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      Friday, 17 June 2022

      The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams


      It’s hard to think of a more appropriate novel for OnFiction than The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams. It’s about how readers can enter the hearts of novels, and novels can enter the hearts of readers.

      One protagonist is Mukesh, an elderly, grief-stricken man whose wife, Naina, has recently died of cancer. A second is the disgruntled seventeen-year-old Aleisha, who has taken a summer job at the Harrow Road Library. This place is where near where both of them live, a bit beyond the North Circular Road in London, near Wembley Football Stadium.


      The book starts with a prologue by Aidan. A few years before Aleisha, his sister, started her summer job, he was happy to escape into this same library and read for a little while. Once, beside him, was a big stack of books that prevented him seeing the person who sat next to him. But he observed the hand of this person writing. When this person left, the piece of paper with writing on it was left behind. Aidan looked at it. Here’s what it said in neat warm letters: 


      Just in case you need it.

      To Kill a Mockingbird


      The Kite Runner

      Life of Pi

      Pride and Prejudice

      Little Women


      A Suitable Boy


      One day, when Aleisha was working in the library, Mukesh arrived and tried to enter. He didn’t notice the button to press that opened the new doors. Aleisha saw him outside but didn’t help. When at last he did get in by following some other visitors, he asked her for a recommendation. She didn’t give one. She was even rather rude. 


      Then clearing some books away, in a corner of the library where detective stories and crime fiction were shelved—a nice place with windows that overlook a park—she saw one of the regulars whom she thought of as “Crime Fiction Guy.”  He said he wanted to return a book: To Kill a Mockingbird. 


      “Not my usual crime book,” he said. “But … I keep coming back to it … This book … you know … I’d recommend it.”


      When Crime Thriller Guy left, she logged the book back in. On opening it, she found the very same reading list as her brother Aidan had found a while ago, with this book being first on the list. 


      Feeling upset and guilty for having been horrible to Mukesh she went over to him “her heart pounding in her chest.” A book that everyone should read, she thought. She recommended it to Mukesh and thought of it as her olive branch.


      Aidan and Aleisha take turns at staying at home to care for their difficult and occasionally impossible mother, who is only sometimes affectionate. Often she falls asleep in the day-time and, on some of these occasions, when she is at home, Aleisha who doesn’t much like books, reads To Kill a Mockingbird, which she has pinched from the library without checking it out. She becomes engaged in it and, as this happens, some of her troubles begin to fade away. Later, Mukesh arrives at the library and wants to borrow this very same book, the one that she had recommended.


      In The Reading List’s Chapter 10, Mukesh and Aleisha in the library, thoughtfully discuss To Kill a Mockingbird, and talk with each other about how it has affected them.


      As the chapters continue, Mukesh and Aleisha read and discuss the other books on the list, which was written on scraps of paper that keep turning up at unexpected times in peculiar places. As this novel continues, coming to each of the books, we read of the friendly discussions between Mukesh and Aleisha, and of how what they’d read offered insights and had positive effects on their discontented lives, that encouraged them to move forward. 


      And a mystery: who was it who wrote the list of books found on scraps of paper here and there?


      Coming to the end this review it’s a bit embarrassing to say that The Reading List is one of those books that can bring tears to the eyes.


      PS. As a result of reading this novel, I read the second book on the list, Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, which I hadn’t read before, and found that, like the others, it’s rather good.

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      Wednesday, 8 June 2022

      On Wednesday, just before midnight. Angela, a night nurse in a hospice, came to see Phillipa, who had cancer. 

      After they’d talked a bit, Angela said, “Here, let me tuck you in. Comfortable?”


      Latnext evening, Thursday, again a little before midnight, Angela came and saw that Philippa was still awake. She pulled a chair beside the bed and sat down to chat.

      “What do you think it’s like, on the other side?” asked Philippa.

      “I did a lot of wondering about that, too.”

      “Good if it’s peaceful, calm.”


      “I think I was OK as a mother, not so good as a wife”

      “I read, recently,” said Angela, “about someone called the Venerable Bede, around the year 600. He told the story of a sparrow who flew through an opening into the great hall where everyone was eating, flew around a bit, did this and that, then found another opening, and flew out. Bede said that in the same way we appear on earth for a while. But we are like the sparrow. Of what happens before this life, or of what happens after it, we know nothing.”

      “I like the idea of the sparrow,” said Philippa. “Fluttering about.”

      “I do, too.”


      “I didn’t know if you were awake,” said the day nurse. “I’m Wendy. Time for breakfast.”

      “Sorry. I was dozing.”

      “Are you OK? How did you sleep?”

      “May I ask you something? Angela, the night nurse. Do you know her?” 

      “Here’s coffee. Do you want apple juice, or orange, or cranberry?”

      “She told me a story that I found strangely comforting.”

