Come and float free of normal life
Every year I bury a hundred and fifty of my townspeople. Another dozen or two I take to the crematory to be burned. I sell caskets, burial vaults, and urns for ashes. I have a sideline in headstones and monuments. I do flowers on commission.
So begins The Undertaking: Life Studies from a Dismal Trade, by Thomas Lynch, one of this year’s Writers and Readers Week guests. A poet-undertaker, Lynch’s latest work, Still Life in Milford, reflects the lives and deaths of the inhabitants of his hometown in Michigan, and reflects on his family background in County Clare, Ireland. Coming from a background in the funeral trade, Lynch began writing poetry when a young woman he knew died of a brain tumour – “I suppose poetry, language, the shaping of it, was and remains for me an effort to make sense out of essentially senseless situations.” The Undertaking is a collection of essays on various themes, tied by Lynch’s profession, and the lessons he has learnt from it, lessons of resonant common sense and pragmatism: “No cause of death is any less permanent than any other,” he reminds us, noting the entire indifference of the dead to everything that happens to them, while viewing with amused compassion the difficulty we have with this fact. He tells the story of a widow who came to collect her husband’s ashes, put the urn in the boot, took it out and put it on the backseat, and finally drove off with it – her husband in some sense – on the front seat,
Children’s writers have had a higher profile recently, in part due to the dominance of Harry Potter on the bestseller lists. It seems, however, a little odd that the children’s author attending WRW should have had one of his works described as “the most pernicious book I have ever read”, compared to which American Psycho “looks like a spotless lamb”. John Marsden is the author so vilified, a good example of the gap that can appear between adult strictures and children’s taste. Marsden is a hugely successful and popular writer, whose futuristic series beginning with Tomorrow When the War Began (1991) has introduced innumerable adolescents to the pleasures of the text. Marsden’s subjects are often disturbing and controversial, speaking to adolescent readers without condescension. He has, he says, two reasons for writing for the young: “I don’t think I have a choice. I write what I am driven to write and for some strange reason that happens to be books for adolescents and children”; and secondly, “because their responses are so strong, so passionate, so intense and heartfelt.”
Organising an event such as WRW inevitably involves dramas and disappointments, and the non-appearance of the veteran American writer Grace Paley is a shame, but her replacement amply compensates. Hilary Mantel is a strangely uncategorisable novelist. Her 1985 debut, Every Day is Mother’s Day, based on her experiences as a social worker, put her firmly in the camp of the social realist/comedy of manners school. Subsequent experience in Africa and Saudi Arabia has broadened her canvas, though the delightful 1995 novel An Experiment in Love returned her to Britain with a coming-of-age account of university students in a hostel. But to my mind her most powerful (and disturbing) work is A Place of Greater Safety (1992), a historical novel set in the French Revolution, dealing with the lives of a group of young idealistic and doomed radicals. Mantel confesses to an obsession with this historical period, and started writing this novel when she was in her early twenties. She found the ideal situation for a writer – a job in the sheepskin section of a department store in August: “I was left alone for hours and hours and could form up my sentences and marshal my thoughts.” The result – put to one side when marriage, travel and other more publishable books intervened – is riveting. Mantel’s latest work, The Giant O’Brien, returns to the past, with the story of an actual historical personage, Charles Byrne, seven foot ten inches, who became a celebrity in London in the late 18th century. “I am exploring how world views can collide,” says Mantel, “producing chaos, conflict and choice.”
A further late but welcome entry is the Indian novelist Vikram Seth whose 1993 novel A Suitable Boy did for the Indian middle classes of the 1950s what Anthony Trollope did for the Victorian clergy. A huge, huge book – 1300 pages long – it is rambling, romantic, detailed and absorbing. His latest work, An Equal Music (1999), tries something completely different – the story of a love affair set in Europe, with a musical background. Seth is obviously as interested in the latter as the former. “It’s the weirdest thing, a quartet,” remarks one character. “I don’t know what to compare it to. A marriage? A firm? A platoon under fire? A self-regarding, self-destructive priesthood? It has so many different tensions mixed in with its pleasures.”
