The Sea, The Sea: Iris Murdoch and Me

I closed Iris’ Murdoch’s 1978 novel Booker-winning novel yesterday with frustration. Maybe I should have been an English major?

TheSeaTheSeaI didn’t read the introduction until after I’d read the last page–introductions being full of spoilers, in my experience. Turned out the story was in based on the work of a Tibetan poet, Milarepa, whose name was used (not his person, but only his name) in the novel.

Reading more about Murdoch’s work, I discovered that the name of the book came not from the obvious–the location of the protagonist’s home or his obsession with swimming, but from the Greek writer Xenophon, by way of a French poem by Paul Valéry, which Murdoch mentioned in another book. Thus, a private play of ideas available to those who know the Greeks and Tibetan poets.

I’m frustrated because I enjoyed the book in many parts and sensed a scheme at work, but had no way identifying it. I felt as though the characters were bound to act in perplexing ways, but I didn’t know why. It’s over-the-top on the central character, Charles Arrowby, an aging actor-director who retires to a decaying house on the English coast to “learn how to be good,” while writing his memoirs. He promptly bores us with his self-absorbed arrogance. When his supporting cast of characters arrive, they enliven the scene but are unable to get between Arrowby and his single-minded obsessions.

I laughed, I was alternately sad and bored and embarrassed while always in search of the Booker jury’s reasoning. Did they know about the Tibetan poet and the Greeks?

Did Murdoch intend this story to be half-understood? Or did she write for those like herself who could puzzle out the strangeness of the plot through clues like the name of the book, and the name of the Tibetan poet?  I did get all the lovely bits about the theatre and Shakespeare. Got all the Shakespeare, all The Tempest and Twelfth Night. Yes, do read it for that. And Arrowby’s strange idea about being a foodie. There was much to enjoy–and much to wonder about.

 

A Little Life is a lot of book

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Hanya Yanagihara’s superb novel is more than 700 pages–that’s 32 hours and 51 minutes on audiobook. I listened to it in the car and, unusual for me, put in earphones to continue out of it. Often I sat in the driveway and in parking lots, transfixed by the story, not wanting to break away.

A Little Life is the story of four college friends who end up in New York together, ambitious, talented and struggling young men. Their group revolves around the law student Jude, whose life before college is a mystery to the others and is gradually revealed to readers as one of appalling sexual abuse and torture by adults.

To say this novel is sad is understatement. Even the happy parts–and there are many–made me cry. Reviewers have called the book “unrelenting.” That’s accurate. Jude’s fundamental refusal to believe that he deserves to be happy, and then when he finds happiness, to believe that he can ever be happy again or even once deserved it, defeats all of the genuine love he encounters and generates.

There’s a nevertheless here: this is a fully imagined world worth visiting, with people you want to know, stories you want to hear, art you want to see, villains you want to kill with slow, painful, torture. You’ll find it a hard world to leave–and hard to leave Jude, J.B., Willem and Malcolm. Perhaps, like me, you’ll be tempted to Google J.B.’s paintings at MOMA to see ‘Willem Listening to Jude,’ or go on IMDB to see Willem’s profile, or look for photos of Malcolm’s buildings.

This is the kind of book readers long for: where the world is rich and enveloping, allowing our imaginations to engage fully. We can tell that Yanagihara wrote solidly day-in and day-out for months–her focus and intensity is on the page.

Far from the Madding Crowd: the battle for Thomas Hardy’s story 

Carey Mulligan2
Carey Mulligan

 I watched the latest Far From the Madding Crowd last night. It’s a reflection of how awful regular television is when my late-night story fix comes from watching a movie I didn’t want to see. Despite the appeal of the leading actress, this was a case of no-movie-could-do-justice-to-the-book. The first film sent me to the book in 1967, and that was that—even Carey Mulligan wasn’t going to mess with my memories.

Something about the trailer caught my eye, however, and after all, I’m a grown-up, capable of walking away if I don’t like what I see. So I watched with the eyes of writer now, no longer a teenager but a student of storytelling. And I studied.

julie chrisie

This Bathsheba Everdeen had never met her earlier, velvet-voiced incarnation. She was both more youthful and more independent, more adventurous and harder to take your eyes off. The selection of scenes, changing and addition of scenes to illustrate the story was also masterful for today’s audience. I asked myself a few times, “Did it really happen that way?” and finally said, “It could have. Perhaps it did. Shut up and enjoy it.”

You can see the places where the director tailored the script to reach a current audience: this version of the story is not what Hardy intended, but it is easy on the eyes. The themes of class, money, and sexual inequality are only lightly touched. It’s been rinsed of its meaning. The darkness of Bathsheba opening Fanny Robbin’s coffin; Troy’s sexual menace and Bathsheba’s determination to withstand it rather than admit error; and Boldwood’s madness all move quickly past without reflection. It’s as though someone in Hollywood said “Cut to the chase,” and it was on to the love story and a simple happy ending.