      “She was a lovely person.”

      “How d’you mean ‘was?’ What day is it?”


      “She was here, with me, late last evening. Thursday.”

      “I probably shouldn’t tell you. Angela had a terminal illness. She kept working right through Wednesday night. She had an adverse reaction to a new painkiller. She passed away on Thursday morning.”

      Image from Wikipedia.

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      Saturday, 21 August 2021

      Our Souls At Night

      The idea of “schema” was central to Frederic Bartlett’s book of 1932, Remembering, where he described a series of experiments in which people were asked to read a story, or to look at a picture, and then reproduce it either immediately or later. Bartlett’s proposal was that remembering is an activity based not on anything like a photograph or recording, but on an understanding—schema—of how, in a way that is familiar to a person and within a society, one does certain kinds of actions like getting onto a train, or sitting down with others for a meal, plus an emotional attitude together with a rather small amount of detail. In Art and Illusion, Ernst Gombrich (1960) took this idea into an understanding of representational painting which, he said, is based on schema plus correction: for instance, a general idea of what a mountain, or a house, or a person might look like, together with a correction so that it becomes more specific or, in the case of some paintings, new and surprising. 


      Kent Haruf’s novel of 2015, Our Souls at Night is also based on a schema: our idea of what it is for two people to have an affair. In the first chapter of the book, we are introduced to the novel’s protagonist, the elderly widow, Addie Moore, who lives in a small town in Colorado. She walks over to the house, one block away, of another elderly person: a widower, Louis Waters, whom she knows a little bit but not at all well.  Invited in, she tells him that she won’t stay long, then says that she is getting cold feet. She then says this.


      wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me… I mean we’re both alone. We’ve been by ourselves for too long. For years. I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk.


      The usual schema we might have of going to bed with someone, or having an affair, receives a correction. Addie says to Louis that she means what she says. “I’m not talking about sex" she says but "lying warm in bed, companionably.”


      At first, Louis makes his visits late in the evening, when he is unlikely to be seen. Addie and he try to keep their arrangement secret. As they talk with each other about their marriages, their concerns, they find themselves becoming closer. One event which Addie recounted had been especially hard. Her five-year old daughter, Connie, had been playing in the back yard with her elder brother, Gene, and had run out into the street, had been hit by a car and died. The event had been devastating for Addie’s marriage and devastating for Gene. Addie became the target of both her husband’s and her son’s resentments.


      Other people in the town start to notice Addie’s and Louis’s relationship and to talk about it; no longer a secret. The turning point of the novel occurs when Gene asks Addie to look after his young son, Jamie, for a while, because his wife has left him. Jamie is a rather neglected child, but Louis takes to him, looks after him as a parent might, buys him a dog, of which the boy becomes fond. 


      What are your schemas for growing older, for families, for parental relationships, for affairs? 


      What happens next in this novel? Do Addie and Louis get round to sex? What might Jamie think of what is going on? Maybe I should tell you. Maybe we should gossip. What do you think?


      Frederic Bartlett (1932). Remembering: A study in experimental and social psychology. Cambridge University Press.

      Ernst Gombrich (1960). Art and illusion. Phaidon.

      Kent Haruf (2015). Our souls at night. Knopf.






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      Friday, 7 May 2021

      Klara and the future of humanity

      In his latest novel, Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro reaches beyond what occurs in most fiction. This novel’s protagonist, Klara, is a robot. Whereas some people have wondered whether robots will, like humans, become selfish and try to take over the Earth, here the question is different. Klara is an AF: Artificial Friend. The question is of what it is to be human, what it is to be a friend, what it is to love someone. 


      Klara looks like a human being, but she is powered by the rays of Sun, in which—or whom—she has a deeply religious belief. The person to whom Klara becomes a friend, is Josie, a teenager who lives with her Mother. After her morning cup of coffee Mother (capital M) goes off to work each day, leaving Josie with her Artificial Friend. Klara is intelligent, very observant (a pleasure of this novel is reading Klara’s patterns of thought) and comes to love her, to know her as if from the inside. In the first part of the novel, Josie seems to manage alright, but she then becomes more and more sick. 


      Among the humans who appear as characters in this story, one of the questions is which ones have been “lifted.” We don’t come across that concept until well into the book (page 70 on my Kindle version). We are never told, here, what “lifted” means. My inference is that it means that, when they were children, some of the human characters have been genetically engineered to raise their intelligence. This predisposes some of them to look down on others who have not received this modification. But perhaps their piece of genetic engineering also makes some of them more vulnerable, liable to become sick.


      So, alongside the issue of whether robots, made on the basis of artificial intelligence, will accompany human beings on this planet—and with what motives—there comes a newer question. It is that of whether we humans can have our own abilities supplemented by means of receiving genetic changes. A biography and discussion of this issue has also come out this year. By Walter Isaacson, it’s called The Code Breaker: Jennifer Daudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human RaceDaudna, the protagonist of this story, is the principal pioneer of genetic engineering.


