Patrick Modiano and I

Image courtesy of Goodreads

I first heard of Patrick Modiano, the French novelist, when he received the Nobel Prize for literature in 2014. What originally grabbed my attention was the prize motivation: From the Nobel Prize website: “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.” From that moment on I decided that’s it. I’m reading at least a few of his novels. 

Working from the bottom up of the image above, you can see that I read my first Modiano in March 2015. Well three novellas actually in the one book and on the 19th December last year, I completed my eighth Modiano – Invisible Ink and this is the novel that has triggered the need to examine what I have discovered so far about this accomplished and intriguing writer.

Some say that he simply writes the same story over and over. This can appear so after reading two or three books but I now realise after reading eight of his novels that there are subtle differences. He never repeats himself in descriptions or evocations. Never. There is always a different turn of phrase, an alternative set of details. I marvel and have decided that he must keep extensive notebooks, echoes of the small notebooks and lists that his characters often find themselves with.

Yes, there is an American convertible in several novels, many late night cafés visited by lost, restless souls; several Guys and Jacquelines. There are tantalising short visits to the Haute-Savoie region of France and one very powerful one in Missing Person. In that novel you think to yourself: “Of course this is where the novel was leading the whole time.” You feel pleased but then discover you have not finished the novel. There is one last exquisite scene told very simply.

Certain novels on this list stand alone for various reasons but still, somehow manage to add to the Modiano oeuvre which to my mind is like a many facetted diamond that we must continually study from different angles to understand how the diamond’s facets interact with the light. For instance in Villa Triste Modiano intriguingly mentions magazines his main character and Yvonne flip through during long, lazy days at her hotel, The Hermitage in the Haute-Savoie region of France. The covers often feature an actress who has recently died, including Marilyn Monroe. These could be old magazines but they add so much to the feel of this stolen time in a beautiful lakeside resort that the whole scene has stayed with me. The ending of Villa Triste is a surprise, or at least it was for this reader. 

Here is one of my favourite Modiano descriptions. This simple but evocative paragraph is one of the reasons I keep reading him:

“…I would go back to Carabacel, walking slowly along Avenue d’Albigny. I’ve never known nights so lovely, so crystal clear as those were. The sparkling lights of the lakeside village dazzled me, and I sensed something musical in them like a saxophone or trumpet solo. I could also perceive the very soft, immaterial rustling of the plane trees on the avenue. I’d wait for the last cable car, sitting on the iron bench in the chalet.”

The three short novellas in Suspended Sentences are grounded in Paris and as the translator Mark Polizzotti says: “What becomes clear as we read these books is that the inconclusiveness of the pursuit is central to the story – indeed, is the story.” In one of the novellas the title story the narrator has a brother and the two boys are often left alone with relative strangers, just as readers of Modiano can’t help suspecting Patrick and his brother Rudy often were. In Flowers of Ruin there are tantalising visits to one of those marvellous islands in the centre of Paris and in Afterimage the main character is trying to track down an elusive photographer. There is mention of Haute-Savoie where the photographer flees during World War II – shades of Missing Person.

For me what defines and differentiates each Modiano is the ending and this is particularly true of In the Café of Lost Youth – his bleakest ending of the eight Modiano novels I have read. It also stands apart from the others for having four narrators – all in first person.  The first narrator is a student who is fascinated by the elusive Louki, the second is a private detective, the third is Louki herself and the fourth her boyfriend. Binding some of these characters together is the neutral zones that are often mentioned in this novel where “you enjoyed a degree of immunity there.”

It might be simply my imagination or just the title Paris Nocturne but Paris at night does seem to feature more prominently in this novel. A nameless narrator is hit by a car near Place des Pyramides. He is sure he has met the woman driver before – Jacqueline Beausergent. And the search begins.

“I often found myself, sometime later, making the same journey in reverse. At around nine o’clock at night, I would leave the Right Bank, cross the Seine at Pont des Arts, and find myself at the Corona Cafe. But this time, I was alone at one of the tables in the back room and I no longer needed to find something to say to the shifty-looking guy in the navy-blue overcoat. I began to feel a sense of relief. On the other side of the river I left behind a marshy zone where I was starting to flounder. I had set foot on solid ground. The lights were brighter here. I could hear the neon buzz. Soon I would be walking in the open air, through the arcades, up to Place de la Concorde. The night would be clear and still. The future opened out before me.”

