Excerpts from a reading journal, 2008
8 April 2008
Read A Partisan’s Daughter by Louis de Bernières. Great start – I got straight into it. It started out with a very simple and straightforward structure. The main character had a strong voice, clear characterisation. The start is definitely the best thing about this book. Makes me wonder if it started out as a short story. I feel as though he loses momentum significantly. Maybe it is the shift in voice, as the vast majority of the book, from there, is in her voice, or him recounting her version of events. The narrator at the end feels like a totally different man to the one in Chapter One who describes his wife as ‘the great white loaf’ on the settee.
The structure feels contrived. Two people meeting over cups of coffee and cigarettes and the girl holding court, talking, talking, talking. I don’t believe the set-up. It feels voyeuristic. He’s getting off on imagining his Eastern European hooker.
Am I convinced by his description of her? Not really. Sure I know some crazy chicks but she seems a bit pathetic really. Maybe that is it. Maybe I just don’t like her and I don’t give a shit what happens to either of them. I can’t help thinking ‘get a life Chris… Harden up. Leave your wife if you are that unhappy. Take some responsibility for your own happiness.’ I don’t give a damn about any of the characters, not just Chris. Ties into something Kate said about the difficulty in getting the reader to like a character if they are flawed/bland etc. I need to be able to get behind a main character and root for them. I need to care about the outcome. It needs to be an exceptionally well-told ride otherwise. LdB fails to give us a well-told ride.
Later I read the review in the Guardian by Joanna Briscoe. How can she have liked it so much? She described it as having a quiet soul.
The novel tells the story of a Serbian former prostitute living in a semi-derelict 1970s London co-op. She spends her days drinking coffee, smoking, and telling tales of dubious veracity to a travelling salesman in his 40s. This forms the framework of the entire narrative, with repressed love and lust simmering appropriately as the friendship builds. Yet the layering of anecdote and reverie and the escalation of intimacy between two marginalised characters is so subtle and authentic that the novel is intensely moving and has its own unexpected momentum.
I didn’t get any of this subtle and authentic escalation of intimacy. I got that he wanted to root her, but I never felt like she wanted anything from him other than an audience giving her their full admiring attention. That’s not simmering lust. Briscoe also compares it to Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach! There doesn’t seem to be any of the depth and gravity, the awkward discomfort. She goes on to describe it as ‘a novel about missed opportunities and wrong paths taken, tracing the way in which one false move can alter the history of a life.’ She quotes Chris as an example of this: ‘I have never lost the pain in the chest and the ache in my throat that Roza left behind.’
Dull and clichéd.
And I don’t believe Chris was capable of acting differently, or of making different choices. So what’s the point of lamenting the might-have-beens? There needed to have been a moment when we thought he might make a different choice, or do something which might alter the course of events.
I need to set myself another deadline to get stuff to Kate. Should aim for next Thursday. So if I get stuff to her this Friday or Monday. Get her my new start and as much as I can beyond that. The Horse Latitudes. I thought of Ngaire last night – with her mirror image organs. I just had the worst teriyaki salmon for lunch. Salty with too much sauce and too much mayonnaise. Fascinated, you are, by too much mayonnaise.
15 April 2008
I started reading The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa last night. It should provide some good examples of introducing information when using the first-person narrative. Another fairly bland first-person narrator too. Why do I like him? Do I like him? Is it just South American romanticism that draws me in? He doesn’t feel like a particularly solid character. I only see him in his reactions to her. I have no idea who he is when she’s not around. He just joins the dots and gets through the days and then she turns up and his life flicks on.
Katie Toms in the Guardian review described it as sadistic pornography. Alex has just told me that the Guardian don’t like Llosa because he is a right-wing prick. Fair enough. I think Toms has a valid point though. It’s the same thing that unsettled me about A Partisan’s Daughter. Is making Izzie a stripper just titillation? Does she need to be? Am I just feeding into chauvinistic voyeurism? Sex sells – but how to do it classy like? With feminist integrity…?
23 April 2008
Wellington City Library – I want to look like the Japanese girl two tables along. She has a big curly afro, cut quite short but still very round. And she looks so cool in her simple top and jeans, urbane sneakers, unexpected hair.
Clearly this is no longer even a writing journal.
It is an ‘I am sick of being on the bones of my arse and I want to blow two G on some flash threads and a haircut, and a dentist’s appointment because I think I have a hole, and some tinted moisturiser, some mascara, some winter boots and some clothes that actually have some style to them’ journal. I do though. I want to feel pretty and have nice things. But I am a writer and poverty is my burden. I tell you what though, some days if you said ‘Would you rather have the writer’s life or a pair of $400 boots from Overland?’… well… some days the choice seems less obvious than others.
That I can tell you.