      A central theme in Klara and the Sun, is whether, perhaps, if Josie dies, a physical model that is being made of her by a man who is a sort of portrait-sculptor, might be inhabited by Klara. The idea is that then, with the very extensive understanding of her that Klara has acquired, the processing parts of the Artificial Friend might be inserted into this physical model so that she might reproduce Josie’s movements, her facial expressions, her thoughts, and her words. In this way perhaps other people might not be able to tell the difference between this artificial Josie and the one who might die. All other people? Including her Mother? Or would something necessarily be left out? And if so what might that be?


      Kazuo Ishiguro (2021). Klara and the Sun. Toronto: Knopf.   


      Walter Isaacson (2021). The code breaker: Jennifer Doudna, gene editing, and the future of the human race. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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      Monday, 8 February 2021

      Engagement in Reading

      Birte Thissen, with colleagues Winfried Menninghaus (Director of the Department of Language and Literature at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, in Frankfurt, Germany), and Wolff Schlotz, have recently published an article which brings together Mihaly Csikszentmihali’s concept of flow and the activity of reading fiction. 


      Flow is full engagement in what one is doing. Csikszentmihalyi illustrated this by depicting Rico Medelin who worked in a factory that made movie projectors. His job was on an assembly line and, as each part-made projector came along, the operation he had to do was supposed to take 43 seconds. He had to do this 600 times a day, and he’d been in this job for five years. Many of us would not have been able to do this for so long, but Rico had analyzed the task, and thought about it; worked out how to use his tools and perform his task better and more quickly so that, in his best average over a day, he had completed each task for each unit in two thirds of the time required. "It is better than anything else," said Rico. "It's better than watching TV” (p. 39-40). Another person who was interviewed was a 62 year old woman who enjoyed tending her cows and orchard. "I find a special satisfaction in caring for the plants," she said. "I like to see them grow each day" (p. 55). A mother said about reading with her young daughter: "She reads to me, and I read to her, and that's a time when I sort of lose touch with the rest of the world. I'm totally absorbed in what I'm doing" (p. 53).


      In this state of flow, which Csikszentmihalyi also calls "optimal experience," a person has a sense of purpose and creativity, so that the self and the activity merge. It’s not a matter of waiting for something pleasant to come along, but of setting yourself goals, analyzing and solving problems, creating an activity that is meaningful. 


      In their study, Thissen, Menninghaus and Schlotz asked whether this idea applied to the reading of fiction. They had 373 people, between 18 and 81 years of age, recruited from an online survey in two large bookstores, read a German translation of Homer’s “Scylla and Charybdis,” Chapter 12 of Odysseus. They found that the experience of flow, as measured by a newly created 27-item scale, was a significant predictor of a feeling of presence in the story world, of identification with the protagonist, of enjoyment of reading, and of comprehension of the story. Here’s how the authors end the abstract of their paper.

      Although, to date, the concept of flow has played only a minor role in research on fiction reading, our results suggest that it deserves being integrated into future theoretical frameworks and empirical investigations of positive reading experiences.


      Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Collins.


      Homer (762 BCE). The Odyssey. Harmondsworth: Penguin (current edition 1946).


      Thissen, B. A. K., Menninghaus, W., & Schlotz, W. (2020). The pleasures of reading fiction explained by flow, presence, identification, suspense, and cognitive involvement. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, Advanced online publication, November doi:10.1037/aca0000367

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      Wednesday, 16 December 2020

      Kate Chopin's The Awakening

      The Awakening, published by Kate Chopin when she was 49 years old, has become a literary classic, and an influential feminist novella. 

      Here’s a brief summary. Edna Pontillier is on vacation on Grand Isle with her husband Léonce. In the novella’s eighth paragraph she walks up from a beach with Robert LeBrun, after bathing in the warm Caribbean Sea. On the island she also meets Adèle Ratignolle, mother of three small children, the first person with whom she ever talks about her feelings. Although to start with, Edna cannot swim, she learns to do so and feels liberated. She starts to think of rejecting assigned roles. By the end of the vacation, Edna and Léonce have grown apart, while she and Robert have grown close. To avoid what might happen, Robert moves to Mexico. Back in New Orleans, where she lives, Edna relinquishes her role as housewife, and becomes serious about her painting. Léonce takes a long business trip to New York, his mother looks after the couple’s two young children, and Edna moves into a place she calls the pigeon house. She spends a night with a man who’s a substitute for Robert, whom she thinks is still in Mexico. But he returns and visits her. After some awkward meetings, she kisses him. Although she says that he “must have forgotten that she was Léonce Pontillier’s wife,” she and Robert both declare their love for each other. Then a servant brings a message to say that Adèle Ratignolle is sick, so Edna goes to see her. When Edna returns, she finds a note from Robert. It says: “I love you. Good by—because I love you.” She realizes that he has departed, so she will be solitary. She returns to Grand Isle, removes her clothes, and swims out to sea. 