So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood is different again. The novel is in the third person with the beginning and end marked by a very inclusive use of the second person. The main character Jean Daragane seems older than a lot of Modiano’s main characters. He is contacted by a very strange couple who have found his address book and in return for the book want some information from Daragane. There is mention of Jean’s mother working in the theatre and his father having an office in Boulevard Hausemann. A mother in the theatre is tantalisingly close to Modiano’s real mother’s history. This time Saint-Leu-la-Foret is a place that becomes very important to the main character. It seems Jean lived there for a year as a child and was then taken by someone called Annie Astrand to a house on the Cote d’Azur. A very unsettling ending. An ah-ha ending. You can’t help asking yourself as a reader, is this the core of it all?

In Little Jewell Modiano effortlessly portrays a female narrator Therese. “One day in the corridors of the Metro, nineteen year old Therese sees a woman in a yellow coat. Could this be her mother? And we are trailing Therese as she searches strange streets and apartment buildings. “Life is completely different when you live near a railway station. It feels as if you’re passing through. Everything is temporary. One day or another, you’ll hop on a train. In those neighbourhoods, the future is at your doorstep.” As in The Café of Lost Youth there is a person who takes advantage of our fragile main character. Be prepared for an ambiguous ending.

Lastly but definitely not least is Invisible Ink with the best opening sentence of the eight: “There are blanks in this life, white spaces you can detect if you open the “case file”: a single sheet in a sky-blue folder that has faded with time.” In Invisible Ink Jean Eyben briefly works for the Hutte Agency which features in Missing Person. One of his assignments is to try and track down a Noelle Lefebvre. Later Jean steals the case file. This is from my review:

“As in a lot of Modiano novels there are several strange, slightly unsettling characters that appear and disappear. There is an American car, this time driven by a youth. There is mention of a mountainous region in France – Haute Savoie which also makes an appearance in Missing Person and briefly in Villa Triste. And unlike most of the Modiano novels I have read, there is a second narrative thread and another city featured.”

I now know why I need to keep reading Patrick Modiano. In some strange way the oft repeated details in slightly different evocations become almost a refrain of your own dimly recalled memories. It’s oddly reassuring. It is as if you will gradually find out more details about your own life if you keep reading him and how enticing is that?” I dare you to fall under his spell.

Always

Always

Are we defined by the things that haunt us? Perhaps haunt is a strong word. How about the things that won’t leave us alone? The things that keep popping back into our lives from time to time. For me it is two signs that I’ve been thinking about lately. The one pictured above I’m hoping will be the jumping off point for a new story.

The other one, another sign on a gate – Manderley – (obviously a fan of the book Rebecca) by the waters of the upper reaches of the Colo River, of all places. I was on a boat at the time cruising past and the gate literally opened out onto the water. I strained to see a house further up the path above the river but couldn’t. This was the 1970s and I’m suspecting that the house and the gate are long gone. From time to time over the years, I wonder idly about hiring a boat and finding the gate but the logistics of the whole endeavour keep putting me off. Still “Manderley” comes to me from time to time in both its manifestations.

Daphne du Maurier “discovered” Manderley in the late 1920s when the family began visiting Fowey in Cornwall. Sailing on her yacht Marie-Louise, Daphne had come across the enchanted woods on the Gribben Headland. “And looking north, inland, from the Gribben, I could just make out the grey roof of a house there, set in its own grounds amongst trees.”

On the first occasion Daphne and her sister Angela attempted to visit the house but the drive was three miles long and night fell before they reached the house. From Growing Pains: the shaping of a writer Daphne writes:

“The following day we tried another approach, taking M (Daphne’s mother’s) little car and driving to the west lodge, leaving the car at the gate. We walked across the park and through another gate, and came to the house. Grey, still, silent. The windows were shuttered fast, white and barred. Ivy covered the grey walls and threw tendrils round the windows. It was early still, and the house was sleeping. But later, when the sun was high, there would come no wreath of smoke from the chimneys. The shutters would not be thrown back, nor the doors unfastened. No voices would sound within those darkened rooms. Menabilly would sleep on, like the sleeping beauty of the of the fairy-tale, until someone should come to wake her.”

She visits the house many times by herself, walking the grounds, peering inside and imagining the past life of the house. Of course it is Daphne herself who wakes the house. Twice. In real life she leases the house and does it up, making it her home and living there from 1943 to 1969 when she returns it the Rashleighs. In the world of fiction she creates Manderley, the house of Maxim de Winter.

