speak several times about the genesis of the novel. Her comments made the connection–for me–between the writer’s life and the story she tells. Before she knew what the story would be and where it would be set, Kadish thought about the women whose pens and voices were mostly silent through the centuries. What if a Jewish woman had had a chance to write and make her voice heard on paper and explore her philosophical interests in correspondence with the great philosophical minds of her day? How could it transpire that a woman have that opportunity? What would her life look like? So the title, with its nod to the transgressive nature of Ester’s life, is quite appropriate. Ester and the rabbi carry the weight of their arrangement, the secret that sets her apart from her contemporaries and from the London Jewish community. It’s a great story with compelling characters in both plotlines.
Kadish’s interest in telling such a story is the personal connection, the writer lurking beyond the pages. I believe that every novelist sets out to solve a problem and the novel is the result. Not a problem in the sense of something needing to be fixed, but an artistic challenge, an effort to represent ideas on paper in a way that rings true. The nature of that challenge comes from the writer’s life: the mixture of lived experiences and concerns lurking behind the creative process that drives the resulting story.
At the end of May I spent 2 wonderful days at the Javits Center in New York for the publishing trade show, Book Expo. If you’re unfamiliar with this annual book extravaganza, hundreds of publishers set up booths to promote their Fall titles and meet with booksellers from around the country. Advance copies of the titles that the publishers want to promote are given away, authors sign their books, and there’s lots of swag to be had. After 20 years of attending, I have a large collection of publisher-themed canvas tote bags. It’s a standing joke among friends and family.
Over the 2 days, I lugged home about 25 books–books that have already garnered good reviews and the latest books from my favorite authors. And of course, I’m certain, as I am every year, that I’ll read them all—even though I still have lots of unread books from years past!
No surprise that I first chose to read Transcription by Kate Atkinson, one of my favorite authors. Atkinson combines literary writing with warmth and humor in compelling ways. This novel, to be published in September, centers around a young woman, Juliet Armstrong, who is recruited to spy for MI5 just before WWII. Britain in the late 1930s was dealing with fifth columnists: homegrown fascists, communists, and Nazis. Juliet goes from transcribing taped conversations to much more dangerous work, by turns tedious and terrifying. An orphan, Juliet has a great deal to learn about the world, but she’s more than willing to try the undercover life she’s been offered. What she doesn’t understand is that the choices she makes in those war years will follow her into later life. Nothing is ever finished and there are surprises for the reader at the end.
Atkinson’s writing is always a treat to read; Juliet and the supporting cast of characters are lively and well-drawn. The London wartime setting is very evocative. If you enjoy Ian McEwan’s or A.S. Byatt’s novels you will probably enjoy Transcription, too. Her previous two novels–Life After Life and A God in Ruins–were among her best; Transcription is lighter, maybe more accessible to readers who were put off by the structural complexity of the earlier two. I’ve read every one of Atkinson’s novels and loved them all. If you haven’t read any of her books, start with the first, Behind the Scenes at the Museum and you’ll be hooked.
Last spring I listened to The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (read by Frazer Douglas) and was enchanted. Normally I delete the books I listen to once I’m done. I just can’t bear to let this one go. I know I’ll listen again. I’m a classics junkie–I studied Greek and Roman history, literature, and art in college and was one of those kids who thought the Greek and Roman myths were the best stories ever told. Miller’s retelling of the story of Achilles and Patroclus had me riveted from beginning to end. When I had the chance last week to hear Miller speak at the Center for Fiction in NY not even Achilles’ scary goddess mother Thetis could have kept me from going. I had the chance to ask a question about how she managed to create such a frightening character as Thetis and also to tell her how much I enjoyed the book.
Miller retells the story from Patroclus’ point of view and in her hands it becomes a heartbreaking love story. Knowing how it ends doesn’t at all detract from the beguiling pleasures of the trip. Miller takes the mythological and Homeric material and shapes it to her own ends. The way she gives personality and motivation to characters like Thetis, Chiron and Briseis, for example, only heightens the tension of her narrative.
At the Center for Fiction, Miller talked about the process of writing the novel, how she “set the moment of Patroclus’ death on my horizon and wrote toward it.” She spoke about some of the decisions she struggled with: whether to include the gods and how to end the novel after Patroclus’ death. She talked about how “generous” the Homeric material is, how much it gives a writer to work with and how she often returned to the Iliad for inspiration.