      As well as this novella, Kate Chopin is known for her short stories. Her principal literary influence was Guy de Maupassant (whom she first read when she was about 35). “I read his stories,” she said, “I marvelled at them.” He spoke to her directly and intimately. She admired his escape from tradition, his rejection of hypocrisy. Her first short story was published when she was 39.


      Although there had been myths, fables, and fairy tales, the literary short story dates back perhaps to 1842: Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat.” The short story can be compared with the sonnet: eight lines, four lines, and two lines, with potential turning points between each set, after which we can see what had gone before in a new way. In Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” (1894) for instance, the protagonist first hears that her husband has died in a railway accident. She breaks down in tears, then goes to her room to be alone. There—turning point—she experiences “something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully. What was it? She did not know; it was too subtle and elusive to name”—a feeling of freedom. Then, towards the end of the story, she leaves her room and goes downstairs. There’s a turning of a key in the front door lock—final turning point—her husband returns; she dies of a heart attack.


      In The Awakening, Kate Chopin uses techniques that are typical of poetry. Although she does this all the way through, an instance is in Chapter 10, when Edna finds she can swim, metaphors include: sea—liberation, learning to swim—accomplishment, actions previously not taken—actions that can now be taken, indoors is containment—outside are possibilities, lying in a hammock—comfort, coziness. There are also reiterated scenes of sleeping and waking. In addition, there are juxtapositions and contrasts. In Chapter 10, Edna’s walk down to the beach with Léonce contrasts with her return with Robert. In a more distant comparison, the novella’s first scene with Edna’s return from bathing connects with its last scene in which she swims out to sea. There are also scenes of emotion as inwardly experienced. For instance, as Edna finds herself able to swim “a feeling of exultation overtook her.” Early versions of such feelings tend to be vague. They then become more distinct; so exultation transforms into a feeling of freedom from the role into which Edna has been cast: wife and mother.


      Kate Chopin. (1894). “The dream of an hour.” In P. Knights (Ed.), Kate Chopin The awakening and other stories(pp. 259-261). Oxford: Oxford University Press (current edition, 2000).


      Kate Chopin (1899). The awakening. In P. Knights (Ed.), Kate Chopin The awakening and other stories (pp. 3-128). Oxford: Oxford University Press (current edition, 2000).


      Nicolai Gogol (1842). “The overcoat” (C. Garnett, Trans.). In The overcoat and other stories (pp. 3-51). London: Chatto & Windus (current edition 1923).


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      Wednesday, 2 December 2020

      The Soul of Kindness

      Elizabeth Taylor, born in 1912, was one of the most accomplished English novelists of the Twentieth Century. She can be thought of continuing in the way pioneered by Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf of depicting people’s inner lives but extending this to include several characters’ thoughts in relating and conversing with a set of other people who include relatives, friends, and lovers. She published twelve novels, a children’s book, and many short stories, which she conceived and thought about while bringing up two children. She was outraged by the fact that most male writers have not needed to divide their time in this way. So here, from her
       A View of the Harbour (1947) is Beth, a novelist on her way up to London on a train to see her publisher. "A man, she thought suddenly, would consider this a business outing. But, then, a man would not have to cook the meals for the day overnight, nor consign his child to a friend, not leave half-done the ironing, nor forget the grocery order as I have now forgotten it" (p. 186). 


      Elizabeth Taylor’s The Soul of Kindness (1964) can be regarded as a variation on Jane Austen’s Emma, in which the protagonist encourages others to marry. Elizabeth Taylor's novel starts with the wedding of Flora Secretan to Richard, a businessman. In the early part of the book Flora influences her best friend Meg to yearn for a sexual relationship with Patrick, a novelist, without seeming to know that, although he is willing to take Meg out for an occasional meal, it won’t go much further because he is gay. She also influences Richard’s father to marry his mistress, Ba; they do so and both find their lives much more boring than they had previously been. Meg’s brother, Kit, adores Flora and thinks of her as a goddess. He has been to drama school and has had one or two tiny walk-on parts. Although no one else thinks he has the slightest chance, Flora encourages him to believe that he will triumph and become a great actor. In Chapter 2, (p. 14 in the Kindle version) we read this: “she had inconvenient plans for other people’s pleasure, and ideas differing from her own she was not able to tolerate.” Then here, at the end of Chapter 2, are Flora and her new husband, Richard, in bed.

      She was glad that there was a way of coaxing him out of his black humour. She turned him to face her, her silky arms around his shoulders. An end to the sulks. Benignly, she made a present of herself.