“Childhood visits to Milton Hall, Cambridgeshire influenced the descriptions of Manderley, especially the interior. Menabilly provided the setting, the long drive and the woods hiding the house from the road. The inscrutability of it, you could say.

Inscrutable too was my “Always” gate. What was its meaning? When I first saw the green gate, I had recently moved to the area after my “always” marriage broke up. In the early days when I passed the sign, I would look at it with a quizzical fascination. How hopeful of them. In darker moods, I would think, How dare they! Now I just wonder (as my character Zach will do) what do they actually mean by this nonsensical word?

And what about he persistent image of a ‘Victorian Woman’ who later developed into The French Lieutenant’s Woman – the character Sarah Woodruff in the novel by John Fowles. This image wouldn’t go away either.

In a 1969 essay titled “Notes on an Unfinished Novel,” Fowles reflects on his writing process. He said he had an image during the autumn of 1966 of “A woman [who] stands at the end of a deserted quay and stares out to sea.” He determined that she belonged to a ‘Victorian Age’ and had ‘mysterious’ and ‘vaguely romantic’ qualities. He made a note at the time about the function of the novel saying:

“You are not trying to write something one of the Victorian novelists forgot to write; but perhaps something one of them failed to write. And: Remember the etymology of the word. A novel is something new. It must have relevance to the writer’s now – so don’t ever pretend you live in 1867; or make sure the reader knows it’s a pretence.” And not long afterwards The French Lieutenant’s Woman, one of the most intriguing, postmodern historical fiction novels of the 20th century is born.

A sign, a house, a person. Whatever the object of fascination is, it seems to me that often, if we let it, obsession turns into a creation.

Faces of 1924

For three and a half years I’ve been looking at photos of the 1920s, especially looking at women and fashion, for my manuscript Paris Next Week. What did the women do in Australia in 1924? How did they fill their days? I’m still not completely sure but some of them in Sydney attended afternoon tea at Ambassadors, and fundraising events at the Hotel Australia, They went to the beach and to parties and balls. One excellent photo I discovered on flicker was of two women attending a tennis party on Australia Day 1924 at Victoria Barracks.

There’s a lot of grainy images of socialites to be discovered in Trove but they are studio portraits and don’t seem to offer up glimpses of personality. I have come across a wonderful photo of picnickers in front of their car, a picnic spread out and the styles of their clothes interestingly displayed but, still, it is an ad for Arnotts biscuits and not an insight into the psyche of the people photographed.

The photographs of Mina Moore come closer to what I’ve been searching for – a glimpse of that’s person’s life in their eyes – particularly an image of Vera Dwyer, author. As a result of discovering that photo I read two of Dwyer’s novels. As a result of discovering the photo above I am now in a quandary because I’ve just discovered that the young woman looking straight at the camera looks quite a lot like a young Katherine Mansfield.

The young woman is Kathleen Mangan the youngest daughter of the artist Frederick McCubbin. She grew up at Mount Macedon (not far from Hanging Rock) and sitting next to her interestingly is Joan Lindsay, the author of Picnic at Hanging Rock The image is from Mangan’s memoir Daisy Chains, War Then Jazz but unfortunately there is no mention of Joan Lindsay so there is no way of knowing if they were acquaintances or good friends. And I’ve spent hours trying to discover any further connection. Any help on this would be greatly appreciated.

I’ll leave you with Mangan on Mount Macedon:
“I always had a sort of love-hate relationship with Mt Macedon. It could be a scary place at times, especially when the wind came down from the top of the mountain and raced through the treetops. At night-time it was frightening when this occurred, particularly when the house trembled and the wind moaned through the rafters beneath the roof. But when the wind dropped and the clouds came swirling past our windows it was even more eerie. Everything became so hushed and still when the clouds locked us in. The only sound was the dripping of moisture from the eaves and the loud beating of your own heart then you saw, or imagined you saw, grotesque forms in the clouds, leering at you through the window.”

 

Reading just as fast as I can

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Yes, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing these last two months. Like a long distance runner, I’m trying to put as much distance as I can between myself and the first draft of my manuscript Paris Next Week.

Why, you wonder? Well I’m not one of these people that can put a manuscript away for say nine months or a year. (For me that’s like those dreadful people who leave Easter eggs in the fridge for months! It’s just not happening!) Instead I find that the best way to bring new eyes to my work, after a short period of time, is to read a variety of books. As many as possible.

