Tag: writing

Book of the Year: Conclave

Wednesday, 21 December, 2016 0 Comments

With Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator, Robert Harris explained ancient Rome to an intrigued modern world. Now, he does it the same for the Vatican with Conclave.

As its title suggests, the novel is about a papal conclave. This one takes place sometime in a near future where the pope has died and the cardinals are gathering to elect his successor. All the classic elements of the English mystery novel format are here: a locked room, intrigue, rivalries, enmities, sex (!) and a surprise ending. Robert Harris writes about power, secular and religious, with an insight that places him beyond all his peers, and that’s why Conclave is our Book of the Year.

At the end of the aisle, where the nave gave on to the cupola of the dome, they had to pause beside Bernini’s statue of St. Longinus, close to where the choir was singing, and wait while the last few pairs of cardinals filed up the steps to kiss the central altar and descended again. Only when this elaborate manoeuvre had been completed was Lomeli himself cleared to walk around to the rear of the altar. He bowed towards it. Epifano stepped forward and took away the crozier and gave it to an altar boy. Then he lifted the mitre from Lomeli’s head, folded it, and handed it to a second acolyte. Out of habit, Lomeli touched his skullcap to check it was in place.

Together he and Epifano climbed the seven wide carpeted steps to the altar. Lomeli bowed again and kissed the white cloth. He straightened and rolled back the sleeves of his chasuble as if he were about to wash his hands. He took the silver thurible of burning coals and incense from its bearer and swung it by its chain over the altar—seven times on this side, and then, walking round, a separate censing on each of the other three. The sweet-smelling smoke evoked feelings beyond memory. Out of the corner of his eye he saw dark-suited figures moving his throne into position. He gave back the thurible, bowed again and allowed himself to be conducted round to the front of the altar. An altar boy held up the missal, opened to the correct page; another extended a microphone on a pole.

Once, in his youth, Lomeli had enjoyed a modest fame for the richness of his baritone. But it had become thin with age, like a fine wine left too long. He clasped his hands, closed his eyes for a moment, took a breath, and intoned in a wavering plainsong, amplified around the basilica:

“In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti . . .”
And from the colossal congregation arose the murmured sung response:
“Amen.”
He raised his hands in benediction and chanted again, extending the three syllables into half a dozen:
“Pa-a-x vob-i-is.”
And they responded:
“Et cum spiritu tuo.”
He had begun.

Conclave


Short stories by Truman Capote

Tuesday, 6 December, 2016 0 Comments

“Henry James is the maestro of the semicolon. Hemingway is a first-rate paragrapher. From the point of view of ear, Virginia Woolf never wrote a bad sentence.” In 1957, Patti Hill sat down with Truman Capote and the Paris Review interview was presented as “Truman Capote, The Art of Fiction No. 17.” What shines through is Capote’s appreciation of the short story format: “When seriously explored, the short story seems to me the most difficult and disciplining form of prose writing extant.”

Along with the short story, Capote was obsessed with the weight of the semicolon:

“I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand. Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon.”


Churchill on brevity

Thursday, 1 December, 2016 0 Comments

The great Winston Churchill was born on this day in 1874. He was the nemesis of Hitler, a champion of “the short expressive phrase” and an opponent of “the flat surface of officialese jargon.” This is the writing advice he sent to his officials on 9 August 1940, while engaged in the business of saving Western Civilization from its enemies.

Churchill writing advice


The past of William Trevor

Tuesday, 22 November, 2016 0 Comments

For William Trevor, who died yesterday, there was just one tense: the past. The present, he believed, was too instantaneous to describe, while the future was unknowable. It was the past, and only the past that could be assessed and reviewed and put in perspective.

“A person’s life isn’t orderly …it runs about all over the place, in and out through time. The present’s hardly there; the future doesn’t exist. Only love matters in the bits and pieces of a person’s life.” — William Trevor

William Trevor


The Stoner sonnet

Friday, 30 September, 2016 0 Comments

The central character in Stoner, a 1965 novel by the American writer John Williams, is William Stoner, who begins life as a farm boy in Missouri. His parents send him to the University of Missouri to study agriculture, but after reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, Stoner switches to studying literature. After receiving his Ph.D. he continues at the university as an assistant professor of English, the job he holds for the rest of his career.

“In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.” — John Williams, Stoner

The novel sold poorly when it was published but that changed at the beginning of this century, when it became an international bestseller. Stoner was reissued in 2006 by New York Review Books Classics with an introduction by John McGahern, who wrote that Stoner is a “novel about work.” This includes not only traditional work, such as Stoner’s tasks on the farm and his academic duties, but also the work he puts into relationships. It’s also a book about passion, and Stoner’s passions are knowledge and love. According to the critic Morris Dickstein, “he fails at both.” It’s Shakespearian.

Sonnet 73

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

William Shakespeare

September


Paula Radcliffe: “The ability to run is a gift”

Saturday, 10 September, 2016 0 Comments

“The thoughts that occur to me while I’m running are like clouds in the sky. Clouds of all different sizes. They come and they go, while the sky remains the same sky always.” So writes Haruki Murakami in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Clouds of all different sizes and big sky are constant presences in Run by the filmmaker Jack Weatherley. His subject is Paula Radcliffe, the English long-distance runner and holder of the women’s world record in the marathon with her time of 2 hours 15 minutes and 25 seconds, which she set in the Chicago Marathon on 13 October 2002.

After competing in the London Marathon last year, Paula Radcliffe announced that she had decided to end her long-distance running career. But she keeps on running.