      Flora … the soul of kindness.


      Flora’s friend, Meg, works in an office in the middle of London but cannot afford to live in Kensington. So, with a small amount of money inherited from her father and some encouragement from Patrick, she moves into a little house that allows an occasional distant glimpse of the funnel of a ship passing on the river in an area that seems to be somewhere between Greenwich and Woolwich. Near this house lives Liz whose studio is upstairs from a deserted shop that is scheduled for demolition. Liz lives in the most awful mess: dead flowers, cow parsley, some feathers, dinner plates, sea-shells, all over the floor. But she paints pictures:

      The rubbish on the floor and about the room had been re-created, reassembled over and over again, into delicate and intricate patterns … there were also some pale girl children, with staring eyes (p. 39).


      The artistic arrangements are beautiful. It doesn’t seem to be an accident that the painter is called “Liz,” because here is a quote from the end of the Wikipedia article on Elizabeth:

      The whole point is that writing has a pattern and life hasn't. Life is so untidy. Art is so short and life so long. It is not possible to have perfection in life but it is possible to have perfection in a novel.


      I don’t think The Soul of Kindness is quite perfect, but it seems to me that aspects of it are. It does have a plot, but that’s not really what it’s about. It is a book that one needs to read slowly; it’s unlikely to work if you skip or speed-read. It depicts characters’ thoughts, then thoughts of what they might or might not say, maybe could say or should say … but instead they say something else which is sometimes a cliché, which isn’t quite what they meant to say but, because it’s been heard before, could possibly be alright. People’s beliefs and ideas about each other and about themselves also get passed around. At this book’s centre is the issue that although we human beings are completely dependent on our relationships, we often don’t quite know, and some of us seem unable to know, what effects we might have by saying certain things to others.


      In this novel, too, are observations: as characters look at gardens and shops and houses. What they see, mingled with their thoughts of what they might say, is a multitude of English peculiarities. The result for the reader (at least this one) was quite a bit of giggling out-loud as I proceeded. In this book as well—rather touchingly depicted—there’s loneliness, particularly for Flora’s mother and for Flora’s friend, Meg.


      The book’s principal focus is on self-absorption. Although, in Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1971), there’s affection, there’s not much of it in The Soul of Kindness. Instead there’s reflection … prompted by the question of what we human beings are up to in our lives, and on how we search for meaning within ourselves and with each other.


      Jane Austen (1816). Emma. Oxford: Oxford University Press (current edition 2003).


      Elizabeth Taylor (1947). A view of the harbour. New York: New York Review Books (current edition 2015). 


      Elizabeth Taylor (1964). The soul of kindness. London: Virago (current edition 2010).


      Elizabeth Taylor (1971). Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. London: Virago (current edition 1982).




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      Tuesday, 13 October 2020



      Mollie Panter-Downes became well known for her column in the New Yorker on life in London during World War II (republished as London War Notes). Her fifth novel, One Fine Day, came out in 1947. Its title might have been One Day, because that’s what it is: a day in the life of a family who live in an aging house, somewhere south-west of London, one year after the end of the War. 


      Here's the plot. Eight o’clock in the morning, the sun is shining. Laura and Stephen Marshall at breakfast. Stephen leaves the house, drives to the station to go up on the train to London, where he works. Their twelve-year old daughter Victoria goes to school. Laura, age 38, the main protagonist, goes on a bus to do some shopping in a nearby town. Provisions in short supply, coupons needed. She returns; does some stuff around the house, and in the garden, then in the afternoon rides on her bicycle to collect the family dog who has wandered off. Having collected him from where he sometimes goes, to a gypsy who lives with several dogs in an abandoned railway carriage, she climbs a small hill, and looks out over the countryside. She lies on the grass, falls asleep, with the dog on a lead beside her. It’s early evening when Victoria returns, having had tea with her friend Mouse Watson. Her mother isn’t home. Later, Stephen comes back from work. Laura still not home. Victoria finds some fish and cooks it. She and her father eat it for dinner. Both of them worried. Where can she be? Laura is woken by a noise. It’s a hiker whom she’d seen on the bus that morning. She sees how late it is; thinks of something she was going to tell her husband but can’t remember what. Thinks she’d better hurry home. That’s it. 


      The middle of the novel is taken up with episodes, Laura’s meetings with people such as a working class family one of whom, George, is extraordinarily handsome, and might be able to do a bit of gardening but can’t because he’s going off elsewhere, and the Vicar, “a saint who had the misfortune to sound like a bore.” Incidents occur. And memories: Laura remembers a man she might have married but feels relieved that she did not. She sees huts that Canadian soldiers had lived in, sees holes in a wall where army trucks had bashed through. She has thoughts about this house and that one. It’s hard to imagine anything more redolent—I think that’s the word—of South-of-England upper-middle-class life in the aftermath of World War II. One could re-arrange some of the episodes and meetings without making much difference, because the sequence—morning, afternoon, evening—is not what this novel is about. At a deeper level it’s reflection: by Mollie, by Laura (with smaller pieces by Victoria and Stephen), and by us readers, on what it is to be human, on what our relationships within ourselves and with each other are all about.