Still, an education in scriptwriting, and the acting is excellent. Better than TV!

Photo top: Alex Bailey. Carey Mulligan. Centre: Alex Bailey. Jessica Barden and Carey Mulligan.  Bottom: Julie Christie.

 

The moving hands have written–now what?

I took a lesson from Joe Bunting last week from his How to write a short story and wrote a story–my shortest ever at 1,500 words. I’m pleased with it. Now it’s like windfall cash in my pocket, burning its way out, demanding to be read.

I put it on Story PenPal and one kind writer reviewed it well.

So far, so good.

But what now? This morning, I opened the Gotham Writers Workshop Newsletter and found a link to this: The Ultimate Guide to Getting Published in a Literary Magazine, by Lincoln Michel. It’s so much better than anything else I’ve ever seen on BuzzFeed. This is a terrific essay from someone who knows the ground about every unpublished fiction writers’ struggle with how to approach literary magazines. The only question Michel didn’t answer, the one that lingers despite the clarity and fullness of his writing, is about the gap between stories like those in Gotham’s own Fiction Gallery and those in most of the literary magazines. And by this I mean the gap between stories that tell a story, and stories that leave the reader puzzled–not just wondering about the ending and so on, but about what the writer’s entire purpose in writing was. What was that? Why was it in print?

Michel says to send work to magazines that print what we write. And that’s my problem. I subscribe to three literary magazines (one more than the average writer, Michel suggests) . I don’t enjoy most of their stories; I find them dull, obscure, grotty, without value. Many don’t qualify as stories in the way that short stories we were taught with did. I’m still looking for a journal that prints what I write.

Ah well, writers complain, apparently. But I’d rather question.

Where do editors draw the line between writing that tries the reader’s ability to stay awake, takes her into cold and dry territory for no memorable end, exercises some skill only the editors can explain, and writing that engages the reader and leaves a mark on her mind?

I’d like to know.

 

A story that struck a familiar chord

Nishanth Jois

Narrative’s Story of the Week is The Indianness, by Geeta Tewari. I don’t always read these stories–or read them right away. But I opened this morning’s as soon as I saw it. My first novel (recently rewritten and in need of beta readers) is about an arranged Indian marriage), so a story titled The Indianness had my attention.

As I read, I recognized the characters and their actions–Tewari gives us believable people doing things that could be expected–brazen, yet not surprising.

While I’ve never heard of family in the delivery room, I have seen family uncaring of the mother’s agitation and any concern for the child’s comfort or basic dignity take a newborn baby–unswaddled and screaming–and pass her from person to person across a crowded room. I remember biting my lip to refrain from snatching the infant, wrapping her and taking her to her cradle or her mother’s arms. Apparently the child was community property. (She’s grown up fine.)

When I brought my son home from the hospital, raging post-natal hormones made me think my darling mother-in-law was trading me a new microwave oven for my newborn. Family took him away from me when I entered the house, and later she held him as she presented me with the oven. I had hysterics.

Like Sheena in the story, all I wanted was to be left alone, but I was in a house full of people, telling me how to take care of my son.

The Indianness rang very true: I hope readers less familiar with “Indianness” enjoy it as much as I did. I’d love to know if you do.

http://www.narrativemagazine.com/issues/stories-week-2015-2016/indianness-geeta-tewari

A short story education: The Gotham Fiction Gallery

GothamEvery short story contest offers a pithy description of what constitutes a winning story. The complete story world, characters that intrigue, sensuous prose, original approach, and on and on. Hoorah. I’m in.

Yet so often I read work in the Paris Review, New Yorker, The Atlantic and various literaary quarterlies and think, I wouldn’t want to have written that. It didn’t connect with me. It didn’t seem to share anything. I feel that I’ve been left out of the joke. Like everyone else is high and I’m sober–the wet blanket, asking what’s so funny about the carpet?

As the antidote to this, because I hate to be left out, I’ve been studying up. Reading stories everywhere, surrounding myself with them, hoping that immersion will educate me.

I can say two things so far. There are still much-lauded stories that I don’t get, and others that are magic. I recommend the Gothic Fiction Gallery for a tour of memorable short stories, old and new, that will grab you, haunt, and teach.

What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid? Writer’s Edition.

Bracing advice for the days when we fear even the kindest of critiques.

Carly Watters, Literary Agent Blog

It’s a simple question, but I found it tucked into Sheryl Sandberg’s wisdom when I was reading LEAN IN a couple years ago and it’s never left me. Whenever things seem overwhelming this simple question takes us back to the heart of our passion and the reason for our struggles.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

For many people reading this blog it will be: finish their novel, send out some queries, tackle the revise-and-resubmit letter from an agent, join a critique group, sign up for author head shots, attend a writer’s conference–or something along those lines.

However, when you frame it like a question it becomes painfully obvious that you don’t need permission to achieve your dreams. They’re hiding inside of you and no amount of force is going to get them to escape. Writing doesn’t happen by chance, it happens by discipline and all you have to do…

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