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Spoken Word II

Daunt Books Festival 27/28 March – Part Two

Bright Young Novelists: Adam Foulds, Rebecca Hunt and Evie Wyld interviewed by Edmund Gordon

The second event in the first day of the very first Daunt Books Festival recently featured Edmund Gordon – a critic currently writing a life of Angela Carter – speaking to three young writers based in the UK but keen on far flung settings.

Rebecca Hunt’s Everland plots two Antarctic expeditions 100 years apart, commencing in 1913 with three sailors trying to make their way to the small island of Everland in a dinghy after a storm. She highlights the danger of hope at the poles – in the form of kelp, or a cormorant – as a sign that land is nearby can of course be a mirage or salvation.

Hunt is very good on the practicality of life in this extreme place – of lugging things and people – that Scott and others were irritatingly noble and upbeat about in their diaries. It was drudgery. Also, carrying a dead or ailing body at the Pole is a dead weight that can kill you. It slows you down when there is no such thing as time to spare. She also deftly illustrates fraying tempers as a result of this pressured race, often with language ‘so violent it didn’t have a sound’.

It is also always good to hear about Hunt’s explorers living on pemmican (spiced, preserved seal meat) as a staple of the Polar menu. The last time I encountered this calorific snack was in an almost unbearably perky book provided by my grandmother: Susannah of the Yukon. Susannah is quite the explorer, defying the Mounties to strike her own gold claim aged nine. Her love of the frontier started this whole messy personal obsession with frosty horizons and the ends of the earth.

Evie Wyld then discussed her second novel: All the Birds, Singing (her debut was reviewed on the site here). The protagonist moves to a sheep station after an offer to become a form of maid ‘with advantages’, having been a prostitute in the city. The arrangement, having turned out to be less than advantageous, turns south and our heroine prepares to flee her trap. Amid a general backdrop of acute unease, she tries to plot her captor Otto’s mood every morning by the time he unlocks her door to release her in order to pick the perfect moment to run. The description of her disabling a truck engine on guesswork – throwing washers away frantically to buy herself time – is one of the most tense pieces of writing I have ever encountered.

Her escape is foiled by the dog jumping up and down with rage at the sight of her starting its master’s Ute (a car for those like me who did not know). The woman and dog are bound together; however it is the lady who runs the risk of being tapped on the nose with a rolled up comic for a misdemeanour. Wyld is always great on dog behaviour, describing “not a smell of hello but a smell of what are you up to”. She also delivers painfully sharp flashes of physical interaction: “every time we finish” having sex, Otto acknowledges this by “slapping the meat of his gut”.

At the sheep station, by dawn the air is already thick with flies. Breakfast is chops with eggs. There is a ewe with a black spotted nose. All of these shards of imagery are nearly familiar but ultimately combine to form an undeniable picture of Otherness. Australia is as familiar as a photograph, but blurred and off kilter. In response to a question about writing about far removed places rather than attempting to capture the areas of London that are currently moving fast, Wyld explained that she would rather get lost in her imagination than write about the Peckham she knows and get it ‘wrong’, as she would incur the wrath of the locals directly in the bookshop she runs.

Adam Foulds, having read a section from his most recent novel The Quickening Maze, was asked by an audience member when the best time to have been a writer was. His answer was 1885, due to the sheer number of contemporaries he could have enjoyed – Robert Musil and Thomas Mann in particular – however someone made the valid point that he would have been called in that case. A short pause ensured before he responded with a gentle defence for his choice: “Obviously, it had its risks.”

The process of writing a second novel was more like going back to square one than any of the three authors could have predicted. Each new endeavour is started by saying “This will be the one where I say what I mean”. Which in turn drives the impulse to keep going. Which is good news for the reader.

The Editors

Spoken Word

Daunt Books Festival, 27/28 March 2014

Celebrating Virago Modern Classics: Maggie O’Farrell, Susie Boyt and Deborah Levy, questions by Lennie Goodings

Virago was created as a publisher in 1973 to challenge the notion of ‘great’ women writers. They calmly and effectively appropriated the idea of Penguin Modern Classics for themselves, and O’Farrell, Boyt and Levy opened the inaugural Daunt Books Festival by discussing which Virago novels particularly inspired them. It was a relatively unusual opportunity to hear writers talk about reading without their being obliged to tie in their own work unless they felt like it.