      For me the novel succeeded in prompting reflection, but with some parts that didn’t quite work. And it is so very, very, English. But the inwardness did work, somewhat like Virginia Woolf, but warmer, more interpersonal.


      In his obituary of Mollie Panter-Downes, in the third of February 1997 issue of The Independent, Anthony Bailey reported her as saying, "I'm a reporter. I can't invent." What she was doing however was something that poets of the Tang Era in China did. Not invention, but perception of episodes in the world that are reflected in inner consciousness and writing (see OnFiction: “Patterns in the World and in the Mind,’ 9 January 2012; you can reach it by doing a search for “Tang” on the OnFiction home page). In Mollie Panter-Downes’s case, although some of her world is to do with nature, predominately it’s people.


      Panter-Downes, M. (1947). One fine day. Current edition: London: Virago, 1985).

      Panter-Downes, M. (2004). London war notes. London: Persephone.


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      Monday, 21 September 2020

      Eleanor Oliphant

      Gail Honeyman said that the idea for her first novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, came from two sources. One was reading an article about a woman in her twenties who lived alone in a big city. She would leave work on Friday and would often not speak to anyone until she returned to work on Monday. The other was how someone might manage if they were conversationally awkward. Eleanor Oliphant’s work and home life are similar to those of the woman in her twenties. And she is not just conversationally awkward but often inappropriate, sometimes rude. 


      Eleanor was hired by Bob to work in the accounts office of a graphic design company in Glasgow. She has been there for nine years. She is clever and did a degree in classics. She gets the Daily Telegraph, not because she likes the newspaper but to do its cryptic crossword. She thinks she isn’t liked by the others who work in her office, which is probably right, because she can’t do small talk. At weekends she drinks vodka, so that Saturday and Sunday pass in a bit of a haze. 


      On television one evening, she sees Johnnie, a musician. Immediately, she falls in love with him, because she can see from the three-piece suit that he wears and the way that he leaves undone the bottom button of his waistcoat, that he is a gentleman. He’s the one for her. He’s a musician and she knows that the moment they meet he will fall in love with her. She starts to make preparations to make herself look more beautiful. 


      Every Wednesday evening, Mummy gets in touch. In Chapter 4, Eleanor thinks that it was hardly surprising that her mother had been institutionalized, given the nature of her crime. During these conversations, Mummy is scathing and horrible but Eleanor tells her about this chap she is thinking of, and Mummy is encouraging. 


      In her office, Eleanor’s computer malfunctions. She gets in touch with Raymond, a new bloke who has come to work in IT. He fixes the computer. Eleanor observes that he has scruffy hair, and a bit of a paunch. He wears running shoes, and silly t-shirts. He shaves infrequently and looks unkempt. Not only that but he smokes cigarettes. 


      “How disgusting,” says Eleanor. “The chemical constitution of cigarettes includes cyanide and ammonia. Do you really want to willingly ingest such toxic substances?”


      Eleanor receives a visit from a social worker. This occurs every six months. She was in foster care from the age of ten. She lived with several families and didn’t get along with any of them. Because of her background she has been housed in a low-rent flat. This time the social worker is new; during her visit, as she flicks through her file on Eleanor, a look of shock comes over her. 


      One day, although they have only just met, Eleanor and Raymond find themselves leaving work at the same time. As they walk along, they see an elderly man staggering, then falling down in the street. Raymond goes to help him and gets Eleanor to do so as well. Although reluctant, she does. They call an ambulance, and the man is taken to hospital. They find themselves making visits to the old man in hospital. His name is Sammy. He tells them they saved his life. Just before they leave, one day, he takes Eleanor’s hands in his. This feels to her very warm and cozy.


      Although love is the most popular topic in stories from all round the world—love of the sexual kind—this story is not about that. It’s not a love story, it’s a friend story. 


      In Chapter 10, Raymond has invited Eleanor to go with him to visit his Mum, which he does nearly every Sunday. It involves Raymond going around his Mum’s house and doing everything that needs doing. She has terrible arthritis, but she keeps everything clean and neat, and is able to look after the vegetable garden in the backyard. Eleanor is asked to stay for tea, which she does. It’s soup with stock and vegetables from the garden. Lovely. Afterwards Raymond says he’ll do the washing up. Noticing Eleanor’s hands have eczema, he says that he would wash and she could dry. At one point, conversation among Raymond, his Mum, and Eleanor, turns towards Raymond’s dad, and how he lived long enough to see his daughter get married. Eleanor wonders why Raymond had not mentioned that he has a sister.  His Mum asks her if she has any brothers or sisters. She says she hasn’t. She says that this is a source of sadness for her, and bursts into tears. Apologies all round. She says she never knew her father, and that she talks to her Mummy once a week. It all seems perfectly ordinary … it IS perfectly ordinary, except this is the first time that Eleanor has ever talked about herself to anybody.