The Australian writer Robert Drewe is probably – as is sadly the case with many Australian writers – not very well known here, and it is to be hoped that his WRW appearance will remedy this. Born in 1943 in Melbourne, Drewe grew up in Perth and worked there as a journalist for many years. It was a confining world:
Perth is pretty small. I’d interviewed everyone there. It [the Western Australian] was a strange paper. We used to be sent to the airport to meet the planes from the eastern states. We’d stop strangers getting off. We’d say: “Excuse me, I’m from the Western Australian. Are you interesting?”
Drewe’s first novel, The Savage Crows (1976), is set in Tasmania and in its evocation of the Aboriginal world coincided with a sense of historical responsibility that came to the fore in white Australians in the 1970s. He has returned to this theme in his latest work, The Drowner (1996), set in the 19th century, concerning an irrigation expert (the “drowner” of the title) who leaves his native Wiltshire for Australia. He is, says Drewe, “a character who conveyed the European experience but who was tired of the old Europe, and was seeking a new world.” Drewe’s aim in this – and in others of his works – he describes as “subverting and readdressing the great Australian myths, this time with technology and sensuality added in.”
The veteran Australian writer Elizabeth Jolley, who had the ambiguous distinction of being named an Australian living treasure in 1998, deals not so much with myths as with transfigurations of the suburban. The beginning of her story “Woman in a Lampshade” conveys more of the flavour of her writing – dry, exact, humorous – than any publisher’s blurb: “One cold wet night in July Jasmine Tredwell took several sheets of paper and her typewriter together with a quantity of simple food and some respectable wine and, saying good-night fondly to her dozing husband, she set off in search of solitude.”
The past and its obligations are a concern of the British-Guyanan writer Fred D’Aguiar. Born and educated in London, but brought up in Guyana, D’Aguiar’s later work, Bill of Rights, has been described as a blend of narrative fiction and lyric poetry. It uses the events of Jonestown in 1978, when the followers of Reverend Jim Jones committed mass (not entirely voluntary) suicide, counterpointed with the experience of a survivor in present-day London. More distant history is also a source. A visit to an exhibition about slavery at the Merseyside Maritime Museum inspired D’Aguiar’s 1994 novel, The Longest Memory, set on a Virginian plantation at the turn of the 19th century, and Feeding the Ghosts (1997), set on an 18th-century slave ship. A ship’s captain on a crossing in the 1780s threw overboard 132 men, women and children; D’Aguiar became interested in the one slave who climbed back. A poem from his 1985 collection, Mama Dot, spells out this history succinctly:
Born on a Sunday
in the kingdom of Asante
Sold on a Monday
Ran way on Tuesday
cause she born free
Lost a foot on Wednesday
when they catch she
Worked all Thursday
till her head grey
Dropped on a Friday
where they buried she
Freed on Saturday
in a new century.
The past and its terrors are also the concern of the German novelist, Bernhard Schlink. Described as “a brief tale of sex, love, reading and shame in post-war Germany”, The Reader tells the story of a young boy who falls in love with an older woman whose past involves the legacy of the Second World War. Reading (and the deductive process that it involves) is, Schlink suggests, one of the necessary ways in which moral discriminations must be made. Interestingly, Schlink is also the author of several works of crime and detection in the more popular sense.
Sri Lankan novelist Romesh Gunesekera similarly writes from dislocation, between in his case the world of his Asian childhood and the world of London, the place of exile. In The Sandglass (1997), the hero returns to London for the funeral of his acculturated aunt Pearl, and wonders “where is ‘home’ for the men and women who hover between a Sri Lanka which no longer exists and an England far from the fictional universe of Pearl’s beloved Father Brown mysteries?” Nostalgia and longing are powerfully pervasive elements of Gunesekera’s writing. His 1994 novel Reef, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, plays with a mixture of cultures and histories (“cooking, coral polyps, chaos theory”, according to one critic), symbolised in the motif of cooking, the amalgamation of independent substances into a new whole. “Culture is not contained, it’s all over the place,” he asserts in a manner reminiscent of Salman Rushdie’s “chutney-fication”. As Prins in The Sandglass warns, “You know, nothing really fits. It all pretends to fit, like someone has constructed it all to see exactly how the thing works, but really it is done to hide everything. To lead us completely in the wrong direction.”