In the first chapter of The Song of Achilles, Patroclus, then a young boy, is sent off to a gathering of the Greek kings, where Helen is asked to choose a husband. One of the kings, as yet unidentified, begins to speak. Listening to it, I gasped in recognition: the speaker was Odysseus, there was no doubt. At that point I knew I was in for a great listening experience. Miller told me that she’s working on a novel about Odysseus; I’ll be watching for it.
Just a note about the audio version–it was wonderful. The reader, Frazer Douglas, creates voices and personalities for all the characters. His tour de force is Thetis, Achilles’ mother, a minor goddess. Even a minor goddess is terrifying to mortals, and Douglas had me scared each time the angry and vengeful Thetis appeared. I’m not quite sure how he did it, but I was truly frightened. At the Center for Fiction, Miller talked about the power of the gods, how encountering a god was never a good thing for a mortal and how she tried to write that into Thetis’ character. After her talk, I told her that I thought she’d be happy with the way Douglas portrayed Thetis.
Later this month I’ll have the pleasure of moderating a panel on historical fiction, a genre that seems to have taken over the fiction lists this year. The New York chapter of the Women’s National Book Association is sponsoring the event and I’m thrilled to be the moderator of a stellar panel. The evening is free to WNBA members–a good time to join–and $10 in advance if you’re not a member. It will be at the Wix Lounge, 10 W. 18th St, 2nd floor, from 6-8pm on April 26th. We’ve subtitled the evening An Enduring Genre in a Changing Landscape since it’s about both writing and publishing.
We’ll have 2 authors on the panel, an agent, editor, and reviewer. I’ll write more about the panelists later; here’s the link to information and registration for the evening which will give you the cast of characters and all the details.
Since I’ll be asking the questions, I’ve been thinking about historical fiction and what questions would spark good conversation among our panelists. I’m a firm believer that if you need something, ask the universe, and true to form, I’ve found food for thought about the topic almost every place I turn. For instance, in the past week I’ve been re-reading Amos Oz’s masterpiece A Tale of Love and Darkness. Oz’s descriptions of the way memories surface, persist, and mutate in his writing is breathtaking as is the re-creation of his childhood in pre-statehood Israel.
There are many wonderful passages in the book about reading and writing, but the one that grabbed me is “…that selfsame urge I had when I was small–the desire to grant a second chance to something that could never have one–is still one of the urges that gets me going today whenever I sit down to write a story.” Isn’t writing historical fiction providing a second chance for characters to take the stage? That goes on my list of questions to ask.
I was away for a few weeks, vacationing in Barcelona and Provence (pictures to come!), and of course I had to make the big decision about what to take along to read. A plane ride without a book is unthinkable. We were determined to travel with only carry-on bags, so that made the decision harder. I decided to bring my little MP3 player, which is always loaded up with audiobooks and podcasts.
I was already nearing the end of Bernard Cornwell’s Agincourt, so Nicholas Hook and his adventures at the famous battle kept me company for the flight to Barcelona. A week later, when we arrived in France, Agincourt turned out to have been an ideal reading choice. Our first stop, after picking up our rental car in Montpellier, was Aigues-Mortes, a remarkably well-preserved medieval walled and fortified city.
Although the setting of the Cornwell’s novel is the northwest of France and not the south coast, Aigues-Mortes is contemporaneous with the walled city of Harfleur, the location of one of the battles Cornwell so vividly describes. At Aigues-Mortes, I could “see” what Cornwell was describing, a further reminder that the more we know about where we travel, the more meaningful the trip.
I don’t usually read war stories, but Cornwell has such a sterling reputation as a historical novelist that I thought I’d give him a try. He doesn’t spare the reader the descriptions of bloody warfare, but the characters he creates are real and compelling, their lives woven seamlessly into the beautifully realized historical setting. It also didn’t hurt that the narrator–Charles Keating–was superb, creating distinct voices for each character that captured the essence of their personality. It was a tour de force of writing and narration. I’m hoping that Agincourt is the first in a new Cornwell series–as the characters rode off into the sunset at the end, I had a strong feeling that Cornwell had more in mind for them.