So what have I been reading since 23rd December last year? Well most are in the pic above and as you can see at a glance they are mostly NOT historical fiction. (And that I’m behind in my reviews.) There’s a self help book, an Australian novel written in the 1920s, a short introduction to a trilogy set in 1919 and the first book in the trilogy (yes, I know, historical fiction). There’s a collection of short stories by a popular English author, a biography, an autobiography, a memoir set in Greece, a crime novel set in London in the 1990s and a romance set in the US in the 1960s.

Looking at the list now I can see (although it was done mostly unconsciously) I have selected quite a range. I’m also currently reading a poetry collection and a collection of the Sunday Times 2016 short story competition finalists.

What I’m aiming for is immersing myself with writing that is very different from my own. Poetry is particularly good for this – the unusual word usage, juxtapositions and the sheer mesmerising difference between poetry and prose. Will it work? I’ll get back to you on that shortly.

A writing life: happy accidents and how they occur

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Le Train Bleu by Vincent Van Gogh Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is how it happens. I am currently reading a beautifully written book about Agatha Christie’s disappearance in December 1926 entitled On the Blue Train by Kristel Thornell. It’s a subject that has fascinated me since reading Agatha Christie’s autobiography and the possibility that the famous author suffered from a rare form of memory loss – the fugue state. Her disappearance is an incident that Christie barely referred to afterwards and never explained. I’ve only now just found out that Miss Marple first appeared in a short story in 1927. I find this telling. An alter ego created to help her cope with the disintegration of her marriage which precipitated her flight in the first place? We’ll never know of course but Thornell offers up what might have happened during those eleven days.

I thought at first that the title referred to depression – the blue train of depression. An odd expression that I had never heard of but early in Thornell’s book there is mention of a novel set on a train that Christie was working on at the time of her disappearance.Two days ago I googled The Blue Train and discovered Le Train Bleu.

“The Calais-Mediterranee Express was a luxury French night express train which operated from 1886 to 2003. It gained international fame as the preferred train of wealthy and famous passengers between Calais and the French Riviera in the two decades before World War II. It was colloquially referred to as Le Train Bleu in French… and The Blue Train in English because of its dark blue sleeping cars.”

Perfect! I am so excited by this. I am right now nearing the end of the first draft of a trilogy set in Sydney and Paris in the 1920s. By the end of the first novel my character is on her way to Southhampton periodically locked in her cabin by her abusive husband. Somehow she must escape him on the docks and find her way to Paris where her best friend Louise is now living with her husband, a Russian Jew named Lucien Grinberg.

This is what makes writing so exciting, a discovery like this. I now need to find out how I can get her on that train and visiting the Riviera, obviously spending time celebrating her freedom. Back to Hemingway who has written some wonderful stories about the rich and famous, my favourite Love in the Night is actually set in the French Riviera in the 1920s. May all the writers reading this blog have lots of happy accidents or synchronicity as I prefer to call it.

The books we reach for when we are writing

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The two books I grabbed after I finished a very long and tricky chapter the other week were Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude and Jane Austen’s Persuasion, my favourite Austen. Why the Auster? That is not immediately obvious to me and is probably the underlying reason for this blog post but we shall see what comes to light as I write.

As for Persuasion I know exactly why I wanted to borrow this exceptional book. Yes, I’m embarrassed to say, borrowed. I don’t have my own copy. The reason is a scene in the book that I will find in a moment. It is the scene where you realise this is not quite the same author who wrote Pride and Prejudice. She has moved one step closer to her character’s thoughts and feelings. In fact she’s almost inside Anne’s head in the paragraph I desperately want to read again.

It is a wonderful piece of writing that I remember as surprisingly modern. This time I want to find out what words and tone she used to actually phrase Anne’s awareness of not just the physical proximity of Captain Wentworth but that his heart may be returning to her as well. Here they are discussing the love story of Captain Benwick and Fanny Harville which ultimately ended with the latter’s death:

“…A man does not recover from such a devotion of the heart to such a woman. He ought not, he does not.”