Science may be the way through such uncertainties. WRW is surprisingly strong in this area, considering the generally uncomfortable relationship between arts and science. Lavinia Greenlaw is a British poet, born in 1962 to a family of doctors and scientists. “I feel as if they are all bilingual and I am not,” she has commented. Perhaps she has become so, however. The Poet Laureate Andrew Motion has defined Greenlaw’s work as combining an “excited way of looking with a calm way of thinking”, and in 1995 she was writer-in-residence at the Science Museum. On the other hand she herself attributes her most powerful creative burst to the birth of her daughter, citing “the isolation, the lack of sleep that makes everything feel more acute.” Her writing certainly illustrates this, as in this extract from “Reading Akhmatova in Midwinter”:
each leaf carries itself in glass,
each stem is a fuse in transparent flex,
each blade, for once, truly metallic.
Or this, also from her most recent collection, A World Where News Travelled Slowly (1997):
Now words are faster, smaller, harder
… we’re almost talking in each other’s arms.
Coded and squeezed, what chance has my voice
to reach your voice unaltered and to leave no trace?
Hard science is represented by Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at MIT, though a reviewer’s endorsement of his bestselling book How The Mind Works – “if it were a rock show, tickets would be scalped for a hundred dollars” – suggests he is on the sexy edge of cognitive studies, as interested in the emotions as physical science, especially as they relate to the arts. And social science, of a kind, blended with philosophy, history and general cultural commentary is represented by British writer Michael Ignatieff, whose reinterpretation of the reach of history could be one of this year’s WRW’s emerging themes. Ignatieff has written political history (The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience, for example), but also biography and autobiography, and blended all of these with fiction. Perhaps his most powerful book is Scar Tissue (1994), which tells in fictional form the story of a woman’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease and the effect on her family. Ignatieff’s mother died from this illness.
“Literary conferences are strange affairs,” British novelist Rose Tremain has observed: “20 or so perfect strangers floating free of normal life to converse together in a variety of half-remembered languages.” Attending a recent French version of WRW in Poitiers, she found she was satirised in a student paper as “Rose Tresmince, a kind of crazed prima donna with naked feet and one naked breast, declaiming into the microphone.” Forestalling unwarranted enthusiasm for her appearance here, she promises: “From now on, readings from my work will be crisp and austere.” Tremain’s best-known novel is probably Restoration, shortlisted for the 1989 Booker Prize, and made into a film starring Meg Ryan and Hugh Grant. Tremain is wary of the film’s success, pointing out that neither of its two Oscars were for script. As with Mantel, she has a number of literary voices, and has explored a range of human situations, usually those verging on the extreme, from the girl who decides she is male in Sacred Country (1992) to the thirteen-year-old boy who falls in love with a forty-one-year-old woman in The Way I Found Her (1997). Her most recent novel, Music and Silence, returns to her version of the past. Baroque in all senses of the word, it is set in 1630 in the court of the Danish king, Christian IV.
Tremain has reason to view literary events such as WRW with favour. It was at just such an event (in Australia) that she met her partner, the biographer Richard Holmes, also appearing here. Holmes’ biographies of the Romantic poets Shelley and Coleridge combine a meticulous and authoritative command of the facts – the facts of the life, and of the historical period – with a sensitive and imaginative respect for the person. His latest work is Darker Reflections, the second volume of his compelling biography of Coleridge, a famously difficult subject for any biographer. Of the later Coleridge, Holmes says:
He was living out what many people experience, in the dark disorder of their hidden lives, but living it on the surface with an astonishing even alarming candour that many of his friends found unendurable or even ludicrous. Moreover he continued to write about it in a way that makes him irreplaceable among the great Romantic visionaries. His greatness lies in the understanding of these struggles, not (like Wordsworth, perhaps) in their solution.
So thirteen writers over a week. As Henry James advised, “Try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost.”
Jane Stafford teaches in the School of English, Film and Theatre at Victoria University of Wellington.