Girls gone, gone, gone, gone, gone

Monday, 8 August, 2016 0 Comments

The huge commercial success of both Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins has not passed unnoticed by the modern version of Grub Street, the London thoroughfare once famed for “its concentration of impoverished ‘hack writers’, aspiring poets, and low-end publishers and booksellers.” Young women have been pressed into service by this cruel trade in the hope that another lady-vanishes winner can be typed while the genre is hot. Five hopefuls for the crock of gold:

Good as Gone by Amy Gentry. “When 13-year-old Julie Whitaker is kidnapped from her bedroom in the middle of the night, her family shatters. As the years go by and the search for Julie turns up nothing, even her mother Anna begins to lose hope. Then one night, the doorbell rings.”

All The Missing Girls by Megan Miranda. “It’s been ten years since Nicolette Farrell left her rural hometown after her best friend, Corinne, disappeared from Cooley Ridge without a trace.”

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner. “As soon as Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw sees the photograph of missing Edith Hind — a beautiful Cambridge post-grad from a well-connected family — she knows the case will be big.”

Under The Harrow by Flynn Berry. “A woman is missing in the East Riding. She vanished from Hedon, near where we grew up. When Rachel will learn of the disappearance, she will think it’s him.”

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott. “This would be the piece that mattered most later, months later when Ryan was gone. She would think of their arrival and wonder why she hadn’t seen it all coming. But who could have seen anything at all that night but their bright-spangled beauty?”

According to the Paris Review, George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891) “is good for a whole host of reasons, but it’s a particularly potent corrective to the current cottage industry centering on ‘the writing life’ — in which literary production is seen as glamorous, in which photos of writers’ desks appear on Pinterest and readers obsess over the perfect pen with which to write their buried masterpiece.” Ouch!

“Literature nowadays is a trade. Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skilful tradesman. He thinks first and foremost of the markets; when one kind of goods begins to go off slackly, he is ready with something new and appetising. He knows perfectly all the possible sources of income. Whatever he has to sell, he’ll get payment for it from all sorts of various quarters; none of your unpractical selling for a lump sum to a middleman who will make six distinct profits.” — George Gissing, New Grub Street


Light in August

Sunday, 7 August, 2016 0 Comments

“In August in Mississippi there’s a few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there’s a foretaste of fall, it’s cool, there’s a lambence, a soft, a luminous quality to the light, as though it came not from just today but from back in the old classic times. It might have fauns and satyrs and the gods and — from Greece, from Olympus in it somewhere. It lasts just for a day or two, then it’s gone.” — Light in August, William Faulkner

Light in August


The Deceiver by Forsyth

Saturday, 5 March, 2016 0 Comments

Browsing this evening in a rather topsy-turvy second-hand bookshop run by an ex-banker and came across a thriller stamped “First English Edition.” Unusual, that. Especially unusual as the author is the great Frederick Forsyth. His “first editions” tend to be in English.

Anyway, The Deceiver is a page turner of the best kind and is full of ripping-yarn stuff. Rich dialogue, too. “Sam, I know you’ve been in more tight places than a shepherd’s right arm.”


Eco and Lee RIP

Saturday, 20 February, 2016 0 Comments

“In the beginning was the Word…”

With the deaths of Umberto Eco and Harper Lee we have lost two writers whose imaginative use of words helped people see life in a new light. Lee’s Alabama and Eco’s Milan were world’s apart, but both writers created works that found global audiences. Lee took small-town prejudice and transformed it into a drama about the struggle for justice. Her stroke of genius was telling the story from the half-innocent viewpoint of children. Eco most famously used the familiar format of the thriller to examine the meaning of religious belief and fanaticism in a time of terror. At the end, now, what remains of Harper Lee and Umberto Eco is the word, but it will persist.

“There, I said to myself, are the reasons for the silence and darkness that surround the library: it is the preserve of learning but can maintain this learning unsullied only if it prevents its reaching anyone at all, even the monks themselves. Learning is not like a coin, which remains whole even through the most infamous transactions; it is, rather, like a very handsome dress, which is worn out through use and ostentation. Is not a book like that, in fact?”

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

“Miss Gates is a nice lady, ain’t she?”
“Why sure,” said Jem. “I liked her when I was in her room.”
“She hates Hitler a lot . . .”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Well, she went on today about how bad it was him treating the Jews like that. Jem, it’s not right to persecute anybody, is it? I mean have mean thoughts about anybody, even, is it?”
“Gracious no, Scout. What’s eatin’ you?”
“Well, coming out of the courthouse that night Miss Gates was — she was going’ down the steps in front of us, you musta not seen her — she was talking with Miss Stephanie Crawford. I heard her say it’s time somebody time somebody taught ’em a lesson, they were gettin’ way above themelves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us. Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an’ then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home.”

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird


Fiction

Friday, 1 January, 2016 0 Comments

Pulp

“That was enough dialogue for a few pages — he had to get into some fast, red-hot action.

The story flowed like a torrent. The margin bell chimed almost staccato, the roller turned with almost piston-like continuity, the pages sprang up almost like blobs of batter from a pancake skillet. The cigarettes gave up their ghosts, long thin gray ghosts, in a good cause; the mortality rate was terrible.

His train of thought, the story’s lifeline, beer-lubricated but no whit impeded, flashed and sputtered and coursed ahead like lightning in a topaz mist, and the loose fingers and hiccuping keys followed as fast as they could.” — Cornell Woolrich

Photo: Winter timber cut and stacked on Slievereagh in County Limerick, Ireland. The main uses for wood pulp are paper and board. Fiction is a byproduct.