“Either from the consciousness, however, that his friend had recovered, or from other consciousness, he went no farther; and Anne who, in spite of the agitated voice in which the latter part had been uttered, and in spite of all the various noises of the room, the almost ceaseless slam of the door, and ceaseless buzz of persons walking through, had distinguished every word, was struck, gratified, confused and beginning to breathe very quick, and feel an hundred things in a moment. It was impossible for her to enter on such a subject; and yet, after a pause, feeling the necessity of speaking, and having not the smallest wish for a total change, she only deviated so far as to say,

“You were a good while at Lyme, I think?”

And it’s all there, isn’t it? The noisy world intrudes and makes it hard for Anne to concentrate but somehow she does amidst feeling gratified, confused and a hundred other things besides. I think some part of me remembered that confusion of a noisy world yet ultimately the realisation of hope that Anne is feeling in that moment.

My character on the other hand has hoped to search out her new husband at a fancy dress ball and find him dressed to her liking. When he turns up very male and swashbuckling about to reduce her to a damsel in distress she realises that, in the midst of a crowded ballroom, she has been fooling herself as to her sexual orientation. Now that’s all very well but why the Auster? What answers does it hold for me?

I am not confused about my sexual orientation but I am fascinated with identity. My novel is about the perception of identity. The Invention of Solitude is about the study of a distant and difficult father and the second half, The Book of Memory, is a meditation on memory as a writer and father. The texts Auster refers to for answers are erudite and often include the dispossessed. For me the second half of the Invention of Solitude seems to be a search for his identity now that he is a father himself. I really love the way he gathers those texts together looking for answers. Some of these are: Mallarme writing about the life and death struggle of his son, Collodi’s Pinocchio versus Disney’s Pinocchio, a letter that was never sent from Nadezhda Mandelstam to Osip Mandelstam dated 10/22/28 and the bravery of Anne Frank.

Good books are like friends. They console, offer help and sometimes have the right answers. Here, this is one way of writing that scene. Here is the moment an unappreciated and unloved character realises there may yet be a chance of love. Here is an author looking for answers in the work of others. Just as I am doing now. And reading them returns me to my work.

Trusting your instinct when researching historical fiction

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So, I’ve recently argued the case for hashtags. Is checking a pesky historical fact holding your writing up? No worries just stick in a # and keep writing. Well, sometimes, that just doesn’t work. In my previous post I touched on my hunt for ten sketches of Paris in the 1860s that my character would do as a young Australian woman new to Paris. I stopped writing to actually start finding those ten sketches.

I’m still missing one and as you can see from the above pic, I’m currently working out the order of the sketches that Sarah will view them as she walks around her grandmother’s room. Two she will remember: one from earlier in the novel and one from several years before. Currently the sketches are listed as I decided on them.

Now that I have begun hanging the sketches, so to speak, I have realised how right I was in delving deeper. Yes, I’ll still throw in the odd hashtag but as so often happens in writing – the scene has become so much more than I envisaged. Lena’s sketches have become her granddaughter’s roadmap to Paris. They also suggest the struggles Lena had in not only learning to sketch but learning her way around Paris.

Here is a little snippet of the chapter so far:

‘The next sketch, now that I study it, is much more accomplished than the previous one.  “What a marvellous looking building,” I say of a quaint little house surrounded by taller buildings.

“I doubt whether it is there any more. Haussmann probably had it demolished.”

“Who?”

“Oh, Darling, I don’t want to talk about that bureaucrat. But I lived near there. That is Rue Saint Hilaire.”

Rue Saint Hilaire I repeat to myself and then move to the next sketch by Nana’s big window. It is of an amazing medieval building, possibly a grand house, studying the bas reliefs between the windows, set seemingly into the stonework of the building.

“Hotel Colbert. But you couldn’t stay there.”

“You couldn’t?”

“It was a private mansion.”

I’m about to ask Nana to explain but she waves a dismissing hand at me.

“I could feel that it wouldn’t be there for much longer so I sketched it but waited  until I could do it justice. It was my second last sketch of Paris.”’

And now I’m off to find that tenth sketch. Happy researching peeps!

Researching Paris and/or another early poem

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Image source: Wikimedia Commons

I’m researching Paris in the 1870s and don’t quite know where to start. What part of Paris would a young Australian girl live in during that time? Paris is the early part of a Grand Tour of Europe that Lena Dubois is enjoying when her mother dies suddenly. She is alone in a strange city with only a smattering of French. What arrondissement does she end up living in and as an artist what buildings and landscapes would she chose to sketch? Fast forward to 1924 and ten of these sketches are now hanging up on the wall of her bedroom. But what are the sketches of? Now that’s the question and I’m having a lot of fun working on it.