      The novel also has an aspect of mystery. We wonder what happened to Eleanor, what had shocked the social worker, what the Wednesday evening conversations with Mummy are really about. We ask ourselves why Eleanor burst into tears when asked about a sibling. 


      Towards the end of the novel, Raymond says this: “I remember when I first met you … I thought you were a right nutter.”


      “I am a right nutter,” she says.


      Then Raymond says: “Aye, sure you’re a bit bonkers—but in a nice way.” 


      And maybe that’s a bit like some of the rest of us.

      Gail Honeyman (2017). Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine. Toronto: Viking. 

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      Wednesday, 24 June 2020

      Clarice Lispector

      The novella, The Hour of the Star, by Clarice Lispector, is unlike anything else I have read. This review can be thought of as following on from my previous post about authors hearing the voices of their characters, and characters having independent agency. It’s about the lives of someone called Rodrigo, an author-narrator who starts by thinking of writing a book (the one you would have in your hands as you read The Hour of the Star) and the book’s protagonist, Macabéa, a nineteen-year-old woman, who is thin and not good-looking, who grew up a very poor area in the north-east of Brazil, who had only three years at school, then moved to Rio de Janeiro to be employed as a typist.

      Clarise Lispector was born in 1920, in the Ukraine, and her family moved to this same area in the north-east of Brazil, before moving to Rio de Janeiro.

      In the story Macabéa meets the arrogant Olímpico, with whom she falls in love. On page 38, the author-narrator says of him: “He had, I just discovered, inside of him, the hard seed of evil.” Later we read that he had killed someone in the north-east of Brazil, and that he was also a thief. A few pages later we read that when walking along with Macabéa, Olímpico says he is strong, so he lifts her into the air. She is euphoric: “what it’s like to fly in an aeroplane” she thinks. Then he dumps her in the mud. Then, another few pages on, Olímpico says to her: “are you just pretending to be an idiot or are you actually an idiot?” Macobéa: “I’m not sure what I am, I think I’m a little … what? … “I mean I’m not quite sure what I am.”

      Then Olímpico goes off with Glória, a blond chubby girl who works in the same office as Macabéa. Feeling guilty, Glória recommends that Macabéa should visit a fortune teller, Madame Carlota, who sees in Macabéa’s cards that her life has been and continues to be horrible. Then she relents and tells her client that her life will be wonderful, that she will be courted and marry someone called Hans. Macabéa is enchanted. As she leaves the fortune teller’s place, and steps off the pavement, she is run over and killed by a large and expensive Mercedes.

      As Colm Tóibín wrote in a very engaging review: 
      In October 1977, shortly before her death, she [Lispector] published the novella The Hour of the Star in which all her talents and eccentricities merged and folded in a densely self-conscious narrative dealing with the difficulty and odd pleasures of storytelling and then proceeding, when it could, to tell the story of Macabéa, a woman who, Lispector told an interviewer, "was so poor that all she ate were hot dogs". But she made clear that this was "not the story, though. The story is about a crushed innocence, about an anonymous misery." [Then], Lispector told a TV interviewer: "I went to a fortune-teller who told me about all kinds of good things that were about to happen to me, and on the way home in the taxi I thought it'd be really funny if a taxi hit me and ran me over and I died after hearing all those good things.”

      But this novella isn’t about the plot. It’s about how Lispector the writer, created Rodrigo, the author-narrator, who created Macabéa as a character, and how this character in turn seems to take part in the process of creating not just author-narrator Rodrigo but also, perhaps, in a certain kind of way, Lispector. 

      If we knew that that someone had decided to enter the police, or to be shop assistant or office worker, we might think that she or he had taken a decision, to become a person of a certain kind and that, in turn, the role she or he has taken on would shape something in that person. But an original idea of this novella, is that a somewhat similar process can occur with a writer and the story and characters that the writer decides to create. As we read on page 13 the author-narrator says: 
      I have a fidgety character on my hands who escapes me at every turn expecting me to retrieve her … I see that north-eastern girl looking in the mirror and—a ruffle of the drum—in the mirror appears my weary and unshaven face. We’re that interchangeable.

      Then on page 61 the author-narrator says to his readers:
      As for me I’m tired. Maybe of the company of Macabéa, Glória, Olímpico… I have to interrupt this story for about three days … For the last three days, alone, without characters, I depersonalize myself … as if taking off my clothes … and now I emerge and miss Macabéa. Let’s continue.

