The books we reach for when we are writing

auster-and-austen

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.

The Cats Will Come, my grandmother and her diary

Mum Court with cats

Timing really is everything. Not just in what we read – the right book at the right time – but also when we discover or rediscover something. At the age of twelve or thirteen I inherited my grandmother’s beautiful carved chest. I can’t remember what was it in. Papers I think that my family removed but somehow I also inherited some books of hers, a teddy and what I thought was a very small gardening journal. I put the tiny notebook in the carved chest which now contains, photos, children’s schoolwork, music sheets, treasured newspaper clippings and at one stage my first completed manuscript.

Just recently my online friend Eva Lomski was enquiring about a WH Davies quote that I used in my first unpublished manuscript. I promised I would hunt it down expecting to find the two light purple manilla folders containing “A Strange Peace” in the chest. The folders weren’t there but I dislodged the tiny beige notebook and put it aside. I finally found the manuscript the other day and I’m glad that I now have stored it safely where I can find it.

Back to the notebook. I read through it last week and discovered that it is actually a diary not a gardening journal and that my grandmother was very clearly not well during much of 1968. What I wasn’t expecting was to find myself there – a young granddaughter Debby (spelt incorrectly) who frequently visited on a Sunday with her parents Nan and Jimmy.

I might have even seen my name there years ago when I first came across the notebook but probably didn’t think much of it. This time things were different. In the notebook I can imagine myself as I was, a little girl whose place as an only child was secure. Visits to her grandmother were seen in the light of her parents’ behaviour and reactions – her mother’s lack of interest in the garden; her father’s love of cats. But on Friday 27th December the diary entry reads: “Debby came home for 2 nights and day.”

I only remember staying with my grandmother once and I have never been able to remember if it was only for one night but here it is in my grandmother’s spidery writing. I was eleven years old and alone with her in the old house and garden. I remember waking up and she wasn’t there. She was out in the garden. She was old but she was up before me, digging and stooping over flowers.

I look back now and realise that it was up to me to decide what to think about my grandmother. It was my opinion of who she was and mine alone. Mad gardener and lover of cats. I was finally seeing her, really seeing her for the first time. Years later, not surprisingly, the poem came very quickly.

*THE CATS WILL COME

The cats come to her alone
except for grandmother
stooped, whispering their names
and when they come they form
an avalanche of fur
against the wire screen door
collapsing in a tangle of tails
a swish of slick coats
then slink to bowls of milk
lapping the evening away.

A lace curtain flutters
in the chequered sun
while grandmother cossets
roses, chrysanthemums
and hydrangeas heavy
with dew in the early light
orange in the old kitchen
that greets her grandchild
just roused from sleep
waking to a world slipping away.

*First published in Westerly Magazine