Deborah Levy (Black Vodka and Hot Milk are two of her recent titles) chose Angela Carter and Muriel Spark as her authors. She compared Carter’s ‘long, luscious, feverish and slightly inflamed sentences’, that are all about revealing desire to Spark’s short, spiky sentences about it being concealed.

Spark feathers her books with many beautiful, slightly psychopathic female figures, about whom she is unapologetic. Levy described Spark as a genius at depicting human frailty and human cruelty, which she did not appreciate until years after first reading her. Spark inserts a kind of ‘mild panic’ into her calm sentences, which informed the way Levy wrote Swimming Home, creating a splinter on the surface of the prose. In this way, Levy explained her feeling that “books are laid inside us” until you re-read them and uncover more at a later stage.

Carter was described as altogether more theatrical, with desiring female characters; their bodies no longer buttoned up – in fact, they tend to have the first five undone. Levy cited Baudelaire’s influence on Carter before reading a passage from The Magic Toyshop in closing.

Overall, Levy’s confidence in her choices was partly derived from the fact that neither writer tends to have characters doing things like putting a chicken in the oven. The characters are given minds, enabled to travel on horseback – vulnerable and fragile – but are often ‘travelling across terrain to find something they need’.

Every time Maggie O’Farrell sees a dark green Virago spine in a second-hand bookshop, she buys it on principle. She described being drawn to the aesthetic of it: the portrait on the cover and the whiteness of the pages.

Her first choice was Our Spoons came from Woolworth’s by Barbara Comyn (the ‘daughter of a madwoman and a violent, cruel man’). She asked that you not be put off by the title, having herself been transfixed by Comyn’s unique prose style within five minutes. Quick as a whip, she pre-empted my next thought by acknowledging that the word ‘unique’ is overused, but asserted that Comyn’s narrative voice is unlike any other. Her character will take a newt to a dinner party and let it swim in the water jug, delivered in the same tone as a child dying of scarlet fever. The novel illustrates 1930s Bohemian London pre-Beveridge report, wherein barbed comedy rapidly descends into the destruction of a marriage.

Her next choice was Mollie Keane, ‘a Hibernian Evelyn Waugh’, who wrote about the minute calibrations of class and family in the Anglo-Irish last days of Empire. The novel portrays a family of poverty stricken snobs who value dogs above one another, and who would rather die than eat rabbit mousse, as it is ‘low’ food – having been caught for free rather than bought in a butcher. Their servants – who are starving – are sacked for eating starch in the laundry, and grocers are ‘robbers’ if they have the temerity to actually send a bill. You say nothing when your husband sleeps with servants, or when your son dies. If you are still standing after all of that charm, the language will still hold you fast, as every word Keane uses pulls its weight. She is the master of the disparity between what we feel and what we say: let’s take the dogs for a walk rather than actually talking about it.

Her third and final choice was Rosamond Lehmann’s The Invitation to the Waltz, which captures a seventeen year old girl preparing for a party – and that true insight that the prospect of the night is always better than what actually takes place, the anticipation always being superior to the event. At the party she encounters the master of the house’s son. More on this at a later date (when I have finished the book).

The final speaker Susie Boyt chose Elizabeth Taylor in the hope that one day the film star will be called the “other Elizabeth Taylor”.

Boyt carefully explained that Taylor repeatedly pulls off effects that are very hard to achieve with no effort at all, from simple, perfect sentences (“The chair scraped back and talk broke out”) to expertly set moral thermostats and particularly good group portraits: one scene was cited where a clutch of ladies cook their lunch – lamb chops on a Baby Belling – at the same time as melting wax in a little pan to do their moustaches.

She also described an air of recklessness to Taylor’s stories, including one where a new groom gets so caught up in the joy of being in the pub that he simply forgets about his new bride upstairs in her lilac underwear. He automatically goes home to his mum’s house at the end of the night, alone, and ‘no one knows what to think at all’.

