Saturday, 25 January 2014

oz photos on flickr, lessing's the golden notebook, nobel laureates, showing and telling, wingspan by jeremy hughes, bs johnson

Some beach photos from Australia. These are the last Oz ones I'll be posting but you can see these and other scenic photos on Flickr:

It's been another busy week, although I have found time to read. Current book is Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook (see also the excellent Golden Notebook Project). This was recommended by a friend after I'd told her that I was interested in doing some research into the overlap of fiction and life-writing.

I'm enjoying the novel, although one of the unexpected aspects of it that has struck me most forcibly is how Lessing breaks many of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century 'rules' of writing fiction. Her narratives are, for example, discursive, digressive, often tell rather than show, contain paragraphs that splurge on for a page or more, as opposed to being neatly broken up into easily-digestible segments. As a tutor of creative writing, I found myself, at the beginning, wanting to correct the Nobel laureate's work. Yet the novel is engrossing and highly readable. Not to mention thought-provoking. Reading Lessing made me think of the work of Gabriel García Márquez and of José Saramago and how un-creative-writing-course they are.

Is the lesson, therefore, that if you want to win a Nobel Prize, don't enrol on a creative writing course? I don't think so - forms of expression in fiction change over time and the current fashions have produced some wonderful narratives. Though it occurred to me that by spelling things out more - by telling more than showing - the three Nobel authors might be opening up their work to the widest possible audience, not just the cognoscenti. Creating open and embracing texts rather than varying degrees of post-modernly closed ones. It's also the case, I suspect, that much of the interest in The Golden Notebook today comes precisely from the bits of telling because they contain instructions to the reader that are often very much of their period, revealing assumptions that are different from our own, as well as information that is of-the-period. There is consequently a sense of the author being more in the text than is supposedly preferred nowadays. But then Lessing is a fascinating person to have in the text.

In the interests of balance, I should say that I enjoyed reading two excellent books in Australia that show more than they tell, thereby stimulating the reader's imagination terrifically and encouraging participatory engagement with the narratives: Wingspan by Jeremy Hughes (see post of 5th November 2013) and Albert Angelo by BS Johnson. The former, written by a colleague on the Oxford Undergraduate Diploma in Creative Writing, features a central character whose CV should make him an unpromising hero. A middle-aged schoolmaster who has travelled little, had few sexual experiences and who has lived with his mother all his life. But after his mother's death, his life begins a new phase. The narrative moves between the schoolmaster, other characters, perspectives and time periods - the present and the Second World War. The schoolmaster's journey is one of discovering about himself, his parents (his father was an American pilot, his mother a game keeper's daughter - with, it is soon apparent, a secret life) and about wisdom and love. The novel is a warm, inspiring narrative written on a human scale, containing beautiful evocations of landscape (East Anglia and South Wales) and memorable characters. Here is a paragraph of fine natural description from its pages:

'I walked along the bridge. Each arch's span was bookended with a V-shaped niche where it was possible to sit. I looked down at the water running quickly and shallow over cobbled stones. Then I crossed the road. At once I saw a dipper flit from stone to a step at the base of a low wall. It went down and up as if on an office chair, then dived into the clear water where I could see it "flying". It returned to the step when it surfaced and was joined by another, its back the colour of a gun barrel. The male. I watched them for a while, flitting away from this spot, taking it in turns to disappear and return. Then I went back to the pub garden and took the path downstream.'

I'd heard about BS Johnson when I was a schoolboy - masters talked about the writer who wrote a novel that came in sections in a box (The Unfortunates) and another in which a slot was cut out of some of the pages - but I didn't know his name and never came across any of these intriguing works. Until I read an article in the TLS last year, that is, in which the series of republished novels put out by Picador were reviewed. Albert Angelo is a great experimental read, shifting between past and present tenses, different speakers, first, second and third person narration, building up a fascinating portrait of its central character, Albert (another teacher) and the London of the 1960s. Like Wingspan, this fragmented approach leads to a rich evocation of the way life is, in all its complexity. In a section in which the author apparently breaks frame, BS Johnson sums up the aims of the narrative strategies that he employs (similar strategies are employed by Jeremy Hughes, in his turn):

'-Is about the fragmentariness of life, too, attempts to reproduce the moment-to-moment fragmentariness of life, my life, and to echo it in technique, the fragmentariness, a collage made of fragments of my own life, the poor odds and sods, the bric-à-brac...

'-And also to echo the complexity of life, reproduce some of the complexity of selves which I contain within me, contradictory and gross as they are: childish, some will call it, peeing in the rainfall gauge, yes, but sometimes I am childish, very, so are we all, it's part of the complexity I'm trying to reproduce, exorcise.'

And perhaps it is true to say that all authors - including more traditional ones, like Lessing - are trying to achieve the things that BS Johnson speaks of in their fiction. Creating stories out of their own experiences.

Finally, a picture that I feel sure Rupert will appreciate.

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