To kick my research off, I’m currently reading a marvellous book called Paris: a journey through time by Leonard Pitt. Looking through the old photographs of Paris – Maubert and Saint-Severin, Boulevard Saint-Germain and Montagne Saint-Genevieve, From Odeon to Saint Germain-des-Pres, Rue Beaubourg and Nearby Streets, Rue Etienne-Marcel, Avenue de l’Opera and Les Halles reminded me of one of the most famous photographs of Paris – Boulevard du Temple, Paris, 1838. I was so intrigued by the photograph the first time I saw it that I wrote the poem below.

*BOULEVARD DU TEMPLE, PARIS, 1838

In the pages of a book I find
a shoeshiner and his customer
in the deserted street and where
are the doves? Cooing from the
windowsill near the photographer
now a long way from camera obscura
with this picture of a quiet
Paris street. What next? A view
of the Great Pyramid in albumen
and wet plates at the goldfields;
dead blue and grey soldiers
in black and white and now
moving pictures flicker past
until we have battlefields
in our living rooms: our square
argus-eyed friend always on
the spot. Yet I’d rather
discover beauty unadorned, know
the cameramen, the crew have all
gone home and left me to contemplate
how time has slipped away
from a quiet Paris street.

*First published in Muse 

Researching v. Writing and/or maximising your writing time

Researching vs. WritingSometimes life gets the better of us – looking for or starting a new job, the birth of a grandchild, even a scene that you can’t find inspiration for and your writing stalls. This is when those pesky hashtags come into their own.

You may only now be adding them to your draft. Ideally it is best to add them from the very first draft but better late than never, as the old cliche goes. See my earlier post. Either way you should now have a general idea of things you need to check. That’s when it’s handy to make lists and start borrowing books on those subjects when the writing isn’t flowing.

My local library know me as that strange woman who orders the oddest books on inter-library loans. Here’s four of my lists above. A lot of the books on the TO READ list will be interesting to skim through but they may not get rid of a single hashtag. They may, though, supply me with an idea or a possible scene.

I recently leafed through a marvellous book on Art Nouveau by Judith Miller. In it I found a marquetry side table, a silk panel and a glass carafe with a bird on the lid. I also found an amazing lamp with a bird pattern on it, a sea green glass vase, a brooch featuring a two swans interlocked and a bronze nude seemingly wading through rushes.

In the book there were details of each item, the country of origin, the artist and the year. These details, of course, DON’T go into the manuscript. But they are a guide for me as to whether they are suitable or not. What goes in is what my character Sarah sees at Lilith’s flat or what the family might call treasured objects such as the lamp or the brooch. i.e the swan brooch and the bird lamp. Sarah might recognise some things of course – that a side table is marquetry but she is not a specialist on furniture and art of the art nouveau period, although this is the period her mother might have been doing a lot of buying for the family home.

Armed with this new information on furniture and objects, I dealt a death blow to three hashtags in Lilith’s apartment. One of the objects was a lamp. I then searched lamp in my manuscript and discovered another hashtag #acetylene lamp. After some quick hunting I decided what I really wanted was a kerosene lantern. Bingo, another # bites the dust. I then worked on a hashtag relating to an outdoor lamp. I googled a few pictures and chose a square lamp for a porch light and then on the spur of the moment got rid of #easy chair and replaced it with a walnut armchair. Six hashtags gone! That leaves 222 to go. Now back to that fancy dress ball.

Forgotten Australian novelists

J.W. Heming

J.W. Heming – Source: Collecting books and magazines.com

How do books/novelists get forgotten? I’ve been pondering this for a while now and have come up with a formulae. Well, the ingredients for a formulae and someone needs to assign values and calculate. I think it would include, in no particular order (that’s for the formulae writer to decide):

Early death of novelist. An original/exciting/groundbreaking novel is published. Word is getting around the traps and then the author dies before establishing a reputation. A perfect example is Deirdre Cash (1924-1963). Writing as Criena Rohan, the young Australian published two novels The Delinquents and Down by the Dockside and would be almost completely forgotten if her first novel had not been made into a 1989 movie. If she had not died so young, the mysterious third novel The House with the Golden Door would definitely have survived and hopefully been published, helping to establish a less tenuous reputation.