Boyt also gave a synopsis of a brilliant short story by Taylor of two people posing as a married couple in order to land a job offered to a pair of married waiters: these people are serious enough about their vocation to be lifted by ‘the glacial table linen’ and the elegance of the clientele. The ‘husband’ takes their cover story seriously enough to put a photograph of ‘their son’ in the flat, and asks her to leave out her hairbrush and a pot of face cream in order to convince any curious visitors. Of course the story does not end well.

Taylor expertly shows all the things in family life that can go wrong, something that Boyt, who described herself as liking ‘to write dark books with high spirits’* and with the same moral agenda as Taylor, clearly sympathizes with. A slightly more optimistic way of describing it could be a way of showing how to be good in the world without being ground down to a paste.
This concludes Part One. Part Two, featuring Evie Wyld and others will follow shortly.

*Boyt on cities: “I like dual carriageways and litter and all the things you are not supposed to like but I really do”.

The Editors

Bookshops of London and other places

Down a small side street off the King’s Road near Sloane Square there is a small and perfectly proportioned bookshop. It’s cool shady shelves and rich hardback stock is like a glen of sleeping dragons in the heart of London’s brash and bustle. 

Like any good bookshop it is a place of thoughts as much as of sales; a harbour for thoughts, paper bound, cloth bound, shelf-bound thoughts and it is to this, among several other similar harbours (I think of the Edwardian splendour of Daunt Books in Marylebone, the clinking quiet of the London Review Bookshop, the rambling excellence of Foyles) that my idling brain has fled from its daily labour and innocently wondered whether, if there really is an afterlife, it must be as an independent bookseller in London, Paris or Istanbul. 

The richness of London’s book selling scene is that its reading scene can support diversity. In other cities where I have bought books (Moscow, Newcastle and I am told Zurich) books can be prohibitively expensive and small, independent bookshops are if anything a thing of the future having played little part in the past.   

In Beirut, in downtown Hamra, I lived for a while near a newsagent that specialised in adult and second-hand literature with amusing if not enlightening hand drawn cover art. For a tiny city with its share of issues to cope with it was well serviced by bookshops. The Virgin Megastore, rising above the old rubble of the newly re-built Downtown area was packed thick and deep with books of every type and language like a sprawling metaphor for the country. Antoine’s in Hamra was two floors of raw discovery, brimming with students, text books, comic books and sparkling with literary gems. From this delight I mined a sequence of nobel laureates who have come to form my own canon: Calvino, Saramago, Pamuk, Hemingway as well as Kundera, Le Clézio and de Saint-Exupéry. The copy of The Old Man and the Sea which I picked up there is one of my favourites, devouring it in one long gulp on a balcony overlooking the mediterranean sun – all of us sprinting for the horizon. I bought a copy of The Tropic of Cancer from a bookshop in Damascus, nestled in the side of a hotel, as unlikely a place for Henry Miller as for anyone and a copy of Coming up for Air for 10p in a street market near Damascus University. And in their winding, Levantine way, those cities seemed to hold back their greatest discoveries from me – each revelation suggesting another (and rumours of a nightclub with a library, a bookshop on an alleyway down a backstreet on the right past the shawarma restaurant which I could never find and so on).

The bookshopping experience of any city has become like a window to its heart. The large extravagant, Barnes & Noble-type monsters that have failed are no place to buy a book. The small, intimate, even arcane, bookshops like Shakespeare & Co in Paris, like John Sandoe in London (where once they bought and sold books only by weight), like Nomad Books in Fulham or Clerkenwell Tales in Exmouth Market or Simply Foxed at Gloucester Road or any number of second hand and seconds bookshops on the Charing Cross road – these are portals of discovery through which books whisper their secrets to those who are willing to listen.

 London’s book selling scene is a lively hotchpotch of Edwardian galleries, varnished parquet flooring and thick, still air. For those who disagree that the fall of Barnes & Noble and the Amazonisation of everything is the toll of the bell for bookshops it should be the source of great pride to note the expansion of the great British book selling names – six shops of Daunt, six shops of Foyles and one yet to open (and three of those in St Pancras and Westfield of all places), a recently refurbished John Sandoe and independent local bookshops surviving, even expanding, diversifying and supporting a deep-rooted culture of British reading which is second to almost none. And all this as succour to those of us hoping these shops will be there, at least until we die.

The Editors