8 June 2008
No One Belongs Here More Than You – Miranda July
I feel as though Miranda July answers all my questions about what makes a short story. Each story is a complete world, full of absurdities and truths and honest straight-up characters that are unusual and yet very real. She throws crazy ideas and occurrences around and there is never any question of how they fit (or whether they fit). It is great stream of consciousness stuff – ‘get out! this is girl talk!’ – of characters trying to find the ideal version of themselves. They feel so rich because of all the bizarre thoughts that squeeze their way into the story, and the stories themselves are fantasy worlds so anything can happen and anything can belong.
Characteristics of Miranda July’s characters:
- They don’t really feel part of the world but they accept anyone or anything that breaks into their world wholeheartedly. They just accept what other people say and do and don’t question motivations or anything. Other people are beyond their influence. They are very fateful.
- They have a real naïve air about them.
- Their emotions are so close to the surface.
- They cry a lot.
- They think about sex quite a lot too.
5 August 2008
Whoa that was an absence. I was frantically preparing for my folio presentation though wasn’t I?
General folio feedback was concentrated around the Ana/Andy relationship and characterisation which still doesn’t feel cohesive or believable. They’re right. It’s pretty hollow. I don’t mind this too much though as I haven’t put a lot of effort in on this front so I should be able to sort it out with a bit of thought.
Kate recommended Flaubert’s Parrot.
Seriously? I thought.
Are you kidding? Julian fucking Barnes???!!!
But she’s the boss right, so I dutifully went down the library and someone had it out. As in they’re reading it by choice. Honestly, some people. So I pay my $2 to put it on reserve and give the world a few days and what do you know…
I am now battling my way through Flaubert’s Parrot… being very studious and trying to not skip my way through entire chapters.
So far I’ve found three sentences in which the narrator refers to his wife. One is just like ‘I don’t want to talk about my wife’. Or something similar. Can’t find it now. The second he is talking about the engagement of Flaubert to his mistress and he ponders how the lady might feel on opening the jeweller’s box and seeing the ring. Can’t find it now either, but all he says is, ‘I didn’t ask my wife how she felt and it’s too late now,’ or something like it anyway. The third is where he is talking about lists and their banality. But he goes on to begin his list – things he likes. And pharmacies, being on the list, trigger him to recount a story of being in a French one, and his wife buying band-aids for a blister. We get: ‘[the pharmacist] turned to me gravely, as if there were something which really ought to be kept from my wife, and quietly explained, “that monsieur, is a blister“.’
Then: ‘Three stories contend within me. One about Flaubert, one about Ellen, one about myself. My own is the simplest of the three – it hardly amounts to more than a convincing proof of my existence – and yet I find it the hardest to begin. My wife’s is more complicated and more urgent; yet I resist that too.’
Page 86 and we get an actual sense of introduction to why we are all here. ‘Ellen’s is a true story; perhaps it is even the reason why I am telling you Flaubert’s story instead.’
So how is this Barnes bloke clever? One passage which may be interesting is when the narrator talks of the terms psychiatrists he ‘respects’ use: dead, dying, mad, adultery. Surely then his wife was a mad and dying adulteress? Maybe. Let’s see.
Next: ‘No I didn’t kill my wife. I might have known you’d think that.’ So he kind of killed her. Let’s see.
‘As for my wife, she was not sensible. That was one of the last words anyone would apply to her. They inject soft cheese, as I said, to stop them ripening too quickly.’ Cheese as a metaphor…of what. She was too ripe?
I read some background to Emma Bovary (never having read the book) and how she refused to conform to the modest and practical expectations of a woman in her situation. She sated her appetites for sex, money, excitement and an unencumbered life. I’m not convinced Ellen was like this. She doesn’t feel conflicted enough. Through the husband we don’t see enough of her motivation for this, but we do see the ruin left behind. I guess that’s the point. It’s tricky to get the point without reading Flaubert.
Here’s something. Later: ‘As the weather changes, the boat begins to roll a little, and the tables in the bar resume their metallic conversation… Call and response, call and response. Now it sounds to me like the final stages of a marriage: two separated parties, screwed to their own particular pieces of floor, uttering routine chatter while the rain begins to fall. My wife… not now, not now.’ Is this to imply that she wouldn’t have sex with him?
More (referring to Flaubert, not himself, of course)… ‘But if the telephone in our century has made adultery both simpler and harder (assignations are easier, but so is checking up) the railway had a similar effect.’
Then when he really gets going ‘this is a pure story’. The focus is her adultery. Then her death. His role in it (both). And that’s pretty much the end.
It is sad because of the size of his silence, and the simplicity and size of her ‘story’. It is a short passage, only a few pages. Gives it an air of gravity that a more in-depth discussion would destroy I think.
Lots to work with.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Heather Mackenzie completed Oblonsky’s Smile while studying for the MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University in 2008. She won the AA Directions Best New Travel Writer Prize in the 2008 Cathay Pacific Travcom Awards.