      But this novella is not just about this fascinating conversation among the writer, the author-narrator, the characters, and ourselves as readers. It’s a meditation on the nature of human life. It’s about how much we understand about others or understand about ourselves.

      Clarice Lispector (2011). The hour of the star (second edition, with introduction by Colm Tóibín) (B. Moser, Trans.). New York: New Directions.

      Colm Tóibín (2014) Clarice Lispector's The Hour of the Star is as bewildering as it is brilliant. The Guardian, 18 January.

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      Monday, 1 June 2020

      Lives of Characters

      In a recent article, John Foxwell, Ben Alderson-Day, Charles Fernyhough and Angela Woods (2020) report on a survey of writers’ experiences—as they are writing—of the characters they depict. In their first paragraph the researchers say:
      A large number of writers report vivid experiences of “hearing” their characters talking to them, talking back to them, and exhibiting an atypical degree of independence and autonomy.

      They follow this paragraph with quotations from well-known writers. This is the first: from Alice Walker.
      one or more of my characters … would    come for a visit … They were very obliging, engaging, and jolly. They were, of course, at the end of their story but were telling it to me from the beginning. Things that made me sad, often made them laugh. Oh, we got through that; don’t pull such a long face, they’d say.

      And this from Michael Frayn. 
      It does seem—and I realise this is a psychological trick and it sounds very coy— but it is as if they are speaking and leading those lives. It’s a very symbiotic relationship. You do seem to be with people who have minds of their own, thoughts of their own, but at the same time you’re very much involved in leading their lives with them.

      Influenced by ideas of this kind, Foxwell and colleagues surveyed 181 professional writers who attended the 2014 and 2018 Edinburgh International Book Festivals: 81% were from the UK, 61% were women, and 66% wrote fiction. The researchers asked them to answer a series of questions, which included the following. “How do you experience your characters?” “Do you ever hear your characters’ voices?” 

      Here are some the things writers replied about their characters speaking or relating to them. (Each number in parentheses indicates a writer in the survey.)
      I hear them [my characters] in my mind. They have distinct voice patterns and tones, and I can make them carry on conversations with each other in which I can always tell who is ‘talking’. (R 33) 

      I sense their presence as you sense somebody in a dream. They are very much known to me but only in peripheral vision and as an atmosphere or a force exerting itself. I wouldn’t be able to sit opposite a character, so to speak, and see them, talk to them etc. They aren’t something that can be interrogated or pinned down. (R 51)

      If the character feels something I feel it, whether emotional or sensory. (R 40)

      The researchers found that, while they were writing, 63% of writers surveyed could hear their characters speak.

      A further aspect of this survey followed up on a study by Marjorie Taylor and colleagues, reviewed in OnFiction, on 12 August 2008. Here’s part of what I then wrote:
      In fiction, readers engage with the characters, and wonder what they are up to … It turns out that writers have some of the same experience as readers, of finding that their characters do things that seem appropriate, but without the writer having—as it were—to pull the strings. Marjorie Taylor, Sara Hodges & Adèle Kohányi (2002-2003) published a study based on interviews with 50 fiction writers to explore this question … All but four of them reported some experience of characters exhibiting apparently autonomous agency. 

      Here some things writers in Foxwell and colleagues’ survey said about their characters’ independent agency, in response to the question: “Do you feel that your characters always do what you tell them to do, or do they act of their own accord?”
      I LOVE it when my characters go off script. It’s one of my favourite parts of being a writer, and often these unexpected plot twists are the best of all. (R 37)

      It’s the characters who make the thing happen. I can’t make them do what they don’t want to. (R 17)

      Foxwell and colleagues found that 61% of their writers said their characters could act independently.

      Overall, Foxwell and colleagues discuss their study in terms of all of us—humans—being able to understand something of what takes place in the minds of others: empathy and theory-of-mind. They conclude their article by saying:
      … the present study is, to our knowledge, the only survey of writers’ experiences of their characters which attempts to address the phenomenological complexity of these experiences within a large professional sample.

      Foxwell, J., Alderson-Day, B., Fernyhough, C., & Woods, A. (2020). “I’ve learned I need to treat my characters like people”: Varieties of agency and interaction in writers’ experiences of their characters’ voices. Consciousness and Cognition, 79, Article 102901.

      Frayn, M. (2011). Quoted in “On writing: Authors reveal the secrets of their craft.” The Guardian.https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/mar/26/authors-secretswriting.
      Taylor, M., Hodges, S., & Kohányi, A. (2002-2003). The illusion of independent agency: Do adult fiction writers experience their characters as having minds of their own? Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 22, 361-380.
      Walker, A. (1983). In search of our mother’s garden. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich.

      Image: Alice Walker (2007) Wikipedia.
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