Gender bias, if the novelist is a woman, leading to a lack of reviews and recommendations and later anthologising, as examined at length in Writing a New World: Two Centuries of Australian Women Writers by Dale Spender. (Although things are now looking up as the shortlist for the 2015 Short Story Prize for emerging writers is made of 8 women and only 4 men).

The writing style of the author and/or the changing tastes of the reading public Was it avant garde? Too extreme for the masses that were the reading public of, say, 1924. If we could only get a hold of that elusive book written in 1923 we would discover that it’s author should never have been forgotten. See my review of Jean Curlewis’s Beach Beyond.

A reclusive and/or difficult author. As pointed out in the excellent article: Turning Pages: The lost or forgotten classic novels that should be back in print – a difficult author can sabotage their own fame and that of their novels. “Some authors might have been better-known if they were less reclusive (Gregory Day’s pick, the poet George Mackay Brown, spent most of his life in the Orkney Islands); or less independent and bloody-minded (Geordie Williamson’s pick, the eccentric James Hamilton-Paterson, is admired by Michael Ondaatje​ and Barry Humphries).”

Not successful in winning any major prizes or competitions. Once your novel has won a competition such as the Miles Franklin your name is registered for all time and your book guaranteed a place in Australian literary history. Although at Sydney Review of Books Nicolas Jose eloquently states: “There is a difference between literary history and living literature. Winning the Miles Franklin may gain you a place in the historical record. But there’s no reason why today’s reader should be bound by the decisions of yesterday’s judging committee. It is as interesting to ask why a writer or a book may not work for us as to insist that it is a great work because someone once gave it a prize.”

Meeting the needs of the moment only. This generally won’t ensure a book’s long term survival. A very good example of this is the Australian pulp fiction (yes Australian!) of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. As Andrew Nette explains at Kill Your Darlings – “It was throwaway fiction in every sense of the word: cheap; printed on rough paper; featuring lurid cover art designed to make the books stand out at news stands and kiosks. It also had a healthy dose of cultural cringe, with the majority of the stories set elsewhere – usually America.”

Of course tastes change and not even quality writing can always be assured of survival. In my research on the 1920s I came across some Forgotten Australian Women Novelists. Of course the 1920s is a long time ago so I moved my research period forward and began to wonder who were the top male and female authors 1940-1950. From publication listings accessed by the very helpful AustLit we have below a list of the top five male Australian authors:

J.W. Heming
Carl Dekker
Bob Mackinnon
Kevin M. Slattery
Philip Richmond.

The top five female authors for the same period are:

Maysie Greig
Jennifer Ames
Marie Ford
Mary Mitchell
Edna Finlay

I’m afraid I’ve never heard of any of them. Their popularity hasn’t saved them for posterity. Luckily over the last ten years or so there has been a concerted push by a number of institutions to save selected worthy books and novelists from being completely forgotten. There is the excellent Text Publishing Classic Series, Sydney University Press’s Classic Australian Works, Allen & Unwin’s recently launched House of Books, and other reprints.

I and my fellow colleagues at Australian Women’s Writers Challenge are also doing our bit to help raise awareness of underrated or forgotten novelists. Sue at Whispering Gums has recently reviewed The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw. Henshaw wrote one of my all time favourite books by an Australian – Out of the Line of Fire. The novel burst into our consciousness in 1988 and was one of the most acclaimed novels of the 1980s. And then the author disappeared from the literary world. Another forgotten novelist is Fredric Manning who wrote, (for me anyway) the unforgettable WWI novel The Middle Parts of Fortune which thankfully Lisa has reviewed at ANZ Litlovers. Hopefully her review will lead to more readers of Manning’s thought provoking novel and the publication of The Snow Kimono, a host of new readers for Henshaw.

Just in case you are wondering, here are details about our top two novelists from AustLit “John Winton Heming was the author of some 50 pulp novelettes and claimed to have written perhaps two thousand short stories. Heming published in different genres and under a variety of names and pseudonyms.” And our top female. “Maysie Greig was a journalist with the Sydney Sun newspaper from 1919 to 1920. There is some evidence that Greig published the same works, often under different titles, under different names in England and the United States.”

I am currently reading The Drowning Maze by Jean Curlewis published in 1922. Watch this space for the review. The only trouble is, I will have to add the book first. Jean Curlewis, is a forgotten novelist as far as Goodreads is concerned, at least until recently and yours truly.